Old Testament Allusions and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation 4:1-6)

I am happy to be back and working on the blog a bit again. To be honest, the Revelation commentary I was working on took a lot out of me, as enjoyable of a study as it was. The inductive study/commentary should be out in August. I am excited about that work coming to fruition. However, let’s get back into the thick of the Apocalypse and let some Old Testament allusions fatten up our understanding of what John has seen and heard.

Revelation 4:1-6 has striking allusions to Ezekiel 1, but also some hidden gems that give a bot more color to this throne room scene. Revelation 4:1-2 says, “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” Where Revelation 2-3 were scenes of Jesus walking among his churches in the first century, Revelation 4 is a shift from the earthly churches to the throne of God in heaven. A clear allusion is Daniel 7 (which runs through Revelation), but we will get to Daniel 7 more in depth in another post. While this throne room scene is spectacular and worthy of our marveling, we would come up short if we did not grab on to what John had in mind as he wrote. Ezekiel 1 is the main allusion he has in mind. I encourage the reader to read the whole chapter and see the absolute brevity of the scene in Ezekiel 1. It is a scene with apocalyptic imagery describing the throne of God as a mobile throne moving across the earth. The throne is in the form of a great cloud (1:4), reminding us of God’s moving presence with the people of God in the Exodus. There are four angelic creatures with a list of characteristics (1:5-21) that move with the throne of God, and as Ezekiel looks upward he sees the throne of God wrapped in a rainbow. This is none other than the terrifying, yet comforting appearance of God.

When we move on to Revelation 4:3, we see much more clearly that John is being drawn up into the presence of God in the same way Ezekiel was. He writes in Revelation 4:3, “And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.” Now, this rainbow may be a covenant reminder to God’s people of the covenant God made with Noah to never again flood the earth (Gen. 9:13-17). As much as it may be a reminder, if John has Ezekiel in mind, I believe he is equating an exiled people in the first century with Ezekiel’s audience of exiled people. The rainbow-throne becomes a reminder of God’s mercy and presence with his people above all things. Ezekiel writes in 1:26-28,

      “And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in     appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”

Ezekiel is seeing the bow-wrapped throne of God covered in his glory. Likewise, John is being drawn up into the same thing. This also has some allusions to Moses’ experience of the covenant being confirmed with God in Exodus 24:10, as well as the priestly garments worn by those who would enter into the presence of the glory of God (Exodus 28:17-20). Above all though, as G.K. Beale notes, “The rainbow evokes thoughts of God’s glory, since Ezek. 1:28 metaphorically equates it with ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD'” (Beale & Carson, Commentary of the Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, 1100).

Lastly, Revelation 4:5-6 has some allusions to Daniel and Ezekiel that help us see a more panoramic view of John’s vision of the throne of God. In verse 5 he writes, “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits.” Throughout Revelation there is a clear repetition of John’s description of the storm-like presence of God that shocks the senses. The first thing that any reader of this text would have envisioned in the first century would have been the giving of the Law beginning in Exodus 19. When reading through this scene, the people of God come to Mount Sinai and experience these same storm-like experiences and are not allowed to touch the mountain or they would die. Here in the Apocalypse though, John has Ezekiel 1:13 more specifically in mind with all the language of torches and fire that connects this vision quite intimately to Revelation 4. Like the throne of God, these burning torches and fire move around the earth guarding the throne of God in the same way the cherubim did in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24), the way they guarded the cherubim in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25), all making clear that nothing unholy can enter the presence of this glorious God on his throne. This all makes more sense in Revelation 5 when there is only One worthy of opening the scroll.

Verse 6 of Revelation 4 describes this sea of glass that is also reminiscent of Ezekiel 1:22, which describes a firmament like crystal. If we take this whole scene into view with Ezekiel 1 in mind, we are brought into the presence of the glory of God and it is a scene that would overwhelm any witness. It is one of the most pure pictures of holiness and goodness. It is a scene that should bring us, like Ezekiel and John, to our knees in both fear and awe.

WHY THIS MATTERS?

This vision matters because it is a reminder that our covenant God sees us, is with us, but more importantly, guides us. The wilderness generation were guided by the glory-cloud and fire. The exile generation was guided by this glorious rainbow covered throne. John is comforting the exiled church by reminding them that God is with them and guiding them as well. This ought to be a comfort to us who often long for home but are in exile ourselves awaiting the heavenly city of God (Hebrews 11:10). As we will see in the following chapter, Christ the King is not only worthy to open the scroll, but he is the same one who guides his people through the wilderness by means of encouragement and rebuke (Rev. 2-3). And the Holy Spirit is not far off, but is with us and guides us in the ordinary and mundane day-to-day life (Rev. 4:5b).

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