Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Worship of Heaven

Revelation 4:1-11                    The Worship of Heaven
4/2/17              D. Marion Clark


Can you identify where this quote is from?
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

If you answered Hamlet, you got it right. I open with this quote for two reasons. First, it expresses, in one sense, the message of Revelation. John’s message to the churches of his day (and to us) is that all that is seen is not all that exists. Indeed, the reality is much greater than what is seen on earth.

The other reason has to do with a published lecture I stumbled across in my college days in the school library. It was a lecture by C. S. Lewis given on the subject of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His basic thesis was that most critics miss the point of the play. They focus on Hamlet’s character and so they argue without ceasing just what that character is, in particular why Hamlet takes such a long time to avenge his father. Reams and reams of paper have been written on the subject and still no consensus. But Lewis claimed that Shakespeare was not writing a play about what concerns one man so much as about what concerns mankind. In this case of the play Hamlet, it is about death – i.e. what lies beyond the veil in that dark terrain of death. When the focus turns to psychoanalyzing Hamlet’s character we lose the focus of what really matters for the play – which is to feel the pathos that afflicts mankind – the state of death. “To die- to sleep. To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!”

In the same way we can lose the focus of what John is attempting to do as he reveals the visions given to him. And that is particularly true as we read chapter 4. We can get caught up trying to figure out what every element in the depiction of the heavenly scene stands for (something which scholars have debated for centuries) and lose the impact that John is trying to create for us. This is one time in which how we feel matters more than how much we understand. By having the right feeling we can understand the right message.

With such in mind, let us read the worship of heaven.

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. 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. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. 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 of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.”
So how do you feel? You are standing in the doorway to heaven. Before you, taking central stage, is God sitting on his great throne. You cannot make him out clearly because of the dazzling splendor. You see something like bright, beautiful jewels. An emerald rainbow surrounds the throne, and from the throne shoots forth flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne stand burning seven torches of fire. Can you feel the majesty of God?

There are around the great throne the twenty-four thrones seated by twenty-four elders. There are the marvelous four creatures of the four different faces – six wings each and covered with eyes. Can you feel the wonder, the glory of God?

And what are these marvelous creatures doing? They are worshiping God. Hear again what they say.
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”
You have heard that before, haven’t you? It is in the vision of Isaiah (6:1-3):
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

Can you sense what it is to be in the presence of God’s holiness? Isaiah did when he beheld his vision. Moses did when he beheld the glory of God pass by as he braced himself in the cleft of a rock. Daniel did in his night visions of the Ancient of Days. And so did John as he stood on trembling legs in the doorway of heaven. It is before the holiness of God that one grasps the true meaning of the fear of God and feels both terror and joy. It is akin to experiencing an electrical storm while in a fairly safe refuge – fearful yet delightful.

But the four multi-eyed creatures are not alone in giving praise. The twenty-four elders fall down out of their throne before the great throne; they cast down their golden crowns; and they cry out:
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.”

Do you feel the adoration that they feel before their God? These elders in their white robes, these elders before whom we would bow in deference – these elders are filled with awe. They have forgotten their supposed dignity and high status. All their being is given over to the worship of their Creator who is worthy of all glory and honor and power.

Glory! Glory is what John is trying to convey – the glory that fills the throne room of heaven. The glory of God! The more that we can in our feebleness grasp the glory of this scene, the more we can understand the lessons it presents.


1. God is on his throne.

John sees a scene in which God sits securely on his throne. God is not anxiously consulting with his twenty-four elders about the troubles in his churches. He is not bunkered down in his war room with his four strange creatures drawing up battle plans. The lightening and the rumblings and the thunder are not that of God raging in his fury. It is God presented in his pure holiness who is not, who cannot be tainted or moved and definitely not defeated.

Whatever may be taking place for those seven churches and for all churches and for all followers of Christ, tremble not at what man can do who is but mere breath. Tremble before the Almighty God, and rest in the Almighty God. Rest in his glory and in his power.

2. To glorify God is what existence is about.

God is worthy to receive glory, for God is glory itself. He is worthy to receive honor, for he is the essence of honor. He is worthy to be ascribed power, for he possesses all power. And how is this glory and honor and power manifested? If beholding him in his throne room is not enough evidence of the glory he ought to receive, then give it to him for the reason that the elders give – that God is the Creator of all things and that all things exist by his power.

Our catechism got it right. The chief end of man is to glorify God. Indeed, such is the chief end of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. It is the chief end of all creatures – whether they be microscopic organisms or the largest of animals. The glory of God is the chief purpose of all that exists – whether they be rocks or leaves of grass or planets or stars. For from God and through God and to God are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)

3. To glorify God is what joy is about.

One may bow before a powerful being out of abject fear. One may bow because of being forced to one’s knees. But the worshippers of heaven are casting down their golden crowns and falling before their God out of ecstasy. They are giving thanks! They are giving glory! They are caught up in the glory of the one they worship.

It is joy that pervades heaven. It is joy that rings forth in eternity. Joy, not terror. Joy, not sadness. Joy, not grief or hatred or pain. To glorify God is to experience joy in heaven. And if such is the way of heaven, so we on earth need to grasp and to experience glorifying joy now.

The tragedy of public perception today is the confusion over the choice to be made in following Christ. Does one choose Christ and thus abandon enjoyment in the world, or does one choose happiness and reject following Christ? Did Jesus himself not say that to be his disciple, one must deny himself and take up his cross? He did. But he lived such a life for the “joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2).

Suffering for the Christian is not a virtue of itself and certainly not an end to itself. Peter explains:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9)

Joy is the motivation that moves us as we rejoice in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as we rejoice in being reconciled to our Holy Creator, as we rejoice in being given eternal life filled with meaning. Joy is what wells up in us as we contemplate the greatness of our God.

Joy is the blessing of knowing the hope that is in us – the hope of the glory that we will dwell in and which will dwell in us, which leads into the next lesson.

4. The glory of our destination is worth the trial.

Christians are oftentimes criticized for a pie-in-the-sky religion. Our response – if you could but taste this pie! You better believe we have a pie-in-the-sky religion. Given all of the distasteful and vapid fair that we must consume in this life, yes it is blessing to taste of heavenly fair now and to know that it is but that – a mere taste of the sumptuous, delicious feast awaiting us in heaven and at the return of our Lord. And he has promised that we shall sit at the table with him to enjoy it.

Furthermore, there is “a better home a’waitin in the sky.” Jesus promised it for us. He is preparing rooms for us even now and he will return to take us there. Our God has prepared for us a heavenly city in a heavenly country (cf. Heb. 11:16).

Too heavenly minded to be earthly good? Our problem is not being heavenly minded enough! For it is when we look up to heaven that we can then find our way through earthly trials. It is when our hope is lodged in heaven that we can settle in this world with patience and even joy. For this earthly life is not all that there is. Our hopes do not hinge on how well things turn out for us here. The pains and trials of this life do not determine how meaningful, how qualitative, not even how joyful our lives are while on this earth. No, it is the eternal that makes the temporary filled with eternal significance. It is the unseen, which we know by faith, that transforms the visible stuff of this world into images and signs of the greater glorious reality that is ours even now.

And so Peter could start off a letter to Christians going through trials this way:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice… (1 Pet. 1:3-6).

I started off with reference to Shakespeare whom everyone knows. There was an English poet you may not know, even though she is regarded by not a few scholars as the greatest female poet, even outmatching two of her contemporaries – Elizabeth Browning and Emily Dickerson. Her name is Christina Rossetti. She lived during the Victorian Age. As much as her artistry as a poet is praised, she is regarded as a sad figure. To make a long story short, she lived the life of a semi-recluse – and this is what puzzles even her admirers – by religious conviction. She desired marriage but turned down two suitors – one for differing religious beliefs and the other for his professed atheism. How could a woman turn down men whom she loved? How could she live happily with an ailing mother and then with ailing aunts all her life? Clearly she could not be happy. Surely she must have been inwardly frustrated with her lot, rejecting happiness out of some sort of duty to her strict religion, entrapped by the then cultural views of women.

Rossetti, I discovered, was one of us. A Christian? Yes. But more to the point – a Christian who loved her Lord and who longed for the day when her true Bridegroom would come. She looked to the glory of heaven.
[Christ] willed thus to become like us. We by following Him shall in our turn put on a measure of His likeness. Today He denies not to His beloved crosses and humiliations: tomorrow what will He deny to them whom He invests with crowns and glory? “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” (Esther 6:6)  (Commentary on the Apocalypse, p. 34).

What shall be done, indeed? It was such delighting meditation that moved Rossetti to reject whatever was unworthy of her Lord and to embrace whatever was pleasing to him. That quote, by the way, comes from her devotional commentary on Revelation.

Rossetti was one of us. Whatever her lot in this earthly life may be, it was the lot of her heavenly life that made earthly living not merely endurable but even delightful. She was living for her Lord. She was putting on “a measure of His likeness” and of what more beautiful likeness could one have? It was in that likeness that she could be content in all circumstances. It was in that likeness that she could see others as Christ sees them – with love. When one does not have such perspective, when one sees some circumstances and some people as less valuable than others, then they cannot understand such a heavenly mindset.

What will it be, O my soul, what will it be
To touch the long-raced-for goal, to handle and see,
To rest in the joy of joys, in the joy of the blest,
To rest and revive and rejoice, to rejoice and to rest! (p. 35)

At the beginning of the chapter we read of John beholding through a doorway the heavenly worship in the throne room of heaven. John stood on the outside looking in, and we, through him are given our own glimpse. Someday – some day – we shall be invited in!

5. Christ gave us his glory.

Finally, let us never forget how it is that such glory and joy awaits us.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The scene of heaven in the next chapter will present this wondrous truth: the Prince of glory gave up that glory that he might present us to his Father before the throne. Such is the gift of God to all who will receive. Whether we stand at the doorway to heaven or in the pit of the earth, he bids to any who will listen, Come!

No comments:

Post a Comment