Sermon: Comfort To The People Of God; Terror To His Enemies: Revelation 4:4-11


It was difficult for me to choose an Old Testament reading for today. As you know, I typically choose an Old Testament text that in some way corresponds to, or serves as a backdrop for, the New Testament passage that are studying in detail. I would do the reverse if we were studying through an Old Testament book.

Rarely do I have time to comment much on the Old Testament text that I read, but I read it, one, so that you know it is there, two, to demonstrate that there is an intimate relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and three, with the hopes that you will reflect more deeply upon the connection on your own, given that I do not always have the time to draw out all of the implications given that our time is short. My main objective is that you might see, quoting Augustine, that “the New Testament is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed”.

It was difficult for me to choose the Old Testament reading today, not because I could not find one, but because there are so many Old Testament passages pertinent to Revelation 4. Isaiah 6 comes to mind. So does Daniel 7. In fact, if you set Daniel 7:9-27 and Revelation chapters 4-5 side by side to compare them you’ll notice that the two texts mirror one another very closely when it comes to their subject matter (G. K. Beale demonstrates this effectively in his commentary on the book of Revelation). Zachariah 4 is also important. Also, what John describes to us in Revelation 4-5 concerning the vision that he saw in heaven should be compared to Israel’s experience at Mt. Sinai as described in Exodus 19-20 and 24.  We should also have in our minds the instructions that we’re given to Moses concerning the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 25 and following. That tabernacle was built according to the pattern given to Moses by God. Everything about the tabernacle, and the temple after that, was designed to communicate in visual form truths about God who is enthroned in heaven, his relationship to man who dwells on earth, and the provisions that he has made for us to come to him. All of these passages and the concepts communicated in them should be on our minds as we consider Revelation chapters 4 and 5.

These passages should be on our minds, not just so that we can say, “look, this connects to that!”, but so that we might consider the connections. What is similar? What is different? It is in noticing the similarities and differences that we are helped in the proper interpretation and application of the text.

I say all of this to again make the point that Revelation is a frustrating book to preach through given its complexity. It is clear! But it is also complex. It is rich. We do not have the time to say all that could be said.

I’ve decided to read from Ezekiel 1 before reading Revelation 4. You’ll see why in a moment. The events described in Ezekiel 1 took place in 593 B.C., five years after the first group of exiles were taken from Israel to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Hear now the word of the Lord:

Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 1

“In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there. As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings. 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. 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. 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 1, ESV)

New Testament Reading: Revelation 4:1-11

“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, 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, ‘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’” (Revelation 4:1–11, ESV).


Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 have many things in common. Most fundamentally, they both describe heavenly visions shown to men – one a prophet, the other an apostle – who were ministering to the people of God living in exile. Israel was in exile, having been taken from their land to Babylon. The church always lives in exile, having no land of her own on this earth. We will live as sojourners until the Lord returns.

And what did the prophet and apostle see? Well, the most significant thing that they saw – the central figure in the visions shown to them – was God enthroned in heaven. This, friends, is what exiles and sojourners need to see. They must remember that God is enthroned! He is the Sovereign one. His purposes will not be thwarted. He will accomplish all his will. Though you might feel alone, though it may seem as if God’s purposes have been derailed, the Lord reigns! “For [he is] God, and there is no other; [he is] God, and there is none like [him], declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9–10, ESV). Ezekiel and John saw God enthroned in heaven. It is imperative that God’s people cultivate a heavenly mindset while sojourning in this world.

But notice that in both Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 it is not only the appearance of God that is described, but other things too. The men saw other creatures and other images around or beneath or before the throne of God. These are the things that I want to give attention to today. We’ve already established the central thing – God is enthroned. He is the central figure in the heavenly vision. Everything centers upon him. Everything surrounds him, or issues forth from him. More than that, every living thing worships and serves him. This is indeed the main thing to be recognized – God is central and supreme. But what about all that surrounds God in these visions? What is the significance of these things?

I’d like to devote two sermons to this. There is too much here to say it all in one. Today we will consider the inanimate things which surround God in this vision – that is to say, the things that are not alive – the throne, the flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, the rainbown, and the sea of glass. Next Lord’s Day we will consider the living things – the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures, and seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.


We should remember that the first thing John saw after being caught up to heaven was a throne. It has already been said that the throne symbolizes God’s power. God is sovereign. He has power, not just over this nation or that, but over all things, for he is enthroned, not on earth, but in heaven. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1, ESV). He is the King of kings, and Lord of lords. Indeed, his sovereign power extents over all he has made. No one and no thing exists apart from him. He created all things and he rules all things. All of that was emphasized last week.

But it should also be recognized that the throne symbolizes judgment. Yes, God is the sovereign king. But more specifically, he is the king who will judge. Revelation 4 sets the stage for what will follow as the book of Revelation progresses. Here God is seen on the throne. In the rest of Revelation we see to God’s judgements.

For example, in 5:1 God’s throne is mentioned again. “Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals” (Revelation 5:1, ESV). The scroll, as we will see, contains, among other things, the judgments of God. God is enthroned in heaven as judge.

Consider also Revelation 6:12-17.  This passage describes what happens when the sixth seal on the scroll is opened.

“When he opened the sixth seal, [John] looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’ (Revelation 6:12–17, ESV).”

Clearly this is a description of the final judgment and it is “him who is seated on the throne” that judges.

Consider also Revelation 20:11-12:

“Then [John] saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:11–12, ESV).

Again, the final judgment is described here but from a different vantage point than before. Here individuals are judged, and they are judged from the “great white throne”.

The throne of God is the centerpiece of the vision of Revelation chapters 4-5, and it will remain the centerpiece throughout the book of Revelation. We will constantly be brought back to the throne of God as we progress through this book. We will find that the throne is the place where God is seated. It is before the throne that heavenly creatures worship. It is also the place where the saints who have died worship – they find refuge and comfort there. And it is the place where God declares his judgments. Everything that happen in heaven and on earth happens because of the one who sits on the throne. Worship is directed to him, his servants proceed from him, and judgments are pronounced by him.

As I thought about the centrality of God’s throne in the book of Revelation I was stuck by the thought that this book has the ability to, at once, terrify and to bring comfort. Have you noticed that? Some read the book and tremble; others read it and rejoice. Here I am not contrasting the one who has interpreted the book properly with the one who has interpreted it improperly, leading the one to tremble and the other to rejoice – that does happen, but that’s not what I am talking about. Here I am talking about the fact that two individuals can read the book, interpret it properly, leading one to tremble and the other to rejoice. What makes the difference? The thing that distinguishes the one from the other, of course, is their relationship to God. When a person who has faith in Christ – who has been made right with God through Christ’s shed blood – considers this book, he is comforted by it. It brings assurance to the believers heart. It move the Christian to rejoice. But when a person who does not know Christ – who stands guilty before God and in his sin – considers this book, he trembles – or at least he should.

This phenomenon is especially true as it pertains to the thought of God’s throne. For the Christian, the thought of God enthroned in heaven rejoices the heart. God’s throne is, for the one who has faith in Christ, the throne of grace. It is there that our Father sits. We take comfort in the fact that he reigns supreme. And We the Christian also understands that God’s throne is a  throne of judgement, but not for us. For God’s judgment – his wrath – has already been poured out on Christ who has stood in our place. He bore our sins in his body in that tree. He took upon himself the wrath of God that we deserved. He atoned for our sins. He died as a propitiation, satisfying God’s wrath. So for the Christian the thought of God’s throne does not cause us to tremble, but to rejoice. He is sovereign, and he will judge his enemies and ours, making a things right in the end. But for the one who does not know Christ – for the one who stands before God guilty – the thought of God enthroned in heaven can only produce fear and trembling.

I wonder how it is for you? Do you have the “confidence [to] draw near to the throne of grace, that [you] may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV) – a confidence rooted, not in your own works or merits, but in the work and merit of Christ alone? Do you take comfort in the thought of God enthroned? Are you compelled to worship at the thought of it? Or does the thought of God enthroned bring only a “fearful expectation of judgment” (Hebrews 10:27, ESV)?

The remedy to expectation of judgement is faith in Jesus who is the Christ.

Flashes of Lightning, Peals of Thunder 

First of all, John saw a vision of God sitting on a throne. But notice what he saw coming from the throne in verse 5. “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5, ESV). Can you picture it?

I love to watch lightning and to hear thunder. I’ve spent some time in Chicago. And while there I saw some very powerful thunderstorms roll through the city. It’s awesome to behold. But I must confess, never have I been caught in a thunderstorm exposed. That would be most terrifying.

Thunder and lighting also symbolizes divine judgment. It’s an awesome thing to behold so long as you are in a safe and protected place, but to be under it and exposed is a most terrifying thought.

Let me show you how the vision of thunder and lightning issuing forth from the throne of God here in chapter four sets the stage for what will be revealed later on in the book of Revelation. It sets the stage for the judgment scenes that will follow.

Later in the book of Revelation we will witness the scroll that is in God’s right hand being opened. It has seven seals.  With the breaking of each seal more is revealed concerning God’s purposes concerning the salvation of his people and the judgment of his enemies. When the seventh seal was broken here is what John saw: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:5, ESV). This is how the final judgment is described at the end of chapter 8 eight.

The seven seals then give way to the blowing of seven trumpets. Things recapitulate in this cycle. They also advance and intensify. And is with the blowing of the seventh trumpet that the final judgment is described again. Here is what John saw: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Revelation 11:19, ESV).

Later in Revelation we will see seven bowl being poured our. Again things recapitulate. They also They also advance and greatly intensify.  Here is what John saw when the seventh bowl was poured out: “And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake” (Revelation 16:18, ESV).

So much can be said about how these texts relate to one another. They each describe the final judgement. The judgment clearly intensifies as we move from seal, to trumpet, to bowl cycles. More on all of that another time. For now, recognize that thunder and lighting symbolize the judgment of God.

It is a most terrible and frightening thing to come under God’s righteous judgment unprotected and exposed.

If you are in Christ Jesus – if you believe upon him – then you are shielded by him. He has stood over you to shield you from God’s wrath. He has bore your sins in his body on that tree. He has taken God’s wrath upon himself. He has covered you in his righteousness, so that you need not fear. In him you are shielded and clothed.

But if you are not in Christ by faith – if you are not shielded or clothed by him – then you stand before God unprotected and exposed. You will you stand before him as righteous judge in your own sin. His wrath will indeed be poured out upon you.

Next time a powerful thunderstorm rolls through town I want for you to think about all of this. As it approaches you I want for you to recognize the impulse you will naturally have to run for cover.  You’ll enjoy the storm, I’m sure. But you will enjoy it only because you are covered. And let that experience remind you of how it will be on the day of judgement. You’d better be covered by Christ, friends. You’d better be found in him, cleansed by his blood and clothed in his righteousness. You will not make it if you stand before God covered in your own filth, naked and exposed.


John saw God enthroned in heaven. “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder”.  But he also saw a rainbow. This is what John describes at the end of verse three. “Around the throne was a rainbow”, he says.

What does the rainbow symbolize in the Bible? It symbolizes God’s mercy. It is the sign associated with the covenant that God made with Noah. After flooding the earth as an act of judgment upon humanity, and after bringing Noah and his family through that ordeal by the ark, which was a type of Christ, he put a rainbow in the clouds and promised Noah saying, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:21–22, ESV). God promised to show mercy to humanity so that his purposes of redemption could be accomplished.

When we read in Revelation 4:3 that John saw a rainbow in the appearance of an emerald around the throne of God, what are we to think? I like the way that G.K. Beale put it in his commentary. “The ‘rainbow’ implies, as probably also in Ezek. 1:28, that God’s actions of judgment portrayed in the following visions will be tempered with considerations of mercy.”

God, when acting in judgment upon the world will be considerate of and merciful to his people. Also, God is even merciful towards his enemies. His judgments are even now delayed and restrained. The book of Revelation makes much of this. When the seals are broken only a fourth of the earth is effected by the judgments. When the trumpets are blown, only a third of the earth is touched. It’s not until the bowls are poured out that all of creation comes under the judgment of God. All of this communicates restraint. God, in his mercy, is holding back judgment until that day.

God is now showing mercy to sinful men. Days and weeks and years pass by. The seasons come and go. Sinful men and women enjoy the blessings that God gives in this life, but most do not turn from their sins. They presume upon the kindness of God. They enjoy food and drink, but they mock God, saying, “Christ will never return! There will be no judgement.”

The words of Peter seem appropriate here. He warns,

“that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn” (2 Peter 3:2–12, ESV)!

Friends, God is showing mercy now. John saw around his throne, which is a throne of judgment,  “a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.” Do not abuse the kindness of the Lord. Repent and turn to him while there is still time.

Sea of Glass

Lastly, let us consider the sea of glass that John saw before the throne.  In verse 6 we read, “Before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” What is this sea of glass?

When we compare Revelation 4 with Ezekiel 1 and also Exodus 24 it seem that this “sea of glass”, as John describes it, or the “expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal” represents the dividing point between the world as we know it and the heavenly realm that is invisible to us. When we look up we see the expanse of heaven above us. When God looks down he looks through this “sea of glass” upon us.

Also, get used to this idea: The sea (the ocean) is symbolic of evil and chaos, or that which is contrary to God’s purposes. This is true in the book of Revelation, but also in the rest of scripture.

In Genesis 1:1 we read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1–2, ESV). Before God brought the earth into shape by the word of his mouth it was covered by chaotic and uninhabitable waters. The waters were no place for human existence. God formed the earth into a place where man could dwell and have dominion.

When God brought the flood waters of judgment upon the earth in the days of Noah that primordial sea was allowed to return and to cover the land for a time.

When the people of Israel were brought out of Egypt what did they pass through? They passed through the Red Sea. God parted the waters for them, but the waters returned upon the Egyptians in judgment.

In Revelation 13 we will be introduced to the first of two beast who oppose the people of God. And what is that beast seen arising out of? The sea!

And at the end of the book of Revelation the new heavens and new earth are described to us. One of the characteristics of the new creation is that there is no sea. In Revelation 21:1 we read, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1, ESV). The thing symbolized by this reference to no more sea is that in the new creation there will be no more evil and, therefor, no more threat of judgement – evil and judgment are features of this this old creation, not of the new one.

Notice this about the sea that is before God’s throne: it is calm and tranquil, and it is crystal clear.

The meaning is this, I think. Our world is filled with chaos. But that chaos does not intrude upon the heavenly realm. All things are calm and tranquil before God. Also, he sees the with perfect clarity all that happens on earth as he looks down upon us.  This too should bring comfort to the child of God and make the unrepentant sinner tremble.


So these four inanimate things have been considered: the throne, the thunder and lighting, the rainbow, and the sea of glass.

As we consider these symbols, what difference should it make in us?

First of all, the thought of judgement should move us to seek shelter in Christ while God is merciful.

Secondly, those who are in Christ should take comfort in the fact that God will judge. We do not rejoice that sinners will be judged – we pray that they would turn from their sins before it is too late – but there is comfort in knowing that God will set all things straight in the end.

Thirdly, for the Christian, the tranquility that exists before the throne of God should spill over into our lives so that we be at peace, though would around us be in turmoil. It is the reality that exists before our God that matters.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah” (Psalm 46, ESV).

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