The book of Revelation intimidates many who attempt to interpret and understand its possible meanings. We try our best to deduce what the imagery described symbolizes. As Vernon writes, in doing so, we risk losing the power of the experience the vision evokes. If we consider our own lives, we may find we too have experienced brushes with the eternal in moments of awe and grace. If we connect these to John’s Revelation, the once befuddling text can suddenly become relatable.
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! 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.” 2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
“You are worthy, 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.”
When I read this passage last week, I was not looking forward to working with the text. The imagery was too foreign and confusing. On the first several readings it did not speak to me. This does not happen as often as it used to but it still happens. But I have come to trust it has something to say to me if I am patient enough.
I realized that my biggest impediment to listening was my trying to decipher the particular images. If you read commentaries on the passage, many writers spend a lot of speculative time ‘explaining’ what the colors mean, who the creatures are and what the elders represent. But further reading rapidly exposes that no one really knows. It is more like abstract art than a photograph. This passage is about an experience of God, which almost by definition, cannot be described in ordinary language. In this case, the details can be fascinating but will likely draw you away from the experience.
One small example. Look at verse 3: ”And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian.” I did not know what jasper or carnelian were much less how they described ‘the one seated on the throne’. I googled jasper and carnelian and discovered they are semi precious stones—one a reddish brown and the other a more amber brown. From there It seemed perfectly reasonable to me that a middle eastern man would envision the one on the throne (God) in the skin tones of the region. God would be anthropomorphized as a man of color. From my point of view, we do the same thing when we imagine God as bearded white man on a throne. I am pretty sure God is not a Caucasian male—no matter how many pieces of European art would suggest so. We fail to remember that when human beings imagine God, we imagine out of our own experiences and project them as reality.
I may or may not have an interesting insight but I did not find any agreement in the commentaries I read. Almost without fail, the interpretations I read were grand. One suggested that the stones conveyed the image of a prince or a monarch and others argued that the jasper was really a diamond and communicated the shining brilliance of God. My point is that we all bring our personal imagining of God to our description of God.
We do not know what John saw and we certainly do not know what is ‘correct’. But parsing the various possibilities runs the risk of detracting from the inescapable power and majesty in this passage. This experience is a vision and the imagery is otherworldly. A door stands open and a voice like a trumpet calls the listener to “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” Then at once, John is in the spirit—an experience in itself that is difficult to describe—and he begins to describe the awesome majesty of God. The text offers a glimpse past this world, through a door into heaven. At God’s initiation and invitation, somehow it is possible for mortals on this side of the veil to see what is beyond—to what comes after this.
John’s vision evoked humility, gratitude and worship. The creatures cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” Our God is an eternal God. Our mortal time is a nanosecond in eternity. It is hard to be self important from such a perspective. It is no wonder that this refrain continues ‘day and night without ceasing.’ The elders fall down and cast their claims to authority (their thrones) before God. They honor their creator: “You are worthy, 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.”
Few of us have had such a dramatic revelation but most of us have had an experience that transformed our understanding of our place in the world and our relationship with God. In FIRL, I asked about the experiences of the group members in which they saw beyond the ways of this world into a new or deeper understanding of their God. Almost everyone had something to say. A partial list includes: a mission trips in which more was received than given; the discovery of happiness where we would have expected despair; a 12 step program which taught a new way of seeing and hearing; the rising and setting of the sun which offered steadfastness in a changing world; a visit to the St. Peter’s Cathedral which overwhelmed with art and architecture; an experience of worship in a foreign language which spoke of connections beyond words; the birth of child which exposed a capacity to know a love beyond imagining, the death of a loved one which opened the door to love care and support. Each of these experiences taught that there is more to this world than what we think we know and see.
Some of these were dramatic and some were ordinary but In each case, a doorway to a new way of seeing and of being in relationship was opened. Whenever that happens, humility, gratitude and worship follow. We experience God’s care, we discover possibilities and outcomes we could not imagine. These are personal and visceral experiences. They are the foundation of spiritual life. They are often difficult to describe but, if experienced and noticed, are transformational. The glimpse through the doorway to heaven shows us our ‘right’ relationship with God.
Paraphrasing slightly, the psalmist writes (Psalm 8): O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mortals that you care for us? 5 Yet you have made us a little lower than God, and crowned us with glory and honor. We are simultaneously a speck of dust and God’s child.
When we see that it is ‘he that has made us and not we ourselves’, we too will exclaim, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will we exist and are created.”
Grant that we might glimpse the life of God’s steadfast love. Let it be so.