A Door Standing Open in Heaven
A Door Standing Open in Heaven
by William Klock
The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously opens with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” In other words: What is our purpose? For what were we created? The answer is, “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”. Why do we worship God? Because it’s what human beings were created to do. Why did God call Abraham? Because humanity had ceased to worship him and it was necessary for someone to summon the nations to worship. Why did God create a nation of Abraham’s children? To worship him and to be a witness to the nations, summoning them to worship. Why did God send his son? Because even that nation, chosen and called to summon the nations to worship, was failing to worship and needed to be set to rights. Do you see where I’m going with this? What is the Church? We are the people chosen and called by God, created anew by Jesus, and filled with God’s own Spirit, set apart to worship God and to summon the nations to that worship. Why do we evangelise? Because the nations still do not worship God. One day the knowledge of the Lord’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, one day every knee will bow, and Brothers and Sisters, that will happen because this church, chosen and called by the Father, redeemed and made new by Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit will have finally accomplished our divinely given purpose.
It seems like such an impossible task, which may in part be why so much of modern, popular eschatology has taken an escapist tack. Instead of the Church bringing the nations to Jesus, people have given up on the world and put their hope in Jesus coming to the rescue to zap us to heaven instead. But this is not why Jesus urged the churches of Asia to hold fast, to stand firm, to overcome, and to conquer. Our Lord is prophet, priest, and king and he has made us his stewards. We have a prophetic role in summoning the world to repent and to come to Jesus. We have a priestly role in mediating his kingdom to the world, administering his sacraments and proclaiming the good news that he has died, has risen, is Lord, and rules. And we share in his kingship, expanding his dominion as we conquer the world through the power of the gospel. Is it an easy task? No. And Jesus tells us as much. He said to his disciples:
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
That’s been the message we’ve read over and over in these seven letters to the churches. The vision of Jesus, these letters, some of them rebuking, some of the praising, all them exhorting the church to hold fast to Jesus in the coming tribulation, all of this has been in anticipation of John’s vision. And John’s vision begins with a look into the heavenly throne room. Look at Revelation 4. John writes:
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.”
To live by faith is to live in trust of God, not because we know his plans, but because we know and are sure of his goodness and faithfulness. That doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes frustrating not being privy to the mind of the Lord, but there are those rare occasions when he deigns to give us a glimpse and this is one of those times. Jesus, having given his church an exhortation to hold fast in the midst of coming trials, doesn’t leave them wondering. John, like the prophets of the Old Testament, is summoned into the Lord’s council chamber to know his plans.
A door is opened. We too often have this idea that heaven is someplace far away. It’s not a matter of distance, though, but a matter of our sin. The Lord created us to live in his presence. He put Adam and Eve in a garden, a place where heaven, his realm, and earth, our realm overlapped. Adam was his steward, his image bearer, given dominion over the garden, called not only to care for it, but to be fruitful and to multiply—to expand that dominion, presumably until it filled the whole earth—the human race living in communion with the Lord, heaven and earth at one. But instead humanity rebelled. Genesis describes our plight in terms of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden, from the Lord’s temple, from his presence, and the door shut behind them, guarded by an angel. But here the door is opened. John once again hears that voice like a trumpet. And this time it summons him into the Lord’s presence.
Jesus isn’t just going to exhort his people to stand firm. Through the Prophet he’s going to show them what is about to come. Through John, those churches about to face tribulation will see what the Lord has in store for them and for the world—and they will know the glory of the Lord. And we can’t just pass by those words, “I will show you what must take place after this” too quickly. This isn’t some prophecy of the far future. That would be no consolation for them. This is not a vision of heaven as our final and eternal destination, but a vision of heaven and the heavenly council as it was when Jesus came and spoke to John. What we’re about to see is that which was about to happen. I’ve said before that Revelation was written about a.d. 68 and what Jesus shows John in this vision are the events that are about to unfold in the world in the years immediately following.
Again, the passage takes us back to the Old Testament prophets. There’s a sense in which this scene certifies John as a prophet himself. In 1 Kings 22 we read about Micaiah ben Imlah who was given a vision of the Lord, enthrone and with his council around him, so that he can hear their discussion and their plans. In the first chapter of Ezekiel we read about the Prophet’s vision of the Lord, seated on his chariot, carried by those angels like wheels within wheels that defy description. Look at verses 2-6. John writes:
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.
John’s attention is immediately and naturally drawn to the Lor’s throne, but when it comes to the Lord himself I’m reminded of St. Paul’s words in his second letter to Timothy where he describes the Lord as one “who dwells in unapproachable light”. John describes the Lord as having the appearance of jasper and carnelian. Precious stones that came in all sorts of colours. And then there’s a rainbow that looks like an emerald—which is hard to imagine. No one ever sees the Lord himself. For anyone to see the Lord would be to be overwhelmed by his holiness. Instead everyone who see the Lord is left with an impression of his glory. Moses’ face was made to shine as it reflected that glory. John sees glorious light that defies description, but leave no doubts about the gloriousness of the Lord.
The twenty-four elders enthroned around the Lord are easier to visualise. Who are they? In the Bible this title of “elder”—presbyter—is always applied to men who represent the people of God, whether it was the elders who assisted Moses in the governing of Israel or the elders who shepherded the New Testament Church. These aren’t angelic beings; they’re men. That they sit on thrones and wear crowns reinforces what Jesus has already said of the Church. Those who overcome are enthroned with Jesus, share in his kingly dominion, and one day those who once persecuted them will bow before them. That there are twenty-four is significant. The number twelve is used of the people of God throughout scripture. Israel was composed of twelve tribes. Jesus founded his church, the new Israel, on twelve apostles. Later in revelation we see the New Jerusalem with twelve gates bearing the names of the tribes of Israel and twelve foundation stones bearing the names of the apostles. These twenty-four elders then represent the entirety of the people of God, both the church in the Old Testament and the church in the New. But, too, this imagery takes us back to the tabernacle. Israel’s priests were ordered into twenty-four division. In the next chapter we’ll see Jesus, the lamb, in the midst of all of this, the high priest surrounded by the elders—by the presbytery of heaven who represent the royal priesthood that is the Church. They are clothed in white, clothed in righteousness—just as Jesus promised to those who would overcome.
But John can’t keep his attention away from the Lord’s throne for long. He describes the twenty-four elders, but the rumbling of thunder and flashing of lightening bring him back to the cloud of glory around him—taking us back to the Exodus and to Mount Sinai, the Lord in all his glory. But John again manages to pull his eyes away from the Lord to describe the rest of the scene. Before the Lord stands a seven-armed lampstand representing the Holy Spirit. And, too, the “sea of glass, like crystal”. Some have said that this sea should be compared to the Red Sea through which the Lord brought his people to himself, some have said that it represents evil—for the Israelites the sea represented chaos and that bit of creation that the Lord had never fully subdued, but was still within his sovereignty. Eventually it will finally be defeated, which is why—at least symbolically—there is no sea in the New Jerusalem. But since everything else in this vision John sees so clearly draws on the imagery of the temple—while there may be also be something to those other ideas—I think it’s safe to say that this is a heavenly analogue to the great bronze sea or laver that stood before the entrance to Solomon’s temple, between the temple and the altar. It was the place where the Old Testament priests would wash, purifying themselves for their service before the Lord.
And so we have the Lord and we have the Church represented in council around him, but there’s more. Continuing on with verse 6:
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!”
What John calls “living creatures” correspond to the angels of the first chapter of Ezekiel, full of eyes, with six wings—and with the difference that in Ezekiel’s vision each bore the face of a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. They’re reminiscent, too, of the six-winged seraphim of Isaiah 6. They’re awesome creatures and, like the glory of the Lord, John (and Ezekiel, too) struggle to describe them. There are all sorts of explanation for these angels bearing the faces of lions, oxen, men, and eagles, but I think the best explanation is one that recognises that these four beings correspond to the constellations in the night sky that governed the seasons for the Hebrews. Scripture describes the lights of the night sky as God’s heavenly host. So if we put all of this together, we’ve got the heavenly host; we’ve got the twenty-four elders representing the people of God, who are often called the Lord’s earthly host in Joshua and Numbers; and they come together in this heavenly throne room of which the tabernacle and temple are an earthly image, the hosts of the Lord gather there to worship him, to give him glory.
And John writes that those four living creatures, the angels, sing out day and night without ceasing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” The Lord has all sorts of characteristics that are worth repetition in our praise. He is loving. We could repeat that three times. He is merciful. He is faithful. He is, as the angels sing, almighty. And yet they single out the Lord’s supreme virtual three times in succession. Above all else he is, he is holy. Maybe there’s a reference to the Trinity here—the Father holy, the Son holy, and the Spirit holy—but I’m not sure the song is that complicated. It is holiness that sums up all the other attributes of God and so the angels sing it out in joyful and reverent praise three times over—and so do we in the sursum corda each week. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Glory be to you O Lord Most High.”
But it’s not just the angels worshiping the Lord. John goes on in verses 9-11:
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.”
As the angels worship, the elders representing the people of God, his Church, redeemed humanity fall down before him, they cast their crowns at his feet, and they worship too: Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Notice the difference between this second song and the first. The angels represent creation. Creation worships the Lord. In practical terms, creation does what it was created to do. Trees wave their branches in the wind as the Lord created them to do. The wind itself blows as the Lord created it to do. The sun shines. The rain falls. The tide washes in and out. The birds sing. The lion hunts. The bees make honey and the bear eats it. All as God made them to do. There is no rebellion, no sin amongst the stars or the trees, the waves of the sea or the animals. Nature honours the Lord and it’s beautiful, but there’s no volition to it. Humans are different. The twenty-four elders worship the Lord because they know him and because they know that he is worthy of worship. Again, “Worthy are you” they sing, “to receive glory and honour and praise.” Why? “For you created all things and by your will they exist”. Humans worship the Lord because we know—because we know who he, what he’s done, and that he is worthy.
It’s this volitional aspect to human worship that honours God so greatly. It’s why humanity’s choice to rebel against God was so serious. The tide or the sun or the bear or the bees have no choice to do what they do and in doing that they give glory to their creator, but Brothers and Sisters, it means something far greater that we recognise the worthiness of the Lord and choose to praise him. We were created for worship and the highest honour we can give our Creator is to fulfil the purpose for which he created us. The tide washes in and out. The sun shines. The rain falls. The lion hunts. Brothers and Sisters, we worship. It’s our purpose. And it probably needs to be said that worship is more than singing. The Lord created us to bear his image. In the ancient world the people built temples and they placed an image of their god in that temple to represent his or her sovereign rule. In contrast to the pagan people, the Lord built his own temple, the garden, but he did not place an image of wood or stone in it to represent his rule and to bear his image. Instead, he put human beings in that role and when we take up that God-given vocation, Brothers and Sisters, it is an act of worship. We act as stewards when we serve him as we care for our children and families, as we attend school, as we do our jobs. Adam’s was to tend the garden. Yours may be to cut hair, to sew, to care for livestock, to teach, to build houses, to navigate airplanes, to go to school, but when we do these things as the Lord’s stewards, as his image bearers, we honour the one who created us for this purpose. We worship because he is worthy. And digging deeper in to that, we worship because we know he is worthy, because he did not abandon us when we rejected our vocation. Instead he sent his Son to give his life for us—to set us right and to set right the creation that we’ve made a mess of. He is truly worthy of our worship. By his will all things were created and by his love and grace and mercy we who rejected him are being re-created to once again bear his image.
Brothers and Sisters, for those redeemed in Jesus, life ought to be worship. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But a week of living as God’s new creation, a week of living steeped in the reality of Jesus, a week living the life of the Spirit culminates on Sundays in a gathering of the redeemed. We come together, on one hand motivated and thankful because of the life of worship we have lived these last six days. These six days have taught us that the Lord is worthy of our praise and so we come to bring him that praise together. But on the other we also come to be renewed and refreshed that we might face the next week standing firm in faith, living for the Lord’s glory. Worship isn’t easy. We encounter competing loyalties, competing priorities, competing gods. We forget—it seems like it should be impossible—but we forget the faithfulness, the love, the mercy, the grace of the Lord. We stumble into sin. And so we gather together on Sundays to hear the word of the Lord and to be reminded who he is, what he’s done, and that he is faithful to his promises. We confess our sins and we are reminded of the forgiving grace poured out at the cross. We come to the Lord’s Table and are reminded that we are his covenant people, forgiven, made new, and united in Jesus. And we give him glory. Glory be to God on high! Gathered together we are invited, like John, through that door into heaven. Here is that “thin space” where heaven and earth touch. Here we come before the Lord in a way that we do not in our private devotions and in our daily lives of servant stewardship. I urge you to think on the words we sing in the Gloria at the close of the service, after we’ve gathered at the Lord’s Table. Think on those words and take them with you this week. Take the strength to stand firm in faith knowing that God is faithful and that faithfulness is revealed first and foremost in Jesus the Messiah. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Let us pray: Holy, holy, holy are you, God of power and might. We thank you for your word, given through John, that we might have this glimpse into your courts, know your glory, and give you the worship you are due. We have sinned, we have rebelled, but you have given your Son for our sake. You have redeemed us from sin and death and brought us back into your presence. And so we ask that you would keep always before us your holiness—your glory and the cross of Jesus by which you’ve redeemed us—that we might be faithful in our calling, not only to gather together for corporate worship, but each day to give ourselves as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and to do all that we do to your glory and looking forward to the day when the knowledge of your glory covered the earth and ever knee bows before you. Amen.