Breaking down in detail the opening scene of Revelation 4. Examples from life and scripture explain why we use symbols to describe relationships, and how that causes confusion. We come to a new way of thinking about what John was shown: just as the US Constitution is a plan of government, John was being shown the plan of creation. That makes sense, as long as we accept that we as living creatures have a very important role to play.
When I went to Portland in January of 2017, the city was caked in ice. Many of the venues I was planning to attend were closed. I was becoming a little desperate at the half-way point of my vacation, and found myself asking the waitress at the corner bar what there was to do along Division Street. To my surprise, she referred me to the local cinema that every Friday offered an audience participation showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Rocky Horror is a campy rock-musical that chronicles creeping corruption in aliens from the planet “Transsexual Transylvania.” When I saw it back in the ‘80s, it struck me as bizarre. That it was still being shown 35 years later was a testament to its hidden messages. While Elaine Pagels accuses John of writing a coded political treatise, the creators of Rocky Horror declared openly their intentions.
The film critiques the messed-up relationships that form in stifling social convention. Most obviously are the young preppies consumed by sexual license, but we also have the tormented alien transsexual seeking freedom to relate to his musical audience, only to be annihilated as he climbs a radio tower – the obvious stand-in for corporate control.
In the audience-participation showings of Rocky Horror, actors in costume render the movie scenes on the stage in front of the screen. The actors become puppets. Farther from the screen, the audience chants and throws rice. They are not direct images of the light playing on the screen, but they react to its prompts.
Imagine that you knew nothing about movies. Coming into the theatre, how would you describe the scene? The audience lines join into the screen dialog. Which one is leading? And the actors on the stage! The images on the screen disappear when you walk behind them, but the actors on stage do not. Which are most real?
This is the problem we face in interpreting John’s Revelation. The events on Earth are like the audience. The one on the throne is the unchanging film. The angels are like the actors on the stage, doing their best to please the audience. All of this is going on at once. John recorded events in each setting – Earth, God and angels – as they demanded his attention.
But how to describe the heavenly goings-on? How would a nomad from the Mongolian steppes describe Rocky Horror? Only by using words familiar to him – or maybe pictures.
This is how John’s mind presents the events experienced by the angels, events in pure spirit that are unknown to flesh.
Now I’ve probably scandalized most of you by comparing heaven and Rocky Horror Picture Show, but that’s what happens when you go out of the box. You get to play with ideas. Really – God doesn’t mind. Just don’t live your life that way.
Back to the Bible.
After Eden, encounters with the Most High Lord are rare. Moses was said to have sat face-to-face with Him, but in most cases He comes to people in dreams. The first detailed description comes from Ezekiel, prophet to the captives in Babylon:
Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.
[NIV Ezek. 1:26-28]
The most high is accompanied by four creatures:
Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.
[NIV Ezek. 1:10]
This is a description of God as he touches the Earth. I’ve only offered a few details. The full description is hard to visualize, though artists have tried. The images run from bizarre to cosmic. None of them are convincing.
In Revelation, the angels invite John to heaven, promising him knowledge. John, then very old, had seen Christians suffer greatly, despite Jesus’ promises that the kingdom would come before they died.
John wonders ‘Why?” The knowledge he is given is thus the plan for God’s work here on earth.
…before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.
[NIV Rev. 4:2-3]
The throne itself is described further (emphasis added):
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures… The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle.
[NIV Rev. 4:6-7]
This is like the scene described by Ezekiel. We thus suspect that the one on the throne is the Father, Unconditional Love.
The description continues:
Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns on their heads.
[NIV Rev. 4:4]
These are often interpreted as rulers of kingdoms on earth, but the words of the angel in Daniel suggest another direction. The angel describes the Archangel Michael as “prince.” Crowns are worn by royalty. The “elders” might then be the most important angels in heaven.
Again, artists have tried to depict this scene. I especially like the coffee table version.
But if that is so, how are we to understand the relationship between the angels and the “living creatures?”
Day and night, [the living creatures] never stop saying:
“Holy, Holy, Holy
Is the Lord God Almighty
Who was, is, and is to come.”
[NIV Rev. 4:8]
The surprise follows that “whenever” the living creatures give praise, the elders “fall down” and “lay their crowns before the throne.” It appears that the “living creatures,” made after the angels, force the angels to worship the Lord God Almighty.
Should we be surprised that the angels are not be entirely loyal to the Almighty? A dispute was hinted at in Daniel, but we have also the words of Jesus who promised that he would “remake heaven and earth” and gave the Apostles “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
Let’s run with the relationship between the living creatures and the angels. Then what are the living creatures?
Before answering that question, I’m going to make another comparison.
The opening scene doesn’t seem to happen at a fixed moment in time. John asserts that the living creatures “never stop.” The elders fall down “whenever” praise is offered. It’s more like John is describing relationships than events.
The US constitution describes relationships of this kind between three branches of government: the President, the Congress and the Judiciary. Each branch is assigned jobs, and the jobs are set up so that each branch prevents the others from taking all power. Here’s one way of visualizing that relationship. It’s abstract. Another way, carrying the message that our government lives and grows, is offered here.
After each election, each branch of government has a leader. Often, we talk of those leaders as though they were the institution they lead. Certainly they get a lot of attention, but if we step back, we see that things are more complicated.
But there is still more than that. Each branch of government has layer, and can be broken down across states or functions, such as defense or environmental protection. The leaders change after elections, so the institutions adopt symbols that represent their identity.
I’ll use this term: the Constitution is the plan for the US government. Maybe what John was shown is the plan of Creation.
What I’m getting at here is that sometimes symbols represent complicated relationships. What John describes in heaven may reflect the angels attempts to simplify their relationships so that he can understand them.
If so, it makes sense to think of the “living creatures” as all living creatures here on earth, from bacteria to Jesus. What John sees is the most powerful creature of each type. The ox represents the herbivores, the lion represents predators, the eagle represents birds, and finally we have man.
To summarize then: the plan of heaven has God on the throne surrounded by worshipful living creatures. Outside that circle, the angels sit proudly on their thrones, bowing down to God only when forced to by the praise given by the living creatures. From this, it appears that God intended to change his relationship with the angels using life on Earth.
That’s pretty mind-blowing.
Why would God desire to do that? For one thing, we see that the angels weren’t doing much relating while sitting each on their throne. But it was worse than that. Something was wrong with the angels, and they knew it.