From here on in, I will be reading Revelation with the Bible in one hand and the Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg in the other. I am also reading a number of other commentaries as I go along, but what I really want is to get a broader view of this amazing, mysterious, vibrant, and often misunderstood book.
I am also counting on the Holy Spirit to illumine these chapters for me personally, and for this time. The writer of Hebrews wrote,
Indeed, the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)
I have meditated a long time about that saying. I think it is the Lord still speaking that makes this saying so true. When we listen to the voice communicating to us from the scriptures and hear the illumination of these words in our minds by the counsel of the Holy Spirit, we begin to experience that living and active quality of God’s divine words.
This is what I am asking God for, this experience, while reading Revelation.
John was lifted up in a supernatural occurrence that transported him through a portal in the sky into the heavenly realms. He was in the Spirit as he was conducted from the earthly to the heavenly. The first sound he heard was a trumpet-like voice speaking to him, inviting him into the throne room of God. Here, he would come to know the things that must occur after the things he had just seen, heard, and recorded.
Consequently, John became one of the very few people who has ever seen this cosmic courtroom, the throne emanating a rainbow aurora, the figure sitting upon it as dazzling and translucent as a diamond, radiant with light. Shining emerald and brilliant carnelian were the only images John could think of to describe the breathtaking array before him.
But there was more.
The Twenty-Four Elders
Then, all around the throne, twenty-four stately seats, and upon the chairs of state twenty-four elders sitting, having been clothed in white robes, and upon their heads golden crowns.Revelation 4:4
Lustrous and resplendent.
As John’s eyes became accustomed to the coruscating lights flowing forth from the throne of God, he saw there were two dozen stately chairs, seats of authority, surrounding the throne of the Lord. Robed in flowing white garments, and crowned with honor, twenty-four elders filled those seats.
Typically, images of this scene show twenty-four men with white hair and streaming white beards. All the depictions I have seen also show these men as light-skinned.
To be fair, I am most familiar with the European artists who have rendered John’s vision, and it stands to reason they would paint or sculpt what they knew. Furthermore, the koine Greek word πρεσβύτερο | presbutero, the word we get Presbyter from, is masculine. In the patriarchal culture of the Greco-Roman Empire, and later the Holy Roman Empire, it surely was assumed the group of presbyters surrounding God were all older men.
But I am not so sure.
In koine Greek, when there is a group of men and women, masculine nouns and pronouns are used to describe the group. Even if there were one man in a group otherwise comprised of all women, masculine words would be used. People of that day understood this without it having to be said.
Even today, it does not catch us off-guard when we meet the chairman, for example, and discover she is a woman. Or the director, or the chief executive officer. All these words are masculine, but women also fill those roles.
We know the first century church had women leaders, women who hosted churches in their homes, who were teachers, deacons (ministers), prophets, disciples, and evangelists. At least one woman was named an apostle, and Paul greeted many women who co-labored beside him in the mission field.
We also know that even in the first decades of the Jesus movement, people of all variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds became believers. The roll call of leaders in the Antioch church provides a picture of how diverse the early church really was.
So now, when I imagine that glorious display, God upon the throne of lights, and the elders all around, I see women and men, people of all ages and all backgrounds, representing the diversity and beauty of the rainbow that glowed around them all. Perhaps, the rainbow John saw coalesced into the gleaming faces of the elders, honored by God, seated with the Lord in authority and glory.
Remember Jesus’s prayer,
So also the glory which you have given to me I have given to them, in order that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, in order that they may be fulfilled, made completely into one, so that the world may perceive and know that you sent me and you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, [of] those you sent to me, I desire that where I myself am they also may be with me, so that they may behold my glory that you have given to me, because you loved me before [the] foundation of [the] world.Jesus’s Prayer, John 17:22-24
The Seven Spirits of God
And from the throne is coming bright shining lightnings and sounds and thunders—and seven torches, flames burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.Revelation 4:5
This was not new to John, but rather had been part of his first vision, The Significance of Seven. The Seven Spirits has been understood for millennia to be the Holy Spirit, the seven-fold Spirit; in other words, the fullness of God the Holy Spirit. The image of the seven spirits would bring to the minds of John’s original readers a passage from the prophet Isaiah, the most oft-quoted book in the Greek Scriptures.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,Isaiah 11:1-2 (NRSV)
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
John’s first century audience would have understood this was a portrayal of the menorah, each of its seven flames symbolic of an aspect of the Holy Spirit as Isaiah had described.
The Branch is all one piece and yet it is also six-branched and seven-cupped.
The fullness of the Spirit is complete in this imagery, with a flame lit above each of the seven almond-blossom cups of the menorah yet fed from the same stream of oil in the one the candlestick.
We Shall See Him As He Is
What John saw was the fulfillment of the prophecy the apostle Paul spoke of often. “There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but on the one hand [is] the glory of the heavenly, and on the other hand the earthly.” Later, John would write,
Look at what love the Father has given to us, so that we may be called—and are—children of God. Because of this the world does not know us, for it did not know Him.
Beloved ones, [right] now we are children of God and it has not yet been made visible who we will be. We know that whenever He will be made visible we will be similar to Him, for we will perceive Him just He is.
And each one having this expectation concerning Him consecrates themselves just as that One is consecrated.1 John 3:1-3
This is what John gazed upon in awe and wonder. The elders, consecrated before God, representative of the whole Church, robed in the white garments of righteousness, and crowned with the glory of eternal life, having been sealed by the Holy Spirit.