04. Backstage of the Universe
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first 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 there 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. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 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. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
Something new begins in Revelation 4. After addressing seven local Jesus-communities in a personalized way, John begins in earnest to recount the vision he experienced. He describes his transcendent experience as a complicated story—as an intricate, remodulating narrative—that runs through the rest of the letter.
It’s a bigger story than a conservative emphasis on individuals getting saved, being “good and moral,” and going to heaven after death. It’s a grander vision than a liberal emphasis on acts of mercy, social justice, and a humanistic utopia. We struggle keep up with the scope and scale of John’s vision.
John tells us the story of the salvation of the universe. It’s a vision that includes both the salvation of individuals as well as the salvation of culture, economies, societies, nations… anything and everything we can imagine. Literally. It’s the promise of salvation on a grander scale than we can imagine.
And as central as local Jesus communities are to this story—as much dignity as God grants to decisions and direction—this story does not begin with us. The salvation that God promises does not hinge on humanity. The rescue, healing, and transformation of everything hinges on God. We never carry the weight of God’s new world on our shoulders. God’s new world carries us—bearing our full weight, inviting our muddy feet.
Our lives are not the realest real thing. There’s something more real than us… gathering us up in a gracious gravitational pull. That’s why Revelation 4 begins the way it does—with a tractor beam.
John suddenly sees a door—a door ajar, a door open—and finds himself drawn upward through that door.
This door didn’t come out of nowhere.
In the last of the seven personalized letters, we hear Jesus calling out that he stands at the door and knocks (3v20). Jesus wants to dine with his church. Jesus desires intimacy with individual people.
But what if Jesus comes in the door to invite us out?
That’s the provocative suggestion of the vision God grants to John and sitting stranded on lonely prison islands. The triumphant trumpet-voice he heard in chapter one (1v11) now invites John to rise—to ascend, to come through—the door (4v1-2).
Once we pass through this door with John… we need no convincing that we’re in the strange new world of Revelation. John’s story has broken loose in a wild, untamed fashion. A scene in heaven confronts us.
When we hear the word “heaven,” almost all of us have a particular kind of image that jumps to our mind. Perhaps something like Gary Larson’s delightful The Far Side comics:
I consciously know that heaven doesn’t look like this, but I’m sure I’m not alone in needing to combat something like Larson’s image as my default image for heaven.
Images of bright, puffy clouds float through my mind. Lazy white cumulus against a bright blue sky with a gentle breeze blowing. Perhaps a few quaint harpists quietly strum somewhere unseen. And now that I think of it, the bored guy wishing for a magazine doesn’t seem far off.
Stereotypical images of “heaven” pop up into my imagination like a screensaver automatically pops up on my laptop after five minutes of inactivity. I have to vigilantly work for other images. Perhaps we need to name this quaint, fluffy, boring image of heaven so we can move past it and share the vision granted to John.
When John says that he sees a door open into Ouranos (maybe the Greek word for “heaven” will help it feel strange again), John does not see anything close to quaint. John begins to see the realest real… like he’s going behind-the-scenes of all reality.
Heaven is like going backstage of the universe.
John’s upward fall into Ouranos feels less like some stiff country club in the sky and more like a sea-weary sailor sinking their toes into terra firma. John finds something solid—the deepest, most foundational layer of existence. The dimension of reality where we “see” the Source of the universe, the Mystery at the heart of all things, the Good, the True, the Beautiful.
Backstage of the universe.
The dimension of reality totally transparent to God.
And—if we pay close attention—John finds himself in this God-filled-dimension in the present… not the future. Our popular conceptions of “heaven” as a reality in the future after we die blind us to the vision John experienced: “heaven” as the God-reality also parallel to our present. As the unfolding story makes clear, John experience seems to be some kind of deeper reality that exists side-by-side with reality on earth.
To be certain, the trumpet-voice tells John that he will see “what must take place after this” (v1). Revelation does offer us a shadows and glimpses into the fullness of time, but that glimpse is not here. Before John can see the future, John must recognize who holds the future.1
The technical word forJohn’s experienced is called “theophany” or “revealing of God.” God’s Spirit (v2) has gifted John with a manifestation or vision or picture of Godself. And it’s an experience ultimately beyond description.
We’ve all had experiences so powerful or overwhelming or wonderful that we find ourselves at a loss for words when trying to talk about it. Divine, mystical experiences certainly fit the bill. But even more common, daily experiences often escape description. We start to tell someone about our being born, or swimming with dolphins, or the intensity of a car accident… and we’re at a loss. Words fail. And we then find ourselves searching—straining—stretching—for words to describe something beyond description. We raid our verbal warehouse, hunting for fresh metaphors or analogies or images to express the inexpressible.
That’s John’s predicament throughout Revelation.
And that’s certainly John’s dilemma here.
As John writes, he seems to be searching—straining—stretching—for words that will even hint at the Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Power unveiled to him. So John begins to raid his verbal warehouse hunting for words fit for the task. And the powerful words, images, and metaphors to which he has access are the Jewish scriptures.
Like nearly all of the earliest Christians, John is a first-century Jewish Christian with a single-minded commitment to the God of Israel, the Jewish Messiah, and the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call “The Old Testament”). So the images of the Old Testament become his native tongue for describing what it’s like to behold the Mystery making himself known.
Almost every image in John’s account of heaven can be traced back to other parts of Scripture. One scholar called John’s account of heaven “a symphony of OT theophanies.”2 The various visions, stories, and moments where God revealed himself throughout the Old Testament have been woven into seamless concert with each other. In trying to describe the indescribable, John decides to pour us a Scripture smoothie—a cocktail of worship—siphoning every possible drop of sacred scripture to express the inexpressible:
“Man oh man… what I experienced… it was was like three parts Daniel, two parts Isaiah, with some Ezekiel mixed in, and a splash of Exodus. Those prophets had a clue. Heaven is nowhere close to fluffy or quaint or boring—it’s the most alive place I’ve ever seen.
“Energy like you’ve never seen—like a nuclear reactor—like the heart of a star—lightning and noise and peals of thunder (v5)… like the energy, lightning, fire on Mount Sinai when God appeared to Moses and a ragtag mass of former slaves.3
“I remember there was a throne. And Someone sitting on it (v2). Someone who reminded me of beautiful gems (v3). And something like a rainbow—bright and beautiful like an emerald (v3)—encircled the throne and this Someone. (I know that Ezekiel already described God that way… and I know it’s hard to understand… but it’s the best way to describe him.4) Like God’s unending sign of loyal love floating in the air.5 His covenant like cologne. His promises like perfume. Heaven smells like a rainbow—like mercy, love, and loyalty.
“All around this Someone were other people… other kings (v4). I’m pretty sure they were kings, what with their golden crowns. I think they may have been a picture of all God’s people because there were twenty-four of them (v4). It was like the twelve sons of Jacob and twelve apostles of Jesus held in front of us as a picture of all of us. As difficult and painful and sometimes terrible as life sometimes looks…even right now we’re actually kings.
“But not proud or pompous or pushy kings… nothing like Alexander or Domitian or Donald. God is forming us into kings like him. Humble kings, low kings, serving kings. Because that’s what I saw those twenty-four elders doing… following the lead of all living creatures (v9) and worshipping the Someone on the throne.
“It’s like God’s people learning to do what all creation was meant to do… worship. Maybe that’s what those four biologically challenged creatures at the center were all about (v6-8).6 The prophets have seen such things before, and it was like all creation fully present and fully alive7 and fully alert8 before the throne.
“All living things were practicing their purpose: praising the Lord God Almighty (v8). And then we, the people of God, followed creation’s lead with our own song (v9-11). The limitless, gracious, seven-fold Spirit of God (v5) was drawing us all there.
“I don’t know… it’s impossible to describe… It was beautiful.”
Maybe that’s getting what John saw. The theophany he experienced during the Lord’s Day on Patmos was unspeakable… yet he’s been told to speak it. And so language stretches to its breaking point.
Just backstage in the universe, there’s Someone on the throne, crackling with energy and life, surrounded by mercy, endlessly praised by creation and the people of God. This Someone is so alive, so joyful, so serene,
that every primordial force of chaos and confusion quiets before him. The sea is calm and clear like crystal glass (v6).
John’s vision glimpses that the universe has a center—reality has a nucleus—a pulsing heart behind reality, creating and sustaining and ordering all things. John recognizes that there is a Someone around whom everything orbits…and it’s not him.
And it’s not you. And it’s not me. We do not sit on the throne. The world does not orbit around us. We did not create the world nor do we sustain it. Forget everything else for a moment, we don’t even create or sustain our own lives. We don’t even keep ourselves breathing for crying out loud.
We are not the center of the universe.
This might seem like the most obvious statement in the world, but we don’t know it. Not in our guts. We’re not the center of anything. We don’t really remember that… not often.
Consider the things we were angry about this week, perhaps the things we’re still angry about. How much of our anger—if we got honest—is actually anger that the world refuses to orbit around us?
The common threat between inconsiderate people in parking lots and the complicated problems in my relationships is this: no one seems to realize that all of creation orbits around me and my needs.
What a disturbance in the universe. What an anomaly in space-time. People argue with me, disrespect me, refuse to bend to my will… on a daily basis. Don’t they realize they should be orbiting around me, bowing to me, singing my praises?
how much anger, pain,
struggle, sin, worry, anxiety,
How much human suffering
comes from our constant surprise
that creation doesn’t orbit around us?
How much human sin
comes from our constant desire
to sit on a throne that does not belong to us?
We live our lives convinced that If others would just agree with us, then there would be peace—then the sea would be calm. If they would just do what we want, then we could forgive them—then we would be able to sing.
Don’t they know
that I’m the realest real?
A lot of times we even quietly think about God this way. We talk about “asking Jesus into our heart” as if the goal is to make God a part of our life. I’ll make Jesus a part of my world because my life—my world—my heart—is the realest real thing. But Revelation sabotages all of this thinking.
We’ve heard Jesus say, “I stand at the door” (3v20) but when the door opens (4v1), it’s less like we invite God into our lives and more like God pulling us into his life—into the life of heaven.
Frequently I want God to help all things orbit rightly in my small, selfish world. I demand that God fix this financial struggle, or solve the crisis of the season, or fill my cravings right now.
Confession time: most of the time I want God to confirm me as the center of the universe. And then I get frustrated when God never seems to do that. I mean, I invited Jesus into my life… so why isn’t he fixing anything?
But maybe Revelation shows us something different. Maybe Jesus is inviting us—asking us—into his life. To take up a cross, to love others, to forgive others, to serve others when its painful. Maybe a voice is calling all of us, “Come up here, I’ll show what must take place.”
Maybe—just maybe—in your life—in your life right now—
God is pulling you painfully into his world.
Into a world where you’re not on the throne.
Where you’re not the center of anything.
Where you don’t get your way.
Where nothing orbits around you.
And maybe that world is heaven.
It’s the best place any of us could possibly be.
But Jesus inviting us into his life is harder than us inviting Jesus into ours. It takes a longer time. It’s more painful. It requires us to surrender our fantasies about the Throne. It means giving up on our delusions that one day the world—that that person—will orbit around us. It requires us to throw down all power—every one of our crowns—all our pride—all our despair—our entire self-centered life—at the feet of Someone else.
Jesus inviting us into his unending life is harder because Jesus invites us to die. Not physically—if only it were that easy. We’ve got to surrender ourselves, die daily to our egos, allow our pride to be crucified so truest life can be born.
Jesus knows that until we die to ourselves, we can never join the song. The undying song that all creation—those four living creatures—and all of heaven already endlessly sings. Our lives will never experience peace like crystal glass, or smell the fragrance of mercy or behold the beauty of heaven, or enter the freedom of the children of God.
We’ll be forever waiting for others to sing our praise.
And we will be forever disappointed.
May I hear you knocking at the door, Jesus, and always desire you to draw me into your life. Help me recognize the parts of my life where I claim the throne, where I expect others to orbit me. Help me join your church in following creation’s lead: teach me how to sing the undying song of self-giving love.
- John begins to weep (5.3-4) when it seems that no one will be able to make sense of the world’s past history, present suffering, or future hope. But then he’s told not to weep, because Someone can make sense of it all. Someone does hold the future (5.1), and Someone can “open the scroll” (5.5) But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
- Michael Gorman (Reading Revelation Responsibly, 106) citing Jean-Pierre Prévost’s How to Read The Apocalypse.
- See Ex 19.16-18.
- See the strange vision of Ezk 1 (specifically Ezk 1.28).
- Gen 9.16. This primal promise of mercy and loyal love is to all creation… not just the people of God.
- The living creatures of Revelation 4 resemble the super strange cherubim of Ezekiel 1.4-11 but with the number of wings of the fiery seraphim from Isaiah 6.2. Much ink has been spilled speculating about these creatures, but they seem to be best understood as creatures representing all of creation. Animals wild (lion), domesticated (ox), flying (eagle), and human from all the world—north, south, east, and west (hence, four of them).
- The moving of the creatures with their wings reflects the visions of the seraphim in Isaiah (6.2)
- Perhaps creation saying “I’m all eyes.”