Summary: John is given a picture of a God who is transcendent, unapproachable in his holiness, surrounded by the greatest of angelic beings who can think of nothing they’d rather do than fall down at his feet and sing his praises.
I applied for ordination in 1988 - in another diocese from this. When I went for the interview to see if I was acceptable, one of the questions I was asked was “What is God like for you?” It’s a good question, isn’t it? What is your image of God? Now I have an idea that the answer I gave wasn’t the right one because they ended up telling me to come back in a year’s time to ask again. Or perhaps it was the right one but not the one that most of them thought was right. It’s very easy to get a mixed up view of what God is like, isn’t it? Popular views of God change with the popular culture. I think if you asked many Christians in the west today their answer would be something along the lines of “God is a God of love” or “God is my friend” - “my mate” as one of our kids songs puts it. Or God is the all-loving, ever-patient, long suffering parent who’s just waiting for us to come back to him. All of those ideas are true of course. God is all of those things. But none of them sums up his nature sufficiently. What we find in our passage today is so far beyond anything I just mentioned that it’s likely to blow your mind.
Remember, the Church is under siege from within and without. The letters we find in chapters 2 & 3 of Revelation give us a good idea of how hard things are for the early church. Persecution from the Roman authorities and false teaching from within their own ranks are making it hard for these Christians to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. And so God has sent this message to John to reassure them and to strengthen them to persevere. But remember the message is a message in pictures - moving pictures.
And so John looks up and sees a door opening into heaven. And then a voice speaks to him, the same voice he heard in ch1, the voice of Jesus apparently: “Come up and I’ll show you what must take place after this.” And suddenly John has this out of body experience. He finds himself, in the spirit, standing in the throne room of heaven.
God is at the Centre
What he sees is breathtaking. In the middle of the scene is a throne with someone seated on it (we assume it’s God because this is generally how God is pictured in the pages of the Bible). And he looks like Jasper and Carnelian. Well, what does that mean? How can you look like a precious stone? When we were in Istanbul last year we went to the Topkapi palace where there’s a gem called the Spoonmakers Diamond and as you looked at it the light reflecting from it gleamed with a brilliance only a diamond could provide. That’s the sort of thing John seems to be recounting. And listen to how God is described in Psalm 104: “You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.” Or 1 Tim 6:16: “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” What John sees is like light reflecting from the brightest of gems, blinding in its brilliance. It’s similar to the vision in Ezekiel 1 where Ezekiel sees a throne that looks like sapphire with a rainbow around it. Here there’s a rainbow around the throne that looks like an emerald.
God is Surrounded by the Greatest of Beings
Then around the throne he sees twenty four other thrones and seated on these thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. These elders are like the privy council of heaven and they’re set around the throne almost like guards. They appear later in the book speaking God’s word, or bringing the prayers of the saints before God, or bowing in worship and singing praise to God. These appear to be a higher angelic order. The number 24 generally indicates the totality of those who are redeemed by the lamb so perhaps these angelic beings with their white robes and golden crowns are the angelic counterparts of the new royal priesthood that Jesus Christ has brought into being.
God is Unapproachable
Then he sees, coming from the throne, flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder. Are you starting to get a feel for the picture that he’s drawing for us. How do you feel when you’re in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with lightning and thunder all around? Some people I know would be climbing under the bed at this stage, if they could find one.