Notes on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 4, Part 2

Larry Hunt Bible Commentary // The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne William Blake

The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne

William Blake


v. 1: So far in Revelation, an open door is good (3:8[3]) and a closed door is bad (3:20).  The door itself seems to represent the same thing in each appearance: the way out of death and into life.

“The first voice” is Christ’s (1:10).

Christ says, “Come up here….”  Heaven is in some real sense up above us.[4]

I am not sure what the “this” of “what must take place after this” refers to.  It could refer to those things in the messages to the churches of Asia.  Each of those messages addressed the churches’ immediate problems or problems that were soon to befall those alive at that time, things like the persecution of Domitian in 3:10.   Thus, perhaps “what must take place after this” is what must take place after the things predicted for immediate future of the churches of Asia, after things like the persecution of Domitian.  Then again, “after this” may mean after John’s experience of receiving the vision.  It would be like saying, “this is what must take place after today.”  I favor this second interpretation.

v. 3: I think the tense here is significant.  John is telling this vision as a past event because he had the vision itself in the past: “I was in the spirit” (v. 2), but he uses the present tense to describe the throne and its attendants in this chapter: “The one seated there looks like Jasper.”  I think this means that what John describes in 4:3-11 symbolizes eternal qualities of God, not future events on earth.  Only in Chapter 5, when John begins to use the past tense again, do the descriptions symbolize (ironically) future events.  Thus, chapter four basically says, “This is what the throne of God is (always) like,” while chapter five basically says, “I saw the following things happen before the throne of God, and they symbolized future events.”

I do not understand the symbolism of jasper (green) and carnelian (red).  In 21:11 jasper is used as an example of quality and rarity.  Oecumenius says the jasper “signifies for us God’s ability to give life” (53).  He also says the carnelian “is another precious stone” by which John “describes the awe of God.  ‘For our God is a devouring fire’ says the hierophant Moses” (53-54).  This interpretation of carnelian does agree with the use of fire in the description of God in Ezekiel 1:27.  There might also be significance in the fact that the first and last (alpha and omega) stones in the high priest’s ephod were carnelian and jasper.  Perhaps there is also significance in the fact that the first stone of the ephod is carnelian and the first stone in the foundations of the new Jerusalem is Jasper.[6]

In Ezekiel 1:28 the rainbow around God’s throne seems like a regular rainbow (with all the colors of a rainbow), whereas here it is said to look like an emerald.  I do not understand the significance of the emerald as a color, but perhaps John simply means that this rainbow had the brilliance of an emerald (not necessarily the color of an emerald).  If the greenness of the emerald is significant, then perhaps its significance is similar to the significance of greenness of the jasper.  The rainbow itself must signify the mercy of God (Genesis 9:12-15).  Oecumenius has a beautiful interpretation of the rainbow: “It indicates all the holy and ministering spirits around God…” (54).  It is a sublime image, all the angels surrounding God’s throne and forming a brilliant rainbow that signifies the mercy of God.

v. 4: Opinions vary widely about who these twenty-four elders are. Oecumenius says, “Only God, the one who knows the hidden things, and he to whom they are revealed, would know who were the twenty-four elders seated on the thrones.”  I agree with him.  Nevertheless, below are some possibilities.

Oecumenius goes on to guess that they might be famous patriarchs, prophets, or apostles (55-56).  His selection, however, seems a little random to me.  If these twenty-four are humans, then I think the most reasonable conclusion is that they are the twelve patriarchs of Israel (fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel) and the twelve apostles.[7] Revelation 21:12-14 identifies these two groups of twelve with each other.  And Matthew 19:28 says, “When the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  In that context, it seems as though the apostles are in a superior position to the twelve patriarchs, which would make it strange to see both groups of twelve in a single assembly of equals.  Still, the apostles will judge the twelve tribes, not the twelve patriarchs.  Perhaps the passage is saying that the apostles will inherit the authority of the old patriarchs, which would make the twelve patriarchs a foreshadowing of the twelve apostles, and the twelve apostles an allusion back to the twelve patriarchs.  In that case, the two groups of twelve could be reasonable candidates for the twenty-four elders here.

On the other hand, I think Johnson makes a very good case for seeing these elders as angels of some type.  He does this by pointing out that they seem to be grouped with angels and to be distinct from redeemed humans.[8] Taken by itself, the first part of his argument (where he says that they seem to be distinct from redeemed humans) is not entirely convincing to me.  After all, if certain redeemed humans will be distinguished from other redeemed humans by having special honors (as Christ seems to suggest in Matthew 19:28), then being distinct from the mass of redeemed humanity might not necessarily mean that the elders are angels.  However, Johnson’s argument is not only that these elders are distinct from the mass of redeemed humanity, but also that they are always grouped with angels.

Johnson believes the number twenty-four is a reference to the “twenty-four courses of priests engaged in the service of the temple” (430).  He is not arguing that these are human priests but rather that the structure of the human priesthood reflected that of this heavenly body.  I think this is also a good point since these twenty-four are obviously ministers of God in a special sense.  I do not know which opinion I favor more.

John describes “seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God.” This is clearly a reference to the “seven spirits who are before his throne” (1:4).  I believe these spirits are the seven angels of the seven churches in Asia.  Following Clement, Oecumenius believes they are archangels and quotes Hebrews 1:7 (which references Psalm 104:4): “Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.’”

[3] See note on 3:7.

[4] See note on Acts 1:9-11.

[5] For a discussion of this day see notes at 20:4.

[6] See the appendix Precious Stones of New Jerusalem and the High Priest’s Ephod at the end of the notes.

[7] I would not let the fact that John himself is an apostle dissuade me from believing that the twelve apostles make up half of these elders.  It is strange to think about John having this vision in which he sees a representation of himself (which he might not even recognize as himself – see 7:13) among the twenty-four elders while he is still alive on Earth, but this vision is not necessarily of heaven as it was at the moment John had the vision, but rather as it is ideally and as it will be in reality.  Remember that Christ, in 4:1, tells John that the vision is of future events.

[8] See chapter 7 for instance.


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