21 August 2013

Revelation 4:6b-11

“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” (v. 8)


Welcome to heaven! In these verses we join in the worship that gathers around the throne of God. This vision of heavenly worship lies at the heart of Revelation, a book that is frequently puzzling and often the basis for wild speculation. It was written when the most powerful empire the world had known - Rome - called everyone to worship the Emperor. Christians, though, knew that only the living God, and none other, is to be worshipped and adored. So this is a vision which is both spiritual and political, heavenly and earthly. The throne room of God, says John, outshines the magnificence of any earthly ruler. God's glory is beyond our wildest imagination.

John the Divine - the author of the Book of Revelation - certainly had a vivid imagination that combines poetry and prophecy. But his descriptionsof the worship of heaven draws heavily on the Jewish scriptures, especially the visions of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1) (from where he gets the imagery of the four living creatures) the call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) (which provides the opening of the hymn of praise: "Holy, Holy, Holy…") and the revelation of God to Moses on Mt Sinai.

The four living creatures (verses 6-10), with the characteristics of a lion, and ox, a man and an eagle, are often associated with the four Gospel writers in Christian tradition and art. Here, though, they are a reminder that the worship of heaven draws in all creation. Not just humanity, but every living thing, is called to join in the praise of the God who creates and redeems.

The 24 elders who sit around the throne of God (verse 10) echo the words of the four living creatures with a hymn of their own: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power" (v. 11). The great songs of praise, in this passages and the ones we read in the next two days, may well have resonated both with the worship of the Jewish synagogue and with the hymns and prayers of the new Christian churches. They have, in turn, influenced generations of Christian worship, from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where liturgy is a 'mirror of heaven' to Charles Wesley's hymn, "Love Divine", with its closing words: "Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise!"

To Ponder

  • Heaven, according to John the Divine, is centred on worship. How central - or not - is worship in your own life, or that of your community?
  • Christian worship (to quote the words of John Wesley) was "born in song". What kind of pointers does this passage give for Christian hymns and songs?
  • How might it affect our relationship with the rest of creation if we thought of the whole universe sharing in the praise of God? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Richard Clutterbuck

Richard Clutterbuck is a minister of the Methodist Church in Britain but since 2004 has served the Irish Methodist Church as principal of Edgehill Theological College in Belfast. His ministry has been divided between pastoral appointments in North London and theological education in the South Pacific (Tonga), Britain and Ireland.