Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 4 - The Heavenly Sanctuary (ch. 4)

The first vision described by John was the intensely symbolic appearance of his High-Priestly Lord amidst the seven candlesticks. The next, following on the messages to be conveyed to the seven churches, was that of the glorious heavenly throne - the Almighty Himself enthroned above the cherubim.

Like so many of the visions revealed to John later, this vision also was seen in heaven. “Behold, a door opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me, which said, Come up hither . . .” (4:1).

A simple rule will be found to be the key to the interpretation of this vision and of much that follows; What the Apostle beheld taking place in heaven has to do with those in covenant with God, those who are even now “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” What the Apostle saw transpiring on the earth has reference to those, whether Jews or Gentiles, who are not within the Covenants of Promise.

A similar idiom appears to be employed in the Old Testament in connection with Solomon's Temple. Solomon prayed to God that “Thine eyes may be open toward this house day and night . . . to hearken unto the prayer which thy servant prayeth toward this place[1] . . . hear thou from thy dwelling place even from heaven; and when thou hearest, forgive” (2 Chronicles 6:20, 21). It is possible here to impart a nice distinction between “this place” and “thy dwelling place, even heaven.” But the words certainly read more naturally if they are understood to speak of the Holy of Holies, towards which prayers were made, as the “heaven” which was God's dwelling place among his people.

This “confusion” between heaven and sanctuary crops up in a number of Scriptures: “The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord's throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11: 4); “The Lord . . . send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion . . . the Lord saveth His anointed; He will hear him from His holy heaven” (Psalm 20:2, 6). Comparison of 2 Chronicles 7:1 with Leviticus 9:24 is another example of the same equivalence.

The relevance of this idea to John's vision of the heavenly sanctuary will be apparent.

The door in heaven was not opened for John's benefit (and, of course, for his fellow-disciples) for more than a short while. The Greek verb implies that the door had been opened to stay open. There is here the counterpart to the rending of the veil in the temple at the death of Christ. Is it also the open door set before the faithful in Philadelphia (3: 8), a door of access to the heavenly Presence which no man can shut (Romans 5:1, 2)?

The voice, which invited and directed John, was that of the Apostle's angelic mentor and guide-the angel of ch. 1:1.


That it is the Almighty who is described as seated on the throne of glory hardly needs to be proved. But the hymn of the twenty-four elders (verse 11) leaves no room for doubt: "Thou art worthy, our Lord and our God (R.V.), to receive glory and honour and power: for Thou hast created all thit1gs, and for thy pleasure they are and were created."

In substance what John beheld was the cherubim vision seen by Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and the rest. Here, so far as the heavenly throne and the cherubim themselves are concerned, detail after detail corresponds. There are the four cherub faces, the wings and eyes, the "lightnings, thunderings, and voices", the Holy One vivid with effulgent glory and seated upon an exalted throne, and the bow round about the throne.

Other details seem to be different, but on more careful examination they also fall into line. For example, the Divine Being on the throne is described as "like a jasper and a sardine stone to look upon." A phrase like this meets the reader in Revelation 2:11, where the light of the holy Jerusalem is described as "like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal." But jasper is not "most precious;" it is scarcely in the semi-precious category. Then is this John's way of referring to a diamond? The phrase "clear as crystal" strongly supports the idea. The absence of any mention of diamond in Revelation or in any of the Old Testament lists (modern versions) makes this identification more likely. There is now special appropriateness in the first foundation of the new Jerusalem (21:18) being jasper (diamond) for thus it is seen to begin with immortality.

The sardine stone is reddish in colour. Thus jasper and sardine stone together suggest brilliant flashing, as of the diamond, together with the appearance of fire. And this is precisely what Ezekiel has in his description of the heavenly glory: "and out of the midst of thereof as the colour of electrum (a bright silvery metallic alloy), out of the midst of the fire" (Ezekiel 1:4).

"And there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald" (ch. 4:3). This detail implies that the word "bow" refers to shape rather than colour and that it is intended to suggest a "halo" of glory about the throne.

One of the most difficult questions to answer in this section is why the bow should be "in sight like unto an emerald'', i.e. green. This colour seems to have no very definite symbolic meaning in Scripture. Because of the predominance of green in Nature it may well be that in this vision the green bow suggests the idea that God is the Lord of All Life. But one could wish for further light on this.

It is a matter of first-rate importance that the student of this part of Revelation should recognize that all the rest of the description given here has as its basis the camp of Israel as it existed in the wilderness. In one particular after another this chapter and those that follow suggest deliverance from Egypt, the journeying in the wilderness and the appointments of the Tabernacle. In fact, what are here described (and also are frequently alluded to elsewhere in Revelation) are "the things in the heavens," of which the Tabernacle system as inaugurated by Moses was a "pattern" (Hebrews 9:23 - one of the many allusions in that Epistle to Revelation):

God enthroned in the Holy of Holies above the wings of the cherubim.

The bow round about the throne corresponding to the shining forth of the Shekinah glory.

The seven-branched candlestick: "Seven lamps of fire burning before the throne."

By and by there is reference to the altar of burnt offering (ch. 6:9 etc.) and the altar of incense (ch. 8:3).

The encampment of priests and Levites next to the Tabernacle and all round it - "round about the throne . . . four and twenty elders sitting”. It is not known whether the Tabernacle order in the wilderness had anything to correspond with the 24 courses of priests arranged by David for his Tabernacle and for Solomon's Temple (1 Chronicles 24:4), but it is highly probable that this is the allusion here.

Just as the camp of ancient Israel was arranged round the Tabernacle outside the inner ring of Levite tents, so Revelation 7 goes on to describe the numbering of a symbolic 12,000 out of each of the tribes.

The life in Christ is described in terms of Israel's wilderness journey (7:14-17).

Further details of correspondence with the camp of Israel will emerge by and by.

The cherubim are described as being "in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne." These phrases seem to be mutually contradictory. How is it possible to "be in the midst" of anything and at the same time round about it? Reference back to the Tabernacle arrangements clears up this difficulty immediately. The first phrase, "in the midst of the throne," presents no problem (Isaiah 61:1, 2). Nor will the second, "round about the throne," once it is remembered that in the Holy of Holies there were cherubim not only on the mercy-seat ("in the midst of the throne") but also on all the walls and ceiling, and also on the veil. Consequently the heavenly throne had cherubim "in the midst" and also other cherubim "round about."


Another problem concerns the sea of glass: "And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal." At first appearance it would seem evident that there is here an allusion to the laver in the Tabernacle court or in Solomon's temple. However this interpretation runs into serious difficulty in Revelation 21:1, 3: "and there was no more sea;" and in 15:2, where A.V is correct, and R.V., R.S.V., N.E.B. are inaccurate.

A better alternative is available. When Moses and the representatives of Israel went up into Mount Sinai after the covenant had been made between God and the people, "they saw the God of Israel, and there was under His feet as the paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in His clearness" (Exodus 24:10). Here was a symbolic representation of the vast expanse of heaven. The roof of man's world is the floor of God's: "The Lord our God, who dwelleth on high, humbleth Himself to behold the things that are in heaven" (Psalm 113:6).

Ezekiel saw the same features of the divine glory and wrote this description: "And the likeness of the firmament over the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal stretched forth over their heads above" (1:22). It is this, which is now pictured in Revelation 4 as "a sea of glass before the throne." Let it be remembered that the word "firmament" simply means "an expanse," and is just as applicable to sea as to sky. How like they seem on a calm summer's day! Both are like "the paved work of a sapphire stone." "Hast thou with Him spread out the sky, which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?" (Job 37:18).

The same sea of glass is described in Revelation 15:2 as being "mingled with fire." This detail corresponds with Daniel 7:10: "A fiery stream issued and came forth before Him," and explains why Ezekiel says it was like "the terrible crystal." The reference is probably to God's lightning in the sky-a symbol of "His judgements made manifest" (15: 4).

The apparent difference between a sea of glass before the throne, and Ezekiel's firmament beneath the throne is no difference at all. The Greek word translated "before" means, strictly, "in the sight of, in the presence of." The twenty-four elders are "before" the throne (same word) and also "round about" the throne (4:4, 10), thus involving the same "contradiction" until the more exact meaning of the preposition is allowed its place.

It is now possible to discern a very lovely meaning in the words of Revelation 21:1: "and there was no more sea." When the New Jerusalem comes down from God out of heaven, the awful barrier of space (space-time, a fourth dimension?) between God and man is removed. The "firmament" like the "terrible crystal" is done away. God Himself is with men. They experience His Presence in a way, which is at present altogether impossible.


The identification of the twenty-four elders, whilst not quite so straightforward, is not difficult. When consideration is given to the undeniable fact that this vision describes a heavenly sanctuary in the midst of a spiritual Israel these elders correspond to the tribe of Levi with its encampment close to the tabernacle (Numbers 1:53) within the great square of the camp of Israel. There is special reference to the priests, of the family of Aaron, who did duty in turn in the sanctuary. From the time of David onwards (and possibly, but not certainly, before then) these were organized in twenty-four courses (1 Chronicles 24:1-19).

Then since the twelve tribes (Revelation 7) are represented as typical of redeemed spiritual Israel, the twenty-four elders correspond to the leaders of the ecclesias. They are twelve and twelve because the family of God has both Jews and Gentiles. Always, from the time of Abraham, it has been possible for a Gentile to become a Jew, yet only in the first century and at no other time were there both Jews and Gentiles in the congregation of the Lord in anything approaching equal numbers. Accordingly, in Revelation 7, these saints in Christ are represented as twelve tribes of Israel and also as "a great multitude which no man could number," corresponding to the saved people of Israel in the wilderness and the mixed multitude which shared their exodus from Egypt.

The four living creatures, which deserve more detailed study than is possible in this exposition, typify the saints in the fulness of their redemption. Certain details seem to point fairly clearly in this direction. They are the standards of the parts of the camp of Israel. They "give glory and honour and thanks" to Him that sits on the throne. And in Revelation 19:7 R.V. their song of gladness appropriates the words of the Beatitudes which Christ pronounced for his saints: "Let us rejoice and be exceeding glad (Matthew 5:12), and let us give the glory unto him (the Lamb)." The earlier Sanctus of the cherubim (4:8) carries the same implication, for although the Greek word for "living creature" is neuter, the participle, which introduces the "Holy, holy, holy," is masculine, showing that these cherubim represent people. And since they each had six wings, the number of wings corresponds to the number of elders.

In their Sanctus Isaiah's cherubim sang: "the fulness of the whole earth is His glory." Even though, as will be seen in the next chapter, John's vision does not anticipate the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, the words (which must be assumed here also) are most fitting, for the Apocalypse was made known at a time when the gospel was being taken to Gentiles everywhere. They were receiving the Good News with an enthusiasm, which should have shamed the Chosen People. At this time it was not the response of Israel but the "fulness of the whole earth" which gave glory to God.

Perhaps there is something of a problem and seeming inconsistency in an interpretation, which has both twenty-four elders and also cherubim as typical of the saints in Christ. This is part of the multiple typology of the sanctuary and its service[2]. The twenty-four courses of priests and their work in the Holy Place represent the consecration of the saints in the present age when only their High Priest can penetrate beyond the veil to minister the fulness of atonement. But the cherubim are in the Holy of Holies where they are of one piece with the Mercy Seat. Thus, as the quotation just made from chapter 19:7 also suggests, these are the saints redeemed and glorified and united forever with the one who is the means of their redemption.

[1] A.V. margin: “in this place” is definitely wrong.
[2] e.g. how many different aspects of the person and work of Christ are represented by the two altars, the laver, the silver sockets, the shewbread, the cherubim, the pot of manna, etc.?
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