Day 4: ‘four living creatures’
…and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
We are familiar with the idea of people of power and influence having an entourage, a set of attendants around them. The newspapers are often full of speculation as to who is in a politician, president, or popstar’s ‘inner circle’ and what this might say about them. John’s attention in these verses is taken by the angelic entourage that surrounds the ultimate throne, who attend to the One with ultimate control and authority. The Bible clearly teaches the existence of created angelic beings who worship and serve God. There are also different kinds, who appear to have a kind of hierarchy (angels, cherubim, seraphim), but it may be unwise to speculate on the precise differences. The important point is to see what these heavenly attendants tell us about the One they serve.
We have already come across the first group of these attendants in verse 4, the twenty-four elders on their thrones, dressed in white and wearing crowns. We saw how these represent the community of the redeemed in the Old and New Testament: 12 tribes and 12 apostles.
We are introduced to the second group of angelic attendants in verses 6-8 who seem to have a close relationship with the throne, they are round it and on each side of it. These are the four living creatures, with six wings all covered in eyes. One is like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man, one like an eagle in flight. Remember this is symbolic imagery, therefore don’t give yourself a headache trying to work out the exact physiology of these beings! We must ask what is being taught to us about God here?
I believe that these beings represent God’s all-seeing presence over the entire created order – He is the Creator. These images are found throughout the Bible and especially in the temple (in the Holy of Holies there were two winged cherubim over the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:10-22) and the temple courtyard (1 Kings 7:27-30)). What we have here is a heavenly temple scene and the whole of creation, including animal life, is a temple (Genesis 1). Important too, is that these beings have a close but not identical relationship with the creatures around God’s throne in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6. In chapter 6 of Revelation these beings will issue out God’s judgements. Therefore here we have representatives of creation joining in praise with representatives of the redeemed. What does this tell us about the One who sits in control of all things?
The One on the throne is the Creator. The triune God who has control of all of history is the Creator of all things: heaven and earth, animals and mankind, galaxies and microbes. He spoke and created all things out of nothing as the first part of the Apostle’s Creed says ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth’. It’s very important to understand that he isn’t some arbitrary super spiritual law giver coldly imposing his will on us, but a glorious Creator who made everything very good. As the heavenly chorus says: “you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). We have been made by God.
The One on the throne cares for His creation. These beings with their eyes show God’s constant vigilant care and attention for the whole created order. Somebody might say ‘Animals are really important to me’ and we can say they are important to God! He cares about the world he has made, and he is swift to judge evil and rebellion in it. We can trust him in his judgements.
The One on the throne is distinct from His creation. In the praise of both the living creatures and the elders we see the utter uniqueness of the Creator in relation to his creation. He is ‘Holy Holy Holy’, utterly set apart and eternal. By his will everything depends for its existence. As Christians we reject any view where God and the world are the same, and we also reject the much more subtle error of the view that God may be distinct from the world but depends on it for his existence or fulfilment. That is less than worthy of the glorious One before whom these creatures bow! God is totally set apart in his greatness over creation, and his creation depends on him rather than he on it. For John’s first readers it meant God’s glory totally eclipsed and outweighed whatever emperor was sitting on the throne and whatever idol were being made to worship. It means the same for us.
The One on the throne has a purpose for His creation. What is the purpose of all creation? Why do angels and animals, galaxies and gardens exist? This heavenly scene anticipates the purposes that the One on the throne is working to: the display of his glory, his worth and excellence, and his manifold perfections. The goal of all things is worship and praise of God. Which means when we sing together with the people of God or we praise in private, we are entering into the heavenly reality depicted here. Of course, it is Jesus, the Lamb who will bring this purpose into its clearest, sharpest focus. It is Jesus who will bring the Father’s purposes for his creation most fully to light, which results in a ‘new song’ of even more fervent and white-hot worship (5:9-10). Yet how wonderful that if we belong to Jesus, we have been called into the worship of creation’s King:
Creation sings the Father’s song; He calls the sun to wake the dawn
And run the course of day ’till evening falls in crimson rays.
His fingerprints in flakes of snow, His breath upon this spinning globe,
He charts the eagle’s flight; commands the new-born baby’s cry.
Hallelujah! Let all creation stand and sing,
“Hallelujah!” Fill the earth with songs of worship;
Tell the wonders of creation’s King.
Pray: Father, you are worthy to receive glory, and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. Amen.
Pete Campbell, Capel Fron, Penrhyndeudraeth