The Four Living Creatures

Himmelsvision des Johannes (John's Vision of Heaven) by Matthias GerungJohn saw a door standing open in heaven. He heard a voice like a trumpet say, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once, John was “in the Spirit”.

Before him was a throne with a person sitting on it who had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were 24 other thrones, upon each sat an elder dressed in white with crowns of gold on their heads.

From the center throne came flashes of lightning, rumbling, and peals of thunder. In front of the throne there were seven blazing lamps, which he recognized to be the seven spirits of God, and what looked like a sea of glass, as clear as crystal.

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, each covered with eyes in the front and back. The first creature was like a lion. The second like an ox. The third had a face like a man. The fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four creatures had six wings covered with eyes, even under the wings. Day and night, they never stopped saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

The twenty-four elders fell before the man in the center throne, lay their crowns before the throne and said, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

What the story means to us today

God’s authority and the respect he deserves

John’s vision of God, which took place after his revelations to the seven churches, begins by asserting the all-powerful authority of God. It’s a key point throughout the book of Revelation. The throne (and the authority it represents) is mentioned 14 times in this chapter alone (and 46 times throughout the book of Revelation). Most notably, it is mentioned before each series of judgments, emphasizing God’s sovereign authority over all events.

God’s authority is further highlighted through John’s vivid description of those worshipping him in heaven. John describes the four living creatures (possibly angels) and the 24 elders offering total submission and continuous praise to God. The same respect should be offered by Christians today. Children possess a profound respect and admiration for their parents. Should we not possess even more respect, admiration, and humility for the God that created not just us, but our parents and everything else in the known universe?

Praise to God should remain foremost in our mind and we must look for and recognize opportunities to offer thanks to God throughout the day. The act of praise extends our heartfelt thanks while the act of submission to God radiates the mother of all virtues – humility. Scholar Vicki Zakrzewski explained the scientific importance of humility in human beings:

“Truly humble people see and accept their own strengths and limitations without defensiveness or judgment—a core dimension, according to researchers of humility, and one that cultivates a powerful compassion for humanity. This kind of self-acceptance emerges from grounding one’s worth in our intrinsic value as human beings… Humble people handle stress more effectively and report higher levels of physical and mental well-being. They also show greater generosity, helpfulness, and gratitude.”

Additional thoughts and considerations

John “in the spirit”

Hanserd Knollys – Revelation 4The verses tell us that John was “in the spirit” when he saw his vision. The exact meaning of the phrase is unclear. It may refer to the Holy Spirit or the human spirit but in either case, we can tell that John was in a “state of spiritual exaltation”, likely indicating a movement of his spirit to heaven while his body remained behind on the island of Patmos.

To some, this movement of John’s spirit to heaven, where he watches the events taking place below, is often interpreted as the rapture (where Christians rise to heaven to watch events unfold on earth below) and all that happens afterward called the Great Tribulation.

The throne in heaven and John’s description of God

John provides not a description of God but rather, the visual and auditory impression the sight made upon him. In all likelihood, the person John saw was difficult to describe.

John says the person on the throne had the appearance of jasper and ruby (aka carnelian). These stones are typically green (although jasper could be clear like a diamond) and red in color respectively – the Christmas colors. The coloring of the stones could symbolize life (green) and death (red). Interestingly, jasper and carnelian were the first and last of the 12 gemstones worn on the high priest’s head in ancient Israel.

Ezekiel described God in a similar manner – an entity with an almost indescribable brilliance.

The sounds emanating from the throne in heaven

John describes the sounds emanating from the throne as rumbling, thunderous pulses of sound. The description John provided sounds similar to the sounds Moses heard atop Mount Sinai.

Interestingly, the original translation includes a word thought to refer to voices. There is no direct translation and it is not entirely clear how John was trying to describe the sound. Possibly something along the lines of “voices of thunder” or “roar of a storm” or maybe even the sound of intensely deep vocal murmurs.

As we proceed through Revelation, we will see the same sounds spill over onto earth during God’s last judgement.

The twenty-four elders surrounding the throne

Since “elders” imply leaders of the church, the 24 elders seen in John’s vision may be the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles. Or they may represent 24 unknown entities, possibly 24 higher-level angels which have never been mentioned in the Bible before.

Some believe the 24 elders are a metaphor for all those who have passed through death on earth. This interpretation bears merit since Daniel also mentions the thrones but in his vision, they appear to be empty.

The seven spirits

John explained that the seven burning lamps in front of the throne were the “seven spirits”. This has been variously interpreted as angelic beings and the sevenfold ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The sea of glass leading to the throne in heaven

The words John used to describe the “sea of glass” before the throne are difficult to translate. The original word describes something like a clear, rock crystal or solid ice. Modern day translations typically render the translation as a smooth, crystal clear sea of glass but again, what John saw may have been difficult to describe.

The four living creatures around the throne in heaven

Probably no other vision in Revelation generates more interest and intrigue than the four living creatures around the throne. The four living creatures each represent a different animal – lion, ox, human, and eagle. John describes the creatures as winged and covered with all-seeing eyes. In all likelihood, the many eyes hint at wisdom or all-seeing capabilities.

A similar vision was reported in Ezekiel who also described the winged creatures as having faces of a human, lion, ox, and eagle. Additionally, Ezekiel described the creatures as having “wheels” which were covered with eyes. Ezekiel deduced the creatures were “cherubim”, angel-like beings that are mentioned ninety-one times in the Old Testament.

Isaiah also depicts a similar creature he called “seraphim”. Only mentioned once in Isaiah 6, the entities were described as having six wings, two for protecting their faces, two for concealing their feet, and a third pair for flight.

The meaning of the four living creatures

The Four Living CreaturesSome believe the six-winged creatures represent all living creatures (i.e. animals) on earth. More specifically, all life created by God: humans, wild animals (lion), tame animals (ox), and birds (eagle).

The creatures may represent four facets of Jesus. The lion, king of all beasts, shows Christ’s ruling authority. The calf (ox) parallels Jesus’ sacrifice for mankind. The eagle is a fitting portrayal of Jesus’ majesty while the human face is symbolic of Jesus’ humanity. In this interpretation, the four wings that cover the body of the creatures are symbolic of humility while the two active wings represent the flight of God’s people and their readiness to spread the word throughout the world.

Others believe the four living creatures could represent countries, specifically China or Belgium (lion), Russia (ox), and the United States (eagle). That these countries are seen worshipping God would be easy to apply to modern-day civilization. At the time of this writing, these countries have some of the largest Christian populations on earth.

Despite various attempts at interpretation, most surmise the four living creatures to be angels of some sort, as confirmed by parallel descriptions given in Ezekiel and Isaiah.

The storm – God’s judgment

John describes flashes of lightning and peals of thunder coming from the throne, easily interpreted as representing God’s coming judgement. It is more comfortable to think of God as a protector but we cannot neglect to recognize that, like any good protector, he reigns through judgement demanding righteousness from all his children. Throughout our lifetime, we are given choices and God expects us to base our decisions on his requirements for righteousness – or suffer the consequences.

Notes on Biblical translation

“Oh!”

Some translations read “After this I looked and, oh! – before me was a door!” Other translations leave out “oh”. The original Greek translations begin with the word “idou”. There is no equivalent English word so most translations omit the exclamation entirely. The word implies interest and emphasis similar to the English word “Oh!”.

Bible Text

NIV

4 After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3 And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. 4 Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits w of God. 6 Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

“ ‘Holy, holy, holy

is the Lord God Almighty,’ f

who was, and is, and is to come.”

9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,

to receive glory and honor and power,

for you created all things,

and by your will they were created

and have their being.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

4 Then I looked, and, oh!—a door open into Heaven. The trumpet-voice, the first voice in my vision, called out, “Ascend and enter. I’ll show you what happens next.”

2–6 I was caught up at once in deep worship and, oh!—a Throne set in Heaven with One Seated on the Throne, suffused in gem hues of amber and flame with a nimbus of emerald. Twenty-four thrones circled the Throne, with Twenty-four Elders seated, white-robed, gold-crowned. Lightning flash and thunder crash pulsed from the Throne. Seven fire-blazing torches fronted the Throne (these are the Sevenfold Spirit of God). Before the Throne it was like a clear crystal sea.

6–8 Prowling around the Throne were Four Animals, all eyes. Eyes to look ahead, eyes to look behind. The first Animal like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with a human face, the fourth like an eagle in flight. The Four Animals were winged, each with six wings. They were all eyes, seeing around and within. And they chanted night and day, never taking a break:

Holy, holy, holy

Is God our Master, Sovereign-Strong,

THE WAS, THE IS, THE COMING.

9–11 Every time the Animals gave glory and honor and thanks to the One Seated on the Throne—the age-after-age Living One—the Twenty-four Elders would fall prostrate before the One Seated on the Throne. They worshiped the age-after-age Living One. They threw their crowns at the foot of the Throne, chanting,

Worthy, O Master! Yes, our God!

Take the glory! the honor! the power!

You created it all;

It was created because you wanted it.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

4:1 After these things I looked, and there was a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said: “Come up here so that I can show you what must happen after these things.” 4:2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! 4:3 And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne. 4:4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white clothing and had golden crowns on their heads. 4:5 From the throne came out flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder. Seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne 4:6 and in front of the throne was something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

In the middle of the throne and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. 4:7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second creature like an ox, the third creature had a face like a man’s, and the fourth creature looked like an eagle flying. 4:8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying:

“Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful,

Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

4:9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 4:10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying:

4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,

to receive glory and honor and power,

since you created all things,

and because of your will they existed and were created!”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

4 After this I looked, and, behold, a door was 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, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. 2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, fa throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. 3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. 4 And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw mfour and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. 5 And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. 6 And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. 7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. 8 And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. 9 And when those beasts give glory and hhonour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, 10 The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and hhonour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database, Vicki Zakrzewski
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