A Glimpse Into HeavenErwin W. Lutzer | September 2, 2012
Selected highlights from this sermon
Revelation 4 gives us a look at the throne room of God. As we read John’s description, we see the beauty, grandeur and majesty that awaits us. We will see the centrality of God in the midst of His universe and in the midst of His heaven. And like the elders and the angels, we will all worship God and praise him ceaselessly because everything we have is derived from the Almighty.
Today we come to the end of the series of messages entitled The Invisible World. We’ve spoken about God before. We have talked about angels and demons and Satan’s accusations that he brings before the throne of God, accusations about us, but I’ve saved the best till last, the teaching of the Bible regarding heaven and God, which is truly breathtaking.
Today we find that there are many books that are written and all of them have essentially the same theme, namely that I visited heaven. The story line is “I was dead and then I was revived and this is what heaven is like,” and I am often asked the question of what I think of these books. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that somebody could go to heaven or begin to see it, even as Stephen did when he was stoned and he saw the heavens open. But as I read some of these books (and I’ve not read them all) I see things and I say, “Uh-uh, that doesn’t sound like heaven to me.”
Now I believe that all of these people are telling the truth in terms of their experience, but whether or not we should interpret this as heaven, we must remain very skeptical. And then there are some instances in which very clearly the person is deceived, where you have a being of light that tells you that from now on you will have to understand Jesus is nonjudgmental, and it doesn’t matter what you believe. You are welcomed into heaven. The Bible says that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light and he has deceived many by these (quote) near-death experiences.
When it comes to talking about heaven and hell and eternity and the invisible world, we are always well informed when we go to the Bible and we see what it has to say, and that’s what we are going to do today. And let me say that as I was preparing this message this week, and even this morning, there were times when I was so stunned at what I was studying and reading that I said, “God, I have nothing to say to you. My mouth is stopped in Your presence.”
What a passage we’re going to look at! No matter how difficult your week has been, no matter what you have gone through this morning, or you anticipate tomorrow, would you take time, even now, silently, and as I speak, ask God to give you an open mind, a focused mind, that we might be able to look together at this passage and be changed forever because of our better understanding of heaven and God?
A word before we turn to Revelation 4, and you may turn to that in your Bibles. Please do if you’ve brought your Bibles, and if not, in the Bible in the seats in front of you I think it is on page 1,030. You have to see this in the text with your own eyes. I hope today that you do. You must understand that the book of Revelation is filled with symbolism, and the reason is John is trying to grasp revelations and images for which there are no words. Maybe a crude illustration would be this. Let’s suppose you were in a primitive culture, a pre-Stone Age culture, and to this culture you were to bring a car, and you were to drive the car through the village, and then you expected these villagers to explain to the next village in the language that they share the car and to describe it. They have no word for wheels and tires, and a motor. They’ve never seen a motor. They’ve never seen a windshield. They’ve never seen a vehicle in which you can enter, and now they with their limited vocabulary are to explain this to the folks next door.
Maybe they’d say, “You know, it’s hard like a spear but it doesn’t look like a spear,” assuming that they had spears or stones. And maybe they would say, “This is the kind of spear or stone that you can get into, and it has four things that are like slices from trees,” as they’d try to grasp the whole idea of a wheel.
Well, you get the point. They don’t have a vocabulary to describe it, and that’s why you find in the book of Revelation that there are mixed metaphors. There are descriptions– “I saw something like as.” John is doing the best he can but he doesn’t have the vocabulary to do it, and you and I, even if he did, couldn’t understand it.
With that introduction, let’s go now to the fourth chapter, and let’s take it phrase-by-phrase at first, and then we’ll take it in chunks. Revelation 4 says, “I looked and behold a door standing open in heaven.” This is now the third heaven. You must understand that the ancients believed that the first heaven is where the birds are–the atmosphere. And then beyond that the stellar universe! The stars and the planets were the second heaven. And now this passage takes us right into the third heaven, the very abode of God.
Of course God exists everywhere. He is omniscient and omnipresent, but what the text is telling us is that there is some central location where God is localized so that you can say that this is the very throne room of God, and that is what John sees. He goes through the open door and you’ll notice that the text tells us, “The first voice which I heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.’”
Years ago, way back in the nineties I preached a message on the little word “must”–what must come to pass. You’ll notice what must take place after this. That’s why we know that the rest of the book of Revelation I believe is all future, and the book of Revelation from here on out is telling us what’s going on in heaven while the judgments are piling up on earth as God finally judges and wraps up history. So these are the things that John sees, things that must take place after this.
“At once I was in the spirit and behold a throne stood in heaven with one seated on the throne.” By the way, the form of the one seated is not described. “And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.” Wow! Obviously the person on this throne is God. It is God, the Father, seated on the throne of the universe.
We are reminded of Isaiah 6 you remember where the prophet says very clearly, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord, sitting on a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” This is the throne of Jehovah, the throne of God.
I mention that the form isn’t described. Ezekiel has a similar vision and on it is the form of a man, but you’ll notice that he goes on to talk about how to describe the person on the throne and he uses color. And by the way the classification of stones in the book of Revelation is different from the way in which you and I perhaps classify them so scholars differ as to what stones they really are, and perhaps their colors. When it says, “He who was on the throne had the appearance of jasper,” very probably that’s a diamond, but it is not a cut diamond like you and I understand it. It would be diffused light. And then Carillion! Many translations say sardius or sardine. It’s a jewel that comes from the city of Sardis, and is a bright red ruby. Regardless of how we understand the colors, what he wants us to understand is that the person on the throne is incredibly beautiful. And John is just grasping for words so that we can understand his beauty and his colors. And then, of course, around the throne there is a rainbow that is like an emerald.
What else happens around the throne? Let’s skip to verse 5 for just a moment. “Then from the throne comes flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire which are the seven spirits of God. And before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass like crystal.”
This is a terrifying throne. It reminds us of the children of Israel at Sinai where flashes of lightning and thunder are coming, and God says, “Stay back. Get back. If you come close to the mountain you will be incinerated, and if an animal gets close, don’t touch the animal. Shoot it with an arrow at a distance because God is coming.”
When the text says that there are seven torches, like seven spirits of God, don’t ever think that there are actually seven holy spirits. This is really a reference to the fullness of the Spirit, in all of his fullness. For example, in Isaiah 11 we read that the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him-the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. So it’s different aspects of the ministry of the Spirit, and it of course is before the throne, and the Holy Spirit of God is the one who mediates Jesus Christ to us today in Christ’s absence. So here you have the Holy Spirit present also at the throne.
But what’s going on there in the text? John wants us to understand the absolute centrality of God in the midst of His universe and in the midst of His heaven, the centrality of God, the indescribable majesty of God, the beauty of God if you please, and it’s right in the midst of heaven. God dwells here. Wow!
So the first thing we notice is this one throne, but there are other thrones. There are lesser thrones. You’ll notice that John is speaking here and he says in verse 4, “And around the throne were 24 thrones and seated on the thrones were 24 elders, clothed in white garments with golden crowns on their heads.” Who are they? Of course there’s been a lot of discussion among commentators as to who these 24 are. Some people say that it’s just a higher level of angels. I don’t think so for the following reasons. First of all, whenever you have those who are clothed in white you think of redeemed saints. In fact, as God spoke to the seven churches he said, “Those that are faithful I will clothe them in white.” But even more telling, they have crowns on their heads and nowhere in the book of Revelation or elsewhere do we ever find that angels get to rule with Jesus Christ, and these 24 elders rule with Christ. It may be the raptured church. If you believe in the pre-Tribulation rapture you believe that the Church has been raptured in heaven and it represents fullness. Priests came in 24 shifts. So it may be that. Maybe also, and here we’re just speculating, since you have 24 it may refer to the 12 tribes of Israel–the 12 sons of Jacob, and the 12 apostles -Old Testament saints, New Testament saints together with the 24 elders representing the entire spectrum of God’s redemptive history.
But here they are, the 24 elders, and they, as we will see in a moment, worship, but also all throughout the book of Revelation you find that they are involved. For example, this comes to us from chapter 11. “And the 24 elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, oh Lord Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and the saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” Have you met a destroyer? The destroyers will be destroyed. So there you have the elders continuing to worship all throughout the book of Revelation.
Let’s go on to another order of beings as we look here at the throne, an order of beings that is closer to the throne than the elders. You’ll notice it says in verse 6, “And around the throne on each side of the throne are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind.” I was going to mention that if you are an artist don’t even attempt to draw the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation. I’ve seen attempts and they are pretty pathetic. This is beyond all human imagination. It’s okay to do it in a classroom so that you get the picture but notice that these creatures are full of eyes in the front and behind. In fact, it says in verse 8 that each of them have six wings. They are full of eyes all around and within. I don’t know that you really want to draw that.
But notice this: “The first living creature was like a lion. The second living creature was like an ox. The third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight.” Don’t ever get the impression that in heaven there was a lion; in heaven there was an ox; in heaven there was an eagle in flight. No, remember what I mentioned at the beginning of the message. John is grasping for something to associate it with something in this world because he has no vocabulary or category to describe what he is seeing.
It has been pointed out that these are, of course, cherubim. We see this also from the book of Ezekiel, as well as Isaiah. These are cherubim, and it has been said that the lion represents royalty, the ox represents strength, man represents intelligence, eagles represent speed, etc. That’s the best we can do, but the point is it is indescribable.
And they have six wings, and from Isaiah we learned that with two they covered their face because not even angels can look directly at God and His indescribable holiness. With two they cover their feet, and they do that because they know they are in the presence of holiness and greatness and majesty. And then with two they fly, and they fly as a mark of their obedience and day and night without being tired ever because they live in a different realm, they are giving praise and honor and gratitude to God. And they also are found throughout the book of Revelation. For example, in chapter 6 when the seven seals begin to be opened, it says, “‘Come,’ and I looked and behold a white horse. I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice of thunder, ‘Come.’” So they participate in the judgments of the earth, and they are found also throughout the book of Revelation.
So we look very briefly, all too briefly, at the personalities that are around the throne. You have, of course, the Great Throne–God; you have the elders-the 24 that are more distant; and then you have the living creatures that are right there next to the throne. But even there someone is closer as we’ll see in a moment.
What’s the activity of heaven? What’s going on there? What’s the activity? Is it a place of rest and tranquility? Most people believe that heaven is going to be a place where we will sing number one in the hymnal all the way through and then when we are finished we’ll begin again at number one. And they think it is going to be boring. Let me tell you something today. In heaven you are going to be more active than you ever were on earth, being given assignments by God to glorify Him with perfect fulfillment and joy and freedom. (applause)
I said to myself this week, preparing this message, “If it’s half as good as I’m going to describe it, and have already described it from the book of Revelation, we are in for a fantastic time. Let me just say that. (applause)
So what’s going on? Worship! Ceaselessly! And I want you to notice the order of beings. All right? The closest around the throne are the four living creatures. They are a high level of angels, the cherubim, as shown also in the book of Ezekiel and in Isaiah. And then what’s the next order around the throne? A little farther back the 24 elders, and you’ll notice it says that they are full of eyes. We’re speaking here in verse 8 about the beasts, or the living creatures I should say, around the throne. They are around the throne and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Sometimes we define the word holy as “separate.” How would that sound? “Separate, separate is the Lord God Almighty.” Of course, He’s separate. But He’s much more than that. It has a moral quality. It is something like the word purity. It is the utmost purity and holiness without even a smidgeon of darkness or sin. That’s what they mean when they say “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts, who was and is to come,” and whenever (I’m in verse 9 now) the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the 24 elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and they worship him who lives forever and ever, and they cast their crowns before the throne saying, “Worthy are you, Lord God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed, and were created.”
So, you have two orders of beings. You have, of course, the living creatures next to the throne. Just next to them, but a little bit beyond them you have 24 elders who are bowing down and casting down their crowns before Him. And those 24 elders, as I mentioned, continue to give praise to God. I just read the passage moments ago from chapter 11 as they continue to give praise to God all throughout the book of Revelation and ultimately throughout all of eternity. And then by the time you get to chapter 5, you’ll notice that it says in verse 11, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures (first category), and the elders (second category) the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’”
I’m not preaching today on chapter 5 today except to make reference to it a couple of times. Isn’t the Bible ever an amazing book? Do any of you agree with that? Do I have a witness that it is an amazing book? (applause)
In chapter 4 God the Father is being worshipped. And what is He being worshipped for? What is the category? It is that He is the Creator. You get to chapter 5 and Jesus is the Lamb (verse 6) that was slain, a lamb that looks as if it was slain, and Jesus now is being worshipped, and what is He being worshipped for? “Thou art worthy because thou was slain and has redeemed men and women for God from every tribe and kindred and nation.” And so He is being praised for His redemption in the fifth chapter of the book of Revelation.
And of course it would be wonderful and maybe at some time I’ll preach a whole sermon just on that fifth chapter. But you know the question is sometimes asked, “Why do we have to give praise to God? Does He always have to be stroked? Does He always have to be praised?” I mean, if you have a human being who goes around and needs constant praise, we don’t like human beings like that. We don’t like to be married to people or connect with people who need constant praise, and there’s a good reason why we don’t like people like that. It’s because they don’t deserve it.
God is the Creator, and even if you say, “I built it,” to use a phrase that’s been around in recent days, really? And who created you and gave you a mind and gave you a body and gave you aspirations? And by the way, who is it that keeps your heart going moment by moment? And who is it that supplies the breath that you have so that you can wake up in the morning and build whatever it is that you are building? The glory and the honor go to God. (applause)
Do you remember that story about a scientist who is having a discussion with God, and he said to God, “God, we can now create life just like you did.” God said, “Oh really? Show me.” So the scientist scoops down and picks up a handful of dirt, and God says, “Uh-uh, get your own dirt.” (laughter)
We owe it to God to give Him ceaseless praise because by His will and by His pleasure we were created and all for His glory and for His honor and He deserves all the praise in the universe. And you don’t and I don’t either because everything that we have is derived from the Almighty. So all the praise goes to God. So that’s the first lesson that I want to emphasize today. The emphasis is the fact that all the glory goes to God.
What are the two bottom lines that we need to take also home with us today? First of all, do you notice that in this passage there’s only really one great throne? All the others–they are sitting on thrones, but my, they are casting their crowns before Him. They get off their thrones. There is only one throne in the universe.
If I recall correctly when we were in England in the Westminster Abbey, I think I remember seeing the throne upon which the kings and the queens of England have sat as they have been crowned. My wife and I have been to Budapest and we have seen the throne and the crown of those who used to rule the Austrian-Hungarian Empire right there. But all of those thrones, and we have people around the world, we have government leaders, we have presidents and kings and dictators and you name it. All of them must submit ultimately to the one throne that is there in heaven because all the glory goes to the one who is on “the” throne (applause).
And that’s why the Bible says that when Jesus returns, on His head are many diadems. Why many diadems? Well, the imagery is there because in ancient times when a king lost a war, when he had to submit to his superior, he would take the crown off of his head and give it to the winner. And in the end there is only one winner, and that is Jesus Christ, the Lord God and King (applause).
So, you know the people that bother you? In the presence of God who is going to raise the dead and who is going to judge all the motives of men’s hearts, in the end, though they may escape on earth, they are dealing with God, the one on “the” throne, and you and I in this life oftentimes have to commit our case to Him because we believe Him and we trust Him, even as I read moments ago, to raise the dead and bring order and justice to a chaotic universe.
Luther had enemies, and I remember him saying, “My enemies (and I won’t quote who he thought were his enemies) are like fleas on God’s fur coat.” I like that. You know your enemies are like fleas on God’s fur coat. When you get discouraged look at the throne–“the” throne.
And then there’s a second lesson I want you to get, and that is don’t ever think that you can enter into God’s presence alone, that you can just go barging in and just say, “Well, you know I just am entering into God’s presence in my own way.” Are you serious? Do you realize whom you have to get past? You have more chance of going to the White House this afternoon and saying, “I’m going to talk to the president, and I’m just going to get into the White House in my own way.” You’ve got one level of security, and another level of security. Look at what you have to do to get to God’s presence. Think about it. Do you know what you have to do? You have to get past the myriads of angels. Then you have to get past the 24 elders. Then you have to get past the living creatures, which are closest to the throne, and then finally you have to get into God’s presence. Don’t try it alone.
There is something that ought to bless you and send you rejoicing that I want you to see in chapter 5. Who is closer even to the throne than the living creatures and the elders? Well, there it is. It is in verse 6 of chapter 5. “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders (Wow!) I saw a lamb standing as though it had been slain.” He’s closer to the throne than even the living creatures because he is between the throne and the four living creatures. It is the Lamb that gets us to God. It is the Lamb that was slain, who forgives our sins and gets us the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who gets us to the Father, who gets us to the throne room. The Bible says in the book of Hebrews to be encouraged that as you come to God through Jesus Christ we can come into the very throne room of God. The Lamb gets us there.
Do you notice it doesn’t say that standing beside the throne was Buddha? At least it doesn’t say that in my translation. Or standing beside the throne is Krishna or Confucius? Or standing beside the throne would be Muhammad?
But it says, “Standing before the throne between the four living creatures and God’s throne is Jesus.” (applause) And you are having a hard life, aren’t you? You’re sick, you’re out of money, you are out of work and life is hard. Well, you ought to give thanks to God today. Listen to what I am reading out of the same book–the book of Revelation. This is now when you have the new heaven and the new earth. Now we’re really talking eternity. It says, “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb (There’s going to be a Trinitarian reigning in eternity, a separate topic that we must hurry over) will be in it and his servants will worship him and they shall see his face and his name will be on their foreheads.” Jesus is going to bring us right before the face of God and it’ll be our first opportunity to see God unmediated because Jesus, as mediator, having redeemed us, will now say, “You can look on my face directly for I have fully and completely redeemed you,” and you’ll be standing at that throne as well giving honor and praise to a mighty God. (applause)
I mean, aren’t you enjoying this? I am. Think of eternity–beholding the face of God, and worshipping Him right in the midst of the throne, but only the Lamb can do it. If you have never trusted the Lamb that was slain, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, you will not be there.
I read the book of Revelation and I say to myself, “I don’t know. Where’s the third category?” You’ve got all those around the throne. You’ve got all those who are in hell. I’m looking for category three. I’m looking for people who are too good to go to hell, but won’t quite make it to heaven because they never trusted Christ. There is no category three. Wow!
Only Jesus brings us to the very throne of God. There is nobody else out there who is able to do that, and you know one of the best ways for us to prepare for heaven is to praise God on earth. Get used to it here, because you’re sure going to be doing it over there. And that’s why we’re going to end by singing “Holy, holy, holy.” We’re going to take our place with the four living creatures. We’re going to sing their song. We’re going to sing the song of the redeemed, the holiness and the greatness of God, and the redemption brought to us through the Lamb. And if you have never trusted the Lamb as Savior, whether you are in the balcony, whether you are listening to this by radio or Internet, or whatever else, would you at this moment say, “I believe and trust the Lamb to forgive me, and to redeem me. I receive Him as mine.” That’s the only way to get to Almighty God.
Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that You’ll take these thoughts from Your holy Word and make them transforming, we pray, and help us to understand Your sovereignty, Your greatness and the might of Your holy name as we take our place and worship You. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.