AN EXPOSITION OF THE REVELATION – PART I
The design of the Book of the Revelation.—That it is a prophecy, wherein, as in a vision, the story of all times is represented.—The prophetical part of it begins at the 4th chapter.—An exposition of the 4th chapter.—The vision of the throne, beasts, and elders.—A representation of the church in all ages.
THE three first chapters contain seven epistles to seven particular churches; but from this 4th chapter to the end of the book, is laid down a more general prophecy, from John’s time to the world’s end. There is therefore this character of difference put between that part of this book in those three first chapters, and this that begins here: that that concerned things that then were past, things that then were, and things to come hereafter, as chap. 1:19; whereas this delivers those things only which ‘must be hereafter,’ chap. 4:1.
In this prophecy, as in a vision, is the story of all times acted and represented. A comedy is the representing of a story past, by men; this a prophetical vision of things to come, acted by angels answerably. As in such interludes and shows there is first a stage built, a scene or place supposed where the things were done, and a chorus or company of spectators sitting on the stage continually, and giving their judgment and approbation, which was the custom in comedies of old; so in this chapter the Apostle hath the vision of the scene, theatre, or stage, namely the church of Christ, in a general view throughout all ages, presented; the members whereof are the chorus, who upon any great or solemn occasion give their plaudite or acclamation of glory unto God. So the four beasts, and four-and-twenty elders, you may in this book often observe to do. And then, as in such shows and representations there used to be a prologue, so, chap. 5, you have as artificial a prologue acted as in any poem; from whence, chap. 6, the representation of the story of things begins.
Chap. 4:1—John is called up from the earth into the air, (by which heaven is here meant, as often elsewhere it is,) the place of John’s vision; and in the air a door seemed to open, in at which he entering, sees the sights following.
Ver. 2, And immediately I was in the Spirit.—The phrase, in the Spirit, is like to that when we say a man is in love, or a mill is said to be in the wind; as noting out such a repletion or filling with the Spirit, as possessed and took up all the powers of his soul to attend this vision. It filled all, it carried all in him unto the thing in hand, and wholly acted his faculties by a supernatural motion of the Spirit, so that his understanding and senses acted not in their natural way, but as moved by the Spirit. Now this his being in the Spirit was extraordinary, and to an extraordinary purpose; even to see these visions, and by the Holy Ghost to write them: yet to us it should be ordinary, so far as, in our ordinary course, to walk in the Spirit, and be in the Spirit; that is, to give up ourselves, our powers and faculties, to the Spirit’s rule and guidance, so that he should move all wheels in us.
Obs.—Now from this immediately observe, That a believing soul may presently be in the Spirit; he soon and suddenly comes upon a man.
The vision that follows is of the church, which is made the scene of all things prophesied of in this book; for all things done are either for it or concerning it. And though passages of judgments on the world are recorded, yet for the church’s sake they are recorded, and are done as by God out of the church. Now this vision of the throne, beasts, and elders is a representation of the church (wherein God hath his throne) of men on earth, universal in all ages; set forth according to the form or pattern of institution of a church, into which all saints on earth should be moulded. To prove this in the several parts of it:—
I. It is a representation of the church; for—
1. In the church only is God worshipped; as here, ver. 8–10. In the church only is God known; and there ‘they speak of his glory,’ Ps. 29:9.
2. The throne here is evidently God’s seat in his temple the church; so chap. 16:17, ‘A voice came from the temple, from the throne,’ &c.
3. Accordingly, the allusion in this vision is to Solomon’s temple, and to the tabernacle, which were the types of the church to come under the new testament. Therefore God here sits on a throne, as he did then in the holy of holies; and there are seven golden lamps here, as there the candlestick; and a sea of glass here to wash in, as there was there one of brass: all ornaments and utensils of that temple typifying forth ours.
II. It is the representation of a church of men, not angels; for—
1. Those elders and beasts sing that they ‘are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;’ which the angels were not, chap. 5:9. And—
2. Ver. 11, the angels are reckoned distinct from these elders and beasts, and are said to be ‘about them;’ as also chap. 7:11.
III. It is of the church of men on earth; for—
1. The allusion is to the marshalling of the church of the Jews about the tabernacle; as shall be shewn.
2. Here are seven spirits; that is, variety of the gifts of the Spirit, which in heaven do cease.
3. Here is a sea of glass, for the priests and worshippers to wash in; which supposeth a remainder of defilement, at least of the feet; as John 13:10.
4. The distinction of beasts and elders in this company,—namely, officers and brethren,—which in heaven ceaseth, argueth it also.
IV. Of the church universal.
1. In all ages; therefore placed at the beginning here, and often brought in in this prophecy as spectators.
2. In all places; so chap. 5:9, ‘redeemed out of every kindred, tongue, and nation.’
V. This church universal, represented whilst on earth as cast into the pattern of a church, instituted according to the rules of the word, the measure to square churches on earth by; and though in all ages they kept not that pattern,—
Therefore, chap. 11:1, John is bidden to measure the temple of that age, as having swerved from the original form too far in Antichrist’s apostasy,—yet such a pattern is given forth here as the only true pattern, into which all should be cast; and God sets forth his church as it should be in all ages, and as it was in John’s time. All saints, in all ages, should be cast into such companies. So that here is the church with her appurtenances.
The church consisting of three states—
1. Christ the head;
2. The four beasts, the officers;
3. The twenty-four elders, who are the brethren—
Here are the appurtenances also: as the seven lamps, which are the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and the laver, which is Christ’s blood, to wash in, &c.
First, Ver. 2, 3, I saw a throne—
Which is an allusion to the holy of holies in the temple, where God did sit. Therefore, Isa. 6:1, when the Lord was presented sitting upon his throne, it is said, ‘the residue of his train filled the temple;’ that is, those other parts of the temple, the throne being the holy of holies. Therefore, Ezek. 43, when the glory of God returned to the temple, ver. 4, 5, God calls it, ver. 7, ‘the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever.’ The like you have, Jer. 17:12, which throne is here in the midst of the four-and-twenty elders and the beasts; signifying, as himself interprets it, Ezek. 43, his dwelling in the midst of his church, according to that saying of Christ, ‘I will be in the midst among you.’
Obs.—To set up a church is to set up God and Christ a throne. A church is his only visible throne on earth, till the kingdoms of the world become his visibly.
Now, secondly, for him who sitteth on the throne:
Mr Brightman would have God in the Trinity, or the three Persons, set forth in those three colours mentioned. But to make the rainbow which encompasseth the throne to be the Holy Ghost, whenas that rainbow is presented as divided and distinct from him who sitteth on the throne, is nimis durum, it is too much. I take it, it is God in Christ, in whom he is reconciled unto his church, and by whom he rules it; chap. 3:15, and chap. 12, it is called the throne of God. And Ezek. 1:26, in which chapter the same kind of vision is represented, he who sits on the throne there is the ‘Son of man;’ as also in Isa. 6:1, which place Christ in John 12 interprets of himself. So that God, considered as in Christ, is he that sitteth on the throne. And, chap. 7:10, he that sitteth on the throne, and the Lamb, are made distinct, yet mentioned together.
Ver. 3.—For ‘the rainbow that was round about the throne,’ it notes out the memorial of his covenant of grace; that as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant of nature, to put God and us in mind he would not destroy the world any more by water, so this rainbow is to God a memorial of his covenant of grace to his church: ‘This is to me as the waters of Noah; for as I have sworn that the waters should no more go over the earth, so have I sworn not to be wroth with thee,’ saith God, in Isa. 54:9. Which covenant is round about his throne, so to put him in mind, in all his dispensations towards his church, to ‘remember his covenant;’ that let him go forth any way in his dispensations towards his church, he may still be minded of mercy; and his church again, in all their intercourses with God, and all dispensations from God, and occasions coming to him, may be put in mind of mercy also, and his covenant of grace, to trust in it; and that the prayers of the church may still pass from them through the rainbow, as all God’s dispensations to the church do come through the said rainbow also.
Now for the situation of the church. Both elders and beasts are about the throne, ver. 4, 6, 7. It is formed after the enquartering of the people of Israel about the tabernacle in the wilderness, Num. 2. The Levites were next to the tabernacle, and the tribes about the Levites. So here, the beasts (the officers) were, as in ver. 6, in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne; that is, as Beza interprets it, their station is between the throne and these elders, who did surround the throne about the four beasts. The phrase, in the midst, in Scripture being put for between, or among; so Gen. 23:6. The beasts, though nearest the throne, yet are mentioned after the elders; for though their place be nearer, yet they are but the church’s servants, and the radical power is in the church, here signified by the twenty-four elders.
Ver. 4.—To begin with the elders, who, as was said, do signify the church:—
First, They are called elders,
(1.) because the church under the new testament is grown up to an elderly age, in opposition to the church under the old testament, who are termed ‘children under age,’ Gal. 4:1–3, &c. As also, (2.) for that gravity that should be in all church assemblies, and in their proceedings and administrations.
Secondly, For their number.
They are twenty-four, in allusion to the twenty-four heads of those orders of Levites who were porters and singers, established by David in the temple, 1 Chron. 24, 25, and 31:25, 26. And this, to shew the increase of the church under the new testament, in comparison of that under the old, whereof that proportion made by David was a type. The heads of the twelve tribes then were multiplied to twenty-four. Now in like manner Solomon’s temple had a double proportion to that of the tabernacle of Moses; that also being an after-type of the church’s increase under the gospel.
Thirdly, They are ‘clothed in white raiment,’
Signifying that they are priests, Exod. 28:40.
Fourthly, They had ‘on their heads crowns of gold,’
To shew their kingly power, and that it belongs to them to judge matters in the church; as, 1 Cor. 5:12, ‘Do not you judge them that are within?’
Fifthly, They were ‘round about the throne.’
The meanest saint is as near and dear to God as the greatest. Therefore the word in Cant. 1:12 is ‘a round table,’ which the saints sit at with Christ; it shews also their equality. And Christ is in the midst here, and will be so in heaven. We shall eat of ‘the tree which is in the midst of the paradise of God.’
Ver. 5, And out of the throne proceeded lightnings, and thunderings, and voices.—By thunderings and lightnings are meant the judgments of God. Ps. 18:13, 14, ‘The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.’ And, Ps. 29:3, ‘The voice of the Lord is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the Lord is upon many waters.’ They are said to come ‘out of the throne,’ because all judgments do come from God, as sitting in his church, and for his church’s sake doth God use them. Ps. 68:35, ‘O God, thou art terrible out of thy holy places: the God of Israel is he that giveth strength and power unto his people. Blessed be God!’ Amos 1:2, ‘And he said, The Lord will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the habitations of the shepherds shall mourn, and the top of Carmel shall wither.’ Voices also proceed out of the throne; which is more general, and extends unto promises, and answers to prayers.
Seven lamps, which are the seven spirits of God.—By these are noted out the Holy Ghost, and the variety of his gifts and operations, or manifestations of himself in the church. That the Holy Ghost is meant is evident by chap. 1:4, where John wishes ‘grace and peace from the seven spirits which are before God’s throne;’ which he ought not to have wished from any, but from the Holy Ghost, who is the third Person. And these manifestations are counted seven, because of the variety of gifts. For otherwise, that Person is but ‘one Spirit,’ 1 Cor. 12:11. They are compared to fire, because they give light and heat; and the allusion here is to the candlesticks in the temple.
Ver. 6.—There was a ‘sea of glass like unto crystal,’ in allusion to Solomon’s sea; but this was purer than that, which was only of brass, Exod. 30:17–20, and typified out Christ’s blood to wash in, both for justification of person and sanctification of life: so Heb. 10:22, ‘Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water;’ 1 Cor. 6:11, ‘And such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God;’ Tit. 3:5, ‘Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.’ And this blood of Christ stands in the church, as the sea in which we must wash, chiefly when we come to worship. Therefore wash before you worship.
And there were ‘four beasts full of eyes before and behind;’ by which are meant church officers:—
1. Because of the situation of them, between the throne and the elders, who are round about.
2. Because they are the leaders of the praise, and so the mouths of the congregation, ver. 9, 10.
They are not beasts properly, as we understand and speak; not brutes, but living wights: the Greek word, which wants a full and proper expression in one English word, signifies so. They are called living, to shew that they have, or should have, life in them to quicken others. They are four, and the throne is four-square, and so they are said to be in the midst between every angle; to shew that they are complete for number, and should look every way to all the necessities of the church, both for soul and body.
They are ‘full of eyes,’ because they are to be overseers, Acts 20:28. And they have eyes within as well as without, to see to their own hearts, as well as to others.
Ver. 7, And the first beast was like a lion—who is the ruling elder, who needs the courage of a lion, to deal with men’s spirits in case of sins, that deserve to be brought to the church, or to have admonition to prevent that course.
The second was like a calf, or ox,—for so the Septuagint translates the Hebrew word forty times,—the pastor, who is like an ox for laboriousness, and taking pains in treading out the corn.
The third beast had a face like a man—the deacons and widows,* which are all one office in a kind, who have a face of a man; a man’s heart being disposed and inclined for mercifulness and pitifulness, which is proper to a man, not beasts.
And the fourth beast was like a flying eagle—the teacher, who hath eyes like an eagle, quickly to spy out all errors; and then they soar aloft into high mysteries.
Ver. 8.—They had ‘each of them six wings,’ to shew their aptness and readiness to fly and act all manner of ways. So in Ezekiel* the cherubim had, who were types of these. ‘They rest not day nor night;’ to shew they labour continually; crying Holy, holy, holy. These worshipped God in Trinity. And they are the mouths of the congregation; for when they begin, the four-and-twenty elders fall down: ver. 9–11, ‘And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, the four-and-twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever find ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ And then they altogether, both one and the other, praise him for his works of creation; acknowledging him both the efficient and the end for which they were created: and not only for whom they were created at first, but for whom they are so still; their being and motion serving to that end, and working for his glory materially.
Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1861), 3:1–6.