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Beyond The Door Of Death: Heaven—Part 2
If you would please take out your Bibles, right now, and turn in them to the book of Revelation and chapter number 4. We’re going to be headquartering, today, out of Revelation, chapter number 4.
How many of you have ever been to one of those movies with 3-D effects; you know, where they hand out the 3-D glasses and you wear them? How many people have ever been to one of those, OK? So, I guess maybe about two-thirds of us have done that. What an interesting experience that is. A number of years ago, we were in Orlando at MGM Studios, and we went to the “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” presentation—3-D movie where you put on the glasses and these 3-D effects come at you. At one point, they had this huge dog—fills the whole screen, and it’s sniffing around. And it’s just like it’s sniffing up your nostrils, you know. And then…the dog sneezes, and then they blow this mist out into the audience. You know, that’s…that’s what everyone does; they all go, “Oooooh!”—just as it happens. 3-D effect. We were in Branson, Missouri last year—we went to the Jim Stafford Theater—and it had one of those 3-D movies; kind of like the classic 1950’s or early sixties deal, where you’re sitting in the audience and then they have this pole that comes out at you, you know. And everyone’s ducking, because you think you’re going to get poked right in the eye. Or…then they have this snake that, you know, comes out over the top of the audience, in this 3-D effect, and you think, “Whoa! Look out, there!” And then, they have a bee that starts zooming around—actually, kind of flies right through your head. Uh, very interesting effects in a 3-D movie. And you know it’s interesting if you go to those and you drop down your 3-D glasses. And you know how I am, I’m the thinker: “I wonder what this is going to look like without the 3-D glasses.” And you drop it down. And what you see is a movie that’s there, but it’s a little bit…the picture is a little bit out of focus. And when you drop down the 3-D glasses, what ends up happening is, you miss all the depth, all the adventure, all the excitement of the movie.
Well, we’ve begun a series of messages we have entitled, “Beyond The Door Of Death: The Bible On Heaven And Hell.” And we are tackling and investigating the issue of heaven first. And without the lens of Scripture—without the lens of Scripture—heaven really is a rather blurry thing to us; it’s a rather vague concept to us. Without the lens of Scripture, you will miss the depth, and the adventure, and the excitement of heaven. We’ve already seen, as we’ve begun to investigate heaven, that the doorknob to the door of heaven is on God’s side. We only know about heaven when God chooses to tell us about heaven or when He opens the door.
And I want you to keep your finger in Revelation, chapter 4, and I want to investigate a few passages of Scripture, starting with Ezekiel in the Old Testament—chapter number 1—where we see God opening up the door. He turns the handle that’s on His side, and He opens the door to heaven. Now, we’re going to cover a lot of ground, this morning. We’re going to…be spending more time than we normally would in a message, because we’ve got so much to cover. Hang in there with me.
But notice, in the book of Ezekiel; one of the times that God opens the door and heavens are opened up. Ezekiel, chapter 1 and verse 1. Ezekiel says, “…it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month…”—very specific timing—“…while I was by the river Chebar among the exiles…”—notice—“…the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” God just took the door to heaven and He opened it up to Ezekiel.
Now, turn with me to the gospel of Luke in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—chapter number 3. We see another time in which God turned the doorknob, and He opened up the door to heaven. Luke, chapter 3 and verse 21: “…came about when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also was baptized, and while He was praying…”—notice this—“…heaven was opened…” God opened up the door to heaven. “…and the Holy Spirit descended [down] upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of [that open door in] heaven…”—and it said—“[You are] My beloved Son, in [You] I am well-pleased.”
Now, turn with me to the book of Acts, chapter 7—Acts, chapter 7—we see another time—we’re just showing you a few of these—in which God opened up the door to heaven. This has to do with Stephen and his defense before the religious authorities; just before he’s killed. And in Acts, chapter 7, verse 55, it says, “[Stephen] being full of the Holy Spirit…”—Acts 7:55—“…gazed intently into heaven and [he] saw the glory of God, and [he saw] Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and [Stephen] said, ‘Behold, I see…”—notice this—“…the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” God just opened up the door to heaven and allowed Stephen to see right in.
And then, I want you to turn with me to one last passage; Revelation, chapter 19—toward the end of the book of Revelation—chapter 19—and we see the heavens opened up once again. Now, I want you to know—I always have to give the little warning, I think, when you go to Revelation, chapter 19—I personally think this is the most dramatic chapter in all of the Bible. There’s drama just oozing from the pages of Revelation, chapter 19. Notice, it says in verse 11, of Revelation 19, “…I saw heaven opened…”. The door swings open up in heaven. “…and behold [there’s] a white horse, and [Him] who [sits] [on the white horse] is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war.” This is a picture of Jesus Christ, as the door of heaven is opened up, just before He is to return to this earth. And notice, it goes on to describe Him: “…His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called The Word of God.” Incredible picture of the door of…heaven swinging open and Jesus Christ ready to ride out in judgment upon this world.
Now, I believe we have a great need, today in this culture, to see heaven through the lens of Scripture. Peggy Noonan, who’s a former correspondent with CBS news and also a speechwriter for both presidents Reagan and Bush, wrote this. She says, “I think we’ve lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated, and, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery—mystery about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role.” Listen to what she observes. She says, “Our ancestors believed in two worlds and understood this world to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short one.” She goes on to say, “We’re the first generation of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness. The reason? If you do not believe in another, higher world; if you believe only in the flat, material world around you; if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness; if that is what you believe, then you are not merely disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.” And, indeed, we have a lot of people despairing in the culture today. And I believe that a clear view of heaven will dispel despair.
So, in Revelation, chapter 4, we have—again—the door of heaven flinging open. And we have the apostle John who is called up to a tour of heaven. And what we’re going to see, today—just as a beginning of our study—is a snapshot of the realm of celestial glory; the realm that is shrouded by the veil, or the curtain, of death. And I just want to invite you to hold on to your hat, because there are some amazing things to be seen here. Now, I just simply want to set Revelation, chapter 4, in a little bit of context, because we have the apostle John who gets called up to heaven for the tour. And I want to remind you of his situation. John was exiled on the island of Patmos—he’s at the very end of his life; he is rather old—and he’s been put on the island of Patmos because of his faith in Christ. He is there on an isolated place. You talk about ‘Survivor Island;’ that’s what John was experiencing by himself. You see, all of the other apostles had been killed—all of them had been killed. And the Church was under heavy persecution. And here, you have the apostle John sent to ‘Survivor Island.’ And, humanly, if there would be any candidate for despair, it would be the apostle John. You have to think he was wondering, “Why is all this happening? Didn’t Jesus say that the gates of hell couldn’t prevail against heaven and My kingdom? Why is all this happening? Why are all the other apostles dead? Why am I now on ‘Survivor Island’ by myself?” It looks like things are out of control.
And if you’ll turn over to chapter one, I know John had to be thinking thoughts similar to that. And while he’s thinking some thoughts like that, in verse 10 it’s the Lord’s day, and he was worshiping, and it says, in chapter 1, verse 10, he heard behind him “…a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet…”. And so, he turns, in verse 12, to see the voice that was speaking, and what he sees is the person of Jesus Christ. And in the verses that follow, he gives a description of what He looked like. But then we see his response to all of this in verse 17: “…when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man.” I mean, suddenly I saw Christ in His glory, and I just collapsed down before Him like a dead person. Well, that kind of background, we have a very interesting event that happens in chapter 4. He’s called out in a whirlwind tour of heaven. And I believe this whirlwind tour has tremendous potential in it for you and for me. It has the potential to reorder our perspective. I believe it has that potential. I believe it has the potential—this whirlwind tour of heaven—to change your life. So, it’s something exciting to go on—the trip with John.
Now, look at chapter 4 and verse 1: “After these things…”—after he’d received and heard about the messages to the seven churches—he looked, it says, “…and behold…”—there we have it—“…a door standing open in heaven…”. God took the doorknob on His side, and He opened up the door. And then, you notice, “…the first voice which I had heard [which was] like the sound of a trumpet…” said something. When he talks about a voice like a trumpet, the idea is, it was very loud, it was very powerful, it was a voice that just blasted through the air. And the voice comes to him, and the voice says, “Come up here…”—come up here; up here. You know, heaven is…heaven is up! It’s portrayed that way very consistently. In fact, when you look at the basic words for heaven, they carry with them the idea of ‘up.’ The Hebrew word ‘shamayim,’ at its very basic, literal meaning means ‘the heights.’ The Greek word ‘ouranos’ literally, at its core, means ‘the raised up’ or ‘elevated place.’ Heaven is up.
Remember, last time, we talked about how the Bible mentions three heavens. You have the atmospheric heavens, where the birds are, and the clouds are, and the planes fly; and then, you have the heavens of outer space; and then, you have, though, the highest heaven. You have the third heaven, which is God’s dwelling place. And so, Jesus says to John, “Come up here.” And notice what He goes on to say, “I will show you what must take place after these things.” Now, here’s what’s interesting. John is not only called up, he is called ahead. He’s called up, and he’s called ahead. He’s not only going to see heaven, but he’s going to see the future events that would be involved in the end of the world. And in Revelation, chapter 6 through Revelation, chapter 19, we have those future events laid up for us—laid out for us. So, what we’re going to have is him coming up into heaven; but not only is he going up, he’s actually going ahead in time—in heaven—to the era in which the final events of the world will be in the future. And, of course, we all know what John’s immediate response was—“Beam me up, Scotty.” You know, “Beam me up; I’m ready to go; I want to go on the tour.”
Well, notice what ends up happening in verse 2. It says, “Immediately I was in the Spirit…”, and he begins to see things that are in heaven. Immediately. Now, it’s kind of incredible to think about this, you know. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second; that’s eleven million, one hundred and sixty thousand miles per minute. So, at the speed of light, you go eleven million miles in a minute. Now, the planet Pluto—they tell us—is 3.7 billion miles away from the earth. At the speed of light, it would take you about 5 ½ hours to get there. Now, listen to this. 5 ½ hours, at the speed of light—5 ½ hours to get to Pluto. But the galaxy in which we live—the Milky Way—to go from one end to the next takes 100,000 light years of time. Beginning to get the idea of the size of this? 100,000 light years of time to go across our galaxy; and just the next galaxy is billions of light years away from us. And then you have—that’s the outer space, the second heavens—and then you have the highest heaven, the apex of the universe. How far away is that? I have no idea. But when God says, “Come up here,” immediately he was there. You could even coin a phrase something like, ‘in the twinkling of an eye,’ he’s in heaven, which is exactly the phrase that’s used in 1 Corinthians 15, when it talks about the time in which God is going to come down with the believers and snatch them out of this world. And just in the twinkling of an eye, we’re going to be with the Lord, and we’re going to be in heaven.
So, immediately all this takes place. And notice what happens. There’s something that stands out, when he first gets there: “…Behold, [there was] a throne…”—he says—“…standing in heaven…”. There’s this single, prominent object that he sees. In fact, it’s interesting; the word ‘throne’ occurs about 39 times in the book of Revelation; about one-third of them—12 of them—are in chapter 4. Chapter 4 is the ‘throne’ chapter of the book of Revelation.
You know, in our world down here, we have the North Star that is the fixed point; people use the North Star as the fixed point to keep a course or to seek direction. The throne that he sees in heaven is the reference point of all of heaven and the reference point of all of the universe. And he sees a throne that is, it says, “…standing in heaven…”. The picture seems to be, this throne is there; it’s stable, it’s secure, it’s fixed, it’s immovable, but it’s not vacant. And, you notice, he says there, there was “…a throne standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne.” Who is on the throne? Well, I believe, just studying the book of Revelation, it must be the Heavenly Father. I conclude that because in chapter 5…verses 6 and 7, it mentions the throne, and it mentions a Lamb who is standing as if slain; and this Lamb steps forward, in verse 7 of chapter 5, and He takes this book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. So, I believe when we see someone sitting on the throne, in Revelation, chapter 4 and verse 2, we’re talking about the Heavenly Father, and He is sitting on the throne. Now, he…doesn’t mean He’s reclining, resting, or anything like that. The idea of sitting in the throne means that He’s actively reigning.
You know, in the political arena, if we say, “Well, someone was unseated in an election,” that means that they’re out of office; they were removed from their position of authority, they were unseated. Well, God, the Father, is seated, you see, on the throne. The throne is the seat of absolute sovereignty; the throne, here, is the seat of unrivaled authority. It towers over all the earthly seats of government. It is the throne. There is no threat that this throne would be toppled by rival gods. In fact, the psalmist said, in Psalm 45:6, Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
The first thing he sees; this central focal point, you see, is the place from which all the universe is run. And here’s what’s important to understand: nothing that ever happened in the past, and nothing that is happening in the present, and nothing that will ever happen in the future happens apart from God’s providence and God’s authority. It’s important to have an understanding of that. Nothing that has happened in the past, nothing that is happening right now, nothing that ever happens in the future will happen apart from God’s providence and His authority.
A.W. Tozer said that, “To regain her lost power, the Church must see heaven opened and have a transforming vision of God. Oh, not the utilitarian God who is having a run of popularity today, whose chief claim to men’s attention is His ability to bring them success in their various undertakings. That’s not the God that we need to have a clear vision of. The God we must learn to know is the Majesty in the heavens. He it is that sits upon the circle of the earth, who stretches out the heavens as a curtain, who brings out His starry hosts by number and calls them all by name through the greatness of His power; who sees the works of man as vanity, who puts no confidence in princes and asks no counsel of kings.” See, that’s the God we need to have a better vision of, and that’s the thing John sees, when he gets up into heaven.
You see, no matter what happens on earth, nothing happens apart from God’s providence and authority. Even all the events that John was experiencing, even all those apostles who were killed, even all the persecution of the Church, even ending up on ‘Survivor Island’ by yourself; none of that happened apart from God’s providence and authority. And I want you to know, today, that nothing you are experiencing right now—no matter what it may be—nothing you are experiencing right now, nothing I’m experiencing right now, happens apart from God’s providence and authority. And, by the way, nothing that this world is going to experience in the days ahead—chapter 6 through chapter 19 of the book of Revelation—nothing is going to happen in the future apart from God’s providence and God’s authority. God is still on the throne; God is still in control; God is ruling and reigning! And that’s the very first thing that stands out to John, when he gets there to heaven.
Now, what he begins to do in the following few verses is, he begins to describe God, and he begins to describe heaven, and he begins to describe those who are present in heaven. And you get the idea, when you read through these verses, that he’s struggling in his description. He’s kind of reaching for…for words. For example, in verse 3 he uses the word ‘like’ two times. “I saw something like this. It really wasn’t that, but I…I don’t know how better to describe it. It was kind of like such and such.” In verse 6 he uses the phrase ‘as it were.’ I saw this, you know, as it were; it was…it was like this…again, he uses that word ‘like’ there in verse 6. In…in verse 7, four times he uses the word ‘like.’ You see how he’s just reaching; trying to find the words to describe what he sees in heaven. And so, we need to do the best we can to put on our 3-D glasses here, to try to understand what he is seeing when he sees heaven.
So, notice verse 3, describing the heavenly Father who was sitting there, and he said, “…He who was sitting was like a jasper stone…”. Now, that’s an interesting description. He was like a jasper stone. Now, I guess there’s different kinds of jasper, but in Revelation, chapter 21, verse 11, it talks about crystal clear jasper. And it appears that, when he’s looking at the heavenly Father, he says He was like a jasper stone. It’s almost like he was like this translucent, sparkling crystal. And, in all likelihood, what he’s describing here is the brightness and the beauty of God’s holiness. And if you can picture this translucent, sparkling crystal and, you know, when there’s any kind of light that goes into the crystal, it ends up emitting all these vivid colors. And you can almost picture what this must have been like. He says, “It was like that; it really wasn’t that, but…but it was like that. I’m trying to describe it.” And then, he says, He who was sitting there was also like “…a sardius in appearance…”. A sardius was a very fiery, deep red, glowing kind of gem. And you see, again, his reach, “I’m trying to describe the One sitting on the throne.” In all likelihood, this sardius picture of this fiery, deep red, glowing thing is really a picture of the red-hot fury of God’s wrath. We’re going to see that God’s wrath is about ready to pour out onto the world; His judgments are about ready to fall. And so, when he sees Him sitting on the throne, he sees this fiery, deep red, glowing type of person—the red-hot fury of God’s wrath.
You know, it struck me when I was reading through this, and studying through this, how much this is different from the world’s picture of God. You know, you have this picture of God that people have; He’s sort of like the old man in the sky, somewhere. You know, He’s this indulgent old guy up there; probably is just going to shrug His shoulders…and He doesn’t really care. That’s not what God is like.
Listen to the prophet Nahum, as he describes God: A jealous and avenging God is the LORD. The LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire.
He’s not some indulgent old man. He is the living, holy God; a God who has wrath and red-hot fury.
And then, there’s an interesting, added description. He says there…am I looking at this person, “…and there was a rainbow around the throne like an emerald in appearance.” It seems like he’s saying, “You know, there was this circular halo of emerald-like light.” We know that the rainbow is a sign of God’s grace—you remember that? The rainbow is a sign of God’s grace; it is a picture of God’s faithfulness; His promise that He would not destroy the world again by means of a flood. And so, he sees this circular halo of emerald light. In all likelihood, I think this is a picture of God’s grace. And it goes in a circular fashion; it is full and complete; it endures forever. And so, you see this view of the One sitting on the throne. We see the clear brightness of God’s holiness; we see the red glowing of God’s wrath; and then we see the circle of God’s grace that shines around the whole area. His grace endures forever, which is what is stated in Lamentations 3—how God’s grace, His lovingkindness, it never ceases; His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. An incredible scene of the one sitting on the throne.
But the description of the tour doesn’t end there. Notice, he goes on to describe things further in verse 4. He says, “…around the throne were twenty-four [other] thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.” We have the throne—the focal point of heaven and, really, all of the universe—but then we have these twenty-four other thrones that are around it; which, obviously, would be a picture of delegated authority. And then, we have twenty-four elders that are sitting there on those thrones, and you’ll notice they are clothed in white garments and they have golden crowns on their heads.
Now, the question must ask is, who are these guys?—who are these twenty-four elders? And, basically interpreters and theologians would fall into two camps. Some would say these twenty-four elders are angels who are in heaven, and some would say the twenty-four elders are believers who are in heaven. Those are your two basic options in understanding the twenty-four elders. Now, there are excellent, godly expositors who believe in both of those positions. And I want to just review this for a minute, because the twenty-four elders, I think, are going to become significant in our tour of heaven.
Those who believe they are angels have several reasons for coming to that conclusion. One is that they are associated with the four living creatures who are around the throne of God. And we’re going to see, next time, that the four living creatures are high-level, angelic beings. And the twenty-four elders are associated with these high-level, angelic beings; therefore, that might be an indication that they are angels. We also know, in the book of Revelation, that angels are the agents of revelation coming to man.
Look with me, in chapter 1; I just want to show you a couple of these. Look with me in chapter 1. We’re just reviewing some of the reasons why people would conclude that the twenty-four elders are angels. Notice in chapter 1, verse 1, it talks about “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortly take place; and He sent and [He] communicated it…”—notice—“…by His angel to His bond-servant John.” You see how the angel was the agent of the revelation from God to John?
Now, turn with me toward the end of the book to Revelation, chapter 22—just want to show you another illustration of how angels are agents of revelation—chapter 22, verse 6, “And he said to me, ‘These words are faithful and true’; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show…His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place.” So, God sends an angel, you see, as the messenger—the agent—of revelation.
Now, look at chapter 7 of the book of Revelation, and verse 14. Angels seem to be the agents of revelation, and a question comes up. One of the elders, in verse 13, poses it. There’s this large group of people, here; and he says, who are these people who are clothed in white robes? Who are they; where have they come from? He says this question…or asks this question of John; John goes, “Hey, you know. I don’t know. I’m just on a tour, OK?” And so, the elder gives him the answer—he gives him revelation about this group. He says, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation…”—that future period of judgment—“…[they’ve] washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” We seem to have an elder, here, who is involved as an agent…as an agent of revelation. That might be an indicator that the twenty-four elders are angels.
One other indicator that makes people make that conclusion, in chapter 8 and verse 3—chapter 8, verse 3. We see an angel come, and he stands at the altar, and he’s holding a golden censer, which is really a bowl, “…and much incense was given to him, that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.” In other words, we have an angel who’s carrying a pan, here, and the pan contains the prayers of the saints who are living on the earth at the time. So, we have an angel with the pan of the prayers of the saints.
Now, back in chapter 5 and verse 8, we have the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders—chapter 5, verse 8—and they fall down before the Lamb; each one having a harp, and also each of them having golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints, again. So, we have an angel carrying the pan of the prayers of the saints, in chapter 8; and then, we have the twenty-four elders doing the same thing in…in chapter 5 and verse 8. So, some would say the best indication, regarding the identity of the twenty-four elders, is that they are angels.
Now, the other view would be that the twenty-four elders are believers in heaven. And this is my own personal, preferred view. This is the one that I best feel most comfortable with. Now, there are several reasons why people would say the twenty-four elders are believers in heaven. And the first, most important reason why, is how they are described. They are called ‘elders.’ The word is ‘presbuteros’ in Greek. We get the word Presbyterian. And so, we have twenty-four ‘presbuteroi’ in heaven. By the way, that little fact is the basis of a long-term joke; which goes around the church. The joke goes like this: there was a little girl who went to Sunday School. She came home; mom said, “What did they talk about?” She said, “They talked about heaven.” “Well, what did they say about heaven?” She said, “Well, they said there were only going to be twenty-four Presbyterians in heaven.”
Now, I know there’s not only going to be twenty-four; there’s going to be at least twenty-nine or thirty of them there, right [joke]? I love Presbyterians…OK?…I love Presbyterians. No letters and cards, please.
But, the word is elder, here. And…and interestingly enough, this word is virtually always—with one possible exception in Isaiah, chapter 24—it is virtually always used of men…always used of men. In fact, you know, when you go in the Old Testament, and we had elders in the Old Testament—elders, in the Old Testament, who were representatives of the people of God. We have elders, in the New Testament, who are representatives of the people of God. And so, the very fact that they’re used, or described, as elders here, I think points to the fact that they are believers in heaven.
Another piece of evidence that they would be believers in heaven comes from chapter 7 and verse 11. It says, in verse 11, “…all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and [around] the four living creatures…”. Now, the four living creatures are going to be the high-level, angelic beings; but what I want you to see is they’re distinguished—the elders are—from all the angels, you see. They seem to be a distinctive group.
And, perhaps, the most convincing piece of evidence to me, personally—regarding the identity of the twenty-four elders—goes back to some promises that were given to the people in the churches in chapter 3. Now, I’ll just give you the…the verses. These are promises given to the people in the churches in chapter 3. In chapter 3, verse 5, we have the promise of white garments. In chapter 3, verse 11, we have the promise of crowns. In chapter 3, verse 21, we have the promise of thrones. Now, the law of proximity is very important in interpreting Scripture. We have promises given to the churches of white garments, and crowns, and thrones in chapter 3. Where is the first time we see someone wearing white garments and crowns, and thrones? Just turn the page, and we see it in Revelation, chapter 4. In fact, what’s kind of interesting to me is, when you go back to some of the other times in which heaven was opened up; like, for example, the vision of heaven from Isaiah, chapter 6, and the vision of heaven, from Ezekiel, chapter 1 through chapter 10. And when you look at those visions, there are no elders mentioned in the vision of heaven—no elders appear there. And I think there’s a reason for that. And that is because in the day of Isaiah and in the day of Ezekiel, there were no redeemed people in heaven yet. We’re going to talk about this a little bit more, in weeks ahead, when we look at hell; but most theologians believe that before Christ paid the penalty for sin on the Cross, people went to a place called ‘paradise,’ if they were believers. And then, they went to another place, called ‘torment,’ if they were not. And what happened is—because people who did not have their sin paid for couldn’t yet be in heaven; when Jesus Christ was resurrected and then He ascended up into heaven, He took paradise with Him. And paradise had Old Testament believers. And so, they didn’t get, actually, to heaven back in the day of Isaiah and in the day of Ezekiel. And so, I believe—at least the best way I can understand it—is to look at the twenty-four elders as believers who are in heaven.
Now, some of you are real, real sticklers for detail; some of you are real students for detail, and you’re going, “OK, I’ve got the elder thing, maybe, but…why twenty-four?” Well, why do we have twenty-four of them? So, those of you who are not detail people can just tune out for about three or four minutes, here, alright? I’m going to talk to these deep, detail folks. Twenty-four is a very common representative number in the Bible. In 1 Chronicles, chapter 24 talks about organizing the Levitical priesthood around twenty-four orders. There were twenty-four orders of the priests, and there was a head of each order. In 1 Chronicles, chapter 25 it talks about taking the 288 musicians of the temple and dividing them into—interestingly enough—twenty-four divisions. There was the head of each division; the head of each division would represent all the other musicians. The head of each priesthood division and order would represent all of those in that order. And so, I believe that twenty-four is a representative number.
Now, we have, really, one of two choices, when we look at twenty-four elders—believers in heaven. They are either only the church, or it’s a mixed group of some kind. One choice is to see the twenty-four elders as…only being the church. And we believe that the Bible teaches that there is a distinction, in the program of God, between church and Israel. One day we will all be the people of God, but there is a distinction between the two. And those who believe that the twenty-four elders refers only to the church—and there’s some evidence from chapter 3, because the promises were given to the churches—they would say this: “Well, you know, those twenty-four representatives of the Levitical priesthood of Israel from 1 Chronicles 24—you had twenty-four representatives of the Levitical priesthood. And what is the church called in 1 Peter 2:9? It’s called a royal priesthood. We’re described as a royal priesthood; a royal priest would wear a crown.” And so, they would say you have twenty-four elders, here, because it’s representative of church; not all the redeemed, but the church.
But a second choice we might have, is to say that the believers in heaven aren’t just the church; because, really, we’re looking at heaven at the very start of the tribulation period. Now, let me ask you a question for a minute. At the very start of the tribulation period, who is going to be in heaven? Really, there are two groups of people that are going to be in heaven; you’re going to have the Old Testament believers who were in paradise, who were taken by Jesus up to heaven, and you’re going to have people who were part of the church, right?…who died. And what is interesting is, that in Revelation, chapter 21, it talks about the new Jerusalem, and it talks about how there’s going to be twelve gates in the city, which stand for the twelve tribes; and there’s going to be twelve foundation stones, which stand for the twelve apostles. And if you add twelve and twelve together, you get twenty-four. And it’s interesting that the twenty-four elders—if it does, indeed, stand for the Old Testament saint believers who are in heaven and the church believers who are in heaven—they are distinguished, in chapter 7, verse 14, from the tribulation saints. They’re a different group.
So, you have those two choices. Now, it is not critical to me, whether someone wants to say, “This is only the church,” or “This would be the Old Testament saints and the church saints who are alive in heaven at the time.” I do prefer the idea, though, that the twenty-four elders would be viewed as men, or believers, in heaven. Now, this is going to be important. You say, “Why did you do all of that?” It’s going to be important, as part of our study next week. We just were laying some groundwork.
Now, we just have one more verse we’re going to look at real quickly, and that is verse 5. Notice, it says, “…from the throne proceed flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God…”. Really not just lamps—little tiny lamps—but really the word is ‘torches.’ An outdoor torch—there are seven of them burning—and they are symbolic of the seven spirits of God. And some interpreters say the seven spirits of God; that’s referring to the Holy Spirit, seven is the number of perfection; it’s just the perfect Holy Spirit that’s being talked about here. Some interpreters go, “No, the seven spirits of God are the seven angels that are used in the book of Revelation to carry out the judgment of God—chapter 8 and verse 2 talks about those seven angels who are standing there ready to do God’s bidding. I don’t think it’s really important what the symbolism is, in terms of these seven lamps of fire. But what’s really important to me is what’s happening in verse 5.
Steven Lawson, in his book on heaven, calls what’s happening in verse 5, “a reign storm”—not an R-A-I-N storm, but an R-E-I-G-N storm. It is a “reign storm.” And what we have are flashes of lightning; these thunderbolts of divine anger that are swirling around the throne of God, you see. It is a “reign storm.” And then, we have the sounds and the peals of thunder, which are always pictured in this book as the sounds of the gathering storm of the judgment of God. What you really see in verse 5 are the sights and the sounds of the judgment of God. They’re related to the judgment of God.
I’m going to give you some verses; you can look them up later. Revelation, chapter 8, verse 5; you have the seventh of the seal judgments opened up, and what do you get? You get these flashes of lightning and these sounds and these peals of thunder, as God’s judgment is about ready to fall. Chapter 11, verses 15 and 19; you have the…seventh trumpet judgment. And when that is being blown and unleashed, you have the peals of thunder and the swirling sounds and the lightning going around. And then, in chapter 16, verses 17 and 18, you have the seventh bowl judgment—the seventh bowl judgment—and, again, we see the flashes of lightning, the thunderbolts of divine anger, and the sounds and the peals of the thunder of the judgment of God. You see, what’s brewing here, in verse 5, is something that is one day going to erupt on this planet; it is the sovereign fury of the King of the universe—an incredible view; an incredible tour; an incredible introduction to heaven.
By the way, next time we’re going to look at the first indicator of our activity in heaven; but, you know, you look at these first five verses and you just have to go, “Wow!…I mean, wow!” And there’s no way that John could get the words to describe this accurately; and there’s no way that I could portray this accurately enough to you, but I hope you get some kind of sensation of the sense of, “Wow!…Wow!…Wow!”
Now, what life response would God like us to have from this passage of Scripture? What response should we have from this? Well, here’s what I believe He wants us to have, in terms of a life response—that is this—don’t despair; be encouraged. That is His message for you and me. Don’t despair; be encouraged. Why would we despair? Well, this world is flawed. Listen, we live in a fallen place in the midst of a fallen race. This world has been corrupted; this is not the way God created it. And we live in the midst of a group of residents who are tainted by sin, and the truth of the matter is we are one of them. And we face the daily challenge, here, because this world is flawed; we’re…we’re going to have to deal…you’re going to go out this week and you’re going to have to deal with frustrations, and you’re going to have to deal with fears, and you’re going to have to deal with the insecurities of this world. And you’re going to go out, probably even this week, and you’re going to experience some unfairness, and you’re going to experience some disappointment, and the whole reason why is, this world is flawed…it’s flawed. But His message for you and me, I believe, is don’t despair. And yet, that’s what’s happening all around us.
Listen to what Joseph Stowell has written. He says, “I don’t know that there has ever been a generation that has grown up with a greater sense of despair. When you listen to the music and you read the writings in our pop culture, today, it’s evident that this generation feels phenomenal measures of meaninglessness. Is it any wonder? This generation will reap the epidemic of AIDS; they’ve seen the potential of nuclear holocaust; we’ve told them about holes in the ozone layer and global warming. Even…”—listen to this—“…in the body of Christ there is despair; despair over what has happened to our country. Everything’s sliding away. We’ve left the Judeo-Christian base. What will we do?”
And you have to wonder if some of those same despairing thoughts weren’t in the heart and the mind of the apostle John. And yet, there’s a solution to that despair. The world is flawed—this world is flawed—but the King is on the throne…the King is on the throne. Listen, there is no one right now up in heaven who is sweating. It doesn’t make any difference if this whole culture and this whole nation goes down the tubes economically and morally, no one up there is sweating right now. Nobody is breaking into a sweat. The King is on the throne. God is sovereignly in charge. And it’s important to understand the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and what it can mean to you.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way. He says, “There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God’s sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials they believe that sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that sovereignty overrules them, and that sovereignty will sanctify them all.”
This world is flawed, but the King is on the throne. So, don’t despair; be encouraged; trust Him. Look at Him in His rule. Can He be trusted? Yes! And we need to remember that we, if we know Jesus Christ personally, we are eternally secure members of His kingdom. You might just jot down, again, Romans, chapter 8, verses 35 to 39 and spend some time with it this week. If you know Him personally—if you’ve trusted in Christ—we are eternally secure members of His kingdom. See, the message of heaven to its…children and to its citizens is this: don’t despair; be encouraged.
Let’s pray together. Father, it’s awesome to even have to preach through a section of Scripture like this. How in the world could John describe what he saw? How in the world can we even teach on such a subject; it’s so awesome…it’s so incredible? But I believe the message You have for us today is, even though the world is flawed, the King is on the throne; don’t despair; be encouraged. And, Father, if we have any in our midst today who have never trusted in Jesus Christ—never understood that there’s nothing they can do to try to earn acceptance with God; they’re basically completely bankrupt, as all of us are—may they see the person of Christ for who He is; a God who’s going to bring judgment on this planet, but a God who provided a way out by His becoming a man and coming and bleeding and dying, paying for our sins and then offering to us eternal life as a free gift. Ah…the amazing grace of God. God, for those of us who know You, we could sing of Your love forever. Thank You for caring for us like You have, and like You do, and like You always will. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.