The biggest mistake people make in dealing with Revelation, I think, comes right here: we get to chapter 4 and we hit the “reset” button. It’s understandable, since from this point on, it’s a different book from what we’ve seen in chapters 2-3; the difference is so pronounced that we don’t see how those chapters fit with the rest of the book, so we tend to treat them as disconnected. We have the introduction, then we have these seven letters just sitting there by themselves, and then with chapter 4, the real book starts.
That’s unfortunate, because the whole book is addressed to the seven churches in Asia—the visions of chapters 4-22 just as much as the vision and letters of chapters 1-3—and the letters are very much connected to the visions that follow. We see Daniel talking about what will happen in the last days, and the angel telling John, “I will show you what must take place after this,” and it’s easy to jump to thinking about the future; but the thing about the vision of the statue in Daniel 2 is that it begins with Daniel’s present time. The statue has a head of gold, and that head is Nebuchadnezzar himself. In the same way, the use of that language in Revelation 4 does not refer to something purely future: it is a future that has already begun. As we’ve seen before, the last days aren’t off in the future somewhere—we’re in them right now, and have been ever since the Son of God became the Son of Man.
This means that the fulfillment of God’s promises to us is also not off in the future somewhere. It usually seems like that, because though the kingdom of God is already come, it’s not yet here; the victory is already won, but the enemy has not yet stopped fighting. All things have been placed in subjection under Jesus’ feet, yet at present we do not see all things subject to him; we see Jesus, but as yet we see him mostly as the suffering Servant and the crucified Savior, not as the Lord of glory revealed in Revelation 1. But though we do not now fully experience the victory of God in Christ, his victory is no less complete for all that, and what he has promised us is already ours, even if we have not yet received it. The promises made in chapters 2-3 to those who overcome have already been kept; they are as certain as the sunrise.
That’s emphasized, I think, by chapters 4-5, because this vision picks up the promises made in the last two letters, to Philadelphia and Laodicea. To Philadelphia, Christ says that the one who overcomes will be made “a pillar in the temple of my God”; the promise to Laodicea is that “to the one who overcomes, I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Here, we have a vision of God on his throne in his temple—we have a picture of what the fulfillment of those promises will look like.
In that, these two chapters are the closing argument for the letters to the seven churches, even as they also introduce the visions and events of the rest of the book. Remember, the common theme running through those letters is the danger of idolatry. The threat of Caesar worship, which was rising as Domitian increasingly expected to be praised as a god, is one main form; another is the temptation of the trade guilds, which organized their activities around pagan worship services. Indeed, even the opposition of the synagogues fits with this, in that they believed Christians should turn away from worshiping Christ and back to the Jewish law. Idolatry in all its forms is the principal concern here; that’s why each of the letters ends, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” because idol worship closes our ears to the Spirit’s voice.
This vision is the ultimate response to the idols of the nations, and especially to pitiful Domitian, who demanded to be addressed as “lord and god,” because it makes it crystal clear that there is only one Lord and God, and he’s not Caesar. He’s not the President of the United States, or any other human leader, as deluded as our leaders and rulers may sometimes be. Whatever glory and power any human being might manage, it is as nothing in comparison to the indescribable glory and power of God—and I do mean indescribable; when John says, “around the throne was a rainbow that resembled an emerald,” you know he’s grasping at straws. He’s seeing something like nothing human eyes have ever seen, and he’s trying to find some sort of words for it, and we’ll never really know what he means until the day comes that we see it with our own eyes.
The glory and power of God dwarf the highest of human glories and the greatest of earthly powers; and more than that, God outlasts every one of them. In the world as we know it, all good things must come to an end, and all human powers are fleeting. Empires rise, and then they fall, and there’s often not much time in between; what goes up must come down, for no one can defy gravity—or entropy—forever. If this world lasts long enough, America will be no different; soon or late, from within or without, our country, too, will fail. It is the way of all flesh. But God is the one who lives forever and ever—and the life that he has, he has given to us, so that we may live with him forever and ever, laying all our glories and honors and powers at his feet in worship.
That’s the key, that’s the end, that’s the goal, that’s the purpose of it all: to worship him. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what forms us as the church, that’s what shapes us, that’s what gives us our focus and direction. That’s why those seven letters were written, to encourage the churches to be faithful in their worship, or to return to faithfulness; that’s why they’re followed by this vision of God on his throne in his temple, that they may see and understand how much greater and how much more worthy of worship is the Lord of all creation than all the little tin gods they’re being tempted and pressured to worship.
And so it is for us as well. Worship is not the only thing we do, but it is the cen-ter, which gives purpose and dimension and meaning to everything else we do. There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about the importance of being missional, of understanding ourselves as God’s missionaries to our own culture, and I agree with much of it; but when they say that mission is primary, they go too far. As John Piper put it, “Mission exists because worship does not”: our mission is to reach out to those who do not worship God, to draw them in to his worship, and to build them up—to build all of us up together—as worshipers of the Lord of the universe. Our worship is not in the service of anything else, nor of anyone but God; our mission, in all its forms, is in the service of worship.