John is invited into heaven, meaning not so much the pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die place, as the place of ultimate reality, the control room of the universe. John is given a behind the scenes look at the world, at what is normally unseen, known only by faith. Here is the underlying spiritual reality which makes sense of reality as we experience it. This vision lays the crucial foundation to all that will follow. Three things stand out –
This is the first thing he sees, and everything is described in reference to it. Obviously it is a symbol of sovereignty. There is a throne and “someone sitting on it” – the universe is not at the mercy of blind chance or feuding powers, there is someone steering the ship. God is not described in any way that we might visualise him, but the descriptions of v.3 do convey something of his awesome majesty, and the vision as a whole underlines a number of key truths about him – that he is sovereign, glorious, merciful and faithful (so the rainbow, v.3), just (v.5), holy (v.8), the creator and Lord of all (v.11).
The 24 elders would seem to stand for the People of God, of the Old and New Testament, who are already raised and seated in heaven with Christ (Eph.2:6). The 4 living creatures seem to stand for the entire created order: all creation revolves around God, submits to him, and exists to worship him.
We are not told immediately what the scroll contains, but as we read on (and recognise comparisons with similar scrolls elsewhere in the Bible, particularly Ezekiel) it becomes clear it is the record of all God’s purposes for the world, his plan for human history. It includes his plan to judge the world and eradicate evil, and his plan of salvation, his promise to redeem his people. But it is sealed, which means the purposes of God can’t be revealed, and more importantly can’t be executed or implemented. It’s all on hold. As someone has commented,
“Like a great ship standing poised on the runway, so God’s plan for humanity stands poised, waiting for someone to cut the ribbon and launch history on its final voyage.”
But that someone can’t be just anyone, it’s a sword-in-the-stone type scenario. There is only one who is worthy to open the seals, the Messiah, the Lion of the tribe of Judah (v.5).
We look for a lion, and see …. a lamb! For the lion has triumphed through his sacrificial death (v.6) It is not simply who Jesus is that qualifies him to open the scroll, it is what he has done (v.9). The cross is shown to be the pivotal event of all history. As well as the reminder of his death, the 7 horns and 7 eyes speak of his divine power and divine wisdom. And strikingly (given how the book frequently forbids any worship other than to God, eg. 19:10) the Lamb stands in the centre of the throne, sharing in God’s sovereignty and the praise of heaven.
As we read of the worship in heaven, clearly we are being encouraged to sing off the same songsheet. As for John’s original readers, we are continually, and often subtly, being urged to give ultimate worth to other things, rather than worship God. Yet in view of who he is, and all that he is done in creating us (4:11) and redeeming us (5:9,10), mindful too of how our seemingly feeble prayers are prized and heard in heaven (5:8), well might we add our “Amen” to that of the 4 living creatures, and fall down and worship.