In Chapter Four, verse one, the scene changes. We are no longer on earth but are rather in the heavenly realm, a series of several visions serve to display the establishment of God’s justice in the world by judging what Saint Augustine would call the earthly city.
The 11 verses of chapter 4 are an extended praise to God, the creator of all things. In the first vision, God is enthroned and raining over all the universe and God is praised and worshipped as the creator of everything. This scene right here becomes the setting for the remainder of the book.
Jews and Christians alike share this one core value of faith in God. While John may be dealing with the problem of evil in the world, he is using terms like polytheism or even atheism to describe their opponents. In approaching it that way, John is reinforcing that core value of faith in one God, refusing to compromise that faith, and steadfastly clinging to the one God—the only God—who created the cosmos.
John opens that first vision with seeing a door in the sky or in heaven. We have to remember that heaven and sky are the very same words in both Greek and Hebrew. We also need to keep in mind the cosmology of the ancient world. According to first century thought, there are three layers in the cosmos. Heaven is above, earth is in the middle, and the underworld is below. We can compare that wish to the mythologies of Gilgamesh in Sumer or with the Norse mythologies in northern Europe and Scandinavia.
John hears that trumpet like voice again, telling him “Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.” One thing we have to remember is that, in the Greek language, the word we translate as open means that the door has not only been opened but it remains open.
John then tells us that he was in the spirit at once, much like he had referenced in 1:10. It is being in the spirit that allows John to respond to the invitation to “come up here,” spiritually passing through the door that was opened in heaven; he was able to describe what he saw in this prophetic vision. John then attempts to describe the grandeur and surpassing glory of God who reigns from the throne. But the finite languages of humanity can never quite define the infinite realities that John saw. So, John must use analogies.
We have to remember, that Jewish writers were very reluctant to picture God and this causes John to avoid any truly descriptive detail. So, John uses phrases like the one seated on the throne “looks like jasper and carnelian.” There were several stones called Jasper but the one that John probably has in mind is the one that can be polished into an almost crystalline translucence.
That crystal could act like a prism that created the rainbow around the throne of God. John notices that rainbow that looks like an emerald and he must have been reminded of the rainbow as a sign of God’s mercy. Remember in the book of genesis that God declared mercy to the world that had sinned. As a promise of that mercy, “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant.” That rainbow around the throne and presence of God is telling us that God remains merciful in all that he does.
In Bruce Metzger’s book about Revelation, he remarks that the rainbow is emerald green in color. He writes, “Green is soothing, like meadows and distant forests. Could this mean that after having been exposed to the brilliance of God holiness and God’s wrath against sin, the man at Patmos is comforted by the assurance of Divine Mercy that overarches all of God’s deeds?” All the terrors that are about to unfold remain beneath the covering of this sign of mercy.
Next Week: More of Chapter Four
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