Some Christians would tell them: “Back off a little. Surely God would not want you to experience such difficult things. He would want you to be happy.” Others may not say that, but would simply think and communicate, “Well, that is just the way things are in this broken world when Christians try to witness.” And, behind this thought may be the thinking that though God may have known ahead of time this would happen, he does not have the ability (or maybe doesn’t have the desire) to influence human free choices so that he can do anything about it or can bring good results from it. In other words, “If you keep witnessing, you are on your own.”
I say these are responses many would give because they reflect the way that many Christians view both God and living on mission. And, if these are the views we have of God—coupled with the thinking that our salvation is a free gift that means it doesn’t really matter whether or not we live differently or on mission—it is easy to see why the vast majority of Christians (some say well over 95%) never even attempt to share the gospel with others.
This brings up an additional question: How would the Bible respond to this situation and seek to encourage us, our children, or our grandchildren? We don’t have to guess at the answer, since John addresses this very issue in the book of Revelation.
In Revelation we have already discovered that at the very core of who we are and what we are to do, the church is to live on mission, as disciplemaking witnesses to Christ (1:6, 20; 2:4 [see also 5:10; 11:1-14; 12:11, et. al.]). Yet, we have also learned that in this broken, cursed, sinful world, this typically leads to persecution—through which we are to persevere (1:9; 2:7, 9-10, 11, 17, 19, 25-26; 3:3, 5, 8-10, 12, 21). It is true that we do not want to be unnecessarily caustic or pushy. But, the reality is that if we are never receiving pushback at least to some degree for our gospel ministry, then we either are not living missionally, or we are sharing a false gospel (see Mt. 5:10-12; John 15:18-27; 2 Tim. 3:12)!
One of the main purposes of Revelation is to give comfort and encouragement to persecuted Christians in this age and also to spur the church on to faithful, enduring witness in spite of such tribulation. And the center, the very hub, of this message, is found in chapters 4-5. These chapters, which are still addressed to the seven churches in Asia of chapters 2-3, the seven churches who represent the worldwide church of all time, form the theological foundation of the book.
And, what they teach by way of a vision John saw is that the church finds strength and comfort to persevere, as well as motivation to live on mission, from the sweet reality that God is absolutely sovereign and, as such, through God the Son, is carrying out his plan of redemption for the world.
1. The Reality of God’s Sweet Sovereignty For The Church In This Current Age. 4:1-11
The unpacking of this reality that encourages, comforts, and motivates Christians includes nine truths, four of which we will explore in this post and the remaining five in the next.
a. The Vision Does Not Present What Is Next Chronologically In History, But What Is Next In John’s Sequence Of Visions He Received. 1
The clause, “after this I looked,” or ones similar to it, merely introduce the next vision John receives, not necessarily what takes place next chronologically in history (see 7:1, 9; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1). This is important for us to understand since some interpreters of Revelation have suggested these verses introduce what will happen in the future, after Christ has returned, and the church is raptured before a time of tribulation. Then, what happens in chapters 6-20 is perhaps a chronological depiction of what will happen at that time in the future. Because of how this clause is used elsewhere, as well as many other bits of evidence (some of which are here in chapter four and we will address soon), we should not expect these chapters merely to unfold events that happen in the future after Christ’s return.
b. The Vision Depicts Heaven To Be Like A Temple With A Throne Room In It. 1-2
We know this because John writes: “and behold, a door standing open in heaven! …At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” This makes clear that what John sees is a throne room. Later statements in the vision clarify that what is also depicted is a temple in which priests serve and from which God carries out his salvation of mankind (see 4:4, 10; 5:6, 8, 9-10, 13-14). So, what this vision is symbolizing (remember 1:1, that God is symbolizing what is taking place!) is that the salvation of mankind is emanating from this temple throne room. The manner in which this salvation activity or history is carried out or applied will be shown in chapters 6-20. But here is where it starts.
c. The Vision Communicates That God Is Absolutely Sovereign Over History In This Age—In A Manner That Humans Make Free And Responsible Choices (In The Biblical Sense Of These Words). 1-2
This truth emerges from the following clauses: “…with God sitting on the throne…and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” The word “throne” appears seventeen times in Revelation 4-5, and twenty-one times in the rest of Revelation (chapters 6-22). From this, we know that whatever it speaks of, it is emphasized throughout the book, but especially in chapters 4-5. As it is fleshed out in the structure of the rest of the book and how all the subsequent visions flow out of Rev. 4-5, it shows God is King over all the world and its events. As we will be reminded of shortly, the main focus is on the events of this age in which we currently live—between the first and second comings of Christ.
The way that theologians typically refer to this truth that God is king is to say that he is sovereign or that he possesses the attribute of sovereignty. The kind of sovereignty displayed is absolute, meaning that it is in no way conditional upon or limited by human choices (or even his prior knowledge of those choices). In other words, it is a kind of sovereignty by which God initiates and determines all that takes place. We know this is the kind of sovereignty presented here for the following reasons:
(1) As we will unpack over the next couple of weeks, the structure of the book of Revelation suggests that God, in his sovereignty, determines all that takes place.
(2) The way Revelation 4:11 is worded, as will be seen when we come to the end of chapter 4, supports the assertion God’s sovereignty is absolute.
(3) The scroll of chapter 5 that symbolizes the events of history suggests a meticulous (down to the very smallest details and choices) governance of those events by God.
(4) The language of Rev. 5:9-10 strongly suggests that the same group of people Jesus ransomed, he also will transform into a kingdom and priest to God—which strongly implies he is able to influence all kinds of people (from all over the world) to trust in him and be transformed into missional people. This means he can decisively turn the hearts and choices of humans such that he is absolutely in control over them.
(5) In Rev. 6:11 John affirms that the very number of Christians in this age who will be killed because of their faith has been determined by God’s sovereign will. This means that even something as evil as the killing of his people for their faith (arguably the most evil thing in the world that can happen) has been sovereignly determined by God, including who will kill, who will be killed, how many, when will they be killed, what are the decisions that stand behind the martyrs and the killers coming together, and what are the decisions behind the killers taking their actions, just to name a few.
(6) The trajectory of Revelation 4-22 is such that all which God has said would take place in this age and in the age to come, down to the most minute detail, will take place, because he is able to determine that outcome.
(7) That God possesses absolute sovereignty, carried out through his meticulous or detailed governance of all things, is also taught elsewhere in Scripture (1 Chronicles 29:10-18; Prov. 16:33; 21:1; Isaiah 46:9-11; Acts 4:28; 13:48; Rom. 8:28-30; 9:13-23, et. al.).
Why is it important we grasp God is sovereign in an absolute sense? In the book of Revelation, it is important because it reminds suffering believers that not one bad, difficult, or evil thing comes to them that has not first passed through God’s hands. In other words, he can and does have a purpose for it, and he can and will fulfill all his promises to such suffering Christians. Such promises cannot be thwarted by any event or being (seen or unseen)! As hard as it is to get our heads and hearts around, we know that if we or someone else is suffering because of our faith, God has decided he would permit this to take place according to his sovereign plan.
The reality that God has determined who and how many would be martyred for their faith (Rev. 6:11) and yet over and over again chapters 8-18 makes it clear he will judge such persecutors, means that free, responsible, real human choices (in the biblical sense of these words) are compatible with absolute divine sovereignty. This also is taught elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Gen. 50:20; 1 Chronicles 29:10-18; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Phil. 2:12-13).
d. This Vision Is Strongly Connected Into Chapters 1-3 And So It Pertains To The Current Age And Not Merely Some Future Time At The End Of This Age When The Church Is Raptured. 1-2
This truth is seen in the following ways.
(1) The following clauses, “And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet,” and “At once I was in the Spirit,” all allude back to 1:10, where John introduces his first vision: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.” At the very least, this leads us to expect that what John sees here alludes to the same general time frame as that of chapter 1, which we have already seen applies to the church in this age. This is strengthened by the next piece of evidence.
(2) The clause, “I will show you what must take place after this,” we have already seen from 1:1, 19, is dependent upon Daniel 2:28, 29, 45, where Daniel interprets a vision King Nebuchadnezzar had, which looked a considerable distance into the future to see what would happen in the end times. John is making the point that he and we now live in the era of fulfillment. Because of the repetition of this clause, we are to conclude that the vision also focuses upon what is true in this age and not what is true of a future time when there is a rapture of the church out of this world.
(3) The vision of God the Father on his throne and the Son/Lamb with him is strongly connected into and may very well be a further explanation of the statement John makes in 3:21: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
(4) Revelation 3:21 also introduces a truth that also is alluded to in the vision of Revelation 4-5 and thus displays the strong connection between Jesus’ first having conquered and the church being able to conquer (see 5:5 and also the call to conquer that is given to each of the seven churches).
(5) It is emphasized in 5:9-10 that the redeemed are a kingdom and priest to God, which shows the New Covenant Church carries out the original mission given to Israel as seen in Exodus 19:6. This same point is also made in 1:6.
When we remember that every one of the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 begins with a description of Jesus that comes right out of Rev. 1, every one of the promises given to the seven churches is seen as fulfilled in Revelation 21-22, and that chapters 6-22 flow right out of the throne room vision of Revelation 4-5 (compare 5:2, 5 with 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1-7; 11:15-19; 15:1ff.), we understand that the entire book is tightly put together and that chapters 1-20 all refer to this age and chapters 21-22 refer to the age to come (the latter in a manner that flows out of the former).
The conclusion, then, is that Rev. 4:1 cannot refer to a future secret rapture of the church, which would put all the events of chapters 6-20 into the future and after that rapture. Those who have read the book in this manner have misread it.
In our next post we will cover the remaining five truths that unpack the reality of God’s sweet sovereignty in this current age.
Joyfully Resting On Our Sovereign God’s With You,