A. Summary of Past Lessons
John’s Introduction and Greeting to the Seven Churches (Rev 1)
Letters to the Seven Churches (Rev 2-3)
John Taken to Heaven To See the Twenty-Four Elders (4:1-6b)
B. Text of Rev 4:6b-11
“6bin the midst of the throne and around the throne were four living beings full of eyes in front and in back. 7The first living being was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man’s face, and the fourth was like an eagle flying through the air. 8Each one of the four living beings had six wings and were covered with eyes around and within. During the day and during the night they never stopped singing:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty. The one who was, is, and is still to come.’
9Whenever the living beings give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), 10the twenty-four elders fall down in front of the one who sits on the throne and they worship the one who lives forever and ever. These twenty-four elders lay their crowns in front of the throne saying:
11‘You are worthy—our Lord and God—to receive honor, glory, and power because you created everything. By your will everything exists and was created.’” (Rev 4:6b-11) 1
Bamberg Apocalypse Bible (AD 1000)
II. THE FOUR LIVING BEINGS (4:6b-9)
A. Location of the Four Living Beings (v. 6b)
Καὶ ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου καὶ κύκλῳ τοῦ θρόνου τέσσαρα ζῷα γέμοντα ὀφθαλμῶν ἔμπροσθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν.
“in the midst of the throne and around the throne were four living beings full of eyes in front and in back” (Rev 4:6b)
In my translation I render the word, μέσος, as “midst” in order to show that these four living beings are close to the throne but also separate from it. Here’s a brief list of other translations of this word:
- “the midst” in LEB, KJV 1900, NKJV, AV 1873
- “the center” in NLT, NASB95, NIV
- “around” in ESV, NRSV
B. Identity of the Four Living Beings (v. 7)
καὶ τὸ ζῷον τὸ πρῶτον ὅμοιον λέοντι καὶ τὸ δεύτερον ζῷον ὅμοιον μόσχῳ καὶ τὸ τρίτον ζῷον ἔχων τὸ πρόσωπον ὡς ἀνθρώπου καὶ τὸ τέταρτον ζῷον ὅμοιον ἀετῷ πετομένῳ.
“The first living being was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man’s face, and the fourth was like an eagle flying through the air.” (Rev 4:7)
Numerous explanations have been given for the identity of these four living beings. It is important to note that the background to these four living beings is in Ezek 1:5-25; 10; Isa 6:2. A brief overview of the different interpretations of the living beings is given here based on Grant Osborne’s excellent summary (Osborne, Revelation, 233-235).
1. The Four Gospels
In this view—which was popular with the church fathers—the four living beings are identified with the four Gospels. However, which animal represents which Gospel is disputed.
In his excellent commentary Robert Tomas outlines the historical and contemporary views of the four living beings representing the four Gospels (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 355).
- Human Face = Matthew
- Eagle = Mark
- Ox = Luke
- John = John
- Lion = Matthew
- Man = Mark
- Ox = Luke
- Eagle = John
- Man = Matthew
- Ox = Mark
- Lion = Luke
- Eagle = John
The most common view is that Matthew presents Jesus as king, therefore he is represented as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Mark presents Jesus as the Servant of the Lord, which is the ox. Luke emphasizes Jesus’s humanity and therefore is represented by the human face. Finally, John presents Jesus as deity, so the eagle is used.
2. Four Corners of the Zodiac – Babylonian Mythology
Because there is a connection to Ezek 1:5-25 and because Ezekiel lived in Babylon, some have believed that these four living beings are connected to Babylonian mythology. More specifically, since Ezekiel lived in Babylon he would have been familiar with the temples in Babylon which regularly used winged creatures resembling oxen, lions, eagles’ heads, and human bodies. Furthermore, the Babylonian Zodiac was a detailed description of the stars in the sky which outlined different animals.
- Taurus – the ox
- Leo – the lion
- Scorpio – the man
- Aquarius – the eagle
This view is unlikely for several reasons. First, John never relies on astrology for other symbols or interpretation in the book of Revelation. Second, the use of Aquarius representing the eagle is unexplainable because no eagle was ever used in the Babylonian Zodiac. Third, it is unlikely that John would reference the Babylonian culture when writing to people in a Roman culture with a Jewish background. The people John was writing to would have had no historical understanding or comprehension of astrology that was 600 years old and etched into another country’s culture.
3. Assyrian and Babylonian Representations of Royalty
Similar to the second view, some see connections to the Assyrian and Babylonian representations of royalty based on the winged sphinxes and winged lions that were depicted in those days. However, this view is very unlikely because John was writing in a Roman context to Jewish people. There would have been little Assyrian or Babylonian knowledge to use for these images.
4. Divine Attributes and Spiritual Characteristics of God
This view believes that just as the Holy Spirit is represented by the seven torches (Rev 4:5) God is represented by the four living beings. The fact that these living beings have eyes all over can signify the omnipotence and omnipresence of God who knows everything.
- Lion – It is the king of beasts and represents courage, majesty, and omnipotence.
- Ox – It is the most important domestic animal and represents patience, strength, and continuous labor.
- Man – Is the greatest of all living creatures, especially in the areas of intelligence, rational power, and spirituality.
- Eagle – It is the greatest of all birds and is symbolic of sovereignty, supremacy, and swiftness of action.
This view lacks some support in Revelation because these creatures are never worshiped in the book. This view is held by Walvoord, Revelation, 104.
5. Four Tribes of Israel
Some believe that the four living beings represent four of the tribes of Israel: Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan). Why these four out of the twelve tribes? These four tribes had their family banners stationed around the tabernacle (see Num 2).
6. Angels Representing the Whole Animate Creation
This view seems to be most popular. In this view, the four living beings represent the “noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in God’s creation” (Osborne, Revelation, 234). They are an exalted order of angelic beings.
Support for this view includes the four faces drawn from Ezek 1:10; 10:14, the eyes all around from Ezek 1:18, and the six wings from Isa 6:2. Additional Old Testament support is seen in how the cherubim and seraphim stand guard over the tree of life (Gen 3:24), each stood at the ends of the ark of the covenant with their wings stretched over it (Exod 25:18-20), they led worship (Isa 6:3), and they bore God’s chariot through heaven (Ezek 1:19-21; 2 Sam 22:11; Pss 18:10). In the book of Revelation these four living beings lead worship (4:6-9; 5:8-9, 11; 19:4), stand at the throne (5:6; 7:11; 14:3), and pour out judgment (6:1, 3, 5-7; 15:7).
This view is held by Osborne, Revelation, 234; Metzger, Breaking the Code, 50; Mulholland, Revelation (2011), 460.
C. Description of the Four Living Beings (v. 8)
καὶ τὰ τέσσαρα ζῷα, ἓν καθʼ ἓν αὐτῶν ἔχων ἀνὰ πτέρυγας ἕξ, κυκλόθεν καὶ ἔσωθεν γέμουσιν ὀφθαλμῶν, καὶ ἀνάπαυσιν οὐκ ἔχουσιν ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς λέγοντες·
ἅγιος ἅγιος ἅγιος κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ,
ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος.
“Each one of the four living beings had six wings and were covered with eyes around and within. During the day and during the night they never stopped singing: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty. The one who was, is, and is still to come.’” (Rev 4:8)
1. Eyes Around and Within
“Some translations render ἔσωθεν (esōthen) as ‘under [its] wings,’ but the description could also mean ‘filled all around on the outside and on the inside with eyes.’ Since the referent is not available to the interpreter, the exact force is difficult to determine.” (NET Translation Note)
The “eyes around and within” suggests “unsleeping watchfulness, as the creatures perceive everything in every direction” (Metzger, Breaking the Code, 51).
2. Worship Day and Night
Dan Wallace describes this “day and night” as a genitive of time. But in reference to 1 Thess 2:9, Wallace says as a genitive of time it does not mean non-stop day and night, twenty-four hours a day. Instead, the idea is that when the person is awake and able, he worships (Wallace, Greek Grammar, 124). Nonetheless, the primary role of these four living beings is to praise and worship God.
3. Holy, Holy, Holy
One Greek grammar I often reference says the phrase, “holy, holy, holy” is an “epanadipolis.” An epanadipolis are words repeated for emphasis. In this case, it is a direct report of the words actually spoken (BDF, Greek Grammar, §493(1), p. 261). This phrase is also called the “Trisagion” from Isa 6:3.
4. Is, Was, and Is Still to Come
While the phrase might be placed in a slightly different order in other parts of the book, the phrase “the one who was, is, and is still to come” is seen in Rev 1:4, 8; 11:17; and 16:15 based on the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) seen in Exod 3:14. Most importantly, the connection between Rev 4:8 and John 1:1-3 is more than coincidental (Wallace, Greek Grammar, 237).
D. Worship of the Four Living Beings (v. 9)
Καὶ ὅταν δώσουσιν τὰ ζῷα δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ εὐχαριστίαν τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ τῷ ζῶντι εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων,
“Whenever the living beings give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever),” (Rev 4:9)
1. When or Whenever?
Some say a proper translation uses the word “when” to show that these four beings will give worship at the end times after the book of Revelation has been completed. However, the previous verse states that these living beings worship day and night. The worship seems to be here and now, not waiting until a future period of time. Therefore “whenever” is a more accurate translation.
2. Forever and Ever
What exactly exists forever and ever? Only God? Only his believers? Osborne provides a great outline of what exists forever and ever as described in the book of Revelation:
- God’s everlasting majesty (1:6; 5:13; 7:12)
- Christ’s eternal glory and reign (1:18; 5:13; 11:15)
- Eternal judgment for unbelievers (14:11; 19:3; 20:10)
- Eternal reward for the faithful (22:5) (Osborne, Revelation, 239)
III. THE TWENTY-FOUR ELDERS WORSHIP GOD (4:10-11)
A. How the Twenty-Four Elders Move in Worship (v. 10)
πεσοῦνται οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες πρεσβύτεροι ἐνώπιον τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου καὶ προσκυνήσουσιν τῷ ζῶντι εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων καὶ βαλοῦσιν τοὺς στεφάνους αὐτῶν ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου λέγοντες·
“the twenty-four elders fall down in front of the one who sits on the throne and they worship the one who lives forever and ever. These twenty-four elders lay their crowns in front of the throne saying:” (Rev 4:10)
1. Twenty-Four Elders Worship
Again we see the twenty-four elders from Rev 4:1-6a. These elders (whoever they might be) clearly are subject to the holy one who sits on the throne. They recognize the one who sits on the throne to be God and they worship him accordingly.
2. True God
Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar provides an excellent explanation of the worship of the “true God.” He notes that τῷ ζῶντι is a dative of direct object. The dative case is often used as the direct object of the verb, προσκυνεω, when true deity is in view (also used this way in Matt 14:33; 28:9; John 4:21; 1 Cor 14:25; Heb 1:6; Rev 4:10; 7:11; 11:16; 19:10; 22:9). However, if there is worship of someone or something other than the true God, the direct object of προσκυνεω is in the accusative case (see Rev 9:20; 13:8, 12; 14:9, 11; 20:4) (Wallace, Greek Grammar, 172). The basic and oversimplified idea here is that John indicates worship of the true God here with the dative while elseware showing false worship with the accusative.
3. Lay Down the Crown
Walvoord writes that “by casting their crowns before the throne they testify that if it had not been for God’s grace, salvation, and goodness, they could not have had victory over sin and death. Here the creature honors, and is subject to, his Creator” (Walvoord, Revelation, 106). These crowns are gifts from God and are given back to God in worship (Metzger, Breaking the Code, 51).
B. What the Twenty-Four Elders Say in Worship (v. 11)
ἄξιος εἶ, ὁ κύριος καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν,
λαβεῖν τὴν δόξαν καὶ τὴν τιμὴν καὶ τὴν δύναμιν,
ὅτι σὺ ἔκτισας τὰ πάντα
καὶ διὰ τὸ θέλημά σου ἦσαν καὶ ἐκτίσθησαν.
“’You are worthy—our Lord and God—to receive honor, glory, and power because you created everything. By your will everything exists and was created.’” (Rev 4:11)
1. Our Lord and God
It is said that the Emperor of Rome, Domitian, called himself “Lord and God” during his reign. And if not during his reign he definitely was defined as a god shortly after his death. Whatever the timing of the book of Revelation’s writing (i.e., before or during Domitian’s reign) may be, it is clear that these twenty-four elders are defining the God in heaven as the true Lord and God of believers. It is clear that the Christian God is a heavenly god (1:8; 4:8, 11; 11:4, 15, 17; 15:3, 4; 16:7; 18:8; 19:6; 21:22; 22:5, 26), not earthly.
2. God as Creator
Perhaps one of the clearest statements of the entire Bible is that God created the world and universe that we live in (Gen 1-2; Pss 19:1-2; 33:6-9; 102:25; 136:5-9; Isa 40:28; 45:18; Eph 3:9; Col 1:16; Rev 3:14; 4:11; 10:6; 14:7; 21:1). When the text says that everything was created “by your will” it means that God is the cause of creation.
IV. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. We should follow the example of beings created higher than us.
Psalm 8:5 says, “You have made them [humans] a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor” (NIV, cf. Heb 2:7). There is some idea in the Bible that angels are a created order of beings higher than us in hierarchy. Here’s a brief list of the characteristics of angels: created finite and perfect, innumerable, have immortal spirits, possess extraordinary powers, and organized in a hierarchy. Here’s a brief list of their ministry: heavenly worship and service, divine judgment, announcement and guidance to believers, agents of answered prayer, protect and care for believers (A special thanks goes to J. Scott Horrell for his fabulous notes on angels from my Systematic Theology 103 class at Dallas Theological Seminary.)
The point is that angels are given more information on God and are created beings with superior knowledge and intelligence than us. If they are so magnificent and they worship God in this way, shouldn’t we do the same?
B. We must worship the correct God, and the Bible tells us who that is.
I’ve used some Greek grammar in Rev 4:10 to help us see one way that John identifies the true God and who we should worship. Worship should be an action that we have in our lives every day. Through God’s word he has provided us numerous and numerous examples of who the true God is. All sixty-six books describe who he is and why we should worship him and only him. Perhaps one of God’s purposes of giving the Bible to us is so that we would know who he is so that we can worship him.
- Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own ↩