After this I looked and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice which I had heard speaking tome like a trumpet, said, “Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like a jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.
4:1. The second part of the Apocalypse begins at this point and extends to the start of the Epilogue. The author describes visions concerning the future of mankind, particularly the ultimate outcome of history when our Lord Jesus Christ will obtain the final victory at his second coming. It begins with a formal introduction which is followed by a first section as it were covering the visions of the seven seals and the first six trumpets, which describes the event prior to the final battle. The war begins with the sound of the seventh trumpet and it goes until the beast is completely routed and the Kingdom of God is definitively established in the heavenly Jerusalem. This introductory vision begins with God in heaven in all his glory being worshipped and celebrated by all creation. He alone controls the destiny of the world and the Church.
Only Jesus knows God’s salvific plans, and he, through his death and resurrection, reveals them to us. All this is expressed in chapter 4 by the image of the Lamb who is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.
4:1-3. The risen and glorified Christ, who spoke to St. John previously, now invites him, in a new vision, to go up into heaven to be told God’s plan for the world. “I looked, I was in the Spirit, I went up to heaven” all describe the same phenomenon–God revealing something to the writer. Because the things he is being told are things man could not possibly discover for himself, the writer speaks about going up to heaven: this enables him to contemplate heavenly things, that is, God. Going up to heaven is the same as being in ecstasy, “being in the Spirit”, being taken over by the Holy Spirit so as to be able to understand what God wants to reveal to him.
He is going to be shown “what must take place after this”; it is something which has already begin to happening the writer’s own time but it will not reach its climax until the end of the world. The revelation he is given shows him the ultimate meaning of contemporary events, the outcome of which is guaranteed by the authority of the revealer, Jesus Christ.
The description given here of heaven stresses the majesty and power of God. Heaven is depicted with a throne at its center, an image taken from Isaiah(Is 6:1) and Ezekiel(Ezek 1:26-28;10:1). God’s appearance is described in terms of the vivid coloring of precious stones; this avoids the danger of defining God in human terms. The rainbow round the throne further emphasizes the sublimity of God and is also a reminder(Gen 9:12-17) of God’s merciful promise never to destroy mankind.
4:4. God’s sovereignty over the world–as symbolized by the throne–is shared in by others whom the vision also portrays as seated on thrones. They are symbolically described as twenty-four elders who act as a kind of heavenly council or senate. These elders appear frequently in the course of the book, always positioned beside God, rendering him tribute of glory and worship, offering him the prayers of the faithful or explaining events to the seer. It is not clear whether they stand for angels or saints; the Fathers and recent commentators offer both interpretations.
The symbolic number (twenty-four) and the way they are described suggest that they stand for saints in the glory of heaven. They are twenty-four–twelve plus twelve that is, the umber of the tribes of Israel plus that of the apostles. Our Lord in fact promised the latter that they would sit on thrones. The twenty-four elders, then, would represent the heavenly church, which includes the old and the new Israel and which, in heaven, renders God the tribute of perfect praise and intercedes for the Church on earth. The number twenty-four priestly classes of Judaism, thereby emphasizing the liturgical dimension of heaven. Which ever is the case, the white garments indicate that they have achieved everlasting salvation; and the golden crowns stand for the reward they have earned, or their prominence among Christians, who have been promised that, if they came out victorious, they will sit on Christ’s throne.
Through these visions laden with symbolism the Apocalypse shows the solidarity that exists between the Church triumphant and the Church militant–specifically, the connexion between the praise that is rendered God in heaven and that which we offer him on earth, in the liturgy. The Second Vatican Council refers to this: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in the foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating eh memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory”.