Holy, holy, holy

Revelation 4:1-11

15 June 2003

Greyfriars Church


I'm sure everyone here is familiar with the story of The Wizard of Oz: if not from the original book then from the amazing 1939 film in Glorious Technicolor, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy and repeated on television virtually every year since colour TV was invented.

In the story Dorothy is accompanied by three characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion as they journey to reach the eponymous wizard. Each has his own needs he believes only the wizard can help with: the Scarecrow needs some brains; the Tin Man wants a heart; and the Lion needs some courage. And Dorothy wants to get home.

Eventually they reach the Emerald City where the Wizard has his throne room, and are admitted to his presence. At first he seems to be everything that was promised: awesome, powerful and frightening. But then Toto the dog runs behind a screen, knocking it over, and behind it all they find is a harmless little man pulling levers.

Does it ever worry you that the Christian life might be like this? We set our hearts on pilgrimage to God, who alone, we believe, can heal our deepest needs. We battle through adversity, and sometimes it's only the hope of meeting God face to face at the end which keeps us going. What if when we finally arrived in His throne room we found that it had all been a sham: the spiritual equivalent of a little man pulling levers, unable to help us?

Well, the experience that the Apostle John shares with us in Revelation chapter four is there to encourage us. In this chapter John is invited behind the scenes of creation to see what is really going on. He begins, after this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this."ref

John is given an unprecedented glimpse through the curtain of the inner sanctuary, behind the screen into the holy of holies of God. And what he sees could hardly be more different from a little man pulling levers.

So what does he find? I want to describe it under three headings: a Holy Place, a Holy Person, and a Holy something else that I'll reveal when we get to it. It will be enormously helpful if you could possibly keep your Bibles open at Revelation chapter 4 as I'll be referring to it frequently, and straying into chapter 5 as well which we didn't have read out.

A Holy Place

First of all John finds himself in a Holy Place.

The overwhelming feeling of the scene is one of distance, of separateness, which is exactly the definition of holiness. This distance and separateness is shown in a number of ways.

We start in verse 3 with a throne, but John can't quite see who is on the throne. He only sees the blazing glory of light reflecting over precious gemstones: the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow resembling an emerald encircled the throne.ref This reminds us of what it says in our Psalm: he wraps himself in light as with a garmentref. Again, the Apostle Paul says that God is He who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.ref So immediately we are confronted with an unapproachable God; a God who is distant, separate and holy.

In verses five and six we find three more symbols of the separateness of God. There are flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunderref which evoke the memory of the Israelites standing at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. On that occasion Moses is told to put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, 'Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.'ref.

Then there are the seven lamps blazing which remind us of the lampstand with seven lamps that stood in the sanctuary of the tabernacle of God, a place that was all but inaccessible to all but the High Priest of God.

And there is the sea of glass, clear as crystalref, which is perhaps a reminder of the huge bronze basin in the temple, known as the sea which held the water for ritual washing. God says of the priests in Exodus Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water so that they will not die.ref Even its transparency is important: glass in those days was very poor, and semi-opaque. But this glass is clear as crystal. It's yet another sign of God's otherness; His holiness and our uncleanness.

In addition to all this symbolism, there are other things that come between John and God in this scene: the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures. There is considerable debate about exactly who they are and what they represent, and I'm not going to get into that now. But probably the elders represent God's people of the Old and New Covenants: the 12 tribes of the Old, and the 12 apostles of the new. The four living creatures represent the whole of creation, as in "the four corners of the earth". But notice, they are only representatives: the people of God are not in the scene, only the elders that represent them; the whole creation of God is not in this scene, only the living creatures that represent it.

By all these means the separateness of God is emphasised. The distance between Him and us. This is a Holy Place.

A Holy Person

My second heading is that at the centre of the scene is a Holy Person. I've got three subheadings, all from the text and all beginning with "H": holy, holy and holy. They come from the song of the four living creatures in verse 8, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to comeref. Each part of this triad emphasises how different God is from us.


First God is holy because "he was".

Before time itself began God was. He is the creator of everything as the elders tell us in verse 11, you created all things and by your will they were createdref. And as our Psalm puts it he set the earth on its foundations; it can never be movedref.

If God is our creator it means that he owns us. As our creator we owe him all our allegiance, and everything we have. Without Him we would have nothing; we wouldn't even be.

But that's not how most of the world views it, is it? As the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans chapter 1, we have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praisedref. He is holy because he is the creator God, but we have rejected him as our creator and failed to recognise him as such.


Second God is holy because "he is".

God is not only the creator of the universe, he is its sustainer as well. He didn't just light the blue touch paper at the Big Bang and retire to a safe distance. Rather, he is intimately involved with every aspect of His creation as it exists. Again the song of the elders says it in verse 11, you created all things, and by your will they were createdref and have their being.

As God himself declares I Am who I Amref. He is the living God who deserves our worship. Yet which of us gives him the worship he deserves?

Like the elders in verse 10, the only proper response to God's holiness is to fall down before Him and worship Him, isn't it? I love this picture of the elders seated on their own little thrones with crowns on their heads. And that's what we're like, isn't it? We know that God should be on the throne in our lives, yet we constantly wrestle Him off, don't we? We know that we should no longer be rulers in our own lives, yet we're always putting the crowns back on our own heads, aren't we? Again and again we go our own way without God. Daily we make decisions to please ourselves, and without reference to Him.

The elders show us what we ought to do. In verse 10 as they fall down and worship him they lay their crowns before the throneref.

Our daily failure to do this is yet another sign of the gulf between us and the Holy God.


Third God is holy because "he is to come".

Again God's transcendence over His creation is stated. He is to comeref. At some time to come God will preside over Judgement Day on His creation, and parts of the rest of the book of Revelation concern themselves with what will happen at that time. Just as He created the world so He will in His own time wrap up that creation.

This presents us with a problem. The Bible is clear what will happen when the holy heavenly throne room of God collides with the profane fallen creation. As I throw out the offensive contents of my daughter's nappy bin, so God will destroy that which offends Him.

I think this chapter makes it abundantly clear where we stand in relation to the holy God, the Holy Person: there is no place for us in a heaven like this. We could no more survive it than an insect could survive a nuclear blast.

Well, let us thank God, then, for chapter 5!

A Holy People

In chapter 5 the vision moves on a little, and we find not only a Holy Place with a Holy Person, but we find a Holy People as well. I haven't time to do it justice, but I do want to pick out a few key points.

Notice that the whole atmosphere of the scene is changed. From the exclusiveness of chapter four the whole scene has become an inclusive one. The throne room is no longer a rather austere, empty place; now the throne room is full! Look at verse 11, then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.ref, and again in verse 13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!"ref

So what has brought about this astonishing transformation?

Well, now when John looks at the throne he can actually see who is on it, chapter 5 verse 6, Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throneref.

In case we are in any doubt about who it is we are introduced to him in verse 5. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of Davidref. In short he can be no-one else but the Messiah, Jesus himself. And since this is Trinity Sunday I can't help but observe that there he is, on the throne in the place of God, being accorded the worship that belongs to God alone.

Three times we are told something extraordinary about him. In verse 6, the Lamb was looking as if it had been slainref. In verse 9 he is worthy because he was slain. And in verse 12 they sing Worthy is the Lamb, who was slainref.

God Himself was not content to sit alone in the austerity of His holiness as we saw in chapter 4. He is not prepared to allow his people to perish when His holiness collides with our profanity on the last day. No, God's love for His people has compelled him to do something to save us. We ourselves are incapable of being holy, and are therefore incapable of entering God's holy presence. But God Himself is able to make us holy, although not without cost.

The desperateness of our plight required a desperate remedy, and here we se what it is. God himself has shed his blood to pay for the sins that we have committed against Him. Verse 9 spells it out, You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.ref

Because The Holy Person, God himself, has shed his own blood, because he gave the life of his only Son, we can now have a part in the Holy Place, as the kings and priests of God, serving Him as Holy People in the new creation.


Sadly The Wizard of Oz turns out to be an unhelpfully humanist tale. It turns out that the Scarecrow already had brains enough, the Tin Man was perfectly capable of loving, and the Lion had amply demonstrated his courage. As for Dorothy, well it all turned out to have been a dream, didn't it?

That story could not contrast more with the situation that we find ourselves in. Far from a little man pulling levers in the throne room we have a holy, powerful and almighty God who was and is and is to come. As we look upon the events of the world today, and the events of our lives, we need to remember this. Remember John's open door into heaven and what lies beyond it. Try to see beyond the day to day activity and troubles of this world to the reality that lies beyond: our Holy God who was and is and is to come.

But His very holiness presents us with a problem far more serious than any of those in Dorothy's posse. His very holiness condemns us forever to be unable to come to Him and eventually to destruction.

Unlike the ineffectual Wizard, however, our God has given us a very real solution to that very real problem. He has shed his own atoning blood on the cross that it might cover over our unholiness, that we might at last enter his glorious presence and be part of this wonderful scene.

Won't that be wonderful? I enjoy singing well enough here, but can you imagine what it will be like to join with all creation singing, To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!ref. Amen!