Our Eternal Worship
“Between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
‘Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.’
“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.” 
My longsuffering wife is mystified that our daughters inherited my strange sense of humour. Among my treasured possessions are several books of cartoons by Berkeley Breathed; they were Christmas gifts from my eldest daughter. Though the book was published over two decades ago, I still laugh heartily at Opus’ antics in “The Last Basselope.” For years, Rochelle gave me collections of “Calvin and Hobbs” cartoons and “Far Side” cartoons. For years, she was faithful to send me “Far Side” calendars, each of which provided me with daily opportunities for hearty laughter.
The Far Side calendars were published for far too brief a period, Gary Larsen now being retired. His cartoons often reflected a popular view of Heaven. One gift from my youngest daughter was a tee shirt with a cartoon emblazoned on the front. The cartoon is captioned: “Life on Cloud Eight.” In that particular cartoon, a couple, seated in easy chairs, is seen floating on a cloud. Above them is yet another cloud, music wafting from an unseen location within or atop the upper cloud and raucous laughter emanating from the same unseen location. The wife is saying to the husband, “You know, George, this isn’t so bad—but the folks up above sure seem to live it up.”
Our heavenly home is frequently caricatured. It envisions people floating around on clouds, wearing bathrobes and plucking harps. Nothing could be further from the reality presented in the Word. Such inaccurate representations of our eternal service should perhaps be expected. Those who reject the Word would not be expected to appeal to the revelation of God, and those who attest to the veracity of the Word are often unaware of what God has to say about Heaven.
We should ask ourselves, “What will we do in Heaven?” Asking such a question, we rightly anticipate that the answer will be found in the Book of Revelation. Consulting the Word of God, we discover that we will be eternally occupied in Heaven. However, unlike our situation here on earth, we will not tire of our work, for it will no longer be characterised as toil. In order to explore more thoroughly this great, fulfilling occupation of the saints in glory, join me in study of John’s writings.
WHO WILL BE IN HEAVEN — Understand that the Apocalypse describes the course of human history. The key to the Book is provided in REVELATION 1:19. There, the Risen Son of God commands the exiled Apostle, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Thus, the book is divided into the things that John has witnessed [REVELATION 1:1-20], a summary account of the Age of Grace [REVELATION 2:1-3:22], and a synopsis of the Great Tribulation that ushers in eternity with a brief glimpse of our eternal home [REVELATION 4:1-22:21].
In chapters two and three, John summarises this present Church Age, also known as the Age of Grace, that period between the Cross of Calvary and the removal of the saints from the world. I note that CHAPTER FOUR begins with the words “after this”—metà taûta. Throughout the remainder of the book, these words serve to alert the reader to a transition in the narrative. Seven times, John shifts our attention from events that he is describing so that we can consider what is happening elsewhere.
As an example of this transition, in CHAPTER 1:19, the Risen Son of God tells John that he is to write of what will take place soon—“after this.” In other words, John is to provide a review of the entire Church Age through the missives to the seven churches, which he does by the literary device of the letters. Then, having reviewed the course of the Church Age, John transitions again in REVELATION 4:1 when he writes, “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’”
John has been reviewing the Age of the Church, but it is coming to an end and his focus switches to events in Heaven following the Rapture of the Church. On earth, the Great Tribulation is beginning as the Lamb of God begins to unleash judgement on the unbelieving world. However, our focus for this message, and John’s focus for the next two chapters, is Heaven itself, and especially who is there and what is happening there.
In Heaven, we are first introduced to One seated on a glorious emerald throne [REVELATION 4:2, 3]. This is the Father, whose appearance beggars human tongue; John is reduced to speaking of colour as he attempts to describe the beauty of what is seen. He is incapable of telling us anything beyond the radiant beauty of His Person. Before the throne burn “seven torches of fire” [REVELATION 4:5], describing, according to John, the seven-fold Spirit of God. Shortly, he will introduce the Lamb of God, the Lion of the tribe of Judah [REVELATION 5:5 ff.]. On the basis of these verses, we may be confident that the Triune God will be fully known to us in Heaven.
In Heaven, we are also introduced to countless angels. The Apostle witnesses “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angels surrounding the emerald throne [REVELATION 5:11]. Language is impoverished by the number of angels; so, John is unable to calculate the number of angels attending the throne of the Father; therefore, he simply says there are “countless thousands plus thousands of thousands” [HOLMAN CHRISTIAN STANDARD BIBLE].
He presents four living creatures, cherubim, that he sees attending the Father on His beautiful, emerald throne [REVELATION 4:6b-8]. Ezekiel had described these angels, or angels that are akin to them, as the ones that he first saw as his prophecy began [EZEKIEL 1:4-14]. He identified them as cherubs [EZEKIEL 10:15]; these are likely the heavenly attendants John also saw.
There is one other group that John sees in Heaven—the redeemed of the earth. John writes of “twenty-four elders” [REVELATION 4:4]. These elders represent the saved—the redeemed of the ages. Why do I say that John saw the redeemed of the ages?
These elders cannot be angels since throughout this book these elders are always distinguished from the angels. For instance, whenever God receives praise throughout the book, John is careful to say that the angels who praise Him, or to state that the four living creatures praise Him or to inform us that the twenty-four elders praise Him. In REVELATION 5:11 these three groups are carefully and deliberately distinguished from each other.
Also, angels are never numbered. There are “myriads” and “thousands,” but the angels are never numbered. Though God knows the angels and calls them by name [ISAIAH 40:26], He does not number them. In contradistinction to that lack of enumeration, the elders are numbered, leading us to understand that God knows the number of those who are His. God always treats His people as individuals; He knows the number of those who are to be saved; He also knows the name of each one who is redeemed. If you are a Christians, you are saved as an individual; and though you will unite with all the redeemed of the ages to glorify the Saviour, yet you are privileged to praise Him now as a redeemed individual.
God tallies the number of the individuals who were saved at Pentecost and in the days following [ACTS 2:41; 4:4]. He enumerated the tribes of Israel [NUMBERS 1:2 ff.]. He carefully counted the fish that He gave as a gift to disheartened disciples [JOHN 21:11]. Numbers are important to God, and especially important is the count of the saved. However, though God knows the number of the redeemed, He nevertheless treats each saved person individually.
Let me pause for a moment to speak directly to this congregation. Numbers are important to God; but in the midst of numbers, we must never lose sight of the individual. We should make every effort to fill the House of the Lord with people, rejoicing in the vast assemblage of those who come to worship and to learn of the Saviour. However, even as we fill the House, we must never forget that as we count individuals, individuals count. It is for this reason that in the third of John’s brief letters he urges Gaius to “greet the friends by name” [3 JOHN 15, HCSB].
Again in Revelation, the elders are clothed in white garments, indicating their redeemed status. The Master promised the Church in Sardis that the “one who conquers will be clothed … in white garments” [REVELATION 3:5]. The elders are also portrayed as wearing golden crowns “on their heads” [REVELATION 4:4]. You are perhaps aware that in the Greek tongue there are two words that may be translated into English by the word “crown.” One of those words is the word diádēma, from which we obtain the English word “diadem.” This word speaks of the crown of a ruler. The other word, stephános, refers to the crown that a victor wins. Christians are never promised a diádēma, but we are repeatedly promised that we shall receive a stephános. Each of the twenty-four elders wears a stephános, signifying that they have been adjudged victorious.
To reinforce the identification of the twenty-four elders as the saved of the ages, consider that the song they sing ascribes praise to the Lamb of God because He “ransomed people for God,” making them rulers and priests to God [REVELATION 5:9, 10]. We are left to understand that at one time, these twenty-four elders were sinful people, but now the Lamb of God has redeemed them and thus they are praising God before His throne.
Why are there twenty-four elders? Why not thirteen, or thirty-six? I believe the answer to that question lies in the significance of numbers. There were twelve patriarchs of Israel, and there were twelve Apostles. God’s redeemed society is made up of the redeemed of the ages. These are people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The twenty-four elders represent the saved of the ages up to the moment of the Rapture.
The sequence of those seen is significant. John first sees God on His throne. This is as it should be—we worship God. The Lord God redeems us and gives us life; the Living God showered mercy and grace on us, ensuring that we have hope and joy and peace. The True God calls us by His Name and ensures that we shall never be condemned. Therefore, it is appropriate that John should see God first.
Immediately after he sees the Lord God, John sees the redeemed of the ages. Before ever he sees the angels, before becoming aware of God’s Spirit, John sees God’s redeemed. Angels are powerful beings; but we who are saved by God’s mercy will judge the angels [1 CORINTHIANS 6:3]. The holy angels of God are identified as “ministering spirits sent out for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” [HEBREWS 1:14]. It is natural that John would take notice of the redeemed before noting the angels.
Angels cannot be saved, but rebellious people are objects of God’s love. Powerful though they may be, the angels of God are not the glory of the Lord; God’s redeemed are identified as His glory. Saved people are called the Lord’s “treasured possession” [MALACHI 3:17]. When He returns, our Lord Jesus Christ will be “glorified in His saints.” Moreover, His Name shall be glorified in those who are saved [2 THESSALONIANS 1:10, 12]. The Master clearly states this truth in His High Priestly Prayer. He says to the Father, “All mine are yours, and all yours are mine, and I am glorified in them” [JOHN 17:10].
Perhaps it is natural that a redeemed individual would take note of the redeemed of the ages before noting the angels of God, but why should John not take note of the seven-fold Spirit until after he has noted the redeemed of the Lord? Wouldn’t you imagine that he would mention the Spirit of God before naming the elders? In our day, many fine Christians have perpetuated a serious distortion of the Word of God in stressing the Spirit of God at the expense of the Father and of the Son.
Within the churches, there is frequently undue stress upon the Spirit of God, a stress that He can neither have sanctioned nor energised. Have you ever wondered why there are no hymns of praise to the Spirit of God in the Word of God? Contemporary theology would lead me to imagine a greater emphasis upon the Spirit in the Scriptures. Yet, the Word of God is relatively silent concerning His Person, though the Father and the Son are described in some detail.
As He prepared His disciples for His departure, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit—or as he called Him, “the Helper,” [JOHN 14:16]. Though He is indeed one Person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of God does not draw attention to Himself. Rather, ever and always He points to the Son of God. The Spirit of God was to bring to the mind of the Apostles all that the Son had said [JOHN 14:26]. He would do this in order to glorify the Son. He would teach the disciples, just as He instructs the Lord’s disciples to this day, focusing attention on the Saviour.
Listen as the Master expands on the work of the Spirit following the Resurrection. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” [JOHN 16:7-14].
Unpack the words the Master spoke, and you will see that the Spirit of God is submitted voluntarily to the Son of God. The Father sent the Son, and the Son sends the Spirit to His people. The Spirit of God guides the people of God into all truth, speaking what He hears from the Son. I direct you to take special note of the 14th VERSE: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The Spirit of God does not draw attention to Himself; rather, He always points to the Son of God.
Whenever someone emphasises the Spirit of God, it is certain that the Spirit of God did not energise that effort. Whenever someone glorifies the Spirit of God, you may be confident that the Spirit has nothing to do with that effort. Where the Spirit holds sway, He points to Christ. Just so, when John begins to tell us who is in Heaven, he notes the redeemed of the Lord before ever He sees the Spirit.
In Heaven are God, the redeemed of the Lord, and the angels, including the seraphs and the cherubs. Through faith in the Risen Son of God, you, also, can be assured of Heaven. This is the promise of God; this is the heritage of the redeemed. Life eternal is freely offered to all who believe, and hope is given together with that life.
WHAT IS GOING ON IN HEAVEN — Well might we wonder what is happening in Heaven? John sees the Lamb of God as He enters the courts of Heaven; He bears the marks of one who died violently. Throughout all eternity Jesus will bear the marks of His crucifixion. That which is ugly and unsightly—marks of violent death—is transformed into something beautiful. Our sin required the spotless Lamb of God to give His life as a sacrifice. In our helpless condition, He intervened to take upon Himself the sentence of death that we deserved. Now, by His sacrifice, we are set free from the penalty of death.
God is in the business of transforming what is ugly into that which is beautiful. The wounds in His hands and in His feet, the raw gash in His side, the brow pierced by cruel thorns, are all changed into marks that can only be said to be beautiful. Indeed, the Apostle is correct in testifying to believers that “by His wounds you have been healed” [1 PETER 2:24]. The saying is indeed true for the child of God, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty” [ISAIAH 33:17]. The enduring beauty of the King is that He has changed our wickedness into salvation; He has transformed our evil into good.
The knowledge of God’s transforming power serves to encourage each child of God. You who have perhaps suffered greatly in this life—perhaps through the dissolution of a marriage, perhaps through the enforced separation resulting from the death of a loved one, perhaps through being slandered and hurt through the thoughtless actions of others, perhaps through a life scarred by physical injury or emotional trauma—whatever the sorrow that has marred your life, know that the Lamb of God can transform your hurt into that which is beautiful. To His people, the Lord has promised that He has come
“to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
[ISAIAH 61:3, NASV]
Though sorrow and pain now marks your path through this present life, I urge you to look forward to something greater, something more glorious. There is a day, when in Heaven God will comfort us and transform our groans into praise.
Whenever I officiate at an interment following the funeral of a Christian, I encourage hope with these words: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’” [REVELATION 21:1-4].
John witnessed the Son of God as He retrieved a scroll sealed with seven seals from the hand of the Father. The scroll represents the title deed to the earth, the lost inheritance of the Lord, the ruined creation. With the breaking of the seals, this fallen earth will at last be reclaimed and sin put down. Only He who is worthy to do so can break the seals of this scroll; and as each seal is broken, the saints of the Most High are vindicated. Their faith in the Son of God is justified, and they are seen as wise and right in believing that He died because of their sin. Until He breaks the seals, we who serve Him will be seen as fools by those of this dying world. However, as He takes the scroll from the hand of the Father, all Heaven—and especially the redeemed of the Lord—falls down before Him and worships.
Notice that each of the saved hold a harp and a golden bowl filled with incense. Throughout the Word of God, the harp serves as a sign of the prophet. As an example of this, note that in 1 SAMUEL 10:5, the Prophet Samuel says to Saul, “As soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp … prophesying.” Leaving the city, Saul would meet a company of prophets and Saul himself would prophesy. He would identify them as prophets because they would have with them a harpist to accompany the prophetic ministry.
When Elisha was called upon to prophesy, he asked for a musician to play the harp [2 KINGS 3:15]. David set aside the sons of Asaph, the sons of Heman, and the sons of Jeduthun to prophesy with harps [see 1 CHRONICLES 25:1]. In some way, God has ordained that as the music sounds out—as the notes waft over our souls, His Spirit moves.
The power of music ensures that whenever you hear or sing a song of praise, your heart is filled with joy. So many songs, as we listen to them, cause us to shout for joy, weep at the thought of Christ’s coming glory, rejoice in the knowledge of His love. Always, the songs of the Faith compel us to sing. This is the reason each elder has a harp.
We need not guess what is meant by the golden bowls filled with incense; God informs us that the golden bowl of incense represent the prayers of the saints. It is as though God is telling us that our prayers are as a sweet aroma before Him. Whenever you pray, whenever you seek mercy for another, whenever you ask for God’s goodness to be extended to the people of the earth, or whenever you simply pray for Christ’s glory to be revealed, you are filling Heaven with a sweet aroma of incense.
Child of God, whenever you pray, reciting those words that the Master gave to His people—“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” pray with confidence, for you know that there is coming a day when that petition will at last be answered. Under the Old Covenant, whenever the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, he carried within a bowl of incense. As the smoke of that incense floated upward, so the prayers of God’s people ascended to His throne. That service of intercession and petition that the high priest performed under the Old Covenant is now a service performed by the people of God each time they pray. How that knowledge transforms our service!
In Heaven, the people of God worship, declaring the power of Christ to save and praising Him for the salvation He has given! Worship in that holy place will not be a burden; worship there will eternally refresh us, filling us with joy. The redeemed will sing a new song.
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
[REVELATION 5:9b, 10]
As I read the words of that song, I notice something that could perhaps be easily overlooked. Notice that it is the twenty-four elders who sing, it is the redeemed of the ages who sing. I have read the Bible through many, many times, and I make the most astonishing observation—angels never sing! Holy angels speak, but they do not sing. Only the redeemed sing praises to God. At Christmas we sing carols that tell us that the angels sing, but when I read Doctor Luke’s account of the birth of the Saviour, he is careful to avoid saying that the angels sing. Rather than saying that the angels sing, Luke writes, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.’”
[LUKE 2:13, 14]
Why do you suppose that is? Music is composed of minor and major chords. Most of nature moans and groans in a plaintive and minor key. Doctor Criswell says, “The sound of the wind through the forest, the sound of the storm, the sound of the wind around the house, is always in a minor key. It wails. The sound of the ocean moans in its restlessness, in its speechless trouble. Even the nightingale’s song, the sweetest song of the birds, is the saddest.”  An angel knows nothing of the sorrow of being part of a fallen race, so how can they sing in a minor key?
However, for us who are redeemed, we know the joy of the Lord and we have discovered the freedom that He gives to all who will receive His life. He has placed a new song in our hearts and our lips are filled with His praise. No angel has ever been redeemed, so they cannot sing the major chords that speak of joy and power. Angels cannot know what it is to have been fallen and then redeemed by the Lord. It is God’s people who sing, and angels are reduced to listening to the songs of the redeemed.
I notice yet another thing that is astonishing as I read this text—the angels do not address the Lamb directly. Angels speak about the Lamb, but only the twenty-four elders speak to the Lamb. The redeemed say to the Lord Christ, “Worthy are you” [REVELATION 5:9]; but the angels say of the Lamb, “Worthy is the Lamb” [REVELATION 5:12].
GETTING TO HEAVEN — I step away from the text to consider a point that is necessitated by the need for completeness. The question arises for the redeemed, “How do the saints arrive in Heaven?” What means has God provided for His people? The brief answer is that the redeemed people of God are transported into the presence of the Lord at death. The Apostle writes, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” [PHILIPPIANS 1:21]. He also testifies that “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” [2 CORINTHIANS 5:8].
What a comfort are the words of the Master as He speaks of a saint named Lazarus, who at death “was carried by the angels” to the beauty of Heaven [see LUKE 16:22]. What a glorious thought for the people of God—we are escorted by the angels of God into His presence. Though life here may have been defined by suffering and sorrow, God provides a glorious honour guard for our entrance into Heaven.
The redeemed of God who do not pass into His presence through death will be transformed and removed at the Rapture. Before God unleashes judgement on this unbelieving world, He removes His people out of the earth. The Apostle encourages all who are believers by informing us that “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him” [1 THESSALONIANS 5:9, 10].
Ours is not a message of despair, it is rather a message of hope. There is a day known but to God when Jesus shall return to receive to Himself His people. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ, the dead who have died in this holy Faith, will be raised; and we who have believed shall be united with them before that glorious emerald throne.
Paul writes, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” [1 CORINTHIANS 15:51-57].
The Apostle encourages Christians and he comforts we who believe with these powerful words. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” [1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-18].
Are you ready for that day? You are ready for the Rapture and for eternity if you have faith that Jesus died because of your sin and that He rose from the dead in order to declare you free of sin and right with God. The Word of God is quite clear in informing us, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is my Master,’ believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be set free. For with the heart one believes and is made right with God, and with the mouth one confesses and is set free.” The Apostle continues, citing the Prophet Joel, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” [ROMANS 10:9, 10, 13; author’s translation]. That is our plea to each person this day. Believe on the Lord Jesus and be saved. Come, join us in worship of the Lamb—now and in Heaven. Amen.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 W. A. Criswell, Expository Sermons on Revelation: Volume 3 (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1964) 83