This post was originally published in July 2018. –ed.
The book of Revelation is the story of how God’s wrath will finally be poured out upon the earth. Evil will be conquered forever and vanquished from the universe. It is a graphic and troubling vision, not primarily a lesson about heaven.
Still, we learn a lot about heaven from the apostle John’s apocalyptic vision. The Greek word translated “heaven” occurs more than fifty times in the book of Revelation. Twice God is called “the God of heaven” (11:13; 16:11)—a phrase used twenty-two times in the Old Testament. The entire book of Revelation is written from heaven’s perspective, though it deals largely with events that occur on earth.
The Heavenly Throne
There are many striking similarities between John’s vision and Ezekiel’s. John’s is a fuller account, of course, but it blends beautifully with what Ezekiel described. The throne of God figures large in both accounts.
In Revelation 4, where John describes how he was caught up into heaven, the very first thing he mentions is God’s throne:
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. (Revelation 4:1–2)
Ezekiel ended his vision of heaven with a description of God’s throne and the inexplicable glory that emanates from it. John begins by describing that same throne. Repeatedly in this passage he mentions the throne, which is the hub of all heaven and the focal point of God’s presence. From the throne of God emanates all the glory of heaven.
Verse 3 says, “He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance.” Jasper is an opaque, translucent crystalline quartz of differing colors, especially shades of green. (But the jasper of ancient times may actually have been a transparent stone.) The sardius—or “carnelian” in some translations—is a red ruby-like stone. Some suggest that the red sardius may speak of God as Redeemer, the One who provided a blood sacrifice—thus stressing the glory of God’s redemptive character. Jasper and sardius were the first and last of the twelve stones on the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:17, 20).
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that both Ezekiel and John are describing a scene of breathtaking grandeur and dazzling beauty—a glory that far surpasses the limits of human language. John, like Ezekiel, is painting a big picture that portrays heaven as a bright, colorful realm of inexpressible splendor and delight. Again, let’s not get so caught up in trying to read meaning into the symbols that we miss that rather obvious point.
Language fails when humans try to describe divine glory, so John is using these comparisons to precious jewels to picture the breathtaking beauty of heavenly glory. The jewels he mentions were the most stunning, glorious images he could picture, so he resorts to them to make his point. Remember, though, that he is actually describing a glory that far exceeds that of any jewel dug out of the earth. If the scene is hard for you to visualize, that’s fine. John is purposely painting a picture of glory that exceeds our ability to imagine.
Sounding much like Ezekiel, John continues, “There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. . . . Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:3–5). Again the imagery is designed to inspire awe and fear. It speaks of an immeasurable glory, power, and majesty.
The thunder and lightning are reminiscent of another scene in Scripture: Mount Sinai, where God came down to give the Law. The Israelites saw the divine glory in the form of thunder and lightning (Exodus 19:16). This language seeks to describe the indescribable. The sense it conveys is an awe that transcends any earthly amazement.
The “Seven Spirits of God”
John continues his description of the scene around the throne, giving another detail we ought to note carefully: “There were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God” (Revelation 4:5).
That verse confuses a lot of people. It does not suggest that there are seven Holy Spirits. The apostle Paul makes that clear in 1 Corinthians 12:4: “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (cf. v. 11)—and in Ephesians 4:4: “There is one body and one Spirit” (cf. Ephesians 2:18). So this cannot be a reference to seven distinct Spirits of God. Obviously, that would violate what Scripture teaches elsewhere about the personality of the Holy Spirit.
The expression “seven spirits” is typical apocalyptic language and imagery. John links it to seven lamps, which echo the lampstands of the churches in Revelation 2–3. And those in turn seem to have some relationship to the seven lamps in the original tabernacle (cf. Exodus 25:31–37). These were actually seven candles atop a single gold lampstand. The imagery the seven lamps conveys is therefore that of a sevenfold menorah. And the reference to “seven spirits” should be interpreted as a reference to the one Spirit of God, who is represented here with a sevenfold symbol.
In what sense is the Spirit “seven”? This could be a reference back to the Spirit’s sovereignty over the seven churches in chapters 2–3. In all of Scripture, the expression is used only here and in Revelation 1:4; 3:1; and 5:6. The first two times it appears, it is specifically in reference to the seven churches.
It could also be a reference to Isaiah 11:2, which depicts the Holy Spirit with a seven-faceted description: “The Spirit of  the Lord . . . the spirit of  wisdom and  understanding, the spirit of  counsel and  strength, the spirit of  knowledge and of  the fear of the Lord.” Whatever the expression in Revelation 4:5 means, it does not suggest that there is more than “one Spirit” by whom we are baptized into the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). That would run counter to the rest of Scripture (cf. also Ephesians 2:18; John 14:16–17).
The Crystal Sea
John also describes the area around the throne in Revelation 4. Verse 6 says, “Before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal.” Picture the beauty of that scene: a brilliant rainbow and the flashing colors of emerald, sardius, and jasper all splashing off a sea of crystal!
Again, all this color, light, and crystal reflect the splendor and majesty of the throne of God. This is familiar imagery in Scripture. In Exodus 24, we read: “Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under his feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself” (Exodus 24:9–10). The flashing and sparkling light of God’s glory is reflected by the crystal-clear, brilliant, sparkling sea of glass. Notice that the crystal sea is described as “pavement of sapphire” in Exodus 24—possibly because of the color reflecting off it. But both passages speak of its extraordinary “clearness.” Ezekiel says it is “like the awesome gleam of crystal” (Ezekiel 1:22). All of these passages picture heaven as a realm of unimaginable beauty, where every element of everything is designed as a backdrop to reflect the divine glory.
All this emphasis on brightness and clarity suggests that heaven is not a land of shadows and mists. In the biblical accounts, there is no hint of the long, dark tunnel that features so prominently in many near-death experience stories. Instead, everything is described in terms of light and brilliance and clarity!
Even when John describes the other inhabitants of heaven, the focus remains on the glory of God. The seats of twenty-four “elders”—no doubt representing the whole body of the redeemed church—encircle the throne (Revelation 4:4). Verse 6 adds that four living creatures also encircled the throne—undoubtedly a reference to angelic creatures, perhaps the cherubim. So surrounding the throne are the angelic host and the church; occupying the throne is God Himself in all the glory of His majestic revelation.
It is significant that the book of Revelation alone mentions the throne of God over forty times. All activity in heaven focuses toward the throne, and all the furnishings of heaven reflect the glory that emanates from it.
We would do well to fix our attention there, as well.
(Adapted from The Glory of Heaven.)