Pastor Scott Andrews | July 31, 2022
I’ve been asked several times, so here you go – grandbaby number 2 – a beautiful granddaughter named Minami Joy. The one on the left, newborn, on the right, yesterday. She’s just over a month old now.
Well, I shared this with you several years ago, but it sold over 12 million copies since it was first published in 2010. In fact, the book was on the New York Times Bestseller list for over three years. It actually made it to number 1 for 59 weeks on the nonfiction list – interesting, because it should perhaps have been on the fiction list. Published by Thomas Nelson, a reputable Christian publisher, it was the number one selling Christian book for over four years. So popular, in 2014 it was made into a movie by the same title and made $102 million at the box office.
The first line on Thomas Nelson’s website promoting the book read, “A beautifully written glimpse into heaven that will encourage those who doubt and thrill those who believe.” I’m talking about a book written by Todd Burpo entitled, Heaven is for Real. It tells the story of Pastor Todd’s then three-year-old son, Colton, who was rushed to emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Sometime later, Colton revealed to his father that he had been to heaven and back. That’s right. He apparently revealed things he could not have known. For example, what his parents were doing while he was in surgery, the existence of a sister who died in a miscarriage and Colton met in heaven. Others, to include a great grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born – but he later identified in a picture.
Colton described receiving a halo and wings, which should be your first clue that something is amiss. Now, he didn’t like the wings because they were too small. He described a rainbow-colored horse Jesus rode. He talked about sitting on Jesus’ lap, whom he described as having brown hair and matching beard and sea blue eyes. He apparently met the Holy Spirit, whom he describes as “kind of blue.” The last line of the book’s description on the publisher’s site read, “Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.” So much for Jesus’ words to Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen, yet believed.
The book is within a popular genre today and should not be confused with others sharing the same topic, such as The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by Kevin Malarky – who later confessed he made up the story – just a bunch of malarky, I guess. 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, My Journey to Heaven by Marvin Besteman, Flight to Heaven by Dale Black, To Heaven and Back by Mary Neal, Nine Days in Heaven by Dennis Prince – and let’s not forget 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese. That was a hot read.
These books made their respective authors some money, I suppose. $102 million at the box office was a nice haul. Now listen – I’m not suggesting that three-year-old Colton or his pastor/father are charlatans – I’m simply questioning the validity of the account. By the way, you can also tune in to It’s Supernatural with Sid Roth – many of his guests tell similar stories or share fanciful prophecies.
Now, what is concerning to me about these kinds of books is they are being read and recommended by Christians who see them as a source of spiritual truth and encouragement – regardless of the fact that many, in some way, contradict the Bible. Why do I bring this up today? Several reasons. First of all, as I just said, most if not all of them, in some way, contradict the Bible, and therefore have no basis in truth. I mean, how much error do we tolerate before we reject something as fanciful or untrue? Second, to be encouraged by that which is not true is to be deceived. Third, these kinds of stories distract believers from the Word of God, which is ultimately and inerrantly true. Fourth, it distracts us from the gospel and the glory of God, which, by the way, is central to the Bible’s glimpses of heaven. Pastor John MacArthur said on this topic:
“For anyone who truly believes the biblical record, it is impossible to resist the biblical conclusion that these modern testimonies with their relentless self-focus and the relatively scant attention they pay to the glory of God are simply untrue. They are either figments of the human imagination, dreams, hallucinations, false memories, fantasies, and in the worse cases deliberate lies, or else they’re products of demonic deception.”
Pastor David Platt said it like this:
“All the accounts of heaven in Scripture are visions, not journeys taken by dead people. And even visions of heaven are very rare in Scripture – you can count them all on one hand – four biblical authors had visions about heaven and wrote about what they saw – Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul and John. [By the way – yes, it is true Stephen had a vision of heaven in, not a near-death experience, but a death experience – and he did not come back and write about it. Platt also left out Daniel.] All of them were prophetic visions – not near-death experiences. Not one person raised from the dead in the Old Testament or the New Testament writes about what he or she experienced in heaven – including Lazarus, who had a lot of time in a grave – four days…. [Platt goes on to quote another author] ‘Notably missing from all the biblical accounts are the frivolous features and juvenile attractions that seem to dominate every account of heaven currently on the best seller list.’”
Now, I know as I introduce my sermon with this phenomenon, some of you may be disappointed – some will no doubt say, but I’ve read one of those books and was encouraged in my faith. Here’s my question – if they contain falsehoods which contradict Scripture, as they seemingly do – and at least some are fabrications – in what way have you been encouraged? Especially as we have God’s Word to encourage us about the truth and reality of heaven. If we need a book that chronicles a less-than-accurate story of a three-year-old who went to heaven and back to believe that heaven is for real – what does this communicate about our faith? It is interesting to note – the Apostle Paul was taken to heaven [in a vision or not – he doesn’t know] but was then forbidden to write about it – to keep him humble. But now we are to believe others are permitted to write – even if their accounts are more consistent with modern notions of heaven than the truth of Holy Scripture.
Why do I bring this up today? We are in a study of the book of Revelation, and none except perhaps Ezekiel, give a more complete and glorious view of heaven. We arrive at this vision of heaven that John shares in Revelation 4 and 5. It’s an incredible picture, and foundational for the rest of the book. You see, before we get to anything else, John declares that the creator of all things reigns and should be worshiped. While evil seems to triumph, God is still sovereign. We’ll spend a few weeks on it – but why is it here, now? Why was John given this vision? And why was he allowed to share it, and the Apostle Paul wasn’t? What is its purpose?
You’ll remember when we started the book, I gave you this simple outline:
- The Prologue (1:1-8) – which was kind of an introduction to the book.
- The First Vision, which is Jesus Among the Seven Churches (1:9-3:22)
- The Vision of the Exalted Christ (1:9-20)
- The Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
- The Vision of Heaven (4:1-5:14) – which is actually the second vision.
- The Seven Seals (6:1-8:1)
- The Seven Trumpets (8:2-11:19)
- The Seven Signs (12:1-14:20)
- The Seven Bowls (15:1-16:21)
- The Triumph of God (17:1-20:15) – which is a third vision.
- The New Heaven and New Earth (21:1-22:5) – which is a fourth vision.
- The Epilogue (22:6-21)
It’s important to note John does give some literary markers so we know where we are in the book. Each major section contains something like the following:
- 1:10 – I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet. After the prologue, this commenced the first vision, which extended from there through chapter 3.
- 4:1,2 – 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…’ Immediately I was in the Spirit. This began the second vision – starting with the vision of heaven and extending all the way through the Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls – to the end of chapter 16.
- 17:1 – Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me saying, ‘Come here, I will show you…’ Verse 3 then says, And he carried me away in the Spirit. Another literary marker.
- Then to the fourth vision – 21:1 – Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away…verse 10, and he carried me away in the Spirit.
All that so you can see we jump into the heart of the book today. John gave us his introduction to the book, then we saw his vision of Jesus followed by Jesus’ seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Now, we get to the second vision, which begins with a tour of heaven. Yes, John is given a vision of heaven, and I believe you’ll find it quite different than the popular books on Near Death Experiences, or even dying experiences and going to heaven and coming back. Here’s the significant difference: please notice the centrality of the glory and majesty of God. In fact, these two chapters divide nicely into:
- The Glory of God in Creation (4:1-11)
- The Glory of the Lamb in Redemption (5:1-14)
Again note, as we make our way through these chapters, God is central and supreme. Yes, there are other figures we will meet – like the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, the myriads of angels, and every created thing in heaven and on earth. But they will all be doing the same thing – worshiping God and making much of Him. All that by way of introduction – let’s read Revelation 4.
Why is this – and chapter 5 – here? Because, believers are suffering on earth for their allegiance and commitment to Jesus Christ. Some are being tempted to bow to Caesar – to emperor worship. And so, this book makes clear that Caesar, and other so-called gods, are not gods – they do not sit on the throne of heaven. God alone is God, and He is creator and redeemer.
Further, in their tribulation, their persecution, God is about to unleash torrid wrath on the earth – against those who have rejected Him, His Son, His gospel, and His people. His people will be protected either from or through the tribulation. But those who have opposed them – led by the beast, the false prophet, the dragon – by Satan and his evil world system – will ultimately be judged. God’s judgment is imminent, and sure, and frankly vehement. Even this first view of heaven shows our glorious God sitting on His throne, with all of heaven worshiping Him, as peals of lightning and thunder explode from His throne. We will see that same picture of lightning and thunder at significant points of judgment in the book.
So, you may be asking, why is this happening to me? Why, when I try to live for Christ, does it cost me – I’m ridiculed, even oppressed. And you’re telling me it’s going to get worse. God is sitting on His throne, and none of this has taken Him by surprise. Rebellion against Him and His right to rule, and attacking His relationship with His people, began in the garden. We’ve lived within a fallen world ever since. But it will not end this way. God will rightly judge, His people will be revealed and rewarded, and we will be vindicated.
Here’s the outline of this glorious text:
- The Setting of the Second Vision (1-2)
- The Characters of the Second Vision (2-8)
- The Proclamations of the Second Vision (8-11)
We have a lot going on this morning, so we’ll simply cover the setting and the first character of the vision today, starting with that first point.
Again, this chapter starts a major new unit of the book. After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, which symbolizes unlocked access between heaven and earth. See the veil torn in two. It’s not as if God is distant, inattentive, unaware, distracted, uninterested. Have you ever asked the question, where are you God? The door is open – God is close at hand and sees all that is happening in His church. Interestingly, when God’s people of the OT were in exile, we read in Ezekiel 1, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” While in a distant land, God was present, aware, and still on His throne.
Then John hears the voice he had heard at the first, like the sound of a trumpet. That goes back to chapter 1 – I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet. The sound of a trumpet speaks of power, announcing something important. In chapter 1, John then turned to see the one speaking, and received his first vision of the glorified Christ. So we then rightly assume, the voice speaking to him at the beginning of the second vision in chapter 4 is that of Jesus Christ.
And Jesus said to John, Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things. The door is open, John, come and look – I will show you. This likely refers back to chapter 1:19, where Jesus said, “write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, [perhaps referring to the condition of the seven churches], and the things which will take place after these things.” Jesus is about to reveal to John the future – events which will happen at the eschaton – the end of time as we know it – chapters 6-19.
Notice, these are things which must take place after these things. There is a divine necessity expressed here. God has determined how these things will unfold, and so they will, just as He has ordained. These things must take place.
John says he was immediately in the Spirit. We saw that in chapter 1, and that likely means he was either in a Spirit-powered trance and thereby in a suitable state for prophecy and a vision; or, he was specially filled with and controlled by the Spirit.
Which brings us to the description of the characters. Again, we’re only going to look at the first one this morning – the central figure of the vision, the central figure of the Bible. Look at verse 2, “Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne.”
John is transported in the vision to or through the open door, and two central features appear right away – the locus of ruling authority, a throne, and the One sitting on it who wields the authority. Notice, John does not immediately identify this One – he allows us to sit in the mystery for a moment, building to verse 8. One commentator writes, “In a masterful way John gently unfolds for the reader this overwhelming, luminous vision – as we discover in the verses that follow – of God Almighty in his glorious throne room surrounded by his heavenly retinue.”
Here John presents with restrained simplicity a throne standing in heaven, representing the place from which the whole universe is ruled. You see, the throne symbolizes kingship, majesty, dominion, authority and power. Don’t miss it – it speaks to His absolute sovereignty. Psalm 103:19 says, “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.” John pulls back the curtain so we can see who is truly in charge. We find God sitting on His throne through the rest of the book – even when it seems like evil is unchecked.
The word throne is used over forty times in this book, thirteen times in this chapter alone. Three of four times it is mentioned in the NT, it is found in Revelation. Why? Because suffering, persecuted believers need to be reminded – God is on His throne.
While not named, John gives a description of this one seated on the throne in verse 3. He who was sitting was like – notice that word, like, he’ll say it over an over. We’re not supposed to see actual gemstones, but he’s trying to describe the magnificence of God – this is the best he can do. God in His beauty and splendor actually defy description – His glory is beyond human capacities and comprehension. Notice John avoids any anthropomorphic language. God is other.
He is One who was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance. We’re not sure exactly what John means by these two stones. Later, in chapter 21, he will speak of the brilliance of the new city, the holy city Jerusalem, having the glory of God, and we read, “Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper.” Now, jasper was thought to be yellow or amber, but here, John says, like the glory of God, it was crystal-clear – causing many to suggest it is a diamond.
The second stone was a sardius or carnelian, a fiery, ruby-red stone mined near Sardis. These two stones appear in a couple other important places. First, in the description of the new city – the walls are said to be made of jasper and gold, like clear glass. Then we are told of the foundation stones, the first being jasper, the sixth being sardius. Second, the high priest’s ephod had twelve stones on its chest, with the names of the twelve tribes engraved – one on each stone. The first was the ruby – like the sardius, and the last was the jasper. I’m not sure we can make any specific applications of that – we just find that these were viewed as costly, precious stones. Brilliant, resplendent in appearance. As I suggested earlier, Isaiah and Ezekiel give descriptions of God. All Isaiah says is, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.” We are supposed to have a view majesty and glory. After all, Paul tells us in I Timothy 6 that God dwells in unapproachable light. But Ezekiel 1 says a little more:
26 Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man.
27 Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him.
28 As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking.
Do you see the centrality and glory of God in these visions of heaven? Notice how Ezekiel, too, like John and Isaiah, avoid saying they saw God – but rather an appearance and what it looked like. We remember the doxology of I Timothy 1, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” He is invisible – we can only describe what His appearance is like. Ezekiel says from the middle upward like glowing metal with fire all around; from the middle downward, fire and a radiance around Him. Ezekiel, too, described His appearance with a rainbow. Don’t miss, the vision caused Ezekiel to fall on his face.
John describes the rainbow around the throne as emerald in appearance. Perhaps he means the emerald-green color was predominant, speaking of God being the author of life. It is interesting. God gave the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant to Noah, that He would never again judge the earth by a flood. Now, He is going to judge the earth – we’ll see that in the rest of the book. But the rainbow was a perpetual reminder of God’s covenant and commitment – His faithfulness to His promises. What’s interesting is the way the rainbow has been co-opted to celebrate sexual immorality, that which God will ultimately judge. Meaning, Jezebel is alive and well. When you see the rainbow flags, I want you to be reminded of what they truly represent – even if the flag waver does not see it. God is faithful to His promises – and surrounded in unapproachable light.
We will get to rest of chapter four – the other characters and the worship of God, next week. But as we close, think about it. I’m afraid we make too much of the secondary and tertiary things of heaven. By secondary things, I mean angels and cherubim and seraphim and even people. By tertiary or third things, I mean crystal seas and streets of gold and gates of pearl and walls of precious stones and many dwelling places and even the tree of life that bears its fruit year-round. That’s the new heaven and the new earth.
These are all important, because they are revealed to us in Scripture, to include this book. But, central to heaven is the throne, and the One who sits on it. And we will join the throng of heaven singing, Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power.