Summary: This article was written and published January, 2017. In the book of Revelation we find three phrases descriptive of the associations different groups will have with God’s throne of judgment and government. These three are in the midst of the throne, around the throne, and before the throne. They do not mean the same thing. Therefore, in order to acquire any proper understanding of the book and the different groups characterize by the phrases, we best first understand the meaning of the three phrases themselves in their use by the Spirit of God. Don’t worry, it gets easier as you continue reading…
From the beginning to the end of the book of Revelation the throne of God in heaven is portrayed as a throne of government and judgment. This is its character all through the book as it relates to the subject of prophecy. I remind the reader that the proper topics of bible prophecy are the nation of Israel, the earth, and God’s government of the earth. And these three aren’t to be thought of as independent topics under the grand scope of prophecy, but as topics intimately related to each other more so as making up the whole of the subject. Israel is the earthly calling of God. They are destined to inherit the Promised Land. They will be restored in the land; they will prosper in it, and multiply in numbers; Israel will become the greatest nation on the millennial earth, exalted above all the Gentiles. God’s government of the earth during the millennium will be centered in Israel and Jerusalem. That city will have both the throne of Messiah, son of David, and the throne of the Son of Man, the second Adam.
One of the important general impressions we get concerning the book of Revelation is that it is a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3) – “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy.” Fitting in with this type of writing and the known character of prophecy, the throne of God in the book is the throne by which God will judge and govern the earth. The first two mentions of this throne, first in chapter one (Rev. 1:4), the second in chapter four (Rev. 4:2, 5), both have this descriptive character. In chapter one, the seven Spirits are said to be before the throne. This implies that the Holy Spirit is the perfect (7) instrument of the throne, and this for judgmental and governmental action upon the earth. This is not the Spirit in the role of Comforter to the church, but He is shown as the direct agent of God’s providential workings on the earth, issued from His throne of government in heaven. In chapter four we get a similar description of the Holy Spirit in the same relationship to the throne – seven lamps of fire burning before the throne. “Fire burning” always caries the meaning of judgment. Lightnings, thunderings, and voices coming from the throne gives us the image of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law to Israel. This certainly isn’t a throne of grace that Christian believers have boldness to approach in their time of need or temptation (Heb. 4:14-16), nor is Jesus here at the right hand of this throne in the role of the believer’s High Priest, always making intercession for him (Heb. 7:25-26). Law is not grace, and grace is not law. The law is always the standard of justice and human righteousness in God’s government of the earth.
There are three phrases used in the book to describe certain associations that exist with the throne of God in heaven – in the midst of the throne, around the throne, and before the throne. The first two carry with them the general thought of physical geographical location and proximity to the throne in heaven. “In the midst” gives more the thought or sense of being part of the throne, especially in a direct relationship with its actions and outcomes. “Around the throne” gives more the thought of subordinate endowed authority given or bestowed by the One sitting on the central throne. Nevertheless, it does also mean closeness to the throne in its geographical location. By redemption in Christ, the church has been made kings and priests to His God and Father (Rev. 1:6).
In Christianity, the general priesthood of all believers primarily includes the thought of a group physically closest to God. When Jehovah said Israel would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” it had this thought of physical closeness in mind (Ex. 19:5-6). Jehovah would dwell in the midst of Israel, but would not do the same with any Gentile nation. The Jews were made “holy” in the sense of being physically separated from the Gentiles. They were a “kingdom of priests” because they were the nation privileged by Jehovah to be physically closest to Him.
When God said “a kingdom of priests,” it is a mistaken thought that God’s intention was for the nation of Israel to serve as mediatorial priests for the Gentiles. Judaism was a wall of separation from the Gentiles, always conspicuously maintained by the Jews. Their religion had its own mediatorial priesthood in the Levitical tribe, and specifically the house of Aaron. Besides, all mediatorial priesthoods only function on behalf of those who are in relationship with God – the Aaronic priesthood functioned on behalf of the children of Israel; today, during the Christian dispensation, Jesus Christ functions in a priesthood for all believers. But Israel being a mediatorial priesthood for Gentiles is error, and completely outside the scope of biblical priesthood.
Now we get to the last phrase describing association with the throne in the book of Revelation – “before the throne.” This phrase, as it is used in this prophetic book, never really means the physical geographical location of being in front of the throne in heaven. That isn’t ever the proper thought or meaning for the phrase. Instead, it refers to a firm moral relationship with God and the throne, yet on the earth or for the earth in its action or presence. The seven Spirits before the throne is the Holy Spirit as the perfect (7) instrument of the providence and judgment of God and His government of the earth – all issuing forth from the throne. The Spirit of God is the agent of God’s power, judgments, and dealings in the earth. The Spirit has this relationship with the One who sits on the throne of government in heaven, but the actions of His agency have their results in/on the earth. This is how the phrase is used throughout the book.
This use stands in contrast to the other two phrases used in association with the throne – ‘around the throne’ and ‘in the midst of the throne’. As we said above, these two phrases have a definite reference to physical location near God and the throne. The twenty-four elders, who represent the church along with possibly the Old Testament saints, are never described by the phrase ‘before the throne.’ Once we have the conclusion of chapter three in the book, immediately the scene changes from the earth to the heavens. Then we see the first appearance of the twenty-four elders. The reason? The church has been removed from the earth to the heavens in its pre-tribulation rapture, and I do not doubt that the Old Testament saints are raised at the same time and in the same event. These two groups make up the heavenly saints, who are now physically in heaven, in glorified bodies, after the conclusion of chapter three.
In the introductory part of chapter one, the church is described as those who have been made kings and priests to His God and Father (Rev. 1:6). In chapter four, as the elders, the church is depicted as kings (Rev. 4:4); in chapter five, again as the elders, the church is depicted as priests (Rev. 5:8). In all cases involving the twenty-four elders, their physical location is in heaven. And this is true every time we see them throughout the book.
I make two points before finishing the article, one a general observation, and the other a specific example. First the general – when we see a difference or distinction made in scripture, there is always a purposeful intention on the part of the Holy Spirit. I can’t imagine the Spirit’s inspiration of scripture and then its consequent meaning as revealed by the Spirit ever involves randomness or coincidence. If there is a difference made, even a technical one, there is always a reason in the mind of God. I give you three examples:
1.) The messages to the first three churches in Revelation two is changed in their inherent structure for the last four messages. This change makes a difference in the way the last four messages should be perceived and understood. Without recognizing this technical difference and understanding the Spirit’s reason for it, causes one to lose much of the importance of these last four messages.
2.) The differing characters of Christ at the beginning of each of the seven messages to the churches, are not randomly placed, but are meaningful and specific to the need of each church. Also in a more technical way, the first three churches only have ecclesiastical characters; the last two churches only have personal characters; the other two in the middle are transitional, and have one character of each category.
3.) Our example here in this article – the use by the Spirit of God of three different terms for nearness to the throne in the book of Revelation, especially the use of the term “before the throne.”
Now the specific point and real reason for writing this article. In Revelation seven there is seen an innumerable multitude of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-10). Is this the church in heaven? Or is this the elect of God saved of the Gentiles during the time of the tribulation on earth, who will form the Gentile nations on the millennial earth after the tribulation? One hint: You see the twenty-four elders, in the same chapter, in heaven, answering questions and making comments about the identity of this other group (Rev. 7:11-14). One of the elders answers, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation…therefore they are before the throne of God…”