While we don’t think as much about it today, people throughout Biblical times were very interested in different kinds of spiritual creatures. Here in the book of Revelation, we see several described in intricate (and sometimes terrifying!) detail. In Revelation 5, we have angels, the elders, and the Living Creatures. In other parts of the Bible, we encounter seraphim, cherubim, and even the giant nephilim. Those in Biblical times envisioned a vast array of different spirits and creatures, and humans were but one among the panoply of created beings.
I imagine the early churches asking questions of John. “What were the angels doing in your vision?” John notes that they were lifting their voices in praise, and they were too numerous to count. The number “ten thousand” was the largest single number in Greek [IVP]. As Bruce Metzger once said, numbers in Revelation don’t mean what they say, they mean what they mean. So it is likely that John was saying something like “infinity times infinity.” Trying to count the angels was like trying to count the grains of sand on the beach!
The early churches might have wanted to ask John, “What about those four Living Creatures?” John points out that they were around the throne as well, lifting their voices in praise. And so John continues listing every creature, including the elders but not limited to them. Lest we imagine that some created being is excluded, John points out that he saw, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (v 13).
In this scene, we have everything from angels to giants to humans to goldfish gathered in the same place, looking at the same spot, doing the same thing. What can unite every single created being, whether visible or invisible? John saw all of them in v 13 saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
As Andrew of Caesarea wrote about these verses in the sixth century, “From all beings, whether intelligent or sensible, whether living or simply existing in some way, God, as the Creator of all things, is glorified by words proper to their natures…one flock and one church from angels and from men is indicated which has been formed through Christ, the God who united that which was separate and has destroyed the partition wall of separation” [ACCS]. In other words, every conceivable division is overcome by the praise and worship of God the Father and God the Son. We see a very similar vision in Daniel 7:9-14. The uncountable multitudes of every kind of creature and spiritual being find their orienting principal in Jesus.
We know there are many different styles of human worship. Some are moved by incense. Some dress up in their Sunday best to honor God, while others dress casually to be their real selves in the presence of God. Some connect with God through the old classic hymns, and others like to sing something new with a nice beat. If there are so many different expressions of worship and praise from humans, how many different expressions of worship and praise are to be found throughout the entire Cosmos? From this text (and from the original Creation in Genesis), we see that every creature was created with a unique way to glorify God. Goldfish praise is going to be different from cheetah praise. And human praise is going to be different from angel praise. And I’m sure there are even internal variations just as there are with humans. God seems to be pleased when each creature uses the manner in which it was created to glorify God.
This reminds me of the difference between a Bounded Set and a Centered Set. In simple terms, a Bounded Set is defined by its intrinsic features in comparison to others. This is how scientists delineate different species. A Centered Set is instead defined by movement toward the center. Dr. Paul Hiebert applied this concept to Christian mission through various articles and books starting in the late 1970’s.
Here’s the best way I can explain it. Imagine a forest. Bounded Sets are defined by their boundaries and definitions. In our forest, we have many Bounded Sets – kinds of trees, kinds of grasses, various insects, fungi, worms, birds. Each one has particular features that make them their own Bounded Set. But we also have Centered Sets that cross over the boundaries. For example, the forest has the Centered Set of all things that are growing. That would encompass many different species and kinds of living things. That Centered Set is defined by motion toward growth, not the current state of growth. A tree sapling is growing, a worm is growing, and a human is growing.
In our text today, the Bounded Sets are still there. The divisions that the ancients were so concerned about – angels, the Living Creatures, humans, animals, etc – they are all still in existence. They all have unique ways they are created. But they can also be inside the Centered Set of those moving toward Jesus. The goldfish don’t become humans. Humans don’t become angels. Each creature has its own beautiful and unique features, but they are all moving in the same direction toward Jesus.
How can we apply this to today? Instead of our imaginary forest, start to picture the people in your church. There are some Bounded Sets – those who have been baptized, those who volunteer, those who attend regularly, those who are guests, those who have been in church leadership, those who pledge during stewardship season, etc. We can then overlay the Centered Set from our text today on top of those other Bounded Sets. Like the angels and the humans and the Living Creatures and the goldfish, what is each person’s movement toward or away from Jesus? Someone who has attended forever might be drifting toward apathy rather than passion for Christ. Someone who has burned through relationships at a rapid pace might finally be at the point that they are orienting toward Christ.
C.S. Lewis captured this well: “The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…”
In light of Easter (this is the Easter season after all), every person has the chance to change their movement relative to Jesus at the center. New life is possible for new Christians. New life is possible for those who have been the pillars of the church for decades. New life is possible for young parents thinking about the faith of their children. New life is possible for empty-nesters. New life is possible for those in their twilight years. Movement toward or away from Jesus is the defining characteristic of every single creature in this text from Revelation.
- We can find unity across any division if we are fundamentally oriented around the praise and worship of Jesus
- Every creature has a unique way to glorify and praise God. How can you find your “worship love language” (similar to the Five Love Languages in relationships)?
- Consider how you are moving toward or away from Jesus right now, no matter how long you have followed Jesus in your life
[IVP] InterVarsity Press Biblical Background Commentary on the New Testament
[ACCS] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
Cody Sandahl has been the Pastor/Head of Staff at the First Presbyterian Church of Littleton, Colorado since 2015. Prior to that he was the Executive Pastor and Associate Pastor for Discipleship at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is passionate about equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
Cody came to pastoral ministry after a lifetime of programming computers and building robots, and he is the founder of the nonprofit Code4Kids. You can still find him down in his basement tinkering with computers, making things on his 3D printers, and shooting laser beams into things.
Cody is married to Becca, and they have two playful boys and one spunky dog who collaborate to ensure life is never boring.
C.S. Lewis: “The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. “
My son has seizures and developmental delays, so he does not praise God with his words. Instead, he praises God with his dancing, with his clapping, with his ebullient jumping, and with the look on his face. When the hand bells start ringing in our church, I can see the praise on my son’s face. When the organ starts booming, I can hear the praise from him as he shouts, “It’s the pipes!” When we go to the Denver Zoo and hear the birds whistling and chirping their unique and beautiful songs, I can see the praise of God inside his gleaming eyes. How do you praise the Lord?
From Cody Sandahl