“After these things I looked, and behold, a door was open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet talking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1). John is invited to “come up here” as the action shifts from the churches on earth to events taking place in heaven. This means that on the chronological timeline there will be a break from the events on earth which have progressed through the centuries with the seven churches, so that we can catch up with what is happening meanwhile in heaven.

The first thing that John saw, which introduces the theme of the next four chapters, was “a door standing open in heaven.” The use of the identical words in the original Greek language makes it clear that this is the same open door that was “set before” the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:8).[1] As we saw in chapter 3, the Greek wording makes it clear that this is not a door into heaven, as if John was looking into heaven through an open door, but rather it is a door in heaven that is open, as if there were a building there with a door. The book of Hebrews tells us that there is such a building: the heavenly sanctuary (See Hebrews 8, 9). That this door is in the heavenly sanctuary is made clear by the symbolic objects that John saw there: The throne (v.2), the seven lamps of fire (v.5) and the “lamb as though it had been slain” (5:6) are all images from the ancient Hebrew sanctuary which was set up in the time of Moses.

The earthly sanctuary of the Old Testament was “a shadow of the heavenly things,” “of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected” (Hebrews 8:5,2). From the “shadow” of the earthly sanctuary we can learn about the heavenly reality. An understanding of the sanctuary and its rituals is essential in order to understand chapters 4 and 5, as well as many other sections of the book of Revelation, so before getting into the actual vision of chapter 4 we will overview some of the most important features of the sanctuary service.

The ancient sanctuary was built with a courtyard and two rooms. In the courtyard the people came and offered their sacrifices (Leviticus 4), and there was a bronze altar for burnt offerings (Exodus 27:1-8) and a large basin for washing (Exodus 30:18-21). The first room was called the “Holy Place,” and in it the daily rituals were performed all year long. The Holy Place contained a table with two stacks of bread (Leviticus 24:5-8, Exodus 25:23-30), a seven-branched lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40) and a golden alter for offering incense (Exodus 30:1-10). Each of the articles symbolized an aspect of what God has done to save His people from their sins.

The inner room (the “Most Holy Place”) had a box called the ark of the covenant, which contained the two stone tablets of the 10 Commandment law. On top of the ark was a "mercy seat" with two cherubim (angels) spreading their wings above it. This was the throne of God where He appeared as a glorious bright light "between the cherubim" (Exodus 25:17-22). The High Priest entered the Most Holy Place into the immediate presence of God just once a year for the yearly ritual of the Day of Atonement.

There were two doors, one into the Holy Place, and the other into the Most Holy Place (Ezekiel 41:23, 1 Kings 6:31-35). Since John saw both the seven lamps (which were in the Holy Place) and the throne of God (which was in the Most Holy Place) the door standing open in heaven” which John saw must be the door between the two rooms which was opened for the Day of Atonement (see Appendix 2). This will become more obvious as we consider below the evidence that the scene described in Revelation 4 and 5 is the beginning of the antitypical Day of Atonement.

Naturally, we should not be too literal in our thinking of heavenly doors, rooms and rituals. The actual heavenly reality that was symbolized by these earthly figures is beyond human comprehension. But it is true that God was trying through the sanctuary and its services to teach us about the way He is relating to humanity and the sin problem, so we should try to learn all we can from them.

The earthly sanctuary had two basic types of services: the "daily" (also called the continual), and the "yearly" (the Day of Atonement). A prominent feature of the daily service was animal sacrifices. Twice a day a lamb was offered as a burnt offering, while at the same time the High Priest offered incense (Exodus 29:38—30:8). This was a sort of general offering for all the people of God. In addition, whenever someone sinned he was to bring his own sacrifice to the sanctuary, as outlined in Leviticus 4:2-12. He would lay his hands on the animal’s head, confessing his sin, and then kill the animal “before the Lord”. From there the priest took over. He brought some of the blood of the animal into the sanctuary; some he sprinkled “in front of the veil” which separated the Holy from the Most Holy, some he put on the horns of the alter of incense, and some he poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offerings.

Many people have considered the Old Testament sacrifices disgusting and barbaric. It is true that the sacrifices of the surrounding heathen nations were a gross attempt to please or appease an offended or indifferent god. But when we consider that every sacrifice for sin represented the death of God Himself that would take place on the cross of Calvary, we see in the sacrificial system God’s passionate appeal to sinners: “Your sin is killing Me, but I’m willing to die so that you can live.”

The daily sacrifices are based on two vital principles that help us to understand what Jesus has done for us. Firstly, God told Moses that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). The Hebrew word that has been translated “life” (nephesh) is the word for soul, which shows that sin, which is committed by the soul, is considered for ritual purposes to be “in the blood.” Secondly, through confession sin can be transferred to an innocent substitute (Leviticus 16:21). What was happening when the sinner brought his sacrifice, was that the guilt of his sin was “transferred” through confession and the laying on of hands to the “soul” of the animal, specifically to its blood since that is where the life (the soul) abides.

When he killed the animal, it was as if the animal died in his place, for his sin had been transferred to it. This taught the substitutionary death of Christ for sinners: “it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). “Almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:21). We are “redeemed…with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter1:18,19).

But that was not the end of the process. The sin was transferred to the blood (soul)[2] of the animal. Then the blood was poured, sprinkled and wiped on the articles of the sanctuary, thereby transferring the “sin” to the sanctuary. Thus, throughout the year the sanctuary “accumulated” the sins of the people. In other passages that have to do with the Heavenly Day of Atonement[3] this concept is presented in terms of names that are entered in books of record. In computer terms, a “file” was created in the “sanctuary database” for each person who had confessed his sins and been forgiven through the substitutionary death of the sacrificial victim.

Continue to next section: THE DAY OF ATONEMENT

[1] This is clearer in the Greek, in which the exact wording for open door (thuran ineogmenin) is used in both verses, the only two places in scripture where this phrase is used.

[2] Animals are souls too! Genesis 9:10 “Every living creature (Hebrew nephesh, soul)…the birds, the cattle” (Revelation 16:3).

[3] Daniel 7 and 12, Revelation 20