The fourth chapter of Revelation is pivotal as it marks the beginning of John’s vision of heaven (Revelation 4:1). One of his first observations is of four “living creatures” around a throne (Revelation 4:6). These living creatures will remain throughout the book (Revelation 4:6, 7, 8, 9, 5:6, 8, 11, 14, 6:1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 7:11, 14:3, 15:7, 19:4).
The creatures are described as having eyes all about them (they literally have eyes in the back of their heads) and possessing six wings apiece. The group is not homogenous as each creature has the properties of a lion, calf, man, and eagle respectively (Revelation 4:6-7).
What are the living creatures? Why does God integrate such entities in the divine entourage?
The Greek word is zoon. The English word “zoology” developed from this word. It can mean “a living being” or “an animal, brute, beast”. The King James Version translated zoon as “beast” but most contemporary translations do not so as to distinguish them from the beasts (therion) who figure prominently later in the book (Revelation 13, 17). Instead, most modern translations correctly render zoon as “living creatures” (AMP, ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV).
Though accurate, this identification is vague. At best its defines their kingdom but says nothing of their genus or species. They are holistically different from the other figures in Revelation as they are not grouped with angels (Revelation 5:11) nor do they join the redeemed humans in singing the Redemption Song (Revelation 5:9-10). They bare a striking resemblance to creatures in the major prophets (Isaiah 6:1-3; Ezekiel 10) whom Ezekiel identifies as “cherubim” (Ezekiel 10:3, 20). In fact the same Greek word that is used of Revelation’s “living creatures” (zoon) is used of Ezekiel’s “cherubim” in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament, Ezekiel 10:20).
It can be certain that the living creatures do not represent an existing earthly life form and are a reminder that human languages are often limited when describing heavenly things. Do you ever find your language limited when describing God?
The living creatures are further characterized as not sleeping and serving as a personal praise quartet singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and who is an who is to come.” (Revelation 4:8, NASB). In short, the creatures are in a state of perpetual worship.
How often do you worship? How often should you?
“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.” - John Piper1
1John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions,. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) 17.