John is caught up by the Spirit into heaven and sees a throne, cherubim, a sea, seven torches burning. I daresay he knew exactly where he was: In the heavenly temple, specifically in the heavenly archetype of the most holy place, the throne-room of the sanctuary. I daresay many of John’s first readers and hearers would have recognized the location too, even though they could never have been there. They had heard or read about it, all over the Hebrew Bible.
Many modern exegetes don’t know where John is, and so they ask questions like: Where are those four living creatures, whose location John describes so ambiguously? Is the crystal sea similar to the bronze sea of Solomon’s temple, or is it more “probable” that it refers to the water above the firmament? Are the twenty-four elders priests, or stars, or angels? Is this the heavenly court? Or a heavenly sanctuary? Or a heavenly throne room?
Most of these questions dissolve when we realize that John is in the heavenly sanctuary, of which the temples of Israel were earthly copies. We need only deploy the Bible’s temple theology. We don’t have to choose between “temple” or “court” because the temple was the house of the high king, who held court from His throne in the most holy place. To gather at the temple was to gather in Yahweh’s court as Yahweh’s courtiers. Since the twenty-four elders are in a heavenly sanctuary, they must be priests of some sort; but priests were judges and rulers as well as ministers of the sanctuary. Israel’s temple was a cosmic house; the bronze sea already symbolized the waters above the firmament. And those living creatures are in the same place they are in the most holy place: They are the throne, so John’s “in the midst and around” is exquisitely precise.
Failing to recognize the temple setting and the assumed temple theology leads to ecclesiological distortions. One commentator dismisses the notion that the twenty-four elders represent the church because the scene is “courtly” rather than “ecclesial.” But the ecclesia is the court of God because it is the temple of God, the place where God is enthroned as King, and every member of the church is a participant in the deliberations and decisions of the heavenly Judge.
So some advice to young exegetes: Learn your way around the temple. There are are few things more important than a sense of where you are.