Revelation 4, 1-11: The Four Living Creatures
I have always been fascinated by Church art. In many churches with paintings on its roof or dome, we see the four evangelists being represented by four creatures: Matthew the Lion; Mark the Man; Luke the Ox; and John the Eagle. And the four living creatures we just read from Revelation in the first reading has described a vision of these four creatures praising God, “night and day, they never rested from saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, the Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.’” Is there a connection?
First, we meet these four creatures in the Old Testament as part of the vision of Ezekiel. In the vision of Ezekiel, there were four creatures, each with four faces: the face of a lion, a man, an ox and an eagle. And these creatures were identified with cherubs and seraphs whose images are placed in the Ark of the Covenant depicting a common image of God sitting between cherubims. Thus, cherubims --- or these four creatures --- are angels who guard God’s throne. Every Jew – thus, John who wrote the book of Revelation – knew this imagery as part of heaven.
Second, we can expand its meaning with an environment theme. Each creature is great in its own genre or group. The lion is the strongest among the beasts; the ox is greatest among cattle; the eagle among birds; and man among all creatures. The reading tells us that these creatures constantly praise God. In the Old Testament, the imagery that all of nature praises God is common. Psalm 19, 1-2 says “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” There are other psalms such as Psalm 103 and 148 who call all of nature to praise God.
The Stoics believed that if any creature fulfills its function for which it was created, then it praises God. Seneca, the famous Stoic, said that each creature holds a spark of God (scintilla). Thus God is ‘near you, with you, within you; a holy spirit sits within us.’ St. Ignatius holds the same truth in his Principle and Foundation in the Spiritual Exercises: “Man is created to praise, glorify and reverence God.” The Sceptics made fun of this thought: “What? God in worms?” Why not? Can’t a worm serve God? Can’t a plant serve God? Can’t a lowly chicken serve God? It tells us that any creature, any function serves God. Thus, the lowliest of functions as washing plates is a concrete work, praising God. And thus, we are indeed worshipping God by doing our work with the best of our abilities, according to our nature and strength. Work and worship are never separate acts, but one and the same.
Finally, the connection with the evangelists. The early church found these four creatures symbolizing many things. Irenaeus in 170 AD, said that the four creatures symbolizes aspects of Jesus: the lion, in His divine leadership and power; the ox, in his priestly work since the ox is the animal of sacrifice; man symbolizes the incarnation and the eagle, as the Holy Spirit over the church. Associations were then made, until it reached
Thus, Irenaeus connects the four Gospels from their beginning texts: John, who talks about how all things were made by Jesus, -- the lion; Luke, begins with the story of Zaccheus, the priest – the ox; Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus – the man; and then, Mark, begins with a reference to the Spirit – the eagle. There are others:
Athanasius: Matthew, the man; Luke, the lion; Mark, the ox; John, the eagle.
Victorinus: Matthew, the man; Luke the ox; Mark the lion; John, the eagle.
Augustine explains: Matthew, the Lion because it depicted Jesus as the Lion of Judah, the fulfillment of the prophetic expectations; Mark, the man because Mark depicted Jesus as He is, factual and simple; Luke, the ox because it depicted Jesus as the sacrifice for all people; and finally, John, the eagle, because of the Gospels highly theological reflections of Jesus.
What have we learned from the four creatures in the book of Revelation? First, the creatures guarded the throne of God. Second, the creatures symbolized that whatever we do – day and night – should praise, glorify and reverence God. Finally, the creatures symbolized ways or approaches to know Christ – whether according to aspects of his life or according to the views of the four evangelists. In whatever way, all these tells us that in order to truly praise God forever, we first truly know Jesus through Scriptures.