The four living creatures in Revelation are special among the angelic beings. They exist to praise God forever before His throne, and they hold “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:6-14). This means that they hold the prayers of all believers throughout time, both the prayers of the past and those that will be prayed—a fragrant offering before God’s throne (Revelation 8:3-4). This eternal fragrance was first symbolized by the incense burning in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:6).
The four living creatures are described in Revelation 4:6-9; 5:6-14; 6:1-8; 14:3; 15:7 and 19:4. They are said to be “full of eyes in front and behind” and look to John like a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle in flight. They each have six wings and are always saying “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” These four living creatures closely resemble the four creatures described in Ezekiel 1:10 and Isaiah 6:2. It is not clear whether these passages are describing the same four living creatures, but it is very likely they are of the same exalted order of angels, whose main job is to worship God and speak His holiness (Revelation 19:4). In response to the worship of the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders cast their crowns before God’s throne in agreement (Revelation 4:10-11).
One of the most interesting aspects of the four living creatures is that they demonstrate that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is equal to God Himself. Their worship of the Lamb in Revelation 5:6-14 is clearly directed towards Jesus Christ (Revelation 5:5; 9-10), and they say “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11-12) and “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13) and they fall down and worship the Lamb, along with “him who sits on the throne” God, the Father. Scripture makes it clear that “the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (Deuteronomy 4:35; 1 Kings 8:60). God spoke through Isaiah, saying, “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5-6) and Jesus Christ also responded to the Pharisees’ question about His identity by saying “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Based on their subsequent attempt to stone Jesus, we know that His statement “I am” was taken to mean “I am God” and the Pharisees took it as blasphemy. But the words and worship of the four living creatures make it clear that Jesus was telling the truth.
So Who Do the Four Living Creatures Represent?
This connection between the four living creatures and the four Gospels was so well-established in the early days of the Church that the Early Church Fathers tended to speculate as to which Evangelist was associated with which creature. There are differences of opinions, but the prevailing one (and the one you’ll most often see depicted in church art) is the opinion held by St. Victorinus in the third century, and popularized by St. Jerome and Pope St. Gregory the Great. Here’s how Gregory explains it:
For that these four winged living creatures would designate the four holy Evangelists, the’ beginnings ‘of each one of the Evangelic books testify. For because he began with [Christ’s] human begetting, Matthew by right [is signified] by the human. Because of the crying in the desert, Mark is rightly designated by the lion. Because he commenced with sacrifice, Luke is well signified by the calf. Truly, because he began with the Divinity of the Word, John was fittingly signified by the eagle he who stretched [upward], saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [John 1:1] while… in the same substance of Divinity; as if he fixed his eyes on the Sun in the manner of an eagle.
Let’s unpack that a little bit. In Jewish tradition, the books of the Bible were known by their openings (the Hebrew names of the Biblical books tend to just be the book’s first words). So how would you depict each Gospel, based on its opening?
Matthew’s Gospel begins “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). That is, is traces the human origins of Christ. So this Gospel is associated with the man.
Mark’s Gospel begins by recalling the prophecy of Isaiah about “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:3), and connecting this to the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist. In the Old Testament, one symbol for the prophetic voice was the roaring lion: for instance, Amos 3:7-8, “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”
Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, who “was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood” when “it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:8-9). And the Old Testament priesthood was inaugurated with the slaying of the sacrificial bull calf and an ox (Lev. 9:3-4, 8).
John’s Gospel begins “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). That is, he doesn’t begin on Earth but “flying like an eagle toward heaven,” to quote Prov. 23:5.
What I find so beautiful about this interpretation, especially St. Gregory’s reading, is how deeply Scriptural it is. That is, the early Christians didn’t read about angels with ox-faces, and conclude that angels are weird looking. Angels are spiritual beings, after all – they don’t literally have bodies. So why are they being presented this way to Ezekiel and then to John? So the early Christians seem to have asked a couple of much better questions: namely, where do we see each of these creatures (man, lion, ox, and eagle) in the Old Testament, and what might God be telling us in presenting them like this?
And it was in asking those better questions (rather than settling for a simple surface literalism) that let them realize that Revelation is actually a book that has a lot to say about the Liturgy, and that the “four living creatures” are the four Gospels.