The next stage in the vision is for John to see into heaven. One item was revealed to him – the ark of God’s covenant. The original ark of the covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple of Solomon. It had been replaced by another one when the temple was rebuilt, but that ark also disappeared when the Romans destroyed the second temple.
The ark of the covenant depicted God’s royal presence with his people. Wherever it was located would indicate those he regarded as his own. In a real sense, it was his throne – the holy of holies was his sacred chamber into which the high priest entered annually on the Day of Atonement. For his people, it was a throne of mercy where he would forgive their sins because atonement had been made.
John here sees that the ark is in heaven, the place where departed believers have gone. God dwells with them and they with him. Of course, there is not a literal ark in heaven. There is no need of a symbol when the reality is there. He rules over them as the merciful Sovereign because of the atonement that was made by Jesus.
The name of the ark points to the covenant God made with his people. In the Bible, there are temporary covenants and there is an eternal covenant. Temporary covenants were made with Noah and Moses, for example, and relate to aspects of life in this world, whether for man in general or for God’s people exclusively. The new covenant, confirmed by the death of Jesus, is an eternal covenant in its effects and its contents reveal that those within it will have true knowledge of God and will be his servants forever.
Why is there a reference to the ark in connection to the second coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgement? One answer could be that it pictures the presence of God with his people as they are about to enter their God-given inheritance. When Israel entered Canaan, they were led by the ark (crossing the Jordan under the command of Joshua) and its position symbolised the commencement of a process of judgement on God’s enemies. Here God is about to judge his enemies before leading his people into their eternal inheritance, which helps us appreciate why the phenomena accompanying the appearance of the ark contains elements that would cause a sense of fear and panic. After all, the presence of the ark was a sign of comfort for God’s people and a sign of condemnation for those who were not.