Revelation 6: The 5th and 6th Seals

Here are my study notes from yesterday morning which covered Revelation 6:9-17, namely the 5th and 6th seals, as well as some more general notes on recapitulation as a literary form in the book.

The Fifth Seal

6:9-11 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.

George Ladd says, “Here John appears to have in mind all Christian martyrs of every age, perhaps those of the end time in particular.” I don’t know that I agree with his futuristic bent, but I do think it accords with all Christians – and not simply those who were physically killed for the name of the Lord, but all those who died in their faith having stood firm against the devil. In other words, for all saints who are identified with the slain lamb.

Beale makes a good case that these men and women are to be identified with all Christians who have died in Christ by pointing to the rewards, which correspond to those in chapters 2-3. Ladd says that in a very real sense we are all called to die to ourselves and put on the Lord Jesus as His followers. Therefore we take up our cross, which is a way of saying that we take up the mantle of suffering which is ours as Christians.

The life of a Christian is often one of suffering. Jesus said this:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, [22] and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:21-22)

Later on in Matthew we see that Jesus lays before us the complex idea that in His sending of prophets to the people in the OT, He knew they would be killed and He orchestrated these things in order to lay the case against the wicked:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, [35] so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23:34-35)

What is wrapped up in this saying is the same thing that applies to those in the New Testament and to us today. In the deeds of the righteous and their/our proclamation of the truth of God, we are both God’s instruments of salvation and also His instruments of judgment.[i] Not that we judge anyone, but that God’s words convict the world of His righteousness and their sinfulness. Therefore the gospel acts as a separating fire (Luke 12), which burns up the chaff and refines the gold.

Beale is likely right to note the special NT emphasis due to the “witness” being associated with these men. As someone who has studied John’s gospel I can personally attest to (no pun intended) the importance of the word and concept “witness” in John’s writing. Perhaps a similar emphasis is intended here. If so, that means that the witness these folks “bore” is that of identification with the Lord Jesus.[ii]

6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

This cry mimics the words in Zechariah 1, which follow the vision of the horseman in that book as well:

Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ (Zechariah 1:12)

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

Their appeal is to the character of God. He is the “sovereign Lord” and is both “holy and true” and therefore will not wink at sin.

The appeal is a type of imprecatory prayer upon the earth dwellers who have persecuted Christians, and rebelled against the sovereignty of God. They seem to be saying, “Since you are sovereign over all things, you must carry out justice Lord, in accordance to your holy character.”

This reminded me greatly of that important passage in Exodus 34 where God declares His name to Moses:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. [6] The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)

These saints are not spewing bitter vengeance, but a love for the reputation of God. And they know that the only way for God’s character to be upheld is for justice to be carried out. For all sin must be punished. You are either covered in the blood of the lamb, protected as it were, by the altar of His sacrifice, or you are naked and defenseless to bear the wrath of God for all of your sins.

The warning is made strikingly clear by the author of Hebrews who says:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:29-31)

What is the takeaway? May we have a similar regard for the reputation of the Lord we serve.

6:11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

We can tell they are believers because they are described as those “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Furthermore they are given “a white robe” which often signifies the reward of those who have died in Christ. Lastly we see their position as being “under the alter” and Beale recommends that we see this not as the Brazen alter of sacrifice, but as the alter of incense which is before the throne of God. This fits well with the reality that only Christ has occupied that Brazen alter in an ultimate sense. Ladd disagrees and sees no real issue with combining the idea of the sacrificial death of saints with the brazen alter.

Either way, the image conveys to us that these saints are being poured out as an offering to the Lord through their witness and identification with the slain lamb. They are protected under the altar of the holy temple, which is in the midst of the throne of God.

What is interesting to me is that on earth we long for the return of Christ – we are plagued by sin and by tribulation. Yet even here in heaven we see that there is a longing for the Lord’s return, and for His vindication. These saints are in a place of rest, yet God is telling them that the time is not yet ready for the end.

The message of the 5th seal is that troubles in life are not meaningless. And, like in the rest of the book, Christians are given hope and encouraged that God is sovereign over all the circumstances in our lives and in the world in general.

We are told to endure for the sake of His name. We are to “take up our cross daily” as Jesus exhorts in the Gospels (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23), and to endure the tribulation brought on by the four horses.

Therefore, Christ the Lamb is the One will one day come back in great glory to renew the earth and heavens and judge the quick and the dead. It is that Day of Judgment which John describes next…

The Sixth Seal

6:12-17 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, [13] and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. [14] The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. [15] Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, [16] calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, [17] for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Now at the opening of the sixth seal John sees a vision of the final judgment, which the saints from the previous seal had longed to see. He sees the great and mighty Day of the Lord – the Day described as one in which no one could stand against the wrath of God.

Like so many other images in Revelation, these verses are steeped in OT imagery – especially from Isaiah 34. Beale actually cites Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; and Habakkuk 3:6-11 among others.[iii]

The images include:

  • A great earthquake
  • Sun becomes black
  • The Moon becomes like blood
  • Stars fall to the earth
  • Sky vanishes like a scroll
  • Mountains and islands were completely moved
  • All people (great and small) who dwell on the earth hide and long for suicide

The Isaiah 34 passage states:

Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. [4] All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. [5] For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (Isaiah 34:3-5)

Its nobles—there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing. (Isaiah 34:12)

Another key passage is found in Joel 2:

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. [32] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:31-32)

The sum total of these things is a cataclysmic day in which God announces His presence in a very “earth shattering” way. The final judgment, the Day of the Lord, the great coming of our Lord Jesus has shaken the very foundations of the earth. The idea here is to show the fear of all of those who dwell on the earth at the time of the Day of the Lord.

This also parallels Jesus’ Olivet discourse, especially Matthew 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29)

Therefore what this scene is showing us is the final judgment and second coming of our Lord. For Jesus then goes on to say:

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. [31] And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)

Recapitulation Reminder

So here we are at the end of chapter 6, with still 16 other chapters to study, and we’re already reading about the final scene of the judgment of God. How can this be? Well, as I have mentioned before, Revelation is a book that contains a series of visions – they are recapitulated over and again to reiterate for us different aspects of the same scene. Like multiple cameras setup at a football game to capture different angles of the action, these snap shots showcase different perspectives on the same scenes. We might think of Jesus who taught continually about the kingdom of God, yet in the Gospel accounts we find Him using different analogies that emphasize many truths and realities upon which that kingdom is founded. Many perspectives on the same truth. Many ways to get at the same reality.

As I was driving to the hospital with my good friends Mike and Tracy yesterday, on our way to visit a loved one, and our discussion tended toward the importance of “retelling the old story” of the redemptive plan of God for mankind. Not simply the Romans road, but the whole of the story from Genesis through Revelation and how it all fits together. We decided that it is in retelling the story that Christians gain strength and are encouraged in all God has done for us in Christ.

Could it be that this retelling of the story again and again in Revelation is essentially getting at the same thing? Jesus wants to show us in manifold ways the old old story, and to showcase His plan of redemption again and again for us so that we won’t forget and so that we’ll learn to treasure His plan and so that we’ll take comfort in the truth that He’s in control of said plans.

Literal or Figurative?

There is a lot of debate about whether these images are figurative or literal. I tend to think of them as figurative because in the context of this passage we’ve read about the four horses and those slain as being under the alter, among many other figuratively styled literary conveyances of ideas. These devices seem to be bound up together in continuity with the rest of the passage, not suddenly changed in these verses to accommodate a different literary form – which would seem odd. Beale gives OT application to the argument, but I am not an OT scholar. However, I am a student of literature, and to go from reading the previous verses symbolically to reading these in some other way, would seem inconsistent.

So I think these images are conveying a deeper meaning – deeper in that its mysterious to some, but to those who carefully study these things, and know their OT, and have wisdom from God, they are made clear. And in their clarity there is richness that would not be there save for this style of conveying the point.

NOTE: There are several evidences for believing these things continue to be figurative, and Hendriksen points out that even if one considers the stars falling to earth, that would never work physically/literally because many such stars would be bigger than the earth.

Therefore the question is what do these images convey? I think they convey great dread at the second coming of our Lord.

Some Concluding Thoughts

One of the things that struck me while reading the passage was how John is here shown the absolute dread that will be upon anyone dwelling on the earth who do not belong to Jesus (note especially verse 32 in the Joel passage).

The reaction of the people who are left on the earth is telling – first they want to hide. But since they obviously can’t hide, they realize that there is no hope. Adam and Eve, who tried to hide after their sins (Genesis 3:9) realized this truth quickly. And throughout the prophets we read of men on the earth who call on the rocks and caves to hide their idolatry (Hosea 10:1-3, 8, 11:2; Jeremiah 4:23-30; 5:7 – cf. Beale Pg. 400 who makes the case well).

Beale explains, “The unbelievers’ idol-refuge, the earth, muse be removed because it has been made impermanent by the pollution of their sin, but the eternal home of believers with their God will remain.” What he is getting at is that humanity “has become perverted and has worshiped the creation (cf. Romans 1:21-25; Revelation 9:20).”[iv]

Therefore this is the crux of the matter. There are two main points here:

  1. This will be a day in which the truth that weighs down every man or woman who doesn’t acknowledge God subconsciously, will now be brought to light in such a way that no one will escape its reality: there is no hope apart from Jesus.

There is no escape without the help of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God – He is the only hope. Caves will not hide you from God’s wrath, only the altar of the sacrifice of Christ who covers us in His blood will sufficiently protect us from the holy wrath of God on that day.[v]

  1. The suffering of the elect is not meaningless. God has a purpose in all of these things – a purpose which leads to our refinement and His glory.

As Tim Keller says, “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”[vi]

Now, John is shown another vision that concerns the elect. That will take up the entire focus of chapter 7 and some label this an interlude. Chapter 7 will almost be as if to say, “Now that you’ve seen the terrifying day of the Lord, you are probably wondering about those saints from the 5th seal. How will they survive these things? What will be their end? Well, check this vision out.”

The vision in chapter seven serves to answer the final question of verse 17, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Footnotes

[i] See also the example of Noah from Hebrews 11: “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Hebrews 11:7)

[ii] We shouldn’t press this NT angle too far in my opinion, for the saints of old looked forward in anticipation and having now been united to Christ due to the sacrifice of Jesus they would also be identified as witnesses, albeit from heaven (see Hebrews 11 and Moses’ identification with Christ). Still, these people were identified as those who died as witnesses while presumably on earth, which makes the NT emphasis legitimate.

[iii] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg. 396.

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 402.

[v] I realize that Beale says there is some protective nature/sense of the altar here in chapter 6 and I agree with that. However, that the altar protects us from the wrath of God is a conclusion I have arrived at on my own, taking the imagery to its rightful conclusion (I believe).

[vi] Tim Keller, Pg. 30, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. As quoted from: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/20-quotes-from-walking-with-god-through-pain-and-suffering

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Thomas Confesses Jesus as Lord: John 20:24-31

Here are my notes for John 20:24-31. These form the conclusion of my notes on the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel.

20:24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. [25] So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

There is now no doubt that the person who stood amongst them was, in fact, Jesus. They wanted to tell others – and rightfully so. One of the people they tell is Thomas whose reaction is to deliver a withering statement of unbelief.

John goes out of his way to give us the details of this interaction for a reason.

The implacability of Thomas draws a vivid contrast to what the reader has just learned. Thomas seems to be so stubborn as to demand that unless God met his own conditions, he wouldn’t believe. This is hubris only humans are capable of, and unfortunately it offers us an uncomfortable and unvarnished window into our own souls.

During the most difficult of times our minds often become warped and bitter. Frustrated at our circumstances we make demands of God, which He sometimes yields to for the sole purpose of entailing on us a stiff lesson. At times God is so desirous to show us our own depravity that He actually grants our infant-like demands. Such was the case with Thomas. He would soon get more than He bargained for, and be so deeply knifed by the Spirit that His submission to Christ’s Lordship was immediate and forthcoming.

Not that I speak of any harsh injustice on God’s behalf, rather He sometimes cuts us most deeply by pouring over us His unrivaled affection, thereby revealing to us our own sinfulness and His own comparative faithfulness and charity.

20:26-29 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” [27] Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” [28] Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” [29] Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The Lord’s Timing

It wasn’t until 8 days later that Thomas actually saw the Lord. In the Bible we have many times where numbers play a significant role. What I mean is that they “signify” something. The number 7 usually signifies “completeness” or “fullness”, and I’ve heard R.C. Sproul say that if 7 is the fullness, then 8 must represent the overflow of that – almost a one-upping of that idea (to paraphrase his thoughts).

Not to read too much into this, but Thomas didn’t get to see the Lord right away. Instead he had to wait not simply a week – 7 days – but 8 days. He had to wait until it was well past time for him to see the Lord. While everyone else probably discussed every detail of the Lord’s first appearance, Thomas was left out. His attitude of unbelief festered as the Lord waited until the right time to appear again.

I don’t think its wrong for us to remember that this is how the Lord works. His timing is not always in alignment with our timing!

In fact, the very timing of His coming into the world was perfectly selected by the Lord. Paul notes this in Galatians:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)

And of course we see this in our own lives as well. How often do we look at the lives of others and say, “Well if I had there money, or their experience, or their children, or their husband, then things would be different! When will God give me those things?” And until then we hold out in unbelief. We don’t believe His promises because He hasn’t acted in our timing!

Getting What We Want

We don’t know how this scene played out emotionally, or have the benefit of watching the reactions of Thomas and the others, but I wonder if Thomas believed right away at this point or not. My guess is that at this point he didn’t have to touch Jesus to believe. Yet he still was commanded to put his hands into the wounds. Jesus was going to make him go through the motions of his own request. Therefore, by the time Thomas exclaims “My Lord and my God!” it seems possible that the declaration came through tears of shame.

Jesus’ words are not of comfort, but rather of rebuke for Thomas and a lesson for us all. He says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”

This is the very definition of faith.

The author of Hebrews would later write, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3).

In other words, faith is trust in God that He is who He says He is, and will do all that He has said He will do. And in the fullest sense of Jesus’ words, those who believe are indeed “blessed” because they will receive eternal life. This is what He said before His death:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)

What Stands in Our Way?

Knowing that we have been called to believe in Christ – in His saving work, and also in the promises articulated for us in the Bible, I think it very worthwhile for us to ask the question: What is standing in the way?

The reason its worthwhile to ask this question stems from the fact that, like Thomas, we all battle unbelief from time to time. In fact, John Piper would say that unbelief is really at the root of many of our sins. It is unbelief in “future grace”, as he says in his book ‘Battling Unbelief’:

The “unbelief” I have in mind is the failure to trust in the promises of God that sustain our radical obedience in the future. These promises refer to what God plans to do for us in the future, and that is what I mean by future grace. It is grace, because it is good for us and totally undeserved. And it is future in that it hasn’t happened to us yet but may in the next five seconds or the next five thousand years.

For the Christian the promises of God are spectacular. They relate to our immediate future, before this minute is over, and our eternal future.

Therefore, its important to remember to fight the fight of faith every day, equipping ourselves with the truth of God’s word, and trusting to what is unseen.

Paul reiterates this truth in 2 Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18] as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

20:30-31 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The Gospel is Not Neutral

And now we come to the thesis statement of our author. For many pages and lessons now I have pointed out that these verses are the foundation and the reason for why John wrote his gospel. He is not an indifferent historian; he has an agenda. And that agenda is spelled out in such certain terms that commentary seems almost superfluous.

Nevertheless a few words are appropriate.

First, one of the things that has always struck me about verse 30 is that John, and the other gospel writers, actually didn’t record all of the things Jesus did. They didn’t even get all the miracles down on paper.

Later John will say, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

This man Jesus was doing so many miracles that they couldn’t all be written down! We know, however, that those God intended for us to know were recorded. Everything written was written for our benefit by His gracious foresight.

Remember, these acts were not simply one-on-one clandestine doctors meetings. These were public healings. Let your mind be awed over His majesty as mediated through His miraculous healings. Surely this was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).

Someone once asked me, “Why do you think Christianity spread so quickly and to so many people?” My answer was two-fold. 1) Anyone who rises from death and spends 40 days teaching people all over the country in mass audiences is going to cause a major stir and 2) anyone who heals this many people for three years is going to cause a major shift in the cultural landscape of the day (not to mention the physiological landscape!).

Secondly, just as John was not a neutral observer, so we also cannot be neutral observers. It is impossible to hear this message of the gospel and remain “neutral” because the gospel divides. It divides people because it convicts us of our sin, and exposes our darkness with the light of truth. Jesus said:

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! [50] I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! [51] Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. [52] For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. [53] They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)

So the gospel is truth that cannot be responded to in a neutral way – you either reject its claims or embrace them, but there can be no in-between.

This is clearly articulated in chapter three:

Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. [34] For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. [35] The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. [36] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:33-36)

For those of us who have accepted the truth of the gospel, let us read John’s thesis statement with joy, knowing that these things were written with us in mind! For those who might be reading this and do know claim a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus, then I urge you to bear these things mind – look at what this man did and what He said. Can there really be any doubt that this was the Son of God?