The 7th Seal: Revelation 8:1-5

Notes on Revelation Chapter 8, Verses 1-5

8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

The Context

Here we have arrived at the 7th seal. If you recall from our previous study, the seven seals began at the start of chapter 6, with the first four represented by horseman – a visual that was used by Zachariah as well (Zechariah 1:7-17). The first five seals represented the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. As the 6th seal was opened we read that the end had come with a climax of all the horrible afflictions that mankind has had to deal with only in more manifold way.

After the first 6 seals were opened, the destruction became so intense that the question became “who can stand (the Lord’s wrath)?” Chapter 7 was the unequivocal answer to this question: those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb can stand in the midst of the wrath of God because they are covered by the altar of the Lord and His blood. These are Christians – you and me.

Now the author’s aside (or “interlude”) has concluded, and John writes of the breaking of the 7th seal.

The 7th Seal – Silence and Awe

What are we reading here? What is this 7th seal supposed to represent?

The 6th and 7th seals represent the final judgment of God – the day of calamity, the great and awesome day of the Lord. These scenes are the final judgment upon unbelievers for their wickedness and rebellion.

The language in these verses closely parallels other recapitulations of this scene later in the book, especially chapters 11 and 16. In those chapters we’ll see the same fourfold signs of God’s presence coming down to earth in judgment (which we’ll discuss momentarily in more detail). Those chapters’ context is specifically the final judgment, and yet we read a very similar description of events:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (Revelation 11:19)

The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” [18] And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. (Revelation 16:17-18)

So what we are reading about here in this 7th seal is clearly the final culmination of God’s judgment upon the world.

Interestingly, at first glance, the seal seems void of any substance. For we read that there is silence in heaven for half an hour. But (contra Ladd) this doesn’t mean that the seal is void of substance, rather that the breaking of the seal introduces such awe at the devastation of God’s judgment that no words are uttered.

Beale says:

The main point is the horror of the divine judgment, which has such an awesome effect that no human is able to verbalize a response. However brief the description, this idea of judgment composes the seventh seal.[i]

That the silence lasted about “half an hour” might refer to the seeming suddenness of the final judgment. At a time when no one expected it, the Lord inaugurated the end of days with the coming of Christ, and at a time when no one expects it, Jesus will return in glory and judge the quick and the dead.

The literary tool of describing the judgment of God being accompanied by silence is one used in the OT as well[ii]. For example:

O LORD, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol. (Psalm 31:17)

Isaiah re: Babylon:

Sit in silence, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms. (Isaiah 47:5)

Two verses Beale finds very relevant are:

But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20)

Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)

Lastly, commentators do not mention this, but perhaps it would be appropriate to mention that Jesus Christ, who took our judgment upon Himself, did so in silence:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

Therefore, one might appropriately say that this silence speaks for itself.

8:2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. [3] And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, [4] and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. [5] Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5)

A Few Notes about the Text

There are one or two bullet points that I want to mention before I get into the body of this passage.

  1. In verse 2 we read that the seven angels are given the 7 trumpets of God. This is a way of introducing the trumpet judgments, which we will read about shortly, it whets the appetite for the next vision. It may seem a bit disjointed, but its something that happens in other areas of Revelation as well I believe.
  2. Some folks get hung up on the intermediary role of angels here. But remember that Angels have served in these kinds of roles throughout scripture. They are messengers and warriors and do God’s bidding. They are not offering up the prayers on our behalf of their own initiative, for we read that they are “given” the incense. The prayers have been offered to God have met His approval and are now being burned as an aroma before Him.

O.T. Background

Like so much of the book of Revelation, the Old Testament imagery used here adds a depth and a richness to the narrative that otherwise unknown would leave us to speculation and conjecture.

In this particular passage, it would seem that these verses bring to mind a lot of what we read in Ezekiel 9 and 10. In Ezekiel 10:1-7 we read about an angelic figure who is given coals from before the throne – a safe assumption is they come from the altar as these coals in chapter 8 do. The coals are then spread over the city of Jerusalem in judgment. What is so interesting about this is that this vision of Ezekiel’s takes place immediately following chapter nine’s description of slaying all the unfaithful who did not have the mark of the Lord on their foreheads. In that chapter we read:

And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” [5] And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. [6] Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. (Ezekiel 9:4-6)

This is extremely similar to what we just studied in Revelation 7 where all those who are spared from the final judgment of God are those who are “sealed” by the Lord. It is also similar to the picture of divine protection that we find in the book of Exodus when the angel of death passed over the Israelites who put the blood of a spotless lamb on their door lentils. This blood prefigured the blood which would be shed by the spotless Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:29, 36).

Additionally, we see in the rumblings, lightning, thunder, and earthquakes even more OT imagery. G.K. Beale says, “This fourfold chain of cosmic disturbance has a precedent in the OT, where it also refers to divine judgment.”[iii] Some of the relevant verses are as follows:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16-19 ESV)

The Psalmist recounts these times:

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. [17] The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. [18] The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. [19] Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. [20] You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:16-20)

Isaiah uses these same descriptors to explain the nature of God’s judging presence:

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff. And in an instant, suddenly, [6] you will be visited by the LORD of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. (Isaiah 29:5-6)

Nature simply cannot contain the glory of the Lord. It is as if nature itself melts before Him when He descends in His glory. And should we be surprised that the One whose words create land and water and lions and birds and human beings out of nothing, causes that same creation to quake when a glimpse of His glory is let loose upon it?

What do we make of this? I think we must acknowledge that the Lord is powerful. He is a God who is unparalleled in glory and power. All other gods are pretenders to the throne.

The Prayer of the Saints

One of the most striking things about verses 2-5 are the prayers of the saints and their role in igniting the fiery coals of judgment which are poured on the earth. These prayers are likely those which we read about in the fifth seal:

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. [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?” [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. (Revelation 6:9-11)

Jim Hamilton rightly points out that the cry of “How long O Lord?” has been going up to the heavens for thousands of years. “How long until the suffering ends? How long until God shows his glory and puts those who mock him to shame?”[iv]

Hamilton points out this sentiment reverberates throughout the Psalms:

Psalm 4:2: How long will the wicked dishonor the Messiah and love what is worthless and seek lies?

Psalm 6:1-3: how long until we’re healed and no longer do things that provoke God’s wrath?

Psalm 13:1, 2: how long will it seem like God has forgotten us and is hiding his face while the enemy exalts over us?

Psalm 35:17: how long will the Lord look on before he delivers?

Psalm 62:3: how long will the righteous be attacked?

Psalm 74:10: how long will the enemies of God scoff and revile his name?[v]

And on and on and on…

These verses are meant to ensure us that eventually the glory of the Lord will descend, and His people will be caught up to Him, and judgment will commence on all who despise His name. In that day, we recall from chapter 7:

“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:15-17) 

Conclusion and Application

What we read here is a depiction of the end of the world. There are three things to be taken away from this:

  1. 1. In His majestic holiness, God will come to judge all of the earth. Those who are not protected by the seal of the Lord will be slain and cast into outer darkness. There is a penalty for refusing to accept the Lordship of God and of His Christ. Many might verbally say that they “believe” in God, but yet live lives of rebellion from His authority. They openly rebel again the Lord who causes nature to melt before Him, in an act of cosmic treason[vi], for which they will be liable.
  2. The prayers of God’s saints serve as the catalyst for inaugurating the final judgment. These prayers are not cries for revenge, but are primarily concerned for justice, and especially for the reputation of God and of His Son, Jesus. They are prayers in response to the pain caused by sin, and the death and destruction it has wrought in the lives of the saints, and the world we inhabit.
  3. All of the sealed, the 144,000, the “great multitude”, will be saved to the uttermost. As Beale says, “The seal is what enables them to enter before the divine throne and to swell there forever.”[vii] Therefore the people of God will be protected by the great sacrificial crosswork of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. And for this we rejoice and have reason for joy in our hearts even now before the consummation of God’s work.

As I studied this passage, I was struck by the great protection we have in the Lord – He truly is our “fortress.” For in the words of the Psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. [2] Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, [3] though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah [4] There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. [5] God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. [6] The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. [7] The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah (Psalm 46:1-7)

 

Footnotes

[i] Beale, from the longer commentary, Pg. 447. He goes on to make the point that the silence doesn’t therefore need to be filled with content from the 7 trumpets. It struck me that Hamilton is sort of saying that the trumpets are introduced by the silence of the 7th seal, but he doesn’t seem to commit to that view which Beale is arguing against.

[ii] Consequently, Jewish literature is full of very similar quotations, per Beale – see the longer commentary, pages 448-450.

[iii] Beale, Longer Commentary, Pg. 458.

[iv] Hamilton, Revelation, Pg. 197.

[v] This compilation is from Hamilton’s commentary, Pg. 197.

[vi] Of course it is R.C. Sproul who first coined this term “cosmic treason” for all sinners who rebel against the Lord God. The term especially conjures the fact that those who are unbelievers are effectively in open rebellion against God. One need only think of pop culture icons to receive a good example of this. Billy Joel’s old song ‘My Life’ provides a nice example: “I don’t care what you say this is my life! Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone!”

[vii] Beale, Longer Commentary, Pg. 460.

Revelation 7 and the 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 (Interlude)

Introduction

I will borrow from several parts of Beale’s introduction because I have found it helpful for showing how chapter 6 and 7 tie together:

Revelation 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations (he is referring to the four horsemen) enumerated in chapter 6. The vision of 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere. It amplifies the brief picture of the saints in 6:9-11, who have finally entered into God’s presence, after having successfully completed their course of suffering (see esp. 7:13-15). 7:9-17 also describes the kind of rest that the exalted saint were told to enjoy (6:11)…Saints who suffer in the tribulation are encouraged to persevere as they reflect on the divine protection they have through God’s sealing them and as they recall the promise of their future heavenly reward.

Therefore, the sealing of the saints explains further how Christ will “keep them from the hour of trial” which is “to test the earth-dwellers” who have persecuted them (cf. 6:10). All these connections concern matters that precede the final judgment and reward, so chapter 7 must function as an interlude or parenthesis in its placement after chapter 6. Yet the chapter also has a future aspect, especially toward the end (vv. 15-17). From this perspective the chapter is also an answer to the concluding question of 6:17, “who is able to stand”: before God and not suffer the wrath of the last judgment? This is the definite answer to 6:17 and the main point toward which the visionary narrative of 7:9ff drives.[i]

Hamilton rightly says that, “This chapter is important because we will see later in 9:4 that those who are sealed will not be harmed, and we see in 14:1-5 that this group stands with Jesus, redeemed, on Mount Zion. The fact that God seals his servants also informs the number of the beast in 13:16-18, which seems to be a satanic imitation of God’s sealing of his servants.”[ii]

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

There are obviously no “corners” to the earth – Columbus helped us figure that one out some time ago – and just as obvious is the fact that God knew it all along! But the meaning here is a simple literary device to mean that the reach of the power of the angels was worldwide.

What are they holding back? The “four winds”, which I tend to believe equate with the four horsemen from chapter 6. For in Zechariah 6 they are equated as the same thing:

And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.[iii] (Zechariah 6:5)

Beale explains:

This identification becomes clearer from understanding that the sealing of believers in vv 3-8 explains how they can be protected spiritually from the woes of the four horsemen, which they must endure. Therefore, the identification of the winds with the horsemen means that the sealing of believers in vv 2-8 takes us back even before the time when the four horsemen of 6:1-8 are unleashed.[iv]

7:2-3 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

The Seal and the Passover

The seal of God here is the mark of ownership and of protection that indicates that you are God’s own possession and that your salvation has been secured. A brilliant picture of this occurred prior to the Exodus when God instructed Moses to adorn the lentils of Jewish homes in Goshen with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over those homes in the midst of a devastating night-time slaughter of the first born of all Egypt. That night, thousands of years prior to John’s vision, an entire generation was taken away by the Sovereign of all life.

And it is those plagues – the 10 plagues that wracked Egypt prior to the Exodus – that serve as one of the main OT backdrops of the first four seal judgments (the four horsemen), but especially come to mind in the Trumpet and Bowl judgments in the coming chapters. They are modeled after those plagues, and are meant to serve as a reminder of God’s power and sovereignty, as well as His plan for anti-typical fulfillment of a final exodus from sin, death, and a fallen world; He will lead His people to a new land.

Now, the seal is the opposite of the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is just another way of saying you are a child of the enemy, as opposed to a child of God.

It is a harsh reality that we must come to grips with that all those who are not children of God are, in Biblical terms, categorized as children of Satan, because they are under His control. This reality goes back to Genesis 3:15 where the seed of the Woman was to battle it out with the seed of the Serpent. It didn’t take long before the first battle commenced – Able was the first physical casualty in a war that would stretch for thousands of years. Jesus taught this dichotomy clearly:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, [40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. [41] You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” [42] Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:39-47).

Paul emphasized this as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

It is only through the grace of God that one is saved from the enemy camp. Indeed, Jesus came to make enemies His friends:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:9-10).

And this seal is that which indicates that we have been snatched from the enemy camp, and are in the army of God’s glorious elect. It is also an indication of protection from all the evil plagues I mentioned were about to befall mankind. Not protection from difficulty, or struggles in this life. The Israelites were spared death, but yet they endured many of the plagues the Egyptians endured, and then wandered in the wilderness and had a tough go of it for many years before being granted entrance into the Promised Land. So too are we protected ultimately.

Beale explains this well I think:

The nature of this protection is spiritual. This is apparent from the fact that believers and unbelievers suffer similar physical afflictions. But, whereas these trials purify God’s servants, they harden the ungodly in their response to God (so 9:19-21). The seal is closely related to the salvation of the people who bear it. This is evident from 14:1-4, where the group that has “written on their foreheads” the names of Christ and the Father (vs1) is also said to be redemptively “purchased.”[v]

Now, more poignantly, the seal is especially that which protects us from what Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

The sealing of the elect is the answer to the question posed in 6:17, “who is able to standin the great day of the Lord’s judgment. Well, the answer is that the elect are able to stand because God has sealed them. Tom Schreiner sums up nicely:

Those whose names are written in the book of life are enrolled because the Lamb has been slain on their behalf (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). The 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:1-8) only because they belong to the Lamb. His death is the source of their life. The sing a new song of salvation and have the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads because they have been redeemed by the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5).[vi]

A Reminder of the OT Imagery

In this way we can see the importance once again of knowing our Old Testament. I’ve said again and again in class how these OT images and stories would have been automatically conjured up in the minds of 1st century believers hearing John’s symbolic descriptions. Their minds would work with OT imagery the same way ours works when we hear the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Immediately we think: Star Wars! And all the stories and characters flood to mind in milliseconds. The same is true for the original readers of John’s letter. Therefore, we much be extra studious to understand their minds, and seek to know the OT backdrop which colors the words of this book.

7:4-8 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: [5] 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, [6] 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, [7] 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, [8] 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

There are four general theories[vii] of who makes up this group of 144,000.

  1. The dispensational view, which takes it literally as 144,000 exact people, they see it as Jewish Christians coming out of the great tribulation. “This is based on the presupposition that John’s language is to be understood literally except where he states explicitly otherwise.”[viii] The issue is that hermeneutically their literalization of the number is incorrect – every number in Revelation is figurative, why would this be different? Also, their view that a rapture of Christians will take place prior to a period of tribulation is further error that compounds the mistake.
  2. Some classic pre-mills view this group as figurative, standing for the Jews who are partially hardened but will be come to faith en masse when Christ comes back (Romans 11:24-26). The issue with this is that the Romans 11 passage talks about salvation en masse, whereas this pass in Rev. 7 has in view a remnant of people. They seem to be conveying two different ideas.
  3. Some see the 144,000 as Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century who will emerge from the horrors of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. My issue with this is that it doesn’t seem to accord with the context. If chapter 7 is an explanation of chapter 6:1-8, which I believe is evident, then one would have to say that the four horsemen were only corresponding to that destruction which took place in 70 A.D., with the following 5th seal emphasis on Christian martyrdom. However, I’m not sure that historically this has been the emphasis coming out of 70 AD (not that its not possible I suppose). It would either damage the recapitulation hermeneutic more generally, which we have seen manifold evidence for thus far, else it might suppose that all of the trumpets and bowls are referring to that time in 70AD, something that the global nature of their descriptions seem at odds with.  
  4. Lastly, there is the view that the number is figurative and that the group here is “the complete number of God’s people” (so Beale). I believe this is correct because every other number in Revelation is figurative, and because the context of the passage demands this conclusion.[ix]

I believe there is ample evidence to point to the fact that what is being represented here is not simply a special carve out of ethnic Jews, but a figurative description of the church across all time. While futurists believe that this group of people are Jewish believers coming out of a literal 7-year tribulation period after the rapture, not all premillennial futurists agree. Both Mounce and Ladd disagree, saying that the 144,000 is symbolic for the church in the tribulation.[x] That being said, I just don’t see these ideas as working very well, and believe Schreiner, Beale, and Hendriksen to be on the right track here. This is evidenced by the figurative nature of 144,000.

Beale explains the 144,000 number, and generally Hendriksen and others say the same thing:

144,000 is the result of the square of twelve multiplied by one thousand or the multiple of the squares of ten and twelve multiplied by ten. The use of twelve (and perhaps ten) heightens the figurative idea of completeness. The square of twelve may be merely the number of the tribes of Israel multiplied by itself or, more likely, the twelve tribes multiplied by the twelve apostles. Chapter 21 confirms this suggestion, where the names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles form part of the figurative structure of the heavenly city of God, “the new Jerusalem.”[xi]

Hendriksen picks up on this citation of chapter 21 and says, “Entirely in harmony with this representation we read in Revelation 21 that the holy city Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations. On these twelve gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the twelve foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:9-14). We also ready that the wall is 144 cubits in height (21:17).”[xii]

In other words, the number 144,000 is a number meant to represent something, not specifically count individuals. And that something it represents is “the sealed multitude of…the entire Church militant of the old and new dispensations.”[xiii]

Schreiner helpfully discusses the idea and provides a useful summary snapshot:

Some interpreters, of course, understand the 144,000 as literally referring to Israel. The arguments presented previously (cf. his NT theology chapter 17) suggest that John uses “Israel” symbolically to refer to the new people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel point now to a greater fulfillment: the church of Jesus Christ. The 144,000 is symbolic in that it is twelve squared and multiplied by one thousand. It represents, then, the totality of God’s people and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. It also represents God’s army in that it is comparable to the census of Israel s God’s army in the OT. God’s warriors are those who suffer for other sake of the Lamb. The church of Jesus Christ is, then, the true synagogue of God, the place where his people father together. The church does not cancel out ethnic Israel, for the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:12). But the true Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, finds its fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.[xiv]

Lost Identity

I sometimes feel obliged to spend more time refuting the dispensational viewpoint because of its odd predominance in our culture at this time in history. So I want to give one more angle on this group of 144,000 as food for thought.

One of the main difficulties with the dispensational viewpoint on this number representing Jewish Christians from literal tribes is that those tribes were completely obliterated during the Assyrian exile. Beale notes that there was still a possibility that some tribal identity existed in the first century A.D. (e.g. Acts 26:7), it seems that many Jews even at this time didn’t have a specific tribal identity. And while dispensationalists like Walvoord argue that God still knows who is from what tribe,[xv] even that argument has two issues

  1. Intermarriage: Of course God knows everything, but what is it that object of His knowledge? Are there some people who have somehow accidentally remained of purely Reuben, or Judah, or Benjamin blood? Assuming God knows the blood lineage of all mankind, it is still highly doubtful that given all the intermarriage in the last 2000+ years that there remain on earth now (or in the future) those who are purely of the blood of one or another of these tribes.
  2. Context: Beale says, “Even if it were viable (and my first point were null), it would have to remain speculation until more evidence from Revelation 7 or elsewhere in the book could be adduced to support it. Instead, the immediate and broad contexts point to a transferal of the tribal names to the church.”[xvi] That broader context could include the noted parallel of chapter 7 with 14:1-4. In those verses the 144,000 are said to be those who are “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God” (14:4) – in my mind this draws from NT literature in which we are told the church (James 1:18 perhaps picking up on Jeremiah 2:2-3?) and Christ (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18) are the firstfruits of God (The church due to the nature of its unity with Christ – see Romans 6-8). That they are redeemed from mankind emphasizes again that they are a remnant, and that they are not simply from Israel, but more globally from “mankind.” We will discuss this more when we come to chapter 14.

An Odd List

Now there are some oddities with the tribal list. First, it is missing the tribe of Dan and also missing Ephraim. Futurists like Walvoord say that this is either because the antichrist will come from Dan, or because these tribes were guilty of idolatry.[xvii] But there is no such biblical evidence to support the former, and the latter could be said of all of the tribes!

Hendriksen says, “To say that the symbol ultimately indicates Israel according to the flesh is wrong. The apostle certainly knew that ten of the twelve tribes had disappeared in Assyria, at least to a great extent; while Judah and Benjamin had lost their national existence when Jerusalem fell, in AD 70. Besides, if Israel according to the flesh were meant, why should Ephraim and Dan be omitted? Surely not all the people in the tribe of Dan were lost.”[xviii]

Of course some of this doubles down on what I already mentioned before, but I believe it’s sometimes helpful to hear it from other sources and perspectives.

Another oddity is that Judah is listed first in the list. In my mind there could be some influence here from Genesis 49 where Jacob blessed his sons and predicted that from the tribe of Judah would come a king – that king, as we now know, was Jesus.[xix]

Hamilton sums up some of these oddities, “…in this list that John gives in Revelation 7:5-8, he leaves out Dan, lists Manasseh but not Ephraim, and lists both Joseph and Levi. So john has twelve tribes listed, but this list doesn’t match the way that the Old Testament generally listed the twelve tribes.”[xx]

Hamilton thinks that perhaps Walvoord is right in saying that the omission of Dan and Ephraim (which was the name also equated with the northern kingdom of Israel) might be due to idolatry. But it is hard to say for sure.

7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Some objections are given by the dispensastionalists that these two groups can’t possibly be the same people. One group is described as coming from every tribe and nation and the other is described with a number and as Israelites. But the similarities outweigh the differences. The second group seems to have emerged from the tribulation because they were sealed (which was something mentioned of the first group). It also seems likely that, “on this understanding, just as John heard that Jesus was a Lion in 5:5 and then “saw” Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6, so also John “heard” the number 144,000 in 7:4 and then saw an innumerable multitude in 7:9.”[xxi]

Therefore, John looks and sees something that previously he only heard. If verses 4-8 are representative of the church from across all time, which I believe these are, then verse 9 is the visible representation of what John heard in verses 4-8. And what an amazing thing he saw!

John sees a vast multitude, a very diverse group of people. They seem to be people represented from all the nations of the earth. Their diversity transcends tongue and ethnicity, and their unity is found in that they all have white robes and palm branches in their hands, and they all cry out with a very loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11-12 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The angels, and elders and specifically the four living creatures all agree with the words of the church and say “Amen!”

One of the things that came to mind here was how in Isaiah 6 we are told that “one angel called to another”, that is to say that one of the Seraphim cried out in praise to God to another angel, and as if in agreement they all join together crying “holy, holy, holy” – the trisagion, He is three-times holy. And we see something similar here as well where all of God’s creation is joined together in one mind in praise to God. One group praises God, and the other seeks to echo their praise with praises of their own.

If worship is two parts: one presenting one’s body before the Lord (i.e. Romans 12:1-2), and the second presenting one’s praise before the Lord, then this group has both covered. They “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God” – but it is not an empty worship of body alone. The body is only part of the worship…

Note now the content of what they are saying about God. They acknowledge these things about and to God:

Blessing – He is the origin of all blessing, for “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Therefore it is right to bless God with our tongues for all He has given to us, and for who He is intrinsically, and that is just what they do here.

Glory – Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory we are told (Hebrews 1:1-3), but what is this glory? The glory of God is defined by John Piper as the visible and outward manifestation of His holiness – it is his holiness “gone public.” But what is being said here is that all glory, that is, all praise for goodness, is due to God. He is the only person who deserves “glory” or to be “glorified” in the truest sense of the word.

Wisdom – This is a more complex praise than it might seem at first. Wisdom is by definition a “right use of knowledge”, and we know that Christ was the very embodiment of wisdom, and that God is the keeper of all wisdom. If God was not wise, then all of His knowledge could be used to terribly ineffective or dangerous ends. But He is wise – Paul calls God the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27) in a similar doxological moment. The idea is that the angels and elders acknowledge that to Him alone belongs wisdom. It is like saying, “God only you know all the ends from the beginning, and only you are the right governor of all history and creation, and we would never want it any other way.”

Thanksgiving – Because of these truths we are to be grateful to God for all He has seen fit to do for us. Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Honor – Honor is specifically a word that I think fits rightly with kingship. Honor is not simply thanksgiving, or gratitude, it is rather paying respect to one who is due respect. That respect is not due only for what that person does or did, but for who they are. On earth we have a tendency to somewhat begrudgingly honor our authorities because they are in a place above us; God has put them there, thus we honor them. But in heaven honor is due to God because of His own intrinsic person and His authority over all things.

Power/Might – I will treat these two together. Though Power might be thought of as an intrinsic quality, whereas “might” in the Bible (at least in my studies) brings to mind God’s power in action. It is by His “might” that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and so forth. Often the two ideas are held together – as in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength (power) of his might” (insertion mine). I love this because the idea is that God’s power is always used toward the right ends. It is not man’s power, which is used often toward wrong ends. This power of God is ultimate, and it is used in righteousness.

These are the character qualities, the attributes, if you will, that are on the minds and lips of the angels and servants of God. They end the praise by acknowledging the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God and of His person: “be to our God forever and ever!”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The Explanation of the 144,000

And as if you haven’t figured it out already, the question is asked in verse 13 in a manner that reminds me of a teacher looking to his pupil to make sure they are paying attention. “Who are these people, John? Have you figured it out yet?” John punts, and the explanation is forthcoming, they are the ones who have come out of the “great tribulation.” Furthermore, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note that they are coming out of the “great tribulation”, which is to say that they will persevere through all the plagues of the four horsemen who will tear the earth apart until the final judgment of God comes at the return of His Son.

This phrase “great tribulation” is one which the dispensationalists have taken to mean a literal 7 year period of tremendous strife and horror on the earth.

Jim Hamilton, has several pages of solid points refuting this incorrect idea. Let me now read you some of his best excerpts:

Dispensationalist interpreters understand “the great tribulation” to refer to Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Daniel 9:24-27), the final sever years of human history. I have indicated (in the chapter on Revelation 6-16) that I think Daniel’s seventieth week is the whole period of time between the two comings of Christ. I think this because the New Testament indicates that with the resurrection of Jesus, the last days began.

So the age to come has been inaugurated. The final period of human history, Daniel’s seventieth week, is the whole period between the ascension and the return of Jesus.

This also means that the whole period of time between the ascension and return of Jesus is a period of “tribulation.” Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have “tribulation.” Paul told the churches in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In Revelation 1:9 John told the churches that he was their “brother and partner in the tribulation.” Jesus said to the church in Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation,” then told them in 2:10 that they would have tribulation for ten days.

So it seems that the whole period of church history, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return, is a period of tribulation…Right before the end, it does seem that there will be an intense period of persecution at the very end of history. But I think it is a mistake to expect a literal final seven years.

…I think it more likely that John means this as a description of all believers in Jesus. Thus, what John sees and recounts in Revelation is meant to encourage the churches to whom he writes. They are facing tribulation, and John tells them that God seals his servants to preserve them through the tribulation. God makes it so that though they are killed, they will overcome because they will not stop trusting Jesus.[xxii]

Now, the idea of something becoming white by spilling blood on it is nonsensical to the one who interprets these things literalistically. If we were literalists, we would have to say that this is a great mystery and there must be some kind of magic they are using to make their garments white – what are they using? What kind of blood is this anyway that the Lamb has? You may snicker, but you see the point of my hyperbole, do you not? We must interpret that which is metaphor in such a way as we are informed by the context. In the NT the blood of the lamb is said to cleanse us from our sins.

Elsewhere John writes:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The author of Hebrews alludes to this same truth as well:

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Therefore we must trust that the blood of Christ is that which will cleanse us and shield us from all harm on this earth – it is the blood of His sacrifice which protects our salvation. There seems to be a strong parallel here with 6:9-11. The saints there not only are under the alter (perhaps a symbol of protection from the four horsemen), but they are given white robes (vs. 11) and told to rest a little while longer. So too those here in chapter seven who emerge from the tribulation are given white robes – their garb is the same because they are of the same group, the elect of God.

7:15-17 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This promises mirrors that which we find in the end of the book as well. It is a wonderful promise that for those who are God’s elect, He will shelter them and bring them to their final resting place, which will be in a land flows with “springs of living water.” Therefore for those who are parched, God will give ultimate satisfaction. What Jesus gives spiritually now in “living water” we will receive physically later.

Lastly, we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This perhaps is the most wonderful verse in the entire chapter, because it 1. Acknowledges the tear-inducing struggle we face while we walk upon this earth, and 2. It showcases the tender mercy and love of God for His children.

The all-powerful God of heaven and earth understands your pain and struggle. In fact, He ordained these events in order that as you live through the plagues of the horsemen, you might be refined as gold, a choice stone in the city of God, the New Jerusalem. On that day He will heal your hurt and your scars, and mend all the pain that has caused tears to flow.

The Psalmist knew the truth that for those whose God is the Lord, they are ultimately protected from all the evil on this earth:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. [4] He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. [5] You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, [6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. [8] You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— [10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. [11] For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. [12] On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. [13] You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. [14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. [15] When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. [16] With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91)

Footnotes

[i] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg.’s 404-405.

[ii] Hamilton, Pg. 188. He’s really spot on here. And gives a great introduction, part of which includes a wonderful analysis of the main point of the chapter, which is that, “God is able to seal his servants and protect them from all danger, winning praise from them” (pg. 188).

[iii] There is also a background from Jeremiah 49:36 here. That verse says, “And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.” Beale comments in his footnotes on pg. 407 of his longer commentary, “Standing in the same tradition as Zechariah, and therefore possibly also behind Rev. 7:2-3, is Jer. 49:36, where ‘the four winds’ are divine agents of judgment against a nation.”

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 406.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 409-410.

[vi] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 429.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 416.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] It might be noted that Beale offer’s Bauckham’s view as a 5th alternative, but I don’t see it generally as fitting that way, but rather as an enhanced understanding of point 4. Namely, Bauckham says that the 144,000 represent an army of God’s people. The tribal lists, and the census terminology seems to be taken from the OT, and the parallel with 14:1-4 where the 144,000 is spoken of in militaristic terms, seems to only solidify this impression. Far from a separate view, it is a view that supports the figurative number of 144,000 (something Beale himself sees), but adds a dimension of conquering in the same way that the Lamb conquered (cf . Beale pg. 423) by enduring the suffering of the four horsemen.

[x] Steve Gregg, Pg. 133.

[xi] Ibid. Pg.’s 416-417.

[xii] Hendriksen, Pg. 110-111.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 111.

[xiv] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 751.

[xv] See Beale Pg. 415 and Greg Pg. 133.

[xvi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 419.

[xvii] Steve Gregg’s Commentary, Pg. 133.

[xviii] Hendriksen, Pg. 111.

[xix] Beale rightly remarks, “The priority of Judah here emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down to’ Judah.” Beale also says that Ezekiel 34:23-25 further develops this motif of Judah being the head of the tribes (pg. 417). Hendriksen also talks about the priority of Judah in his commentary (Pg. 111).

[xx] Hamilton, Pg. 190.

[xxi] Ibid., Pg. 192.

[xxii] Hamilton, Pg.’s 194-195. I still omitted many good things he had to say. He also talks about how the phrase “great tribulation” does not exclusively refer to a final period of difficulty and then quote Rev. 2:22 and discusses that a bit more.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Chapter 6

Chapter six takes us to the next stage of John’s vision with the scroll and its seven seals. Let us recall that the book/scroll represents the future destiny of mankind. Unlike the scroll of Ezekiel which emphasized judgment, this scroll speaks to both judgment and reward.

Historic pre-millenialist George Ladd puts it this way:

The book itself contains two things which complement each other; the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the fathering of his saints into His kingdom; and the judgment of God upon the evil demonic powers which have oppressed his people.[i]

He rightly calls it the “book of destiny.” And this book is only able to be opened by the slain Lamb, that is, the Son of God Jesus Christ.

This is why we begin chapter six verse one with the opening of the seals by the Lamb, which Douglass Kelly tells us, “The Lamb is in charge of history” and “He is behind the unleashing of historical forces that bring devastation and munificent changes in our lives and in the history of the world; the Lamb is behind them, for Rev. 6:1 show him opening ‘one of the seals’ that controls the future.”[ii]

There are various interpretations as to what we are about to read about – especially as to when these things are to take place.

But I think that Revelation 4-5 provide the backdrop for Revelation 6-8 and the breaking of the seals. Remember that chapters 4-5 celebrate the victory of Christ’s defeat over death, his victorious resurrection and his ascension to the throne.

With this in mind, also keep in mind that the images and storyline in Revelation is informed by what the prophets already predicted – specifically Zechariah 6, Ezekiel 5 and 14, Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 15&16 and of course Daniel 7. Additionally, in the case of chapter six, there definitely a parallel in the synoptic gospels to the Olivet Discourse (esp. Matthew 24).

Therefore, as James Hamilton says, “I think this presentation of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is a kind of schematic that represents the flow of history – inspiring rulers that leave wars and devastation in their wake.”[iii]

I’ll get into the summary of this view after we look at the verses specifically.

But before we do that, let’s examine the OT and NT context for this passage…

OT Parallels and Synoptic Parallels

Like the other parts of Revelation, John’s vision is informed by things Jesus has already taught during His time on earth, and the principles embodied in OT imagery.

Hamilton, Beale, Mounce, Ladd and other see a definite parallel between the Olivet Discourse and what is going on here in Revelation 6. Hamilton says, “I think that Revelation 6 in Matthew 24 are complementary presentations of world history between the first and second coming of Christ.”

Some of the key verses in Matthew 24 state:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” [4] And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. [5] For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. [6] And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. [7] For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. [8] All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. [9] “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. [10] And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. [11] And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. [12] And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. [13] But the one who endures to the end will be saved. [14] And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

You can see the parallel here with false Messiah’s (the white rider), with famine, pestilence, war and tribulation. All of these things are described by the four horsemen.

There is also significant OT imagery that forms the backdrop. Beale says:

Most obvious background is Zachariah 6:1–8. There four groups of horses of different color or commission by God to patrol the earth and punish those nations that they see a person God’s people (Zechariah 6:5-8). These nations were raised by God to be a rod of punishment to his people, but they inflicted more tribulation on Israel than they should have. God will punish them for their transgressions as a vindication of his jealous love for Israel (Zechariah 1:8-15). Therefore, the horses in Revelation 6:1–8 signify that the natural and political disaster throughout the world are caused by Christ in order to judge unbelievers who persecute Christians and in order to vindicate his people. This vindication will demonstrate his love for his people and his justice, and already maybe anticipated an answer to the cry for vengeance in 6:9–11.[iv]

That passage goes as follows:

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. [2] The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, [3] the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. [4] Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” [5] And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. [6] The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.” [7] When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, “Go, patrol the earth.” So they patrolled the earth. [8] Then he cried to me, “Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.” (Zechariah 6:1-8)

Beale says, “Ezekiel 14:12–23 is also formative for this section (cf. deut. 32:23-25). Ezekiel 14:21 is explicitly quoted in Revelation 6:8b, where it functions as a general summary of the preceding trials of conquest, sort of, and famine, the first two of which include ‘death.’”

That passage goes like this:

And the word of the LORD came to me: [13] “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, [14] even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD. [15] “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, [16] even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate. [17] “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, [18] though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered. [19] “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, [20] even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness. [21] “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! [22] But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. [23] They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 14:12-23)

Beale explains, “The point of Ezekiel 14:21 is that all Israelites will suffer persecution because of rampant idolatry (14:3-11). The purpose of the trials is to punish the majority of the nation because of rampant idolatry and simultaneously to purify the righteous remnant by testing their faith (cf. 14:14, 16, 18, 20, 20-23). The same dual-purpose is likely in mind in Revelation 6, except now the church community is the focus of the judgments. The faithful will be purified, but those who compromise through idolatry and become disloyal to Christ will be judged by the same tribulations.”[v]

“Therefore, the segments from Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Leviticus provide The compositional paradigm for Revelation 6:1–8…Revelation 6:1–8 deals not only with judgments on the world of unbelief but also with persecution of Christians, since this is a theme shared by all three versions of the synoptic apocalyptic discourse (e.g. Luke 21:12-24).”[vi]

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

6:1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”

What we see here is that the four living creatures, that is, the Cherubim, repeatedly say, “Come!” and once they say this each successive horse comes forth in action. These angels are before the throne of God and obey His commands. In Ezekiel we read of how like lightening they fire off throughout the earth obeying the commands of the Holy One (cf. Ezekiel 1:14, 19, 20).

What this means is that the judgments brought on by the horses are all directly ordained by God. He has decreed these things for a purpose. In point of fact, this sequence of events shows that as the Lamb is the one breaking the seals, it is the Lamb who is ordaining that all of these things take place.

6:2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.

There seems to be three interpretations of who this white rider is, and two of them are mainstream and shared by most commentators. Either the rider is Jesus coming to conquer (as in chapter 19), part of Satan’s forces of evil – a messianic pretender, of sorts (as in Matthew 24), or a third interpretation is that it is the proclamation of the gospel (as in the sword of the spirit and the conviction of the word – Christ coming to “cast fire on the earth” etc.).

Hendriksen and Ladd make good cases for this being Christ, due to the white garments, the nature of the word “conquer” and the parallel with chapter 19. But Mounce, Beale and Hamilton look even more in-depth at this and rule this interpretation out. Their extensive investigation convinced me that it is best to interpret this rider as part of the whole – all four describing simultaneous events occurring in history between Christ’s first coming and His return.

As Mounce says, “The arguments against Christ as the writer of the Whitehorse, however, are of sufficient strength to make the identification unlikely. A comparison of chapter 6 and 19 shows that the two writers have little in common be on the fact that they are both mounted on white horses.”[vii]

Furthermore, the parallel with Matthew 24 and the false messiah’s Jesus mentioned in that discourse is striking.

Hamilton says, “Let’s think for a moment about messianic pretenders. This first horseman looks like Jesus, the rider on the white horse in chapter 19, but he isn’t Jesus. Remember, those who do not worship the one true and living God who ever exists in three persons, the same in essence, equal in power and glory, will worship false gods. They may not call what they worship “god/s,” but they will worship themselves or money or success or sports team or video game or learning or power or per prestige or some utopian vision of the good life. Humans will worship.”[viii]

Beale cites 2 Corinthians 11 and says:

Therefore, the first rider represents a Satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general…”white” elsewhere in the book does not primarily connote victory but the persevering righteousness of Christ in the Saints. Here white male referred to the forces of evil as they try to appear righteous and thus deceive by imitating Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).[ix]

That Corinthians passage goes like this:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. [14] And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. [15] So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

There are several other great reasons for believing this is part of the whole – not the least of which are literary concerns for the summing up of the four horsemen as all part of one unit (see Beale’s notes on verses 7-8).

6:3-4 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” [4] And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

This is part of the idea of wars that will occur during the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. There likely aren’t specific wars in mind, but rather wars in general.

Beale says, “…the idea of Nations battling one another and the attendant conditions of such warfare are not primarily thought of, although they are included. Uppermost in the mind are the antagonistic actions of Satan’s forces aimed at the communities of both faith and unbelief. Therefore, the fourfold Old Testament formulas concerning the judgment of literal warfare has been expanded by John to include woes of spiritual warfare.”[x]

6:5-6 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. [6] And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

It is commonly accepted that this black horse deals with famine, which is normally the result of wars upon the earth, though it is not necessarily limited to a condition of war.

The economic situation here is one of severe inflation. As Beale explains:

A denarius was a day’s wage (cf. Matthew 20:2), and a quart of wheat was about enough for one person for three days, although three quarts of barley was enough for a typical family for one day. The prices listed here are about 8 to 16 times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time. Therefore, those suffering from the famine will only be able to buy limited food quantities for their family, and there will be nothing left over to provide for any of the other necessities of life such as “wine and oil.” That the trees and vines producing oil and wine are not affected further emphasizes the limited aspect of the famine.[xi]

Some say that the leaving out of wine and oil as part of the pestilence and famine indicates that there will be inequity between rich and poor. That could be true, and I think that it may be the case. But I like how Mounce reasons that it would be an odd thing for the Lord to declare for this to specifically be the case. As he says:

The warning about the oil and one has been variously interpreted. Some feel it was added to underscore the social inequities existing in a time of scarcity. It is the poor, not the rich, who suffer. Oil and wine, however, were not luxuries, but part of the basic commodities of life. It would also be difficult understand why the lamb – the voice “in the midst of the four living creatures” – would issue an order favoring the rich and aggravating the plight of the poor…It is simpler to take it as a natural limitation to the famine.[xii]

6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” [8] And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

These verses serve as a sort of summary of the preceding verses. Death is the natural end to all of the afflictions of the first three horses. False prophets, war, famine all lead to death. Therefore these are a sequence of chronological events, but a description of the multifaceted threats to life that we face – both believers and unbelievers – while living upon the earth.

Beale rightly says, “These final four plagues have a partial effect, since the last horseman summarizes the previous three and the disaster he brings is limited to “a fourth of the earth.” The four woes do not harm every person without exception.”[xiii]

As you see the different trials and tribulations that are poured out upon the earth you start to see how Jesus is showing John the familiar imagery of the OT, while more specifically using the Olivet Discourse (what He had already said during His time on earth) as the template for his teaching. Therefore, we see a consistency between the teaching of Jesus during His time on earth, and what John sees in this vision.

Conclusion

These judgments describe what Daniel described in chapter 7 of his prophecy when he spoke of the four kingdoms of the earth. They describe all the evil that will come upon the earth in the time between the two advents of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has been resurrected, His ascension and reign are described in chapters four and five, and He controls all of world history. In the time before His second coming Jesus ordains all manner of evil, wars, plagues and tribulation showing that He alone is in control of all things as the potter is with the clay, and He is moving human history along toward a definite goal.

Why would the Lord do these things? Why would He ordain that evil should come upon the earth? Hamilton explains:

Why would God allow these things? I think that God wants a clear contrast between what results from embracing his rule and what results from rejecting it. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the true God and embrace false gods. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the rightful king, The Lords Messiah, Jesus, and replace them with some chump who looks good and speaks well. So God let’s these fools have their day in the sun, and he lets all the mayhem and ruin that results from their pride and folly to defile this world. God let’s all this happen so that his wisdom, his power, his righteousness will be seen clearly. God wants people to know that only he can bring peace, justice, security, and happiness. God wants to be worshiped as God, and he wants people to embrace the rule of king Jesus, the Messiah.

Beale concludes[xiv]:

In summary, through his death and resurrection, Christ has made the world forces of evil his agents to execute his purposes of sanctification and judgment for the furtherance of his kingdom. This is most clearly seen in the reference to Jesus is sovereignty over “death and Hades” in 6:8, which is a further development of chapter 1: Through his death and resurrection Christ has power over, “death and Hades” (1:18) and now he uses them as his agents to carry out his will. God intended that the suffering of the cross should have both the redemptive and a judicial purpose (i.e., with respect to the latter, the cross becomes a basis of judgment for those rejecting it’s saving significance).[xv]

 

Footnotes

[i] Ladd, Pg. 95.

[ii] Kelly, Pg. 111.

[iii] Ladd says, “As the lamb breaks each of the first four seals, for horses right forth on the earth as instruments of the divine purpose: the first is white, the second read, the third black, and the fourth pale. The background for the symbolism is found in Zachariah 6:1 where the prophet is given a vision of four chariot strong by horse of different colors: red, black, white, and dappled gray. These four chariots right out to the four winds to patrol the earth as instruments of God’s wrath upon the enemies of his people.” Page 96

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372

[v] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372-373

[vi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 373. I am deeply indebted to the way in which both G.K. Beale and Jim Hamilton exposited this chapter. Their in-depth work has been so very helpful that I couldn’t have fully come to my own conclusions without their wisdom. Ladd, Mounce, and others were, of course useful, but Hamilton and Beale really logically think through every option to the point where one is able to judge better what to make of the passage.

[vii] Mounce, Pg.153

[viii] Hamilton, Pg. 178

[ix] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 377

[x] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 383

[xi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 381

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 156

[xiii] Beale, Longer commentary, Pg. 385

[xiv] On page 388 of the longer commentary, Beale goes on to address some of the concern of God being the “author of evil” as some say this passage must indicate or somehow avoid etc. Here is what he says: Some commentators do not think there is a theological problem, since they do not view Christ as the immediate cause of the judgments. The problem is sometimes avoided by adopting secondary textual variants that view John as the recipient of the address “come,” while on the other hand, Christ is sometimes conjectured as the recipient of the address (see on 6:1). Those rejecting these two alternatives offer theological presuppositions about God’s holiness in love in order to deny the direct link, and there is the consequent assertion that Christ only “permits” or “tolerates” the four Horsemen to execute their woes. But not only do the commands issued to the horseman by the chairman argue against such an idea, but the major Old Testament passages behind 6:2–8 without exception have God is the ultimate cause of the judgments (so Zachariah 6:1–8; Ezekiel 14:21; Leviticus 26:18-28).

[xv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 385

Revelation 4: The Throne Room

Last Sunday I taught on Revelation chapter four. Inevitably the discussion was richer than the notes reveal, and I mentioned other verses that sometimes I would normally add back in after the fact, but for this post I’m going to leave it as is simply due to time constraints. That being said, I hope you enjoy the notes, and allow some grace for their brevity. Looking back on the matter, I would like to have taken more time with this chapter, which is what I’m planning to do with chapter five (slated for this Sunday morning).

Chapter 4

We are now done with the letters to the churches, and John receives a new vision. Remember, he has already seen a vision in chapter one (Jesus walking in the midst of the churches etc.), and this is a new one with a new scene.

There are certain passages in Scripture which cause us to meditate upon the beauty and majesty and power of the Lord God, and Revelation 4 and 5 are two of the most majestic of those types of passages found in the sacred Text.

To frame this section of scripture, I want to quote from Hendriksen because while he definitely agrees with other commentators on these things, he seems to say it a little better:

Chapters 4 and 5 teach us one main lesson. Unless we clearly grasp this point, we shall never see the glorious unity of the Apocalypse. We shall lose ourselves in allegorization. That one main lesson may be expressed in the words of the Psalmist: “Jehovah reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits above the cherubim; let the earth be moved.” The assurance of this truth should impart comfort to believers in the midst of fiery trials. That is why this vision of the universe governed by the throne precedes the symbolic description of the trials through which the Church must pass, chapter 6. This is a very beautiful arrangement.[i]

Indeed these chapters are a great gift to the church. For as Jim Hamilton notes, “Our need for this text is much the same as the need of the seven churches to which John sent this letter.”[ii] Which is to say that we need to have our faith in the living God bolstered, and these chapters leave us in awe of who He is, and remind us again of His great sovereignty over all life.

4:1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

The first thing we ought to note is that these images that John sees are often described using the words “like” or “likeness”, and this is because he is transcribing things that are difficult to describe and is using the best words he knows how in order that we might profit from the vision. These words should not be taken as anything less than inspired, however. We ought to remember that while John is writing about amazing things, things difficult to grasp, he is seeing things God has purposefully shown in a way God has purposefully shown, using words that God has purposefully superintended.

With that said, we ought to first note that there is a door open in heaven. That means that God has opened up a window to see into the great things of heaven. In other visions the separation of physical and metaphysical has been opened using similar expressions. For example, at the very beginning of Ezekiel we read:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1)

The voice he hears is like a trumpet – which is to say it is very loud! It got his attention.

The voice says the he will “show you what must take place after this.”

There is some debate about what “after” means, but I think the easiest and most natural understanding of this is that we are beginning a new vision. It doesn’t mean “after this chronologically”, but rather “the next vision I saw.”

This is where dispensationalists say that the church has been raptured, that the trumpet blast is the blast of the final trumpet at the return of Christ, and that the elders represent the church in heaven, and so on. But there is nothing to indicate that John’s beginning of a new vision has anything to do with the rapture of the church. Furthermore, it says that the voice of God is like a trumpet, not that it was a trumpet that he heard here.

It is one thing to try to understand the meaning in a symbol, it is another to insert something that doesn’t quite fit simply in order to conform to a certain system of thought.

Nevertheless, it is clear that what we have here is the beginning of a new vision, and thus a new division of the book.

4:2-3 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. [3] And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.

Again, similar to how Ezekiel described his own experience, he first says that the heavens were opened, and then notes that he was under the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now John sees something amazing – it is a throne in heaven and there is someone seated on the throne, and John is concerned to explain this person’s appearance. So he says that he is like “jasper and “carnelian.” These are gems of presumably great value. Little is known about “jasper” now, and it is said to perhaps be a diamond that he’s referring to. The point though is that the one who sat on the throne is of exquisite beauty.

Have you ever noticed how the lighting in a church sanctuary really causes your jewelry to sparkle? I just think that some lighting in certain places really brings out the “bling” in gems and jewelry. Well, think of the most precious gem you have ever seen, surrounded by the most radiant and pure light you’ve ever beheld, and John says you’re just starting to get at what the one seated on the throne looked like.

Furthermore, the throne is surrounded by a rainbow that must be green, for it “had the appearance of an emerald.” In other words, it is beautiful, it is majestic, it is valuable/precious exquisite scene.

4:4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.

The twenty four elders seem to represent believers – God’s elect from across time. Perhaps a reference to the sum of the 12 patriarchs and the 12 apostles is meant here, and “taken together, represent the church in its character as a universal priesthood of believers.”[iii] Though they may actually be angelic representatives offering prayer on our behalf (Morris). Beale makes the distinction because he notes that the elders are “distinguished from the multitude of the saved in 7:9-17. And the fact that they present the prayers of the saints in 5:8 and sing of the redeemed in the third person also distinguishes them from believers.”

Beale’s conclusion makes some good sense of the OT backdrop:

Remembering that in the letters the angels were identified as representatives of the seven churches and that in Daniel 10-12 angels represent nations, the elders here are to be identified as angelic beings representing the church as a whole, including the saints of the OT. If the four living creatures are heavenly representatives of all animate life throughout creation (as most interpreters think), then the elders are probably heavenly representatives of God’s people. The four living beings represent general creation and the elders the elect of God’s special creation.[iv]

These elders are wearing “white garments” and have “golden crowns on their heads.” Even though I disagree with much of what John MacArthur says about the timeline of this chapter, I think his description of the white garments here is great:

Christ promised the believers at Sardis that they would “be clothed in white garments” (3:5). He advised the apostate Laodiceans to “buy from Me…white garments so that you may clothe yourself (3:18). At the marriage supper of the Lamb, His bride will “clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean” (19:8). White garments symbolize Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers at salvation.[v]

Golden crowns are likewise described as part of the garb of these elders. They are thought to symbolize victory, since in the preceding chapters Jesus promises golden crowns to those who overcome (cf. 2:10, 3:11, 18 etc.). There was also many times in those letters that Jesus promised we would sit with him on thrones – similar to what we see here as well.

4:5-7 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, [6] and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: [7] the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight.

A Familiar Scene

If this scene sounds familiar, then it’s because you’ve read something like it before. The lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder that accompany the presence of God’s throne here are likewise given in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6:

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. (Ezekiel 1:4)

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:4 ESV)

Likewise, in both Ezekiel and Isaiah the descriptions of these creatures are very similar. Here is just a portion of that description from chapter 10 of Ezekiel:

These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim. [21] Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the likeness of human hands. [22] And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the Chebar canal. Each one of them went straight forward. (Ezekiel 10:20-22)

And Isaiah 6…

Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. [3] And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:2-3)

They are described as being “full of eyes” in front and behind. Similarly in Ezekiel 10 we read:

And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub, and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling beryl. [10] And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. [11] When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went. [12] And their whole body, their rims, and their spokes, their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes all around—the wheels that the four of them had. [13] As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing “the whirling wheels.” [14] And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 10:9-14)

So right away we understand that God is using imagery that John and his contemporaries would understand and be familiar with. They’d no doubt read about and maybe even recited aloud the words of Ezekiel’s book growing up in that Jewish culture.

The Imagery

We encounter again the “seven spirits of God, which we noted earlier represents the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And here we are told of another descriptor for the Spirit, that He is like seven torches burning before the throne of God. When we think of fire as it relates to the Spirit, we are reminded of Pentecost and the symbolic fire that appeared in the likeness of tongues on that day. It was a notification to God’s people that He was amongst them.

The storm is like a great reminder that God is in control of nature, and more poignantly that He is powerful and awesome in His presence. “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps. 96:4 also cf. 1 Chron. 16:25).

This imagery reminds us of the interaction Moses and the Israelites had with God at the foot of Mt. Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)

There is also a sea of glass before His throne, like crystal, as it were. This was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around. I found a lot of help from Katie who threw out several ideas – each of which commentators also mention, which just shows you that much of these images are rooted in what we already know about the Bible and God. As we got to be talking through it, I read her the notes from the Reformation Study Bible (this is the first edition, not the latest one), and it was helpful in summing up some of the ideas about what this sea is:

This imagery might suggest a number of associations. The parallel verse in 15:2 calls to mind the waters of the Red Sea. The defeat of Pharaoh and the pushing back of the waters foreshadowed God’s final victory over evil (Is. 51:9-11). If so, the sea of glass pictures water subdued under God’s power. Moreover, the extent and beauty of the crystal—like sea, when taken together with the precious stones in vs. 3 and 21:18-21, suggest the magnificence and preciousness of Gods’ throne. The numerous parallels elsewhere with the temple might suggest that this sea is the heavenly counterpart of the sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23-25). Finally, the picture of heavenly water might suggest that God faithfully supplies water from heaven (Deut. 11:11). It is consistent with the style of Revelation to weave together a number of Old Testament images.

George Ladd says, “The easiest interpretation is to see in the glass sea a picturesque element adding to the majesty of the divine presence.”[vi]

Then we encounter the four living creatures, which we noted that Ezekiel explained were the Seraphim who are constantly before the throne of God worshiping Him. And this is what they say…

4:8-11 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” [9] And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, [10] the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, [11] “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Worship of the Holy One

Notice that whatever the Seraphim do, the elders do. The three-fold song of “holy, holy, holy” is constantly on the lips of these creatures and the response of the elders is to agree by proclaiming the worthiness of the Lord.

This ascribing of worth to the Lord is the content of true worship. Worship is not simply an “encounter with God,” it is our reaction to that encounter in a manner that is true. It is ascribing to the Lord all that is due to Him.

This worthiness is specifically tied to God’s absolute power as the Creator. All things exist because His wills them to exist. In fact, the word “absolute” is an apt descriptor because what these beings are saying is that there is nothing which comes even close to God’s glory, His honor, or His power. That He “lives forever” reminds us of His eternality. He is in a class entirely by Himself.

When God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to show that He was the One true God, He constantly reminded the Israelites that He was the creator, as opposed to the idols they worshiped.

One such example is from Isaiah 40:

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? [19] An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. [20] He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move. [21] Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? [22] It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; [23] who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. (Isaiah 40:18-23)

Remember now the idolatry and false teaching that Christ addresses in the letters to the seven churches. I don’t think the placement of this scene coming right after the letters is coincidence. It is as if to show the majestic God of heaven in great contrast with the gods of our appetites and the idols of our lives. This is the Lord. This is the maker of heaven and earth.

Addressing God

It is typical of our vernacular to generalize things in everyday conversation. We say “He always does this” or “We never go there” or “He is the only person I know who can do this” and so forth. We know in the back of our minds that our generalization is hyperbolic because it is applied to creatures are necessarily finite. Yet this is not the case with God. We can apply these general-type descriptors to God because He is eternal, immutable, and absolute in His character.

Therefore He is the only being worthy of worship. All lesser beings simply do not have the ontology and character worthy of our worship.

I mention character because one of the things that makes God so worthy of our worship and of our “giving thanks” is His loving-kindness to His creatures (us). His presence is awesome and awful in its power and majesty. Yet, He is loving and beneficent to His image bearers.

So it is not wrong for us to be reminded from this passage once again of the reverence we ought to have when addressing God in prayer and in worship. We need to keep in mind whom it is that we are standing or kneeling before. This is the great God, the maker of heaven and earth, by whom all things existed.

Similarly, we are thankful to Him for His Son who died for us. Paul certainly captures a majestic image of Christ as co-equal in stature with the God we are reading about here:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [16] For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. [19] For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, [20] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

Summary

Why are we shown this majestic scene? What purpose does it serve? I think that it is clear from the imagery and the words written here that the attributes and reign of God are front and center. God Himself is the chief subject of this text. His sovereign reign over all the created universe is what is clearly portrayed here, and I think when we ponder the throne scene in Revelation 4, we are immediately thinking about reality from the vantage point of God.

What does this mean? Well it means that God is in absolute control of all things. All of the persecution that the church faces, all of the toil that the church endures, all of the rejection and hatred of the world is all seen in contrast the absolute majesty of God. If He reigns, then all things truly do work together for the good of those called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). If He is in control, then we have no need to fear. If He is sovereign, then we have no call to be anxious about tomorrow (Matthew 6), for He knows all that we need, and will provide and care for us until He brings us home.

Therefore let us continually behold our God. Let us worship him by ascribing to Him all that is due Him. Let us behold and be transformed by what we see in His word. As the hymn says:

Who has held the oceans in His hands?
Who has numbered every grain of sand?
Kings and nations tremble at His voice
All creation rises to rejoice

Who has given counsel to the Lord?
Who can question any of His Words?
Who can teach the One who knows all things?
Who can fathom all His wondrous deeds?

Who has felt the nails upon His hands
Bearing all the guilt of sinful man?
God eternal humbled to the grave
Jesus, Savior risen now to reign!

Behold our God seated on His throne
Come let us adore Him
Behold our King nothing can compare
Come let us adore Him!

Footnotes

[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 84.

[ii] Jim Hamilton, Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, Pg. 141.

[iii] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 102.

[iv] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 102.

[v] MacArthur, Volume 1, Pg. 149.

[vi] Ladd, Pg. 77, On page 76 Ladd also discusses the fact that the sea seems to remind us of Solomon’s “brazen sea” from 1 Kings 7.

Study Notes: Revelation 1:9-16

Here are the notes from today’s lesson Revelation 1:9-16

The main theme in these verses is the character and appearance of the son of man – there are strong ties to Exodus 19, Daniel 7, as well as Daniel 10 (particularly verse 6), and Zechariah 4 (the lampstands).  I hope you enjoy!

1:9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Unity in the Kingdom

We have here the obvious beginning of a new section of the text. Now it is John speaking again, and he begins by saying he is a “brother and partner” in their trials – their “tribulation.” He is a partner in both their tribulation and also in the kingdom. If this doesn’t scream, “inaugurated eschatology” I don’t know what does…

John is already enduring tribulation – and he wants them to know that they aren’t alone.

Indeed, John’s humility must have been a great comfort to them. For as John MacArthur says:

John was an apostle, a member of the inner circle of the twelve along with Peter and James, and the human author of a gospel and three epistles. Yet he humbly identified himself simply as “your brother.” He did not write as one impressed with his authority as an apostle, commanding, exhorting, or defining doctrine, but as an eyewitness to the revelation of Jesus Christ that begins to unfold with this vision.[i]

John also reminds them that they are partners, not only in tribulation, but also in “the kingdom.” He is speaking in the present tense, by the way. He is speaking about the kingdom of God, which John considers as already existing and as having been ushered in at our Lord’s resurrection.

Furthermore, he says that he is with them in “patient endurance that are in Jesus.” Endurance that is a fruit of being “in Jesus.” All of these descriptors are modified by this phrase “in Jesus.”

Listen to Beale explain this so clearly:

John and his community are people who even now reign together in Jesus’ kingdom. But this is a kingdom unanticipated by the majority of Jews. The exercise of rule in this kingdom begins and continues only as one faithfully endures tribulation. This is a formula for kingship: faithful endurance through tribulation is the means by which one reigns in the present with Jesus. Believers are not mere subjects in Christ’s kingdom. “Fellow partaker” underscores the active involvement of saints not only enduring tribulation, but also in reigning in the midst of tribulation.[ii]

Hanging Out on Patmos

Next we learn where John is/was when he saw the visions. Most of the commentators seem to think he either wrote part of the vision down on the island, or later afterward.

The island itself wasn’t a very hospitable place. MacArthur describes it as, “a barren, volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, at its extremities about ten miles long and give to six miles wide, located some forty miles offshore from Miletus (a city in Asia Minor about thirty miles south of Ephesus; cf. Acts 20:15-17).”[iii]

Ladd says it was, “a bare, rocky volcanic island with hills rising to about a thousand feet. There are references in Roman literature to support the view that such islands were used for the banishment of political offenders. There is no evidence that John’s exile was any part of a general persecution of the church in either Rome or Asia.”[iv]

Thomas Brooks once used the island to as analogy to the human heart:

Our hearts naturally are like the isle of Patmos, which is so barren of any good, that nothing will grow but in earth that is brought from other places; yet Christ can make them like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not.[v]

We don’t know for certain exactly why John is on Patmos, except that it is in connection with His service to our Lord and likely the spread of the gospel.

1:10-11 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet [11] saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

Lord’s Day

Because of the Lord’s resurrection coming on the first day of the week – Sunday, as we call it now – the people of the early church began to gather in celebration on that day and eat and fellowship together. It is likely that when John refers here to the “Lord’s Day” he is not referring to the scriptural concept of the eschatological “day of the Lord”, but rather to that day which Christ followers had set aside to celebrate their Lord’s resurrection and victory over death and sin.[vi]

That they celebrated the resurrection day was closely tied to their motive to overcome trials. If Jesus overcame, and they were “in” Jesus, then they too could overcome. Jim Hamilton magnificently states that…

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can face suffering, imprisonment, testing, and tribulation without fear. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can be faithful unto death (cf. 2:20). The resurrection of Jesus guarantees that though we suffer we will not be crushed, though we are tested we will not fail, though we face tribulation we will be preserved, though we die we will rise.[vii]

In the Spirit

Beale notes that John’s use of the phrase “in the Spirit” is similar to Ezekiel’s use of that same phrase to connote a vision from God. He then mentions that behind him he hears a loud trumpet-like voice, which reminds us a little of God’s revelation to Moses. One such example is:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)

When God speaks to His prophets in this way, it seems like there is little room for doubting who it is that is speaking! I might just add there that this isn’t the way in which false angels/demons or Satan speaks. He doesn’t have that majestic presence that God does. God alone is ruler and proclaimed as such by all of heaven. His voice is described by Ezekiel in this way:

And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. (Ezekiel 43:2)

We’ll see this same language used in just a few more verses (1:15).

Write What You See to the Churches

John is commanded to write what he sees down in a book. Similar to the OT prophets who were often commanded to write down what they had seen (Beale, for example, cites Ex. 17:4; Is. 30:8, Jer. 37:2 – in the LXX[viii] – and so forth), and often those writing contained judgments toward Israel. So the reader who might have studied the OT might have been already catching a hint of what’s to come by way of judgment (cf. Beale).

Now we see that Jesus has asked John to write all the things he is seeing down on a book or scroll to be sent to these seven churches. We’ve spent some time already discussing the churches, the importance of the number seven, and some of the viewpoints surrounding different views on why these specific churches were mentioned.

One unique view is that the order of the churches mentioned here is significant because it corresponds to a specific time frame in history. This is known as the “historist” view. Once again Beale give a nice overview that I find worth citing in the full:

There is apparently no significant to the order in which the different churches are addressed, although some have attempted to say that it foreshadows the church age after John: the spiritual condition of the seven churches prophetically represents seven successive stages in church history. However, there is no indication of such a prophetic intention nor does church history attest to any such pattern. What is likely is that the number “seven” refers to the church universal in both a geographical and temporal sense and that the conclusion of each letter extends its application to all the churches. Therefore, what we find in the letters is potentially relevant for the church of every time and place.[ix]

I won’t here take the time to describe each church and what we know about them, because we’ll get a chance to look at that when we get to each letter specifically.

1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, [13] and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.

Here John turns around and sees the voice and when he does he sees seven golden lampstands. Later we’ll find that those lampstands are the seven churches. We’ll discuss that more again when we talk about verse 20. But let me just quote from Jim Hamilton on this:

The church is not a building but believers who are “living stones” (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Zechariah’s lampstand, which symbolized the presence of God in the temple, is fulfilled by the seven lampstands of Revelation, which symbolizes God’s presence in the seven churches to whom John writes. Zechariah’s “two sons of oil,” Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the royal descendant of David, are fulfilled in Jesus, who stands among the lampstands as God’s presence in his church. Jesus himself fills the offices of High Priest and High King of Israel. The vision of the lampstand and the two olive trees in Zechariah guaranteed that God would empower the rebuilding of the temple. Similarly, John’s vision of Jesus among the lampstands guarantees that God will accomplish his purpose in the building of the Church.[x]

Then he says that in the midst of the lampstands there was “one like a son of man.” When you hear the phrase “son of man” whom do you think of? Jesus. This was Jesus’ own favorite self-designation and it comes from the book of Daniel, which we’ve seen in previous weeks.

Jesus is described as “clothed with a long robe” and with “a golden sash around his chest.”

I was really interested in why He would be described like this, until George Ladd helped point me in the right direction: “this was the garb of the high priest (Ex. 28:4, 39:29). However, prophets could be similarly garbed (Zech. 3:4), so it is not clear whether this is intended to designate specifically our Lord’s high priesthood, or merely the dignity of his person.”[xi]

Beale mentions that the garb He is wearing could indicate a kingly or priestly function, but because of the scene – which seems to be a temple or church-like picture – the likelihood is that its priestly garb.

The overarching idea seems to be that Jesus is both priest and king. The “son of man” reference connotes Daniel 7’s clear royal kingship emphasis, but the garb is priestly it seems. Thus, like the passage in Zechariah 4 that describes the lampstands, there are two olive trees, one is the high priest and the other is the king. Jesus is both, and walks among his people keeping them secure and ensuring that He will finish the work He began. 

1:14-15 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, [15] his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

Now I don’t want to “unweave the rainbow”[xii] here, but let’s concisely examine the descriptors used here of Jesus – many of which are taken from either Daniel 7, or Daniel 10.

The passage in Daniel 10 isn’t one we’ve examined yet. The prophet had a terrifying vision of a man, and, as Jim Hamilton puts it, “Daniels vision have to do with the son of man who receives an eternal kingdom, and in Daniel 10:14 Daniel encountered a man from Heaven who told him that he ‘came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.’”[xiii]

The description of this man who spoke to Daniel is found in verses 5 and 6:

I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. [6] His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. (Daniel 10:5-6)

So John is greatly influenced in his descriptors by the vision of Daniel. Remember that Daniel was told to “seal up” the vision he saw (Daniel 12:4), whereas John is instructed to not seal up the vision (Revelation 22:10). In other words, as Hamilton says, “what was prophesied by Daniel is fulfilled in Revelation.” [xiv]

Now back to Revelation 1, the white hairs on Jesus’ head are also a picture from Daniel, but in Daniel it is the Ancient of Days (the Father) who has the white hair. Jesus, the Son of Man, is now described in this way. For as Ladd says, John used them (the hair) to show that Christ shares eternal existence with the Father.”[xv]

He has eyes that are described as a “flame of fire”, which Beale and others say could symbolize judgment, though Mounce says, “It expresses the penetrating insight of the one who is sovereign, not only over the seven churches, but over the course of history itself.”[xvi]

Ladd sees both ideas in the description of His eyes and says, “We may conclude that it symbolized omniscience combined with holy wrath directed against all that is unholy.”

The “burnished bronze” feet of the Lord which are described as having been “refined in a furnace” could describe the moral purity of Christ.

1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

The idea of Jesus holding the seven stars in his hand we will come back to in a bit when we look at verse 20.

We read that issuing from the mouth of the Son of Man there is a two-edged sword – and its “sharp.” It’s sharpness connotes effectiveness. This isn’t a dull blade – it will accomplish what it seeks to do:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

This undoubtedly is speaking of the Word of God. Jesus himself is the Word, and his Gospel goes out among the people of this world and conquers their hearts.

Johnson sees an interesting connection between the two reasons why Israel first wanted a king, and the function of Jesus as Warrior and Judge:

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, [20] that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

Johnson says, “Although Saul failed to demonstrate either wise justice or courage in battle, David exemplified the king as a bold warrior and Solomon, the king as a wise judge. Yet David and everyone in his dynasty fell short of David’s poetic profile of the perfect ruler (2 Samuel 23:1-7) – until Jesus, the Son of Man, who is supremely wise in judgment and fierce in battle.”[xvii]

Lastly, John says that Jesus’ face was “like the sun shining in full strength.” Undoubtedly this is speaking to the magnificent glory of the Lord Jesus.

I couldn’t help but remember the passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he speaks of the reflected glory of the Father onto the face of Moses. Moses’ face would just shine for days after meeting with God. So much so, that he had to wear a veil to keep from blinding the people.

Paul makes a connection between the glory which Moses beheld which was fleeting, and that which we behold in the Word of God, which actually causes us to burn brighter with the rays of the Lord’s light. Of course the key verse in the passage is:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

And in a way, I think it’s fitting to end this section thinking of this verse because that’s what we’re doing now. We’re beholding the glory of the Lord as mediated through His word.

Sometimes I’m going to be able to make a direct application – especially with the letters to the churches coming up. We’ll be able to examine those and examine our own lives to make sure we’re living in accordance with God’s Word.

However, there are other times, like today, where we are simply “beholding.” We simply read and admire the glory of the Lord knowing that it isn’t a waste of time to meditate on His character and attributes. In fact, it changes us significantly by having an impact on how we view ourselves, His care for us, and His power and care over all history.

Footnotes

[i] MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation, Volume I, Pg. 40.

[ii] Beale, (the longer commentary) Pg. 201.

[iii] MacArthur, Volume I, Pg. 41.

[iv] Ladd, Pg. 30.

[v] Brooks, ‘Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks’, Pg.’s 5-6.

[vi] See esp. Ladd Pg. 31, and MacArthur pg. 41 for why the phrasing of this indicates John is speaking of “Sunday” and not the eschatological “day of the Lord.”

[vii] Jim Hamilton, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 41.

[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 203.

[ix] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 204.

[x] Hamilton, Pg. 46.

[xi] Ladd, Pg.’s 32-33.

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 78.

[xiii] Hamilton, Pg. 47.

[xiv] Hamilton, Pg. 48.

[xv] Ladd, Pg. 33.

[xvi] Mounce, Pg. 79.

[xvii] Johnson, Pg. 59.