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.

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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

Introduction (and Prologue) to Revelation: Part 6

Below are my notes from yesterday’s teaching in Revelation. These notes include not only the end of my introduction to the book, but also some comments on the first three verses of the book (The prologue).  Enjoy!

PJ

The Outline

I believe that in order to put this book together and understand the flow of this book, there are some things we need to take into consideration regarding the outline of the book.

Different people from different schools of thought have strong opinions about the flow of this book. Johnson divides the book into three[i] major sections:

  1. The Prologue 1:1-8
  2. The Body 1:9-22:9
  3. The Epilogue 22:6-21

John MacArthur[ii], a dispensationalist, outlines the book like this:

  1. The Things which You Have Seen (1:1–20)
  2. The Prologue (1:1–8)
  3. The Vision of the Glorified Christ (1:9–18)
  4. The Apostle’s Commission to Write (1:19, 20)
  5. The Things which Are (2:1–3:22)
  6. The Letter to the Church at Ephesus (2:1–7)
  7. The Letter to the Church at Smyrna (2:8–11)
  8. The Letter to the Church at Pergamos (2:12–17)
  9. The Letter to the Church at Thyatira (2:18–29)
  10. The Letter to the Church at Sardis (3:1–6)
  11. The Letter to the Church at Philadelphia (3:7–13)
  12. The Letter to the Church at Laodicea (3:14–22)

III. The Things which Will Take Place after This (4:1–22:21)

  1. Worship in Heaven (4:1–5:14)
  2. The Great Tribulation (6:1–18:24) This is the majority of the book!
  3. The Return of the King (19:1–21)
  4. The Millennium (20:1–10)
  5. The Great White Throne Judgment (20:11–15)
  6. The Eternal State (21:1–22:21)

MacArthur sees the book as a continuous/progressive chronological outline of the things that are to come. Men like Baptist scholar Jim Hamilton, who are not dispensationalists, also read the book chronologically to some degree.

What is most distinctive about MacArthur’s schema is the fact that so much of the book is set in the future. I think that there are serious issues with this, not the least of which is the fact that if most of the book is set in the future then how would this have meant anything at all to John’s original audience? They were undergoing tremendous persecution, and if all these tribulations are all supposed to be in the future (and we’ll throw in a pre-trib rapture, of course), that’s the equivalent of John saying, “hey I know you’re suffering now, but your great hope is that one day there will be a lot more suffering, and you won’t have to be around for that!” That’s exactly what the message of the pre-trib premil crowd boils down to for us today as well – its only when you actually write it out in its boiled down essence that it begins to sounds illogical.

However, others like Tom Schreiner, William Hedriksen, Voddie Baucham and G.K. Beale (to name a few) see the book as a series of angles looking at the same scene – the time between Christ’s first advent and second advent. This is called “recapitulation”, and can be broken up in a number of ways, generally showing the same scenes in ever increasing drama. They see the bowls, seals, and trumpet judgments as simply different ways to describe the tribulation on earth between Christ’s coming again.

Baucham’s rough outline[iii] is derived from Derek Thomas and goes something like this: 

  1. 1-3 – the introduction, letters to 7 churches
  2. 4-5 – the throne room, the sovereignty of God proclaimed
  3. 6-7 – the seals – judgments which represents issues common to every age
  4. 8-11 – the unfolding trumpets, final which sounds the coming of Christ. These run parallel to the seals judgments.
  5. 12-14 – the scene changes completely and doesn’t flow with continuity from previous chapters. The story is told again from a new vantage point. God is victorious over his enemies.
  6. 15-16 – the Bowl Judgments, Babylon is destroyed (was destroyed in Ch. 14, this retells it from new angle)
  7. 17-19 – The destruction of Babylon the beast and false prophet
  8. 20-22 – God deals with the dragon, new heavens and new earth and eternal fellowship with God enjoyed.

One thing that I’d like to note is that Hendriksen combines sections 2 and 3 and says that chapters 4-7 form one unit. I don’t think one needs to necessarily hold to one or the other very tightly. Baucham, for instance, also posted Hendriksen’s view and outline on his own church website, so I think they pretty much agree on the divisions here for the most part. I appreciate that where there are disagreements on the divisions they aren’t disagreements as to the approach of the book as a series of visions or perspectives, but rather they are disagreements about when one vision ends or how we ought to categorize these visions. This is something we’ll look at closely as we go along in our study because the text will present us with forks in the road that we’ll need to address.

Under the recapitulation view, the tribulation encompasses the entire time between the first and second advent of Christ. Whereas the premillennial view (either one) views these great tribulations as happening during a compressed period of time – 7 literal years – prior to Christ’s 2nd advent, and therefore label this as one long event with the proper name ‘The Tribulation’.

It seems that in order to study the book in a cohesive way one must at least take a viewpoint on how these things should be understood/viewed, otherwise it would be very difficult to understand the big picture of this book.

I will be teaching from the recapitulation perspective that the tribulation passages are meant to describe the trials Christians (and others) will endure between the advents of Christ, thus taking the 7 years to mean the fullness of this interadvental time, and not a future 7 year period of time.

This also means that the judgment scenes and some of the heavenly throne scenes (for example), as giving us different perspectives, or camera angles, on the events that will take place between the advents of our Lord. Each section is not comprehensive of every event of this age – some focus on one thing to the exclusion of another, though the parallels remain constant. Hendricksen also notes that as we get toward the end of the book the judgment scenes continually increase in intensity. So this is the view I think it makes the most sense, and offers the clearest explanation of what we’re looking at, and the way we’ll be moving forward in our study of the book.

Now, some more info on the recapitulation perspective…One thing to note, and that is that Hendriksen’s chapter divisions (mentioned above) are not precise. Beale actually does a little better job showing the nuances in the recapitulation in his work (note especially page 131 of his commentary if you’re interested in checking that out in detail), and he seems to think that a man named Farrer has the most cogent breakdown – this is a bit more precise than the Henriksen one: 1-3, 4-7, 8:1-11:14, 11:15-14:20, 15-18, 19-22.[iv]

It should also be noted that 1. Within these sections there are subsections and sub-points that the author makes, and that 2. There are wider ways to classify the book as a whole (as I did just a bit earlier).

There are MANY nuances to these breakdowns, but the general 7-8 recapitulation divisions seems to hold pretty true across spectrum of theologians of this mindset who are not strict futurists.

The next thing to know about the recapitulation perspective is that it is found in much of the OT prophetic literature from which Revelation draws much of its imagery (much of which is in chiastic form).[v] Daniel, Beale points out, has a structure of “five synonymously parallel visions (chps. 2, 7, 8, 9, 10-12)” and “may be the most influential on the structure of Revelation, since Daniel is used so much in the book and is used to signal the broad structural divisions of the Apocalypse.”

Later in his writing Beale puts numbers to ideas (mostly based on the influence of Daniel, which I mentioned earlier): 1:1-18; 1:19-3:22; 4:1-22:5; 22:6-21. This is a broader structure which can be broken down further, but the point is that 4-22:5 really form an overarching idea – not that they are in the future, but that these visions of judgment and destruction are sequential and similar in form and also “bracketed by the overarching vision of God the Creator and Redeemer.”[vi]

Beale leans on the obvious Daniel allusions and the natural literary breakdown of the book, and has himself settled on a recapitulation view:

If it can be concluded that these Daniel 2 allusions are intentional and draw with them the contextual idea of Daniel 2, then there is a basis for proposing that this provides a significant framework of thought for the whole Apocalypse, that is, end-time judgment of cosmic evil and consequent establishment of the eternal kingdom. As has been seen, this is an inaugurated latter-day thought pervading the visions as well as the letters, which means that the visions should not be understood in an exclusively futuristic manner, but as also including significant sections pertaining to the eschatological past and present. This conclusion is most compatible with a recapitulation view, according to which repeated sections that concern past, present, and future occur throughout the book.[vii]

And, on a more advanced note…if you want to study even further, Beale notes that he and others definitely see the possibility for some chiastic structure in the literary makeup of Revelation. At the center of the structure seems to be 11:19-14:20. Also interestingly, each of the judgment scenes, whether it’s the seals, the trumpets, the bowls or the final judgment of the world (19:11-21:8) there are always three components: prelude, vision, and interlude. These three things repeat over and over again.

Chapter One

Chapter one finds us with John the Apostle on the island of Patmos, in exile “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (vs.9). He opens his letter explaining where his message comes from its in this prologue where we’ll begin our verse by verse exposition.

The first three verses have been called the “prologue” and the “introduction” and Beale says that they indicated that “the apocalypse was revealed for the purpose of witness, which results in blessing” and that “The main emphasis here is the blessing obtained from reading the book and hearing it read.”[viii]

1:1-2 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, [2] who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

Here we see the transmission of the message that we’ll be studying. First and foremost it is called “the revelation” of Jesus Christ. This is Jesus’ message, not the invention of John or any other man. Secondly, it is given him by God – presumably the Father and head of the Trinitarian Godhead. Thirdly it is sent via “his angel” and this angel could be the messenger we read about later and this angel communicates it to John. It seems to be a four-step process of communication.

Now there are some significant things to note about the words John uses here in the opening graph of his letter.

First, and most obvious, this word “revelation” or “apocalypse” gets at the heart of the book, and that’s likely why the church has called this John’s Apocalypse from pretty much the beginning of the church onward. “Apocalypse” means to lay bare, it is a disclosure of the truth and a revealing of things previously unknown.[ix]

Another set of important words are those which say “He sent and communicated it (NASB)” or as in the ESV, “He made it known by sending.” The three words “and communicated it” are just one in the Greek sēmainō (pronounced say-my-no) which means “signified” or “to give a sign” or “to indicate.” This original meaning of the word carries with it prophetic/apocalyptic overtones and perhaps signals to us the kind of communication we’ll be getting here.

Apart from the words themselves, Beale sees real importance in the structure of John’s opening. Namely, it looks a whole lot like Daniel’s introduction of the revelation he was given by God to communicate to King Nebuchadnezzar in the second chapter of Daniel. A portion of that passage goes like this:

Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, [28] but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: [29] To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. [30] But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind. (Daniel 2:27-30)

Daniel then goes on to describe the great image of a god/idol that is separated into several kinds of metal and representative of different kingdoms of man.

The most important part is that verse 28 I think. You see how se says, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” and “he had made known”, and it is these phrases that lead scholars like Beale to see clear allusions to Daniel’s literary structure in Revelation 1:1-3 (and other parts as well).

This allusion to Daniel is important because it reveals John’s thought process about how what he has seen fits into the fulfillment timeframe of Daniel. John is trying to tell us that he is picking up where Daniel left off – this revelation is about disclosing in more detail something that formerly had been predicted, but now more details are here for us to understand.

I’m noting this now because we need to put ourselves in John’s shoes here and try to understand John’s own understanding of the context of what he saw. His literary/prophetic context was the OT prophecies. So when he is using phrasing like Daniel, it is likely because he’s saying “I’m picking up where Daniel left off.”

This helps us understand several things. For example, John says that, “God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” and then says in verse three, “for the time is near.” Understanding John’s own perspective helps us understand what he means by this, and Beale has a great insight into this that is worth quoting in full:

Rev. 1:1 especially should be seen as introducing the main idea of the book, and it is, indeed, understood by many as the title of the whole work. Therefore, if John understands this Danielic allusion in 1:1 in the light of the eschatological context of Daniel 2, then he may be asserting that he conceives of what follows in his book ultimately within the thematic framework of Daniel 2 (and probably its parallel apocalyptic chapters) or at least as closely linked to that framework. The focus of “quickness” and “nearness” in vv 1-3 is primarily on inauguration of prophetic fulfillment and its ongoing aspect, not on nearness of consummated fulfillment, though the latter is secondarily in mind as leading from the former.

Indeed, what follows shows that the beginning of fulfillment and not final fulfillment is the focus. The references to the imminent eschatological period (v 3b), the fact of Christ’s present kingship over the worlds kings (v 5), the initial form of the saints’ kingdom (vv 6, 9), and the following “Son of man” reference (1:7) and vision (vv 13-15), also indicating initial fulfillment of Daniel 7, point strongly to this focus and to the presence of a Danielic frame of reference [x]

This is important for us to understand and really digest. John is saying that these things are upon him – they are not something that will happen in the distant future.

1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

I love verse three because it is so very John-like. John has told us that beholding the Word incarnate changed the lives of the disciples. He has told us that when we see Him in the flesh one day, we will be like Him. The reason John gives for this is that “we will see Him as He is.” John Piper and Jonathan Edwards seem to think this has to do with our soul seeing His soul, that somehow we will grasp all of who He is spiritually and that will bring us into total understanding and conformity to who we ought to be (who we were made to be!).

A similar sentiment is uttered here. John says that those who read the words of this book will be blessed and also those who hear it. Surely this is true of all the saints for all time. For every Christian you find that reads the Word of God, you will also find a Christian who is or has been blessed by that reading. It is the Word that changes us (Hebrews 4 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 attest to this) and that change is a blessing from God. To be changed into the image of God is the greatest blessing one can comprehend. God changing our minds and hearts and bringing us into an understanding of who He is, and who we are, and what He wants with us – can you imagine a greater privilege or blessing?

And of course, as we mentioned earlier, the verse ends with the phrase “the time is near.” This indicates that these sayings, these warnings, these truths are upon the apostle. He believes that they are near, they are soon, they are going to be relevant in the very immediate future or present. Of course our minds automatically go to the conclusion that whatever we read next (the rest of the book) must have a great amount of finality, or consummation. But I think there is no great call for holding onto that supposition. John is not saying that the time is “near” for the fulfillment of all things, rather the time is near that we will be seeing and experiencing all the things that are in this book that he’s writing. This makes the book eminently relevant to the early church that he’s writing to, as well as to us today.

Conclusion to the Prologue

The thing that stood out to me most in this prelude to the book of Revelation is the fact that God reveals Himself progressively. He is truly the Lord of history. Abraham didn’t know who would come from his lineage to fulfill the promises God had given him. David didn’t realize that the everlasting kingdom God gave him would be fulfilled in God’s own Son. Noah didn’t realize that his ark symbolized the fortress of freedom that God would one day embody in the personage of Jesus who alone is our raft to safety from the shoals of sin and death. Nor did Daniel know that the eternal kingdom and the Son of man whom he foresaw would be ushered in by a King who would rule all kings, a Lord that would reign over all lords, an eternal God inaugurating an eternal kingdom.

In Revelation we are given a glimpse into the trials and tribulations that we’ll face in this world. We see their nature, their genesis, and the pain they will bring the saints of God. We see the cost of following Jesus. But we also see the triumph of the Lamb and the amazing power He wrought on that dead tree 2,000 years ago. We see that when He triumphed over the grave, He arose and took up His rightful place at the Father’s right hand. The consequences of this for us are simply amazing. This book recounts not only the reality of our trials here on earth, but of the blessings we have in the triumph of Jesus, the Firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8).

Footnotes 

[i] Johnson, pg. 26

[ii] From his commentary (Volume I) on the Book of Revelation, pg. 11.

[iii] From Voddie Baucham sermon May 27, 2012, www.gracefamilybaptist.net. Sometimes you will find that an associate pastor preaches here in his stead, but both hold the same perspective.

[iv] Beale, Pg. 112.

[v] Beale, Pg. 135.

[vi] Beale, Pg. 140.

[vii] Beale, Pg. 141.

[viii] Beale, Pg. 145.

[ix] See the blue letter bible online and the Strong’s concordance: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G602&t=NASB

 

[x] Beale, Pg. 182.

Revelation: An Introduction Part 2

This morning I taught the second part of our intro to Revelation.  This is part two, of what will likely be a 4-6 part introduction.  I hope you enjoy!

 The Importance of Hermeneutics (continued from last week)

It is so important that before we begin our study in this book that we have an understanding of how to interpret what we’re reading. The book of Revelation is classified as what theologians call “apocalyptic literature”, which means that the genre of this writing is not poetry, historical narrative, or epistolary – though it has some elements of the latter form.

R.C. Sproul explains this very well, and its worth quoting him at length here:

The basic principle of biblical interpretation established by the Reformers was literal interpretation, sensus literalis, which means that responsible interpreters of Scripture always interpret the Bible in the sense in which it was written. Poetic literature should be interpreted as poetry, didactic literature should be interpreted as didactic, and so on. A verb remains a verb, a noun remains a noun, a simile is a simile, and a metaphor is a metaphor.

Conversely, the style of interpretation called “literalism” involves applying a wooden interpretation, which does not work well for poetic literature. For example, when the psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands (98:8), we do not take that to mean that rivers somehow grow hands and begin clapping. We do not interpret such poetic images in an overly literalistic way.

When it comes to interpreting prophetic literature, the question is whether the language is figurative or ordinary prose, and there is widespread disagreement about that. Some believe that we must interpret the prophecies of the future literally in order to be faithful to the Bible, but that can lead us in circles.[i]

Revelation is a book will need to be interpreted differently than, say, the book of Genesis. We will encounter all manner of symbols, numbers, and visual descriptions that will leave us in awe – and perhaps a little confused, especially if we take the wrong approach to the book. Dennis Johnson rightly says, “The strength of symbolism is vividness, for often a picture is worth a thousand words. The challenge of symbolism, however, is its ambiguity.”[ii]

Johnson says there are 7 “strategies for seeing”[iii] the book of Revelation correctly. From those 7 I have listed my favorite quotes and points below because I have found his outline very helpful:

  1. Revelation is given to reveal. It makes its central message so clear that even those who hear it can take it to heart and receive the blessings it promises.

Johnson also says, “Our starting point should be confidence that God has given this book not to confuse, terrify, or divide his people but to give us light, to reveal to us the invisible forces and the secrets of his invincible plan that make sense of the visible events and movements experienced by his church in the world.”[iv]

  1. Revelation is a book to be seen, a book of symbols in motion. Because the appearance of individuals and institutions in every day experience often masks their true identity. Revelation is given in visions full of symbols that paradoxically picture the true identify of the church, its enemies, and its Champion.

Johnson mentions earlier that, “One of the key themes of the book is that things are not what they seem…Paradox is central to the symbolism. Not only are the things not what they appear to be in history, but also typically their true identities as portrayed in the visions are the opposite of their appearance in the world.”[v]

Hendriksen says, “The theme (of the book) is the victory of Christ and of His Church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The Apocalypse is meant to show us that things are not what they seem. The beast that comes up out of the abyss seems to be victorious…But his rejoicing is premature. In reality it is the believer who triumphs.”[vi]

“If we are to follow an interpretive rule of thumb in reading Revelation, it should be that we take what John sees as symbolic where possible”, says Johnson. This reality is one that is the opposite of many in popular theology who says that we should take a “literal approach whenever possible.” Our hermeneutic shouldn’t be determined by our presuppositions, but rather by the kind of literature, the context etc. that we are reading.

This is a very important point – probably one of the most important things to keep in mind as we go through the book. Dispensationalists disagree with this viewpoint. John MacArthur represents that viewpoint and makes the case that we should take a literal view because that’s the most obvious one to take – he does not even address the different kinds of literature and how a genre affects our reading of it.[vii]

  1. Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament. Not only the visions of such prophets as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah but also historical events such as creation, the fall, and the exodus provide the symbolic vocabulary for John’s visions.

Kelly agrees with this, “These images must be understood in terms of how they were originally used in the Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. There, they do not mean the literal falling of the stars to earth, but rather the down-falling of governmental powers (such as Joseph’s dream of the sun and the moon, and the twelve stars bowing before him, meaning his parents and brothers). Not to take this into account makes it hard properly to interpret Revelation.”[viii]

  1. Numbers count in Revelation. Since numbers are used symbolically in Revelation, we must discern the meaning they convey rather than trying to pull them as numbers directly into our experience, measured by calendars and odometers.

When speaking about the number “666” Beale says, “The other numbers in Revelation are probably used figuratively without specific reference to one historical reality at one particularly point in history.”[ix]

Johnson explains that the numbers mean different things. Seven is the number of completeness/fullness, ten is significant and frequently is used in multiples to symbolize vast numbers of years or people (1,000 year, 144,000 people, 12,000 stadia etc.), twelve is the number of the people of God and so forth.

Johnson concludes, “The symbolic use of numbers in Revelation is flexible. Readers un-accustomed to this flexibility are perplexed…When we recognize the symbolic significance of numbers and the flexibility of numerical symbolism in Revelation, we will get the message that the numbers are intended to convey without pressing for a literal connection between the numerical measurements in the visions and the temporal, spatial, or demographic dimensions of their referents.”[x]

  1. Revelation is for a church under attack. Its purpose is to awaken us to the dimensions of the battle and the strategies of the enemy, so that we will respond to the attacks with faithful perseverance and purity, overcoming by the blood of the Lamb.

Johnson says of Revelation that, “It’s purpose, to reveal ‘things which must soon take place,’ is not to satisfy idle eschatological curiosity or feed a hunger for revenge but to fortify Jesus’ followers in steadfast hope and holy living.” [xi]

Therefore, “our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people.”[xii]

  1. Revelation concerns “what must soon take place.” We must seek an understanding that touches the experience of our brothers and sisters in seven first-century congregations scattered in the cities of western Asia Minor. Revelation is not about events and hostile forces remote from their struggle.

“Revelation gave first-century Christians insight into the purposes of God in their time. We can at least conclude, therefore, that interpretations of the visions that lie completely beyond the original reader’s frame of reference are suspect. If we begin our inquiry with the assumption that God intended first-century believers to get the message of Revelation, we read its visions against the backdrop of Old Testament imagery rather than forcing them into the template of twenty-first century technologies or politics.”[xiii]

Hendriksen agrees, saying, “A sound interpretration of the Apocolypse must take as its starting point the position that the book was intended for believers living in John’s day and age. The book owes its origin, at least in part, to contemporary conditions. It is God’s answer to the prayer and tears of severely persecuted Christians scattered about in the cities of Asia Minor.”[xiv]

But Hendriksen doesn’t stop there. He also sees that the book was written for us as well, and gives four reasons for supporting this position – reasons I believe are not only sound, but helpful as we frame our thoughts for the study. I will quote him at length for your benefit here:

First, the affliction to which the Church was subjected in the days of the Apostle John is typical of the persecution which true believers must endure throughout this entire dispensation (2 Timothy 3:12) and especially just before Christ’s second coming (Matthew 24:29-30).

Secondly, many of the predictions in which the book abounds (example, the seals, trumpets, and bowls) concerns principles and happenings which are so broad in their scope that they cannot be confined to one definite year or period of years but span the centuries reaching out to the great consummation.

Thirdly, the letters in chapters 2 and 3 are addressed to the 7 churches. Seven is the number which symbolizes completeness, its use here indicates that the church as a whole is mind and that the admonitions and consolations of this book were meant for Christian believers throughout the centuries.

Finally, all those who read and study this book in any age are called blessed (1:3) as at the beginning, so also at the close of the book, the author addressed himself not merely to one group of men living in one decade but to every man who hears the prophecy of this book (22:18).[xv]

  1. The victory belongs to God and to his Christ. Revelation is pervaded with worship songs and scenes because its pervasive theme – despite its gruesome portrait of evil’s powers – is the triumph of God through the Lamb. We read this book to hear the King’s call to courage and to fall down in adoring worship before him.

FOOTNOTES 

A note about “footnotes”: I have footnotes here not because this is an academic exercise (you’ll see this in the loose way in which I write those footnotes!), but so that I will remember where I got these quotes for future reference, and so you can look them up yourself if you’d like.  It will also show you extended thoughts on a matter that may be a little bit of a rabbit trail I didn’t want to address in class or in the main body of my text.

[i] R.C. Sproul, ‘Everyone’s A Theologian;, Pg.’s 310-311

[ii] Johnson’s commentary on Revelation is called, ‘Triumph of the Lamb’ and this quote is found on page 10.

[iii] Johnson, Pg.’s 22-23

[iv] Johnson, Pg. 6.

[v] Johnson, Pg. 9.

[vi] Hendriksen, Pg. 8

[vii] John MacArthur says this, “If you just take all of that literally you come up with a premillennial view. And one of the compelling reasons to take it all literally is because there’s no other way to interpret the Bible because as soon as you say you don’t have to interpret the Bible literally, then what in the Bible don’t you have to interpret literally? I mean, how do you…how can you just say, ‘Well we don’t interpret prophecy literally, but we interpret everything else literally,’ on the basis of what? We maintain a literal, historical, grammatical contextual hermeneutic of interpretation because that’s the only way that we can understand the Bible, to take it at its historical, contextual, linguistic face value. And when you do that, you find you’re drawn to be a premillennialist because that’s the literal aspect.” But in his ardency to read the Bible “literally”, he discards simple logic and other standard interpretive rules. Sensus Literalis is thrown out the door. The approach to how we’d read any kind of literature, be that poetic, prophetic, didactic etc., are not considered.  Additionally, and much to my consternation, I’ve found that dispensationalists generally make arguments about their hermeneutic that are disingenuous. 1. They use language about “literal” and “face value” interpretations to smack down discerning theologians who see spiritual or symbolic interpretations. Then, they interpret passages which they view as symbolic as such because it suits them in the situation. They do this because they are convinced that one must approach any literature with a literal interpretation first, and then only symbolically if the literal doesn’t work – often they refuse to interpret the literature symbolically at all therefore forcing the passage at hand into a future occurrence (since nothing like a talking “beast” lives among us today!) This is a wrong-headed way to approach Scripture.  2. They regularly write about other views in a condescending manner, while continually stressing how theirs must be correct (far from the humble approach of those who hold other views, and this is found throughout Walvoord, MacArthur, and Ryrie). 3. They use terms like “replacement theology” for the views of other’s which is inaccurate. 4. They seem to completely ignore historic premillenialism – often not even mentioning it as an option. In a sermon on the millennial views MacArthur says there are only “three” major views, then goes on to describe his form of premil as one of the three. Certainly it is one of the four major views, but there is another form of premil! All of these reasons and more (not the least of which is their undervaluing of the new covenant and Christ’s current reign) give me great pause when quoting or reading from dispensational authors. Every time I read their work my stomach turns from their arrogance, condescension, and very often their lack of academic accuracy or integrity in the representation of opposing views (see J. Vernon McGee!).

[viii] Kelly, Pg. 11

[ix] Beale, Pg. 24

[x] Johnson, Pg. 16

[xi] Johnson, Pg. 16

[xii] Johnson, Pg. 18

[xiii] Johnson, Pg. 20-21

[xiv] Hendriksen, Pg. 10

[xv] Hendriksen, Pg. 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord’s Timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting What We Want

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

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

This is the very definition of faith.

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

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

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

What Stands in Our Way?

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

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

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

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

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

Paul reiterates this truth in 2 Corinthians:

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

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

The Gospel is Not Neutral

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

Nevertheless a few words are appropriate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is clearly articulated in chapter three:

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

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

John 20:1-18 The Resurrection of Jesus

John Chapter 20 – The Resurrection

20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

We can’t go very far without noting a few things in this new chapter. The first is that John lets us know this is “the first day of the week.” This is Sunday. This is the day Jesus rose from the dead and that’s why even to this day, 2,000 years later, we call it “The Lord’s Day” and worship Him together on this day.

The second thing that struck me like a lightening bolt was John notation of what time it was. He doesn’t give a specific time, but he says, “while it was still dark.” For me, who is not a “morning person”, this astounds me. It takes a lot to get up that early in the morning.

I don’t know whether Mary was a “morning person” or a “night owl”, but I do know that she was drawn to this place with a intensity that wakes you up at 4am and says “get your shoes on, you’re going to the tomb.” That’s drive. That’s love. Mary loved Jesus.

The inevitable question surfaces (in my mind at least): do I love my Lord enough to serve Him if it means waking my exhausted body up at “o-dark-thirty” to serve him? I’d like to say “yes”, but it’s worth thinking on…

What She Saw

The third observation is what she saw, or rather what she didn’t see. She gets to the tomb and the stone which covered the tomb’s entrance has been rolled away.

Now, this would have been pretty shocking to her. It would have taken an amazing effort to have accomplished this – this was a coordinated effort. That’s probably why she tells Peter in the plural that, “they have taken the Lord.”

This shock is followed by another, the Lord’s body is gone. This must have added anger to sorrow. “Could they really have been this cruel? Can’t they just let this go? Can’t they just let us mourn Him? These people must have been sick, twisted freaks.”

I think that seeing this would have been enough to jolt me from despair into rage. It’s hard to say what Mary was feeling at the time, but its safe to say she was alarmed.

20:2-4 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” [3] So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. [4] Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

The first thing Mary does is run to Peter who happens to be hanging out with John, the “other disciple” (John always avoids naming himself). Her breathless voice bursts out the news and immediately Peter and John take off for the tomb.

Both men are running, but John notes that he beat Peter to the tomb. I think it’s rather amusing that John had to mention this – almost to get a little dig in on Peter (“I always knew I was faster!”).

20:5-7 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. [6] Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, [7] and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

So John gets to the tomb but there’s no Jesus, and he doesn’t enter into the gravesite but observes the scene from outside the door. Peter has no inhibitions about going in – if something has happened to his friend he’s going to know about it and see the whole matter for himself.

John notes with interest how the cloth which had been on the Lord’s head wasn’t with the other linen but was by itself – and folded neatly by itself. This is a very curious scene to say the least!

If grave robbers stole the body of Jesus why in the world would they A) take the linen cloths off of His body and B) set the facial shroud neatly folded in a separate pile. The whole thing was just “off”…

As MacArthur states, “…grave robbers would hardly have taken time to roll up the facecloth, and in their haste they would have scattered the grave clothes all over the tomb. More likely still, they would not have removed them at all, since it would have been easier to transport the body it if were still wrapped. Nor would thieves likely have left the wrappings, containing expensive spices, behind. The presence of the grave clothes also shows that the story the Jewish leaders concocted, that the disciples stole Christ’s body (Matt. 28:11-15), is false. If they had stolen the body, why would the disciples dishonor it by tearing off the grave clothes and spices that covered it?”

And commenting on the angels Mary sees in the tomb, Carson observes that, “John’s point is that this empty tomb cannot be explained by appealing to grave robbers; this is nothing other than the invasion of God’s power.”

20:8-9 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; [9] for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

The Fulfillment of Scripture

When John saw all these things his mind must have been quickly sifting through all the potential scenarios: grave robbers, Jewish leadership, Romans, revolutionaries…or He rose up from death. But none of it made sense to them yet.

Yet soon they would realize the truth that the “Scripture” was fulfilled that “he must rise from the dead.”

This Scripture John is referring to comes from the lips of David:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. [10] For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:9-10)

Later Peter would understand the meaning of these words, and in his sermon on Pentecost explains them to thousands of Jews:

…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. [24] God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. [25] For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; [26] therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. [27] For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. [28] You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ [29] “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. [30] Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, [31] he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. [32] This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. [33] Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. [34] For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, [35] until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ [36] Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:23-36)

John sees clear fulfillment of OT scripture – and it’s just as clear that the apostle Peter did as well. David was not speaking about himself, but rather prophesied about one to come – a “holy one” whose body would not “see corruption” or be “abandoned to Hades.” This “holy one” is the Lord Jesus who defeated death.

Note especially the quotation from Psalm 110. This was the same Psalm that Jesus used to shut up the Pharisees who had tried to trap Him in His teaching:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, [42] saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” [43] He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, [44] “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? [45] If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” [46] And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)

They had no idea how David could have called his descendent his “Lord.” They had not understood to this point the heavenly nature of the coming messiah.

Jesus, in effect, was showing them that they didn’t understand Him because they didn’t understand the nature of the person of the messiah and his mission.

The Sign of Jonah

One might wonder why it was that the disciples weren’t putting two and two together here. Why didn’t they understand what was going on with the Lord? Was it because they had never heard of the resurrection? Had the Lord’s plans been concealed up until this point in time?

I think the answer is emphatically “no.” For our Lord had many times predicted not only His own death, but also His resurrection.

Matthew Henry is wise to point our attention to the Lord’s own words about His coming resurrection and how “this generation” would ask for a sign of His messianic qualifications and would receive no other sign but that of the “Sign of Jonah.”

Here are the words of our Lord on the matter:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” [39] But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. [40] For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. [41] The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. [42] The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:38-42)

As if this wasn’t clear enough, Jesus also stated:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (Mark 8:31-32)

And admonishing two of His disciples after the fact, Jesus even said:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)

So the resurrection should not have been a surprise, but I believe that in the moment it was a shock, and the disciples were stunned by the sequence of unfolding events. We have the benefit of looking back 2,000 years later and closely and slowly examining the sequence of events and the words of the Lord and the OT prophets. The disciples had no such privilege at that moment. They were so close to the event itself, that what they were witnessing seemed confusing amidst their fears and sorrow. We would have reacted the same way.

20:10-11 Then the disciples went back to their homes. [11] But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.

Now from what John says, its apparent that the disciples didn’t fully grasp yet the significance of what they were seeing. They were completely bewildered. In fact, they just left and went back to their homes – leaving Mary at the tomb with her sorrow. They had a lot to sort out…and after all, what could they do? Their Lord was dead, and now even His body was gone.

For the first time, it seems, Mary peaks into the tomb to take a little closer look. What caused Peter and John to leave like this? What had they seen? So she takes in the view and see the linen strips and the shroud folded. Then she sees something that Peter and John didn’t…

20:12-13 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. [13] They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It is at this moment that the story begins to turn from confusion and bewilderment to joy and restoration.

Mary beholds two angels sitting inside the tomb where Christ’s body had been laid.

Note what they say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It isn’t as though they don’t know the reason she’s weeping. No, no, no. It is simply this: their reality, their perspective was heavenly. They’d just come from a party in heaven and here on earth the reality of what had been accomplished had not yet been discovered.

As Carson notes, their question “is not designed to elicit information. IT is a gentle reproof: by this time Mary should not have been crying. Her response shows she has still not transcended the explanation to which she had earlier gravitated (vs.2).”

One of the things that fascinates me about the Biblical accounts of angels is their perspective.

We meet another similar such example when Gabriel visits Zachariah in the temple and tells him about how his wife Elizabeth is going to bear a child he is aghast at Zachariah’s reaction – unbelief. Here’s how he responds:

And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:19-20)

Gabriel is saying, “I was JUST in heaven before God’s throne. He gives me this message and you don’t believe me??? I mean, I was JUST there – in heaven – in the throne room!”

Christians ought to behave different because they have a different perspective. Perspective governs our attitudes and rules our lives. These angels had a perspective that was grounded in reality – that’s why they can rightfully and astoundedly ask, “Why are you weeping???”

20:14-16 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. [15] Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” [16] Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Geerhardus Vos captures the moment well:

He (Christ) had witnessed her coming once and again, her weeping, her bending over the womb, her answer to the angels, and had witnessed not only these outward acts, but also the inward conflict by which her soul was torn. And He appears precisely at the point where his presence is required, because all other voices for conveying to her the gladsome tidings have failed…The first person to whom He showed Himself alive after the resurrection was a weeping woman, who had no greater claim upon Him than any simple penitent sinner has. No eye except that of the angels had as yet rested upon His form. The time was as solemn and majestic as that of the first creation when light burst out of chaos and darkness. Heaven and earth were concerned in this event; it was the turning point of the ages.

Certainly Vos is certainly correct: This is a moment upon which earth’s history hinged, and it is a vital moment for those of faith as well. Our Lord has risen – He has defeated death!

The Necessity of the Resurrection

The consequence of the resurrection is not small. If there was no resurrection then we have no reason to believe anything Jesus said. The veracity of His teaching is at stake, but of course much more than that, His saving grace is non-existent if He didn’t accomplish a victory over death.

Paul understands that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the lynchpin of our faith:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. [15] We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. [16] For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. [17] And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. [18] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. [19] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)

But indeed He was raised – as Paul remarks:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [21] For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. [22] For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [23] But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. [24] Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. [25] For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [26] The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

And…

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. (Colossians 1:17-18)

Therefore what is at stake here is not only the veracity of His teaching and the very truth of our salvation, but also the preeminence of Jesus Himself. If He wasn’t raised from the dead, then HE isn’t truly God’s Son, and isn’t preeminent over all things, and can’t help us in our time of need, and doesn’t hear our prayers, and isn’t powerful enough to save us from death if He Himself was defeated by death.

Thank God that He did rise, and that we too will one day rise with Him.

The Gardener

Now as soon as Mary turns around she runs smack into Jesus who then asks the same question that the angels asked her. I don’t know why she “turned around.” Perhaps she was frightened by the angels and turned to go, or perhaps she sensed someone behind her and quickly wanted to see who was approaching.

Mary asks this man, the only question on her mind: where is Jesus?

She didn’t realize she was talking to Jesus! She supposed Him to be the gardener.

C.H. Spurgeon sees great, if perhaps accidental, wisdom in Mary’s mistaking Jesus for the gardener:

She was mistaken when she fell into “supposing him to be the gardener”; but if we are under his Spirit’s teaching we shall not make a mistake if now we indulge ourselves in a quiet meditation upon our ever-blessed Lord, “supposing him to be the gardener.”

It is not an unnatural supposition, surely; for if we may truly sing

“We are a garden walled around,
Chosen and made peculiar ground,”

That enclosure needs a gardener. Are we not all the plants of his right hand planting? Do we not all need watering and tending by his constant and gracious care?

The image, I say, is so far from being unnatural that it is most pregnant with suggestions and full of useful teaching. We are not going against the harmonies of nature when we are “supposing him to be the gardener.”

If we would be supported by a type, our Lord takes the name of “the Second Adam,” and the first Adam was a gardener. Moses tells us that the Lord God placed the man in the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. Man in his best estate was not to live in this world in a paradise of indolent luxury, but in a garden of recompensed toil. Behold, the church is Christ’s Eden, watered by the river of life, and so fertilized that all manner of fruits are brought forth unto God; and he, our second Adam, walks in this spiritual Eden to dress it and to keep it; and so by a type we see that we are right in “supposing him to be the gardener.”

Spurgeon sees a rich typology in this passage. Jesus is indeed our great Gardener!

I love the thought that Jesus, the Supreme Gardener, appears at this time to what might be regarded as the weakest and feeblest of the plants in His garden. This ought to give us great hope and joy. For He delights in taking weak dying sinners and bathing them in the nutrition imparting light of His gospel.

There is great hope and comfort in this passage my friends – and it ought to spur us on to great effect. Listen to Spurgeon and let your hearts agree with his:

One more duty I would mention, though others suggest themselves. “Supposing him to be the gardener,” then let us bring forth fruit to him. I do not address a people this morning who feel no care as to whether they serve God or not. I believe that most of you do desire to glorify God; for being saved by grace, you feel a holy ambition to show forth his praises who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. You wish to bring others to Christ, because you yourselves have been brought to life and liberty in him. Now, let this be a stimulus to your fruitbearing, that Jesus is the gardener. Where you have brought forth a single cluster, bring, forth a hundred! “supposing him to be the gardener.” If he is to have the honor of it, then labor to do that which will give him great renown. If our spiritual state were to be attributed to ourselves, or to our minister, or to some of our fellow Christians, we might not feel that we were tinder a great necessity to be fruitful; but if Jesus be the gardener, and is to bear the blame or the honor of what we produce, then let us use up every drop of sap and strain every fibre, that, to the utmost of which our manhood is capable, we may produce a fair reward for our Lord’s travail.

Finally, we must understand the significance of His resurrection in light of being a plant in His garden, and Spurgeon articulates this important truth well:

One other thought. “Supposing him to be the gardener,” and God to come and walk among the trees of the garden, then I expect he will remove the whole of the garden upward with himself to fairer skies; for he rose, and his people must rise with him. I expect a blessed transplantation of all these flowers below to a clearer atmosphere above, away from all this smoke and fog and damp, up where the sun is never clouded, where flowers never wither, where fruits never decay. Oh, the glory we shall then enjoy up yonder, on the hills of spices in the garden of God. “Supposing him to be the gardener” what a garden will he form above, and how shall you and I grow therein, developing beyond imagination. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Since he is the author and finisher or our faith, to what perfection will he conduct us, and to what glory will he bring us! Oh, to be found in him! God grant we may be! To be plants in his garden, “Supposing him to be the gardener,” is all the heaven we can desire.

Amen!

20:17-18 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” [18] Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

This saying of Jesus to Mary not to “cling to me” is one of the most difficult verses in Scripture to understand, according to D.A. Carson. Scholars are at odds as to why Jesus would tell Mary not to touch Him, only to subsequently instruct Thomas to do so.

Carson weighs four major opinions on the matter and comes to the conclusion that the best way to understand this is through the prism of what is going on in each situation with each individual. Here’s what he says:

I am ascending is part of the message Mary is to convey, not part of the reason Mary should not cling to Jesus.

The thought, then, might be paraphrased this way: “Stop touching me (or, Stop holding on to me), for (gar) I have not yet ascended to my Father – i.e. I am not yet in the ascended state, so you do not have to hand on to me as if I were about to disappear permanently. This is a time for joy and sharing the good news, not for clutching me as if I were some jealously guarded private dream-come-true. Stop clinging to me, but go and tell my disciples that I am in the process of ascending to my Father and your Father.”*

*I have omitted parts of the linguistic explanations from Carson for smoothness of reading.

Mary then obeys Jesus and runs to tell the other disciples that He has appeared to her. There’s not record of their reaction to her message, but it doesn’t seem likely that they were any more disposed to believing her than they were earlier, and so they wait and think and do nothing.

My Father and Your Father

Just a final note before moving on to the next section…it seems appropriate to simply mention that Jesus says that He is ascending to His Father and “your Father.” This is extremely significant. In light of the resurrection, Jesus’ crosswork and victory over death has secured for believers union with Himself, and all the privileges appertaining unto that reality.

If we are brothers, then we are sons, and heirs also. Paul explains:

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” [16] The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, [17] and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

The author of Hebrews reaffirms:

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, (Hebrews 2:11)

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7-11)

It is therefore comforting and of no small importance that upon His victory the Lord refers to His disciples as those who will participate in the rewards of His triumph. He has won them an everlasting inheritance, and is going to the Father, as will all who believe upon His name for everlasting life.