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.

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Revelation 6: The 5th and 6th Seals

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

The Fifth Seal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sixth Seal

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

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

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

The images include:

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

The Isaiah 34 passage states:

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

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

Another key passage is found in Joel 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recapitulation Reminder

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

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

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

Literal or Figurative?

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

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

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

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

Some Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living a Life of Expectancy

Be Ready: Living a Life of Expectancy

What does it look like to live in such a way that we if we were to know Jesus was going to come back tonight we’d be ready to welcome Him with open arms? Living in light of the reality that He could come back at any moment is what the Christian life is all about.

I think we are going to find two different kinds of motives for living a life of expectancy when we examine Scripture.  So in this post, which is a copy of my notes on Luke 12:35-48, I’ll examine these and other important lessons.  So let’s dive into the text…

12:35-36 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, [36] and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.

The first hint we have that Jesus is using an analogy here is that he says be “like” so and so. He is saying there is a mindset we need to have, a worldview, if you will. And that mindset is to inform the way in which we live our lives.

The kind of mindset is said to be analogous to that of servants who are anxiously awaiting their master’s return from his wedding feast. No sooner will the master return than the servants are to “open the door to him.” The picture is clear – these men haven’t gotten dressed for bed and haven’t turned off the lights, so that when the master comes back, they are ready to greet him.

12:37-38 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. [38] If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!

From a context perspective on the matter of these “watches” of the night, it is helpful to understand that the Jews and the Romans divided up the night into 3 and 4 sections respectively. The ESV Study Bible helpfully explains:

Most interpreters think Jesus is using a Jewish understanding of “three watches of the night” (6:00–10:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m.–2:00a.m., 2:00–6:00 a.m.). However, others think he is using a Roman understanding of four watches (6:00–9:00 p.m., 9:00p.m.–12:00 a.m., 12:00–3:00 a.m., 3:00–6:00 a.m.). In either case, the point that Jesus is making is that “the master” could come at any time, even when one is not normally prepared.

Now, as to what Jesus is saying, it is an interesting point…He is saying that if these servants just stay awake long enough and are ready for the return of their master, the it is the master who will serve them – a role reversal is taking place here.

Therefore they are called “blessed” because they are on the receiving end of this service.

The reason for the role reversal is simple. The servants were up at all hours of the night because it was a dangerous thing to leave the master’s possessions unguarded for fear of thieves. But if they stay awake and guard their master’s possessions, then they will be rewarded by the master – in fact he will personally serve them. This is quite an honor.

This tells us that the master values his possessions and appreciates those who are responsible guardians of the things he cares about.

Remember that servants are responsible to obey and execute their duties. There is no obligation on the part of the master to treat them with this much dignity. Yet that is the picture Jesus is painting.

This leads to the first reason we should be always “ready”: We ought to be ready because there is a great joy and blessing awaiting us if we are faithful to the Lord until He comes back. We have motivation for faithfulness born out of the joy we know He wants to reward us with. This tells me that God really does care about our well being, and it is His desire to have us happy – to have us find joy and to look forward to that just as Jesus Himself did.

There are two further passages that verify what I’m asserting here. The first is found in John 10:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

Interestingly, in this passage Jesus uses the analogy of thieves again, but this time in a different way. Here Jesus contrasts His own ministry with those pretenders to the office of shepherd in this passage in John.

The second passage is from Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

This is a passage we’re most likely all familiar with. But I want to point specifically at this part where it says that Jesus endured the cross because He had a great joy that was motivating Him to do so.

So we, like Jesus, need to keep in mind the reward. In fact, it wasn’t only Jesus who was motivated to faithfulness by the joy that awaited Him, the entire chapter preceding this one speaks of saints who were motivated in a similar fashion.

For example, Abraham was motivated by a better place of dwelling with God:

For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10 ESV)

And…

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)

Moses is said to have the same drive:

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:26)

Finally the author concludes:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, [40] since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Therefore it is right for us to be motivated by these things, not simply because these men and women were also, but because our supreme example, Christ Jesus, focused on the joy that awaited Him and we are told to “look to Him” as our model.

12:39-40 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. [40] You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Now Jesus begins to mix His metaphors a bit. He was the master in the story, but now compares his return to that of a thief in the night, which is done elsewhere:

Paul says:

For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess. 5:2)

Peter says:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10)

Then later in Revelation, Jesus warns the church:

Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. (Rev. 3:3)

Then He sums up with the clear message that He is coming back and you don’t know when.

That leads us to ask the question: What does it mean to “be ready”? What does that look like?

12:41 Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”

Peter – still trying to figure out how the kingdom of God will be setup – asks a good question (at least from a human perspective). He wants to know if Jesus is giving instruction to those who will rule over the kingdom – the hierarchy, if you will, or to everyone who is following Jesus at the time.

Jesus, like He did so often, doesn’t directly answer the question, but answers in a richer way by the exploring the analogy further. The purpose behind using the analogy/story to answer the question is (in this case) not to create confusion but to give His disciples a deeper insight into the doctrine he’s teaching them.

In other words, Jesus is teaching them to think. In fact, you might say He’s teaching them to think His thoughts after Him.

12:42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?

So Peter – the answer to your initial question is that Jesus is addressing anyone who is a manager over the things God has assigned. A servant in the House of God. And, I believe it is right to say, we have all been entrusted with responsibility in these matters.

12:43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. [44] Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.

Jesus reiterates what He stated before, but now giving another dimension to the blessing: Management of all of the master’s possessions.

And this makes sense. God put Adam in the garden originally to rule over the earth. The purpose of God for Adam was thrown away when Adam traded God’s sovereignty for his own selfish whims. When the Master came to check on His household, He found that Adam had not been responsible with what God owned.

God’s plan for us is that we will reign with Him over the new heavens and new earth. However, our bridegroom Jesus Christ is away for the time being. When He returns, He wants to see we have been good stewards of what is His. And, what is His is everything. Perhaps more specifically His house includes His people called after His name and according to His purpose.

12:45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, [46] the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. [47] And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. [48] But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

This last section gives us the second reason/or motivation for “being ready” for His return: There is punishment that awaits those who aren’t.

The example that’s given is this sadistic servant who is charge of the household while the master is away. Hendriksen rightly calls the man a sadist, and says that he shows evidence of being a brute who likely isn’t even a true believer.

Therefore there are a few layers to be unpacked here.

  1. Fear of the Lord is a Proper Motivation: Those who are arrogant and do not fear the Lord will not go unpunished, and those who neglect their duties as leaders of the flock will have to answer for that neglect on Judgment Day. The warning is stern, and it is clear. God cares so much for the souls of His people that He will punish those who neglect, starve, or inflict pain on those souls. He loves His sheep and will not tolerate their neglect, for their purchase cost Him dearly. We ought to be motivated by this to care for people and value them as much as God values them.
  2. Degrees of Reward/Punishment: It is implied here that even though the leaders of the household will receive a beating far worse for their neglect, yet those who disobeyed will still receive punishment for their sins. There seems to be a gradation in the punishment. This fits will Gods ideal for justice. People will be judged according to their works and words.
    1. You may have heard of the case of the Nazi hunters who have spent the last half century hunting for ex-Nazi party officials and those complicit in their misdeeds. It has been the excuse of almost all of the lower ranking officers who carried out orders that they were just following orders. That being said, the courts have in many cases found that while they are not as responsible for the deaths of million of Jews (among other crimes), yet they are complicit and therefore bear some amount of responsibility. You cannot use your leaders as an excuse for immoral actions. And, in fact, as Hendriksen rightly points out, “ignorance is never absolute.”
  3. Eternal Hell is Real: There is even the possibility held here, so it seems to me, that those who mismanage God’s household could be found not to be Christian believers at all and will therefore be cut to pieces and thrown into the fires of damnation along with “the unfaithful” – the imagery is reminiscent of what occurred to those false prophets of Baal after Elijah’s contest. Elijah took them to the river and cut them to pieces. Why the harsh imagery here? Cutting someone to pieces seems, well, quite brutal. I believe its because Jesus wants people to know the stakes. This is very important to him. And what is important to God ought to be important to us.

In Conclusion

The summary here is one we’ve heard quoted for years by both Christian and un-Christian alike. So popular are these words that they have been almost universally accepted as a maxim for leadership.

Jesus says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

There is a great responsibility within the church to lead people in faithfulness. I believe that life is structured this way – those who are leaders of nations bear an enormous responsibility. And they will pay for their negligence if they’re found wanting on the Day of Judgment.

How much more so will those who hold sway over the souls of men (in the church) be held responsible for their keep.

In sum, this passage ought to instill in us two kinds of motivations. 1. A motivation toward the joy that awaits us in heaven, which Jesus Himself looked forward to, and 2. A proper fear and reverence of the Lord, knowing that God has an abiding love for His sheep, and He will not spare the sword from those who neglect what He paid so dear a price to purchase.

Let us keep these things in mind as we raise our children and attend to our responsibilities in the church. Let us keep in mind His coming could be any day now.

Revelation 4: The Throne Room

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

Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Familiar Scene

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

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

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

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

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

And Isaiah 6…

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

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

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

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

The Imagery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship of the Holy One

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

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

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

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

One such example is from Isaiah 40:

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

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

Addressing God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 84.

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

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

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

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

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

Study Notes for Revelation 2:12-17 the church @Pergamum

Below are my notes on the letter to the church at Pergamum. I will also note that I’ve included and excursus into the Binding of Satan below which may prove helpful for future reference.

To the Church in Pergamum

Pergamum was the capital of Asia. It has been so for some 250 years before this time (per MacArthur), and had been its own kingdom until about 133 B.C. when its final king died, and he bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans.

Hendricksen gives us some scope to the city of Pergamum:

The city was located upon a huge rocky hill which, as it were, plants its foot upon the great surrounding valley. The Romans made it the capital of the province of Asia…Here were to be seen the many pagan altars and the great altar to Zeus. All these things may have been I the mind of Christ when He called Pergamum the place ‘where Satan dwells.’ Yet, it seems to us that the obvious purpose of the Author is to direct our attention to the fact that Pergamum was the capital of the province and, as such, also the center of emperor-worship.[i]

The city was about 100 miles north of Ephesus and lay 15 miles inland from the Aegean – so it wasn’t a port city like Smyrna and Ephesus. Pliny wrote about how magnificent it was, and MacArthur notes that famous archeologist William Ramsay declared it to be a majestic city sitting atop the gigantic rock formation.

The city boasted a library only second to the famous library of Alexandria, with over 200,000 handwritten volumes. A third century B.C. king of Pergamum even tried to lure the librarian from Alexandria away to run their collection, but the Egyptian king caught wind of it and retaliated by cutting off the export of papyrus to the Asian city!

“Out of necessity, the Pergamenes developed parchment, made of treated animal skins, for use as writing material. Though parchment was actually known from a thousand years earlier in Egypt, the Pergamenes were responsible for its widespread use in the ancient world. In fact, the word parchment may derive from a form of the word Pergamum.[ii]

2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

In chapter one (vs. 16) we see that Jesus is described as the one who had a sword protruding from his mouth. When we discussed this in the class setting, we came to the conclusion that the sword was the word of God. The fact that it emanated from the mouth of Jesus made a great deal of sense in that the inspired Word is that which came from Jesus.

The author of Hebrews, himself inspired by the Spirit, said this:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. [13] And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Matthew Henry sees the connection here as well and says this:

(1.) The word of God is a sword; it is a weapon both offensive and defensive, it is, in the hand of God, able to slay both sin and sinners. (2.) It is a sharp sword. No heart is so hard but it is able to cut it; it can divide asunder between the soul and the spirit, that is, between the soul and those sinful habits that by custom have become another soul, or seem to be essential to it. (3.) It is a sword with two edges; it turns and cuts every way. There is the edge of the law against the transgressors of that dispensation, and the edge of the gospel against the despisers of that dispensation; there is an edge to make a wound, and an edge to open a festered wound in order to its healing. There is no escaping the edge of this sword: if you turn aside to the right hand, it has an edge on that side; if on the left hand, you fall upon the edge of the sword on that side; it turns every way.

Of course the sharp two-edged sword is familiar to us now. But perhaps equally interesting is how Hebrews describes the all-knowing nature of the Lord. He says, “…no creature is hidden from his sight.” In a similar way we read earlier that Jesus was described as having eyes, “like a flame of fire” (1:14). Those eyes are all-seeing, and, as the writer of Hebrews says, all will be “exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Jesus himself said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

I’m pointing this out because, while this is apocalyptic literature, the way in which Jesus is described – his attributes, his authority, and his actions are consistent across the canon of scripture.

2:13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.

Here is the commendation of the church at Pergamum. They have held fast the name of Jesus and didn’t deny the faith even in the midst of execution.

Note how Jesus describes their location as “where Satan’s throne is.” And that the result is that Christians – notably this man Antipas – have died on behalf of the name of Jesus. There are two points I want us to understand about this:

Satan’s Driving Motivation

  1. Satan has always sought to kill those people who are the offspring of Eve. He delights in killing the Lord’s elect. For as God said to the devil in Genesis:

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. [15] I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15)

Now Jesus has been bruised for us, but He has leveled the fatal blow – the headshot – to Satan. Therefore Satan’s destiny has been set – his power already diminished, and he will soon be permanently cast into outer darkness.

Satan’s Throne and His Power

  1. Satan’s “throne” may be here on earth, but it is not a throne of sovereignty. He “rules” in a subordinate sense, not an ultimate sense. He is roaming the earth seeking those whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8), but his freedom is subordinate to God’s sovereign power and control. Many people get tripped up on the traditional Amillennial idea that of Satan being bound “bound” from deceiving the nations right now (Revelation 20:3). This is perhaps because they cast their own ideas about what it means to be “bound” onto the Biblical text. They point to all the terrible things going on in the world and to other texts like this where Satan is characterized as ruling in some sense, and they say, “Hey, there’s simply no way he is “bound” right now.”

But perhaps the Amillenial view is closer to the correct view than they might realize, and that we live right now in the millennium. If this is true, then Satan is bound. But how is he bound? He is “bound” from “deceiving the nations.” The Bible never says he is bound from doing evil and working to kill the offspring of Eve! It simply asserts that he no longer has the ability to withstand the unbridled power of the Holy Spirit. Before the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, the entire world save a few was characterized by darkness and idol worship. Now the gospel is saving souls and Satan, though powerful and devouring those whom he can, is ultimately unable to tamp out the gospel or keep the world in darkness.

Excursus

Now – a note on this front – I understand the difficulties here with what I’ve said about the nature of Satan being “bound.” Not the least of these difficulties comes from the passage in Revelation 20 itself, namely that Satan is characterized as being thrown in a “pit” which is “shut” so that “he might not deceive the nations” until the millennial period is over. That certainly sounds like a complete cutting off of his freedom!

But here I will lean on greater exegetical minds than my own to explain in much more detail what is going on in this passage. Namely, I want to lean on G.K. Beale’s mind, who has what I consider to be the most clear understanding of the passage, and for the sake of reference in the future I will cite several of his remarks here on the passage in question, Revelation 20:1-6. This may seem to be getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but I believe that the book is a uniform whole. There are concepts throughout the book that I will continually bring up, and I want to explain where my “assumptions” are coming from. I think that putting some of these thoughts to rest early in our study could help us understand the book more clearly as we go along. Here are some of Beale’s exegetical notes:

The “key of the abyss” in 20:1 is similar to the keys in chs. 1, 3, 6 and 9, especially chs. 6 and 9, which all pertain to realities during the church age. The “abyss” in 9:1-2 and 20:1 is probably a synonym for “death and Hades” in 1:18 and 6:8…

As in 6:8 and 9:1-2, so in 20:1-3 the Satanic realm comes under Christ’s authority, which is executed by a mediating angel…

If we have been correct in generally identifying 20:1 with the preceding “key” passages, which concern inter-advent realities, then the binding and the millennium are best understood as Christ’s authority restraining the devil in some manner during the church age.

This means tat the restraint of Satan is a direct result of Christ’s resurrection. If so, the binding, expulsion, and fall of Stan can be seen in other NT passages that affirm with the same terms (“bind”, “cast” etc.) that the decisive defeat of the devil occurred at Christ’s death and resurrection (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 10:17-10; John 12:31-33; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). More precisely, the binding was probably inaugurated during Christ’s ministry, which is more the focus of texts such as Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27, and Luke 10:17-19. Satan’s binding was climatically put in motion immediately after Christ’s resurrection, and it lasts throughout most of the age between Christ’s first and second comings.

But now what about the nature of the binding? How is this defined etc.?

Many commentators conclude that the metaphors of verses 1-3 (in ch. 20) refer to al complete cessation of the devil’s influence on earth, sometimes basing this on such texts as 2 Cor. 4:3-4, 11:14; Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26; and 1 Peter 5:8. But the “binding of Satan in Mark 3:27 (= Matt. 12:29) does not restrict all his activities but highlights the fact that Jesus is sovereign over him and his demonic forces. Therefore, context, and not the metaphor by itself, must determine what degree of restriction is intended. That Stan is “cast out” by Christ’s death does not restrict Satan in every way. Rather, it keeps him from preventing “all people” throughout the earth being drawn to Jesus (John 12:31-32). “Sealing” may connote an absolute incarceration, but it could just as well connote the general idea of “authority over,” which is its primary meaning also in Daniel 6:17 and Matthew 27:66 (though the context of the latter pertains to absolute confinement). God’s “seal” on Christians does not protect them in every sense but only in a spiritual, salvific manner, since they suffer from persecution in various physical ways (see on 7:3; 9:4). Conversely, God’s seal on Satan prevents him from harming the salvific security of the true church, though he can harm it physically.

Now Beale continues, and gives several pages of the nature of the binding and more depth is added to his argument. But I will finish with one last excerpt that I think makes a very strong case, so long as you agree with the recapitulation view of the book of Revelation (which I do).

If our understanding of the disjunctive temporal relation of 20:1-6 to 19:11-21 (that 20:1-6 actually comes chronologically before 19:11-21) and our view of the “keys” are correct, then Christ’s work of restraining the devil’s ability to “deceive” is not a complete curtailment of all the devil’s activities but only a restraint on his deceiving activities. 9:1-10 especially suggests this. The opening of the “abyss” with a key there results in demonic deception and oppression of unbelievers “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Therefore, the locking up of the “abyss” in 20:1-3 may convey the idea that Satan and his hordes cannot be on the loose to deceive those “who did not receive the mark (of the beast) on their foreheads.” 9:1-10 and 20:1-3 are synchronous and portray those whom Satan is permitted to deceive and those whom he is not permitted to deceive.

I hope this extended series of excerpts serves as a thought provoking adventure into the text. I don’t want to confuse anyone, but rather to offer some more depth to the arguments and viewpoints I’m offering on a Sunday morning.

End Excursus

2:14-15 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. [15] So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Now comes the accusation. The church has followed the way of Balak and in a similar way there’s also a group of them who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Balaam was a character from the OT and we learn about him and his betrayal of the Israelites in the book of Numbers. He was asked by a foreign King – Balak, king of Moab – to curse the Israelites so that they could be overcome in battle. The Lord intervened and stopped Balaam on in his tracks on his way to meet with the king:

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. [23] And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. (Numbers 22:22-23)

God had actually given him permission to go only if the men sent from Balak asked him again to come with them. But apparently Balaam couldn’t control his eagerness for the journey and set off on his own accord.[iii]

Balaam ended up being allowed to go to the king, but when he opened his mouth to curse the Israelites at the request of Balak, he could not curse them. Instead he spoke only what God had told him to speak. But later on, Balaam, “encouraged Israel to sin through engaging in idolatry and immorality.”[iv]

As Greg Beale describes, “Balaam’s name became a biblical catch-word for false teachers who for financial gain sought to influence God’s people to engage in ungodly practices (Deuteronomy 23:4; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11).”[v]

Peter mentions this in his second epistle when describing false teachers:

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, [16] but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:15-16)

So there were parts of the church who had been following false teachers motivated out of a desire for wealth and power.

Jesus also mentions that this church has, “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Who are these people? John MacArthur explains well and is worth quoting at length:

The phrase “in the same way” indicates that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same wicked behavior as that of the followers of Balaam…the Nicolaitans derived their name from Nicholas, one of the seven men chosen to oversee the distribution of the food in Acts 6. Where he became an apostate (as some of the early church fathers believed) or the Nicolaitans, his followers, perverted his teachings is not known. Abusing biblical teaching on Christian liberty, the Nicolaitans also taught that Christians could participate in pagan orgies. They seduced the church with immorality and idolatry.

The majority of the believers at Pergamum did not participate in the errors of either heretical group. They remained steadfastly loyal to Christ and the Christian faith. But by tolerating the groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guild, which brought the Lord’s judgment.[vi]

This kind of thing scares me to death because as a church in the modern era, we often refuse to exercise church discipline. The church is seen as a club, but not as an authoritative body of believers. If someone commits a sin and wrongs others in the church, or is in grave error from a teaching standpoint and refuses to repent of that error, that person generally just leaves and goes to another church. We are such a mobile society now that the idea of being tied down to a local body of believers who have authority to admonish individuals, is something that is far from the mindset of many in the modern Christian church.

Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry says, “Though the church, as such, has no power to punish the persons of men, either for heresy or immorality, with corporal penalties, yet it has power to exclude them from its communion; and, if it do not so, Christ, the head and lawgiver of the church, will be displeased with it.”

One only need look at the fall of Mark Driscoll in Seattle to see how effective a local body can be when functioning correctly. Mark had been off the reservation for a while, and finally the local elder board at his church confronted him about his attitude and his speech and he stepped down. Now this is a nationally known figure. He had a giant ministry that spanned over a network of churches and reached tens of thousands of people. Yet, he was subject to the local body of believers.

Today we need to have local churches that function in this way.

2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. [17] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

Here is the call to repent followed by the description of the consequences to follow if they do not repent – namely that the Son of God will “war against them with the sword of (his) mouth.”

What does it meant to have God “war against” you? If the sword is the word of God, it is evident they will be judged by the truth that is in that word. As I mentioned before, these churches no longer stand – only the church at Smyrna exists in a city that still stands.

What came to my mind as best showcasing the truth of this is what Jesus says in John 5:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)

Note the close connection between hearing and believing (obeying the word – obeying the gospel) and judgment.

Now secondly note how the when he calls on them to hear what he’s saying – using the familiar phrase, “he who has an ear to hear let him here” – he says that it is the “Spirit” who is speaking. What can He mean by this? Isn’t it Jesus who is speaking?

The answer to this question is that Jesus and the Spirit are of the same mind. Before Jesus left this earth He promised that the Spirit would come to lead (them – the disciples of Jesus) into all truth:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).

The famous Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos once spoke of the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit in the following way:

…the union effected between him and the Spirit and through the Spirit and believers, acquires the character of an organic mystical union, so that to be in the Spirit is to be in Christ.[vii]

So they are always on the same page. Jesus’ words are the Spirit’s words.

Now the next thing we read is the promise of eternal reward to the one who conquers. Like the other letters, the promise to those Christians who conquer is eternal life with the Father. The neat thing about reading these letters and studying them closely is that we are given the privilege of seeing the different ways in which Jesus describes the splendor of eternity. Here he talks about “hidden manna” and a “white stone.”

Now as you might recall, manna is bread, and in the Bible you’ll see time and again how bread represents sustenance. It represents God’s provision for men. Namely in the OT God provided manna from heaven to the Israelites, and in the NT Jesus called himself the “bread of life.”

Furthermore, interestingly, Jewish tradition talks of how Jeremiah hid some manna in the ark before the temple was destroyed and “that it would be revealed again when the Messiah came” (cf. Exodus 16:32 and 2 Maccabees 2:4-7 – see Beale).

Beale remarks on the meaning here:

Here the idea of the manna may have come to mind because of the preceding meditation on Israel’s confrontation with Balaam in their wilderness journey. Israel should have relied on God’s heavenly food for their sustenance rather than partaking of idolatrous food, and the church will partake of heavenly manna if it does not compromise in the same way.[viii]

Hendricksen hints at Jesus being the hidden manna, and personally that makes the most sense to me. Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT type – He brings satisfaction of a more ultimate kind, and a rest which only comes from Him alone (Hebrews). He is also our ultimate reward.

Now with regard to the white stone, there are a number of theories. I think we don’t have to come down on one thing or another. But George Ladd says:

A white stone (in the ancient world) signified acquittal by a jury, a black stone condemnation. White stones were used as tickets of admission to public festivals. This meaning fits the context best. The white stone is a symbol of admission to the messianic feast.

Whereas Hendricksen says that there are only two possibilities in his research.

The first is that the stone represents the person himself – “just as in Israel the twelve tribes were represented by twelve precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:15-21). Now this stone is white. This indicates holiness, beauty, glory…the stone itself symbolized durability, imperishability. The white stone, therefore, indicates a being, free form guilt and cleansed of all sin, and abiding in this state for ever and ever.

The second interpretation the pellucid, precious stone – a diamond? – is inscribed with the name of Christ. Receiving this stone with its new name means that in glory the conqueror receives a revelation of the sweetness of fellowship with Christ – in His new character, as newly crowned Mediator – a fellowship which only those who receive it can appreciate.

Interestingly Hendricksen gives pages of arguments in favor of each possibility. I’m not sure that it’s all that important to nail down an opinion about what the white stone means. But I think that it generally symbolizes the uniqueness of the individual relationship with God, and reward that each person has for following Christ. We are all one body, but it’s a body made up of individuals. And here Jesus is saying that He knows us all by name, He has called specific people to life according to His eternal hidden purposes. And the gifts of God are indeed irrevocable, and eternal.

Conclusion: Doctrine Matters

So what can we say about this church? What are we to learn from its mistakes and its commendation?

Many are quick to call this the “worldly church” because of its compromise with the world. Perhaps a better moniker would be the “compromising church” or “the timid church.”

What is so scary about this church is that, while they loved the Lord, they didn’t love him enough to guard their church from compromise. They didn’t love him – or each other – enough to reject false teaching, or admonish and discipline those who were led astray by false teaching.

Doctrine matters. If we are not firmly rooted in the truth of God’s Word we will be easily misled. The entire church in Pergamum was admonished for the actions of a few people. And if we are not firm in our convictions, we’ll tolerate the infiltration of false doctrine in our churches. I’m not just speaking about the church as a whole (The universal church), but more particularly our church – our local body of believers. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to recognize and reject unorthodox teaching from Mark Driscoll, or Rob Bell, than it is to gently approach the Sunday school teacher here in our church for wrongly interpreting the word of God.

Yet we are called to do just that. But how are we to do that if we are not first grounded in what is right and true? This is a call for both understanding, and for courage and purity in the local body.

 

[i] Hendricksen, Pg. 66.

[ii] MacArthur, Pg. 84-85. He has a good bit of insight on the background of the city here, and quotes William Ramsay’s book ‘The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia’, which is an old book itself! Ramsay was one of the most renowned archeologists of the last 150 years.

[iii] Matthew Henry Notes: “God gave him leave to go if the men called him, but he was so fond of the journey that we do not find he staid for their calling him, but he himself rose up in the morning, got everything ready with all speed, and went with the princes of Moab, who were proud enough that they had carried their point. The apostle describes Balaam’s sin here to be that he ran greedily into an error for reward, Jude 1:11.”

[iv] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.

[v] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.

[vi] MacArthur, Volume I, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 89.

[vii] Danny Olinger, ‘A Geerhardus Vos Anthology’, Pg. 323.

[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 252.

Study Notes: Revelation 1:4-6

1:4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 

Here John tells us to whom he’s addressing this letter – to the seven churches in Asia. There were more than simply seven churches in Asia (as Voddie Baucham points out), but these might simply be the main churches to whom John has been working/corresponding. In fact, there were many other churches that were equally significant (see Mounce). So we can guess all we want, but I haven’t yet read any convincing argument on why these specific churches would have been picked. It is enough, I believe, that Jesus ordained these letters to be handed down to us today and that He picked these specific churches for His reasons and His glory.

Hendriksen points out that on a map, they form a sort of irregular circle. Ephesus was the closest to John physically, but perhaps also relationally.[i]

I believe (as do others) that its important that the Lord, in His sovereignty, directed these letters written to the number of churches (7) that represent the idea of “fullness” or “completeness” and “perfection” in the Bible. Thereby leading many scholars to believe that while the Lord was certainly speaking to specific churches with specific people during John’s life and in his ministry, He was also speaking the “whole” or “complete” church – the universal church.

Baucham certainly believes this, and Hendriksen says bluntly, “These seven churches represent the entire church throughout this dispensation.” I think of it like this – just because something is used as a figure or symbol doesn’t mean it wasn’t real or had real application in its context. Jesus spoke many words to Pharisees and disciples that had meaning to those people in that context, yet they still hold meaning for us today. The fig tree Jesus cursed was a real fig tree, yet it had greater meaning for many throughout the ages.[ii]

Therefore, while written to specific real churches with real Christians, this letter is still relevant for the universal church, the complete and full church across all geographical boundaries for all time. Just as we still apply the lessons of the gospels and the epistles of Paul to our lives today, so too this letter applies to us today.

He begins with the greeting “grace and peace” and its well that he says “grace” first, for as Beale says in one of his sermons on the text, grace must always precede peace. The greeting is meant as a reminder of the grace they have received by way of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the peace it has brought them not only in this life, but eternally. This greeting is a refreshing way of encouraging the elect and quickly identifying in their minds just exactly who they are and who is writing the letter. This letter is from the Prince of Peace, this letter is from the One who has extended grace to you and saved your lives.

Hendriksen summarizes better than most, “Grace is God’s favor given to those who do not deserve it, pardoning their sins and bestowing upon them the gift of eternal life. Peace, the reflection of the smile of God in the heart of the believer who has been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, is the result of grace. This grace and this peace are provided by the Father, dispensed by Holy Spirit, and merited for us by the Son.”

Then we are told from whom the message comes. John describes him as “him who is and who was and who is to come.” I love that because it reminds us that what you’re about to read was preordained from before the foundation of the world, is being currently underwritten and guaranteed, and will be upheld until the end of history. The forthcoming letter’s veracity is built upon the enduring character of God. Not only that, the emphasis on the timelessness of God reminds us again of the timelessness of His Word. By prefacing His message in this way He is reminding them that this word – His word – will be relevant from now until the end of time and beyond, for:

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)

As Beale says so well:

The purpose of this revelation is to give the eternal, transhistorical perspective of “the one who is and who was and who is coming,” which can enable them to understand his commandments and so motivate them to obedience (vs.3). Confidence in God’s sovereign guidance of all earthly affairs instills courage to stand strong in the face of difficulties that test faith: this is the point of the OT expression which lie behind “the one who is and who was and who is coming.[iii]

Next we are told that there is another co-author in the Godhead, the “seven spirits who are before his throne.” We’re only four verses into this letter and already we’re going to have to try and understand what is meant by this description. Are there seven literal spirits floating around the throne of God? What is John talking about here? Who are these spirits? What are they?

The key is in the number. The number is used to communicate a concept, an idea. Seven is used to communicate fullness, completeness, as I mentioned earlier. So seven here represents the Holy Spirit in His universal function and mission. 

There is also a close connection between the lampstands we read about in 1:20, and the “seven spirits” as well. We are told in verse 20 that the lampstands represent the church, and Beale sees close ties between verse 4’s “seven spirits” and golden lampstands lit with the fire that stand “before the throne” (before likely meaning a role as messenger):

From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God (Revelation 4:5).

If we assume the lampstands/torches are the church and the Holy Spirit is normally symbolized by fire (think Pentecost), then it would make sense for John to say here in chapter 4 that “the seven spirits of God” are the “seven torches of fire” – the idea being that we, the lampstands, are empowered by the Spirit.

Adding to this interpretation is the context of the OT. As I mentioned before, the OT is important for understanding these things because the OT speaks in this language a great deal. Look at what Zechariah writes in chapter 4 of his book:

Then the angel who talked with me returned and woke me up, like someone awakened from sleep. He asked me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a solid gold lampstand with a bowl at the top and seven lamps on it, with seven channels to the lamps. Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” I asked the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” He answered, “Do you not know what these are?”

“No, my lord,” I replied. So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah 4:1-7)

So we see here that God Himself gives the interpretation of the seven lamps with the fire, and tells us that what is going to be accomplished will not be done by mere might or power (of man, presumably), but by the Spirit. The lamps and the olive trees – which we’ll read about more in chapter 11 – are the people of God filled with His Spirit.

Beale explains the context of Zechariah 4:

In Zachariah’s vision the lampstand represented the second temple (the part representing the whole), for which Zerubbabel had laid the foundation. On either side was an olive tree that provided oil for the lamps. Zechariah interprets the olive trees as ‘the anointed ones who are standing before the Lord of the whole earth’ (4:14), that is, as Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel.

The main point of this OT chapter (Zechariah 4) was that even though the temple kept getting delayed by outside forces and opposition, God was calling them to endurance and perseverance. It wasn’t going to be done by their strength alone, however, but by “my Spirit.”

The same is true for us today. We live by the power of the Spirit, are led into “all truth” by the Spirit, and are born again by the Spirit. Therefore once again, the OT helps give us grammatical context for what we’re reading here – it also reminds us that God’s character and methodology for interacting with man has been very similar throughout the Bible. His message and His power haven’t changed.

Revelation, as you’ll soon figure out, is going to repeat the same themes over and over again using OT imagery and OT texts to remind the seven churches – and us – that God is faithful. He was faithful in the OT and is faithful today, and will be faithful in the future.

Lastly, it seems to me that in verse 4 and 5 we have a situation where authorship is connoted. Some have said that these seven spirits are angels, because they seem to be messengers standing “before” the throne. While the note about them standing “before” the throne is a great point and may indicate a sort of messenger or implementer of the message, the same could be said of the Holy Spirit. And when you combine the NT principle that it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking through the Word of God, and making it come to life in our hearts – indeed implementing it and leading us into “all truth”, with the idea that there seems to be an authorial (authorship) role given to the seven spirits, I think we have to lean toward these spirits being the one Holy Spirit in His completeness and perfection.

1:5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 

Verse five extols the attributes of Jesus. Both His priesthood (“by his blood”) and His kingship (“the ruler”) are described in dramatic fashion here. Jesus’ kingship is seen as superior to all other kings of the earth.

This phrase is used in Colossians 1:18 and indicates his kingship and rule. “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 1:18).

Mounce is right to note that there is a very rich connection with the Messianic Psalm 89:

And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (Psalm 89:27)

The phrase is also used in connection to our standing with Jesus. Paul says in Romans 8:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29) 

Mounce concludes, “As the risen Christ now exercises sovereign control, so also will the faithful share in his reign.”[iv]

We’re also told here that Jesus is the one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins” – this is a description of his priesthood, as I just mentioned, but also it reminds us of our former captivity to sin and death. These topics are going to be important in the coming chapters. You see, what this book will do is paint in great detail the vile nature, the horrid reality, of sin and its end – which is the “second death.”

In other words, those who think very little of their sin now in this life, ought to read the consequence of it, and see how God views their sin. God views sin as an abomination. It is a stench in His nostrils. And those who “dwell on the earth” and “refuse to repent” of their sins will one day be “cast into the lake of fire.” That’s a pretty violent end.

The violence of the end for sinners therefore sets in sharp relief that blessing which we read here – He has “freed us from our sins.”

Lastly, notice that Jesus is described as the “faithful witness” – He bears witness of the truth of the kingdom of God. Although Christ is reigning now and has ushered in His kingdom, it is invisible to the world. They do not see it, nor do they desire to seek it.

Like Christ, we are to be faithful witnesses to the kingdom of God, which leads us to verse six. 

1:6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

We are to follow Christ in both His kingship and His priesthood. We realize these privileges even now. This is both present and past – He made us and is making us – is the sense of the text. Interestingly, very similar phrasing is found in 5:10 and 20:6. The latter is that passage on the millennium that so many people are familiar with, and it says this:

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)

Now this only really makes sense if we see the millennium as taking place right now. Before the kingdom of God becomes physical for every eye to see, we have to persevere (see Beale[v]).

To understand our roles as priests we need to look at the OT. Exodus 19 says:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:4-6)

The people of Israel were to be a “kingdom of priests” who would witness to God’s character, as a light to the gentile nations. They were a kingdom of priestly, holy, special people meant to show the surrounding nations what it looked like to be in a right relationship with God.

The priest was a mediator between God and people and that is how is how Israel functioned writ large on the earth. They were to be the go-between between God and the nations. They acted in a kingly way and performed priestly functions.

Today we take on this role in a new way. Peter puts it this way:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

Mounce notes:

The early church understood itself to be the true Israel and the inheritors of all the blessings promised to their spiritual predecessors. Corporately they are a kingdom (which stresses their royal standing in connection with the exaltation of Christ as ruler of all earthly kingdom), and individually they are priests of God (which emphasizes their immediate access to God as a result of Christ’s sacrificial death).[vi]

We engage in our priestly responsibilities as mediators of the new covenant. We shine as lights to the world by living lives controlled by love, and sharing the Gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus. As Paul says:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).

So we are mediators, priests in this this way. We bring people to God, and help them make peace with God and, as Peter says, “we proclaim the excellencies” of God.

This is likely what Jesus had in mind when He announced the new covenant in John 13:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Similarly Paul in Ephesians 2:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Interesting Side Note: I think it’s interesting how John has written in a sort of parallelism here in verse 5 and 5 as it corresponds to the priesthood and kingship issues. Check this out:

A. “the ruler of kings on earth” 1:5b
B. “has freed us from our sins by his blood” 1:5c
A. “and has made us a kingdom” 1:6a
B. “priests to His God and Father” 1:6b

Obviously the A’s go together and so do the B’s. Now, I’m just an amateur theologian, but this was pretty easy to spot. The idea being that we are following in His footsteps – He is making us after Himself, not by our power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

To What End?

Now what is the purpose of all of this? Why has God made us “priests and kings”? Verse six tells us why: “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”

The reason we are mediators for God is for His glory (see Isaiah 43:7). We do this out of love – we are happy to do this (2 Corinthians 5:14). It is the joy of Christ within us, a changed heart (Ezekiel 36:26) that drives us to extend Christ’s grace to others.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16).

And, as we’ll see even shortly now, this grace, this witness, will often take place during tribulation.

 

Footnotes

[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 52.

[ii] Obviously we want to be cautious not to confuse application with interpretation though. I have found that in trying to give examples of how to think appropriately about prophetic symbolism it is easy to sometimes shy away from a blunt answer because I want to give examples and help get minds to understand where John is coming from. In doing so, however, I find more trouble sometimes than is warranted! We must always be cautious with these matters.

[iii] Beale, Pg. 187.

[iv] Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, Pg. 71.

[v] Beale, Sermon on Revelation 1:4-9, found here: http://www.lanesvillechurch.org/sermons-audio/970112.mp3

[vi] Mounce, Pg.’s 72-73.