Just last Lord’s Day I preached my farewell sermon to my congregation in Rochester; and here I am, back in the pulpit already!
I concluded my ministry at Trinity Presbyterian Church with a selective series on the Book of Revelation: a fascinating, challenging, dramatic book to study – but also a great thrill to read. As I went through it with my congregation, I frequently cited a very insightful observation by Vern Poythress, professor of NT at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who puts it this way: “Revelation is a picture book, not a puzzle book.” That’s an extremely important point Professor Poythress is making: The Book of Revelation consists of a series of powerful, graphic, picturesque visions given to the apostle John. And the purpose of the book is NOT to provide us with an obscure, coded message requiring us to find some “hidden key” that we need to possess to be able to decipher it. That’s how many people approach the book: as if it were this impenetrable text that only a few enlightened people can properly interpret. In reality, the basic message of Revelation is actually fairly simple, but that message is communicated by vivid images. The book’s style is not that of a theological lecture or a tightly reasoned, logical argument; it’s much more “pictorial” in its approach to conveying its message. Here is how another commentator put it [Wilcock, 24f.]:
“It is no use reading Revelation as though it were a Paul-type theological treatise in a slightly different idiom, or a Luke-style history projected into the future. You might as well analyse the rainbow – or the wine of communion or the water of baptism. Logical analysis is not what they are for. They are meant to be used and enjoyed.
We of the late twentieth century, we of all people, should understand this. We live in a post-literate age, which, tiring of words, is beginning to talk again in pictures. So television replaces radio, and the noun ‘image’ comes back into use with a dozen modern connotations. Well, God knew all about it long ago; and when his children have had enough of reciting systematic theology, he gives them a gorgeous picture-book to look at, which is in a different way just as educational.
Pictures, potent images of Christian truth, to use as we use the sacraments – that is what we are given in Revelation.”
I think that’s right on the money. When you read Revelation, you need to spend your time “taking in” the images, enjoying the description of these dramatic scenes; and if you do so, you’ll find that it’s not really THAT difficult to understand and that it’s an immensely helpful book.
This morning I want us to look at a fairly large section of text – basically, two full chapters, starting at the beginning of ch.6 and reading up through 8.5. This unit as a whole is focused on a “scroll with seven seals” that is being opened and the contents revealed.
This scroll is actually introduced in ch.5 of the Book of Revelation, which consists of a vision of God on His throne, surrounded by four “living creatures” (which are some sort of angelic beings), as well as by “24 elders” (apparently representatives of the Church of God) sitting on thrones. In that vision we see the Lord holding a scroll in His right hand – this scroll with “seven seals”. The great question posed in that chapter is: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
It’s a dramatic question that hangs in the air. And in his vision John waits for someone to step forward to open the scroll, but no one does so. And so the question keeps ringing, and eventually John begins to weep because no one is found who is able to open it. (Now why this is so important to John – why he gets so emotional about it – that’s something we’ll get back to later.)
Eventually, John is told that the “Lamb of God”, Jesus Christ, is “worthy” or has “earned the right” to open it. We hear a song in that chapter:
9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Our Scripture reading this morning follows on that scene, as we see the Lamb opening up the “seven seals” on the scroll and revealing the contents.
- First Seal: “…conquering, and to conquer.” A number of people think that this rider is Jesus at his Second Advent, since in ch.19 there is also a vision of a “rider on a white horse”, which clearly is speaking of the Return of Christ. So, some will argue that the rider of ch.6 is Jesus as well and that the “seals” which follow are to be understood as taking place after Christ returns. But this is extremely unlikely for a number of reasons. First of all, the Lamb (Jesus) is the one who is opening the seals in ch.6, while this rider on the horse appears as someone subordinate to the Lamb, someone under the Lamb’s control. And it is unlikely to find Jesus simultaneously being presented as two separate figures in one and the same vision. Second, as we’ll see, the first 4 seals unleash 4 different riders (the so-called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”), the rest of whom are all clearly destructive powers. But they are meant to be taken as a unit; we’re not supposed to play the game “one of these riders is not like the others”. All of them are to be understood as threatening, ominous figures. Third, the fact that the horse is “white” doesn’t have to be a symbol of purity or righteousness here; white was also associated with victory and conquest, and that is what this rider engages in: he comes out “conquering, and to conquer”. That’s the real point of this rider: conquest.
- Third Seal: “…the oil and the wine.” This sounds strange at first, but if you work out the math then it all makes sense. The ESV contains a footnote which says that a denarius was about a day’s wages for a regular worker. This is indicating how much food a day’s wage would buy – at the end of the workday you could buy a modest ration of wheat, or a larger ration of barley. It’s a full day’s work – for just enough food to get by on. It’s indicating a time of scarcity (not total famine, because food is still available, but the staples of life are going to be pricey). Apparently the luxury items (like oil and wine) are not going to be affected – but of course, those weren’t affordable for the common worker anyway. So, this third rider brings a general scarcity of food.
- “…12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.” In the Book of Revelation, practically every number mentioned has a symbolic significance of some kind. This particular number “144,000” symbolically indicates the fullness of the People of God by multiplying the number of the tribes of Israel (12) by another “12-number”, 12,000. This whole section is to be understood as having a symbolic significance, rather than referring to an actual 144,000 people from the literal “Israel”, namely, the Jewish People. One decisive indication that we’re not supposed to take this number and this description literally as referring to ethnic Israel is that the 12 tribes mentioned here are NOT actually the original 12 tribes that made up the Nation of Israel. It turns out that the tribes of Dan and Ephraim aren’t mentioned, and Joseph, who is mentioned here as a tribe, wasn’t actually considered one of the 12 founding tribes. That may not seem like such a big deal, but in fact it’s very significant and would have jumped out at the original readers. It would be like hearing somebody describe America’s “13 Original Colonies” but leaving out Massachusetts and including, say, Idaho. If you heard somebody referring to the “13 Original Colonies” like that you’d think that the person was clearly talking about some “alternate reality” and NOT the real “13 Colonies”! That’s how this description of “Israel”, with the different make up of its tribes, would have come across back then. It indicates the symbolic nature of the vision and of the number, and the purpose of the image is to indicate the full number of the Covenant People of God, regardless of their ethnic origin (Revelation emphasizes over and over that the assembly of the saints in heaven consists of people from every language and nation and tribe).
It seems that just about everyone at the moment is anticipating the publication of the 7th and last “Harry Potter” novel. The hype is already in full swing, even though the book isn’t going to be released until July 21st. People are already eagerly looking forward to its appearance, and discussing what will happen in the story, because, as the author has promised, this one will “reveal all” – all the secrets, all the mysteries, all the questions that have emerged in the first 6 novels, will (so the author claims) be definitively answered in the 7th installment and conclusion of the series.
If you haven’t already encountered some of the hype surrounding the book – the websites, the fan clubs, the blogs, and all the rest – don’t worry: you will run into plenty of it before July 21st gets here. By the time the day rolls around people will be in a frenzy of anticipation – all for this one book!
That gives you a little bit of the “hype” or the anticipation that is being experienced in the book of Revelation concerning this “scroll with seven seals”. Books today are what scrolls were back then – and everybody is with this particular scroll! People desperately want it to be opened, because, you see, it “reveals all”. This scroll will “unveil” God’s purposes in the world. Here’s how one commentator describes it [Hendriksen, 89]:
“the closed scroll indicates the plan of God unrevealed and unexecuted. If that scroll remains sealed God’s purposes are not realized; His plan is not carried out. To open that scroll by breaking the seals means not merely to reveal but to carry out God’s plan… When the scroll is opened and the seals are broken, then the universe is governed in the interest of the Church… But if the scroll is not opened it means that there will be no protection for God’s children in the hours of bitter trial; no judgments upon a persecuting world; no ultimate triumph for believers; no new heaven and earth; no future inheritance.”
This is why there’s so much emotion bound up with this scroll; this is why everyone is longing for it to be unsealed and read: because the establishment of the KOG in this world depends upon it! That’s why there was such concern for it in Rev 5 – that’s why the great question was, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” That’s why John wept when nobody stepped forward to open it: It’s because the opening of that scroll reveals, and also puts into effect, the plan of God for the redemption of the world.
Rev 5 tells us that the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is worthy to open the scroll. That’s the subject of one of the songs of Rev 5, vv.9 & 10:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
So now starting in Rev 6 we see the Lamb begin to open the seals of the scroll and to reveal the plan of God the Father. And what happens as he opens the seals? The plan of God is unveiled, and primarily that takes the form of the judgments of God unleashed upon the world!
These “seven seals” span the entire realm of human history up to Christ’s Second Advent and the final judgment and the completion of God’s plan for restoring the heavens and the earth, the universe. And these seals represent the various kinds of judgment that will take place during that time – for the most part, they are not given in any particular chronological order. In other words, they are not meant to give us a “blueprint” for human history. They simply describe the kinds of trials, the kinds of hardships, and the kinds of divine judgments, that the world will experience, leading up to Christ’s Second Advent and the Final Judgment on the Last Day. These are the “labor pains” experienced by the entire created but fallen realm as it moves towards a rebirth into a new heavens and a new earth.
That’s a lot to take in all at once! That’s an awful lot packed into these seven seals!
Think of all the judgments unleashed here, beginning with the first four seals and the four “riders” that are summoned: a rider unleashing “conquest” and political upheaval, a rider unleashing violence and conflict, a rider bringing economic scarcity, a rider bringing death. A fifth seal indicating that martyrdom, suffering for Christ’s sake, being slain for one’s faith, will be a regular part of the Church’s existence up until the second coming of Christ. Then there’s the sixth seal, which is the final cataclysm that comes as part of Christ’s return – it’s the final “day of judgment” or “the day of wrath”, as it is called here. The language and the symbolism used are very similar to what Jesus himself used in his own predictions to his disciples about his Second Coming (his predictions in Matt 24 and 25, for example). Starting in v.12 of ch.6:
12 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?”
This is the “Dies Irae” – the “Day of Wrath”. You see here what the response of sinful, rebellious, God-rejecting people will be on the day when Christ returns in judgment. That’s the “sixth seal”.
Now there is a sort of “interlude” in ch.7 that we’ll get back to shortly. But first let’s press on to the conclusion of the matter – the opening of the seventh seal – in 8.1. Seven is of course the number of perfection, the number of completion, and with it God’s plan for the cosmos reaches its conclusion. So we read (Rev 8.1):
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
That’s really the conclusion of the “scroll” scene: the opening of the seventh seal!
Now is it just me, or does that seem a little anticlimactic on a first reading? After all these dramatic happenings, powerful judgments, and the like, this is what we get? “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” The seventh seal is opened and… nothing happens? What’s going on?
This is in fact a very dramatic silence, but you really have to try to “enter in” to this vision that John has been having. Thing is, this vision isn’t purely “pictorial” – it isn’t just “images” that he’s seeing – it’s really more like a “multi-media event”, and he’s not just seeing “images” in front of him, he’s also hearing all sorts of things: the singing of praise, shouting, the sounds of battle as these riders unleash warfare and violence upon the earth, angels roaring out things in loud voices, just a little further on in ch.8 he’s going to hear a series of seven trumpets being blown. You have to try to imagine this horrendously loud cacophony – this absolutely chaotic noise – growing louder and louder as seal after seal is opened, and then, with the opening of the seventh seal…. SILENCE!!!
The “silence” doesn’t mean that “nothing is happening”, it means that there is finally PEACE at last. It means an end to all the confusion and the tumult and the hardship that had just been taking place in this vision.
Or it’s like when you go to a really good, really powerful musical performance: the better the performance, the longer the silence is between the end of the music and when the audience starts applauding; you want to let the silence linger for a good long time. At a recent performance of the St. Matthew Passion, after 2 ½ or 3 hours of Bach’s music, after the final chorale, after the music was done – people didn’t want to start clapping right away. There was a long, sustained silence – which was a good thing.
Similarly, after the seventh seal and the completion of the entire drama of God’s judgments and His redemption of the world, there’s a half-hour of silence while the “audience” (so to speak) “catches its breath.”
To use another illustration – though I realize that this will only make sense to some of you – it’s like that long, drawn-out piano chord that ends the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life”. (My folks listened to that album a lot, so I grew up knowing it pretty well.) It’s an interesting story about the recording of that song, which was pretty revolutionary at the time. Paul McCartney had brought in a full orchestra for a couple of sections of that song, and he wanted them, as he put it, to “freak out” for 24 bars of music. Now, they had trouble getting classically-trained musicians to improvise a “freak out”, so George Martin, the producer, had to quickly write out a score for an extended, atonal, musically chaotic crescendo. Here’s how Martin described it:
“What I did there was to write, at the beginning of the twenty-four bars, the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note each instrument could reach that was near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar… Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.”
Here’s how Paul McCartney directed the brass players:
“Then I went around to all the trumpet players and said, ‘Look, all you’ve got to do is start at the beginning of the 24 bars and go through all the notes on your instrument from the lowest to the highest — and the highest has to happen on that 24th bar, that’s all.’”
Eventually, four different recordings of that orchestral “freak out” were overdubbed onto a single recording, resulting one massive, confused, growing crescendo during those sections of the song. The final time this “freak out” section is played it is utter musical chaos, which then ends with all four of the Beatles, and a couple of other people, all simultaneously striking an E major chord on THREE pianos, which then reverberates on and on and on. To make the sound of that chord ring out as long as possible, the recording engineers kept turning up the recording level on the tape higher and higher as the sound vibration on the pianos slowly died out, to the point where the microphones were picking up the sounds of papers rustling and chairs squeaking.
It’s a massive, crashing piano chord that just rings on and on and sounds like it’s going to go on forever – very slowly, almost imperceptibly, it finally begins to fade away. It has been called “one of the most famous chords in music history”. If you’ve never heard it, you need to go out and listen to it, because that is what the opening of the seventh seal is like: it’s like that massive piano chord that closes off the utter chaos of that song.
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
It’s complete! It’s done! It’s over! The entire drama of divine redemption of the world has now been played out.
We have here in the opening of these seven seals of God’s scroll a picture of all of the remainder of human history, up to the very completion of God’s plan for the world. And the picture includes a LOT of divine judgments – deadly judgments – and hardships of many different kinds. This is what life in this age is like! Sometimes it’s a time of political upheavals; at other times it’s a time of scarcity; sometimes it’s a time of martyrdom. It’s a time of suffering for God’s People in many ways. Yet there are three important reminders this gives us – three important lessons we are to remember in the midst of it all.
The first reminder is that God the Father, and Jesus the Lamb of God, are in control, even during these difficult and painful judgments that come upon the earth. Remember, the Lamb is the one who opens the seals. He’s the one, ultimately, who unleashes these things upon the earth. He is in sovereign control even over these destructive forces like famine and scarcity, death, oppressive political regimes. In the end, they are under the Lamb’s control; he sets their limits and they can go no further. That’s the first reminder.
The second reminder is that God is at work protecting His saints in the midst of these things. He does not allow these destructive forces to completely overwhelm His own.
This is the point of ch.7 with this “sealing of the 144,000.” In the midst of these visionary descriptions of the different judgments coming upon the human race, we read, starting in v.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. [You see, these angels are “holding back” this destructive force, this wind.] 2 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.”
There are calamities and judgments to come, but before God allows this tempest to hit the world, He has His mark (His “seal”, His “Brand X”) placed upon His People – the full number of His People – to mark them out as His own, to make His claim of ownership on them, and to mark them out as a protected people.
The great point of it all is that all of God’s chosen ones can have a true sense of security in the midst of these dramatic and difficult judgments. That’s not the promise of an easy, care-free life, but it IS the promise that none of these can affect the final, ultimate security of God’s People. Ultimately, as 7.14 puts it, they are all brought through “the great tribulation”; i.e. the whole mass of divine judgments that is unleashed in this present age.
The third and final lesson we are to learn here is that God and the Lamb are to be praised for their judgments!
Again, in the midst of all the confusion and all the pain and hardship that comes from these judgments, we hear songs of praise! Look at 7.9:
9 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!” 11 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.”
They are giving praise to God and to the Lamb, even as these seals are being broken and these awful judgments are being unleashed. Now, why is that? How can that be? How can God’s saints be “celebrating” God’s judgments?
Is it because they take a perverse pleasure in seeing wicked people suffer? Not at all! One thing you need to know about the word “judgment” in the Bible is that it doesn’t always mean “condemnation”. In Scripture, “to judge” a person doesn’t always mean “to find someone guilty”. God’s “judgment” can mean God’s “vindication”, God’s “intervention”, His “ruling”, His “victory”, His “deliverance”. When the Psalmist says “judge me, O Lord”, he’s certainly not saying: “Condemn me, O Lord!” He is saying, “Vindicate me, O God! Take up my cause! Save me!”
When the Lord powerfully intervenes in the affairs of this world to protect His People, to establish peace, to establish justice – that’s God judging the world – that’s God judging His People. Not “condemning” them, but “vindicating” them and “delivering” them. This is why the Bible finds God’s judgments to be a cause for celebration!
Psalm 67:4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.
Psalm 96:12-13 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.
Psalm 98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! 8 Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together 9 before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
That’s precisely what we find here in Rev 7: God’s People praising Him, and praising the Lamb of God, for opening the scroll with its seven seals, and bringing God’s righteous judgment into the world. Because, People of God, that is the hope of this world: that God is a righteous Judge, who is at work in this world setting things to rights, and that He will complete His work. He will set all things to rights.
I know that many of you love C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. In “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, the first of that series, we hear an old saying spoken about the expected appearance of the lion, Aslan (who is a depiction of Christ, as Lewis himself made clear). As the coming of Aslan is expected by his loyal subjects, the saying went,
“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
And is this not what we see in the book of Revelation, and especially here in these chapters in which the seven seals are opened? We see the Lamb of God, who is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ, and we see images of him “shaking his mane”, baring his teeth, giving a tremendous roar, and setting all things to rights. And when he does so, he brings winter to an end, and spring is once more in the air!
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!