Revelation 13:1-18

Revelation 12 gave the reader a re-telling of the story of Apollo’s defeat of the Dragon who waged war on his mother Leto. It was a story that emperors in the first century accessed as a way of defining themselves as the new Apollo bringing peace to the earth. John uses the story to retell the story of Christ and his Church. The Dragon – the evil one – wages war on the child (Christ) and the one that bore and bears him in the world (the Church). But the Dragon could not conquer the child but has instead been conquered. Relegated to earth, now in his dying efforts he sets off to try and destroy God’s children.

Chapter 13 gives the reader insight into the Dragon’s strategy for continuing to wage war on “the children.” It is one of the more famous passages in Revelation because it contains the mark of the beast. The history of naming the beast throughout church history and trying to determine the meaning of the “mark” is an interesting study in itself. I will give you my best understanding using the resources listed here.

But like everyone else who have ever had to wrestle with Revelation 13 we are delving into areas of mystery that we may have to hold loosely.

13:1-10 And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and his dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven). It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

The repeated use of the world “authority” in this chapter should serve as a clue that we find ourselves in the sphere of the political. Such is also signaled by the animal imagery in 13:2, comparing the beast himself to be a leopard, his feet to a bear’s feet, and his mouth to a lion’s mouth. The language reiterates Daniel’s (chapter 7) description of four beasts, which like John’s arise from the sea. The allegory in the book of Daniel is quite transparent: Daniel tells us that the four beasts represent four kingdoms. Commentators ancient and modern see the first three beasts as symbolizing the Babylonian, Median, and Persian empires, while the fourth signifies the Greek empire of Alexander the Great. The ten horns of the last beast represent the ten rulers who succeeded Alexander. The last of these, the “little horn,” embodies the ruthless tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, who sacked Jerusalem and set up an altar of Zeus in the temple of YHWH (See 2 Macc. 6:1-11).

It is in the political contexts of the four beasts that Daniel is granted his powerful vision of the Ancient of Days, judging all of the beasts and granting universal kingship to “one like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven to live out the rule of God. Which leads the reader of Revelation to believe that the beast in Revelation is also meant to point us to the political.

For John, the beast called up from the sea by the dragon combines Daniel’s four beasts into one, part leopard, part bear, part lion, with ten horns and seven heads. Like the plagues of Revelation 9 that were super-sized versions of the plagues of Moses on Egypt, this new beast is not just a new animal, but it is the greatest combination of powers the world had ever seen. Most commentators think it is clear that the beast for John is Rome. Or more completely it is the dark power of the pagan empire claiming to be eternal, its ruler claiming to be a god, and its politic demanding complete allegiance from its citizens. In John’s eyes, Rome rose up as a reflection of the beast. “Empire” is the spitting image of the one who gave it power.

Like Daniel and the other Hebrew children, those who refuse to participate in the life of allegiance to the “empire” will find themselves in peril. The empire works by creating unity through uniformity. The power of the empire is the threat of destruction and death. The call for the saints who face this beast is to endure.

The beast from the sea is the parody of the Lamb. Christ came from heaven – the beast from the sea (from the tohu bohu – the chaos). The Lamb suffers for the sake of others – the beast causes people to suffer. The Lamb shares the authority and is a reflection of the One who is seated on the throne – the beast shares the authority and is the reflection of the dragon. The purpose of the Lamb is to set people free – the mission of the beast is to place people into deeper bondage.

13:11-15 Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it was speaking like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence. It also makes the earth and those who live in it worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed. It does great signs so that it even makes fire come down from heaven to earth in the presence of the people. It deceives those who live on earth by the signs that it was allowed to do in the presence of the beast. It told those who live on earth to make an image for the beast who had been wounded by the sword and yet came to life again. It was allowed to give breath to the beast’s image so that the beast’s image would even speak and cause anyone who didn’t worship the beast’s image to be put to death.

If the beast that rises up out of the sea and is a reflection of the Dragon, who or what is this second beast on the land? Many scholars believe that the beast from the land is the embodiment of the imperial cult and propaganda that lured people into the life of the empire. The Empire needs an agent, someone or something that coaxes allegiance from the people of earth.

It is likely that much of this chapter hints at the most dangerous emperor the early church had faced – Nero. We know from other ancient sources the hideous and violent ways that he persecuted the church. The reference to being wounded – and later the number of the beast – likely are direct references to Nero. As Craig Koester writes,

The supreme embodiment of hostility to Christians was the emperor Nero. When the finishing touches were put onto the image of the beast, Nero sat for the portrait… The end of Nero’s life also gave a perverse credibility to the portrayal of a beast that was slain and yet lived. Nero killed himself by putting a dagger to his own throat, but rumors arose that Nero was still alive and in hiding, so that he would return one day to avenge his enemies… By combining the threats represented by the four empires in Daniel 7 with images reminiscent of Nero, the beast exemplifies the threats that confront the people of God in many generations.

My favorite part of the description of this second beast is that it tries to look like the Lamb, but it speaks like the dragon (13:11). It is the beast that offers people life, yet it turns out to be the agent of death. The Spirit of God invites people into the life of the kingdom. The beast from the land completes the “unholy trinity” by deceiving people into giving their lives away for things that are far from eternal.

The second beast is a false prophet, who also poses a contrast to the two prophetic witnesses depicted in Revelation 11:3-13. This beast can perform great signs. But, nevertheless, appearances are deceiving. Signs do not prove that someone is a true prophet. The touchstone for true prophecy is whether it moves people to worship the true God or whether it deceives them into worship a false god.

13:16-18 It forces everyone—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to have a mark put on their right hand or on their forehead. It will not allow anyone to make a purchase or sell anything unless the person has the mark with the beast’s name or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

As I said earlier, the mark of the beast has been a source for great speculation across Christian history. In recent years many have speculated that the mark might be some kind of tattooed barcode that people would be forced to have in order to participate in the economy. I believe that the mark is a reference back to the great Shema text from Deuteronomy 6:4-8.  “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you like down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.”

Earlier in Revelation [7:2-4; 14:1], those who belong to the Lamb were marked by his life (through baptism).  Now John sees those who belong to the beast as marked by its life.  There is no in-between for John, you are marked by and belong to one entity or another: Empire or Kingdom.  But he recognizes that the consequence of not being marked by Empire is alienation [literally being an: “alien – nation”]. As the reader encountered already in the letter to Thyatira (2:18-29), those who did not participate in the “cult of empire” or the cultic practices of the trade guilds were often left outside economically. We know that there were times when first century citizens were given certificates as evidence that they had participated in the cultic worship of the empire and if they did not have those certificates they could not participate in the life of the trade guilds. These may be the allusions behind this idea here.

When it comes to the calculation of the number of the name, the first readers of this text would likely have easily understood John’s reference.  Earlier in the text John made subtle reference to Nero and the early readers would have known that in the common practice of gamatria [each letter representing a number] the name Neron Caesar [the proper Hebrew use of Nero’s name] would equal 666 [Nun(50) + Resh(200) + Waw(6) + Nun(50) + Qof(100) + Samech(60) + Resh(200) = 666]. There is also a tradition within early Christianity that equated the numerical value of the name of Jesus Christ with 888. Because Christ rose on the first day of the week, sometimes Christians would think of it as the “eighth day.” It is the number right after completion. The number of the beast fails to arrive at completion, but the number of the Lord gets us to completion and beyond into that which is eternal.

Therefore, I believe the use of the number 666 by John had a far greater significance than pointing to Nero as the embodiment of all that is opposed to the Lamb. The number first appears in the Scripture in the narratives about King Solomon in 1 Kings 10:14-15. Each year 666 talents or kikkars was the weight of the gold Solomon brought into the kingdom. The point of the Kings narrative is that Solomon was moving the heart of the people away from the LORD and toward wealth and idolatry. 666 is an intensive symbolic expression of incompleteness, idolatry, judgment, non-fulfillment, evil itself raised to the third power.  The message is, no matter how many times you try to add up the life of the “empire” it always brings about incompleteness and destruction.

All of this raises the question of how we think about the beasts today. If the power of ancient Rome is gone and the cultic worship practices with it, do the sea and land beasts still exist today?

My answer would be yes. In fact, I think they exist in even more subtle and dangerous ways today. The beast from the sea still lives in the various aspects of empire, culture, and principalities and powers that destroy and enslave people.

And the beast that looks like the lamb but speaks like the dragon is the constant barrage of what Jacques Ellul would call “propaganda” that bluffs people into believing that real life can be found in the values, purposes, and goals of the culture. As Howard-Brook and Gwyther write, “It is not at all a matter of gullible folks being taken in by magic tricks. Rather, it is the highly organized, technologically proficient, and psychologically effective process of developing a systematic, false reality that masquerades as ‘the way things are.’” (Brook Gwyther).

The great fear for us and especially for our children being raised in the midst of the work of the “unholy Trinity” is that we would be left out. The one who looks like the lamb but speaks like the dragon convinces us that what we really want and need are the non-eternal things offered by the Dragon. And so we are marked by and give our lives to the things of the beast. God is looking for a people who in the midst of the empire live as people marked by the Lamb.

When the summary creed (mark) of the land beast replaces the Shema on forehead and hands, religion becomes consumption – people become gross parodies of the gospel, buying all they can to show they are blessed by God, bowing before every display of success. The buying and selling of religion is the mark of the beast. – Eugene Peterson

John has been painting his apocalyptic masterpiece with the colors of the great prophets Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc. But in this brief interlude before he describes the final fall of Babylon he goes back to his favorite colors – the colors of the Exile from Egypt.The verses above from Exodus 15 tell of the “Song of Moses” the Israelites sang after they passed through the Red Sea unharmed. The people had been trapped between Pharaoh and the waters of chaos but God made a way for them through the waters and into new life. In response they sang a song of praise to the One who is “my strength and my power, he has become my salvation.”

Revelation 12:1-17

With the pronouncement of that God, in God’s great power has taken over and begun to reign, we see what looks like a great point to end the story. God won, right? Well yes, but God’s not quite finished yet. It is best for us to think of Revelation 12 as the beginning of Act 2. God has heard the cries of the people being martyred, has heard the prays of the faithful Christians rising up to heaven (8:1-5), and has sent his judgment to the Earth. God has given us insight into John’s mission (Chapter 10) and we see how God’s judgment alone was not enough to change the hearts of the people. It’s God’s judgment combined with the witness of the church that shakes the people out of apathy and into repentance (Chapter 11). Now the curtain rises again, Act 2 is beginning.

The conflict between good and evil, God and Satan, Christ and the counterfeit Christ intensifies in chapters 12-13. Before digging into this chapter, I want to give you a brief introduction to an important Greek story. Stories of the battle between the forces of good and evil help to win the audience’s loyalties to the side of good and to alienate them from evil. One such story that circulated in John’s time, the antagonist was a fierce dragon named Python and the protagonist was a women named Leto, who was the mother of the God Apollo. When Leto became pregnant by the god Zeus, the dragon pursued her in order to kill her and her child. The north wind rescued Leto by carrying her away so that she eventually found refuge on the island of Delos, which lay in the Aegean Sea. There the woman gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. Four days later, Apollo set off in pursuit of the dragon, soon slaying the creature to avenge his mother.

Roman emperors were able to put this take to good use by associating themselves with Apollo, whose defeat of the evil dragon was said to have ushered in an age of peace and prosperity. Citizens of the empire could be expected to identify the women in the story with the goddess Roma, who overcame the forces of evil and chaos so that light and peace could flood the world. Caesar Augustus was hailed as a new Apollo, for his reign was said to mark the beginning of a new golden age. The emperor Nero liked to present himself in the guise of Apollo, his image on coins bearing the radiant beams form his head that were Apollo’s trademark.

When John tells about a pregnant women and a dragon in Revelation 12, Christians in the seven churches would have heard echoes of the familiar story of Leto, but they would also find that John’s version reverses the usual implications of the take, so that in in his version the women in labor is not a pagan goddess, but the people of God; the child is not the emperor, but Christ; and the dragon represents the forces that oppose Christ and threaten his church. In the end, a story that was used to celebrate the popular culture is now transformed in a way that helps readers resist being assimilated to that culture. Another long introduction, but let’s dig into it.

12:1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

The women and the dragon are linked by the word portent, which is a sign that points beyond itself to something of deeper significance. The women is a great portent while the dragon is given lesser status in the story. The woman’s garments characterize her inner traits, she is clothed with the sun, has the moon at her feet, and wears a crown of twelve stars. Her heavenly garments contrast with the women from Babylon, who wears earthly clothing of purple and scarlet (18:7). We will learn more about her next week. The woman of Revelation 12 has a crown made of twelve stars, the significant number of completeness associated with the Israel of God. If you remember I chapter 7 the twelve tribes represented the complete number of God’s people (7:4-8). Twelves will also be found all over the New Jerusalem to denote its perfection (21:12).

Although the woman rules the heavens, her home is on earth. She lives in the wilderness, where she is protected for three and a half years. Two different points of view are coming together here. From a heavenly perspective, if we have our 3D glasses on, she is a transcendent queen of splendor who rules the cosmos, but from an earthly or below point of view she lives at the margins of society, the wilderness, and is vulnerable to the dragon’s destructive designs.

In verse 2 she cries out in birth pangs, a metaphor for the distress of the messianic age (Isaiah 26:17-18; 66:7-8). The same word for her “torment” at the birth of judgment (9:5; 14:10) The new age, inaugurated with the birth of the male child (12:2,4), is a time of travail and agony for those who follow the way of the Lamb, rather than the way of the beast.

But, this brings us to the question, who is the woman? I answered this question, already so I know you already know the answer. Some have argued that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus; or some sort of celestial goddess (I’m honestly not sure where this comes from, but I’ve seen it mentioned a few times), or the persecuted people of God from whom the messiah comes. However, the clearest identification as to who the woman is can be found in 12:17, when the dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children, that is, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” The women is an image of the church persecuted by the dragon and subject to the distress and travail of the messianic age yet protected by God. The church, like the woman, is victorious through Christ, with a home in heaven. Yet it lives in the wilderness and faces suffering during the significant three and a half year period, which if you remember is that symbolic in between time between the start of God’s victory and his decisive end, we also like to describe that as the tension between the already (the coming of Christ) and the not yet (that final victory of Christ).

So we got the woman down, BUT! Who is this dragon? The antagonist and most formidable opponent of Revelation appears in verse 3. In contrast to the splendid appearance of the woman of the heavens, the dragon is the color of blood. Evil characters are often clothed in red. The second horseman rides a red horse (6:4), the woman of Babylon is clothed in scarlet (17:3,4). The best is the same color as well. Moreover, he is described as great. And we can take that to mean he is anything but. The woman of Babylon, the great city, and Babylon are all described as great, so we can take this to mean that those things are all of the same genus. And while they may be great from an earthly perspective, they are not from the perspective of heaven. He has seven heads with seven diadems (a jeweled crown worn like a headband) and ten horns that indicate he is a ruler, though far different from the mother. Seven is a number of completeness and ten suggest totality. But, the dragon’s rule is one of usurpation. The monster parodies God’s authority and power (seven horns 5:6) or Christ’s many diadems (19:12). The dragon’s power undermines God’s way of ordering the cosmos. His tail, a weapon of destruction that appears only on animals associated with evil (cf 9:10), brings down a third of the stars and bringing darkness (12:4). While he swept away some of the stars, revealing to us his intention of bringing chaos, his success was only partial: two-thirds of the stars remain in the sky. He then attempts to devour the woman’s child, but the son is given safe passage to God’s throne (12:5).

Now, let me show you something about how a boring subject can be really interesting. Greek Grammar, when you look at a Greek verb there are five things you need to know (Tense, Voice, Mood, Person, and Number). They key here is voice and there are three voices: Active (I wash the car), Middle (I wash myself), and Passive (The baby was washed). So the phrase in 12:5 “Snatched away” is in the passive voice meaning the child was snatched and there is an implicit subject or person who is doing the snatching. So the passive voice, here, indicates that it is God doing the snatching as the ‘hidden actor’. This circumlocution is John’s way of showing that although God seems absent from the scene he is actively present in day-to-day events. God places limits of evil’s rage and gives protection to the churches and for the woman.

Lastly, the woman’s time in the wilderness is 1,260 days, which is identical to “time, and times, and half a time” and the forty-two months of the beast’s rule. The period of domination by chaos and evil corresponds to God’s protection and succor for believers. The equal period of time is a symbolic way of showing that there is no imbalance between persecution and protection. Evil does not have the upper hand despite appearances.

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

“Now have come the salvation and the power

    and the kingdom of our God

    and the authority of his Messiah,

for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,

    who accuses them day and night before our God.

11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb

    and by the word of their testimony,

for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

12 Rejoice then, you heavens

    and those who dwell in them!

But woe to the earth and the sea,

    for the devil has come down to you

with great wrath,

    because he knows that his time is short!”

 The story, abruptly shifts to heaven. This time John, and therefore all of us, is not transported back up to heaven, rather we are informed of the events that have transpired there. Christ’s enthronement does not usher in a period of peace and tranquility, but becomes the catalyst for an epic battle in heaven. Christ is the one who will rule all nations, as verse 5 tells us, but that rule doesn’t come unchallenged. The angelic figure Michael mounts a massive attack on the dragon that sought to destroy Christ. Michael is the angelic “prince” who defeats the powers that oppose Israel (Daniel 10:13, 21); he is the heavenly “protector” of God’s people (Daniel 12:1); and opponent of the Devil (Jude 9). The bible doesn’t give us much information about Michael, most information comes from sources outside the bible. But really, the important part to get here is that Michael fights on behalf of God’s people, those who understand themselves to be people of God can assume that Michael fights on their behalf.

Michael’s assult defeats the dragon, who is now explicitly identified as the Devil and Satan, and this defeat dramatically limits the arena which Satan can operate. Instead of being able to work in Heaven, denouncing the saints before God (12:10), Satan is banished from heaven so that he must restrict his operations to earth. Although we as modern readers have assumed this passage refers to Satan’s fall fro heaven at the dawn of time that isn’t the case. Revelation 12 depicts a battle that takes place as a consequence of Christ’s resurrection and enthronement (12:5,11) Michael’s triumph over Satan doesn’t mean that he is sent from heaven to earth for the first time, for Satan’s business is about deceiving and accusing the faithful people of God long before this battle with Michael (12:9). Rather as a result of this battle, Satan loses a massive amount of territory as a result of the war, for he no longer has access to heaven.

This scene is important for three reasons. First, Satan’s expulsion from heaven means that he no longer is in a position to denounce the saints before God (12:10). In the Old Testament Satan is always the accuser, accusing people of their sin. Think of Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6) or Zechariah (Zechariah 3:1-5). Revelation announces that all the people of God are priests who have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, so that they can be clothed in white garments (1:5-6; 5:9-10; 7:9-14). By portraying Christ as the slaughtered Lamb, Revelation reinforces the idea that Christ’s death is the sacrifice that purifies people from sin. Satan’s expulsion from heaven shows that Christ’s blood effectively “conquers the Devil (12:11), because it means that he no longer has any business denouncing the saints whom Christ has cleansed (cf. Romans 8:33-34).

Second, the heavenly voices seek to reverse ordinary perceptions of the faithful who suffer on earth. If you remember in the seven letters, John speaks of the “forces of Satan” who threaten the church, imprison believers, and kill the faithful (2:10,13). From this, Christians might think that the deaths of their Christian brothers and sisters are victories for Satan. BUT! All over Revelation, true conquering and true victory are accomplished through faith. Those who remain faithful, even to death, and who refuse to give up their commitments “conquer” Satan, because they do not submit to his will (12:11).

Lastly, the story of Satan’s expulsion from heaven offers readers incentive to persevere, despite the ongoing threat of evil. Someone a few weeks backed remarked that Revelation seems a bit like a state of the union address to Christians suffering in Rome. And I think that image is really helpful to us here. Because from an earthly perspective, evil can seem so pervasive as to be unstoppable. Where the wicked prosper the righteous suffer, and the Devil seems to reign. But, from a heavenly perspective, however, evil rages on earth not because it is so powerful, but because it is so vulnerable. John is trying to depict Satan not as an unstoppable force or an immovable object, but rather an animal, a dragon maybe, who has been pushed into a corner and sees his own, self-centered world crumbling around him, Satan is going down, but he is still trying to get a last few punches in. Those who think that Satan rages because he is that unstoppable force will give up in despair, but those who recognize that Satan rages on earth because he has already lost heaven and is now desperate have reason to resist him, confident that God will prevail.

13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

 We now return back to the story of the woman and the dragon. The conflict between good and evil intensifies on earth. This part of the story gives us, again, a significant amount of Exodus imagery. The women is given two wings of the great eagle so she could fly from the dragon, now described in the language of a serpent. The Israelites in Exodus are said to escape on Eagles wings to flee the perusing Pharaoh. The Israelites were nourished with manna, quail, and water in the wilderness, and the woman is nourished in her sanctuary for “a time, and times, and half a time.” Again we see that broken seven symbolizing the almost, but not yet. And if you remember this time period is becoming synonymous with suffering.

The Earth now enters the story, personified as a character. The earth comes to the aid of the woman and swallows the water, this is another exodus allusion, though not as obvious. If you remember to the Exodus Pharaoh’s armies pursued the fleeing Israelites to the shores of the Red Sea, the earth came to their aid. Moses parted the sea and the earth formed a dry channel for safe passage to the other side. The earth then swallowed the pursuing Egyptians (Exodus 15:12). Since the dragon’s plot to snatch the male-child of the woman (Christ) has failed. He turns his attention to the offspring of the women, those who keep the commandments of God (the church)

Revelation 11:1-19

Revelation 11

 Revelation 11:1-14 tells the story of a protected yet vulnerable church with stock characters, symbolic cities, parabolic actions, a villain, and a surprising twist in the plot. This chapter gives us a major theological theme: the paradox of a community safe from harm, yet subject to danger, secured by God yet trampled by hostile forces. It is the same story as the 144,000 who are sealed yet endure danger and death (7:1-17) and the mother who is persecuted yet carried to safety in the wilderness on eagles’ wings (12:1-17). Chapter 11 uses parabolic images to develop the uneasy paradox, making this chapter “the most difficult” yet one of the most important in the whole book.

Chapter 11 has four parts. First is a mysterious voice tells John to measure the temple, altar, and worshipers, but to leave the outside Court unmeasured (1-2). Next is the story of the two witnesses and their fate. (3-13). Third is an announcement that the second woe is finished and the third woe will come (14). Lastly, is the seventh trumpet.

 11:1 Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, 2 but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.

 In the previous section we noticed that John’s role as passive spectator gave way to active involvement in his own vision. He took the scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. In the opening verses of chapter 11 his participation continues. John is given a measuring rod. The act of measuring is a symbolic gesture that determines the appropriate boundaries of a space or an activity. Similar to how a surveyor establishes the limits of a lot. The portion within the limits that John measures—the temple, altar, and the worshipers—all belong to God. It is holy space. The unmeasured portions are unprotected persons and space. That is unholy space. The unmeasured portion is handed over to the nations to trample for the symbolic period of 42 months. This act of measuring and boundary creation should remind us of Ezek. 40-42 where the temple is measured to determine what belongs to God and us under his protection.

42 Months is equivalent to three-and-a-half years, a broken seven-year period. The complete or perfect seven is split in half, symbolic of the in-between times that are fractured until they are repaired by the messiah. The paradox of the in-between times is that the period of distress in which the church is subject to harm corresponds to the time set aside for the church to fulfill its prophetic task. There is also a connection in this time to the Jewish suffering under the Antiochus Epiphanies in 167-164BC. It became a standard symbol for that limited period of time during which evil would be allowed free reign.

And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6 They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10 and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth. 11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 13 At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

 The witnesses are modeled after Moses and Elijah. In the description that follows (vv5-6) they have the power, like Elijah, to consume their enemies with fire (2 Kings 1:10), to “close the sky” preventing rain (1 Kings 17:1), and like Moses they can turn the water into blood (Exodus 7:14-18) and strike the earth with every kind of plague (8:12). So the characters show similarity to Moses and Elijah and are modeled after them, but who really are they and what do they symbolize in John’s Vision? Some have identified them as two literal prophetic figures who will arise at the end. However it is more likely, that they are not two individuals but a symbol of the witnessing church in the last tumultuous days before the end of the age. That church is presented under the figure of two witnesses stems from the well-known law in Deuteronomy 19:15 that required a second witness for adequate testimony (cf. John 8:17).

The imagery of the two olive trees and lampstands also provides important metaphors for the church’s role as witness. As olive trees are a plentiful source of oil for burning lamps so the two olive trees supply the lampstands with an abundant supply of oil. Despite the hostile threat from the outside, the church’s witness is in no danger of being extinguished.

The outward clothing of the witness represents the nature of the church’s prophetic witness. Sackcloth was commonly worn during times of mourning. Jacob wore sackcloth, after tearing off his garments, to mourn Joseph’s presumed death (Genesis 37:34). The garment was also an outward symbol of repentance (Jonah 3:5-6).

The witnesses corpse lies unburied in the street of “the great city, which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” This is the first of eight references (11:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21); in all the other occurrence, it is an Epithet for Babylon. The use of the word the, called the definite article, indicates that the reader should already be familiar with the city. This is part of John’s literary tools, anticipation, followed by clarification. Now, some have thought that the great city is Jerusalem, for it is also called the city where the Lord was crucified. But, the description is spiritual not literal. One author points out that “where” in Revelation is never, introduces literal, but always symbolic geography. So the place where Christ was crucified shouldn’t make us think of the actual city where he died, rather that city or place that spiritually crucifies him and that place which enthrones the beast. The great city is called Sodom, which is a symbol of wickedness (Genesis 19:1-25; Deuteronomy 29:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-15; 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14-15) and Egypt which is the place of slavery and alienation (Exodus 5:1-21; Joel 3:19).

Simply put, the great city is the antithesis of the another city we will see later, the New Jerusalem. The great city is the one of this world that opposes God; it is “humanity in chaos and rebellion against God.” Babylon, the great city, and the new Jerusalem represent the two opposing points of view of the book. Babylon is the symbolic city of oppression and alienation where the beast reigns, God is mocked and, and followers of the beast celebrate the triumph of evil over good.

The bodies of the two witnesses lie in the street of the city for three and a half days. This is a symbolic period; we again notice the broken seven, but now in the form of days not years. The number is more important than the time span (days). The church’s life and work is symbolized by the number three and a half, whether it be days or years. The broken seven describes the essential character of the church in the in-between times. It is an authoritative and powerful voice within society, but it is also beaten down, trodden upon, and killed.

Verse 11 depicts the awe and fear at the resuscitation of the two witnesses, the enemies of the great city, but we see in verse 13 that fear leads to repentance. The language here is similar to Ezekiel 37 when God sends the breath of life into the dry bones making them come to life and stand up. The two hear a loud voice and begin to ascend towards the Heaven. In that hour after the two witnesses ascend, the whole a devastating earthquake destroys a tenth of the city, 70,000 people (11:13). And so here is what’s happening, this is all part of John’s symbolic geography The number (7x10x1000) is used to symbolize the totality of the world. The shaking of the earth corresponds to a spiritual shaking that awakens those who dwell in the symbolic city. They are being shaking out of their spiritual apathy, shaken out of the reign of the beast. A tenth of the city is destroyed and 7,000 people are killed. Nine-tenths of the inhabitants are spared destruction, with the surviving majority responding with terror and giving “glory to God of heaven” (11:13). This scene is John’s surprising reversal of Old Testament judgments in which nine-tenths are destroyed and one-tenth is spared (Isaiah 6:13 or Amos 5:3). In 1 Kings 19 the 7,000 who refused the seductions of Jezebel to worship Ba’al are spared judgment.

The point of this digression seems to me to be this: The church accomplishes what judgments alone were unable to accomplish. Where the plagues are ineffectual in moving humankind in the right direction, the testimony of faithful believers is effectual. As Richard Bauckham notes, judgments by themselves are ineffective in bringing about repentance because they “do not convey God’s gracious willingness to forgive those who repent.” But, when judgments are combined with the church’s call to repentance the results are positive. The Christian’s voice is instrumental in the conversion of the nations of the world.

14 The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon.

The narrative reminds the reader where they are in the story line, the second woe has passed and the final woe coming very soon. And a quick reminder for all of us The three woes were announced to the earth’s inhabitants by an eagle lying in midheaven in 8:13. The fifth trumpet plague, the locus, was the first woe and two more woes are to come (9:12). The second woe is apparently the sixth trumpet plague of 9:13-21, although John postpones the announcement until after the story of his commissioning (10:1-11) and the tale of the two witnesses (11:1-13).

 15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever. 16 Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 singing, “We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” 19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

 When the seventh trumpet is blown, we might expect yet another plague but instead we hear voices in heaven declaring that eternal sovereignty of God and his Christ. The twenty-four elders join the celebrating falling, before God in worship and praising him for having taken his great power and begun to reign. The entire scene with the seventh trumpet is simply a reminder that God will faithfully carry out his covenant promises and destroy the enemies of his people

Revelation 10:1-11

Chapter 10

Before launching into Revelation chapter 10, let’s do a quick review of where John has taken us so far in his apocalyptic vision…

Chapter 1: an invitation to see the world apocalyptically.

Chapters 2-3: seven letters to the seven churches in Asia.

Chapter 4: John enters the throne room of the universe and discovers that there is a worship service going on around the throne involving the entire creation.

Chapter 5: No one is found worthy to open the scroll of God’s purposes for creation except the Lion of the tribe of Judah. John hears lion, but then he looks and discovers that the Lion of Judah is the Lamb that was slain.

Chapter 6: The seals begin to be opened and the judgment on Babylon begins. The first four seals are the four horsemen who point to the fears that the empire always holds in the back of its mind. The fifth seal gives the reader a glimpse of the altar before the throne and lets the reader hear the cries of the saints imploring the Lord for vindication and to make all things new. The sixth seal puts together the expectations of the Minor Prophets and brings down all of the places of security. The chapter ends with a question: “Who can stand?”

Chapter 7: This chapter answers the previous question. Before the seventh seal is opened there is a pause in the action. What is God up to in the midst of the unraveling of all of the places of security? John hears that there are 144,000 that are being redeemed. But then he looks and sees a multitude that no one can count from every tribe, nation, and language – all being marked by the Lamb.

Chapters 8:1-5: The seventh seal is opened and there is silence in heaven for half an hour as the prayers of the saints come, like incense in the temple, to the altar and to the throne. The prayers return to earth as “reversed thunder.”

Chapter 8:6-9:21 The seven seals lead to seven trumpets. The first six trumpets are a rehearsal of the Exodus plagues: hail, blood, bitter water, darkness, locusts, and the angel of death. At the end of the plagues no one repents. 

 Now we get to chapter 10 and 11, here we have a break from the bizarre world of locust and beasts while John and the Church are assigned tasks. The narrative here opens a space to assign the crucial role of the prophet and the church in the in-between time, this is the time after Christ’s death but before his final victory. So here the voice narrating will call our attention to John’s roll in all of this and the roll of the church in God’s plan for salvation.

[10:1-4] Then I saw another powerful angel coming down from heaven. He was robed with a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, and his feet were like fiery pillars. He held an open scroll in his hand. He put his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land. He called out with a loud voice like a lion roaring, and when he called out, the seven thunders raised their voices. When the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and don’t write it down.” 

From the beginning of chapter 4 through the end of chapter 9 John has been observing the activity of God from the perspective of heaven – the place of God’s reign. But in chapter 10 he is back on earth observing the purposes of God as they take place in human history. Now in the vision he sees a great angel descend from heaven and stand directly on the earth and sea. It is very likely that John is continuing to paint with the colors of Old Testament, in particular the Exodus story. The bow may recall God’s promise through Noah, the pillars of fire God’s presence in the wilderness, and the scroll the Law on tablets of stone.

In the hand of the angel is a small scroll that, unlike the large scroll in chapter 5, is open and ready to be read. The angel is not making up his message. He speaks with the authority and power of the Lion of Judah. The voice of the angel is powerful like the thunder around the throne.

John is about to write the words from “the seven thunders” but is told not to write them down. Because John uses the article “the” to introduce the seven thunders it appears that he is using an image that would have been familiar to the early church. Some commentators connect the seven thunders to Psalm 29, in which the thunderstorm is interpreted as “the voice of the LORD.” “The LORD’s voice is over the waters; the glorious God thunders; the LORD is over the mighty waters” (Ps. 29:3). The phrase “The Lord’s voice” is then repeated seven times in the Psalm and so this may be the connection John is making.

It is also possible that the seven thunders, like the seals and trumpets, are meant to form yet another series of warning plagues. However, the adamant decision of the human race not to repent would make seven more judgments meaningless and so the Lord commands that they not take place.

[10:5-7] Then the angel I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. He swore by the one who lives forever and always, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, and said, “The time is up. In the days when the seventh angel blows his trumpet, God’s mysterious purpose will be accomplished, fulfilling the good news he gave to his servants the prophets.”

The angel raised his right hand to heaven and solemnly swore that the period of delay in God’s redemption is over. With the sounding of the great seventh trumpet, God’s purposes will be revealed and brought to completion. For the early church, the announcement that no further delay would be necessary would come as welcome news. The seven thunders would have involved another delay, but they were canceled. It is now time for the end to come.

As has been the case so far in Revelation, it is not likely that John is trying to give a chronology of events. However, from this point on in the narrative of Revelation, John turns to his inspired understanding of the nature of God’s ultimate redemption.

[10:8-11] Then the voice I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, “Go, take the opened scroll from the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.”

The angel commanded John to take the small scroll from his hand. He is then, like the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 2:8-3:3) told to take up the scroll and eat it. The scroll will be sweet as honey in his mouth but it will turn his stomach sour. It is likely that the small scroll is supposed to be viewed as a piece of the larger scroll in the hand of the One seated on the throne. This small scroll symbolizes John’s story, and the story of the early church around him, as they live into the greater story of God’s purposes that are written on the great scroll.

This scroll tastes sweet because it is part of the God’s will and purpose. But it is difficult or bitter for the stomach to digest because the purposes of God for John and the early church include walking through great suffering and through difficult circumstances. In verse 11 John is told to prophesy again. But now, rather than just being a scribe that translates the message that he hears. John is now himself part of the message.

As theologian Stanley Hauerwas often comments, “The Church does not just bear the message of Christ, the Church is the message of Christ.” I believe that this is the point of this text. The early church as they walk through the challenges set before them do not just proclaim the message of God’s redemption, they embody that redemption in their life together and in the way they treat their enemies.

Joseph Magina writes, “John’s taking of the little scroll is ‘Eucharistic,’ not in the direct sense that the scene depicts the celebration of the sacrament, but in the sense that he is being commanded to ingest the word of God, to let it enter him so as to become part of his own being… ‘There will be no more time,’ says the angel. Yet far from causing the church to hunker down into a sectarian enclave waiting for the end, the gift of the gospel sends the church outward into the world of peoples, nations, languages, and kings. The mighty angel crying with a loud voice is a type of Christ’s prophetic office, and John’s eating of the scroll a sign of the church’s mission of bearing witness to the gospel, both in its life and its speech. And as the angel stands astride land and sea, so the gospel is truly a message with no borders.”

Revelation 8:1-9:21

Long Post Alert

Revelation is a book from and about exile. Exile is first and foremost about experiencing disconnection from others and therefore disconnection from purpose. As Eugene Peterson writes, “Exile is the experience of powerlessness, in extremis. Everything is determined by another. We are removed from where we want to be and whom we want to be with. We are isolated from place and persons. We are victims. The worst punishment possible in ancient Israel was banishment. To be separated from family and country, from community worship and family faith – that was the cruelest decree. The severest judgment that the nation experienced was exile to Babylonia. A person created for personal relationships of love cannot live adequately without them. Exile dehumanizes. It sentences us to death by bread alone. ‘On the island called Patmos’ Rome showed St. John who was in charge. Every lonely hour on the barren rock was proof that Rome determined St. John’s destiny, that Rome’s word was the final word on his life, that Rome’s decree set the limits within which he was permitted to exist. St. John was alone, powerless, and bereft” (Reversed Thunder).

But like Israel caught in captivity to Pharaoh, Jonah in the belly of the fish (in the depths of Sheol), or Judah in the midst of exile in Babylon, separation from the temple or the places that symbolized God’s unique presence is not really separation from God. The blessed discovery of Israel, Jonah, Judah, and John of Patmos is that the place of exile turns out – through prayer – to be a holy place where God shows up.

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

The final seal is opened. The end of God’s judgment and the vindication of the saints is at hand. Now God’s plan will come to fruition. Given those expectations, what really happens seems quite anticlimactic. The Lamb opened the seventh seal, and rather than the pouring out of wrath, there is a half an hour of silence.

The term “half an hour” has no obvious mystical or symbolic meaning, but Henry Swete gives a nice simple explanation: “Half-an-hour, though a relatively short time, is a long interval in a drama, and makes an impressive break between the Seals and the Trumpets.”

The delay, like all of the other delays in the book of Revelation, is not an act of divine indifference, but rather it is an act of grace on the part of a patient God full of steadfast love and mercy.

8:2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

The opening of the seals does not bring about the end. Instead, the opening of the seven seals leads into the blowing seven trumpets.

Rather than just sitting in silence, John draws the reader’s attention to the seven angels who were given the seven trumpets. Although not specified in the text, it is likely that the seven angels were interpreted as the seven archangels of Jewish tradition: Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Ariel Gabriel, and Remiel.

There are many uses of trumpets in the Scripture, but here the image is likely drawing the reader’s imagination back to the Old Testament texts of battle. On the battlefield, armies used trumpets to signal the beginning of an attack, and people inside cities being attacked sounded trumpets as a way to warn their citizens of the impending peril.

One can’t help but think about this passage in the light of the narrative of the conquering of Jericho. The seven laps around the city and the blasts of the trumpets was an act of worship that caused the oppressive city of evil to begin to collapse.

 

Another angel came and stood at the altar, and he held a gold bowl for burning incense. He was given a large amount of incense, in order to offer it on behalf of the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. 4 The smoke of the incense offered for the prayers of the saints rose up before God from the angel’s hand.

But before the seven archangels begin to blow the seven trumpets the reader’s attention is drawn back to the heavenly altar where another angel offers to the One on the throne a golden bowl of incense full of the prayers of the saints. In the midst of the chaos of history, God quietly and carefully hears the scattered prayers of the Church.

History is not just God’s action, but the result of the synergy between God and his people. As Mangina writes, “Brief as they are, these two references to prayer are important reminders that, in the Apocalypse, the commerce between heaven and earth moves both ways. God is the primary agent in the book: therefore the primary thrust of movement is downward, from heaven toward earth. And yet it would be wrong to say that God rules simply by fiat. If the church is called to listen to the word of God, God also listens; the prayers of his people matter to him” (Brazos Commentary).

 

Then the angel took the incense container and filled it with fire from the altar. He threw it down to the earth, and there were thunder, voices, lightning, and an earthquake.

The brief silence in the throne room allowed the One seated on the throne to hear the prayers. The angel then mixed the prayers with incense for purification, combined them with the fire of God’s Spirit for power, and then threw the prayers back in a kind of “reversed thunder” towards earth. The cries of the saints which had ascended to heaven unnoticed by the rulers of the empire, returned to earth with immense force after having been heard by the ruler of all creation.

“The prayers are “heard”; they have an effect. The effect is not merely a subjective release in the worshiper; the prayers of the saints on earth cause things to happen on earth. The saints’ prayers do not result in a deliverance from historical troubles but the deliverance of the world and history, by the eschatological appearance of God’s kingdom.” – Eugene Boring

The trumpets are first and foremost the announcement that God has heard the cries of the saints, and that a new creation is on its way.

The sounding of the seven trumpets breaks the temporary silence around the throne.

The pattern of the trumpets is similar to that of the cycle of seals. In the same way that the four horsemen were part of the judgment on earth, the first four trumpet-plagues are directed toward the world of nature. The fifth and sixth trumpets, like the fifth and sixth seals, are described in much more detail and take up a great deal of space in the text. And in the same way there is a break between the sixth and seven seals, there will be a break between the sixth and seventh trumpets.

Like John’s vision of the seven seals, the seven trumpets are not likely predictions of future events but fit into the typical pattern of apocalyptic woes that precede the victory of God at the reconciliation of creation. This second cycle of judgments or plagues – the seven trumpets – is not a chronological retelling of the first cycle – the seven seals – but it is rather an intensification of the first set. When the seals were opened one-fourth of the earth’s inhabitants were struck. When the trumpets are sounded the judgment increases to one-third. To ask if this implies that a different one-third was destroyed after (or in addition to) the original one-fourth probably misses the literary point. As Eugene Boring writes, “John works with the imagination, not calculators… Thus all grass is burned up in 8:7, but is still there in 9:4; the stars are struck in 8:12, although they have already fallen in 6:13. The pictures function to communicate a surrealistic impression of the terror of the final judgments and not a series of events which one may somehow fit into a single consistent pattern, even in the imagination.”

Most significantly for this passage, the trumpet plagues reconstruct the Exodus plagues of Moses and Pharaoh. The point of the plagues in Exodus was not so much God’s attempt to punish Pharaoh as they were meant to lead to his repentance. God wasn’t just trying to make Pharaoh miserable, but God was trying to make him change his mind. The connection to Egypt is important for these two chapters, for it means that not only does the Revelator see aspects of the Babylonian captivity in the situation faced by the first century church in Rome, but he also sees images of the great exodus from Egypt as well. Like the plagues that put and end to the Israelite’s bondage to Pharaoh, the trumpets of Revelation announce new and worse plagues upon the existing order of oppression and injustice.

8:6-7 Then the seven angels who held the seven trumpets got ready to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood appeared, and was thrown down to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up. A third of the trees were burned up. All the green grass was burned up.

With the sounding of the first trumpet, the second series of judgments begin. When the angel sounded his trumpet “hail and fire mixed with blood appeared.” The language is reminiscent of seventh Egyptian plague: “Then Moses raised his shepherd’s rod toward the sky, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightening struck the earth. The LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt… The hail also beat down all the grain in the fields, and it shattered every tree out in the field” (Ex. 9:23, 25).

8:8-9 Then the second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain burning with fire was thrown down into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the creatures living in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

In the same way that the first plague scorched a third of the land, the second brought destruction to a third of the sea. A huge mountain with fire was throne into the sea and it became blood. Here again the reader is reminded of the first Egyptian plague, in which the rivers were turned to blood. “Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. He raised the shepherd’s rod and hit the water in the Nile in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the Nile began to stink so that the Egyptians couldn’t drink water from the Nile. There was blood all over the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:20-21).

8:10-11 Then the third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, burning like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water. The star’s name is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it became so bitter.

Although deviating slightly from the Egyptian plague motif, the third trumpet also seems to be connected to the Exodus events. When the great star named Wormwood fell on the rivers and springs, they became bitter. It is the reverse of the miracle and Marah where Moses cast a tree into the bitter waters and they were made sweet (Ex. 15:25).

8:12 Then the fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars so that a third of them became dark. The day lost a third of its light, and the night lost a third of its light too.

At the sounding of the fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon and stars were struck so that they became completely dark. This judgment recalls the ninth Egyptian plague. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Raise your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over the land of Egypt, a darkness that you can feel.’ So Moses raised his hand toward the sky, and an intense darkness fell on the whole land of Egypt for three days. People couldn’t see each other, and they couldn’t go anywhere for three days. But the Israelites all had light where they lived” (Ex. 11:21-23).

8:13 Then I looked and I heard an eagle flying high overhead. It said with a loud voice, “Horror, horror, oh! The horror for those who live on earth because of the blasts of the remaining trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The Greek word that gets translated by many scholars as “eagle” can also mean “vulture.” In either case, what John sees is a large predatory bird that hovers in midair and cries out with a loud voice, “Horror, horror!” or “Woe, woe!” The word of “woe” to the world caught in sin is not only a familiar refrain from the prophets, but from Christ as well. The call of woe further sets the contrast between the hope of those whose life is marked by the Lamb and those whose lives are connected with the crumbling empire.

Craig Koester articulates the call to repentance well, writing, “The mounting threats show that it is an illusion to think that one can find security apart from God and the Lamb. Revelation presses readers to identify with those who belong to the Lamb, rather than allying themselves with the world that stands apart from the Lamb. Neutrality is not an option. Consider the contrasting way in which ‘blood’ is used in Revelation 7-8. On the one hand, the redeemed are washed in the blood of the Lamb. On the other hand, the world that has shed the blood of the saints is spattered with blood that falls from heaven with fire and hail, later finding itself awash in the blood of judgment, as a third of the sea is stained red. The followers of the Lamb are promised a future in which they will not suffer from scorching heat, although the unfaithful will be threatened with fire from heaven. The Lamb will guide people to the springs of the water of life, whereas those who prefer not to drink his life-giving water will find that the springs of the earth will become bitter and deadly. Those who follow the Lamb will not be struck by the sun, but judgment means that the sun itself will be struck, along with the moon and stars.”

9:1 Then the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the abyss.

It only took John the Revelator six verses to describe the first four trumpet blasts. But now he will devote twenty-one verses to the description of the fifth and sixth. People who were merely discomforted by judgments upon the world of nature are now directly subjected to torments that arise from the underworld.

When the fifth angel sounded his trumpet, John saw a star that had just fallen to the earth. Jewish literature frequently symbolized living beings or living spirits as stars. In Isaiah 14:12 the king of Babylon is portrayed as a day star fallen from heaven. Although this fallen star is sometimes associated with Abaddon – the angel of the Abyss who shows up later in the chapter – or Satan, the fallen star’s identity is not specified. Some scholars argue that the symbol is simply one of the many divine agents who throughout the book of Revelation are pictured as carrying out the purposes and will of God.

9:2 He opened the shaft of the abyss; and smoke rose up from the shaft, like smoke from a huge furnace. The sun and air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft.

The angel is given the key to the abyss. Revelation continually contrasts the life of the Lamb and the life of the Empire. It is possible that John is giving the reader in this text the mirrored location to the throne room of heaven. When the door of heaven was opened and John stepped through, he saw around the throne and around the One seated on the throne all kinds of heavenly creatures. While on earth – or in this case below the earth – the door is opened in which the reader now gets to see the creatures that surround the “throne room” of the abyss. Both throne rooms are filled with creatures. The heavenly creatures worship the Holy One and give life. The creatures from the abyss are instruments of destruction and bring death.

“John’s conception of the present creation includes a bottomless pit which, like a black hole in modern astrophysics, is a place of anti-creation, anti-matter, of destruction and chaos.” – NT Wright

9:3-6 Then locusts came forth from the smoke and onto the earth. They were given power like the power that scorpions have on the earth. They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree. They could only hurt the people who didn’t have the seal of God on their foreheads. The locusts weren’t allowed to kill them, but only to make them suffer for five months – and the suffering they inflict is like that of a scorpion when it strikes a person. In those days people will seek death, but they won’t find it. They will want to die, but death will run away from them.

Out of the abyss came locusts. The text again brings to mind the plagues of Egypt (10:1-20). But this time the super-locusts are not brought out to destroy the creation but to attack people. In these verses there is a great reversal. Those who have been continually living under threat and facing suffering – the followers of Christ who are marked by the Lamb – are now secure. While those who have either compromised or have been the oppressors of the faithful are now the “hunted.” But even here there is a strange element of grace. Those who have shown no mercy to the saints are shown mercy. They are hurt but not killed. The five months that the plague lasts is likely a reference to the life span of a locust. Those not marked by the Lamb now also face suffering, but their suffering will not be fatal and it will not be without end.

9:7-11 The locusts looked like horses ready for battle. On their heads were what seemed to be gold crowns. Their faces were like human faces, their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. In front they had what seemed to be iron armor upon their chests, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of many chariots and horses racing into battle. They also have tails with stingers, just like scorpions; and in their tails is their power to hurt people for five months. Their king is an angel from the abyss, whose Hebrew name is Abaddon, and whose Greek name is Apollyon.

The wild looking locusts from the pit have some roots in Joel and in other ancient Jewish literature. There has historically been audacious speculation about what they are and what they might symbolize. It would seem that the breadth of scholarship tends to associate them back to creatures that have been mentioned earlier and which were connected to the throne and to God’s purposes (such as the four horsemen). But now these creatures are unholy combinations that become odd and bizarre false replicas of God’s creatures. In Craig Koester’s words, “The vision of the heavenly throne room in Revelation 4-5 showed a rightly ordered universe, in which creatures offered praise to their Creator and to the Lamb, who are worthy of power. But in Revelation 9, grotesque figures create a demonic parody of the created order, showing what conditions are like under the lordship of the king of the underworld, whose names Abaddon and Apollyon mean Destruction and Destroyer.”

Although Abaddon or Apollyon are frequently associated with Satan, that connection is again not made explicit in the text. Many commentators believe that this name is meant to be a derogatory reference to the Greek god Apollo and those Roman emperors who frequently claimed a special relationship or kinship to him. “To name the king of the underworld Apollyon would be a cryptic way of saying that an emperor such as Domitian who liked to be regarded as Apollo incarnate was in reality a manifestation of the powers of the underworld… The allusion is strengthened by the observation that the locust was one of the symbols of the god Apollo.” – Robert Mounce

9:12-19 The first horror has passed. Look! Two horrors are still coming after this. Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet and I heard a voice from the four horns of the gold altar that is before God. It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” Then the four angels who had been made ready for that hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of humankind. The number of cavalry troops was two hundred million. I heard their number. And this is the way I saw the horses and their riders in the vision: they had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The horses’ heads were like lions’ heads, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur. By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed: by the fire, smoke, and sulfur coming out of their mouths. The horses’ power is in their mouths and their tails, for their tails are like snakes with heads that inflict injuries.

The sixth trumpet and second woe also brings to mind the final plague in Egypt – the arrival of the angel of death. Many scholars associate this “woe” with the constant threat that Rome faced from enemies at the boundaries of the empire. As NT Wright comments, “When John sees in his vision four angels tied up by the great river Euphrates, ready to be released and to lead their massive armies into battle, everyone from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond knew what this meant. Their worst political and military nightmares. The fact that this vision follows immediately the horrible sight of the massive, torturing locusts reminds us again, if we needed it, that these are symbolic visions, drawing now on one lurid horror-fantasy, now on another, to present the image of escalating terror and torture. All of this was to be unleashed so that – and this is the point of it all – humans might be challenged to repent.”

9:20-21 The rest of humankind, who weren’t killed by these plagues, didn’t change their hearts and lives and turn from their handiwork. They didn’t stop worshipping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood – idols that can’t see or hear or walk. They didn’t turn away from their murders, their spells and drugs, their sexual immorality, or their stealing.

These two powerfully destructive chapters rehearsing the nature of the first six trumpets come to an astounding end. No one repents! The creatures, which were in a sense created through the idolatry of human disobedience, when unleashed, bring utter pain and destruction. Yet, like Pharaoh who can’t seem to help it but to chase the Israelites all the way into the waves of the Red Sea, the rebellious people who dwell on earth fail to repent even when they experience the pain and suffering that comes as a consequence of their idolatry. The empire’s answer to violence always seems to be more violence. The empire’s answer to idolatry always seems to be more idolatry.

If the trumpets and their judgments were designed to bring repentance to the people of earth, their mission was a failure. As will be revealed in the following texts, John is convinced that in order for repentance to occur a different approach will be needed.

“This is a lesson that the church has not always heeded. Too often we have thought that we can scare people into believing, or at least into being obedient to God. Some even use the book of Revelation for that purpose. But what Revelation in fact says is that, no matter how dire God’s warnings, those who choose not to believe will remain adamant in their disobedience.” – Justo Gonzalez

Revelation 7:1-17

The action of judgment has been building as the seven seals are opened. The first four seals brought forth four horsemen who symbolized the threats to Caesar’s mythology of control. The fifth seal gave the reader a view of the altar before the throne of God and allowed the reader to hear the cries of the martyred saints for divine redemption and vindication. The sixth seal returned the church’s gaze to earth and brought about the unraveling of the security of the cosmos.

The vision in Revelation chapter seven is one of the famous interludes or breaks in the action that periodically interrupt the flow of the Apocalypse. In the midst of the action of judgment, the reader is interrupted and forced to pause and consider more deeply what is really going on in God’s redemptive plan.

Chapter six ended with a question: “Who can stand?” The answer in this chapter is a great multitude of saints.

As Eugene Boring writes, “Instead of seeing the expected End, what we see is the church. This is literary craftsmanship, but more than that – it is a reflection of the experience of first-century Christianity. They looked for the End and what came was the church, not as a substitute for the act of God but itself a dimension of God’s saving activity. What seems at first to be a postponement or narrative digression turns out to be a skillfully constructed interlude, which pictures the church during the time of persecution and builds suspense before the final seal is broken.”

(7:1-3) After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. They held back the earth’s four winds so that no wind would blow against the earth, the sea, or any tree. I saw another angel coming up from the east, holding the seal of the living God. He cried out with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given the power to damage the earth and sea. He said, “Don’t damage the earth, the sea, or the trees until we have put a seal on the foreheads of those who serve our God.”

John envisions four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, waiting attentively to receive their instructions from the One on the throne. Four is frequently the number given to creation. Earlier there were four living creatures worshiping the One on the throne and the Lamb. In ancient cultures, the world was viewed as flat and so the image is that the four angels stand at the earth’s corners likely with power over the elements of the earth, air, water, and fire. These angels have been granted authority to restrain or set loose the fury of God’s judgment upon the world.

In particular these angels serve as a reminder of the devastation that would befall creation if the four angels were permitted to unleash the wind from every direction.

Seals were used frequently in the ancient world. They were most often used as a sign of ownership and authority. Like the imperial seal showed what belonged to the emperor, so the Christian “seals” of baptism and the Holy Spirit showed what belongs to God (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30, and Romans 4:11). To be sealed with the Spirit of Christ is to be marked as God’s possession.

Like the plagues that have their root in the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Exodus event, so too the image of being marked or sealed by the Lamb also has its roots in that great story. Like those who in Exodus marked their home with the blood of the Passover lamb and thus were spared from not only the death angel but where given safe passage through the Red Sea, so too those in the early church who connected themselves to the Lamb through baptism would be delivered through the chaos of the persecution and turmoil of the empire.

(7:4-8) Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed from every tribe of the Israelites:

  • From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed;
  • from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand;
  • from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.

Similar to the scene around the throne in chapter five, John HEARD that the number of those who had been sealed by the Lamb was 144,000. This number is almost certainly meant to be taken symbolically and not literally. It is most likely a symbolic number that signifies God’s redemption of Israel. The number is the twelve tribes of Israel squared and then fulfilled by a multitude: 12 x 12 x 1000.

The list of the tribes is interesting because it does not include the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan was often viewed with suspicion by early Jewish and Christian sources. So this list may symbolize the purified nation of Israel. Some New Testament scholars argue that this list constitutes the army of Israel being mustered for battle against God’s enemies at the end of the age.

(7:9-12) After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice: “Victory belongs to our God
 who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory
and wisdom and thanksgiving
and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

In chapter five as John wept because no one was found worthy to open the seals on the scroll of history. When the elder told him to stop weeping because the Lion of Judah was found worthy to open the seals, John HEARD Lion but then he looked and he SAW the Lamb that was slain. The pattern in this chapter is the same… John HEARD that there were 144,000 that had been sealed by the Lamb, but then he looked and SAW a multitude that no one could count from every tribe, nation, and languages.

This passage uses two different images for the same reality. The 144,000 and the great multitude are the same group. The community of faith encompasses people from many tribes, nations, and languages, yet this same community represents the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the preservation of Israel.

(7:13-17) Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The significance of the vision is again revealed to John through his interaction with the elder. The elder asks John: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” In what amounts to a polite confession of ignorance John replies, “Sir, you know.” The elder then identifies this white-robed army as “the ones coming out of the great tribulation,” those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

It is important to recognize that the promise is not that these dressed in white will be protected from tribulation. Like Israel coming out of Egypt – both physically and spiritually – exodus out of the principalities and powers is not easy. The people of God are not protected from trial in the wilderness, yet their future is held safe and secure by Yahweh. In the same way, the early church was not protected from tribulation, trial, and hardship. Yet, their life was held secure in the future of the Lamb.

In fact, tribulation and trial is not just a set of unfortunate circumstances that the saints have to endure, it is part of the redemptive work of God in creation. Like a woman in childbirth, suffering for doing good is part of the work of the coming new creation of the Lamb. God’s redemptive work is the great ordeal into which the disciple of Jesus participates. To be sealed by this God means to be made a participant in a life that, while not immune from death – for Jesus himself was not immune from suffering and crucifixion – is nevertheless victorious over death, Hades, and their allies in this passing age of the principalities and powers.

God is not only the source of protection, but for the saints he is the source of life, grace, future, and joy. The saints are those live in the midst of struggle but reflect the life of the Lamb.

Revelation 6:9-17

The pace and location of the action in John’s vision shifts with the opening of the fifth and sixth seals. Four wild horsemen rode out to create various forms of destruction with the opening of the first four seals. But now it all slows down. A contrast will be made between those who are represented in the opening of the fifth seal and those who are seen at the opening of the sixth. The location shifts from earth, to heaven, and back to earth again.

The contents of the two seals form a sharp contrast. Both describe distinct communities of humans. On the one side, the sixth seal reveals those people who are deeply connected to the Lamb because, like him, they too have been slaughtered. But on the other side are those people who live on earth and who, because of their connection to the principalities and powers, will have to cry out for protection from the “wrath of the Lamb.”

At the heart of the text is an inversion of our preconceived notions about peace. Those who are tormented and face fears on earth rest and are at peace within the reign of God. But inversely, those on earth who have lived in security now find that everything they had placed their trust in is in a rapid state of flux.

6:When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar those who had been slaughtered on account of the word of God and the witness they had given. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “Holy and true Master, how long will you wait before you pass judgment? How long before you require justice for our blood, which was shed by those who live on earth?” 11 Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until their fellow servants and brothers and sisters—who were about to be killed as they were—were finished.

The fifth seal shifts the reader’s view back to the heavenly throne room. There under the altar are the souls of those who had been martyred as witnesses to the life and kingdom of the Lamb. The image of the temple altar is powerful and meaningful. This is surely intended to be viewed as the altar of sacrifice where the blood of the sacrificial lamb would be poured out and gather at the base of the altar. Little should probably be made about what this text has to say to us about the state of the dead, John’s vision is likely just a vivid way of depicting the deep connection between the death of the Lamb and the deaths of the martyrs. Both Jesus and those who have suffered for him have taken up the cross and followed the purposes of the One seated on the throne.

Who are these souls beneath the altar? Although the Revelator is not specific, it is likely that the early Christians imagined that the list included the ancient prophets, John the Baptist, Stephen and other Christians killed in the early days of the church in Palestine, as well as those killed during the persecution by Nero during the seventh century AD (in which he brutally murdered Christians in Rome by crucifying some of them, having others torn by dogs, and burning still others to death). The list may also include Antipas of Pergamum, the one martyr actually named in Revelation. However, there is no reason to limit the list of those represented under the altar of God’s reign to those John would have been aware of. The picture of the heavenly altar is a reminder that those who were mistreated on earth, as though God had abandoned them, are in reality as close to the presence of God as they could possibly be. As William Cavanaugh writes, “[Martyrdom] is a bridge between heaven and earth not because the martyr is soon to travel one way to her eternal reward, but because heaven has been brought to earth in the form of one who, in imitating Jesus the Christ, has cheated earthly death of its sting. A martyr is one who lives imaginatively as if death does not exist.”

The souls of the martyrs are simultaneously at rest and restless. They cry out like the Psalmist for God to stop delaying and act in ways of vindication.

How long, O Lord?… Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name…! Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of thy servants be known among the nations before our eyes! (Psalm 79:5-10)

It is theologically important to recognize their cry for God to act not as a cry for vengeance but as a cry for vindication. The cry is for the creation to be set right. If their identification with the Lamb was an act of victory rather than an act of defeat, when will God reveal it as such? When will the whole world see that it is the love of the Lamb and those who have identified with his love that have actually won? If the “lions” of history continue to conquer the instruments of love, then truth and goodness may never bring about the hoped for redemption of creation.

The response from the One on the throne is an act of vindication. Those who have been faithful receive white robes of life and purity and are told to rest a little while longer until their number is complete. It is highly unlikely that when the text talks about the number of martyrs being “complete” it means that God has predetermined a fixed number of saints who will be killed for the faith and once that number is reached, then judgment can commence. It is much more likely that the meaning here is that suffering love is not completed its work of redemption yet. Love still has work to be done. Others (indeed many across Christian history) have been and will continue to be called to share in the self-giving, sacrificial love of Christ. Nevertheless, there is assurance from God that this suffering will not continue without end. As Howard-Brook and Gwyther write, “The response expresses not divine indifference by divine mercy. The plea comes from those whose pain and suffering have limited their ability to maintain their compassion for the ‘inhabitants of the earth.’ But apocalyptic literature reveals the big picture of history, in which God’s patience and mercy are greater than humanity’s. The time will come, indeed, ‘for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Rev. 11:18), but it is still ‘not yet.’”

12 I looked on as he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became black as funeral clothing, and the entire moon turned red as blood. 13 The stars of the sky fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The sky disappeared like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the officials and the generals, the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in caves and in the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the Lamb’s wrath! 17 The great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

With the opening of the sixth seal, the focus returns to earth. This seal reveals a number of very common apocalyptic images from Scripture. John makes use of symbolism drawn from many parts of the Old Testament: the earthquake from Haggai 2:6, the sun turned black and the moon turned to blood from Joel 2:31, the stars fallen from heaven like figs from a fig tree Isa. 34:4, and the sky rolled up like a scroll Isa 34:4.

Typical of the Revelator, seven (the number of completion) is the representative number for the cosmic judgments and the number of the groups affected by these cataclysmic events. There are seven events:

  1. there is a great earthquake
  2. the sun darkens
  3. the full moon becomes like blood
  4. the stars fall from the sky
  5. the sky vanishes
  6. the mountains and islands are removed
  7. the people feel great consternation

And seven groups or classes of people feel this great consternation – with the emphasis falling on the powerful to make it clear that not even the mightiest will escape:

  1. kings of the earth
  2. magnates
  3. generals
  4. the rich
  5. the powerful
  6. the slave
  7. the free

The double set of sevens shows that the destruction is total. Nothing remains in place, and no one is high enough or low enough to escape God vindication.

Part of what the contemporary reader has to recover in interpreting the sixth seal is the nature of power in the ancient world and its connection to the heavenly bodies. Astronomers and astrologers were constantly observing and charting the movement of the heavenly bodies. The conviction was often that actions on earth were fixed and predetermined by the movement of the stars and planets. The gods in the heavens gave legitimacy to the reign of a ruler. History for ancient people was quite literally written in the stars.

But what if all the stars fell? What if the heavenly bodies whose movements determine and root history were to collapse into chaos? Then everything in which people put their trust would be gone. This is the power of these apocalyptic images.

“The response of the peoples of the earth is ironically to seek safety in a world that is rapidly dissolving into chaos… Their desire to hide in the crevices of a shaken world adds to the pathos. The sevenfold rhetorical listing of peoples includes everyone from the lofty to the lowly. No segment of society is absolved from the cosmic collapse – for at one time or other all have participated in creation’s descent to decay and chaos. As Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God in the garden when they realized their nakedness (Gen. 3:8), humanity will seek to hide from the wrath of God and the Lamb at the cataclysmic end. Yet no hiding place exists when the earth quakes and the mountains are uprooted… For those who embrace Babylon’s norms, values, and beliefs – a world that is passing away – the Lamb’s victory is experienced as wrath. The cosmic battle between evil and good and between the old order and the new order requires a complete overhaul of creation.” – James Resseguie

From this point on, we could easily imagine the story moving swiftly toward its divinely willed resolution. The opening of the sixth seal should culminate in the destruction of all the rebellious on earth. The opening of the seventh seal would form the climax, announcing the salvation of the elect and the final coming of God’s kingdom. This should be the moment where the seventh seal is opened and the end comes. How strange it is then, that the moment of definitive judgment does not arrive here. Not only is the opening of the seventh seal delayed while John narrates a long, apparently unrelated vision (Rev 7), but even the sixth seal itself leaves us hanging.

“If, however, we find ourselves at the moment not of the last things, but of the next to last, this means there is still time – time to acknowledge the crucified not as our enemy but as our hope. This is not to say that we have infinite time, because time, by its very nature, is finite… But for now, there is still time. One of the ways in which the Apocalypse subverts our expectations is that it shows us a God who, although decidedly impatient with evil, is extraordinarily patient with his creatures… He executes judgment on the world precisely in order to reclaim the world from the powers of death and hades.” – Joseph Mangina

The sixth chapter of Revelation ends with a question: Who then can stand? The question is rhetorical and assumes a negative response. The end of the world has come. The old heavens and the old earth are falling apart at the seams. There should be no one able to stand in the midst of the unveiling of God’s judgment. Yet that is in fact not the case, for the next chapter (Revelation 7) will show the reader that there are some who are able to stand before God and the Lamb, not because of their social position, but by grace.

In the meantime, the fifth and sixth seals invite the reader to begin to wonder: which side am I on? Is my identity connected to those who cry out from beneath the altar? Or is my identity connected to those who cry for creation to hide them from the face of God?

Revelation 6:1-8

The vision and tone of Revelation changes at chapter six as the seals are opened and the scroll is unrolled. There are three cycles of seven judgments beginning with the seals and then moving to the trumpets and concluding with the bowls. The first two judgment cycles – seals and trumpets – follow a 4-2-1 pattern. They both begin with a group of four judgments forming one unit. Then there is a set of two. There is then a break between the sixth and seventh seal and trumpet. And then the final seal and the last trumpet are revealed alone.

I think it is difficult for modern readers – especially those of us in an American context – to read, interpret and hear these chapters in Revelation on judgment well. Obviously the primary challenge for interpretation is that we are forced to try and jump back in time and read the text through the lens of the first century. This not only means that we have to try and recreate the ancient world in our minds by piecing together what we have from historians, but it also means that we will have to choose interpretations we feel fit best knowing that there are multiple possible other meanings.

But I think the primary problems that twenty-first century western readers have as we try to interpret texts like Revelation chapter six are much more subtle. Let me suggest three:

1.     Power

The text was primarily written to people on the margins of power but we are reading it from a place of power. The primary purpose of Revelation was not to tell Rome what was going to happen to it, but to encourage those who were suffering on the underside of its rule.

Let me give an illustration. Imagine you are at the local park one day and you see a late-blooming Jr. Higher getting picked on by the neighborhood bully. You intervene and pull the one getting misused aside – knowing full well that you have only created a temporary stay in the on-going cycle of bullying that the student is facing. But you want to be encouraging, so you say to the one being picked on, “Don’t worry. I’ll watch out for you. But the good news is that someday you are going to grow up and the bully won’t be able to boss you around anymore. Someday that bully is going to be old, their body is going to wear out, and they are going to need help from others. But on that day, no one is going to help them because they have alienated all the people who might be their friend in a time of need. And someday soon it is likely that that bully is going to run into a bigger bully and the things that they have reaped they will sow.

Now the bully may hear you say those things, but it is unlikely that the bully will care or change their ways, because the bully believes his own “bully mythology.” To believe your words would mean giving up his position of power on the playground. Therefore, it would take a significant turn for any kind of change of heart to take place in the bully. Thus your message is not so much for the bully but for the one being picked on. The one who feels powerless needs to know that their suffering is short-lived, that the tables will be turned, and most importantly they need to be encouraged not to become a bully themselves because they have seen the coolness or powerfulness of the bully unmasked. The goal of your encouragement is to help the one being misused to see the bully’s actions for what they are – signs of his insecurity and weakness, not signs of true strength.

The point of the illustration is not to say that Americans – or people in Western cultures – are bullies (although at times we may be). The point is simply to try and illustrate that the message of Revelation is directed toward those who are being left out and excluded from power. That encouragement is easier to hear than the call to repent.

2.     Politics

At some level the whole book of Revelation is about what we might call “the politics of empire v. the politics of the Lamb.” Revelation continually critiques the way all human principalities and powers operate. Our problem is that the partisan politics of our own day have so deeply divided us that I fear we will automatically read and hear Revelation through those lenses. That means that people on the right will hear Revelation as a critique of the left, and visa versa.

But the truth is that Revelation is inviting us to transcend the politics of right and left and learn to embody the politics of the Lamb. That is very difficult to do, however, because our imaginations are so shaped by right/left politics. Which leads to the primary problem…

3.     We Confusion

I love to talk about “we confusion.” It is when we say “we” when we really mean “you.” Like when I might say to Diana, “We really need to make dinner.” And she thinks, “Oh really? WE need to make dinner? I’m finally going to get some help?” When I said, “we,” I unfortunately meant “her.”

The “we confusion” we face reading Revelation is the divide between being an American citizen and being part of the Church. John isn’t interested in making Rome a better place to live or telling Caesar how to be a more just ruler. He’s trying to encourage believers to live as reflections of the Lamb in the midst of Rome. So we can’t listen to the judgments and think about what this means for us as Americans, but we have to think about what this text calls us to be as people of the Lamb.

But that is really hard to do! Our citizenship as Americans is so deeply woven into our identity (and our ecclesiology or understanding of what it means to be the Church is so low) that it is hard to read Revelation and narrate America as Babylon (or at least as one of the Babylons) and to narrate our life as constituting this other people called “Church” in the midst of the empire. My guess is that as we read the judgment texts of Revelation we will want to keep trying to figure out how to change the empire rather than try to imagine how to live as reflections of the Lamb. But that is because we are reading Revelation from our places of power… Which brings us back to problem #1.

I know that is confusing… And I’m sorry that took so long… But I think those three problems will make more sense as we go along. Back to the seals…

The first four seals form a coherent unit often referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Their fame has been aided by Albrecht Durer’s famous woodcut of the four horsemen arising in judgment (seen above). The opening of the scroll begins the process of God’s judgment upon the empire and upon those caught up in its life.

The Background of the Four Horsemen

The first biblical connection for the four horsemen is Zechariah 6:1-5. I looked up again and saw four chariots coming out from between two mountains… The first chariot had red horses, and the second chariot had black horses. The third chariot had white horses, and the fourth chariot had horses that were heavily spotted… He said, “Go! Patrol the earth!” so they patrolled the earth.

The other biblical connection is the Exodus event between Moses and Pharaoh. The plagues from God’s hand upon Egypt were a deconstruction of the Pharaoh’s myth of power and control. Pharaoh gained loyalty and service by promising peace and prosperity to the people. The plagues served to expose Pharaoh’s claims to divine power as empty. Here too, the pronouncements of judgment, coming through the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls, serve as the deconstruction of the claims of Caesar to divine authority. The empire may promise peace but the sources of hope for the principalities and powers are not only insecure, but more often than not, they bring destructive consequences to those who live under its authority.

The principal purpose of the visions in Revelation chapter six is to awaken a sense of uneasiness in the reader by vividly identifying threats to their continued wellbeing. The four horsemen are designed to shatter the illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a nation or empire, in a flourishing economy, or in their own health.

6:1-2 Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victor

The white horse and its rider have often been associated with Christ – the one called Faithful and True – who will appear later in Revelation riding on a white horse. But the color of the horse is the only similarity. There are several significant differences between the two images, but the most significant difference is the weapons that they carry. Whereas the horseman in chapter 6 holds a bow in his hand (6:2), Christ has a sharp sword protruding from his mouth (19:15). The first white horseman conquers in the usual way, while Christ conquers with the words and testimony of the cross.

It is most likely that this white horse is connected to the most famous mounted bowmen of John’s time. The Parthians lived on the eastern border of Rome and were famous mounted archers whose signature was that they rode on white horses. On three separate occasions – 53 BC, 36 BC, and 62AD – the Parthian army defeated the Romans and kept the empire from expanding eastward.

The Parthians – and the image of the white horse – are a reminder of the “enemies at the gate.” They serve as a nagging reminder of the limits to Roman authority and security. Caesar may try to promise peace and security, but there are always threats from the outside that never go away.

6:3-4 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.

There was an important Latin phrase that became a kind of national slogan for Rome – the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome). The phrase was a kind of national pledge that said, “In a strong Rome we find our prosperity, peace, and flourishing.” But that “peace” always came at a high cost. It is a false peace based on the domination and suppression of others.

The famous South African theologian Alan Boesak writes, “There is no peace but the Pax Romana, a ‘peace’ maintained by violence and threat of violence, by the greed of the privileged and the oppression of the weak and lowly… The people of God knew… that this was no true peace. The peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire depended on the continued oppression and enslavement of almost 95 percent of the population of the known world. The ‘peace’ was meant for the privileged, the top 5 percent who dwelt in the palaces and courts of Rome.”

The reader in John’s day would be well acquainted with rebellion and civil disorder. In a single year, AD 68-69, Rome had been ruled by four different emperors. It is reported that in the thirty-year period prior to the reign of Herod the Great (67-37 BC), more than one hundred thousand insurgents died in revolutions and rebellions in Palestine alone.

There are always threats to “peace” from the borders, but there are always threats to peace from within as well.

6:5-6 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”

The Black Horse is a symbol of famine.  Famine and economic turmoil are always the natural result of war and a lack of peace. It represents the tender balance of nature and the tenuous dependence humans have upon its production. When famine hits, so does inflation. A denarion would have been a typical wage for a full day of work. So the prices that are announced would have been fifteen or sixteen times the normal cost for wheat and barley.

This text is most likely also a reference to the practice of “Latifundia” – taking land from poor harvesters used for growing food staples like wheat and barley and using that land for the production of olive oil and wine (which were then marketed to the rich). The subtle dig of this word is that when economic crisis hits, the poor face overwhelming inflation, while the rich find ways to make sure their life is not affected. (Which is part of the reason rebellions keep taking place and the red horse keeps appearing).

The point of the black horse is that the economic control of Caesar is also a power myth.

6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” So I looked and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.

Hades (the Greek word for death) comes with the horse whose color is the green color of decaying flesh.  Representing the constant possibility of plague, the green horse is a reminder of Caesar’s inability to control sickness, suffering and death. Like Pharaoh who was powerless before the angel of death, the principalities and powers are ultimately powerless before the threat of the green horse.

These judgments – like the plagues of Egypt – break down the myth of invincibility that the empire or the powers tries to proclaim. Revealing the insecurity of all that is not connected to the One seated on the throne and the Lamb is not just an act of judgment but an act of grace. It invites the reader to find their true security in the kingdom of God.

I would love for you to wrestle with what those horsemen might look like today. But I can’t help but think about what a modern culture or empire might look like that would have to take the four horsemen seriously…

An “empire” today that was worried about the white horse might have to be constantly vigilant about its own security. It might have to think about building walls, fences, and border patrols that would keep people out. It might have to spend a huge portion of its productivity on national defense. It might have to find ways to constantly monitor all of the creative ways the white horse could find to create chaos and violence. I would also imagine that the fear of the white horse would be strong enough that the empire would at times be willing to make sacrifices of freedom and even sacrifices of its own values for the sake of security.

The fear of the red horse today would likely mean that an empire would have to rightly fear its own people. The irony would be that it would focus on the white horse but many of its most terrifying and destructive acts – bombings, shootings, riots, etc. – would actually come from discontented or marginalized insiders rather than from outsiders. That kind of empire would have to have lots and lots of police. I would imagine it would also have to increase surveillance. My guess is that many people living in that empire would want to arm themselves not because they were worried about foreign enemies, but because they would be scared of their neighbor or even fearful of their own leaders. The fear of the red horse would mean people living in that kind of empire were frequently scared of one another.

Modern, less agrarian societies don’t have to worry as much about the famines represented by the black horse. Droughts, changes in climate, and depleted resources would certainly still be a modern concern, but contemporary empires would likely see the black horse as unstable economies, economic downturns, and the bursting of financial bubbles. Like the wealthy in ancient societies, the modern day rich will certainly find ways to not only survive but perhaps even thrive during economic challenges. But I can imagine that major periods of economic flux would serve as a reminder that even huge, complex, international corporate structures and markets carry with them myths of permanent economic security.

And a modern empire faced with the green horse would be obsessed with disease. Massive work would be done to constantly guard against new strains of viruses, incurable epidemics, and massive global catastrophes. People living in that culture would have their sense of security tweaked by earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, and other reminders that there are some forces that are bigger than any culture’s attempts at security.

Those horsemen could be seen as a threat or they could be seen as the gracious opportunity for security to be found in the life of the Lamb rather than in the myth of the empire.

So get ready. The four horsemen are always on their way… (But don’t worry. The Lamb is still Lord of all).

Revelation 5:1-14

The fifth chapter of Revelation is my favorite chapter in the book and I believe it is the key to understanding the entire message of John’s Apocalypse (if not the entire message of the New Testament). I am convinced that this chapter is the heart of the gospel.

In chapter four John the Revelator was invited to enter into the open door to get a glimpse of the throne room of heaven. At the center of God’s reign John found a worship service going on. The entire church embodied in the twenty-four elders and the entire creation embodied in the four living creatures were bowing before the throne. All of creation finds its light, its life, and its purpose in the One seated on the throne.

The voice from heaven promised John that he would get to see what must take place (4:1). In chapter five the revealing of the divine plan begins.

5:1 Then I saw a scroll in the right had of the one seated on the throne. It had writing on the front and the back, and it was sealed with seven seals.

Inside the throne room John’s eye caught the scroll that was in the right hand of the One seated there. It was sealed with seven seals. In the ancient world scrolls were used by officials and dignitaries to contain their decrees. Wax seals imprinted with the ring or insignia of the ruler were used to ensure that the scroll truly declared the will of the scroll’s author and that no one had altered the text in any way.

This scroll has precedence in Scripture. Once again, Ezekiel serves as a backdrop for Revelation. In Ezekiel chapter two a book of lament was written with words printed on both sides. It was given to the prophet and he was commanded not only to share its contents, but also to eat the scroll itself.

The scroll in the hand of the One seated on the throne is almost certainly intended to be the written course of history. It is the decree of God that when opened will assure that his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The great theologian Jacques Ellul describes it this way, “It is the book of the secrets and of the meaning of human history, both accomplished, assured, but incomprehensible, illegible, which on the other hand is disclosed as a succession of time, which is in fact to fill all time. This book contains then the secret of the history of humanity; but this secret is inevitably the disclosure of a the profound forces of this history and, much more, of the action of God in the history of [humankind].”

5:2-3 I saw a powerful angel, who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it.

A mighty angel stepped forward and called for someone to be found worthy to open the seals on the scroll and unroll its contents. The challenge was given to the entire creation. Someone must be found in heaven, on earth, or under the earth worthy to open the scroll. To be worthy to open the scroll is to be worthy of mediating its contents to the world. This one who can open the scroll is the one who will be the instrument through whom the purposes of God written on the scroll will come to be.

But there is no person or creature in all of God’s creation found worthy to open the scroll. God’s purposes will remain sealed and therefore not enacted in his creation.

5:4 So I began to weep and weep, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look inside it.

Tears are the appropriate response for the Revelator. Unless the seals are broken and the scroll of God’s purposes unrolled, the divine redemptive scheme cannot take place.

Joseph Mangina beautifully describes the significance of John’s tears when he writes, “On hearing this, John begins to weep… Here he has a representative function: he typifies the reader, the church, and all humanity; he is ‘man.’ The question raised by the angel, we might say, is the human question. John’s weeping reminds us of the tears of other biblical figures, such as Rachel, who ‘refuses to be comforted’ for her lost children; Jesus weeping over Jerusalem or at Lazarus’s tomb… Tears not only mark the loss sustained by the self as the beloved is torn from us, but can serve as a form of protest in a world where death so often has the upper hand… John’s tears are his part in that travail and ‘groaning of creation’ of which Paul writes in Romans 8.”

The world is beyond ready for redemption. And if no one is found worthy to open the scroll of God’s redemptive purposes then things will never be set right in the creation.

5:5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

The voice of one of the elders interrupted the Revelator’s tears. There is one who is was found worthy: the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. This statement, which merges together two familiar Messianic images, is connected to both Genesis and Isaiah. When Jacob blessed his sons from his deathbed, he compared Judah to a lion. Judah is the strong and powerful tribe, destined to rule (Gen. 49:8-10). The Root of David is likely drawn from the familiar hopes of Isaiah 11 that a root would emerge from the stump of Jesse and give new life to Israel.

5:6 Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it has been slain. It has seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne.

What John heard was a lion, but what he saw was a lamb! Eugene Boring calls this “the most mind-wrenching ‘rebirth of images’ in literature.” The reader is set up to see an image of power and might – a lion. But what the reader discovers instead is the Lamb that was slain.

I believe that this is the most powerful message the Scripture has to offer: the Lion is the Lamb. At the center of redemption is not an image of power, but an image of self-giving, sacrificial love.

Mangina powerfully describes it this way, “What John hears is a Lion, what he sees is a Lamb. What he hears is strength, what he sees is weakness. What he hears is a conqueror, what he sees is the quintessential victim – the Lamb. The Lamb is not just destined for sacrifice, moreover, but has actually been slaughtered. If what John hears is life, what he sees is death. And yet not so, because the Lamb is standing, so that the slaughter is the mark of his victory; he has passed through death and now stands somehow beyond it.”

I think it is important to recognize as Revelation continues that the Lion is not temporarily the Lamb. The Lion is eternally the Lamb. At the end of the book, when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, it is the Lamb that will be the light of the city.

This is the subversion of our imaginations that makes Apocalyptic literature like Revelation necessary. I don’t think that any of us at the level of our imaginations truly believes (or is able to conceive) that the vulnerability of the Lamb can be the source of victory. Conquest always goes to the strong. It always, always, always goes to the strong! But here is the inversion of the kingdom. This is the flipping of our imaginations. Self-giving love is the center of God’s redemptive work and it is the source of his victory.

In so many ways how one not only interprets Revelation but also how one understands the Gospel depends upon how this text is interpreted. If the Lion of Judah only appears to be the Lamb, but still remains a Lion, then grace and love are merely temporary aspects of God’s self-revelation but they will be usurped in the end by the need for power to make things right. (“Might makes right.”) But if the point of the Revelation is that the Lion is eternally the Lamb, then love and grace are not virtues on the way to redemption, they are the very mode of redemption itself. Therefore, those in the early church who seemingly “lose” by living as reflections of love persecuted at the hands of those who live as instruments of power have actually “won” because they have understood and entered into the war of the Lamb.

THIS IS THE KEY: THE LION IS THE LAMB. “The ‘lion’ is really the lamb, representing the ultimate power of God. This is the meaning of John’s dramatic rebirth of images… Wherever the tradition says ‘lion,’ read ‘Lamb.’” – Eugene Boring

The Lamb is full of eyes and horns. It has been granted all wisdom and power.

5:8 When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

The Christology of the early church affirms again and again that the Lamb not only serves God. The Lamb is God. The instruments played in worship of God in chapter four are now played for the Lamb in chapter five. The adoration paid to the One on the throne by the Church is now extended also to the Lamb. The prayers of the saints that fill the throne room with the aroma of praise now are extended even to the Lamb.

5:9-14 They took up a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will rule on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of many angels surrounding the throne, the living creatures, and the elders. They numbered in the millions – thousands upon thousands. They said in a loud voice, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing.”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea – I heard everything everywhere say, “Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and always.” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.

This great chapter ends with three hymns to the Lamb.

The first is a “new song.” (A contemporary chorus if you will J). The living creatures and the elders prostrated themselves and sang about the worthiness of the Lamb to open the scroll. What is most remarkable about the first song is that its primary focus was on Christ’s work of calling into existence a community of faithful servants “from every tribe, language, people, and nation.” The new creation is breaking in through the Lamb and through the people that he has called, filled, and formed.

The second song was taken up by millions of angels. Christ is Lord of earth and Lord of heaven.

For one final time worship was extended out and is picked up by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” The honor due the Redeemer of the created world goes to the One on the throne and to the Lamb.

“Readers live during the time when the power of God and the powers opposed to God are still in conflict. Therefore, the question is whether they will join with those who sing praises to the Lamb, or whether they will refuse to do so, and later join in the laments of those who have sought their security elsewhere.” – Craig Koester

Revelation 4:1-11

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God… And inside that were forms of four living creatures… As for the form of their faces: each of the four had a human face, with a lion’s face on the right and a bull’s face on the left, and also an eagle’s face… Above the dome over their heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the LORD’s glory appeared. When I saw it, I fell on my face. I heard the sound of someone speaking (Ezekiel 1:1, 5, 10, 26-28).

The letters to the seven churches end at chapter three of Revelation and the primary apocalyptic vision of John that is the centerpiece of the letter begins here at chapter four. The average reader will easily discover when comparing the first chapter of Ezekiel and the fourth chapter of Revelation that visions of John and Ezekiel share much in common. Many of the descriptions are similar if not the same.

What is also similar is the social location of both visions. Both Ezekiel and John experience the throne room of God while they themselves are in exile. The question people inevitably have to face in exile is the question of control. Who is in control? Is God in charge or will the power that placed us in exile get the final word in our life and in history?

The apocalyptic visions of the prophet Ezekiel and the Apostle John are meant to encourage hope, unmask the present powers, and affirm God’s sovereign authority.

Most biblical scholars argue that John’s throne room vision is to be read theologically and not metaphysically. So the text should be read searching first for its meaning and significance.

1 After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! 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 letter to the church in Laodiea ended with an invitation from Christ to hear his voice and to open the door. The voice invited John to enter through that door and he obeyed.

It is not uncommon for people to think of heaven as somewhere way above the earth. Popular understanidngs of heaven often include clouds and other references to things far above humankind. But more often than not the Scriptural description of heaven is not “way up there” but rather all around but not fully perceived. Heaven is the place where God reigns and that reign surrounds human history at all times, even though people may not want to recognize it.

It helps me to borrow the imagination of C.S. Lewis’ well-known vision of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Narnia – the realm of Aslan’s reign – is not far above but simply on the other side of the wardrobe. In the case of the Revelator, the vision of heaven is not far above but right beyond the open door.

Because heaven is the place where God reigns, it is also the control-room of history. This does not mean that God is determining the course of history from heaven and manipulating people by pulling all of the strings like somekind of puppet master. Rather heaven is the place where ultimate divine authority is at work. God is not treatened by the course of hisotry “on the other side of heaven’s door” because he is drawing all things, through sovereign love, unto himself.

2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.

At the center of heaven is a throne. Like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, John is fascinated with the ultimate throne of power in heaven and with the One seated on that throne. Three out of four occurances of the word throne in the New Testament (47 out of 62) are found in Revelation.

John does not describe the One who is seated on the throne in direct human terms. The One in authority is truly transcendent. He exceeds any human quality or explanation. John’s throne room vision frequently uses the words “seems” or “looks like” to acknowledge that the One seated in heaven surpasses all exact descriptions. Many of the metaphors about God are of light reflected off fine jewels and stones. What John sees is not his exact appearance but his glory radiating in an array of beautiful colors.

The rainbow around the throne is also found in Ezekiel, in both places it may be a reference to the covenant God made with Noah to which God is still remaining faithful.

4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.

There are a multitude of interpretations regarding the twenty-four elders seated on thrones. One popular understanding is that they represent all of the hours in the day. If that is the case, then the signficance would be God’s non-stop authority over every hour of the day.

But the most popular interpretation, and the one that is found in Victorinus – the earliest known commentary on Revelation – is that the twenty-four elders represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In this way the elders are the embodiment of the entire church – old and new. This identification would seem to be confirmed in chapter twenty-four where John describes the gates of the new Jerusalem as inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes, and the foundation walls bear the names of the twelve apostles (21:12, 14).

The twenty-four elders are dressed in the white robes of the baptized saints and they too have crowns on their heads and sit on thrones of authority. It is always theologically significant that the power of the Creator is a form of shared sovereignty. God has invited the church to participate in his redemption and to share in his domionion over creation. The people of the church are not by-standers in God’s work but participants in his reign.

5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and 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 a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

‘Holy, holy, holy,

the Lord God the Almighty,

who was and is and is to come.’

The thunder and lightning around the throne are reminicent of God self-revelation to Moses at Sinai. They are reminders of God’s authority.

But God is not distant and inactive on the created side of the divide. His complete power – seven torches – and his complete presence – seven spirits – are filling not only all of heaven but all of creation. It is amazing the way John works to describe simultaneously the reality of God’s transendence with the mystery of his immanent presence.

The sea of glass may be taken directly from Ezekiel chapter one where the throne is found directly above the dome described there. But I can’t think of water without thinking about chaos (and the Hebrew words found in Genesis chapter one – Tohu Bohu). The sea which was such a forboding place of fear on earth, is now a sea of crystal and is as calm as glass before the authority and power of God.

The four living creatures are similar to those described by Ezekiel. There are again many theories or interpretations abou them. Some commentators have argued that they represent the four Gospels. But given John’s historical location, that seems somewhat improbable. The most popular and most plausible interpretation is that the four creatures represent the major categories of living things in God’s creation: wild animals, domestic animals, humankind, and flying animals. All that God has created participates in worship back to their Creator. (Think the Doxology: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God Almighty. All thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea…”)

9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11 ‘You are worthy, 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.’

While John was in exile fearful of the future, he received a glimpse of the heavenly control room. What was taking place – and what is still taking place – is worship. The entire creation finds its purpose when it is centered on the one who sits on the throne.

Several biblical scholars draw attention to the fact that the first words of the hymn in verse eleven are taken from the political language of the day: “You are worthy” greeted the entrance of the emperor in triumphal procession, and “our Lord and God” was introduced into the cult of emperor worship by Emperor Domitian.

For the Christian only the One who sits on the heavenly throne is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. All other claims to ultimate authority are blasphemous. From the perspective of the powers, then, the worship of the true God cannot help but be a profoundly subversive act. The people called “church” are those that refuse to allow the principalities and powers to have the final word in history. Rather, they are those who are already caught up in the worship of the One who was, and is, and is to come.

This vision gives those who are struggling hope. It gives those who are tempted to compromise their exclusive covenant relationship with God encouragement to remain faithful. And to those who live under the illusion that they wield supreme authority, it serves as a warning that, “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Ps. 2:4).