Text: Rev 12:1-6
OT Text: Psalm 2
[As was noted in a prior post, it seems that the third series of judgments would have been the seven thunders (10:4), but they were "sealed up" and not made known. In their place, John received an edible scroll which leads to these seven visions. This is the first of the seven, each beginning with the phrase "and I saw" or "I looked" or "a sign appeared."]
In place of a series of seven judgments, we now have a series of seven visions. These visions show the conflict between the church and the powers of darkness. These chapters epitomize the theme of "revelation."* Through these visions, John is revealing the true conflict which lies behind the struggles that the church faces.
Fortunately, the visions are a little easier to understand because John clearly identifies the symbolism. In verse 9, John calls the dragon, "that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan." The male child is said to be destined "to rule the nations with a rod of iron." (12:5) This is a messianic psalm which points to Jesus. The woman has a crown of twelve stars. In a sense she represents Mary, but the inclusion of the 12-star-crown shows that she is representative of faithful Israel as a whole, which comes to include believing Gentiles. For this reason, her flight to the wilderness to escape the dragon (12:6) is a picture of the church in exile during the last days. Again, we see the reference to 3.5 years (1,260 days) which is symbolic of the church age. The dragon could not stop the birth of this child, nor prevent his saving mission. But, the believing community will continue to face the anger of this ancient serpent from their place of exile in the wilderness.
Conclusion and Application
Like the prior series of judgments, the seven visions cover the period of the church age. In this first vision, they go back to the beginning. Back to the nativity of Christ, and the spiritual conflict which quickly ensued. We will see in coming weeks that the dragon directs his agents against the church. John is revealing that there is a spiritual battle going on behind our struggle to remain faithful. We will continue with the dragon vision in the next two posts.
Two things to explore:
1.) You may have already noticed, the picture that we have been using for the online blog comes from this vision. It is from an ancient church building and it depicts the confrontation of the dragon and the woman.
2.) I attached a YouTube video from Michael Card's album about the book of Revelation. This particular song narrates the drama of these visions. There are no hokey graphics, just music and lyrics based on this passage.
* Many commentators highlight the significance of these seven visions in the book as a whole. Derek Thomas and Greg Beale call them the "key to the entire book."
Text: Rev 11:14-19
OT Text: Joshua 6:1-21
Featured Verse: Rev 11:15 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 Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
Main Idea: We see (another) picture of God bringing redemptive history to a close and establishing his eternal kingdom as the kingdom of this world crumbles at the seventh trumpet blast.
[The interlude of chapters 10-11 has come to a close. Verse 14 tells us that the final woe and the seventh trumpet will bring this second series of judgments to an end. Also, this fits the pattern of the four series of seven judgments (seals, trumpets, thunders/visions, bowls) in that each of the final visions gives us a look at the throne room of heaven as God brings final judgment onto the earth.]
The dominant OT background for the first six trumpets was the Exodus account. The blowing of the trumpets is expressed in terms of the plagues that God used to deliver Israel from the bondage in Egypt. This will be further confirmed in chapter 15 when we hear the redeemed people singing the song of Moses. But the interlude of chapters 10-11 introduced another line of concern which will come together in this final trumpet blast. In yesterday's passage we saw the people of God giving faithful witness in the midst of a hostile world. And when God brought final vindication parts of the city walls crumbled.
There is reason to believe that those two themes (the exodus and a crumbling enemy city) have come together in this final trumpet blast. The OT story of the exodus did not end in the desert, but followed Israel into the promised land. (Yes, there is also an interlude in that story - 40 years of wandering.) The entrance to the promised land required the defeat of an enemy city which stood on the border of the promised land. Moses did not live to make this journey, but his successor, a young leader named Joshua, led the people of God around the city in a procession of faithful dependence on God. Seven days of marching and a trumpet blown each day. On the seventh day, the final trumpet was blown and the fortified city of their enemy crumbled and the barrier to the promised land was removed.
In a similar way, the seventh trumpet blast brings down the kingdom of this world and opens the pathway to the promised land. Like the Joshua account, the seventh trumpet blast brings the judgment and destruction of the enemies of God. In the book of Joshua, it was the hostile inhabitants of Jericho. In this vision from Revelation, it is the entirety of the world that will be brought into judgment (11:18).
Conclusion and Application
The biblical theme of universal judgment can be a hard doctrine. Partly, it is hard because we fail to see the seriousness of sin or the holiness of God. Partly, it is hard because we know that sin marks our own hearts and lives also. Celebrating the final judgment (as is frequently done in the book of Revelation) can feel like we are basking in hypocritical self-righteousness. But we need to remember the context. Persecution is real and the removal of persecutors is necessary for complete salvation. Verse 18 tells us that those who are destroyed are "the destroyers of the earth."
The exodus story reminds us that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God but are saved (passed over) because of the blood of the Lamb of God. It also reminds us that the removal of opposition is necessary for complete salvation. There are two ways in which enemies of God can be removed. The first is conversion. Hence the urgency of the church to be faithful witnesses (11:4). Granted, Revelation doesn't show a lot of conversion stories, but the people of God are described as a "great multitude that no one could number from every nation" (7:9). As the story unfolds throughout the ages, many of God's former enemies are repenting and entering the kingdom by faith in the Lamb Slain. And yet, Revelation tempers our hope with a measure of reality. In spite of God's visible power, many people will refuse to repent (9:20). Those who continue in their opposition to God (which often leads to oppression for those who follow God) the day of judgment will be a day of wrath (11:18). For those who do not repent, their opposition to God will be removed in the final judgment. This is a stern and sober truth that should motivate our prayers and our witness.
Text: Rev 11:1-14
OT Text: Ezekiel 40:1-6, 43:1-10
Featured Verse: Rev 11:4-5 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes.
Main Idea: God shows his protection of the witness of the church through the measuring of the temple.
[We are continuing with the interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpet.]
Ok. I think that this might be the chapter that finally puts some people over the edge. A person sets out to read through the book. There are lots of strange images, but also lots of things we can intuitively grasp. (Letters to churches, worship in heaven, etc.) This section however, seems to be impossible to decipher at first glance. Personally, I am pretty familiar with Revelation, but when rereading this passage I found myself thinking - what is going on here?
Let's start by stepping back from the details to look at what we know. First, the temple is measured. Then two witnesses give bold testimony. At first they seem to be unbreakable. Then the beast (who will be introduced more fully in chapter 13) conquers them and they lie in the streets before being resurrected. Then the city is shaken.
The first question to ask is: What is the temple?
The answer to this will determine the direction we take for the rest of the section. If the temple is meant to be understood physically and literally, then either this section has to refer to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, or it has to look forward to a time when the temple is rebuilt, because there is not temple now.* However, if the reference to the temple is meant to be symbolic, then it can refer to the entire church age, because the church is the temple. Here are several arguments which favor reading this as a symbolic temple - representing the people of God.
1.) The book is already highly symbolic, and in many places John explicitly interprets things in symbolic ways. (lampstands = churches.)
2.) The OT background for the measuring of the temple is Ezekiel 40-43. In those chapters, the reference is not to the first temple (which had been destroyed in 586 BC), nor to the 2nd temple (which was rebuilt after the return from exile and continued until 70 AD.) Rather it is clearly to a (symbolic) temple which will be rebuilt by God at the end of history. Therefore, it would seem to be best to regard this temple in a similar manner.
3.) Jesus, himself, spoke of his body being the true temple, not the physical building. Now, as the Body of Christ, Christians are the temple because God dwells in them. The rest of the NT speaks of the Church as being (symbolically) the temple of God. (1 Peter 2:4, Eph 2:20-22, 1 Cor 3:16-17, 2 Cor 6:16.)
4.) All other references in the book of Revelation to the temple are describing the ideal heavenly temple, not a physical building on earth. (7:15, 11:19, 14:15-17, 15:5-8, 16:1, 16:17)
5.) Finally, the book is addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor. Given the NT de-emphasis on the physical temple and the practical matter that they lived very far from Jerusalem and would be largely unaffected by the events there, it seems hard to understand how the destruction of the temple in 70 AD would relate to them.
6.) The presence of lampstands in verse 4 is a reference to Zechariah 4. John has already interpreted the lampstands as being churches. So, interpreting the temple as a reference to the church makes sense also.
If the temple (and the lampstands) are symbolic, then it makes sense to continue with a symbolic reading of the passage as much as possible. Rather than try to elaborate and defend each point (which would make this a book and not a blog entry) I will simply offer a consistently symbolic interpretation in the space below.
Conclusion and Application
Reading this passage symbolically renders a meaningful interpretation which is harmonious with other parts of the book of Revelation and with other NT theology. In this way of reading it:
The measuring of the temple represents God's protection over his people. She is known intimately by God and prepared for his presence in it. (A presence which will be fully realized in chapters 21-22.) The two witnesses are modeled after the two great OT prophets and demonstrate some of their notable traits. (11:6) For example, Moses turned water into blood (Ex 7:17-25) and Elijah stopped the rain with a prayer (1 Kings 17-18.) They represent the faithful witness of the entire church, that is the new temple of God.
It also seems best to understand the lengths of time in this passage as being symbolic. Because seven represents wholeness or completeness in the book of Revelation, seven years would represent the complete scope of redemptive history. The Bible thinks of time hinging on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The time before Jesus is "the former days" and the time after Jesus is the "latter days" or "last days".** Splitting seven years in half would bring 3.5 years, 42 months, or (roughly) 1,260 days.*** These lengths of time are used to represent the age of the church, or the time between the resurrection and the return of Jesus.
What we see in this vision is a partial protection. Because the saints are sealed (chapter 7) their souls are safe in God. They also experience a partial physical protection. Their souls are secure in God, but their bodies are safe until they have completed their testimony. (11:7) The measuring of the inner court of the temple while the outer court is trampled seems to be a pictorial representation of this reality.
However, at the end of the church age the beast will achieve an apparent victory. The two witnesses will be killed. But this apparent victory will last a comparatively short time (only 3.5 days compared to 3.5 years of protection.) Many scholars think that this points to a great persecution of the church before the return of Christ, a truth that seems to be presented elsewhere in the Bible. However, God will get the final victory. The church (two witnesses) will be raised up and exalted, while the earthly city will be shaken.
In short, God will guard our souls, even in the face of death. Death cannot defeat us. And while God does not promise to protect his people from all physical harm, he can completely protect us while we continue our mission of faithful witness. As one missionary once said, "we are immortal until we have completed the work that God has given to us."
*The Preterist View of Revelation holds that the book is mostly about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Futurist View (generally what people are most familiar with in regard to Revelation) looks to nearly all of the events in chapters 6-22 as happening in the future.
**The NT writers believed that they were living in the last days (Acts 2:17 and Heb 1:1-2.) Paul seems to refer to the writings of the OT as things written in the "former days." (Rom 15:4)
*** The expression "time, times, and half a time" is also used in both Revelation 12:14 and Daniel (7:25 & 12:7) to describe a similar period of time.
Text: Rev 10:1-11
OT Scripture: Ezekiel 2:9-3:9
Feature Verse: Rev 10:11 "And I was told, 'You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings."
Main Idea: John is commissioned to give another set of prophecies. Similar to the OT prophet Ezekiel, he is given (in a vision) a scroll to eat which he will pass along in a series of seven visions.
We have seen that the seven seals and the seven trumpets had many parallels. In this section we see another similarity. In between the sixth and seventh seals there was an interlude that showed the sealing of God's people for protection in the midst of the various plagues. In a similar manner, chapters 10-11 appear to form an interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpet. In the second chapter of the interlude (chap 11), the church's witness is shown to be protected through the measuring of the temple (more on that tomorrow.)
In the first part of the interlude we are also introduced to a new series of events. John sees a mighty angel coming down from heaven with a scroll in his hand (10.1). He hears seven thunders sound (10:3) but he is told not to write down the prophecy of the seven thunders. Instead, he is given a scroll to eat, which will enable him to bring a new series of prophecies (10:11). So, what is this all about?
It may seem weird for a prophet to eat a scroll, but that is how the prophecy of Ezekiel was introduced in the OT (Ez 2-3.) This is a picture of internalizing God's word. John takes it in, then shares it with his churches. Of course, all of this is part of the vision, I don't think we are meant to understand this as literally eating a scroll. Because the the seven thunders are not written down, it seems that the scroll contains prophecies that are in place of the seven thunders.
It appears that the expected pattern has been interrupted. If we look back at the seven seals and the seven trumpets, then take a peak forward at the upcoming seven bowls of wrath (chaps 15-16), a pattern emerges.
- Seven Seals effect 1/4 of the people.
- Seven Trumpets effect 1/3 of the earth.
- [Seven Thunders not recorded, but we would expect them to impact 1/2]
- Seven Bowls effect all of the world or 1/1.
In place of the seven thunders, we are given a different set of pictures. It seems that the scroll that John eats - instead of recording the seven thunders - leads to a series of visions. These visions, which come after the seventh trumpet, show the conflict between Satan and the church and the final victory of Christ over the forces of evil. (More on that in chaps 12-14.)
Summary and Application
1.) Like many other parts of the Bible reading and internalizing God's word is often described as feeding on the word. Jesus himself said that we cannot live on bread alone, but that we need to eat the word of God for spiritual health (Matt 4:4.) Our interaction with God's word needs to be more than just glancing over the words. We need to internalize the message, take it into ourselves and let it change us.
2.) The world-wide scope of the gospel is again affirmed. Ezekiel ate a scroll and had a message for the people of Israel (Ez 2-3.) But, John's message will be more expansive, it is for "many peoples and nations and languages and kings." (10:11)
3.) We don't know why the seven thunders were "sealed up" and replaced by this new scroll and the seven visions which will unfold very shortly. But, many scholars see those seven visions (chaps 12-14) as being the real heart of the book. In these sections, the witness of the church will withstand the onslaught of Satan. Perhaps this is the solution to the closing words of yesterday's text. After the seven seals and six trumpets the people still "did not repent." (9:20-21). In the next series of visions, we will see the faithful witness of the church in the face of persecution. Perhaps it was decided that what we most need to see is not another series of judgments (if indeed the seven thunders were similar judgments effecting 1/2 of the world.) Rather, we need to see God sustain his people for faithful witness even as the world around them brings crushing pressure and the devil himself wars against them. That is what we will see in the coming chapters. May it bring hope in the midst of conflict.
"Text: Rev 9:13-21
OT Scripture: Joel 2:12-17
Featured Verse: Rev 9:20-21 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
Main Idea: Like the sixth seal in a prior chapter, this sixth judgment seems to point toward a climactic battle at the end of time. We are reminded that God has a final purpose
Many commentators recognize that this section of the book is particularly difficult to understand. (Fortunately, later visions will be a little clearer, so hang on.) For now, we want to recognize some of the patterns that we can see and set some parameters around what is known... and what is uncertain. The sounding of the sixth trumpet causes four angels to be released. Like the demonic powers seen in the vision of the fifth trumpet they seem to be forces of evil that bring destruction on the earth. In verse 16, they are compared to an army that numbers "twice ten thousand times ten thousand" (200,000,000.) That is a large army. Scholars say that is greater than the entire population of the Roman Empire at the time. The army is portrayed in grotesque ways similar to the demonic locust hoard of the fifth trumpet vision. Unlike the demonic locust hoard (which did not kill), this army of mutant horses kills one third of mankind with "fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths." (v.18) Is this referring to demonic powers that look like an army, or to an army that is an agent for demonic powers? I am not sure.
Here are some things we can be more confident seeing in the passage. There are several important patterns that can be observed. The sixth trumpet has important similarities to other events in the book of Revelation. The sixth judgment in each of the three series of seven seems to relate to a climactic battle that occurs at the end of history. Other descriptions of a final battle in the book of Revelation are found below:
- Sixth Seal (6:12-17) - "then the kings of the earth and...the generals... hid themselves in the caves... for the great day of [God's] wrath has come."
- Sixth Trumpet (9:13-19) - "the number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand."**
- Sixth Bowl of Wrath (16:12-16) - "the kings of the whole world assembled... at a place...called Armageddon."
- Rider in White (19:19) "Kings of the earth gathered to make war."
- Satan Defeated with God and Magog (20:7-10) - "nations at the four corners of the earth... gather... for battle."
So, what do we make of this? There are a few possibilities. The approach that we have taken so far is to recognize a pattern of recapitulation in the book, such that a single event is described repeatedly. While that seems to take us a long way toward understanding what is happening in the book of Revelation, there is more that we can add to it. Because the series of seven judgments increase in magnitude* there is also a sense that the whole scene of judgment is escalating. While it seems that many of these accounts, listed above, seem to point toward a single final battle, it is a known feature of biblical prophecy to describe contemporary judgments with the language of the ultimate last battle. For example, the fall of Jerusalem (in both 486 BC and 70 AD) is described in language that sounds like the end of the world. In other words, it should not surprise us that bad things happen in history. When they occur, they give us a foretaste of the final conflict. History has periods of peace interspersed with intense conflict. The Persecution of Domitian, the Fall of Rome, the Black Death, the Civil War, World Wars I & II... all felt like world ending cataclysmic events to those who participated. In a sense they carried with them the echoes of final judgment. Because the sixth trumpet is said to affect "one third" of mankind, it may be a window into this phenomenon.
Conclusion and Application
Well, perhaps that seems a little complicated or a little abstract. Our final landing point is to see the impact of these judgments on people. God has a purpose in bringing judgments into history. They serve to bring justice and reveal his glory. But they are also opportunities for repentance. When any particular bad thing happens it is a reminder that we are naturally separated from God and need to be reconciled to our creator. Every war or disaster is an opportunity for people to review their spiritual situation and turn back to God. Hard things can serve as wake up calls for repentance.
Unfortunately, John shows us that the majority of people do not respond in this way. Although they had experienced a judgment that was meant to stir them to repentance they did not turn from their rebellious sin. (9:20-21)
Humans experience suffering for many reasons. Sometimes it is our fault. Often it is not. Sometimes we even suffer because we are pursuing righteousness. But regardless of the reason, suffering is always an opportunity for deeper repentance and more dependent faith. When we hear of "wars and rumors of wars" and when our land is marked by "famines or earthquakes" or disease (See Matthew 24:6-8), let us place our trust in our heavenly Father, who through Christ has sealed us for redemption, and let us draw near with more heart-felt repentance.
* The seven seals affect 1/4 of mankind. Then the seven trumpets affect 1/3 of mankind. (The fraction is becoming greater as the denominator gets smaller.) The seven thunders (10:4) are "sealed up" so we don't get to hear what this judgment would be, but following the pattern we would expect it to affect 1/2 of mankind. Finally, the seven bowls of wrath complete the cycle of judgment. They affect the entirety of mankind - essentially 1/1.
** The "second woe" is not said to end until after the interlude of chapters 10 and 11. In these visions, a different perspective on warfare is introduced. The temple of God is sealed and two witnesses give faithful testimony until they are martyred. This will be discussed in more detail later, but I reference here because it seems to be part of the sixth trumpet (the second woe) and includes continued themes of warfare that is witnessed throughout the earth.
Text: Rev 9:1-12
OT Text: Joel 2:1-11
Featured Verse: Rev 9:4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
Main Idea: Even the demonic powers from the "bottomless pit" are constrained by the purposes of God. Their malevolent actions cannot harm God's people who are sealed by his Spirit.
We saw yesterday that the seven trumpets have a great deal of similarity to the 10 plagues of the Exodus where God brings judgment on Egypt and deliverance for his people. The first woe continues this trend with the plague of locust. However, the OT minor prophet Joel also has an expanded section on a locust plague which also shapes this passage. It is particularly helpful to read Joel 2:1-11 to see the OT background for this sort of prophetic imagery.
With the fifth trumpet we enter into one of the most provocative images that we have seen yet in the book of Revelation. John describes a judgment that uses OT imagery from the Exodus plagues (Ex 10) and the prophet Joel (Joel 1-2.) The locust plague in the Exodus was directed at the Egyptians, the locust plague in Joel was directed at Israel, and the locust plague in this vision is expanded to shake the whole world. How should we understand the references to the locust? What are they, actually?
It is important to note that John indicates that he was having a hard time relating this vision to actual things that people were familiar with. He repeatedly uses the phrase "they were like" then gives a more common description. The challenge for us is to try to put all of these things together into one coherent vision. Are these meant to be understood as actual locust? Or do we think of them as being related to ancient warfare?* Or modern warfare?**
There is actually another option which seems to match well with the language of the passage. It seems likely that John is describing demonic powers by comparing them to things that people are familiar with. Since the origin of these creatures is from "the shaft of the bottomless pit" (9:1), and since the king who is over them is an "angel of the bottomless pit" called Apollyon, it makes the most sense to regard these creatures as malevolent spiritual beings - that is demons. In conclusion, we may simply point out that because demons are not something that people see in the physical realm, it would make perfect sense that John would struggle to describe them and would necessarily compare them to things we have seen before. (Locusts like battle horses, with hair like women's hair, teeth like lion's teeth who came with a noise like many chariots.)
Conclusion and Application
The Bible tells us that there are spiritual powers that seek to harm humans. We know little about the world of demons, but the Bible tells us what most people in most cultures have believed about the world - that there are dark spiritual powers that mean us harm. However, the Bible offers to followers of Christ complete protection from demonic powers. In this vision we are specifically told that these locust could not harm the people who had been sealed in the vision from chapter seven. (See 7:1-4 and 9:4) In a similar manner, the Bible tells us that Jesus has won a complete victory over the spiritual powers of evil (Col 2:15) and that if we resist the devil, he will flee (1 Peter 5:8, James 4:7)
Modern, Western cultures are prone to dismiss spiritual powers as superstitious or uneducated. It is not so in the rest of the world. In a recent adult Sunday School class a missionary from Africa reminded us that nearly all Africans believe in a spiritual world and Christianity on that continent brings powerful explanatory power to this part of their observed experience. Most importantly, Christianity teaches us that we need not fear demonic powers because Christ has power of a higher magnitude. In the visionary sequence of the seven trumpets we are reminded that the demons are limited in power and only allowed to operate within God's predetermined limits. The authority of the Lamb of God to open the scrolls binds and directs all of the actions within. That does not reduce the evil found in these forces, or their intent to harm humans. But it reminds followers of Christ that his victory on the cross places us beyond the power of the devil. Sealed by the Holy Spirit, our souls are safe in Christ. We suffer in this life, and we may even follow Jesus into losing our lives in our earthly pilgrimage. But nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8) To be sealed is to be spiritually safe, knowing that our eternal destiny is secure.
* The prophet Joel also describes a locust plague, but does so in a way that makes the locust plague seem like a marching army. Scholars are unsure if he is describing a locust plague that acts like an invading army, or an invading army that acts like a locust plague. Sometimes, it is not easy to tell which way the figurative language is meant to go.
** As you may imagine, passages like this are ripe for imaginative connection to modern circumstances. Interpreters who see the visions of Revelation as primarily representing the future are prone to connect these visionary images to modern warfare, such as tanks or helicopters. While it is certainly possible that God could bring a fulfillment of this in that manner, it seems to take us far afield from the concerns of the early church.
Revelation Text: Rev 8:6-13
"The Seven Trumpets as History Retold"
The text for today will be covered in the sermon during the morning worship service which is Livestreamed on YouTube and recorded on our channel.
"The opening of the seals and the sounding of the trumpets point us to the same great reality but from different perspectives. The seals view the unfolding of the redemptive purposes of God from the point of view of God’s people those who are sealed [under the altar, crying “how long”.] the trumpets view this same reality from the point of view of the unsealed, those who are NOT the people of God. The opening of the seals brings consolation to the people of God. The sounding of the trumpets brings great woes upon those who are not the people of God. The seals are comforting; the trumpets are warnings.” - Derek Thomas, Let's Study Revelation
Note B: Comparison of the Seven Trumpets to the 10 Plagues of Exodus
The Fifth Trumpet describes a horde of demons that look like super scary locust. The eighth plague in Exodus was a plague of locust.
The Sixth Trumpet describes a vast multitude of "mounted troops" who are pursuing humanity and seeking their annihilation. This catches echoes of Pharoah's army which pursued the Israelites to the edge of the Red Sea, seeking their destruction.
Finally, Revelation is a clear parallel to a scene from Exodus after the Red Sea Deliverance.
Rev 15:2-3 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb…
Exodus 14:30, 15:1 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore...Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, "I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea."
Text: Rev 8:1-5
OT Text: Zeph 1:7-18
Featured Verse: Rev 8:4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Main Idea: The profound silence of heaven prepares the scene for the final verdict of the judge. The silence is broken only by the prayers of the saints which always come into the presence of God.
We have now returned to the seventh seal. Given all of the chaos that has happened before, we may expect more mayhem when the seal is opened. But instead, we are ushered back into the throne room of heaven where we hear the most startling thing of all - absolute silence. For a half hour.* That is a long period of time. We sometimes have a "moment of silence", which may occasionally stretch to a minute. Also, we usually pause for silent prayer during the worship service at City Reformed. In my experience, people get antsy after 30 seconds. If I am conducting the service I will wait for 45 seconds, but I have to look at my watch because it feels uncomfortable to wait that long. Can you imagine the impact of this in the vision. 30 minutes of waiting for something to happen. So what is going on here?
First, silence is the prelude to the judgment of God. Just as the courtroom is silenced before the arrival of a judge, the silence in heaven prepares the way for the final verdict of God. If you read the background Scripture from Zephaniah, you will see that the long description of the "Day of the Lord" and the judgment of God begins with the command, "Be silent before the Lord God." (Zeph 1:7)
Second, the end of this passage uses the language of judgment that is found at the end of each series of seven.** This shows that what is being portrayed here is one perspective on the final judgment of God.
Third, this is an extension of the the sixth seal. While seals 1-5 seem to cover the entirety of church history, the sixth and seventh seal cover the final judgment. They are two sides of the same coin. The two features that go together in final judgment throughout the book of Revelation are (a.) the destruction of God's enemies - 6th seal, and (b.) the courtroom scene of God as judge - 7th seal. These features are particularly strong at the end of the book in chapters 19-20.
Two other features interrupt this scene of final judgment in the throne room of heaven. The seven trumpets are introduced. They will offer a recapitulation of the scope of the seven seals, but will be more intense. As we will see tomorrow, the impact of the judgments will be increased from one fourth to one third. Also, the presence of incense is highlighted in the throne room. In particular, the incense is connected to the prayers of the saints, which "rise before God" (8:4) in the throne room of heaven.
Conclusion and Application
Maybe it seems weird to think of your prayers being stored in a golden bowl and lifted by the hand of an angel into the presence of God. Again, we recognize that these symbols are meant to convey spiritual truths. When we let the vision ruminate in our minds, the picture becomes really encouraging. John shows us that our prayers are stored before God. They may not be immediately answered - God's timing is not our timing - but God hears us and God will act. In this case, the prayers of the saints in 6:10 - "how long oh Lord?" - are finally answered.
But we can also take encouragement from the vivid picture of prayers being lifted before God like incense rising in wafts of smoke.*** When we pray we don't literally see or hear God. Sometimes, in our weakness we wonder... is God even listening? This vivid picture shows us through visionary means the confidence we can have in prayer. When the throne room is silenced and all of creation hangs on the final word from God... it is the prayers of God's children which "break the silence." Yes, God is the sovereign king of heaven, and yes God is working all things according to his purposes. But he delights to receive the prayers of his children and he determines to use their prayers as part of the chain of events which complete the redemption of the world.
I will close with a quick story that some at church have heard before. My father was an attorney and worked hard to establish his practice, often logging fairly long hours in his office. As part of his work he needed dedicated times to focus on cases. But he made it a point to tell his secretaries and his receptionists that he always wanted to be interrupted by his children. I didn't realize this at first, but when a new receptionist was added while I was away at school they might not recognize my voice or know me by name. But once I was properly identified, the doors were open, his meetings were interrupted, and I was taken off of hold (on the phone.) While his work was important, it was clear that for my father, family was more important and he delighted to be interrupted. (This is something that I really appreciated about my father.) But John's vision shows us a picture of a far greater heavenly office, where God is enthroned and the cases of all humanity are tried. However, the ruler of the universe is our Heavenly Father. He delights in being "interrupted" by his children. In the words of the old song, "what a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer."
So, find some quiet time today. Sit in silence, then let your prayers interrupt our heavenly Father. Bring to him your joys, your concerns, your frustrations. He is eager to hear and he promises to act in the appropriate time.
*Half hour of silence. Some suggest that this time period is symbolic, and while it may be, it is far from obvious what the symbolism should mean.
** The Seventh Judgment as Final (Similarities)
Rev 8:1,5 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal… then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
Rev 11:15,19 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet… Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
Rev 16:17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.
*** The offering of incense would become a deadly test of faithfulness for first century Christians as Emperor Domitian required his citizens to burn incense in worship of himself. It is believed that the tribulation many Christians in these seven churches might one day face could hinge on their willingness to worship a counterfeit god in this way. Refusing this idolatry could be costly - even deadly. Even as they suffered, their resistance would have been fortified by knowing that their prayers were rising to the real God in the throne room of heaven.
Text: Rev 7:9-17
Parallel Text: Phil 3:8-11
Featured Verse: Rev 7:14b "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb."
Main Idea: Just as John "layered" images of the royal lion and the slain lamb (5:5-6), he also pictures the followers of Jesus as a marching army and an international multitude of martyrs. The church will "conquer" the same way Jesus conquered - through steadfast endurance and costly sacrifice.
The connection between this vision and the prior vision (144,000 sealed) opens up one of the more interesting features of the book of Revelation. In chapter 5, John "layered" images of Jesus to show his true identity. In the vision, he heard "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah", then he turned and saw "a lamb standing as though slain." What he heard and what he saw are the same person, but portrayed very differently. Both things are true of Jesus. He is the conquering lion. The conclusion of this book will show him returning in power and majesty to defeat his enemies and to establish his church. But his first arrival was characterized by humility and sacrifice. It was through his atoning death that he "ransomed people for God, from every tribe and language and people and nation, and made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth." (5:9-10)
When we take the two visions of chapter seven together, we see a similar picture of the church. On one hand, John hears of the tribes of Israel marching in their battle formation.* They are 144,000 strong, ancient Israel in its ideal form, and sealed by God for protection in their spiritual conflict. But when he actually sees the people of God, they look very different.
"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,... 'These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.'" (7:9-14)
Notice four important connections:
- First, they are the international people whom Jesus ransomed as the slain lamb. (v.5:9-10)
- Second, they are the same victorious army previously depicted as being the sealed tribes of Israel.
- Third, they have "come out of the tribulation**." Like Jesus - the lamb slain - they are steadfast in the face of persecution, even when facing death. Also like Jesus, they are victorious over death and join him in the heavenly throne room.
- Fourth, they receive the same comfort that will one day be extended to the entire church in the New Jerusalem. (21:1-7)
Conclusion and Application
The Christian life doesn't always feel very glamorous. Living faithfully for Jesus in a fallen world sometimes involves moments of brave defiance. But it also has lots of moments of drudgery. Sometimes we see the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. And sometimes we feel like we are dying daily. Slow, small daily deaths. Often, living for Jesus means carrying a cross and joining him in a cruciform life. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said that he shared in the sufferings of Jesus. (Phil 3:11) But looks can be deceiving. The exact moment in which the church looks most like a slain lamb is the moment when they are most victorious. The moment in which they cling to Christ and forsake the world is the moment when they conquer. The moment in which they are marked by the trials of the lamb of God, they are also sharing in his victory as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
* In his book, Climax of Prophecy, Richard Bauckham showed that the numbering of the twelve tribes is related to the OT practice of taking a census as the army prepared for battle. (See Numbers 1:21, a numbering of "all who were able to go to war.") With this OT practice in the background we see that God's people are here portrayed as a conquering army, moving in perfect assembly. It is, in a sense, like a military parade - showing the power of the conquerors. Here we see God's people with the image of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We know from the parallel vision that their victory will not be one of military conquest, but from steadfast obedience in the face of opposition. They will conquer in the footsteps of the lamb who was slain.
** What or when is the "tribulation? References to "the tribulation" often make people think of a great period of testing just before Jesus returns. It seems likely that there will be an intensification of persecution in the future, but the dominant use of the term "tribulation" in the Bible refers to the present difficulties that are faced by the church. For example, John understood his own experience in exile as being something that made him "partner in the tribulation" which is characteristic of all who are in Christ. (Rev 1:9) Jesus also warned his disciples that the common experience of those who follow him is that they would have "tribulation" in the world. (John 16:33) When we read the description of the great multitude as those who have "come out of the tribulation" we understand that to be a reference to all Christians who have suffered throughout the age of the church. Which is all Christians, because we all suffer. We may not all become martyrs, but it is characteristic of every follower of Jesus that they would pick up their cross. In his book, Let's Study Revelation, Derek Thomas writes, "What John seems to depict here is the story of the church, emerging throughout history from one tribulation after another. It has always been so, and it very will be until Jesus Christ brings it to a close by his coming."
Text: Rev 7:1-8
Parallel Text: Eph 1:13-14 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Featured Verse: Rev 7:4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel.
Main Idea: God seals his people with the Holy Spirit to preserve their faith in the midst of trials.
It is not immediately clear how this passage relates to the others around it. Remembering that prophecy does not follow a linear trajectory of sequential events helps us to follow the actual flow of the argument. We finished the sixth seal yesterday, which ended with the question: The great day of the wrath of God (and of the Lamb) has come, who can stand? The vision of God's people being sealed on their foreheads (7:3) is meant to show protection for God's people in the midst of the judgment of God. This vision is therefore not something that happens sequentially after the six seals. Instead it is an answer to the question about who can stand in God's judgment.
We begin by seeing four angels holding back the four winds. It may be the four winds are meant to be connected with the four horsemen of 6:1-8. The picture is one of protection. The background imagery is taken from Ezekiel 9:4-6 in which the OT prophet sees God sealing his faithful followers for protection prior to the invasion of Babylon and the fall of Jerusalem. In that vision, those that resist idolatry are sealed for protection. We know from the rest of Revelation that the followers of Jesus are not protected from all physical harm. Instead, they are called to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. They are celebrated as "those who do not love their lives unto death." (Rev 12:11) The naming of the 12 tribes reminds us of the OT origins of the Church. Like most numbers in Revelation it makes the most sense to think of the number 144,000 as being the combination of several symbols. Later in the book, the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles together are portrayed as being foundational in the renewed city of God. (21:12-14) Rather than refer to a literal number of people, it seems best to regard this as a symbolic way of representing the people of God in their completeness. (12 OT tribes x 12 NT apostles x a "complete" 1000 = 144,000.) As we will see tomorrow, the surrounding context of this passage further supports this interpretation.
Conclusion and Application
In this vision, John sees spiritual protection for the church in the face of various trials. We saw a picture of suffering during the church age as the four horsemen brought death and destruction to the world. We also saw a picture of the final judgment and heard the question, who can stand? The answer is that God seals his people so that they can endure suffering in this age and so that they can stand in the day of judgment. Other parts of the NT speak of God's people as being sealed with the Holy Spirit. (Eph 1:13-14, 2 Cor 1:22) Baptism is a picture of this sealing. It shows that we belong to God and that his Spirit is active in everyone who calls on the name of Jesus. As we face difficulties now, and recognize the reality of coming face to face with God after death we take comfort in God's gracious salvation. All who are in Christ are spiritually protected by God himself.
When the judgments of God shake the world people respond in different ways. Humans that choose to cling to their independence are hardened by suffering. They may even blame God for their circumstances and entrench themselves in their rebellion. But God's grace empowers his people to respond differently. Those same trials which harden the unrepentant can be used by God to refine the faith of his followers. (James 1:1-2, 1 Pet 1:7)