Sorry for the delay, I accidentally set this to post at 5:00 PM, instead of 5:00 AM.
Text: Rev 6:12-17
OT Text: Isaiah 2:12-19
Featured Verse: Rev 6:12-13 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.
Main Idea: There will be a day of judgment, when God will bring perfect justice to rebellious human systems.
We have reached a point at which our interpretation of this passage will create a massive shift in how we read the rest of the book. When someone first reads this section, including words like, "the sun became black...and the stars fell from the sky" it sounds like the end of the world. I think that is exactly what John is portraying here*, but that creates a host of problems. If we think that the sixth seal pronounces the end of the world, then how do we understand all of the other visions that happen in chapters 6-19?** Do things happen after the end of the world? These chapters are structured around a series of judgments that come in groups of seven (seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions, seven bowls). We will discuss this more in coming weeks, but for now it is helpful to see that the questions we wrestle with here naturally relate to the other parts.
Our fist inclination is to assume that the series of judgments in chapters 6-19 are events which happen in linear consecutive order. (This creates problems because it is hard to see how the sixth seal could be the end, and then we still have other judgments to come.) If Revelation were written like a history book this would be a normal way for us to read it. But Revelation is a book of prophecy, and does not necessarily present events in linear order. It is not uncommon for prophetic images to come out of sequence or to repeat key events from different vantage points. (I am thinking particularly of the book of Isaiah.) In fact, growing consensus has emerged that it is better to think of the sets of seven judgments listed above as being parallel descriptions of the same type of events and not separate events in a series.
I argued previously that the first four seals (four horsemen) were meant to be understood as events which were initiated by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and characterized all of the church age. That is, God is shaking the heavens now, as he builds his eternal kingdom (seals 1-4). But, the fifth seal shows a period of waiting, as the saints under the altar ask how long until God brings perfect justice. The answer is - until the suffering of Christians is complete. That will only happen at the end of history. The sixth seal then begins to show the final judgment of God on earth, thus completing the timeline. If the sixth seal is showing the end of the world, then the whole sequence of seals, from one through seven, is depicting the entirety of the church age.
This argument has picked up a great deal of steam in the Evangelical and Reformed world in recent years. It is clearly articulated in Greg Beale's massive Revelation Commentary and further advanced in other popular commentaries like Tim Chester's "Revelation for You." Here is how the argument goes: The seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls have similar language. They all end with a very similar description of what appears to be the end of the world.*** They also have very similar features in the first four seals. While they are not meant to be exactly the same there is clear repetition. What changes is the increased magnitude of the judgments. For example, the six seals impact 1/4 of the earth, the seven trumpets impact 1/3 of the earth, and the seven bowls of wrath impact all (1/1) of the earth. There is a clear amplification as the series is repeated, but all are essentially showing a similar thing. That is, they are depicting the work of God through history (shaking and building his church), culminating with the final judgment and the end of the world.
We've already done more than is reasonable for a single blog post, and that is after I downloaded some information into the nerdy footnotes down below. I'm spending time on this because this interpretive decision is crucial to how we understand the rest of the book. More application will follow in coming days. Today I want to end with an illustration.
The use of recapitulation to tell a similar story from different vantage points may strike us as odd, but even modern culture uses this more than we realize. When an important news event happens, the TV channels will air the event again and again. This happened after the attack on the world trade center on 9-11-01. There were two planes involved in the event, but the video was shown repeatedly. A person who was not familiar with the way TV works might think that there were more than two planes hitting two towers. They might think that there were dozens of planes. But, a careful look at the buildings involved would make it clear that this was a one series of events, shown repeatedly from different angels and perspectives. Sometimes the video would be longer or sometimes shorter, but always it was dealing with the same fundamental series of events. For those of us who lived through it, it was a life changing event and one that would have resounding consequences for years to come. While Revelation takes a much longer view of history, it is dealing with something that is without doubt the most consequential series of events in the history of the universe, following the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, it is not a surprise that the work of God throughout the church age as it leads up to the end of the world is worth looking at from various angles.
* First "nerdy footnote": The reference to the stars falling from the sky is actually harder to interpret than what we may think at first. That language is used in the Bible to describe the destruction of earthly kingdoms that have already occurred in history. (See Matt 24:29, Is. 34:4.) There is a pattern in the Bible in which all judgments of God in history are linked to the final judgment at the end of history. As a result, it is can be difficult to know if a particular prophetic passage is pointing to God's judgment in the midst of history (like the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD), or the final judgment at the end of the world. In this particular case, however, the repetition of similar phrases in Revelation seems to show that this is the end of the world. The language of "the sky rolled up like a scroll" and "every mountain removed" (6:14) really seems to leave little room for any human history to happen after this.
**Second "nerdy footnote": In chapter 20 we see the clearest description of the final judgment followed by the re-creation of the earth as God comes to live among his people for all eternity. People who disagree about how to best understand chapters 6-19 can still come to agreement as the closing chapters bring the story to a close.
***Third "nerdy footnote": Compare the following sections which are either the 6th or 7th in a series of judgments. In either case the final judgment is either after this (as in the seventh seal), or part of this event in the series. Either way this appears in all cases to be the end of the world. The similarity of language is a strong argument that all of these series of judgments are essentially ending by looking at the same thing from a different angle.
- 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.