Today I want to begin by talking about the letter seven in Biblical texts. In Hebrew the root of many words, especially verbs are made up of three consonants and not until the 6th century AD were vowel points added to aid in the reading of text. The word “seven” in Hebrew has the exact same three consonant root as the word “complete.” Seven becomes a symbol of completeness. God creates the world and then rests on the Sabbath, the seventh day, because he has completed his task. As mentioned last week, John is believed to have been a Palestinian Jew who would have known of this correlation between seven and completeness, so it is not surprising that seven shows up multiple times in the Revelation.
Last week we began our series on the Revelation of John by looking at the types of literature this piece represents: a circular letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic as well as looking at the message John presents to seven specific churches in Asia Minor, from Jesus.
Last week we saw that seven churches were specifically named. It is highly possible that they were chosen to represent all of Christianity. Their situations were diverse, but taken as a whole their situations were pretty generic which is why they are still relevant: loss of that first love of Christ, financial poverty but spiritual wealth, becoming a stumbling block to others by one’s lifestyle, tolerating unrepentant sin and becoming caught up in sinful behavior, becoming distracted, a call to evangelism, and lying to oneself about one’s spiritual health.
As we begin working through Revelation, look for other places where the number seven arises and I will try to point out what is being completed.
Beginning in chapter four, John starts his description of the vision. “After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!” (Rev 4:1) Think the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This is a door here on earth through which John is invited to enter into the realm of heaven – not far, far away but a spiritual dimension concurrent with John’s present reality.
What John describes is God’s throne room. He is not the first person to see heaven as a throne room. Isaiah gives a detailed description of his spiritual visit to God’s throne room. (Isaiah 6) and Ezekiel a more graphic and bit bizarre description (Ezekiel 1). What John is trying to describe is the indescribable but he uses precious and semiprecious gems describing the one sitting on the throne as being like jasper and carnelian. These stones are multi-colored, often reddish in general color. Ezekiel described God as appearing like bronze and fire. John describes a rainbow like an emerald, which to us seems very odd because emeralds are mostly one color, but he is talking about the radiance of the precious stone. The rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant or mercy made with Noah. Ezekiel also described a radiance like a rainbow over God’s throne Again, remember, they are trying to describe in earthly terms the other worldly they have experienced for which there is no adequate description. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones occupied by twenty-four elders clad in white garments with golden crowns upon their heads. There were twelve patriarchs of the old covenant and twelve apostles of the new covenant. These leaders are now joined together around God’s throne. From the throne come flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, ancient descriptions of the manifestation of God’s presence. There are seven torches which we are told represent the seven spirits of God, possibly an illusion to Isaiah 11 which in the Septuagint lists seven characteristics of the spirit of God which are said to rest on the branch that shall grow out from the stump of Jesse. This branch Christians recognize as Jesus. The seven characteristics are wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord.
Before the throne is a sea of glass, like crystal. In this opening scene, the sea is perfectly calm. In ancient Hebrew writings, the sea was the source of chaos. In Genesis 1:2 God’s Spirit moved over the surface of the waters and God is described as creating the world, not ex nihilo, out of nothing, but with every word God speaks order is created out of chaos. This sea will show up again later.
John describes four living creatures that constantly give praise to God. These four creatures resemble a lion – king of the jungle, and ox – the king of domesticated animals, one with a face like a man, and the fourth – like an eagle – king of the air. They are covered with eyes – they see everything. They also resemble the seraphim described by Isaiah in his description of God’s throne room with their six wings and their chant of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God… “ (Isaiah 6:3, Rev 4:8). Ezekiel will describe four living creatures with each creature having a four faced head represented by the same man, lion, ox and eagle. These four creatures will show up in later artwork as symbols of the four gospel writers. These images would not be lost on John’s early audience. He is clearly describing the throne room of God that resembles descriptions by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.
The elders respond to the voice of the creatures by acknowledging the worthiness of the person on the throne because that person is the creator everything. They “cast their crowns” before the throne symbolically acknowledging God’s sovereignty.
This may all seem really strange to us, but to John’s early audience it was as familiar to them as the Star Wars opening is to most of us.
At the beginning of chapter 5, John sees a scroll in the hand of the person sitting on the throne. It is sealed with seven seals. This scroll contains God’s plan for the future. The seals indicate it is completely unknown and unalterable. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Rev 5:2) There appeared to be no one worthy to break the seals and open the scroll and John begins to weep. But, an elder tells him “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals.” These symbols were well known to John’s audience – symbols of the Messiah, symbols which would speak of the strength of the Messiah as a Lion, the sign of the tribe of Judah or descendant of King David. But just as the elder announces the coming of the Lion what John sees is a “Lamb standing as though it had been slain.” This is an odd looking lamb with seven horns, all powerful, and seven eyes, all seeing and we are told they also represent the seven spirits of God which are in all the earth – so all those qualities described in Isaiah that were to be given to the branch of the root of Jesse, the Messiah are visible on this slain lamb. None of this is to be taken literally, it is highly symbolic language that references Old Testament scriptures. References that people who knew their Old Testament, like persecuted Christians, especially ones of a Jewish background would immediately recognize, but would not be easily understood by the pagan Romans.
So all this odd language boils down to John has passed into the spiritual realm. He is gazing at God on God’s throne which is incredible, but defies true description. God is being worshiped by heavenly creatures as well as the totality of those under the old and new covenants because God is the creator of everything, physical and spiritual. God has the future detailed on a sealed scroll and only one person is worthy of revealing that plan. This person is the strong Messiah figure of the Old Testament, a descendant of King David, but more importantly he is also the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of the World. That person is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ or Messiah.
Next week we will see what happens when those seals are opened.