For those of you who might have missed the last couple of weeks, I have been preaching from the Revelation of John. This will be the third sermon in this series. We will be reading from the Revelation as our second reading throughout the Easter season, but we only get snippets of the book and I frequently get questions on this topic.
Last week we left John, in a vision, standing in the throne room of God. God is on the throne holding a scroll that has been sealed with seven seals and while everyone was searching for someone worthy to open the seals it is announced that the Lion of Judah has conquered and is therefore worthy, but when he appears he shows up as a lamb that has been slain. This Lion of Judah, the Messiah, is also the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
In Chapter 6, the Lamb begins opening the seals. The first four release what have become known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The first one is riding a white horse. He has a bow and a crown and came out “conquering and to conquer.” (Rev 6:2) Many people claim this is Jesus, but that is not who John sees. Remember Jesus opened the scroll. This horseman is the Roman Empire. Rome claimed the great Pax Romano – the peace of Rome. Supposedly they conquered to bring peace and order, but John sees something very different.
The second rider was on a bright red horse – symbolizing blood. It takes peace from the earth and causes everyone to kill one another. The consequence of the empire is not the peace they claim, but non-stop war.
The third rider was on a black horse holding a pair of scales – inflation. Wheat, the most needed commodity for everyone become very expensive so that the poor starve to death. Oil and wine, luxuries of the wealthy are still available for those who had the money to buy them to begin with.
The fourth rider was on a pale green horse whose rider was named Death and he is followed by Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. This is a bitter critique of empire. It comes in riding on a white horse claiming to be the conquering hero, but the consequence is war, financial insecurity for the poor, followed by famine, disease, and death.
The fifth seal reveal the souls of “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” (Rev 6: 9). They are sitting under the altar. They have been given white robes and they cry out “how long?” (Rev 6:10) It has been 30-60 years since Jesus’ Resurrection and promise of a new kingdom and these are those who died in the struggle. They are told it will be a little longer and that others will be martyred as well.
The sixth seal reveals those in power beginning to experience the consequences of their actions. The universe is actually falling apart. Earthquakes, the sun becomes black, the moon becomes blood red, the stars fall from the sky. The sky itself is rolled up like a scroll, mountains and islands disappear, and the wind knocks the fruit off the trees. The powerful are no longer in charge and they are frightened of judgement day. Everyone runs to the caves to seek protection and shelter.
Chapter Seven is a pause in the opening of the seals as John looks around at the scene before him. God calls a halt to the destruction so that those who have remained faithful can be identified and sealed as servants of God. Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth to still the wind. This should bring back visions of the first Passover when the children of Israel were sealed against the angel of death by the blood of the lamb that they sacrificed and put on the doorpost and lintel of their homes. Also in Ezekiel 9, Ezekiel has a vision where a man is told to mark all those who “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in [Jerusalem.]” (Ezek 9:4) so they should be spared in the time of judgement – the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. It should also remind us of how we seal people with a cross in chrism (oil) on their foreheads at baptism.
Now we have another number come up. The number twelve. It too deals with completion, especially concerning God’s purpose. There were twelve patriarchs who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. There are twelve months in a year. There are twelve signs of the zodiac, which as Christians we don’t put much stock in, but in the first century were everywhere. There were twelve apostles and when Judas betrayed Jesus and killed himself, he was replaced to retain the number twelve.
John sees 144 thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel who have been sealed. 12 X 12 X 1000 X 12 again from the Old Covenant. Not to be taken literally – it means those of the Old Covenant are fully included. After that he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” Under the new covenant it is not just Israel, but everyone from everywhere that is included. All these people are robed in white – they have been cleansed of their sins, they are holding palm branches and crying in a loud voice “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” This should bring visions of Jesus’ triumphal entry. And they and all the living creatures “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.” Paul says in Philippians 2:10, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” John is witnessing in his vision the fulfillment of this prophecy which is thought to be an early hymn of the Christian church.
One of the elders turns to John and asks him who these people are. It seems that the elder is checking to see if John knows because John tells him, you are the one who knows, and the elder precedes to explain that they are those who remained faithful “out of the great ordeal” (Rev 7: 14) and that they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Again this is symbolic – it is a profession of the purifying nature of Jesus’ sacrifice and confirmation that it is available for us.
The rest of this chapter is often read at funerals – they will worship God, they will not hunger or thirst or suffer from the heat of the sun, the Lamb will be their shepherd – vision of Psalm 23 here, and “God will wipe away every tear” (Rev 7: 17) – this is a vision of the Beatitudes fulfilled for those who were faithful, even unto death.
Chapter 8 is the opening of the final seal. We first get a great silence. Remember Elijah found God in the silence. We have seven angels with seven trumpets – more sevens. And we see a liturgical scene of worship – an altar, incense, saints in robes praying. Then an angel takes the incense censor with fire from the altar and throws it upon the earth. Remember when Isaiah has his vision of the throne room of God, he remembers that he is a man of unclean lips and an angel takes a coal from the altar and puts it to his lips to purify him. The last seal begins the process of the purification of the earth by God.
Now we have the seven angels blowing their trumpets one by one and unleashing various plagues. Remember that God sent plagues on Egypt prior to freeing the Israelites. The story of the first Passover should be ever present with us in the reading of Revelation. During the blowing of the first four trumpets 1/3 of the earth, the seas, the rivers, and light is destroyed.
Chapter 8 ends here and so shall we. What is the take away from this part of John’s vision? John is critiquing the Roman empire, he is offering hope to those who are being persecuted, who have watched their loved ones martyred and who may find themselves martyred in the near future. He is using symbolism from the Old Testament, especially the first Passover which was very significant for these people, especially if they are Christians who were raised in the Jewish faith, to remind them of God’s faithfulness.
For us it is a reminder not to put our faith in the powers and principalities of this earth. Their promises are illusions, but to trust God who has a plan and will ultimately set everything right.