"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Made Known to John" (Continued)
The End-Time as Seven Seals (Rev. 6:1-8:1)
The seven seals, of course, are those that bind the closed scroll the Lamb has just been proclaimed worthy to open. This scene builds directly upon and is continuous with what preceded. As each seal is broken, we get more insight into what the future holds--although not necessarily as a chronological sequence of events. Our suggestion is that these seals portray the general character of the End-Time, that is, the period stretching from Christ's death-and-resurrection to his return at the end of the age.
Before John is done, he will present three major series of "sevens"--seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Each series is built over an identical and quite sophisticated pattern--which, we will see, in itself suggests that they are meant to be read as parallel descriptions of the same period rather than as a strict sequence of events.
The pattern proceeds as follows: The first four items form a recognizable quartet and come in quick order (not more than one or two verses each). At the close of No.4, there is a break in the rhythm. No.5 comes on in a more measured way, and more space is devoted to it. No. 6, then, consistently carries special significance; it marks the intensification of trauma which John, clearly, expects as a prelude of the parousia (see the time-line). No.6 always steps up the voltage from what it has been during the first five--and No. 7 will come on as the End itself. However, John never moves directly from No. 6 to No. 7. Regularly inserted at this point is an interlude that interrupts and stands outside the sequence that is in progress. The interlude itself falls naturally into two parts (which we shall identify as A and B); and only then is No. 7 brought in to conclude the whole. John, I think, wants to indicate that No. 7, in no sense is the natural outcome or product of what was described in Nos. 1 through 6; it is rather an intervention, a disjuncture that cuts them off. God is the Lord of history; consequently, history's end does not evolve out of the historical process itself but comes as a special act of God which is to be marked off from what has gone before (in John's pattern, by this interlude).
We can sum up the pattern visually:
Rev. 6:1-8, Seals 1-4: The Four Horsemen
1 Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, "Come!" 2 I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, "Come!" 4 And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, "Come!" I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6 and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!"
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, "Come!" 8 I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
The Lamb breaks each of the first four seals in turn; and appropriately enough, each of the four living creatures has a turn at calling out a horseman. Each of these horses and riders has a distinctive (a) color, (b) weapon, and (c) function; these will be important clues in making our interpretation.
An Excursus on Trauma
The four horsemen have introduced us into the Revelator's "visions of trauma"; we've got chapters to go before we're through with them. Some general observations may help clarify what we already have seen and save us from having to repeat them at every point ahead. We will talk about how to read these visions and then about what they mean. I am framing the remarks around Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica (which might be found at such web sites as follows):
This, pictorially, is something like what John does verbally. Now literalists, who think that every picture is meant to be read as though it were a photograph, would have to say, "Well, it's certain we haven't seen anything like this yet--so it must be something still to come." Actually, Picasso's is a picture of the Basque town of Guernica as it was bombed under the orders of General Franco on April 28, 1937--if it is legitimate to identify this as "a picture of." But notice what Picasso has done; there is nothing in the painting itself that would allow one to say, "Aha! Guernica, Spain, April 28, 1937." With a photograph one could do that--observe the street signs, the clothing styles, the facial characteristics, the car models, etc. What Picasso has done is to decalendarize the event and thus universalize it. Guernica, 1937--yes. But it is also the war trauma that has wracked the world among all peoples of all times and places.
If he had chosen to do a photograph, think how the artist would have narrowed and tied down the significance of his work. First of all, this would have been to invite in the calendarizers to do their riddle-reading of when, where, and how--thus completely missing the point of what he was trying to do and say. Further, it would invite the viewer to enter the political struggle that was then in progress and take sides: "That's a good picture; it's just what those damned Basques deserved!" Further still, the painting would be just as vulnerable to going out of date as is the event itself. "Nineteen thirty seven? That's over thirty-five years ago--ancient history! And in Spain? Who cares? I've got problems of my own." That's right; the event is ancient history. But the painting-ah! the painting! It can speak of Guernica or those problems of your own. It can speak at any time to any man. It will never go out of date--and even less so will Revelation, which led Picasso's work by some 1800 years and, if it needs to, could outlast him by at least as much.
Had Picasso gone toward a photograph, his statement necessarily would have been confined to the surface of reality, one localized event in a passing moment of history; with his painting, the way is open for making observations of force, depth, and breadth. Yes, in one sense a photograph would give a truer picture--if the only sort of truth there is is what we might call "factual truth." But if there is a level of "significative, or meaning, truth," then Picasso's approach is truer than any photograph could be. (For that matter, all the way through, the Bible shows much more interest in this latter sort of truth than in simply reciting outward facts.)
But if a person insists on trying to read Guernica as though it were a photograph, he's headed for nothing but trouble. His fascination in trying to sort out and make sense of the details will forever prevent him from feeling the impact or getting the message of the whole. He'll hang up on that bull with the eye underneath its ear until he either invents some wild-eyed theory to "explain" it or else concludes that the whole freaky painting is a bunch of bull.
And certainly in this regard Guernica is easy compared to Revelation. It wouldn't take too much of a biological sport to produce a Picassian bull; but in a little while, John will say, "the stars in the sky fell to earth." It is obvious to us that if even the tiniest of stars moves anywhere close to earth, the earth will give way rather violently. Yet, in John's picture, the earth goes right on (and with people living on it); and in subsequent scenes he again has stars falling to earth. How irrational will Revelation (and Guernica) become if one refuses to let the author speak in his own way and instead determines that he has to be a photographer!
What John seems to be saying through his visions of trauma is not entirely unrelated to what Picasso seems to be saying through Guernica. Picasso tells us of war's horrors, of the suffering it brings upon people and animals, of the terrible disruption of existence itself. The Revelator says much more than Picasso did: he knows that the picture needs a slaughter-marked lamb in it, along with the cock-eyed bull. The one is the answer for the other.
But the overall thrust of these visions of John seems to say that, as long as the world persists in worshipping the therion rather than the arnion, chasing the Fancy Fake rather than following the Lamb, it will continue to bring trauma on itself. There is no telling all the forms this trauma might take. War, Famine, and Death are correct enough identifications; falling skies, rolling mountains, and supernatural invaders may constitute more potent descriptions. Just as Picasso had to multiply and exaggerate a wide range of detail in order to express the total horror of war, so must John--faced as he is with the even greater task of expressing the total enormity of world evil.
John makes it plain, too, that the situation is not one that can get itself righted simply through the progress of history. The tendency of evil is to compound itself, so the situation is bound to worsen. It is not necessarily that every symptom of evil goes from bad to worse, but that the overall, long-term drift of history is away from God and his righteousness. Indeed, John is certain that this disintegration is such that it will lead to a time of inconceivably intense trauma immediately preceding the end.
Even so, the nature of John's picture is not such that one can gauge the trauma of the present moment and calculate where that puts us in relation to the coming of the end. It doesn't take much of an eye to see that what John talks about is happening; but there is no one who can say which of his descriptions (or how much of his total description) already have taken place, which are in progress, and which are yet to happen when. Part of the difficulty is that our own observations are so subjective. Every generation since John's has had the wherewithal for drawing and documenting the conclusion that things are so bad that the end must be at hand. Yet how often it has been the experience of the race that, when things are so bad it seems they cannot get worse, the turn of events demonstrates that they very well can! We have no accurate way of measuring the amount of evil in the world and no standard against which to measure it in any case. I think it safe to say that the parousia could happen now or could have happened at almost any time in the past-and it still would be the case that John's traumatic prophecies were correct. This, of course, is not to say that things could not get worse than they are now; they could, they are, they most likely will. John's prophecy has been fulfilled; but it can be filled fuller. Who can say what unforeseen calamities might yet occur, and who is to say when is enough? (Answer: God is; and he will say so according to his own plan and wisdom.)
John apparently wants to say that all this trauma is what man has created through his own wrongdoing and brought upon himself. There is no justification for reading these scenes as portrayals of a vicious God sadistically ripping his world to shreds--such would be entirely out of character from what John otherwise tells us of God and the Lamb. Surely we must proceed from the assumption that John intends his picture to be consistent throughout and so recognize our obligation always to try to understand it that way. Punishment--just, legitimate, helpful punishment--properly is central in these visions; cruelty and vindictiveness have no place.
So the trauma bears two different significations. For the Christians (the church) it signifies a testing: for the world it signifies punishment. Yet the trauma itself catches both groups; John nowhere pictures the Christians as evading or being exempted from it.
Similarly, the trauma is purposed to call forth two different responses: from Christians, fidelity and "the patient endurance of Jesus"; from the world, repentance. In either case, a moving of men toward God is called for. In particular, we will want to note the numerous places where John specifies that God intends the trauma of punishment--even where it is portrayed as being the work of Evil--as a motive toward repentance and thus forgiveness. This means--as John himself hints--that the delay of the eschaton, even if it involves a prolongation of the trauma, is a mark of God's grace. He is giving men time for repentance and striving to move them toward it--a repentance that, although won out of trauma, will save them from what is infinitely worse, namely second-order DEATH. Keep ever in mind, then, that John's trauma visions always have a positive side to them.
Further, remember that John already has spent five full chapters establishing with some emphasis that history is being controlled from the throne of God and he Lamb. He does not mean that you should forget the fact now that we turn to earthly scenes where the Fancy Fake rides rampant and everything seems to be going to smash. He inserts two sorts of reminders--and we ought to use them to be reminded. For one, from time to time, even through his end-time descriptions, he intersperses scenes that point toward God, sovereignty, victory, and all such. For the other, right in the midst of scenes of trauma he drops what we have called notes of restraint and limitation, such as "but spare the olive and the vine" or "given power over a quarter of the earth." Despite all appearances, Evil has not been given a free rein, is not rampaging unchecked. God is in control; Evil can do no more than he permits it to do; and things will not be allowed to go to total destruction. This still is the world that is destined for redemption.
John's visions of trauma are not any prettier or more pleasant than Picasso's Guernica; but John's certainly have something more positive and helpful to say. It is sad that all the world (and most of the church) gives Picasso more credit than it does John.
The White horse
It is the first horseman that has given commentators the most trouble. Admittedly, almost every detail of the description points toward Christ. In a later scene (Chapter 19), a rider on a white horse clearly and explicitly is identified as Christ; and even here the rider wears a crown and is a conqueror. Consequently, many scholars are ready to say that this horseman is Christ.
Yet, to go this way is to violate the Revelator's sense of symmetry, wreck the finesse of his structure, and foul up his theology. The other three riders obviously represent forces of Evil; and John simply could not have Christ riding in conjunction with them, the movement would have to be a counter one. However, there is possible another interpretation which is so appropriate on every count that it must be correct.
It is not accidental that we here encounter details suggesting Christ. Remember that John customarily portrays Evil as being a counterfeit of the Good; and here he is introducing a fake Christ, the perversion of Christ that is Antichrist. True, John does not portray him under this image at any other place in the book; but this is very much the "right" point for Antichrist to make his initial appearance.
For one thing, Christ has just been introduced; and the introduction of Antichrist would serve John's sense of symmetry. For another, Antichrist immediately would provide the quartet with its natural leader and make it proper that they charge across the world in concert. Further, we are at the point in John's story where Antichrist is called for. Be aware that the scene now is shifting from heaven to earth and that we are entering the end-time period. And as John will make abundantly clear, it is precisely on earth and during this period that Antichrist has his (apparent) rule. Of course, his mount is actually the Trojan Horse whitewashed, and his crown nothing but cardboard and tinfoil; but the world does not know that. He comes on strong; and he is the world's messiah.
Consider that the end-time begins with the crucifixion of Christ. That event carries the weight of "a fact of world history," while only eyes of faith perceive the resurrection. And it is to Antichrist's interest to keep things so; as long as he can lead the world to believe that nothing of importance has happened since Good Friday, he has it made. And look around you; it is rather evident, is it not, that the Fancy Fake is still riding high and his act is still packing houses everywhere from here to Hellenbac. (I am trying to make one of the Revelator's serious points, that the only real power Evil possesses is that of seduction.)
John does give us one solid clue to this reading of the first horseman. Christ already has been introduced as wielder of the two-edged sword; and whenever he appears with a weapon, this is it. But the present rider carries a bow (never mentioned in connection with Christ); and it may be relevant to observe that through-out the Old Testament there is some tendency to put the bow and arrow in relation to the enemies of Israel. The most significant passage in this regard is Ezekiel 38-39, the account of Gog and his armies. Much later in the book, John will cite Gog by name; but it also is plain that this passage from Ezekiel has had strong influence at many points in John's descriptions--and Ezekiel does attribute the bow to the enemy. Yet stronger than this argument is our observation that the first horseman represents exactly the right place for introducing Antichrist and the right way of doing it: the "arch-deceiver" (2 Jn. 7) comes on, making like a conqueror but bringing nothing but trouble in his train.
The Red Horse
His first follower, bloody red and slashing away in splendid slaughter, rather clearly stands for War.
The Black Horse
With the third horseman, the black of starvation, the scales of the food-seller, and the announcement from price control headquarters--all point toward his being Famine.<h4>The Pale Horse
Bringing up the rear, riding double, comes the duo that, in this world, always and forever catches the stragglers and speaks the last word, Death and Hades. (But don't forget who it is that, we happen to know, already holds their keys!)
Verse 6, with its "spare the olive and the vine," and verse 8, with its reference to "a quarter of the earth," mark a principle of restraint and limitation upon which we will want to comment in just a bit.
But what history--past, present, or future--does John mean to be characterizing under these figures of the four horsemen? His own day, I am ready to say, the day of the seven hard-put congregations in Asia Minor I and our day (it would be no trick to document the contemporary presence of this foursome; any newspaper would serve)--and no telling how many days yet to come (they show no signs of packing up to leave). And this proposal creates the need for an excursus on "trauma in the book of Revelation" (see sidebar).
Rev. 6:9-17, Seals 5-6: The Saints and the Kings
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?" 11 They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?"
It seems evident that Seals 5 and 6 are meant to be played off against each other as part of John's symmetry of Good and Evil. First, the "saints."
"Underneath the altar" is an awkward enough image, but it probably denotes nothing more than a place of particular honor close to the presence of God. The scene, of course, has shifted back to the throne room. Notice how closely the word martyria (testimony) here is associated with being killed for the faith. Now we are speaking of literal martyr-witnesses; and it is plain that John accords them the highest possible human status in his scheme of things. The fact will have crucial bearing in our interpretation at a later point.
But the impressive and important thing here is that, although these people have come through the great ordeal with white robes unsullied, and even now abide in the direct presence of God, they are not yet fully content, do not yet count their experience to be fully consummated. "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be?" or as a more literal translation has it, "Till when?" "How long until justice is done and things are set right?" In a very real sense, their personal salvation cannot be complete until the total work of salvation is complete; that closely do they feel identified with and bound to "their brothers." "How long, O Lord?" And this, by the way, is the biblical view of salvation. If all the Christians whose interest in salvation lies only in getting themselves made secure were to learn just this one thing from Revelation, John's writing of the book would have been well worthwhile. Not "Thank God, I'm in!" but "How long, O Lord?" is the prayer of the saved.
Even so, the answer that comes to the martyrs' question is one of the most penetrating and revolutionary ideas to be found in the book. As clearly as it can be stated, we are told that the human activity upon which the outcome of history depends, the action by which progress toward the kingdom is marked, is not the piling up of good deeds, not our winning of men to Christ, not our consolidating of power for the Good, not our chasing out and cleaning up Evil, not our taking over or building up anything. No, we contribute to the coming of the kingdom by making like the Lamb, being willing, in love, to give ourselves, even to the slaughter. That may seem a rather backward way of overcoming the world; but John clearly says (and not only here) that this is indeed the way it must happen. If some Christians are able to pick up this idea along with the one above, Revelation 6:10-11 could rate beside anything in Scripture; more than just a play on words was involved when we called Revelation "the most revealing book of the Bible."
Seal 5 has given us a picture of the very best of mankind; Seal 6 will show us the very worst--and guess who leads the list. The martyred saints at the one extreme and the kings of the earth (who did the martyring) at the other.
This, recall, is Seal 6--and thus the final intensification that both completes the end-time and points to No. 7 as being the end itself. Verses 12-13 are intense enough; the imagery is borrowed from Isaiah 34:4. Please give it a Guernica-style reading.
The list of people in verse 1s clearly is meant to run from the very worst to the not quite so bad; and the kings of the earth come in just ahead of other military types. Recall that "War" was the first rider in the train of Antichrist, and it becomes evident what the kings represent for John. He knows that the source of Evil lies in apostasy from God; but he spots the most representative manifestation of Evil just where Picasso does.
The "prayer" of these people is perhaps a deliberate counter-play to the "How long?" prayer of the saints. It is taken from Hos. 10:8. Note well that the words are those of the kings, et alia, and not those of John or anyone else. What these people well expect and what they know they so richly deserve is "the vengeance of the Lamb"; but this is no proof that what they will in fact receive from the Lamb is "vengeance." Indeed, although they are not smart enough to realize it, "the vengeance of the Lamb" is a rather glaring contradiction in terms--as it would be to speak of "the lovingkindness of the beast." Just as the Lamb is himself a reverse sort of lion, we need to keep alert to the possibility that "the vengeance of the Lamb" might turn out to be something rather strange and wonderful.
Verse 17 makes it quite definite that John understands this scene as standing next to the close of history and looking ahead to Seal 7 as the end itself: "the great day has come!"
Rev. 7:1-17, The Seal Interlude
John’s pattern, at this point, calls for a two-part interlude to break the sequence between Seals 6 and 7; and that is just what we get. The words "after this" with which the chapter begins, mark the break John intends. Part A and Part B of the interlude are consciously related; together they form a picture of the Christian community that is the church. John knows, however, that that church exists in two quite different states. Part A describes the church on earth--the church made up of those who are living. Part B describes the church in heaven; we could say "the church of the dead," but that comes too close to suggesting something like second-order DEATH. Let's call it "the church of those who have died"--they will show up as anything but "dead."
Rev. 7:1-8, Part A: The Church of the Living
1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, "Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads."
4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:
5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed
from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.
The fore part of this scene makes it evident that the place of the church is right in the midst of the end-time traumas that earlier have been presented as afflicting primarily the apostate men of the world. But John is right; in this world, there is no obvious, easy, outward distinction between believers and unbelievers, no visual differentiation or spatial separation; we are all in it together.
The trauma, in this vision, is portrayed as ravaging winds (tornadoes) to come from the four corners of the earth (thus suggesting the totality of their effect). Some scholars have complained that John never gets around to saying whether the winds did blow or to describing the event. No problem; end-time trauma obviously does come; it is simply that he uses imageries other than that of winds to describe it. The phrase "earth or sea or against any tree" is an intriguing one. "Earth or sea" would seem to cover the matter--so why "trees"? As some sharp thinker has suggested, trees are where one looks to determine whether or not the wind is blowing; "not even a tree" is a way of emphasizing that the winds indeed were being restrained.
The customary note of God's restraining and limiting the depredations of Evil is particularly emphatic in this case; the timing and extent of end-time horror are in God's hands and not Satan's. At least one reason for the restraint is stated most explicitly. It is out of his grace that God is holding things back so that his people will have time to be prepared for the trial to come; they need to be given that which will enable them to persevere and manifest the patient endurance of Jesus. And what is that? It is one's having an assured knowledge regarding who he is and to whom he belongs. John portrays this, appropriately, as a receiving of God's seal on the forehead (references elsewhere--3:12 and 14:1--indicate that he thinks of the seal as incorporating the names of God and the Lamb). Modern experience might incline us to picture it as a stamp on the back of the hand proving that one is among those who rightfully belong "in" (and we shortly will suggest that it is stamped with an invisible, fluorescent ink which can be seen only in the doorkeeper's black light).
This scene, then, is that of the sealing of the church; and it says that, in the midst of and out of the wild confusions of the end-time, there are those who have given themselves, not to the lord of that madhouse, but to the apparently absent and powerless Lamb. Consequently, they have been marked as reserved for him; and although this does not have the effect of taking them out of the madhouse, it does enable them to keep their wits and hang through the experience. Several chapters on, John will complete his symmetry with a counterpart scene in which the beast's people receive their seals.
Together, these two scenes force an implication which we may or may not welcome but which John very much intends. For himself, John is certain that salvation is to be found only in Jesus Christ. Those who accept him as Lord and Savior, who have made him the central loyalty of their lives, bear his seal. Anyone who has failed to accept him in this way has some other loyalty at the center; and because that loyalty--whatever it may be--keeps Christ from being the center, it is anti-Christ, and the person's mark is that of the beast. There are no more than the two options, and every person has put (and is putting) himself in the one camp or the other. Nowhere does John suggest that these seals, even now, are fixed for all eternity; people do have the freedom to switch loyalties; and indeed, one of John's rationales for the end-time trauma is that it can nudge men to get out of the madhouse crowd and come over to the Lamb's people. Nevertheless, at any given moment, one's ultimate loyalty either belongs to Jesus Christ or it belongs somewhere else; you wear the one seal or the other.
But what John's account simply will not allow is the picture many of us would prefer, namely that some people find their salvation in Jesus Christ while others find theirs in other ways. Thus the line is not drawn where John draws it but (whether the thought ever gets made explicit or not) between nice, sincere people on the one hand and "bad" people on the other. Goodness knows, it is impossible enough for us to determine the focus of another man's ultimate loyalty; yet John's distinction is a real and definable one. What this other way actually comes to is that people I like are considered saved and those I don't are considered lost; it turns out to be no line at all. Granted, John's judgment sounds very harsh against all the nice, sincere non-Christians, insisting that they bear the mark of the beast. But don't you form such an opinion until you see where John's story comes out; it just could be that his vision is broader and more charitable than that of people who distribute blessing and curses on the basis of their own moral (or immoral) preferences.
It is, of course, obvious that, presently, one cannot tell whom are Lamb's people and who are beast's, simply by looking at their foreheads; and I don't believe John means to suggest that this ever will be so. Things just aren't that easy. Christians who claim this sort of sight or who act as if they had it, are an affront to the gospel--whether they try to do it by counting baptismal certificates or by counting those who are willing to stand up and say, "On such-and-such a day, I opened my heart and took Jesus into my life." God and, presumably, the beast do the sealing and thus know who belongs to whom. For the rest, it is better that the seals be kept under our hats and that each person center his attention on taking care of his own loyalty. Yet be clear, this in no way is to suggest that the seals are not real or that they are of little importance. Yours is the most real part of you (or identifies the most real part of you); and upon it hangs your entire destiny. For God's sake, give thought to your seal!
Now a good many scholars will take exception to the entire interpretation above: this can't be a picture of the sealing of the church as a whole; John is speaking explicitly of the twelve tribes of Israel and so Jews; these are 144,000 Jews who accept Christianity and are saved.
Our response will be: no, this is another instance of what John does frequently, taking a specific case and then de-calendarizing it so that it can represent the universal and total. But before documenting such a reading, let's look at two of the difficulties that arise when one proposes the narrower, Jewish interpretation.
- John's two sealing scenes no longer form a symmetry; we have the sealing of only one special category of the Lamb's people over against that of all the beast's. Everything we said about a person's having to bear the one seal or the other falls apart; John has no other scene suggesting when, how, or if Gentile Christians ever get sealed. Likewise, the symmetry between the A and B halves of this interlude is destroyed.
- In Rev. 14 stands another scene in which a company of 144,000, bearing his seal on their foreheads, appears with the Lamb. There is no hint of their being Jews; the most pointed of their identifications is that they are those who "follow the Lamb wherever he goes" and are "the first-fruits of humanity for God and the Lamb"--plainly an undifferentiating description of Christians as such. Consequently, some commentators propose that John is presenting us with two different groups of 144,000. But that is to break up the book and make it more complicated precisely where the indication is that John wants to tie things together. And the secret of understanding Revelation lies in keeping it tied together as a book rather than letting it fall to pieces as a collection of separate rode messages.
Let us turn, then, to the defense of the proposal that this is indeed a picture of the sealing of the church as a whole. We know that the concept "Israel" is a very fluid one for John. There is, of course, the Israel of the Old Testament and Judaism. But the Christian church, the followers of the Lamb, constitutes a new Israel--the home of which is to be a "new Jerusalem." John already has as much as named the Christians as being "true Jews." The two groups, then, are distinct; but for John, they are not separate. There is a continuity between them; the one was produced out of the other. Further, John is convinced, the ultimate destiny of the two Israels is that they become one again. Further still, John, with Paul, knows that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Putting it all together, John is not inclined to allow the distinction between the two Israels to carry very much weight in his picture; at most it marks a momentary and transient detour within God's total plan for his people. This means, too, that in John's mind there is no difficulty in using "Israel" as a term to cover the church as a whole; the fact is, it is a more inclusive term for what John understands by the church than any other available to him.
We will give the matter detailed attention in a bit, but the number 144,000 would not be appropriate except as a reference to the church as a whole; it is a number of the church, the completed, perfect church rather than of any one faction within it. Yes, John's terminology is meant to suggest that there are Jews in this church; it is not simply a Gentile church; it is the whole church.
The listing of the twelve tribes causes the problem; but I think careful consideration will show that the listing points precisely to an effort at de-calendarizing the scene rather than calendarizing it. John is portraying what is essentially an election of the people of God; and he knows that the Old Testament election of Israel forms his only proper model.
For one thing, John's list does not conform to the way the tribes are named in the Old Testament lists of land allotment, etc. If he intended this as any kind of historical reconstruction, it is faulty. More important, neither for anyone to whom he was writing (whether Jew, Christian, or pagan), nor for anyone since, would this business of the twelve tribes make any sense at all. The tribal divisions had been basic to Israel's life in the period prior to the establishment of the monarchy more than a thousand years before John's time. But with Israel's consolidation into a nation-state, such things as tribal identity, territory, tradition, etc., gradually had dissolved out. Later, a foreign invader captured the territory which, centuries earlier, had belonged to ten of the tribes; and the people whose ancestors had made up those tribes were entirely scattered and their identity destroyed.
At the time of John's writing, then, historical Israel had no consciousness of tribal identity, no desire to return to a tribal organization. There had been such complete intermarrying and such complete obliteration of ten of the twelve tribes that to take contemporary Jews and divide them up as belonging to Judah or Simeon or Issachar or whatever would be an utterly futile and meaningless operation. Besides, there is nothing either in Revelation or the New Testament as a whole to suggest why the reconstitution of those twelve tribes would have any significance in a Christian (or even Christian-Jewish) dispensation.
Then John's tribal list has no significance? Only if one insists upon reading it literally, as calling for some sort of impossible historical reconstruction. But let's try it from another angle.
Israel did preserve the number "12"--and John was eager to make use of it--as the number that signifies her own reality. But notice how the "12" normally is handled; it is used to point, not to the individual constituents that went into making up Israel, but to the sum, the totality, which results from their merger. That Israel is "12" speaks of her fullness, her wholeness; it says that she has overcome the distinctions and separateness of the twelve individualities, rather than that she exists to preserve the distinctions. (By the way, it is the same with John's ascribing to the Christian church the "12" of "the twelve apostles of the Lamb." This "12," too, points toward the fullness of the church and is not at all an invitation for Christians to try to identify themselves as belonging to Peter or James or John--or Judas.)
What, then, is John saying with his tribal list? He is saying that as, in Old Testament times, that true, twelve-numbered Israel could be such only by incorporating the totality of all twelve of her tribes, so, in the sealing of the eschatological people of God, the Israel-church must incorporate the fullness of the contributions from each and every one of her constituent parts.
Notice that we have turned the usual reading of this passage on its head--rather, those who insist on the narrow, Judaized reading have turned the true meaning on its head, and we are trying to get it back the way John had it. They have wanted to make it a picture of a partial, factionalized church; John was trying to talk of fullness, balance, and totality. Do a little experiment and substitute the names of some different denominations for the tribes John lists; you will begin to get a glimmer of the idea he is after. This John was an ecumenist (in a way that goes entirely beyond the bureaucratic, organizational efforts we call "the ecumenical movement" today). The church is not to be identified with any part of it--not with any one party or faction or tribe, not with any one race or culture or theology or creed or ritual, not with any one period of history or way of reading the Bible. "All twelve!" John shouts, "All twelve! It takes all twelve! And God knows, seals, and is going to gather all twelve, all those whose loyalty is to the Lamb--whether the different tribes recognize and love one another or not. You can't have God's Israel without all twelve!"
One other insight follows. That the church comes out this neat and beautiful, symmetrical and complete--twelve thousand apiece from each of the twelve tribes--is proof enough that it is of God's creation and not man's. No, this is not to deny the freedom of man or that his is the choice as to which seal he bears. But God's freedom is great enough that it can incorporate, work in, around, and through man's freedom without violating it--yet using it to build this twelve-faceted jewel which is his very own "Israel."
And now, the 144,000--the key to the whole! Rightly understood, it is the capstone to all we have been saying. Wrongly understood it makes Revelation a mean and crabbed little book. A hundred and forty-four thousand! The response it customarily evokes is: "Hear that number; fix it in your mind and count it through. That's the goal and limit to set your sights on. Only the top hundred and forty-four thousand make the payoff." Preachers build an evangelistic appeal around it: "Don't you want to be sealed in that 144,000? You had better get with it and come now. Remember, the competition is stiff--only 144,000!"
John doesn't use numbers that way; he doesn't know how many people have or are going to make Jesus the central loyalty of their lives--that number hangs in abeyance somewhere between the free choice of man and the persuasive power of God's love. Things have gotten turned on their heads again. These interpreters make the number speak of God's salvation as exclusive, elitist, prohibitive, and impossible; but John wanted the number to speak of the generosity, expansiveness, and lavishness of that salvation. Let's look at the number in the way we know John uses numbers.
Even if the number were meant to be taken literally, it would have had a quite different significance when it was written from what it does now. Although anything like exact statistics are impossible to come by, it seems certain that 144,000 would much more than accommodate all the people in the world who made any claim to Christianity at that time; for John's readers, this number would not cut people out but invite them in.
Yet that does not get to the heart of the matter. How does John arrive at this number? Not by consulting a crystal ball. Start with a "12"--that is the church's number. In itself it already combines the Jews and the Christians, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles; it already represents the fullness of God's "Israel"; it is a rather big number to begin with. But we don't stop just with this "12"; we begin with this fat "12" and then go: Twelve ... times twelve ... and that a THOUSAND times over! The number changes its aspect in a hurry when you go at it that way, doesn't it? "There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea!" Indeed there is; and John knew it long before Frederick Faber did.
John pictures the church of the living as great, grand, and glorious, even though it is hidden within the traumas of the end-time. Mark up this one for our count of John's universalistic passages. But then hold your breath as we head for this church's heavenly counterpart, the church of those who have died.
Rev. 7:9-17, Part B: The Church of Those Who Have Died
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb!"
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell or their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
"After this," John says; thus there is a break in the action, and the scene shifts from earth to heaven--yet it still is the church that is our focus of interest. Here in heaven the number of people is not just large, but "impossible to count." And they are people from all over. Count this among the Revelator's universalistic passages.
The crowd bears the signs of victory, being "robed in white and with palms in their hands." Their song centers on "victory" as well. "Victory" is the theme of this church and of these Christians, because their being here signifies that, through the patient endurance of Jesus, they did not apostatize in the end-time trials but persevered through death and thus to victory. Even so, John is careful not to portray these people as inhabiting the new Jerusalem and is, in fact, explicit that there is yet more to come in their experience. The "how long, O Lord?" note is neither as prominent nor as plaintive here, but it is present even in the very midst of victory.
John gives us a wise hint and sets a helpful example in Rev. 7:13-14. If, in heaven or any other place, an angelic elder happens to ask you a factual question, answer as John did--pretending to know could prove even more embarrassing than admitting you don't.
The victors of the heavenly church gained their victories by passing through the great ordeal (not detouring around it); but verse 14 also emphasizes that they were able to do this only because of what the Lamb had done for them in giving himself to be slain; their victory is as much or more his as it is theirs.
Beginning in the middle of Rev. 7:15, in order to indicate that these individual victories do not mark the end of the story, John has to get in front of himself and peek ahead to what is truly the end, the scene at which he will not properly arrive until Chapter 21. As long as history continues, the church still will have a ways to go; even the victorious church in heaven has a ways to go--mainly because they and we are both part of the same church, and as long as we have a ways to go, so do they. Verses 15-17 are in the futuretense.
The first and most basic element in John's description is, "God will dwell with them." This invariably is the primary thing with John, this closeness of personal relationship between man and God. Golden streets and all such business are secondary. May it be so for us as it was for John.
The first fruit of this relationship is the disappearance of all that to which God is opposed; man is now close enough to God that such things as death, tears, hurt, and need can't get in between. The second fruit is simply the other side of the same coin--and perhaps should be considered heads rather than tails. Men shall be guided to "the springs of the water of LIFE." John has not failed to touch upon his great "life" theme; and he is speaking, of course, of second--order rather than first-order life.
It almost goes without saying that the shepherd who gets his sheep to this water is the Lamb. The "shepherd" is a "lamb"? (By now we are getting used to the free-flying imagery, and almost didn't notice the literalistic contradictions.)
Rev. 8:1, Seal 7: The Coming of the End
1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
John has worked things so as to bring the interlude out at the same point Seal 7 will now represent, namely the end itself. Having portrayed the expansiveness and fullness of the church of the living, the victory of the church of those who have died, and the LIFE of the church that is yet to come, John is ready to return to the seal sequence and complete it with No. 7.
He handles it in very brief compass--one sentence--bringing us to the end but not actually describing it. His purpose seems apparent: he is not ready to proceed into the end and beyond it, because he has in mind at this point to double back and present more material regarding the end-time period--in this case under a series of seven trumpets. With the seventh seal, then, he is locating the end but not yet exploring it.
"Silence ... for about half an hour." First, the silence. There is an old Jewish tradition that says God's original creation of the universe was preceded by a period of complete silence. Perhaps it was like the hush that comes over playgoers when the house lights go down and all expectancy is focused on the raising of the curtain that will bring them into a new experience and a new world. Just so, this silence ends the clamor of the end-time and sets the stage for something entirely new and different. Recall, too, that this is the seventh seal and that the seventh is sabbath, the appropriate time of cessation, quietness, and rest. This deep strand of Jewish tradition also may be in John's mind.
Why "half an hour"? This one is more difficult; but the end-time has been Evil's hour, and we are now moving into God's hour. Perhaps the thought is that God's hour has two halves: a half of expectancy and one of fulfillment, a half of inhalation and one of exhalation, a half of pause and one of action. In any case, this seal has the effect of closing off the old past and putting us on tiptoe for the new future. But John isn't ready to take us in yet; he backs off in order to lead us once more through the end-time.
Copyright (c) 1974