Hell in Heaven?

Those of us who live by faith, though we may not see what God is doing in a predicament, trust that He is acting for our benefit; however that may look. Those who walk by sight are destined to see only what’s before their eyes, which can lead to panic, despondency, and even hopelessness. For the Asian Christians, they were striving to live by faith, but the sight of their reality was so grim that they couldn’t help but see what’s before them. Luckily for them, John can see beyond the physical into the heavens and reveal what it was precisely that he beheld. When we are so overtaken by sight, it always helps for someone of greater faith to come along and to aid us in better viewing the matter as Jesus would have us.

One of my favorite Bible stories occurs along this line. Elisha, the prophet, was at the helm of the prophetic ministry of Israel. One early morning, his servant arose to see that the Syrian army had surrounded the city where they were, and he lamented the sight of what he saw. Elisha, however, was not phased. Instead, he told his servant that they had more on their side than the Syrians had. The servant was puzzled by this because he could only see by sight, so Elisha prayed that God would “open his eyes” to see what was occurring in the heavenly places. God did so, and here’s what we read, “And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). There it is: seeing by faith.

What John Now Sees 

 The trumpets of judgment have finished, and we’ve been shown an interlude of the past. John showed us the nativity of our Savior, and even the fall of Satan from heaven after the resurrection and kingdom of our Lord came. However, because the enemy has been cast to the earth, he has sought to devour the faithful. How he was doing this now was through two beasts: the first beast, the Roman Empire, the second beast, enforced image worshiping. If one were a faithful image worshipper, they received the seal or appropriate documents to transact business—known as the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:16–18). For a Christian to bear the mark of the beast entailed that they do not carry the mark of the Lamb, what John turns to next.

After seeing those who worship the second beast, John looks and sees the 144,000 with the Lamb as if a conquering army. They have overcome, but how? By martyrdom (Rev. 15:2). In American Christianity, we would seldom think of sacrifice as an “overcoming” or “victory” (nike), but that’s how it’s portrayed here. John’s Revelation even receives and gives a blessing for those who have died in the Lord (Rev. 14:13). Our view of death is often as one of defeat and loss. This isn’t at all to minimize the heartache that it causes to we who remain on the earth, but we’d do well to see death as the Lord has now defined it—victory. This Greek term is the one that birthed the popular Nike shoe. The word means “victory” and is taken from the goddess of victory who shares that name.

 If the majority opinion is correct that this letter was composed in the 90s CE, then by the time of the reading of the very first verse of this chapter, a chord would have been struck. The Lamb stands on Mount Zion with the 144,000, but if this dating is accurate, Jerusalem has once again been destroyed by Roman armies, and the temple is no more. Here, however, is not so much the physical location as it is the heavenly (cf. Heb. 12:22). Thus, we see here the city of God where victory is and the city of man where troubles await—Babylon, as John sees it (Rev. 14:8; cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Just as Babylon of old destroyed Jerusalem, so the modern one did the same. Notice, however, the 144,000: they are redeemed (Rev. 14:3–4). Some translations may here say that they were “purchased,” which is an equally appropriate translation. Those who could not buy nor sell (Rev. 13:17) are themselves purchased by the Lamb. What a lovely thought!

The Message of the Angel 

This is the first time John had seen an angel since 11:15 with the fifth trumpet. He sees the angel flying in heaven, having the everlasting good news to preach to those on the earth. It isn’t that the angel itself is preaching the gospel per se, but that by its flying amid heaven, the message is being proclaimed through the martyrs.[1] Contrary to worldly thinking, the word of the cross thrives in times of intense turbulence. The persecution of Christians led to them scattering to Samaria, where disciples were made (Acts 8:1), and Paul’s imprisonment resulted in the conversion of the jailer charged with keeping him and Silas (Acts 16:25–34), to name a couple of occasions. The message is also universal, and anyone who tries to tie the good news to any particular race misses its essence. It’s global, but it also carries with it judgment.

Not only is this everlasting gospel proclaimed, but what follows it is also of consolation to the faithful. A second angel announces the fall of Babylon, by which is meant Rome (Rev. 14:8).[2] What’s unclear is if John sees the fall of the Roman Empire or if he had something else in mind, because the Roman Empire wouldn’t officially fall until the late fifth century CE. Does John have in mind the city herself? Whatever is in mind, the point is that on the heels of the good news of the kingdom of God, any opposing force is sure to fall as so noted by the twice, emphatic proclamation of “fallen.” The kingdom of God and her King, Christ, provide peace and justice, whereas Babylon has made the nation’s drink of sinfulness.

A third angel follows with the warning against those who worship the beast, his image, and who receives their mark. Such people will drink of the wrath of God, which is a warning to Christians teetering on the edge of deciding either to engage in commerce or to remain faithful to God and suffer from a measure of want—to recant Christ under penalty of death or to remain steadfast and suffer martyrdom (Rev. 14:9–10). Notice, though, that these “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Sounds like hell, doesn’t it. We often think of hell as down there while heaven is up there, but Scripture discloses that “a fiery stream issued … from before Him” (Dan. 7:10). Wait a minute! Preachers have often spoken about hell as away from the presence of the Lord (cf. 2 Thess. 1:9). The understanding may be that they won’t experience his glory as of the faithful, because they responded to His love with rejection rather than with love. This is a message for the church and shouldn’t be misunderstood as God saying, “Look what I’ll do to those who injure you.” Instead, God is saying, “Look what awaits you if you reject me and apostatize.” Ergo, this is the patience of the saints (Rev. 14:12), and they are blessed to die in the Lord (Rev. 14:13).

Two more angels appear one to call for reaping the harvest, and the second to secure the grapes of the wrath of God. These are preludes to the bowl judgments. The faithful who’ve overcome are seen as triumphant, singing a new song. As they praise the God of heaven for His grace and their original state, angels step forth with the bowls of God’s wrath, poised to pour them upon the earth in the judgment of the righteous Creator of heaven and earth for what those on the planet have done: worshipped imperial power at the sake of the true and living God.

Hell in Heaven? 

As previously mentioned, the fiery stream that issues from God’s throne, as depicted in Daniel, may give pause to the Christian today who is unaccustomed to thinking that hell is in God’s presence. How can it be that such a horrific place can be in the presence of a loving God? This is a reasonable question. It all depends on your theology as to how you’d want to view the matter. I’m more inclined to Eastern Orthodoxy because of its antiquity versus Western American Christianity that has primarily been influenced by the Reformation and, especially, John Calvin. Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is a must-read for Christians. I would say behind Scripture, this novel should rank near a must-read. Therein, we’re introduced to an aged, saintly man in a monastery named Elder Zosima. When he defines “hell,” he says, “[It’s] the suffering of being no longer able to love.”[3] I do not so much view hell as God’s hatred of sinners as John Calvin did, but I view hell as a wrong response to the love of God.

God loves humanity, His creation. He has demonstrated the length and breadth of His love by sending His precious Son to die for us while yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). He doesn’t hate us, and He’s not like the Greco-Roman pantheon who uses humans as their playthings. Nor is he like an evil little child holding a magnifying glass upon ants while the sun erupts them into the fire. God’s disposition towards sinners and saints alike is love, and if we respond to God’s love with rejection, we will experience His love as torment. This is why hell, I believe, is depicted as agony, suffering, and pain. Imagine a rebellious little boy who’s dearly loved by his mother. The mother wants to hug him, but he rejects her hugs. She wants to give him a kiss on his cheek, but he dodges her. All she has to offer to him is her love. She’ll make him his favorite meal, but he isn’t thankful. She’ll dote on him, but he sneers. To him, her love is embarrassing, inconvenient, and overbearing. All she wants to do is love her son. His brother, however, is grateful for the meals, hugs her in return, and receives her kisses with a warmth that makes him feel special. Why is it that one son receives love with love while the other refuses to accept love and rejects it? No one knows.

People choose to receive God’s love with warmth and return that love to Him in faith. We, by faith, are overwhelmed by such a radical love that we do something that others don’t appreciate or understand. We trust God because His love is so powerful. We declare our love by confession. We return our love by repentance. We reciprocate our love in baptism. However, we should never become wary of God’s love, even when things get hard. We should, instead, be even bolder to say to the world that we would never abandon our love because He has so loved us. This is heaven: enjoying and basking in the love of God. Hell is finding His love to be inconvenient, overbearing, and so we reject His love and find it a torment. The prodigal son departed from the father and went into the land of sin, where he found misery. He chose hell in a manner of speaking. The father didn’t kick him out, and he didn’t drive him out. The son chose. We, too, must choose.

[1] Keener, Revelation, 372.

[2] Jewish literature demonstrates that they referred to Rome as Babylon (Sib. Or. 5.143, 159–61; 4 Ezra 3:1–2, 28; 2 Bar. 11:1–2.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (San Fransisco: North Point, 1990), 322.

Understanding the Mark of the Beast

Where is there to go once triumph has occurred? Themistocles was an ancient Greek general and statesman who advocated for a strong navy because of the first Persian invasion in the fifth century BCE. During that war, he fought at the battle of Marathon, and in the second invasion, he commanded the Greek navy and defeated the Persians at sea. Themistocles was such a gifted soldier that he was considered Greece’s most revered general. Still, when peacetime came, the soldier wasn’t as appreciated because he was made for war and conflict. Living in peacetime as a statesman proved so tricky that it eventually led to his exile after he angered the Spartans and Athenians. Some people are meant for battle, while others exist to thrive during peace. The revelation and consolation John gave to the Asian churches was that God triumphs, so he digresses from the announcement at hand and reminds them of what God has already accomplished through the blood of Christ.

Christians today seem poised more for conflict than peace. This is no better demonstrated than by general observation of Christians and churchgoers on social media. Easily triggered and constantly outraged, one might wonder if they believe in the triumph of God or not. This isn’t to say that there aren’t occasions of injustice that should be lamented, but some of the most ardent proponents of conspiracies and dramas are those who claim to trust in the Lord. A funeral director recently told me that a gentleman said to him that the masks worn during COVID19 are the mark of the beast. How convenient that the very week I prepared this sermon, I’m told a tale such as this, so let’s look earnestly at this passage and determine whether it’s true or not—spoiler, it’s not.

The Defeat of Satan

Revelation 12:1–6 speaks about the birth of Christ (see especially v. 5).[1] John was apparently looking back and detailing previous victories to encourage the suffering Christians. This passage has been interpreted as the primeval fall of Satan—which is partly likely—but it really represents Satan’s defeat by Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. When war broke out in heaven (Rev. 12:7; cf. Luke 19:38; Col. 1:20), this may be a primeval war. However, verse ten represents the beginning of the age of the church, and before this dispensation, Satan accused people day and night before God. That he went before God is attested to in Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6, and that he accused people before God is evidenced in Zechariah 3:1–5. Accompanying Jesus, however, was salvation (cf. Luke 3:6; Heb. 9:28).

Satan was created as an angel (cf. Ps. 148:5), and such were present at creation (Job 28:1–7). Before or during creation (1 John 3:8), evil already existed hence the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). There were two passages often thought to speak about Satan’s being cast from heaven before creation—Isaiah 14:12–19 and Ezekiel 28:11–19. This rebellion was led by Satan, who has his own angels (Matt. 25:41), and the results were what was recorded in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Revelation 12:7–9 may speak about Satan’s being cast from heaven. Other passages to consider would be Luke 10:18 in comparison to Revelation 9:1, and John 12:31. Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel came after the limited commission of the seventy-two. While the seventy-two seemed surprised and overjoyed at this success (Luke 10:17), Jesus’ reply may have been a way of communicating His lack of surprise over their works because He had already seen Satan cast from heaven. He already knew that Satan was defeated.

The passage from Ezekiel depicts Satan as present in the Garden of Eden and full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. Snakes were often associated with knowledge, hence the Mosaic reference to Satan as a serpent. Specifically, Satan was a cherub as opposed to a seraph. Cherubim were placed in the garden to keep fallen man out. They were guardians of paradise, but they were also depicted as attendants to God. The throne upon which God resides rests upon cherubim (Ps. 80:1; 99:1; 1 Sam. 4:4; cf. Ps. 18:10). For Satan to have been a cherub implies that he served as a protector of God’s presence and holiness. Ezekiel’s passage, therefore, describes Satan’s pre-fallen state. As a matter of interest, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine interpreted this narrative as descriptive of Satan.

From the time Satan was cast from heaven, he has pursued the destruction of God’s people (Rev. 12:12–17), and he is only able to do this under the restrictions of God’s will (cf. Job 1:12; 2:6; Luke 22:31). He accused the people of God (Zech. 3:1–5) and destroys (Rev. 9:11) whatever he can because he has control over the world (Luke 4:6; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). Yet, his end is already determined by God (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:1–3, 10). God created hell for Satan and his angels, but not for us.

The Number—666 

When we turn to Revelation 13:1–10, one beast is represented while another arises from the earth at 13:11. These two beasts are allies of Satan in his work (12:9). When we left off from chapter 12, the point was made that the dragon made war with the woman’s offspring, and chapter 13 shows how he planned to do just that. However, God gave His people particular insights to help them stay the course (13:9–10, 18). The first beast mentioned in 13:1 is also in 11:7 and is later pictured as coming from the abyss (17:3, 7–8). This beast is often referred to as “the beast,” while the second beast is later referred to as “the prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). The first beast received a mortal wound (13:3, 12, 14–15). Many have used this to argue that Nero was actually alive since he was the first to persecute the Christians. Dio Chrysostom, at the end of the first century, wrote, “Even now everyone wishes he [Nero] were alive, and most believe that he is” (Or. 21.10). Others had believed that Nero was alive in 69, 80, and 88–89 CE. It may be that this refers more to Nero’s work of persecuting Christians, or the spirit thereof, rather than the man himself. This first beast has thought to have been the Roman Empire. The second beast’s primary function was to persuade men to worship the first beast—which may allude to Roman emperor worship. This beast is called “the prophet,” or “false prophet,” and appears as a Lamb, but speaks like a dragon. The imagery of the Lamb reminds us of Jesus, but this beast is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). This beast may have been the organization responsible for enforcing emperor worship—the Concilia (13:15).

Roman slaves and disobedient soldiers received marks on their hands or foreheads. These denoted that they were devoted to a certain master or god. Paul used similar language when he referred to bearing the marks of Jesus on his body (Gal. 6:17). This mark is a counterpart of the seal of God that we studied in chapter 7. God sealed the 144,000 (Rev. 7:3), but this mark designated who belonged to the beast. Whoever had the beasts mark was allowed to transact business. Archaeologists have uncovered documents given to “image worshipers” as proof of having offered emperor worship, and beginning in the reign of Tiberius, all business documents had to be sealed by the government stamp, and it was often the priesthoods of the cities (Concilia) who applied these stamps. Trade guilds also ruled many cities (e.g., Thyatira), and if one didn’t belong to a guild—which was closely aligned with gods—they couldn’t transact business. The Greek in verse 18 is anthropos and not aner. The former designates humanity while the latter designates a man, so John was saying that this number represents humanity, and humanity cannot overcome God Almighty (2 Chron. 20:6).

Humanity feels strongly about transacting business, commerce, and economy. One of the chief concerns for us all is whether or not we’ll be able to feed our families by putting food on the table. What if the very manner in which you provide for your family becomes embroiled in immorality and even idolatry? Would you forsake the commerce for the sake of your Lord? It may have been that some Christians were. We either bear the seal of the Lord or the mark of the beast. It can’t be both.

[1] In the NKJV of this account, verse six begins with “then,” but would be better translated as “and” (kai).

The Seven Trumpets of Revelation

As of the writing of this sermon, doctors and pharmaceutical companies are working tirelessly to create a vaccination for COVID-19. The belief is that such a vaccine will better enable society to function without the horrific fallout of deaths and overwhelming of hospital facilities. I wonder how folks felt in the days of polio, the Spanish Flu, and various other pandemics. Some birthed advances in medicine and sanitation, but one thing that hasn’t yet been cured is death. No matter what advances are made, people continue to die. This is why we Christians place our hope in what Jesus has done to defeat death.

Similar to how God protected Israel when the angel of death passed through Egypt, so He has taken provisions to preserve the elect in Asia against the breaking of seals and sounding of trumpets. Jokingly I often employ Revelation 8:1 to argue that there will be no women in heaven, given the thirty-minute silence. However, this may have been the amount of time it took the priest to incense the temple. What occurs in heaven would have been understood by what happened on earth. Instead, in this instance, the angel makes the offering and does the incensing, then throwing some incense to the earth, God’s answer to the saints for vengeance is heard (cf. Rev. 6:9–11). Stylistically, one may note that the first four of the seals and trumpets form a unified whole. The fifth and sixth seals and trumpets express a more extended narrative preceded by the final one being loosened and blown.

When we view the seven trumpets as a unified whole, we’ll note a similarity between the occurrences in Revelation to that in Joshua. In the procession around Jericho in Joshua 6:3–6, seven trumpets led with the Ark of the Covenant in tow. At the end of the seven trumpets in Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant appears (11:15–19). After the purposes of the trumpets, the Ark of the Covenant is seen to be a prevailing relic that represents God’s presence and triumph in both cases.[1] 

The Meaning of the Trumpets 

The first trumpet demonstrates how vegetation is effected (8:7), the second regards the sea (8:8), the third regards freshwaters (8:10–11), and the fourth regards the sky, or heavens (8:12). Each of these corresponds to plagues that God visited upon Egypt: the seventh (Exod. 9:22–26), first (Exod. 7:14–25), and ninth plagues (Exod. 10:21–29) correlate to the first four trumpets that sound. When one considers the vegetation and waters, we think of forms of commerce that were prevalent in the ancient world. If such were affected, then the food supply and economy of many folks would have been affected. God’s children have already been sealed and would be protected from the harm that befell such. A warning is given that the next three trumpets will be woes (Rev. 8:13). Not like Bill and Ted, but in the ancient sense. A woe was often a gruesome outcome or horrific occurrence.

What likely makes the next trumpets so harsh is that they afflict humanity directly rather than just the earth. The fifth trumpet entails a star that has fallen (Rev. 9:1), which may be one of several interpretations: an angel (cf. Rev. 20:1), fallen world powers, fallen angel, or Satan (cf. Is. 14:12–20). Whichever it is, He who has the keys of death and Hades permits this angel to open the abyss (cf. Rev. 8:10–11). A hellish smoke now contrasts with the incense of prayer.[2] Swarms of locusts arise, akin to the eighth plague of Egypt (Exod. 10:12–15) but more like the judgment of Israel in Joel’s time via an army (Joel 1:2–4; 2:11). Their king is the angel of the abyss, whose name is equivalent in both Hebrew and Greek (Rev. 9:11). The root of the name reminds us of the god, Apollo, who was an archer god, one of whose emblems was the locust. Caesar Domitian himself was sometimes portrayed as Apollo, so the link may be rather apparent to the Asian Christians.[3]

The sixth trumpet again draws our memories back to the prayers of the saints by the incense altar (Rev. 9:13). This is how God will avenge them—the Parthians. Similar to the President of the United States wants to build a wall along the Mexican border, so the Euphrates was the line of demarcation between East and West (Rev. 9:14–15). To the East of the Euphrates was the Parthian Empire (Iran) that had frequent skirmishes with the Roman Empire. In the late 50s and 60s CE, the Romans and Parthians fought until peace was reestablished in 66 CE. This peace lasted until the Caesar Trajan campaigned against them between 114–17 CE, so it may be that this conflict John sees depending on when one dates the Revelation. The depiction of the battle is seen here from a heavenly perspective, though, so the fanciful imagery of angelic beings moving the nations to war is what often boggles the mind of the reader. One image given historical explanation is what appears in Rev. 9:19: the Parthians were gifted horsemen who once lured the Romans after them by riding uphill. As they retreated upward, the Romans pursued only to suffer from a volley of arrows that cost the Roman army two legions, and Rome never forgot to avoid pursuing the Parthians uphill.[4] Closing these two trumpets are the fact that their chastisement was meant to invoke repentance, but the hearts of many, like Pharaoh, were hardened.

The Little Book and Witnesses 

Before the seventh seal, a pair of visions were given that concerned the people of God. Thus, before the seventh trumpet, a couple of images pertinent to the church are provided too. An angel appears from heaven, clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow above his head (Rev. 10:1). He has a book in his hand, smaller we presume in comparison to the scroll in the palm of God from whence Christ broke the seals. He stands on the earth, sea, and raises his hand into heaven, thus touching all of God’s creation (Rev. 10:2–7; cf. Exod. 20:4, 11). John is to eat the book, which is sweet to the taste but bitter on the stomach—as the Word of God can be at times (Rev. 10:8–10). This is the same thing Ezekiel did (Ezek. 2:9–3:4). The book John swallowed would enable him to speak the Lord’s words (Rev. 10:11).

The next chapter, and the measuring of the temple, might lead everyone to believe it refers to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. That’s how one might conclude if read literally, and the Roman siege of Jerusalem lasted three and a half years, which would allow the time listed here to make sense (Rev. 11:1–2). If this passage is read symbolically, the church is the temple that fills the whole earth and not just Jerusalem. If we consider how the temple is mentioned elsewhere in Revelation, it’s depicted symbolically and not literally (see. Rev. 3:12; 13:6). Elsewhere, the temple as invoked symbolically refers to the church, which is composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:18–22; 1 Peter 2:5). It isn’t the temple herself that will be trampled, but the outer court.

The two witnesses remind us of Elijah and Moses, who called forth fire from heaven to devour heathens and, respectively, shut up the sky and turned water into blood (Rev. 11:3–6). They’ll be killed in Jerusalem, it would appear, who has at this point become like Sodom and Egypt. The people will rejoice at their deaths (Rev. 11:7–10), but they won’t remain dead (Rev. 11:11–12). Since this is a message for the church, how are we to understand it? You’ll likely find any number of interpretations depending on what sources you consult. However, stopping to try to make something out of every vision can be stifling, so look at what comes next: with the blast of the seventh trumpet, we read about the triumph of Jesus Christ and His kingdom (Rev. 11:15–19). How does the kingdom of God triumph? As a result of divine wrath. For the Christian whose hope is in Jesus, wrath isn’t something to be feared “because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their side (Mt. 23:35–36).”[5]

[1] Reardon, Revelation, 64.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Keener, Revelation, 269.

[4] Ibid., 271.

[5] Reardon, Revelation, 75.

The Seven Seals

I grew up a fan of wrestling, or “wraslin” as it’s pronounced in the South. When I think about the Four Horsemen, I envision Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson, and Tully Blanchard. However, as popular as the image is of Four Horsemen, it has nothing to do with wrestling, but with the Apocalypse of John. Remember that in the hand of God was a scroll sealed with seven seals (Rev. 5:1). This scroll would have somewhat been reminiscent of the Torah scroll unraveled in the synagogue service, from which the Word of God was read and an explanation given. In heaven, this scroll contains the message of the future relevant to the Christians in Asia. In the ancient world, a scroll that was sealed often held the impression of the one who wrote the message. Depending on who that was determined who was capable of opening the document. Here, only one person is found worthy to open the scroll and loose its seals—the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, our Savior (Rev. 5:2–5). Only He could approach the God of heaven, take the scroll from His hand, and loose the seals.

The Messages of the Seals 

The vision of the four horsemen derives from Zechariah 1:8–11 and 6:1–8. In Zechariah, the horsemen are angelic creatures who report to the Lord regarding the state of affairs among the nations. Their coloring indicated the different countries to whom they were sent. In the Revelation, they are images of judgment posted throughout all the earth.[1] The first horseman represents warfare, and this as a judgment of God, we must remember (Rev. 6:2). The second, bloodshed since that’s what results from war (Rev. 6:4). The third horseman represents the economic fallout as a result of war and bloodshed—rationing due to famine (Rev. 6:5–6). The fourth horseman is pale or ashen. The Greek term here is chloros from which we get “chlorine.” This is a rather grim image because this is the color a person appears to be shortly after death. If you’ve ever been with someone who’s just passed away, their eyes turn this ashen, green sort of color. Because war, bloodshed, and famine are kissing cousins, and because those who are slain or die due to war and bloodshed may be left exposed, disease and plague may follow (Rev. 6:7–8). This black horseman has given us the common expression, “Black Death” to mean the bubonic plague.[2]

Next, sadly, we see that even some saints were not immune. The altar of heaven has beneath it the souls of the martyrs (cf. Lev. 17:11). They are at this place because they sacrificed themselves for the sake of the confession of faith in Jesus as Lord, and this is also where priests poured the blood of sacrifices (Lev. 4:7, 18, 25, 34). This would have entailed those who died for the faith up until this point in time—Stephen (Acts 7:57–60), those who died at the hands of Paul before he was a Christian, James the brother of Christ (Acts 12:2), and Antipas (Rev. 2:13) among others. Their cry to God wasn’t new, but a lamentation from the psalms where the psalmist pleads with God as to how long they must endure (Ps. 13:1; 79:5). The martyrs wanted the vengeance of God on those who’d put them to death. This isn’t an unholy request. We Christians sometimes cry so much for forgiveness, which is right to do, that we forget that justice has its place too. There’s nothing at all wrong for invoking the Lord’s vengeance upon those who’ve done such horrible acts. In the absence of immediate retribution, the martyrs are given a white robe to rest, because more would, sadly, join them. The white robes given to them are garments of having overcome (Rev. 3:5), and they’re the same garments in which the twenty-four elders are clothed (Rev. 4:4).

The fifth seal’s anticipatory measure, as well as the sixth seal, may entail eschatological material. There seems to be a decreation before the great day of the wrath of the Lamb. However, is it for the vindication of what they then faced, or what all Christians would share in until the end? I confess to not knowing the answer because the Bible often uses such language to denote the punishment of God at the end of an era. However, I tend to view this more as an end-times language than I don’t, but history records several such issues even in the first century:

These afflictions were visited on the world that John knew. In AD 62 the Roman legions were defeated by the Parthians to the east, and there were shortages of food, such as those recorded in Acts … and Seutonius. In addition, there were earthquakes, such as those in Asia Minor itself in AD 60, volcanic eruptions, such as Vesuvius, civil war in Rome following the suicide of Nero in 68, and the war in Judea that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.[3]

Early commentators were evenly divided on the interpretation of parts of the book. For we who are so many centuries removed from then, in comparison to early church leaders, can’t expect to grasp what even they struggled with understanding.

The 144,000 

According to Jewish thought, four winds stood at each corner of the compass. These winds could destroy a nation (Jer. 49:36) or bring new life (Ezek. 37:9). Zechariah portrays these winds as chariots pulled by different teams of horses, which leave the Lord’s presence and go out into all the earth (Zech. 6:5–7). Jesus taught that at His coming during the destruction of Jerusalem that the angels would gather the elect from the four winds (Matt. 24:31).

Ezekiel 9 sets the backdrop for the sealing of God’s faithful. This imagery of seven executioners is present in Babylonian literature as well. There they punish those having committed religious offenses as is the case here (Ezek. 9:4). The imagery of Ezekiel’s seven would have reminded the audience steeped in idolatry about impending punishment that comes from Yahweh. The mark of their forehead in Hebrew was the taw. This was the last character of the paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and it looked like a modern “X” or cross.

Moreover, the Greek letter “chi” was equivalent to taw and was the first letter in Christ’s name in Greek. The church father Origen (185–254 CE) wrote, “A third [person] one of those who believe in Christ, said the form of the Taw in the old [Hebrew] script resembles the cross, and it predicts the mark which is to be placed on the foreheads of Christians.” In Revelation, the seal separates God’s faithful from the faithless.

Pseudepigraphical writing called the Psalms of Solomon was composed in the first century BCE (it details Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 BCE), and it gives a little insight as well on the marking of God’s people: “For the mark of God is upon the righteous for salvation. Famine and sword and death shall be far from the righteous, for they shall pursue sinners and overtake them, and those who do lawlessness shall not escape the judgment of the Lord” (15:6–8). Sometimes branding in antiquity was also a sign of a slave (3 Macc. 2:29). In Christianity, sealing became symbolic. The Holy Spirit sealed the Asian churches (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). This wasn’t a physical mark, as some might think. It was a mark distinguishable only by God and His agents of wrath (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22), and it distinguished the faithful from the wicked (cf. 2 Tim. 2:19). This seal in Revelation is to protect God’s faithful, as in Ezekiel (Rev. 7:3).

This list in Revelation of the 12 tribes differs from other records (see Gen. 35:23–26; 49:3–27; Deut. 33:6–25): Reuben usually heads the list, but Judah does here likely because this is the tribe from whence Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, came (Rev. 1:5; 5:5). John included Manasseh while omitting Ephraim and Dan (see 1 Kings 12:29–30). Since this group is spared divine wrath, but not human persecution, it may be that they are among those who complete the number of the slain souls under the altar (Rev. 6:9–11). These twelve tribes are used figuratively of Jewish Christians (James 1:1). Jewish Christians were predominant over the first decade of the early church. Staying with the Jewish identity, their being “firstfruits” (Rev. 14:4) was also well-founded as spoken of by the Jews (Jer. 2:3; Rom. 11:16; James 1:18). If this is talking about Jewish believers, the great multitude in Revelation 7:9ff were Gentile believers. This could also be a reference to the church—God’s new Israel (Gal. 6:16; cf. Gal. 3:7–9, 29). Whomever they were, they sang a new song described as the roar of rushing waters, a loud peal of thunder, and harpists playing their harp. No heavenly creature could learn this song because participation is limited to those redeemed from the earth (cf. 1 Peter 1:12; Eph. 3:10), which centered on redemption by the Lamb from the beast. They were “virgins” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2) who were blameless (Rev. 14:4). This may mean that they maintained ritual purity before battle (Deut. 23:9–10; 1 Sam. 21:5; 2 Sam. 11:11). Later on, Babylon (Rome) is referred to as the mother of harlots (Rev. 17:3–5), and those who consort with her would have defiled themselves (cf. Rev. 2:22).

The final seal serves as a prelude to the seven trumpets which are to follow. One round of judgment has been explained, and those in first-century Asia would have understood these matters far better than we could have. Here, however, is the comfort for those Christians: God judges those who do evil. In a court of law here on earth, humans attempt to execute justice as best as fallible beings can. Lawyers build cases, and it is prosecuted and defended before a group of peers who determine what the best evidence is. They hand in their verdict based on the available information, and a judge passes sentencing if guilty, or releases the accused if innocent. In the courtroom of heaven, no case has to be made, and the only defense anyone can ever have is the blood of the Lamb. Jesus Christ defends those bought with His blood, but those who are not faithful to Christ will be prosecuted according to divine law for their deeds. There is no escaping. There is no putting off what will pass.

[1] Farley, Apocalypse, 82.

[2] Reardon, Revelation, 55.

[3] Ibid., 55–56.

On Earth as in Heaven

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” so said the mighty Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions stood before the scary scene of peels of thunder, lightning, and an impressive visage when they believed that they were before the Wizard of Oz. Once Toto pulled the curtain back, they saw the reality for what it was. The Christians suffering and about to suffer in Asia saw the spectacle of terror before their eyes, but John the Divine was given a chance to see reality for what it was by peering into heaven. He did so by going through the open door into heaven (Rev. 4:1). Earthly events have their origin in heaven, so if we’re to understand real insight into the history, we have to see the matter from a heavenly vantage point. Scripture is replete with examples of this. Jacob’s impending reunion with his brother was something not untouched by heaven (Gen. 28:17). When Ezekiel sat in exile among an encampment of his fellow Israelites, the vision he saw lent itself to the reality he experienced (Ezek. 1:1). The baptism of our Lord was overseen by heaven (Mark 1:10), and upon his martyrdom, Stephen revealed to the crowd that would put him to death what was occurring in heaven at that very moment (Acts 7:56). Understanding the demands of our current situation entails understanding it from a heavenly perspective, and this was what John would see and inform those in Asia regarding.

What we’re going to notice from Revelation 4–5 only makes sense if we’re acquainted with Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, 10. Isaiah saw the God of Israel in his magnificent glory, as well as the angels that attended Him. The seraphim were either fiery or serpent-like creatures. The term seraph is indicative of burning and serpents (Num. 21:6–9), respectively. They are depicted as above the throne of God, while in Ezekiel, cherubim have a single pair of wings and are associated with the throne of God (Ezek. 1). A thorough reading of these two prophets and all that they saw in heaven helps make better sense of what one will read in Revelation 4–5. John participates in the prophetic history of seeing the throne-room of God, just like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and others before his time. What takes place in heaven directly affects the events on earth, but, also, what occurs in heaven is the model for what should happen on earth in some part.

Derivative Worship 

Not but a couple of decades earlier, a Jewish Christian wrote a letter to the Hebrew believers wherein he noted the superiority of Jesus above all that the Jews held dear—angels, Moses, the law, etc. Among the many considerations of the letter to the Hebrews is what appears when the author informed his audience that Christ was High Priest of God’s people, taking His own blood to offer for the sins of the world (Heb. 9:11–15). He goes, not into the copy and shadow of what is to come, but into heaven itself—the true tabernacle, after which the one on earth and temple were patterned (Heb. 8:1–2; 9:24). Consider this: from Hebrews 8–10, the author compares what Christ does with what the priests did at the temple. Christ was in the heavens, and the temple and tabernacle were patterned after what occurs in heaven. Therefore, earthly worship is a heavenly activity. If we are to truly worship in a manner pleasing to God, our worship must be patterned after what occurs in heaven. In Revelation 4–5, we see just what takes place.

What’s most important to note, from the start, is that these things happen before the presence of God. John, first, sees a throne and the one who sat upon it (Rev. 4:2–3). He’s surrounded by a rainbow—the sign of God’s covenant with humanity to never flood the earth again (Gen. 9:12–17). Next, there are twenty-four thrones which are believed to represent the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles of the New Testament, or both covenants. Seated and crowned upon them are twenty-four elders who fall before God in worship (Rev. 5:14; 11:16; 19:4). Not only do they fall before God, but they do so while simultaneously praising Him (Rev. 4:11; 5:9–10; 11:17–18; 19:4).

Next, we have the angels who unceasingly praise and pray to God (Rev. 4:6–8). They would appear to be a hybrid of cherubim and seraphim from the description and what we know from Isaiah and Ezekiel. Nevertheless, their hymn is tightly worded to what we see the seraphim sang in Isaiah 6:3. This particular doxology was a staple in synagogue praise in the first century,[1] and it even became a part of early Christian worship, as seen here and in 1 Clement 34.6. It has been a part of hymnody since Isaiah’s time, in the eighth century BCE all the way through today, making it the most ancient of hymns. The elders, in turn, prostrate themselves before the Lord, casting their crowns before Him in recognition of their honor and glory deriving from Him alone.

When looking at this scene, we note a few truths about Christian worship. It is before God and according to the covenant under which we willingly entered. When we worship the Lord, we join the procession of divine worship already ongoing, something that occurs night and day and is unceasing. It’s our opportunity to return to God and attribute to Him whatever we may think are worth is and blessings are, because what we all are we have because of who He is and how richly He’s bestowed it on us. Thus far, worship has been binary, including the Father and Spirit, respectively (Rev. 4:2–5).

Next, however, we see the Son, the Lamb slain for the sins of the world. He’s standing because that’s what priests did when they ministered to the Lord (cf. Acts 7:55–56; Heb. 10:11). The scroll in the hand of the Father has to do with events happening on earth, and the Lamb of God will be the only one worthy to break the seals, which will be discussed in the next lesson. Nevertheless, His appearance is as a slain lamb, but the elders told John that He’d prevailed (enikesen). The taking of the scroll to Jewish Christians was reminiscent of the manuscript of God’s word being taken, opened, read, and then explained as in the synagogue services. Because He who sits on the throne has a scroll to be opened and read, we have to understand that early Christians believed, as we should today, that the Word of God is a symbol of what Christ has accomplished.[2] Upon taking the scroll, the angels and elders do to Him what they had done to He who sits on the throne. He, too, receives praise and prayer (Rev. 5:8–10).[3] Next, we see heaven and earth united in the worship of God and the Lamb (Rev. 5:13). When we worship in song and prayer, we join with heaven in worship. What we sing here, they sing there.

As we progress, it will be incumbent upon the reader to note that as the drama unfolds, this occurs in heaven, on the Lord’s Day, in the worship of God and the Lamb. The stage has thus far been set, but one may ask how this might have brought any comfort to the suffering Christians in Asia. First, their God and His kingdom haven’t been thwarted. Because it isn’t of this world doesn’t mean that it has nothing to do with this world. God reigns upon His throne in majesty, and the Lamb who died holds history in His hands, even as it unfolds. Second, the most comfort that can be found will be in worship. When we correctly understand worship, we’ll come to find that in worship, we are with God the Father, Son, and Spirit. The angels are singing and rejoicing. In a tumultuous world with its troubles, we can find consistency and solace in the worship of our Lord and Savior. When correctly done, our focus can turn to God on the throne, and the Lamb who’s prevailed. He reigns, and as He has overcome, we can fix our hope on Him in the darkest of times, because He isn’t surprised by what surprises us. He isn’t overwhelmed by what causes us anxiety. He has a plan that’s working to the good of us who love Him and are called by His name.

[1] Craig S. Keener. Revelation: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 175.

[2] Patrick Henry Reardon, Revelation: A Liturgical Prophecy (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018), 51.

[3] In churches of Christ, who are known for acapella praise, a matter of the mention of harps here often arises as contention for including instruments in earthly worship. The reason we refrain from using instruments is simply that the early church didn’t use them. This isn’t to negate harps in heaven, but to acknowledge what occurred on earth in the first century. Harps are mentioned here in Rev 5:8 as well as 14:2 and 15:2, but as much as the golden bowls of incense are explained as the prayers of the saints in Rev 5:8 (cf. 8:3–5), so we may assume that the harps represent the praise of the saints as well (Farley, Apocalypse, 76).

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