The Judgement of God and the security of the saints (Rev.6:1–8:1)
THE PREVIOUS PART of John’s vision concluded on a high note of praise to the Redeeming Lamb. But we live in the period preceding this final redemption, and so his vision now turns to what is happening on the earth. As the Lamb opens the sealed scroll we see the present effects of God’s judgement on sin.
The breaking of the first four seals (6:1-8) releases the four horsemen who bring the plagues of war, strife, famine and death – the daily diet of our news media! Yet we must remember that this is not referring to some special time in the future, but to the routine of all history up til now (cf Matt 24:6-7). Human history is the history of common suffering.
Nevertheless, there is a suffering which is unique to God’s people, which John glimpses with the opening of the fifth seal (6:9-11), for under the (previously unmentioned) altar in heaven are the souls of the martyrs. Yet there has been nothing exceptional about their lives. They have been slain “for the word of God” and for their witness – something to which John and his audience are also called in common with all Christians (cf 1:9). Like many suffering Christians, these martyrs are concerned that God seems slow to establish his reign. The response, however, is a reminder that God’s timing is based on his plan to save all his people (cf Rom 11:25-26; 2 Pet 3:9).
And indeed with the opening of the sixth seal the longed-for end arrives (6:12-17) A comparison of the imagery in this passage with other parts of the Bible (Isa 13:9-11; Joel 2:30-32, etc) shows that this is truly the end of the world, the day of the wrath of God and of the Lamb. The only question remaining is “Who can stand before it?” (6:17).
The answer to this question is found in chapter 7, which only makes sense if we consider it as a ‘flashback’ – an insight into things which happened before the events of chapter 6. Here, at the command of God, no harm has yet befallen the world (7:3). Instead, using imagery drawn from Ezekiel (9:1-6), we see God’s people being preserved from the coming judgement. Not only that, but their precise numbering is heard (7:4-8). As so often in Revelation, however, the numbers are qualitative, indicating the significance of what is happening, rather than quantitative, giving us mathematical totals. What we learn from this numbering is that God knows and saves those who are his. Similarly, there is probably significance in John’s choice of twelve tribes, which omits the patriarch Dan and includes Manasseh, the son of Joseph (cf Acts 1:20).
From a human point of view, however, the ranks of God’s people are innumerable (cf Gen 15:5), and John now sees them standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb (7:9). And here is the answer to the question posed at the end of chapter 6 – these can stand before the day of God’s wrath, because God is their Saviour (7:10). But once again, we must remember they are not exceptional Christians – they are every Christian, for each of us is cleansed by the blood of the Lamb (7:14). Moreover, we are all called and destined to be God’s priests, serving him forever (7:15, cf 1:6; 5:10).
The words of 7:16 make it clear that we have now moved from before the judgement of chapter 6 into the New Age (cf 21:3-4). The opening of the seventh seal is therefore followed by silence, the proper response of the world when God is in his Temple (cf Hab 2:20). There is no more ‘world history’ to follow. And yet this silence only lasts half an hour, for it will be broken by a fresh cycle of visions. Clearly, therefore, there is more that God’s people need to know if they are to persevere in this world until the return of Christ.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped.