Revelations from REVELATION [chapter 6]

“Death On A Pale Horse” by Gustave Dore

…the lamb opened one of the seven seals… ~REVELATION 6:1

Let’s get cracking open these seals, shall we? Up to now we’ve had our prologue with the awesomeness of Jesus (ch.1), messages to the seven churches (ch.2-3), a fantastical throne room vision (ch.4-5), and now in chapters 6-16, we’ll have seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls unleashing all manner of havoc. Interspersed throughout the seal openings, trumpet blasts, and bowl pourings we’ll have 10 interludes, or interruptions or intermissions, if you will, and we’ll start talking about those next time.

Six seals are opened in this chapter, and the first four release those famous horses and riders of the apocalypse. We’ve got war, famine, pestilence, murder, death by wild animals, and one-fourth of the world’s population dying as a result.

It’s rough.

But you know what I found most intriguing in this chapter? — and I found a lot — it was the Lamb who opened these seals to unleash all the fury and mayhem.

What is John telling us?

Jesus is ultimately in control of the universe.

As well as that these “plagues” of Revelation have the simultaneous effect of hardening some hearts and purifying others. They are indeed punishment for all those on earth who have persecuted God’s followers and who refuse to turn from their evil and cruel ways of injustice to the loving invitation and justice of YHWH. But they are purification for the followers of Jesus, further refining them into Christ likeness as they endure and stay faithful thru the trials to the end.

Like the two who were on crosses next to Jesus facing the same horrific dilemma, it hardened the heart of the one, but softened the other’s heart towards God.

When Jesus defeated death and rose from the dead, disarming the evil spirits, He turned suffering, and all the world can throw at us, into a mere mechanism for God to carry out His plans, further His kingdom, refine His saints, and rule the universe with Divine Love.

This requires faith. This requires belief in the face of even the most extreme hardships, as we see in this chapter and beyond.

Commentator Brian Blount says, “One of John’s primary theological tasks is assuring his readers that, no matter how chaotic and destructive world affairs appear to be, God as just judge is in control….The chaotic situation erupting in their world is therefore the working out of God’s justice.”

And G.K. Beale writes that “now we see that Christ’s exalted place of rule gives Him authority even over these evil forces, such that He uses their evil intentions to accomplish a greater good–the judgement of unbelievers and the purifying of the saints. [Revelation] 6:1-8 describes an effect of Christ’s death and resurrection. He transformed the suffering of the cross into a triumph. Christ’s sovereignty over the four horsemen shows this…”

We would probably do well to remind ourselves of this often.

With regard to unfavorable circumstances, my friend Sam cleverly came up with this poignant self-examining question: “Am I going to allow this to define me, or to refine me?” Thanks to the work of Christ, suffering can always refine us.

Everyday I preach to myself, and hopefully to others, God is real, Jesus is alive and in charge, the Holy Spirit is among us.

Revelations from REVELATION [chapter 5]

One of the elders, however, spoke to me, “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw…a lamb. It was standing there as though it had been slaughtered…~REVELATION 5:5-6

One of the details in Revelation that I never paid close attention to is here in these two verses. And it has huge implications.

First, just a little bit of context. John sees a scroll sealed with seven seals in the right hand of Yahweh sitting on the throne (this throne room vision began in chapter 4). A mighty angel asks if there’s anyone worthy to open it and undo its seals. The answer is: nobody in the universe is able to open it. At this John bursts into tears thinking no one can know the will of God or carry out His plans against evil which are contained in that scroll. But then one of the twenty-four elders tells John not to cry because look! the Lion of Judah/Root of David (Messiah) has conquered and can open the scroll as well as its seals. But when John turns to get a look at this fierce lion of power and majesty, he sees…a little lamb. Not only that, but it’s been slaughtered–yet still standing.

Here is the detail I never really pondered: John hears that the Lion of Judah is worthy, but he sees a slaughtered Lamb. What’s up with this sacred shapeshifting? And not only that, but the Greek word John uses for lamb here is “arnion” which is diminutive and literally “lambkin.” John uses arnion 29 times in Revelation, all referring to Jesus except for one (13:11). Aaaaand, arnion-lambkin is used only one time elsewhere in the entire New Testament, in John 21:15, and there it refers to Jesus’s followers.

What’s the significance?

John is giving a completely new conception to his readers.

John is redefining what victory looks like.

God’s victory is won through suffering and His triumph is achieved through sacrifice. The Lamb is indeed as powerful as a Lion, but his power is exercised through what he suffers for the sake of others.”, says Professor of New Testament Craig Koester. Contrary to what many modern readers may say, John was not writing in some elaborate code to hide Jesus’s identity, he was revealing Jesus’s character. Remember, the word “revelation” means disclosure, not super secret code. (And if John was indeed writing in code, he needs to brush up his game as he gave a major spoiler alert in Revelation1:1!)

God’s kingdom is built through the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus–this is how the Lamb “conquers.” The theme of chapter 5 according to commentator G.K. Beale is: “Christ as Lion overcame by being slaughtered as a Lamb.” And don’t think for a second that this Lambkin is weak–it takes more strength than we can imagine to willingly submit to and walk into what He did for the sake of all of us. The way of the Lamb is not weakness, but strength beyond strength as we understand it, complete and perfect power (symbolized by the Lamb’s seven horns later in verse 6) . By contrast, the way of the dragon and Babylon is violence and exploitation which in the end, is pathetic and weak.

What might this mean for us today?

So back in chapters 2 and 3 in the letters to the seven churches, each message had a part towards the end which said basically that the one who conquers will receive an eternally extravagant reward in the end. For example, in the letter to the church in Laodicea, “This will be my gift to the one who conquers: I will sit them beside me on my throne, just as I conquered and sat with my father on his throne.” Conquering, according to the book of Revelation, is to remain an allegiant or faithful witness to Jesus Christ to the end, no matter how hostile the environment may become towards being such a witness. The words most used to the churches were “works” and “resilience” or we might say perseverance and endurance. Conquering, in the kingdom of God, is simply remaining faithful to Christ and absorbing whatever suffering may come as a result of that.

This is what victory looks like as John is redefining it for us here.

It does not look like crusades, conquistadors, or colonialism.

If I were a Baptist preacher obsessed with alliteration, I would say:

“In Revelation 5 we have a new Conception of Conquering! A new Paradigm of Power! And a new Vision of Victory!”

But since I’m not, I won’t.

I’ll close with some words by Scot McKnight from his new and very helpful book Revelation For The Rest Of Us which just came out last month:

Being an allegiant witness of enduring works is about the public expression and embodiment of the lordship of King Jesus.

Revelations from REVELATION [chapter 4]

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.” ~REVELATION 4:11

In chapter four John is treated to a vision of the heavenly throne room. And oh what a sight it is! He sees a throne with someone seated on it with the appearance of a jasper stone or a carnelian. We are to assume this is God of course, and notice that John compares God to nothing human, but rather precious stones for this person beyond comparison. Carnelian had a reddish tint to it which may indicate a fiery appearance.

There’s a rainbow around the throne looking like an emerald. This is a sign of God’s splendor as the rainbow in Ezekiel 1:28 was. It may also signify the mercy of God vis-à-vis the flood promise. As far as having an emerald appearance, that could be a sign of new creation–things are different now.

Around the throne are twenty-four elders who seem to represent all of God’s faithful witnesses, as well as God’s Divine Council which is mentioned several places in Scripture.

Flashes of lighting, rumblings, and thunderclaps are coming from the throne which hearken the reader to the Mount Sinai law-giving event. Yes, this should be somewhat terrifying simply because of who and what we are seeing.

Then seven lamp stands which are the seven spirits of God, burning with fire. Many think this represents the Holy Spirit or possibly the angels of the seven churches from chapters two and three. Fire designates the presence of God–think pillar of fire in the OT.

In front of the throne a sea of glass, like crystal. The sea represented chaos and danger; it’s where the beast comes from and where evil dwells. Perhaps this shows that the chaos and danger have been stilled and quieted before the throne of God..?

Right around the throne are these four living creatures, full of eyes, the first looking like a lion, the second an ox, third a human, and fourth an eagle in flight–each with six wings. These are a combination of creatures we find in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6. They’re constantly praising God with no rest. These four creatures likely represent all of animate creation doing what they’re made to do.

Then we come to the end of the chapter where the twenty-four elders fall before God and throw down their crowns at the throne–a common Greco-Roman practice of showing obeisance–and they say:

You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.

Does it get any more epic than this?!?

This chapter’s last verse has always meant a lot to me. First of all because my dad gave this verse to me to memorize about thirty years go when he was taking me thru a discipleship curriculum. Second, because of how all-encompassing it is, how grand of a summary statement we are given in it.

A couple of notes on the language and style: “Lord and God”–Kyrios kai Theos in Greek–was how the emperor of the time, Domitian, demanded to be addressed. John here is saying, “Look buddy, there is one person and one person only deserving of that title, and it sure as heaven ain’t you.” None of these power-mongering and violent leaders could ever come close to claiming they made the world that they so desperately sought to control.

The other interesting note is the odd structure and order of saying that all things by God’s will “existed and were created” as opposed to “were created and exist.” Every single commentary I looked at was in full agreement that the meaning being conveyed is that everything as we know it existed before it was created. Mind bender. It all existed in the will of God before He brought into actual being. I wonder if this is sorta like a song in your head that you end up recording, bringing it from your mind into a tangible form for others to enjoy. This is a fitting analogy I guess since God spoke the universe into being. Or perhaps it was more like He sang it into being, like Aslan with Narnia. This is even more fitting if the scientists are right about string theory, and the most fundamental constituents of the fabric of the universe are indeed nano-tiny strings vibrating at just the right frequency attuned by Yahweh. Fun to think about.

All this to simply say that God is worthy of constant praise because of who He is, for creating everything we know, and sustaining it by His unfathomable power at each moment. When we are praising God, we are fulfilling our function for which we were made. With the picture of the four living creatures representing all of nature, and the elders representing all of God’s faithful, we see nature and humanity in ceaseless praise of their Creator. We could also say that whenever we are doing that for which we were made, we are worshipping God.

No matter what is happening, God is worthy of praise. In any circumstance, our design is to give God that praise. There is tremendous power in this–kingdom of God power, because there is the flow of creation in good order. My mom died January 1st last year—still I praise God. October was by far the worst month of my life–still I praise God. We do not praise God only when we feel like it, or to lift us up and get a high, tho that may come, but we praise God at all times because He is God who created everything that exists; it’s all gift, and His love endures forever.

Revelations from REVELATION [chapter 3]

Modern day photo of where Sardis was, including some citadel ruins on top of the hill.

Write this to the angel of the church in Sardis…You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! ~REVELATION 3:1-2

The history of the city of Sardis is kind of interesting. It use to be one of the greatest and richest cities in the world, and a literal “city on a hill”–thought by its inhabitants and most others to be impregnable because it sat atop such incredibly steep, smooth cliffs. Yet it was conquered twice, around 547 BC and 214 BC, in the same way both times. Some determined, zealous soldier found a way up the cliffs by finding footholds in cracks in the precipitous rock in the middle of the nite. The soldier then led a group up the newly discovered difficult yet climbable route to find surprisingly at the top–no guard whatsoever! Sardis had become complacent, twice, and it cost them dearly.

The church at Sardis in the first century AD had also become complacent, relying on their good reputation while actually being a deadened community. Calling them “dead” connoted a state of spiritual and/or moral decay. They had been lulled into the complacency of the surrounding culture and are commanded to wake up.

The enemy is always at work to gain a foothold and lull us into complacency. Did you know that we are commanded in the New Testament to “wake up” or “watch” more than any other command? We drift from the Power that originally got us to a good place, then wonder what happened. We forget where we came from. We forget Who it really is we serve. We cease reflecting on the wonder, love, an power of the cross. Our trust in God’s ultimate control, Jesus’s constant care, and the Spirit’s supernatural empowerment wanes. Not because any of this is less true, but because we have steadily been coaxed to lessen our confidence and reliance upon ultimate Truth. We succumb to looking around at what the world points us to for answers, importance, life. “I show you the stone in my hand, you miss the knife at your throat.” *

It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and eternal watchfulness is the price of salvation. This is not a nervous paranoia, but a confident guard.

A personal example: I found myself recently losing my patience more than before with other drivers on the road. And it hit me that it’s not just my getting older and grumpier, or that drivers have become exponentially worse over the last two years. I had forsaken some of my spiritual vigilance. I use to use the majority of my driving time for fervent prayer–adoration of God, intercession for those I love, blessings upon the other drivers, whatever healing might be needed for every pedestrian I saw walking….Not surprisingly, I was more at peace when I was practicing this, and was less angry at getting cut off and what not because I was focused on something greater. Before, I was being watchful for what God might be trying to teach and instill in me at any given moment, but had grown lax and become more attuned to other drivers’ transgressions and who might be wronging me–how dare they!

I now need to return to what I practiced before, to a focus on my First Love. This is much of the message of Revelation to theses seven churches, and to us.

Wake up. Watch. Stay alert. Remember who you are and who alone you serve. Return to your former practices which you have let slip away. Be on guard against complacency by maintaining focus on God and where God is directing you, not on what society, news, or pride invite you to focus on.

*Quote from Mon Mothma in the Star Wars series ANDOR