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Revelation 3 - The Seven Seals on the Scroll (4:1 - 8:1)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

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Introduction Four main views of Revelation
1: Prologue (1:1-8) 2: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
3: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) 4: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
5: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) 6: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
7: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) 8: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
9: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) 10: Epilogue (22:10-21)
Millennium Rapture and tribulation
Jesus the Lamb


Setting (4:1 - 5:14): John in the Spirit in the heavenly throne room
     a. God the Father, the One seated on the throne (ch 4) - Praised as creator
     b. The Lamb who was slain, worthy to open the scroll (ch 5) - Praised as redeemer
Seal 1 (6:1-2): The white horse - conquering
Seal 2 (6:3-4): The red horse - taking peace from earth - slaughter
Seal 3 (6:5-6): The black horse - economic hardship
Seal 4 (6:7-8): The pale green horse - Death and Hades
Seal 5 (6:9-11): The martyrs under the altar, asking “How long?”
Seal 6 (6:12-17): The wrath of the Lamb, “Who is able to stand?”
1st interlude (7:1-8): The 144,000 servants of God sealed from 12 tribes
2nd interlude (7:9-17): The great multitude from every nation
Seal 7 (8:1): Half hour silence

Setting (4:1 - 5:14): John in the Spirit in the heavenly throne room

This is the longest setting in the book, lasting two whole chapters. In the first part John sees God the Father, the One seated on the throne, who praised as the creator (4:1-11). John sees the throne and one sitting on it (4:1-6a), then the response of four living creatures and the heavenly worship (4:6b-11). In the second part, he sees The Lamb who was slain, worthy to open the scroll, who is praised as the redeemer (5:1-14). The question is asked, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” (5:1-5), and on the slain Lamb is worthy (5:6-10), and the response in heaven is once again praise of God and the Lamb (5:11-14).

The throne and the one sitting on it (4:1-6a)

The 'after this' comes twice in the first verse, referring to the visions coming after the previous vision of the risen Lord Jesus dictating the letters to seven churches. The visions came in the order recorded in the book, but that does not necessarily mean they come in this exact chronological order in history.

John hears the voice like a trumpet, the voice of the risen Jesus, which he heard before (1:10). Jesus invites John to, “Come up here”, into the heavenly throne room. In the futurist view, this is often understood to represent the rapture of the church at the beginning of the seven year tribulation, so all the visions from chapter four onwards are set in the far future. This has the unfortunate effect of making most of the book rather irrelevant to John’s first readers in the seven churches, and to everyone since then. Also, it is John who is taken up to heaven, not the church. In the context of the book, it is more likely that John is being invited up to heaven 'in the Spirit' to see further visions. These will give him more understanding of what is happening in the seven churches from a heavenly point of view.

The first thing he sees in heaven is a throne, and one seated on it. In this setting God is described as the “one sitting on the throne” seven times (4:2,3,9,10, 5:1,7,13). This is an important message to John’s readers. During a time of persecution and hardship it can appear that events are out of control. Even though the emperors claim to be divine and to rule the world, they are only there because God is allowing them. Political leaders and tyrants will come and go, but they are not the ultimate king. God is king forever, and remains in control of events on earth. The seven-fold repetition of the description may represent that God has total control as the perfect king. The Book of Revelation has a strong theme of God’s sovereignty, while at the same time maintaining human responsibility and accountability.

The heavenly scene described here is a combination of several of the significant visions of God in the OT, (eg. Ex 19, 24, Is 6, Ezek 1). It is left to the reader to identify 'the one sitting on the throne' as God the Father. The only description of God is that he is like jasper and carnelian. No other physical description is given. Jasper and carnelian were the first and last stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Ex 28:17-20), as well as being two of the foundations in the heavenly city Jerusalem (21:11,19). It is difficult to identify these stones by their modern names. Jasper is a green stone which may represent purity and holiness, and carnelian is a red stone which may represent judgment.

Everything in the rest of this setting is described in relation to the throne. There seven things around or in front of the throne: a rainbow (4:3), twenty-four elders on thrones (4:4), seven torches (4:5), a sea of glass (4:6), four living creatures (4:6b), many angels (5:11) and every creature (5:13). God is at the centre, the sovereign ruler of everything in heaven and on earth.

The rainbow is a symbol of God’s mercy and faithfulness, reminding us of His covenant with Noah never to flood the earth again (Gen 9:8-17). The sovereign God is surrounded by a sign of his mercy and reluctance to judge. It is difficult to say how a seven-coloured rainbow can be like an emerald (a green stone) unless it sparkles like a jewel.

Also around the throne are twenty-four elders on their thrones. These could represent the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles, as these two groups are also together in the gates and foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem (21:12,14). However it is more likely that the group of twenty- four comes from the twenty-four courses of priesthood in the OT, listed in 1 Chronicles (1 Chr 24- 25). These took it in turns to lead the worship in the temple. These twenty-four elders are also mentioned seven times in this setting (4:4,10, 5:5,6,8,11,14). In most of these verses they are not sitting on their thrones but have fallen down to worship God and the Lamb, throwing their crowns before the throne. These elders are wearing white robes, the colour of purity. The robes are probably priestly robes, similar to the one worn by the risen Jesus (1:13).

From the throne come lightning and thunder, as on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19). These manifestations appear in several of the settings describing events in the heavenly throne room. John explains that the seven torches represent the seven spirits (also 1:4). As noted before, the seven spirits represent the Holy Spirit, drawn from the seven characteristics of the Spirit resting on the shoot from Jesse (Is 11:2, in the Greek translation of the OT).

Also before the throne is “something like a sea of glass, like crystal”. Notice how John finds it difficult to describe in words what the scene looked like. He uses many similes to describe the appearance, saying it was 'something like this'. He sees the sea of glass again later, this time mixed with fire, when the redeemed sing the song of Moses (15:2). This may represent beauty and stillness before Almighty God, showing the transcendence of God, his holy otherness. When Moses and the seventy elders saw God on Mt. Sinai, “under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (Ex 24:10). Also, in his vision Ezekiel saw a dome shining like crystal, or like a sapphire under the throne (Ezek 1:22,10:1) This is probably the same thing that John is describing here.

The four living creatures and the heavenly worship (4:6b-11)

John now describes the four living creatures around the throne. These also appear seven times in this setting (4:6,8,9, 5:6,8,11,14), and like the elders are worshipping God and the Lamb. These are heavenly beings who live in the glorious presence of God, and continually praise him. They were also seen by Ezekiel in his vision of the glory of God in Babylon (Ezek ch 1 & 10), where they are called cherubim. There they also have the same four faces as here: lion, ox, man and eagle. In Ezekiel’s vision the rims of the wheels of the heavenly throne were covered with eyes (Ezek 1:18, 10:12). Two cherubim guarded the entrance to the garden of Eden (Gen 3:24). In tabernacle, there were two cherubim whose wings met over the mercy on the ark of the covenant, and the curtains were decorated with cherubim (Ex 25:18, 26:1). Cherubim guard the holiest things of God. The seraphim that Isaiah saw in his vision are similar, also having six wings (Is 6:2). There are various suggestions of what the different animal faces represent. The lion is the strongest of the wild animals, the ox the strongest domestic animal, the eagle the strongest bird of prey, and man the most intelligent creature on earth. These creatures have also been used to represent the different gospel writers through church history.

The four living creatures now sing the first of fourteen praise songs recorded through rest of the book (4:8,11, 5:9-10,12,13, 7:10,12, 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 19:1-2,3,4,5,6-8), all which come in the glorious scenes of heavenly victory. This first song is similar to the one Isaiah heard, when the seraphim sung of God’s holiness (Is 6:3). Notice God is again described as the Almighty, and the one who was and is and is to come. He is the all-powerful creator, but also the 'I am', the personal God of the OT who drew close and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.

There is now an inspiring description of the heavenly worship that John witnessed. The four living creatures sung the first song (4:8), and the twenty-four elders respond by singing the second song (4:11). The elders cast their crowns before the throne, acknowledging God’s sovereign rule as king, and recognising that their own position is subject to him.

In the second song, the twenty-four elders proclaim that God is worthy of praise because he created all things. They address God as 'Lord and God', which was the title claimed by Domitian, the Roman emperor. God the Father is the true Lord and God, not any human being. This is true because he is the creator of all things. Nothing else shows God’s amazing power, authority and worthiness to receive our worship than the fact that he created all things. As creator he is all- powerful, and has authority over his creation as Lord of the universe. All things only exist because God intended them to exist. The truth of God being the creator should be an inspiration to worship and is a great builder of faith.

So in the first part of this setting, we are introduced to God the Father, the sovereign ruler of the universe one sitting on the throne of heaven and being praised because he is the creator of the world. He is worthy of our worship as the Creator.

Who is worthy to open the scroll? (5:1-5)

John now sees that God the Father is holding a scroll in his right hand. Unusually this scroll is written on both sides, and is sealed with seven seals.

We are never told what is written on the scroll, but only what happens when the seals are opened. In the first century scrolls with seven seals contained a will or testament, which needed seven witnesses to open them. Ezekiel also saw a scroll written on both sides with words of lamentation, mourning and woe (Ezek 2:10). This scroll probably contains God’s plan for the world involving the salvation of God’s people, and the judgment of the wicked, and the establishment of his kingdom. God’s plan of redemption is the centre of history, and without it history is meaningless. To remove the seals and open the scroll is to reveal and to carry out God’s plan for the world. The only person worthy to do this is the Lamb, Jesus. This scene shows that God is giving Jesus the authority to carry out this plan for the world, so Jesus is key to understand the history of humanity, being the central person of history.

A mighty angel asks the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”, but no one is found. There is no one who is worthy to carry out the plan of God. Only someone with the righteousness and holiness of God would be worthy. John becomes personally involved in the vision and weeps bitterly because no one is found who is worthy. If this was true, it would mean that God’s plan of salvation and the establishment of his kingdom could not happen, so it is not surprising that he wept.

However, one of the elders tells him not to weep, because there is someone worthy. This person is “the lion of the tribe of Judah”. This is a messianic title from Genesis, where Judah was described as a lion’s whelp, and the promise is given that the sceptre will not depart from them (Gen 49:9-10). From the tribe of Judah will come the true king of Israel. He is also “the root of David”, a descendent of king David. This image comes from Isaiah’s prediction of the shoot growing up once again from the root of Jesse (the father of David), who will be God’s anointed king (Is 11:1-5). He has conquered and so is worthy to open the scroll, but at this stage in the vision it does not say how he conquered. We would naturally think that the lion represents a powerful conquering king.

The slain Lamb is worthy (5:6-10)

Now comes another surprise. John is thinking he will see a lion, the most powerful animal in God’s creation, but instead sees a lamb, the complete opposite from what he was expecting. However this lamb is even weaker, because it has been slaughtered. It was a sacrificed lamb, weak and defenceless, but is still a lion! It is left to the reader to identify who the lamb is. However, John the Baptist did this for us when he saw Jesus and said, "Look, here is the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:36).

The description of Jesus as the Lamb is particularly characteristic of the Book of Revelation. It shows an amazing paradox, that true strength is found in weakness, and victory is achieved through apparent defeat (cf. 2 Cor 12:9). This would be a powerful encouragement to John’s persecuted readers, and is the central message of both the Book of Revelation, and the Christian Gospel.

This lamb has been slaughtered, with its throat slit and its blood poured out as a sacrifice. This word describes a sacrificial death, and is used seven times through the book (also 5:9,12, 6:4,9, 13:8, 18:24). It is not used to describe death through war or other conflict, but only the death of Jesus on the cross or the martyrdom of believers. It alludes to Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant of God who was like a lamb that was led to the slaughter (Is 53:7). We now see that the lion of Judah is the same as the Lamb, and that he conquered through being sacrificed. Jesus achieved victory through his death on the cross. Through this death, he conquered all his enemies, including death, sin, Satan, and all who would exalt themselves against him or his people. The risen exalted Jesus is still the Lamb of God, and still bears the wounds of the cross on his body, as Thomas witnessed on the day after the resurrection (Jn 20:27). We now understand that conquering in this book is not describing military conquest, whether by Jesus or his people. Jesus conquered through his death on the cross, and the believers conquer through maintaining their faithful testimony to Jesus, even to the point of martyrdom (12:11). The Lamb has seven horns. Horns often represent strength, so seven horns represents complete strength. He also has seven eyes, which John defines as the seven spirits of God, the Holy Spirit (1:4). The seven eyes would suggest that Jesus is all-seeing. Through his Spirit he knows everything that is happening in the world, including the persecution the readers are experiencing.

John now witnessed a dramatic moment when the Lamb took the scroll, which only he was worthy to open. The response for the four living creatures and twenty-four elders is to fall down and worship the Lamb. They now worship the Lamb in the same way as they have just worshipped God the Father (4:10), again making a powerful statement of the deity of Jesus.

The elders are holding bowls of incense which John explains represents the prayers of the saints. David asked that God would let his prayer be counted as incense (Ps 141:2). Later, the seven trumpets are linked with the prayers of the saints (8:3). It is encouraging for us to see that the words we say in prayer are heard in heaven, and that they have powerful effects.

The elders and living creatures sing a new song. In the OT, a new song was often a song of salvation or deliverance (eg. Ps 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, Is 42:10). The content of this song is very rich. It is important that we think carefully about the words we sing in church, as they teach us powerful truths about God and work of Jesus. This song contains some wonderful truths for us to ponder on.

The elders answer the question asked earlier (5:2), saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open the seals”. The reason he is worthy is that he was slaughtered. They are praising the Lamb for the work of the cross, that salvation is now available to all. Jesus is worthy of worship because he is the redeemer.

The blood of Jesus was a ransom. His death was the price paid to set us free from the bondage of sin, just as slaves were freed on the payment of a ransom. The people who were ransomed are the saints, a frequent description of the believers in the NT. Saints are people who are set apart for God, and declared holy to the Lord because they have received for themselves the work of the cross. They come from every tribe, language, people and nation. This phrase again appears seven times through the book (also 7:9, 10:11, 11:9, 13:7, 14:6, 17:15), perhaps to emphasise that salvation through Jesus is available to absolutely everyone in every place in the world. The concept here is that Jesus saves people out of every group of people of the world, from all different languages and nationalities, and from them makes a new people of God, who are united in Christ. This new people of God are described as a kingdom and as priests. As noted before (1:6), these were titles for Israel (Ex 19:6), now applied to the Christians (see also 1 Pet 2:9). People enter the kingdom of God through repentance and faith, and can reign with Christ now, even if they are martyred (20:6). They will reign with him when he returns to establish his kingdom in all its fullness. There is a great emphasis on the kingdom of God through all the NT Jesus came and preached the coming of the kingdom (Mk 1:15). This kingdom was inaugurated during the incarnation of Jesus, and will be established in its fullness when Jesus returns a second time.

Heavenly praise of God and Lamb (5:11-14)

This setting ends with the praises of many angels and of all creation to the Lamb. A multitude of angels reply with another song of praise. Again they declare that the Lamb is worthy because he was slaughtered. They too are answering the question of who was worthy to open the scroll posed earlier (5:2). They give seven-fold praise to the Lamb: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory and blessing, representing complete and perfect praise.

Finally they are joined in praise by every creature everywhere. They are singing praise to both God the Father - the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb. Again the Lamb is recognised as being equal to the Father, and the same praise is given to both. The four living creatures agree with this worship by saying, 'Amen'. The elders also fell down and worshipped, as they too are agreeing with the worship of the Lamb and joining in themselves.

So in this setting, God the father, the one seated on the throne, is praised because he is the creator of the world. Then Jesus, the Lamb, is praised because he is the redeemer of the saints from every nation and people in the world. He receives the same praise and worship as God the Father. We are now ready for the Lamb to start opening the seven seals.

Seal 1 (6:1-2): The white horse - conquering

As the Lamb opens each seal, one of the four living creatures says, 'Come'. Each living creature calls one horse, so the first four seals are the four horses. Each one comes on the command of the Lamb, and are permitted to do things or are given authority by Jesus. Everything is still under the control of the God who is seated on the throne. These horses allude back to the horsemen of God who patrolled the earth (Zech 1:8-12, 6:1-8).

The first horse is white, and its rider is given a crown of victory and goes out to conquer. There is great debate over whether the white horse is good or bad. It is often thought to represent nations conquering other nations and causing war, but this is not consistent with how the images are used through the rest of the book. Firstly the horse is white. The colour white is never used to describe the evil forces in the book, but is always associated with either Jesus or the saints (1:14, 2:17, 3:4,5,18, 4:4, 6:11, 7:9,13,14, 14:14, 15:6, 19:14, 20:11). Later Jesus himself appears on a white horse (19:11). Secondly its rider is given a crown. There are two types of crown in this book: a crown of victory, and a kingly diadem. The crown here is a victory crown, which is never worn by the evil forces, but always by either Jesus or the saints (2:10, 3:11, 4:4,10, 6:2, 12:1, 14:14). Thirdly this horse goes out to conquer. This is normally, but not always, used to describe the saints maintaining their faithful witness to Jesus. For example, the blessing in each of the letters to the churches is for those that conquer, the Lamb had conquered (5:5), and people conquer the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (12:11). However, the beast does conquer the saints (13:7), probably by killing them. Also, the second, third and fourth horses have nasty results described, and none are described for the first horse. So this horse probably represents Jesus going out and conquering, and this is done through the preaching of the Gospel, through which people are delivered from Satan’s kingdom and added to God’s kingdom.

Seal 2 (6:3-4): The red horse - taking peace from the earth - slaughter

The second horse is red, and is allowed to take peace away from the earth so people slaughter one another. This is not describing warfare, but people suffering a sacrificial death. So this probably represents the persecution and martyrdom of believers. These first two horses then show the two sides of the Gospel. Jesus and the saints conquer through the preaching of the Gospel, and people being saved, but there are also the negative consequences of division and persecution.

Seal 3 (6:5-6): The black horse - economic hardship

The third horse is black and carries a pair of scales, representing buying and selling in the marketplace. There are shortages of the basic foods, making them very expensive, but there was no shortage of the luxuries. Prices for basic food have been inflated about sixteen times, so enough wheat to make a loaf of bread costs a whole day’s wages. This represents economic hardship, particularly for believers. It was difficult for Christians to belong to the trade guilds, because of the idolatry and immorality involved, as the people in the church in Pergamum were experiencing (2:14). Also if people refused to worship the emperor, life would be difficult and they would experience economic hardship. The same often happens to believers today. If they refuse to follow the ways of the world, like using bribery, they will find it difficult to succeed in business in many countries.

Seal 4 (6:7-8): The pale green horse - Death and Hades

The fourth horse is pale green, the colour of a corpse. It represents Death and Hades. They were given authority over a quarter of the earth - a portion, but not all. Notice that they are only given authority as final authority belongs to God alone. They kill with sword, famine, pestilence and wild animals, the same as frequently predicted by prophets such as Jeremiah (eg. Jer 14:12). However, for believers, death is not the end. Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54), also Death and Hades will finally be thrown into the lake of fire (20:14).

So to summarise: the horses represent the gospel going out and conquering, but with the consequences of persecution, economic hardship and martyrdom for the believers. In the next seal we see where the martyrs are now. This is all happening during the present age, and was the experience of John’s original readers in Asia.

Seal 5 (6:9-11): The martyrs under the altar, asking, 'How long?'

This scene shows us where the martyrs are now, those who had been killed by the red horseman (6:4). The souls of the martyrs are now under the altar. This could either be the incense altar, connected with the prayers of the saints (8:3-4), or the altar of burnt offering where sacrifices were consumed. Paul spoke about his own death as a libation about to be poured out (2 Tim 4:6). Notice the souls of the martyrs are under the altar. During this present age, they are still waiting to receive their resurrection bodies (1 Cor 15). These were slaughtered (a sacrificial death) for the word of God and their testimony. This was the same reason that John was on the island of Patmos (1:9). We will be shown the same group once again in the description of the millennium (20:4). Many believers were killed during persecutions by the Romans, particularly after the fire of Rome in AD 64, including Peter and Paul. But the important message here is that death is not the end, and they are now in the presence of God. Death cannot separate them from the love of God (Rom 8:38).

They cry out to God, asking how long it will be until God will judge and avenge their blood on the inhabitants of the earth (the unbelievers). This question is often asked in Scripture (eg. Ps 79:10). The answer is, 'not yet', but is given later in the book, when the day of final judgement eventually comes (18:20, 24, 19:2). They (and us) have to trust God’s justice and follow Paul’s instructions not to avenge ourselves, but to leave room for the wrath of God, because, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19-20). They are given a white robe, the colour of purity and holiness, representing the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. They are also told to wait until the full number of believers have been martyred. At the end of the first century, the persecution in Asia was about to get more severe, and there would be several intense periods of persecution over the next few hundred years. Persecution still continues today in many nations, but the promise is that the martyrs will immediately go into the presence of God, and that their blood will be avenged. We are given no hint of how long they will have to wait, and must not speculate. Jesus has not returned yet because he wants more people to repent, so the delay is because of his mercy. Persecution and martyrdom will continue with greater or lesser intensity until the second coming.

So during the present time, Jesus is conquering with the Gospel, but with this comes persecution, economic hardship and death, but the martyrs are now in the presence of God, waiting for the day of vengeance at the final judgement.

Seal 6 (6:12-17): The wrath of the Lamb, 'Who is able to stand?'

With the sixth seal we come to the great day of wrath. As noted before, the sixth scene of many of the sections describes judgement on the great day. This suggests that we should not take the visions in this book chronologically. This is only chapter six, and is already describing the final judgment.

The great day is a day of cosmic catastrophe. A similar description of the end is found in the prophets and elsewhere in Scripture (eg. Mt 24:29). The whole of the physical creation seems to be affected. Seven parts of creation are listed (earthquake, sun, moon, stars, sky, mountains and islands), meaning that this is total complete destruction. On this day seven groups of humanity try to hide, (kings, magnates, generals, the rich, powerful, slave and free), showing that all unbelieving humanity try to hide from the wrath of the Lamb. However there is one group not trying to hide - the saints. This is because, on the cross, Jesus took the wrath that we deserved.

The scene ends with a question, asking who is able to stand on the great day of wrath? Before the seventh seal there are two interludes, both introduced with 'I saw'. They show us who can stand blameless on the great day of wrath, thus answering the question. We know from other places in the NT, that the only people who have been saved from the wrath of God are those who have been cleansed from their sin through the grace of Christ, so these two interludes must describe the believers.

1st interlude (7:1-8): The 144,000 servants of God sealed from 12 tribes

This is a very controversial passage, with numerous suggested interpretations, so humility is called for. It is important to look beyond the number 144,000 and to take account of the other details given in this interlude. Also we need to remember that in apocalyptic writing numbers normally have special meanings, rather than merely being a statistical unit.

Four angels hold back the four winds, preventing them from damaging the earth and sea until the servants of God are sealed. The picture is of the angels holding back the destructive power of God’s judgement until the saints are sealed to protect them from the wrath of God. Remember, these interludes are answering the question, “Who can stand on the great day of wrath?”. The four angels are only released to bring destruction when the sixth trumpet is blown (9:15), on the final day of judgement.

God’s wrath is held back until the servants of God are sealed with a seal on their foreheads. There are two groups of people in Revelation: the believers with the seal of God, and the unbelievers without the seal of God. As noted before, the seal of God is the name of the God, and is the godly antithesis of the mark of the beast, which is the name of the beast. The locusts in the fifth trumpet only affect those without the seal of God (9:4). In the heavenly city, God’s servants worship him and have his name on their foreheads (22:4). The 144,000 are seen later with the Lamb on Mt. Zion, again with the name of the Lamb and his Father on their foreheads (14:1).

There are several places in the OT where such a distinction is made between God’s people and his enemies. During final plague of Egypt, the death of the firstborn, houses marked with the blood of a lamb were 'passed over' by the angel of death (Ex 12:23). Ezekiel was told to go through Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who groan over the abominations committed in the city. Those without the mark were to be cut down, and those with the mark were spared (Ezek 9:4-6). In both these instances there was a similar distinction between the godly and the wicked. In the NT, believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13, 4:30, 2 Cor 1:22). The Holy Spirit is God’s mark of ownership on his people, so it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the believer that saves them from the wrath of God.

John is told how many people have the seal of God - 144,000. He did not count them himself, as ultimately only God knows how many belong to him. There are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes listed. At first sight we would assume that these are the twelve tribes of Israel, so this group are all Jews. However this is not the normal list of the tribes of Israel, which could suggest these are not representing physical Israel. The tribe of Levi is included, but Levi was the priestly tribe and received no allocation of land. The list includes both Joseph and Manasseh. Joseph had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who became two separate tribes, so there was no tribe of Joseph in Israel. This list therefore effectively includes Manasseh twice, but omits Ephraim, the most important tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel. However, Ephraim may be omitted because Jeroboam the Ephraimite led the rebellion causing the division of the kingdom in 931 BC. (1 Kg 12, Hos 7). The tribe of Dan is omitted altogether. This may be because Dan fell into idolatry (Judges 17), and was considered apostate in Jewish writing. The list begins with Judah, even though Reuben was the oldest son. Judah may be listed first here because it was the kingly tribe, from which Jesus was descended.

If we look at the two censuses in the Book of Numbers we will see that the tribes of Israel were of widely differing sizes (Num ch 1 & 26). Through their history, ten of the twelve tribes lost their identity after the exile by Assyria in 722 BC. The tribe of Simeon gradually became absorbed into Judah and lost their distinct identity. The title 'Jew' is derived from 'Judah', because Judah became the main tribe of the nation of Israel after the exile, when the people of Israel were first known as Jews (Ezra 4:12).

The number 144,000 is probably a number symbolising the complete number of the people of God. In apocalyptic writing twelve was the number representing God’s people. Here we have twelve times twelve, times a thousand. The number thousand represents the Messiah, so we have a complete perfect number of people associated with the Messiah. So these are the believers sealed with the seal of God, the church on earth who can stand safe during the wrath of God.

2nd interlude (7:9-17): The great multitude from every nation

In the second interlude John sees a different group, a great multitude out of every nation standing before the Lamb. There are so many people in this group that no one can count them. They are the redeemed out of every nation, tribe, language and nation (5:9). We see that Revelation has quite a strong evangelistic emphasis. The Gospel will be preached to all nations, before the end comes (Mt 24:14). The multitude are standing in the heavenly throne room which John described in the setting of the seven seals (ch 4 & 5). They are robed in white, because they have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (7:14). The multitude declare that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb, and the angels respond by once again falling on their faces with songs of worship, again giving seven-fold praise to God.

John again becomes involved in the vision when the elder asks him who the people are. John perhaps wisely leaves it to the elder to answer for him, who then identifies who this multitude is, and tells John where they have come from. They have come out of the great ordeal or tribulation. They were previously experiencing tribulation, but have now come out of it because they are now in heaven. This tribulation is not just a period at the end of this age, but the persecution that was being experienced by John’s readers in Asia, and throughout church history. When a saint dies, he leaves the tribulation behind. The elder identifies them as the ones who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. This is a powerful image of the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, and is certainly not intended to be taken literally.

The next description brings a set of wonderful promises for the believer, describing the future life of those who have been redeemed from the earth, that we can also look forward to. This will give great hope in a time of persecution. Even though life is difficult now, and martyrdom is a possibility, there is a wonderful future waiting for the saints. This can also encourage friends and relatives of those who have died, to know that their loved ones are now in a better place than us.

The saints will be before the throne of God, enjoying his presence, worshipping and serving him forever (also 22:3-4). There will be no more hardships or suffering. The Lamb will be their shepherd, looking after his sheep, guiding them to the water of life, which is eternal life. God the Father himself will comfort them, wiping the tears away from their eyes.

So these two interludes answer the question, “Who can stand during the wrath of God?”. The first group are the saints on earth who have the seal of God, the 144,000, a large number. The second group are the saints who have been redeemed from the earth and are now in heaven, the great multitude. Together these two interludes represent the complete church: the believers still on earth, and the believers who are already in glory. They are the only people who can stand on the great day of wrath.

Seal 7 (8:1): Half hour silence

The seventh seal is half an hour of silence, so we have no certainty of what this is. It could be a pause for dramatic effect, as John digested the visions he had seen so far. In the following sections of the book, the seventh scene normally describes the end, after the kingdom has come in its fullness and God’s people are celebrating his victory. But this scene remains a mystery.

The seventh and last seal on the scroll is now opened, but the opening and reading of the scroll is never described. It is not mentioned again. The next section is the seven trumpets of God’s partial judgements during this age, which foreshadow the final judgement.

Also available:

Introduction Four main views of Revelation
1: Prologue (1:1-8) 2: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
3: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) 4: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
5: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) 6: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
7: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) 8: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
9: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) 10: Epilogue (22:10-21)
Millennium Rapture and tribulation
Jesus the Lamb