(A sermon for Sunday, August 2, 2009 based on Revelation 6:1-8:5)
As time marches on, good and bad things happen; they always have and they always will. Christians have the wonderful opportunity to discover and understand the meaning of the events of our lives, even if they are negative events because we know that God is working God’s purposes out. We also have the privilege of knowing that no matter what happens, we are safe in the arms of God. We are, as the old song puts it, “safe and secure from all alarm.” And that is the main thing that John’s vision of the opening of the seven seals teaches us.
A brief word is in order about the structure of the book of Revelation. Today’s text offers us a picture of the opening of seven seals and the resulting events. That picture will be followed by one of seven trumpets. That picture will in turn be followed by one of seven golden bowls. Those three sets of seven events should be seen as parallel rather than as consecutive. They picture the same kinds of scenarios from three differing perspectives. They all affirm that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ history is going to unfold according to God’s purpose.
Remember now that in the symbolic world of Revelation the seven seals are on a scroll that the Lamb, who represents Jesus Christ, is opening. He is able to open the seals and to instigate the events of the scroll because he conquered through his sacrificial death. Therefore, the events of the scroll are in progress and have been in progress ever since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. So it is not surprising that when the Lamb opens the first four seals, conflict happens.
As the first four seals are opened we see four horses with four riders.
The first horse is white and its rider carries a bow. In John’s day, one of the great threats to the peace of the Roman Empire came from the Parthians to the east, who were known for their mounted archers and for whom white was a sacred color. The second horse, a red one, represents the bloody destruction that takes place in war. The third horse is black and represents the death and pain that come from famine. Famine is the cause for the inflated prices for wheat and barley in v. 6, while the reference to not harming oil and wine may indicate the class distinctions that take place in time of famine; the well to do still have their luxuries. The fourth horse is pale green and represents death in a summary way.
As you can see, the four horses and horsemen stand for warfare with all its attendant sufferings. Of course, in time of conflict, both the guilty and the innocent, the good and the evil die and are harmed. War and conflict are the inevitable results of the evil that people do.
Sometimes Christians are caught up in the fallout of war and conflict. Sometimes Christians are directly targeted by hatred and persecution. Either way, they suffer for the Word of God. Either way, they risk and sometimes experience martyrdom. Literal martyrdom is well beyond the experience of most American Christians. I would remind you, though, that even as we worship here this morning many Christians around the world are paying terrible prices for their faith. I would also remind you that we, just like those who are being actively persecuted, are called by God to remain faithful to him no matter what. To be a martyr is to be a witness, and we witness to our faith by our faithfulness.
The opening of the fifth seal leads to a vision of those who have given their lives for their faith. They are under the altar in heaven, and from there they ask that justice be done. They are told to rest until the persecutions and martyrdoms that will take place through all of history are completed. As G. K. Beale has said, “Such sufferings are not meaningless but are part of God’s providential plan that Christians should pattern their lives after the sacrificial model of Jesus. Seen from the heavenly perspective, such sufferings ironically advance the kingdom of God, as was the case with Christ himself…” [The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 389]. This vision affirms that the souls of martyrs are safe in heaven, that more suffering is yet to come, and that justice will finally be done.
When the sixth seal is opened, Old Testament language is employed to describe further judgment on the world. The main idea is that the evil of people infects the social and political systems of the world and so there is constant great upheaval. Based on the Old Testament imagery employed, “we have every justification . . . for supposing that in John’s imagery the earthquake stands for the overthrow of a worldly political order organized in hostility to God” [G. B. Caird, A Commentary on The Revelation of St. John the Divine(New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 90].
One day there will be a great judgment, as Revelation will later make clear. But the judgment of God is always taking place in every era of history. Sin leads to upheaval and to strife and to war. That is the meaning of the seals. Through all of the trials and tribulations of human history, God is working his purposes out. Sacrifice is required on the part of God’s people as we live through those processes. Indeed, sacrifice and even martyrdom are part of those processes.
It is encouraging to know that no matter what, we are playing a part in God’s plan to redeem the world. But is there any other encouragement in these chapters of Revelation? Indeed there is. It comes in the form of two visions that go together. The first is the famous vision of the sealing of the 144,000. As always, we must remember that we are living in a symbolic world in Revelation. The number 144,000, which is not to be taken literally, is arrived at by multiplying 12 by 12,000. In the symbolic vision, 12,000 people are sealed from each tribe of Israel.
In the thought world of Revelation, the church is the new Israel. Twelve is a number of completeness. Therefore, the vision communicates that the totality of God’s people is sealed so as to be protected from the great tribulation that takes place throughout church history. Obviously, they are not sealed from physical harm, because people have been suffering and dying for their faith and continue to suffer and die for their faith. They are sealed spiritually; nothing can ultimately harm them because their lives are hid with Christ in heaven.
That truth is underscored by the following vision, in which John sees a vast multitude, one so great that “no one could count . . ., standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (7:9). This is the same group as the 144,000, and they are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). In other words, John is seeing all those who ever have and who ever will persevere in their faith and die as martyrs or otherwise die in their faith. They are sealed in the sense that they will be with God, safe and secure for all eternity.
My, do those people celebrate! John sees them singing hymns and having a great time of worship. What do they sing about? They sing about their salvation, which has connotations of deliverance in this context (7:10). They sing about the power of God, which they know firsthand (7:12). It’s a lot to sing about, isn’t it? And shouldn’t we sing about it down here, too, if we are among those who have been sealed and saved? No matter what we’re going through, should we not be bursting with worship of our great Lord for his promises to us, promises the fulfillment of which all those who have gone before us are already experiencing? Yes, we can live in this life, down here, with the faith of the sealed. As Eugene Peterson has said, John “is providing us a picture of what happens to persons who live by faith in a world noisy with evil” [Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (HarperSanFrancico: 1988), p. 84].
Not only should we be celebrating; we should also be praying. When the seventh seal is opened, silence happens. Then seven angels are given seven trumpets, which will lead to the next set of visions. But then another angel mixes incense with the prayers of the saints, and that leads to more upheaval and judgment. You see, our prayers do matter. They contribute to what God is doing in this world. The sealed people need to be a praying people and a worshipping people.
Judgment has happened, judgment is happening, and judgment will happen. Evil still has much sway in this world. The gospel goads and picks and pushes and pulls, causing trouble in its own way. All the while Christians suffer and are martyred for their testimony to Christ and as the result of their participation in a life like his. But when all is said and done, we truly are “safe and secure from all alarm.” Isn’t it inspiring to know that your place in heaven is secure and that you can live faithfully and securely right now?