Revelation Week 5
The Great Tribulation of the Last Days (Revelation 6:1–8:1)
By Rob Wall
Seattle Pacific University Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Revelation 6:1–8:1
Podcast read by Carla M. Wall
The Lamb Alone is Worthy to Open the Scroll
We need to return for a moment to John’s sighting of the scroll, which the Almighty One held in his right hand (Revelation 5:1). This scene captures our attention because of the obvious importance of the secrets written down on God’s scroll: when no one is found worthy to break open the seals that strap the scroll shut, the entire creation, including the prophet, weeps and mourns for fear they will never know the Creator’s plan to restore creation (cf. 5:1–4; see 4:11). Their tears turn to worship and praise when at last someone is found worthy to take and open the scroll (see 5:7) and publish its glad tidings so that the Creator’s plan will begin (cf. 5:11–14). That someone, of course, is God’s Lamb, slaughtered to pay the purchase price to God for every person of every nation: he is the paschal Lamb who takes away the world’s sin. It is his faithfulness to God that demonstrates he is the messianic one, now standing (i.e., exalted) near heaven’s throne and worthy to take the scroll from God to inaugurate the way of creation’s salvation (5:9–10).
You have to hand it to David Koresh, the “Wacko from Waco” who battled FBI agents in 1993 at the Texas compound of a sect called “the Branch Davidians”: he knew the importance of Revelation’s scroll! Koresh claimed to be the Lamb worthy to open the scroll’s seven seals, the pivotal apocalyptic act that would usher in God’s eternal reign. Of course, Revelation’s Lamb is God’s faithful Son; no one else has the purchasing power to open the scroll (see 1:5–7; cf. 22:13). But the opening of that scroll is necessary to creation’s renewal; the publication of God’s comprehensive plan of salvation — “the words of this prophecy” (1:3) — is necessary to its realization.
There are lots of opened books mentioned in Revelation (see also 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; 22:7–10, 18–19); but which one publishes the contents of this all-important scroll? The opening of this scroll takes time, one broken seal at a time. Literally, its contents unfold over several chapters until at long last it lies completely open in the hand of heaven’s mighty angel (10:2), who then gives it to the prophet to devour (10:8–10; cf. Ezekiel 3:1). More about this extraordinary handoff in next week’s Lectio.
Revelation 5 introduces us to the worthy Lamb, the seal-breaker and dealmaker. Since his redemptive mission has been successfully completed — otherwise he would not be standing (5:6) and the lyrics of the “new song” (5:9–10) would be meaningless — the unfolding of the scroll’s contents reveals secrets that have already occurred “if you can hear […] what the Spirit is saying” (2:7, 11, 17, 29, et al.). John’s witness of the Lamb’s breaking each of the first four seals is guided by the “four living creatures” who are heaven’s representatives for God’s creation (see 4:6–8). The thunderous command of each, “Come!” (6:1, 3, 5, 7), awakens the prophet to observe four horses, each with a rider on a mission.
The Four Horsemen Unleashed
We should surely expect John’s vision of the four horsemen to disclose something about creation. Not only are their missions announced by the four angelic beings who have jurisdiction over every living creature, but the number four symbolizes both the scope of God’s displeasure with the current state of world affairs and his ultimate victory in Revelation (cf. 7:1–2; 8:7–12; 16:2–9). But this is a terrifying vision of global devastation. One of the effects of Jesus’ death is that it unleashes God’s judgment of a broken, evil-infested creation. An apocalypse of salvation is made necessary by a world going from bad to worse in a hurry.
Clearly all four horsemen are of a piece: together they depict what is terribly wrong with the nations of earth that God sent Jesus to save. Even the first rider who wears the crown of “victory to victory” atop a white horse (6:1–2), used later in Revelation to carry its messianic rider to God’s final victory over death (19:11–16), must also be party to this scene of horror. Although various interpretations of this first horseman have been proposed, the images of “white” and “crown” must symbolize a deception of good. I take this deception to be society’s tendency to make military power into “the good guy” in waging war against evil. Militarism is never a final solution against evil; violent paybacks only beget even more insidious evils.
This seems exactly the point made by the second rider, disclosed when the Lamb breaks open the second seal (6:3–4). When the “sword” of militarism is substituted for the Messiah’s “sharp sword” that comes “from his mouth” (i.e., the gospel; see 19:15), the prospect of God’s shalom (“peace”) will be taken from earth. The rider’s horse is appropriately colored a “fiery red” (6:4) since it carries him on a mission of bloodshed, even though it may be paraded as a mission of peacekeeping. True of today’s America, true of John’s Rome. The Lamb exposes this kind of peacekeeping as fraudulent and ineffective.
The material consequence of this cataclysm, besides the loss of human life, is a “siege economy.” Hence when the Lamb breaks the third seal and the third creature shouts his loud “Come!” the prophet is awakened to see a black horse carrying a rider holding a balance to weigh the goods necessary to sustain life (6:5–6). But the rapid inflation that requires a day’s wage to purchase a quart of wheat pounds away at the poor and powerless, the easy targets of injustice.
This picture of worldwide calamity reaches its climax when the fourth seal is broken and John is awakened to witness a horse whose “pale green” is the color of sickness and death (6:7–8). Its rider, named “Death,” is granted authority together with the other three [Author’s Note 1] to kill a quarter of the world’s population by any means possible. But hidden within this horrific image of the fourth horseman is a word of hope, which also helps us to understand the scroll’s contents. The risen Jesus has already claimed that he holds “the keys of Death and the Grave” (1:18).
God’s Judgment According to God’s Time
Although it is malicious and subversive to the purposes of the life-giving Creator, the combined work of the four horsemen stands under the sovereignty of the Almighty One who sits on heaven’s throne. The voice of the phrase “they were given authority” (6:8) is passive; that is, the horsemen act on the authority of another. The picture drawn does not blame God for this evil but rather subjects it to God’s plan. Clear limits are drawn around the evil that occurs: no more than a quarter of the world’s population dies from war and economic exploitation. More critically, the worthy Lamb whom God has already sent into the world with “the keys of Death and the Grave” (1:18) will end their tyranny. This word of hope is the scroll’s initial revelation.
The fifth seal (6:9–11) opens John’s eyes to a different reality. The four horsemen of the apocalypse travel earth’s span to do terrible things to a quarter of the world’s population. What the prophet now sees is taking place in heaven where the altar of God’s temple is the gathering place of faithful martyrs (cf. 12:17; 14:1–5; 17:6; 19:10; 20:4). Given the inspiring roll-call of martyrs listed in Hebrews 11:32–38 and the comprehensive snapshot of God’s people found in Revelation 7, their number probably includes Old Testament saints along with Christians who were executed on earth because of their loyalty to “the word of God” (6:9). [Author’s Note 2]
Their poignant question, addressed to God, “How long will you wait before you pass judgment [/require justice]?” (6:10; cf. Psalm 79:5–10), recognizes two important aspects of God’s final judgment of evil: first, judgment, like salvation, belongs to God. God’s execution of justice against evil in all its forms, societal and personal, does not respond to our plea for personal vindication or social justice. Since evil is a rejection of the Creator’s way of ordering life, it is God alone who requires the righting of a broken world so that “justice roll[s] down like waters” (Amos 5:24).
Second, the instruction to “rest a little longer” until other “brothers and sisters” are martyred (Revelation 6:11) assumes that God’s judgment of evil, as with all other aspects of God’s way of salvation, unfolds according to God’s plan and timetable. 2 Peter reminds us that the Church’s patience to wait upon the Lord’s timing is based upon God’s own patience waiting for the salvation of all people (2 Peter 3:9). What this means, of course, is that the Church’s patience must include enduring the world’s “great hardship” (7:14) caused by the reign of evil executed by the four horsemen (6:1–8), which is about to be increased when the Lamb breaks the scroll’s sixth seal (6:12–17). There is no escaping this time of terror, which some teachers have unfortunately promised would occur at the Lord’s early arrival to “rapture” the faithful few before a time of “great hardship” (typically lasting seven years) begins. [Author’s Note 3]
The Lamb Has Already Secured God’s Victory
But remember where we are in Revelation: the breaking of the seals unfolds God’s scroll that documents the realization of salvation on earth as it is in heaven. This is a victory already won because of the Lamb, slaughtered but now standing. What John is envisioning and we are reading is a story of worldwide evil and suffering passing away because of the paschal Lamb. We are patiently waiting “a little longer” upon God (6:11), but the end of evil is definitive and will be decisive.
This is the gospel of the sixth seal (6:12–17), which envisions the arrival of “the great day of their wrath” (6:17), mediated — as is God’s forgiveness — by the Lamb. Both the purification and the restoration of creation are brokered by God’s Messiah. Father and Son act in unity. The evocative images John records — of funeral black and a bloody moon, of a powerful earthquake and hurricane-force winds, of falling stars and uneaten figs falling to the ground (cf. Matthew 24:32–35) — are symbolic of nature in poor running order and in desperate need of repair.
The question, now urgently asked by all kinds of unbelievers in response to this apocalypse of worldwide destruction, is “Who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:17) — who will survive this day of God’s judgment? It is a good question, and it is asked by everyone (6:15), even if asked for different reasons. It is a different question than the one the martyrs asked earlier (6:10), but both questions are occasioned by a universal experience of human suffering in an evil world that runs roughshod over all kinds of people, no matter their social class or place, whether in a developed or developing nation, and by believers or unbelievers.
Revelation’s response to both the “How long?” and the “Who can survive?” questions is grounded in the same gospel reality: those who are able to stand at day’s end do so in lockstep with the Lamb standing beside the Almighty One seated on heaven’s throne (7:9). Because of the Lamb, God’s victory over evil has already been won for all humanity; but only those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood” (7:14) will be sheltered, comforted, and fed by God (7:15–17). That’s gospel, people!
The Messiah’s Tribe of the Redeemed
Indeed, Revelation 7 provides a powerful commentary on this hope and for this reason is one of this book’s most important passages. Structurally it functions more like a long explanatory footnote attached to John’s vision of the opening of the sixth seal. In particular, what John sees elaborates on God’s response to the crucial questions raised earlier by both martyrs (6:10) and nonbelievers (6:17) in the face of their common experience of world evil and personal suffering.
Today’s news delivers almost daily reports of catastrophic “weather events.” Most are blamed on global warming, which has upset the balance of nature to create new weather patterns that generate unusually high winds. Tornados and hurricanes have brought loss of life and incredible property damage. So we get it when John packages all the catastrophes witnessed in chapter 6 together as wind damage (7:1–3).
Four angels have now replaced the four horsemen as the agents of evil’s worldwide threat; they are in control of the strong wind that can damage earth, sea, and trees. But their purpose is different than the horsemen: they stand at earth’s four corners to constrain the devastating effects of evil until a “seal [is put] on the foreheads of those who serve our God” (7:3; cf. 14:1). John recognizes what he sees and hears by the images of the Passover from the Exodus story (Exodus 12–13): the Lamb’s blood marks out those who escape evil’s destiny (see Revelation 7:14). But perhaps this idea may also be read as the apocalyptic image of what Wesleyans call God’s “prevenient grace.” Wesley taught that this initial operation of grace, rooted in divine love, prevents evil from entirely corrupting an unbeliever’s freedom to choose to “wash their robes in the Lamb’s blood.” [Author’s Note 4]
Much has been written about the numerology of 144,000. Simply put, it is a large compound of twelve, the number that symbolizes God’s people. More importantly, John only hears this number but does not actually count “those who were sealed” (7:4). Nor does the list of Israel’s twelve tribes that John hears match any biblical catalog he may have read (e.g., Genesis 49:1–28). Like these other biblical catalogs, the shape of this list serves the theological purpose of this book: Judah is the Messiah’s tribe (see 5:5) and therefore stands at the head of God’s people.[Author’s Note 5] What John actually sees, then, is the Messiah’s tribe: “a great crowd that no one could number” (7:9) — the same crowd of folks “from every tribe, language, people, and nation” that the messianic Lamb purchased for God with the Lamb’s shed blood (see 5:9).
Remember that John sees and hears visions of the unfolding of the scroll that documents the present results of the past actions of Messiah Jesus. The white robes the messianic tribe wears, the palm branches its members hold (7:9), and the lyrics of the victory chant they sing (7:10) are the core symbols of a redeemed people’s participation in Jesus’ atoning death. We know this because one of the heavenly elders shares his insider’s knowledge when the prophet prompts him to do so (see 7:13–14). John hears commentary from someone with heaven’s sightline.
The elder first identifies the people crowded around the throne in worship as those who “have come out of [the] great hardship” (7:14). [Author’s Note 6] This hardship is the experience of the martyrs envisioned when the Lamb opens the fifth seal (see 6:9–11). The martyrs are told at that time to “rest a little longer” (6:11) for the redemptive work of a patient God to be completed. What John envisions now is the end of this time of hardship; the waiting of the martyrs is over, and the full result of the Messiah’s past work is now realized. Whatever stains (i.e., sins) were on the martyrs’ robes have now been washed clean in the Lamb’s blood (7:14). They no longer huddle in lamentation under the altar (see 6:9–10) but gather in worship at the throne (7:15). Their earthly experiences of deprivation (cf. 13:11–18) and suffering are finally reversed by the slaughtered Lamb who shelters and shepherds them to “springs of life-giving water” (7:17; cf. John 4:14; 6:35; 7:37–38). Their tears of suffering are wiped away by God.
Revelation 7 clearly answers the nonbelievers’ question, “Who is able to stand?” (6:17): the Messiah’s tribe is standing before the throne (7:9). But the martyrs’ plaintive query, “How long will you wait before you pass judgment?” (6:10) is not specifically answered. As to the date of God’s final victory we have only what John tells us in Revelation’s prologue: it “must soon take place” (1:1) “for the time is near” (1:3). What the elder does make clear to the prophet, however, is that these things will take place on earth as they have already in heaven. After John has seen and heard so much, perhaps this is the purpose of the half an hour moratorium of total silence (8:1): time out; think on these things before continuing.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Here we see God in conversation with the saints. How does the scroll characterize God’s conversation with the evil world?
- How does God’s plan of judgment undermine the logic of a “rapture”?
- What motivates the Christian to work against injustice while waiting for God’s definitive judgment to occur at an unknown future time?
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I find your dissertation somewhat ‘vague.’ Are you saying that Christian believers will go through the tribulation? And, what about the seven years reference? And, what about the Jewish remnant? etc.
Are you saying that we are living now in the time of tribulation, or is it still to come?
Yes, John’s line-of-sight in Revelation 7 is the present, not the coming age. We are currently living in a time of tribulation when faithful followers of Jesus suffer, some even are martyred, because of what they believe and the way they live for Christ’s sake. This circumstance will not change until Christ returns to establish God’s eternal reign on earth as the second and concluding act of his messianic career.