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01 January 2019

Opening of the Seven Seals: A Synopsis

Opening of the Sealed Scroll
        The malevolent forces unleashed by Revelation’s seven seals are often linked to History’s final events, calamities to occur just prior to the return of Jesus. This is particularly so with the first four seal openings, the so-called “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
        The seal openings in this reading become divine punishments on an unrepentant final generation. God’s patience at last exhausted, He sends harbingers of eternal punishment just prior to the arrival of the real thing, perhaps to torment the impenitent.
        Is this the picture presented in the book of Revelation? Key issues include the timing of the seal openings, when do they occur, and the identity of the one who opens the seals; what is his purpose in doing so? And do the results of each seal opening present past, present or future realities?
  • (Revelation 5:1-5) - “And I saw upon the right hand of the one sitting upon the throne a scroll, written within and behind, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a great voice, Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals? And no one was able in the heaven or upon the earth or underneath the earth to open the scroll or to look in it. And I was weeping much because no one worthy to open the scroll was found, neither to look thereon. And one from among elders says to me, Weep not! Behold, the lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David, overcame to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
  • (Revelation 6:1-2) - “And I saw when the Lamb opened one from among the seven seals, and I heard the first of the four living creatures speaking like a voice of thunder, Come! And I saw and, behold, a white horse, and the one sitting upon him has a bow, and a victory wreath was given to him and he went forth conquering, even that he might conquer.”

Context
        John saw an opened door in the heavens and heard a voice command him: “come up here.” He then “came to be in the spirit” and saw a Throne at the center of the Creation on which sat a glorious figure. The Throne was surrounded by twenty-four smaller thrones on which sat twenty-four elders, and around the Throne four living creatures full of eyes, before and behind (4:1-5:5).
       John saw in the right hand of the One on the Throne “a scroll, written within and behind, sealed with seven seals.” An angel asked who was worthy to open the scroll and its seals. John looked but no one in heaven, on or under the earth was found worthy to do so.
        He then wept profusely until one of the twenty-four elders ordered him to desist. John then heard the voice declares: “Behold, the lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, conquered to open the scroll and its seven seals.” In response, John looked but what he saw was “a lamb standing, having been slain.”
       Immediately the lamb stepped up to the Throne and took the sealed scroll out of the right hand of the One on it. As he did so a myriad of voices from the Creation declared him worthy to take and open the sealed scroll, “because he was slain and by his death purchased to God men out of all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations.” His right to rule over Creation is declared by this heavenly choir.
       The Lamb immediately began to open the seven seals, beginning with the first four (6:1-8). There was no time lapse between his victory/enthronement and the openings of the first four seals. This means the Lamb began to open the seals as soon as he took the scroll from the Throne.
        Beginning in Revelation 6:1, the lamb opened each of the seven seals (“and I saw when the Lamb opened one from among the seven seals”). The first four seal openings release four horsemen that ride in response to a command from one of the four living creatures issued each time the Lamb opens a seal.
        The fifth seal reveals martyred souls underneath the “altar” where they must remain until the full number of martyrs is gathered (6:9-11). The sixth seal causes a great earthquake; cosmic and terrestrial upheaval.
        Heaven is “parted like a scroll rolling up,” every mountain and island moved out of its place. All men attempt to hide from the Lamb and God, “because the great day of their wrath came” and no one is able to stand.

The Lamb
       The description, “lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” combines two messianic prophecies, as follows:
  • (Genesis 49:9-10) - “Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah or the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”
  • (Isaiah 11:10) - “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.”
        Jesus is identified as a royal messiah descended from Judah and the Davidic line. References to “lion” and “David” characterize him as a royal militaristic figure. This is what John hears, but when he looks he sees a “Lamb having been slain.” What he hears interprets what he sees, an interpretive pattern that occurs several times in Revelation.
        For example, in chapter 7 John “hears” the number of the servants of God, 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel, but when he looks he sees an innumerable multitude gather from every nation, tribe, people and tongue.
        The figure of a slain lamb does not contradict his royal status or victory over his enemies. John is told that he “conquered to open the scroll and its seven seals,” but he has done so as the slain lamb.
        It is by his self-sacrificial death that Jesus conquered his enemies. This understanding is borne out by the hymn in which the lamb is proclaimed worthy because he “was slain and purchased to God with his blood [men] out of all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations.”
        Because by his death he qualified to open the scroll, the Lamb immediately does so. His death earned him the right to implement its contents, which is what opening the scroll signifies. The Lamb is “worthy to take the power and the wealth and the wisdom and the strength and the honor and the glory and the praise.” His reign began with his death and resurrection (cp. Revelation 1:5).

Opening the Seals
        The Lamb’s first royal act is to open the first four seals, which unleash calamities on the earth. It is the slain Lamb who opens the seals, not the militaristic “lion of Judah” or the One who sits on the Throne. The Lamb is now in control of events and does so, as the sacrificial Lamb. All that follows is due to his actions.
        When the Lamb “opens” each of the first four seals is a voice thunder to each rider to “Be going!” Each rider then ventures forth to inflict its assigned task. The Greek verb rendered “opened” in each case is in the aorist tense, which refers to a past action. The tense used each time the command to “go” is issued is in the Greek present tense, which signifies action in progress, ongoing action. This suggests a process rather than a single event.
        The second half of verse 8 summarizes the tasks of all four: “authority was given to them over the fourth of the earth to kill with sword and with famine and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” They receive authority from the Lamb; their actions produce the deaths of a fourth of the earth, the limits set by the Lamb.
        The fifth seal is likewise opened by the Lamb. No time-lapse is indicated between the first four seals and the fifth one. The sequence is literary, not chronological. The martyred souls under the altar ask “how long…are you not judging and avenging our blood from those dwelling upon the earth?” They are told they must rest yet a little while until the full complement those “who are going to be killed even as they” are assembled. This does suggest a time lag, possibly an interim period between the first four seals opening and the sixth (6:9-11).
        The opening of the sixth seal produces a great earthquake and cosmic chaos. Heaven is parted and the geography of the earth is radically altered. Men of every rank are terrified and seek refuge in caves and under rocks from “the face of the one sitting upon the throne and from the wrath of the lamb.”
        It is “the great day of their wrath, the day of the Lord. This is indicated by verbal allusions from passages such as Joel 2:28-32. The sixth seal means nothing less than final judgment and the reconfiguration of the creation order.
        The seventh seal is not opened until chapter 8. It produces silence in heaven for about half an hour during which the prayers of the saints are heard. It is part of a transition section to the next seven-fold series, the seven trumpets (8:1-6).
        Between the sixth and seventh seal openings, God’s servants are sealed (7:1-17). They must be “sealed” before the “four winds of the earth” can be released upon the earth. The “sealing” enables the saints purchased by the blood of the Lamb “to stand” before the Lamb and the Throne, unlike the rest of humanity that cowered before the day of the Lamb.

Summary
        The central figure of Revelation is Jesus Christ (1:1), but he is characterized in a very specific way. He is called “Christ” seven times (1:1; 1:2; 1:5; 11:15; 12:10; 20:4; 20:6), Jesus fourteen times (1:1; 1:2; 1:5; 1:9; 12:17; 14:12; 17:6; 19:10; 20:4; 22:16; 22:20; 22:21), “lion of Judah” once (5:5), and “lamb” twenty-eight times, 4 x 7 (5:6; 5:8, 5:12, 5:13, 6:1, 6:16, 7:9, 7:10, 7:14, 7:17, 12:11, 13:8, 14:1, 14:4, 14:10, 15:3, 17:14, 19:7, 19:9, 21:9, 21:14, 21:22, 21:23, 21:27, 22:1, 22:3).
        After his victory and enthronement, “lamb” is his most frequent designation for Jesus; he conquered and became ruler over the Cosmos because of his death and resurrection. Thereafter he reigns as the sacrificial Lamb.
        The sacrificial death of Jesus is kept front and center throughout the book. Thus Jesus is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). All that he accomplished was by means of his shed blood (7:14). All those freed from sin now reign with Him as a kingdom of priests, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Believers overcome “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).
        All that Revelation portrays and predicts is based on the past death of Jesus. Though he is in firm control of events, including the calamities unleashed by the seal openings, the stress on his sacrificial act means their purpose is not destruction and punishment, but redemption.
        This is why the “kings of the earth” and the “inhabitants of the earth” endure the afflictions of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, yet are later found in New Jerusalem (21:24-22:2). While some men will suffer divine wrath, along with the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet (19:20; 20:11-15), others find redemption in the New Creation. Redemption is the real purpose of all that the slain Lamb sets in motion.
        The sealed scroll represents the redemptive plan of God for all creation. Jesus as the Lamb received the authority to implement it and bring God’s plan to its intended consummation.
        Jesus began to open the scroll’s seven seals immediately and in rapid succession. The verb tenses used to describe the four horsemen point to ongoing processes that began with the Lamb’s enthronement, and which continue until the sixth seal. The call for the martyrs under the altar to rest until their full complement is assembled likewise points to an ongoing reality that (presumably) is ongoing until the day of the Lord.
        If this understanding is correct the implication is that the seal openings do not portray final events scheduled to occur in the future just prior to the end of the age, but instead constitute a pictorial representation of processes and events set into motion by the past death of Jesus, events that characterize the time between the Lamb’s installment as king and his return on the day of the Lord.
        This picture also means the two other seven-fold series, the trumpets and the bowls of wrath, are on some level concurrent with the seven seals, not consecutive. There is to some degree overlap between the three series. Each seven-fold series culminates in a scene of final judgment.
Finally, one must remain mindful that the book of Revelation was addressed to seven churches that existed in the Roman province of Asia in the first century. It must have relevance to them and apply to their situation(s). This does not mean that events in the past lives of the seven churches exhausted the predictions of Revelation, but it does mean any interpretation that renders the seven churches irrelevant to the book’s visions is suspect.

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