With the Seven Seals, the drama of the Apocalypse really begins to move forward. The first three chapters, of course, are vital for understanding the world in which these first-century believers lived, and in which some of them would soon die for the Lord. With the Seals, Christ reveals to John exactly what he would do about such a situation, but another question weighs heavily on their mind: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 6:10 ESV)? As Summers points out, the Lord’s reply is both dramatic and complete:
Now it is time to draw the curtain and reveal the stage set for the drama. From here forward, in rapid sequence, will be presented scenes to assure the persecuted Christians that the cause of Christ is not a lost cause. Hard and bitter is to be the struggle, but when the final curtain falls at the end of the play (22:21), complete assurance of victory is demonstrated. (Summers 129)
The curtain then raises to reveal a door, opened to the very throne room of God. The vision is both terrible and beautiful. On one hand, heaven is filled with “flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and . . . seven torches of fire” (Rev 4:5; see Exo 19:16-19). While on the other, the people of God sit in triumph, sharing in God’s own glory; twenty-four elders on twenty-four thrones, robed in white and crowned with gold (Rev 4:4). And yet the scene is also vaguely familiar: old men wearied from their journey, seated on the mountain, eating and drinking with Jehovah in the glow of a sapphire sky; joined now by their heirs as one family, around one throne (Exo 24:9-11; Mat 19:28-30).
Creation, too, cannot but cry out to her Maker; all life sings his praise: the beasts of the field, the livestock and the men who lead them, and the birds of heaven (Rev 4:6-10). Heaven and earth join in song, with all eyes on the Great I AM, perfect in character, and being, who alone is worthy of our praise (4:8; Isa 6:3; 1Ch 29:10-13). There he sits in his majesty, scroll in hand, while all await his voice (Rev 5:1). But he does not speak. Though God has come to a verdict, the judgment is sealed, “And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3). So amidst the joy of the moment, John breaks into tears.
And then, he sees him once more: the Lion and the Lamb, the Root and the Branch, David’s Son and Lord (5:5-6; see Gen 49:9; Isa 53:7; 11:1, 10; Mat 22:41-46). And while John wipes his eyes and takes in the scene, the Lamb seizes the scroll as the elders and creatures break out in worship (5:7-14). He alone had walked among us without sin, had bled, had died, had descended to the grave, and had risen to his Father’s side forevermore, and so only he could open the scroll (5:9; John 1:14-18; 3:16; Luke 1:26-35; Acts 2:30-36; Rom 8:34; 1Co 15:1-8; Php 2:5-11).
Here lies the crux of the Revelation: without Christ, there is only mystery, weakness, and misery. But in Christ, mystery gives way to meaning, weakness to strength, and misery to hope. “And so, after the death of Christ every mystery was revealed” (Caesarius of Arles, Exposition of the Apocalypse 5.1, Homily 4, ACCS; Dan 2:28-29; Heb 9:16-17; Eph 1:7-10; 3:4-12). And a new song was sung:
It is new that the Son of God became man; it is new that he was given over into death by men; it is new that he rose again on the third day; it is new that he ascended in the body into heaven; it is new that he gives the forgiveness of sins to men; it is new that men are sealed with the Holy Spirit; it is new that they receive the priestly service of supplication and await a kingdom of such immense promises. (Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on the Apocalypse 5.3, ACCS; see Psa 40:3-8, and below for an acapella arrangement of this song)
But before the victory must come the onslaught. The Commander of the Lord’s Army musters his forces for the march to war (Jos 5:13-15; Zec 1:8-10; 6:1-7). And as he opens the seals, his judgment is revealed: the enemy will be conquered (Rev 6:1-2)—by war (6:3-4), by famine (6:5-6), and by death (6:7-8)—as his people wait in patience and purity (6:9-11). He had heard their groans and cries for help, and he remembered the covenant he cut on the cross. Both Father and Son knew (4:8; 5:6); knew what they had experienced, and what true justice would require (Exo 2:23-25).
So, just as the earth had praised her Maker, she would then join in his cause. The judgment of the Lord would erupt in volcanic fury: the earth would shake, the lights of heaven would be tinted red by the ash and then fail, the blast of the wind would shake even the fruit from the trees, nothing would be the same again—and there would be no place to hide from his wrath (6:12-17; Hag 2:6-7). Israel had been destroyed, Babylon had been destroyed, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and now Rome would be destroyed as well (Isa 13:9-10; 24:21; 34:1-5, 12; Hos 10:8; Mark 13). The battle line was formed, and the host of heaven now awaited the call of the trumpet to charge her enemies (Rev 8:1-5).
But though they were called to fight, the army of the Lord would not suffer the loss of her faithful few: every warrior was numbered, every soul was sealed, every sin remitted, every servant purified and adopted (7:1-17). Here Christ draws on an event with which we are hopefully more familiar: the moment we were added to his number (Acts 2:41, 47), the moment he sealed us with his own name and Spirit (1Co 12:13; 2Co 1:21-22; Mat 28:18-20), the moment we were forgiven (Acts 2:38; 22:16), the moment we became a child of God, and heir (Gal 3:26-29)—when he saved us through the waters of baptism (1Pe 3:21-22).
We are that army, fighting to save our troubled world from itself, whose victory Christ has secured through the power of his own blood. But we must first turn to God for our own salvation. The doors to heaven are still open, and the invitation still stands: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. . . . The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:14-17). For it is only in those waters that we find the blood of the Lamb (7:14; 12:11).
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