Revelation (Part 12): Seals 5 through 7
The first four seals established the atmosphere of the world moving toward God’s redemption. The gospel was injecting itself into the sin-cursed environment of broken relationship. But God’s progressive revelation would necessarily result in two groups: those who embraced the revelation and those who rejected. Those who embraced it were those who were God-focused. The rejecters were human- or self-focused. We find the cries of each group in the breaking of seals 5 and 6.
As the fifth seal is broken, John sees under the altar the souls of the people slaughtered because of God’s word and their testimony. The altar is the place of the separation of life and death. Sacrifices are brought to the altar, and the lifeblood drains from it. Blood, of course, has significance in OT imagery as holding life. This life-holding blood at the base of the altar is connected through imagery to these souls to whom life would be granted based on their focus on God. They cry out, “How long?” It seems a disturbing separation from wholeness to these who have embraced God but must wait because of the on-going preparation for the Messiah’s redemption. But God does not leave them in this state of spiritual longing. God gives them white robes. Now, creation has yet to be redeemed. The earth—its physical, material character which is the essence of us as beings—will not be refined until Christ returns to remove the vestiges of sin creating a new heaven and new earth. But until then God gives these white robes, symbolic for the care of God through this waiting period until redeemed soul and then redeemed body can be one again.
This scene, however, is not simply a focus on people killed by other people for the sake of their embrace of God. They themselves stand as symbols for the entire congregation of God-focused people who are killed through the sin-curse of their connection to Adam. In standing for this entire God-focused group, they show the hope of God’s judgment of sin so that they may be complete in him. But they are told to wait until others join them. This turns the attention back to God’s involvement in the world to rescue those still perishing. It also brings us to the thought of when it really will be all over. How will God decide when to stop the continued worldly mix of sin and grace?
In this passage God says they must wait until the number is complete. Does God really simply have a number in mind for those to be redeemed and when that number is reached he simply cuts off any others? That action seems contrary to everything God explains about love and his own nature in desiring all to come to him.
I believe there is a number known by God, but it is not a capriciously established number. It is the number that God knows, after all his involvement and interworking with humankind, will be the last of every last soul that would come to him. God has so manipulated circumstances to allow all who would come to come. But when nothing more can be done, the end will come.
In other words, as the gospel continues to be pushed from the minds and hearts of the world’s leaders and educational institutions and other influences of society, that coldness and hardness will trickle down to people in general, and the reaching of people for God necessarily becomes more difficult. God does and will do all that he can to turn events in this world so that all who would be saved may be. But that opportunity and manipulation will eventually find no one left to be saved. This is the condition of which we read in Revelation 20 as Satan is loosed for a season at the end. God has moved and involved himself to save every last one possible. But the point comes when that number will be complete. No one else will come. And that marks the end.
In many ways that is sad. But it is no defeat. The gospel has indeed won. God will indeed have saved every person possible to be saved, and the glory of celebration in that Zion purpose will be full because of the very completeness that the assembly with God represents.
The sixth seal is opened, and a different group appears. This group is made of the self-focused—those who reject God and his redemption. We find earthquakes and darkened sun and trembling and fear. The people of the earth cry out for some protection—even for death—to avoid the wrath of God.
Remember that this first passage of scroll presentation has to do with the looking forward to redemption. And at that point of looking forward to redemption, the sight is of the necessary division that redemption creates. The God-focused are redeemed. But redeeming them necessarily causes the judgment of those in sin. When redemption did come at the cross we saw these same elements described. In Matthew 27:50-51, Jesus shouts out from the cross, and the earth quakes and rocks split. In Luke 23:44-48, darkness comes over the land and people beat their chests. In Luke 23:28-31, on his way to the cross, Jesus warned, “They will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’”
Chapter 7 begins an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals. The point of the interlude is to expand the thought of what we have seen through the first six seals. It begins with four angels holding back winds that would blow on the earth. The winds are judgment. Sin deserves judgment, and that would be the rightful result of sin. But God did not immediately destroy upon Adam and Eve’s sinful fall, and the holding back of these winds represents that. Another angel (possibly Christ) calls out not to destroy until all the God-focused are sealed. This is the picture of the white horse riding through this sin-cursed world to bring the progressive revelation of redemption.
We first see 144,000 Israelites sealed. They, of course, represent all those who would embrace God’s message from that time before the cross. The multitude from every nation seen immediately afterwards represents all those throughout the world that would embrace God’s message after the cross. Notice first the Israelites. They are specified as coming from each tribe. Yet the listing of tribes is somewhat odd. Normally when mentioning the tribes, Joseph—a son of Jacob—is not mentioned because Joseph’s two sons make up two tribes: Manasseh and Ephraim. Yet in this list, Joseph is mentioned and while Ephraim is not mentioned, Manasseh is. With both Joseph and Manasseh mentioned, we would end up with 13 tribes, but Dan is kept out of the list to bring us back to 12. Why are Dan and Ephraim left out? I suppose the simplest explanation is that both those tribes represented idolatry—a turning away from God—more than any of the others. When the northern tribes split from the Judah and Benjamin, Jeroboam was made king of the north. The people were confused because God said to worship in Jerusalem, yet Jerusalem was located in the territory of Judah. Jeroboam’s fix was to fashion two golden calves and place one in Bethel (the heart of the territory of Ephraim) and one in Dan (a city in the territory of Dan). These two idol worship centers then may have been the reason for excluding these two tribes from the list in Revelation 7.
Another interesting aspect of the list is that it is not in any order that has been previously given in the Old Testament. Judah is placed first. This placement is probably because the Redeemer came from the tribe of Judah. The rest of the list is not in birth order, although it does end with the two youngest. But we should note that the list places full brothers together. Remember that Jacob had two wives: Leah and Rachel. In their attempt to gain favor by having more sons, they gave their handmaids (some argue that these were younger sisters) to Jacob. Thus, in the list, the first two—Judah and Reuben—are full brothers, sons of Leah. Next, Gad and Asher are both sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid. We’ll skip Naphtali and Manasseh for the moment. Next, Simeon and Levi are sons of Leah. Issachar and Zebulun are also sons of Leah. And Joseph and Benjamin are sons of Rachel. We skipped Naphtali and Manasseh because they are the only two that are not full brothers. Naphtali and Dan were full brothers as sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid. But since Dan was excluded, Naphtali’s nephew Manasseh (son of Joseph who as son of Rachel) is inserted instead.
There is no real significance to the groupings by full relationship except maybe to underscore the fact that God does concern himself with relationship. The whole family and tribe and nation emphasis of Israel was on relationship, and that emphasis was to highlight God’s overall purpose for creation and redemption—everlasting love relationship.
Chapter 7 and the interlude come to a close as one of the elders asks John who he thinks the multitude presented is. John turns the question back to the elder to explain. We learn that this multitude came from the great tribulation. What is the great tribulation? Stay in context. What did we just read about in the last couple of chapters? What had the martyrs in seal 5 so upset? What was going on in that age? The turmoil was of a sin-encrusted world roiling against God and his revelatory preparation for redemption. That turmoil of sin, allowed to continue so that God’s purpose could be established, is the great tribulation in which all of us are promised suffering and persecution (see John 15:18-20). But from the great tribulation of this earth, God is rescuing his own.
The final seal is opened in the first verse of chapter 8. Upon opening, there is a half hour of silence in heaven. Short time periods in Revelation are always given to encourage God’s people that the time won’t be long. The 10 days of suffering promised to Smyrna in Revelation 2:10 is accompanied with urging to endure. This 7th seal silence by God, I believe, denotes the end of God’s revelation of redemption. The Redeemer has opened the scroll, indicating his accomplished mission in paying the price. When Jesus came to die, he came as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan. There is nothing more to know except him for redemption. The time is short—a half hour—and he will come again.