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So this morning we move on from John’s addresses to the seven churches to this great apocalyptic vision which covers the rest of the book. One thing we must remember as we embark on this is that there is a great deal of symbolism in this book, and it gets very dangerous if we try to take too literally the things we read or we can get into a bit of a mess. Let me give you just one example to illustrate what happens when you try to treat this book too literally. In the 1970s and 80s, there was a very strong movement, especially in America, to treat the book literally as prophesying events of the future, and there were writers who were always trying to relate specific events to bits of the book. So, when we joined the European Union in 1971, there were seven nations in the EU and writers were saying that the beast with seven heads was obviously the EU especially as it referred to Babylon, which was often another name early Christians used to refer to Rome, and the EU was established with the Treaty of Rome. All this became a bit problematic once there were 27 countries in the EU, and you don’t hear quite so much now about the EU as the Beast!

Let me show you first a pictorial representation of the book so you can see the sort of pattern which will emerge: there are four lots of seven things, and a couple of examples of threes, and 7s and 3s are used widely in the Bible as symbolic numbers, always associated with God and perfection.

So to this great apocalyptic vision:

  • God in heaven: 4:1 – 11

It begins with a glorious picture of God’s throne room in heaven, and an atmosphere of worship and adoration. There’s an incredible vividness of colour and light and sound, particularly the sound of constant worship around the throne, provided by four living creatures covered with eyes and with six wings each. Furthermore, there are 24 elders seated on 24 thrones: who do they symbolise? Well, 12 is a significant number: there were twelve tribes of Israel and there were twelve apostles, so one suggestion is that these 24 represent all of God’s chosen people from throughout history, all of whom will be together in God’s kingdom.

  • The Unleashing

Chapter 5 begins with God holding in his right hand a scroll which is sealed with seven seals; this scroll contains all the evil and judgments which will be unleashed on the earth. The only person worthy to open the scroll is Jesus, and he is presented here by two powerful images: first, as the Lion of Judah and the root of David, which emphasises his kingship in the line of King David, and second, as the slain Lamb, emphasising his suffering as a Saviour for the redemption of mankind. Again, we can’t afford to be literal here: a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes has to be a symbolic representation: the horns represent his power, and the eyes, we’re told, represent his Spirit at work in the world. Once again, the whole of creation burst forth in praise and worship and he numbers are vast: ten thousand times ten thousand is 100 million! That’s not necessarily a literal number, of course, but it’s very, very big!!

  • Forces of evil at work on the earth: 6:1 – 11:19

We now have a series of dramatic events taking place on the earth, interspersed with a number of interludes and digressions.

>6:1 - 15

  1. The first seal is broken on the scroll and it reveals a rider on a white horse riding out to conquer. We’ll see later in chapter 19 an image of Christ riding out on a white horse in final judgment, but this is an image of a false Christ: this rider represents the spirit of antichrist, and in his wake come dreadful events on the earth.
  2. The second seal reveals a red horse, symbolic of violence and bloodshed, foretelling times of war.
  3. The third seal reveals a black horse, and he represents famine and starvation. People were having to pay a whole day’s wages for just a bowl of wheat.
  4. The fourth seal reveals a pale of green horse, and with him comes death and disease in epidemic proportions: it talks of a quarter of the world’s population being slaughtered.
  5. The fifth seal presents a different picture, this time of the souls of martyrs who have died for their faith. This speaks of persecution of those who had remained faithful to God.
  6. When the sixth seal is broken, there is a mighty earthquake, the ash of which blocks out the sun, and turns the moon blood-red. Its impact is so great that it causes terror across the world, and people think that the final judgment has come.

When I reflect on these events, I hope you can see with me how the book of Revelation works on different levels: You can see how these events would have been relevant to first century readers as they experienced violence under the Romans, religious persecution, and even natural disasters: the Roman writer Tacitus records that there was an extraordinarily large number of earthquakes around 51 AD, and a major earthquake near Laodicea in 61 AD which partially destroyed the city. If you were living today in Aleppo, you would feel that all four horsemen of the apocalypse had been released on your city. And maybe there are still future events which this chapter foreshadows. That’s why it’s such a complex book to unpack.

>7:1 – 17

We now get the first of the interludes in the book: and we’re presented – again probably with a highly symbolic rather than literal number – with a picture of the righteous Israelites and Christians who have been faithful followers of God, along with an innumerable host of martyrs from all nations who have died for their faith. Again, this has an application to John’s contemporaries who were being martyred for their faith, to the many Christians over the centuries who have died for their faith, and those who are still to come.

>8:1 - 5

  1. The seventh seal begins with a period of silence in heaven. Why silence? Because things are about to get much worse as the seventh seal is the start of another seven events heralded by the blowing of seven trumpets.

>8:6 – 9:20

  1. The first trumpet heralds hail, fire, blood and scorched earth. Violence and the consequences of climate change and deforestation?
  2. The second trumpet announces massive volcanic eruptions and terrible pollution of the oceans resulting in the death of many sea creatures.
  3. The third trumpet heralded what looks like the fall of a huge meteor called Wormwood on the earth, and further pollution, this time of the rivers from where the drinking water comes. Some of you will remember the nuclear disaster that happened at Chernobyl some years ago when there was an explosion in the reactor and a massive release of nuclear radiation: the name Chernobyl means Wormwood!
  4. Trumpet four brings darkness and reduced sunlight – possibly caused by volcanic ash or nuclear fallout.
  5. Trumpet five reveals insects and plague; life will be so awful that people will wish they were dead. There’s also the suggestion in this passage that maybe there is demonic activity at work on the earth.
  6. Trumpet six unveils a terrible time of war launched from the east with vast armies of hundreds of thousands. If you think about the countries to the east of Israel, and the wars which have taken place there in recent years involving thousands, even millions of people displaced, injured or killed, you can see a contemporary feel about the passage.

>10:1 – 11:14

We now get the second of these interludes before the final trumpet is sounded, and it’s quite a strange incident: John is given a little scroll (a sort of personal version of the big scroll which only Christ could unseal) and told to eat it. Consequently, God’s words become John’s words as he is the one who must reveal God’s words through his writing. As he digests the scroll, it begins tasting sweet but soon becomes bitter as he recognises the hard words which he is having to deliver.

In the second part of this interlude, John reveals this very puzzling part about two witnesses who will prophesy and witness to the truth for a period of 3 ½ years before they are killed then resurrected. Some theologians see this as a literal return to life of Moses and Elijah, but I think it’s much more realistic to think that these witnesses represent the testimony of all those who witness to the truth of the gospel from generation to generation.

>11:15 – 19

Finally, the seventh trumpet is sounded with thunder, lightning and earthquakes, but there is a reassuring reminder that God is firmly in control and will fulfil his covenant promises to his people.

In verse 15, loud voices in heaven are heard saying, “The kingdoms of the world have become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Of course, in reality, this hasn’t happened yet, but one of the common characteristics of both prophetic and apocalyptic writings is that God’s promises are so certain to come true that they are described

as having come true even before they have.

So what are the personal applications of this second section of Revelation? Three things:

  • From chapters 4 – 5, God is wholly worthy of our worship because of his holiness, his sovereignty and his redemption of mankind.
  • God is completely faithful to those who trust in him. There are wonderful pictures of those who have remained faithful and find themselves now in white robes and enjoying being in the presence of Christ himself.
  • We need to be ready and prepared for possible persecution. Please don’t tell me that we are already experiencing persecution in this country! The most we face at present is indifference! But we do need to be ready, and next week we’ll see the next stages of growing evil and God’s judgment.
  • God wins in the end!
  • Psalm 116:1-2

    “I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.”

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