Lesson 4: Seals, Trumpets, Interludes in Revelation 6-11

The Four Horsemen of the ApocalypseWhen the veil is lifted from heaven, John hears that Jesus began the final stages of salvation at his Ascension. The prophet is among those who think this necessitates a period of Tribulation. It helps to remind ourselves what this entailed, as it is here that most people have trouble with Revelation.

The tribulation purges the creation of the evil that has been causing human suffering. John lays out this purge in three series of seven visions that pretty much repeat the same thing from different perspectives. Right when Christ should return to end it all, John goes on to the next series. All along the way, John provides pauses in which our questions are answered. It is the messages found in these interludes that Christians are to proclaim. Sadly, the religious wrongly choose to concentrate on the descriptions of the purges. Consequently, they see John making specific predictions about events happening in our own time period and read these from their parochial political positions. Inevitably, they claim John calls us to be good patriots who support the war efforts of our nations, absolutely the opposite of John’s message.

The first series, the seals, unveils what happens on earth during the Tribulation from the perspective of the natural collapse of the Roman Empire. The seven stages are based on the episodes in Mark 13. We hear about false prophets, wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, earthquakes and famine, persecutions, a desolating sacrilege, people trying to escape into the mountains, the darkening of the sun and the moon, falling stars, and great earthquakes.

Scholars can only identify historical events corresponding with the first four which makes perfect sense. Remember, John is writing over 50 years after the Ascension. The Tribulation is long underway. Already mounted Parthian archers have defeated a Roman army and wheat has sold at an exorbitant price in a famine during Domitian’s reign. All of the remaining episodes seem to be John’s imaginings based on pictures from other scripture.

Right when we think Christ should return according to the Mark account, there is silence until John launches into the second series, the trumpets, which explicate the last two seals using the Exodus plagues. This time the story is told from the perspective of offering everyone a last chance to repent. Most people, 9/10 from every nation, do. But once again, when things seem ripe for ending the Tribulation, John begins the third series: the 7 bowls. This time he tells us what happens to the small group who know the truth but still refuse to repent, explaining their bullheadedness can be attributed to their being agents of Satan.

In the more important interludes, the promises of Mark 13 are echoed in John’s understanding of the Church’s mission as proclaiming the Word, praying, and martyrdom. The Holy Spirit will enable the Church to spread the good news to all nations. Sometimes her witness will include speaking courageously when persecuted. Just about everyone will be saved. John goes to lengths at various places to list martyrs, those who have been sealed with the mark of Christ at their baptisms, and countless multitudes from every nation on earth who will sing the new song in the world now purged of evil.

When the question, “How long does this have to go on?” is asked from the fifth seal onwards, John always answers “soon.” He shows our prayers are important when he tells of angels mixing them with heavenly incense and throwing them to earth in order to shorten the time. At the measuring of the temple, he begins to offer specific numbers, saying the period will be 42 months or 1,260 days.

At various times, John claims the Tribulation will end when the complete number of martyrs give their lives. One of my favorite stories is found in the 11th chapter, which describes the death of the final two martyrs. The Romam strategy was to kill just enough Christians so nobody outside the Church would want to join and everybody inside would be frantic to get out. Little did they know that every time they killed a Christian, they brought themselves nearer to their own end. Just as our prayers are added to heavenly incense, so the martyrs’ blood is added to Jesus’ in redeeming the world.

A good way to discern the message John attempts to send is to read separately the words, psalms, and visions he repeatedly interjects into the story. They always promise God’s love is in control in spite of Rome’s power. This section, for instance, ends with a beautiful vision of the ark of the covenant in the temple’s Holy of Holies, always a symbol of God’s blessing and unconditional love.

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