Naomi and Ruth

The Vine

The days of the Judges were not pleasant ones for Israel, full of idolatry, murder, violence, sexual immorality, in which everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 1:1-21:25). At some point during this time, perhaps ca. 1125-1100 BCE, a famine afflicted parts of Judah (perceived as a demonstration of God’s displeasure; cf. Leviticus 26:18-20), leaving a man of Bethlehem, Elimelech, with little choice but to depart from the land YHWH had given Israel and sojourn in Moab, a land of foreigners, until the famine was over (Ruth 1:1). His wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion went with him (Ruth 1:2).

At first all seemed to be well. Naomi had gone out full, having given birth to two sons in order to perpetuate Elimelech’s family and to maintain his property. But then, the first disaster: Elimelech dies (Ruth 1:3). Mahlon and Chilion marry local Moabite girls, Ruth and Orpah (Ruth 1:4), and they live in Moab ten years, yet without any children. Then the second disaster struck: Mahlon and Chilion die (Ruth 1:5). Naomi, who went out full, is now empty (cf. Ruth 1:21); she is now a widow, without any social standing, reduced to dependence on the benevolence of others.

Naomi has heard that YHWH had visited His people in Judah and they again had food, and she resolved to return (Ruth 1:6-7). While her Moabite daughters-in-law sought to go with her, she attempted to dissuade them: Naomi had no other sons to offer, and to follow after her was only to pursue continued widowhood and poverty (Ruth 1:8-13). Orpah listened and returned to her family’s house, but Ruth would not (Ruth 1:14-15), as it is written:

And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: YHWH do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Thus Ruth renounces her heritage, her family, her nation, her previous religion, everything she has ever known, and commits herself to YHWH, Israel, and Naomi despite the prospect of continued deprivation and poverty. Thus Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, and Naomi declares her sad state: she should not be called Naomi, meaning “pleasant,” but Mara, meaning “bitter,” since YHWH had dealt so bitterly with her (Ruth 1:19-21). At this point things do seem quite difficult for Naomi, and not a few would likely attribute her misfortune to her sojourn and association with foreigners.

They returned to Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest, so Ruth goes out to glean for barley in the fields, and ends up gleaning in the field of Boaz, a worthy man, a relative of Elimelech (Ruth 1:21-2:3; cf. Leviticus 23:22). He has heard of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi and faith toward YHWH, and shows great favor to Ruth, encouraging her to glean in his fields and in them alone, and giving her license to work with his servants and to draw water whenever she is thirsty, important protections and concern in a world where many such poor women were assaulted and could barely find enough food to survive (Ruth 2:4-13). Boaz went even further, welcoming her to his dinner table and giving her access not only to the gleanings but the harvested barley, providing sufficient food for Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 2:14-17). Naomi was quite pleased and exhorted Ruth to stay near Boaz; Boaz continued to provide for them throughout the barley and wheat harvests (Ruth 2:18-23).

When the time came to winnow the barley at the threshing-floor, Naomi exhorted Ruth to take the position of a suppliant, uncovering the feet of Boaz, and to appeal to him to redeem her, and she did so (Ruth 3:1-9). The redeemer here is not a person who saves or atones for sin, but is a relative who is in a position to claim, or purchase, the property of the dead, including the wife of the dead man, in order to perpetuate the family and property rights of the dead (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Boaz commended Ruth for her willingness to consider him despite his advanced age; he was aware of the existence of a nearer relation who has the first right of redemption, but assures Ruth that if the nearer relative would not redeem her, he would (Ruth 3:10-13). The next morning he provided sufficient food for Naomi and Ruth for a day, went to the city gate, summoned the nearer relative and ten elders of the city, and asked the nearer relative in the presence of the elders if he would redeem the land and Ruth the widow of Mahlon (Ruth 3:14-4:3). The nearer relative would redeem the property but not Ruth; he granted Boaz the right to redeem the property and Ruth, and he did so in the presence of the elders of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:4-12).

Ruth then became the wife of Boaz, and she became pregnant and bore a son, laid on Naomi’s lap, to whom Naomi became a nurse, and who was associated with Naomi as the inheritor of the property of Elimelech her husband (Ruth 4:13-16). The child was named Obed; he would father Jesse, who fathered David, king of Israel (Ruth 4:17-20). The very end of the story makes it clear why the story is recorded in the first place: it tells the story of David’s great-grandmother Ruth, and how she came into a family of Judah in Bethlehem despite being of Moab.

In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth is placed immediately after Proverbs in the third section of the Bible, called the Ketuvim or “Writings.” That the story of Ruth comes immediately after the description of the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31:10-31 is hardly coincidental: Ruth is a wonderful example of faith, entrusting herself to YHWH God of Israel, renouncing her heritage, while many Israelites were renouncing their own heritage in YHWH by trusting in other gods, and she is explicitly mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus for good reason (Matthew 1:5). Naomi’s story is also compelling: she suffered a Job-like experience, losing her husband and sons while sojourning in another land, experiencing the bitter hand of YHWH, yet ultimately gaining a greater benefit through Obed, son of Boaz and Ruth. If Elimelech and Naomi never left Bethlehem in Judah, Mahlon would never have met Ruth, her story of faith would not exist for us, and perhaps David would never have been born!

The Apostle Paul said, “and we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). He likely has Joseph the son of Jacob in the back of his mind when saying this, but it is equally true of Naomi and Ruth. They experienced great trial, yet were richly rewarded for their faith, obtaining greater glory at the end despite the trials. Let us be encouraged by Naomi and Ruth as examples of faith, confident that no matter what difficulties we may encounter, if we love God, all will work for good, to His praise and glory (Romans 8:17-18, 28)!

The Bride in Glory

The Vine

The grand moment has arrived; the end has come. John has seen the end of the whore Babylon in Revelation 17:1-19:10, the end of the beast and the false prophet of Revelation 13:1-16:20 in Revelation 19:11-21, the end of Satan, the one behind it all, in Revelation 20:1-10, and the final judgment of everyone and the condemnation of the ungodly to hell in Revelation 20:11-15. Jesus will now show John a beautiful picture of the wondrous glory awaiting the faithful, foreshadowed in Revelation 11:15-19, 16:17 and consistent with the promises of Romans 8:17-25, 2 Corinthians 2:9-10, and 2 Peter 3:13.

Revelation 21:1-8 set the tone for the rest of the passage. John will see the new heavens and the earth, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God and man, a place of life and joy, where all is new, assured by God in Christ for those who will drink freely of the water of life, inheriting the promises, full and unbroken association between God and redeemed mankind, where sin and its practitioners no longer exist.

In Revelation 21:9-27, John is shown the Bride as the holy city, the new Jerusalem, foreshadowed in Revelation 19:7-9. We are invited to see the contrast between the Bride, the new Jerusalem, and the whore Babylon, throughout. The city is described as having wondrous glory, expressed through heavenly light, twelve gates of pearl, a perfect cube of a city of great size, a wall, a city of gold, with twelve foundations of precious jewels (Revelation 21:9-21). The city has no temple in or heavenly lights to shine upon it, for God and the Lamb are its Temple and Light, and the nations and the kings of the earth bring their glory into it; its gates are never closed, since there is no night there, and nothing unclean is in it (Revelation 21:22-27).

In Revelation 22:1-5, the imagery shifts toward paradise, the river of water of life proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb, and the tree of life on both sides of the river, with the fruit that leads to the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2). There is no curse there, the throne of God is there, and His servants shall see Him face to face (Revelation 22:3-5).

Revelation 22:6-21 serve to conclude the Revelation, assuring the reader/listener of the authority and authenticity of the prophecy, as well as the imminent fulfillment of what has been recorded. The words are not to be sealed up, unlike in the days of Daniel, since the time is near (Revelation 22:10; cf. Daniel 8:26, 10:14, 12:4, 9). The Lord attests to the prophecy; He is coming soon; the book should not at all be distorted by any later scribe on pains of the the plagues of Revelation (Revelation 22:11-19). The letter ends with the expectation of the Lord’s return and a standard conclusion to a letter (Revelation 22:20-21).

Thus the canon of Scripture ends, and it does so in a spectacular fashion. All of the hopes and expectations built up since the beginning of Genesis find their fulfillment in the glorious vision of the Bride of Christ in her glory. The “new heavens and earth,” a promise seen in Isaiah 65:13-25, 66:22-24, come about either from the conflagration (2 Peter 3:1-13) or the transformation (Romans 8:18-25) of the old. God is making all things new: this is the hope of the resurrection and life in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:16-18, 5:16-17, Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 3:1-4). In this life, the people of God are reckoned as the new Jerusalem, envisioned previously in Isaiah 60:10-20 and Ezekiel 48:31-35, coming down from heaven: the ideal city built by God (Hebrews 11:10, 13-16), not the distortion of man at Babel or the shadow of old Jerusalem (Genesis 11:1-9, 1 Kings 11:36). God now dwells among His people, without a need for a temple, in a perfect cube, as expressed in a shadow in the Holy of Holies and the intended relationship between God and Israel (Leviticus 26:11-12, 1 Kings 6:20). Most of Revelation has featured God’s judgments upon the nations; those that remain now fulfill the desire God had for Israel, that all the kings of the earth and nations would bring their glory into the city of God (Psalm 72:10-11, Isaiah 60:2-5). Finally, and ultimately, the end is as the beginning: as God made man in the Garden of Eden, through which a river ran and in which could be found the tree of life (Genesis 2:8-16, 3:22-24), so now, through the perspective of Ezekiel on the river in Ezekiel 47:1-12, man now can live in the presence of God in Christ forever, face to face, and drink of the water of the river of life and eat the fruit of the tree of life forevermore, images pointing to unbroken association between God in Christ and His redeemed people in the resurrection through the empowerment and enlightenment of the Spirit (cf. John 4:10-11, 7:38-39). The curse of mankind, leading to sin, death, and suffering, is no more, brought to nothing by the Tree of life on which the Savior was crucified and overthrown through His resurrection in power and the resurrection of the believers on that final day (Genesis 3:17, Romans 8:18-25, Galatians 3:13, Hebrews 12:22). The nations find their healing there; we find God’s ultimate purpose in the Garden of Eden, in Abraham, Israel, the prophets, Jesus, and the church, all brought to complete fruition on the day of the glorification of the Bride, the church, the people of God, and their eternal home in the presence of God in the new heavens and the new earth!

Perhaps Revelation 22:6-21 seems incoherent, but it firmly assures us that these things will come to pass. The victory has been won in Christ; sin and death can be defeated through Him; the day is coming when God will redeem the body, release the creation from bondage, destroy death the final enemy, and God will be “all in all” (Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). The final day has not yet come, but it is coming; it is nearer now than it ever has been (Romans 13:11). We have every reason to trust in God’s promises; as we can see, literally everything which God has been working on and toward will find their fulfillment and satisfaction on that great and glorious day. We do well to join with John and Christians throughout the ages in the grand cry: Amen! Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20)!

Victory and Judgment

The Vine

John has seen the presentation and condemnation of the whore Babylon, an image of Rome, in Revelation 17:1-19:10. Great joy has accompanied her downfall, yet the dragon, beast, and false prophet, the main antagonists portrayed in Revelation 12:1-16:21, remain. John will now be shown two more scenes of victory, first over the beast and false prophet (Revelation 19:11-21), and then over the dragon (Revelation 20:1-10). Judgment can then take place (Revelation 20:11-15).

The Revelation heads toward its climactic end with three scenes of victory: the first came over Babylon (Revelation 19:1-10), and the second in Revelation 19:11-21 over the beast and the false prophet of Revelation 13:1-18: the image of the power of the Roman Empire enshrined in its Emperor and its religion. Revelation 19:11-21 seems to be an expansion of what was seen in the sixth bowl in Revelation 16:12-16: the gathering of the beast, the false prophet, and the kings of the earth at Har-Magedon for the great day of God the Almighty [the (in)famous Armageddon]. The nature and result of this battle is made explicit in Revelation 19:11-21: Jesus gains the victory over all of these forces arrayed against Him. He is portrayed in the same images as seen in Revelation 1:1-3:21, the true Ruler, with many signs of authority in contrast to the Satanically empowered authority of the beast, and He casts the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire while slaughtering the rest of His foes with the sword which came forth from His mouth. In contrast to the glorious marriage supper of the Lamb promised in Revelation 19:7-9, fulfilled in Revelation 21:1-22:6, the birds of the air are summoned for the great supper of God, to consume the flesh of all the dead of that battle left in the field, reminiscent of God’s judgment on Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 39:4, 17-20. While the heavenly armies are present with Jesus, they are not said to have done anything: Jesus conquers through the power of His sword, the Word of God and His judgments (John 12:48, Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12). In this way John is shown the ultimate victory of Jesus over the Roman Empire, its power and paganism, and represents a reminder that worldly powers come and go but the word of the LORD remains forever (Isaiah 40:6-8).

Babylon, the beast, and the false prophet have been eliminated, but the dragon who empowered them remains. John is shown the victory over Satan the dragon in Revelation 20:1-10: Satan is bound in the Pit for a thousand years while Christ and His saints reign in the first resurrection; after the thousand years Satan is released to deceive the nations for a short time; he gathers Gog and Magog (in Ezekiel 38:1-39:20, Gog is ruler of Magog; here Gog and Magog now stand for the threatening “heathen” worldly powers) against the camp of the saints and the beloved city; yet Gog and Magog are destroyed by fire and Satan cast into the lake of fire along with the beast and false prophet where they are tormented day and night.

Perhaps no section of the Bible has led to as much speculation and the construction of whole theological systems than Revelation 20:1-10 and its “millennium,” or one thousand year period. For our purposes we do well to see that the thousand years is not the primary force or purpose in the passage: God in Christ is showing John the ultimate end of Satan after the end of the beast and false prophet. We have no reason to abandon our previous endeavors and adhere to a completely different system at this point; we must understand Revelation 20:1-10 in terms of the rest of Revelation and the New Testament, and not the other way around. Throughout Scripture, a “thousand” never means an actual, literal one thousand, but refers to an indeterminate multitude of things or length of time (Deuteronomy 7:9, Joshua 23:10, 1 Chronicles 16:15, Job 9:3, 33:23, Psalms 50:10, 90:4, 105:8, Ecclesiastes 6:6, 7:28, 2 Peter 3:8). Furthermore, this scene of Satan’s binding comes immediately after judgment on the beast and the false prophet, identified contextually as the Roman empire and religion, and after Satan’s condemnation we have the final judgment scene (Revelation 20:11-15). Therefore, the best contextual understanding of the “millennium” is that it represents the time between the defeat of Roman power and particularly pagan religion, ca. 325 CE, until when Satan is again fully loosed, which could be happening now or could happen some time in the future. Such a view of Satan presently bound is consistent with Matthew 12:29, and Luke 8:31, 11:22 and does not mean that Satan is entirely inactive; it just means that he is restrained in ways he was not in the days of the Roman Empire. We are not to look to the future in order to find the millennium; we presently are in the millennium of Christ’s reign, part of His present Kingdom (Colossians 1:13), or we are witnessing those final days when Satan is fully loosed, people are fully led away from the truth of God in Christ, and we are about to see the ultimate fulfillment of all that is seen in Revelation 20:7-22:6.

After Satan is taken out of the way, John is shown the final judgment scene, expanding upon the picture glimpsed with the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15-19 and the harvesting of Revelation 14:14-20: a great white throne with all the dead before God in Christ, the opening of books, judgment on the basis of what they had done, redemption for those whose names were in the book of life, condemnation for those whose names were not found there in the second death, the lake of fire, or hell, and Death and Hades cast into that lake of fire as well (Revelation 20:11-15). The picture John sees is entirely consistent with the expectation of judgment on the final day, the day of resurrection, as envisioned in Daniel 12:1-2, Matthew 16:27, 25:31-46, John 5:28-29, Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:20-57, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.

The message of Revelation 19:1-20:10 ought to encourage faithful Christians of all generations: God will gain the victory. First century Christians suffering under the persecutions of the Roman power were given reason for confidence that God would overcome that beast and false prophet, and it was a most extraordinary thing when a form of Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, signaling the downfall of paganism in a world it had dominated for thousands of years. For 1700 years paganism has been relegated to the periphery, and most in Western culture have given at least lip service to God and Jesus as the Christ since. We see that changing to an extraordinary degree in our own day, perhaps heralding the loosening of Satan; yet even then we may know that such means his time is even shorter, and the day of judgment will come soon. Let us praise God for His victory in Christ, serve Jesus as Lord, and wait fervently for the day of judgment which comes quickly!

Babylon the Whore

The Vine

From Revelation 6:1-16:21, John’s vision is punctuated by three cycles of seven judgments: the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:1), the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11:19), and the seven bowls (Revelation 14:1-16:21). The rest of John’s vision will feature pictures of the Jesus the Lamb and two women: the faithful woman of Revelation 12:1-14 who will become the Bride of the Lamb in Revelation 19:5-10, 21:1-22:6, and Babylon, the woman empowered by the dragon and his beasts, of whom and whose fate John sees in Revelation 17:1-19:5.

John is carried in the Spirit into the wilderness where he sees the woman Babylon (Revelation 17:1-18). Babylon derives from Hebrew babel, “confusion,” so named because of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages there (Genesis 11:1-9). The Chaldean, Neo-Babylonian Empire will overthrow the Kingdom of Judah and destroy Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BCE. The prophets of Israel frequently denounced Babylon for its arrogance, idolatry, and behavior toward Israel (Isaiah 13:1-14:23, Jeremiah 50:1-51:64); John is thus shown a picture of the “new Babylon,” Rome, in very much the same way: Rome is now the human world power empowered by the Evil One who is hostile toward God and His people.

Babylon is described as a whore, seducing all the people of the world into coming and participating in her sexual immorality (Revelation 17:1-5). She is described as drunk on the blood of the saints (Revelation 17:6). She exhibits great pride in her standing and power (Revelation 18:7). When she is mourned by kings and merchants, it is because of the loss of the great market for all sorts of luxury items and slaves (Revelation 18:9-20). Plenty of actual prostitution went on in the Roman Empire; the luxurious, debauched lifestyle of the Romans is well-attested in ancient literature. The mention of slaves is important since the entire Roman enterprise was built on the back of slaves (Revelation 18:13). Yet the full concern of the whoredom of Babylon is her idolatry: she promulgates the service of many idols, including Rome herself and her emperors, represented by the beast, and persecutes the Christians, the people of the True God, because of her devotion to her idols and the power provided by the Evil One. Idolatry described in terms of whoredom and sexual immorality is pervasive in the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:21, Ezekiel 16:15-43, 23:1-49, Hosea 1:1-3:5), as well as the nations acting as whores on account of idolatry (Isaiah 23:15-17, 47:5-15, Nahum 3:1, 4).

Babylon is supported by the beast envisioned in Revelation 13:1-10. We are given the picture of what the beast’s heads and horns mean in Revelation 17:9-13: the seven mountains upon which Babylon is seated/seven kings and ten successive kings. Rome is famous for being settled upon seven hills; its Empire was established and perpetuated by the efforts of its emperors. Speculation abounds regarding the specifics of the kings, but we do well to see in them that the Roman power has existed, exists at the present, and has a future before it will ultimately be vanquished. Its end will come from those within it who support it as well as its surrounding enemies: the lust for power consumes the one who maintains it, and so it will be with Rome, all according to the purpose of God’s will (Revelation 17:15-18).

As the luxuriantly dressed whore, Rome as Babylon attempts to appear as legitimate, wealthy, beautiful, enticing, and worth the investment, yet internally is corrupt, evil, illegitimate, and seeking after the wrong pursuits with the wrong means, and thus incurring God’s condemnation. The angels proclaim the destruction of the new Babylon as accomplished fact: it will be desolate, even though it once enriched the kings and merchants of the earth, sharing the fate of old Babylon (Revelation 18:1-3; cf. Isaiah 13:19-22, 14:3-23, 34:11-15, Jeremiah 50:2, Zephaniah 2:13-15). God’s people are exhorted to come out of new Babylon, lest they share in the plagues and judgments coming upon her, just as with old Babylon (Revelation 18:4-6; cf. Isaiah 48:20, 52:11, Jeremiah 50:8, 51:6-9, 45, Zechariah 2:7). The judgment comes quickly; the smoke of her burning will go up forever, and the sounds of joy, commerce, and life will not be heard in her again (Revelation 18:7-9, 21-24). The merchants enriched by the new Babylon will stand afar off and mourn and weep for their lost income (Revelation 18:11-17), just as their ancestors did for Tyre in Ezekiel 26:1-28:19 (and there is a school of thought which suggests that Ezekiel uses Tyre as a cipher for old Babylon), a powerfully evocative message for those of us who lived through the economic challenges of 2008-2009. The kings, the merchants, and the mariners may weep over the new Babylon, but only inasmuch as they have personally experienced loss; they seek to stay away from the devastation, demonstrating the ephemeral nature of their attachment to the whore Babylon (Revelation 18:10-17). The whore Babylon, Rome in the first century, shared the fate of old Babylon, and every “Babylon” which as arisen after her will suffer the same. The reason is succinct: in her was found the blood of the saints (Revelation 18:24).

While the condemnation of Babylon has caused great mourning and lamentation from those seduced by her on the earth, it is the cause of great rejoicing in heaven and among the people of God (Revelation 18:19-20). The scene returns to heaven, and John hears the threefold hallelujahs of the heavenly multitude, the twenty-four elders, and the four living creatures (Revelation 19:1-5). This is the only time “hallelujah” is found in the New Testament, and it is upon the occasion of God’s true and righteous judgments upon Babylon the whore, her corruption of the earth, and her persecution of the saints.

Babylon the whore, the Satanically empowered imitation of the good, the fraudulent mistress who seduced so many to follow after her, is therefore destroyed; the Lord God Almighty reigns, and therefore the time of the marriage of the Lamb will be soon (Revelation 19:6-7). At this time the scene then shifts to the Bride, the honest and good woman who has persevered in her trust in God and the Lamb from beginning to end: she has made herself ready, and she is clothed with bright and pure linen, the good works of the saints (Revelation 19:7-8). The fourth of seven beatitudes in Revelation is offered to those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

John is understandably overcome with joy and exaltation, and bows down before the angelic messenger; he is told not to do so, since he is a fellow servant of God with him and all who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Instead he is to bow down before God (Revelation 19:10). John is then told that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, and we do well to keep that in mind. Those who accept and proclaim the testimony of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, will be invited to the marriage supper and make up the Bride of Christ, His church (2 Corinthians 11:2-3, Ephesians 5:22-33). Those who reject the testimony of the Lamb are under the power of the dragon, having been seduced by whichever “Babylon the whore” is presently ascendant. Let us be encouraged in our faith in the Lamb, come out and stay away from Babylon the whore, and strive to be part of the Bride of Christ!

The Seven Bowls

The Vine

The vision which Jesus grants to John seems to follow a cyclical pattern: the opening of the seven seals led into the sounding of the seven trumpets (cf. Revelation 6:1-11:19). An interlude takes place between the sixth seal/trumpet and the seventh seal/trumpet (Revelation 7:1-17, 10:1-11:14). The images alternate between scenes of judgment and vindication. The 144,000 introduced in Revelation 7:1-8 are found again in Revelation 14:1-5; the seventh trumpet proclaimed the concluded judgment (Revelation 11:15-10) while judgment is seen again in Revelation 14:14-20. Therefore, we should not be surprised when the description of the seven bowl judgments amplify and reinforce these cycles (Revelation 15:1-16:21).

After having seen the earth reaped and gleaned, John then sees the seven angels with the seven plagues which will be poured out of seven bowls (Revelation 15:1, 7). He also sees the sea of glass as from Revelation 4:6 but this time as of fire, and near it those who conquered the beast, and they sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, praising the Lord God Almighty without any reference to themselves (Revelation 15:1-4). John then sees the sanctuary of the tent of witness opened, the seven angels with the seven bowls come forth, and such great smoke from the glory of God so that none could enter until the plagues were finished (Revelation 15:5-8).

The angels were then to pour out the bowls (Revelation 16:1). The seven bowls conclude a threefold pattern of sevens, indicating completeness: the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:1), the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11:19), and now the seven bowls (Revelation 16:1-21). These bowls are vessels whose contents are quickly and easily poured out, and they contain the wrath of God (Revelation 16:1). The events described follow the patterns of the plagues in Exodus 7:14-12:32 as well as the seven seals and seven trumpets but in a much more complete, thorough, and devastating way, indicating the finality of the judgment involved.

As the first four bowls are poured out, sores break out on those who bore the mark of the beast and prostrated before its image, the sea and the sources of fresh water were turned to blood, and the sun scorched people with fire (Revelation 16:2-9). These judgments are deemed appropriate since they exact justice upon those who killed the saints and prophets, and the people continue to blaspheme and do not repent.

The fifth bowl is poured out directly upon the throne of the beast and darkness covers his kingdom. This darkness is so profound that it causes great anguish among the people, and yet they still do not repent (Revelation 16:10-11). The sixth bowl is poured out upon the Euphrates river and its water is dried up; meanwhile, frogs come forth from the mouths of the dragon, beast, and false prophet (the second beast of Revelation 13:11-18), which are called unclean spirits who do signs and persuade the kings of the earth to assemble at “Armageddon” (Revelation 16:12-16).

One might expect a vast battle to begin, but as the seventh bowl is poured out, a voice comes forth from the temple proclaiming, “it is done” (Revelation 16:17). Flashes of lightning, thunder, and a great earthquake take place (Revelation 16:18; cf. Revelation 8:5, 11:19). Babylon, the great city, is divided into three parts by it, islands flee away, mountains are not to be found, and almost one hundred pound hailstones fall from the sky onto people (Revelation 16:19-21). They curse God because of the severity of the hail (Revelation 16:21).

People have sought to identify these descriptions with concrete historical events for centuries; the results are varied and tend to tell more about the interpreters than the text itself. As the seven seals indicated the sorts of judgments that were soon to happen, and the seven trumpets began to proclaim the execution of those judgments, so the seven bowls represent the completion and ultimate fulfillment of God’s judgments upon those who stand against Him: Satan, the world secular and religious powers empowered by Satan who arrogate against God, and those who follow after them. People rely on their health and the quality of their land and water; if they stand opposed to God, God removes these blessings from them. World powers rail at God and persecute His people: as God directly challenged the authority of Pharaoh and overthrew him, so will He do to Rome all other powers that may stand against him, attacking the very “throne of the beast.” People will conspire to go to war; God will meet them there. Whenever people arrogate against God and resist His purposes, the time will come when His wrath will be revealed. And, as before, despite the suffering and misery, people will remain rebellious and hardened against God (Isaiah 8:21, Jeremiah 5:3, 6:29-30, Ezekiel 24:13, Romans 1:21).

Meanwhile, the people of God stand and praise the Lord God Almighty. Some have died for their faith, but their “defeat” is really victory, for they have overcome the beast through their death. They proclaim the song of Moses and the Lamb, recounting both the victory of God over the oppressive pagan power in the days of the Exodus as well as the victory of God over the oppressive spiritual powers of darkness through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Exodus 15:1-18, Romans 8:1-2, 31-39, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 12:9). They no longer experience distress, pain, and misery as it is poured out upon those who oppose God (Revelation 7:16).

The dragon, the beast, and the false prophet cause great distress and pain for the people of God. Yet John is beginning to see their end: as God’s judgments were brought against Egypt, Assyria, Israel, and Babylon in turn, so they will come upon Rome and every other world power arrogating itself against the Lord God Almighty. The victory is in sight: Rome as the whore Babylon must first be introduced in her fullness, and disposed of in turn, and the grand pageant will reach its glorious end. Let us not be distressed by opposition or discouraged away from the faith; let us stay awake and obtain the blessing of the people of God!

The Dragon, the Beasts, and the Lamb

The Vine

Revelation 11:13-18 would seem to make a perfect ending for John’s vision: the Judgment has been accomplished, and God reigns over all. Nevertheless, John continues to see many fantastic images, even more puzzling and bizarre than before!

He now sees a woman about to give birth and a dragon prepared to consume the child when it is born (Revelation 12:1-4). The child is born and taken up into heaven to his throne; the woman flees to the wilderness and is nourished there (Revelation 12:5-6). Then there is war in heaven between the dragon and Michael and his fellow angels: the dragon is defeated, and cast down to the earth, and warnings are given about his wrath (Revelation 12:7-12). The dragon then pursues the woman from before but is continually frustrated in his endeavor to vanquish her (Revelation 12:13-17).

In great wrath, the dragon stands by the shore of the sea while a beast comes forth: it has ten horns, seven heads, and seven diadems, with one of its heads appearing to have been slain but was now healed, and it is described in terms of a lion, bear, and leopard (Revelation 13:1-3). The dragon gives his authority to the beast, and the beast speaks blasphemy and makes war on the saints and overcomes them (Revelation 13:4, 6-7). Another beast comes forth from the ground: it has the appearance of a lamb but speaks as a dragon, and it is given authority by the first beast to cause all to worship the beast, deceiving with signs from heaven and a marvelous image (Revelation 13:11-15). The people of the earth do in turn worship him, and they maintain its mark so they can buy and sell (Revelation 13:5, 16-17). The beast has the number of a man: 666 (Revelation 13:18).

Yet John then sees the Lamb on Mount Zion with the 144,000 who bear His name, the ones who remained as virgins and who follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Revelation 14:1, 4-5). John hears the thunderous sound of harpers singing the new song before the throne of God (Revelation 14:2-3). An angel then “gospels the Gospel,” proclaiming good news to all mankind: God’s hour of judgment had come, and all should fear Him and worship Him their Creator (Revelation 14:6-7). Another angel proclaims the downfall of Babylon; a third angel warns those who have obtained the mark of the beast of the eternal condemnation which awaits (Revelation 14:8-11). John then sees the One like a son of man on a cloud, and an angel from the temple exhorts Him to reap the earth with a sharp sickle, and He does so (Revelation 14:14-16). Another angel then comes forth from the heavenly temple with a sharp sickle and with it gathered the grape clusters of earth into the winepress of the wrath of God which is then trodden outside of the city, with extraordinary amounts of blood pouring forth (Revelation 14:17-20).

This story seems to come out of nowhere and may disorient the reader, but John provides plenty of contextual hints and descriptions which allow us to understand the picture he sees. The woman is arrayed with sun, moon, and stars, consistent with a picture of Israel from Genesis 37:9-11, yet continues to exist and look to God for sustenance after the birth of the Child, which is more consistent with the church (cf. Revelation 12:13, 16-17): therefore, the woman likely represents the collective people of God throughout time. The Child, described as One who rules with a rod of iron, is the Christ, based on Psalm 2:9 and Revelation 2:27. The dragon is also called the serpent, the Devil, and Satan (Revelation 12:9), consistent with Satan as God’s adversary as a serpent or a monster in Genesis 3:1-15 and Isaiah 51:9. The first beast is described as a hybrid of the beasts Daniel sees coming out of the water in Daniel 7:3-8; in that context, they represent the successive empires of Babylon, Persia, and Macedonia. As one who blasphemes God and makes war on His saints, the beast represents the ultimate earthly power arrogating itself against God; at that time, Rome (cf. Revelation 13:1, 6-7). It has what seems to be a death wound that healed (Revelation 13:4): Rome had looked quite fragile and perhaps on the verge of collapse in the year of the four emperors in 69 CE, but Vespasian re-established its power. Some associate “666” with Nero; he was quite the godless tyrant, persecuting the people of God, and there was some concern that he either had not really died or had been brought back to life: Nero redivivius, either as himself or in the form of another (e.g., Domitian). The second beast imitates God and the Lamb: he attempts to look like the lamb and does signs that in previous days validated people’s belief in God, yet now does so to serve the beast (Revelation 13:11-15; cf. Numbers 16:35, 1 Kings 18:20-40, 2 Kings 1:10-14): as such, he represents the civil religion which encourages and promotes the earthly power arrogating against God.

John thus describes the forces arrayed against the people of God: the earthly power and its religion empowered by the Evil One. For a time they are given the power to persecute and even overcome the saints. The rest of the world honors and worships at the feet of that earthly power. We can easily understand how this situation would lead many of God’s people to despair.

Nevertheless, the Evil One is not acting from a position of power: instead, he has already been defeated! He has been cast down from heaven, and his time on earth is short (Revelation 12:9-12). The “Gospel” is “gospeled” (Revelation 14:6-7); these are the first and only times John talks of the “Gospel” as such, and they come at a crucial moment. God is the Creator and thus Controller of all things; the Lamb has gained the victory in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. God’s judgment of condemnation and wrath comes quickly upon “Babylon,” an image which will feature quite prominently in future chapters, and upon all those who have accepted the mark of the beast, the sign of the one given power over the people. The earth is then fully harvested, both grain and grapes; atonement comes to those who belong to God, and condemnation to the full for those who have turned away from Him. The conclusion is fixed and certain; the time will be short.

John does not sugarcoat reality for those to whom he writes: some will go to into captivity, and some will be killed (Revelation 13:10). Yet this is the “faith and patience” of those who follow God: if they put their trust in the blood of the Lamb and proclaim the word of their testimony, they will overcome the Evil One (Revelation 12:9). Through the earthly powers Satan persecutes those who keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus, yet if they endure, even to death, they receive the blessing of God, rest from their labors, and their works follow after them (cf. Revelation 12:17, 14:12-13).

For generations many have speculated regarding the identity of the beast, his mark, and his number. Such speculations tend to tell more about the speculators than anything about what John saw. Likewise, this section of Revelation proves especially terrifying and disturbing for many readers. Nevertheless, Revelation 12:1-14:20 proves critical to the vision which John sees: it explains why even though God and the Lamb rule in the heavens, things do not seem to be going so well on the earth. The Evil One has been given a rather long leash on the earth and uses the powers of empire and religion to deceive the many and persecute the saints. Yet God gives us hope that it will not always be so! In such an environment, we do well to heed the good news of the angel: fear God who is our Creator and worship Him (Revelation 14:7). Learning about the dragon and the beasts should not cause us to waver or fear, for they have already been defeated by Christ, and we can gain the victory over them through Christ as well. Let us maintain faith and patience and glorify God!

The Seven Trumpets

The Vine

John is in the midst of a vision of Heaven; he has seen the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb as having been slain (Revelation 4:1-11). The Lamb has a scroll with seven seals and has opened the seven seals, ostensibly allowing the scroll to be opened (Revelation 5:1-8:1). As the seventh seal is opened, silence comes over Heaven for a half hour, and then seven trumpets are given to the seven angels before God’s throne (Revelation 8:1-2). Another angel takes a golden censer, fills it with the incense, the prayers of the saints, and the fire from the altar, and casts it upon the earth (Revelation 8:3-5). The time had come for the angels to sound the trumpets (Revelation 8:6).

As the first four angels sound their trumpets, John sees great environmental damage take place. Hail and fire mixed with blood destroy a third of the land, trees, and grass (Revelation 8:7). A mountain burning with fire is cast into the sea, turning a third of it to blood and killing a third of the sea creatures (Revelation 8:8-9). A star, Wormwood, falls from the sky, making a third of the freshwater brackish and poisonous (Revelation 8:10-11). A third of the stars, moons, and other lights in the sky are struck and are darkened (Revelation 8:12).

Yet this is just the beginning. An eagle cries out to warn people regarding the woes that will come with the next three trumpet blasts (Revelation 8:13).

The fifth trumpet, or the first woe, leads to the opening of the pit of the abyss, and fearsome locust creatures come out, prepared as for war, which are commanded not to attack vegetation but people, particularly those who did not have the seal of God, causing them such great pain and distress that many seek to die but will not find it (Revelation 9:1-10). Their king is the Destroyer, called Abaddon or Apollyon (Revelation 9:11).

The sixth trumpet, or second woe, leads to the releasing of the four angels at the Euphrates and a cavalry of two hundred million who kill a third of mankind with their plagues of sulfuric fire and smoke and brimstone (Revelation 9:12-19). And yet, despite all of these plagues and great devastation, those on the earth who remained did not repent of their idolatry, sorcery, murder, adultery, and theft (Revelation 9:20-21).

The second woe only fully comes to an end in Revelation 11:14, yet there seems to be some sort of an interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpet/second and third woe as there was between the sixth and seventh seals (cf. Revelation 7:1-17). John sees a strong angel coming down from heaven, standing on earth and sea, holding a little book, proclaiming that the delay shall be no longer, but the mystery shall be finished with the seventh trumpet (Revelation 10:1-7). John is then exhorted to take the little book and eat it, and it is sweet to the taste but bitter in the stomach, and he will again prophesy about peoples and nations and kings (Revelation 10:8-11). John is then given a reed to measure the temple of God, but only the inner court, since the outer court will be trampled by the Gentiles for forty-two months (Revelation 11:1-2). Two witnesses, the olive trees and lampstands before God, will prophesy to the people for 1,260 days, wearing sackcloth and having power to shut up the heavens and bring fire upon their enemies (Revelation 11:3-6). The beast from the abyss will rise up and kill them, and the people of earth will make merry and give gifts to each other, but after three and a half days God will raise them up and will go up into heaven in a cloud, leading the people to fear and give God glory (Revelation 11:7-12). A great earthquake then kills seven thousand people, and the second woe is ended, but the third woe comes quickly (Revelation 11:13-14).

When the seventh trumpet sounds, great voices in Heaven cry out that the kingdoms of the world are now the kingdom of the Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign forever; the twenty-four elders give thanks to the Almighty “who is and was,” for He has taken His power and now reigns, having poured out His wrath upon the nations and rewarded His servants (Revelation 11:15-18). John then sees the Temple, the Holy of Holies, opened up, so as to be able to see the Ark of the Covenant, followed by lightning, voices, thunders, an earthquake, and great hail (Revelation 11:19).

The seven trumpets prove more challenging and mystifying than the seven seals. All sorts of interpretations and identifications are advanced to explain John’s meaning, yet few prove very satisfying.

We do well to remember that while John sees what is in the vision, the various aspects of the vision have meaning based in the long-standing themes of the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, the seven trumpets come forth based upon the opening of the seventh seal: as a seal is a mark of identification and surety that a document has not been corrupted, a trumpet blast proclaims a message and/or sounds a warning for war and judgment (Ezekiel 33:1-6, Hosea 5:8-9). Throwing the coals of the altar upon the earth is a sign of impending judgment and destruction of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 10:1-7; the plagues unleashed by the first five trumpets have much in common with the plagues God cast upon Pharaoh and Egypt to liberate the Israelites from the bondage of slavery, Ezekiel’s warning to Gog about what God will do to him and his land if he attacks the people of God, and Zephaniah’s declaration of what God will do to the land of Judah because of their transgression (Exodus 7:1-12:32, Ezekiel 38:18-23, Zephaniah 1:3). The fearsome locusts, beyond their association with one of the plagues upon the Egyptians, are similarly described in Joel 1:4-2:25. The “Destroyer” is as the destroying angel of God (Genesis 19:1-29, 2 Kings 19:35). The terrifying and ominous army to the east, coming to destroy, is a theme repeated throughout Israel’s history with Assyria and Babylon (cf. Habakkuk 1:6-11).

God tells Ezekiel to eat a scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:3, and it is sweet to the mouth but bitter in the stomach. Measuring a temple features prominently in Ezekiel 40:1-48:35, Amos 7:7-9, and Zechariah 2:1-5 to lay out the plan for the restoration of the people of God and cutting off of those who refuse and rebel; in the New Testament, the people of God are the temple (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Peter 2:5, 9). Forty two months, 1,260 days, and three and a half years are roughly the same amount of time, and is heavy with symbolism: Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by offering pig’s flesh on the altar and that devastation lasted from 167 to 164 BCE. This time period now becomes a way of expressing a time of persecution by an oppressive power (cf. Daniel 9:27, 12:7). The integrity of the church will be maintained, but there will be distress from those who are without. The two witnesses prophesy and are described in terms of the images of the high priest and governor of Israel as well as the exploits of Moses and Elijah (1 Kings 17:1, 18:41-46, 2 Kings 1:10-14, Zechariah 4:1-14); many seek to identify them as Elijah and Enoch, Moses and Elijah, the Old and New Testaments, but they likely represent the proclamation of the Gospel according to the witness of the God in Christ through the Holy Spirit and the witness of believers. The beast features prominently in Daniel 7:21-25 and 8:23-24 as the power of the oppressive nation, and Sodom and Egypt both represent the world, iniquity, and oppression (Genesis 13:13, 19:4-11, 24, Exodus 1:1-14:31). Jerusalem is the city in which the Lord was crucified, and it is expanded to include the whole world, since all see the events taking place. Yet the witnesses are raised and ascend to heaven: the proclamation of the Gospel cannot be so easily defeated, and no matter what the oppressive power may attempt to do, God’s people will continue to proclaim it.

The seventh trumpet is described in terms of the end of time: the kingdoms of men now are the Kingdom of God, and He reigns; the time of judgment and resurrection is now seen in the past (cf. Psalm 2:1-12, Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-57, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-11). The Temple is now open; the Ark can be seen; God’s promises are fulfilled.

Yet Revelation is not over; there are still eleven more chapters to go! We do well to remember that John has ingested the scroll, which is to absorb the message of God, and must now again prophesy regarding peoples, tongues, nations, and kings. Through the images of the temple, the witnesses, their death at the hand of the beast and their subsequent resurrection, we get a glimpse into what John will see more fully in Revelation 12:1-20:10. Through the seventh trumpet blast we get an idea of what will take place as described in Revelation 20:11-22:6.

In Revelation 4:1-10:11, John sees the vision of Heaven and how things look from the heavenly perspective; God in Christ directs the action, and there is no opposition. In Revelation 11:1-14 John receives an overview of the challenges which lay ahead: the persecution of believers by an oppressive, hostile power, but the promise of Revelation 11:15-19 should sustain them: they will overcome through God in Christ, for the kingdoms of the world will become the Kingdom of God in Christ. No matter how difficult or challenging the situation may seem, we do well to remember that God is in control, He will not delay, and those who oppose Him will suffer His wrath in judgment, and believers must continue to overcome all evil through the blood of the Lamb. Let us glorify and praise the Lord and His Christ!

The Seven Seals

The Vine

John has been granted a vision of Heaven, highlighting the rule of God on His throne and the glory and honor given to Him (Revelation 4:1-11). John sees that God holds a scroll with seven seals upon it, and learns that the Lamb of God, Jesus, is worthy to open the seals, and He is greatly praised by all creation and the angelic host (Revelation 5:1-14). The time has come for the Lamb to open the seals.

As the first four seals are opened, horses and their riders come forth (Revelation 6:1-8). The first horse is white and goes off to conquer (Revelation 6:1-2). The second horse is red, and its rider was given a sword to take peace away from the earth (Revelation 6:3-4). The third horse is black, and its rider carries a balance, and a voice calls out highly inflated prices for wheat and barley, while oil and wine remain, indicating scarcity (Revelation 6:5-6). The fourth horse is pale, perhaps the pallor of illness or death upon a man, and Death rides it with Hades following behind, and sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts bring forth death (Revelation 6:7-8).

The fifth seal is opened, and John sees souls under an altar, those slain as martyrs for God (Revelation 6:9). They cry out to God, wanting to know when their blood will be avenged; they are given white robes and told to wait a little longer until the full number of martyrs is reached (Revelation 6:10-11).

The sixth seal brings forth all sorts of momentous events: earthquakes, the sun turning black and the moon to blood, stars falling from the sky, the heavens rolled up as a scroll, and the movement of mountains and islands (Revelation 6:12-15). Everyone on earth, from kings to slaves, hide and want to find some way of escaping face of the One upon the Throne, and the wrath of the Lamb (Revelation 6:16-17).

Before the seventh seal can be opened, God’s people must themselves be sealed. John sees the angels who hold back the four winds at the four corners of the earth, and they are exhorted to do no harm to the creation until the people of God are sealed (Revelation 7:1-3). John speaks of these as 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel,” listing 12 tribes of 12,000 people each, following the standard pattern of the tribes of Israel except omitting Dan, counting Levi, and speaking of Manasseh and Joseph but not Ephraim (Revelation 7:4-8; cf. Genesis 35:22-26).

Then John sees a great multitude from every people and nation before the throne and before the Lamb, praising and glorifying God and the Lamb as seen previously in Revelation 5:9-14 (Revelation 7:9-12). They are the ones who came out of the tribulation, having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, and they are always before the throne of God, serving Him constantly, sheltered by His glory (Revelation 7:13-15). They do not hunger or thirst, are not oppressed by heat, and are shepherded by the Lamb who guides them to springs of living water, and God wipes every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:16-17).

Then John sees the seventh seal opened (Revelation 8:1). All is silent for about a half an hour. Another series of events will soon take place before John’s eyes.

The opening of the seven seals has fascinated and mystified people for generations; the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is one of the most defining images of Revelation. The meaning behind these events is quite disputed, and we can understand why: these images seem quite strange.

Nevertheless, the images are consistent with many themes found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Four horses and their riders are sent out in Zechariah 1:8-10 and 6:1-8; judgment is suspended until the righteous are sealed in Ezekiel 9:1-8. We can gain some insight into the meaning of these images through their continued use throughout Scripture.

The horses and their riders evoke the hand of God among the people: the white horse and rider as conquering by the promotion of the Gospel and/or victory in battle, the red horse and rider as persecution of believers or conflict among nations, the black horse and rider as scarcity on account of famine, extortion, or mismanagement, and the pale horse and Death as the representative judgment of God against a nation: sword, famine, pestilence, and death (Revelation 6:1-8; cf. Leviticus 26:21-26, Ezekiel 4:10, 16, 14:12-21, Matthew 10:34-39).

The altar of the fifth seal is the altar of sacrifice, and since the blood of the sacrifice would collect under the altar, and life is in the blood, so the lives of the Christians who died for their faith remain under the altar (cf. Exodus 29:12, Leviticus 4:7, 18, 30, 17:11-14). Their blood must be avenged, not because of hatred or ill will against their fellow man, but on account of the divine mandate in Genesis 4:10, 9:5-6 and Numbers 35:33 regarding the pollution that comes from unavenged blood. God remains a God of justice as well as a God of love!

All of the events of the sixth seal evoke the signs of the days of judgment and reckoning in Isaiah 13:10-13, 34:4, Jeremiah 4:19-28, Hosea 10:8, Joel 2:30-32, Amos 8:8-9, and even Jesus in Matthew 24:29-34. These all speak of nations great and small falling.

Many relate the events surrounding the six seals to Israel in the days of the destruction of Jerusalem around 70 CE or to the Romans and their Empire in the first centuries CE. This is to be expected, since the referents for the images speak of judgment upon Babylon, Israel, and Judah. They are how God visits judgment upon people, and reflect God’s continued activity and presence in His creation.

Yet however God judges the nations, He has sealed His own people with His name. The “144,000” do not necessarily escape the trials and tribulations of the seals, but they have the spiritual security of being God’s people. Throughout the New Testament, Christians in the church are spoken of in terms of the people of Israel (Romans 2:28-29, 9:6, Galatians 6:15-16, Philippians 3:3): so it is with the 144,000 in Revelation 7:1-8. They are the “12 x 12 x 1000,” the very large number who are religiously complete before God; they are Christians living on earth and serving God, often called the “church militant.”

They are joined in their praise and service by the innumerable people of God who have gone on to their reward and continually stand before the Throne and the Lamb (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). They are the “church triumphant,” and they have received the wonderful promises of God. They do not hunger or thirst; they do not suffer from heat; they have living water, being shepherded by Jesus, and God wipes every tear from their eye. It is all love, joy, peace, glory, and grace, and it is wonderful!

While we will never exhaust the mysteries of the seven seals, we can gain encouragement from them. Events transpire as they have in the past: people stand for God’s Word and are persecuted for it. Nations conquer and are conquered; there are times of plenty and times of scarcity; people always find ways of making war on each other. Nations rise and fall. The people of God must endure such things as they always have. Yet they have their own seal upon them which God has given them; they are His and live to praise Him. They cherish the hope of the promise of joining that “church triumphant,” able to stand before the throne and the Lamb in love, joy, peace, glory, and grace, and receive rest. Let us stand firm for the cause of the Lord so as to obtain that wonderful inheritance, glorifying and honoring He who sits upon the throne and the Lamb!

The Throne and the Lamb in Heaven

The Vine

Having written down the letters to the seven churches, John is now invited to glimpse a vision of the power and majesty of the heavenly court. He is again in the Spirit (Revelation 4:1-2), and begins to describe the details of the heavenly court in ways quite reminiscent of similar scenes in Isaiah 6:1-5 and Ezekiel 1:26-28.

John begins with the throne of God (Revelation 4:2-3). He tells the reader that One sits upon the throne but provides no detail about His form: to look upon Him, John says, is like jasper, sardius, and a rainbow around the throne like emerald. These are the most precious jewels imaginable; they may also represent God’s purity, justice/wrath, and mercy. John well describes God essentially as an emanation of light (Exodus 28:17, Psalm 104:2, Ezekiel 28:13, 1 Timothy 6:16), along with the rainbow, the reminder of His covenant with all mankind (cf. Genesis 9:12-17).

John then describes the twenty-four thrones around the throne of God, and the twenty-four elders upon those thrones (Revelation 4:4). These twenty-four elders most likely represent two sets of twelve, the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament and the twelve apostles of the New Testament, and therefore are the embodiment of the people of God throughout time. They are dressed in white garments, indicating their purity, and have golden crowns of victory. They also have harps and bowls of incense, representing the songs and prayers of God’s people (Revelation 5:8). Thus the people of God surround God’s throne in purity and triumph; they are shown constantly casting their crowns before God’s throne, prostrating before Him and declaring His worthiness as the Creator of all things (Revelation 4:10-11).

John then further sets the scene in Revelation 4:5-6a: lightning and thunder, evoking God and Israel at Sinai in Exodus 19:16, the seven torches as the seven spirits of God, representing the Holy Spirit (cf. Revelation 1:4), and something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Such details express the majesty and awesomeness of God as well as the distance between God and man.

John then speaks of four living creatures in Revelation 4:6b-9. Like the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2-3, they surround the throne of God and ceaselessly declare, “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come,” (Revelation 4:8). Yet much of the description is like the cherubim of Ezekiel 1:10, 18, 10:14-15, 20-22: four creatures with the heads of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle, likely representing nobility, strength, wisdom, and swiftness, respectively (also as leaders of their representative animal categories; others have seen in the four the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They have eyes everywhere and see all things; they obtain no rest from their ceaseless praise of God.

John then focuses on a scroll in the hand of the One upon the throne, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals (Revelation 5:1). An angel cries out asking who is worthy to open the scroll, and no one is found, leading John to weep and lament (Revelation 5:2-4). One of the elders then comforts John, declaring that there is One who is worthy: the Lion of Judah, the Root of David (Revelation 5:5).

At this time John then sees standing in the midst of the throne and of the elders a Lamb as though it had been slain, with seven horns (representing honor, strength, and power; cf. Deuteronomy 3:17, 1 Kings 22:11, Psalms 18:2, 75:4, 89:17, 112:9, 148:14, Daniel 7:24, Zechariah 1:18-21) and seven eyes (the seven Spirits of God, a representation of all sight, thus omniscience and omnipresence: Zechariah 4:10, Revelation 1:4-6), who takes the scroll from the One upon the throne (Revelation 5:6-7). John then sees a threefold set of praises and honor given to the Lamb: first, a new song of the four living creatures and the elders (Revelation 5:8-10), then an innumerable number of angels with the living creatures and elders, declaring a sevenfold declaration of the Lamb’s glory (a doxology; cf. Revelation 5:11-12), and finally all created things in the universe proclaim blessings, honor, glory, and dominion to the One on the throne and to the Lamb (Revelation 5:13-14).

The Lamb of God, which is the Lion of Judah and the Root of David, is Jesus of Nazareth, who died in order to ransom all men from the power of sin and overcame death in the glorious victory of His resurrection (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). We do well to note the emphasis John places on the description of Jesus as the Lamb: only in Revelation 5:5 is He described as a lion, but in Revelation 5:6, 5:12, 6:1, 16, 7:9-10, 14, 12:11, 13:8, 14:2, 4, 15:3, 17:14, 19:7, 9, 21:22-23, and 22:1-3 He is called the Lamb. This is not to deny that Jesus is the Lion of Judah, but to remind us that throughout Revelation, as throughout the whole New Testament, Jesus’ victory is won through His sacrifice. He overcame the power of sin, suffering, and death through suffering and dying. His people will overcome through Him also by dying to sin and suffering whatever they are called upon to suffer (cf. Romans 6:1-23, 1 Peter 1:3-9).

It is hard not to be overcome and awed by the majesty of the scene which John presents of Heaven with the One upon the throne and the Lamb. What John sees is not something that is yet to come; it existed in his present day, and it exists to this day and will exist for eternity. John is writing to Christians in Asia Minor who are suffering persecution and who may feel that God and His power are quite distant: through this scene they could see that the victory had already been won. Their songs and prayers surround the throne of God. As they praised, glorified, and honored the name of the One who sits upon the throne and of the Lamb while on earth, so they would also do so in heaven as it is being done in heaven. No matter how dark or difficult our days may seem while on this earth, we can be sure that God sits upon His throne, the Lamb reigns in Heaven, and if we overcome in Jesus, we also will sing the new song of redemption by the Lamb forevermore!

Ethan Longhenry

Letters to the Seven Churches in Asia

The Vine

John has seen the Risen Lord standing in the midst of seven lampstands, representing the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:12-20). Jesus is not an absent landlord: He is intimately aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the churches of His people. Before the Revelation proper can be given, He has messages to give for His people in their specific circumstances in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea: the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2:1-3:22).

Each letter maintains a similar layout: Jesus speaks to the congregation through the “angel” of that congregation, and speaks of Himself in terms of the descriptions given in Revelation 1:12-20 (save the reference to Jesus as the Son of God in Revelation 2:18, a reference to Jesus used often in 1 John; e.g. 1 John 4:15). Jesus then commends each church for all that is commendable (save for Laodicea, for which there is no commendation). Jesus will then set forth His concerns, critiques, and condemnations for each church (except for Smyrna and Philadelphia, for which there are no critiques). Jesus concludes each letter with a promise for those who “overcome” and the exhortation for all who have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Jesus finds many reasons for encouragement. Ephesus has patience and works, has not grown weary, has exposed false apostles for what they are, and hates the works of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). Despite poverty, tribulation, and persecution from the Jews, Smyrna is truly rich and has stood firm for Jesus (Revelation 2:9). Pergamum has held fast to Jesus’ name and did not deny the faith despite dwelling in the midst of “Satan’s throne” and official Roman persecution (Revelation 2:13). Jesus knows of Thyatira’s love, faith, ministry, patience, and works (Revelation 2:19). Some in Sardis maintain righteousness and holiness and are worthy of life (Revelation 3:5). Philadelphia, despite weakness and persecution by the Jews, has maintained the faith and has not denied it, and will be preserved through the hour of trial (Revelation 3:8-10).

Yet Jesus has many concerns for His churches. Ephesus has left its first love, and without returning to their former works, will lose their place (Revelation 2:4-5). Pergamum and Thyatira have some among them who have compromised too much with the pagan world around them, participating in sexual immorality and food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:14-16, 20-23). Sardis has the reputation for life, but is actually dead; they need to wake up and repent (Revelation 3:1-4). Laodicea is lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, and is about to be spit out: they claim to be wealthy and in need of nothing but in fact are in need of everything. In humility they must turn back to Jesus for true wealth, clothing, and healing (Revelation 3:15-18).

Jesus is preparing His churches for tribulations and difficulties which are about to come upon them, encouraging them to remain steadfast despite the challenges. This is told to Smyrna and Philadelphia explicitly (Revelation 2:10, 3:10), and will affect the other churches as well. All the churches do well to “clean up” the challenges existing within the congregation so that they will be ready and able to stand firm when the external difficulties come upon them!

Jesus provides promises to those who “overcome”: John is responsible for 24 of the 28 uses of nikao, overcome, in Scripture, and 17 of those are in Revelation. Those who overcome will eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (Revelation 2:7), will not be harmed by the second death (Revelation 2:11), will receive the hidden manna, and a white stone with a new name on it (Revelation 2:17), will receive authority over the nations to rule with a rod of iron and be given the morning star (Revelation 2:27-28), will be arrayed in white garments, will not have their names blotted out of the book of life, and Jesus will confess their names before the Father (Revelation 3:5), will be made a pillar in the house of God, and will have the name of God and the name of the city of God written on them (Revelation 3:12), and will sit with Jesus on His throne, as He sits with the Father on His throne (Revelation 3:19). In the midst of persecution, poverty, and trial, the hope of victory, power, wealth, and eternal life would encourage and sustain the Christians of the churches of Asia.

What are we to make of these letters? Jesus is sending messages to specific churches in their specific contexts, exhibiting a familiarity with each particular city and its history and environment. Smyrna, as a city, died and lived again, and was wealthy (Revelation 2:8-9). Pergamum was the center of Roman power in the area, full of idols and paganism, and thus understood as where Satan and his throne dwelt (Revelation 2:13). The glory days of Sardis were in the past; it had only been conquered twice when its defenders were not particularly alert (Revelation 3:1-3). Laodicea was famous for its wealth, its school of ophthalmology and its eye-salve, and notorious for the lukewarm quality of its water (cf. Revelation 3:15-18). Nevertheless, each letter also concludes with the exhortation for those who have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:4, 3:13, 3:22). In these seven churches we see the same types of strengths and weaknesses, and benefits and challenges as have existed in churches throughout time and continue to exist to this day. Some churches stand firm for the truth but lose their love and zeal for God, like Ephesus; other churches maintain love and zeal but have many compromising the truth, like Thyatira. Some churches seem alive but are dead, like Sardis; not a few churches are complacent but really weak, like Laodicea.

We can gain much encouragement from the letters to the seven churches in Asia. We should stand firm and not deny the faith even in the face of poverty, persecution, or tribulation. We must be on guard against the dangers of false teachings and the tendency to compromise with the world. Jesus reproves and chastens those whom He loves; we should be zealous and repent of all sin (Revelation 3:19). Let us listen to the word of the Lord, opening the door for Him, and share with Him in His feast forevermore (Revelation 3:20)!