The following notes and audio are by Keeley Chorn, co-teacher for Young Women’s Bible Study. Press play on the player below to listen to this message. Or to download to your computer – On a PC right-click “download audio” and select “Save As Target.” On a Mac Ctrl+click “download audio” and choose “Download linked file as.”
A 12-year-old girl read the book of Revelation for the first time. When she finished, a teacher her asked her if she understood it. She said, “I think so. It’s kind of like a fantasy, except I knew it was true.” Years later, when the teacher retold this story, an adult student came up to the same teacher and said “I felt like that 12-year-old girl. I remember reading it when I was around that age and thinking I understood it, but now I understand it less and less!” (adapted from Poythress, The Returning King).
As we dive into the visions, symbolism, and imagery of Revelation over the next three weeks, let’s try not to overanalyze the book, but to read it like a 12-year-old, and view it from an imaginative, creative point-of-view, where it reads like a fantasy, except we know it is true.
Revelation reads like a fantasy because it is in the genre of “apocalypse.” Apocalypse isn’t a genre most of us are familiar with, like we might be with the gospels, or letters, or historical books of the Bible. But, knowing the genre helps us know how to read and interpret better the section of the Bible that we are dealing with.
So what does it mean that Revelation is in the genre of “apocalypse”? During the time between 200BC and AD400 (surrounding the time of Christ), there was a huge influx of writings in this genre. We know of at least 12 writings in this style, and in the Bible, there are examples in parts of books and more fully in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.
An “apocalypse” was a particular style of Jewish writing that had several key features. Apocalypses were known for revealing “secret things” of God, which are normally not accessible to humans; for speaking of a great catastrophic event that will establish God’s rule; for bizarre and wild symbols that tell us about historical movements or events; for visions of things in heaven; and for a concern about the end times. In John’s day, readers of this book would have recognized this type of genre and would not have thought it to be as wild and fantastical as we think it is. The use of complex symbolism was “in the air” during the time this book was written. Revelation is not presenting “new” ideas, but is repeating a lot of the themes and ideas found elsewhere in the NT, but in symbolic form. The visions given to John add color and expression to things that our minds couldn’t otherwise grasp.
As a reminder, Ashley and I are teaching from the perspective that is called amillennialism, which is the belief that we currently live in the end times where Christ reigns now over the earth from a throne in heaven (and not from a future throne on earth). Even within the “amillennial” perspective, there are still many ways of understanding the symbolism of Revelation.
For your reference, I want to give you an outline of what we’re going to cover tonight. We’re going to divide tonight’s (long) reading into 3 sections 1) Chs. 4-5: The Throne Room, 2) Chs. 6-8:1: The 7 Seals, then 3) Chs. 8:2 through the end of Ch. 11: The 7 Trumpets.
Revelation 4-5: God and Christ at the Center of the Throne Room
The first section of our outline is chapters 4-5: The focus of these chaptersis on the throne room of heaven with God and Christ at the center of it all, ruling from the throne. These chapters will be the anchor for the rest of the book… John’s vision starts with him being taken up “in Spirit” to the throne room. God’s place at the center will give spiritual security to his people(they can’t be harmed or lost spiritually)and it will give his people, us, confidence to live out our faith day to day.
In Chapter 4, we see God is worthy as Creator. There’s an angelic court surrounding him. There are 24 elders, who are seen to represent the entire church from OT and NT times, 12 from each (the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles are sometimes suggested). There are 7 lamps shining which are the spirits of God (Rev 1 spoke of the 7-fold spirit of God). Then there are the 4 living creatures. In them, we can see a reflection of the things God has created on earth: a great and fierce lion, a strong ox, a majestic eagle, and a ruler in man. These animals show us meaning, but also humbly remind us that we can’t fully understand God right now. Another noteworthy part of this scene is the praise all the angelic beings are offering to God. He is holy, Almighty, God of the past/present/future; he is “worthy” “to receive glory and honor and power, for [he] created all things” (v. 11). There is a focus here on God as the Creator. The point of the book of Revelation is to show us God, not to tell us the future, but to show us God, who will bring all things to pass in his time and in his way (Poythress, The Returning King). Revelation is about God and his greatness. Keep this in mind as we journey through the rest of the book.
In Chapter 5, we see that the slain lamb, Christ, also is worthy. As chapter 5 opens, we are introduced to a scroll held in God’s hand. Only Jesus, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” is able to open it. Only he has triumphed, says the elder, triumphed over death and the grave in his resurrection. He is the only access point we have to God and to understanding the things to be described in the scroll. Again, notice the praise that is offered to Christ in verses 9-10 and 12-13. “By his blood he purchased men for God.” In verse 13, he too receives “praise and honor and glory and power.”In this chapter, Christ also stands at the center with God the Father. God was praised for his act of creation and now for his act of redemption, which allows men and women access to God through Christ’s death.
Chapters 4-5 show us God the Father, the Son, even the Spirit, at the center of all things. God is on the throne, he is ruling now, he has power and might. Knowing God is at the center of all things gives us confidence.
Revelation 6-8:1: The 7 Seals
The second section of our outline is Chapters 6-8:1. As look into this section, I want to draw your attention to the structure we’re going to be seeing throughout the book. Be sure and hear what follows: it’s important for helping us conceptually understand what’s going on in the book.
Cycles of 7
So, the structure that I want you to keep in mind as we read through Revelation is what we’ll call “The Cycles of 7.” The cycles provide an important literary device for helping us understand the book. You’ll notice that we have the 7 seals in this section of our outline then the 7 trumpets in the next.
What these “cycles of 7” are going to show us is different perspectives on the same group of events. Each cycle will recapitulate, or restate in a new form, the same events. We’re going to see the cycles lay out in the book of Revelation sequentially (one after the other), but they represent all the same events. (Imagine stacking them.) They explain and elaborate over and over again the same complex of events leading up to the 2nd coming. They are not listed in order that they will happen, as if Rev is meant to be a detailed, step-by-step guide to the end times.
(If you’re interested in going deeper, I highly recommend these two excellent books: Revelation by Michael Wilcock and The Returning King by Vern Poythress. Both these books are pretty easy to follow and have very accessible language.)
So to try and better understand the concept of what I mean by these cycles of 7 giving different perspectives on the same event, I want you to think of how we sometimes need many different sides of a story to understand all of its pieces…Maybe some friends went to a conference and you want to find out what the main speaker had to say. One friend will describe certain aspects of the talk and will leave others out. They will say what they got from it, but they won’t remember everything. If you ask another friend, you might see some overlap in what they say, but will also learn different parts of the same event. The more people you ask, the fuller picture you will get of what the speaker actually said. The difference here in Revelation is that the perspectives are all coming from one person, John, who is in the Spirit. John needs to receive these different perspectives of the same series of events to see a fuller picture of the whole, just as we need it.
The cycles of 7 are going to show us events that are happening now in our day (and in the past in John’s day), events that are still future, even events associated with the 2nd coming of Christ. In the gospels, Jesus tells us what the end times will be like in Matt 24 and its parallels (Mark 13, and Luke 21). We’ll use his depiction of things as a guiding control for the cycles of 7. The cycles will increase in intensity, the further we move through Revelation, the more intense they will be and the more they will tell us about the 2nd coming.
With this “cycles of 7” structure in mind, we’re going to look in brief at the cycle that is the 7 seals on the scroll that Christ is to open. In Ch. 6 the first 6 seals are opened, then Ch. 7 will provide an interlude (or break from the action for a specific purpose), and verse 8:1 will describe the opening of the 7th seal. (This pattern will also repeat in the third section of our outline. We’ll encounter the first 6, have an interlude, and then see the 7th.)
In the first 4 seals, we see 4 riders coming to bring judgment on the earth. They bring 1) conquest of earthly warfare and fighting, 2) violent conflict and mass killing, 3) famine and great economic difficulty, and 4) death. In Jesus’ account in Matt 24:6-8, he says,
“6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.”
These events happen today, they have happened in the past, and they will happen in the future.
In the fifth seal, we see the cry of the martyrs or the suffering of God’s people. The lesson for us, is that we in the church are not immune from these physical disasters that are happening. We will suffer for our faith, and we may come to physical harm just because we live on this fallen earth. This passage applies to all believers who suffer for Christ’s sake and desire true justice to come on earth. Jesus said in Matt 24:9-11:
9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.”
These events too are happening now, and happened in John’s day as we saw in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia (persecution) and Thytira (false teachers-Jezebel). We can expect them to continue in the future.
In the 6th seal, we see the events that will immediate precede the 2nd coming. The vision is of a great earthquake, the darkening of the sun and moon, and stars falling from the sky. Verses 16-17 say it is the “great day of the wrath” and it”has come.” Jesus in Matt 24:29-30 describes it, saying:
“29 “Immediately after the distress of those days [what’s occurred in the previous 5 seals]
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.”
So the 6th seal describes events immediately preceding the 2nd coming, and not necessarily things that are happening in the past and present.
How do these events/seals help us understand what’s going on right now in our world?
We can have confidence that it’s according to plan. Not be scared about what we hear. Know that God is with us in the midst of our suffering, and that these disasters will affect believers too, because we live in a fallen world.
After the opening of the 6 seals, we expect to see the opening of the 7th seal, but we have to wait an entire chapter as we see what’s going on in Ch. 7, before it’s opened. Chapter 7 is an interlude in the action of opening the seals, and it is there for a specific purpose-to give comfort to Christians about their spiritual security in Christ in the midst of all these events.
Chapter 7 begins by saying he saw this after the first 6 seals, but it doesn’t say this happened after. We’re going to read this section as an interlude in the action, one that describes something in time that happens distinct from the cycles (the seals in this case). So what happens? The sealing of God’s people: his 144,000. Like the rest of numbers in Revelation, we’ll see it as symbolic. Ezekiel 9 speaks of God’s faithful receiving a mark on their forehead, and Eph 1:13 speaks of believers being”sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit at the moment when they believe. We don’t need to wait to receive a distinctive mark on our foreheads; we’ve already been sealed when we first believed. From God’s perspective, we are all God’s people and part of Israel, the tribes listed; God knows and numbers his people.
In verses 9-17, John sees a great multitude of people. In verses 1-8, John hears the number of 144,000 who are sealed, and now he sees the people, it is a crowd so large that it cannot be counted. These two groups are meant to represent one in the same, they are the people of God, who God knows by number and yet John cannot count them, they are so large. They are both listed as God’s servants (v. 3, 15) and so the first group can’t be exclusively Jewish, as some believe. In seeing the crowd, it says in(v. 9) that John sees people from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne. God’s people come from every race, every nation, and every different language group.
What does this multi-cultural aspect of God’s people tell us about how we should live among people who are different from us?
Most of God’s people will not be like us. They will not speak our language, but they might live among us-especially as our cities become more multi-cultural; we have to love them for whom they are, including the color of their skin and the language they speak. God’s people, like our cities, are truly multi-cultural.
The purpose of Chapter 7, as an interlude, is meant to be a comfort and security to Christians. They have been sealed.Spiritually no harm can come to them, though physically, it says that there will be martyrs and we will suffer. Knowing we are eternally, spiritually secure, gives us the confidence to live out our faith day to day.
In Ch. 8, verse 1, we come to the opening of the 7th seal, and it says “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour,” it says. The cycles of 7 all move to the 2nd coming, but here, it’s like “oh, that’s it…” But what we see here is a picture of silence and peace and completeness. Christ is not yet ready to reveal what the 2nd coming will be like, but we will see it as we continue to move through the book, and we’ll see it most fully in Rev 21-22, which we’ll study in 2 weeks. Now we just have an anticipation of the peace it will bring. And this finishes our first cycle of 7, our first perspective of history.
So far, we’ve seen in Section 1 (Chs. 4-5) andSection 2 of our outline(6-8:1) that knowing God is at the center of all things and his people are spiritually secure gives us confidence to live out our faith day to day.
Revelation 8:2-11:19- The 7 Trumpets
The third and final section of the outline, 8:2-the end of 11, presents another perspective or view on past, current, and future history. Another cycle of 7 begins, complete with an interlude, and moving toward a picture of the 2nd coming.
In chapter 8, we are now introduced to 7 angels holding 7 trumpets. Their message will be similar, but more intense than the message of the 7 seals. The first 4 trumpets affect 4 parts of the natural world They are not sequential events but aspects of history that are true at any time period. So, the first 4 trumpets strike 4 parts of creation: 1) the dry land (environment), 2) sea (commerce- shipping imp. in ancient world), 3) fresh water (our resources), and 4) sky (our vision). The instruments of destruction in this cycle of 7 are symbols of any kind of destruction which at any time damages the earth on which man lives. These cycles retell aspects of the same events, and they’re meant to remind us of the plagues of Egypt. Then in verse 13, an eagle comes to announce that the next 3 trumpets will be woes to the inhabitants of the earth, or nonbelievers.
Chapter 9 begins with the 5th trumpet announcing a swarm of locusts that stays for 5 months torturing and tormenting nonbelievers (we know it’s nonbelievers, because verse 4 says they could only torment only those that did not have the seal of God on their foreheads). We do not need to imagine that real locusts looking just like this are to come to earth, but remember them as symbols. Let’s not ask the question “How does this happen?” but “Why does this happen?”
The 6th trumpet and 2nd woe is the last warning (in this cycle) for the inhabitants of the earth, bringing destruction. By the time of the 7th trumpet, it will be too late to repent. The armies here, like the rest of the images, are not to be taken literally. The point is that many nonbelievers will see death all around them, but they will still be unrepentant; they continue to not see God in the midst of their struggles, continued to not hear God’s voice. Verse 20-21 says, “they did not repent the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons…and idols…” These events foreshadow the 2nd coming when there will not be another opportunity to repent, this is why they are woes to nonbelievers. The answer to why this happens is that they are unrepentant. It’s are a wake-up call, meant to draw people to God’s mercy, but to show his justice as well.
How must we be careful in interpreting when bad events happen? How have you seen people in the church misusing them? People said that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment on the country for allowing voodoo and false worship there for so many centuries. A lot of the time, what people are saying is going to have to do with their theology-the 4 millennial positions we talked about the first week in Rev 1. We also can’t just say that if something bad happens, then they were all unbelievers and it was God’s judgment-remember that the seals happened to believers too.
Chapters 10-11 form another interlude in this “cycle of 7.” In chapter 10, an angel holding a little scroll appears. The angel announces in verse 6 that “there will be no more delay!” The 7th trumpet is coming and the mystery of God will be accomplished at the 2nd coming (the 7th trumpet). What is that mystery? Rom 16:25-27 says that it’s just the gospel, that Christ came to redeem men and women and to reconcile them to God (also Eph 3, 5; Col 1, 2, 4). So the gospel age, that mystery, will end with the 2nd coming.
Next, John is told to eat the scroll, one that tastes sweet going down, but that turns his stomach sour. After eating the scroll, he is told to prophesy. John’s prophesying is a model for the church’s witness to the world before the 2nd coming, we are to digest the words of God and speak them. The gospel is sweet in the ears of those God has drawn to him, but bitter and sour to those who do not want to hear what God has done and is doing in the world.
In Chapter 11, the 2nd part of the interlude, John goes and measures the temple of God. We should not expect this to be a literal temple rebuilt on the old site in Jerusalem, like your tour guide will tell you, if you’ve ever been there. This is because Christ has told us already that we, his church, are the temple of God (Eph 2:19-22); he’s already been building it. This chapter describes, rather graphically, what happens to the two witnesses of God. Again, they are a symbol of the witness the church has. The two witnesses are called lamps, just as Christians are called lights in the world in Phil 2:15, witnessing to Christ. This interlude again reassures Christians that they have spiritual security in the midst of these tribulations and trials as they witness to their faith.
Finally, we come to the 7th trumpet in Ch. 11, verse 15. And now in this trumpet we get a beginning picture of what the 2ndcoming will look like. We see the last judgment occurring (v. 18), and God’s rule being established (vv. 15, 17). We see the opening of the temple and the viewing of the ark, which symbolizes God fully revealing his glory. This trumpet is the third woe for those who do not know Christ because there’s not more time for them, not more opportunity for repentance. God’s kingdom has fully become the kingdom of the world, just like we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It will be complete in his 2nd coming.
For now, we’ve finished looking at two cycles of 7 within Revelation. We know that God stands in the center of it all. We know that we are spiritually secure: we can’t be lost; God knows us and numbers us. This confidence and security are what move us to witness to who God is, to live out our faith.
Application and Conclusion
As we think application, I want to remind you of an illustration I gave a few weeks ago in our study of 1 Samuel. I spoke of people wanting to know the minimum they have to do to follow Christ and not fall off the symbolic ledge of the circle of faith/Christianity. I then said how we shouldn’t be looking backwards, but should be looking inwards to how we move toward the center, toward God. The vision of his throne room give us just that: a picture of what the center looks like, of what it is that we are meant to be moving towards: God and Christ, ruling this earth. We move closer to God’s glory and to understanding God’s death for us, so we can know his mercy and forgiveness better. This is a picture of what he looks like in the center.
How do we apply these lessons, this story, these symbols to our day to day life? How does knowing God is at the center of all things and his people are spiritually secure give us confidence to live out our faith in the day to day? This is the hard part, and I want us to talk about it in our small groups…I want you to work through it together.
The thought to take with you into your groups and into your week is: knowing that God is at the center of all things and his people are spiritually secure gives us confidence to live out our faith day to day.
Questions for Discussion and Application…
- Does the vision of God at the center of the throne room help you view your life situation differently? How?
- What keeps you from witnessing to your faith or living it out daily (this is more than just sharing the gospel with someone…)?