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"The Jewish Martyrs Vindicated by the Lamb" Revelation 6

The Interpretation of the Seven Seals

When? Three Options

If we are to profit from these words, we must have some idea of what or whom John is speaking. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, uncertainty prevents understanding and therefore faith (Acts 8:34). The Spirit’s promise is that we will be blessed if we read, understand, and keep the book (Rev. 1:3; 22:7,14). When did or will these horsemen ride forth? Are we waiting for them to ride, as the futurists maintain? Are they symbols of judgment throughout history, as the idealists say? Did they ride in the first century against the apostate Jewish nation, as the preterists defend?

The Futurist interpretation depends primarily upon the hermeneutic principle of literalism. As John Walvoord writes in his famous commentary, "The interpretation of these events depends upon the understanding of other portions of the prophetic Word. If the events portrayed are taken in the literal sense, it should be clear that they describe an event yet future..." (122). Walvoord goes on to write in the same section that Revelation "was intended to be interpreted with a far greater literalness than has been commonly exercised" (123). Because Revelation must be interpreted "literally," then these are not symbolic judgments; they will occur in the exact manner as the linguistic tokens indicate. Since nothing like these events has yet occurred, they are yet future. However, (1) the events depicted in Revelation are imminent to the first century believers, not in a prophetic or spiritual sense, but in a historical sense (1:1,3; 3:10,11; 6:11). This would be the literal and clearest reading of “quickly” and “soon.” (2) Revelation's leading theme is the judgment of the Lamb against the persecuting power of unbelieving Judaism (1 Thess. 2:16), not the judgments that will occur prior to the second coming of Christ (1:7). It is those who pierced him who will see these judgments, i.e., those who crucified him. (3) Literalism is not a viable interpretive option, and it goes directly against John's interpretive key in the first verse of the book. Revelation is a book of signs and symbols, and John (God) interpreted it to be interpreted in accordance with sound principles for interpreting symbols. (4) The Futurist interpretation results in an uncertain interpretation of the book. Few things have brought more derision upon the church and more skepticism with respect to biblical prophecy than the various dating and end-time schemes that futurists have derived from a false reading of the book of Revelation. (5) Futurism leaves first-century believers, John's intended audience, without the encouragement and direction they needed to remain faithful to Jesus Christ during the great tribulation that occurred in their lifetimes. (6) Walvoord shows the weakness of the entire futurist position when he concludes his analysis of the interpretation of the seven seals by writing, "The ultimate proof of the futurist interpretation will be in future events" (123).  This is begging the question. Futurism proclaims an uncertain future in light of an unproven scheme.

The Idealist interpretation views these seals as identifying themes of judgment and deliverance that will be operative throughout the period between Christ's first and second advents. G.K. Beale writes, "Therefore, in connection with ch. 5, Rev. 6:1-8 describes the operation of the destructive forces that were unleashed immediately on the world as the result of Christ's victorious suffering at the cross, his resurrection, and his ascent to a position of rule at the Father's right hand....It is likely that the four judgments of Rev. 6:2-8 also refer in part to contemporary historical events, although it is difficult to know which events are in mind.  But the meaning of 6:2-8 cannot be exhausted by appeal to any precise historical background, since John's intent is to describe calamities that have partial effect throughout the whole world, and not merely in Jerusalem, Asia Minor, or Rome" (pp. 371,4). There is much to commend in Beale’s emphasis on the present reign of Christ. However, the Idealist interpretation of the seven seals, like the Futurist, is dependent upon an assumed view of the entire book of Revelation, namely, that it does not speak of events during the first century or any century but is rather descriptive of the entire church age. Against Beale’s historical uncertainty, (1) John's historical referent is clear (1:7; 11:8). (2) The theme of Revelation, while applicable to all ages of the church, is the coming of Christ in judgment upon apostate Israel in A.D. 70. Idealism makes the application of Revelation the theme of Revelation, without adequate exegetical justification for doing so.

The Preterist, i.e., past, believes that the announced of Revelation is the coming of Christ in judgment upon the nation of Israel (1:7), the leading enemy of the church in the first century (Matt. 21:43). The judgments prophesied in the seven seals and unleashed in history pertain to the great calamity that befell the Jewish nation, its peoples and institutions. Moses Stuart summarizes this position cogently: "The humiliation and prostration of the Jewish persecuting enemies of the church is the main truth aimed at in Rev. vi-xi" (2:141). Common objections to the Preterist interpretation are: (1) John's sweeping strokes are far too broad to find a historical referent in any one epoch of history. Most Preterists deny that John's prophecies are intended to be taken as “newspaper headlines written in advance.” This would be contrary to the apocalyptic language in the Bible, which describes cataclysmic events in dramatic, symbolic, and universal language. (2) The events of the first century were simply too limited in scope to be the main theme of Revelation. This objection is overturned if we recall the significance of the events of A.D. 70 for church and world history. Christ’s judgment upon the Jewish nation and its temple religion brought a public termination to the old covenant economy and worship, dramatically proclaimed the universalization of God’s kingdom, dealt judicially with Israel for its centuries of rebellion against Jehovah and recent rejection of the Messiah, and fulfilled our Lord's promise of his imminent judgment upon unbelieving Israel (Matt. 26:64).

What? Interpret the Symbols as Symbols

Walvoord's insistence that Revelation and these seven seals must be taken "literally" is false, ignorant, and misleading. By "literal" is meant the idea that Revelation should be interpreted non-figuratively. It is a history textbook written in advance. Those who advocate a symbolic approach to the book are criticized as "spiritualizing” the meaning of the book." Let us consider the sixth seal, verses 12-17.  The "literalist" school concludes that these verses prophesy of cataclysmic judgment in which the crust of the earth will be split apart, stars will fall from the sky, and the heavens will unravel. There is a more biblical way to interpret this language. It is standard, Old Testament, apocalyptic language for judgment, momentous historical events, and the deliverance of the church. 

Consider Joel 2:28-32, a text that contains language very similar to Revelation 6:12-17: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions....I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come." Peter proclaims that these events are fulfilled on the day of Pentecost – not partially but fully fulfilled: "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel." Did the moon turn to blood on the day of Pentecost? No. Was the sun turned to darkness? No, at least not in the way required by crass literalism. This is the language of "prophetic hyperbole," in which God’s mighty works in history are described in language that brings out their momentous implications for all men. Joel described the outpouring of the Spirit in this fashion because his coming would be epoch-changing. By the coming of the Spirit, Christ proclaimed his victory over sin and Satan, announced his intention to gather an international church of believers, and decisively empowered his church with every necessary gift and grace to carry out the Great Commission. 

Peter’s apostolic interpretation of Joel’s prophecy must guide our understanding of what it means to interpret the Bible literally. A "literal" reading of Scripture is the sense intended by the Holy Spirit speaking through the original author. In the narrative or prosaic portions of Scripture, the literal reading means that historical incidents and accounts should be read in a straightforward, non-poetic fashion. Allegories and metaphorical meanings should not be drawn from them. In the poetic, parabolic, and prophetic sections of Scripture, events, judgments, and deliverances are often described in hyperbolic, figurative, metaphorical language that is intended to be taken in that fashion by the original author. Failure to take into account wide range of language usages found in the Bible will result in gross interpretive errors, not the least of which is the very "literal" approach to Revelation that ignores the Old Testament origin of the language John uses throughout the visions. Interpreting Revelation symbolically does not result in making the book any less real, historical, or objectively true. Metaphorical or highly figurative language conveys depths of meaning that narrative language cannot. One must define "literal" according to the sense intended by the original author, not by the requirements and precommitments of a particular eschatological school.

 

 

The Analogy of Faith: Use the Synoptic Gospels

Virtually every commentator on Revelation 6 notes the synoptic parallels to these judgments (Matthew 24:4-35; Mark 13:5-31; Luke 21:8-36). The relationship between Christ's "Little Apocalypse" and John's "Great Apocalypse" is unmistakable. The parallels are so exact that they must be talking about the same event and time period. Even the order is in close agreement: warfare, civil strife and war, famine, pestilence, martyrdom and persecutions, and cataclysmic heavenly signs before the “coming.” Of what is our Lord speaking? Jesus prophesied of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; therefore, Revelation 6 refers to the same event. Some of the details differ slightly, but the general thrust of all four passages is the same. The reason commentators do not go far enough with this line of thinking is their faulty assumption of a late date for Revelation and their failure to take seriously the internal indications that Revelation is prophesying first-century judgment upon Israel.

Parallel Order and Language between Revelation 6:1-17 and Jesus’ Words in the Synoptic Gospels

Revelation 6:1-17

Matthew 24

Mark 13:7-27

Luke 21:9-27

1. War (vv. 1-2)

v. 6

v. 7

v. 9

2. Civil Strife (vv. 3-4)

v. 7a

v. 8a

v. 10

3. Famine (vv. 5-6)

v. 7b

v. 8b

v. 11b

4. Pestilence (vv. 7-8)

vv. 9-13

v. 8c

v. 11b

5. Persecution (vv. 9-11)

vv. 15-28

vv. 9-23

vv. 12-24

6. Earthquake/Natural Disasters (vv. 12-17)

vv. 29-30

vv. 24-25

vv. 25-26

 

In each of the Synoptic accounts, Jesus' extended prophecy is in answer to the question, "When will Jerusalem be destroyed" (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7)? The disciples confused the destruction of Jerusalem with the end of the world and our Lord clearly differentiates these two events (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32).  He gives many clear signs that would precede the destruction of Jerusalem. Historically, this is what prompted Christians to flee to Pella from Jerusalem. His final coming at the end of history, however, will be without warning and signs. These are two different events or comings.  That the disciples did not initially understand this is indicative of their belief that Jerusalem would be the seat of the Messiah's kingdom throughout his reign.

In each of the synoptic accounts, Jesus indicates that these judgments will be seen by the generation to whom he is speaking, i.e., this generation (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). The signs Jesus gives of the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the general upheaval of the world during the middle decades of the first century A.D., have clear historical parallel and fulfillment in the events of that time, especially if we consult the contemporary Roman and Jewish histories. Those who were living then saw and experienced these horrors and disasters, natural and political, in church and state. It was the end of their world as they knew it. Luke specifically identifies the abomination of desolation that would bring the end as the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem (Luke 21:20). He makes it certain: “When you see.”

Matthew’s Gospel identifies the causes of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem. Israel has rejected God’s word and persecuted God’s prophets for centuries (Matt. 23:34-36). These verses, coming immediately prior to chapter 24, stress that that generation would be the one to see these judgments fall. This coincides with Christ's words earlier in Matthew that the kingdom of God would be taken away from the Jews and given to a nation bearing its fruits (Matt. 21:43). All four of the synoptic passages contain the apocalyptic language found in Revelation 6:12-17.  Jesus used the same language to describe the devastating judgment upon Jerusalem by all the means delineated in the text. Hence, we must allow Scripture to interpret itself, and especially we must follow our Lord’s framework to help us understand more difficult passages. His own credibility as “the Prophet” is inseparable from his word of judgment coming to pass in space and time, when he said it would take place.

Implications and Call to Christ

Before considering the specifics of chapter 6, perhaps we should pause and consider the significance of these passages and their bearing upon our interpretation of Revelation, especially for our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. First, if we allow (1) Scripture to interpret Scripture, then we are not left with a murky understanding of Revelation, at least its main theme and broad outlines. It is a book that is meant to be read with understanding and obeyed with passion. (2) Our Lord made some very specific prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem – that those who were listening to him would see this judgment and the end of the old covenant national and religious order centered in Jerusalem and its temple. He made this direct threat to the Jewish high priest, Ananias (Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:62). If his warning was not fulfilled, then he is not the promised Prophet, not the Son of God, and not the Christ of God. His entire credibility and therefore reliability as our Savior is bound up with his warning to the Jews of his day. It is shocking that hyper-futurism has robbed us of this leading vindication that our Lord is who he claimed to be – the Christ of God who died for us, rose in glory, and reigns on high. And what is the vindication? He came in judgment, just as he warned, to that generation.

(3) And this gives us a much clearer understanding of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing now from heaven. He is not a king-in-waiting. His kingdom is not somewhere on the distant or near horizon, while we are living in some kind of historical limbo, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the prophetic clock to begin ticking again. We are in no such place. We are in the reign of the Lamb of God. Upon his enemies, he sends horrible judgment. He is sending them today. His wrath is unbearable, but it is avoidable. We must flee to him from the wrath to come. We must bow before him and confess that he alone is Lord and surrender our lives to him in intentional obedience.

This is what Revelation did to its first readers – it quickened them to endure persecution and love their enemies, for we are living under the reign of the King now. Christ, not man, is King. This is no time to play games for a living, live for pleasure, or give Jesus half our hearts. No, we must each bow the knee to the King, kiss him, confess that he alone is Lord. We must consecrate ourselves to his service and live washing his feet in all that we do. And we must expect him to bless and build his church, while progressively tearing down his enemies. He is patient, for he came to save, not destroy the world. But destroy his enemies he will. He will destroy our nation unless we repent and confess that he is Lord. “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring here, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27). Surrender to Jesus Christ now. Keep surrendering to him. Come before now, believe upon him as your Savior, obey him as your Lord, follow him as your Master. He is the best and truest of friends; he is the most dreadful enemy.

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