Part 1 of this Study Guide was posted on August 9, 2007, and
Part 2 on September 2, 2007. Click on the appropriate month at the left to retrieve them.
Opening Theophany & Second Seven
Austin Farrer’s scheme of ‘seven’ is followed here; this is his revised format expounded in the Commentary which refines the earlier thesis of The Rebirth of Images. He thinks that the apocalyptic concept of weeks and “half weeks” (see Daniel) is the overall framework. Since 7 does not divide easily in half, the author splits it as 4+3); this is very clear in the first seven (Letters) where letters 5, 6 & 7 show striking parallels to
With Chapter 4, John moves to the central theme of his book, “what must take place”. It is a mistake, though, to assume that from now on the book is entirely a futuristic prophecy, for it moves back and forth between the heavenly worship and the goings-on of the world, particularly the nasty goings-on like the powers of evil, corrupting God’s creation and the resistance to evil on the part of faithful saints.
The introduction to this second Seven is parallel to that of the first Seven section (4+3 Letters). There is the voice of God (1.10 & 4.1) which in both cases is introduced by a Theophany (lit., an ‘appearance of God’, i.e. a vision or an audition that enables humans to get some picture of that which, in the end, is unknowable, unseeable, unhearable etc.)
Since the opening of the first week is “the Lord’s Day”, we may assume that this is the Sunday of the second ‘seven’, and much that follows confirms that suggestion, for we are enabled to see a heavenly liturgy in progress.
Parallels with the Genesis Creation Story
Day one of creation is light; Revelation (chs 1-3, the first group of 7) is shot through with the images of light (candlesticks, Christ’s face like the sun etc.)
Day 2 of creation ends with the ‘sky’ in place, providing, as it were, a shield against the waters above. NRSV uses “dome”; the older English translation was the “firmament”. Boman, however, claims that the firmament is a theological concept, not a cosmological one (separating the threatening waters). It is that which protects humans from the powers “above”, particularly from direct force of the glory of God. A recurrent OT theme is that the direct sight of God in His glory is terrible, and usually deadly for weak humans. (cf. Isa 2.19; Ex 19.21; 3.6; 33.20-23. cf. also Jud 6.22-23 where even the mediating presence of an “angel” does not reassure Gideon). So the ‘sky’ (dome/firmament) shields us from the direct power of Yahweh.
This second Seven begins with John passing through the ‘firmament’ “to penetrate the veil and see the glory of God” (Farrer, p.60) This is a contrast to Judaism, for God is no longer unseeable. V. 6 refers to the crystal dome (firmament) that holds back the waters, and the whole section is an “unsealing” or a revealing of God, his glory and his purpose.
The sixth seal (note Friday is day six in the Jewish week) initiates a judgment in which the protective shield is removed - “the sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up”. And what results? The kings and great ones of the world are left unprotected from the direct gaze of God and face their judgment in terror. John uses. Isa. 2.19 and Hos. 10.8 here.
The Theophany of chs 4-5
Just as the first set of seven (letters) is preceded by a heavenly vision of the Risen Christ in glory, this second set (of seven seals) is prefaced by a much longer scene of the heavenly court. We need to read chs 4 and 5 together as a great poem in which John gives us the results of his meditations on the nature of God, the relationship of Jesus to God, and the meaning of Salvation for the people of God. The focus of the poem is God, the ‘one who sits on the throne’. The whole creation is represented as worshipping. For the O.T. material John is using here see: Gen 1.7; Ps. 29.10; Ezek. 1.5-25; Isa. 6.2-3. For a New Testament // cf. Heb. 12.18-24. Did John know the letter to the Hebrews?
It is possible that John’s cry of distress in 5.45 is an echo of Isaiah’s response to God’s “Whom shall we send?”.
The 24 elders may = the 12 Patriarchs (sons of Jacob/Israel) + the 12 Apostles. Some commentators have suggested that the whole picture may be related to the emerging pattern of Eucharistic worship in a bigger church gathering of the time.
vv. 6ff. The living creatures seem to represent the spectrum of creation (cf. Genesis creation story again) - wild and domesticated animals, birds, fishes and humankind. They may also stand for the characteristics of created beings - Strength/lion; Fertility/Ox; Wisdom/humans; Swiftness/Eagle. In any case, we are not required to get a visual image of eyes “before and behind” (see notes in Part 2). The imagery tells us that those who worship God are eternally focused on Him, eternally vigilant. An older commentator fails to get the idea and says, somewhat primly, there is some difficulty in understanding a conception of a “creature with a face like a man and yet full of eyes in front.”! (R.H Charles, Revelation, vol. 1, p. 124)
The scroll (book) is the record of God’s plan for creation, and is sealed so that it is impossible for an unauthorized person to open. cf. Ezek. 2.9. It was unusual, but not unknown, to write on both sides of a papyrus scroll; possibly a suggestion of the immense scope of God’s overall plan?
The purposes of God are revealed by Jesus. The figure of the Lamb is introduced and we hear the song that proclaims him as the “author of our salvation”, the center of the New Passover. The epithet “Lamb”, has become a central Christian symbol, but it is worth noting that it does not appear in the earliest gospels, and only once in the Fourth Gospel (John Baptist’s, “behold the Lamb of God”, 1.29). It is found at I Pe. 1.19, and about 28 times in Revelation. Nevertheless, the idea that is expressed by it is firmly based in the oldest tradition of the Last Supper and sayings of Jesus like the one in Mk 10.45 and Luke’s version of the Transfiguration where Jesus speaks of his “exodus” (i.e. death) in Jerusalem, connecting that death with the Passover. (Lk. 9.21).
v.5 The assumed family connection of Jesus to David is not all that strong in the N.T., interesting, since it was such a powerful part of the Jewish messianic hope. cf. Rom 15.12 and a few times in the synoptic gospels, most in Mt. the most Jewish of the gospels.
The Lamb is also the Lion! Two striking characteristics of Jesus the savior and the warrior. Perhaps also an echo of the messianic hope - “the lion and lamb will lie down together”.
vv 9-10 note the universal nature of the church. God’s plan is for all nations and tribes, and the church as a whole has a priestly character. The church, that is, stands as the mediator between God and the world.
Here we move into the second Seven as the seals are broken and the realities of a sinful and suffering world are seen in contrast to the worship of heaven, but within that suffering is the drama of redemption, seen in the passage that intervenes between the sixth and seventh seal opening ch 7. It is the “sealing” (baptism?) of the chosen, not only of Israel, but “from every nation...peoples and languages” (v.9); they are those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).
But this follows on the grim scenes enacted as the first four seals are opened.
The First Seal The white horse of aggressive imperialism; one of the continuing evils of the world.
The Second Seal releases the horse of war, the inevitable concomitant and result of power-hungry empires.
The Third Seal carries on the sequence, presenting the image of famine that inevitably follows war. v.6 is not all that clear, but the voice may be pointing to an exorbitant price for staples of food such as we see in Iraq today. (cf. II K. 7.18). Farrer suggests that the vines and olive trees are reserved for a later judgment.
The Fourth Seal reveals the pale green horse, the symbol of death by war and plague. Probably the destruction of a mere 25% is because John is giving us a picture of an unfolding process. One of the more pessimistic tenets of the apocalyptic writings is to assume that things will go “from bad to worse”. (See e.g. Mk. ch. 13, particularly vv. 7-8 and //s in Mt. & Lk.)
The Fifth Seal reveals the elect of God who witnessed to him even so far as dying for the Name. The cry “how long? is ancient and poignant. (cf. Zech ch. 1 which is clearly in John’s mind as he writes this whole section).
The Sixth Seal ushers in a “mini apocalypse”; it has all the signs of the end. But John has much more to say; this is an anticipation of the end not the end (yet). Note how in this second Seven, (corresponding to the second day of creation, the firmament is removed (see above).
Two visions of Salvation
Then before the final seal is opened, John interposes two visions of salvation in the face of all the chaos we have been witnessing. It is as though, he says, all these
horrors are going on, and will go on getting worse, but “be of good cheer” : God, in Christ has overcome; there is an answer to “Lord how long?” It lies in faithfulness to God in spite of anything that can happen. “Remember that whenever you gather to make Eucharist, you join in the heavenly liturgy”.
Some notes on ch..7
The sealing of the 144,000 is a play on words characteristic of John. “Sealing” is a sign of ownership, and, in the NT, has clear baptismal connections - see II Cor. 1.22; Eph. 1.13; 4.30. There are also many OT allusions here. In Ezek 9.4ff, a mark is put on the foreheads of those to be saved from execution, and it was to be a tau (t), written in old Hebrew as “X” or “+”. There may also be a hint of the blood of the Passover lamb daubed on the door posts In Rom. 6.3ff all the ideas come together; baptism is to be marked for God by sharing the cross of Christ and being raised with him. (Note from J. M. Sweet’s Commentary)
The number of the sealed is 12X12 and the thousand adds intensification. Since it was axiomatic in first century Christianity that Christians were a “new Israel” (cf. Gal. 6.16), the 12X12 almost certainly tells us that the elect are both Jews and Christians.
vv.9-12 in accordance with the basic anatomy of this writing, the next section anticipates the end, with evil overcome and eternal life given to those who have remained faithful. It is an heavenly liturgy. It is a pre-view of the final “Lord’s day” in heaven, but the drama is not finished yet and so in 8.1-5, the
Seventh Seal is broken and it introduces what seems like a total anti-climax, - thirty minutes of silence! [Austin Farrer writes, “The numbered seventh vision introduces a more modest Sabbath (than the previous vision of a heavenly Liturgy) - the half-hour’s silence of incense-offering”. Rebirth p.40 The evidence for silent prayer on the Sabbath during the offering of incense is not given by Farrer, but is plentiful and an echo of it is found in Lk. 1.8-10 & 21.]
In fact, this represents the Sabbath of this second Seven, and sets the scene for the third Seven to unfold out of the second.
The third Seven, 8.7-11.19
The locale is back on earth. The seven trumpets introduce more portents of a cataclysmic end. The blast of the first trumpet shatters the peace of the Sabbath prayer and brings down judgment on the wicked of the earth. After the 6th trumpet (as in the second 7 2), there is additional material before the seventh trumpet sounds. This pattern can hardly be accidental.
There also seem to be on-going connections with the Genesis creation story. The third day of creation is of dry land and vegetation. In this third ‘Seven’ of revelation, land, vegetation and sea are smitten; the fact that only one third is destroyed may also fit into the overall scheme, that at this point, only three of the Sevens (“weeks of history” as seen by Apocalyptic writers) have passed.