Revelation 7: 9-17
Today we will continue to unpack the book of Revelation, one that some find fearful, while those with the code can find hopeful. As I said last week, in the last part of the first century, John, the author, wrote letters of hope and encouragement to 7 churches in Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey. The 7 churches were in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. By extension, John’s advice can help modern day churches too. You might be saying in your head: “What modern day lesson can I possibly learn from this book?” I’ll tell you: more books have been written and wrongly interpreted about the tribulation, Armageddon, 666, the beast, and the Last Days to the point that it has kept Christian publishing afloat with all of its conspiracy theories, prophecy-filled warnings, and fear mongering. One wrong interpreter in the 1970s warned that the tribulation would come before the end of that decade, and that Christ would return then to judge all people. It didn’t happen, even as his words scarred a generation into looking into every headline as a sign that the devil was appearing from the sea of politics. In the 1980s, another man sent a self-published book to pastors all over the country warning them that Revelation has predicted that we are in the end days, and according to his biblical calculations, the world would end in 1988. The world didn’t end. What did both authors do? Both authors then published revised editions of their books with new predictions, saying that God told them a new date for the end of the world, which of course, was not true either. They continued to make more money off of naïve and fearful Christians. Don’t fall for those high-intensity authors who try to stir up the lives and souls of readers! Today I will keep trying to keep you well-grounded in this controversial book.
Last week we dealt with chapters 1 through 5. Now we are on to chapters six and seven. In chapter 6 the seven seals are opened by the Lamb (the honorific title for Jesus Christ,) and readers are invited to “Come!” (7 is the perfect biblical number) We then encounter the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” referenced mysteriously in literature and film through the ages. The reference, as with 75% of Revelation, is from the Old Testament, not some time in the 20th or the 21st century! The imagery is from the book of Zechariah (1:8-17 and 6: 1-8.) John magnifies the meaning of the colors of the horses, indicating that the white one symbolized conquest, the red horse bloodshed, the black horse scarcity or famine, and the pale horse, pestilence and death. That colorful description is part of the first four seals. The fifth seal revealed the prayers of the martyrs in heaven, and the sixth seal a warning of what it will be like when the great Day of the Lord arrives. Then like, with any good production, John adds a dramatic pause—an interlude—before the seventh seal is opened. That interlude is a source of one religious group’s belief that heaven has only 144,000 souls in it, based on the description of 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Reuben, and 12,000 from all the others tribes representing the 12 sons of Israel. But remember: Revelation is not intended to be interpreted literally any more than a Salvador Dali painting is intended to be. It needs our “right” brain; our disciplined imagination, not our flat-footed literal brain, to interpret it properly. The twelve thousand members of each of the 12 tribes of Israel are not meant to create a literal number; they are intended to symbolize completeness and inclusion, saying “Heaven has room for all the people of God!” In chapter 7, we see the believers in Jesus, who is the Lamb, come together in a time of heavenly worship, with white robes and palm branches, crying out “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10)
There are two things to point out here: on Passover each year up to 70 A.D., a high priest would select the most perfect lamb, an unblemished lamb, to be sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the Jewish people. It was a yearly spring ritual, coupled with the fall holy day of Yom Kippur, on which the sins of Jews were forgiven. It was at that time of Passover, in the spring, at 3:00 p.m. when the high priest killed the selected lamb, the very time when the lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, died on the cross of Calvary. It was providential timing. Calling Jesus “Lamb” reminds us of his sacrifice; but it also makes him the focal point of Christian worship. That leads to the second point: if you have read our congregation’s Mission Statement for Worship, you might remember that it states: “The Westminster Catechism reminds us that our chief end is to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ Worship takes its place as the central activity of the church, the ‘hub’ of the wheel from which other aspects of Christian life flow.” In other words, what we do every week on Sunday is a kind of preparation for our lives in heaven, when we will sing praise to God and the Lamb eternally!
Naively, in chapter 7, in that heavenly throne room, one of the elders asked Jesus “Who are these clothed in white robes? And Jesus said, “Sir, you know; these are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation.” (Remember, those seven churches were under great duress from Roman Emperor Domitian just as they had been under Emperor Nero.) This is another place you use your right brain and not your “left, or literal brain”: Jesus continued: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” How could blood turn robes white? How could it not, if we think symbolically about the blood of Jesus?
The finale of our visit today keeps us in the throne room of heaven. Jesus continued to share his words of reassurance to the one who asked the question, and we get to listen in: Here is what John heard from Jesus about that scene:
Therefore, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne (God) will shelter them. They will hunger no more, they will thirst no more. The sun will not strike them nor scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (7:15-17)
Can you imagine the comfort John’s apocalypse brought to the listeners of those seven churches? Of course you can! You, like people through the centuries, have also suffered hardships, and tribulations, and anguish, and grief. It is in those times that we turn to our Bibles and open them. In how many funerals have you heard these comforting words from Revelation?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven ….And I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with mortals. God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people …and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more….
Images and words from this magnificent and picturesque book comforted Christians in the First Century, and in every century for those who knew how to unlock the code correctly! Others have lived in terror and paranoia, waiting for the dreadful “Day of the Lord” to immanently arrive. But you know how to read this kaleidoscope of a book! You can see through all the colors and shapes and voices and beasts! Christians who’ve had the code have found these words comforting. You have the code now: Don’t read the words of John literally. Do not be thrown off track by popular and dramatic Christian authors. Stay close to the source, and listen to solid interpreters with care. Next week we’ll continue our journey.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 12, 2019