I share here in blog form my original manuscript of this week’s (January 27 – February 2) Sabbath School Adult Teacher’s Edition for people to use or compare with the edited version. The changes were not massive or disruptive in most cases. I share my analysis of the changes in the next blog. These comments were made in response to the standard quarterly written primarily by my friend Ranko Stefanovic.
THE SEVEN SEALS
Part I: Overview
Key Text: Rev. 5:5-6.
Study Focus: Chapter six describes the events that occur as the Lamb breaks the first six of the seven seals (Rev. 6:1-17).
Introduction: Chapter six portrays the first six of the seven seals. This scene follows directly on the vision of the heavenly throne room in chapter five.
Lesson Themes: The lesson and the focus passage introduce the following themes:
1. The Four Horsemen (Rev. 6:1-8) Portray the Progress of the Gospel and the Consequences of Its Rejection. This interpretation depends on the identity of the white horse and its rider (6:1-2—see Theme 1 below).
2. The Main OT Background of the Four Horses Involves the Curses of the Covenant. The OT covenant, with its blessings and curses, is adopted in chapter six as a metaphor of the gospel.
3. The Judgments Portrayed in Rev. 6 Affect the People of God. This builds on the covenant promises and threats made to Israel in Lev. 26 and Deut. 32.
4. The “Souls Under the Altar” Passage Does Not Address the State of the Dead. The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) has often been misused to argue consciousness after death.
5. The Adventist Reading of the Sixth Seal Is Supported by the Text. Close reading of Rev. 6:12-14 indicates both a movement in time and a literal meaning of sun, moon and stars.
Life Application. Participants are invited to explore the relevance of the traditional Adventist reading of Rev. 6:12-14 and the answer to Jesus’ question in 6:17.
Part II. Commentary
Chapter six is clearly based on chapter five. The chapter opens with “and” (Greek: kai), indicating a connection to what precedes. At the close of chapter five, the Lamb is holding the scroll (5:7-8) and receiving the worship of the heavenly host (5:12-14). As John continues looking (both chapters begin with John saying “and I saw”—5:1; 6:1), he sees the Lamb open seal after seal (6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12).
The events that occur as each seal is opened are not the content of the scroll. All seven seals need to be broken before the scroll can be unrolled and its contents seen (see 6:14).
Main Themes of Lesson 5 Elaborated:
1. The Four Horsemen (Rev. 6:1-8) Portray the Progress of the Gospel and the Consequences of Its Rejection. This interpretation depends on the identity of the white horse and its rider (6:1-2). All the horses but this one produce afflictions. White in Revelation always represents Christ or His people. The crown (Greek: stephanos) worn by the rider is the victory crown. With only one exception (Rev. 9:7), this kind of crown is always associated with Christ and/or His people in the New Testament. In the first five chapters of Revelation the word for conquering (Greek: nikôn, nikêsêi) also refers consistently to Christ and His people (see, for example, Rev. 3:21 and 5:6). The rider on the white horse in Rev. 19 is clearly Christ, and that rider is parallel to this one.
Clearly counterfeit is a major theme in Revelation, but when counterfeits occur they are always clearly exposed as such to the reader. In Rev. 6:1-2, on the other hand, there is no hint of evil. While the rider on the white horse in Rev. 19 wears the royal crown (Greek: diadêma) rather than the victory crown, the difference is explainable in terms of different stages of the conflict. Rev. 6 represents the church militant while Rev. 19 represents the church triumphant. The focus of the four horsemen seems to be the victory of Christ and the progress of both the gospel and resistance to the gospel.
2. The Main OT Background of the Four Horses Involves the Curses of the Covenant. The main theme of Rev. 4-5 is the throne and the threat to the throne. The theme of Rev. 6 is the curses of the covenant. The word “curse” here is not profanity, it expresses the consequences of disobedience (Lev. 26:21-26, Deut. 32:23-25, 41-43, and Ezek. 14:12-21). In the Old Testament these curses were sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals. The curses were often seven-fold (Lev. 26:21, 24) and executed by four horses of different colors (Zech. 1:8-17; 6:1-8).
In the Old Testament the covenant was between God and Israel. The blessings and curses of the covenant there occurred in a literal fashion on the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, faithfulness to Israel’s covenant is determined in relation to Christ. Those faithful to Christ are blessed (John 12:32; Acts 13:32-33; 2 Cor. 1:20) and those who reject Him are under the curse (Rom 8:3; Gal. 3:13).
3. The Judgments Portrayed in Rev. 6 Affect the People of God. While the judgments of the seven trumpets fall on the wicked (Rev. 9:4, 20-21), the judgments of the seven seals fall on the unfaithful people of God. Satan’s kingdom has three parts in Rev. (16:13, 19) and the judgments of the trumpets fall on thirds of the earth (Rev. 8:7-12). But the seven seals concern “fourths” of the earth (Rev. 6:8). The fourth part would be the people of God. The difference is that Israel in the New Testament is determined in relation to Jesus Christ.
4. The “Souls Under the Altar” Passage (Rev. 6:9-11) Does Not Address the State of the Dead. Some readers assume that the “souls under the altar” represent bodiless consciousness after death. If taken literally, this would be contrary bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42-44, 53), to Gen. 2:7 which sees the soul as the whole person, and Eccl. 9:5, which indicates no consciousness after death. But this text is clearly symbolic, echoing the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:10-11) and the Altar of Burnt Offering in the Hebrew sanctuary, which is the only object in the sanctuary where anything happens at the base (Lev. 5:9).
The “souls” under the altar are not in a disembodied state in heaven. The Altar of Burnt Offering represents the cross of Christ and the persecution of believers, things that happen on earth. And the martyrs only come to life again at the beginning of the millennium (Rev. 20:4). As was the case with the blood of Abel, the martyrs are depicted as on earth, not in heaven. The crying out of the blood is a metaphorical way of saying that the things done to them are held in remembrance by God until their resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 4:16).
5. The Adventist Reading of the Sixth Seal Is Supported by the Text. In the book The Great Controversy and other pioneer SDA works, Rev. 6:12-14 is applied to events in the relatively recent past. The text describes two earthquakes separated by a series of heavenly signs. The first earthquake was understood to be fulfilled by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This was followed by the darkening of the sun and redness of the moon in 1780, and the falling of the stars in 1833. The complete disruption of both the sky and the surface of the planet was seen as still future.
Two reasonable questions have arisen about this way of reading Rev. 6:12-14. 1) The entire passage is governed by the opening phrase, “when he opened the sixth seal.” So the most natural grammatical reading is that all the events in the passage occur at the same time, not separated by decades. 2) Are the earthquakes, sun, moon and stars to be taken literally or are they symbols of some sort of spiritual malady? Both of these objections can be met by close observation of the Greek text.
First, the earthquake in verse 12 is not at the same time as the one in verse 14. The earthquake in verse 12 (“great earthquake,” Greek: seismos megas) is paralleled to the earthquake in Rev. 11:13 (“great earthquake,” Greek: seismos megas). That earthquake is prior to the close of probation (which happens at the beginning of the seventh trumpet, see Rev. 10:7). On the other hand, the moving of every mountain and island (6:14) is parallel to Rev. 16:20, well after the close of probation. So if the two earthquakes are separated by an undetermined period of time, it is reasonable that the other events of Rev. 6:12-14 could also be fulfilled at different times.
Second, there is a fourfold “as” (Greek: hôs) in verses 12 and 13. In Greek this conjunction regularly introduces symbolism, which works best when what comes before the hôs is literal. So the actual sun became black “like” sackcloth and the moon became “like” blood. The descriptions are symbolic but the heavenly bodies are real.
Part III: Life Application
1. The Seventh-day Adventist pioneers understood Rev. 6:12-14 as involving the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Dark Day of 1780, and the falling of the stars in 1833, almost a hundred years of history. How does a comparison with Matthew 24 help or hurt that interpretation? What is the spiritual payoff of a historicist reading of the sixth seal?
English translations of Matt. 24:30, like the NIV (“at that time”), do appear to associate all the heavenly signs with the Second Coming of Jesus, which is still future. But the Greek simply has “and” (kai), so the original text is as open-ended as Rev. 6:12-14 turned out to be. Matthew 24 does not settle the issue against the Adventist reading of Rev. 6.
Adventist readings of prophecy assure us that 1) God is in control of history, 2) His mission for the end-time and for His end-time people is clear, and 3) He cares deeply about His people, vindicating the martyrs (6:11) and protecting as many as possible in the satanic chaos just before Jesus’ return (7:1-3).
2. Does it matter if earthquakes, forest fires, and repetitive astronomical events produce prophetic fulfillments? Adventists have never required anyone to believe that the mighty acts of God violate the laws of nature that God Himself set up.
3. The conclusion of chapter six asks the question, “Who shall be able to stand?” (KJV) What is the biblical answer to that question and what relevance does that answer have for today? That single question has a double answer in Rev. 7. The 144,000 and the Great Multitude will be able to stand. Does God have one people at the end of time or two separate groups? Use this question and group discussion about it to build interest in next week’s lesson, which will address the issue.