Author Archives: Jon Paulien

The Seals and the People of God (Seals 4)

The judgments of the seven trumpets clearly fall on the wicked (Rev. 9:4, 20-21), those who have no interest in the gospel and live their lives in rebellion against God and hostility toward those who serve Him. The negative judgments of the seven seals, on the other hand, fall on those who have heard the gospel, may even profess is, but are ultimately found to be in opposition to true faith, and the teachings of the Bible. Their faith in the end is portrayed as sinking into a diseased and dying state. But God has not, at the point of the four horsemen, given up on them. There is still hope.

In the book of Revelation, Satan’s kingdom is described as having three parts (16:13, 19). In light of that, it makes sense that the judgments of the trumpets fall on thirds of the earth (Rev. 8:7-12). The trumpets affect portions of Satan’s kingdom throughout history since the time of Christ. In contrast with the trumpets, the seven seals concern “fourths” of the earth (Rev. 6:8). If three parts belong to the kingdom of Satan, the fourth part would be the people of God. Thus we see the white horse of the gospel in contrast with the red, black and pale horses of increasing opposition to God.

Just as the curses of the covenant in the Old Testament fell on the people of God (Lev. 26:21-26; Deut. 29:15-68), so do the curses of the New Testament covenant. The difference is that Israel in the New Testament is not determined in ethnic or geographical terms, it is determined in relation to Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow Him, all who are in genuine relationship with Jesus belong to His New Israel (Matt. 19:28-30). The positive and negative judgments of the four horsemen, recall a passage in the message to Laodicea; those who follow Jesus in name only He rebukes and chastens (Rev. 3:20) for their sake.

What the Four Horses Represent (Seals 3)

The theme of Revelation 4-5 is the heavenly throne and the threat to that throne. The theme of Revelation 6 is the curses of the covenant. The word “curse” here does not mean profanity, it is a legal term that expresses the consequences of disobedience, of breaking the laws or norms of society or the kingdom of God. These curses were express in Old Testament texts like Leviticus 26:21-26, Deuteronomy 32:23-25, and 41-43, and Ezekiel 14:12-21. In the Old Testament these curses were described in terms of sword, famine, pestilence (contagious disease) and wild animals. The consequences of disobedience to the covenant were sometimes expressed as seven-fold curses (Lev. 26:21, 24). These curses of the covenant were sometimes executed in the Old Testament by four horses of different colors (Zech. 1:8-17; 6:1-8). So the four horses of the Apocalypse have a rich background in the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament the covenant was between God and Israel as a nation. The blessings and curses of the covenant occurred in a literal and national fashion, in other words, prosperity or adversity was visited on the nation of Israel as a whole. If the nation as a whole was faithful to God, the nation as a whole prospered in some very material ways (Deut. 28:1-14). If the nation as a whole was not faithful to God, the nation as a whole suffered war, famine, pestilence and poverty (Deut. 28:15-68). The covenant was between God and the nation of Israel. The curses of the covenant were the consequences of disobedience, and involved very material things.

In the New Testament, on the other hand, faithfulness to Israel’s covenant is determined in relation to Christ. As such they are more individual than collective, more spiritual than material, and more worldwide in implications than on any particular earthly nation. Those who are faithful to Christ, who are in relationship with Christ, are blessed in a spiritual sense (John 12:32; Acts 13:32-33; 2 Cor. 1:20). Those who reject Him, and are out of relationship with Him, are under the curse. They suffer the spiritual consequences of that condition; strife, division, ignorance of God and His Word, and spiritual sickness and rebellion. This appears to be the central theme of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Summary of the Four Horsemen (Seals 2)

On the surface the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8) portray all kinds of literal war, famine and pestilence (as these images do in Matthew 24 and parallels). But a careful examination of the images, and their contexts within the book and in the rest of Scripture, leads me to believe that the four horsemen actually portray the progress of the Gospel and the spiritual consequences of its rejection. This interpretation depends on the identity of the white horse and its rider (6:1-2).

While some suggest that the rider on the white horse represents a counterfeit of Christ and the gospel, white in Revelation always represents the things of heaven, Christ or His people. There are no exceptions to this, unless the first seal IS the exception. Furthermore, the crown (Greek: stephanos) worn by the rider is the victory crown (like an Olympic gold medal, not a royal one). With only one exception (Rev. 9:7), this kind of crown is always associated with Christ and/or His people in the New Testament. Not only so, in the first five chapters of Revelation the word for conquering (Greek: nikôn, nikêsêi) always refers to Christ and His people (see, for example, Rev. 3:21 and 5:6). In Matthew 24, which has many parallels with Revelation 6, war, famine and pestilence occur in the context of the gospel going out to the world (Matt. 24:14). If the white horse does not represent the gospel, that theme is missing in Revelation 6, which is otherwise parallel to the Olivet Discourse of Jesus. So the imagery in the white horse and its parallels with the Olivet Discourse point to the white horse as representing the progress of the gospel.

There is more. The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 is clearly Christ, and that rider is parallel to this one. The clearest allusion to the Old Testament outside of the covenant curse sequences is Psalm 45. This is primarily a love song, the references to battle are incidental to its main theme. To cap it all off, the first horse produces no afflictions on the human race, as do the other three. There is simply a reference to conquering, a term that is elsewhere in Revelation used in a spiritual sense. So the preponderance of the evidence points to a figurative meaning in relation to the gospel.

Is it possible, however, that the white horse and its rider are introduced here as counterfeits of the gospel? Could all of the positive imagery be explained in that way? It is possible, counterfeit is certainly a major theme in the book of Revelation. But when the counterfeits occur elsewhere in the book they are always clearly exposed as such to the reader. For example, the Christ parallels in Revelation 13 are in a context of blasphemous opposition to God (Rev. 13:1, 6) and war against the saints (Rev. 13:7). Exposing counterfeits is one of the main reasons the book was written, but it will only succeed in that mission by clearly showing whose side each character is on! Unlike Revelation 13, in Rev. 6:1-2 there is no hint of evil, rather the positive imagery is abundant. While the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 wears the royal crown (Greek: diadêma) rather than the victory crown, the difference is explainable in terms of different stages of the conflict. Revelation 6 represents the church militant while Revelation 19 represents the church triumphant. The focus of the four horsemen seems to be the ongoing victory of Christ and the subsequent progress of both the gospel and resistance to the gospel. This fits perfectly with the context in chapter five.

Summary of Revelation 6, The Seven Seals (Seals 1)

Chapter six describes the events that occur as the Lamb breaks the first six of the seven seals. This scene follows directly on the vision of the heavenly throne room in chapter five. A careful study of this chapter exposed a number of interesting
Themes, which I will explore at greater length in posts to follow:

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).
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 Revelation 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 in the passage and the literal meaning of sun, moon and stars.

This chapter in the book of Revelation is one of the more difficult ones to understand. This leaves scholars with two main and seemingly contradictory readings of the four horsemen in particular. One sees them along the lines of Matthew 24 as a symbolic portrayal as the work of Christ and the gospel throughout the course of Christian history. The presentation of the gospel compels decision and thus divides the world into two classes of people. Those who reject the gospel enter a downward slide leading to ultimate destruction. The second reading sees all four horsemen as negative, including the rider on the white horse. In this reading, the seals describe not the work of Christ but the work of Satan, which God permits him to do, a work of lies, deception, force and torment. Both readings are appealing in many ways. I prefer the first reading because to me the evidence that the white horse is a positive entity seems compelling. More on this in the next blog.

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). John continues looking (both chapters begin with John saying “and I saw”—5:1; 6:1) and sees the Lamb open seal after seal (6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12). The fact that Satan does not appear in the heavenly visions of Revelation four and five is further evidence to me that the satanic reading of Revelation six is not to be preferred.

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). The events unleashed by the breaking of the seals are events on earth that lead up to the opening of the scroll, which seems to be associated with the consummation of human history and possibly even the whole cosmic conflict.

Concluding Thoughts on the Vision of Rev 4 and 5 (Enthronement 9)

Considering the biblical evidence regarding worship, how does the typical worship service in your local church compare? Is it God centered or is it centered on the worshipers? Does it emphasize what God has done or is doing (creation, cross, daily promptings of the Spirit) or what we must do? In the Bible, worship is always centered on what God has done rather than what we must do. And it is that God focus that unleashed the power of God’s original act (creation, Exodus, resurrection of Jesus) in the later situation (Exodus 15, 2 Chronicles 20, Daniel 9). When Israel recounted the mighty acts of God in their past, He acted mightily for them in the present.

Understanding and practicing this truth is the secret of unleashing God’s power in a local church. If worship seems powerless, it is because it is not centered in God. Worship is not about us, it is about God. Worship is not telling each other what we should do, it is reminding each other of what God has done.

What is the relationship between Revelation 4-5 and the Sabbath? In the vision of the heavenly throne room, worship is presented to God and the Lamb on account of creation (Rev. 4:11) and salvation (Rev. 5:9-10). In the Old Testament the Sabbath is the memorial of both creation (Exod. 20:11) and the Exodus, the great act of Israel’s salvation (Deut. 5:15). So the Sabbath points us to the mighty acts of God in creation, the Exodus and the cross.

The Sabbath reminds us that creation is solely God’s work, we had nothing to do with it, yet it affects everything we do. God made us free to live, choose, and create. The Sabbath reminds us of the Exodus, which is the model for our personal salvation. And Sabbath reminds us of the cross, where God demonstrated that He is safe to be in relationship. He does not even strike back at His creatures who are torturing Him and putting Him to death. Keeping the Sabbath is not about earning merit with God, it is a rehearsal of the mighty acts of God in creation, the Exodus and the cross. When we remember the Sabbath we are also remembering the great things God has done for us, and this is the foundation of true worship.

The Unspoken Backdrop to Revelation Four and Five (Enthronement 8)

A striking aspect of Revelation four and five is the total absence of Satan or his influence in the heavenly courts, in spite of the fact that the heavenly crisis of chapter five must have something to do with the cosmic conflict. As a character in the story of Revelation’s vision, Satan makes his first appearance in the context of the fifth trumpet. He is the leader of the demonic hosts in the fifth trumpet (the evidence for calling them “demonic” will appear when we get to chapter nine), the one called Apollyon and Abaddon (Rev. 9:11). But he plays no such direct role in chapters four and five.

But the role of Satan in Rev. 4-5 is clarified in Revelation twelve. The main character of the drama in Revelation twelve is the dragon. The dragon lies in wait for the birth of the male child in order to destroy him (Rev. 12:5). The dragon then makes war in heaven with Michael (another image of Jesus Christ) and loses (Rev 12:7-8). The dragon is then defined as Satan, the ancient serpent and the devil (Rev. 12:9). Then in Revelation 12:10 the dragon is described as the “accuser of the brethren.” He accuses them “day and night.”

Revelation 12:10 summarizes the scene of chapter five in terms of Christ’s coming to power. A loud voice in heaven proclaims “the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ.” But His coming to power is paired with the casting down of Satan, the one who accuses the brothers “day and night.” This is strikingly reminiscent of Revelation 4:8, where the four living creature sing the triple holy song “day and night.” This parallel is not an accident. The constant praise of the four living creatures is not a mindless ritual, as might seem at first to be the case. They do this in order to drown out the constant accusations of Satan, which are no longer heard or seen in the chapter. Chapter twelve actually sets the context for chapters four and five.

Satan is absent from the scene of chapters 4-5 because he has already been cast down on account of the cross. The casting down is not a military or physical matter. Satan is cast down as the accuser of the brothers and sisters. He is no longer welcome in heaven because his accusations are no longer believed there. The cross clarifies both the character of God and the reality of the human race. From that time on the heavenly intelligences fully trust in God and see how Satan is seeking to tear down the human race. So by the time the Lamb arrives in the heavenly court to be enthroned there (fifty days after the cross) the heavenly court is freed of the presence and influence of Satan. The crisis his accusations have caused is now resolved by the Lamb that was slain. Jesus Christ is enthroned because the accuser has been cast down. That is why Satan is totally absent from the vision of Revelation four and five.

The Divinity of the Lamb (Enthronement 7)

We noted in the previous blog that Jesus Christ in the New Testament is included by the apostles in the one God of Judaism. He is not a “second God,” neither is He the Father Himself. He is somehow distinct from the Father, yet in the full sense included in all that monotheism asserts about the distinctions between the one God and everything else (John 1:1-5, 18). This led the church fathers to the traditional formulation of the Trinity, in which God is one, yet in another sense is three. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human, one person with two natures. The word trinity does not appear in the Bible, but the traditional doctrine is thoroughly grounded in the evidence of the New Testament text.

One of the strongest biblical evidences for the divinity or deity of Christ is found in the progression of five hymns in the vision of Revelation four and five. The first two hymns are found in chapter four (Rev. 4:8, 11). In them praise is offered to the One sitting on the throne because He created all things. The third and fourth hymns, on the other hand, are offered in praise of the Lamb (Rev 5:9-12) because He was slain and purchased humanity for God. The fifth hymn offers worship to both the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb (Rev. 5:13). The fifth hymn is the clear climax of the series, in which the Lamb joins the Father on His throne and receives the acclamation of the whole universe.

A second feature of these hymns also highlights the climactic nature of fifth hymn (5:13). The last hymn is the climax of a grand crescendo of singing. Each hymn is offered by a larger and larger group of singers. The first hymn is sung by the four living creatures (Rev. 4:8). The second hymn is sung by the twenty-four elders (4:11). The third hymn is sung by both the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders together (Rev 5:9-10). The fourth hymn is sung by more than a hundred million angels (Rev. 5:11-12). The fifth hymn is sung by every creature in the entire universe (Rev 5:13). So the fifth hymn is the climax of a great crescendo as all attention focuses on the throne, affirming the divinity of the Lamb.

Why does the divinity of Christ matter? Because if Jesus is fully God, then the human life He lived on this earth is the most important event in the history of the human race. God Himself came down and lived among us (Rev 1:1-3, 14). In the humanity of Jesus we see the character of God on full display in a form that we can understand. This means that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the clearest revelation of God that human beings have ever had or ever could have. It means that when we have seen Jesus, we have truly seen the Father as well. If the Father Himself came down to earth and lived a human existence among us, He would be no different than Jesus was. Jesus Christ clarifies the picture of God in a way that nothing else possibly could.

The Worthiness of the Lamb (Enthronement 6)

The Lamb is brought forward as the one who is uniquely worthy to open the scroll (Rev. 5:5-6). The key qualities of the Lamb in the chapter are two-fold. The Lamb is slain, which is a pointer to His human nature. On the other hand, the Lamb is worshiped along with the one sitting on the throne (Rev. 5:13). This points to His divinity. The Lamb is represented as both human and divine, a God-man who is unique in all of history. Of all created beings (see John 1:3, 14, where it is not Jesus the person who is created, but His human nature), only the human Jesus could fully reveal the character of God and atone for human sin, because he was fully equal with God. So embedded in this symbolic vision is a profound Christology, a doctrine of Jesus Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine.

It is unlikely that the earliest Christians had the kind of sophisticated and complicated view of Jesus that the church fathers developed in the fourth and fifth centuries. But one can see the essential elements of that sophisticated view in Revelation five. Jesus is one person with two natures, one fully divine and the other fully human. It is not clear from Revelation five alone whether Jesus’ divinity was inherent to His person or whether it was somehow bestowed upon him at His enthronement. That Jesus’ divine nature was there from eternity and that His person was distinct from the Father is outlined in the opening chapter of John (John 1:1-5, 18).

The earliest Christians were Jews, strict monotheists. How did they come to accommodate a second “person” (the Greek word persona did not originally carry all the weight that the church fathers put on it) into their view of God? It is clear that they did not think in terms of two gods, that would have been a total abandonment of Judaism, something they were clearly not willing to do (Acts 15). But as they became convinced of the two natures of Jesus, they included Him in their understanding of the one God of Judaism.

This is clear the attributes applied to Jesus in the New Testament. The one God of Judaism was distinguished from everything else in the universe by four characteristics. He was the sole Creator, the unique Ruler of the universe, He had a unique name and was the only One worthy of worship. In the New Testament, all four of these characteristics are applied to Jesus. Two of these are clearly described in Revelation five. The Lamb is acclaimed as in the midst of the throne, sharing in the rulership of the universe, and is clearly considered worthy of worship (Rev 5:12-13), something that is appropriate only with God (Rev 19:10). Jesus is seen as distinct from the angels and worthy of the attributes Jews attributed only to God (Rev 19:10; 22:9).

The Meaning of the Sealed Scroll (Enthronement 5)

Students of Revelation through the centuries have some up with some 125 different explanations for the sealed scroll of Revelation 5. The more solid biblical options include a last will and testament, the constitution of Israel (Deuteronomy), a record of human history, an emblem of the Lamb’s right to rule, a record of human deeds, the Book of Life, and a list of rewards and punishments for human behavior (that would make it a scroll of judgment).

Many Seventh-day Adventists, based on a comment in a letter of Ellen White, suggest that the scroll contains the history of God’s providences, and the prophetic history of the nations and the church. If one takes that approach, the sealed scroll would represent the plan of salvation. John weeps (Rev. 5:4) because the plan of salvation will not be implemented unless someone is found worthy to open the scroll.

My own view, in harmony with Stefanovic, is that the sealed scroll must be understood in the context of an enthronement scene in heaven on the day of Pentecost. In some sense it could have elements of all the above. But in particular it represents God’s covenant with Israel (both OT and NT) that is ratified in the context of the death of Israel’s Messiah, the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Taking the scroll demonstrates the Lamb’s right to rule and to implement the covenant, including its rewards and consequences (further elaborated in the four horsemen of Revelation six). He is in control of history and implements God’s plan of salvation. The acclamation of the heavenly host (Rev 5:12-13) anticipates the great acclamation at the End (Rev 15:3-4) which affirms the character of God as a major element of the plan of salvation.

How do we know the book (Rev. 5:2, Greek: biblion) is a scroll and not more typical of books today? The codex, the form of a book where pages are glued together at one side, was an invention that took place somewhere around the time of Revelation. Before that books were rolled up scrolls or clay tablets. The form of the book in Revelation 5 and 6 is affirmed in Revelation 6:14 where the “sky receded like a scroll (Greek: biblion) rolling up.” For the author of Revelation a book and a scroll were one and the same thing. So sealing the scroll (by wrapping a piece of cloth around it and sealing it with wax) would hide the entire content of the scroll. All the seals would have to be broken before the content would be revealed. That means that the events unleashed when the seals were broken in chapter six are not the content of the scroll but events that are unleashed when each seal is broken. The scroll cannot be opened until all seven seals are broken.

The Identity of the Twenty-Four Elders (Enthronement 4)

The number twelve in the Bible is often used as a symbol of God’s people. The most natural reading of the twenty-four elders, therefore, is that they represent God’s people on earth in their totality from both Old and New Testament times. There are a number of biblical evidences that support this assertion. For starters, in Matthew 19:28 Jesus tells His disciples that they would one day sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. This verse ties together the number twelve (half of twenty-four), thrones, the apostles, and the twelve tribes.

In Rev. 21:12 the names of the twelves tribes are written on the gates of the New Jerusalem, while the twelve foundations have the names of the twelve apostles written on them (Rev. 21:14). This shows that the association between the number twelve, the tribes and the apostles can all be combined together in the book of Revelation. The number twenty-four in Revelation 4 and 5 adds twelve to twelve, as occurs also in Revelation 21.

In Revelation 7:4-8, furthermore, the people of God are described in terms of twelve times twelve times a thousand (144,000). The multiple of twelve is mentioned also in the height of the walls of the New Jerusalem, they are 144 cubits high (21:17). Combining all of this evidence confirms that the best explanation of the twenty-four elders is that they represent the people of God in both Old and New Testaments.

The most popular rival to the interpretation that sees the twenty-four elders as a symbol of the totality of God’s people is that they refer instead to a group of angelic beings along the lines of the four living creatures and the ten thousand times ten thousands of 5:11. The fact that they are in heaven and associated with other groups of angels stands in favor of such a view. But there are serious problems with such a conclusion. The twenty-four elders wear victory crowns (Greek: stephanos), are seated on thrones and are called elders. In all of the ancient world elsewhere angels are never depicted as wearing crowns, they are never seated on thrones and they are never called elders. If that were John’s intention here, it would be unique in the ancient world, which would require him to spell out his intention. It is not the way these symbols would naturally be read back then.

I conclude, therefore, that the twenty-four elders are not a group of angelic beings, but represent redeemed humanity taking up its role as “kings and priests” in the heavenly throne room. Since this scene occurs in the context of Jesus ascension to heaven, they elders may refer to the select group of “saints” that were raised from the dead at the time of the crucifixion and ascended with Jesus to heaven. But Jesus delays His entrance into the throne room to allow the elders to be seen there first and to be part of the entourage which welcomes the Lamb back to the throne.