The Seven Seals

October 20, 2019

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Book of Revelation

19th Sunday after Pentecost

The Seven Seals

Revelation 6:1-17

         As we get into this chapter and many of the ones that will follow, it is a good idea to know some of the religious practices at that time in the Roman Empire. Now the Jews, from the time of Julius Caesar, were a special, exempted group among the peoples of the Roman Empire. The Jews were well organized, had their own section in a city in which to live, spoke their own Hebrew language and Greek, and maintained their own religious schools, traditions, and practices. As the Romans captured more and more territory, they were very tolerant of other religious practices as long as they were peaceful and did not cause disturbances within the Empire. From the beginning of the Empire, there was an understanding that the Jews were not to be touched and were free to practice their religion. They were exempt from Caesar worship.

         Caesar worship did not begin with the deification of the Emperor, but with the deification of Rome. The spirit of the Empire was deified under the name of the goddess Roma. The goddess Roma stood for all the strong and benevolent power of the Empire. Caesar worship arose from the people who were thankful that Rome brought peace to the lands, called Pax Romana. It was only a small step from the worship of Rome to it being incarnated into one man, the Emperor. It was easier to worship a god which could be seen, than one that couldn’t.

         By the middle of the first century A.D., Caesar worship was becoming the universal religion of the Roman Empire, especially under the madman and megalomaniac Caligula from 37-41 A.D., Nero from 54-68 A.D., and Domitian from 81-96 A.D. Domitian was a devil and a cold-blooded persecutor. He took his divinity seriously and demanded Caesar worship. He began a campaign of persecution against all who would not worship the ancient gods, especially the Jews and the Christians, people of God.

         Once each year, every citizen of the Roman Empire, men and women, had to go before a statue of Domitian in the temples erected to him throughout the empire, and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord and God.” This was done to unify the Empire. After the person’s submission to Caesar, they were given a small scroll as proof they had completed their requirement. This certificate allowed the person to compete, buy and sell in the marketplaces of the Empire.

         Since the Jews and Christians would not bow down to Caesar, they were severely disadvantaged in everyday transactions to sustain life. Famine and poverty came to many, and thus the terrible tribulations we witness in Revelation. So, let’s delve into Chapter 6, but first would you pray with me?

PRAYER

         In this series of visions of the seven seals, John is seeing in advance the terror and judgment which could bring in the golden age of God, as God brings an end to the persecution the Christians are suffering. As Jesus breaks each of the seven seals, history unfolds before John’s eyes. These are the signs and events which precede the end of the horrors of the Emperor Domitian.

         The origin of this vision can be seen in Zechariah 6:1-8 which begins, “I (Zechariah) looked up again—and there before me were four chariots coming out from between two mountains—mountains of bronze! The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled—all of them powerful.” The four horses and their riders in our scripture are being called out by the four creatures surrounding the throne of God, “Come.” These four horses and their riders represent the great destructive forces which are dispatched against the evil world by the holy wrath of God. John saw the forces in terms of actual events in the world.

         Remember, white stands for victory and the victor is not always the good guy. When a Roman general celebrated a triumph, he paraded through the streets in a chariot drawn by white horses, the symbol of victory. The first seal is opened and a rider on a white horse comes forth with a bow, the sign of military power, and wearing a victor’s crown. It is thought by many that the rider may be the Emperor Domitian with his conquering armies.

         However, in 62 A.D., a Roman army had surrendered to the Parthian army on the eastern frontiers of the Empire, an enemy the Romans had feared. The Parthians rode white horses and were the most famous bowmen in the world. Whatever the sign may be, war is a time of tragedy and terror. This first horse causes the consequences of the next three horses that come forth.

         As the second seal is broken, a red horse goes out. This red horse, and its rider with a sword, stands for war and the destructive strife which sets man against man and nation against nation in a chaos of tragic destruction. Its rider was to take peace from the earth.

         In 61 A.D. in Britain, there had arisen a rebellion connected with the name of Queen Boadicea and the Romans crushed the rebellion, as they did with anything that threatened the peace of the Empire. Queen Boadicea committed suicide and 150,000 men perished. Also recorded in the Jewish picture of end times is a complete disintegration of all human relationships.

         Now there had been severe famines during the reigns of both Nero and Domitian. These famines left the rich untouched but caused strife when some people had too much and others too little. So, as the third seal is broken, a black horse and rider come forth. Remember, black means the lack of something, in this case food. Famine throughout the land was very severe and caused great hardship. Wheat and barley were at an exorbitant price, but the wine and the olive oil were not affected.

         During this time, the three main crops in Palestine were grains, wine, and olive oil. During a drought, the olive tree and the grape vine were much more deeply rooted than the grains and could withstand the lack of moisture. So many times, the people would not have bread to eat, but would have the luxuries of oil and wine.

         In this passage the rider holds a scale, the means of weighing the measures of grain. Usually a person could buy eight to sixteen measures of wheat and three to four times as much barley for the same amount of money it now cost. During this famine, it cost a day’s wages to buy one day’s portion of bread for one man. This left no food for the man’s wife and children to eat or money to buy any other necessities of life. Thus, famine followed.

         As the fourth seal is opened, a pale or ashen horse and rider come forth who represent death and disaster. It will be a terrible time, but it is not the time of total destruction. Some people will survive since only a fourth of the earth will be killed with the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts.

         Here, I’m sure John is thinking of the Old Testament in terms of the “four sore judgments” found in Ezekiel 14:21,  “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments—sword and famine and wild beasts and plague—to kill its men and their animals! Yet there will be some survivors—sons and daughters who will be brought out of it.” This fourth seal depicts the traditional picture of what is to happen when God dispatches his wrath upon his disobedient people.

         With the breaking of the fifth seal comes the vision of the souls of those who had died for their faith, the martyrs. These souls are underneath the altar in the heavenly temple. The most sacred part of any sacrifice was the blood, because it was the life of a person. The blood was usually offered at the altar and poured around the base. These martyr’s blood had been given as a sacrifice to God.

         Three things are happening in this picture. First, there is the eternal cry of the suffering righteous asking when their blood would be avenged. Second, the saints wished to see the punishment of their persecutors. “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” This is not a selfish cry, since the martyrs have already received their reward in heaven. Instead, as Dr. Efird writes in his book, Revelation for Today, “it is a cry for God to act so that the victory of good will prevail. If God does not act, the powers and forces of evil will triumph and all hope for humanity and the universe will vanish.”

         And third, the martyrs are told they must “rest for a little while longer” until their number is made up. You see, God would not bring his wrath and the Messiah would not come back until the number of the righteous are complete, until all the souls which are to be born have been born. God was working his purpose of salvation for any who would believe in Jesus Christ to the end. The persecution must first run its course before God would intervene.

         Lastly, in this chapter, the sixth seal is opened by Jesus. The opening of the seventh seal doesn’t come until Chapter 8. To this point in the cycle of the seven seals, the reader or hearer has been introduced to what comes about when someone, mad with power, such as Emperor Domitian, attempts to impose his agenda on all others. There are a series of events which run their course and ultimately result in death. This death is not only for those who partner themselves with evil, but also those who oppose evil as well. However, in the fifth seal, we learn that those who have opposed evil and suffered martyrdom get a very special award in heaven.

         After this sixth seal is opened, those who have allied themselves with evil will receive God’s full judgment, and justice will be certain. There is not a single detail here which is not in the descriptions found in the Old Testament. John is seeing every terrifying thing that could happen or be imagined and piling them all together to give us a picture of the terrors of this time.

         “And there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black…, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth…The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” All these terrible things were taken from the prophets, Amos, Ezekiel, Joel, Haggai, Isaiah, Nahum, and Jeremiah. Listen to what Jesus says about this in Matthew 24:29: “Immediately after the distress of those days “ ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”

         John saw a time of universal terror when the Day of the Lord comes. People will cry bitterly and tremble. There will be no place to hide. John talks about the whole of human society being affected in these seven words, “the kings…great men…commanders…rich… strong…every slave and free man” will hide themselves in the caves and among the rocks in the mountain. These people, the sinners, will fear the wrath of God and the Lamb so much that they will wish that the caves and mountains fall upon them before they are discovered. You see, the first instinct of sin is to hide, just as Adam and Eve did. What sinners dread most is not death, but the revealed presence of God. Sin makes a person a fugitive from God, but the work of Jesus Christ is to help a person back into a right relationship with God through repentance.

         Folks, so many times it might seem that God’s justice is so very slow, especially when we feel a sinner should be punished now. But from this sixth seal, we know that God’s judgment and justice will be certain. It may take time, but it will be certain.

         Brothers and sisters in Christ, this first cycle of seven is a judgment cycle. It depicts how the people of God are being treated by those in power, mainly the Emperor Domitian, and lets them know that some will surely die during this persecution. So, who could withstand this wrath of God? Only the people of God’s community who remain faithful and steadfast in their belief in the Lamb of God.

         Jesus, through his mouthpiece John, wants the Christian people to know that it won’t be long before the persecution is over, when God or God’s Agent intervenes, and takes the sword from the persecutors. Only then will it be the golden age of God.

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