As we have already seen, Revelation was primarily written for the encouragement and consolation of those experiencing suffering and persecutions. In relation to this theme the book also highlights the final vindication of those who are suffering and describes the heavenly judgment of their oppressors. One can also see a secondary theme. John’s letters to the seven churches are representative of all the situations of the early Christians. These letters described affluent Christians who were not necessarily persecuted but were living double lives by their religious participation with the oppressive Roman system. In this case the theme of judgment becomes a warning and a call to repentance. The judgments which become the prominent theme of the rest of the book, are both encouragements for those suffering persecution and warnings to repent for those living compromised lives.
Richard Bauckham notes that “Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world.” This radical counter-cultural vision is centered on heaven. In John’s heavenly vision we see that the divine reality includes a Trinitarian vision of God. Christ shares with God the Father (Revelation1:8; 21:6) the title ‘Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation1:17; 22:13). In contrast with the false pretensions of the Romans emperor, Christ is the Almighty God, and the one who sits on the throne. In this section of Revelation divine holiness is seen in judgment. This is none other than the coming of the kingdom as the reign or rule of God called for in the first three petitions of the Lord’s prayer; “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9-10). In the words of the twenty-four presbyters, “We give thanks to you, Lord God almighty, who are and who were. For you have assumed your great power and have established your reign” (Revelation 11:17).
There is a series of three sets of progressive judgments; the seven seal-openings (6:1-17; 8:1, 3-5); the seven trumpets (8:2, 6-21; 11:14-19) and the seven bowls (15:1, 5-21). Yet these judgments do not appear to follow each other neatly, one set after the other in time. They appear to overlap and repeat while at the same time are progressing in time and intensifying so that the judgments become more severe. One might compare this to the replays of a touchdown in a televised football game. Different camera angles all watch the same final play but each gives a different point of view. The judgments of the seal-openings affect one quarter of the earth (6:8), while those of the trumpets affect one third of the earth (8:7-12; 9:18). Finally those of the bowls affect the entire earth. Each of the sets of seven conclude with the same final judgment. One possible view is that the first six seals, are followed by the first six trumpets, followed by the bowls but seventh member of each set aligns to form one final judgment. It is also possible to see a slightly earlier overlapping of the sets of judgments aligning with the seventh seal.
John uses a literary device to link each of these sets of judgments together. In the throne vision of Revelation 4, John tells the reader that from the throne “came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder’ (4:5). This language is an echo of the self-manifestation of God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16; 20:18). Each of the following judgments is introduced by similar language with ‘peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning,’ but Revelation 8:5 adds ‘and an earthquake’ and then at 11:19 ‘an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm’ and finally 16:18-21: ‘such a violent earthquake that there has never been one like it since the human race began on earth’. One can easily see the progression and intensification. Those who wish to see these as merely preliminary judgments must recon with the final intensity of the imagery which evokes a kind of ‘un-creation’ and the mention of the time of judgment for the dead already in Revelation 11:18.
The first of the sets of judgments involves the Lamb breaking open a series of the seals. As the Lamb breaks the first seal the first living creature thunders, “Come forward!” and a white horse whose rider had a bow rides forth “victorious to further his victories” (6:2). This could represent the fear of an invasion from the east by mounted Parthian archers. The second living creature calls forth a rider on a red horse with a huge sword who was given power to take peace away from the earth (6:4). The Romans were very proud of the Pax Romana or peace that their empire provided for its citizens. The third living creature calls forth a black horse who carries a scale symbolizing the rationing of food during a famine (6:5). The fourth rider is on a pale green horse. The riders name is Death and Hades (6:8). We appear to have four figures of judgment who are echoing those found in with slightly different imagery in Zechariah 1:8-17, and 6:1-8. The riders are “given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and plague, and by means of the beasts of the earth” (6:8). The imagery shifts with the fifth seal. From underneath the altar “the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” cried out, “How long will it be . . . before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood?” (6:9-10). Finally with the breaking of the sixth seal there is a great earthquake, the sun and moon are darkened and stars fall from the sky (6:12-13). This sequence ends with a question. Who can withstand the great day of the wrath of the Lamb? This question is answered in the next chapter of Revelation.
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.