Revelation 6 and 7 begin the first of three series of seven judgments that occupy a large portion of the Revelation. Each series of seven judgments escalates in severity. The first series affects 1/4 of the earth. The second series impacts 1/3 of the earth and the final series impact the entire earth, leading to the destruction of Babylon and the establishment of the New Jerusalem and the New Creation.
Each series of seven is broken into a common pattern — four visions followed by two visions followed by a two-part interlude followed by a climactic vision that transitions into the next series of seven. This pattern draws out significant theological meaning. Seven is the number of fullness and completion. Each series of seven represents the fullness of God’s actions in bringing his kingdom to earth. Also, the number four represents the earth, so the first four visions in each series reveal their earthly impact.
I have found Richard Bauckham’s comments regarding John’s visions to be very insightful:
“John’s images echo and play on the facts, the fears, the hopes, the imaginings and the myths of his contemporaries, in order to transmute them into elements of his own Christian prophetic meaning. Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need to also avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realize that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.” (Emphasis mine)
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation
So as we examine the various visions, it is important to keep in mind that they do not necessarily find direct one-to-one correlation to specific events that have already occurred or will someday occur. Rather, John’s visions are anchored in the readers’/listeners’ historical context, drawing from both contemporary images and rich Old Testament allusions, but also transcend the literal historical context to create a fresh prophetic imagination for God’s people.
John’s visions speak directly to God’s people as they live in and confront the Roman Empire with the embodiment of God’s kingdom in their personal and corporate lives. In fact, at its heart, the Revelation is a prophetic critique of the Roman Empire. But by doing this John also lays a foundation for a prophetic critique of all forms of human empire throughout the span of history.
This first series of seven judgments is depicted as the seven seals that bind the scroll, which is God’s plan to bring his kingdom to earth, uniquely inaugurated by Jesus, God’s sacrificial lamb. The seven seals are “preparatory” visions for the remainder of the Revelation. The first four (again symbolically demonstrating the impact of opening God’s scroll upon the earth) are four horsemen — conquest, war, famine and death. Ironically, in preparation for God’s kingdom to come to earth, humanity is allowed full expression in its distorted corporate will for conquest. In other words, human freedom is allowed to run rampant. And its fullest earthly expression is human empire. It was true of Rome. And it is true of every nation that has existed upon the earth. Every nation has an inherent agenda for conquest, which is quickly followed by conflict, poverty and ultimately death, regardless of its noblest intentions. Whenever the white rider of conquest rides forth, the other three riders are soon to follow. And none of these four riders are God’s instruments in implementing his New Creation. They are the consequences of human depravity. They cannot be used by any nation, organization or person in the attempt to bring forth God’s kingdom.
But before we shake our head in judgment, we must remember that societal sins are simply the amplification of our own personal sins. Our personal sins of greed, lust, anger, prejudice and fear find their expression in the national and corporate sins of conquest, war, famine and death. James offers the following critique:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Our ruined personal lives that Jesus longs to save us from are fraught with the very sins that feed humanity’s corporate sins, whether they find varying degrees of expression in the devastation of the Nazi regime, the western colonialism of Christian missions, the vision of Manifest Destiny in the U.S., the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, Walmart’s strategy for global expansion or the building program at a local church, to name just a few.
Yet, as human history has demonstrated, human empires can be both blessing and bane. This is the confusion that John’s original audience faced. Some faced oppression and martyrdom while others faced the temptation to yield to the benefits offered by the pax Romana.
I’m reminded of a humorous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. At one of the many meetings of the People’s Front of Judea, Reg (the group’s leader) asks his resistance group, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Although his question was to be the rallying point for his troops, in fine British humor, the members begin listing all the benefits brought by the Romans. Shaken, but not deterred, Reg poses the next question, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Someone then answers, “Brought peace?” to which Reg responds, “Oh peace — Shut up!”
If we tune our internal radios to WII-FM (What’s In It For Me?), we can easily be seduced by the many benefits that empires bring. And there are many benefits. For example, as a citizen of the U.S., I benefit from the many freedoms won through the four horsemen. But John’s Revelation forces me to ask “At what cost and to whom?” And the answers to those questions make me realize that although the U.S. is often labeled a “Christian” nation, its history and tactics find little affinity to the Lamb and his strategy.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Any critique of a nation or organization is a critique of its people, myself included. I am fully aware that my distorted life contributes to the very thing I’m critiquing. And therein lies the relevance of the Revelation’s central message to God’s people — overcome! That is the exhortation John provides to God’s people. Not cursing the empire. Not fighting the empire with our own political or economic power. That would be fighting the Beast with the Beast’s weapons and on the Beast’s terms.
Rather, God’s people must embody God’s way, truth and life as Christ did. John 20:21 says that Jesus sends us just as his Father sent him. As we will see next time and throughout the rest of the Revelation, the prophetic witness of Jesus to and through the Church is the primary way that God’s kingdom comes to bring the nations to repentance and to renew creation.