Seals 5, 6, 7: God’s Message to Troubled Saints
In this series I’ve been explaining how Revelation speaks to Christian communities that are going through hard times. As I began, I had the coronavirus and its effects in mind. But Revelation also has a lot to say about Christians and politics, and Revelation 6–7 is important for Christians who are looking for the best way to respond to the recent election and its aftermath. God wants Christ’s followers to be involved in government, but we need to be involved in the right way. Revelation 6–7 offers insight into how we should be involved.
My previous post was on the first four of the seven seals, which reveal the famed “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” I explained there that the author of Revelation wants us to take these four together, as they represent a recurring cycle: the appearance of a charismatic leader, followed by civil unrest, followed by economic disaster, followed by widespread death. While we are experiencing such a cycle today, it is a mistake to assume that this is the last one. It is easy to find examples throughout history (twentieth century examples include the cycles beginning with the ascension of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler), so there is no particular reason to think that we are living through the final one. The task of the church is not to decide whether we are at the end (“but about that day or hour no one knows…” – Matt 24:36); our job is to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ (see my post on Rev 2–3).
Just as the first four seals go together, so do the last three. Interpreting these last three seals is not difficult; the more critical part is the application, especially relevant for Americans in late 2020.
While the first four seals reveal events that affect all of humanity, the fifth seal focuses on the followers of God who have paid ultimate price, killed for being faithful to Christ. One of the things that makes suffering bearable is the hope that the God of Revelation 4–5 will come to earth to set things right. There is no indication that the martyrs of the fifth seal died during the events of the first four scrolls; rather, they have seen yet another cycle of strongman, war, economic disaster, and death, without Christ intervening. As the cycles come and go, it can be hard to continue to be faithful. Unfortunately, Christ is not coming to judge the earth just yet; 6:11 tells us that more Christians will die for their faith. But as Rev 3:4–5 tells us, the “white robe” means that those who have been faithful to the end earn God’s approval, even if things remain bad on earth for some time.
There has been a lot of discussion about the meaning of the 144,000 marked servants of God” (Rev 7:3) of the sixth seal, described in 7:3–8. One popular idea is that the 144,000 consists of Jewish people who have become Christians and so have joined God’s elect. But this interpretation is at odds with the rest of the Bible. While the New Testament sometimes distinguishes between people who are or have been Jewish in the past, it never suggests that such a distinction exists in the future, instead following Paul’s principle that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Instead, the list of tribes followed by the “great multitude” of 7:9 is telling us that there are many, many different kinds of Christians, from all over the world, who have been faithful enough to merit the white robe. God does not give favor only to people who hold to this or that doctrine or follow such-and-such practice. God wants us to do justice and love mercy as best we can, working for the welfare of others while rejecting corrupt world systems.
The seventh seal (Rev 8:1) is a kind of “teaser;” the key phrase “in heaven” tells us that while heaven is quiet for 30 minutes, earth most certainly is not! I will discuss this more in my next post, since it is a segue to the next section, the “seven trumpets.”
As I indicated at the start, this passage speaks to the issue of Christians and politics, because many of us feel like the martyrs of seals 5 and 6. We see evil in our society, and we do not see God doing much about it. Frankly the recent presidential election results were disappointing to everyone: President Trump’s supporters are disappointed that he lost, and President-elect Biden’s supporters were expecting a much larger margin of victory. So both Republicans and Democrats are crying, “how long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth?”
We’re not always aware that both Republicans and Democrats include many, many followers of Christ who merit the white robe. The American church is divided: a narrow majority supported President Trump’s re-election and still supports him today, while a significant minority think of him as evil and a danger. This political divide is so stark, and recent election results have been so narrow, that many of us become tempted to prioritize politics ahead of working for the Kingdom of God. The politicians of course try to convince us that the next election is so crucial, and the issues of the day are so important, that we must “temporarily” push aside Christ’s commands while we do all we can to make sure our side wins.
Those who say things like “I will never vote Republican” or “Christians should never support Democrats” place their commitment to a political party ahead of their commitment to Christ. Those who condemn the words and deeds of members of the other party, while ignoring the ungodly words and deeds of members of their own party, are succumbing to the evil of the world, not conquering it. Helping to win an election or gain a political objective is not worth giving up what it means to be a follower of Jesus. God is more interested in “love your neighbor as yourself” than in supporting the right politician, and God will judge us on that basis.
In November 2020 we are seeing the effects of the four horses of Revelation 6:1-8: charismatic leaders, civil unrest, economic troubles, and death. Christians should be troubled by God’s apparent failure to act; it is good and right to say, “how long, Lord, until you judge?” But however long it takes for God to move, we must not deviate from living according to the teachings of Christ. We need to reach for the white robe.