The risen Christ’s sermon begins with him opening the seven seals that bound the scroll he received from the One on the throne. This very kinetic sermon full of words, actions, and song tell the story contained in the scroll. As the scroll is unsealed, a series of seven trumpets unfold from the last seal, and from the last trumpet emerges another series of seven, this time plagues. These three series of sevens are the main points of Jesus’ sermon. After all, every good sermon has three points and a poem or sad story, doesn’t it?
The first two series of sevens, the seals and trumpets, have a pause between the sixth and seventh of their series. After the trumpet and plague series are a number of vignettes dealing with important matters of faithful resistance to the empire. In these pauses and vignettes we find our access into the story Jesus is preaching, the way we find ourselves immersed in God’s story.
The way these sequences of sevens are to be read is much disputed. The two main kinds of view are the chronological (Greek word chronos) where each scene is to be read one after the other in time, and what I call the kairotic (Greek word kairos), overlapping scenes telling the meaning of the same story from different perspectives thus not denoting chronological movement. I believe the latter approach is correct and will follow it though I will not attempt to justify it here.
Christ’s Sermon Outlined
Seals opened (6:1-8:5)
Trumpets sound (8:6-11:19)
Woman and dragon (ch.12) Two beasts (ch.13) The Lamb and 144,000 (14:1-5) Three angels (14:6—13) Two harvests (14:14-20)
Plague bowls (chs.15-16)
Great prostitute (ch.17) Fall of Babylon (ch.18) Rejoicing in heaven (19:1-10) Rider on the White Horse (19:11-21) Millennium (20:1-10) Final judgment (20:11-15)
New Creation (21:1-22:7)
The First Section of Christ’s Sermon: The Seven Seals (6:1-8:1)
This first section of Christ’s sermon addresses the question churches in the belly of the beast of Empire always have: what’s really going on here? Things seem out of control. Nothing seems to be going God’s way. How are we to make sense of all this?
It’s a natural question for us. And crucial. We’ve just sung God’s praises as the sovereign Creator of all. And the Lamb as ruler of all. But when we look out the window, it sure doesn’t look like it.
Things aren’t unfolding just as God wants them to. That would make God a monster we rightly resist and turn away from. No matter what theological justifications we come up with, this cannot be the case.
Nor is God completely uninvolved, with things just unfolding as they unfold. Sovereignty and rulership have to mean more than that.
That’s why we have to look again at chs.4 and 5 to be clear on how divine sovereignty and the Lamb’s rule are carried out. Ch.5, the revelation of the Lion as a Lamb, refocuses notion of sovereignty and power in terms of self-sacrificial servanthood that goes to the cross to accomplish its will. This reflects back on to the picture of God in ch.4 with whom the Lamb is acclaimed as worthy of praise and honor. The Lamb’s way is thus identified with God’s way. The cross is revealed at the heart of God’s sovereign and creative power as well as that of the Lamb.
That can’t mean God is directly in charge of history unfolding as a hot mess as one unjust and oppressive empire succeeds another crushing the poor, helpless, and hapless as they go. But neither can it mean God is uninvolved and that history unfolds according to some other power or rhyme or reason. John (and the rest of the New Testament) says it unfolds according to the counterintuitive, indeed, rationally unfathomable, of a divine love that suffers to save and expresses the sovereign power of the triune God.
This divine alchemy, beyond what we can fathom as I said, calls for discernment when look at the often chaotic and scary world we live in. Things are not as they seem, if what John has seen is right. All our calculations are turned on their head and power relations reversed. And that’s what the seals the Lamb opens tell John’s first readers and his readers today. We have to be told this truth because we cannot figure it out on our own.
The first four seals the Lamb cracks open unloose the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. As each one emerges one of the living creatures cries out, “Come!” Is this a summons for the horsemen? Or for John to “come and see”? Neither, I think. Rather, I believe that as each horsemen emerge the living creature matches their appearance with a cry for Jesus the Lamb to come as well. As history unfolds it horrors are answered by the creatures around God’s throne calling for the Lamb to come as well. This is the way John’s vision answers the question it addresses. The ills and harms of history are real and too often mortal. But the Lamb is present in their midst continuing his healing restorative work. And his people are there with him. And our hope, the answer to how we are to respond and understand what is going on around us, is in his presence and our joining with him in his work amid the chaos and traumas that befall our world.
The first horseman to emerge is a rider on a white horse wearing a crown, holding a bow intent on conquering (6:2). Rome feared invasion from the Parthians to the east. They were known for their use of the bow. Empires conquer and fear being conquered. The white horse symbolizes that intent and fear.
A rider on a red horse emerges next. The color of blood (6:4). Slaughter and chaos are unleashed. Twin terrors our world knows all too well.
A black horse with its rider comes next. Economic privation (a day’s wage for bare necessities) but plenty of luxuries for those with means to purchase (6:6). Poverty and wealth inequality – again something we are too familiar with from our world.
The last of the horsemen, riding a pale green horse, brings Death and Hades in his wake. Enough said. But the reach of Death and Hades is limited to ¼ of the earth. This is not a literal number of course but an indication that the reach of these ultimate terrors are limited (presumably) by God.
With each horseman the call for the Lamb to come means that these disasters are not beyond the purview of God’s attention and that the Lamb’s healing and restorative work is present in crises the horsemen bring. That is the sense we are to make of what is going on around us.
We’ll pick up the last three seals and the interlude between the sixth and seventh seal in the next post.