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The charts referred to in this entry made the post too large for the site, so I've cut them out and will add them in a specific post following.  I suggest you open them in another browser window or tab.  

Strange, bizarre images.  Frightening and confusing.

                                What’s going on here?

What did John see, and what is he trying to communicate?

Firstly, let’s just stay with frightening and confusing

                                                                – because that’s the reality!

For the church, then, and for Christians around the world today,

                                                                                                Life is not tidy and safe,

                It is risky, and scary, and confusing. 

The emotional tone of these chapters

                Matches the experience of most people through most of history.

But within this confusion

                And amidst the kaleidoscoping images

                                                                Clear meaning emerges

                                                And a specific message is being communicated.

What is it?

Bear in mind the beginning of Chapter 8;

                                This is God’s justice on the earth

                                                Following the prayers of the saints.

In Exodus 3 “…the Lord said,

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;

                I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. 

                                                                Indeed, I know their sufferings,

                                                And I have come down to deliver them…”

This is not just a tale of terror;

                This is part of the story of deliverance;

                                And we’ll see that more clearly as we go on.

As we read, we have to remember, too, that we’re not reading a novel.

                If you’re reading the Famous Five or Sherlock Holmes,

                                Then you’re solving a mystery, cracking a code,

                                                                                Much like we’re doing here,

But usually you’re moving forward through time as you do so. 

Novels most often start at one point in time,

                                                And then move through to the finish.

They’re linear; one thing happens, and then another, and then another.

This is more like a sports broadcast

                                there is movement through time –

you can’t escape the fact that the final whistle is going to blow at a set time –

                but there are frequent pauses in play

                                while the commentators talk about what’s going on

and there are many instant replay moments

                                where we see the same action again and again,

                                                from a variety of different angles,

And so the seven seals, and the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls

                All bring judgement upon the earth,

And again and again they approach that final whistle moment –

                                And then veer off once more and do another replay!

The sixth seal showed the cosmic cataclysm of the end,

                Just as Jesus described his coming again in the gospels,

But then the seventh seal takes us back into heaven

                 – to the commentator’s box –

                                And the prayers of the saints,

                                And the trumpets of God’s judgement that follow;

And just like the seals, after all the judgements of the trumpets,

                the seventh trumpet sounds in chapter 11,

                                And we’re back in heaven where we hear

                 “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord

                                                                                                                And of his Messiah,

                                                                                And he will reign forever and ever”,

And the elders on their thrones worship,

                And say that now is the time to judge the living and the dead

                                To reward God’s servants, the prophets

                                                And all the saints, both small and great

And the temple in heaven is opened,

And then…

                We go back into the past

with the story of God’s people told with the images of a woman and a Dragon,

                And there are beasts,

                                and the lamb with his 144000,

                                                and angels with messages,

and then,

 in chapter 15,

                there are seven more plagues, poured from bowls,

plagues very like those that have already been announced with the trumpets,

and these plagues, too, finish with a voice from heaven, saying “It is done!”

                and the complete destruction of Babylon and then…

                                it’s action replay time once more

                and there are two chapters showing the destruction of Babylon,

                                                                outlining all its evil and celebrating its end.

And THEN there is the final, cosmic conflict

                And the overthrow of the beast and his armies

                And the millennium,

                And the judgements,

                And the new heaven and earth

                And all that is in them!

The final whistle is actually more like a full-on orchestral score by Wagner.

But the point is that throughout the whole book of Revelation

                John constantly goes back and goes over the same thing

                                Again and again showing God’s certain justice;

                                His condemnation of evil and his deliverance of his peoples.

The three sets of seven judgements; the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls,

                Are all clearly linked. 

They are not the same

But there are so many similarities amongst them (see chart below)

                Both in the way the visions are described

And also in the content of what is described,

                That we get the impression

                                John is describing the same events over and over.

It’s like he’s in a helicopter,

                Circling around an immense battlefield

                                And as he circles, he relays what he sees,

But’s it’s all so vivid and extreme

                And the picture is constantly changing,

                                And sometimes something is a bit obscure

                                                and sometimes it’s clearly visible,

But he goes right around the battlefield three times

                and each time, picks up on slightly different things. 

So with the second trumpet a third of the sea becomes blood

                and with the second bowl the sea turns to blood,

and with the third trumpet the rivers are poisoned

                and with the third bowl the rivers become blood.

With the fourth trumpet John sees the sun darkened

                with the fourth bowl he glances at the sun again

                                and sees it striking people down

     and so forth. 

There are similarities between the seals and the trumpets, too,

but more in the way the vision is delivered than in the content of the vision;

so both the trumpets and the seals begin with a series of four

                which are described very briefly,

and then there are two more that are described in much more detail,

and then there is another scene interrupting the sequence of seals or trumpets

and then the seventh seal and the seventh trumpet take us back into heaven,

                                and the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl

                                                                                like the sixth seal,

                                                anticipate the end in its unavoidable approach. 

So as we read these trumpet series,

we don’t have to say that a particular trumpet blast

                equals a single specific historical event,

and that historical event is different to the similar event

                                described in the series of bowl judgements. 

Rather, it is a glimpse of the justice of God being done on the earth.

An example of this might be Chernobyl:

When the Chernobyl reactor exploded

several commentators pointed out that ‘Chernobyl’ means ‘black grass’;

and the Ukrainian ‘black grass’ is a local mugwort,

a plant of the absinthe family,

which our bibles translate, ‘wormwood’.

Radioactive rain and fallout into one of the most extensive river systems in Europe spread poison throughout the continent.

And in verse 11 a blazing star called Wormwood falls to the earth

and poisons the waters so that many die.

Surely this is a very specific fulfilment of prophecy!

Yes – and no.

There are times when the judgement of God upon us

is that the evil we do is allowed to have its impact,

and so we all suffer from badly used technologies,

and it is a rich irony that the name of that nuclear power plant

is the name of that falling star in Revelation,

But that doesn’t mean that prophecy is over and no longer relevant.

Wormwood may yet fall. 

This prophecy was relevant to John’s first readers,

and it continues to be true for all of humanity today,

regardless of those terrible days back in 1986.

John is not just looking forward to today,

he is also looking back

and he is looking around him at his present. 

As he’s describing the visions he sees,

and setting down the things he hears,

and he is doing so in the language that is familiar to him from the OT.

If we go back to our sports broadcast analogy,

not only do you get the commentators talking about what is seen on the field,

and not only do you get action replays from multiple angles,

                                but there are also highlights from previous games

and the stats from other seasons are brought up and compared to the present. 

So John sees these scenes of God’s final judgements

 and God’s deliverance of his people

in the light of God’s previous judgements;

through the lens of God’s salvation of his people from bondage in Egypt. 

And so this passage is rich in Old Testament references.

Water poisoned with wormwood is just one –

                and John wasn’t thinking of a nuclear power station in the USSR

so much as he was thinking of a passage in Jeremiah (Jer 9.15, 23.15).

John is looking at his current situation, too;

The fifth trumpet’s king of the locusts is named ‘destruction’

                                in both Hebrew and in Greek; Abbadon and Apollyon

                but the Greek term for ‘destruction,’ apollyon,

                                 is also a pun on the name of the Greek god, Apollos.

                Apollos had a locust as one of his symbols

and the 3 Roman emperors who caused the Jews and Christians the most grief,

Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, all claimed to be Apollos incarnate.

                So John is taking a sly dig at the Roman empire

                by making the emperor king of the demonic tormentors from the pit.

Also, the description of the demonic cavalry of the sixth trumpet

                                at several points echoes the Parthian cavalry.

(Parthia was the empire beyond the Euphrates.  The Parthian cavalry were notorious for being the only force known to have defeated a Roman army, at the battle of Carrhae, 53 BC.  In this battle they covered their armour with colourful cloth, and their horse archers were famed for firing as they advance, and also as they retreated - the 'sting' in the tail!  Following this defeat of the Romans, they invaded the Roman province of Syria and put their own king on the Jewish throne, Antigonus, in 40 BC.)

John is using a familiar, stereotyped image

                of a frightening invader from his own culture

                                to put some outlines on the obscure visions he is granted. 

Modern-day images and Old Testament echoes. 

                are essential to understanding what John is trying to say here. 

& the most important part of the OT background to the plagues of Revelation

                                                is the Exodus story

                                                with its ten plagues of judgement upon Egypt. 

The handout shows there are multiple echoes of the Egyptian plagues

                all the way through the Revelation plagues.

In the psalms the 10 plagues are compressed into seven plagues,

                and Amos warns of seven plagues coming to an unrepentant Israel;

Like John, the OT authors used the number seven to show completeness,

so the three series of seven plagues in Revelation

                are a deliberate echo of the OT. 

The Egyptian plagues were the justice and the mercy of God;

                his condemnation of the unjust Egyptian economic system,

                                relying upon terrorised slaves,

and the plagues were also God’s mercy,

                 giving ample warning of the destruction that would ultimately come

                                should Pharaoh not repent.

He did not, and we know the outcome. 

Just so, the plagues of Revelation are designed to bring people to repentance.

                The OT echoes only confirm this;

                                the locust plague following the fifth trumpet

                                                is a retelling of the first two chapters of Joel.

                                That whole book is a plea to repent of evil;

                                it is specifically designed to steer people back towards God.

When we talk with unbelievers about what is to come,

                we need to be ready to say that God will ensure justice;

                                that there will be consequences

                                for the destruction and evil we have brought upon the earth

                and that every such consequence, short of death itself,

                                is another invitation to repent

                                to turn around and to start to walk a different way. 

But this book was not written mainly for the world

                but for the church;

and the message here could be that though God desires people to repent

                it isn’t likely to happen. 

One of the most important OT echoes

                is the constant refrain in Exodus that regardless of what God did,

                Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let God’s people go.

Likewise with the seven plagues of Amos,

and here, in verse 20, the prophet notes that people did not repent,

and in the middle of the bowl judgements the same story is repeated. 

Revelation may seem to be a fantasy nightmare

                but it is powerfully realistic for all that. 

Once people have started down the path of immorality

                our pride forbids us turn back.

Humility is essential to a new beginning;

                the ability to recognise that we might have been wrong.

This is why Jesus says that he has not come to call the well

                but the sick,

                                not the righteous

                                                but the sinners.

Those who most resent God’s justice

                are those who can’t imagine that they might have done wrong.

Those who are willing to acknowledge their faults and frailties

                are those who will find shelter in Jesus Christ. 

As we read Revelation

                we need to read it for what God is telling us through it.

We are told that God’s judgements shall fall on the people of the earth,

and the OT says that God’s justice is intended to lead people to repentance;

 his judgement is always tempered by mercy;

  but also that people usually prefer judgement to mercy

 pride to repentance,

   the status quo to the promised land.

But the promised land is coming.

       People get ready…