Studies in Revelation—Lesson 12
by Reta Halteman Finger
Up to this point in our study of Revelation, we can at least follow the plot. So far John has received two separate but related visions. The first happens on Patmos Island and is in the form of letters to seven churches in Asia Minor that John knows well. The second vision begins in heaven where a Lion-turned-Lamb—the crucified and resurrected Jesus—is declared worthy to open a mysterious scroll sealed with seven seals.
Now every creature in heaven and on earth waits in suspense for the seals to be broken so the scroll can be read. At first, we understand the sequence: four seals reveal four horses of different colors and their riders (6:1-8). The fifth and sixth seals are quite different (6:9-17), but the seventh seal doesn’t show up until chapter 8! In between (7:1-17), we see the same vision of heaven as in chapter 5—but now the worship also includes 144,000 Israelites plus people from every tribe and nation of the world! It’s as though we are watching a movie in which a flashback occurs to show us something that we weren’t shown the first time we saw the scene.
The seventh seal is opened (8:1-5), leading into another series of seven, this time angels blowing seven trumpets. Again, the first four trumpets (like the first four seals) are consecutive and parallel each other (8:6-13). The fifth seal (9:1-11) is more detailed and is also called the “first woe,” with two more woes to come. The sixth trumpet and second woe (9:13-21) may also include chapters 10 and 11, after which we finally hear the seventh angel blow his trumpet (11:15).
The actions of both seals and trumpets take place on the earth but with occasional glimpses of heavenly worship. The majestic songs in 11:15-18 sound like the final triumph of God and the Lamb. Except it’s not the end. The apocalypse goes on for another eleven chapters!
Is this the “Great Tribulation”?
What sense can we make of this profusion of images and of numbers that keep starting and stopping? If we were dispensationalists (a view of the end times developed in the 19th century, disseminated widely through the Scofield Reference Bible, and still popular), we would view this section of Revelation 6-11 primarily as a series of horrible things that will happen to the earth after Christians are taken to heaven. But the “Rapture,” the concept of Jesus returning to snatch up believers before this “great tribulation,” never occurs in Revelation.[i] It is mistakenly derived from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where believers are worried that some of their friends have died and cannot greet Christ when he returns to earth.
After Paul assures this church that dead believers will rise first and all will meet Jesus “in the air,” he implies that they will usher Jesus back to the earth, where he will reign forever. The idea of Christians “raptured” to heaven demonstrates ignorance of the ancient Roman practice of a “triumphal entry,” which Paul is alluding to here. As news spreads of a general or emperor returning to Rome victorious after battle, the city’s inhabitants rush out to meet their leader and accompany him back into the city. Paul’s account varies only in that Jesus’s triumphal entry is from heaven to earth rather than horizontally. Unlike what you have heard, the New Testament does not teach that believers are “going to heaven.”
Special clues for interpreting Revelation
It will take several lessons to unpack these chapters. We must first understand, if we haven’t already, that John is not writing a strict chronology. In this section, he uses two literary devices which are typical of apocalypses and remind us of their visionary nature. They are called recapitulation and intercalation, which David Barr explains in his chapter on Revelation in New Testament Story (pp. 446-448).[ii]
In describing some later account or cycle, such as of seals or trumpets, John may mirror an earlier one and echo its meaning. This is recapitulation. Although the underlying meanings of the two accounts are the same, later symbols may “modify, intensify, and focus earlier ones” (Barr, 447). For example, seals five and six (Rev. 6:9-17) show the relationship between martyrs’ prayers and God’s just judgment on the earth. This sequence is recapitulated in 8:3-5, where an angel offers these prayers mixed with incense in a censor to God, then fills it with fire from God’s altar, and throws it on the earth.
What follows in 8:6-13 are four angels blowing trumpets and effecting similar destruction on the earth as in the sixth seal. John is not predicting two different destruction cycles; he is recapping and intensifying the first description. In the same way, Revelation 11 comes to a dramatic close with the coming of God’s kingdom (11:15)—and then John starts recapping the story of the Messiah in a very different way, beginning in 12:1.
Rather than repeating the meaning of symbols as in recapitulation, intercalation (John’s other literary device) repeats the symbols themselves and inserts them in different places. He may interweave something from one section of his book into another section to bind the two more closely together. For example, if one cycle in the document is A B C, and another is 1 2 3, John may intercalate (rhymes with “percolate”) them into something like A B 1 2 C 3. Take the 144,000 who are sealed between the sixth and seventh seal in chapter 7:1-8; they actually belong with the description of 14:1-5. Some scenes are both recapitulation and intercalation, such as 8:3-5 above.
All this helps us understand that John’s Revelation is a book of ecstasy that must not be taken as a straightforward, chronological guide to our future. More on this in the next lesson.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- Read through Revelation 6-11, looking for the structure described above.
- How do you think the violence described in some of the seals and trumpets relates to the lamb image in Revelation 5?
- What experience have you had with popular dispensationalist literature like The Late Great Planet Earth or the fictionalized Left Behind books?
[i] For an excellent, accessible book explaining and demolishing the Rapture theory, see Barbara Rosen, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Basic Books, 2004. (back to text)
[ii] David Barr, “The Dawn of a New Day: The Apocalypse of John,” New Testament Story: An Introduction. 4th ed. Wadsworth, 2009, pp. 429-470. (back to text)