Who can stand up for the Church and who can stand up against evil?
Revelation Chapter 6-7
This lecture was given my first year as a facilitator for our WCSS program. We were using a study series by “Catholic Scripture Study” during that time. The facilitators were given extensive notes from which to prepare the lecture. The facilitators chose what parts of the material we thought was most important and added our own material and thoughts to the lecture. After the small groups had met to discuss their study and answers to the questions posed for the chapter, the facilitators gave the lecture to the large assembled group.
“I, John, you brother, who share with you the distress, the kingdom and the endurance we have in Jesus … was caught up in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:2-3)
St. John is at prayer when he is taken up in the Spirit. So let us begin with a prayer: “Eternal Father, anoint us with your Holy Spirit, so that as we read your Eternal Word, your Word may penetrate our whole being and transform us. Grant us the blessings to be faithful to your Word that we may be a light shining upon all who are in darkness.”
“Then I watched while the Lamb broke open the first of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures cry out in a voice like thunder, Come Forward.”
We have been invited, along with John, through the open door to Heaven, and are kneeling with him before the throne of God. We are overwhelmed with joy at the sight of our Creator. The light around the Father glows and shimmers and sparkles with colors and warmth and brilliance unknown on earth. The very air dances with the music and the voices of all His creation.
And then, with John, we watch expectantly, as Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, comes forward to accept the scroll from the right hand of the Father and open the seals. How awesome is His kingly bearing, His priestly garments, His fiery eyes and the light of love which illuminates His face like the sun! We are greatly blest to witness this moment!
As people attentive to the Word of God, what did the first hearers of John’s visions think of the letters and the tribulations that had been revealed by John? Did they imagine, as we did, John’s visit to Heaven? The early Christians knew that God consistently refused to reveal the future and had warned the ancient Israelites not to consult mediums and wizards. In Leviticus 19:31 the Lord had said: “If any turn to mediums or fortunetellers, prostituting themselves to them, I will set my face against them.”
John’s words are not those of a wizard or a fortuneteller. He was a man who had walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judah with the Lord, who had stood at the foot of the cross with Mary and had been present when Jesus died. John had witnessed the Lord’s empty tomb and had seen and touched the Risen Savior. He had spent many years after Jesus had returned to the Father, traveling the world. He was persecuted as he shared what he had experienced and learned at the feet of His Master – the message Christ had come to earth to teach us. God loves us.
The aim of John’s Apocalypse is very practical. It contains a series of warnings addressed to people of all times, for it views from an eternal perspective the dangers, both internal and external, which will affect the Church throughout history. The Book of Revelation uses as its starting point the persecutions which the early Christians suffered starting from the time of Nero. These persecutions continued for several centuries. Heresies and defections were the internal perils which had begun to undermine the Church.
The first thing that God gave John to “see” is that the Redeemer is triumphant, and that the faithfull are victors with Him. But God also warns John that the Church will be persecuted throughout its pilgrimage on earth, and the faithful will also suffer, if they stay united with the Lamb. The power of darkness will make war unceasingly against the Church and will do all in its power to undermine the faith of the believers.
A short history of the Church may help us to understand John’s visions. The Roman Empire had tolerated indigenous religions of their conquered subjects and had considered Christianity, since its beginnings, as a part of Judaism. But in 64 AD the emperor Nero, prompted by complaints from the Sanhedrin, ruled that Christians were not Jews, but were merely troublemakers. Unspeakable horrors awaited any Christian who would not deny his faith in Jesus Christ and worship the emperor. Many Christians died during the Roman persecutions which followed, and even more denied their Lord. Both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred during the rein of Nero.
Then in 67 AD Jerusalem revolted against Rome by refusing to offer daily sacrifices for the emperor. An enraged Nero turned his attention from the Christians to Jerusalem. He mobilized a massive Roman army to defeat the Jews and destroy Jerusalem.
Those early Christians who listened to John’s revelations did so with wide eyes and pounding hearts, for they understood the symbolic language John used and knew the dangers they faced. Some scholars believe that the revelations of John were written around 90 AD while others suggest an earlier time. Regardless of when the revelations were received, several of the seals may serve to illustrate the events surrounding the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
The first four seals have much in common. As each seal is opened, horsemen appear, each one a different color. “There was a white horse and rider and its rider had a bow. He was given a crown, and rode forth victorious to further his victories.” The horse and rider symbolize Christ’s victory in His Passion and Resurrection and personifies the final victory of the Word of God.
The second seal introduces a red horse and ride who is given a sword – a symbol for war. John states: “Its rider was given power to take peace away from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another.”
The Roman historian, Josephus, describes the three political groups competing for power inside Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city. The first of these was the Sanhedrin, and there were two different groups of zealots. The Zealots were defeated when the Temple fell, then took up their defenses in the royal palace, slaughtering 8400 of their countrymen who had taken refuge there.
When the third seal is opened, a black horse is introduced: “There was a black horse and its rider carried a scale in his hand.” This symbolism refers to the cost of food and of measuring rations and is describing famine. There was sufficient food stored in Jerusalem to withstand a 21 year siege before the Romans attacked, yet during the fighting in Jerusalem between the rival political groups, the Zealot armies destroyed one another’s food supplies. Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 3 and 1/2 years; many Jews succumbed to starvation before the walls were breached.
“There was a pale green horse. Its rider was named Death, and Hades accompanied him.” The final image represents disease and death. With inadequate food and tainted water supplies, disease stalked the Israelites in the fortified city. Any Jew who tried to escape the walls was caught by the Romans and crucified on the surrounding hills.
The opening of the fifth seal reveals an altar and the souls of those who had given their lives for Christ beneath the altar. They cry out: “how long will it be, holy and true master, before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood?” The heavenly altar with the victims sacrificed in the name of Christ is a direct link to the Old Testament. In the Jerusalem Temple, the blood of the victims collected beneath the altar. This image shows us that the martyrs are close to God.
The sixth seal is actually the final one, since the seventh seal repeats the previous events. “There was a great earthquake, the sun turned black as dark sackcloth and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to earth.” These words describe the end of political dynasties. The priesthood of the Sanhedrin was demolished and sacrificial Judaism ended forever with the destruction of the Temple. Nero was the last of the royal line of Augustus Caesar.
In chapter 7 we are witness to the infinite love of God and the knowledge that most of us will prevail in the end. We see an angel “come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God.” The seal will be put on the foreheads of the servants of God. First the Israelites will be marked – 144,000 – that is, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. These are the remnant of Israel, those who by faith and good works will be given salvation.
Then John tells us: “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, form every nation, race, people and tongue.” All of those who had been marked by the angel would be protected in much the same way that the ancient Hebrews were protected in Egypt by the physical blood of the lamb placed on the doorposts and lintels. In the Christian Church the mark or seal of God may refer to the spiritual mark of Baptism, as well as that received during reception of the Eucharist, which is the blood of the Lamb placed on our souls.
While we are in the midst of earth’s history and tribulation, we should remember that worship of God is taking place in Heaven. When we participate with the priest and the faithful at Mass, we are participating also with those in heaven, repeating once again the mystery Jesus commanded us to offer in His Name.
Even at the time the St. John saw this vision of Heaven, our faith was known by God. If we finish our lives faithful to the Lord, then we were there, in St. John’s vision, just as we imagine earlier, in that great multitude praising God:
They will not hunger or thirst anymore, Nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and led them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear form their eyes.”
I pray that these words give you peace.!