The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE BOOK OF REVELATION
14th February 2013
Last week we finished with the second section of the sixth seal. To refresh your minds, we saw that the number 144,000 was not a fixed number but a symbolic and representative number and that the catalogue of the twelve tribes of Israel mentioned has nothing to do with the twelve tribes of the Old Testament, but represent the Apostles and the tribes of the New Israel, the Christian nations. The sealing of the twelve tribes refers to the sealing of the Church Militant, the Church on earth through Baptism and Chrismation; and the third and final section now refers to the Church Triumphant, the Church in heaven of the triumphant martyrs, ascetics and all saints.
Let's then hear the final section of the sixth seal.
"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."
Here we see the Liturgy of the Church Triumphant becoming manifest; it is a scene showing the future of the faithful who will be sealed on the earth with the seal of the Cross on their foreheads and will patiently endure the falsehood of the antichrist and will be triumphant in the great tribulations of the last days. It gives the impression of a great celestial Liturgy of all the church triumphant not just from the tribes of Israel, but from all nations, tribes and tongues across the globe and together with the multitude of the angels stand before the throne of God worshipping him. Here we have another image of our earthly Liturgy. It says the saints were standing before the throne and not sitting. They are standing due to honour and respect and from this our church was inspired that the faithful should stand and not sit even though seats are not prohibited and have always been available. This is obvious from the very structure of the Divine Liturgy which presupposes the use of seats because at intervals the priest or deacon commands the faithful to stand, e.g. when the Gospel is brought out we say "Wisdom Stand steadfast," and again when it is to be read, "Wisdom. Stand steadfast. Let us hear the Holy Gospel." After the Creed we say "Let us stand upright, let us stand with fear: let us take heed to present the holy offering in peace." And after Communion we say "Be upright: having partaken of the divine, holy, undefiled, immortal, heavenly, life-giving and awesome mysteries of Christ." So we see that the Divine Liturgy does not exclude sitting even though there are no commands to sit. But standing is preferable because it is not just standing, it is standing worshipping.
The white robe of this innumerable crowd is the garment of the martyrs, all those who struggled against sin and consequently this is the symbol of their pure and renewed life. They hold in their hands Palms. This is very similar to our celebration of Palm Sunday and has the same meaning. In the Old Testament palm branches were used as a visual sign of victory. We have in the first Book of the Maccabees the triumphal entry into Jerusalem by Simon who was accompanied with thanksgiving with palm branches, harps, cymbals, violins, hymns and songs because a great enemy was destroyed out of Israel. (1Macc. 13:51) Also in Leviticus we read how the Palm branch was used during the Feast of Tabernacles as a visual tool proclaiming the sovereignty of God as the true king of the Israelites. Thus the palms have a double meaning: they proclaim Christ as the Victor over death and his sovereignty as God and true King of New Israel.
"And they cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation belongs to our God which sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb."
The loud voice is expressive of the great joy of the saints for their salvation, because there is no greater joy than that of salvation. There are many joys in this life but none can be compared to the joy of salvation.
"And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen."
The worship of the holy angels is very moving; they fall on their faces and glorify God. Initially they respond with Amen during the thanksgiving of the saints, just like when the priest ends a prayer and the chanters say Amen. This shows that there is perfect harmony between the doxologies of the saints and the angels. With Amen they are saying that they agree with the saints that salvation belongs only to God. And they continue with their own praise: "Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen." These seven articles show absoluteness, they show that they belong exclusively to God; only he is the absolute possessor of these things.
"And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?"
What is noteworthy is that during this vision of the kingdom of heaven John does not just remain a spectator, but becomes actively involved, because he also is a member of the church. The elder asks John who are these in white robes and where did they come from. Of course he knows the answer, but he must have seen the question written on John's face, a puzzled look, and seeing that John is hesitant to ask, he posed this question to help bring it out into the open. John answers him, Sir you know. John is certain that the elder knows and shows by his answer that he shows great respect to the elder. And the elder tells him: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." The KJ has made a grammatical error in this verse; the Greek says "These are they that are coming out of the great tribulation" It is not they who have come, but those who are coming, not in the past tense but in the present continuous. This shows a constant fulfilment of this heavenly scene with the number of new saints constantly growing. They have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb and made them white. This is almost a paradox. If you wash something in blood it would be red the colour of blood. But here the garments are washed white meaning that all sins have been washed away, they have been renewed and made pure through the blood of Christ and through the blood of their martyrdom. The verb washed shows that the saints were active in their salvation, they took their robes and washed them: they showed initiative, they were active in their salvation. Salvation is not a magic act, it doesn't happen by itself, it is not unconditional: I must seek and act to gain access to my salvation. It is what we call in Greek a synergy, a cooperation of two wills – the divine and the human for as St Paul says “We are labourers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). Salvation needs our labour, our contribution in the common effort. We cannot attain union with God without God’s help, but neither can God force this union upon us without the consent of our free will. Thus we don't just sit around waiting for salvation to come to us just because we say we believe in Christ, as say the Protestants, we must seek out and contribute to the effort.
And because the saints have been washed clean they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night, in other words incessantly, eternal and forever and God will live with them. Paul writes: "for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (2 Cor. 6:16) And as a positive consequence of their earthy life in which the martyrs travailed: "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat." This shows that their earthly life was full of trials and anguish and now they live the life of paradise, and because "they shall hunger no more" is in the future tense, after this they will live the life in the kingdom of God where there will be no natural bodily needs and every form of earthly unhappiness will be absent: no worries, no trials, tribulations diseases or death.
"For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."
Again we have a mistranslation in the KJB. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them. The Greek clearly says: "For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall shepherd them." I can only assume that the translators thought that feed would sound more appropriate as water is mentioned and that food and water go together. But correctly translated the Lamb will take the role of the shepherd and lead his flock to the living fountains of water. The Lamb is the good Shepherd as Christ calls himself in the Gospel of St. John: "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep... I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep." (John 10: 11-15) It also brings to mind Psalm 22 or 23 according to the KJB, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters:" Still waters having the meaning of waters of rest not motionless.
With the conclusion of the sixth seal it remains for us to see the opening of the seventh and last seal of the Book for us to have the complete picture of what God has in mind for man and all creation. With the opening of the seventh seal we have the unfolding of a new set of series of visions characterized by angels blowing trumpets. The time span of the visions of the trumpets do not differ from the time span of the seals; they do not continue chronologically. The time span is the same, it is the time from the first coming of Christ until the second coming of Christ. The seals came and gave us a general picture of the events and now the trumpets will give us the same events but with more details. The opening of the seventh seal begins:
"And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound."
When the seventh seal was opened there was complete silence in heaven for about half an hour. This is indicative of the rest and peace which will take place at the end of these plagues at the end of history: all evil will be placed aside, all passions will stop, everything will cease, no more destructions, no more earthquakes, no hurricanes, the heavens have been moved. When all these things happen then silent will take over because the seventh seal is the last one. It is similar to the seventh day, the Sabbath day; it is the sabbatical of history, the end of activity and events and a time of silence and rest. It is the seventh day when work must stop and worship must be offered to God. In the life of man the seventh say is death. Now his body does not have to work; his body lays dead in the tomb and if he is pious and faithful he is in paradise waiting for the seventh day to pass over into the eighth day, the day of resurrection from the dead. Thus this silence is representative of the short time after all the tribulations and plagues and just before the second coming of Christ. This time of silence will not be exactly half an hour, it says about half an hour and it wants to indicate a very short time between the two events.
The silence also serves to show the closing of the seven seals and the commencement of the seven plagues of the trumpets. This shows that this silence will be followed by something terrible. The angels are shocked, bewildered and speechless at what is to be revealed.
And after the silence in heaven John says he saw "the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. And another angel, (that is an eighth angel) came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne."
Thus the angels carry and present the prayers of the faithful to God. In the book of Tobias we read of the archangel Raphael saying "I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One." (Tobias 12:15)
Here the prayer of the saints is compared to incense that rises up to God, but more importantly it tells us that our prayers are presented to God through the angels. We can then ask, "does not our prayers go directly to God, must angels mediate; isn't God omnipresent, doesn't God know my prayer, doesn't he know the innermost depth of my soul? God is everywhere and knows all things, but he wants his will to be served by all his created beings, he wants all his creation to taste of his glory and blessedness. Thus angels transfer our prayers to God, not because God does not have time to know our prayer, but because he has assigned the angels for this service. Many times we ask: "how can a saint know is someone is praying to him?" I call upon St. George, how can St. George know my problems, is he omnipresent like God? No, St. George is not present to hear our prayer; he is in paradise. But the angels are present who direct our prayers to God in the name of St. George so that God can honour the saint and even allow a miracle to happen in the name of the saint because God has said I will honour those who honour me. God answers and gives to the faithful what they ask for from the saints to honour them.
"And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."
The prayers of the faithful ascend to God as incense; here we clearly have the intercessions of the saints and the intercessions of the angels as well. God wants it this way. Men and angels praying for other created beings, regardless that Protestants believe this to be blasphemous because they misinterpret St. Paul when he says "there is only one mediator before God and man." Through prayer God wants to enhance the communion of love among all his created beings, because if you ask me to pray for you, this presupposes a communion of love. So God does not make his creations self-sufficient or self-centred, but he inspired this bond of love.
"And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake."
This is a symbolic warning signal of all the events which will take place almost immediately and this in a way breaks the previous silence in heaven. The fire from the altar is the wrath of the Lamb that falls onto the earth and it has condemnatory and disciplinary dimensions and comes to punish those who refuse to repent and to discipline those who have the potential to repent. The voices, thunderings, lightnings, and earthquake, these are to instil fear, the Lord said there would be events that would cause great fear, terrible things that will strike the fear of God in people. This then is to intimidate and motivate those with a good disposition to repent, the final opportunity for people with good intentions to repent and return to God. They are also the signal to the seven angels which had the seven trumpets to prepare themselves to sound.
"The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up."
We see that the plague of the first trumpet is disciplinary because only one third of the plant kingdom is destroyed and we do not have total destruction, thus the purpose is to forewarn and discipline. This plague brings to mind the seventh plague against Pharaoh in Egypt during the times of Moses. I'm sure you all know the story of how God through Moses sent ten plagues against Egypt to force Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from the land of their slavery. The seventh plague reads: "And Moses stretched forth his rod unto heaven: and the Lord sent a voice, and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the Lord rained hail upon all the land of Egypt. So there was hail, and flaming fire mingled with the hail, and the hail was very great, such as there was not in Egypt since the time there was a nation upon it. And the hail smote in all the land of Egypt both man and beast; and the hail smote all the herb in the field, and the hail brake in pieces all the trees in the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the sons of Israel were, was there not hail." (Exodus 9: 23-26)
It must be pointed out that the fire mingled with the hail does not necessarily mean real fire. During a thunderstorm there is a great deal of noise and in the Hebrew tongue this is referred to as voices. The voice therefore is thunder, which comes with great bolts of lightning which is referred to as fire. Notice also that the plagues sent on Egypt only affected the Egyptians and in the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived they had sunshine. God therefore can isolate and protect his elect. Comparing the plagues of Revelation with the plagues of Egypt we see that God doesn't use strange and unknown elements, he uses things that are of the earth, things that are already known to man. Also the plagues of Egypt provide us with a historical precedence, a typology of the plagues that will come in the last days. There are other typology examples from the Old Testament for example the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomorra with fire and brimstone. St. Peter the Apostle says: "And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly." (2 Peter 2:6) Thus God has given us an example of what awaits the ungodly in the future and we should not think that the ungodly will go unpunished. The plagues of Egypt were real: they befell on people and animals and the plant kingdom. This means that the plagues at the end of time will also be real. They are not simply metaphorical or spiritual because we have a historical precedence. The historical plagues come and verify that these plagues will happen again only this time it will not be only Egypt that will be affected but the entire earth.
"And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed."
A great mountain burning with fire does not literally mean a mountain or a volcano; it is rather a burning mass of great force; it could even be a meteorite or allegorically interpreted it represents the wrath of God falling on the earth to punish the ungodly. Whether allegorical or an actual object, one third of the seas will be polluted and all sea life in the polluted areas will die. Here again we have a similarity with the first plague against the Egyptians. We read in Exodus that "Aaron lifted up his hand with his rod, and smote the water in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the water that was in the river turned he to blood. And the fish that were in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood in all the land of Egypt." (Exodus 7:20-12)
The water becoming blood need not necessarily be actual blood but the colour of the polluted waters. When Revelation was written it was inconceivable that the oceans could become polluted, but in our days we all know how easy this is and I do not mean from oil spills. A chemical bomb or the explosion of a nuclear submarine reactor can instantly pollute a great mass of water.
With the first trumpet we saw the destruction of one third of the plant world, with the second trumpet the pollution of one third of the sea water and marine life and with the blowing of the third trumpet we will see the pollution of one third of the world's fresh water, the inland rivers, springs and lakes.
"And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
What is this great star that fell from heaven? It is called wormwood meaning bitter which I'll explain in a minute. An allegorical interpretation is that the great star is the devil who falls and deceives the people and makes them taste the bitterness of sinful pleasure and by this he is allowed to bring forth plagues upon the earth. Spiritually it could also refer to the bitterness that awaits the people who will live just before the end of time from the terrible and bitter things that are to happen. But if we leave the allegorical and spiritual interpretations aside, we can give it a realistic and contemporary interpretation. The star could be a rocket, certainly the description would fit "burning as it were a lamp" the tail of the rocket could be described as a burning lamp. So again we have as we saw with the second trumpet the danger of chemical warfare becoming a reality and poisoning the drinking water. If this sounds extreme, we are already polluting our rivers and lakes with industrial waste, nuclear and radioactive waste and much more that we simply dump into the waters not taking into account the dangers to fish and men.
What is wormwood? Wormwood is the common name for Artemisia absinthium, derived from the Greek goddess Artemisia and the bitter plant called apsinthos. The oil from the plant is used to make a wine called absinthe. In ancient times the Egyptians used the plant as an antiseptic, a stimulant and tonic, and as a remedy for fevers and menstrual pains. In ancient Greece, apsinthos was prescribed for such ailments as rheumatism, anaemia and menstrual pains, and sometimes as a means of aiding child birth. The philosopher Hippocrates even recommended wormwood as a cure for jaundice. It is not poisonous, but it is very bitter and because of this the Jews thought it was actually poisonous and based on this understanding, it is used allegorically for the bitter and poisonous waters in the Book of Revelation.
"And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise. And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!"
We have here a catastrophic atmospheric event. First the land was struck, then the sea, then the inland waters, the rivers, lakes and springs, and now the atmosphere. This atmospheric plague has consequences as far as the sun, moon and stars are concerned, but these consequences relate to the earth and the earth's atmosphere. We have a certain irregularity in the natural light of the heavenly bodies upon the earth. We do not have a change in the heavenly bodies as we saw last week with the opening of the sixth seal. There it referred to a necessary change, a transformation of the whole universe from corruption to incorruption, a new heaven and earth that will take place with the Second Coming of Christ and will become part of the kingdom of God. Here we do not have a change in the heavenly bodies, but their light will not make it to the earth. In other words an atmospheric meteorological phenomenon will hide one third of the light of these heavenly bodies. This will not be clouds, but something else high up will block out the sunlight.
Again we have something similar with the ninth plague of Pharaoh: "And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings." (Exodus 10:22-23) The thick darkness only affected the Egyptians, but in the area of Goshen where the Israelites lived everything continued as normal. This plague of Pharaoh comes to help and give us some understanding about this fourth plague in the Book of Revelation. However it is interesting that the darkness over Egypt was thick, but here we will not have thick darkness but a reduction of the sunlight, a reduction only by a third.
Everything we have heard so far from the blowing of the first trumpet to the fourth, all these refer to man's environment, the land, the sea, the rivers and now the atmosphere. All these have to do with the pollution of the environment. Some who are old enough will remember the smog over London caused by coal burning fires which blocked out much of the sun's rays. To battle the problem the government enforce smokeless zones in the capital and only coke was allowed to be used which produces no smoke. Today though, we have modern smog which can be found over most large cities and especially over Athens and Los Angeles. Modern smog, or to give it its scientific name, photochemical smog, is an air pollution derived from vehicle, internal combustion engines and industrial fumes that react in the atmosphere with sunlight to form secondary pollutants that also combine with the primary emissions to form photochemical smog. These chemicals are usually highly reactive and oxidizing. Photochemical smog is therefore considered to be a problem of modern industrialization and it is continually increasing. It is present in all modern cities, but it is more common in cities with sunny, warm, dry climates and of course a large number of motor vehicles.
In our times we have a permanent state of environmental pollution and the four plagues we have seen refer to this pollution; however what we have today seems to be the prelude of worse and terrible pollutions of the environment lurking around the corner which could lead us to the state of the mythical Midas. Midas loved gold and wished for everything that he touched to be turned to gold and he got his wish. When he tried to eat his food it turned to gold, when he touched his wife she turned to gold. Likewise today we may become wealthy but we will not be able to eat. We will stare at the beautiful sea but we will not be able to touch the fish, they will be dangerously polluted. Milk and beef full of radiation. It is common knowledge that when bombs explode, radiation is absorbed by the grass and when the cows eat this grass they will produce milk full of radiation, so we will look at milk but we will not be able to touch it because it will be radioactive: the same also with steaks, vegetables and fruits. So these plagues warn us about a very terrible environmental state and unfortunately we are at the beginnings of this apocalyptic description of the environment.
There are three more plagues remaining. The first four refer to the environment the other three refer to man. But here we see the love of God; God's love plagues the environment in order to create a climate of repentance so man can return to God. He strikes the environment as a warning signal before these plagues are turned against man. If man does not repent then the other plagues will harm man directly. So before these plagues make their way to man there is a kind of interlude, a kind of time to reflect. John tells us:
"And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!"
This is an invitation or sermon to repentance. I heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven. The Greek says I heard an eagle flying through the midst of heaven. The eagle is used because up to now people have heard sermons from men but they paid no attention. The eagle is to attract the curiosity and attention of man because who ever heard of a talking eagle; this is a strange paradox. But people will see this eagle high up in the sky and be stunned when they hear it speaking to them. And it will say: woe, woe, woe to you men of the earth because of what still awaits you with the blowing of the next three trumpets if you do not repent. The eagle is actually an angel because angel means a messenger and the eagle came with a message of repentance. The angels can take the form of anything, they have that capability.
We have something similar in Holy Scripture which we have seen before. The star of Bethlehem was an angel in the form of a star. The star of Bethlehem was not a natural star because it did not present the behaviour of a natural star. The wise men came to Jerusalem because the star guided them: it went before them showing them the road; it guided them until they were outside of Jerusalem and then disappeared. We can deduct that they didn’t see the star whilst in Jerusalem because it tells us that after leaving Herod the star which they saw in the east appeared again and went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. Now this is a very strange star. It appears, it disappears, it moves in various directions and can stop whenever it wants to and shine down on what it wants. Its brightness can even be seen in the daytime and is not dimmed by the brightness of the sun. This is definitely not a comet or a nova as some suppose. It is telling the wise men where to go and where to look for the God that has been born a human being. The star is not only a cosmic phenomenon; it is a heavenly messenger, an angel sent by God to proclaim the glad tidings of the incarnation of the Son of God.
Likewise the eagle is an angel in the form of an eagle to create an impression on the people of earth, to motivate and shock them to repentance, but will they repent? it seems that they will not and then the three remaining terrific plagues will follow. And indeed the description of these plagues sound very frightening and terrible that we are told that in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. But we will see these things next week.