Revelation's main prophetic message is unveiled primarily through seven sets of symbols sketched on a scroll fastened with seven successive seals.
Revelation's main prophetic message is unveiled primarily through seven sets of symbols sketched on a scroll fastened with seven successive seals. Jesus Christ breaks the seals and opens the scroll before John's eyes (Revelation 6:1). John sees and describes the symbols of the vision, each having a specific prophetic significance.
As we have already seen, Christ alone has the right to unveil the meaning of the seals. But He does not fully explain each seal in this context. In fact, He had already—before His death and resurrection—revealed the keys we need to understand the seals.
This information is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. The writers of each of these three Gospel accounts record Jesus' answer to the questions His disciples asked Him concerning when He would come again and what would be the sign of His coming and the end of the age. "Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'" (Matthew 24:3).
Jesus revealed to them the trends and conditions that would dominate the world until His return. The seals of Revelation 6 symbolically portray the same conditions in the same sequence Christ had earlier described.
Most of Revelation—about two thirds of its content—is devoted to the seventh seal. The contents of the first six seals are found in chapter 6 alone.
Chapter 7 interrupts the explanation of the seals to explain that 144,000 of the tribes of Israel, after being spiritually converted, will be protected from the seven plagues heralded by trumpet blasts. It also explains that during the Great Tribulation a great multitude from every nation on earth will repent and turn to God.
The events corresponding to the seventh seal dominate the remainder of the book.
Why God's judgment is needed
The first five seals correspond to adversities that are to afflict vast portions of humanity, including some of God's servants, between the first and second appearances of Christ. These hardships, having already begun in the lifetime of John, extend to the time of the end.
Concerning these particular afflictions, Jesus had earlier warned that "all these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:8)—or "of birth pains" (NIV), signifying calamaties that would, like labor contractions, escalate in frequency and intensity before the end. He also said: "… Do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end will not come immediately" (Luke 21:9).
We should remember that the primary time frame for Revelation's main prophecies is the Day of the Lord. It is the day of God's judgment and wrath on the nations. The occurrences of that time are the specific subject of the seventh seal.
The first five seals describe conditions that predate the Day of the Lord. These are the afflictions that make God's intervention and judgment necessary and just. They describe the particular end-time application of Satan's enduring deception of humanity, his persecution of the saints and the unending pattern of war—with its horrible consequences—that are the fruits of his deception.
Under the sixth seal we see portrayed a stunning display of signs and wonders in the heavens. This will transpire just before the Day of the Lord, announcing that God's wrath and judgment are at hand.
Now notice Jesus personally identifying the adversities associated with the seals: "Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars … Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they shall deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake" (Matthew 24:4-9, KJV).
Let's compare what Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 24 to what the apostle John saw in vision as each seal was opened.
The first seal: false religion
The opening of the first four seals reveals the ride of the notorious "four horsemen of the Apocalypse."
John reports on the first: "I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then ... I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest" (Revelation 6:1-2, NIV).
What is the meaning of this mysterious rider? What is the object of his conquest?
In Revelation 19:11, in a later time frame, Jesus Christ is pictured as returning victoriously on a white horse. Does this seal picture the returning, conquering Christ? Certainly this symbolic horseman bears much outward similarity to Christ at His return. But notice significant differences in the details. Christ is wearing many crowns (verse 12), not just the one crown this rider wears, and Jesus is pictured with a sword as His weapon (verse 15) rather than a bow. The horseman of the first seal appears similar to the returning Christ, but different. Does he symbolize the real Christ or an impostor?
Now let's compare this symbolic horseman to the first warning Jesus gave His disciples in the Olivet prophecy. He warned them: "Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5, KJV).
Jesus warned His disciples that the first adversity they would face would come from deceivers. A few verses later He explained methods impostors would use as they usurped His name. He reveals that they would stamp His name on a religion that is really a counterfeit Christianity:
"Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it" (verses 23-26).
To be consistent with Jesus' prophecies, this first rider can represent only a deceptive power masquerading as Christ. Outwardly it will appear Christian, but in reality it will be, like the three riders that follow, a force for evil and destruction.
This deception began in the days of the apostles. But it will reach its greatest fulfillment in the last days. For example, Paul says a "lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming" (2 Thessalonians 2:8). His influence over humanity will be "according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception …" (verses 9-10).
At the time of the end the deception of humanity will be so great that most of the world will be under the sway of a corrupt, counterfeit and idolatrous religious system, one that has rejected the true teachings of the Bible.
The second seal: the horror of war
"When the Lamb opened the second seal ... another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword" (Revelation 6:3-4, NIV).
This horse, the color of blood, matches Christ's second warning. "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (Matthew 24:6-7).
Whe n Jesus founded the Church, the Roman Empire was enjoying a brief period of peace. But this lasted only a few decades, then Rome was again at war. This pattern was to continue until the time of the end when it would reach its climax in "the battle of that great day of God Almighty" (Revelation 16:14; 19:11-21).
But even before that final battle, the book of Revelation indicates that global warfare will already be underway. It describes massive armies engaged in military actions that will take hundreds of millions of lives.
The third seal: war's consequences
"When the Lamb opened the third seal ... I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, 'A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!'" (Revelation 6:5-6, NIV). This seal portrays an extreme scarcity of food and other basic necessities of life. It corresponds to Christ's third warning: "And there will be famines …" (Matthew 24:7).
Scarcity of food and resulting famines are the natural aftermath of war. At the time of the end, military conflicts among nations will destroy property and disrupt agricultural production, leading to widespread and severe scarcity of food and other necessities.
The fourth seal: the mounting toll
"When the Lamb opened the fourth seal ... I looked, and there before me was a pale [sickly looking] horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades [the grave] was following close behind him. They [all four horsemen] were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth" (Revelation 6:7-8, NIV).
The fourth seal describes widespread disease epidemics and death in the wake of the war and famine of the previous seals. This corresponds with the fourth condition listed by Jesus—"pestilence," or deadly epidemics of sickness and disease (Matthew 24:7). His mention of natural disasters such as earthquakes also fits within the context of plagues that bring widespread death.
Moreover, all these elements—war, famine, pestilence and other calamities—reinforce each other. Wars and other disasters lead to famines and pestilences, which lead to further fighting over resources. The wild beasts of the earth become a concern in times of societal breakdown—and the reference here could also be to disease carriers such as rats or even microscopic pathogens.
At the time of the end we can expect such dire conditions to impact various nations and regions of the world—and the faithful people of God living among them. Conditions in some areas may be similar to the last days of ancient Israel when God told Jeremiah He would "consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence" (Jeremiah 14:12). God does not want His servants to be surprised by outbreaks of such tragedies, but to look to Him for help and deliverance.
The fifth seal: a religious persecution
After the four horsemen, Jesus opens yet more seals. John writes:
"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?' Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed" (Revelation 6:9-11, NIV).
Symbolically pictured at the altar in God's temple, those who have already given their lives as martyrs in His service are still waiting, on the eve of the Day of the Lord, for God's judgment on those who hate Him, His ways and His servants. But they will have to wait a little longer because another massive martyrdom of God's faithful must first occur.
Christ had already explained to His disciples what must take place: "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold" (Matthew 24:9-12).
The early Church had scarcely been established before persecution set in. Several of the letters of the apostles refer to the suffering and martyrdom of faithful members at the hands of the enemies of the Church. Most of the apostles met a violent and early death. The epistles of 2 Timothy and 2 Peter record the final encouraging thoughts of Paul and Peter as they awaited execution. Brutal persecution and harassment continued in the following decades and on into later centuries. And it will happen again.
Jesus explained that the worst persecution and martyrdom would come at the time of the end: "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved [alive]; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:21-22).
As we will see more clearly later, people who refuse to worship "the image of the beast" in the last days will face the possibility of execution (Revelation 13:15). The primary targets of this carnage will be those "who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17).
Additional prophecies explain that this time of great tribulation and persecution will also afflict the modern physical descendants of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel.
The sixth seal: signs in the skies
Then we come to a major transition.
"I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig-tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place" (Revelation 6:12-14, NIV).
Did Christ earlier explain when, in the sequence of prophesied events, these awesome and fearful heavenly signs would occur? He certainly did: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Matthew 24:29).
Now notice, in the concluding description of the sixth seal, what is to follow the heavenly signs: "And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?'" (Revelation 6:15-17; compare Zephaniah 1:14-17).
Note the order of these three separate events: First comes the tribulation, as described in the fifth seal. Next the heavenly signs, described in the sixth seal, occur. After the heavenly signs is the Day of the Lord, the day of God's wrath.
The heavenly signs occur after the time of tribulation has begun but before the Day of the Lord begins. The prophet Joel confirms this: "And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD" (Joel 2:30-31).
Why is this so significant?
Satan lashes out
The end-time persecution and martyrdom of the saints (also directed at the physical descendants of ancient Israel) begins before the heavenly signs and is both the product and the expression of Satan's wrath. Later John describes hearing a voice from heaven announcing: "Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time" (Revelation 12:12).
Knowing his time is short, what does Satan do? "Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child" (verse 13).
The woman represents the people of God. At the time of the end Satan will trigger many destructive events. Because his time is short, he will mobilize a deceived humanity into a frenzy of hatred and destruction against anything and anyone that represents the true God.
This point is extremely important. Satan's vindictive rampage of terror will be launched against the natural descendants of the tribes of Israel as well as the converted servants of Christ before the heavenly signs announce the Day of the Lord.
This means that Satan's wrath —the time when great tribulation will fall on God's people—will have been underway for some time before the beginning of God's wrath. Even after the time of God's wrath—the Day of the Lord—Satan's destructive war on God's people apparently will not cease until he is bound at Jesus' return (Revelation 20:1-2).
Notice that the woman of chapter 12 will be "nourished for a time and times and half a time [a year, years and half a year], from the presence of the serpent" (verse 14). Even though God will nourish, strengthen and protect some of His people during that terrible time, many others, as we have already seen, will be killed.
Revelation 11:2 tells us that Jerusalem is to be trampled underfoot by gentiles for 42 months (Revelation 11:2). God also promises to raise up two prophets to be His witnesses for 1,260 days (verse 3).
That each of these periods equals 3 ½ years is significant. These references indicate that a total of 3 ½ years elapses from the beginning of Satan's attack on the people of God until his political and religious system is destroyed and he is locked away at Christ's return.
The day of God's wrath will be brief
The length of God's judgment is nowhere specified in Revelation, unless it is implied in the expression "the great day of His wrath" (Revelation 6:17). In some other prophetic passages God specifies that a "day" represents a year of punishment (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:4-6). If that same principle applies here in Revelation, the Day of the Lord ("the day of His wrath") would be the final year before Christ returns. Indeed, Isaiah 34:8 refers to the day of the Lord's anger as a year-long period.
This corresponds to the last year of the 3 ½ years of Satan's wrath. In other words, God's punishments on the Day of the Lord would overlap Satan's vengeance on God's people for a period of one year—the final year of the last 3 ½ years.
This time frame seems to be what John, under the inspiration of Christ, was indicating for the major end-time events described in Revelation. And it is entirely compatible with Christ's words. As He said: "If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:22, NIV). He indicates that all the events specifically related to the end time will occur within a brief period.
The description of the sixth seal in Revelation 6 ends with the words: "For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (verse 17). This announces the Day of the Lord, the subject of the seventh seal. Yet the opening of the seventh seal is not discussed until the beginning of chapter 8. John interrupts the story flow of the seven seals to show that 144,000 are sealed and a great innumerable multitude are converted from all nations in this time of worldwide turmoil.
The sealing of the 144,000
First, an angel announces, "Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees [all are mentioned as being devastated by the first four trumpet plagues in chapter 8] till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads" (Revelation 7:3).
Why are the 144,000 sealed? One key is given later when another angel commands locust-like implements of war "not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads" (Revelation 9:4).
The sealing of those who are chosen by God is now completed. And now the massive devastation of the coming trumpet plagues that God will inflict on mankind during the Day of the Lord will not harm them. They may continue to experience some of the effects of Satan's vengeance, even during the Day of the Lord, but their sealing guarantees that punishments representing God's wrath will in no way affect them.
Who are these 144,000? How are they identified?
"And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed" (Revelation 7:4). This sealing has to do with receiving God's Holy Spirit so one may become spiritually converted. As Ephesians 1:13-14 says: "Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, [which] is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession" (NIV, compare Ephesians 4:30; 2 Timothy 2:19).
The 144,000 of Revelation 7 are mentioned again in Revelation 14, where it becomes clear that these spiritual "firstfruits" will have repented and been converted before the beginning of the Day of the Lord. They are described as being redeemed and without fault. They are represented as having a relationship both with God the Father and Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God.
"Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth.
"These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no deceit, for they are without fault before the throne of God" (Revelation 14:1-5).
The great innumerable multitude
"After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Revelation 7:9-10). This multitude is made up of people from the many nationalities and ethnic groups on earth—from their tribes, clans and languages. What makes them special is that they all have "come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (verses 13-14). They are converted servants of God, having suffered from and—as seems to be implied—been converted during the first 2 ½ years of the Great Tribulation, before the beginning of the Day of the Lord.
There is no firm agreement among biblical interpreters as to what the text of Revelation 7 implies about the immediate future of this multitude. These people are, however, promised eternal life—salvation—with the rest of the saints at the return of Christ.
Some interpret the receiving of "white robes" by the great innumerable multitude as an indication they may have been martyred by the beginning of the Day of the Lord. If so, they will be resurrected at Christ's coming—just as those martyrs given white robes in Revelation 6:11 must "wait" until their deaths are avenged (during the Day of the Lord) to be resurrected to eternal life at Christ's return.
Another view is that the innumerable multitude will survive the Great Tribulation and will continue to live and be sheltered by God during the Day of the Lord.
The New Revised Standard Version seems to advocate this meaning by the way it translates Revelation 7:15: "For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them."
Other translations, however, are less specific in their rendering of this verse. The reason for this is that the original Greek wording states only that God will "dwell" (or "tabernacle") among them. The conclusion that they remain alive and are sheltered from further harm during the Day of the Lord is then deduced from this promise.
The promises in the next two verses, though their specific application is somewhat ambiguous, are generally regarded as reinforcements of this deduction: "They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (verses 16-17).
Unmistakably clear in Revelation 7 is that a great harvest of true and faithful Christians will occur during the first years of the great tribulation period. That immense spiritual harvest will be reaped not only from the literal tribes of Israel but from the others nations and peoples throughout the earth. The powerful preaching of God's two witnesses (chapter 11) will no doubt contribute greatly to the conversion of this vast number during that frightening and deadly time.