Having surrendered the earth to sin in Revelation 6, book 7 recounts the mustering of the forces of change from among the masculine half of the elders of heaven. The promises made by God to these volunteers are revealed – and their eventual realization shown.
As global warming makes itself felt in California, we have suffered a long drought. The forests have dried out, and beetles that once would have drowned in sap now bore into the center of the trunk. The russet stands on the mountainsides are not autumn displays that hope for spring, but signs of a terminal illness.
The coup de gras comes as a great fire. The most hear-breaking to me was the Station Fire in Fall 2009. The spring after the destruction, the Las Colinas Camporee was disrupted by powerful winds sweeping down from the barren hills. When a few months later I tried to take my sons camping on the back side of the range, we were confronted by barren slopes, rock showing through after the winter rains had swept the soil away.
The fire was started by an arsonist on August 26. When the fire escaped the canyon from which it sprang, the Fire Service realized what was going to be lost. As the fire spread, mutual aid pacts were used to bring in resources from all over the lower half of California. The twenty-five strike teams achieved 90% containment by September 15, but work continued until October 16. The total cost was over $100 million.
The most recognized tragedy was the death of two firemen killed when their vehicle went off the road. That led to murder charges against the arsonists. Nearly a year later, standing at the boundary between burnt and unburnt forest, I was unable to imagine how many trees had perished. Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
In last week’s study of Revelaton 6, we interpreted the figures released form the seals as selfish behaviors that the Most High wishes to redeem through love. But as the seals are broken, an action is also described: the liberated spirits are given possession of the earth. The world becomes, literally, a world of sin.
Comparing this to the Station Fire, we might say that in Revelation 6 the Lamb set the world on fire by breaking the seals on the scroll. In Revelation 7, we see heaven’s response to that challenge.
To aid our understanding of the chapter, it helps to look at the Revelation as a whole. Revelation has twenty-two chapters. Each set of seven chapters addresses one part of the Most High’s struggle against selfishness. The seventh chapter completes the story of the angels, the second seven chapters tell the story of the living creatures on earth, and third seven the story of how the Son of Man heals our division from love. That is twenty-one books. The final book is the celebration of Christ’s victory.
The story of the angels covers the longest time, because the angels were before the living creatures and the Son of Man. Because the angels are sent to earth to struggle with selfishness, the other chapters also concern them – but Revelation 7 focuses on the angels alone.
The book starts with fearsome images: four angels stand ready to “harm the land and the sea.” [Rev 7:2] A fifth angel tells them to wait, however, until “we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” [Rev. 7:3]
The servants number 12,000 from each of the “tribes of Israel.” Often this is read literally. Many teachers say that this selection will happen just before the end times. But if we return to Revelation 1, we are led in another direction. Christ reveals himself to John. He stands among seven lamps and holds seven stars in his right hand. In response to John’s unspoken question, he says:
The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
[NIV Rev. 1:20]
We have seen that the twenty-four elders are the chief angels of heaven. Given that the living creatures are masculine and feminine, we might guess that the angels are as well. If so, we can see why twelve keeps showing up in the Bible: Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve tribes of the Exodus, and the twelve Apostles. These represent the influence of the masculine angels as the Most High works to undo the divisions of the Fall.
The other twelve elders – the feminine half of heaven – don’t appear in the Bible except in Revelation. They return in Revelation 12, where John writes:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
[NIV Rev. 12:1]
The twelve stars are exactly like the stars in Christ’s hand in Revelation 1: they represent angels.
What I offer is this: twelve of the twenty-four elders are feminine. The other twelve are masculine. As the churches have angels, so do the tribes of Israel – and this is how the angels are identified to John: by the names of the man and tribe they served. Revelation 7 tells that each of the masculine angels sent 12,000 workers down to the earth to struggle against selfishness. When the world is safe enough, the feminine angels are sent down to bring the Lamb into the world as Christ.
That story will be told in more detail in the next seven chapters. Because John is in the presence of All Truth, chapter seven closes with the ending known to heaven:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count… They were wearing white robes…
[NIV Rev. 6:9]
Trying to make certain that John understands, one of the elders comes to ask who these people are. John dares not answer, so the elder explains:
“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
[NIV Rev. 6:14]
What is this “great tribulation”? Being self-centered, we tend to think of it as a time of suffering for people, but the efforts of the Most High did not start with people. We know from last week that they started with the first of the days of creation, when the first cells learned to use sunlight for energy. The time of tribulation is the billion years from that time until now.
These angels have been at work through every age of life. As the elder recounts, they have hungered, thirsted, been exposed to weather and burned by fire. These are suffered by every form of life. For that billion-years of service, they stand “before the throne of God” who “will wipe every tear from their eyes.” This is not to speak only of human tears, but of every memory of suffering and sorrow that they bring back from the struggle on earth.
And two more promises are made: that the Lamb will “cast his tent over them” and “lead them to springs of living water.” The meaning of those words will become clear only at the end of the book.
First, we must walk with them as John recounts their struggle as the living creatures. Before we do, next week we will look at why the living creatures are necessary to God’s work with the angels. We’ll return to the Book of Revelation in two weeks.
Let’s summarize this week’s study.
In the face of great danger and loss, people band together. So did the elders in heaven. After selfishness was given possession of the earth, the masculine angels – the patrons of the tribes of Israel – sent representatives to struggle against selfishness as animals.
John is again shown the happy conclusion of the work done by the angels and the Lamb. More souls than can be counted are rescued from selfishness, and offered comfort and healing from their long suffering – suffering that lasted more than a billion years.