THE SEVEN-SEALED SCROLL
We are now about to behold the most momentous act in human history, for when the Lambkin takes the scroll from the right hand of Him Who is sitting on the throne, the tide turns in the affairs of mankind, the crisis is reached which will eventuate in the utter destruction of evil and the ultimate triumph of good. Up to that moment, the powers of darkness were in the ascendant: from that time they are surely doomed. On so sublime a subject it was sin to slight a single detail, so we will inquire carefully into its significance.
To apprehend the import of this section of the vision we must remember that creation's song has been sung. Now we enter upon another theme, which may be summarized in one phrase, the deliverance of that which has been procured. One is tempted to narrow it down to one word, redemption, yet there is far more than this, both in scope and effect. On the one hand, there is the payment of a price which suffices for all creation, not the redeemed alone, on the other the redemption is by power and affects the deliverance of the redeemed.
But before enlarging our vision of this great transaction, let us focus our attention on the scroll upon which our gaze is riveted at the very outset. It may seem pedantic to call it a scroll, rather than a book. Yet such slight distinctions often have an importance quite beyond the form of the object. Its real shape is evident from an allusion in this very Unveiling. Under the sixth seal, heaven recoils as a scroll rolling itself up. Our translators recognized the incongruity of rendering it book in this passage, hence they, too, in this one instance, translate "the heaven departed as a scroll."
Two other renderings of theirs are of vital value in helping us to understand what this scroll really is. Our Lord speaks of "a writing of divorcement" (Matt.19:7), and again "a bill of divorcement" (Mark 10:4). In both cases this same Greek word is used. From this, it is evident that the scroll was not a book in the sense in which we understand the term, and may have been only a short roll not more than a page in length. It may be as long as the prophecy of Isaiah (Luke 4:17). It may be no longer than the brief legal document used in granting a divorce.
In the first chapter, John is told to write what he is observing in a scroll (1:14). The Unveiling itself is that scroll. By it, God reveals to us what is to come. It has been a great temptation to expositors to make the seven-sealed scroll another medium for unveiling the future. But what confusion is thus created! Nothing is revealed of the contents of the seven-sealed scroll, even after the seals are broken, so that, if it contained a revelation, no one is aware of what it is. And why should it? The scroll written by John is amply sufficient for this purpose, for it tells what effect the breaking of each seal produced.
Some think it contained the history of the church. We ourselves believe that, when the true history of the church is revealed, there will be great consternation! But we are not prepared to expect the effects which follow the loosing of these seals.
It has been identified with the scroll referred to by Isaiah (29:11):
And to you are all visions becoming as the words of a sealed scroll,
Which they are giving him acquainted with the scroll,
Saying, "Read this, pray." And he says, "I cannot, for it is sealed."
This reference is not apt, for the whole difficulty here lies in the reading of the scroll, while the seven-sealed scroll is not read at all, even after it has been opened and all its seals are broken.
A more plausible explanation is based on the charge to the prophet Daniel to "seal the book, even to the time of the end" (Dan.12:4). And again he is told "the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Dan. 12:9). From this we might expect disclosures not found in Daniel. This, indeed, is the case with the Unveiling itself, but not, in any case, can it be connected with the seven-sealed scroll. Daniel's book was to be read. But who knows a single word of the scroll in the hands of the Enthroned One, either before or after the seals were broken?
We are shut up to the important conclusion that this scroll, like those spoken of by our Lord, is not a book to be read, but a legal instrument to be put into execution.
The laws God gave His people were so different from any we are acquainted with that it will be necessary for us to refer to them ere we can fully comprehend the significance of the scroll, sealed and signed, within and without.
Under Yahweh's law the land could not be sold "forever," or to cutting off (Lev.25:23). No title could be conveyed. All that could be done was to give a lease until the jubilee. At the jubilee, the land automatically returned to its proper tenant. If it remained out of his hands until the jubilee there was no redemption necessary. But if it was to be redeemed before that time certain legal processes were customary, and one of these was the breaking of the sealed scroll which constituted the legal record of the transaction. Thus, a sealed scroll was the sign of a forfeited allotment; an open scroll was the token of a tenancy redeemed before the jubilee.
Such is the significance of the seven-sealed scroll seen on the hand of Him Who is seated on the throne.
The fifty-year cycle of the jubilee was the type of the grander and greater course of the eons. As all that was forfeited during the fifty years was restored at the jubilee, so all that has been lost during the eons will be recovered at the consummation.
When, however, there was a goel or redeemer, a kinsman who was able to buy back what had been mortgaged, there was no need to wait for the jubilee. So, in this case, the deliverance of the saints does not wait until the consummation when all creatures will receive their own again--but, through the work of the great goel, Jesus Christ, they are introduced into an eonian redemption, and enter into the enjoyment of their allotment during the eons of the eons.
There is a precious line of truth in the Scriptures (which our Bibles obliterate), in the distinction between redemption and deliverance, which is of special interest if we desire to understand this vision. Redemption, in Greek, is literally, a LOOSENING. Deliverance is the same word strengthened by the preplacing of the preposition FROM. It is a FROM-LOOSING. This, of course, merely suggests the difference in the meaning of the two terms. Their full force can only be gathered from their usage. As the A. V. renders both redemption in every place but one (Heb.11:35), it is useless to study the term there. We will cite all the passages.
Eonian redemption has been made by the one great Sacrifice (Heb.9:12). So spoke Zacharias, saying
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
Seeing that He visits
And makes a redemption for His people
And rouses a horn of salvation for us..." (Luke 1:68).
And so when the prophetess Anna saw the Saviour, she spoke concerning Him to all who are anticipating a redemption in Jerusalem (Luke 2:38). These passages suggest no more than is ordinarily associated with the term redemption. It is the work accomplished on Calvary. If the seven-sealed scroll was occupied with such a redemption, the seals would have been broken long ago. And we may be sure that none of the terrific calamities which follow the breaking of the seals could possibly result from redemption such as that. No, this is not a scene of redemption, but of deliverance.
Redemption is past. Deliverance is future. We are redeemed. We expect to be delivered. This future and effective deliverance is seen in every passage where this form of the word is used. Our Lord told His disciples of the very days described under the seals. He told of the signs in the sun and moon and constellations (Luke 21:25), as under the sixth seal (Rev.6:12), of the fearful perplexity and agitation, and of His glorious coming. Then He said "Now at the beginning of these occurrences, unbend and lift up your heads, because your deliverance is nearing" (Luke 21:28).
Perhaps the distinction can be grasped if we consider the exodus from Egypt. They were redeemed in Egypt by blood: but they were delivered from Egypt by power. Israel's redemption has been accomplished, but her deliverance is still future.
In like manner, the deliverance of those in Christ Jesus is still to come. We have been sealed by the spirit until the day of deliverance (Eph.4:30). We are awaiting the deliverance of our bodies (Rom.8:23). In Christ Jesus (mark the title), we have more than mere redemption. We have deliverance (Rom.3:24; 1 Cor.1:30; Eph.1:7; Col.1:14). This has not yet been realized, but is involved in His glorification. The second of the two passages in Hebrews (Heb.9:15; 11:35) clearly requires the word deliverance, and the translators so render it on this single occasion. The faithful of old did not refuse redemption but deliverance.
One passage above all others shows the full force of this word. The earnest of the spirit is ours until the deliverance of that which has been procured (Eph.1:14). Here is a deliverance which is still future, but which is guaranteed to us by the earnest which we already enjoy. So that we wait for a future deliverance of our bodies and a fullness of spirit which is no part of our present redemption.
Another term of prime importance in connection with this theme is the one we have rendered "that which has been procured" (Eph.1:14), which the A. V. renders "purchased possession." Its literal rendering, ABOUT-DOING is little help to its understanding. It seems always to denote that which has been legally acquired and for which payment has been made or satisfaction given, but into which the proper owner has never entered, and of which he has no enjoyment. The passage just quoted makes this clear. The "purchased possession" or "that which has been procured" or secured, is ours, but we have no enjoyment of it until the day of its deliverance.
The English language seems to have no definite term for this idea, and the translators seem to have been rather lax in their renderings, for they use purchased possession, obtain, saving, and peculiar, rather a strange assortment to represent one Greek word. The word procure, or, perhaps, secure (not, to make safe, but to get a position so as to obtain) will cover all cases fairly well. We may speak of "the ecclesias which He procures (or secures) through His own blood" (Acts 20:28) but this fails to convey the underlying thought that the actual enjoyment of possession is withheld for the present. This thought is more easily conveyed in the epistle to Timothy: "For those serving ideally are securing for themselves an ideal rank..." (1 Tim.3:13). It is evident that the full reward of service is in the future when the Lord comes. This element can hardly be overlooked in Paul's assurance that "God did not appoint us to indignation, but to the procuring of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ..." (1 Thess.5:8,9). This follows the phrase "the expectation of salvation," and logically demands a future, not a present deliverance. So that we have a right and title to a salvation which we have never enjoyed as yet.
In Hebrews, our translators break away from the thought entirely. Suppose they had rendered the previous passage "but to save salvation." That sounds ridiculous, yet it is no more so than the phrase "the saving of the soul" (Heb.10:39). Whenever this phrase really does occur it has reference to the physical delights of the kingdom. Here a similar thought seeks expression. Hebrews who believe secure, or make sure of, the future pleasures of the kingdom.
The last passage has been and is a most difficult one to turn into acceptable English. The A. V. "a peculiar people" (1 Peter 2:9) is indeed peculiar. The Revisers changed to "for God's own possession." This is much nearer but is unfortunate in the addition of "God's own" without warrant in the text. It is, literally, a "people of securing," perhaps better phrased, "a secured people." It refers to the fact that Israel belongs to God, but He has never entered upon the enjoyment of His possession.
Does not all of this lead us up to the crisis when the scroll is opened, and that which has been secured by the blood of Christ, as the Lambkin, is now to be possessed by Him as the Lion? The redemption wrought in weakness is to be realized by a deliverance effected by unstinted force. The breaking of each seal is the signal for another blow at the tottering kingdom of mankind until the seventh ushers in the kingdom of Christ. Let us, then, distinguish between His redemption in the past and His deliverance in the future.
Not only is redemption too mild a term to describe this great deliverance, but its scope is all too narrow. Truly, the deliverance is wrought for the redeemed, but it involves all of earth's rebels as well as those of heaven and includes within its range the messengers and the celestial hosts above. What right has the Lambkin to judge the earth? Upon what ground can he clear it of its usurpers? The answer lies in the overwhelming value of His blood. It suffices, not only to redeem His own but to buy the whole creation. The elders do not sing "Thou dost redeem us," but "Thou dost buy us for God by Thy blood." The price paid on Calvary was sufficient, not only to save His own but to purchase all that God had lost, not only on earth but also in the realms above. The former is taught by our Lord Himself in His parable, and the latter is seen in the elders' song.
Among the parables of the kingdom, He told them of the treasure hidden in a field (Matt.13:44). We would naturally suppose that all He needed to do was to take the treasure for Himself. But He had no right to extract a treasure from a field which was not His. It belonged to the owner of the field. It has been the custom for ages in the East to store valuable goods in secret underground vaults. These were sometimes lost or forgotten, but always remained a part and parcel of the field in which they were dug. So that only one way lay open to possess such a treasure. It was by the purchase of the field itself.
The parable is plain. Israel, redeemed, is the treasure. But what is the field? He had just told His disciples, the field is the world (Matt.13:38). In order to possess and enjoy His treasure, Israel, He has purchased the whole world. It is His. And the judgments of the seals proceed apace upon that premise. Lest we should limit the term "world" to the earth, the elders, the highest of heaven's dignitaries, joyously acknowledge that they, too, have been bought by His blood (Rev.5:9). His right to the treasure is based on the prior right to the field. The deliverance of His saints is His exalted privilege because He is the Owner of the universe.
He alone is worthy! When the messenger proclaimed to a shrinking universe "Is anyone worthy to open the scroll, and to loose its seals?" no one in heaven, nor on earth, nor underneath the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look at it. No mere creature could face such a task. The appalling price could not be paid. John lamented much. He knew what was involved. He knew that the seals must be loosed ere Israel could be saved or the world released from the thralldom of the powers of evil.
It is the Lion out of Judah's tribe, the Root of David, Who has the power to break the seals. He is the Man of might, the Root and Fruit of Israel's warrior king. We look for Him in vain beneath the earth in the rock-bound tomb. He is risen! We seek for Him without success among the ranks of men. He is ascended! We do not find Him among the myriads of messengers, or even on the encircling thrones of heaven's highest hosts. Where is the Lion Who will break the seals?
At last, we see Him, in the center of the elders, in the center of the animals, in the center of the throne itself--in the very center of the universe! Such is the place supernal which befits His peerless power and regal rank. Only One can occupy the center of God's universe. He alone is worthy!
But what a transformation! There is no Lion there; only a feeble Lambkin, wounded to the death. What a picture of abject weakness! Yet such is the One Who has paid the price of earth's deliverance and is entitled, as the Lion, to right its wrongs.
Men have been making an effort to right the wrongs of the earth. Wars have been loudly proclaimed as a deliverance from evils and the harbinger of good. The good hardly materialized, though the costs have been so staggering that figures refuse to tell the story. Man has failed.
Far worse than the material loss is the after-effects. When God rights the wrongs of earth there will be a thousand years of peace and plenty. There will be complete disarmament. Man's wars have left many wounds, where they tried to heal one. Conflict after conflict has followed, in all parts of the earth, notwithstanding the United Nations, which was to have put an end to all strife and bloodshed. The causes of friction have been multiplied, instead of the sources of unrest being removed. The world wars also shattered the world's economic balance. With a plethora of products, there is poverty and distress. Each war has indeed produced a disarmament conference in which every nation is anxious to renounce the use of such weapons as they find impracticable, but at the same time, they are piling up armaments to a degree unknown before. Human efforts to set the world right only increase its wrongs. God's judgment will bring about beneficial effects. The material and spiritual sacrifices of war are in vain. The peace aimed at has failed of fulfillment, and sums have been spent and lives laid down for naught.
Far greater still will be the havoc and far more appalling will be the loss when the seals are loosed and the trumpets sound, and the bowls are poured out in the day of His indignation. But blessed results will follow. The world will not be safe for democracy--which is itself most unsafe--but saved for God. And the secret of His success lies not in His lion-like power alone, but in His utter weakness and defeat on Calvary's cross. This is the moral power, the spiritual force, which will so qualify His strange and terrible judgment work, that its effect will be salutary and successful.
Let us, then, imitate the mighty multitude of the heavenly host (for we belong to heaven, too) and join their song of praise.
Worthy is the Lambkin slain
To get power and riches and wisdom and strength
And honor and glory and blessing! (Rev 5:12)
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