Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant – Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus returns to Capernaum, Peter’s village, where is met by a centurion asking him to heal his servant who is suffering greatly (Matthew 8:5-6). Like the story of Jesus healing the leper in the previous paragraph, Jesus will cross cultural barriers by responding to this Gentile’s request.

Centurion's Servant Healed

Jesus left Nazareth and began to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), likely living in Peter’s home (8:14). He will return to the village in 11:23 and 17:24. The modern route from Nazareth to Capernaum is about 30 miles, but the way drops from 1138 feet at Nazareth to 680 feet below sea level at Capernaum (at current lake levels). In the first century Capernaum would not have been very large, perhaps no more that 1700 residents. The village is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and there is evidence of at least seven docks for fishermen. There is also evidence of a small synagogue under the impressive fifth century building modern tourists visit.

Having finished the Sermon on the Mount Jesus walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter and his family lived. From the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount to Capernaum is perhaps three and a half miles by the modern road, less if Jesus is able to take a more direct route.

The centurion is a Gentile, but it is at least possible he is a God-fearing gentile. Was there a Roman garrison in Capernaum in the first third of first century? This is often stated, but rarely proven. Mike Wilkins, for example, states “recent excavations reveal a military garrison at Capernaum had its headquarters to the east of the Jewish village” although he does not offer a footnote for this recent excavation (Wilkins, Matthew, 341).

There is little evidence for Roman military presence in Galilee prior to AD 44 (Wahlde, “Archaeology and John’s Gospel”). In the 1980s a Roman bathhouse was found near the eastern border of the village, right on the property line between the Franciscan and Orthodox properties. At present, the bathhouse is dated to the second or third century (it is similar to small bathhouses in Gaul and Britain from the period), but the excavators suspect an earlier bathhouse was present when the later was built.

Why would a typical Roman soldier think a Jewish healer would have this kind of authority? If he is simply a pagan Roman centurion, he may have tried all other methods, both medical and divine, to heal his servant. If he was a God-fearing Gentile, then he may have had faith in the God of Israel to heal. In either case, he had heard Jesus was known for healing all kind of illness and approaches on behalf of the servant. The point of the passage is that a Gentile expressed more faith than the Jews in the region, especially the Pharisees.

The centurion approaches Jesus and shows unusual respect for him. The verb translated “asking for help” (NIV) or “appealing to him” (ESV, NRSV) is προσκυνέω, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). It can mean anything from “greet with affection” or “welcome respectfully” to “worship (like a god).” Although it is unlikely the man is worshiping Jesus like a god, it is significant Matthew has chosen this word to express the centurion’s attitude toward Jesus. This Gentile considers Jesus worthy of respect and honor.

His request is simple: heal my servant. It is possible to translate the noun παῖς as “servant” or “son.” In fact, John has son (υἱός), but Luke has “servant” (δοῦλος). It may be the case that the ambiguity of παῖς led to the different terms in Luke and John, and it is also possible the servant was so beloved by the centurion he considered him as a son. (See this post from Ian Paul for the suggestion the servant was the centurion’s gay lover. Dwight Gingrich points out the noun “παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever.”)

In either case, he is paralyzed and suffering greatly. The verb translated “suffer” (βασανίζω) refers to extreme distress and is used for torture in some contexts. Matthew adds the adverb “greatly (δεινῶς), “an extreme negative point on a scale relating to values” (BDAG). When your doctor asks you how bad your pain is on a scale of one to ten, the servant’s pain goes all the way to eleven.

Jesus is willing to go to the servant and heal him, but the centurion knows a Jewish person would not enter the home of a Gentile.For example, in Acts, Peter initially refused to enter the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was so godly that the Lord sent an angel to personally answer his prayers. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”In the Mishnah, m Ohol. 18:7, “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean.”

The centurion says he is not worthy (οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανός) of a visit from Jesus in his home. Instead, the centurion recognizes Jesus is authority and knows Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith, telling his followers that he has met no one in Israel who has a similar faith.  “No one in Israel” as opposed to the gentile centurion has expressed a belief in Jesus’s authority over illness. Why is this surprising? There are several texts in Isaiah which suggest the messiah would have a healing ministry, Isaiah 35:5-7. 61:1-4. If Jesus was known for “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and healing every disease and sickness (Matt 4:24), then the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees should have made the connection to these prophecies about the coming eschatological age. In the next few pages of Matthew, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees will question Jesus’s authority and cast doubt on the origins of his power.

Skipping over 8:10-12 for now, the story concludes in verse 13, the servant is immediately healed. In the leper story, Jesus says he is willing to heal, and in this story, Jesus once again expresses his authority by healing the servant by his word, crossing over social and cultural boundaries to care for someone at the lowest rungs of society.

 

 

Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy – Matthew 8:1-4

In the first three stories in Matthew 8, Jesus heals three people of the fringes of Jewish society, demonstrating his authority of physical illness and fulfilling Isaiah 53:4. In Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals a man with leprosy by touching him.

Jesus healing the leprous man is an example of the triple tradition (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16). Matthew omits Jesus’s response in Mark 1:41. There Jesus either has compassion on the man (the majority of manuscripts) or he is indignant (D and some old Italian versions). Matthew also drops out the man’s disobedience to the command to stay silent (Mark 1:45, “instead he went out and began to talk freely). Matthew tells the story as simply as possible in order to emphasize Jesus’s authority over illness.

A person with rotting skin like leprosy was considered as good as dead. Their disease was often associated with God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chr 26:20). As ceremonially unclean and as contagious persons, they were required to keep themselves separate from society and to announce their approach with the words “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 14:45–46; cf. Luke 17:12). In Numbers 5:2 the leprous are to be “put out of the camp.” When Miriam is punished with leprosy Moses pleads with God to heal her saying “Let her not be as one dead.” Leviticus 13-14 has a wide range of rules for people with skin conditions and in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 Israel is to be very careful with lepers, “remember Miriam!” There are several stories which describe leprosy as a punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 7:3-10; 15:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21).

Leprosy is a concern in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Temple Scroll, lepers and menstruating women should have a place to live outside a city to live so they do not defile people in the city. The section just prior to this quote instructs the readers to “not be like the Gentiles” who bury their dead everywhere, but rather build cemeteries outside the city to avoid corpse uncleanliness. No one with leprosy or a skin disease was allowed to enter the Temple (11Q20 Col. xii:3).

11Q19 Col. xlviii:14 And in every city you shall make places for those contaminated 15 with leprosy, and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also for those who have a flux 16 and for women when they are in their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they do not defile in their midst 17 with their menstrual impurity. And the leper who has chronic leprosy or scabies and the priest has declared him unclean. (trans. Garcı́a Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

This is similar to the Mishnah which lists lepers along with several other “fathers of uncleanliness.” These things render a person unclean by contact. If a leper touched a plate or a bowl, then that vessel was unclean and any food eaten from that vessel would be rendered unclean.

m. Kelim 1:1 The Fathers of Uncleannesses [are] (1) the creeping thing, and (2) semen [of an adult Israelite], and (3) one who has contracted corpse uncleanness, and (4) the leper in the days of his counting, and (5) sin offering water of insufficient quantity to be sprinkled. Lo, these render man and vessels unclean by contact, and earthenware vessels by [presence within the vessels’ contained] airspace (trans. Neusner).

In addition to this, the tractate m. Nega’im concerns various skin diseases and how they affect the cleanliness of clothing, homes, etc. as well as methods for purifying a leper.

m. Nega’im 13:11 A leper who entered the house—all the utensils which are there are unclean—even up to the beams.

m. Nega’im 14:1 A  How do they purify the leper? (B 1) He would bring a new flask of clay, and (2) put in it a quarter-log of living water, and (3) bring two undomesticated birds. C He slaughtered one of them over the clay utensil and over the living water. D He dug [a hole] and buried it before him [the leper]. E He took cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the strip [of wool] and brought near to them the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second [bird]. F He dipped [them in the blood of the slaughtered bird] and sprinkled [the blood] seven times on the back of the hand of the leper. G There are some who say, “On his forehead.” H And thus did he sprinkle on the lintel of the house on the outside.

The man kneels before Jesus, a sign of respect, probably not worship. When the leper asks to be made clean, he is asking Jesus not just to remove his painful disease, but to be allowed back into Jewish life, including living again with his family and worship at the Temple.

Jesus responds by touching the man and he is immediately made clean. No one touches a leper since touching make the person unclean and they may contract the disease themselves. Touching the untouchable violates the law (cf. Lev 5:3).

Jesus then tells the man to say nothing but rather go to a priest to offer a gift. Why does Jesus command silence? Although it is more clear in Mark, there is a “messianic secret” theme in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16:20 he tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and in 17:9 he tells the three witnesses of the transfiguration to tell no one about their experience until after the resurrection. The usual explanation is that healing a leper would have confirmed Jesus is the messiah and drawn even larger crowds, crowds of people who would misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s messianic activity.

m. Nega’im 14:7 A On the eighth day [Lev. 14:10] one brings three beasts: a sin offering, and a guilt offering, and a whole offering. B The poor person would bring sin offering of fowl and a whole offering of fowl [Lev. 14:21]. 14:8 A He came to the guilt offering and put his two hands on it and slaughtered it. B And two priests received its blood, one in a utensil and one by hand. C This one who received [the blood] in the utensil came and sprinkled it on the wall of the altar. D And this one who received it by hand came to the leper. E And the leper immersed in the court of the lepers. F He came and stood in the gate of Nicanor. G  R. Judah says, “He did not require immersion [on the eighth day, having done so on the seventh].”

Why would Jesus require a proof of healing? A gift after a skin disease is cleared was Moses commanded so that he can once again be part of Jewish society. “Jesus is thus shown to be faithful to the stipulations of the Torah in spite of an infraction of the command not to touch” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 199). People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

When Jesus touches the leper he crosses a boundary most of his contemporaries would not even approach. He showed compassion for the leper even though there was fear and loathing for the leprous man. How does Jesus’s action of touching the leper provide a model for contemporary ministry?

 

Were Lepers Considered Unclean in the Bible? Matthew 8:1-2

In Matthew 8:1-2, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks to be made clean. It is important to understand leprosy in the context of the first century. In modern usage, leprosy refers to a specific medical condition known as Hansen’s disease. The Greek λεπρός covers a side range of skin conditions, so it is perhaps better to call this a “bad skin condition” (although this runs the risk of making the reader think the man just had a really bad case of acne). In classical Greek, the word λεπρός referred to skin that was scaly, rough, or harsh or things that were “mangy” (BrillDAG).

Jesus heals a leper

People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

However, in a recent JBL article, Myrick Shinall has challenged the consensus view that people with leprosy were shunned in Jewish society. He argues the text usually cited in the commentaries are inconsistent and fragmentary and is more interested in diagnosing leprosy rather than excluding the leper from society (924). There is considerable variation of exclusion because of leprosy. Although Miriam is sent outside the camp, Naaman is permitted to go anywhere (2 Kings 5) and Uzziah was forced to live in a separate house, but the text does not describe the king as in isolation (2 Chron 26).

Shinall then argues there is no social isolation in the various leper stories in the Gospels (932). There is nothing in Matthew 8, for example, that indicates this leprous many was living a life of social isolation, and later Jesus will enter the home of Simon the Leper and eat with him (Matt 26:6). Shinall understands Simon’s name as indicating he was currently suffering from leprosy; he is not “Simon, the former Leper.”

The problem Shinall addresses is the common, an inaccurate portrayal of Second Temple Judaism as overly concerned with purity in contrast to the loving Jesus who reached out to lepers. He sees this as a clear bias against Jews in early church writers and implicit in modern commentators. If the motivation for overplaying social exclusion is slandering the Jews, then it should be dropped (934).

I am in agreement with his final conclusion: do not slander the Jews in your teaching and preaching on this passage (seriously, don’t). However, social isolation because of one’s status is exactly the point of the three stories in Matthew 8:1-17. Jesus touches the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law, as I will show later, she is suffering from a fever which is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness. The middle story in this section has Jesus talking with a Gentile, risking a violation of purity laws.

The contrast is not between a kind and living Jesus and the whole of Second Temple Judaism, but with the way Pharisees practiced purity. Contact with a leper, a Gentile and a feverish woman were all grave risks for rendering someone unclean and would require a person to make appropriate washings in order to return to a state of cleanliness.

This needs to be unpacked more, but for now, I will state here that the Pharisees were the sub-group within Judaism who attempted to live in a state of ritual purity at all times. They are also the group who will come into direct conflict with Jesus over these kinds of purity issues.

Bibliography: Myrick C. Shinall Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 915-34.

See also: J. K. Elliott, “The Healing of the Leper in the Synoptic Parallels.” TZ 34 (1978) 175–76;  Ituma, Ezichi, Enobong I. Solomon, and Favour C. Uroko. “The Cleansing of the Leper in Mark 1:40–45 and the Secrecy Motif: An African Ecclesial Context.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75.4 (October 2019): 1–11.

Main Themes in Matthew 8-12

Matthew 4:23-25 and 9:35 form an inclusio, a frame around the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7) and the authority/miracle stories (ch. 8-9), forming a major unit in the Gospel of Matthew. (Click here for an index of all Sermon on the Mount posts.) At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority. In Matthew 9:35, they are amazed at Jesus because he does things with authority.

After collecting Jesus’s teaching on the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew collects ten miracles (nine healings) to demonstrate that Jesus is the Servant from Isaiah 53:4. In the Septuagint the servant “carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction” (LES2). These themes are clear in Matthew 8-9, Jesus heals people who are on the fringes of society because their illnesses are associated with uncleanliness and sin. Similar to the blindman in John 9, someone might have asked what the leprous man did to deserve such a painful punishment. Jesus disconnects sin and illness in these stories. This is clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a man’s sin without healing him first; the teachers of the Law consider this blasphemous since only God can forgive sin and false because the man was still paralyzed.

Interspersed into this collection of miracle stories are sayings of Jesus and reactions from crowds, the disciples, teachers of the law and Pharisees. In most cases, people who should not understand who Jesus do (a centurion, 8:9-9; demons 8:28; tax-collectors, 9:9-13; blind men, 9:27). Those who should recognize his healings as signs the messianic age has come do not understand Jesus (anyone in Israel, 8:10-12; the disciples, 8:23-27; teachers of the law, 9:3; John the Baptist’s disciples, 9:14; Pharisees, 9:34).

These reactions to Jesus anticipate a series of conflict stories that follow in Matthew 10-12. People begin to react to Jesus as the Messiah in various ways, but the climax ins the Pharisees rejecting Jesus and declare he is working his miracles under the power of Beelzebub. Jesus says this rejection is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin that will not be forgiven int his age or the age to come (Matt 12:32). Matthew 12 ends with Jesus’s family asking to speak with him (12:46-50). In Mark 3:20-21 his family wants to take him home because they think he has lost his mind, although that detail is omitted in Matthew 12.

For example, in this first section of Matthew 8-9, a leper, a gentile, and a woman with a fever, people who are unclean with respect to ritual purity under the Law, are healed. Jesus touches a leper, speaks with a Gentile, and touches a woman. All three actions would render Jesus unclean by the standards of the Pharisees, who lived as much as possible in a state of perpetual ritual purity.

Just as the Sermon on the Mount subverts expectations about the Law and how one lives out their lives as Jews in the Second Temple Period, Jesus will challenge the beliefs of other teachers (especially the Pharisees) with respect to discipleship (who can be a follower of Jesus looks much different than who can be a follower of the Pharisees!) He declares that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” while the “sons of the kingdom” will be thrown in the outer darkness where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Those who think they belong in the kingdom of Heaven (sitting at the head table with Abraham) will not enter the kingdom at all, while those who should not be in the kingdom (lepers, Gentiles and a women with a suspicious disease) will not only get in, but they will be the honored guests!

God’s Temple in Heaven and the Ark of his Covenant – Revelation 11:19

At the conclusion of the seventh trumpet, God’s temple in heaven was opened and John saw the ark of his covenant (Rev 11:19). Greg Beale suggested the seventh trumpet was model on the Song of Moses (Exod 15:13-18). If this is the case, then the opening of the temple and appearance of the ark of the covenant would recall God’s glory revealed at Mount Sinai.

Beale suggests this allusion based on 11:18, “the nations raged” (ἔθνη … ὠργίσθησαν). The words are the same in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 15:14 (Revelation, 618). The conclusion to the song of Moses describes God leading Israel out of Egypt and planting them on his own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Exod 15:17), following by the statement “the Lord will reign forever and ever” (cf. Rev 11:15).  The “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail: would also be consistent with an allusion to Mount Sinai (Exod 19:16).

From the 13th century Morgan Bible

This passage may also reflect the “entrance liturgy of Psalm 24. This psalm celebrates the return of the presence of the Lord represented by the ark. Seow suggests it was “sung antiphonally, with those who led the procession and the ‘gatekeepers of the ark’” (cf. 1 Chr 15:23-24; ABD 1: 387). Verses 7-9 call on the gates and doors of the temple to open as the mighty warrior Yahweh returns to his temple. The difference is the Lord is leaving his heavenly temple, presumably to execute the final judgment at the end of the great tribulation since the kingdom of the Lord and of his messiah has come (Rev 11:15).

In the ancient world, temple doors opening by themselves were considered to be sign from the gods (Aune 2:676). Aune reports a Talmudic tradition that for forty years before the destruction of the temple the doors of the temple would open by themselves (b. Yoma 39b). in the context of First Jewish War with Rome, Tacitus lists shrine doors suddenly opening as a prodigy:

Tacitus, Hist. 5.13 Contending hosts were seen meeting in the skies, arms flashed, and suddenly the temple was illumined with fire from the clouds. Of a sudden the doors of the shrine opened and a superhuman voice cried: “The gods are departing”: at the same moment the mighty stir of their going was heard (trans. Clifford H. Moore and John Jackson, LCL 2:197–199).

The most intriguing feature of this verse is the sudden appearance of the “ark of his covenant.” After the ark is installed in the Temple (1 Kings 8), there is little reference to it in the rest of the Old Testament. Ezekiel’s temple does not mention the tables and lampstands, let alone the ark. The ark is only mentioned in this passage Hebrews 9:3-5 in the New Testament.

What happened to the original ark of the covenant? There are a number of suggestions. There is a tradition it was hidden by Josiah (b. Yoma 52b), or Jeremiah. In 4 Baruch (Paraleipomena Jeremiou) Jeremiah asks the Lord what to do about the items used in the temple service before Babylon destroys Jerusalem. The Lord tells Jeremiah to hide them until the coming of the “beloved one”:

4 Baruch 3.10–11  Take them and deliver them to the earth, saying, ‘Hear, earth, the voice of him who created you, who formed you in the abundance of the waters, who sealed you with seven seals in seven periods (of time), and after these things you will receive your fruitful season. 11 Guard the vessels of the (Temple) service until the coming of the beloved one.

In 2 Baruch 6.7 Baruch sees an angel rescue the temple items, including the mercy seat. The angel commands the earth to guard these items until Jerusalem is destroyed:

2 Baruch 6.7 And I saw that he descended in the Holy of Holies and that he took from there the veil, the holy ephod, the mercy seat, the two tables, the holy raiment of the priests, the altar of incense, the forty-eight precious stones with which the priests were clothed, and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle. 8 And he said to the earth with a loud voice: Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the mighty God, and receive the things which I commit to you, and guard them until the last times, so that you may restore them when you are ordered, so that strangers may not get possession of them. 9 For the time has arrived when Jerusalem will also be delivered up for a time, until the moment that it will be said that it will be restored forever. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up.

As intriguing as speculation of where the ark went before the destruction of the temple in 586 BC, there is almost nothing in the Bible about the Lord rescuing it or a prophet hiding it in Jerusalem (or Ethiopia, or Washington DC). In Revelation 11:19 the point is to show the Lord has left his sanctuary in heaven and is about to render judgment on the nations who rage against his wrath.

Bibliography:  M. Haran, “The Disappearance of the Ark,” IEJ 13 (1963): 46–58.

The Seventh Trumpet – Revelation 11:15-19

When the seventh trumpet sounds, John hears loud voices in heaven declaring the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of the Lord and his Messiah (Christ), and the Lord’s messiah will “forever and ever.”

Four living beasts, Bamberg Apocalypse Bible

Revelation 11:15 states the kingdom “has come.” Aune says this aorist middle verb (ἐγγένετο, from γίνομαι) functions like a prophetic perfect. The verb “has come” is referring to something that has not happened yet but is so certain it can be spoken of as if it had already happened (Aune 2:638). Wallace would call this a proleptic aorist (GGBB 563). As an analogy, your mother announces, “it is time to eat thanksgiving dinner,” but there are several things that happen before you are sitting at the table eating the meal.

This kingdom belongs to “our Lord and of his Christ.” This is a clear statement the real Lord of this world is God, not any human who claims to be lord of this world. This anticipates the increasingly anti-Roman rhetoric beginning with the two beasts in Revelation 13 and culminating in the great whore of Babylon.

The messiah will rule the Lord’s kingdom. Although the word Χριστός is usually translated Christ, it is important to remember the word translates the Hebrew word usually translated messiah or “anointed one.” For example, in the Septuagint, the Lord’s anointed in Psalm 2:2 is מָשִׁיחַ , (māšîaḥ) is translated as Χριστός, a text applied to Jesus in Acts 4:26). This anointed one may be the king of Israel (David, 2 Sam 22:51) or some person chosen by God for a task (Cyrus the Persian, Isaiah 45:1). By the Second Temple Period, the messiah/Christ was used for the coming representative of God who would restore Israel. For example, Psalm of Solomon 18:6, “May God cleanse Israel for the day of mercy with blessing, for the day of election ⌊when he brings up⌋ his anointed one (LES2). In the Odes of Solomon 29:6-11, the writer believes in the “Lord’s Messiah” and considered him to be the Lord. This messiah will “subdue the thoughts of the gentiles and humble the strength of the mighty.”

This messiah will rule forever (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων). This is likely an allusion to Daniel 7:14, but the idea God’s kingdom will never end is found elsewhere (Ps 146:10). In the Second Temple period book the Wisdom of Solomon, the righteous will “govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever” (3:8, NRSV). In Joseph and Asenath “the Lord God will reign as king over them for ever and ever” (19:8).

The jubilation of the seventh trumpet stands in contrast to the seventh seal, silence in heaven for about a half hour. I suggested in an earlier post this silence is a form of worship, so the silence of the seventh seal answered by the noisy worship of the twenty-four elders. The seventh seal, trumpet and bowl each refer to the coming of the messiah, the defeat of the kingdom of man, and the beginning of the Kingdom of God.

The Fifth Seal: Martyrs in Heaven – Revelation 6:9-11

When the fifth seal is opened John sees all the souls of those had been slain for the word of God gathered under the altar of God calling out for vengeance.

Souls under the Altar

The altar (θυσιαστήριον) can refer to the altar in the court of the temple used for the daily sacrifices or the altar of incense inside the temple itself (Luke 1:11). But it can also refer to the sacrifice on the altar itself.

Who are these souls under the altar in Revelation 6? Are they just people killed in the tribulation or throughout the history of the church? Revelation refers to people killed for their testimony and their refusal to worship the beast (13:15) or refused his mark (20:4). The souls are under the altar because the resisted the kingdom of the beast. This could refer to all the martyrs for the whole history of the church (an idealist view) or just those who died in the tribulation (a futurist view). Beale suggests their location under the altar “emphasizes the divine protection that has held sway over their “soul” despite even their loss of physical life because of persecution” (Revelation, 392).

The people under the altar call out to God as “Sovereign Lord.” Lord is δεσπότης (despostes), a term that is normally used by a slave addressing their master, although it is used in the LXX 17 times for God. Aune points out it is a “regular Greek translation of two Latin terms for the Roman emperor” (Aune, Revelation 6–16, 407). This is a hint of the identity of the source of the persecution of God’s people in Revelation, the master who rules the world is not the real, “holy and true” master in heaven.

The people crying out are wearing white robes and are standing under the altar of God. To be under the altar is to be covered in the blood of the slain Lamb of God. In the seven letters, the ones who have overcome are given white robes (3:4-5; 18).

These souls ask God how long he will wait before avenging their deaths. The cry “how long?” appears in the Psalms and Zechariah 1:12. For example, Psalm 6:3, “my soul is greatly troubled, But you, O Lord, how long?” Psalm 13 begins with the words “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Psalm 74:10, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?”

The Lord tells them to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers is complete. This answer can be taken several ways. First, it could refer to the total number of martyrs is reached. This implies God knows how many have been chosen to give their lives. Second, some would take this as a reference to when the last martyr dies, then Christ will return and destroy the kingdom of the Beast. The view of the early church was that God had established a “number” for the martyrs. A third possibility is this refers to the end of suffering on earth in general This may include martyrdom, but some will survive until the end to enter into the kingdom.

The souls call on God to avenge them. This is a common Old Testament theme: God is the avenger of the innocent. The souls under the altar are making a legal complaint to God for justice. Since God is the “just judge,” the martyrs can ask him to give them the justice they deserve by punishing the ones who put them to death.

Psalm 9:13 O Lord, see how my enemies persecute me! Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death,

Fourth Ezra has a similar theme. In 4 Ezra 4:35-37 the souls of the righteous call out “how long” and look forward to the harvest when they would be rewarded. Like Revelation 6:10, they are told they must wait until “the number of those like yourselves is completed.”

4 Ezra 4:35–37 Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying, ‘How long are we to remain here? And when will the harvest of our reward come?’ 36 And the archangel Jeremiel answered and said, ‘When the number of those like yourselves is completed; for he has weighed the age in the balance, 37 and measured the times by measure, and numbered the times by number; and he will not move or arouse them until that measure is fulfilled.’ ”

In 1 Enoch 9:10 the ones who have died of blood and oppression bring a lawsuit to the gate of heaven, described as groaning under in the face of their oppression.

1 Enoch 9:10 And now behold, the Holy One will cry, and those who have died will bring their suit up to the gate of heaven. Their groaning has ascended (into heaven), but they could not get out from before the face of the oppression that is being wrought on earth

The fifth seal therefore vividly pictures those who have given their lives resisting the empire and holding on to their testimony for the Lord waiting on the Lord to avenge their deaths. The Lord’s words are comforting, they only need to wait a little while. The Lord will judge rightly between the oppressor and the oppressed and he will punish and reward with justice.

A Rider on a Pale Horse – Revelation 6:7-8

If the natural result of war was famine, the natural result of famine is plague. The fourth horse is a sickly pale color, the color of death. The Greek χλωρός (chloros) is pale greenish gray (BDAG). Although the world is sometimes used for green grass or the flow of water, in medical texts the color is used in contrast to a healthy body, a “sallow” complexion (BrillDAG) or “typical of a corpse” (LN 79.35).

This is the only one of the four horsemen who is given a name: Death, and Hades following behind. Death is personified in Isaiah 25:8, for example. Hosea 13:14 refers to death and the grave as malevolent powers. In the Testament of Abraham16-20 personified Death comes to Abraham in the guise of youth and beauty.

Hades is the god of the underworld, the place of the dead. In the Septuagint, the word Hades is used to translate sheol, a Hebrew word meaning pit which is used for the place of the dead (Psalm 6:5, for example).

The four ways that Death is allowed to kill is drawn from Jeremiah and Ezekiel; this is a standard list of disasters which occurred when Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. A similar list appears in 4Q171, and David Aune suggests Psalms of Solomon13:2-3, “The arm of the Lord saved us from the sword that passes through, from hunger and the death of sinners. Wicked beasts ran at them.” Dio Cassius describes the Second Jewish revolt in A. D. 135 using similar language (Aune 2:402).

Jeremiah 14:12 Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.”

Ezekiel 14:21 “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments—sword and famine and wild beasts and plague—to kill its men and their animals!

4Q171 Col. i (frag. 1 line 26-27) Its [interpretation] concerns the Man of Lies who misdirected many with deceptive words, for they have chosen worthless things and did not lis[ten] to the Interpreter of Knowledge. This is why Col. II (frags. 1 II + 2 + 4Q183 3) they will die by the sword, by hunger and by plague.

Dio Cassius 69.1-2: Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles [i.e., the sword], and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities.

Greg Beale suggests the four ways Death is given to kill humans is based on “the covenantal curse formulas of Lev. 26:18–28 and Deut. 32:24–26” (Revelation 383). He does not think there is a logical sequence from the first rider who is bent on conquest to the second (war), third (famine) and the fourth (pestilence). Although recognizing the curses do affect nations, they have “the dual purpose within the covenant community of purifying the faithful and punishing those disloyal to Christ” (384). For Beale, those slain by the plagues are “Christians as ‘slain’ and ‘killed’ (ἀποκτέννεσθαι) ‘because of the testimony that they held’” (386). This view does provide a neat segue into the fifth seal, the martyrs under the altar of God.

However, it seems best to see a general sequence of tribulation and persecution in the four horsemen, not unlike Jesus’s own words in the Olivet Discourse. In Matthew 24 Jesus describes a progression from international strife (wars and rumors of wars) to famine, earthquakes, persecution, and general apocalyptic events (eclipses of the sun and moon, falling stars, shaking of the “powers of heaven”). Revelation 6 follows this same pattern.

A Rider on a Black Horse – Revelation 6:5-6

When the Lamb opens the third seal, a rider on a black horse appears. The meaning of the black horse is famine. The natural result of war is famine, and the third horse is black horse, clearly intended to represent famine.

Scales Revelation Famine was well-known in the Roman Empire in the late first century. In A. D. 90 there was such a glut of wine and lack of grain that Domitian issued an edict forbidding new vineyards and commanding the destruction of half of the present vineyards so the land could be converted to grain production (Aune 2:398-99; Seutonius, Domitian 7.2). Asia Minor protested this edict and it was eventually reverse in A.D. 93.  It is possible John has this edict in mind with the time “do not damage the wine” (Aune does not think it is in the immediate background).

The rider is given set of scales used to measure grain and a voice declares a quart of wheat will cost one denarius. The English “quart” translates χοῖνιξ (chonix), a day’s ration for one person (BDAG). One denarius is about what an average working person could expect to earn for a day’s work. This means someone needs to work a whole day to earn enough to buy food for themselves for that day. If a man is supporting a family, his day’s labor will not feed his wife and children. Normally a denarius would buy as much as eight times the food. (Charles, 1:167; Aune 2:397).

A Roman soldier was issued thirty-two measures of wheat a month. According to Polybius, the standard ration was one “measure” for a man, and three for his horse (6.39.13). Barley is usually the grain given to animals, to feed one’s family with barley would be an indication of poverty.

Famine was an expected hardship in the ancient world. In 2 Kings 7:1 Elisha predicts merchants at the gates of Samaria will sell food at inflated prices: “a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel.” Although the weight/price is different, the idea is the same. Because of war, Samaria experienced famine and inflated food prices.

Famine is also common in apocalyptic literature. In the second Sibylline Oracle, the writer predicts famine, pestilence and thunderbolts in the final generation.

Sib. Or. 2.20–24 Then there will be bloody precipitation from heaven, but the entire world of innumerable men will kill each other in madness. In the tumult God will impose famines and pestilence and thunderbolts on men who adjudicate without justice.

Later in the same oracle, famine is one of the signs of the end:

Sib. Or. 2.154–157 But whenever this sign appears throughout the world, children born with gray temples from birth, afflictions of men, famines, pestilence, and wars, change of times, lamentations, many tears.

In the third Sibylline Oracle “a sign to mortals of sword, famine, and death” (Sib.Or. 3.335) combines several of the images found in the four horsemen of Revelation 6. See also 3.317; 3.476).  in fact, famine is mentioned often in the Oracles as a sign of God’s punishment. So too 4 Ezra 15:5, the Lord says ““I bring evils upon the world, the sword and famine and death and destruction.” In 4 Ezra 16:21, “the calamities shall spring up on the earth—the sword, famine, and great confusion.”  In 2 Baruch 27.6 famine and drought are included as the appointed calamities before the coming of the messiah (cf., 2 Baruch 62:4).  The Apocalypse of Abraham 30.5 lists pestilence and famine among the “plagues on the heathens.”

The irony of this famine is that the luxury items, the “oil and wine” are not in short supply.  These things are plentiful, but the people cannot afford them since them must spend all their money on the day’s bread.

Greg Beale suggests the inflated prices for food has Christians specifically in mind (Revelation, 381). He argued the second horse was not war in general but rather persecution of Christians. So too the third horse refers to the economic difficulties faced by Christians suggested by Revelation 2:9. In addition, those who do not receive the mark of the beast will not be permitted to buy and sell, forcing them the pay inflated prices outside of the price-contrlled agora.

While it is clear the book of Revelation describes the economic effect of loyalty to Jesus (they cannot buy or sell, they hunger and thirst), to limit this famine to Christians does not do justice to the scope of the first four seals. The first rider is bent on conquest, which results in war; continual wars result in famine. Food shortages in the Roman world were not limited to Christians.

A Rider on a Red Horse – Revelation 6:3-4

As the Lamb opened the second seal, one of the four living creatures called to the second horse. This horse is red, a color that is normally associated with war. The word for red here is actually the word associated with fire (πυρρός), hence the NIV’s “fiery red.” This is the same word which will describe the dragon on Revelation 12:3. Revelation 6:3 uses a divine passive: the rider was given a large sword.”

Although it seems clear this rider represents war, it is less clear what kind of war is intended. If the first rider is the antichrist, the natural result of an emperor bent on conquest is constant war. In fact, Jesus predicted there would be “wars and rumors of wars” as part of the birth pangs leading up to his second coming. For most interpreters, the red house represents “international and civil strife” (Charles, 164).

In the context of the first century, this is a reversal of Pax Romana. While the Peace of Rome was not a universal peace, it did mean that the Romans maintained peace and prosperity throughout the Empire. That the rider as a great sword may allude to Rome since in the Roman Empire, only the Emperor was allowed to ride with a sword (Aune, 2:396; Dio Cassius, 42.27.2).

When peace is taken from the earth, people will slay one another. The verb (σφάζω) is associated with violence and murder; it is a vivid word meaning “to slaughter, either animals or persons; in contexts referring to persons, the implication is of violence and mercilessness” (LN 20.72). In Revelation 5:6 the same verb is used to describe the Lamb standing “as though it had been slain.” Greg Beale says “is used by John without exception to refer to the death of Christ or his followers” (The Book of Revelation, 379). Beale does notice Revelation 13:3, one of the heads “seemed to have a mortal wound” (ESV), using the perfect passive participle of σφάζω. But since this is a parody of the death of Jesus, he considered it in the same category.

A problem for the view the red horse represents persecution of the followers of Jesus is the reference to people slaying one another. If the slaughter is persecution of the Lamb’s followers, then it is hard to see how they would attack one another.

In the Animal Apocalypse the writer says one of the fallen angels using a sword against the other animals and they attack one another:

1 Enoch 88.1-2 I then saw one of those four who had come out earlier seizing that first star, binding his hands and feet, and throwing him into an abyss—this abyss was narrow and deep, empty and dark. 2 Also one of them drew a sword and gave it to those elephants, camels, and donkeys; then they began to attack one another, and on account of them the whole earth was quaking.

Notice the animals attack one another. Later, the writer says “a great sword was given to the sheep” who then used it against all the other beasts of the field in order to kill them (1 Enoch 90.19).

This rider on a red horse therefore builds on the metaphor the first rider. Prior to the time when God intervenes in history to rescue his people, there will be continual civil strife, “wars and rumors of wars.” What is important here is the appearance of peace in the Roman Empire in the first century is an illusion. John is predicting the breakdown of peace as human empires strive against one another.