Chapter four introduced the theme of the “Day of Atonement,” the first stage of the final judgment. This stage takes place before the Second Coming of Christ, because when Jesus comes “His reward is with Him,” in other words, He has already determined the fate of everyone (Isaiah 40:10, 62:11). Revelation 5 continues this theme with the dramatic challenge to the opening of the book with seven seals. This is a serious issue, because, as we will see, it is only through the opening of this scroll that the judgment can proceed, and unless the judgment takes place, no one can be saved. Since the beginning of sin there has been the necessity for a judgment, which is God's way of bringing sin to an end while still saving those who believe and trust in Him. The judgment is not so that sinners can be condemned,[1] but rather so that sinners can be granted eternal life.

The scriptural pattern is for the judgment to be divided into two phases, the investigative judgment and the executive judgment. This pattern is found wherever there is a judgment, most obviously, with the original sin in the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Babylonian Captivity, and the end of time as portrayed in Daniel and Revelation. Because the two-phase judgment is such an important theme in the book of Revelation but has not been widely recognized, a review of this concept in the scriptures will help to put Revelation 5 in perspective.

When Adam and Eve sinned, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). For the first time they experienced shame and guilt, and such fear that they felt the need to hide themselves from God—“Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…'I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid” (vs.8, 10). God came looking for them—“Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘where are you?” (v. 9). This was the first in a series of questions: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree?’ And the Lord God said to the woman, ‘what is this you have done?” (vs. 11,13). Obviously God knew the answers to all of these questions, so the inquiry was not for His sake. The point is that before He pronounced and carried out his sentence (the executive judgment), He first carried out an investigative judgment.

Likewise, after Cain killed his brother Abel, “the Lord said to Cain, ‘where is Abel your brother?…What have you done?” (Genesis 4:9,10). In both this case and in that of Adam and Eve, it appears that the Lord’s sentence depended to some extent on their response to His inquiry. Thus the inquiry was designed to be redemptive, giving an opportunity for repentance and confession. The fact that these were not forthcoming was a clear demonstration (as we shall see, to the rest of the universe) of the deadly, corrupting influence of sin.

The most universal executive judgment of all time was the flood in the days of Noah. God, who knows all things at all times, is portrayed as making a special inquiry—“So God looked upon the earth and indeed it was corrupt” “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Genesis 6:12, 5). God pronounced sentence (“I will destroy man whom I have created” v.7) but He also set a period of time in which he would strive through the Holy Spirit to bring any to salvation that He could—“My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years” (v. 3). The Hebrew word for “strive” means to judge.[2] This striving was done through the ministry of “Noah,…a preacher of righteousness” “by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison[3], who formerly were disobedient when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (2 Peter 2:5, 1 Peter 3:19,20).

After the flood the people, not trusting in God and wanting “to make a name” for themselves, began building the tower of Babel. Despite the fact that God was fully aware of what they were doing, He portrays Himself as conducting an investigation—“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built” (Genesis11:4,5). In pronouncing His sentence, God makes it obvious that the judgment was not a unilateral act on His part; God said, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language” (v. 7). The “us” most likely includes the angels, who are almost always involved in both investigative and executive judgments.[4]

The involvement of angels is obvious in the case of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah at the time of Abraham. “The Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinth trees of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1). But God was not alone: “Three men were standing by him” (v.2). Two of them turned out to be angels, and in fact by the time they got to Sodom and carried out the investigation and the execution of judgment, only the angels were involved. As the Lord talked with Abraham, He informed him that “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20,21).

Actually the final period of grace began some years earlier when Abraham’s nephew Lot “dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom” Genesis 13:12. Lot was “a righteous man who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men” (2 Peter 2:7 NIV). The Sodomites themselves said of him, “this one came in to stay here, and he keeps acting as a judge” (Genesis 19:9), implying that his presence and witness had been a continual judgment against them. Thus just as with the flood, God gave a time of probation and a “preacher of righteousness” (Noah, Lot) so that the people received a warning before the executive judgment took place.

There is no question that God already knew what was happening in Sodom. In the “bargaining” scene with Abraham it becomes obvious that God was seeking a way to avoid destroying the cities (Genesis 18:26-32). Ultimately the investigation did not find even ten righteous people—“the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house” (Genesis 19:4), seeking to abuse the two angels who had come with a final offer of salvation. In the executive phase of judgment those who were true to God (Lot and his two daughters) were rescued from the fires that destroyed the unrepentant.

The ultimate example of executive judgment in the history of the Jewish people was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the taking into captivity of the children of Israel in 586 BC. Five years earlier Ezekiel, a priest who had been taken to Babylon in the second deportation,[5] had a vision, recorded in Ezekiel 1-11. The prophet saw a number of the elements found in Revelation chapters 4-6, most notably the four living creatures and the Lord on his “mobile” throne. This pre-executive-judgment visit by the Lord was an investigative judgment, in which the Lord himself,[6] who already knew about the abominable sins of the children of Israel, revealed them to Ezekiel, both to show him why executive judgment was necessary and to give a final opportunity for repentance.

The prophet was carried to the inner court in Jerusalem to see the “image of jealousy” (Ezekiel 8:5). Next he was instructed to excavate a door to an inner room where the “elders of the house of Israel” were worshiping “every sort of creeping thing, abominable beast, and all the idols of the house of Israel,” arrogantly asserting that “The Lord does not see us” (vs. 6-12). Next he was shown women weeping for Tammuz (v.14), the counterfeit messiah of the Nimrod/Babylonian religion. Finally he was taken to the inner court of the temple to see twenty-five men “with their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and they were worshiping the sun” (v.16). This part of the investigation offered proof that even at the highest levels of the Jewish religious establishment the executive judgment was justified.

But the investigative judgment was not simply to identify the evil among God’s so-called people. God also identified His true people (the “remnant”). In Ezekiel chapter nine God gave a vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and His apostate people by “those who have charge of the city [angels]…each with a deadly weapon in his hand” (Ezekiel 9:1). But before they were allowed to commence their work of destruction, another man “clothed with linen” with “a writers inkhorn at his side” was told to “Go through the midst of the city…and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it” (vs.2,4).

The pattern is consistent. Before God pronounces and executes judgment, He conducts an investigative judgment. He gives a period of grace and sends a strong message to repent. Even though He already knows all the facts, He conducts an investigation for the sake of the angels who are also involved. During the investigative judgment God seeks to provide a last chance for repentance, and to identify and save His faithful ones. The "wicked" (those who have refused to respond to God's offer of mercy), on the other hand, are oblivious to the judgment that is taking place until the executive phase of judgment bursts upon them: “The wicked boasts of his heart’s desire…in his proud countenance he does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts…Your judgments are far above, out of his sight…but You have seen, for you observe trouble and grief, to repay it by Your hand” (Psalm 10:3-5,14).[7]

Continue to next section: JUDGMENT IN THE BOOK OF DANIEL

[1] They are already condemned because “All have sinned” and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23, 6:23. See also John 3:17-21).

[2] The Hebrew word for strive is diyn which means “to judge, contend, plead”. Of the 24 times it is used in the Old Testament 18 are translated “judge,” for example, “For the Lord shall judge (diyn) His people and have compassion on His servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36).

[3] This was not the preaching of Jesus in Hell, but the preaching of the Holy Spirit through Noah before the flood. The verses clearly state that the preaching took place “when the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” The “spirits in prison” (Greek pneumasin) were not disembodied dead people in hell, but were people who were prisoners of sin. Paul makes it clear that it is our spirit which communicates with God, not after we are dead but while we are alive (Romans1:9, 8:16, 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, 6:20, Colossians 2:5, 2 Timothy 4:22). Jesus stated that it was His purpose to set free those in prison, referring to living individuals rather than people who had already died (Luke 4:18). Other texts that refer to the spirit as living individuals include Matthew 5:3, 26:41, 27:50, Mark 2:8, 8:12, 14:38, Luke 1:47, John 11:33, 13:21, Acts 17:16, 19:21, Romans 8:10,16, 1 Corinthians 2:11, 5:3-5, 7:34, 2 Corinthians 2:13, 7:1,13, Ephesians 4:23, Colossians 2:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 2 Timothy 4:22, Philippians 1:25, 1 Peter 3:4.

[4] For example, in Daniel 7 when “the court was seated and the books were opened” (investigative judgment) the throne of judgment was surrounded by “a thousand thousands” and “ten thousand times ten thousands.” Revelation 5:11 makes it clear that these are angels. Likewise, in Ezekiel 1-10, when God comes to earth to make an investigation of the sins of Israel, He is accompanied by four cherubim, a class of angels (Ezekiel 10:20). When God carried out an executive judgment against Israel after David sinned by taking a census, an angel carried out the judgment (2 Samuel 24: 15-17). An angel also carried out the judgment against the Assyrian army that was attacking God’s people (Isaiah 37: 36).

[5] Daniel was taken captive in the first deportation in 606BC (2 Kings 23:36-24:2, Daniel 1:1-6) and Ezekiel in the second which occurred with the revolt of Jehoichin in 597 BC (2 Chronicles 36:9,10, Ezekiel 1:2).

[6] A comparison of his description in Ezekiel 8:2 with that in 1:27,28 (in which the glowing man was identified as the Lord) shows that it was the Lord himself who took Ezekiel on this investigative tour.

[7] The stages of judgment can be seen in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). 1) The Lord sits on the throne of judgment with the angels around him (v. 31). 2) All nations are gathered before Him and they are separated into two groups (vs. 32,33) This is not a literal gathering, as the separation is determined before the Second Coming. 3) The sentence is pronounced for both groups (vs. 34-45). 4) The rewards and punishments are meted out (v. 46).