Justice Summarized (Revelation 6:1-17)
Topic: Revelation Passage: Revelation 6:1–6:17
Happy Ever After
(One Mission: Through Many Tribulations)
January 18th, 2015
As we return to the book of the Revelation this morning, let's make sure we set the scene for chapter 6 by very quickly reviewing what we've already seen in the first five chapters of the book. You probably rememember that the book began with John's vision of the exalted Jesus in chapter 1. This was followed by Christ's personalized letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, the churches to whom the whole book is addressed. And then, in chapters 4 and 5, we have been transported with John into a visionary, symbolic representation of God's heavenly throneroom/temple, which is where the main vision of the book begins.
It is in this heavenly throneroom/temple that we see, in chapter 5, Jesus, the “Lamb” of God, taking a sealed scroll from the right hand of the King of the universe. As we talked about last time, based on what we discover from the rest of the book, this scroll represents the decree/plan of God to bring ultimate justice to the earth by unleashing His wrath on unrepentant sinners, and lavishing reward and rest on His people.
In large part, Revelation is a book about justice and injustice, and what God has done, is doing, and will do in light of both. Let's see how chapter 6 can help us understand this better.
II. The Passage: “Who Can Stand” (6:1-17)
Now, as we discussed before, this image of the scroll was described by John in 5:1 as being sealed with seven clay or wax seals. This kind of scroll would have been familiar to John's original audience, since this is how, in many cases, a Roman contract or will would have been sealed in order to validate and protect its contents. So what we will see here in chapter 6 is the Lamb opening (i.e. breaking) these seals in order to reveal the content of the scroll.
A. The First Four Seals Opened (6:1-8)
Look with me at verses 1-8 as we discover what is revealed by the opening of the first four seals. Verse 1...
Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.  When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”  And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. >>>
 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand.  And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius [i.e. a day's worth of wheat for a day's wage], and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” [which may mean the rich still enjoyed their luxuries while the poor struggled]  When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
If you read through chapter 6, it's fairly obvious that the first four seals can be distinguished from the other two seals mentioned here. As you just heard, what sets them apart is that all of them follow the same pattern: all of them describe a famous succession of horses and horsemen. As you probably know, this group has been traditionally labelled as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. But as we look back over verses 1-8, let me point out a few specific features of this passage.
First, notice that all of the four horsemen are commanded to “come” by one of the four cherubim (“living creatures”) positioned around the throne of God. As we talked when we studied chapter 4, these cherubim, based on how they are represented, and based on what we know from the OT, these cherubim are closely connected to creation. And so it is not surprising that they are the ones who call these horsemen to ride through the earth.
Second, notice that the horsemen are agents of God's decree, rather than chaotic and unpredictable forces. The first horseman “was given” his crown in verse 2, the second horseman “was permitted” to take peace in verse 4, and the declaration of verse 6 comes from God himself, whose throne is in the midst of the cherubim. And in verse 8, Death and Hades “were given authority”.
Third, notice that these horsemen are not necessarily described in terms of present action. For example, verse 4 does not read And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, [and people began to slay one another, and many were slain]. That is definitely how other judgments are described later in the book, but not here.
So what do these horses and horsemen represent? Well, I believe the symbolism of horsemen here conveys the sense of power, speed, commission, and geographical reach. In the same way, the colors seem to correspond to the devastating realities they represent: a white horse for the victorious conquerer, red for the agent of violence and murder, black for the bringer of famine and economic hardship, and “pale” (or ashen (lit. chloros: yellowish-green (like chlorine))) for the rider who represents death.
B. The Fifth Seal Opened (6:9-11)
Now keep that in mind as we look at verses 9-11 and the opening of the fifth seal...
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”  Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
It's extremely important to remember the painful reality described by the fifth seal was a present reality for the original readers of the Revelation. The letters of chapters 2 and 3 make it clear that many of these churches were “patiently enduring and bearing up” (2:3), that they were experiencing “tribulation” and “slander” (2:9), and that some were about to be thrown into prison (2:10). We even know the name of one of the souls who John saw underneath the altar. It was Antipas of Pergamum, who was faithful, even to the point of death (2:13).
Why are they pictured here as “under the altar”? Well, according to Exodus 29, any blood that the OT priests would not use on the altar during a sacrifice in the tent or Temple would be poured out at the base of the altar. So here the symbolic imagery of souls “under the altar” points to the fact that these Christians have poured out their very lives as an act of worship and devotion to God.
And it is that same desire to honor God that comes through in their cry in verse 10. This is not a cry for personal revenge. It is a cry for ultimate justice, the very thing the scroll represents in terms of God's plan. No, God's name will not be dishonored forever by those who foolishly believe they can kill the truth about Christ by killing His followers. God will act, but (as we see in verse 11) not yet. It is a privilege to die for Jesus, and God has more who will experience that privilege and receive a “white robe” of victory and purity.
C. The Sixth Seal Opened (6:12-17)
But there is one more seal opened in this chapter. Look at verse 12 with me...
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,  and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.  The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.  Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,  calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,  for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Now one of the most important things we can do when confronted with a passage like this is to remember Foothold #3” “Revelation was conveyed through symbolic numbers and images.” In light of that, what we see here is not a literal description of what will happen in terms of astronomy and geography. This prophetic and poetic and apocalyptic language, and we find it all over the OT. In Psalm 18:6, 7, David wrote: In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.  Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. That's not a literal description of God saving David. It is a poetic description of the Creator's powerful intervention.
Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah described Judah's imminent destruction by Babylon with this vision: I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro...and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.  For thus says the LORD, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. (Jeremiah 4:23, 24, 26, 27)
Isaiah spoke about God's judgment on Babylon in the same way: Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:13) We also know this is not a literal description because it doesn't make sense literally. For example, how can guilty sinners (v. 15) seek refuge in the mountains when we were just told (v. 14) that every mountain was removed from its place?
So when the sixth seal is opened, a similar vision is given to John. But I want you to see that we also have two sets of seven in this passage. Notice what is affected in terms of the physical world: 1) the earth quakes, 2) the sun goes black, 3) the moon turns red, 4) the stars fall, the 5) sky vanishes, and 6) every mountain and 7) island is removed. Seven! In the same way, look again at v. 15's description of humanity. John mentions the 1) kings, 2) great ones, 3) generals, 4) rich, 5) the powerful, 6) slaves, and 7) freemen. Seven!
Both of those lists, along with the events John sees transpiring, all of this rich symbolism points to an inescapable conclusion: one day, the entire created order will come to an end and the entire lot of rebels known as humanity, regardless of their social position, will face God's judgment.
D. The Six Seals Opened
So as we think about the opening of seals one through six, I want you to remember what is being opened here. Think about the symbolism. The Lamb is opening a scroll. And as we've talked about, the scroll represents God's decree, His plan to bring ultimate justice to the world. But I think what Revelation 6 reveals is that the contents of the scroll are simply a summary. It is only when the seventh seal is opened in chapter 8 that we see the full implementation of the King's decree.
But if that's true, how do we explain the four horsemen of verses 1-8? Let's answer that by turning to Mark 13. Think about what we read here in light of what we've already seen:
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”  And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately,  “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”  And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.  “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them... And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.  And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved... “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:1-9, 12, 13, 24, 25)
Did you notice that the progression of events in Mark 13 is generally the same order of events in Revelation 6? Yes, there is great upheaval, but before that there are “wars and rumors of wars”, there are “famines”, and there is the persecution of Christians. And the time frame clearly given by Jesus for “the beginning of birth pains” is connected to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And that took place in 70AD, two decades before John receives this Revelation. Now there are differences, but that makes sense given the fact Jesus originally spoke to a different audience than the one to whom John writes.
So what am I saying? I'm saying the first five seals of the scroll reveal what has been and is already taking place. Remember, in verse 8, Death and Hades (the grave) are given authority only over a fourth of humanity. That's one of the smallest fractions you will find in this book, and it imprecisely represents a more limited portion. Think about it: wars, violence, economic hardship, persecution, and people have died and are dying because of such things. John's readers would have recognized all of that in their world, just as we can today when we look around.
And Jesus did not say such things would stop when the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, just that there would be an OT kind of upheaval, and that His return would come after such times of suffering. I believe Revelation 6 and Mark 13, along with other passages, confirm that we are still in the midst of such “birth pains”. But according to II Peter 3:9, any perceived delay in the sequence of events is a delay for the sake of salvation: The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
You see, the OT confirms for us that things like war and famine are tools that God often uses to carry out His present-day judgments. We cannot be 'prophetically specific' today, but we, like the seven churches, can know that such things are happening because God has permitted them; because He is working out His plan of ultimate justice. So the scroll represents, in summary fashion, what is and what will be in light of God's purposes.
III. How Long?
Now as we finish this morning, I want us to connect that truth, that God IS working out His plan, with the cry that we hear in verse 10: They [those killed for their faith...the martyrs...they] cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord [lit. Master], holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Do those words sound familiar? If you've read the Psalms, there are at least two words that should. Listen to just a few verses from the book of Psalms...
My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?  Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 6:3-4)
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me  How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)
How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?  Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the fold of your garment and destroy them! (Psalm 74:10-11)
The cries, the loud voices of those souls under the altar, they are echoing a common question posed by men and women of faith, generation after generation: “How long?” (2x) Is that a question you've asked? That you've wrestled with? When the burden seems unbearable, when days of trouble stretch into weeks, and weeks into months, and months into years, when cruel people prosper, when suffering abounds, when what is fair, when what is just, when hope seems so far away, this is what we ask: “How long, O Lord?”
Did you notice what Revelation 6:11 tells us about this question? First of all, please see that God does not rebuke the question as a lack of faith. It is faith that inspires the question! God knows. God sympathizes with our struggle. Second, verse 11 reveals God's comfort for those asking the question. God instructs His people to rest and wait; not to wait anxiously, but to rest and wait. Third, in light of God's perfect accounting and eternal purposes, it will only be “a little longer”. When you are hurting, when you are eager to see the end of sin's misery, it doesn't feel like “a little longer”. But that's exactly why God calls us to keep our eyes on eternal things, to set our minds on things above.
Whatever you might be facing this morning, whatever your struggle, cry out to God in faith. He understands. He cares. And when you do, God will remind you of the One who is opening the scroll, who is carrying out God's perfect plan for ultimate justice, for things to be set right in a world so full of wrong. Jesus, the “Lamb” of God, is our hope. His death on the cross is our fixed point of reference; His resurrection is our affirmation that God has and will act to make things right.
Do you trust Him enough to ask, “How long?” Will faith drive you to Him for an answer, or will despair drive you toward the world's answers? Be encouraged this morning. God is at work, even in the midst of a suffering world. Change is coming. But that change can be yours this morning. The God who will one day make all things right, can, through Jesus, you make you right from the inside-out. Reach out to Him. Trust Him.
And may we, as God's people, be challenged by the cry of those martyrs, that we too would care enough for His honor to passionately cry for the vindication of God's name.
More in Happy Ever After (Revelation)
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