REVELATION 6 of 16
This is our sixth week in Revelation,
and we’re going to start in Revelation 6 today
and we’ll be going through the the beginning of chapter 8.
I know!—two chapters in one day.
If we remember from the last couple of weeks,
John has been drawn into a vision of heaven
and has suddenly seen a scroll sealed with seven seals.
Whatever this scroll is, it’s important.
As we keep reading in Revelation,
we realize that this scroll seems to be
the scroll with the answers to the big questions.
When is God going to do something
about a suffering world?
When is God going to do something
about suffering Christians?
When is God going to do something
and make everything right?
Last week we said that
we’re all interested in this scroll.
Most of us have had moments or seasons of wondering:
When are you going to do something, God?
And things are a mess—
what exactly are you going to do?
John begins to despair when he realizes
that this is such a classified document
that there’s no one able to read it.
There’s no one important enough—
no one significant enough—no one worthy—
to break the seals.
Before you can read this scroll,
you’ve got to break off the bits of wax
that are sealing it shut.
But then John is told:
“Do not despair! Do not weep!”
There is Someone who CAN read this scroll:
The Lamb—the One who is slaughtered but still standing.
“The crucified Jesus—he’s the One
who can make sense of the world,
who can make sense of our lives.”
And that’s where we are today.
The Lamb begins working towards opening the scroll.
Jesus is going to make sense of the world.
God is going to do something.
(Rev 6.1-8) I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Let’s pause right here.
Could there eight crazier verses in the Bible?
I mean, these have to rank.
The Lamb begins breaking seals off of the scroll—
we start getting closer to God’s plan for the world—
and all hell starts breaking loose.
The four horsemen suddenly appear.
It’s an arresting image.
We keep reminding ourselves week after week,
that Revelation is full of pictures and symbolism.
These are not literal horses and not literal riders…
they’re images, they’re symbols.
Scholars—both liberal and conservative—
agree on the general shape of
what these horsemen represent.
They represent the evils of history.
Think of it this way:
the seals are what’s stopping
the scroll from being read.
You have to get through some stuff
to finally get to the purposes of God.
And these horsemen are big problems in the world.
In the first horse—the white horse (v2)—
you’ve got the human desire to conquer other people—
everything from Alexander the Great
to Hitler invading Poland.
And how do people conquer other people?
Why, the second horse, of course.
The red horse (v4).
The blood and fire and hatred of war.
And then—typically in human history—
the attitude of the tyrant usually isn’t concerned
with the scales of justice.
With making sure everyone gets their needs met.
And so the black horse of famine (v5) follows.
The prices for food—for wheat and barley— in verse 6
are about twelve times the normal cost.1
It like saying milk costs twenty-five dollars a gallon
and bread costs thirty-six dollars a loaf.
The greed of the powerful says:
“Who cares? We’re more concerned with the luxury items—
with the oil and wine and the new iPhone (v6)—
and don’t care about rampant inflation
or food shortages or economic injustice.”
And then comes the fourth horse (v8)—
the sickly green horse, the pale horse—
with its rider Sickness or Death.2
Death personified is riding this horse.
And Hades—the land of the dead—
the prison of the dead—is following close behind.
The Lamb opens four seals,
and as we’re getting closer to the scroll being opened—
as we’re approaching an answer—
things are getting worse.
Conquerings and war
and economic injustice and pestilent death
are running amok.
And what seems strangest of all about this
is that God himself seems to be inviting it.
Did you notice that?
The Lamb seems to be inviting the Horses.
The four living creatures around the throne
(those creatures that embody all of creation)
say “come” in verses 1, 3, 5, and 7.
They’re saying “come” to these horsemen.
“Um, God, you’re supposed to be healing the world…
this seems like the opposite.”
Why would creation be welcoming the worst?
(We’ll talk about that next week.)
As the Lamb begins to open the scroll,
it just looks like the chaos and terror and heartache
of all human history has begun unfolding before us.
And the voices we hear
around the throne are just saying:
come on, come on.”
Which begs the question:
“What in heaven and on earth is going on?
Sweet and merciful God—how much longer?”
Which leads us to verse 9:
(6.9-11) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
This is another evidence
that John’s vision of heaven
is NOT in the future.
Heaven is like backstage of the world.
They’re going on at the same time.
Christians who have been killed (v9)
by cruel tyrants or local persecution
are in heaven but definitely not at peace.
They’re asking “When will you judge—when will right the wrongs of the world?”
And these Christians who have been killed
are pictured as under some kind of altar in heaven.
That’s a strange place for them to be.
Under some altar somewhere in heaven.
I think this makes sense
if we remember that under the altar
is where the blood of a sacrifice would drain to.
The blood of a sacrifice
drains down under the altar.
The people of God
who have been faithful to death
are pictured as sacrificing their lives for the Lamb.
But they’re safe.
Safe and still doing
what the people of God always do,
what the psalms do:
They’re asking tough questions.
They’re praying through their toughest questions.
“What is going on? How do we make sense of this?
How long, Sovereign Lord?”
There is no question off limits in the Church.
Christians are meant to be the most vulnerable,
the most honest, the most realistic kinds of people.
The people of God are always
honest about and asking about and praying through
the things that seems to make no sense.
And while the Christian martyrs—
the Christian witnesses—are asking a very valid question
(“God, when are you going to show up and do something?”),
some wild stuff starts happening:
(6.12-17) I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
So when the sixth seal gets broken,
it begins to sound like we’re approaching the end of the world.
In verses 12-14 the language refers to
a great earthquake and the sun turning black,
the moon like blood, stars falling like figs,
the sky rolling up like a scroll,
mountains and islands vanishing…
But this language is probably like the horses.
It’s probably metaphor and symbolic.3
Think about it:
people are hiding in the rocks of the mountains (v15)
but the mountains were just removed (v14).
On a strictly literal level, that doesn’t make much sense.
The language sounds like
the end of the world—maybe the end of the universe—
and that’s often the way the Old Testament prophets
often talked about God showing up and doing something.
When Isaiah or Ezekiel or Joel talk like this,
they don’t mean that the universe is going to end.
They use earth-shattering,
world-falling-apart kind of language
to talk about God showing up and doing something.
History itself may very well end
when that seventh seal gets broken,
but not quite yet.
This is seems like prophetic-kind-of-language
for God is starting to do stuff in the world.
And there’s a lot of people
who don’t want God to do a thing:
kings and princes and the rich and the mighty
and everyone else—slave and free.
There are all kinds of people who want nothing to do
with justice or love or truth.4
They’re afraid of a good and loving God
bringing good and loving judgment to the world.
They call his action “the wrath of the Lamb” (v16).
They’re afraid of the Lamb.
They’re afraid of Love.
So we’ve got one group of people—the people of God—
crying out to the God of self-giving love
and asking him to heal the world…
And then, with the sixth seal,
it’s like we’re moving towards it.
But some people—if they got honest about it—
they don’t really want it.
They don’t want the Lamb
to burn away everything
that is not love.
These people—and they come from all walks of life—
they would rather live in a world full of war
and economic injustice and death
than see Love come remake the world.
They prefer the Horses over the Lamb.
They prefer a world of death over a world of life.
Of all the seals—
of all the evils in the world—
of everything blocking God’s purposes in the world—
the human heart might be the deepest problem.
Sometimes we’d rather hide from the Lamb
than let him do what he needs to do to rescue us.
Of all the seals,
our stubborn hearts might be the toughest to break.
People from all walks of life are shouting:
“The judgment of God—who can withstand this?”
And the book of Revelation
immediately gives us an answer
as chapter seven begins.
It’s an answer in super symbolic language,
but it’s definitely an answer:
(7.1) After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.
It’s like you’ve got heavenly beings
ready for that seventh seal—
ready for the actual end of the world…
(7.2-3) Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
So think about these wax seals on the scroll,
and imagine the glob of wax and the seal
being put on people.5
That might seem strange, but in the ancient world
that was a way of claiming ownership.
One angel says to another:
“All these seals are being broken,
but we need to mark out—we need to put a stamp on—
those who are going to make it.
“We need to seal those who WILL withstand this.”
(v4) Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel….
In case you couldn’t tell,
that’s a loaded, super-symbolic number.
It’s like the people of God counted on crack:
twelve times twelve times a thousand.
And then we get verses 5-8
which read like one of those army roll-calls
that we find in the Old Testament.6
Who can withstand Love remaking the world?
There’s like an entire army of people
that’s going to withstand it.
Let’s skip to verse 9:
(7.9-17) After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
If you needed any convincing
that 144,000 is a symbolic number,
notice how John hears 144,000 being sealed (v4)
but when John actually looks (v9) what he sees
is more people than anyone could count.
There’s a massive—an uncountable—army of people
who long to see a world remade by Love.
A world with no going hungry or thirsty—
with no tears, with no death.
A world ruled by the Lamb
not by Horses.
They long to see this world
and they’re not hiding from the Lamb.
They’re singing the Lamb’s praises.
So just to review (a lot has happened):
with just a quick hop, skip, and jump
we’ve moved from longing for God to sort out the world—
longing for the Lamb to “open the scroll”—
to God beginning to move towards sorting it out—
the seals are being broken
and everything just seeming to get worse
and then the dead in heaven ask:
“God, when will you do something?”
and then those against goodness and truth shout:
“God is doing something—everyone is going to die!”
And then some angels say:
“No, not everyone is going to die—
there’s a whole army of people
that are letting the Lamb claim them.”
And then we finally reach the moment—
the decisive moment—the climactic moment—
(8.1) When he opened the seventh seal… there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
We finally get to the seventh seal…
and—surprise!—we’re left hanging.
There’s something genius about this—
because this is our lives.
We don’t just read about
people waiting and longing and asking
“God, how long until you do something?”
We live it.
We see chaos galloping all around us
and we expect that God is going to do something—
at a particular moment in time—in a particular way—
and then God surprises us.
We expect God to save the world immediately—
the scroll is unsealed, everything is ready…and we’re left waiting.
We’ve got to wait a little longer.
We’ve got to wait a little longer
than we thought to see God’s plan fully unfold.
The souls under the altar in heaven
who are longing for justice are told (ch6, v11)
they’ve got to wait even more Christians die.
That’s not exactly what I expected.
But Revelation insists:
“Make no mistake: God IS saving the world.”
It’s just never WHAT we expected.
And it’s just never WHEN we expected.
Sometimes we’ve just got to wait a little longer.
Two quick reflections as we move towards the table:
Sometimes the life of faith
means sitting in silence.
Sometimes we’re faithfully praying,
we’re asking the right questions,
we’re doing what we can,
and we’ve got to wait a little longer.
There are no shortcuts.
We’ve got to stay the course and wait—
and sometimes heaven is silent.
If that’s where you are right now—
like your world is getting worse,
like God is silent, like God is absent,
God has better plans than we can imagine.
We won’t be silence forever.
(It’s only half an hour.7)
And until heaven speaks,
we’re invited to live and love and trust.
Go figure—the life of faith requires faith,
and it builds faith
Very often the life of faith
means sitting in suffering.
Did you notice how everyone
in that vast singing army of people
has come out Great Suffering (ch7, v14)?
They’ve all—every single one of them—
come of out of great tribulation.8
If anyone ever told you that
the life of faith was a way to escape suffering
I’m very sorry to tell you that you were misinformed.
But it might when the world seems to be falling apart—
that might just be when God is most deeply work.
When great suffering arrives in our lives,
when we can run and hide and rebel in fear of Love
or we can trust that Love is at work.
We can open ourselves further to him—
to his love, to his ever-present grace—
and patiently let our suffering make us like more him.
In the language of verse 14,
we can make our robes white in his blood.
Jesus does not save us from suffering.
In fact—very often—Jesus saves us through suffering.
He breaks our pride, breaks our self-sufficiency,
breaks through our defenses,
and remakes us through the cross.
“Make no mistake, ” insists Revelation,
“God IS at work. God IS saving.”
Even when it’s silent. Even in our suffering.
May we long for the Lamb
to bring his good judgment on the world—
to banish the forces and horses of evil
and burn away all that is not love,
may we be granted the patience
to sit with silence and suffering
as we look for God’s always surprising rescue,
may we welcome the news
that God claims us in Jesus
and sing his praises until everything is made new.
- G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGCNT, 381: “The prices listed here are about eight to sixteen times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time.”
- “Thanatos” is Greek for “death” but was also the word used for a pestilent disease. We do this too in English when we call the medieval bubonic plague “The Black Death.”
- If you’re looking to explore this, check out Isa 13:10-13; 24.1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Ezek 32.6-8; Joel 2.10, 30-31; 3.15-16; Hab 3.6-11. Most of the wild images in these prophetic passages “refer to the historical end of a sinful nation’s existence occurring through divine judgment” usually through military conquest of one nation against another (Beale, 397). The strong language conveys the seriousness of God at work.
- Rev 19:18-19 depicts this same group of people as be allied with “the beast.” They seem to be a sampling of the “all kinds of people” who prefer death (the horses, the Beast, etc) to life.
- The stories of both Exodus 12 (Passover) and Ezekiel 9 (marking foreheads) seem to be in the background here.
- Fox example the military census of the kind we see in Numbers 1-2. When the 144,000 reappear in ch 14, they are described symbolically as a victorious, ritually pure army (that comment about “virgins” in v4, compare. Dest 23.9-10, 1 Sam 21.5; 2 Sam 11.8-11).
- “The term ‘half-an-hour’ has no obvious mystical or symbolic meaning, although Henry Swete’s simple explanation is attractive: ‘Half-an-hour, though a relatively short time, is a long interval in a drama and makes an impressive break between the Seals and the Trumpets.’ We can perhaps imagining the lector pausing at this point for dramatic effect: the hearers naturally want to find out what will happen next. While time may be scrambled in the Apocalypse, it still rehearses a story, like our own lives, a sequence of happenings that can only be lived and told in time.” (Joseph Mangina, Revelation)
- The Great Tribulation has a rich and complex reputation. Its origins seem to be found in Dan 12.1 and is quoted by Jesus in Matt 24.21. There are places in Revelation where John seems to think that this “great tribulation” has already begun (Rev 1.1, 13, 19) and that fits with Jewish writers who understood this period to have begun as early as the second century BCE (1 Macc 9.27). Beale argues that the “tribulation has begun in the present [that is, at the time of John’s writing] and will be intensified in its severity at the end of history” (435). The great tribulation is any time the people of God’s faith in Jesus causes suffering. So when is “the great tribulation”? Back then, right now, and coming at the end of history.