Revelation commentary Chapter six
The King of Kings portrayed as a Lamb, (underlying both sacrifice and justice:1 Pet 2:21-25) now opens the first seal and one of the four living creatures calls out ‘Come,’ with a voice like thunder. The fourfold judgement that then appears in response to this, along with the opening of the next three seals, draws our minds to the horrors of world history where man has constantly sought to dominate and control all that is within his reach. But man is being judged and will be judged.
The judgements, starting with four horsemen, speak of all periods of time, with judgement being couched in a language that men and women in the Roman Empire would clearly understand. Time in the hands of man gets progressively worse as history continues to reveal. Yet ultimately time remains in the hands of God and therefore as Paul could say, a few decades before John was imprisoned on Patmos,
“The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Our world is living on borrowed time yet the judgements that have come, will come and will continue to come are not threats made by some ruler who has given up on us. If this were the case then the world would end this very second. Instead these judgements are from the firm hand of the one who says, “This will not continue forever” whilst allowing us, to varying degrees, to reap what we sow. That time continues is down to the grace and mercy of God alone. That time is abused in being used to build for personal gain, is down to man.
We live in a world where Hitler killed over six million Jews from Ghettoization, open air shootings and concentration camps, and left three million Russian POWs to die of starvation. We live in a world where Pol Pot was responsible for the death of two million people and Lenin of over four million. We live in a world where Stalin was responsible for the death of seven million and Chairman Mao was responsible for the death of over forty-five million between 1958 and 1962 in his ‘Great Leap Forward’; an effort to catch up with the West. We live in a world where, in the few weeks after April 6th 1994, five hundred thousand - one million men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide. We live in a world where billionaires buy houses on every continent whilst thousands starve to death. We live in a world where we are more powerful than ever, yet have more people enslaved than at any other time in history. Yes we have power, but it is corrupt power.
But in this world in which we live there is still hope because God is about His business. For example, after the atrocities had died down in Rwanda, Christians began the work of reconciliation. This work of reconciliation was particularly difficult because in many communities long-time neighbours had ended up murdering, raping and maiming each other during the genocide. The unusual thing about this genocide was that it was every-day people and not armies that did the killing, with machetes and other agricultural tools. Man’s inhumanity is seen across nations, across communities and in neighbourhoods and family homes.
In the 20th Century alone over seventy million human beings were uprooted, enslaved or killed. In fact more people were killed in wars in the 20th century than in all the wars of the previous nineteen centuries put together. Despite these shocking statistics another shocking truth also remains alive and ‘well.’ We have all the ingredients necessary for war and atrocity right here in our own homes because sin exists within our lives (1 Peter 2:11) - it is in this room where I write these words and it is the room where you sit and read these words. Yet there is hope because we live in a world where God continues to declare His love, despite the world continuing to imprison and kill Christians.
“The gospel declared God’s love for the world; Roman decrees put the people who believe it in prisons and on crosses.”
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, p72
We live in a world where there is hope because God’s people are still going about His business, empowered by His Spirit in the extraordinary and often very humbling ways as the following story reveals:
“In seeking to change the world, we must recognise that the methods we use must be Christian. The Bible is clear about that; our weapons are not those of the world (2 Cor 10:4). When the followers of Martin Luther King Jr. marched from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, in what is now considered the turning point in the Civil Rights movement, they encountered an array of deputy sheriffs and National Guardsman who were determined to turn them back. When those defenders of “law and justice” encountered the civil-rights marchers on the bridge outside of Selma, the demonstrators were told to turn back. They responded by saying, “We’ve come too far to turn back now!” The demonstrators got down on their knees and bowed their heads in prayer, making them incredibly vulnerable. At the count of ten the order was given for the deputy sheriffs and the National Guardsmen to charge in among them and drive them back. On live television we all watched as the demonstrators were hit with clubs and stung with electric cattle prods. People were beaten and dogs were released on them. It was a wild attack on citizens. As I watched the scene in which peaceful demonstrators were battered and beaten, my soul cried out, “They’ve won! Those civil-rights demonstrators have won!”If you asked how a group of people being battered and beaten had won, I would have to say, God’s people have a nasty habit of rising again! There is no power on earth that can keep them down. We change the world through nonviolence and loving sacrifice, and we believe that, in the end, the gates of hell cannot prevail against us.”
Chuck Colson, Let Me Tell you a Story…or is it Tony Campolo
As we begin to look at the first series of judgements through the opening of the seals, we need to recognise that the next two series of judgements (through the trumpets and bowls) are connected with the first. Out of the seventh seal we have the seven trumpets (Rev 8:1-7). Then after the blowing of the seventh trumpet we have a pause as we see the power of darkness and overcoming grace and power of God which then moves into the ‘seven-bowl judgement’. Therefore what we are seeing is not three sets of judgements but the judgement of God in increasing intensity through seals, trumpets and bowls. The ultimate purpose of judgement is the restoration of harmony in Gods’ Universe and even amidst judgement those who call out to God will be saved. A clear example of salvation amidst judgement is seen through the work of Henry Gerecke, an army Chaplain during and after the Second World War.
Henry Gerecke was the chaplain assigned to speak to the German war criminals during the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War. In speaking to war criminals that were eventually to die for the atrocities they had committed, we find the gospel being shared yet again. Some criminals, like Ribbentrop, bowed the knee to Christ.
On walking to the gallows, Ribbentrop told Pastor Gerecke that he had put all his trust in Christ. He climbed the thirteen steps to the trapdoor as impassive soldiers and press representatives looked on. A guard tied his legs and an American officer asked for his last words. Ribbentrop responded: “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul.” Then he turned to Gerecke and said, “I’ll see you again.”
The One who judges is the One who was judged. The One who loves is the One who was despised, rejected and smashed to a cross. The One who brings judgement is the One who underwent our judgement standing in our place. The never-had-to-suffer-One and the never-had-to-die one was isolated, deserted, tortured and killed, so that we could have the offer of life. This offer still stands – even amidst judgement there is hope: man can turn to God.
The Four Horsemen
In Revelation it is a command issuing from the throne room that unleashes the four horsemen who are the complete opposite of the four living creatures that represent God’s creation. In both the Ancient Near East and the Roman Empire the horse was a creature of war and often found in pictures of conquest and judgement.
In Zechariah 1:12 God’s people ask “how long” after four horsemen have travelled the earth and reported that Israel’s enemies are enjoying a peaceful existence. God informs them that the peace will be removed and judgement comes upon the nations through the same horses (Zech 6:1-8).
In the opening of the first four seals in Revelation we find four horsemen being released consecutively, yet not in a way that speaks of any particular length of time. As has already been said, the three series of seven judgements in Revelation are all linked. We are being given the same picture in different ways as we take in more of what God is bringing to bear on a world that will not bow the knee.
The judgements through the riders of the four horses follow a sequence that has been seen throughout history and will do so until the end with the sequence being war and international strife, civil war and internal strife, famine, disease and death. Sadly we are familiar with all four whether in wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, Isis or Al Qaida, the drug cartels of South America or the Ebola crisis.
The rider of the white horse holds a bow and wears a crown; this being reminiscent of the Parthians (Rome’s feared enemies) who were known to have expert bowmen on white horses. Every cohort of the Parthian army was known to have some horses and it was Parthian archers on white horses travelling from the east that had inflicted defeat (crowns speak of wanting to conquer and rule) on Rome in AD62. Therefore the rider on a white horse speaks of war and conquest. This conquest could be physical domination or spiritual deception as is seen in many false religions around the world.
The second rider is on a fiery red horse and takes peace from the earth, this speaking of the bloodshed that follows conquest. We only have to look at the Middle East and see the truth of this. When the West charged in it inflicted military defeat in order to bring peace yet could not defeat the prevailing attitudes in the hearts of those who were left.
When one powerful leader is removed there are many other leaders or groups that clamour for position and because of this the death toll inevitably increases as the years pass by. This civil unrest and bloodshed was also known by many in the Roman Empire who would have been all too aware of the year of the four emperors, which we mentioned in a previous chapter. John’s readers were aware of what was going on and could relate to what was being said.
The third horse is a black horse with its rider holding a set of scales in his hands. These are not the scales of justice but speak of rationing and accompanying the vison are the words, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine.” Rev 6:6.
The prices listed here are hugely inflated and the poor would be the first to suffer. In the ANE, armies would often destroy crops but not the olive trees or vines because they were difficult to replace. For example, during the Jerusalem siege of AD70, Titus gave orders not to destroy the oil and wine because Rome wanted her luxuries.
In our present world we are more powerful than at any other time in history yet show our corrupt ways and failure in that more people starve to death than ever before, including those in communities ravaged by national and civil war or false ideologies and religion.
The fourth and final horse is a pale horse, probably a pale yellow-green (‘chloros’ = pale) signifying death and hades (a term for the underworld land of the dead). Ultimately all the suffering and carnage will, if man does not repent, lead to his eternal death – total separation from God.
It is important to note that these horsemen do not have any power of their own but are given power as they are sent out into the world. Yet in the sending of these judgements we are not seeing a God who is caught unawares who now rushes in; This is the master of history using everything that is within His creation to bring people to their senses and showing all mankind that there are consequences for our actions. We can choose not to drink liquid ever again but we cannot choose the consequences: we will die. We can choose never to eat again, but cannot choose the consequences: we will die.
In a world where man has made wrong choices there is an enemy who would quite happily make us feel good and say, “It’s Ok – don’t worry,” yet thankfully it is not his world but Gods.
Grace and Mercy
God is gracious and merciful and it is because of this grace and mercy that judgement comes in the form that it does. Had it not been for grace and mercy then time would have been brought to an end long ago. We also do well to remember that the one who brings increasing judgement to bear on this world has already done everything else possible for man to find forgiveness.
Let us remember that the Lamb who was slain is the only one on planet earth who never needed to suffer for all that have lived, apart from Jesus, are sinners. Yet it is Jesus who seeks out the place of suffering and triumphs over the evil of a humiliating and degrading death at Calvary whilst religious people with clean hands but corrupt hearts jeered at Him.
At a time when any Father would not be blamed for destroying those who were humiliating, ridiculing and leading His son to a place of death, God withheld His power. Yet in another way God’s power was very present as He continued to communicate in such a way that the enemy could still see and find forgiveness.
At Jesus’ arrest and desertion by friends we find Him healing an enemy (Luke 22:51) despite being able to ask His Father to put twelve legions of angels at His disposal if He so wished. And yet there is more. Before His arrest Jesus had informed Peter that he would deny Him three times (Luke 22:34), yet His care and concern for Peter did not change even though He had this knowledge. I’m sure Peter would have reflected on this later; and yet there is more.
Whilst Pilate was sitting in judgement of this King who willingly wore rags, his wife came and told him that Jesus was innocent, having been told so in a dream (Matthew 27:19). God was still giving every opportunity for people to turn to Him. Yet there is still more.
Whilst undergoing the mental pain of desertion by nearly all of the disciples, to whom He had shown nothing but love, and the physical agony of the cross, Jesus showed His love for Mary as He entrusted her to the care of John (John 19:25-26). God’s love was still reaching out. Yet there is still more.
In response to the words of a condemned man who recognised his failings (Luke 23: 41) and called out to Jesus, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” God’s love still continued to reach out. Yet there is more.
Whilst Jesus was being crucified, darkness came over the earth as the priests in Jerusalem were preparing the evening sacrifice. I wonder if this made any of them stop and question what they were doing. I wonder if any of them came to see that there was no need for them to make a sacrifice that day because the sacrifice was already on a cross at Calvary. Yet there is more as God provided opportunity after opportunity for people to stop and think about the events that they were very much a part of.
At Jesus’ death the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom, rocks split open and the bodies of yester-year-saints were raised to life (Matthew 27:51-52). God’s love continued to reach out in amazing ways. Then after Jesus’ resurrection, the restored-to-life ones went into the city and appeared to many men. God continued to reach out in love for His enemies even whilst the events of Calvary were being played out.
God reveals Himself in love and God also reveals Himself in judgement with all revelation in whatever form it takes, being a call to repent and accept forgiveness through Christ.
After describing the four horsemen, the fifth seal is then opened and the camera swings round to look at those who have died for Christ.
John next sees those who have been slain (because of their witness) under the altar and asking how long it would be until the earth was judged and their blood avenged. Undoubtedly this is a question that could be asked by thousands down through the centuries who have suffered under the Roman Emperors, lived through genocide or are fleeing Isis today. But what does the altar point to?
The Hebrew word for ‘Altar’ means “place of slaughter or sacrifice” with the altar being known as a place where the kingdom of God and world of man interacted. Man approached the altar with nothing of self and a total dependence on all that God had provided. From this we see why the altar spoke of a right relationship between two parties.
For example, on leaving the ark Noah made an altar before the Lord and offered a sacrifice to Him. (Gen 8:20-21). The ark had been lifted up (one of the pictures behind forgiveness: to be lifted up) from the waters of judgement with Noah protected through God’s provision. Noah’s sacrifice was then made with Noah using what only God could have provided in the first place.
The altar, as a place of sacrifice, always reminded Israel that life came from God’s hand of blessing alone and therefore altars were often used as markers speaking of encounters with the God of grace and mercy (Gen 12:7). Altars were also sometimes used to remind Israel of their heritage (e.g., Josh 22:26-30). On returning from Babylon exiles after decades in captivity the Israel built an altar to the Lord (Ezra 3:3) recognising that he was their strength and security as they reengaged with the land.
God has no need of sacrifice, however for man to be able to come before God a sacrifice is required (Lev 17:11; Heb 9:22). Due to man’s sin and failure the only sacrifice that is acceptable to God is the One that God graciously provides so that we can find forgiveness and reconciliation. (Heb 10:5). Ultimately the sacrificial system throughout the Old Testament pointed to Jesus (John 1:29) and therefore to God as the provider and man as the receiver.
In the Tabernacle and Temple there were two priestly altars, one for burnt offerings and one for incense. The altar of burnt offerings (made of acacia wood and bronze) was at the entrance to the tabernacle (Ex 40:6) and used for daily burnt offerings and meal offerings. In the position and function of the altar there was the clear reminder that entry into the presence of the Lord must be preceded by sacrificial atonement (covering) of sin.
The second altar was the incense altar (Ex 30:1-10) just before the veil inside the tabernacle (and subsequently the temple). The veil separated the most holy place from the rest of the worship area (Ex 40:26-7). The incense going up from the altar symbolised prayer (Psalm 141:20, Luke 1:10) and the fire for the incense altar came from the altar of burnt offerings. It is through the sacrifice of Christ that our prayers come before God. Christ is our altar from which we receive all the blessings of fellowship and friendship with God.
The altar that John sees speaks of the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1-11), where prayers were offered up to God and the annual atonement was made.
The word ‘atone’ means to cover and is first used in Genesis where bitumen covered Noah’s ark. In the place of judgement (the flood), Noah was lifted to safety, ‘covered’ (atone means: to cover) in the now water-proofed ark.
Although countless souls have died for Christ down through the centuries they still live because of His work alone, which is why they are depicted as clothed in white. In a world where death often means defeat, we are given the assurance that death has no hold on those who are in Christ with those who have died being seen under the altar underlining this truth. Meanwhile on earth, God’s faithful witnesses continue to reach out in a multiplicity of ways. Darkness will increase and saints will die, yet light will always shine.
Lalya Jabour lived in Baghdad with a husband who took great delight in beating her up and stubbing out cigarettes on his small son Abdul. At that time Iraq was a constant battle-zone with Sunnis and Shiites fighting one another. As the fighting intensified her husband Abdullah became angrier and angrier and she suffered more and more. One night, after a particularly bad beating Layla, (then a Muslim) prayed, “God where are you. Where are you”? Every night, I plead with you to rescue me” but then a new thought came into her mind, “No, God, I will ask another question of you…let me try this: God, who are you. Maybe I’ve been praying to the wrong God all these years. Is that why you’re silent?” That night she had a dream where a man appeared and said, “Layla! I am Jesus. I’m here now, and I will defend you and Abdul. Your days of weeping will soon be over.”
The next day Layla went to her friend for support and ended up telling her about the revelation she had received during the night. Her friend Maha then told her that she and her family were all Christians and they began helping Lalya who came to faith in Jesus Christ. Shortly after this Maha and her family were butchered and Layla and her son fled the country having been told to do so in a dream. This is what she wrote a few years later:
“Through all the difficulties of my life - the wars in the streets and the wars in my home – I have learned something from Jesus that has shaped my life. His power cannot be hindered or stopped. Nations may be at war, and ISIS may want to rule the world. Evil is called good, and good evil. But Jesus is the greatest force in the universe. One day, He will judge the nations. He will condemn the government and religious rulers who keep people in fear. They will be accountable.”
Adapted from, Killing Christians by Tom Doyle, pages 118-123
Darkness has its day but the testimony of God’s people will go on forever and even death cannot prevent testimony from reaching others as another story, this time about forgiveness, clearly reveals.
On April 16th 2007 thirty-two high school students were killed in what became known as the Virginia Tech Shooting. One girl who lost her life that day was Mary Karen Reid. Mary’s father found comfort in His faith in Jesus Christ and received help from his daughter even though she had died. This came about through reading the last entry made in her diary on the day she entered heaven. She had written, “When deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we are willing to forgive. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
Through this ‘left-behind-testimony’ Mary’s words helped her father to forgive others and shine even brighter as He walked with the One who now has his daughter safe and secure.
“The core of the Christian claim, however, is not that God is nice or loving, according to our current personal or cultural ideas of those words, but that God is with us. The opening of the seals tells us that the Risen Christ is with us in the world; he enters into every circumstance of our life. The Word became flesh and dwells among us. There is no time, place, or situation in which he is not.”
Friar Richard Veras, ‘Wisdom for Everyday Life’, p34
The martyrs, in the place of incense-prayer and cleansing blood of protection, ask “How long” and are told to wait. But they do not wait alone. Others will enter through suffering and death but there will be an end to it all – the birthing of a new day because God has not given up on us.
The suffering in this world does not speak of the absence of God but the absence of man’s willingness to turn to the author of life. The state of the world is because of man’s inhumanity to man and because God allows us to reap what we sow to whatever degree He sees fit. The continuation of the world includes judgement in increasing measure yet with the offer of forgiveness still present.
No amount of evil can compromise God’s infinite goodness and God can bring good from the most evil and seemingly hopeless of situations. Ultimately we see this at Calvary. The evil of the world and of supernatural darkness was hurled at Jesus who then underwent the wrath of God but rose victorious.
The sixth seal is then opened and the camera swings yet again and we find imagery reminiscent of words in Isaiah 34:4 where we read:
“All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shrivelled figs from the fig-tree.” Isaiah 34:4
This world in its present state will have an end but this end will not be like the end of a journey as when a car runs out of petrol and judders to a halt. Time will be called, darkness will be consumed and nothing will be left as it is; this being revealed in the imagery of earthquakes, transformation of the sun and moon and stars that fall to the ground. In this description we have the use of the poetic language of the day that was often used to speak of devastation (e.g. the Sibyline Oracles, Petronius c.f. Isaiah 13:1-17). The imagery of earthquakes would not be lost on those who were used to earthquakes across Asia Minor (eg. The one at Sardis in 17AD). Apart from this, believers would be aware of Old Testament Imagery of darkness that referred to judgement (Exodus 10:21-23, Isaiah 13:9-10) and falling stars (Isaiah 34:4) depicting the cosmic scope of judgement.
All that man leans on, worships and regards as a source of security in this world will be dealt with and creation will be seen for what it truly is: that which belongs to and points to God alone. All that has opposed God, whether Emperor or slave, rich man or soldier, will be called to account.
“Their earthly securities will be ripped away so that they will appear spiritually naked before God’s judgement seat on the last day. They will try unsuccessfully to hide their destitute condition from the divine gaze (v 15, 16) and to escape from the coming wrath (v17). They will even rather die from the falling rocks and mountains than face God’s judgement.”
G.K. Beale, ‘The Book of Revelation’, p403
Evil is contained, an end is coming and in the interim saints will suffer and die, yet shine brightly even through death (Acts 6:15, 55-59). The one who allowed Satan his hour; who threw open His arms in the weakness of the flesh and said, “Do your worst”, is still alive and with the church by His Spirit.
God’s wrath means that He intensely hates sin and yet there is no fear of God’s wrath for Christians because although we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else (Eph 2:3), we have now been delivered from wrath through Christ (1 Thess 1:10), who underwent the wrath of God in our place.
We have now reached the end of the sixth seal and John will soon see this same judgement at a deeper level (as through a microscope), with greater pressure (as God allows the world to reap its own harvest) and with wider implications (we move from the symbolic quarter of the earth to one-third and beyond). Yet before this happens we are given another vision of the people of God – this time on earth.