Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 16 (“The Scroll and the Lamb – 02”)
Last week, we’ve looked at the opening of the first three seals of the scroll and we specifically looked at “white horse” with a rider with a bow and crown, but without an arrow. This rider came to conquer. The second horse, was a bright red horse with its rider holding a great sword. He was permitted to take peace away from earth. The third seal revealed a third horse, namely a black horse. Its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. This black horse and its rider convey a message of distress and the beginning of terror, of famine and of death.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.6:7-17 ~ “7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 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. 9 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. 10 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?” 11 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. 12 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, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 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, 16 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, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
3. THE FOURTH SEAL (vss.7-8):
The fourth seal reveals a rider on a pale horse (vss.7-8a). Pale denotes a yellowish green (the light green of a plant), or the paleness of a sick person in contrast to a healthy appearance. This sick or even cadaverous colour fits in well with the name of the rider of this fourth horse – “Death.” In contrast to the previous riders, this rider is followed by another figure with the name of “Hades.” This probably refers to the death resulting from pestilence, or plague, which often follows famine ~ “I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will rob you of your children. Pestilence and blood shall pass through you, and I will bring the sword upon you. I am the Lord; I have spoken” (Ezek.5:17).
“Death” and “Hades” (vs.8b) were given authority over a large part of the world to kill and destroy (our text says a quarter of the earth and by today’s population figures, it is approximately a billion people) and in their effort, they also employed wild animals to do the job for them ~ “And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted” (Lev.26:22).
The first four seals may be considered as a unit and a general description of the Great Tribulation as an unprecedented time of trouble ~ “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matt.24:21–22).
4. THE FIFTH SEAL (vss.9-11):
With the opening of the fifth seal, this scene shifts from the earth to heaven. The fifth seal leaves the metaphor of the horsemen and discloses a scene of martyred saints under the altar crying out for justice on those who killed them (vs.9). They are told to wait a little longer until their fellow servants are also killed. What are these martyrs? They are referred to again in Rev.18:24 as “all who have been killed on the earth” and in Rev.20:4 as “those who had been beheaded.” In Rev.13:15 they are referred to as those who refused to worship the image of the beast and were “killed.” Some see this group of people, as martyred saints in heaven, but John may be referring to all those who so faithfully follow Christ that they may be characterised as the slain of the Lord. They may or may not actually suffer physical death for Christ, but they have (like John) so identified themselves with the slain Lamb that they have in effect already offered up their lives ~ “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’” (Rom.8:36).
The expression “under the altar” in vs.9, places the scene in the temple of heaven. If this is the altar John saw, the prayers of the saints would be for God’s vindication (Afrikaans: “wraak”) of the martyrs of Christ ~ “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8).
The martyred address God as “Sovereign Lord” (vs.10). This term implies “ownership” and is used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote to slave masters ~ “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Tim.6:1). The martyrs cry for God’s vengeance on the evildoers. These saints are following the teachings of Paul in Rom.12:19 ~ “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” In other words, they affirm God’s holiness and truth, perfect character qualities for executing justice, but they question His timetable. God’s people often asked him, “How long?” as a matter of pleading for justice. The martyr’s first ask when God plans to judge the “inhabitants of the earth,” a phrase used throughout Revelation who portray unbelievers who rebel against God and persecuted His people. Second, they ask when God plans to “avenge” their blood.
The martyrs are each given a “white robe” (vs.11), symbolic of purity of faith and victory through trials as well as an evidence of the victory and righteousness before the Judge of all the earth, who will speedily avenge the deaths (vs.11). God then tells them to wait a little longer – in God’s estimate but a fleeting moment, though for us it may stretch out for ages. The expression “until the number of their fellow servants…was completed” is usually taken to mean that the number of the martyred on earth who will be killed, will be completed – all those who will complete the course or will fulfil their Christian calling.
5. THE SIXTH SEAL (vss.12-17):
When the Lamb broke the sixth seal (vs.12a), John feels a great earthquake. The final day of the Lord is so often described in Scripture as an earthquake ~ “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt.24:29).
With the opening of this 6th seal, God answers the martyr’s prayers. What John sees, is a scene of catastrophe and distress for the inhabitants of the earth (vss.12b-14). But even more dramatic than the earthquake was the transformation of the heavens with the sun turning black, the moon turning blood red, and stars falling like late figs from a fig tree. The heavens appeared like a scroll being rolled up. At the same time, due to the earthquake, all the mountains and islands were moved from their places. Here again in the sequence of events, the end had not been reached as there was still another seal. But this was the most dramatic judgment thus far in this time of great distress before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The trumpet and bowl judgments, to be revealed later in Revelation, also include great disturbances in the heavens and on the earth before Christ’s second coming.
In vss.15-17, John hears people calling out to the mountains and rocks to… ~ “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” The practical effect of the judgment was fear in unbelievers from all walks of life. They called on the mountains and the rocks to fall on them and to hide them from God’s wrath. Their fear was so great they would rather be killed by a falling mountain than to face the wrath of the Lamb – referring to the anger of the Triune God. Again, this is not a picture of ordinary trouble but the period of greatest distress in world history.
The “wrath” (“anger”) of the Lamb is not only a new metaphor but a paradoxical one. Lambs are usually gentle. But this lamb shows “wrath,” against those who have refused His grace ~ “And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (Joh.5:27). Henceforth the wrath of God and of the Lamb is a continuing theme in Revelation and will again be discussed in later chapters (under the images of the trumpets and bowls).
6. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
Taken as a whole, chapter 6 is one of the most important and pivotal chapters in the entire book. It describes the first six seals (the white horse; the red horse; a black horse; a pale horse; the martyred souls and an earthquake with the transformation of the heavens) and also introduces the seventh seal (the 144,000) which consists of and introduces the seven trumpets and the seven bowls of the wrath of God in chapters 8–9; 16.
The contents of chapter 6 should put to rest the false teachings that God, being a God of love, could not judge a wicked world. It also raises the important question contained in the closing words of vs.17 ~ “Who can stand?” Only those who have availed themselves of the grace of God before the time of judgment will be able to stand when God deals with the earth in this final period of great distress. On the other hand, and this could easily be seen as the key verse of chapter 6, also found in vs.17, namely that those who reject grace now will not repent when judgment comes. And then it will be in any case, too late for them!
Throughout history, God’s people have always suffered persecution and martyrdom at the hands of evildoers. The Bible consistently supports a theology of endurance rather than escape (“the rapture”), all the while assuring believers that they will never suffer God’s wrath or condemnation. Jesus Himself told his followers ~ “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), and “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). The martyrs of the early church were many: James, Stephen, Antipas, those predicted under Nero, and so on. The martyrs of Rev.6 remind us that God’s people should expect to suffer injustice at the hands of the ungodly. and/or as a result of our circumstances.
This text also reinforces the Biblical teaching that humanity is divided into two groups: those who follow God and those who reject Him. As with the message of the profits, Jesus and the Apostles press readers to choose a side. Neutrality is not a long-term option.
It is clear from our text today that there are at least three points of application for us as believers:
• We should expect to suffer as a result of bearing witness to Jesus.
• Waiting on God’s timing is an essential part of our faith journey.
• We can persevere in faithfulness because we know that one day God will judge evil and vindicate His people.