The Scroll - Seals 1-3
Date: 14 Oct 2018
Text: Revelation 6:1-6
It has been quite a while since we last looked at Revelation and so I think the time is now right to make a brief return before spending time next year going a bit deeper into this amazing but difficult book. When we last looked at Revelation we ended with Chapter 5 which means that today and next week we will be looking at Chapter 6.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the Book of Revelation is not easy to understand and it is certainly difficult to work out the precise timing and details of the events that are recorded here. However, my concern over the next two or three sermons is not the specific timing of events but rather what those events will be and how they may unfold. There are many differing views on when all this will happen and when Jesus will return, and so all I will say for sure is that Jesus will return but only after the horrendous events described here have taken place; the world will, without doubt, suffer greatly before Jesus’ triumphal return.
We know from numerous passages in the New Testament in particular that God is a God of love. He demonstrated that love by sending His Son to die for us, a bunch of totally undeserving and disobedient sinners. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that He is also a God of judgement and He will pass judgement on the world for their sins and rebellion against His rule; there is simply no escaping from that judgement.
The period known as the end times will see a series of catastrophic events happening; events such as war, famine, persecution and earthquakes. These are described as each seal on the Scroll is opened although it is difficult to determine just when these will happen. However, when we look at the world today and the darkness that surrounds us it is easy to feel that the end truly is nigh. There are wars, or have been recent wars, in Iraq and Syria amongst other places; there is famine in various parts of Africa even though there is an abundance of food in the western world; there have been a number of earthquakes in recent times including the very recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia and the even more recent earthquake in Haiti; and finally Christians are being persecuted for their faith in countries such as North Korea and China. All of these add up to make one wonder if Jesus will return very soon. I’m not going to be drawn on whether that will happen sooner rather than later although what I will say is that there is a great need for everyone to be vigilant in their faith and to share that faith with as many as possible. In Matthew 24 Jesus talks of these impending events but then adds the rider that, “... this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
So far in our earlier studies in Revelation we have looked at the first five chapters. Chapters 1 to 3 contain seven letters written to seven churches outlining their good and bad points. In Chapter 4 we saw a great Throne in Heaven which was surrounded by twenty four other thrones on which sat twenty four white haired Elders all wearing crowns. Also present were four living creatures.
In Chapter 5 we read of John’s vision of the One sat on the Throne holding a Scroll which was sealed with seven seals. Whilst this Scroll was held in the right hand of the One sat on the Throne, an angel was seeking someone Who could break open the seven seals. In 5:3 John writes that “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it”. John wept at that desperate situation until one of the twenty four Elders told him not to weep and added, “See, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (5:5) We can trace the title or name of “the root of David” back to Isaiah 11:1 where the prophet writes that, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” The shoot that Isaiah refers to is the very same “root of David” who we meet in 5:5. When we get to 5:6-10 we see that John observed “a Lamb looking as if it had been slain” and then seeing that Lamb “standing at the centre of the throne”. John then goes on to explain that the twenty four Elders and the four living creatures who we met earlier sang a new song which included the line: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God” (5:9) If we look back at Isaiah 53:7 we see the prophet talking of the One Who “was led like a lamb to the slaughter”. I don’t think it takes too much effort to realise that these verses are all pointing to Jesus being the only One Who was worthy to break the seven seals and open the Scroll. It is also worth noting that Scripture is not just a random gathering of thoughts and ideas but a complete whole; a full explanation of what would and did happen and now an explanation of what will happen in the not too distant future.
As we move further into Revelation from Revelation 6 onwards we come to three different lists of judgements identified as seven seals, seven trumpets and later, seven bowls. There are those who say these judgements are consecutive and will happen one after another whilst others say they are concurrent since they are all describing the same events albeit in slightly different ways. However, we mustn’t get carried away just yet with all these judgements, dreadful though they are. Although these will all happen they do not necessarily mean that the end will be tomorrow or the day after, although I’m always happy to be wrong on this subject! In Matthew 24 when Jesus had been explaining what was to happen as the end approached He went on to say, “All these are the beginning of birth-pains.” (Matthew 24:8). The events described in these various passages all form part of the judgements to come although they are merely the beginning. There will undoubtedly be more to come before Jesus does actually return.
And so it is in Chapter 6 and then Chapter 8 that we see the contents of the Scroll revealed as Jesus the Lamb breaks each Seal; one after the other. Much of what we now come to in these early verses was discussed by Jesus in what is known as the Olivet Discourse; so called because it was given by the Lord on the Mount of Olives. We can read this in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke although I will only be referring to Matthew’s account in Matthew 24. The judgements and punishments that are described in the Scroll are slowly but surely explained as each Seal of the Scroll is opened.
As we read through this and other Chapters we need to bear in mind the prevailing context. It is probably true to say that the words contained in Revelation fitted the context of whichever era in which the words were read which is why we can look at the judgements revealed as each seal is broken and align them with various situations around the world today. It is also true to say that there was an important context at the time the words were first read and I hope to expand on that thought as we move into the passage.
The First Four Seals
John is watching as an observer as the Lamb, Jesus, opens each seal on the Scroll one by one. Also present are the four living creatures who we met in Revelation 5 and as John keeps watch, a living creature cries out “Come” after which John watches as each seal is broken.
As the first seal is opened John sees a White Horse with a rider holding a bow and being given a crown. This individual then rides out “as a conqueror bent on conquest” (6:2). Many believe that this rider represents Jesus Christ the Messiah riding on His great white charger as the One Who has come to rule the world. However, this rider is more likely to be the anti-Christ who we have already been warned of. Jesus had earlier told His disciples, “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Messiah,' and will deceive many.” (Matthew 24:4-5). That comment may have been made more than 2000 years ago but it is still true today. There are also those who suggest that these verses talk of conquest and mankind’s desire to conquer enemies and ‘rule the world’ and when we look at history there are many examples down the ages of this happening. Just think of the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire, and more recently Adolf Hitler and later, the combined might of the USSR and Communism. Whilst it is difficult to be absolutely sure the precise nature of just who this passage refers to, we do know from 17:14 that it can’t be Jesus as He will triumph at the very end.
In terms of the context of the time it is interesting to discover that the bow was also a symbol of conquest alongside the sword and Isaiah refers to both in Isaiah 21:15. The white horse was well known and well regarded amongst the Parthians who formed part of the Persian Empire. The Parthians on their white horses were also renowned bowmen on horseback; no other nation had such an army. Whilst the Romans felt that white horses were the best they only used them to pull chariots! Given all that there is the possibility that the people of the time may have felt that the “conqueror bent on conquest” (6:2b) could well have been the Parthian army.
As the second seal is opened John sees a Red Horse. This horse and its rider have come to “take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other” (6:4) which is why the rider of this horse was given a large sword. Notice that the verse doesn’t say that the rider of the red horse has come to make war but rather to take away peace. Peace between nations is a gift from God and is not the natural state that exists between nations; after all mankind always seems to have a propensity to wage war when what is really needed is peace. This horse however, has come to take away the final vestige of peace after which mankind will rush in with war and destruction to fill the void. Interestingly it is God Who grants this rider the power to do this as part of His judgement of mankind. Once again these events are not unexpected since Jesus pre-warned His disciples about this when He said to them, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:6-7a). One reference that I consulted suggested that since the end of World War 2 there have been 150 wars of one sort or another. However, as this information was written a few years ago I would suggest that that number is now considerably higher. Wars seem to be happening wherever we look and it always seems to be the innocent civilians who suffer the most. Sadly for them though, this is all part of God’s judgement on an unruly world.
As far as the context is concerned, we need to remember that Jerusalem and the surrounding regions were occupied by the Romans. The Romans were famous for having introduced what was known as pax Romana, the peace of Rome. This though wasn’t a good peace but rather a peace that was imposed more by subjugation of the people than willingness on the part of the population. It is that peace that people feared may be taken “from the earth” (6:4), and the injunction to “make people kill each other” (6:4) may refer to a potential civil war, the type of war that always seems to be the bloodiest and cause more deaths than any other form of war.
As the Lamb opened the third seal John saw a Black Horse and its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Since we often talk of the scales of justice it is easy to think that this image represents some form of justice for the world. However on this occasion it is nothing to do with justice but much more to do with scarcity; that is, scarcity of food. The verses are talking about famine and the great scarcity of food with the prices of a kilogram of wheat and 3 kilograms of barley that are mentioned being approximately twelve times higher than normal, something which indicates rampant inflation. Modern day examples of such a situation could include Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Zimbabwe used to be known as the bread basket of Africa and yet in recent years as a result of disastrous government policies it has become the basket case of Africa with very high inflation and a great shortage of basic commodities. The situation in Venezuela is much the same with raging inflation and massive food shortages. Sadly, in both of these countries and others in the third world there could be worse to come. Once again this is something that Jesus said would happen when He said to His disciples, “There will be famines ... in various places” (Matthew 24:7b). I think we need to consider if these are still genuine signs today that John is referring to.
As I mentioned a moment ago, when we see scales we tend to think of the scales of justice; possibly because of that statue on top of the Old Bailey! However, to the people first reading these words they saw scales as being the tool used to weigh food in the marketplace; and to them they also represented a symbol of God’s sovereignty over the food supply. Famine frequently follows war and so there would have been a scarcity of food following any war, scarcity that would lead to famine. Pestilence also tended to follow the wars of the time and that led to the deaths of many people including farmers. It follows that if there was no one to grow the food then that would lead to famine. The Jews understood that such hardships frequently represented divine judgements and were generally followed by a call to repentance. Many Jews may have also remembered the words of Jeremiah who wrote, “... this is what the Lord Almighty says: 'I will punish them. Their young men will die by the sword, their sons and daughters by famine.” (Jeremiah 11:22).
There can be little argument that this is a difficult Book to understand and as we move into Chapter 6 and beyond it becomes ever more difficult. The most important thing to understand is that God will pass judgement on a sinful and disobedient world. These judgements will take a variety of forms, some of which are described here in 6:1-6. These verses are not necessarily describing exact events that will take place but rather provide an image or illustration of what is to come. We all need therefore to take heed and ensure that we draw nearer to Christ each day and so avoid being caught up in the suffering as a result of these judgements.
We’ll look at the next three seals next week, until then give some thought to what this passage may be all about and what you can learn from it.