The Scroll - Seals 4-6
Date: 21 Oct 2018
Text: Revelation 6:7-17
Last week we returned to looking at the wonderful but difficult Book of Revelation. Having looked at the first five chapters a little while ago we made a start on Chapter 6 by looking at the events surrounding the opening of the first three seals on the Scroll that we learned of in Chapter 5. That chapter also told us that only the Lamb could open these seals and reveal the contents of the Scroll. John was able to observe all this when he was taken to heaven whilst “in the Spirit”. We know from Scripture that whilst God is a loving God, He is also a God of judgement and He will judge the world when the end times come which is where this Book of Revelation comes in since it describes in a variety of ways the events during the period that will lead up to the return of Jesus Christ in all His glory. As we looked at 6:1-6 John described seeing three horses and the dreadful events that they were associated with. All of these horses and events are concerned with the various types of judgement that God will bestow on the world. This week we move on to consider what is revealed when the next three seals are opened.
As the Lamb opens the fourth seal John sees a Pale Horse. The knowledgeable amongst you may recognise that as the title of an Agatha Christie mystery story although I can assure that this is not a story although it is a mystery – a mystery that will happen. We learn from 6:8 that the rider of this pale horse was named Death, and Hades was following closely behind! The reference to Hades doesn’t mean Hell as we may think but rather, the grave. Quite simply this is because of the huge death toll that will come from the activities of the first three horses who will bring death through conquest, war and bloodshed and famine. The image indicates the huge death toll that will arise from these events; events that we do see in the world today although perhaps not yet to the scale that the second part of the verse would seem to indicate. When we look back at Matthew 24:7 again we see Jesus prophesying that as a minimum there would be earthquakes during the end times.
The scale of the destruction that I mentioned a moment ago is referred to in the second part of 6:8 where we read that “They were given power over a quarter of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague and by the wild beasts of the earth”. Although this verse appears in the section talking about the fourth seal it actually refers to all of the first four seals and all four riders of the coloured horses and the judgement that they will bring to the world. There has never been destruction on this scale at any time in history so I think we can gauge just how bad this will be. According to a simple Internet enquiry the world population currently stands at 7.2 billion and is predicted to increase by 1 billion over the next twelve years. If a quarter of that population is destroyed by the riders of the first three horses then that would be 1.8 billion; quite staggering to contemplate! Think carefully about that for a moment and consider just how many have died down the ages in the service of Christ; it must run into millions. However, we can’t say that we haven’t been warned since Jesus did tell us that this would happen when He said in Matthew 24:21, “For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until this time – and never to be equalled again.“
Remember that John records that they were “given power over a fourth of the earth”. As we move further into the Book we will undoubtedly see more of the world destined for judgement.
The opening of the fifth seal is notably different to that of the first four seals. There is no loud shout of “Come!” from one of the four living creatures and there is no mention of a coloured horse. As the seal is opened John gets to see “under the altar” an image that refers to the altar of sacrifice that we see in Leviticus 4. Under this altar John can see the souls of all those who have been killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ and the way that they faithfully preached His gospel. In 6:10 we see these martyrs call out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” That may seem strange since it obviously a call for God to avenge their deaths, something that we wouldn’t normally expect a Christian to ask. However, there are at least two instances in the Old Testament where victims did cry out for vengeance against their persecutors. In Genesis 4:10 we read of God saying to Cain, “Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.” Vengeance was given since that ground no longer yielded crops and Cain himself became an aimless wanderer. There is a similar incident recorded in Numbers 35:33 where we learn that murders in the land of Israel could only be avenged by the blood of those who shed it. The important lesson here is that it is God who brings about that vengeance and not the individual Christian; and we can learn that from Ezekiel 25:17 where God says, “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them."
In 6:11 we also learn that each of these martyrs was given a white robe and told to wait a little longer as yet more would be killed in the way that they had been. These white robes are quite significant and we will learn more when we move on to Revelation 7. White robes were seen as a sign of blessedness and purity, which of course believers in Jesus Christ are given that their sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ. Given the current environment and attitudes towards Christians and Christianity, it isn’t easy standing up for Jesus Christ and yet that is what we should do. John reveals later in Revelation 14:12 that, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep His commands and remain faithful to Jesus.” Mark also makes it very clear that by standing firm for Christ we will reap our reward. He writes in Mark 13:13, “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” We know that Christians around the world are being persecuted for their faith in Christ and many of those will no doubt be martyred for that faith. However, many more will do what Jesus says in that verse in Mark 13 and “stand firm to the end”.
And so we come to the opening of the sixth seal; again it reveals something very different from the first five and does not involve a horse or one of the four living creatures. This seal reveals that there will be many, many celestial disturbances, a lot of which are mentioned in a number of books in the Old Testament. It is this sixth seal which shows God’s awesome power over all the earth and the judgements and punishments revealed by the opening of this seal relate to the earth around us and not simply to mankind; these judgements are dealt with by seals 1 to 4. The opening of this seal in particular and the destruction it describes demonstrate God’s sovereignty over the earth and the heavens; it is after all His creation.
The first event mentioned by John following the opening of this seal is a “great earthquake” (6:12). There have been many earthquakes in recent years with two occurring very recently in Indonesia and Haiti. These earthquakes destroy homes, people and infrastructure whereas the earthquake this “great earthquake” that John describes had power like no other. John talks of such an earthquake later in 16:20 where he says, “Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found.” The really frightening thing is that this earthquake will be so powerful that it will destroy parts of the natural terrain and not just the built environment.
Earlier in our service I read a passage from Joel 2:28-32, a passage which we normally associate with the Day of Pentecost. However, in connection with this particular seal we need to consider Joel 2:30-31 where God says, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Earlier in Joel 2 the prophet had recorded more of God’s words when God said, “Before them the earth shakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:10-11). John actually says of the stars that “the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig-tree when shaken by a strong wind.” (6:13); that conjures up quite a picture although what John is describing are real and awesome events which he observes and then describes. Isaiah gives us a similar description of these events in words that were written many hundreds of years before John’s. The prophet says, “All the stars of the sky will be dissolved and the heavens 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). Perhaps John had Isaiah’s words in mind when he wrote what he saw during this incredible revelation. The image of the heavens receding “like a scroll being rolled up” (6:14) would resonate with Jews in particular. Apparently when the scroll in the Synagogue was opened the right hand was used whilst the left hand was used to roll up what had just been read. Now this may sound a bit mundane but to the Jews and no doubt to others it presented a terrifying picture as they visualised the same thing happening to the heavens. I don’t think that any of these images are for the sake of illustration alone but are descriptions of what will actually happen as the Day of the Lord approaches; such is the power of God.
In 6:15-17 we come to a passage where John describes the reaction of everyone. He starts his list of those who will run and hide with kings and princes, generals, the rich and mighty, before adding “and everyone else, both slave and free”. No one is exempt from this awesome judgement. Monarchs, politicians and the extremely wealthy may think that they are above everyone else but they too will suffer on this “great day of wrath”. Notice that all of these people “hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains”. Hiding is futile; we cannot hide from God since He is everywhere and knows where we all are, whether we are attempting to hide or not. In sheer desperation they cry out 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!” (6:16). As John describes the scene of people trying to hide in caves and then asking the mountains to fall on them, he may have remembered that Hosea prophesied something similar when he said of people who would seek to hide in caves and mountains, “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed — it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’ “ (Hosea 10:8) There will be no escape!
The opening of these seals signals that the Day of the Lord is rapidly approaching and it will be a day which no one will be able to escape. No amount of money or power; no matter how hard people try to hide, they will all have to face the “wrath of the Lamb”. It is at that moment that all those who rejected God, denied His existence or rejected His Son Jesus Christ, will regret their actions and suddenly realise just how wrong they were; however, there will be no turning back at that moment, it will be too late. It is vital that we understand that loyalty to Jesus Christ and faith in Him is the most important thing; status and wealth will count for nothing when the Day of the Lord comes.
The verses in Revelation 6 make for awesome and dramatic reading as they describe the series of events as each of the first six seals on the Scroll are opened by the Lamb. As we read through these verses it seems to me that the events described get worse and worse and just when we think things can’t get any worse, they do. Mankind seems to be the “target” of the first four seals before we come to the fifth seal which talks of “those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:8). Whilst they cried out for vengeance, it was God Who told them to be patient as He would deal with them later.
Finally when we read about the sixth seal we see the awesome power that God possesses being used to more or less destroy His creation. Earthquakes will destroy the earth and everything in it; cataclysmic events in the heavens will see the stars fall from the sky like leaves from a tree in the autumn, and the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll. A lot of the images described in 6:12-14 would have meant something to the Jews since they all related to passages written by the prophets. In the closing verses we see that as these events unfold status and wealth will mean absolutely nothing; no one will be able to withstand the “great day of wrath” (6:17).
Whilst these verses do describe dreadful and destructive events, they also demonstrate the absolute power of God; power that we may sometimes forget to acknowledge. We need to remember that He is all powerful and will destroy both His creation and all those who rejected Him with it. We need to ensure that we come to faith in Jesus Christ and then remain faithful to Him; that is the only way that we will be able to escape this truly dreadful judgement.