JESUS THE FOCUS OF PRAISE – [3] Revelation 6: Six seals are opened

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

In Chapter 6 apocalyptic symbols dominate the vision. John is not seeing either heaven or earth, but a symbolic vision. Here in this one chapter we are given a broad overview of the entire age between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. Because of the intense symbolism this study will endeavour to present the overall truth communicated by these symbols rather than a detailed dissection of the symbols.

 

A. THE FIRST FOUR SEALS – 6:1-8

The opening of the first four seals has a number of common elements:

The Lamb opens the seal.
One of the living creatures [each in turn] says ‘Come!’
John sees a horse and its rider. [Note that horses are symbols of strength.]
There is evidence that each rider is under a higher authority.

These four riders are sometimes referred to as ‘the four horsemen of the Apocalypse’, which probably focuses more attention on them than is warranted, given the minimal and summary information provided to John in this vision.

It is common for a connection to be made to Zechariah’s visions of a man on a red horse, backed by unnumbered red, brown and white horses [1:8-11], and of four chariots pulled by multiple red, black, white and dappled horses [6:1-8]. However it seems that the only similarity between these and Revelation 6 is the mention of horses and of a variety of colours [which are not the same in each vision]. In both of Zechariah’s visions the result of the horses’ journeying is a report of present peace. In Revelation 6:1-8 peace is absent, indeed the opposite of peace prevails. It is only as we look at other parts of Revelation that we see any peace.

A.1 The Rider on the white horse
[Note that there has been divided opinion about the white horse and its rider since the second century AD: Some believe this symbolizes Jesus Christ and the victory of his first coming and beyond; others believe this rider is not Christ but is a companion of the other horses and their riders, who like them inflicts pain on the inhabitants of the earth. Some even suggest the first rider is the Antichrist. I am taking the view that this white horse and its rider is a reference to Jesus Christ, because this seems to me to be most consistent with the rest of Revelation.]

What John saw:

[1] The horse was white. The concept of ‘white’ is a recurring symbol in the visions recorded by John in Revelation. It never refers to God’s enemies. It refers only to God, his throne, Christ, certain angels, and the redeemed. The only other place in Scripture where there is a rider on a white horse is Revelation 19:11, where the Rider is unquestionably Jesus Christ. In addition, a white horse is traditionally a symbol of victory. For the rider of this white horse, the victory has already been won [see #3 below].

[2] The rider held a bow. This is at first confusing, for we are conditioned to associate Jesus Christ with a sword, and John has already seen the sharp two-edged sword in the mouth of Christ [1:16; see also 2:12]. However, the Old Testament reveals God, and/or his Messiah, armed with a bow [Psalm 45:3-6 (a Messianic Psalm); Isaiah 41:2 (prophetic of Cyrus, the Persian, but also prophetic of Christ); Habakkuk 3:8,9].

[3] The rider was given a crown. The word ‘crown’ – stephanos – refers to a victor’s crown, not a royal crown. Note that he was given this wreath of victory even before he rode out. So sure is his victory! Indeed, his greatest victory has already occurred – he has already conquered, he has already overcome, he has already triumphed [Revelation 1:5,18; 2:8; 3:21; 5:5]. He has already earned the wreath of victory.

[4] He rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. The Greek text reads – ‘conquering (Present Tense – on-going) and in order to conquer’ (Aorist Tense – once-for-all, definitive, decisive action). Christ, by his Word and through his Spirit is present in his Church and its witness, rescuing people from the deceptions and the power of the enemy, demolishing the strongholds of Satan [2Corinthians 4:4-6; Colossians 1:13]. He continues to do this throughout the ‘church age’ – the time between his first and second comings. He is building his church as people acknowledge him as the Christ, the Son of God, and the gates of Hades cannot overcome it [Matthew 16:18] – because he is the conqueror. At his second coming he will bring all opposition to a final end. This final victory, this final conquest is reported in multiple visions spread over all of the seven parallel sections of Revelation.

In this vision of this victorious, conquering Rider on the white horse the Church is given firm reassurance so that it can confidently endure and survive the pressures depicted by next three seals. Christ, their Christ, is the conqueror – not death, not Hades, not sin, not Satan.

We have, therefore, at this point in Revelation, three concurrent truths about Jesus Christ, the Conqueror, during the church age:

He walks in the midst of his churches.
He is in the presence of God as the Lamb who was slain, the focus of praise.
He is riding throughout the world conquering and bent on conquest.

 

A.2 The rider on the red horse
Following hard after the victorious conquering Rider on the white horse is one riding a fiery red horse. All we are told of him is that he ‘is given’ three things. That fact that he is ‘given’ these permissions, sets a limit to what he is may do. It also means that what he does, although issuing from his own twisted heart and mind, is under the sovereign control of God, and is indeed used by God to strengthen and transform his church.

This rider ‘is given’:

The power to take peace from the earth.
The power to make men slay each other.
A large sword.

Although Jesus Christ gives peace to those who believe in him, this spiritual peace, this peace with God, does not mean that believers have peaceful lives on earth. Indeed, Jesus taught that the very opposite would be the case. As soon as anyone declares their allegiance to Christ, or as soon as God announces his approval of anyone, they are immediately the target of Satan’s opposition and of the hatred of the world.

It happened in Eden to Adam and Eve [Genesis 1:31; 3:1ff].
It happened to Abel [Genesis 4:3-8].
It happened to Job [Job 1:6-11; 2:1-5].
It happened to Jesus Christ [Matthew 3:17; 4:1ff].
Jesus taught that it would happen to his disciples [Matthew 10:17-25; 24:9; John 15:18-21; 17:14].

Indeed, Jesus taught that he came not to bring peace but a sword [Matthew 10:34-36].

This rider on the red horse represents all that is anti-God and anti-Christ in every generation: every physical attack on the redeemed by the godless. Where the Gospel of Jesus Christ conquers and claims the heart of a person this ‘rider’ comes and tries to destroy that person because of his allegiance to the Lamb.

Let us look more closely at this rider’s action and his weapon: [1] He causes men to slay each other. This is not the usual word for kill. Rather it is the word used for slaughtering an animal for sacrifice. This is not a reference to death in a battle, a war, but to the killing of a religious victim. It is the word used in Revelation 5:6 of the marks of slaughter upon the Lamb, and in 5:9 and 12, for the Lamb that was slain.  It is used in 6:9 for those slain because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. And it is used by John when he referred to Cain slaying Abel – the first victim of religious hatred [1John 3:12]. [2] The ‘sword’ that he is given is likewise not the normal battle sword. It is the large dagger-like knife used to slaughter animals being sacrificed. [The Greek is machaira.]

We have already read in Revelation 2 and 3 of the physical persecution of the Church which threatened the disciples of Christ with death and had already resulted in death. And we will read more of this in the chapters that follow. But here is the grand assurance once again: Jesus, the Rider on the white horse, is already the Conqueror, is conquering even now, and will conquer in the final battle. It is he who is in control. Nothing the rider on the red horse does can reverse his victory. Nothing, not even death because of Jesus’ name, can make his followers losers. God is in control, even of this. God makes use of even this, and turns it for the good of his Church and for his glory.

Suggested reading:
Romans 5:3-5
Romans 8:28
Romans 8:31-39
Philippians 1:19-30

 

A.3 The rider on the black horse
Like the rider on the red horse this rider also attacks and oppresses the Church. He holds a set of scales in his hand, and his coming is accompanied by an announcement naming the exorbitant prices of staple foods – inferring their scarcity, but also limiting the extent of this hardship. [This voice represents God’s control over how far this rider can go in his oppression of the redeemed.] This is not a total famine resulting from the devastation of war, but an imposed ‘famine’ resulting from religious discrimination against those who believe in Jesus Christ.

The activity of this rider teaches us about the economic hardships imposed on the redeemed because of their allegiance to the Lamb. This is not limited to any one place or generation, but is the recurring experience of the redeemed throughout the Church age. This also we have already seen in the Letters to the Seven Churches, where their allegiance to Christ excluded them from pagan feasts and therefore from significant cultural expectations, resulting in loss of trade and loss of income. We will also encounter this again in a later vision, when the beast from the earth, the false prophet, makes it impossible for all who are faithful to Christ to buy and sell.

Much of what has been said in relation to the suffering of the redeemed under the previous rider is also applicable here.

 

A.4 The rider on the pale horse
While the redeemed are the victims of deliberate persecution and discrimination, they also suffer, along with the rest of the world, from the calamities associated with the rider on the pale horse. This rider alone is given a name: Death. This rider alone has an associate: Hades, the realm of the dead. Death and Hades ‘were given power over a fourth of the earth’ [they are limited by God’s sovereign control], During the time between the first and second comings of Christ death, although conquered by Jesus Christ, is still present. The various conditions that cause death, that are on the earth only because of human sin and because of God’s historic judgements on human sin, are also still present – inter-racial conflicts, natural disasters, diseases, predatory animals. These were not present in the world created by God [Genesis 1 and 2], nor will they be present after the final victory of Christ. Death and Hades had no place in the pristine world, nor do they have a place in the ultimate world, the new heavens and the new earth.

 

A.5 Summary
These four riders depict life during the entire church age between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ.

The victorious Jesus Christ is moving in the world, conquering the enemy as his Gospel is proclaimed and believed.
The enemies of Christ stir up physical persecution of the redeemed.
The enemies of Christ generate religious discrimination against the redeemed.
Both redeemed and unredeemed are subject to suffering and death.

 

B. THE FIFTH SEAL – 6:9-11

The second and third seals raise unspoken questions: where are these redeemed who perish through all these generations because of their allegiance to the Lamb? Where is the victory of the Lamb in all of this suffering? The fifth seal answers these questions. Again we must understand that what John sees here is a symbolic apocalyptic vision, not the real thing.

B.1 ‘I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain …’
The reference to the altar picks up on the reference to sacrifice inferred by the second rider’s power to make men ‘slay’ each other, and by his ‘sword’ [see A.2 above].  Under the altar seems a strange place for ‘souls’ to be, but in a vision anything is possible. If by ‘souls’ we are to understand ‘life’, in terms of the essential life, then Leviticus 17:11 states that ‘the life of a creature is in the blood’. Under, or at the base of, the altar is where the blood of the sacrifices gathered. [Some was sprinkled on the sides of the altar [e.g. Leviticus 1:5] and some was poured at the base [Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:7,18,25,30 etc]. The lives, the blood, of these redeemed have been poured out.

[Note: The altar (on which sacrifices were offered) was part of the furniture of the Tabernacle and Temple. In his visions so far John has seen a number of objects from these two physical representations of the throne and the presence of God: the golden lampstands, the cherubim, the ‘sea’ [the laver], and the incense in golden bowls. In later visions he will see the golden altar of incense and the Ark of the Covenant. The presence of these physical objects in John’s visions does not mean that these objects are ‘in heaven’. Rather, they draw attention to a spiritual reality that was represented by the actual objects in the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple. Everything in the Tabernacle and Temple was patterned on a reality which God showed to Moses (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1; see also Colossians 2:16,17. ]

Here, under the altar, are the souls [the essential life or being] of all who have been slain because of their allegiance to the Lamb. But what is the real thing in heaven of which the altar of sacrifice is a ‘shadow’, a ‘copy’? We must push past this symbol of ‘souls’ under ‘the altar’ to the deep and powerful reality that it symbolizes.  The altar speaks of the sacrificial, sin-bearing, substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It speaks of the Lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him. By his death all that was symbolically achieved by the blood-stained altar is achieved in reality by the death of Jesus Christ, the Lamb: the consecration of priests [Exodus 29]; an offering pleasing to the Lord [Leviticus 1]; fellowship with the Lord [Leviticus 3]; atonement and forgiveness [Leviticus 4 & 5]. This is where the redeemed are: in the presence of God, safe under the protection of the Lamb.  Safe in Christ. Safe in the very presence of God – forgiven, reconciled, pleasing, consecrated.

Just as the Lamb had been slain, but still lived [5:6], even so those who are united to him by faith: they have been killed, but they still live.  

Suggested reading:
John 5:24
John 11:25,26
Romans 6:8-11
2Corinthians 1-9
Philippians 1:20-26

B.2 ‘… because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained’
They were killed because of the Gospel – the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. The word ‘maintained’ is inserted by the NIV translators. The Greek simply reads ‘which they had’. Revelation makes several references to this ‘testimony’ –

1:2 uses the phrase ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’ to refer to everything that John saw in the visions recorded in Revelation. This teaches us that the content of Revelation is not additional to the truth already known, but rather an affirmation of known truth.

In 1:9 John states that he is in exile because of ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’.

In 12:17 the church is referred to as those who ‘obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus’.

In 19:10 the angel referred to those ‘who hold to the testimony of Jesus’ and added ‘for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’.

Every genuine believer has and holds the ‘testimony of Jesus’. It is because he has accepted the testimony of Jesus that he is a believer. The fact that he identifies as a Christian indicates that he has and holds to the truth about Jesus Christ and the truth revealed by Jesus Christ. This truth about Jesus Christ and revealed by Christ is the eternal truth embedded in both the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures. The Christian’s alignment with this truth is itself an affirmation of that truth and a witness to the world of the power of that truth to redeem and transform. These believers ‘under the altar’ have been slain because they refused to deny the truth committed to them by Jesus Christ. They died, rather than revoke their belief. They died, rather than deny that truth.

B.3 They called out …
B.3.1 … Sovereign Lord, holy and true …
Their cry to God is grounded in his sovereignty, his holiness and his faithfulness.

[1] As Sovereign Lord he is the Judge of all the earth, who is committed to justice, and whose promises of salvation through the promised Messiah have historically included the concept of global justice. This just rule of God is anticipated with joy.

Suggested reading:
Genesis 18:25
Psalm 10:16-18
Psalm 67:4
Psalm 89:14
Psalm 96:10-13
Psalm 98:4-9
Isaiah 9:7
Isaiah 11:3,4
Jeremiah 23:5

[2] God is the holy one to whom all sin and evil is abhorrent, and from whose presence all that is sinful, all that is evil, is banned. Its presence on earth in the interim between Genesis 3 and its abolition at the return of Jesus Christ, is permitted only because of God’s deep grace by which he allows us time to repent, to return to him and to be renewed and restored.  His holiness requires its abolition, and it will be abolished.

Exodus 19:10-13
Leviticus 10:1-3
Habakkuk 1:13

[3] God is faithful. He keeps his promises. He fulfils his eternal plan. Neither the sin of man nor the opposition of Satan can prevent God bringing his eternal purpose to pass. His faithfulness requires the implementation of justice, and this will be accomplished

Psalm 13
Hebrews 10:23; 11:11
1Peter 4:19
2Peter 3:1-15

B.3.2 How long …until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
This cry of the redeemed already slain because they held fast to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus issues from their knowledge that a day of global judgment is coming, and that, as part of that judgment, God will apply just retribution against all who have harmed his people.

God’s people are precious to him [Psalm 116:15; Zechariah 2:8]. From the very first murder of Abel right through to the last Christian believer who is martyred, God holds himself responsible for avenging their death. To kill or to harm one of God’s people, purchased for God by the death of his Son, is so gross an evil that even the earth cries out against it.

Suggested reading:
Genesis 4:10
Deuteronomy 32:40-43
Job 16:18,19
Psalm 58; 74:10-11,20-23; 79; 94
Isaiah 26:21; 34:8; 35:4; 59:17-20; 61:2; 63:1-6; 66:5,6
Jeremiah 46:10; 50:28,29; 51:36
Micah 5:15
Nahum 1:2
Matthew 18:6; 23:35
Romans 12:19
2Thessalonians 1:5-8
Hebrews 10:29-31

In the seeming triumph of evil, by its apparent victory over his people, the name and the honour of God are belittled. His apparent slackness, his apparent failure to mete out just retribution is viewed by the ungodly as impotence or lack of concern. The godly understand that this is but the extension of his mercy and his patience, but the godless view it with derision and with denial of his word, his love, his power, his existence. A repeated phrase in Ezekiel, anticipating the day of God’s vengeance is ‘Then they will know that I am the LORD.’

For those of us who have lived our lives as God’s people in peace, it is difficult to identify with this cry for God to hasten the day of his judgment, his retribution, his wrath. We are too concerned about those who will suffer on that day, too little concerned for the redeemed who are even now suffering intensely because of the name of the Lord, and too little concerned for the honour of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom and the implementation of his perfect will. Yet this same day of vengeance of our God is included in our prayers every time we pray ‘hallowed by your name’, every time we pray ‘your kingdom come’ and every time we pray ‘your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’.

B.4 They were each given …
B.4.1 A white robe …
Some understand the white robes to be white robes of victory, others understand the white robes as the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to all who believe in him. These two concepts of victory and acquittal are not contradictory. Both are inseparably connected with the death of Jesus Christ. We will find ‘white robes’ again in chapter seven, where they are clearly related to the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

B.4.2 They were told to wait a little longer
Their cry is valid. There is a day of final judgment. But it is not just yet.

B.4.3 … until the number … who were to be killed … was completed
The end of evil will not come until all who will be saved have been saved, nor will it come until the prevalence of evil has reached the limit determined by God. When evil maxes out, when evil reaches saturation point, then God will say ‘enough is enough’, then the end will come, then will the judgment fall.

It happened in macro in the days of Noah, when ‘every inclination of their hearts was only evil all the time’ [Genesis 6:5].

It happened in micro with Sodom and Gomorrah [Genesis 18:20,21; 19:13].

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was delayed until the iniquity of the Canaanites reached its full expression [Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 9:4,5].

It happened to the nation of Israel when evil and corruption pervaded it [Isaiah 1:5,6].

God has set a limit to evil, and when that limit is reached, judgment falls. When God says ‘Enough! Enough! No more martyrs. No more persecution of my people!’ Then the final end will come. Then his justice will be seen.

As we move through Revelation we will find a direct connection between the prayers of the redeemed and the manifestation of God’s judgment. The cries, the agonized prayers of the redeemed contribute to the out-pouring of the wrath of the Lamb.

 

C. THE SIXTH SEAL IS OPENED

In Revelation 6:12-17 we have the first definite picture of the ‘end of the world’ – the final judgment. This ‘end’ was subtly and gently described in the first of the seven parallel accounts [1:9 – 3:22] in terms of the various eternal blessings promised to those who overcome, at the end of each of the seven letters.

In 6:12-17 the focus is on the impact of the final judgment on the godless. Again we must remind ourselves that this is a symbolic, apocalyptic vision. We are not meant to construct a physical picture from it, but to grasp the spiritual truth embedded in its symbolism. [Indeed, the symbols contradict each other if we try to imagine or construct a physical picture from them.]

C.1 Geo-physical and cosmic symbols
There is great turmoil in the physical universe – both ‘heaven’ (sky, space) and earth:

A great earthquake.
The sun blackened, the moon blood red.
The stars fall to earth.
The sky is rolled up like a scroll.
Every mountain and island is moved.

These images of total physical upheaval in the heavens and the earth communicate the sheer terror and inescapability of the Day of Judgment.

C.2 Human fear
The symbolism changes, from destruction of the physical world to humans trying to hide somewhere, anywhere, in the physical world. Every category of humans – great and small, powerful and weak – try to escape from the judgment that is falling upon them. Too late they realize that there actually is one who sits on the throne, whom they have denied, and there actually is ‘the Lamb’ whom they have despised and slain. Too late they realize that ‘the great day of their wrath’ is a reality. Too late they realize that not one of them ‘can stand’ in the presence of God and of the Lamb.

C.3 The wrath of the Lamb and the wrath of the one who sits on the throne
Out of the mouths of the fearful godless we have the first mention of ‘wrath’ in Revelation. These humans are terrified of ‘the face of him who sits on the throne’ and of ‘the wrath of the Lamb’. This day is ‘the great day of their wrath’ [the combined wrath of the Father and the Son, and not forgetting the Holy Spirit – the ‘seven spirits of God’ depicted by the ‘seven eyes’ of the Lamb [5:6] – who is forever present with the Father and the Son]. No one, except the redeemed, escape this day, no one, except the redeemed, can stand.

This picture of the great day of judgment, the great day of wrath, will be repeated for us several times as we work through Revelation. Many of the symbols will be repeated. Additional truths about it will be revealed.