We began last week by talking about injustice. That it’s what makes people most frequently question God. Seeing or experiencing something unjust – it makes us ask ‘why’? In particular, why does God continue to allow injustice to be done against himself, and against his people? It makes us ask if God really is in control of his world. And if he is in control, what’s he doing about it?
We then looked at Revelation chapters 4 and 5, which gave at least part of an answer to these questions. Is God in control of this world? Chapter 4 gave a resounding ‘yes!’ It presented a picture of God on his throne, and every other source of power and authority a mere pale, shadowy copy of the heavenly emperor.
So if God is in control, what’s he doing about it? Chapter 5 reminded us that God has already done something in Christ. The slain lamb, who died to take away the sins of the world, now stands before the throne in victory. Although God’s people might be suffering injustice now, ultimately they will be vindicated through the cross of Christ. We’re on God’s side, the winning side. And he’s on our side.
But we’re still left with the question: but what about those who aren’t on God’s side. Those who continue in rebellion against God, and who oppose and mistreat God’s people? Are they going to get away with it? Are they going to be given any opportunity to turn back to God? What’s he doing about them? That’s the question addressed by chapter 6.
The point of the whole chapter is to show how God is already judging his world as we speak. It presents both the natural world, and the events of human history as being under God’s control. They are not random events. They are not simply a world ticking away by itself, with a distant, disinterested God watching from the sidelines. This is a picture of God already at work in his world. Already bringing his judgement – in part – against those who oppose him and his gospel. Keep this big picture in mind as we look at chapter 6 over the coming days.
At this point, how about we read the chapter for ourselves:1 I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”
2 I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”
4 Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
5 When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.
6 Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
7 When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”
8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the 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 because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red,
13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.
14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.
16 They called 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!
17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
OK, so what’s going on here? There’s a whole lot of bad stuff happening to the world, that’s clear. But what bad stuff, and when?
This can get complicated, given the different ways people interpret Revelation. As I said last week, I don’t see this as referring to catastrophic events in our future, but a symbolic account of stuff that was going on in the first century – in the world of the original readers. It uses apocalyptic language, full of symbolism and exaggerated, other-worldly images to paint natural and historical events in light of the spiritual reality that lies behind them. (See here for a fuller explanation of this approach, if you have lots of time on your hands.)
But still, it’s not all that clear which first century events are being referred to in this chapter. Some see it as the coming judgement on Rome, which is possible. I think it’s more likely referring to God’s judgement on Jerusalem that had already occurred in 70AD. (Note the similarities between the events of Rev 6 and Jesus’ prophecy in Mark 13, which is about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army. In the fourth century, the church father Eusebius used Josephus’s account of the Roman siege to show how these prophecies were fulfilled by these events.)
If you care, here’s a brief (7 minute) video showing how the judgements of Revelation 6 might have been fulfilled in the Roman campaign against Jerusalem.
So that’s how I believe Revelation presents God at work in his world – judging unfaithful Jerusalem through the might of the Roman army. The video was so you could get a feel for how these apocalyptic descriptions relate to their historical reality in the first century. You might disagree with the details; fair enough. But fortunately that doesn’t stop us from understanding the bigger and by far more important picture. And that’s what we’ll look at tomorrow.