The judge - Revelation 6
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It will not have escaped your notice that we are approaching the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1. Already there are TV programmes appearing which examine pretty well every aspect of the war- the politics which led up to it, what life was like on the home front, the carnage of trench warfare and so on. However, I doubt very much that there will be any attempt to provide a spiritual assessment of that war; asking what, if anything, God might have been doing through it. I don’t think that anyone today can appreciate what a shock it was at the time that the war occurred at all. You see, prior to the Great War, the European intelligentsia really did believe civilization was on the verge of a new age of peace and prosperity which was to be ushered in by modern science. Despite the veneer of religion, immorality and smugness held sway, not least amongst the ruling classes. And when the storm of war eventually broke upon an unsuspecting world, many people were totally bewildered. It was then that the weak moral optimism favoured by theological liberalism was exposed as the callous sham it was. In 1916, the Congregationalist preacher, P.T. Forsyth wrote this: ‘World calamity bears home to us the light way in which, through a long peace and insulation, we were coming to take the problem of the world and especially its moral problem. ‘We do not bother about sin’ we said with some satisfaction. The preachers protested in vain against that terrible statement- those of them that had not lost their Gospel. But they were damned with the charge of theology. And now God enters the pulpit and preaches in His own way by deeds [he is speaking of the war]. And his sermons are long and taxing and they spoil the dinner. Clearly God’s problem with the world is much more serious than we had dreamed. We are having a revelation of the awful and desperate nature of evil…. We see more of the world Christ saw. It calls for a vaster salvation and a diviner Christ than we were sinking to believe.’ War and natural catastrophes are meant to shock a nation into repentance, and God would rather have us being rudely shaken from our plight than for us to quietly drift off into a spiritual slumber only to wake up in hell- either the hellish society we are busy making or actual hell itself.
Now it is this belief that God so passionately loves his world that he will resort to what C.S. Lewis called ‘the megaphone of pain’, that is to the forefront of chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation- what is referred to in v16 as ‘The Wrath of the Lamb’. Isn’t that a strange term? Can you imagine anyone being so scared of the anger of a little lamb that they cry out, ‘May the mountains and rocks fall on us’? But this is no ordinary lamb, it is a symbol of the crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus, whom we have been introduced to in chapter 1 as having eyes which blaze like fire, and feet like bronze glowing in a furnace, from whose mouth comes a sharp, double edged sword. He is the one, we are told in chapter 5, who is the Lion of Judah, a Royal figure, who is also the lamb that was slain to take away the sins of the world. Now this means that salvation- getting people to return to himself, is God’s highest priority. But just how is he to do that with a world which wantonly turns its back on him? Well that is the subject of chapters 6-11.
The imagery being used here may seem very odd but it is not as difficult as it may first appear and the basic message is easy to grasp- and important! You see, one of the questions you will get asked at some time or another will go something like this: ‘Why does God allow war? Why is there famine and disease in the world?’ Of course a number of responses could be given, but one of the major answers is given to us here.
In chapters 4 and 5 we have been presented with a vision of God on his throne- Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is meant to leave us in no doubt as to who really rules the world. And here we begin to see some of the consequences of that rule. In chapter 5 we find Jesus, the Lion who is the lamb, taking from God’s right hand a scroll. What the content of that scroll is we shall see a little later on when we jump to the beginning of chapter ten. But in this chapter, and throughout chapter 8 and the trumpet blasts, we see what happens as the scroll begins to be progressively opened by the Lord Jesus Christ, as one by one the seven seals are broken to reveal the purposes of God to bring into effect salvation and judgement in his world. The events that follow the breaking of each seal are not the contents of the scroll itself, they act as triggers to heighten the tension leading us on to a climax in chapter ten when the scroll is finally opened and all is revealed. That is, these are events which happen on earth accompany the opening of the scroll. So what sort of things are going to be happening in our world by divine ‘say so’ and what are they intended to achieve?
First, what’s happening? We are told in verse 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.’
Here we have the famous ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’. Of course they are not literal horsemen, but symbolic. But symbols of what? To help us answer that question we need to understand something about the way colours function symbolically. Different cultures have different colours to represent different things. So for us it is not surprising that a bride would wear white for her wedding day, it denotes purity. But you would not expect to find a Chinese bride wearing white, except if it is also her funeral, for white is traditionally the colour of death. So here too the different colours mean different things.
The first horse is white, symbolising victory and we can get that from the rest of the verse which talks about the rider wearing a crown and conquering. The second horse to appear is red; this is the colour of war and bloodshed. The third horse is black, the colour for famine and pestilence. The fourth horse is said to be pale, in fact the word used is the word from which we get our word, ‘chlorine’, it is a greenish white, the colour of a corpse- it represents death. And all of these things are worked out in this vision. There is the domination of nations by conquest, the slaughter of people by war, the ravage of whole populations through famine, leading to inflated prices-v6, and all of these lead to death- the rider of the corpse coloured horse- the culmination of all the previous three as we see in verse 8, ‘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.’
Now there are two things to notice about this vision.
The first is that it is God who decrees these things to happen. This is shown in two ways. In the first place it is the four living creatures, these higher orders of angels who in voices like thunder cry, ‘Come’ and then the horse rides out on the earth. Like all angels they are God’s messenger issuing God’s commands. In the second place the four horsemen appear as a result of Jesus the lamb opening a seal- he activates the event- war, famine, death. So the truth is clear-God is sovereign over all things, even the strife we see being worked out in the world by the actions of wicked men- God is not shut out from that, he overrules it.
The second thing to notice is that the devastation which follows is not total but limited- v8, it was only a quarter of the earth affected. Again we are not to think of this literally, it serves the purpose of pointing to the reality that whatever judgement God might be carrying out on the earth, it is neither total nor final. What is more by limiting the judgement God is actually showing the world mercy.
But not only is God’s judgement to be seen in the affairs of men, but also through the events of nature –hence the sixth seal, v12, ‘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.’ This is imagery taken from the Old Testament which is used to depict God acting in judgement- and it is meant to be frightening. And all of these things are a prelude to the final judgement from which no one will escape, v15, ‘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?”
Now what does this tell us?
First, it tells us that God has not vacated his place as the moral ruler of his universe. No, he is personally and actively involved-that is the significance of the ‘calling’ of the horsemen to ride out and the ‘opening’ of the seals to execute God’s judgement. The wars and disasters are meant to be powerful reminders that all is not well between ourselves and our Maker. Our lives hang on a slender thread, death is just around the corner for each one of us and we would be fools to ignore that fact.
But secondly, it tells us that this is still the day of salvation, the final judgement of which these mini-judgements are faint echoes, has not yet come- there is still time to get right with God. That is why the judgements are only partial. We see the same sort of thing with the trumpet blasts in chapter 8 which have the same effect in initiating judgements; in this case a third of the world is affected. So the closer we get to the final judgement, the other judgements increase in their severity. And it looks like things are going to get even more intense by the time we reach chapter 10 and the threat of the seven thunders. That is the pattern: seven seals, seven trumpet blasts, seven thunders; different symbols denoting the same thing- God making his righteous anger known in his world. But not only that, he is making his mercy known too, for he withholds his hand in total judgement in order to give people time to repent-he cares that much.
Now you may say, ‘This doesn’t sound very much like the teaching of Jesus’. But it is precisely the teaching of Jesus, because we find him teaching this exact same thing in Luke 13. There some good Jewish people had been slaughtered by Pilate’s marauding troops (horse number 2) and others as a result of a natural disaster, a collapsing tower (horse number four) and he turns to his congregation and says, ‘‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ It’s as if Jesus is saying, ‘Look, life is fragile, time is precious, you don’t know when your Maker will call you to himself, so take the opportunity now to get right with him- repent, because while it may be too late for those people it is not too late for you. But don’t hang about.’
However, this does not mean, as Jesus made clear in Luke 13, that folk who do die under such circumstances are worse than anyone else. Rather, it is the fate we all deserve for the shabby way we treat God and each other, so if we are not suffering like this, that is solely because God is showing mercy not because we are better. Such events are meant to act as a wake up call to us
Here is the question: Is it the case that tragedy leads people to Christ? Most certainly. I have known people who had never given God a second thought until confronted with difficulty and when they have turned to the Lord Jesus Christ they discovered that he is as good as his word, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never turn away.’ It could be through the suffering of a loved one, the coming face to face with death in war-trying to make sense of it all, but through these we can hear God calling us to himself, to the only safe refuge there is. And perhaps that is what God is doing with you at the moment, wanting to get you to re-evaluate your life, what you are living for, so that in the end you might run into the sweet embrace of his Son who wants to receive you. If that is so, go there now in your heart and ask him to come in.
Does war and tragedy lead everyone to turn to Christ? Of course not. Some may become even more entrenched in their opposition to God, while others will simply not bother thinking about God at all and try to find some escape through drink, drugs, sex or entertainment, anything to take their mind of things. And it is because such judgements do not always produce repentance that God decides to call off the judgements in chapter 10v 3b, ‘When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. 4 And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.” In other words, God doesn’t put into effect the next round of judgements which presumably would have notched up to cover half the earth. Why? Because there is no point, v5, ‘Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. 6 And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!’
So if disasters in the world fail to bring about repentance, what will? The answer: the witness and prayers of Christians. Here we come to the content of the scroll which first appears in chapter 5 and reappears in chapter 10, ‘8 Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9 So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’” 10 I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. 11 Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about (or to) many peoples, nations, languages and kings.” And then in chapter 11 we have the two witnesses, representing the witness of Christians to the world with the Gospel. So what is written on the scroll is something both old and new. There is the ‘prophesying again’ –that is what the OT prophets also prophesied that God would establish his kingdom on earth by his Christ through the Gospel, but what is new is the way God will do this, by the witness of his people which will involve suffering, even martyrdom.
This idea that it is through Christians and their witness that people will be turned to God appears several times in this section. It is there in chapter 6 and the opening of the fifth seal in v9. And as they cry out ‘How long O Lord’ they are given the answer that other Christians are to witness to Christ to the point of death. Then at the beginning of chapter 8 the seventh seal is opened and there is silence only to be followed by the prayers of Christians which have an effect of bringing God’s presence on the earth. And then in chapter 10, using imagery reminiscent of the prophet Ezekiel, God’s people are to proclaim God’s word of the Gospel to many nations- echoing the great commission of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Will this bring repentance? Most definitely. It did in the first few centuries and it continues to do so today. Professor Rodney Stark has written that ‘the total number of Christians martyred by the Romans probably was fewer than a thousand. But their steadfastness greatly increased the faith of other Christians and impressed many pagans.’ (Rise of Christianity, p 164) Friends, in a world falling apart as the seals are opened and the trumpets are blown to warn a rebellious race of the judgement to come, it will be as ordinary rank and file Christians, like you and me, showing that we can trust this God, that he has taken on himself in his Son the final judgement we deserve, and as we rejoice in him that will make heads turn and hearts open to the Gospel because then people will see the Gospel being lived out by people who actually believe it.
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