Judgement Day - Revelation 6
There's a story of two men discussing what happened to a friend. Did you hear what happened to Tim?, says one. No, says the other. He got a free flight in a balloon. Oh, that's great. Not that great, he fell out of the basket. Oh, that's terrible. Fortunately, he had a parachute. Oh, that's good. Except the parachute didn't open. Oh, no. Luckily there was a haystack below him. Thank goodness. But there was a pitchfork in the haystack. Oh, that's bad. Good news is he missed the pitchfork. And the bad news? He missed the haystack.
We can't tell unless we have all the information and see the thing from every possible angle. That is certainly true when it comes to talking about Judgement. God will one day judge our world, bringing it to an end, punishing those who have turned their backs on him. How could that be good news? Unbelievers don't want to hear it. Christians are embarrassed to talk about it. We sometimes only do so because we feel we have to, because it's in the Bible. There are some people who seem to find good news even in the worst disasters. Like the woman I heard of. She was asked what good she could possibly see in the devil. She managed to say, "I admire his persistence."
It's not like that. There is genuinely good news in judgement. It's just a question of seeing it from the right angle. We're in the part of Revelation where one series of visions gives way to another. Seven seals, then seven trumpets, and so on. The key thing to remember is that they're visions - images, pictures. They're a series of snapshots. Better still, they show us video footage from different camera angles, showing us the same scenes over and over from a different angle. That explains why there's some repetition, something which was caught in a previous shot. It explains why there's always something new, as no two camera angles are exactly the same. It also means it's unfair to expect the whole picture to be found in any one vision. How could one camera capture all the action? But just because any vision isn't a full picture, doesn't mean it isn't a true picture. It is. The more I think about the camera angles John gives us, the more I see that they are precisely the pictures we need. These cameras are mounted in heaven and show us things as God sees them. In chapter 6, it's Judgement as God sees it. The first camera shows us The World. The second: The Church.
The final camera shows us: The End. But the common theme is Judgement.
1. The World - Under God's Judgement (v1-8) The first four seals are a series. As each is opened, one of the four living creatures says "Come" and it brings forth a rider on a horse - the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first rides a white horse, verse 2.... Could this be Christ, conquering the world with the gospel? There is a similar figure, riding a white horse in chapter 19 - and he must be Christ. However, white in Revelation is the colour of conquest. In the end, the ultimate conqueror is Christ. But there are others who ride out as conquerors bent on conquest - until they themselves are conquered by him. The list is almost endless: Alexander the Great, the Roman Emperors, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, Saddam Hussain, Slobodan Milosevic. All bent on conquest.
Then comes the rider on the red horse, verse 4.... He doesn't do any killing himself, but he takes peace from the earth. So people kill each other. Red is the colour of bloodshed. Bloodshed goes hand in hand with conquest. War is the instrument of conquest and bloodshed the fruit of war. Even as the Millennium began, the artillery shells rained down on the Chechen capital, Grozny - a city still ruined from the Russian assault of 1994. On a plateau in the Horn of Africa, half a million Ethiopian and Eritrean conscripts face each other in trenches. Like some terrible replay of the First World War, some 50,000 men have lost their lives going 'over the top' in the last 18 months. Further south in Agola, rebels continue to defy the elected government in a war which has claimed 800,000 in the last 25 years. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers have recently killed several hundred government troops as they step things up in their 16-year fight for independence. The bloodshed of war is part of the story of our world.
Conquest, bloodshed, and deprivation. That's the work of the rider on the black horse: verses 5-6.... It's not total famine and destruction, but there's only just enough money each day to buy the food for that day, with nothing left over. And if you can't work, you won't eat. Meanwhile, the luxuries of life, the oil and the wine, are preserved. Those in power always have enough, even while others starve.
Then there's the rider on the pale horse, a horse the colour of death. And no wonder, for Death is its rider. And Hades follows behind to pick up death's handiwork, verse 8.... It's a terrible litany: conquest, bloodshed, deprivation, death. It could be repeated as a chant, a grim soundtrack to the history of our world. This is not a preview of the end of the world, this is the world as it is now. It may not be the full story, but it's a true part of the story.
How can there possibly be any good news in this? Except for anyone who's losing touch with reality? It is this: these events are God's judgement on our world. These things don't just happen, God makes them happen. Did you see how these horsemen aren't free agents? They're under authority. They're actors in a vast orchestrated pageant, playing out carefully rehearsed roles. They are given their work. The conqueror is given a crown, the rider on the red horse is given power to take peace from the earth, Death and Hades are given power... to kill. These harbingers of terror are acting under orders. It is the living creatures, these spokesmen for the creation, who say "Come" and the riders come. And who is behind it all? Whose hand is on the scroll, opening the seals one by one? verse 1: I watched as the Lamb opened the firs of the seven seals. Verse 3... Verse 5... Verse 7...
These are but the judgement of God on a world which has rejected him. What else would we expect in a world which has rejected its rightful ruler - but chaos. If we won't have Christ to be our king, then we'll choose another conqueror, but it won't be for good. Do you want a world where turning our backs on God makes no difference? A world where it's still paradise even though we've pushed out the God who makes it paradise? That's the devil's lie - that we can turn away from God without anything happening. Thank God that's not the real world. It's good news that our world is under God's judgement, because our world is in rebellion against God.
2. The Church: Longing for Judgement (v9-11) The second camera looks into heaven itself and shows us some people who are already there - those who have given their lives as Christian believers: verses 9-10.... The first century when John wrote knew plenty of this kind of martyrdom. Tacitus, the Roman historian tells us what happened in Rome under Nero: large numbers [of Christians]... dressed in animal skins...
were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight... (Tacitus, Annals, xv, 44 in Barnett, Apocalypse Now and then, p 81). But there will always be Christian martyrs as long as this world runs. Christians will always be a threat to those who would conquer, because they refuse to bow the knee absolutely to any authority but Christ's. As long as they refuse, there will be martyrs.
But what do we do with verse 10? Dismiss it as the understandable but unworthy cry of the victim? That would be unwise. Not only have they suffered for Christ in a way that none of us have, they're also in heaven.
They speak for heaven. They cry for justice. They appeal to the one who is holy and true, not a vindictive and vengeful tyrant. And what does the Sovereign Lord tell these martyrs? Not to stop saying such things. Not that it's not going to happen. They're told to wait. It's going to happen, but not yet. Verse 11... Again, the Sovereign Lord is in control.
Why are we told what the martyrs are saying? Their question is for our benefit. So that we can think like them.... Is judgement part of your gospel? It's part of theirs. It's all too easy to present judgement as if it's only the problem - and the gospel is the solution. So, we talk about the cross as if we've said it all by saying that saves us from judgement. That's true, wonderfully true. Thank God. But at the cross he also shows us his judgement. He not only saves us from sin, he condemns sin. When, in that awful moment of God-forsakenness, the Father turns his back on his Son he's showing us how much he hates sin. Judgement is part of the gospel because the gospel is that Jesus is Lord. Judgement is all about Jesus being Lord. It is when he finally puts down the rebellion against his loving and righteous reign. Which true Christian won't long for that day?
At the same time, we want the day of judgement to be delayed so that as many as possible will be saved. But if we have no longing for judgement, we're more in tune with the inhabitants of the earth than with the martyrs in heaven.
3. The End: The Day of Judgement (v12-17) So far the cameras have shown us a world under God's judgement, which anticipating and warning us of the final judgement. We've seen a Church longing for that judgement. Now our last camera shows us The End: The Day of Judgement. There will be a day when judgement no longer lies in the future, but in the present. A day when we can stop saying it will come, because it has come, verse17....
On that day, the world as we know it will end. Each line of John's picture language describes something we've never yet seen and won't see until that day. Verse 12... the sun... no eclipse this, where there is still a ring of light from the edge of the sun. The moon... not natural. The stars...
falling like rotten figs, seemingly falling to earth as they pass the horizon. The sky... like a gigantic roller blind. The mountains... as if they're pieces on a huge games board.
It's also the end of human defiance against God. Last December, George Bush, Helmut Kohl, and Mikhail Gorbachev gathered with others to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a lot of self-congratulation and triumphalism. Then Gorbachev turned to Bush and asked, George, where is the new world order you promised? Where indeed. We are still under the old world order, the order of defiance against God. The new world order of peace and righteousness will not be complete until the old order is ushered off the stage of world history. And that will happen at the day of judgement. Verse 15... all those who have been most responsible for the misery of human beings and for the martyrdom of believers, but not only them - every slave and every free man as well. They'll run for cover. But not in order to survive. They'll want to die: They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us" Last year, two very similar films were released. Suggesting that the world might end when the earth is struck by a huge comet hurtling through space. Having not seen either of them, and finding I had a free evening, I forced myself to rent the video Deep Impact. When I told the man in the video shop about the research I was doing, he remarked, Well you're in for a jolly time. I was struck by how characters in the film were forced to choose what mattered most to them in the face of the coming end of the world. It was a good thing for them to think about. And good for us too.
However, in the film, the worst thing that could happen to is death. As they struggled to preserve the American way of life in underground bunkers, the worst that could happen was dying. The reality, however, is different.
Not that death isn't serious. It is. But there's something worse than death. And the kings, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty and so on - they know it. As they call on the hills to bury them, they say, Hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. This is worse than death: to come face to face with the living God whom you've pushed away all your life and to face his anger. Meeting God on that day will be one of two things: utter delight or absolute terror.
So, where's the good news here? John is writing to Christians who are risking their lives just by being Christians. The worst the world can do to them is kill them. They can be dispatched in an instant with the sword, or today with the gun, but where will they go? Straight into the presence of God and of the Lamb. The chapter ends with a question: ...who can stand? The full answer is given in chapter 7 - that's next Sunday morning.
But this much we know already. The day of judgement holds no fear for those who belong to the Lamb, those sealed with his blood shed for them at the cross. And if judgement holds no fear, what can death do to frighten them?
Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the late seventies was a dangerous place to be a Christian. Haim, a Christian teacher, was taken to be killed, together with his family. They were, according to these teenaged soldiers: the old dandruff, bad blood, enemies of the glorious revolution, CIA agents! They were ordered to dig a large grave for themselves. Haim then called on the Khmer Rouge soldiers, together with those looking on, to repent and believe the gospel. In a panic, one of Haim's sons leapt to his feet and disappeared into the surrounding bushes. Amazingly calm, Haim persuaded the Khmer Rouge not to pursue the boy but to allow him to call him back. Astonished, they listened to him call his son, pleading with him to return and die with his family.
"What comparison, my son, stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?" After a few tense minutes, the bushes parted. The lad walked slowly, weeping and took his place with the family. Haim spoke again, "Now we are ready to go". [Killing Fields, Living Fields, p234].
Please don't tell me that judgement isn't good news.
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