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Chapters 6-9 - History Unwrapped - Revelation 6

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 3rd February 2008.

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There was once an optimistic farmer who couldn't wait to greet each new day with a resounding, "Good morning, Lord!" He lived near a woman whose morning greeting was more like, "Oh great, it’s the morning, Lord!" And they were each a trial to the other. Where he saw opportunity, she saw problems. Where he was satisfied, she was discontented. One bright morning he exclaimed, "Look at the beautiful sky! Did you see that glorious sunrise?" "Yeah," she countered. "It'll probably get so hot the crops will scorch!" During an afternoon shower, he commented, "Isn't this wonderful? God is giving the corn a drink today!" "And if he doesn't stop before too long," came the sour reply, "we'll wish we'd taken out flood insurance on the crops!" Convinced that he could instil some awe and wonder in her hardened attitude, he bought a remarkable dog. Not just any old mutt, but the most expensive, highly-trained and gifted dog he could find. The animal was amazing! It could perform remarkable and impossible feats which, the farmer thought, would surely amaze even his neighbour. So he invited her to watch his dog perform. "Fetch!" he commanded, as he tossed a stick out into a lake, where it bobbed up and down in the rippling water. The dog bounded after the stick, walked on the water, and retrieved it. "What do you think of that?" he asked, beaming. But to the man’s astonishment the woman was unmoved and grumpy as ever. And cynical to a tee, she muttered: "Not much of a dog. Can't even swim, can he?"

Well there’s no pleasing some people is there? But if I were to ask you whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, I wonder how you would respond? Some amongst us are wonderfully optimistic and they bounce around always seeing the good in everything. If there is a cloud, then there is always a silver lining. But others of us are more pessimistic. We see problems in everything. If there is a silver lining, then we focus on the cloud. "It’ll never work," we say. "It’ll never happen." But what about in the Christian life? Is it possible to be an optimist or a pessimist? Well yes it is. Some of us are always looking on the bright side of the Christian life. We tend to say things are going very well. Things are wonderful and life couldn’t be better with the Lord. It’s all victory and joy. Such a person is always happy and content. But others are more pessimistic Christians. They tend to focus on the battles with sin that they are losing at the moment. Life is hard and tough as a Christian and there is no end in sight. It all seems gloom and doom and very discouraging. But I want to suggest to you today that the Bible is neither pessimistic or optimistic. Instead the Bible is realistic. That is, the Bible shows us that there is a very real battle. To those who are always going on about victory and triumph, then the Bible issues a warning. The Christian life isn’t always like that. There are hard battles. There are set backs, there is persecution and hardship. Being a Christian is about being a soldier, a hard working farmer. It can be very hard. But to those who are more pessimistic, the Bible shows us that there is joy and victory to be had. In fact in Christ the victory is assured. One day death and sin will be finished with, and the events of the cross and resurrection have guaranteed that glorious future. And in this life there is much to rejoice in and be glad about.

Now it’s for that reason, I suggest that the book of Revelation is in the Bible. Because the book of Revelation, perhaps like no other Bible book, shows us very clearly that life as a Christian can be tough, but there is much joy to be had. It is very realistic. As we’ve looked at the book over these last few weeks we’ve seen three key themes. We’ve seen that God is sovereign: He is on his throne and in charge and he rules. Second we’ve seen that Jesus’ victory is assured. The big battle in Revelation is not Armageddon in the future, but Calvary in the past. The victory has been won on the cross, and all that remains is the mopping up operation. And thirdly we’ve seen that God’s people are secure. In the midst of the chaos of life in this world, as Satan tries his hardest to upset God’s plans, which is futile, yet God’s people are secure in Christ. And as we come to chapters 6-9, we see those same truths played out before us.

Now in these chapters we are entering into the main visions of Revelation, and it is vital that we keep one very important point in mind. And that is that the visions of Revelation are not meant to viewed chronologically. They are not meant to be picturing events one after the other. That is Revelation is not a timetable of events before Jesus returns. Many people misunderstand the book in that way. They believe it’s a written in a code which we need to crack so we’ll find out exactly what’s going to happen. But it’s not at all like that. Yes, John uses symbolism, but it’s not alien. Much of it comes from the OT. And when it comes to the different visions, then Revelation is like watching a football match on TV. Now for those who hate football, then don’t worry. You don’t need to understand the game to get the point. But when you watch a game on TV, you watch the game from a number of different angles because there are a number of different cameras at the game usually about 20. So you get a camera at pitch side, or from behind the goal, or from up on the gantry so you get the whole big picture, or sometimes nowadays you can get player cams, which focus just on one player. And then when something interesting happens, you get action replays from a number of different angles. Sometimes we’ll get flashbacks to something that happened early on in the game, or even in a previous game to compare a passage of play or a refereeing decision or the like. But if you tried to piece together what you saw on your screen, it wouldn’t necessarily be in strict chronological order. Well Revelation works in a similar way to that. Sometimes you get the big picture from a heavenly perspective, like in chapters 4-5. At other points, you focus in on a detail, like a player cam, such as you get in chapter 11. At other points you get an action replay but from very different angles, like the seals and the trumpets and the bowls, as we’ll see today. So you are looking at basically the same thing, but from a different angle and perspective. But if you think that as you go through Revelation that you are reading a chronological account of events before Jesus returns, then you need to think again. It doesn’t work like that. That’s not the way the literature works. It not an architect’s exact drawing, it’s more than an impressionist’s sketch using graphic imagery and colours, enabling us to see reality in this world as it really is from God’s perspective. So with that important principle in our minds, let’s come to our passage for tonight. It’s a long passage, so we won’t be able to look at all the details, but we will be able to see two key lessons:

So first then we must be realistic for God’s judgement is happening. And we see this in chapters 6 and 8-9. Now in chapter 5 we discovered that the Lamb Jesus has a scroll that he is about to open. And we saw that that scroll meant all of God’s purposes for the world both in judgement and in salvation. And now that scroll is beginning to be opened. The seals which we read about in chapter 6 are opened and the contents of the scroll enacted. In the Roman world scrolls were long pieces of parchment which were rolled up and then sealed with wax. And if the document was really important, then there would be lots of seals. And the seals could only be broken and the scroll read by the person with the right authority, like the lawyer in the case of a will. And that is what is happening here. Jesus himself is the only one who can open the scroll and bring about the purposes of God. And what we discover in chapters 6 and chapters 8-9 are two series of sevens, seven seals and seven trumpets. Now a misunderstanding of these chapters would be to assume that these are particular things which will happen right at the very end of time. So for example in chapter 6 we read about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And in popular understanding these men come at the end of time. For example in one episode of the cartoon show The Simpson’s Ned Flanders, Homer’s Christian neighbour, is woken up by an almighty sound, which he believes is the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping through his back garden and he gets very excited because he thinks it’s the end of time! In fact it turns out to be Bart’s escaped elephant! But it just shows that in popular culture people associate these things with the end of time. But they are not. These are things which are happening now, and the contents of the seven seals and seven trumpets whilst different are actually pictures of the same events. They are the sorts of things, described in symbolic language, which happen during the end times. That is the time between Jesus’ first and second coming. So we’re back to our football match analogy. The seals and the trumpets are looking at the same thing, but from slightly different angles. It’s about what is happening now in the world, the period of the last days or the end times, as the NT describes them, and the sorts of things that will happen right up until the time Jesus returns. And that is confirmed when we read elsewhere in the NT about the period of the end times, until Jesus returns. So listen to what Jesus himself says about these times. Mark 13: "Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains." So this isn’t the end, says Jesus. Rather it’s part of living in the last times. So what sorts of things happen during these last times? What things characterise our period of history? Well John highlights three things for us:

First we discover that God’s power is unrivalled. Because we discover that behind all the judgement that we are about to see in the scrolls and the trumpets, is God himself. God is the one who is totally sovereign even to allow bad things to happen in the world, because they are mark of his judgement upon a world which has rejected him. So notice in 6 v 1 that it is the Lamb, Jesus, who opens the seals of the scroll. He is the one who brings about these events. And notice again and again in the seals we read that the four horsemen are "given" power or crowns. The implication is that their authority and power is derived from God. They are allowed to wreck havoc only because God allows them. Or notice the same thing with the trumpets in 8 v 2 that the seven angels who stand before the throne of God are given seven trumpets. These judgements come from the very throne of God. They are God’s decrees. This is God’s doing.

Now again and again in Revelation we will see that God is the one who brings judgement on the world in the form of disasters and chaos. And Revelation constantly challenges our understanding of the greatness of God. Nothing is outside of his sovereignty and power. Everything is in his control. Now that does not mean that God can be charged with sin. Yes he allows evil to happen, and he can control it, but he is not held accountable for it. For he is perfect. But it does mean that nothing happens in our world, even the bad things, that are outside of God’s control. And that should be a great comfort to us. Just think what is happening in some parts of the world- think of Kenya, think of Chad, very close to our heart as a church. Think of Iraq, think of the knife and gun culture amongst teenagers in Britain. Has God abdicated his throne? Has he made a mistake so that evil seems to be reigning. No- not at all. His hand is firmly on the throne. He is in charge and nothing is beyond his control. And one of the lessons is to trust him. But why is God allowing these things to happen? Well that brings us onto the second aspect of the last times.

God’s purposes are achieved. Because the events that the seals and trumpets describe are aspects of God’s judgement on a world which has turned away from him. They are warning signs that this world is broken and we need to turn back to our maker. Notice how such judgements happen first on people. These are the events described in seals 1-4, chapter 6 vv 1-8. John uses imagery from Zechariah to explain what is happening now. In seal 1, verse 2, a white horse is described and its rider is bent on conquest. White in ancient times symbolised victory, so this represents war and conquest. Seal 2 in verse 4 is a red horse and its rider takes peace from the earth so that men slay each other. This is most likely civil war and the bloodshed and chaos that results. Seal 3 in verse 5 sees a black horse with its rider holding a pair of scales. It’s talking about famine and in times of famine normal staple food stuffs are sold at hugely inflated prices. And in verse 7 the fourth seal depicts death itself- he brings destruction through famine, the sword, plague and wild beasts. Sounds very familiar doesn’t it? Watch the news tonight and you will see every one of those things happening now. War, civil strife, famine, death. What did Jesus say would happen in the last times? Wars, earthquakes, famines. God is allowing these things to happen because they are part of his judgement on the world. And they are meant to be warning signs to us to repent and come back to him before the end comes. Because we’re not at the end yet. But we will be before too long. These are just signs that the end is coming.

The first four trumpets in chapter 8 make the same point but describe things from a different perspective, things happening to the world. These seem to be events of God’s judgement upon the creation itself. So in trumpet 1, chapter 8 verse 7 you get trees and grass burned up. Trumpet 2 in verse 8 describes the sea turned to blood and sea creatures destroyed. Trumpet 3 in verse 11 describes the water turned bitter. And trumpet 4 in verse 12 describes the cosmos in terms of the sun and stars turned to darkness. Now of course, we’re not to image a literal third of the sea turned to blood or a third of the sun blotted out. It’s symbolic language. But it’s not so symbolic that is it not real. Yes, says the Lord, my judgement is real. You will see it in the world in which you live. And it’s true isn’t it? Our world is creaking under the trauma we have caused it. All sorts of environmental disasters happen through man’s sin. And again the point is to heed the warning signs. This is not the end yet- only a third of the earth or sun or waters are affected. One day it will be total. But heed the warning signs, says the Lord.

And notice as well in chapter 9 how God’s purposes are achieved through Satan. There are disagreements as to the exact details of chapter 9, but it seems to represent Satanic deception of human beings. Again it’s OT language taken from the prophet Joel. These locusts in trumpet 5 are symbolic of Satanic forces unleashed on humankind. And in verse 5, we find that to be under Satan’s influence is agony. And again in trumpet 6, 9 vv 13 and following, Satanic control is likened to an army which inflicts pain on people and kills them. That is what Satan does to people in his control. He ruins lives. Notice again it’s only a third of mankind affected in verse 18, so again its symbolic of just a part of humanity. We’re not at the end yet, but it’s enough to urge us to repent and come back to God. But do you notice what happens in 9 vv 20-21. People don’t repent. After all this judgment, after all these terrible things that are happening in the world, people still don’t repent. Are you ever surprised by that. Event after shocking event happens in our world. Wars, famines. Even in our country, terrorist attacks, floods, cancer, you name it, it happens. Do people heed the warnings? Do they understand their mortality and turn back to God? Many do not. They become more hardened in their opposition to God, and curse him instead of coming to him. Of course I am not saying that just because some disaster happens to us like an accident or an illness then we deserve it for a particular sin we have committed. No, rather the Bible makes it clear that these things are the results of living in world which has rejected God. Bad things happen to everyone. The question is how do we respond? Curse God and die? Or turn to him and live?

I remember after 9/11 reading an article about how young people were reacting to the biggest tragedy to affect America in recent history. And you might have thought it would have shaken people out of their complacency and cause people to turn back to God in the light of their mortality. But no. When asked if 9/11 had given them pause for thought, one young man replied, speaking for many I guess: "Yes, I have thought about it. And my conclusion is that because life is fragile, we need to make the most of every day, and have as much fun and pleasure as is possible, because tomorrow we could be toast." Repentance? None. Just hard hearts and stubborn wills. Tells you a lot about human nature doesn’t it? And it tells you a lot about salvation. That the only way any of us will be spared judgement is if the Lord opens our eyes!

And so it’s no surprise that a third mark of the end times that John highlights in these chapters is that God’s people are persecuted. No surprise because if the world hates the Lord, it will hate the Lord’s people as well. And that is what we discover in seal 5, chapter 6 vv 9-11. There we find in verse 9 the "souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony about Jesus." Now we’ll see this much more in the weeks ahead, but clearly one of the marks of the last times is that God’s people will be persecuted. We will suffer if we stand for Christ. So never be surprised when you face trouble for being a Christian, taking a stand at work, or college. Never be surprised if you are sidelined or snide remarks sent in your direction. Never be surprised when you hear of brothers and sisters around the world suffering and dying for the faith. God’s not lost it. No- this is part of the end times. And as God’s judgement falls on a broken and rebellious world, the enemies of God will take it out on his people. And so God’s people cry out for justice. Verse 10, they cry out "how long O Lord until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" And the answer? A little while longer. And seal 6 in verses 12-17 points us forward to that end. We’re not there yet, but here’s a glimpse. And it is horrific. Because people cry out to be killed in verse 16. Why? Because the wrath of the Lamb has come. Who can stand? You see all these judgements in the seals and the trumpets are mere preparation for the big judgement that is come. And on that day, no-one will be able to stand against the wrath of the Lamb on their own two feet. You see John’s point for all his symbolism is very simple. We need to be realistic. For God’s judgement is happening now. And we need to make sure we respond in the right way- not hardheartedness but repentance.

And that brings us onto the second lesson, more briefly, from these chapters, which is that we need to be reassured, for God’s people are secure. Because we were left with a question hanging over us in chapter 6- Who can stand in the day of the wrath of the Lamb? When Jesus returns to deliver his full judgement, then who can stand? And the great news is that there are people who will stand on that day, not because of their good deeds, but because they are safe in Christ. And those people are the people of God. Now at first we might not think the people of God are secure. After all we have just seen they are persecuted in the last times. Hardly secure is it? But sometimes appearances can be deceptive. That’s certainly true in life as a whole.

For example a while ago a came across a story of a lady who was found in a supermarket car park inside her car with her hands behind her head. She was clearly in distress, and when someone asked her if she was OK she said that she had been shot in the head, and she was holding her brains in. So the paramedics were called to assist this poor woman, and it was only then that it was discovered that the shot she had heard was a tube of pressurised dough bursting. The dough had then hit her in the back of the head, and so she assumed she had been shot. And she thought the dough stuck to the back her head was her brains. Needless to say this happened in Arizona!

Things aren’t always what they seem. And often it seems to us as Christians that we are doomed. Small, pathetic, persecuted, struggling. Hopeless. But that is not the case. You see what is so striking about chapter 7 is that it is sandwiched right in the middle of the chaos of chapters 6-9. It’s as if John is making a hugely significant theological point simply by the way he has structured his book- that whilst there is chaos and judgement falling on the world in the last times in the forms of the seals and the trumpets, yet God’s people are secure. Nothing can harm us spiritually speaking. It’s like being in a warm wind proof, watertight house in a ferocious storm. All outside is chaos- but inside you are safe and warm. And that is what John is teaching us in chapter 7. If you are a Christian, then you can take to heart the following three things:

First we are a sealed people in verses 1-8. In verses 1-4 we find four angels holding back the four winds. And we find in Zechariah that these four angels are the same as the four horsemen of chapter 6. So before these horsemen, these angelic beings can wreak their havoc on the earth, then something must happen. Verse 3: "Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God." A seal is put on the forehead of the people of God. It’s symbolic language for saying that even before time begins, God knows those who are his. He knows his people and they are marked with his seal of ownership. That’s why John says he saw 144,000 people. It’s simply a symbol for the complete number of God’s people- not literal, but symbolic. No-one is missed out. Whatever happens to you in this world, if you are a Christian trusting Christ, then you are safe. Isn’t that fantastic. God knows whose are his. You are secure.

Not only that, but God’s people are a pure people in verses 9-15. The image changes from a specific number to a great multitude in verse 9. God’s people are vast in number and come from every nation, tribe, people and language. And they wear white robes in verses 9 and 13. And why are they white? Verse 14: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." They are white because they have been washed in the blood of the lamb. It seems a strange image at first. If you splash something in blood then it’s a nightmare to get the stain out. But we’re talking about highly symbolic language. The people’s hearts have been washed clean by the blood of the lamb. Through the death of Jesus they have been forgiven and set free from sin and death. They are pure. And as a result, verse 15, we serve God in his Temple. It’s an amazing picture of what we will be doing in the new heaven and the earth- we will be serving our God.

And that leads finally to a satisfied people in verses 16-17: "Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." It’s a beautiful picture of the people of God in God’s place under his blessing and rule. Our total delight and satisfaction is found in God. And we will be shepherded by the Lamb himself. And of course much of this language will be picked up again in the end of the book when we get to chapters 21-22 . It is a picture of heaven. But if you are in Christ today, then nothing can take that from you. You are secure.

Now as we finish, we need to ponder these truths very deeply indeed. Because we might well feel as we look at a world of apparent chaos and carnage- both in the world at large, and maybe even in our own lives- that we ourselves are at risk. Our Christian lives seem so small and weak- we feel like a tiny flower just waiting to be knocked over by the winds of life. It seems just too much to bear. Well take heart from these amazing truths tonight. Because John has reminded us that we need to be realistic. We live in the end times when God’s judgement is falling upon the world, and God’s people are persecuted. But God is also totally in control. He is sovereign. And will bring his plans to fulfilment. But we also need to be reassured. For whilst times are hard, yet we are secure. And if you are a Christian here tonight, then take heart. You are sealed by God- he knows you. You are pure- he has washed you clean. You will one day be totally satisfied in him. For when the day of the wrath of the Lamb comes, there is only one place to be safe. And that is in Christ, the Lamb who died for us. And so we can say with the hymn writer in praise of our Lord Jesus Christ: ""Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Saviour, or I die."

c) A Satisfied People

b) A Pure People-

a) A Sealed People-

2) Be Reassured: God’s People are Secure (Chapter 7)

c) God’s people are persecuted-

b) God’s purposes are achieved-

a) God’s Power is Unrivalled-

1) Be Realistic: God’s Judgement is Happening (Chapters 6, 8-9)

2) Be Reassured: God’s People are Secure (Chapter 7)

1) Be Realistic: God’s Judgement is Happening (Chapters 6, 8-9)

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