THE REVELATION OF CHRIST
Lesson Number 12
THE SEVEN SEALS
(the first six)
Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, "Come and see." And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, "Come and see." Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword. When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come and see." So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine." When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come and see." So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth. When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! ""For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Revelation 6:1-17, NKJV)
The stage has been set for the unfolding of the future--particularly as it regards the fulfilling of God's purpose. Remember, without Divine purpose, there is neither reason nor possibility for such a thing as "the future." If we view coming events, particularly those described in God's Word, from an earthly point of view, it will be impossible to ascertain the message and intent of Scripture. The governments of this world, with their advancement and status, is NOT the focus of the Word. They are ONLY mentioned as they relate to the fulfillment of the "eternal purpose" of God, conceived (if I may use that term) before there was either earth or government.
It is essential that we see the necessity of spiritually apprehending these things. They cannot be comprehended by the natural, or fleshly, mind. John was "in the Spirit on the Lord's day," when he received this message (1:10). He was given insight into the Person of Christ (1:12-18). The Apostle was shown the relationship of Christ with His churches immediately after beholding the glorified Savior (1:20; 2:1-3:22). The Lord prepared Him for the body of this revelation by showing him an open door in heaven (4:1), and the throne of Sovereignty, and He who sits upon it (4:1-11). John was then shown that the future is in the hand of the God of heaven (5:1-4), and that it can only be opened by the conquering Lamb (5:5-7). With remarkable precision, he is also shown the relationship of both praise and prayer to the execution of that "eternal purpose" (5:8-14). Until a lively sense of the these key factors grips our soul, we will find ourselves distorting the message of this remarkable book.
The future, as delineated in Revelation, has exclusively to do with the fulfillment of God's objective-- determined "before the world began" (2 Tim 1:9). Key events and persons will not be viewed as an historian would view them. The world speaks of the political figures, such as the Pharaoh's and the Caesars, Nero, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Washington . . . etc. More wicked and base civilizations laud entertainers and athletes, who contribute nothing to the moral fabric of a society. But the Lord passes them all by. He touches only upon people and events that play a vital role in the consummation of His purpose, whether for good or evil. Throughout the Revelation, the primary righteous personality is Jesus, and the primary wicked one is Satan. All good and righteous people are so classed because of their identity with the conquering Lamb. All wicked people are so classed because of their affiliation with the devil.
Our minds must be delivered from the fascination of worldly things, whatever form they take. Spiritual understanding simply will not be experienced by those with an earthly mind-set. We will be brought face to face with war, famine, death, and bloodshed in this chapter. If we do not have "the mind of Christ," we will not profit from it. If our minds are not elevated, the passage will become blurred and pointless to us.
Arena of Conflict
We are going to see how the purpose of God will be accomplished in an arena of fierce opposition and intense activity. We will also see the triumph of the saints over every conceivable handicap and resistance. In addition, it will become apparent that as "the end" approaches, pressures increase and forces combine against the saints. In summary, Christ Jesus has entered into a triumphant ministry that will eventuate in the triumph of the elect over all circumstances, and the demise of Satan and all of his powers. The saints will be brought through fierce and relentless attacks, oppositions, and hardships but they will safely arrive at their appointed goal. No obstacle, regardless of its seeming formidability, is capable of stopping the most humble of believers from landing safe on that heavenly shore! We have been brought into the only thing in history that is sure.
THE FIRST SEAL
"Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals . . . " With Divine deliberation, the Lamb opens "one of the seals." The triumphant Lamb is not hasty in divulging the workings of the Lord. He also displays His authority, by opening but "one" seal, and it is one of His own choosing. No one can deter Him from opening the seal. When the enthroned Christ wills to make something known, no power of darkness can prevent Him from doing so. He will also open to us what needs to be opened first.
The Noise of Thunder
" . . . and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder . . . " One of the "four living creatures" now speaks. Until this time, these heavenly beings have always acted in unison (4:6,78; 5:6,8,14). But now one of them speaks with thunderous tone. You will remember that "thunders" proceed out of the Throne (4:5). This speaks of Divine intention. Satan's voice is never depicted as thunder, nor is that of his emissaries. The voices of men, particularly as regard intentions, are but faint whispers, unworthy of our undivided attention. Only what God does is truly "thunder," drowning out the noises of the earth. Here, on the Isle of Patmos, amidst the crashing of the sea waves, John heard a thunder that subdued the watery roars about him, capturing his attention. It comes from one of the personalities near to the throne, who have insight into the Divine workings.
"Come and See!"
"'Come and see' . . . " Four times in this chapter, this summons is issued to John (v. 1,3,5,7). There is a sense in which the message is brought to him. Yet, there is a point at which he must come to it. This, again, is the manner of the Kingdom. Before you can see what Christ makes known, you must come to Him! There is another view of this summons that may be of interest. Some suppose the words "and see" to be out of order. The NIV also omits these words, based on an analysis of manuscripts. Were this view correct, the summons "COME!" would be to the rider now declared; i.e., "Come and do what you are going to do!" This is a strained interpretation of the text, and is by no means universally embraced by the supposed experts. It is generally conceded that this word "Come and see" is addressed to John himself, and that is the position I also take. It is in keeping with the declared purpose of the vision, which was to show John "things that must be hereafter." I do not believe anything in the text suggests this is the Divine word to involved powers to begin their work. Now, John's attention is drawn to the unfolding of God's work upon the earth, as administered by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here is an area where the modern church is extremely deficient coming and seeing. Like John, each of us must "come," approaching to the Lord with a mind to comprehend what He reveals of Himself and His purpose. Too, a revelation, regardless of its magnitude, will bring no personal benefit unless it is comprehended. Also observe there is no delayed response on the part of John. His mind is already fixed in heavenly places, tuned to the Divine frequency. A comely state, indeed!
A White Horse
"And I looked, and behold, a white horse." The language revealed by the Spirit is critical. While some choose to view such texts in view of a cultural framework, the Spirit always speaks "combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words" (1 Cor 2:13, NASB), not combining cultural words with spiritual thoughts. We will resort to Scripture itself to identify the significance of this description.
In Scripture, the "horse" is symbolic of warfare and militant aggression. "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God" (Psa 20:7). "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God" (Psa 33:17). "He delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man" (Psa 147:10). "The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but safety is of the LORD" (Prov 21:31). " . . . What have I done? every one turned to his course, as the horse rusheth into the battle" (Jer 8:6). Zechariah wrote of a "goodly horse in battle" (Zech 10:3). In the case of trusting in the initiatives of men (represented as "horses"), such is vain and foolish. But our text is not speaking of the initiatives of men, but of the fulfillment of the purpose of God. Notice: first John's attention is draw to the horse, and then to the rider on the horse. This is another way of saying the focus is on WHAT is occurring, then WHO is administrating the occurrence.
The horse is "white," which is also significant. This word is used nineteen times in revelation, and ALWAYS is associated with purity and Deity. There are NO exceptions. We read of the glorified Jesus with "His head and his hairs were WHITE like wool, as WHITE as snow" (1:14). Overcomers are promised a "WHITE stone" and "WHITE" raiment (2:17; 3:4,5,18). The twenty-four elders are clothed in "WHITE raiment" (4:4). The martyrs under the throne are provided "WHITE robes" as they wait to be vindicated (6:11). A vast multitude of those "sealed" by God are seen with "WHITE robes" (7:9,13,14). The "Son of Man" is seen sitting on a "WHITE" (14:14). A significant angel is witnessed proceeding from the heavenly temple, clothed in "pure and WHITE linen" (15:6). The "righteousness of the saints" is described as "fine linen, clean and WHITE" (19:8). The Lord Jesus Himself is depicted as riding on a "WHITE horse," and those following Him are also on "WHITE horses," clothed in "fine linen, clean and WHITE" (19:11,14). Finally, the place of ultimate accountability is called "a great WHITE throne" (Rev 20:11). Of old time, the singing Levites were all arrayed in WHITE (2 Chron 5:12). The purifying of men from their sin is called becoming "WHITE" (Isa 1:18). Daniel saw "the Ancient of days," clothed in WHITE (Dan 7:9). He also saw purging as being made WHITE (Dan 11:35; 12:10). When Jesus was transfigured, His garments become WHITE (Matt 17:2), and holy angels associated with His resurrection and ascension were clothed in WHITE (Matt 28:3; Mk 16:5; John 20:12; Acts 1:10). It is difficult to imagine how the Holy Spirit could structure our thinking on this word any clearer.
The "white horse" portrays heavenly warfare; a Divine initiative. We are not to filter this image through an earthly analysis of history, or some other form of natural thought. Too, the fact that is the "first" seal, sets the Lord in a proper perspective. He is primarily executing a heavenly purpose. While His reign does involve reactions to the sins of men, they are not the chief purpose of His reign.
The One Upon the Horse
"He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him . . . " The one sitting upon this white horse has a "bow," which is a declared instrument of warfare. David spoke of God's initiative against the wicked: "If he turn not, he will whet his sword; he hath bent HIS BOW, and made it ready" (Psa 7:12). "Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth HIS BOW to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces" (Psa 58:7). Jeremiah spoke of the Lord repulsing His enemies by means of "HIS BOW" (Lam 2:4; 3:12).
The "bow" is also a sign of power, as declared in the prophets. "O LORD, were You displeased with the rivers, Was Your anger against the rivers, Was Your wrath against the sea, That You rode on Your horses, Your chariots of salvation? YOUR BOW was made quite ready; Oaths were sworn over Your arrows. Selah You divided the earth with rivers" (Hab 3:8-9). " For I have bent Judah, MY BOW, Fitted the bow with Ephraim, And raised up your sons, O Zion, Against your sons, O Greece, And made you like the sword of a mighty man" (Zech 9:13). The overthrow of the enemies of God has been described in terms of the arrows projected by the bow. "Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the King's enemies; The peoples fall under You" (Psa 45:5). Here is a picture of EFFECTIVE Divine warfare, where the intention of the Lord will be fully executed.
This is a vivid picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, pure, holy, and aggressive. He is depicted as riding into the territory that had been dominated by the devil for over four millennia. He comes to conquer the hearts of men who have occupied realms of darkness. This picture coincides with Christ's declaration of His objectives in the Gospels. "I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division" (Luke 12:49-51). Jesus came to set the battle in array. While in the flesh, He was "straitened," or restricted, in this mission. But He is no longer in the flesh, having experienced the "baptism" of suffering in His death. When exalted to His throne, He began the Kingdom initiative, to take a people out of the world for His own name (Acts 15:14). The battle bow is in His hand, to smite the hearts of people with conviction, and triumph over the powers of darkness.
The Mission of the Rider
" . . . and he went out conquering and to conquer.
Here is the key to the whole vision. It can only be said of the Lord Jesus that He is "to conquer." All other kingdoms are temporary, and all of their power and seeming success is "given" to them by the God of heaven. They are not intended to ultimately conquer, but are only temporary pawns on the stage of Divine purpose. Remember, The triumphant Christ rides as the One fulfilling God's "eternal purpose." His objective is not to establish a competitive empire upon the earth, but to call men into a higher and eternal Kingdom. His is a righteous cause! He will triumph in His quest, defeating stubborn wills, adverse circumstances, and those who dare to challenge His power.
Some believe this is a picture of judgment upon the wicked that Jesus does not rise as one extending His Kingdom, but in retaliation for the wickedness of the kings and kingdoms of the world. That this is declared in this book cannot be denied but that is not the message of this vision. We are expressly told the mission of the rider, and it is not the punishment of the wicked. This rider "went out conquering and to conquer." Here is a most vivid picture of the cause behind the rapid spread of the Gospel in the first century.
The remarkable expansion of the Kingdom during the first century is a commentary on the effectiveness of the Rider on the white horse, the Lord Jesus Christ. The very first declaration of the Gospel yielded a harvest of 3,000 souls (Acts 2:41). The second major proclamation resulted in about 5,000 men believing the declared Word (Acts 4:4). The book of Acts records the steady growth of the body of Christ, and the words are marvelous. "And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women . . . And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied . . . And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith . . . Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did . . . And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith . . . And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized . . . And many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds . . . So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed" (Acts 5:14; 6:1; 8:14; 17:8; 18:8; 19:18, 20).
All of this was accomplished with no organization as we know it today. Everything was orchestrated by the Spirit of God under the administration of the Lord Jesus, Who went forth "conquering." A little more than one half of the first century had passed when Paul wrote, "This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant" (Col 1:23, NIV). Paul did not say it WOULD be preached, but that it had already been preached. If men doubt the possibility of this dynamic spread of the Gospel, consider this. From Jerusalem there was a dispersion of "devout men from every nation under heaven" and they went "everywhere, preaching the Word" (Acts 8:4). A converted political official took the Gospel into Africa, in the region of Ethiopia (Acts 8:27-39). "All they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord" during Paul's ministry (Acts 19:10). The book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel into Rome, Greece, Syria, and even the barbarous Isle of Malta (15:41; 19:21;20:2; 28:1-2). Nationalities represented by those born again at Pentecost included "Parthians (including India), and Medes (Persia), and Elamites (Northeast of Persian Gulf), and the dwellers in Mesopotamia (Syria), and in Judaea (Israel), and Cappadocia (Eastern Asia Minor), in Pontus (Northeastern Asia Minor), and Asia, Phrygia (Central Asia Minor), and Pamphylia (Southern coast of Asia Minor), in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene (North Africa), and strangers of Rome (Italy), Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians" (Acts 2:9-11). Obstacles like hoary Jewish tradition, commitment to justification by works, idolatry, witchcraft and curious arts, and Grecian philosophy were trampled down by the power of the Gospel of Christ.
John is shown the reality of this remarkable spread of the Gospel. This was the Lord Jesus Himself, conquering what seemed unconquerable, and triumphing gloriously. Many believers were attributing this success to the bearers of the message, and thus called themselves after those God used to convert them (1 Cor 1:12). Others saw it as the spread of a new religion, with no association with the living Christ (Acts 17:32). Still others saw it as an occasion to make a name for themselves, and to gain preeminence among the brethren (Phil 1:16; 3 John 9). But the truth of the matter is that is was the Lord Jesus, riding forth "conquering!" It should not surprise us, that to this very day, the effectiveness of the Gospel is rarely attributed to the Lord Jesus. Men are regularly lauded and extolled for their effectiveness in evangelism, missions, and general church growth. All such glorifying is vain, for man cannot produce spiritual increase. That is a prerogative belonging alone to Deity. As it is written, "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase" (1 Cor 3:6-7). As elementary as this may seem, it remains "sealed" to those who are not in fellowship with Christ Jesus.
This is a depiction of the glorious triumph of the Gospel from Pentecost to John, who wrote near the end of the first century. With major persecutions now beginning, believers may have been tempted to think the triumph was coming to an end. But this was not the case. The Lord Jesus is not only shown as conquering, but also "to conquer." There was more to come! The purpose of God would not be frustrated, and the saints would not be ultimately overcome! Before the conclusion of this book, we will hear the heavenly shout, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev 11:15). All of Christ's enemies will be openly and unquestionably subordinated. The devil and all of his forces will be cast into the lake of fire. All political and religious opposition will be decimated.
Remember, Christ's Kingdom is one of participation. Christ accomplishes His triumph through His people, empowering them to stand, opening their eyes to see, and filling their hearts with joy and peace. In every age, the Lord Jesus is looking for people through whom He can work. The number of them makes no difference. He can penetrate a heathen world with a Paul, or bring down a ruthless and dominating church with a Luther. There is "no restraint" with God (1 Sam 14:6).
We will see it is no small accomplishment to maintain faith when everything is going well, and the truth of the Gospel is spreading. Many a soul has fallen into pride and covetousness in the wake of apparent success. We will find that institutionalism soon became dominant, pushing Christ Jesus into the background. The condition exists to this day. With the rise of the institutional church, the rapid spread of the Gospel ground to a near-halt. Only where brave souls dare to oppose this spiritual encroachment is any real conquering found. But before the age concludes, the Revelation will present a suitable people who will follow the Lamb wherever He goes. The triumph will be concluded with these faithful souls at Christ's side, with crowns on their heads, and shouts of praise upon their lips.
THE SECOND SEAL
"When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, 'Come and see.'" We are witnessing the fulfillment of Divine purpose in the earth. As we will see, everything shown is not pleasant, nor is it intended to be. This book is written for the comfort and consolation of the saints to assure them they would be sustained through every form of difficulty. Faith is superior to earthly knowledge, and will bolster the one possessing it to stand when it does not seem possible to stand. We must not allow ourselves to entertain a glamorous view of the Kingdom of God, imagining that the reign of Christ Jesus inducts a time of ease and comfort. John could tell us from the Isle of Patmos that he had not found it to be so. He confessed he was a "brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ" (1:9). John is now given to behold another aspect of God's redemptive purpose.
The Color of the Horse
"Another horse, fiery red, went out." The color of this horse is "red," signifying the shedding of blood. The color red is associated with blood in Scripture. In a stunning overthrow of the wicked Moabites, an event occurred by which the Moabites were deceived. It is written, "Then they rose up early in the morning, and the sun was shining on the water; and the Moabites saw the water on the other side as red as blood. And they said, This is blood; the kings have surely struck swords and have killed one another; now therefore, Moab, to the spoil!" (2 Kgs 3:22-23). The remaining words of this verse will confirm this to be a declaration of fierce and relentless militancy. It depicts violent disruption, particularly with regards to the people of God.
The Mission of its Rider
"And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword." Throughout this book, we must not allow this perspective to get away from us. Every thing that occurs is within the perimeter of Christ's government. Nothing takes place outside of His strict and purposeful control. The rider received power to fulfill his mission. "It was given unto him . . . " Seventeen times this perspective is given in the Revelation (6:2,4,8,11; 8:2,3; 9:1,3,5; 11:1,2; 12:14; 13:5,7; 16:6,8). The only way to effectively comfort those who are "in any trouble" (2 Cor 1:4) is to persuade them of the Sovereignty of the Lord in their circumstance. If the Lord is not in absolute control, the circumstances of life will crush our hope. That is why true men of God acknowledge, "For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord" (2 Cor 4:5).
This rider was given power to "take peace from the earth." That is a most arresting statement! It teaches us that times of agitation and trouble do not come at random! It also teaches us, "When He gives quietness, who then can make trouble?" (Job 34:29). God can give men rest from their enemies, and has done so in the past (Deut 25:19; Josh 1:15; 21:44; 23:1; 2 Sam 7:1; 1 Kgs 5:4; 8:56; 2 Chron 14:6). That peace can only be disrupted when it is "given" from the Throne of the Lord. Satan cannot force disruption upon the world, or upon an individual, without Divine approval. If it were it not for the Ruling Lord, animosity of a most fierce nature would be unleashed, as it were, upon the face of the whole earth.
While He spoke of this condition among the Jewish people, Jesus described such a circumstance, on the domestic level, in most vivid language. "Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death" (Mark 13:12). Ezekiel also spoke of this most unusual ferocity. "I will call for a sword . . . Every man's sword will be against his brother" (Ezek 38:21). He also spoke of it on a global basis. "For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (Matt 24:7). In the days of king Asa, a condition like this existed. "And in those times there was no peace to the one who went out, nor to the one who came in, but great turmoil was on all the inhabitants of the lands. So nation was destroyed by nation, and city by city, for God troubled them with every adversity" (2 Chron 15:5-6). Isaiah also spoke of a situation where hostility existed between nations. "I will set Egyptians against Egyptians; Everyone will fight against his brother, And everyone against his neighbor, City against city, kingdom against kingdom" (Isa 19:2). Now, John is given to see such activity on an unprecedented scale. Imagine taking peace from the earth! Although men have become accustomed to trouble, agitation, and bloodshed throughout the world, they must be careful to view such things from the heavenly perspective. Brutality, bloodshed, and the absence of peace would reign ruthlessly and without interruption, were it not for the King of kings!
Remember, the Revelation is not a mere recounting of history in advance; it is the delineation of the "eternal purpose" of God. Here a sort of spiritual map is provided to reveal the circumstances through which the sons of God will be brought to glory. They will not be brought to the heavenly Jerusalem from the Garden of Eden, but in the cauldron of social, political, and spiritual conflict. The removal of peace from the earth, as described in this vision, is targeted to test the saints, and reveal the superiority of faith to circumstance. The disintegration of human relationships is a dreadful thought, but that is involved in taking peace from the earth.
Of particular focus here is the persecution of the saints. In the removal of peace, violent opposition breaks out against the people of God. Extensive oppression of believers followed the extraordinary spread of the Gospel into all the world. Early in the life of the church, it "found favor with all of the people" (Acts 2:47; 4:21). Oppositions were largely from the Jews, with no significant initiatives against them by the rest of the world (Acts 9:23; 13:45,50; 17:5,13; 18:12; 19:33; 20:3; 23:12; 25:7; 28:19). Herod's antagonism against Peter was prompted because he saw it "pleased the Jews" (Acts 12:3). In a telling statement of the case, Paul wrote to Gentile believers in Thessalonica, " For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost" (1 Thess 2:14-16). But this condition changed toward the end of the First century!
Fierce and relentless persecution broke out against the saints of God, as well as a worldly climate of war and tumult. The rider on the red horse began to cut a swath through the world that would yield a bath of blood among the people of God. In 64 A.D., Nero opposed the people of God, with Paul and Peter martyred in the wake of his assault. In his day, legal decisions that were favorable to Christians were overturned. In 95 A.D. Domitian persecuted the people of God, during which over 40,000 died. In 163 A.D., after a third persecution by Trajan, Antonioius inflicted a grievous persecution against believers, in which Polycarp and Justin Martyr died. In the year 202 A.D. Septimus Serverus engaged in an initiative against the church. Maximum began a bloody persecution in 202 A.D., Decius in 256 A.D., and Valarius in 259 A.D. 200 years of aggressive and bloody persecution!
Of this period, Workman wrote, "For 200 years, to become a Christian meant the great renunciation, the joining a despised and persecuted sect, the swimming against the tide of popular prejudice, the coming under the ban of the Empire, the possibility at any moment of imprisonment and death under its most fearful forms. For 200 years he that would follow Christ must count the cost, and be prepared to pay the same with his liberty and life. For 200 years the mere profession of Christianity was itself a crime. 'Christianus sum' was almost the one plea for which there was Persecution no forgiveness, in itself all that was necessary as a `title' on the back of the condemned. He who made it was allowed neither to present apology, nor call in the aid of a pleader. `Public hatred, ' writes Tertullian, `asks but one thing, and that not investigation into the crimes charged, but simply the confession of the Christian name. ' For the name itself in periods of stress, not a few, meant the rack, the blazing shirt of pitch, the lion, the panther, or in the case of maidens an infamy worse than death" (Workman, 103, from International Standard Bible Encylopedia).
This was a 200 year persecution from Rome. An estimated 50,000,000 believers were martyred during this time because of their identity with Christ Jesus. War also rose to new heights after 220 A.D. At that time, four great civilizations existed in the world. The Roman Empire, Sassanian Empire, the Gupta Dynasty, and the Han dynasty. These were noted for social stability, houses of wood and stone, great cities, and extensive literary works. Another group of people lived in Central Asia, who dwelt in tents, and could neither read nor write. It appeared the more formal civilizations had nothing to fear from these nomads. But then the rider on the red horse entered, taking peace from the earth. The nomads traveled far and wide, often invading China, India, Persia, and Rome. In 220 A.D., the Huns swept into China and ended the Han dynasty. In 484, they killed the Persian Emporer, and in 535 brought an end to the Gupta dynasty in India. The most famous of all Huns, Attilia, invaded Italy in 452. Later military groups included the Goths, and the Visigoths, who sacked Rome in 410. The Vandals came in 455 capturing Carthage, and also destroying Rome. Peace, as it were, had been "taken from the earth." If you are only casually familiar with this period of history, you know these wars were characterized by remarkable brutality and heartlessness.
The historical persecutions and wars just mentioned, however do not constitute the complete fulfillment of the red horse and its rider. Rather, this is a depiction of one type of obstacle that lies between the saints and glory; one that is accentuated from time to time in human history. Were this not the case, the book of revelation would not have the comforting power it was designed to have. Many a Twentieth Century believer can readily identify with the rider on the red horse, as well as clusters of saints throughout the world.
Both persecution and war are encompassed in the vision but from the standpoint of the saints. "Why," it might be reasoned, was power "given" to take peace from the earth, and inflict suffering upon the saints of the Most High God?" There are at least two reasons, and both of them are lofty. First, the church is superior to this world. The earth can unleash its best and most formidable opposition against the redeemed, but they will stand by their faith. The church will sail to glory on a sea of blood, if called upon to do so. The loss of earthly life, and the frail tabernacle that attends it, will not impede their journey. Both persecution and war confirmed the superiority of spiritual life and weaponry.
Second, heavenly powers and principalities witnessed the greatness of the grace of God. In spite of unjust and heartless treatment, believers maintained a non-retaliatory spirit. They were willing to commit their cause to the Lord, knowing He would settle it for them. They formed no army to march against their enemies, nor did they side with an earthly empire in an unholy alliance, as did some of the kings in Israel's history (1 Kgs 13:1; 2 Chron 18:1; 2 Chron 20:35). Even in their death, they glorified God, regarding it an honor to lay down their lives for their Lord. You may rest assured, these noble martyrs will be duly compensated by the Lord for sacrificing their lives in order to maintain their identity with the Lord Jesus.
One additional observation about this period of time. Persecution neutralizes the development of erroneous theological views. It is true that, for the elect, hearts and minds are more focused during times of duress. Much false teaching and corrupted theological views, have been developed in periods of ease and acceptance from the world. Times of ease and acceptance have often proved to be open doors for the development of flawed and harmful views of Scripture. We do well to be alert in such times, and valiant for the truth.
THE THIRD SEAL
"When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a black horse . . . " Now we turn to the natural order, beholding the control of the Sovereign Christ in that realm as well. The reigning Lamb maintained the saints in the bloody opposition of its enemies. Now He will maintain it when the earth refuses to yield its increase.
This is a depiction of famine, when the scarcity of food prevails. Notice, the horse is "black." Here a time of trouble is seen. Scripture has established the power of the language of this text. "Like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, as a strong people set in battle array. Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness" (Joel 2:5-6). " . . .and the faces of them all gather blackness" (Nah 2:10). "My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat" (Job 30:29). "For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it" (Jer 4:28). "BLACK," then, speaks of mourning and woe, calamity and hardship. This is descriptive of something infinitely more than a handicap or inconvenience. It represents a most severe trial, brought upon all mankind, but particularly upon the saints. This woe is different from the previous one. The blood of the saints is not shed in this case. The church is not faced with a bloody persecution. The test of their faith comes from a different perspective.
" . . . and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius . . . " Here is a picture of famine, when needed resources are scarce, and must be measured with discretion. The language reminds us of expressions of old time, when God brought famines. "When I have cut off your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall bring back your bread by weight, and you shall eat and not be satisfied" (Lev 26:26). In his lamentations, Jeremiah spoke vividly of such times. "Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine" (Lam 5:10). Ezekiel also spoke of famine in this sort of figure. "And thy meat which thou shalt eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it . . . and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment" (Ezek 4:10,16).
This rider inducts a time of famine, when food would be so scare it would have to be sold by weight. A pair of scales, or more properly "balances" (KJV), signifies the weighing of goods. As it is written, (Lev 19:35-36; Ezek 5:1; Dan 5:27). Elsewhere in Scripture, this is called "breaking the whole staff of bread" (Psa 105:16; Ezek 4:16; 5:16; 14:13). Those who doubt the Lord can allow, and even cause, such things to happen, must rethink the matter. Of old time, God "called for a famine" (2 Kgs 8:1). He declared He would "send" a famine (Jer 24:10), and cause them to come upon those who did not submit to His judgments (Jer 27:8; 29:17).
As with other sections of this grand book, there is a historical fulfillment of the passage, as well as the statement of Divine purpose and principle. Following the season of war and persecution, there was, indeed, a time of fierce and relentless famine. A single excerpt from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of Rome will serve to confirm this point. "But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present and future harvests. Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, to have contributed to the plague, which, from the year 250 to the year 265, raged without interruption in every province, city, and almost every family of the Roman empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns that had escaped the hands of the Barbarians, were entirely depopulated. Applying this authentic fact to the most correct tables of mortality, it evidently proves tbat about half the people of Alexandria perished; and could we venture to extend the analogy to the other provinces, we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine, had consumed, in a few years, about HALF OF THE HUMAN SPECIES." (Decline and Fall of Rome, Vol 1, Chap 10).
From the standpoint of Rome, this was nothing less than Divine reprisal for its maltreatment of the saints of God. Viewing it from the perspective of nature, it is as though the creation rebelled at the treatment of the sons of God, refusing to yield its produce. From the standpoint of the saints, it was a time in which faith was again proved superior over everything under heaven. From the viewpoint of heavenly principalities and powers, it was confirmation of the strength of the grace of God.
The Sovereignty of our Lord is seen in this black horse and its rider. As the plague descends upon the earth, a cry is heard from heavenly places. This plague will not be without Divine restraint. " . . . and do not harm the oil and the wine.'" A limitation is placed upon the rider. Though widespread, the famine did not destroy everything vital to humanity. The figures of "oil" and "wine" are declared in Scripture. "He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man's heart" (Psa 104:14,15). These expressions denote joyful sustenance, when the heart is made strong and joyful in God, even though circumstances seem to contradict faith. The limitation placed upon the rider of the black horse affirmed the upholding of the people of God. Saints of God have confronted famine, and we should not be surprised if they do again (Abraham Gen 12:10; 26:1, Jacob and his sons--Gen 41:57; 42:5; 43:1, Ruth and Namoi--Ruth 1:1, David 2 Sam 21:1, Elijah 1 Kgs 18:2; 2 Kgs 4:38; 8:1). Still, in those times, the word was fulfilled, "Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, On those who hope in His mercy, To deliver their soul from death, And to keep them alive in famine" (Psa 33:18- 19).
Some have taken a spiritual view of this text, seeing the famine as a spiritual famine. I do not rule this out. Passages such as this cannot be confined to the realm of history. God simply does not speak in that manner. History is always a projection of higher and eternal principles, and may be used to clarify the nature of spiritual life. Looking at the black horse and its rider from this perspective, we have a reference to spiritual famine, when the Word of the Lord will become exceeding scarce due to the propagation of error and the loss of spiritual appetite. Through Amos, God did speak of sending such a famine upon the land. "Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, But shall not find it" (Amos 8:11- 12).
Such periods have often come upon the earth. In the days of Samuel, every word of God was "precious," because there was no "open vision," or "widespread revelation" (1 Sam 3:1, KJV, NKJV). There were also the "Dark Ages," when spiritual ignorance reigned for a thousand years. There is a form of spiritual famine afoot in our land today, when the real Word of God is scarcely heard, and the Gospel has been buried beneath the rubble of religious tradition. Yet, the "oil" and "wine" necessary for spiritual life remain available to those who will seek for it. God can not only prepare us a table "in the presence" of our enemies, He can do it in the midst of a spiritual famine as well. Faith always makes us superior to the circumstances! There was a point in history, after the widespread persecution of the church, when heresy was disseminated with remarkable zeal and effectiveness. Many of the erroneous views spawned during that time, remain powerful influences to this very day.
THE FOURTH SEAL
"When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a pale horse." Here again, trouble is increasing, and fear is in its wake. A pale horse speaks of a time of fear and trouble in the extremity. God described the time of Israel's blessing as one in which its face would not "grow pale," flushed, as it were, because of fear and consternation (Isa 29:22). A time Jeremiah described as "Jacob's trouble" was one in which "all faces turned pale" (Jer 30:6). The color "pale" is one of greenish-white the color of one stricken with grievous disease, or moved with feelings of panic and consternation. From the standpoint of nature, disease and debilitating fear generally follows war and famine. The idea of the passage is the multiplication of sorrows, the increase of difficulty, and the enlarged effects of relentless trouble.
"And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth." Oh, the dread of it all. Death comes charging onto the scene, with Hades following it. This means death will not only be a possibility, it shall happen, and the unseen world will open wide to receive its victims. Here is the conclusion of troubles the world in general, and believers in particular, will be called upon to undergo.
But lest the fainthearted become victims of their own imagination, we are quickly told of our Lord's control of this situation. Power, or authority, was GIVEN to "them" (death and hades) over "a fourth part of the earth." Death could not run at will, nor could hades swallow up humanity at its own behest. This was a matter strictly managed by the Lord of glory. Remember, our consolation is in what the Lord does, not whether or not we go through difficulties. Our times are in the Lord's hand (Psa 31:15), not in the hands of death! Death itself has no power except what is given to it. When it girdles the globe with seeming effectiveness, it is only because it has been "given power" to do so. That means that God, even in that last contradicting circumstance, will work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28).
The term "Hades" (translated "hell" in the KJV) has been confusing to many. This word is, what is called, a transliteration: i.e., the Greek letters are simply converted to English letters, rather than the word itself being translated. Most of the time this is done, it is because there is no English word that precisely parallels the term. Grammatically speaking, the word haides ( ë "the hades") means the world of the dead: literally, an unseen place. Although some theology sees this as synonymous with the grave, this is not the case. There is another word for "grave." It is mnemeion (æ æî ), and means tomb, grave, or sepulcher the place of interment for the body. This is where they laid the body of Lazarus (John 11:17). It is where Jesus' body was "buried" (Matt 27:60), and where the disciples laid the body of John the Baptist (Mark 6:29). Hades, as we understand it, relates to the soul, while the grave relates to the body.
The rider on this pale horse is identified as "Death" which is a third consideration. Death is the process by which the body is consigned to the grave, and the soul goes to Hades. The word "death" comes from thanatos (é àç ) and means a separation. In the case of mortality, it is the separation of the soul from the body (Rom 5:14; 8:38; 1 Cor 15:54). In the case of spiritual death, it is the separation of the individual from God (Rom 6:21; 7:13; 8:6). Death is not annihilation, or non-existence. It is separation. This rider represents a wave of death that will effect a significant percentage of mankind.
The means of death are divers, covering most known areas. Notice the classifications. The sword (war), hunger (famine), death (disease and pestilence), and the beasts of the earth. In summary, this is death by unnatural means. It parallels a statement made in Ezekiel 14:21. "How much more it shall be when I send My four severe judgments on Jerusalem; the sword and famine and wild beasts and pestilence; to cut off man and beast from it?" Ezekiel saw the same four means that John saw: the sword, famine (hunger), wild beasts (beasts of the earth), and pestilence (death). What Ezekiel saw related to Jerusalem. What John saw related to the world. These four means are mentioned elsewhere, in connection with judgment (Ezek 5:17; Jer 16:4). Showing Sovereign control over all creation, even the beasts of the earth are appointed to bring death among men (Lev 26:22; Deut 32:24).
Here is the fulfillment of the ancient prophesy, "Therefore Sheol has enlarged itself And opened its mouth beyond measure . . . " (Isa 5:14). The word "Sheol" is a general word denoting the region of the dead. Sometimes it refers to the grave (Gen 37:35; 42:38; Psa 6:5; Isa 38:18; Hos 13:14) , and sometimes to Hades (Deut 32:22; Psa 9:17; 16:10; Ezek 21:21; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2). Isaiah affirms that the region of the dead can "enlarge itself," preparing, as it were, to receive a large number of those cut off from the earth.
While this precisely coincides with a period of human history, it is not confined to it. We are viewing history from behind the scenes. From a higher vantage point, we are beholding the unfolding of Divine purpose. Of specific interest is the manner in which the saints of God confront death, in all of its varied forms. Faith empowered them to confront death head-on, not fearing the rider on the pale horse. The Psalmist challenges, "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace" (Psa 37:37). The saints know that "whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8).
SCENES OF SUFFERING
In the second, third, and fourth seals, we have witnessed scenes of suffering. It seems to me they have provided a thorough view of suffering. There is persecution, the conflict of nature, and death itself, with everything that attends it. We have read of fierce and unrelenting opposition, bloodshed, famine and all forms of deprivation (both natural and spiritual). We also saw the full scope of death, including violence by the sword, starvation, death in its general sense, and being devoured with the beasts of the earth. It has been, from one perspective, a gruesome picture. But none of these things were able to effectively neutralize the conquering Savior, or the faith of those who trust Him. The "great salvation" was adequate for every test even in extreme measures.
We have witnessed a compendium of world history! It all confirms the saints are strangers and pilgrims in the world, not ultimately suited for it. It also substantiates that faith is equal to any and every worldly challenge. Listen to the confidence with which those dominated by faith and hope speak. "To die is gain" . . . "We die unto the Lord" . . . "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" . . . "The time of my departure is at hand" . . . "I am about to put off this earthly tabernacle" . . . We know that is the earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, eternal in the heavens" (Phil 1:21; Rom 14:8; 2 Cor 5:8; 2 Tim 4:6; 2 Pet 1:14; 2 Cor 5:1). Suffice it to say, the high purposes of God will not be served by our convenience and comfortable circumstances. The crucible of hardship has proved a far better arena for the development of character and the glory of God
THE FIFTH SEAL
A New Location
"When He opened the fifth seal . . . " The panorama now shifts from the seen world to the unseen world. Upon the opening of each of the previous four seals, one of the living creatures said, "Come and see!" But no such summons accompanies the opening of the fifth seal. Neither is a horse and rider associated with this seal. This is not an earthly conquest. In the opening of this seal, we are transported into the realm where there is neither war nor rumor of war. No pestilence here, nor disease, nor ravishing of wild beasts. This is a realm where life on earth is a recollection, a memory--something that is past.
Personalities Are Seen
"I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held." Here is one of the rare occurrences in Scripture where "souls" are seen. These are representative of a particular segment of "the spirits of just men made perfect," into whose fellowship we have been called (Heb 12:23). They have already experienced the "dissolving" of their "earthly tabernacles," in which they no longer "groan." They are no longer burdened with the weight of mortality they are "souls" (2 Cor 5:1-4). Having met their appointment of death (Heb 9:27), and "finished" their race (2 Tim 4:6), we are given a glimpse of them on the other side, as it were. We will find that Christ has been "magnified" by their death (Phil 1:20).
And who are these "souls?" They are martyrs, who were "slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held." They were rejected upon earth, but are now in the proximity of the throne. They had been "slain," or murdered, because of their proclamation of the Word of God, and their personal identity with the Lord. They were not respected for being religious, or accepted because of their outgoing personalities. These "souls" had not gained popularity because of their religious success, or for the formation of an effective Christian organization. These were not the revered pastors of mega-churches, or the authors of self-help books and secret tips to spirituality. No! They held to a testimony of their own. It was not borrowed, the result of a course they had taken, or a finely tuned theological system. The "souls" we now behold had embraced the "glorious Gospel of the blessed God," "tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come," and given their hearts to its proclamation. Stephen may have been among their number (Acts 7:58-60), as well as James (Acts 12:2), John the Baptist (Mark 6:18-28), and Peter and Paul. Perhaps the first martyr, Abel, was among them (Gen 4:3-8), and the godly prophets slain by wicked Jezebel (1 Kgs 18:4,13). While the emphasis is doubtless being placed upon those slain during the rides of the previous three horsemen, I doubt it is limited to them.
These "souls" were not slain because of the way they lived! Their death was brought on because of what they SAID! The trite saying, I had rather see a sermon than hear one, may have some element of truth in it, but it is certainly a small one. Those who suppose that a godly life speaks louder than the Word of God need to reexamine their view. Godly conduct "adorns" the doctrine it does not replace it (Tit 2:10). The "souls" we now see were "SLAIN" because they bore witness to the truth. They brought the message of God to men, and were killed because of it. They endeavored to turn men from darkness to light, and therefore their lives were taken from them. How defiled the world must be for such a thing to happen! In them, the Word of God was fulfilled: "Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Psa 44:22), " . . . whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it" (Lk 9:24), "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death" (Rev 12:11).
And where are these souls located? It is "under the altar." They are not in the center of the throne, as the Lamb. Nor, indeed, are they among the four living creatures and twenty-four elders that surround the throne. We behold no thrones for them, as for the twenty-four elders. They are "under the altar." While the twenty-four elders depict the ultimate state of the righteous of all ages, these "souls" are seen during the interim state between the time of the vision and the end of the world. The "altar" alludes to the brazen altar of the tabernacle, where beasts were slain, and their blood poured out at its foot. As it is written, "And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the LORD, which is in the tabernacle of meeting; and he shall pour the remaining blood of the bull at the base of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of meeting" (Lev 4:7). The lives of these "souls" had been offered to God upon the altar of spiritual sacrifice. In interest of eternal things, and within a rich fellowship with the Lord Jesus, they had forfeited their lives rather than neutralize their message. The concept of being "offered" to God is also affirmed elsewhere in Scripture (Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6).
Some have speculated what "the altar" might be. It has been viewed as Christ Himself. Others perceive it as indicative of a temporal state, a sort of holding place for departed saints like "Abraham's bosom," where Lazarus was carried by angels upon his death (Lk 16:22). While I am inclined to the latter view, the vision is emphasizing the recognition of the martyrs' death, and the commitment of God to vindicating them before the curtain is drawn down upon earth's history. Care must be taken not to allow speculations to cloud the message, or to be diverted to novel tributaries of theological thought.
Contrary to the notions of the soul-sleeper, these personalities are not unconscious and inactive. They do not fulfill Solomon's "under the sun" view of death: i.e., " . . . there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (Eccl 9:10). Quite to the contrary, we find these souls with both knowledge and wisdom. Through the Gospel, we have gained insight into the unseen realms that even Solomon did not possess.
And what do these "souls" cry out? We do not hear them praising God, or declaring relief that they have left the world at last. "And they cried with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" I am not surprised that this contradicts, and glaringly so, much contemporary theology. This is the cry of liberated souls that have passed beyond domain of the curse, yet have not yet entered into the fulness of God's glory. Although they are no longer in the realm of time, they remain conscious of it. They are in not the world, yet maintain an interest in what is occurring there.
Hear them! They are interested in the cause for which they were slain. They knew the cause was right, and the world was in error. When shall the truth for which they gave their lives triumph over wrong? When will all doubt be removed as to who was right and who was wrong? When will the name of the Lord be fully glorified, and His martyred saints be vindicated? For some, the whole matter is inconsequential. They have given little of themselves to the Lord and His revealed objectives, so this kind of thought does not even occur to them. Such sophists cannot conceive of the blood of the saints being "avenged!" Like it or not, their blood will be avenged by God!
In a scathing rebuke of His generation, the Lord Jesus announced this aspect of Divine justice. "Therefore the wisdom of God also said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,' that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation" (Luke 5:49-51). Indeed, if "God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have showed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Heb 6:10), He surely will not forget the blood of His martyrs!
Vengeance is an aspect of the Divine nature, and we do well to remember it! The Psalmist ascribed vengeance to the Lord, asking that He show Himself much like the request of the souls under the altar. "O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs; O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth!" (Psa 94:1). The Holy Spirit urges believers not to take matters into their own hands, avenging themselves. Rather, they are to feed their enemies when they are hungry, and give them to drink when they are thirsty (Rom 12:20). But let us NOT be naive about this matter. Unless they repent, that is not how the Lord will treat them. "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom 12:19; Deut 32:35,45; Nah 1:2-3; Heb 10:30). The martyrs are aware of this aspect of the Divine nature. Their question is not IF He will avenge their blood, but WHEN He will. Their blood, like that of Abel, was crying out from the ground. The cry of these souls is not a request for mere retaliation. They appeal to the holiness and truthfulness of God. "How long, O Lord, HOLY AND TRUE, dost Thou NOT judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? For their blood not to be avenged would render God unholy. If God did not vindicate these faithful saints, He would no longer be true. But He is both Holy and True, and their blood will be avenged!
Again, a soft and deceived church knows nothing of the circumstance unveiled at the opening of the fifth seal. This is not the representation of agitated and vindictive souls, but of righteous ones. It is not the first time we have heard godly souls cry out, "HOW LONG?" This cry also came from David. "My soul also is greatly troubled; But You, O LORD; HOW LONG?" (Psa 6:3). "HOW LONG, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? HOW LONG will You hide Your face from me? HOW LONG shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily? HOW LONG will my enemy be exalted over me?" (Psa 13:1-2). "Lord, HOW LONG will You look on?" (Psa 35:17). "O God, HOW LONG will the adversary reproach? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?" (Psa 74:10). "LORD, HOW LONG will the wicked, How long will the wicked triumph?" (Psa 94:3). The prophet Habakkuk also cried out, "O LORD, HOW LONG shall I cry, And You will not hear? Even cry out to You, 'Violence!' And You will not save" (Hab 1:2). The godly, whether in this world or "under the altar," are not content to see the cause of Christ opposed and His people maligned and slain. They will NOT take matters into their own hands, but by faith they know the Lord will not let their persecutors go unpunished. It is righteous for them to acquiesce with God in this matter, and they are not to be criticized by those whose professed faith has brought them no suffering. Paul once said, "Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works" (2 Tim 4:14). David once said to Saul, "Let the LORD judge between you and me, and let the LORD avenge me on you. But my hand shall not be against you" (1 Sam 24:8). Again he said, "And I am weak today, though anointed king; and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too harsh for me. The LORD shall repay the evildoer according to his wickedness" (2 Sam 3:34). To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, "it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you" (2 Thess 1:6). Do not be tempted to lightly regard the persecution and death of God's people. Such atrocities have not gone unnoticed by God, and He will surely settle the accounts. I know well that we to pray for those who persecute and use us despitefully (Matt 5:44). But unless they repent, their opposition to the people of God will prove to be their undoing.
The Answer Given to Them
These martyred souls are not rebuked for making such a request. They are not told their question is out of order. "Then a white robe was given to each of them . . . " First, a "white robe" was given to each one of them. It was as though they were told: God is righteous in waiting to execute vengeance, and you are righteous in waiting also. This robe speaks of assurance that their death will not go unavenged. It also confirms they are approved of God now. Additionally, it indicates their reservation, as it were, for the marriage supper of the Lamb. It also confirms the high and settled peace that belongs to those who have laid down their lives of the Word of Christ. Though not in the fulness of glory, these souls are now absolutely free from the possibility of defilement.
" . . . and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer . . . " The matter is under the control of the conquering Lamb, and He will leave no injustice unjudged. The martyrs are told "they should rest a little while longer." Their cry for vengeance was not inappropriate, it was premature. They were to rest in peace and assurance, knowing the Judge of all the earth would do right. They were also to rest from asking "How long . . . ?" They must be content to wait, if only for "a little while longer." Ultimately, all accounts will be settled when the Lord comes again and that is just "a little while." As it is written, "For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry" (Heb 10:37). There is a Divine purpose being served. It is larger than the martyrs, yet includes the proper vindication of them. It is comforting to note their question was neither rebuked nor ignored. Attention was given to the matter that concerned them, and they were given what was necessary to sustain them until the time of reckoning.
" . . . until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed." Some theological stances will not allow such language but faith is able to embrace it. There was a "number" of fellow servants that should yet be "killed." This number is known only to God but it does exist. They are souls "accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Psa 44:22; Rom 8:36). Each of them will be given grace to glorify God in their death, even as did Peter, who was also appointed to this number (John 21:19). Of old time, the saints counted martyrdom an honor, and did not balk when their faith cost them their lives. A church comfortably ensconced in the world knows nothing of this spirit.
THE SIXTH SEAL
We have walked through the history of the world, seeing it from the standpoint of the heavenly Kingdom. God has His way in the world, whether it is in the triumphant spread of the Gospel, and the sweeping of multitudes into the Kingdom, or in the preservation of the saints during extraordinary opposition and hardship. God's people are going to surface from all of these things. Their faith is adequate for the challenges of success, the assault of persecution, the oppression of famine, and the experience of death by unnatural causes. While the Israelites were excluded from the ten plagues of Egypt, safe in the land of Goshen (Ex 8:22; 9:26; 10:23), those in Christ Jesus are not exempt from the afflictions just mentioned. High and holy purposes are being served by their participation in the Divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Too, the wickedness of the wicked is being brought out by the presence of the godly. Additionally, the extreme hatred of Satan surfaces as the work of grace becomes more evident.
Now we face the inevitable conclusion of it all. Nature, which brought its famines and plagues, will be folded up as a garment. The persecutors of the church will confront the Lord of the people they hated, maligned, and even killed. The day of the Lamb's wrath is scheduled on the Divine agenda, and we are going to catch a glimpse of it here.
"I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?'"
The language is so vivid, it is difficult to escape its meaning. Notwithstanding, all manner of doctrine has been spewed upon the church regarding this passage. Some suppose it is a graphic portrayal of a temporal judgment (in particular, the destruction of Jerusalem), even though the vision seems to go out of its way to ensure this view is not entertained. It is a bit of strained theology that applies such lofty and universal language to provincial judgment, upon a particularly small section of the world. The judgment of Jerusalem was fierce and awesome. But it was a type of a greater judgment that will occur when everything is shaken, and all of the wicked are called into account.
What we are seeing here is the end of all things, and the final confrontation of the Lamb by His enemies. The very same day is portrayed as one of blessing, joy, and glory for the saved (2 Thess 1:8-10). But this is a book of judgment; a record of the dealings of God with His enemies. The first seal revealed the triumph of Christ over all. The next three seals revealed the experience of the saints upon the earth. The fifth seal unveils that departed saints will still be vindicated. Now, we are projected to the end of time.
" . . . and behold, there was a great earthquake . . . " There are indications in Scripture that the end of the world will be preceded by some arresting indicators. Such a picture is portrayed in this very text. "A great earthquake" signifies the shaking of all things as prophesied by both Isaiah and Haggai. "Therefore I will shake the heavens, And the earth will move out of her place, In the wrath of the LORD of hosts And in the day of His fierce anger" (Isa 13:13). "For thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land" (Hag 2:6). The Spirit confirms this to be a declaration of the end of all things, in Hebrews 12:26-28. "Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire."
Those who have a light-hearted view of the Living God, and of the Lamb, will do well to ponder this passage. The earth will convulse, as if getting ready to give birth to a "new earth" that will be filled with righteousness. The earth writhed and thrashed about at Sinai, and trembled when Jesus died. But that is nothing compared to what will occur as the end is upon us.
" . . . and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood." During the ordinary course of nature, the sun and the moon are known for their faithfulness and reliability. The Psalmist measured faithful occurrences in these words, "They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations . . . In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth" (Psa 72:5-7). How marvelously their stability is portrayed in Isaiah. "Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for a light by day, The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, And its waves roar (The LORD of hosts is His name): If those ordinances depart From before Me, says the LORD, Then the seed of Israel shall also cease From being a nation before Me forever" (Jer 31:35-36).
But there is coming a time when the light of the sun will be extinguished, and it will cease to make its successive journeys across the sky. How frequently this is mentioned in Scripture. (Isa 13:10; Joel 2:10,31Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24). God will, in the end, "clothe the heavens with blackness," and "make sackcloth their covering" (Isa 50:3) the funeral of the universe!
While some seek to spiritualize this text, we do well to consider it within the context of this remarkable affirmation. It will require an extreme amount of effort to separate this occurrence from the end of all things. The most stable of all heavenly bodies will fail! The moon will become "like blood," dark and foreboding. This phenomenon is mentioned three times in Scripture (Joel 2:31; Acts 2:20; Rev 6:12), and depicts a dreadful conclusion to nature.
"And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind." The multiplicity of stars confirms the greatness of this occasion. Only God knows their vast number, yet calls them all by name (Psa 147:4). It is true that "stars" often depict earthly rulers and dignitaries (Gen 37:9; Dan 12:3; Obadiah 1:4; Jude 1:3). However, that sort of imagery does not fit into this passage. It is too climactic to be viewed as anything other than "the end of all things." God will shake the heavens (Isa 13:13; Joel 3:16), and cause the stars to jar out of their place and fall, just like a giant wind strips a tree of its winter fruit. We are witnessing the demise of nature, coming down, as it were, in a manner that will be observed by all men.
"Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place." In Genesis 1:1, the universe was unfolded like a giant scroll, upon which would be written the workings of the Lord. But in the end of time, that universe will be rolled up, brought to a conclusion, and replaced with a new heavens and a new earth. Nature, that has survived for the history of the world, will be "moved out of its place." Great mountains and mountain ranges, long noted for their stability (Psa 36:6; 65:6; 125:2), will be removed. Nothing will be able to hide the ungodly from the Lamb. The heavenly bodies in which they trusted, and out of which they made gods, will fail. They will not be able to take refuge in the mountains, or remote Isles, that have in existence for centuries. The time of reckoning has come.
"And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! "For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" Our attention is turned to those unreconciled to God through the Lamb. Earth's dignitaries, who had initiated attacks against the saints, are brought into view. The "great" men of the earth, noted for their influence are seen. "Rich men," who thought to change the course of things with their silver and gold, together with commanders who marshaled armies, and "mighty men" who won great battles, are all effected by what is happening. Every quadrant of society is influenced, including every one who served others, and those who were free from social bondage. They had opposed the saints, refused to hear them, and either were aggressive against them, or allowed them to be persecuted and killed without lifting their voice or siding with them. Now, they must confront ultimate reality. Like Adam in the Garden, and Israel at Sinai, they try to hide themselves. They cry for help from the mountains and rocks, but can find no solace or hiding place, for all of nature is convulsing in the throes of death.
We cannot overlook the prelude to this day of terror, which occurred when Jerusalem was overthrown in 70 A.D. Jesus referred to that time when, on the way to the cross, He addressed the weeping daughters of Jerusalem. "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For indeed the days are coming in which they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore, and breasts which never nursed!' Then they will begin 'to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us!' and to the hills, 'Cover us!' For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:28-31). Jesus Himself was the "green tree," unsuitable for burning, and the more unlikely to burn at all. If men did this to Him, what would they do to the dry stubble of Jerusalem and its inhabitants? A harsh judgment, indeed, fell upon them. But it was light compared to the end of all things.
The wicked are NOT confused about what is happening. More than the demise of nature, more than the fearful collapse of the heavens, they are facing the "wrath of the Lamb." During the history of the world, "the Lamb" sought to draw men to Himself, but that time has ended. His mercy is now reserved for His elect, with none remaining for the wicked not even in the form of rain, once sent upon the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). This is the "day of wrath," so long declared by the godly (Job 21:30; Zeph 1:15; Rom 2:5). By ignoring this appointed day, the wicked have carved out their own destiny, and a dreadful one it is.
The solemn declaration of the Spirit is enough to jar every soul from its complacency, if it will listen.
"But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness; indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God" (Rom 2:5-11). Let every one with ears, hear!
Thus, the first cycle is completed, and the enemies of the people of God are called into account. Faith has preserved the saints in earth, and they have been consoled under the altar. We have witnessed the working of God in the earth the Mediatorial reign of King Jesus, and the outcome of it all. It is not a message for the squeamish, but we all do well to take heed to it. If we are living by faith, we will derive comfort from the message of the first six seals.
Our faith is not vain in the Lord, nor are our labors. We have no guarantee concerning the course we will be called to run. It may lead through difficult times, and unspeakable trials or we may run it in times of relative peace. But whatever your lot may be, the Lord is with you. The Lamb will supply you what you need for the race you are called to run. If you are surrounded by enemies, He will prepare a table for you. He will make you greater than your oppressors, and enable you to stand when all others are falling.
Take the message of this chapter to heart, and do not wrangle about whether we have read of the destruction of Jerusalem or the end of the world. There is nothing about this text that would suggest a judgment like that of Jerusalem nothing. It remains for supposed scholars to deduce that. Take the text as it stands, and see if it does not speak plainly to you of hardship, opposition, bloodshed, and the end of the world. See if it does not shout to your heart about a conquering Savior and the ultimate accountability of all who oppose Christ and His people.
Ultimately, history will confirm nothing was able to separate them from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus the Lord. But do not take it from me, let the Holy Spirit shout it to your heart. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: 'For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.' Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:35-39).