Please take a Bible and turn to Revelation 6. Revelation is the last book in the Bible. Revelation 6 appears on p. 1031 of the black Bibles provided in the seat racks.
While you are turning to the passage, I’d like to know if you are comfortable. We tried to consider your comfort when we set the thermostat for the room temperature; when we purchased and set out these chairs; when we mounted this screen; or printed the bulletins for you to read.
What we cannot do is make Revelation 6 comfortable. It’s uncomfortable. It’s disturbing in more than one way. I’ll read these seventeen verses. Then we’ll grapple with the uncomfortable.
Revelation 6:1–17 (ESV) 1Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”
2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”
4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand.
6 And I heard what seemed to be 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 wine!”
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”
8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.
10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,
13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.
14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,
16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,
17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Weird, huh? The Holy Spirit has transported John, the human author of Revelation, to heaven. He finds himself entering a massive theater, viewing a series of symbolic videos. These are like dream scenes passing before him.
In chs. 4 & 5 the focus is God’s throne. John borrows language from the OT to describe the beauty of God’s presence. His Holy Majesty elicits continual worship from the creation. Jesus Christ, the Lamb, the Eternal Son of God, shares the throne. Heaven’s innumerable worshipers exalt the Lamb as God. Through His death and resurrection, He ransoms sinners and installs them in his kingdom as princes and princesses.
He alone can take up the complete record of human injustice and rebellion. He alone has the authority to execute just wrath against all who have done wrong. Here in ch. 6 starts the process. We view on earth what happens as the Lamb administers just vengeance. And it’s uncomfortable.
Differing Interpretations Make Us Uncomfortable
At the most basic level, this chapter and many to follow make us uncomfortable because we must interpret all this symbolic language and imagery. And Christians do not agree on how to do that. Give me a few minutes to sketch the controversy.
There are four major approaches to the book of Revelation that faithful Christians have adopted. Unless you have a novel interpretation, yours fits into one of these.
The first is called the Preterist Approach. The word preterist refers to the “past.” This view understands that most, if not all, of the events described in Revelation have already happened. They happened in the earliest centuries of the church. Revelation is a completed drama.
A second approach is the Historical. This view understands the book as a march through history. It predicts significant and specific events occurring through the centuries between Jesus’s first and second coming. Revelation is an unfolding drama.
A third is the Futurist Approach. This view understands that the events described after ch. 3 (the letters to the first-century churches) will not take place until the end of human history. The book is primarily prophecy, predictions of future realities. Revelation is an anticipated drama.
The fourth approach is called Idealist. This view understands that the visions of the book symbolize the kind of events that will continue to occur throughout the last days. Those last days began at Jesus’s first coming and will end when he establishes the new creation. Revelation is a cyclical drama.
No one of these makes sense of the whole book. Each one has elements to commend it. My view is primarily Idealist with the best of the others mixed in to complete the recipe. I understand the core of Revelation to present a cycle of visions. These visions depict life on earth between Christ’s coronation (chs. 4-5) and what we call His consummation (the last couple of chapters). The visions cycle through the same kinds of circumstances from different perspectives, like various camera angles showing examples of similar sports plays. Each set of visions intensifies and leads to the climax of Christ’s return.
But I will admit that there are many faithful Christians who strongly disagree with me. And, I will admit that such disagreement makes me uncomfortable. I’ll bet many of you feel the same way.
From my earliest years as a Christian, from my boyhood, I was taught a specific futurist approach to Revelation. Exclusively. Other approaches were wrong and dangerous according to people who loved me and discipled me. Daily headlines fueled passion about biblical prophecy to a high level. Churches made this specific view of Revelation and prophecy a test of fellowship. I taught this approach for several years.
It has been a long and difficult journey to the place where I appreciate other views as biblical and have entered a different tradition when it comes to interpreting Revelation. It’s uncomfortable when Christians disagree. Conflict is never easy.
So, what is our response to the discomfort of conflicting interpretations?
First, humility. When Jesus addresses his second coming, he says, Matthew 24:36
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
No one can set a date for Christ’s return. Those who do trouble God’s people. We can connect visions in Revelation and our world. But we cannot conclude that any symbol equates to a specific person or event. It will not be clear until the end when
[Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:24).
Humility says, “I could be wrong.” Humility listens and studies. Humility points out when another view contradicts God’s Word but does so with patience and gentleness.
Paul told Timothy, 2 Timothy 2:7,
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Humility does not merely seek knowledge that can solve the puzzle of biblical prophecy. It does not try to come up with a system and then it onto the Bible. It seeks understanding, or insight, which is closer to wisdom and how to live a godly life, rather than knowledge which may only lead to pride.
A second response is love. 1 Corinthians 13:2 warns,
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing.
Love certainly rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:7). But it always speaks the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and does not allow
… corrupting talk come out of [its] mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).
Love often is not comfortable. But it is the primary way we show that we belong to Jesus Christ.
And that leads to a third response to our discomfort over disagreements. Keep the focus in Revelation on Jesus Christ, not a specific interpretation. As we face confusing images in the text and a chaotic world, our confidence is in Christ and not our ability to figure out the future. “On Christ the solid Rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand” (all other grounds, including our prophetic timelines).
Life’s Uncertainties Make Us Uncomfortable
Whatever your interpretation of the visions of ch. 6, they make us uncomfortable. They leave us with a picture of an uncertain world descending into chaos.
In vv. 1-2, the Lamb opens the first seal and John sees a vision of a white horse. Its rider wears a crown given to him and carries a bow. Some understand this to be Christ, but the visions here are destructive, not righteous. This is a symbol of a government with the power to make war.
History tells of one government being conquered by another. One tyrant gives way to another. Some Christians in the seven churches to whom John writes put confidence in the Roman government. They relied on political power for security and identity. But they lost their witness. And Rome eventually fell.
In our society, Christians face the temptation to sacrifice truth to gain political power and worldly status. It’s a dangerous diversion from our gospel mission. No, on Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
In vv. 3-4, the second seal reveals a red horse. Its rider takes peace from the world. People fight and kill. Conflict mars human relationships. The closer the relationship, the more painful the conflict. People seek security in family and friends. The red horse reminds us that human relationships cannot secure peace. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
In vv. 5-6, the third open seal reveals a black horse. Its rider has scales to weigh out food because it is being rationed. Economic hardship brings high prices. One must work a whole day to buy a quart of wheat or barley. Oil and wine which should have been common staples are to be treated as precious luxuries because they are so expensive. Christians in John’s day and ours seek security in money. The black horse reminds us that when it comes to the human economy, the only certainty is uncertainty. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
In vv. 7-8 the pale horse carries Death followed by Hades or the place of the dead. Life itself is uncertain. Death can come through violence or natural disaster. It stalks everyone. The pale horse reminds us that there is no security in this life. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
Vv. 9-11 the fifth seal reveals a group of martyrs before the Lamb crying for justice. They stood for God’s Word and remained faithful witnesses for Christ and they were killed by those who seemed to get away with such crimes. Their consolation is the assurance that their suffering is over but that more will have to die before final judgment comes. Courage is no guarantee of security. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
Vv. 12-17 describes the deteriorating conditions as the end nears. Earthquakes, solar eclipses, blood moons, falling stars, skies rolling up, and crumbling mountains and islands may happen quite literally. Or they may symbolize the world falling apart. But, v. 15 is clear that power and influence cannot guarantee security. Kings, generals, great people, and the rich and powerful cannot maintain control. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
The entire chapter is meant to remind us that, from a human perspective, everything will seem out of control. It is meant to make us uncomfortable with our flimsy schemes for security. Jesus warned Matthew 7:24–27,
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
God’s Sovereignty Makes Us Uncomfortable
From God’s perspective, everything is under control. And this can make us uncomfortable. The Lamb is the one unleashing all this disaster on the earth. He decides when the seals are opened. He executes judgment when he chooses on his timetable. He gives the crown symbolizing the authority of human governments (v. 2). He permits the removal of peace (v. 4). The announcement of economic hardship comes from a voice near God’s throne (v. 6). Death and Hades receive authority from God (v. 8). The Lamb determines when the number the martyrs is complete (v. 11). And the chaos in the natural world in vv. 12-17 is described as the “wrath of the Lamb” (v. 16).
It is uncomfortable to connect God with such displays of evil and calamity. It troubles us that God would ordain the death of his people at the hands of those who refuse to honor Him. The Bible teaches that God is never guilty of sin but he is always in control and ordains all things that come to pass. We must hold both truths with an equal grip. The LORD declares, Deuteronomy 32:39,
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”
Our comfort comes not in explaining God’s purposes but in trusting them. We can and must cry out to Him (as these martyrs do) but we must not accuse Him. Like these martyrs, we rest in God’s sovereignty even though we cannot understand his actions. At this moment God is working all things in this world for the eternal good of his people to maximize their joy in Christ (Romans 8:28). Will you trust Him or turn on Him?
Our Moral Conscience Makes Us Uncomfortable
There is a fourth discomfort revealed in the last three verses of this chapter (vv.15-17). Our moral conscience makes us uncomfortable. When utter chaos ensues, all kinds of people, especially the powerful, cry for the earth to hide them from God’s wrath. They know they are guilty. They cannot bear to face their Judge. They would rather run away than repent. Anything except submit to Jesus Christ.
There is no comfort for those who will not turn to the Lamb. He has already absorbed God’s wrath for any who will admit their guilt and acknowledge Him as Lord and King. The chapter ends with a question, “Who can stand in the face of God’s wrath?” Chapter 7 will tell us who can stand. But, in ch. 6, the first answer is that no one can stand on his own before this wrath.
There is no secure place to stand except with Jesus Christ. The “mountains” of this world are crumbling. “Stars” are falling. What shines today will be dark tomorrow.
But not Jesus Christ.
Are you with Him? Are you with Him to the end? “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my Hope and Stay. On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”