God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.
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Download Revelation Part 17
Revelation #17. 6:1-17
I want to clarify a few things. My best guess about the seven seals (or, rather, the first six) is that they do not represent God’s final plan to bring history to its fulfillment, but rather, they show us what it will be like in the era before the true “end times.” Some people might even say that we are already living in the days of the first five seals, and have been since the time that Revelation was written. I think that idea might be the correct one.
To recap what we covered last time: The seals begin (I think) with the gospel being carried into all the world, to every distinct linguistic/cultural group. I think this shows us that God is merciful. The terrible judgments which are coming will arrive only after every “tribe of people” has had a chance to repent and receive Jesus. This reminds me of what Peter wrote about the coming of the end of the world:
6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.
10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.
11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell. (2Pet 3:6-13, HCSB)
Peter is describing what John sees in Revelation. God is patient. The White Horse of the gospel must go into the entire world, because God does not want anyone to perish. He withholds judgment, in order that more people might be saved. But once all peoples have had an opportunity to repent, judgment begins. Even that judgment, however, culminates in the promise of a New Heavens and New Earth.
We must remember that all of what follows in Revelaton is enacted as part of God’s plan. This can be a challenging idea, because the plan enacted by God involves disaster, war, injustice, bloodshed and death. How can these terrible things be part of God’s plan? How could a good, loving God inflict this upon the world he claims to love?
I think the best answer is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Surely, God did not actually want Jesus to feel pain. Surely, he wasn’t happy that Jesus suffered. The Jewish leaders and the Romans committed many sins when they put Jesus on the cross: lying, selfishness, lust for power, and murder. Based upon the rest of the Bible, we know for certain that God did not want them to sin this way. And yet, it was God’s will to save those who put their trust in Jesus. It was his will to use the suffering and death of Jesus as the way to save us.
So you see you have two varieties of God’s will. There is God’s perfect, or ideal will. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. But there is also God’s practical will. Practically speaking, God allows things that are conflict with his ideal will, but only in order to ultimately accomplish that ideal will. So, although the suffering of Jesus was not his ideal will, he allowed it, practically speaking, in order that his ideal will could be accomplished, and all people could be saved through Jesus. Now, this does not mean that he endorses sin, or that he is happy to see people suffering. It simply means that he is in total control of the universe, and even when it seems that He is being thwarted, He is actually working to accomplish His purposes. John Piper puts it like this:
For example, the death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father. Isaiah writes, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.… It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:4, 10). Yet surely, as God the Father saw the agony of His beloved Son and the wickedness that brought Him to the cross, He did not delight in those things in themselves (viewed through the narrow lens). Sin in itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God.
Nevertheless, according to Hebrews 2:10, God the Father thought it was fitting to perfect the Pioneer of our salvation through suffering. God willed what He abhorred. He abhorred it in the narrow-lens view, but not in the wide-angle view of eternity. When the universality of things was considered, the death of the Son of God was seen by the Father as a magnificent way to demonstrate His righteousness (Romans 3:25–26) and bring His people to glory (Hebrews 2:10) and keep the angels praising Him forever and ever (Revelation 5:9–13).
Therefore, when I say that the sovereignty of God is the foundation of His happiness, I do not ignore or minimize the anger and grief God can express against evil. But neither do I infer from this wrath and sorrow that God is a frustrated God who cannot keep His creation under control. He has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history. The contemplation of this mosaic (with both its dark and bright tiles) fills His heart with joy.
Therefore we should keep in mind that these things unleashed by the seals are under the control of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Much of this looks like chaos; the results of most of these seals look like bad things. However, God is in control. He himself initiates the breaking of the seals. The things that are unleashed upon the world have only as much power as God permits them to have.
So, in our text, next, comes the red horse of War. For most of human history, war has existed on the earth. However, I think the red horse tells us that God will make use of war to bring people to repentance and faith in Jesus. We have a present-day example of this, happening right now.
In the middle-east, the group ISIS has created terror, war, and civil war. This has led hundreds of thousands of people to flee toward Europe. Those who have entered Europe are disillusioned with Islam, and interested in a different way to have a civil society. They have begun to flock to European Christian churches, asking about Christianity. Thousands of Muslims have become Christians as a result.
Surely, it is not God’s will that ISIS kills and persecutes people, or that Syrians fight each other in civil war. Yet, God knew that they would do so, and he has made use of the situation to bring thousands of Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ.
I believe the red horse is talking about exactly these sorts of things. War is the result of human sin. But God will allow some of it in order to fulfill his ultimate plan, a plan that includes the abolishment of war. As I said earlier, it may be that we are in the time of the first five seals right now. The wars of the twentieth century were certainly unprecedented in human history in terms of destruction and death. War will mark human history until the end.
The third horse, the black one, might be a bit confusing at first:
The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius — but do not harm the olive oil and the wine.”
The horseman is calling out prices for food. A “quart of wheat” was about the amount needed to feed a person for one day. A denarius is the amount of money a common laborer would make in one day. These sorts of prices would mean that it takes everything a person could earn just to buy enough of the cheapest food to feed a family. Therefore, the black horse indicates a time of great economic hardship and/or famine. Oil and wine were also considered basic necessities, but these were not to be touched. Therefore, the hardship that is described here though severe, is not entirely catastrophic. People would survive, though not comfortably.
Once more, we have seen famines and food shortages all over the world throughout history. This could mean that we are in “the time of the seals,” already, or it could be that as the end approaches, the economic hardship becomes more severe and widespread throughout the world. I tend toward the first interpretation, again, trusting that God is using these things to get people to repent and listen to him.
The fourth horseman is “pale,” or sometimes “green.” I think what John is trying to describe is the color of a corpse. The name of the horseman is “Death,” but it is not death in general. The text specifies that this seal has authority to kill one quarter of the earth by means of violence (the sword); famine, plague and wild animals. Death, naturally, goes along with war and famine.
The fifth seal reveals the souls of the martyrs: those who have been killed because they trusted in Jesus, and would not deny him or give up their faith. By the way, some translations have it “the people who had been killed…” I think the best way to translate it would be “the souls who had been slaughtered…” This is one reason that I believe Christians have a kind of consciousness after death, even before the final resurrection. This is one of several places in the Bible that seems to indicate that Christians, after they die, are with the Lord spiritually, but are still waiting for their resurrected bodies.
The cry of these martyrs affirms what I’ve been saying about the seals. They want God to execute his plan for the final judgment. That means that these seals are a good thing. They are told to wait until the full number of Christians who will die for Jesus is completed. That implies that the gospel must first go out into all the world, particularly into places where it is not welcome.
The sixth seal is problematic if we are trying to impose a strict and specific time-line on Revelation, because it looks like nothing less than the end of the world. Many of the Old Testament prophets use the sort of language found here in Revelation 6:12-17 to describe “the day of Lord” which is typically seen as the end of the world (Joel 2:31, 3:15; Isaiah 13:9-10; Jeremiah 4:23-28).
Obviously, the language is very figurative. Clearly, if the sun “blacked out” for even a little while, all life on earth would cease. If the sky was “rolled up as a scroll” presumably the atmosphere would be gone, and consequently so would all terrestrial life. If every mountain was moved from its place, how is it that the people go hide in the mountains?
I want to point out also that the people are terrified by the wrath of “the one seated on the throne, and of the lamb.” In other words, it isn’t the world falling apart that scares them, it is that they are confronted with a holy and righteous God. They are confronted with God’s righteous judgment, and it terrifies them. This indicates that the people affected by this are not the people of God.
It appears then, that the sixth seal introduces the end of the world in general terms. The real point is, of course, that God is following through on his promise to the martyrs – he is judging the world and bringing things to an end. The time frame in relation to other events in Revelation is not explicitly spelled out.
So where does this leave us? First, I think we should recognize that even when it is difficult to understand what God is doing, he is actively working for His people. There will be justice. He will put things right. As I said a few weeks ago, he works all things to the good for his purposes and his people (Romans 8:28). As I read this part of Revelation, I am also reminded of Psalm 91:
1 The one who lives under the protection of the * Most High
dwells in the shadow of the * Almighty.
2 I will say1 to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net,
from the destructive plague.
4 He will cover you with His feathers;
you will take refuge under His wings.
His faithfulness will be a protective shield.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
the arrow that flies by day,
6 the plague that stalks in darkness,
or the pestilence that ravages at noon.
7 Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
the pestilence will not reach you.
8 You will only see it with your eyes
and witness the punishment of the wicked.
You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.