Now let me invite you please to take a copy of the holy Scriptures and to turn with me to page 1031 of our church Bibles, Revelation chapter 6. You will remember if you were with us last Lord’s Day Evening that the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, has taken the scroll, which is the great symbol of God’s promise and purpose and plan and decree for human history, He’s taken the scroll from the hand of God the Father on the throne. And tonight we’re going to watch Him break each of the seven seals on that scroll and with each one a new scene will unfold, each describing from a different vantage point something of the divine plan for the whole period between the first and final coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s where we’re going tonight. Before we read a part of this larger section of Revelation, would you bow your heads with me as we pray? Let’s pray together!
Lord, we believe Your Word is authoritative and true, that it is without error, that it is wholly sufficient for our spiritual needs, the only rule of faith and life to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy You. We bless You that at its heart is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain, who is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. And so we pray that as we read Your Word, as we bow before You as You deal with us by Your Word, we pray that You would lead us again into communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, or perhaps lead us for the very first time to meet the Lord Jesus Christ for ourselves. Would You do that please tonight, by Your holy Word, for Jesus’ sake? Amen.
Revelation chapter 6, at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Now 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!’ 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.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ 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.
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. 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!’
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ 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.
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. 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?’ 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.
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, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 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, 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, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
When I was in art school I had a friend whose specialty was tapestry and her studio was almost completely filled with an enormous loom on which she wove intricate works of art from loose threads. Now the way to really appreciate a tapestry-like that is not to pick one thread and then begin to unravel it until you see how it intersects with every other thread in the tapestry of course. After all, at the end of a process like that what would you have? Not a tapestry; just a loose pile of disconnected threads. No, the way to appreciate a tapestry like this is to step back far enough that you no longer really see the individual threads at all, but you do see the big picture that each thread when woven carefully into the whole, helps to produce.
Many of us, I think, read Revelation like the person who picks one thread at a time. We tend to get lost, don’t we, in the details of each symbol and image and metaphor until we find ourselves left with a pile of loose, disjointed threads that don’t make a whole lot of sense at all. What we need to do is step back a little and try to see the bigger picture. And so tonight we’re going to do that together. We’re going to look at the material we find beginning in chapter 6 verse 1 and running all the way through chapter 8 verse 5. I hope you brought your pajamas with you! We’re going to begin in chapter 6 verse 1 and we’re going to go all the way through chapter 8 verse 5. I promise we’ll be as brief as we can be, which is not to say much at all I suppose! Remember, we’re looking for the big idea and we want to see the whole tapestry, not just each individual thread. We don’t want to get lost too much in the details.
And in particular, I want you to see four things with me. First, in chapter 6 verses 1 to 8 I want you to notice the theme of preparation. We’re being prepared for life in a dark and difficult world between the first coming and final return of Jesus Christ – preparation. Then in 6:9-11 there’s the theme of perseverance. Endurance is required! Then in chapter 6 verse 12 all the way through the end of chapter 7, polarization, as we watch the final great separation take place between two great classes of humanity. And then finally, chapter 8 verses 1 to 5 – prayer. The people of God praying and calling out for Him to fulfill all His holy will. Preparation, perseverance, polarization, and prayer.
Look at chapter 6 verses 1 to 8 first; the theme of preparation as the Lamb, the Lord Jesus, opens the first four seals of the scroll. He takes the scroll and as He opens each seal, one of the four living creatures from before the throne of God cries out, “Come.” It is a summons that initiates a different aspect of the plan of God. One of the commentators, Darrell Johnson, points out the way that the book of Revelation is actually bracketed by the verb, “come.” In chapter 1 verse 7 you will remember, John says of Jesus, “Behold, He is coming with the clouds.” And then in chapter 2 verse 5, Christ warns the church at Ephesus to repent or He will “come to them and remove their lampstand.” Actually, in the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 over and over again, six out of seven churches are told Christ will “come to them” either in judgment or in blessing. And then at the other end of the book, chapter 22 verse 17, the Holy Spirit says the very same thing the four living creatures say in our text. He says, “Come.” And then the Lamb’s bride, the Church, says, “Come.” And then John turns to us, his readers, and says, “Let him who hears say, “Come.” And then in verse 20 of that twenty-second chapter, Jesus Himself says, “Surely I am coming soon,” to which John the author of the book replies, “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who is coming and it is for His coming that the book of Revelation seeks to prepare us.
The Coming of Christ
And so with Darrell Johnson, I think a good case can be made that the cries of the four living creatures in verses 1 to 8, likewise call for the coming not of the four apocalyptic horsemen that will feature in our text per say, but for the coming of Jesus Christ in judgment or in deliverance. Creation itself, you will remember from last time, that the four living creatures symbolize creation itself. Creation is calling out for the coming of Christ. Isn’t that what the Apostle Paul says of creation in the eighth chapter of the book of Romans? Romans 8:19, “Creation waits with eager longing for that day.” Chapter 8 verse 22, “The whole creation has been groaning together for the moment when Christ comes and the glorious liberties of the children of God envelopes all things.” So I think these four living creatures are calling out for the coming of Christ, both in His proximate, present comings in judgment and blessing and in His final, climactic coming bodily at the end of the age.
The Advance Team of the Christ Who is Coming
You know whenever the President of the United States goes almost anywhere there is an advance team that he sends ahead of him to prepare for his arrival. The president is coming and the advance team goes ahead to prepare for the great event. That is what these four horsemen are. Each of them appears as a different seal is opened. They are the advance team of the Christ who is coming. Would you look at them with me? First in verse 2 is a crowned and conquering rider on a white horse. Some people think this is Christ because later in the book He is described as riding on a white horse. Actually, it’s better understood in keeping with the other horsemen as a symbol that brings catastrophe in the world probably a symbol of human, political power embodying the will to dominate and oppress and control that still is very much a feature of our world. The second horseman in verses 3 and 4 rides, notice, a red horse. He takes peace away. He is war and conflict, violence unleashed all over the world. The third in verses 5 to 7 rides a black horse. He carries a pair of scales in his hand. A voice announces that a quart of staple grains like wheat or three quarts of barley is being sold for a denarius. Luxuries like oil or wine are untouched. Therefore, I suppose, to the super rich, a denarius is a whole day’s wage and a quart of wheat is roughly what a person needs to eat for one day. And so the bare necessities cost a day’s wage. That’s the point. The poorest face crippling economic demands while the richest can easily enjoy both necessities and luxuries – the grain and the wine and the oil, out of reach to everyone else.
A Pale Horse
And then the fourth horseman, you’ll notice, rides a pale horse. He’s called death and Hades, that is, the grave, follows him like a bloodhound on the hunt and he has authority to kill, do you see. Leave aside for a moment all the years since Christ’s resurrection and think only of the last century – the deadliest in human history marked by famine ravaging Africa, global epidemics of smallpox and influenza and then more recently AIDS and even Ebola, two world wars, the Holocaust, the brutality of pogroms and revolutionary insurrections, ethnic cleansing in Cambodia and Serbia and Rwanda, child soldiers and global terror. And we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the ways that death and Hades have stocked across our world wreaking havoc. Turn on your TV screens! Politicians and pestilence, bullets and bacteria. It’s the ten o’clock news, isn’t it? John is showing us the world we know all too well. This is life between the first and final coming of Jesus Christ.
And so the four horsemen ride across history with devastating power. The forerunners, the advance team of the final, great day. They are anticipatory warning signs. They are the advance team designed to help the people of God get ready. With a realistic look, John gives us an honest evaluation of what it means to dwell in the hostile environment of a world opposed to the rule and reign of King Jesus. The point of this part of the text is preparation. It’s simply saying in graphic, visual terms what 1 Peter 4:12 says to us directly. Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you as though something strange were happening to you. This is what it means. This right here is what it means to live in the world between the comings. He is coming. Get ready! And see in all the sufferings this side of glory the warning signs. So be prepared!
The Purpose and Decree of God Almighty
And before we move on, did you notice that the crown of the first rider, the second rider’s ability to take peace away, death and Hades’ authority to kill, did you notice they’re all given to them? It’s not theirs by nature or necessity or right. It is given! That is to say, even the worst of the worst, even the darkest of the darkness, is ordered and bounded and constrained by the purpose and decree of Almighty God. Evil is chained and made to serve greater ends than it knows. Jesus told Pilate that precisely, didn’t He? You remember His interview with Pilate on the night of His trial. Jesus told him, “You would have no authority at all over Me unless” what? “Unless it had been given to you from above.” Even the injustice of Pilate, his cowardly, pandering to the mob, his moral indifference to the horrors of crucifixion, even these things were in the scroll governed by the decree of God so that the dark clouds of terrible loss and suffering and sin, even they serve God’s ends. Even they must work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. There’s preparation here! These four horsemen remind us Christ is coming soon, so saddle up, get ready, because this is what life looks like between the comings. But do so comforted in the knowledge that even the very worst of it is bounded, governed, and superintended by the hand of a good God.
Then secondly, look at verses 9 to 11 and notice the theme this time of perseverance. First preparation; now perseverance. The fifth seal opens and the scene changes, doesn’t it? We’re still dealing now with the same time frame, the whole period between the first and final comings of Jesus, but now we see it not from the perspective of the difficult realities of life in the world but this time from the vantage point of believers who have already gone to their eternal reward. John sees the souls of those who have been slain for the Word of God and for the witness they have borne and they cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true! How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” The Church, notice, does not escape the trials of life between the comings of Christ. It endures them. Do you see that? It perseveres through them, through life while the four horsemen ride across the world. That’s what these saints have done. They’ve endured and suffered and bled and died and now they finish the race and have won the prize. They have taken hold of that for which God has taken hold of them.
How Long O’ Lord?
And yet for all their victory in glory, at last, do notice they are nevertheless still grieving over the continued presence of evil in a world where King Jesus is Lord. They cry out, “How long? How long til justice is done? How long til wickedness is answered? How long must Your name be used as a swear word and how long must Your people be the object of scorn? How long?” That’s often our cry too, isn’t it? “How long, Lord? How long must I endure the contempt of my peers? How long must I see justice fail, crime go unpunished while the innocent are condemned? How long must I persevere through a world with so much that is disordered and demonic, base, and barbaric and I can’t fix it? How long? How long must the waves and breakers roll over me? Just when I thought I’d broken the surface to catch a lung full of air, another one slams in upon me. How long?”
Rest in Christ!
Well, what’s Jesus’ reply to their prayer? He says in effect, doesn’t He, “Not yet.” Verse 11, “Persevere a little longer. The number of the elect to pass through the trials of life and come to glory has not yet been reached, so wait a little longer.” It almost feels crushing to have an answer like that when our needs are so severe, so urgent. But do not overlook where they are as they hear Christ’s “Not yet.” They are under the altar. Do you see that? The place where atonement has been made and forgiveness has been won. They dwell in the good of all that Jesus the Lamb of God has won for them at Calvary and there Jesus says to them, there, “Rest a little longer.” Robed in white, the pristine righteousness of Christ. “The souls of believers,” our catechism reminds us, “are, at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory.” That’s what John sees here – the souls of believers shining, radiant in white robes, resting under the altar, finding their rest in the salvation won by the atoning work of Jesus at the cross.
And that is actually the secret of perseverance for saints. Wherever they are, on earth or in heaven, resting under the altar, hidden away in the atoning work of Jesus, safe in the knowledge that while this world is dark and bleak and hard and often sore, as the glorious anthems of the previous chapter put it, “The Lamb who was slain is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals for he was slain and by his blood he has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Get under the altar! Rest in Christ! And like the saints in glory, even suffering believers on earth can wait a little longer until the appointed time. Though Jesus may, as often as not, still answer your prayers with a “Not yet,” resting under the altar under the finished work of Christ crucified and risen for us, resting there you will find the resources to persevere.
Preparation, perseverance, now thirdly, polarization. In chapter 6 verses 12 to 17, Christ’s, “Not yet,” from verse 11 finally becomes a, “Right now,” as the great day of judgment at last dawns. And we get to view it from the perspective in these verses of the unconverted population. And then if you’ll turn over to chapter 7, you’ll see the other side of the same coin. Here’s the completed company of the redeemed, elect from every nation, the full number of believers at last brought home to their everlasting reward. There are two great destinies juxtaposed here. Do you see? The whole human race polarized and separated and divided everlastingly. Look at chapter 6, 12 to 17 first. The earth shakes and the sun goes black as though the Lord who said at first, “Let there be light,” has now turned off the lights at the end of the day. The moon turns red, the stars fall down like winter figs in a strong wind, the sky rolls up like a roller blind, and the world’s great mountain ranges crumble like so many dead leaves under the footfalls of the approaching Christ. The islands dissolve like ice cubes in boiling water.
What are we witnessing? What is this? It is the end! It is the end! And whereas at the beginning of our chapter we saw the crowned and conquering rider, political power, riding forth on a white horse and in his train all the war and the suffering and the death that follows him, and we heard the Church crying out, “How long?” as it endures suffering and waits for the end to come, now in 15 to 17 it is rebel humanity that cries out. And they cry out not for Jesus to come and vindicate His justice; they cry out, do you see, for the rocks and the hills to fall on them that if possible they might escape His justice. They prefer to be obliterated, anything rather than face the wrath of the Lamb. When Jesus answers the, “How long, O Lord?” prayers of His Church, at last, this is what it will look like. This is what it will look like. The great and terrible day of the wrath of the Lamb has come.
Are You Ready?
Dear friends, are you ready for that day? Suppose it was today. Will you cry with John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Welcome! Welcome at last! My, ‘How long, O Lord?’ prayers are answered!” Or will you call to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us! Hide us from Him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb because now I see. Now I see and it’s too late. How wrong I was! And the thought of being face to face with the Lamb whose name I have denounced and denied and desecrated is more than I can bear.” Are you ready for this day?
Christians are sealed!
There’s another side of the picture, isn’t there? Look over at chapter 7. Once again we see the same time frame – the whole period between Christ’s first and final comings, yet again from another point of view. Look at verses 1 to 8. First, John sees four angels who are holding back the four winds. Verse 2 tells us they have the power to harm the earth and the sea, to bring about the final cataclysmic judgments we’ve just witnessed. But verse 3, they are forbidden to do so. They are restrained and held back until a fifth angel seals the servants of God. The final judgment we’ve just seen so vividly described at the end of the sixth chapter is held in abeyance until the full number of God’s elect have been sealed. To put a seal on a document meant that you put a stamp of ownership on it.
Suppose you were to come home tomorrow evening to find me at your dining room table opening all your mail – personal correspondence, medical bills, financial statements. They’re all addressed to you! You would be outraged; you would be right to be outraged. They have your name on them. No one has the right to open those letters but you! That’s what the sealing means here. Christians are sealed! It’s as though they are letters inscribed with the name and address of Jesus Christ on them. They belong to Him! You belong to Him, believer in Jesus. And until the full number of God’s chosen people have been sealed for Christ, that is brought to saving faith in Christ, the final judgment is held in check.
A Great Multitude!
And then John gives the famous number – 144,000 he said will be sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel. Twelve is the number of the tribes. Twelve times twelve times a thousand is simply a way of indicating the fullest possible number of the people of God with not one missing. It is the complete company of the whole Church. And in verse 9, John takes a closer look at this vast company, this vast assembly. Look at verse 9. “After this, I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes.” These aren’t two different groups – the twelve tribes and the vast multitude in white robes. The list of the tribes is symbolic. We know that because it’s an odd list. For example, the tribe of Dan is missing; the tribe of Manasseh is included. The order of the twelve tribes deviates from the normal pattern. The big idea is not that only 144,000 ethnically Jewish people will be saved but rather that God has a specific people whom He has purposed to save from eternity and of them none shall be lost. When the final day dawns and the roll call is given before the throne of God and the Lamb, every one of them will be present and correct. As Jesus puts it when He prays to the Father, “Of those whom You have given me, I have lost none,” John 18 at verse 9.
You Will Make It!
Isn’t that a reassuring truth? Maybe you’re wondering if you’ll make it! You’re struggling, believer in Jesus, weak and weary. John sees your face in the crowd on that great last day. He sees your face in the crowd. If you’ve been saved by grace, you will make it. Of those whom the Father has given to Christ, He has lost, will lose, cannot lose any. You will make it! And so knowing you will make it means you can press on, right? Describing the Church as the 144,000 of the tribes of Israel is just a way to teach us again the great doctrine of divine, sovereign, electing, saving, preserving grace. God saves and secures and brings His people home every single time; 100% out of 100% of those whom He purposes to save, He saves.
Election is not the Enemy of Missions!
But while that truth ought to be comforting, the complementary vision that John sees of the vast, numberless, multi-ethnic congregation before the throne in 9 to 17, also reminds us that election is not the enemy of missions. The elect of God come from every tribe and people and language and here they all are, at last, gathered in by the witness of the church militant, dwelling in security and rest. The Lamb our Shepherd, verse 17, leads them to living waters. Isn’t that a delightful image? The Lamb, our Shepherd. No one knows our needs as sheep quite so well as the Lamb. And God Himself, we are told, will wipe away every tear from their eyes. It’s an amazing picture. And not one soul whom God has chosen, not one for whom Christ shed His blood, not one person who has come to trust in Jesus, not one is missing in the great heavenly congregation. Not one! I suspect if we really grasped that truth that Gospel success for the mission of God is guaranteed in the end, if we really grasp that truth as a church, we would become a much more radical, risk-taking congregation than we now are – trying new things, stepping out of our comfort zone with great Gospel zeal. Because, brothers and sisters, our passage teaches us that the mission cannot fail. It can’t fail. Here they all are, everyone for whom Christ died, not one missing from every tribe and tongue. What are we waiting for? Let’s go! Call to bring the Gospel to the world on a mission we know will not fail. How bold we ought to be as the Lamb’s emissaries proclaiming good news while there’s still time.
Confess Jesus Christ While There’s Time
And if you will allow me, I want to speak very plainly to you tonight if you are not a Christian, because before us, as we’ve taken in the end of chapter 6 and we’ve taken in all of chapter 7. I hope you now see the two great destinies that our passage confronts us with! We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society, tragically so, but political rifts, you know, can be overcome; it may not seem like it right now. Social inequity can be remedied! But one day, a final division will take place. For some, it will be like a terrible weight has been at last lifted from their shoulders. It will be relief and rest and unending joy as they enter into the presence of the Lamb whom they have loved. And yet for others, it will be a terrible moment, a terrible moment of realization and shame as you face the wrath of the Lamb. But notice it is how you stand in relation to the Lamb that will mark the dividing line. The source of the real polarization of the human race, what you think of Jesus, how you respond to Jesus, makes an eternal difference. So today, while there’s time, let me plead with you to come and bend your knee to the Lamb, to the Lord Jesus, and find your place in that great worship and company and confess Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father with a happy heart here before the terrible day dawns when your knees buckle and to your chagrin and horror you are made to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father, despite your rebellion and unbelief. And then it will be too late for you.
Preparation, perseverance, polarization, and very briefly, prayer. Look at chapter 8:1-5. The final seal on the scroll is opened and we’re back to the here and now with a bump. The great worship service of heaven with the completed, glorified Church around the throne, suddenly ceases. Do you see that? It stops. There is silence in heaven. And in the silence, John sees seven angels with seven trumpets taking up position; they’re poised for the next segment of the book, the great drama unfolding in John’s vision, to take place. And we’ll deal with them next time. And then he sees another angel with a golden censer of incense. Verse 4 says the smoke of the incense rose before God and we’re told it is a symbol of the prayers of the Church. And notice the coals from the censer are thrown on the earth and then the apocalyptic judgments we’ve been seeing in chapter 6 begin in earnest. So far we’ve seen, haven’t we, that God is working out His sovereign design in the apparent chaos of world history. We’ve seen that it’s all in the scroll, all in the decree, all in the plan. The emphasis so far has fallen on God’s perfect sovereignty, but here we see that He executes His decree in response to the prayers of the church. The judgments of the seven seals come upon the world not just because the living creatures cry, “Come,” but because the church prays, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
You may think yourself powerless and weak. You may think that you are too old, too frail, too young, not knowledgeable enough, not experienced enough to make much contribution to the Gospel mission given to the church to reach the world. How wrong you are. How wrong! You can pray! The incense of your prayers can rise to God in response to which He has ordained to fulfill all His holy will. A church that really believes in divine sovereignty over all things is a church that prays most fervently and most urgently and most consistently because that church knows that prayer is God’s great instrument in the answer to which He fulfills His eternal purpose. What awesome power God has invested in the stammering, muttering prayers of a baby Christian. He executes His eternal decrees when we cry, “Abba, Father.” He fulfills His sovereign purposes in the world as we pray, “Lord, save sinners!” He works wonders when the church bends its knee and prays.
So there’s preparation here! We’re being warned and helped to follow Jesus in the hard realities of life between His comings. There’s a word about perseverance here. We need to wait perhaps a little longer, rest a little longer, but we’re to do so under the altar, finding the resources to sustain us there. There’s a picture of ultimate polarization here. A final separation is coming. Are you ready for that day? And there’s a reminder about prayer here. I wonder if you’ve been neglecting your prayer life, brothers, and sisters, thinking it a fruitless, impotent thing. Look at Revelation 8:1-5 and see the power and place of prayer in the purposes of God and bend your knee and cry out and see what the Lord will do in answer. So let’s pray together!
O Lord, we bless You for Your Word. We pray for any here this evening who do not know Jesus Christ. As the great day approaches, help us not to make any more excuses but to flee to the Lamb who is a Savior before we’re made to face the Lamb our Judge. We pray that You would forgive us for our neglect of prayer, for paying lip service to Your sovereignty, and not being made bold in missions. Instead, help us to see how You use even the stammering cries of weak believers to fulfill Your grand design and make us a church that prays. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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