Saturday 29 October 2011

Hiding from God (Revelation 6)

Fear factor

I’m not a fan of scary movies. But I understand why people like them.

In fact, the grosser, the more realistic and the more menacing the scene, the more movie-goers are happy to pay good money to get freaked out looking at it on the big screen. Because as long as they are sitting in those seats - munching stale pop-corn and sipping overpriced soda - they know that they are safe. It may look real. And they pay extra to watch it in 3D so that it appears as real as possible. But they know it isn’t real. They know they are safe.

The opposite is true of the book of Revelation. Especially today’s passage.

The imagery is fairly tame compared to Hollywood. Riders on horses. The sky being rolled back like a scroll. I mean, I’ve seen scarier scenes in Disney movies. Yet many pastors dare not preach this text from Revelation. People get offended reading these words in Revelation. Because Revelation is giving us a picture of reality - a reality that is even greater, and perhaps, even scarier, than the images we will be looking at today.

So by the end of our study, the important question for us to answer is not: Was it scary? But rather, is it true? Will this happen?

The seven seals

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
Revelation 6:1-2

The whole of Chapter 6 is divided into six segments, each triggered by the event of Jesus breaking a seal on a scroll, much like someone flicking a switch and turning the lights on one by one. The breaking of the seals is symbolic of the instructions of a will being put into effect. A king would leave a will containing important instructions about his inheritance, what was to be done with the kingdom. But all this would be kept locked up and secret until the death of the king, after which, the seals on this document would be broken, its contents read and the instructions executed.

This scroll in verse 1 has seven seals. This is God’s will (seven is the number of perfection symbolic of God). God has sealed this document. But the event of the death of Jesus on the cross means that the will of God can now be carried out.

What follows is judgement, war, famine, disease and ultimately, death, graphically portrayed in this vision given to John by four horses and their four riders. All four begin in the same way. (1) The Lamb breaks opens a seal. (2) One of the four living creatures - that is, an angelic being from the throne of God - summons a horse and its rider, who then (3) ride off to cause havoc and destruction on mankind. Each horse is different - the first is white, the second, red, the third, black and the fourth, pale - and each colour is symbolic of the judgement they carry. White is the colour of victory or conquest, red symbolises internal struggle and civil war, black is for famine, and the pale for disease and death.

The white horse

Of the four, it is the first horse and its rider that are most controversial. Verse 2: “There before me was a white horse! It’s rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” Because of it’s colour (white) and because of the crown (symbolising kingly authority) given to the rider of the first horse, many think that this is describing Jesus, riding into victory over his enemies. They say this because of Revelation Chapter 19, where we find another horse, also in white, whose rider is called Faithful and True; his name is the Word of God, on his head are many crowns and “with justice he judges and makes war”. Without a doubt, this is Jesus the victorious King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Revelation 19.

Yet this horse and its rider in Revelation Chapter 6 is summoned before the throne of Jesus. “Come!” says one  of the living creatures from the throne with a voice like thunder, the exact same way the other three horses are summoned - as servants before God. Furthermore, in the Old Testament the prophet Zechariah mentions four groups of horses sent out by God into the world bearing the same four colours found here in Revelation, the implication being, that all four of these horses fulfil the same function in obedience to God’s will, namely judgement and death.

Those who object to this view point out that the first horse and its rider receives no such mandate of destruction from the throne of God. They might say that the colour white is a symbol of this rider’s purity, not unlike the white clothes worn by believers in Sardis for instance, in Revelation Chapter 3. All this is valid. But I wonder the underlying issue has more to do with the uncomfortable association this first horse and rider has with both the image of Jesus as the conquering king in Chapter 19, as well as, the three other horses found here in Chapter 6 which are more sinister. How do we reconcile these two images - one of Jesus, the other, of judgement?

Firstly, the colour white is more symbolic of victory, than it is of purity. Hence the believers in Sardis are clothed in white because their have “overcome”. The Greek word, nikao, means to overcome, to be victorious, and even, to conquer. The same word is found here in verse 2 describing the white rider as a “conqueror”(nikoon) bent on “conquest”(nikese).

Secondly, the striking similarity between this conqueror and the Lord Jesus Christ in Chapter 19 may suggest that the role played by the first horsemen has less to do with destruction and more to do with deception. What we have here is a false representation of Christ’s second coming, one that mimics some of his kingly power but none of his righteousness or glory. “He rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” - this rider’s sole purpose is destruction, but he does so using deception. Remember when we met the Nicolaitans back in Chapter 2 of Revelation, whose name in Greek meant “conqueror of peoples”. They “conquered” or led astray the believers in the church through their deceptive teaching. They were even described as following ways of Balaam, whose name in Hebrew similarly meant, “the conqueror of people”.

The white horse and his rider symbolises conquest by deception. Worrying still, he is summoned by the throne of God to unleash his destruction on the world. We will come back to this and see how God can sovereign even over the forces of evil.

But for now, we turn to the second horse, a fiery red one.

The red horse

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
Revelation 6:3-4

Peace is taken away from the earth resulting in men slaying - literally, the word means slaughtering - one another.

When the person you are most afraid of - who might endanger your life, who might endanger your family’s safety - is not some dictator bent on oppressing his people; is not some religious fanatic trying to blow up your office block - but your neighbour; the person sitting next to you in the bus; your childhood friend you have known all your life. When you can no longer trust those who are closest to you to protect you, instead, they are the very ones who will betray your trust and cause you harm. That is what this passage is talking about.

Don’t take peace for granted. It is a gift from God - a mercy from our creator who knows our violent hearts.

Yet it was Jesus himself who warned us that this peace would one day be pulled away - like a rug under our feet - as part of the judgement on this world for its rebellion against God. Jesus says in Matthew Chapter 10.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Matthew 10:34-36

Do you see hear these words? I did not come to bring peace, but a sword? What was it again the red horsemen was given power to do? “To take peace from the each. To him was given a large sword.” This is a transient peace. One that will not last. One that will be taken away.

Yet elsewhere in the gospels, we find Jesus offering a different kind of peace to his followers - a peace that is unlike the world’s. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

When God’s peace is removed from our hearts, what is left is fear, anguish, hate, anger and violence. This is the red horseman - given power to take away peace from the earth.

The black horse

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
Revelation 6:5-6

A quart of wheat was what an average guy would eat to keep him going for the day. Think of it as two big macs, a couple of large fries and a litre of coke. Except it says here that it costs him a whole day’s salary just for this meal - seventy pounds. What if he had a wife and kids? Well, that’s where the barley comes in. If you couldn’t afford wheat, barley was the cheap stuff. So if you needed to feed a family and kids, instead of a couple of big mac meals, you’d just buy the fries. You would work all day as a labourer, come home, and have just enough money to feed your kids fries. Fries for breakfast, fries for lunch, fries for dinner.

The black rider symbolises famine and economic strife. The “pair of scales” in verse 5 are not the scales of justice. Rather, scales were used in the ancient world for food rationing. It meant there wasn’t enough to go around, so you used the scales to measure out each persons ration, like what Britain had to do during wartime, with sugar and eggs and flour. I was watching a cooking programme a few weeks back featuring war-time recipes. Sugar and fruit was very scarce, so housewives had to be very inventive and experimental with their cooking. They used carrots to replace fruit and dried mashed potatoes to replace flour in the pastry according to a wartime recipe for apricot pie. Yummy!

There is however a limitation. At the end of verse 6 we read, “Do not damage the oil and wine!” These are the luxury goods. The price of food has gone up and people are struggling to feed their families with their low wages. But you can still buy iPods. Everyone can still afford a blackberry. Someone posted on Facebook the other day, “If everyone lived like the US we would need five planets to survive.” Why is that? You really can only eat so much in a day. You really only need to spend so much in a day. Yet we spend more than we have, we buy more than we need, and we waste more than we use.

The third rider and its black horse brings a severe judgement of famine, economic strife and hardship - yet, this is the one judgement that some experience more than others. Some people can live off wine and oil; they would happily pay a hundred pounds for a McDonald’s meal - remembering of course, that in many parts of the world, the five pounds we pay for a burger meal would seem like a hundred pounds - while millions die of hunger and starvation.

Yet the worst is yet to come.

The pale horse

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Revelation 6:7-8
This appears to be the worst judgement - Death and Hades. Some see in this passage, four waves of judgement indicated by the four horses and their riders. This is therefore, the worst.

Yet the fourth horse is not so much an addition as it is a summary of the first three horses. Look at verse 8: Death and Hades are first given power (symbolic of the authority of the first white horse), then a sword (given to the second rider of the red horse); they cause famine (indicating the third black horse). We are then left with the additional elements of the plague and death by wild beasts.

Its pale colour - think of it as the colour of mucus; pale green and yellowish - is symbolic of the judgement of plague and disease. In an age where people are living healthier and longer thanks to vast improvements in health-care and amazing breakthroughs in medical science, we need to remember that many still die of AIDS and cancer every year. A virus like SARS can lock down an entire city like it did just a few years ago in Hong Kong and Singapore.

This is where the mention of wild beasts (literally beasts of the earth) comes in, as it pictures a scenario of civilisation devastated by war and disease, it’s population decimated to such a point that it is now overrun by wild animals. Think of the movie “I am Legend”; Will Smith as the last surviving human in Manhattan fending of wild dogs hunting in packs on the streets of New York.

Yet when the same phrase “beast of the earth” occurs later in Revelation 13, we find there not a wild animal, but a demonic creature under the command of Satan. Here Revelation is pointing forward to persecution and oppression, specifically that of believers who place their trust in Jesus.

The fourth riders, Death and Hades, encapsulate all four of the judgements levelled on the earth - deception and conquest, war and civil unrest, famine and economic strife, death and disease. Yet we must remember that these four horses and their riders are summoned before the throne of God. Each wave is triggered by the Lamb - by Jesus - breaking off a seal from the scroll containing God’s will for judgement and salvation.

And what we find next are believers appealing to God to bring judgement upon the inhabitants of the earth.

The altar

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
Revelation 6:9-11

This could be symbolic of the altar of sacrifice at the temple. The souls are described as being “under the altar”, calling out to God to avenge their “blood”. The Old Testament priests would sacrifice the slaughtered bulls and goats on top of the altar, but then would pour the blood at the base of the altar. This blood was symbolic of the animal’s life now poured out in death. Here, the “souls” under the altar are calling for God to avenge their death, “because of the word of God and the testimony (a Greek word where we get the English “martyr”) they had maintained.” The were killed for speaking the gospel.

I think this isn’t talking about the sacrificial altar outside the temple, but rather the altar of incense inside the tabernacle. Last week we saw in Chapter 5 the elders holding golden bowls full of incense, which John tells us, “are the prayers of the saints”. These are prayers for God to act in justice and holiness - notice how they address God as “holy and true”. It is a call for God to be consistent with his own nature. How can he allow evil to remain? How can a holy God tolerate sin and wickedness in a world of his own creation?

And God’s answer in verse 11 is patience. God is waiting and answers these prayers for holy justice and righteous judgement by telling believers - even, persecuted Christians - to “wait a little longer”. God is much more patient with the world than we are. His patience means salvation. Look at what he says, “Until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

Now I admit, I’m having a lot of trouble with this verse. Is the bible saying that God allows Christians to die? Does it imply that God allows suffering that results in the death of innocents? It would seem that the answer to both these questions is Yes.

Yet remember back in Revelation 2 where we met Antipas, whom Jesus calls “my faithful witness, who was put to death” in a city where Satan lives. The result of that death was the faithfulness of the believers in that city, “You did not renounce your faith in me.” I remember as well the death of Stephen, the first martyr in Acts 8. Even as the crowd threw stones to kill him, he continued to witness to Jesus and even prayed for their forgiveness. The deaths of these witnesses was not a waste. God will indeed judge those responsible for their deaths. Yet in his mercy and patience, God can and does use the death of his servants to bring others to faith in Jesus; perhaps, even the perpetrators of their deaths. Look at Saul, who was there at Stephen’s stoning, “giving approval to his death”. Peter writes in his second letter, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” (2 Peter 3:15)

The believers petition God to act consistently with his holiness and justice. God must judge, they say. As we have seen in the first four horsemen, God will judge. He summons Death and Hades before his throne. Yet God is also infinitely patient. He holds back his judgement. In his providence and mercy, even the unjust acts resulting in the death of innocent believers, God is able to use to bring many to faith in him through his Son Jesus.

The fifth seal is a genuine response by those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. It is their prayer. The sixth seal is the final response of those who ultimately do not believe and will not trust in Jesus.

The wrath of the Lamb

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Revelation 6:12-14

Most of us have seen movies depicting the final destruction of the earth - movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2012 - all of which portray an end-time scenario of cosmic devastation and destruction. There are advanced special effects, realistic CGI models of well-known landmarks being blown up by giant alien spaceships interspersed with human emotion: tears, conflict, pathos, hope and loss.

Yet you read a simple passage like this - just words - and it still sends a chill down your spine. Creation being de-created. The sun blackened. The moon turns blood red. The stars are extinguished. The very ground pulled from under our feet.

And yet notice the reaction of men and women to all this destruction.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the 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 their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Revelation 6:15-17

They see all this destruction. They know it is the end of the world. And their reaction is to hide from God. Faced with horror, devastation, judgement and death, these men and women are more fearful of their Creator. They actually call on the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us!” They would rather face death than to see God's face in all his holiness and his anger.

Why is it that pastors are afraid to preach from Revelation 6? And why are we embarrassed by passages which speak of final judgement? Could it be that we don’t see what these men and women see. We do not see the anger of God. We do not see that there is something worse and more fearful than physical death and suffering.

“Hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” they cry out. They cannot bear to see God’s face. But notice also, it isn’t just God they are running from. It is also the wrath of Jesus, the Lamb. In case we missed that, verse 17, re-emphasises: For the great day of their wrath - both God’s and the Lamb’s - has come.

Yet notice also that Revelation insists on referring to Jesus as the Lamb, and not as the Lion of Judah. That would make more sense, wouldn’t it? A roaring, menacing Lion! That would be truly scary. But a wrathful lamb? That's about as scary as an angry WM or an unhappy Winnie!

The reason the bible combines these images of judgement, wrath and Jesus as the Lamb is because it wants us to show us the full measure of God’s anger for sin. It’s not seen in the destruction of the world, though that will happen. It’s not even in the eternal condemnation of unrepentant souls in hell, though that will happen. No, God’s clearest picture of his anger for our sin is the cross of Jesus Christ. Where we see an innocent man abandoned by man and condemned by God - that is how much God is angry with your sin and my sin.

And that is how much God loves the world.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

Is this true? The answer to this question turns on the cross.

Christians believe the future events foretold in the book of Revelation because they all point back to one single event in history - the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. If Jesus Christ was the Son of God come to earth as a man. If he really died on the cross for my sins to take the judgement of the world upon himself. If he was raised from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father, reigning in glory from God’s throne in heaven.

If that is true, then he is worthy to open the seals. He is worthy to be worshipped as God. He will return in glory. And all heaven and earth will acknowledge Jesus as the Lamb who was slain, as Lord of heaven and earth. Every knee shall bow. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:9-11

We belong to the day
To the day that is to come
When the night falls away
And our Saviour will return
For the glory of the King is in our hearts
On that day we will be seen for what we are

Strong as a mighty rock
Our refuge in the coming wrath
The heart of the bride belongs
To Jesus, Jesus
The earth in its turning stops
To marvel at the Son of God
And all of that day belongs
To Jesus, Jesus
(“We belong to the day”, Michael Morrow)

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