Signs of the Times: Revelation 6:1-17
By Thomas Schreiner–
Revelation 6:1-17 teaches us that our God is the Lord of history. He is the final judge.
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?”
Now that we have come to chapter six my own interpretation of Revelation will become clearer. Obviously there are many different views of what Revelation means. I don’t have time to critique other viewpoints in detail. I certainly don’t claim inspiration or infallibility for my reading, and you are called upon to test all things and to hold fast what is good.
We saw in my last post on Revelation 5:9 that Jesus is worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for he was slain, and by his blood ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. In chapter 6 the seals are opened by the authority and the blood of the Lamb. I take it from the rest of Revelation that the events of history—both God’s judgments and his final salvation—are disclosed in the opening of the seals. I would also argue that the first 5 seals reveal what will happen through all of history until the time of the end. In other words, the first 5 seals do not, in my opinion, only relate to a final 7 year tribulation period. They characterize the whole period from the death and resurrection of Christ to his return. I would argue that such a reading of the seals is confirmed by Jesus’ end-time discourse in Matthew 24. Lastly, I will argue that the 6th seal is different. It does represent the time of the end—the arrival of the final judgment. So, I have 6 points, just as there are 6 seals.
(1) The gospel will triumph throughout history
Let’s read again what happens when the first seal is broken in v. 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.” Some think the rider on the white horse is the antichrist and others think it describes war among human beings. But I think both of these interpretations are wrong for three reasons. First, there is no indication in Revelation that the antichrist rides on a white horse, nor is he clearly mentioned here. Second, war takes place with the opening of the next seal—not this one. Third, if we take our cues from the imagery of Revelation, the only person who rides on a white horse in Revelation is Jesus himself. We read in Revelation 19:11, “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True (v.11) . . . he is called is The Word of God (v 13) . . . King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16). So, I think this first seal teaches us that the gospel will go out and conquer during the present age through the authority of Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean all will be saved. But it does mean that the gospel will go to the ends of the earth, and that some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation will be saved. This fits with what we read in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
One of the marks of the present age is the spread of the gospel to all peoples. And we can be sure of success. It will conquer. We can minister with confidence that God’s word will not return to him void. We should be filled with expectancy that the Lord will work. I like the words of Martin Lloyd Jones. “Possibly one of the most devastating things that can happen to us as Christians is that we cease to expect anything to happen. I am not sure but that this is not one of our greatest troubles today. … Are we expecting him? Do we anticipate this? Are we open to it? Are we aware that we are ever facing this glorious possibility of having the greatest surprise of our life?” As we minister to others we don’t presume on God’s grace and we do not prescribe what will happen. But we are full of confidence. We do expect him to work. We are confident that there is power in the gospel. We serve a victorious God and the gospel that we preach is compelling. It is the power of God unto salvation.
(2) Wars will last until Jesus comes
We read in v. 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.” The opening of the 2nd seal clearly describes war. This fits with what we read in Matthew 24:6-8, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Notice what Matthew says. Wars will take place and rumors of war, but these are not the sign of the end. Nations rising up against other nations is typical of life until the end. These things are just the beginning of birth pangs. They are not the sign that the end has come.
What should we expect in our life on this earth? Conflict between nations and wars. And the last 2000 years have borne this out, haven’t they? There has been constant conflict and fighting. There have been small intervals of peace interspersed between wars. And thus it will be to the end of time. We think of the U.S. alone in the last 100 years. We have fought in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and now wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. The gospel is conquering and making progress, but war continues and brings untold heartache and suffering.
(3) Famines will last till the end of time
We read in vv. 5-6 about the opening of the third seal. “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!’” What John describes here are near famine conditions. A denarius is a day’s wage. And there is barely enough wheat and barley to sustain life, though some of the luxuries of life like oil and wine are preserved. This fits with what we saw in Matthew 24 as well, for Jesus also predicted that there would be famines.
The World Vision web site says more than 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Hunger still threatens millions of people in many different parts of the world. Now the fact that there will be famines and war does not mean that we should do nothing to help. We should work for peace and to end hunger. But we should also be realistic. Wars and famines will be part of human life from now to the end of time.
(4) Death and disease reign in the present time
We see this with the opening of the fourth seal in v. 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.” Here is a sort of catch all. Life will be characterized by death and disease, so that 1/4 of the population die. Naturally in apocalyptic literature, the number isn’t literal. It simply indicates that death and disease threaten a significant portion of the human race. And hasn’t that been true all through history? We can think of plagues like the bubonic plague. In the 14th c. what is called the black death claimed the lives of 30% of Europe. And disease still devastates human life today. How many have died from malaria, dysentery, flu, AIDS, cancer, and all sorts of other diseases. When we think of human history with deaths of children, and from war and famine, there are good reasons to conclude that death rules over human existence.
(5) Believers face martyrdom until the final day
And what else is typical of human life before the coming of Jesus? It is the martyrdom of God’s people.
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 (Rev 6:9-11).
This fits with what Jesus said in Matthew 24:9.
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
The martyrdom of God’s people does not just take place at the end of history. It occurs all through history. And it is happening today. More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than all the previous centuries combined.
Let’s think of a recent example. VOM reports on the killing of 2 Christians in Iraq. “On Nov. 12, sisters were killed and their mother wounded by a gang of Islamic extremists in the Al Qahira section of Mosul, Iraq, according to VOM contacts. The gunmen shot one of the sisters as she was waiting for a bus outside their home. They then stormed into the home, killed the other sister and injured their mother.” Such murders don’t get the headlines and some murders are done in secret. And what do the martyrs do? They cry out for justice. They long to know that God will avenge their blood. Their longing for justice is not evil. God has planted in our hearts a fierce desire that justice be done. That sentiment is from him. We will never be satisfied if those who inflict evil and death on us and others are not brought to justice. But the Lord says that we must not take justice into our own hands. We are to bless those who persecute use and pray for their salvation.
But we can only release our enemies to God if we know that God will justly judge those who do evil and who fail to repent. So, the word of the Lord to those who are longing for vengeance is this: Wait. Rest! The time has not yet come when everything will be made right. There are still more to be killed before the hour of judgment arrives. But that day is coming. Everything will be made right. Those who have persecuted and killed God’s saints will face the wrath of God and the wrath of the Lamb. So, what should we do in the meantime? We must be ready for anything. Let us give our lives entirely to God. Who knows what will happen? We may be on a mission trip and suddenly find ourselves in a situation where our lives are in danger.
Jesus calls upon us to endure to the end and to pray that our love will not grow cold. Is your love growing cold? Are you growing passive and dull in your relationship with him? Ask the Lord to stir in your heart a new fire that grows for him. Don’t think that you have experienced all that you will ever experience of God. Call on him for a fresh blessing and fresh experience of his love and power. Ask him to make you useful for your short time on earth, for that is our purpose here.
(6) The great day of God’s wrath will come
I think that what is described in the 6th seal represents the final judgment and the end of history. Revelation isn’t a narrative that tells a story from the beginning to the end. Instead, it is apocalyptic literature. John brings us to the end of history many times in the book. And then he starts over again. It is imperative to see that John uses apocalyptic and symbolic language here to denote end. Therefore, the images used must not be pressed as if they literally express what will happen at the end. The end is marked by a great earthquake in v. 12. John uses the theme of an earthquake to designate the end regularly in Revelation. Both the 7th trumpet and the 7th bowl also describe the final judgment and the end of history. And the 7th trumpet is marked by an earthquake in 11:19 and the 7th bowl is marked by an earthquake in 16:18. And John also picks up the imagery of the Day of the Lord in the 6th seal.
The Day of the Lord is a common theme in the OT prophets (e.g., read Isa. 13 and Joel 2). And the Day of the Lord is the final day, the day when God will judge the world. The sun turns black and the moon becomes like blood. What is John telling us in pictorial language? The world is ending. The whole natural world is falling apart so to speak. Stars are falling out of the sky as a gale force wind forces figs to drop to the ground. Clearly, this is the end, for the sky disappears. And all mountains and islands are moved from their places. This is a colorful way of saying that the end is at hand. John uses this same imagery later in Revelation to describe the end. We already saw that the 7th trumpet signals the end with an earthquake, just like here, and the 7th trumpet also picks up the picture of islands and mountains being dislocated. “And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found” (Rev. 16:20). So, John is clearly telling us that this is the end.
And since the end is at hand, those who are unsaved are filled with terror: from the most powerful general to the poorest slave. They look for refuge wherever they can: in caves and in rocks among the mountains. But they fear final judgment more than death, for they cry out to be crushed by mountains and rocks, and ask to be hidden from the terrible face of God “who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” Did you notice again that God and the Lamb are put on the same level here? Lambs aren’t wrathful! But This one is! For the day of the Lord has come. The day of final judgment. “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (v. 17). The “great day of their wrath” shows that John thinks here of the day of the Lord.
Don’t think there won’t be a final judgment. Don’t be deluded into thinking the great day of wrath will come. It will come and God will make all things right. Those who have trusted in Jesus will be vindicated. Indeed, the sixth seal answers the prayers voiced by the martyrs in the fifth seal. God is just and righteous, and will vindicate his own.
So, who can be spared? Only those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Caves won’t help you on the day of judgment. Your so-called good works won’t help you. The fact that you attended church or were baptized won’t help you. The only thing that will save you is if you put your trust in the one who saves you from the wrath of the Lamb. The blood of the Lamb saves from the wrath of the Lamb. Give yourself to Jesus who died to save sinners and you will be spared from the great day that is coming.
Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.