Do you remember the scene from chapter 5? In his vision, John saw into heaven. And the Lord God Almighty was holding in his right hand a scroll. And this scroll contains God’s plans for the last days, the days we’re now living in. However, the scroll was sealed with seven seals; and unless the seals were broken, then the plan could not be revealed; and worse than that: unless the seals were broken, the plan could not be put into action. And a mighty angel asked:
Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?
And there was no one; no one was worthy to break the seals. And so, John wept and wept. And he kept weeping, until one of elders said to him:
The Lion of the tribe of Judah is able to open the scroll.
And when John looked, behold, he saw, not a Lion, but a Lamb who had been slain. It’s the Lord Jesus Christ who has conquered sin and Satan and death by his death and resurrection and who has now ascended to heaven to be installed as King over all. And he is worthy to break the seals and to put into action the contents of the scroll. And the elders in heaven, and the four living creatures, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of angels worshipped the Lamb who was slain.
And so we come to chapter 6 and the breaking of the first six seals on the scroll. And if you glance forward in your Bible, you’ll see that the seventh seal is not broken until chapter 8. So, the first six seals are broken; and then there’s a break before the seventh seal is broken. So, let’s think about these six seals and what happened as each one is broken in turn by the Lamb who was slain.
Verses 1 to 8
And so, in verse 1 John tells us how he watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. And whenever he opened it, John heard one of the four living creatures speak with a voice like thunder. We read about these four living creatures in chapter 4. Do you remember? One was like a lion; one was like an ox; one was like a man; and one was like an eagle. They had wings and were covered in eyes; and day and night they worshipped the Lord God Almighty. Well, one of these living creatures now spoke with a voice like thunder. And he said:
It was a command, because he was commanding this rider on a white horse to come forward. And if you glance down to the opening of the second seal in verse 3, and to the opening of the third seal in verse 5, and to the opening of the fourth seal in verse 7, you’ll see that the same pattern is repeated: the seal is opened; then one of the four living creatures speaks and says, ‘Come!’; and then a rider on a horse comes forward.
After the opening of the first seal, this white horse comes forward. And John saw that its rider held a bow; and he was given a crown; and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. Well, this rider carries a bow in order to shoot arrows at his enemies; and he wears a crown, because he’s a conqueror who has come to fight against his enemies and to defeat them in battle.
When the second seal was opened, a fiery red horse came forward. And its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. And this rider was given a large sword. Well, before this rider came along, people were living in peace; but this rider takes the peace away and men are now slaying one another. Some of the commentators think this rider is causing civil war, because those who once lived side by side in peace have now turned on each other.
When the third seal was opened, a black horse came forward. And its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. What were the scales for? Well, they were to weigh wheat and barley, because John heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures say:
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!
What’s this voice saying? It’s announcing that prices have gone through the roof for wheat and barley, because a quart of wheat was what one man might eat in a day; and so, all his wages are going on wheat or barley and there’s nothing left to buy anything else. And so, this rider brings famine on the earth.
And when the fourth seal was opened, a pale horse came forward. Its rider was called Death; and Hades — a name for the grave — followed close behind him. And Death and the Grave were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword and famine and plague and by the wild beasts of the earth. Well, this fourth rider seems to be a culmination of the previous three, because he kills with the sword as the first and second one did; and he causes famine as the third one did; and perhaps the famine was caused by the plague which is also mentioned here.
Now, what’s going on here? Well, I remember hearing someone [Sinclair Ferguson] say that if you want to know with confidence what the book of Revelation is about, read one commentary. If you read that one commentary, the commentator will answer all your questions and you’ll know for sure what the book of Revelation is about. If you want to know with confidence what the book of Revelation is about, read that one commentary. Why only one? Because if you pick up a second commentary, you’ll find that that second commentator interprets the book in an entirely different way; and you’re left thinking to youself:
I used to be sure. Now I’m not so sure.
Which commentator is right? Well, I have at least eight commentaries on the book of Revelation. I normally consulted three of them when I was preparing these messages for the midweek a few years ago. So, you can imagine how confusing it often got, with one commentator saying one thing; and another saying something else; and a third saying something else again. And when it comes to explaining the meaning of what is happening here with the opening of the first four seals, there are at least three views.
One is that what these riders and their horses represent is God’s judgment on the world. In Romans 1 Paul tells us that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. So, according to Paul, right now, in this life, in these, the last days, God reveals his wrath against the wicked in various ways. And one commentator says that’s what’s going on here, in Revelation 6. And one reason for thinking that is because these four horses are similar to the four chariots and horses we read about in Zechariah 6 which were sent out by the Lord to bring judgment on the nations. And so, since those horses were sent to bring judgment, it seems reasonable to conclude that the four horses in Revelation 6 are being sent to bring judgment on the wicked.
However, another commentator takes almost the opposite view. He interprets the horses as being messengers of Satan, who are attempting to defeat and oppress believers, using different methods. And one reason for thinking that is because in verses 9 to 11 John saw the souls of believers who had been slain, crying out to the Lord to avenge their blood. So, since verses 9 to 11 are about persecuted believers, it makes sense to say that verses 1 to 8 are about the suffering of God’s people on the earth.
However, a third view — and this is the one I prefer — is that John’s vision of the four horses — bringing war and famine and plague and death — summarises all the woes and troubles which happen in this world. In the gospel of Luke, one of the Lord’s disciples asked him what will be the sign that the end has come? And the Lord replied:
when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.
So, there will be wars and tumults, wars and revolutions, but that doesn’t mean the end will happen at once. In other words, that’s just what life is like in the world. And so, in John’s vision he sees that there will be war, with one nation conquering another; and there will be civil wars and divisions among those who once lived in peace; and there will be famine and plagues; and there will be other kinds of sorrow and suffering which will bring people to Hades, the grave.
But here’s the thing; and we mustn’t miss this: all of these woes and troubles are under the control of the Lamb who was slain, because he’s the one who broke the seal which led to these things happening. And so, when we worry about what’s happening in the world, we need to remember that the Lamb of God — who loved us and who gave up his life for us — is in control of all things in heaven and on earth.
I love the chapter on Christian liberty in our church’s Confession of Faith where it says that believers are freed from the evil of afflictions. Now, it doesn’t say that we’re freed from afflictions; but we’re freed from the evil of afflictions. And we’re freed from the evil of afflictions, because the Lord is able to use the afflictions his believing people suffer for our good. So, while he might send trouble on the world in order to punish the wicked for their sins, he’s able to use those same events, or similar events, for the benefit of believers. And whatever happens, happens because of him; he’s the one who is in control; he’s the one who is in charge. And so we needn’t be afraid and we needn’t worry about a thing, because the Lamb who loved us rules over all things in heaven and on earth.
Verses 9 to 11
But let’s move on now to verses 8 to 11 and the opening of the fifth seal. And when this seal was opened, John saw under the altar in heaven the souls of those believers who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they have maintained. So, instead of denying the Lord in the face of persecution, they remained faithful to the Lord. And as a result of their faithfulness, they were killed for the faith. But look: now their souls are safely under the altar of God in heaven. And these souls of believers cried out to the Lord, saying:
How long? How long until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
When wicked things have happened to you, you look to the Lord to deal with those who harmed you. Do you remember how Paul put it in Romans 12?
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’.
And before they receive an answer to their question, they receive a white robe, which symbolises purity and righteousness. And having received a white robe, they then received the answer to their question. They asked how long before they were avenged; and the answer they received is that they must wait a little longer. In fact, the Greek word translated ‘wait’ is actually ‘rest’. So, they’re being told to rest a little longer. That’s what the souls of believers are doing now: they’re resting in the presence of the Lord.
How long will they have to rest? Well, the answer is perhaps surprising:
until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed — as they had been — was completed.
In other words, the Lord already knows how many believers will be martyred for the faith. And that tells us that the suffering and death of the Lord’s people is under his sovereign control and it must serve his purposes in some mysterious way. But though there may be suffering in this life, though there may be persecution in this life, John’s vision re-assures the Lord’s suffering people, because it discloses to them that after the struggles of this life there comes the rest of heaven.
Verses 12 to 17
My time is almost up. But in verses 12 to 17, the sixth seal is opened. And after it is opened, there’s an earthquake; and the sun turned black and the moon turned red and the stars fell from the sky and the sky was rolled up and every mountain and island was removed from its place. What is John describing? Well, these are all familiar terms which signify the end of the world or the end of the first heavens and the first earth which will be replaced by the new heavens and the new earth. The opening of the sixth seal signifies how the Lord will come in judgment. And in John’s vision of the end, he sees the kings of the earth and the princes and generals and the rich and the mighty and every slave and every free man hiding in the caves and among the rocks. And they are so afraid, that they would rather have the mountains fall on them than face who and what? Well, they’ rather have the mountains fall on them than face the Lord God Almighty who sits on the throne and the wrath of the Lamb. Isn’t that an unusual expression? We normally think of the love of the Lamb, or the gentleness of the Lamb. But here it’s the wrath of the Lamb. Those who believe can say:
The Lamb of God loved me and gave up his life for me.
However, those who have rejected him and have not believed in him, will discover this other side to him. And when he comes in wrath on the great day of wrath, those who refused to believe in him will not be able to stand before him or before the Lord God Almighty.
Well, this is why believers love the Lamb, isn’t it? Not because he will come in wrath, but because he’s saved us from that great day of wrath by suffering the wrath of God in our place whenever he died on the cross to pay for our sins. So, we’re not afraid of his coming, because for those who believe there is no condemnation to fear. And while we go on living on the earth, we can rest in the knowledge that he is in control of all things; and he’s working out his sovereign purposes for the world, in these the last days before he comes again.