Read Revelation 6
This chapter is known for the images of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse” which are represented here by the events that follow the opening of the four seals. These events represent the beginning of what some call the “tribulation”, a time when the inhabitants of the earth face the wrath and judgment of God. Depending on your view of the timeline of the “End Times”, particularly if you believe in the rapture and hold to a “dispensational pre-millennialist” view, Christians aren’t present for this. In this view, God spares Christians His wrath while judging the unbelievers in hopes that some will turn back to Him. We will talk about this particular view in a later posting.
Reformed Theology, holds to a different view called amillennialism. In this, there is no escapist mentality but instead, the church is present and active in the “Last Days,” still fully engaged in mission with God to spread the Gospel and fulfilling the great commission. Again, we’ll talk more about this when the time comes.
The four horsemen have become somewhat mythical in their and prevalence in places outside of Scripture. John’s descriptions of them provide many with wild and often confusing images. Often we want to spend time trying to figure our who or what specifics these represent. For example, the first horse, the conqueror, has often been portrayed as Jesus Himself. With the color white which is the color the purity, a crown, and no outwardly negative things associated with his arrival, this could be a decent fit. However, being bent on conquest doesn’t necessarily fit the Biblical image of God’s Son, the humble servant. So perhaps, then, this is actually the antichrist. Satan, afterall, masquerades as an angel of light. This could very well be the case.
Another thought, one that falls a bit more in line with the themes of the other horsemen is that this is a “spirit of conquest.” What does this mean? Possibly that, in these last days, there will be a human desire and push to rule over each other, and not in the nicest of ways. Remember that when we talk about the “last days” we are talking about the Scriptural reference to the time after the Messiah has come. In the Old Testament prophecies, this is what is meant here; it is not necessarily an undetermined time that signals Christ’s return.
The fact that this spirit, like the other horsemen, was brought forth, or at the very least allowed to come forward by heaven suggests that this is part of God’s plan and purpose. Certainly, there is Biblical precedent for this, looking at the kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome as well as Paul’s words reminding us that there is no authority on earth except that which is given by God Himself. I think we can say that we’ve seen evidence of this throughout the last 2000 years as well from both individuals as well as governments.
As Jesus continues to open the seals we see similar spirits, depicted as horsemen, that are allowed to go out from heaven. Each has its own task and ability to disrupt creation and human life. It is also important to note that, with the third rider, there is a limitation placed on its ability to harm. While these judgments and happenings can take their toll, none is more powerful than God.
Taking all four of these together, there is an argument that could be made that these four horsemen represent the effects of sin on the world. That the devastation, disruption, and damage that they cause on all creation and human life, the consequences of sin, are a form of judgment in and of themselves. This too would fall in line with the idea that these represent a number of spirits that are loosed on the earth.
Opening the fifth seal brings about a totally different set of images, that of martyrs. The souls that are under the altar are indicative of the sacrifice that they have made for the sake of the Gospel. In Old Testament sacrificial rites, the blood of the sacrifice was poured out on the base of the altar. Yet these souls are not dead but instead are alive, representing the life that is had in Christ. Because of their commitment to the Gospel, the fact that they did not back down or deny Christ, they are given white robes representing their purity (in Christ).
One theme that comes along with this image is also something that gains credence throughout Scripture, the continuing persecution of the church. Jesus references this in the Gospel of John and it is mentioned in other places throughout the New Testament. Here the Lord acknowledges it, that it will continue until the end, something we have certainly seen more vividly in recent months in the middle east. This too, however, has a limit, and when it is reached, we can be assured that Christ will return victorious.
The events of the 6th seal are reminiscent of a number of visions that the prophets had in the Old Testament. Some of them even Jesus attested to in His discussions about the “end times.” When God shows up there is often an associated earthquake that takes place (Isaiah 29:6; Ezekiel 38:19; Psalm 97:4; Exodus 19:18). The sun’s darkening (Isaiah 50:3; Matthew 24:29) and the resulting red glow of the moon (think of a lunar eclipse) are also events that are said to take place with the opening of the sixth seal. Stars falling from the sky (Isaiah 34:4), as well as the changing of the sky (2 Peter 3:10), are magnificent events the John sees. Each carries with it Scriptural imagery, much of which would have been familiar to those familiar with the Old Testament.
Last on the list for the 6th seal are the removal of islands and mountains. This too may seem a bit random and disjointed, however, it carries with it very familiar Scriptural imagery as well. Many times in the Old Testament we see the coming of the Lord being heralded by the removal of obstacles. Psalm 46:2, Isaiah 54:10, Jeremiah 4:24, Ezekiel 38:20, and Nahum 1:5 each reference events similar to this as well as the Isaiah’s words of comfort to the people of Israel in chapter 40. Many of these carry the theme of prophesying Jesus’ first coming which is picked up by John here in talking about the second.
So what are we to make of these? Events similar to these have certainly taken place throughout the years which is why searching for a single one as a focal point is futile. Does that mean that they are meaningless to us, that they won’t happen at some future time, or that it is simply symbolism? Not necessarily… But perhaps the point here, like the rest of Revelation, is not to be looking for specific times, places, people and events, afterall Jesus says that no one knows the time and to not believe those that say “this is the Christ.” Perhaps, instead, these things are set to be reminders, signals for the faithful and unfaithful alike, that God is still at work and that we are in the “last days.” Perhaps, like a weather alert causes us to consider weather conditions, so too should these things give us pause and cause us to evaluate how well we are loving God and loving our neighbor…
Therein may lie the true purpose of the book of Revelation as God says in Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” Like all prophecy, the message is meant for God’s people in the moment with meaning for the now, not a cryptic message about the future that needs to be deciphered. Afterall, “revelation” is a “revealing,” not a hiding.