By Christopher VanDusen
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ in the western world are seeing the destruction and transformation of western civilization more than ever before. Just in the past year, and in the past month, we’ve seen some of the greatest examples of political conquest, violent conflict, economic disaster, worldwide pandemic, and Christian persecution in recent history. Two of the greatest questions that are being asked by Christians are, “why are these things happening?”, and “how will this world end up?” In Revelation 6, the apostle John describes the answers to those questions.
In Revelation, John is writing to seven churches in the prosperous Roman province of Asia, in modern-day Turkey. Like us, they had been seeing signs of the destruction of the Roman Empire, and were experiencing increased persecution. However, they were in store for even more of these things. Therefore, the Lord Jesus sent an angel to John, who showed him a series of visions to depict both the immediate, and distant, future. John then described these visions in Revelation, and sent the document to the seven churches.
John begins Revelation with a few introductory verses, describing how he got the revelation, and how people can benefit from it. Then, he greets the churches with God’s grace and peace, following this greeting with the reminder that the Lord will return soon, and is in control of history.
Next, John describes his first vision, which is an appearance of the Lord as High Priest of His church, who stands among them, and commissions John to send His messages to the churches. In chapters 2-3, John records specific messages of the Lord to each church, which address their specific situations, bringing encouragement, comfort, and rebuke.
In chapter 4, John begins to see a new vision of heaven’s throne room. God is shown on His throne, with His heavenly servants surrounding Him, and worshiping Him as Creator and Ruler of the universe. In chapter 5, John sees a scroll in God’s hand, and an angel who asks everyone in the world if they’re worthy to take this scroll from God, and to read what’s written on it. Since no one is found who can do this, John weeps, since he needs to know what the scroll says to serve as God’s prophet to the churches. Thankfully, he’s told that a mighty Conqueror, who’s the rightful heir of King David’s throne, has won a victory, so that He can open the scroll, and learn what’s in it. John describes the sight of this Conqueror as a Lamb that’s been killed, with seven horns and eyes, which “are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth”. This Lamb takes the scroll from God’s hand, provoking every creature in the universe to worship and praise Him, as well as God the Father.
In chapter 6, then, John describes what happens when the Lamb begins to break the seals that seal the scroll closed:
“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!” 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.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 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.
5 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. 6 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!”
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 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.
9 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. 10 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?” 11 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.
12 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, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 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, 16 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, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (ESV)
In this part of John’s vision, he sees seven things that tell the seven churches what’s about to happen in their world, how the world will end, and why these things will happen:
- He Sees a Conquering Rider (vss. 1-2)
- He Sees a Conflicting Rider (vss. 3-4)
- He Sees a Constraining Rider (vss. 5-6)
- He Sees a Calamitous Rider (vss. 7-8)
- He Sees the Complaining Righteous (vss. 9-11)
- He Sees a Cosmic Ravaging (vss. 12-14)
- He Sees Condemned Rebels (vss. 15-17)
John Sees a Conquering Rider
The first main thing that John sees in this chapter is the rider of a white horse:
“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.”
To begin this description of the Lord’s breaking of the seals on the scroll, John reminds us that Jesus looks like a lamb. This calls to mind the fact that in chapter 5, it’s revealed that the reason Jesus is worthy to learn what’s written in the scroll of God’s plan for the future is because He sacrificed Himself like a lamb to God, satisfying God’s wrath against sinners, and purchasing a group of people for God.
When Jesus breaks one of the “seven seals” on the scroll, John hears “one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’” The “four living creatures” are spiritual beings that surround God’s throne, and the Lamb, serving Them in Their reign over the universe, and praising Them. This creature’s voice is “like thunder” because it has supernatural power, and the authority of Jesus behind it. In commanding the first horseman forth, he’s acting as the Lord’s representative, or on His behalf. Thus, it’s ultimately not the creature that calls the horseman forth, but Jesus. Jesus does this simply by beginning to open the scroll of God’s plan for the future, revealing Jesus’s authority over world events in the time that Revelation was written, as well as now.
The first thing that John sees as a result of the creature’s summons is “a white horse”. In the Roman empire, horses were very expensive, and usually used by the Roman military. White horses were usually ridden by generals, who were celebrated for their military victories. This is why John sees the rider carrying “a bow”, which wouldn’t have been a common weapon for Roman cavalry, but for the Asian horsemen of the East, which were some of Rome’s enemies. This is what John’s original audience would have thought of when they heard this rider’s description. And in fact, the Roman Empire’s eastern frontier would be overrun by horse-riding archers relatively soon. However, the rider John sees also is “given” “ a crown”, symbolizing his political authority over others. Hence, this horseman doesn’t simply represent common soldiers that attacked the Roman Empire, but their king, who represents his kingdom. And this king “came out conquering, and to conquer”, or had immediate success, and aimed to conquer more people.
John Sees a Conflicting Rider
In verses 3-4, John next sees a horseman that incites human violence:
“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.”
Now another one of the four creatures orders a new horseman to come from heaven to earth. The horse on which he rides is “bright red”, which clearly symbolizes blood in this picture. The rider of the horse is “permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword”. The progression of this horseman from the previous one is very logical. When kings conquer people, they “take peace from the earth”, leading to killing. That’s why this rider is “given a great [or large] sword” — a weapon of war. And who gave the living creature the authority to unleash this violence on the earth? The Lamb.
John Sees a Constraining Rider
The third horseman John sees in verses 5-6 makes food unaffordable:
“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!’”
The color of this third horse is black, the color of trouble and sorrow. The rider carries “a pair of scales in his hand”, which were used at that time to measure grain. This represents the rider’s control over food supply.
However, what the rider does is described by what John describes as something “like” a voice “in the midst of the four living creatures”. In the midst of them sits God the Father on His throne, and stands the Lamb. Therefore, we can conclude that the voice John hears comes from one or both of Them. In either case, the Lamb is the One who gives the rider the ability to do what’s described, since He broke the seal that made him appear. The voice first says that “a quart of wheat [is] for a denarius, and three quarts of barley [are] for a denarius”. According to the historical record, the average daily supply of wheat for a Roman soldier was “a quart”. However, the daily wage for most workers at that time was “a denarius”, which was a Roman coin. Hence, these words describe an increase in the price of essential foods to the extent that most people would have to spend all their money on their daily food, making it extremely difficult to provide for oneself, and nearly impossible to provide for one’s family.
Nevertheless, the voice tells the rider to “not harm the oil and wine”, leaving the availability of these staples of the Mediterranean diet untouched. So, while people would find it hard to get their necessary food, they would still have their essential drink, and useful fat product. In other words, they’d be able to barely survive on the normal wage, but some wouldn’t.
John Sees a Calamitous Rider
The last horseman John sees in verses 7-8 kills a portion of the earth’s population with various weapons:
“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.”
This horseman pictures the result of the three previous ones’ actions. First, he rides on “a pale horse”, or “a gray horse”, which was the color of ash, or dust. This represents death and destruction, which is why the rider’s name is “Death”. However, he has a companion, who is “Hades”, riding behind him. The word “Hades” was the word that the Greek Old Testament used for the place of the dead, representing the spiritual realm where the dead reside. However, Jesus uses this word in Matthew 16 as a symbol for the evil power of death, which brings destruction and suffering to people. This is more in line with how John is using it here. What follows death? The destruction and suffering that it brings, along with the terrible fate of dead unbelievers.
Both Death and Hades are “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”. So, the ways in which death and destruction are brought about is first “with sword”, which symbolizes war. Second, people are killed with “famine”, or a severe lack of food. Third, they’re killed with “pestilence”, or disease. Finally, they’re killed “by wild beasts of the earth”, showing the breakdown of a society’s ability to control, and protect against, the natural world. However, these horsemen are only given authority over a fourth of the earth, representing the limited loss of life in the age of the Roman Empire, and now. Although there’s a significant portion of people who are killed by war, starvation, disease, and the natural world, most die from other things.
He Sees Complaining Righteous Ones
The Lamb’s breaking of the fifth seal reveals the longing of Christian martyrs in heaven for justice to be executed on their murderers, and God’s explanation of why He’s delaying such justice:
“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.”
This marks a transition in the vision that John is seeing of the breaking of the seals. Whereas the first four seals brought forth the evil forces of the world, which work for its own destruction, this seal shows us the results of the world’s destruction of believers, as well as why it happens.
The first thing John sees is a group of “souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne”. In the New Testament, the word “soul” is used to describe the life or essence of a human being, as it’s used in Acts 2 for the 2,000 “souls” that are saved and added to the church on Pentecost. Hence, the “souls” that John sees “under the altar” are the non-physical identities of martyrs. Although John hasn’t yet mentioned an altar in heaven, evidently there is one, and these people are “under” it. This is an allusion to the Old Testament altars on which animals were sacrificed to God, and their blood ran “under” them. Like those animals, these people have “sacrificed” themselves to God on the altar of persecution. The reason we know they were persecuted is that they were killed “for the word of God and for the witness they had borne”. In other words, they were murdered because they preached the message of God, and served as witnesses to its truth. This message is nothing less than the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, His death, resurrection, ascension, judgment of sinners, and forgiveness of sins.
These martyrs cry out “with a loud voice” to the “sovereign Lord”, or “supreme Ruler”. They describe Him as “holy and true”, or “set apart” and “faithful” to His promises, and the truth. The reason they recognize His separateness and faithfulness is that they perceive that He’s delaying justice. This is why they ask Him “how long” it will be before He “judges” and “avenges” their blood “on those who dwell on the earth”. In this case, the people who “dwell on the earth” are unbelievers, or those who don’t just live on the earth, but are comfortable on the earth, since they’re earthly-minded.
In reply to the martyrs earnest inquiry of how long it will be until they see justice done, God gives each of them “a white robe”. In chapters 2-3 of Revelation, Jesus uses the symbol of white robes to represent the holiness and righteousness of the saints. When clothed in these robes, their sinful “nakedness” isn’t “seen” by God, so He treats them as innocent of any sin, and worthy to know Him, and to experience His holy presence. The perfection of this righteousness is given to the martyrs as a reward for their faith in “the word of God”, which caused them to give up their lives because of it, and for testifying to it. This is consistent with what Jesus promises multiple times in chapters 2-3 (as well as multiple other passages, particularly in 1 Peter), which is the perfection of eternal life for those who continue to trust Him as Lord and Savior until the end of their lives.
In addition to “a white robe”, the martyrs are also “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”. What are they resting from? Their work of preaching God’s Word, and of testifying to it through their speech and actions on earth, in the face of persecution. However, they will have more work to do once the determined number of their “fellow servants” of God, and their “brothers” and sisters, are killed like them, so that this number is “complete”. And who has determined this number? God Himself. Once every one of His appointed martyrs have been killed, He will judge the murderous earth dwellers, and avenge the blood of His saints.
John Sees a Cosmic Ravaging
In verses 12-14, the Lamb breaks the second to last seal, and several signs appear in the universe:
“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.”
First, John sees “a great earthquake”. Just as in non-Christian thought, earthquakes in the Bible are signs of destruction. But this earthquake is a sign of the destruction of the universe, since it’s followed by a series of events that end in “the stars of the sky” “falling” to the earth, and the sky “vanishing” like a rolled up scroll.
Second, John sees “the sun [become] black as sackcloth [a mourning garment]”, “the full moon [become] like blood, and the stars of the sky [fall] to the earth”. The first scene depicts the sun going completely black, and the second represents the moon displaying the terrifying and ominous color of death and destruction to those enjoying themselves at night, which elsewhere in Scripture represents evil. In other words, the greatest physical source of life on earth is now gone, and the only light that’s left is the light of a bloody-red moon, which only provides a warning of death to those on earth. In fact, every other light given by stars is now gone, since they’ve fallen to the earth like figs shaken off of a tree by wind.
Finally, John sees “the sky [vanish] like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island . . . removed from its place”. Now, not only have the lights in the sky gone out, but the sky itself has been rolled up “like a scroll”. And the last area of the universe to be destroyed is the earth itself, since every mountain and island is now taken “from its place”. Given the extent of the destruction in this vision, it’s best to understand this as meaning the mountains crumble to the earth, and the islands vanish in the sea.
John Sees Condemned Rebels
In the last few verses of this chapter, John sees the impact that the destruction of the universe has on the “earth dwellers” that the martyrs have just condemned, which causes them to interpret what this destruction points to:
“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?’”
To begin his description, John first identifies the types of people that are scared of the previous cosmic signs. First, it’s “the kings of the earth”, or the rulers of nations. Second, there are “great ones”, or famous, influential, or highly praised, people. Third, there are “generals”, or military commanders. Fourth, there are “the rich and the powerful”. Finally, there are both “slave and free” people included in this group of cowards.
When this diverse group of people see and experience the shaking of the universe, they hide 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 these earth dwellers reveal what they’re truly afraid of. The signs tell them that God the Father, and Jesus the Lamb are about to unleash their “wrath”, or hatred, on the types of people that murdered Their saints. The question asked assumes the answer that none of them have the ability to stand the horrible destruction that they’ll experience when God acts on His wrath against them. Instead of experiencing this wrath, they’d rather have the mountains and rocks hide them from the “face” of the universe’s Ruler, and from Christ’s wrath. But they can’t escape Them, since “the great day has come”.
Be Not Alarmed, Wait Patiently for the Avenger, and Warn Earth Dwellers
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how does this series of visions apply to you?
First, when we see political conquest, people killing each other, economic disaster, or natural disaster, we need to keep in mind that these events are controlled by the Lamb who knows the future. He’s ultimately the One who gives rulers dominion, takes peace from communities, controls the food supply, and determines how people die. So we can rest assured that He’s in control of world events, as well as the circumstances of our lives. Further, we can expect that as long as He remains in heaven, all these things will continue to be normal parts of human history.
Second, when we see our brothers and sisters in Christ murdered for their preaching, or for their lives that testify to the truth of the gospel, without justice being done, we need to be patient. The Lord has promised that He will avenge His saints, and punish His enemies.
Therefore, we need to let the terrible fate of the wicked motivate us to warn them to flee from the wrath to come. God will eventually punish all who are earthly-minded, and opposed to Him. By living in rebellion against Him, they are increasing His wrath against them, and won’t be able to stand when He judges them. Since we understand this fearful reality, let us strive to persuade people to be reconciled to God through faith in His Son.
If you don’t live your life because of your faith in the gospel, and don’t live in light of the gospel, then you’re an enemy of God, and heading for the day when you will suffer His eternal wrath. But the gospel, or good news, is that God sent His eternal and divine Son to become a man, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take the punishment we deserve for our rebellion against Him. Then, God raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the Ruler of the universe. He commands everyone to change their minds, and to trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior to receive His mercy, forgiveness, and peace, since He’s going to judge everyone through Jesus, and punish all His enemies forever in a place of torment. Please make sure that you’ve repented of your rebellion, and are trusting in Jesus alone as your Ruler and Savior from sin and hell. If you’ve done that, then He requires all His subjects to be baptized under water as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.