The Great Day of Their Wrath (Revelation 6.12–17)


It has been said that God is slow, but never late. God’s slowness to fulfill his promise of a just world order redounds to the benefit of us sinners, who are given ample time to repent of the error of our ways. But God’s patience is not limitless. As C.S. Lewis somewhere puts it, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Your will be done.” When God determines that more time will not result in another change of heart, then he will usher in his righteous kingdom—not a day late, but at just the right time.

Revelation 6.12–17 describes the onset of God’s judgment of the world in terms of natural disasters so great that the cosmos itself is shaken and destroyed: “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.”

John intends his description of these great natural disasters to shake our faith in the things we take for granted: a solid earth, a shining sun, a luminous moon, the stars fixed in heaven, and mountains that do not move. The great decision all of us must make in life is whether our hearts are fundamentally oriented toward earth or heaven, toward ourselves or toward God. The seeming permanence of the earth lulls us into thinking that it and our worldly affairs are what matters most. God’s judgment shatters this illusion.

No wonder, then, that precisely those most invested in the old world order are terrified by its passing. “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.” Having lived off the benefits of the earth for so long, with nary a thought of God, heaven, or eternity, they vainly seek earth’s protection from God: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” How very different is this response from the promise John gives those who put God first: “They will see his face” (22.4)! Divine judgment means fearing the face of God; salvation means seeing it and loving it.

Does the language of wrath in verses 16–17 make you uncomfortable? I freely admit that I am more comfortable with the abstract nouns “justice” or “righteousness” than with the psychologically provocative “wrath,” even though all three describe the same facet of God’s personality. But John intends to be provocative. He wants to make us uncomfortable. For only if we envision the harrowing effect of God’s judgment can we rightly understand the graciousness of God’s love for us. In the end, there are only two options for us: judgment or salvation, hiding from or seeing God’s face, bad news or good news.

Which do you choose?

O Sovereign Lord, How Long? (Revelation 6.9–11)


Submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality all require patience: Patience with a corrupt government to reform, with the violent to act peaceably, with the poor to move from dependency to productivity, and with the sick to heal. The last two items are borne with comparative ease. The first two items? Not so much.

It is fascinating to me that after describing the devastation wrought on earth by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8), John turns again to a scene in the throne room of heaven (6:9-11). There, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are martyrs, in other words. (That this altar is a heavenly one rather than an earthly one may be ascertained by comparing 6.9 with 8.3, 5.)

What fascinates me is not the heavenly scene, but the cry of the martyrs: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” Until I read Revelation 6.9–11, I had always thought that those whose souls had entered heaven existed in a state of uninterrupted bliss. This is not the picture John presents. Rather, those souls cry out to God for justice in no uncertain terms. Indeed, the absolute certainty of their cries is unnerving. “Avenge our blood” is not a request uttered in polite company, after all. (Perhaps we would think otherwise if we had been martyred.) Whatever the particular terms used, we understand the martyrs’ request. Is it too much to ask God that right be done on earth?

What I have written above about submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality may have struck you as, well, a bit unjust. Why should we submit to corrupt politicians? Why should we strive to make peace when our enemies are making war? Because, quite frankly, God commands us to. And because we recognize that we live in between Christ’s first and second coming, when God offers grace to sinners like you, me, and our enemies. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise,” Peter writes, “as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9).

That reason is why, I think, the martyrs were “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” The white robe is a symbol of sins forgiven, of being justified by Christ before God. Just as they had been made right through God’s patience with them, so now the martyrs are asked to exercise patience toward others, even if that patience results in the martyrdom of other believers. Until Christ returns, God asks us to be witnesses through our words and with our lives.

Justice and patience. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew both in equal measure, rightly said that while the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. So, as we wait for God to do the right thing at the last, let us do what God is doing now, and patiently extend to sinners his gracious love.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (6.1–8) 


There are many believers enduring tribulation all around the world right now. Enduring tribulation raises the question, how shall we then live?

The answer to this question depends on “then.” It depends, in other words, on the environment we are called by God to inhabit. As we read Revelation 6.1–8, it becomes clear that God calls some of us to live in an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, famine, pestilence, and death—or at least to be prepared to do so.

Consider three facts: First, conquest, war, scarcity, and the like describe the actual conditions of many Christians around the world at the present time. Surely, they are justified in reading Revelation in such a way that helps them live godly lives in their environment. Second, many futurists teach that some Christians will endure the great tribulation, namely, those who convert after the rapture. Third, other futurists and all preterists, idealists, and historicists teach that Christians will go through the great tribulation. All Christians should take Jesus at His word that His coming will be like a thief in the night, that it will be so sudden some will be taken and others left. Our best response is to live in such a way as to be watch and be ready at any moment. We all should live knowing that Christ’s return is imminent. Additionally, while waiting for that return, Christians must learn how to live in a time of conquest, war, scarcity, and the like.

Now I know that the mention of these evils—which John portrays as four horsemen—is not the kind of thing that will brighten your day. It is not supposed to. John reports his vision of the four horsemen in order to stiffen our spines, not bring a smile to our faces. His is a realistic counsel: Whatever good we might expect in the future, we must prepare for the worst in the present.

How? By cultivating the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality, among others. The rider on the white horse, we are told, “came out conquering and to conquer.” His sole purpose was domination. We might meet this rider with resistance, but Scripture tacks the opposite way. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus taught us, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). Christians can be good citizens even when their state is corrupt.

The rider on the red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth,” and war ensued. In such an environment, the Christian who makes peace is blessed (Matt. 5.9). Peace, in the Bible, is never merely the absence of conflict. It is also always the presence of the harmony that results from justice. To make peace, then, we must act justly at all times.

The rider on the black horse brings economic scarcity and inflated prices. In the great tribulation, a day’s ration of wheat costs a day’s wage. One can hardly get ahead with prices so high. While the natural tendency under such circumstances is to hoard and save, the truly Christian response is to share. In the early days of the Jerusalem church, believers pooled their resources so that none would be left behind economically (Acts 2.44–45, 4.32–37).

Death, which rides a pale horse, is followed by Hades and brings famine, pestilence, and cruelty in its train. Confronted by the horrors of disease, we often retreat into safe enclaves, excluding from our midst those who might be infected. The proper Christian response is hospitality, the welcoming of strangers into our midst. Such is a distinguishing mark of the disciple (Matt. 25.31–46).

In an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, and death, Christians are called to exhibit the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality. That, then, is how we should live.

When Will the Great Tribulation Take Place? (Revelation 6:1-8:5)


In Revelation 6.1–8.5, John turns our attention from heaven to earth, from the Lamb to the seven seals that he alone is worthy to open. The turn is abrupt and unpleasant, for the earthly scene John portrays is the polar opposite of the heavenly scene he has just revealed. Instead of the unending worship of heaven, we see unceasing warfare on earth, as successively greater disasters—manmade, natural, and divine—befall the planet upon the opening of each seal. This is “the great tribulation” (7.14; cf. 2.22, Matt. 24.21) whose intensity forces the question: “And who can stand?” (6.17).

Obviously, we would like to know when this great tribulation takes place.

Many American Protestants believe that it lies in the future, just after Jesus Christ secretly returns to earth to rapture believers to heaven. Those left behind endure the depredations of the Antichrist and False Prophet for seven years. During that period, many convert, including Jews who acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. At the end of the seven years, Christ publicly returns, subdues the devil, and inaugurates a one-thousand-year reign of peace. This is the end-times scenario popularized by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series, Left Behind.

It is not the only scenario, however. As we survey church history, in fact, we find four basic schools of interpretation of the meaning of the seven seals.

The first is the preterist school of interpretation. For preterists, according to Steve Gregg, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the judgment of God upon Jerusalem (A.D. 66–70); 144,000 Judean Christians escape to Pella [in modern-day Jordan].”[i] Thus, in the preterist interpretation, the events of Revelation 6.1–8.5 are basically past.

The second school of interpretation is the futurist one. Obviously, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and others like them are students of this school. It should be noted, however, that not all futurists subscribe to the rapture of the church. A basic issue that divides futurists is whether Christians who converted prior to the great tribulation will be spared its violence entirely (by means of the rapture) or given sufficient strength to endure it utterly (through the sealing of the Holy Spirit).

Idealism, or spiritualism, is a third school of interpretation. Whereas preterists interpret the seals as describing past events and futurists as events yet to come, idealists interpret them in terms of the ongoing present. “The scroll and its unsealing represent God’s dealings with mankind, seen in cycles of war, martyrdom, and judgment recurring repeatedly throughout history.”[ii]

Historicism is the fourth school of interpretation. Although not common today, it is “the historic Protestant interpretation” of Revelation and sees the book as “a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of the apostle to the end of the world.”[iii] For historicists, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the beginning of the fall of the Roman empire.”[iv] The seven trumpets (8.6–11.19) and seven bowls (15.1–16.21) unfold the remaining events of end-times history.

We return to our initial question: When will the great tribulation take place? Church history provides at least four answers: it is past, future, present, and unfolding. But which should we believe? I am not sure we must come to a definitive conclusion one way or another. Rather, it seems to me that John reveals these events to inspire the appropriate response in us. “How shall we then live?”—rather than “When will this take place?”—is the most important question for us to ask.

 

[i] Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 83.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid, 2.

[iv] Ibid, 83.

Worthy! (Revelation 5.7–10)


John wept because no one was able “to open the scroll and break its seals.” Then one of heaven’s twenty-four elders comforted him with the arrival of God’s Lion-Lamb, who approached the throne and took the seven-sealed scroll. With that action, worship once again breaks loose in heaven.

Look, for a moment, at what takes place (Rev. 5:7-10): “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” I have sometimes heard an alcoholic referred to as a “stumble-down drunk.” It seems to me, based on how often the denizens of heaven fall on their knees in adoration, that we might accurately describe them as “stumble-down worshipers,” although they are of course filled with the Holy Spirit, not with wine (Eph. 5.18).

Somehow, in spite of their prone position, they manage to sing and pray. And what a song it is!

Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,

for you were slain,

and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

and they shall reign on earth.

Not only does this song express the elders’ and angels’ adoration, it also manages to instruct us in the saving work of Christ.

We are informed, first of all, that Jesus Christ is worthy to reveal God’s plan for the ages because of his death on the cross. We have already pointed out the connection between cross and crown, but it is worth reiterating: The regal lion is worthy to open the scroll precisely because he is also the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Second, we are told that Jesus Christ ransomed people by his blood. This introduces a new element. The idea of a ransom is the price given to a kidnapper to free a hostage. Spiritually speaking, we have been kidnapped by the devil, but so greatly does God love us that he willingly pays a hefty ransom in the death of his own Beloved Son that we might forever be with him.

Third, we are told that God’s love for people is universal in scope. God’s mercy is not limited to his chosen people Israel, nor to those who have grown up in a Christian church. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Do we really need a children’s song to remind us of such a simple truth? No, we need the song of Israel’s patriarchs, the church’s apostles, and the seraphim of the throne room. The universal scope of God’s love is a message too important to be left to little children.

And finally, we are told that there is a purpose in our salvation that extends beyond putting away sin. God created us to be kings and priests, to reign on earth and to enter God’s presence in heaven. It is never enough for us to escape the devil’s clutches. We must be prepared to be enfolded in God’s embrace and to do his work.

The Lamb Who Was Slain (Revelation 5:6)


So far, what John has seen and heard has prepared him to expect great things. He has seen the throne room of God. He has heard that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5) He therefore expects to see the procession of a king, filled with pomp and circumstance.

What he sees instead is a sheep with its throat cut.

In his own words: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6).

We fail to understand both John and the entire New Testament if we fail to understand the interplay between John’s images. John does not say that he saw a sacrificial lamb instead of a regal lion. Instead, both animals represent one person, Jesus, who died for us and therefore reigns over us. Christ wears the crown because he bore the cross, not in spite of it.

This is a revolutionary understanding of kingship. Usually, given the calculus of power that prevails among those who rule, the king sends his enemies to their crosses. Christ is the one and only king who went to the cross for his enemies.

No doubt Christ’s revolutionary kingship accounts for both his popularity and his abandonment by the masses. His proclamation of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the performance of miracles, marked him out as great man, perhaps the Messiah. So the crowds flocked to him.

But he resisted their demands for a typical kingship. At one point in his ministry, the crowd rushed forward to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6.15), but he eluded them. Instead, he called them to follow his example: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 8.34). Why was this so hard? Because the cross was deeply shameful; “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3.13, citing Deut. 21.23). The crowds did not like Jesus’ command. They wanted a regal lion only, not a sacrificial lamb; they could not find a place for crucifixion in their religion.

But God finds a place for the Crucified One in his throne room. Notice how John lays out the floor plan of heaven. In the center is the throne. Around the throne are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4.4, 6). Between God’s throne and the elders’ thrones is where the Lamb stands (5.6), as if to mediate the grace of the former to the needs of the latter, which he in fact does: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2.5, 6).

Christ’s death is thus central to God’s plan. It should be to our lives as well. Jesus Christ is Lion and Lamb, victor and sacrifice. So, if we want his crown, we must bear his cross.

The Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5)


In Greek, the word for gospel is euangelion, meaning good news. It is an announcement of victory in battle. Although the word “gospel” itself is absent from Revelation 5:5, the idea is present throughout: “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Finally, someone has been found who is worthy and able to open the scroll and break its seals!

So, the elder commands John, “Weep no more!” As I wrote earlier, only those who have understood John’s sorrow can understand the comfort the gospel provides. But we need to understand what such comfort entails. Imagine you are soldier in an army and seem to be losing the fight. Suddenly, a messenger arrives on the battlefield and announces that your general has broken through the enemy line and is sending them into headlong retreat. All you need to do is hold out a while longer. This message of imminent victory renews your flagging fighting spirit. It comforts you, in the Latin sense of that term: confortare, “to strengthen completely.”

John weeps because his sorrow is great. He is suffering. His churches are suffering. The enemy seems to be winning. Just as bad, he stands in the throne room of heaven and sees tremendous power but has no idea how God will deploy it. The battle plan is secret, sealed, and no one has the authority to break it.

Except for one.

John first refers to Jesus in chapters 4–5 using the overtly political terminology of Israel’s monarchy. He describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David.” Both are kingly terms. Judah is the tribe that produced Israel’s first dynastic monarchy. David is the first king chronologically within that dynasty. He is also the prototypical king—the one all successive kings strive to emulate.

Jesus is more than just the latest dynastic successor, however; he is the last and the greatest of the Davidic kings. He is the Root of David whom the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isa. 11.1, 10). He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, who will rescue God’s people from evil and restore justice to all creation.

No wonder, then, that when Jesus arrived in Galilee preaching the imminent inauguration of the kingdom of God, people flocked to him (Mark 1.14–15, 28). He was the general whose advent strengthened all flagging soldiers. He comforted his people.

We sometimes forget the “political” side of the gospel, that is, its overtly Messianic themes. We forget how important Jesus’ Davidic genealogy was to the first generation of believers (e.g., Rom. 1.3). We forget that Jesus is not a peripatetic philosopher or a democratically elected politician or even a king. He is the King. And that is good news. But Christ is King in an unexpected way.

At this point, though, John only reports what he hears: royal titles. He still he does not see Jesus. And when he does, it revolutionizes his understanding of God’s kingdom. It will do the same for us.