Monday, February 25, 2019

The Sights, Scents, and Sounds of Silence (Before the Storm)-Revelation 8:1-6

As a singer and former musician (trumpet/piano), I can appreciate all that goes into a good performance. The personal practice hours, multiple rehearsals, and run-throughs all contribute to the concert that the audience observes. Often the occasion of the concert would directly impact the way that we would prepare/warm up. If it was a competition, run-throughs and rehearsals took a serious and focused tone. Pep rallies and parades were more informal in both execution and preparation. That said, in the days, hours, and even moments before the down beat of the first note of the first measure of the first song, the band/orchestra was busy with activity.

The same is true in our passage today. As we reenter the unfolding process of judgment being executed in Revelation, we come to Revelation 8 and the breaking of the seventh seal. Unlike any seal before it, what commences as a result of the opening of this scroll can best be described as a cosmic concert warm-up—final preparations before God strikes the downbeat and the angels blow their (in this case) trumpets. Let’s watch the final preparatory activities that are executed in Revelation 8:1-6 and come to appreciate how God is able and willing to respond to the prayers of his people.

a. A Deep Breath is Taken-8:1-“…When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour,…”

The sequence that was briefly interrupted in chapter 7 (following the breaking of the sixth seal), returns in verse 1 of chapter 8 with the identification of the seventh seal—“When the Lamb broke the seventh seal,…”. The parity between this opening phrase and the introduction of the first six seals demonstrates that John is now reverting back to the same program he began all the way in chapter 6 (the dramatic process of opening the title deed to the universe and ushering in the judgments against the world in an effort to bring about a new one). This final seal is different from the preceding six for several reasons. First, unlike the previous six, this is the last barrier keeping the contents of the scroll hidden. No longer will God’s great wrath be withheld and no longer will the eschatological events necessary to bring about a new heaven and a new earth be left a mystery. Second, upon breaking the seventh seal, something unexpected happens. Instead of the emergence of a rider on a horse or a cosmic event brought about by an angelic being or natural disaster, “there was silence in heaven for about half and hour” (8:1). At least 8 different interpretations of this period of silence have been offered. As they are not mutually exclusive (Osborne, Revelation, 337), it is worth providing a compendium of the interpretive options here:

1. Silence allowed the prayers of the saints to be heard (see 8:3-5;  Caird; Bacukham)
2. Silence marked a temporary cessation of revelation given to John (Swete)
3. Silence highlights a dramatic pause that telegraphs the dread to come in the sounding of the trumpets and pouring of the bowls (Beckwith, Mounce, Thomas, Giesen).
4. Silence alludes to the pre-creation void in which God spoke to bring the universe into existence. This allusion is appropriate here as now God is recreating the heavens and the earth (Rissi, Soloff, Sweet).
5. Silence helps accentuate the completion of the seven seal visions
6. Silence is in keeping with ancient liturgical practices in which a hush precluded prayer (Malina, Aune).
7. Silence here is the silence of the condemned from the sixth seal as they await divine judgment (Prigent; Beale; see also Isa. 47:5; Amos 8:2-3)
8. Silence highlights an intense expectation of God’s involvement as now another cycle of judgment begins.

(List adapted from Osborne, Revelation, 336-37).

As it is quite possible that more than one of these connotations is in play, Hindson’s designation of this silence as a “holy hush” is uniquely fitting. After all, the silence is in the holy presence of God and what follows is a dramatic display of his holiness realized in judging a wicked world. In many ways, this silence is a deep breath, both for the reader and for heaven itself, taken prior to the cacophony that would soon ensue on the world’s stage.

Scary movies often employ silence to increase the heart rate and sense of dreadful expectation of those in the audience.  In fact, the only thing worse in a scary movie than the scary music is no music at all and the threat of something popping out and scaring you. We shift in our seats and even cover our ears in awful anticipation. I believe that this is similar to what is going on here. Heaven is silent, letting all in heaven and on earth know that something big is on its way (see Exod. 14:14; 1 Sam. 12:16; Isa. 41:1; Hab. 2:20; Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:13).

b. The Instruments are Handed Out-8:2-“…And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them,…”

The deafening silence is interrupted by the distribution of trumpets—“And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them” (8:2). As familiar as trumpets are to today’s reader, these were even more commonplace in the ancient Jewish world. Not only were trumpets used in times of war (Josh. 6:20; 1 Sam. 13:3; Jer. 51:27) they were also used in and around the temple. In fact, trumpets would be heard no less than 21 times from the temple complex on a typical day in ancient Jerusalem. On special days (feasts, etc.), they would be heard as many as 48 times. Trumpets were blown to celebrate a dedication (2 Chron. 5:12; Neh. 12:41), at the enthronement ceremonies of kings (1 Kings 1:34, 39), and even to call the nation to repentance (Isa. 58:1; Jer. 4:5). Finally, trumpets introduced the presence of God either as witnessed with the ark in 1 Sam. 6:15 or on Mt. Sinai in Exod. 19:16. Generally speaking, when a trumpet sounded, God was up to something important and this will prove to be the case in the remainder of Revelation.

As a trumpet player in high school and college I remember how loud we proved to be as a section both in concert and marching band. In fact, more than any other section (flutes, French horns, baritones, clarinets, etc.), the trumpets had to be told on multiple occasions to back off. There is something about the instrument (and probably those who play it) that lends the trumpet to being one of the loudest instruments available. Fewer things were more rewarding as a trumpet player to be given permission to really let it rip and blow the audience away with the music we were given. Similarly, though we don’t hear the trumpets now, as readers we can rest assured that we are about to be blown away by what happens next. 

It is important to once again point out that as with the first few seals, the authority of both the positive or negative players in the unfolding saga is given/bestowed to them. Like the horsemen in chapter 6 (particularly verses 2, 4, and 8), these angels are given the authority to sound forth the judgments to come by a more powerful being—God himself—who does so in response to the Lamb who alone is worthy to break this final seal.

c. The Prayers are Collected-8:3-4

While the angels (now heralds) are warming up their instruments in the background more preparation is shown to be underway as “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer, and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne,…” (8:3). This angel appears to be conducting the duties that priests of the Old Testament performed in the earthly temple of lighting incense before the altar as a demonstration of prayers lifted up God. A “censer” was an open-topped pan made of bronze used to carry live coals from the altar of burnt offering for making sacrifices. The prayers of God’s people are symbolized in the fragrant aroma that would emanate from the burning fragrance. This is complicit with the use of the censer in the Old Testament as often incense would be placed on the coals in the censers and offered before the Lord (Numbers 16:6-7).

2 Chron. 13:11a-“Every morning and evening they burn to the LORD burnt offerings and fragrant incense,”

Psalm 141:2-“May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering”

Already in Revelation the prayers of the saints were described as incense offered up to the Lord.

Revelation 5:8-“When he had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

One petition/prayer was described in detail in the fifth seal “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I say underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain…” (Rev. 6:9ff). Therefore, what appears to be taking place in chapter 8 is a grand collection of prayers. Added to the prayers of the elders in chapter 5 and the prayers of the martyrs in chapter 6 are the prayers represented here in the incense contained in the golden censer this angel is carrying—prayers that will soon be answered in no uncertain terms.

Once collected, these prayers are sent directly before God the Father—“And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand” (8:4). With the amount of incense and prayers that have already been described in this book, one can almost imagine at this point the heavenly throng room willing with fragrant haze and smoke. Something has to give, and it finally does in the next action that is taken.

d. The Gauntlet is Thrown Down-8:5-“…Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake,…”

God in heaven responds to the prayers offered in the fifth action that takes place—"Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the first of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake” (8:5). It is a dramatic answer to prayer that precludes the wrath that God will leverage upon an evil planet as he seeks vengeance for the harm done to his cause and his people. Earlier the coal from the offering was used to send prayers to God in heaven, now, in response to those prayers, the angel returns to the same fire to retrieve coals that are then thrown down to the earth as fire of judgment.  

Interestingly, this episode of the gauntlet being thrown down suffers many parallels with Ezekiel 10:2-7. There, an angel is instructed to retrieve coals in his hands from the throne and scatter them onto the city, indicating fiery judgment. Some connect this Old Testament reference to the sealing the righteous on their foreheads in Ezekiel 9:4 and with judgment of the wicked in Ezekiel 1:12-13 (see also 9:4-6) (Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 82). This Old Testament background is appropriate given not only the context here in Revelation 8, but also the sealing of the 144000 in Revelation 7 and those who will be judged moving forward (in Revelation 8ff).

The rumblings of judgment are punctuated by the “peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake” (8:5). This is what is referred to as a storm theophany in which God demonstrates something about himself through natural phenomena. Here, he reveals his righteous indignation and holy judgment by an appropriate cacophony of powerful sights and sounds. “The major thrust is that the fiery judgments that are to ensue in the following chapters are God’s response to the cries of his people and his vindication of his followers for all that they have suffered” (Osborne, Revelation, 346-47). The prayers and petitions of God’s people have been sent up as a burnt offering of incense to the Lord. This has lit a fire of wrath in the heart of God. Now, fire will rain down upon a guilty world system. What began as a largely Levitical expression of prayer and supplication in verses 1-4 now turns apocalyptic as heaven break through and throws down fire upon the earth.

e. The Angels Prepare their Embouchure-8:6-“…And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them,…”

The final preparatory activity in this passage involves the setting of the embouchure of the trumpeting heralds—“and the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them,…” (8:6).

Embouchure refers to the shape one’s mouth takes when playing an instrument with a mouthpiece (like a trumpet). The tightening of the lips and the flexing of other muscles is employed even before air is sent into the horn, in order to make a pretty sound. Such instinctive habits take place when the instrument is raised to the mount in preparation for play. All of this adds to the heightened sense of expectancy that is revealed in this passage (Mounce, Revelation, 177).

So What?

With the musicians in place, embouchures fixed, and occasion set, nothing stands in the way for the next phase of God’s judgment as realized and revealed in Revelation 8ff. However, before we hear the unmistakable sound of trumpet fanfare and watch the destruction that results, let us appreciate what this passage has taught us about the nature of God. First, God is in control. After all, it is he who gives the angels their instruments and the authority appertaining thereunto. Second, he is holy. It is his righteousness indignation that demands the evils of the world be dealt with severely and this we will witness in the coming weeks. However, third, he is responsive to the prayers of his people. This passage demonstrates that God listens to acts as a result of the intercession that is made by those who love and follow after him. Here, the prayers are described as an overwhelming cloud crying out for vindication—vindication that the petitioners are promised to receive. However, for what is it that you are praying? For whom is it that you are praying? Though the answer may tarry, make no mistake, God responds to the prayers of his people. The same God that heard the cries of his people in Egypt and ultimately delivered them to the Promised Land, the same God who hears the cries of the martyrs in the heavenly throne room and provides them ultimate salvation and vindication, is the same God that we call upon today. If nothing else, allow this cosmic concert warm-up to motivate you toward prayer—praying often and without fail for he listens and he responds.

If you are looking for things to pray, consider praying for the lost who will receive the judgment described in this book, unless they enter the family of God. After all, what will prove to be a magnificent concert for God’s people will also prove to be a hellacious cacophony for those who don’t belong to him.

Monday, February 18, 2019

An Inspiring Timeout- Revelation 7:1-17

In Revelation 7, John calls “Timeout!” from the unfolding process of judgment that he is describing (the seals) and breaks up the action with a different discussion. Typically when a coach calls a timeout on the court or on the field, the team gets a chance to rest for a bit in order to get back into the game refreshed and ready for the next portion of the competition. This is not the case with John’s interlude(s) in the Apocalypse. If anything, these literary interjections require readers to be more conscientious of exactly what John is describing and when what the apostle is describing will come to pass. Therefore, with great reverence for the text that Jesus revealed and in lieu of the interchange that is found in Revelation 7, let’s carefully survey three groups that John identifies in this chapter and be inspired by their future example of resilience and ultimate victory under extreme pressure.

1. The Four Angels-7:1-3

“After this” in verse 1 of chapter 7 marks a demarcation between the progression of the seals and an interlude that John employs here in an effort to describe other phenomena that he is witnessing. What is interesting about this interlude (and others) is that while in these literary units, John is unhindered by time and able to disclose things that are past, present, and even future, within the span of just a few verses. This disconnect from simple chronology is something that is aided by his being “in the Spirit” and by the apocalyptic genre that characterizes, at least in part, Revelation. In this particular interlude (spanning all of chapter 7), John introduces the reader to three groups of characters that are active at different stages in the tribulation saga. First, he introduces four angels—“After this I saw four angels at the four corners of the earth” (7:1a). These four heavenly messengers are described as occupying posts at all ends of the earth. The idea of the earth having “four corners” is something that is consistent with Isaiah 11:12 and Ezekiel 7:2 which describe the world with similar figurative language.
At their posts, these four angels are “holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree,…” (7:1b). Though literal wind is assumed to be the meaning here by some, perhaps what is more in keeping with the immediate and surrounding context is something like the idea of “winds of judgment.” Winds in the ancient world were a powerful force that were often associated with storms and devastation (whether on sea or on dry land). This background along with the purpose clause of verse 1 (“so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree”) seems to suggest that these four angels were to withhold the sweeping judgment that God would send upon the world until the time was right.

This conclusion is helped along by the emergence of another angel and the proclamation that he brings in verses 2-3—“ And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads,…” (7:2-3). Whether an archangel or some other ranking member of God’s heavenly hosts, this angel reveals that while sweeping judgment would in fact be realized on the earth, a group of sealed bond-servants must be established first. Those sealed would be spared whatever would come with the “winds” that would soon blow form all corners of the earth against the “earth and sea.” The repetition of “earth” and “sea” seems to foreshadow the scope of the trumpets and bowls that will soon be unleashed in the second half of the tribulation period (beginning in Revelation 8) (Osborne, Revelation, 309).

The revelation that this angel provides is important as it seems to indicate that God has two programs at work simultaneously during the tribulation—a program of judgment (experienced by those who endure the stormy gales described in these passages), and a program of redemption (experienced by these sealed bond-servants). These bond-servants are those tribulation saints who miraculously come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ sometime during the tribulation period. God’s punitive exercises against the earth are not immediately directed to this latter group. Instead, judgment is reserved for those who remain lost and, instead of following after the Lord God, are deceived by the false Christ under a future new world order. In many ways, as Robert Thomas concludes, this interlude in Revelation 7 answers the question raised at the end of chapter 6—“Who is able to stand?”. The answer is “those who have the seal of God”—i.e. those who will be saved during the tribulation.
Such will receive a “seal…of God on their foreheads” (7:3). Some believe that this is an allusion to Ezekiel 9:4-6. In Ezekiel 9:1-2, six guardian angels appear—five with weapons and one with a tablet). The latter is seen putting a mark on the foreheads of those who grieved the rampant idolatry that the prophet describes in Ezekiel 8 (including, but not limited to atrocities performed in the temple). Those who were resolute in their commitment to the one true God were disturbed by such practices and these were marked by this angel in response to their righteous indignation. However, not all were concerned about pervasive idolatry and in their indifference proved their lack of commitment to the things of God. This is why the other five angels of Ezekiel 9 were instructed to put to death those who did not possess the mark.

As in Ezekiel, the mark in Revelation 7 is given to distinguish true followers of Christ from those who are indifferent or antagonistic toward the things of God. The mark on the foreheads given in Revelation 7 also contrasts the “mark of the beast” that is described later in 13:5. All, it would appear, will be marked one way or the other—with the seal of God or with the mark of the beast. There is no middle ground offered in the account on Revelation (as in the dualism that characterizes most apocalyptic literature). Though marks on the forehead might appear foreign to today’s reader, a “brand or tattoo on the forehead of a slave was common in the ancient world as a sign of ownership, and there were also religious tattoos to show allegiance to a particular god. Similarly (here), God’s slaves had his sign on their foreheads to indicate both ownership and allegiance” (Osborne, Revelation, 310).

2. The 144,000-7:4-8

Those sealed on their foreheads by the angel include 144,000—“And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (7:4). Some (nondispensationalists) are forced to equate this second group with the third (the multitude), believing that the 144,000 refers to the “new Israel”/Christian church and insisting that this means the church is still present on the earth well into the tribulation (Osborne, Bauckham, Longnecker-Some cases for this interpretation are built from Galatians 6:16 where Paul refers to an “Israel of God” and what Osborne refers to as “the centrality of the church throughout the book,” Revelation, 311. Bauckham goes a step further and suggests that this 144000 is not merely the church but a “messianic army” that will inaugurate Christ’s rule, The Climax of Prophecy, 215-29. He also equates the 144000 and the multitude described later and says that like the Lion and the Lamb introduced in chapter 5 [glorious and humble], these two different descriptions (144000 and multitude) actually refer to the same company [sealed and sacrificed]). However, context clues point in a very different direction. First, the number is significant as it is 12 times 12,000 (12 indicating the twelve tribes of Judah). Whether this number is literal or figurative, its unusual total at least potentially refers to a group of people comprised of historically-established tribes of Jacob.

That this number refers to a group of saved descendants of a literal Israel during the tribulation is further evidenced by verses 5-8 which lists the 12 tribes of Israel along with a figure of 12000, yielding a grand total of 144000—“From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed,…’”. [This list excludes the tribe of Dan because of this group’s collective apostasy and idolatrous behavior (see Judges 18:14-31). In its place it gives Joseph two entries—one listed as “joseph” and the other as “Manasseh” (Joseph’s son). This is in keeping with the double-portion blessing of Joseph shown in Genesis 49:1-22 through his two sons—Manasseh and Ephraim. Joseph’s name stands in the place of Ephraim and Manasseh takes his other position in this list.] Hindson argues, “the actual listing of each tribe would be irrelevant if they were not intended to represent the specific people of Israel” (Hindson, Revelation, 90). Walvrood agrees saying, “the fact that the twelve tribes of Israel are singled out for a special reference in the tribulation time is another evidence that the term ‘Israel’ as used in the Bible is invariably a reference to the descendants of Jacob who was first given the name, Israel”(Walvrood, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 142) (see also Seiss, Pentecost, Thomas). The number along with this list overwhelmingly supports the idea that a large remnant of Jews will not only be saved during the tribulation, but they will be spared the judgments that are coming on the earth. After all, God’s promises made to his people all the way back in Genesis 12 (people, land, and blessing) are still yet to be fulfilled. Therefore, God must keep a remnant for himself, even/especially through the tribulation period, so that the covenant can be fulfilled. This remnant will be among those who endure the tribulation, sealed by God, protected from divine judgment.

3. The Multitude-7:9-17

The third group that is revealed in John’s first interlude is the multitude of 7:9-17—“ After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;…” (7:9). This final group appears to be far larger (“great multitude which no one could count”) and broader in scope (“from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues”) than the 144000 mentioned in the preceding verses. This group is shown standing “before the throne” (of God) and “before the Lamb” (the Son). To understand what John is describing, the reader must remember that in this literary interlude he is not limited to chronological time or consistent space. So far we’ve seen judgment withheld by angels situated at the four corners of the earth and 144000 sealed tribulation messianic Jews that are on the earth witnessing the tribulation first hand. Here, John is thrust, once again, into the heavenly throne room and (as the reader will soon learn) he is looking ahead to the future as this multitude consists of saints that are martyred during the worst of the Tribulation period. Clad in a way similar to the pure and victorious ones previously identified in 3:4-5 and 6:11, this multitude is also waving palm branches. Palm branches were a symbol of rejoicing on celebratory occasions. In John 12:13, they were waved by onlookers upon Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. In both contexts the tone of victory is present among the crowds. In John 12, Jesus’ anticipated victory was praised and here, Jesus’ realized victory is celebrated.

With the same vigor that the martyrs in Revelation 6 voiced their petition (see us of krazw meaning “to scream” in 6:10 and 7:10), the multitude here sings the Lord’s praises—“and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (7:10). The song/exclamation of the martyrs here reveals that the idea of giving your life for the cause of Christ is not something to fear as much as it is something to sing about. “To live is Christ and the die is gain” because God provides salvation to those who have received what the Lamb offers (Phil. 1:21).  

Eager to join the exclamation of this multitude, the same worshipers that began the theme of praise all the way back in Revelation 4 and were added to in chapter 5 return here in verse 11—“and all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures” (see 4:4; 5:11ff). The growing choir in the heavens “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen” (7:12). As the drama of Revelation progresses and leads the ultimate end that is foreshadowed here, more of God and his glory is revealed and celebrated. As the choir grows (beginning with the four living creatures and the 24 elders in chapter 4 to the addition of the myriads of angels in chapter 5 and now the multitude in chapter 7), so too does their list of superlatives ascribed to the Lord. Interestingly, the number of attributes reaches seven in 7:11: 1) Blessing, 2) Glory, 3) Wisdom, 4) Thanksgiving, 5) Honor, 6) Power, and 7) might. Though recorded here “as a spontaneous response,…it follows the pattern of symbolic numbers in the Apocalypse—seven representing completeness” (Hindson, Revelation, 94). Ultimately, all of the inhabitants of heaven (angels, creatures, and the collective people of God) are depicted here as celebrating all that God is.

The identity of this multitude is solidified in verses 14—“And he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation,…’” (7:14b). Though the “great tribulation” has yet to be described (the second 3 ½ years/the trumpets and bowls), those who will be martyred for their resilient faith in the midst of extreme pressure are shown victoriously celebrating here in the heavens.

The theme of victory continues with the description of their raiment—“and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14c). Later, a similar group will be said to “overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (Rev. 12:11). These are those who are victorious not through their own strength, but through Christ’s salvific activity on their behalf and the testimony thereof.

“For this reason, they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His temple and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore, nor will the sun beat down on them, not any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes,…” (7:15). While these saints knew danger, famine, fire, confusion, devastation, and heartache on the earth, especially during the tribulation they endured, Revelation 7:15 reveals that God provides this same group protection, satisfaction, relief, guidance, life, and joy in the heavens. In a way, the interlude of Revelation 7 is a prophetic interlude of hope. Though John has yet to describe the great tribulation to come, those tribulation saints on the earth (those who were saved sometime after the rapture during the process of judgment), ought to take heart in this: that while they may end up paying the ultimate price for their witness, they have nothing to fear, but everything to sing about.

So What?

Before the whistle blows or we hear the ref call “play  ball!” and we continue our journey into Revelation 8 and the seventh seal, I believe it is incumbent upon us reflect upon and even be inspired by at least two things this chapter has articulated. First, God is a God who keeps his promises—no matter how old and no matter how little the benefactors deserve it. The presence of the 144000 in this passage demonstrates that God is still committed to Israel, just as much as he was when he first made the covenant with Abraham. Even years of pervasive unbelief and a future tribulation can’t get in the way of God’s plan for his people through this remnant. After all, what kind of God would our Lord be if he could just discard his covenant or replace its beneficiaries with another group? How confident could we be in the promises issued to us if the promises issued to Israel will ultimately be unfulfilled. Second, the song/exclamation of the martyrs in Revelation 7 reveals that the idea of giving your life for the cause of Christ is not something to fear as much as it is something to sing about. Though we may never be faced with a decision to deny God or live, let us be inspired by the example of the tribulation saints not to capitulate under pressure or dilute our witness. The rewards of heaven far outweigh anything that we could ever lose in this world. If the inspiring positive example of faithfulness in this passage isn’t enough to encourage personal boldness in this world, consider these sobering statements the Bible articulates elsewhere: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).  Remember, as even Revelation 7 reminds us, there is no middle ground. Either Jesus is your Lord or your enemy. Our commitment to and faith in him ought to be as obvious to those around us as a distinguishing mark on our foreheads.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Petition and Pandemonium -Rev. 6:9-17

Have you ever had a moment in your life when you wondered what God was up to? Have you ever repeated a prayer enough times to wonder to yourself “when is God going to give me an answer?” While answers to these questions applied to our individual circumstances might elude us, it might help us to consider that inquiries like this are shared by those who are with the Lord in heaven. In Revelation 6:9-17, we witness the fifth and sixth seal and are confronted with a great question—a question that is then answered in no uncertain terms. It is my prayer that this passage might reacquaint us with God’s holiness and inspire us to maintain our witness in a world filled with all kinds of questions.

a. Fifth Seal: Martyrdom-6:9-11

The fifth and sixth seals are very different from the preceding four in both content and scope. In verse 9 John says, “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I say underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain” (6:9a). In this verse, martyrs are shown beneath the altar in the heavens. This is no small detail as John is now thrust, once again, to a different dimension. After describing the four horsemen’s activity on the earth (6:1-8), the reader is taken to another realm, complete with different characters and different rules concerning time. Due to the spatial and temporal contrast between this seal and the first four, it follows that 6:9-11 doesn’t have to fall in line consecutively/chronologically (Thomas, Revelation, 441). This realization goes a long way in helping to identify who these martyrs are (especially as there are no particulars given that expose their identity).

Some (Osborne, Beale, etc.), believe that these are those who are being killed by both the plagues described earlier in the chapter and the persecution against believers that no doubt accompanied the consolidation of power, war, and socio-economic struggles that are described in 6:1-8. However, this ignores the fact that, according to Revelation 3:10 and 6:10, the seal judgments are God’s wrath primarily against earth-dwellers—not against the redeemed. Not only that, but it doesn’t make theological sense that giving one’s life for the gospel would be understood as a judgment from God. Finally, this judgment (given what follows and that the action is taking place in heaven), appears to be dissimilar to those that precede it. For all of these reasons, there are three appropriate interpretations of these martyrs. Either they represent all Christians who have at any point in history given their lives for the cause of Christ, or, they are those new converts who were saved during the tribulation period but were then killed because of their faith, or some combination of the two. Hindson writes, “It is certainly possible that the martyrs who cry out…could represent all the Christian martyrs of all time who have taken their rightful place in heaven. Their cries may well be intensified as they see new converts being slaughtered during the Tribulation…” (Hindson, Revelation, 83).

Such cries are made “beneath” a heavenly altar. This detail evokes the sacrificial nature of their suffering –a sacrifice that is most in keeping with the golden altar of incense that once stood in the vicinity of the holy of holies. The sacrificial blood of the Day of Atonement was poured on this altar and incense was burned on it (Exod. 30:1-10; Lev. 4:7; Heb. 9:4). This special place of sacrifice, the incense of which rose up in smoke to the heavens, is revisited in Revelation 8:3-5 and 9:13. However, in 6:11 these saints are depicted as beneath the altar, not on the altar. Certainly as sacrifices were made on the day of atonement at the golden altar near the holy of holies, some blood was placed on the altar. The rest was poured at the base/beneath the altar (Osborne, Revelation, 391; Beale, Revelation, 285).

John reveals the impetus behind the sacrifices made when he reveals that these martyrs were mercilessly killed “because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (6:9b). This causal statement is reiterated throughout the book (1:2, 9; 6:9; 20:4) and highlights the ultimate sacrifice believers made when they chose not to flee or compromise their testimony in the midst of extreme pressure and/or threat of death.

The souls of these martyrs “cried out with a loud voice” (6:10a) in this heavenly scene. The verb means “to shout or cry out, with the possible implication of the unpleasant nature of the sound” (Louw Nida)—i.e. “to scream.” Something of the urgency and passion of these martyrs is witnessed in the tone that characterizes this chorus. Perhaps, as was suggested before, these martyrs from the past are witnessing the present persecution during the tribulation and they can no longer stay silent.
They cry out to the Lord saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (6:10b). Several dichotomies abound in this question. First, there is a spatial contrast between heaven and earth. Second, and connected to the first, is the contrast between believers in the presence of God requesting vindication and powerful persecutors who deserve judgment still back on the planet. The martyrs wonder how much longer it will take before the shoe finally falls, justice is finally served, and the punishment against the wicked will finally match the crime.

This question demonstrates at least three things: first, souls in heaven are able to perceive some of what takes place on the earth. This is confirmed in the inquiry made of these martyrs in response to the growing persecution down below. Second, righteous indignation against wickedness is acceptable. God’s people, in fact, ought to be grieved by wickedness and the persecution against the faithful. However, as Ephesians 4:6 reminds, God’s people are to be angry and not sin. Here, the martyrs provide an example of how to appropriately channel their indignation. Instead of losing faith, they call upon the Lord to act on their behalf—“How long, o Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth…”. After all, God says elsewhere, “vengeance is mine” (Rom. 12:19). Third, more than a cry for bitter, personal revenge, this petition concerns God’s reputation and justice. This is why the “Lord” is introduced first as “holy and true.” The cry from these martyrs asks for God’s holiness and truthfulness (which cannot tolerate sin) to be verified in sizable judgement against the wicked.

In response to this honest inquiry, “there was given to each of them a white robe” (6:11a). “White robes” appear five times in the book (6:11; 7:9, 13, 14; 22:14) and probably refer to the long robes of rank that were adorned in the first century world. Some believe that the distribution of these robes confirms glorified bodies in the heavens. However, the resurrection of the body for the saints is not until Revelation 20:4-5. Instead, these robes are a symbolic affirmation of the purity and righteousness of the martyred saints and an annulment of the guilty verdict that was rendered against them by the world when they were persecuted (Beale, Revelation, 394). Such robes match the color of the raiment of those 24 elders who were described earlier (see Revelation 4:4) and the robe adorned by the Ancient of Days in Revelation 1.

After receiving this validation from God, “they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (6:11b). In other words, there are still some tribulation saints (those converted [miraculously] during the tribulation period) who would given up their lives in Jesus’ name. Until the number of these martyrs is reached (as determined by God’s sovereign will and in tandem with the seven-year tribulation), the saints in heaven will have to wait for final vindication.

The emergence of these martyrs in the heavens and their inquisitive petition marks the sixth seal. Next, in yet another scene change, John’s perspective shifts from the heavenly realm back down to the earthly realm just in time to witness the sixth seal.

b. Sixth Seal: Terror-6:12-17

Perhaps in an answer to the prayer of the martyrs, cosmic catastrophe is unleashed upon the planet. John reports, “I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places…” (6:12-14). Though some take a largely figurative interpretation of this seal (believing that the phenomena described somehow reveal largely spiritual/historic events), the evidence in favor of a more literal interpretation is preferred. Given other passages that provide potential background for this text in both the Old Testament (Isaiah 2:12-19; 34:2-4; Amos 5:28; Hag. 2:21-22) and the New Testament (Matt. 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11), what Revelation 6:12-14 describes is nothing short of some coming cosmic disaster. So overwhelming is this disaster that the entire planet is shaken to the point that the sun, moon, and stars appear to be moving and the atmosphere is split apart. The debris created from whatever shakes the world is so thick that the smoke and ash plumes block the sun and the moon’s beams from penetrating the atmosphere (turning them black and red respectively). What John perceives as stars falling from the sky might be fiery debris dropping from the atmosphere –an atmosphere that is ripped asunder due to some cataclysmic episode that not only divides the heavens (see 1 Pet. 3:10 for an accurate understanding of what “heaven” denotes in this passage), but shifts the mountains and islands below.

Exactly what causes all of this is uncertain. Either it is a supernatural onslaught of devastation, the likes of which was witnessed on a much smaller scale in the plagues lodged against Egypt in Exodus; or it is the best John can describe when he look upon a future nuclear holocaust.

This final comment is supported by how the world responds to this global wreckage. First John reveals that “then kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains” (6:15). These actions taken by every demographic left on the earth demonstrate that death or the threat thereof is the great equalizer. No amount of earthly wealth or presumption of power is able to insulate from the devastation that comes with this sixth seal. Rich and poor, powerful and puny alike are made hide as best as they can from the divine judgement raining down upon them.
As humanity heads for the hills, “they said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come and who is able to stand?’…” (6:16-17). This desperate cry once again reiterates that whether this destruction is being lodged from the throne room of heaven above or via the players the Lord has allowed to run things down below (see the four horsemen), God remains in control and the Lamb is his agent unleashing these judgments. The sovereign will of God is prevailing upon a depraved and corrupt society and even the lost are said to cry out for mercy.

It is a grim spectacle to behold and one can imagine how difficult it was for the apostle to record all that he witnessed in this vision. In fact, so overwhelming do these first six seals prove to be that in chapter 7, John breaks up the action with a pause that allows him to go back and introduce other characters and things he has witnessed along the way.

So What?

Until then, let us ponder what has been revealed in the fifth and sixth seal and ask how it ought to encourage us today. First, it is important to affirm that those who die in Christ (saved by grace through faith) are in the presence of the Lord. The souls of the martyrs in glory prove this. Second, those who have been persecuted for the cause of Christ have not been forgotten and anyone who oppresses the people of God in any age will be dealt with accordingly. Third, even the lost will one day recognize that their demise is in keeping with a holy God who cannot stand their depravity. God is holy and true and while we might wonder along with the martyrs described in this chapter when He will reveal this to an unbelieving world, this preview gives us a glimpse of his righteous indignation that will one day be realized in undeniable ways.

Such realizations ought to inspire our witness in a world that grow more wicked. What have we to fear? Along with Paul and in view of this passage we can affirm that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21)! This passage also ought to remind us that while we have every right to wonder when the wicked will be judged, we don’t have the license to take matters into our own hands. What have we to worry? Vengeance belongs to the Lord and he will deal justly (Rom. 12:19). Finally, this passage also ought to call to mind what you are confessing with your life today. What do you believe about God? Whether you believe it now or not, one day God will prove that he is holy and true.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Four Horsemen-Rev. 6:1-8

So far in our journey through the book of Revelation we’ve taken a look at the preface in chapter 1, the proclamations to the seven churches in chapters 2-3, and witnessed a problem and the corresponding solution in chapters 4-5. Today we open a new chapter and a new major section of John’s apocalypse. With the seven-sealed scroll firmly in the Lamb’s grasp, the program of God’s future judgment can be revealed. Today we are going to witness the breaking of the first four seals and, as a result, come face-to-face with the infamous four horseman and the beginning of God’s judgment on the earth in Revelation 6:1-8.

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a. The White Horse-6:1-2

The opening phrase of chapter 6--“Then I saw”—successfully ushers the reader into the next major section of the Book of Revelation, the process that will instigate God’s judgment on an unbelieving and sinful world. This process includes the wrath that God unleashes on the earth during a future seven-year period of tribulation that, as far as Revelation is willing to describe it, begins right here with the opening of the first seal.

The only one worthy to open this seven-sealed document (the title deed to the universe) is the humblest and most glorious Lamb introduced in chapter 5—“The I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seals” (6:1a). If the earth was created and gifted to the Son at creation (Col. 1:16) and then saved by the Son’s activity in his first coming (John 3:16-17), certainly Jesus is the only one worthy to inherit the new earth after purging it with judgment. These judgments come as the seals of this document are opened one at a time. After breaking the first of these John “heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come’” (6:1). Osborne is right to point out how involved these four living creatures are in the book of Revelation. Throughout the revelation, these creatures are shown leading worship (4:8-9; 5:8-10, 14; 19:4), surrounding the throne (4:6; 5:6, 11; 7:11; 14:3), and implementing judgments (6:1, 3, 5, 6, 7; 15:7) (Osborne, Revelation, 275). Here, in 5:1-8, the four creatures introduce the four horsemen, subtly suggesting that even as the Lamb executes the judgment by breaking the seals, the program of judgment is being determined by the throne room of heaven. The severity of the coming judgment is foreshadowed by the thunderous voice that calls forth for each of these horses with a booming “Come!” (6:1, 3, 5, 7).

The theme of sensory overload continues as after first “hearing” the commanding voice say “Come!” John then sees the first horse and its rider—“I looked, and behold, a white horse…” (6:2a).  The imagery of the four horsemen is similar to what is found in Zechariah 1:7-11 and 6:1-8. There, the symbolism of the colors is not as clear as it is here in Revelation. Also, In Zechariah, the horses (red, black, white, and dappled gray) pull chariots and are sent to patrol the earth and promote peace and rest. However, in Revelation the release of these horses brings disaster. This is not without precedent as horses are often associated with conquest and war (see Job 39:19-25; Ps. 76:5-6; Prov. 21:31). However, what is peculiar about this first horse is that that theme of war and destruction is hidden behind a white fa├žade.

The unusual nature of this first horse is accentuated by the description of its rider—“And he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer” (6:2b). Though there are many interpretations offered for this first horse, these can be divided into two general categories: positive and negative. Those who take a positive view (Considine, Bachmann, Herzer) cite the following evidences for their position: First, this white horse may be an allusion to Ps. 45:3-5 where the rider is an Israelite king who defeats his enemies with arrows. Second, in Revelation 19:11-16, Christ who has diadems on his head, rides on a white horse and defeats his opponents. Third, in Revelation 14:14, a scene of judgment is introduced by Christ, sitting on a “white cloud,” wearing a “golden crown on his head,” carrying a weapon in his hand. Fourth, Christ is shown to conquer elsewhere in the book. Fifth, “white” is used without exception elsewhere in Revelation (14times) to describe something positive (i.e. holiness of God, saints, Christ, etc.). And sixth, the first horsemen is different from the others in a positive sense because there is no clear woe linked with him (Beale, Revelation, 375). These evidences for a Christ-like figure are not without merit, nor are they totally misplaced. However, a better case can be made for a Christ-like imposter—i.e. the Antichrist.

Those who support this view recognize the following: First, the language of “conquering” is used elsewhere of the beast oppressing the saints (see 11:7; 13:7). Second, in Zechariah 1:8-15 (a background text for Revelation 6), the horses are identified together as being the same in nature. It would follow then that if the other three horses are negative, so too must this first one be. Third, Revelation 12-13 describes Satan and his legions’ ability to imitate Christ’s appearance. Fourth, there are copious prophecies foretelling the presence of “false Christs and false prophets” who will “mislead” (Mark 13:5-6; Mat. 25:4-5; Luke 21:8). Fifth, Christ is already in this passage opening the seals. For these and other reasons Thomas concludes “if the first rider is not the Messiah, then, he must be someone resembling the Messiah…a counterfeit Christ…The book is full of satanic imitations of Christ and His conquest…this rider is one of them” (Thomas, Revelation, 422).

This horse and its rider is not the same horse and rider that will bring about total victory for God’s people in Revelation 19. That horse is ridden by Christ who is armed with a sword in his mouth and absolute authority to bring about eternal peace. The white horse of Revelation 6 is ridden by a man with a bow and authority is “given to him to conquer.” He is a coming imposter working on the earth to consolidate power under his evil reign.

b. The Red Horse-6:3-4

Now that this is established, the other three horsemen to follow can be understood as joining the white horse and his activities under the same program of coming destruction. There is, in fact a natural progression that can be witnessed in what horses emerge and in what order. Each of these horsemen and their colored steeds is introduced in the same way —“when He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come’” (6:3).

Following this repetitive introduction, “another, a red horse, went out” (6:4). The original language describes this horse as “fiery red” and employs the same word used later of the dragon in Revelation 12. In both contexts, the color symbolizes the scope and acuity of bloodshed that will be unleased upon the earth in this future tribulation period. Such perilous slaughter is probably what Jesus foreshadowed in his Olivet discourse in Matthew 24.

Matthew 24:6-8-“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (see also Mark 13:7-8).

Even then, Jesus reveals that his disciples would hear of wars and rumors of wars “but the end is still to come.” This suggests that they (or who they represent) would not see/experience such wars themselves. By the time Revelation 6:4 comes to pass, these rumors are coming to pass and the “end” has arrived—that is the end for the world that deserves this judgment. There is little evidence to suggest that the church, as it exists today, is enduring this.  

The nature of the judgement brought on by this second horse is revealed in the remainder of verse 4—“and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him…” (6:4b). It is important to recognize that as was the case with the first horse, the authority/power this red horseman possesses has been given to him. In other words, neither he nor his fellow horsemen are ultimately in control. Instead, the one on the throne has determined their use during this period and the Lamb is the superior agent unleashing these players onto the world’s stage.

Given his description, this horseman symbolizes the coming wars that will no doubt accompany the consolidation of power that takes place under the conquering white horseman (the Antichrist). As peace is taken, men are depicted as slaying each other (“slaughtering”), and a sword is given to this red horseman, there are few other things this red steed and its rider could represent.

The sword that is given to the red horseman appears to be based on Ezekiel 21:9-15, 21 (see also Ezekiel 14), where a sword is present and is used to judge both Israel and the nations. While this might suggest the presence of God’s people on the earth during the activity of this second horseman, consider that those left on the earth at this point most likely include the lost and a mostly unsaved Israel has largely, up to this point, denied the divinity of Christ. Israel has a future and at this point in the tribulation, many Jews are left on the earth during the tribulation that will face this judgment head on. Some will turn to Christ in salvation during this period, but still others will remain in unbelief, incurring God’s wrath along with the rest of an unbelieving world.

c. The Black Horse-6:5-6

 “When He broke the third seal, I heard the living creature saying, ‘Come’” (6:5a). Like clockwork and in perfect parallelism the chaos unleashed on the earth continues as the Lamb calmly and 
deliberately breaks open the third seal.

This time, John says, “I looked, and behold, a black horse,…” (6:5b). Following the deceitful promise of peace and consolidation of power in the world (the white horseman) to the bloody wars that are sure to accompany conquests that centralize power under a single world ruler (the red horse) comes a black horse and an unusual rider carrying “a pair of scales in his hand” (6:6a). The scales carried by the rider appear to be a reference to Daniel 5:27 where during a decadent feast Belshazzar sees mysterious writing on the wall. Daniel’s interpretation reads of the mysterious lettering reads, “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Thereafter a greedy, idolatrous, and proud ruler meets his humiliating end in a single night. Here, the comment of the scales betrays the natural consequence of war on global food prices and markets.

John continues saying, “and I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine,’…” (6:6). A similar phenomena is described in Ezekiel 4:16—“They will dole out bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied.” Balances, in fact, were typically used by merchants in the ancient world to weigh large quantities of coins, metal, and items such as spices (see also Lev. 26:26; John 19:39) (Wilson, Revelation ZIBBC, 289). Here, a voice from the center of the four living creatures (perhaps the One who sits on the throne), states that the price of typical staples would be significantly inflated. Wheat and barley were commonplace in the Roman empire. In fact, portions of these provisions were distributed to the city’s poor to garner political support (ancient hand-outs). While the poor ate barely (as it was cheaper) the wealthy consumed wheat-based products. A “denarius” was the average days’ wage for a laborer and a quart of wheat was enough food for one person for a day. Three quarts of barley were barely enough for a small family. These “famine prices” for food were about ten to twelve times the going rate for the same quantities of food in John’s day (Osborne, Revelation, 280). Therefore, whenever this prophecy is fulfilled, a man’s entire daily earnings will barely be enough to feed himself and/or family.

As for the final comment made in connection to the black horsemen—“do not damage the oil and the wine”—some have suggested that it mirrors an edict first given by the Roman Emperor Domitian during the time of this writing (mid-90s AD). In AD 92 Domitian issued an edict that half of the vineyards in the provinces should be cut down. The previous harvest had produced an abundance of wine but a lack of wheat, so the order was issued to correct a perceived imbalance in production (Wilson, Revelation ZIBBC, 290). Together with what has already been said about the wheat and barley, this black horse symbolizes a coming famine and global food crisis following wars that accompany a swift consolidation of power.

d. The Ashen Horse-6:7-8

As with the previous three so goes the introduction of the fourth and final horseman—“When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come’” (6:7).
The fourth horse that John beholds is “an ashen horse” (6:8a). Some translations read “pale green.” What he symbolizes is crystallized in the name and entourage that accompanies him—“and he who sat on it had the name Death and Hades was following with him,…” (6:8a). Death and hell are personified as forces unleashed upon the earth following after this yellowish-green decaying horse. The imagery of “following behind” pictures Hades on foot gathering up the corpses left by pestilence and death as they strike victim after victim during the tribulation (Obsborne, Revelation, 282).

Hades has a lot of collecting to do considering what John describes in verse 8—“Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth,…”. Notice once again that authority is being given to these characters to perform these activities; they do not possess this authority in and of themselves. That said, once empowered to enact their terror, they succeed in bringing about the kinds of conditions that kill one fourth of the earth’s population. The geo-political maneuvering, war, and social-economic stressors symbolized by the first three horses no doubt will contribute in large part to this onslaught of death. This final rider, in a way, summarizes the first three, and calls the result of all that has been unleashed up to this point “death” (Beale, Revelation, 383). However, the fourth horseman adds an additional cause of death—pestilence. Fatal diseases, perhaps brought about in part because of the implications of war and poor food supply, will be rampant on the planet, leading to huge losses of life. Even wild beasts join in on the destruction of human life.

You might already be asking yourself, can it get any worse? The short answer is yes. With every passing program of plagues (later witnessed in the trumpets and bowls) the judgment and subsequent destruction grows more and more acute. You might also be wondering, am I, a Christian, going to be enduring these dark days ahead? Clues in this passage and earlier in the book of Revelation seem to suggest that the church as it exists today is not physically present on the earth (see also 1 Thess. 4). While an unbelieving Israel and the rest of the lost world are found among the casualties listed in this and other passages, the people of God (24 elders surrounding the throne) are in the heavens awaiting the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Revelation 19). What transpires in Revelation 6-18 appears to serve two purposes: 1) It is God’s judgement of unbelieving world and 2) it is a final call to God’s old-covenant people to return to him in both an existential and spiritual way before the end.

So What?

A couple of takeaways to leave with after witnessing these four horsemen unleashed on the earth. First, God takes his judgment of a wicked an unbelieving world seriously. Second, regardless of how terrifying things look on the earth, even in the end, God is on the throne and the world’s powers are merely his pawns executing his will on the world’s stage. Take heart in this—your God will soundly punish the wrong and unbelieving ways of this fallen planet. Take comfort in this—our God is mightier than the foes we face in this or in any age.