Revelation 6:1-17

At this point, John has set the scene for us in heaven, describing the court of the eternal God with its throne, the seven lamps blazing, the sea of glass like crystal, the four living creatures and twenty-four elders. We have seen how the creatures and elders are continually worshipping God and then John has drawn our attention to a sealed scroll in God's right hand. The scroll contains God's plans for a final judgement and the "Lamb of God" has been revealed as the only one able to open the scroll and set God's plan in motion. The "Lamb" is, of course, Jesus, who has given His life as a ransom for the sin of the whole world.

All heaven knows that the time for judgement has arrived. The church is gathered before her Lord and the work of the angels is complete. Jesus, who was never willing that any should perish, is about to begin the final harvest by unleashing calamities and the final evangelistic outreach on the earth, to bring home the last stragglers to Himself, together with His chosen people, the Jewish nation. Note that the events we are going to study here take place as each seal is opened sequentially. The opening of the seals is spread over the entire period of the "tribulation", which lasts seven years in all. Thus, the events following the opening of the sixth seal do not occur until towards the very end of the "tribulation".

The first of God's judgements

The opening of the seven seals forms the first phase of three judgements that are to be released on the earth. The second phase begins after the seventh seal has been opened in chapter eight and consists of seven angels, each of which blows a trumpet to announce a new event. Later on (in chapter sixteen), the third phase begins when seven bowls (or vials) of wrath are poured out on the earth. In this study, we shall be looking at the first six of the seals being opened.

As each seal is opened, Jesus the Lamb initiates the events that will bring about the end of human history. The breaking of the seventh seal (in chapter eight) finishes the opening of the scroll and what is revealed is mankind's depravity. It also shows God’s sovereign authority and power over human events and history. He has been in it all, from the largest, worldwide changes (such as the flood in Genesis, chapters six to nine) through to the smallest events in our lives. Where Satan believed that he had won a major victory in any of these events, he quickly discovered that he had simply smoothed the way for God to fulfill His promises. (Romans 5:20-21) Let's remember this when we are going through an attack from the Enemy!

Four horses and riders

As each of the first four seals is opened, a horse and its rider appear. These riders are often referred to as the "Four horsemen of the apocalypse". They and their horses begin to carry out God's judgement on the sin of the people of the world and their rebellion. As each seal is broken, each of the four, living creatures in turn calls out an invitation - probably to the rider of the next horse - to "Come!" This is the signal for that rider to begin work.

The first seal

As the first seal is opened, a white horse with its rider appears. The colour white in Scripture can indicate many things, such as victory, righteousness and holiness. The rider is sent out "as a conqueror bent on conquest" so the colour of his horse probably signifies "victory" in this instance. He carries a bow but no arrows and is given a crown to wear. All sorts of possibilities about who this rider was and what mission he was to carry out have been put forward. One of the more likely suggestions is that the rider is going to achieve victory somehow through deceitfulness, posing initially as a diplomat but eventually being revealed as the "antichrist". (Compare study eight in the series of studies on "Real Love".)

The name and identity of the antichrist are not revealed, but we do know that he gets his authority and power from Satan. (We shall learn more about this in studies twenty-five and onwards.) In his second letter to the Thessalonian believers, the apostle, Paul, teaches them that the antichrist cannot begin his satanically-inspired activities until the Holy Spirit is taken from the earth. That will only happen once the church has been gathered to the Lord Jesus in heaven and that is what happens during the "Rapture". (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)

As we look at the world today, it is possible to see various events and developing situations that could well be part of the Enemy's plans to prepare the world as a whole for a time when Satan believes that he will rule. Rebellion against God and His laws grows all the time; people resent all forms of authority and powerful inventions are turned to evil use, rather than being used for the benefit of mankind. For the moment, the scroll is still sealed; the church is still present on earth and the forces of evil can only act under restraint. But it is not difficult to imagine that, were the restraints to be removed, evil could run rampant and that in itself, would form the beginning of God's judgement.

A brief aside

Daniel 9:20-27

The second part of the book of Daniel in the Old Testament consists of similar visions that were given to Daniel regarding the future. As with John's revelation, they are written in a style (called "apocalyptic") that is deliberately cryptic, but clearly echoes the concept of a period of "tribulation" during the "last days". As Daniel was praying, an angel (Gabriel) appeared to him with the answer to his prayer. It came in the form of an explanation that the end of time would happen over a period of "seventy sevens", normally understood as seventy periods of seven years, making a total of four hundred and ninety years in all.

It is not clear whether this should be taken literally, although it has been calculated that Jesus' death took place four hundred and eighty-three years after Daniel's vision - amounting to sixty-nine "weeks" (of seven years each) and leaving just one "week" (seven years) to come at some time in the future. In this way, the number given to Daniel is said to represent the first and second comings of Christ. Daniel was told that, after the sixty-nine "weeks", the temple and city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. The various views and opinions can broadly be summarised under three possible conclusions:

  1. The prophecy was fulfilled in the past with the desecration of the temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168-167 BC.
  2. The prophecy was fulfilled in the past with the destruction of the temple by the Roman general, Titus, in AD 70 when one million Jews were killed.
  3. The prophecy is still to be fulfilled in the future at the hands of the Antichrist. (Matthew 24:15)

In the light of developing events in the world of today, I personally favour the third of these options. There is also a suggestion in Daniel's vision that the antichrist will make a covenant for seven years with the Jewish nation, but will then break it after just three and a half years. In breaking it, the vision says that the antichrist will instigate an event that will shock the Jewish people beyond belief. Something similar happened in 168-167 BC when Antiochus IV desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. He was king of Greece at the time and Judea was part of his empire. After receiving an enormous bribe, Antiochus IV removed the existing Jewish high priest and replaced him with someone else. However, the displaced priest later fomented an armed insurrection, apparently with the aim of restoring his place as high priest. Antiochus flew into a rage and attacked Jerusalem. He plundered the city and desecrated the temple by sacrificing a large pig on an altar (in the Jewish temple) erected in honour of Zeus. According to Jewish law, pigs were unclean and were not to be touched or eaten. To sacrifice a pig in the temple was the worst kind of insult an enemy could level against the Jewish nation. Will something similar occur once again as Jesus opens the first seal of the scroll and the antichrist rides out?

The second seal

A second rider is called forth as the second seal is broken. This rider is a warrior who is given power to take peace from the earth. He is seated on a "fiery, red horse" that symbolises bloodshed and war. His mission is to encourage war and killing, murder and lawlessness, throughout the period of the "tribulation". As a sign of this, he is given "a large sword", representing his authority to kill.

Christian scholars link this passage back to chapters thirty-eight and thirty-nine in the book of Ezekiel. We shall look more closely at Ezekiel's prophecy in studies fifteen and sixteen on the "Gog-Magog war". For the time being, it's worth noting that this takes place at the beginning of the period referred to as the "tribulation".

"Be always on the watch and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:36)

The third seal

When the third seal is removed, a third horse and rider are called forth. This rider is seated on a black horse, symbolising the ravages of war, particularly famine. We have seen the "antichrist" ride out, followed by warfare and widespread killing; now we see the rider of the black horse bringing widespread famine. What is interesting is that he carries a pair of scales in his hand, symbolising commercial activity and indicating that the rider has control of commodity prices, probably on a worldwide scale. Also, some products are not to be touched, including oil and wine (from olive trees and vines, whose roots generally grow deeper). However, basic foodstuffs such as wheat and barley will become prohibitively expensive. The consequence is that the poor are likely to suffer far more than the rich.

We already see many areas in the world suffering from famine, both as a result of natural causes (such as climate change) but also from the effect of wars on worldwide trade and commodity prices. If people are struggling today, how much worse will it be during the period of the "tribulation"!

The fourth seal

As the fourth seal is opened, another horse and rider appear. The horse is "pale" - literally, "ashen", like a corpse - and its rider is Death. He is followed by Hades - the modern equivalent of which would be Hell. (Revelation 6:7-8 - Living Bible version) In ancient thinking, Death would claim the material part of a person (the body) whilst Hades would claim the immaterial part (the soul). Over the seven years of the "tribulation", these horsemen will go on to destroy one quarter of the remaining population of the earth; perhaps well over one billion people in seven years!

Twenty million people died in the flu epidemic towards the end of World War One and six million more died from typhus. Modern man has enough bacteria stockpiled today to infect people with all sorts of virulent diseases and there are stocks of chemical agents that could wipe out whole nations. Some also believe that nuclear weapons may play a part in this wholesale destruction of humanity. But it is not just physical death that stalks these people; they also face eternal separation from God in hell. Should this prospect not galvanise us into action and motivate us to share with everyone the good news that putting our faith in Jesus Christ right here and now will avoid such a disastrous end?

The fifth seal

When the fifth seal is broken, there are no more horses or riders to summon. Instead, John is given a picture of martyrs who have been put to death for their faith in God. Although some people have believed that these are believers from throughout history who have died for their faith, it is more likely that they are those who have become followers of Christ since the "Rapture". The kingdom inaugurated by the "antichrist" will be a worldwide kingdom and its hallmark will be, like the name of its king, global and in total opposition to Jesus Christ. Its followers will hate Jesus and anything to do with His kingdom and they will do everything they can to prevent His name and rule from being mentioned on earth. It will, therefore, be a difficult time for those who have become Christians after the "Rapture". Some will have immediately seen the error of their ways as loved ones, (who had spoken about Jesus and encouraged them to become Christians in the time before the "Rapture") are taken home to be with the Lord before their very eyes. Others will think about all that's taking place, remembering what their friends and relatives shared in the past, and will become believers as a result. Others will be affected by those who have just become Christians, or by the witness of the Jewish people.

However they become Christians, they will enter a time when just being a follower of Jesus is likely to be punishable by death. Some will be "martyred". The word "martyr" means literally a "witness" and it's important to note that being identified as "Christian" and killed for it is not necessarily the same as having a personal faith in Jesus Christ and being put to death for it. Some teach that "martyrdom" in itself is sufficient to guarantee eternal life in heaven with God, but this is not biblical. The martyred believers cry out for justice and judgement, but Jesus’ answer is to ask them to be patient. (Revelation 6:10) He has a time when all things will be fulfilled. He will avenge them, but only at the end of the "tribulation".

The sixth seal

The opening of the sixth seal triggers the release of numerous cataclysmic events in the universe and natural disasters on the earth. John's description of these events echoes many earlier prophecies from the Old Testament about "the day of the LORD". (Joel 2:10; Joel 2:30; Isaiah 2:10; Isaiah 13:9; Isaiah 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7; Hosea 10:8) Some scholars have suggested that these events may be metaphorical, but Jesus also refers to them and it seems more likely that these things will actually take place. (Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11)

John saw a great earthquake turning the sun black and the moon red while stars appear to fall to the earth. It is as if the entire creation is peeled back to reveal God the Father seated on His throne, far above all principalities, dominions and powers, with Jesus, the Lamb of God, beside Him. They were visible to everyone. This is a picture of blind panic; everything on the earth is shaken! What horror as people realise that this is the day on which the one to whom they have turned their backs has come to be their judge! No one, small or great, poor or rich, can escape. They all try to hide from the wrath of judgement. The one, who died for their sins and whom they have rejected all their lives, has now become their judge.

The last days

We do not know when this day of judgement will be. God the Father has reserved to Himself the right to set the date and only He knows. However, we are encouraged to take note of all that happens in the world, in the same way that we learn to read signs of the seasons and changes in the weather. (Isaiah 13:9-11; Matthew 24:26-44) It is up to us whether or when we ask Jesus to be Lord of our life but, surely, the right time to do it is NOW! In the days of Noah, many people ignored the signs (of an ungodly society descending into ever-greater wickedness and depravity) until "the flood came and took them all away". One day, the door to eternal life will be shut, just like the door to Noah's Ark. It is our responsibility to challenge our friends and family, to be led by the Holy Spirit and to share Jesus daily with those whom we meet.

In Mark's gospel, chapter thirteen, Jesus talked a lot about two things: the end times and His second coming. (These comments are referred to by scholars as the "Olivet Discourse".) Jesus was not trying to encourage His disciples to speculate about exactly when He would return by sharing these prophecies with them. Instead, He urged all His followers to be watchful and to prepare themselves for His coming. If we serve Jesus faithfully now, we will be ready whenever He returns.

Biblical references

The last days

Old Testament: Daniel 9:26-27; Daniel 11:31; Joel 2:2

New Testament: Mark 13:1-23; Matthew 24:1-28; Luke 21:5-24; John 15:21; Revelation 11:2; 1 Timothy 4:1-2

The second coming of Christ

Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:25-28; Matthew 24:29-31

Old Testament: Isaiah 13:6-10; Ezekiel 32:7; Daniel 7:13-14

New Testament: Revelation 6:12; Mark 14:62; 1 Thessalonians 4:16

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