God’s Purposes Revealed
Well, it’s good to see you all this morning. If you’re not already there, grab a Bible near you and turn to Revelation 6. And if you don’t have a copy of the notes, I would encourage you to raise your hand, and we’ll try to get you one.
We are picking back up in our series in the book of Revelation, and we’re jumping back in from last spring into Revelation 6. It’s page 1031 if you’re using a seat Bible, 1031.
I just want to say a word to those of you who may be visiting today. What we’re doing may be foreign to you. So I want to let you know, we preach expositorily, which means we’ll start often with some kind of introduction that will help us understand the setting or get us mentally ready, and then we’ll work our way through today the entire chapter, Revelation 6. And I know some of you have a panicked look on your face for good reason. And then we’ll spend the last few minutes applying it to our lives specifically and making sure we understand what we’ve heard. So, our goal is not for the pastor — I’m Peter, one of the pastors here, teaching pastor — the goal isn’t for me to try to invent what I want to say so that I can make sure you’re entertained or interested. The goal is to see if we can hear what God actually says in his word and to faithfully communicate that. And that’s our whole goal. We won’t be able to cover every detail of every statement, obviously today, but we want to hear from God and hear what he has for us.
So, I do want to begin a little different today, and that is to look at a part of a letter that many of you read on, I’m sure, on Facebook by John Cooper. Did you see his letter that he printed titled, “What in God’s name is happening in Christianity?” John Cooper is the lead singer of the band Skillet. This isn’t a big Skillet promo. I don’t even think I know one song they sing. But his article was addressing some of the reasons Hillsong writer Marty Sampson gave for recently renouncing his Christian faith. And Cooper laments what seems to be a series of young Christian leaders who are renouncing what they used to believe. And I believe I can summarize his entire letter in four, statements and I’ll give you some of his words as well.
So, number 1, don’t make the wrong people your influencers. He writes this:
“We must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or ‘relevant’ people the most influential people in Christendom. (And yes, that includes people like me!) I’ve been saying for 20 years (and seemed probably quite judgmental to some of my peers) that we are in a dangerous place when the church is looking to 20-year-old worship singers as our source of truth. We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word.”
He goes on to give some reasons why this may not be wise. Some of these people, although they may love Jesus, might be ignorant of the Scripture or unaware or unconcerned with the holiness of God. And then he concludes with this question, that section with this question:
“Have you ever considered the disrespect of singing songs to God that are untrue of His character?”
Just let that set in. That’s one of the reasons we’re really careful about what we sing because, just like we feel very misrepresented if somebody says something about us that is not true, so singing things about God that are not true is incredibly disrespectful.
Number 2, don’t confuse “being real” with living the truth. He writes this:
“My second thought is, why do people act like ‘being real’ covers a multitude of sins? As if someone is courageous simply for sharing virally every thought or dark place. That’s not courageous. It’s cavalier.” (arrogance)
And he goes on to explain that a lot of these leaders are on a constant migration from one position to another. And yet they share all of that and end up influencing and leading at each stage of their journey, which is always changing. Yet they’re leading.
Number 3, don’t pretend like you’re the first person to talk about hard things. He writes this:
“I just read today in a renowned worship leader’s statement, ‘How could a God of love send people to hell? No one talks about it.’ As if he is the first person to ask this? Brother, you are not that unique. The church has wrestled with this for 1500 years. Literally. Everybody talks about it. Children talk about it in Sunday school. There’s like a billion books written on the topic. Just because you don’t get the answer you want doesn’t mean that we are unwilling to wrestle with it. We wrestle with scripture until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.”
Number 4, don’t seek the benefits of the kingdom without the King. Cooper goes on to write about what he calls “truly bizarre and ironic.” When these influencers basically say, “I’m renouncing my faith” but then they go on to say “Hey, be generous, be kind, forgive.” And Cooper questions this. If you’re going to reject Jesus as the Way, the Truth, the Life, partly because that is not culturally acceptable today to be that exclusive, why would you embrace other teachings of His? Why would you say I’m going to reject this, but I’m going to accept this? He says,
“So why then would a disavowed Christian leader promote that ‘generosity is good’? How would you know ‘what is good’ without Jesus’ teachings? And will your ideas of what is ‘good’ be different from year to year based on your experience, culture trends, popular opinion, etc., and furthermore will you continue year by year to lead others into your idea of goodness even though it is not absolute? I’m amazed that so many Christians want the benefits of the kingdom of God, but with the caveat that they themselves will be the King. It is time for the church to rediscover the preeminence of the Word. And to value the teaching of the Word. We need to value truth over feeling. Truth over emotion. And what we are seeing now is the result of the church raising up influencers who did not supremely value truth who have led a generation who also do not believe in the supremacy of truth. And now those disavowed leaders are proudly still leading and influencing AWAY from the truth. I implore you, please, please,” he writes, “in your search for relevancy for the gospel, let us NOT find creative ways to shape God’s Word into the image of our culture by stifling inconvenient truths. But rather let us hold on even tighter to the anchor of the living Word of God. For he changes NOT. ‘The grass withers and the flowers fade away, but the word of our God stands forever.’”
Let’s pray. Father, we need to hear this. We are living in a culture where the winds are constantly blowing in different directions, where we are tempted to be led by our emotions, where we desperately want to fit in and not be viewed as odd or freakish. And yet we end up becoming like children, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. And so, we pray that today you would renew our minds, that you would help us today as we look at your word. And even in the weeks to come, as we unpack this quite remarkable book of Revelation, that we would hear that the message is for us, today. That you would give us humble hearts and that you would root us in your word so that we would not be blown by trends and feelings. And help us, Lord, because some of these things are really hard for us to understand and accept. So, we need your Spirit’s help. In Jesus name, amen.
Last spring when we began the book of Revelation, we started at the beginning and walked through the prologue, which is a stunning vision of Jesus Christ. And then we looked at chapters 2 and 3, which include the letters to the seven churches. And then we came to chapters 4 and 5 which took us up into heaven and gave us a glimpse of the holiness of God and of creatures who never ceased to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty who was, and is, and is to come!” And we saw in chapters 4 and 5 that the One sitting on the throne held a scroll that was sealed with seven seals, and no one was found worthy to open or break the seals. I know that’s odd language to us today, but basically if you think of it this way, no one had the password to unlock the mysterious plans and purposes of God in judging and saving the world until the Lamb who was slain received the scroll and is found worthy to unlock. Jesus alone has the password, is the password, to open up the purposes of God. And that’s where we ended, the end of chapter 5.
We took a break all summer — Loneliness series, Connect series, and now we come back and drop back into chapter 6, which begins this unlocking. Now I want us to imagine what this is like. Have any of you’ve taken StrengthsFinder tests? A few of you timidly put that up, no, boldly, yeah! Enneagram? Enneagram? A lot of you, yeah. So, when I took both of those — and if you’re not sure what those are, you’re still probably a Christian. Don’t worry, you won’t be asked this at the pearly gates. They’re just tools, tools of growing and self-awareness — What am I really like? What are my strengths? — and hopefully development. So, when I took both of those, separated by a large amount of time, what was common though is in both cases I received the results and did not like them. Have you had that experience? You’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to say, “That’s me and I love it!” And I’m like, “That’s me. No, it’s not me. I hope it’s not me.” I had this weird feeling, “I hope I’m not like that, but I fear I am.” And so, then the more you dive in and you understand it a little better, you gain this self-awareness. There’s a bad kind of self-awareness where you’re preoccupied with yourself. There’s a good kind of self-awareness that is sanctification, where you grow in an awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. You’re able to actually laugh at yourself and see yourself more accurately and receive feedback and correction and encouragement. And that’s a healthy kind of self-awareness.
So take that feeling of that moment where you see yourself in a way that maybe you hadn’t realized before, multiply it by a million, and then imagine what that’s like when you catch a glimpse of God and you think, “Really God? That’s not what I imagined about you, and that’s not what I thought you were like.” And then you begin to realize “Okay, I live in a particular culture. I breathe the air of this culture. I take in assumptions every day about myself, about others, about God, and so I get this.”
Everyone in here, I don’t care if you’re an atheist or a Christian, you have an image of what you think, who you think God is or isn’t that has been shaped. And what Revelation 6 is doing, and this is just the beginning, so we’re not going to get very far into the revealing. But it’s like the test coming back, except this is divinely inspired, and God’s saying, “Let me give you a glimpse of my purposes for judgment and salvation.” And I want to warn you, for many of us it’s a blow. It’s like, “Really, God? You’re like that?” And at that point we come to a crossroad where every one of us decides, “Am I going to go with my emotions?” like John Cooper warned us not to do, or “am I going to go with the Word of God? Am I going to let God define God or am I going to define God based on my cravings and culture?” And Revelation will force us to make a decision. Which am I going to base my life on?
You can divide the chapter into two basic parts to be really simple, between the riders and the hiders. So, let’s look at the riders, first of all. Verses 1-8, the riders. Each of the riders is addressed by a living one. “The living ones,” the creatures who call out “come”, these are known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Movies are made out of/about these four horses. (Nightmares!)
So, let’s look really quickly at the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Number 1 is the white horse. The rider on the white horse, which seems to characterize military conflict. Look at verse 1.
“I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.”
Now some think this rider represents Jesus because of the white horse, and that’s very possible. You’ll notice in chapter 19:11 Jesus is going to come on a white horse. He wears a crown here. So, you can make a good argument for the fact that this may be Jesus, or this may be the gospel. But I think in this context, and I don’t have time to prove it to you, in this context it is most clear to understand this as representing military conflict because of the parallel with the other three horses. This is political and military powers that often convey themselves as pure, hence the white horse, but yet they are characterized by conquering.
Secondly, the red horse. The rider on the red horse, in verses 3 and 4, representing social breakdown or persecution. Look at verse 3.
“When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.”
So, if the first rider represents international conflict, this rider would more represent civil war, internal conflict, persecution.
Third is the black horse, economic hardship. Verse 5,
“When he opened the third seal, I heard the living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and the wine!’”
So, this is one of the reasons Revelation can be difficult, because most of us are like, “First of all, what’s a denarius, and then why does the oil and wine get off scot free?” So, it can be confusing. But the scales here represent not scales of justice, but the scales of scarcity. And you see that with the image, the picture that’s painted here. A quart of wheat was equivalent to one person’s food for a day and a denarius was equivalent to one person’s wage for a day. So, the image is not that people are literally starving to death, but the image is that of scarcity. They’re living hand to mouth. They barely have enough to make it, and then they don’t have anything else to survive on. So, it’s a symbol of scraping by, of economic hardship. But not everyone is affected. Verse 6, the oil and the wine are untouched.
Fourth, the pale horse, representing death and hell. Verse 7,
“When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”
Notice that statement, “they were given authority over a quarter of the earth” and then to kill with sword, famine, pestilence, beast. By the way, the book of Revelation has more Old Testament references, allusions, than any other New Testament book, and they’re not even close. So, everything in Revelation seems to be connected to the past and to the future. In this case, it’s almost a quote out of Ezekiel 14:21 where God’s four disastrous acts of judgment are described.
A quarter of the earth, those numbers are hard for us to imagine. But think for a moment about the worst pandemics that have occurred in history. The Plague of Justinian happened in the sixth century, the Bubonic Plague, that wiped out a quarter of the eastern Mediterranean population. The Influenza Pandemic, to move, to jump much closer to today. In 1918 a third of the world’s population was infected. About 20 to 50 million people died. Or even closer, 2005-2012 the AIDS epidemic, 36 million people lost their lives. If we think that education alone will solve all the calamities of the world (education obviously is vital), but that education alone can solve all the problems of the world, think back to the last century. Don’t forget that under the rule of Nazi and Communist regimes, about a 100 million people were eliminated, and those regions that saw this were some of the most educated and enlightened regions in the world.
So, these riders represent devastation and destruction and should not be understood, I don’t believe, should not be understood chronologically, (One’s going to come, and then one’s going to come, and then one’s going to come …) as much as integratively. Often, they travel together. Let me give you a modern example, South Sudan. The conflict that has been going on in South Sudan often is instigated from external forces but then the real battle is civil war, intertribal conflict, that has been going on for so many years. It decimates the economy. And today about one in three people in South Sudan do not know where their next meal is going to come from. And if you look at that, it’s such a weird combination of military, intertribal, civil war, economic, poor leadership. All these factors that are symbolically pictured by these four horsemen working together for destruction. These are the riders.
Second, notice the hiders. In verses 9-17 the fifth and sixth seals represent two different responses to the horsemen. The fifth seal are those who are hiding in God. Verses 9-11, hiding in God. Notice their location under the altar. Verse 9,
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.”
So, the scene has changed and has moved to the throne room, the temple of God. In the Old Testament the blood of the sacrificial animal was placed at the base of the altar. And the picture in this passage is that while the world may view the lives of these martyrs as a waste, and inconsequential, God views their sacrifice as a sweet offering to him, to his name. Like Paul described in 2 Timothy 4:6, he described his life as a drink offering being prepared to be poured out. Their location. But notice their cry, verse 10.
“They cried out with a loud voice, ‘Oh Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
They are asking the question that every sufferer asks God. How can you be good and great and not do something now? How long? When are you going to bring about justice? These Christian martyrs are aware that ongoing injustice must be dealt with. By the way, real Christians are not passive about justice, but our trust is in the God who brings justice in such a way that more injustice is not produced. Have you noticed that the world, so many of their solutions to injustice creates more of it? And I’m not saying at all we should be passive about that. We should be agents of justice, but the ultimate hope for the Christian is knowing that there is nothing, no injustice, that will remain eternal. He will remedy this injustice.
Notice the provision, verse 11. They were given a white robe, which symbolizes righteousness and victory, and they are given rest. Notice they weren’t given a timetable. When they said, “How long,” he didn’t say, “Well, let me show you my plans. Here’s a chart.” He gave them a robe and a rest, and they were told to wait “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were killed as they themselves had been.” Wow! God is in control.
Second big section under the hiders is those who are hiding from God. We saw those who are hiding in God under the altar. Those who are hiding from God in verses 12-17. The sixth seal is God’s response to the cry for justice and represents final judgment and the end of history. Look at verse 12.
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 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.”
This is the day of the Lord that is described in Isaiah 13, Ezekiel 32, and Joel 2, and Matthew 24:29. This is a massive decreation, an undoing of creation, the unraveling of the created order. You see earthquakes and darkness and universal implosion. Everything we trust and assume that will be stable, all the laws we count on, scientific laws. There is an implosion and everything that is predictable collapses.
Notice the response in verse 15. Seven classes of mankind — kings, great ones, generals, rich, powerful, slave, free — and in case you thought you were not listed, everyone “hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” Verse 16,
“They cried out for the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
Like Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation, in the fall, hiding seems preferable to repenting. And therefore, being crushed by rocks seems more attractive than being exposed to the wrath of the Lamb.
This is one of those moments I warned you about where your view of Jesus will be challenged by the Word. I think there are many of us who have a view of Jesus that does not include wrath. “Yeah, the God of the Old Testament, he was angry and judgmental. But the God of the New Testament, who I call Jesus, he’s user-friendly. He gets me. And he’s okay with whatever, and you don’t have to worry about him. He’s cuddly.” And I’m not minimizing at all the grace of Jesus Christ, because the heart of God and the reason this warning is given is because he is gracious. Every one of us deserves to be charcoal today. Seriously, in the presence of a holy God, and we are living and breathing today because he loves us. And he’s warning us, and he’s calling us to himself and he does not enjoy condemning the wicked. He’s saying, “Come.” He sent his Son to die. But if you think that Jesus is to be trifled with, that you can just kind of have him around like a pet deity to be used and ignored at will, you do not know the Jesus of the Bible. You may have a Jesus of your imagination, but the Jesus that came as a baby in weakness to give his life for us is the same Jesus when rejected who will come in wrath to judge the world. And just imagine this, we’re talking the most powerful people on the planet, whether weak or strong, would rather fall under an avalanche than face this Jesus. He is that terrifying, that powerful.
So, what do we make of this? God here is sovereignly exposing evil, the sinfulness of sin, and saving. He does not sin nor tempt us or anyone else to sin. These riders don’t represent God wanting people to sin. They represent God ruling over a fallen, broken, sinful world that is not outside of the bounds of his sovereignty.
Notice a quick couple clues of sovereignty here. Notice, first of all, Jesus is opening the seals. He is the means of fulfilling all of God’s purposes in judgment and salvation. We all, everyone in this room, we all will either hide in him or from him. We will either hide in him, in humble faith. “Yes, Jesus, I trust what you did for me. My hope is in you.” Or from him and his judgment. We will either be buried in his death and raised in his resurrection by faith or we will be buried under his judgment. Jesus is opening the seals.
Another clue of sovereignty is the “living ones” say “come.” Verses 1, 3, 5, 7. Another is, limits are put on the evil. You notice those limits are stated all over. Do you remember when Satan came to Eve at the beginning of … Satan came to Job … Wait a second, I’ve got this all wrong … Satan came to God at the beginning of Job, and basically Satan’s saying, “Hey, Job, the only reason he’s worshiping you is because he lives in Greenville, a nice suburb. He’s got everything he wants. Look at his car. Look at his healthy body. Everything’s going fine for him right now. Take away some of that stuff and you watch him curse your name.” So, God allowed Satan to take away. But notice he put bounds on it. You can’t touch him. Then later, “Hey, I’ve taken away everything, he’s still blessing your name. Can I touch him?” And God allows him to touch him with illness. And Job still,
“Blessed be the name of the Lord. He gives and he takes away.”
So, you can see something like that going on here. In verse 2 the crown is “given.” Verse 4, the “rider was permitted.” Lots of passive voice here. Verse 8, death and hell were “given authority.” Verse 11, “until the number” should be complete. What is going on here? Let me give you an illustration that I think will make this section in Revelation come alive for you. Maybe not. It does for me.
Do you know what a sting operation is? It’s when the police, let’s say, are trying to shut down a cartel and they don’t want to just get the delivery boy, the guy who delivers the drugs. They want to get back to the ones who are actually running the thing and shut the whole thing down. So, they allow the crime to be committed or the drug deals to go on. But what are they doing? They’re flushing out, they’re exposing. Now I’m not talking about entrapment nor enticement. I’m not talking about trying to induce crime, but something like this is happening here. This is a universal sting operation. The sinfulness of sin … As we’re going to see, (not just in this chapter but all the way through Revelation 6 to 16, and then after Christmas, beyond the that) you have God permitting things to happen to reveal things about our sinfulness and the broken world we live in. Kind of like firefighters when they do a controlled burn. You know how firefighters are supposed to fight what? Fire. But sometimes they actually allow fire in order to stop bigger fires. They fight fire with fire. And God in a sinless way is fighting sin with sin without sinning — universal sting operation.
It’s kind of like in Matthew 13 when Jesus told the story of the wheat in the weeds. The farmer planted wheat, went to sleep. An enemy planted weeds. They started to grow. The farmer’s helper noticed, “Hey, there are weeds in your wheat!” The normal kind of weed. Sorry I have to clarify that! So, yeah, “there’s weeds in your wheat, and should we pull up the weeds?” And the farmer says, “No, if you do that, you’ll destroy the wheat.” And then verse 30, look at verse 30 in Matthew 13. It says,
“Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Let both grow together. It’s like the police chief allowing the drug deal to happen in order to expose the entire cartel.
I know many of you who have studied the book of Revelation may have many questions, because there are four basic interpretations. And I was going to go through those. I don’t think I’m going to; I will at some point. But what is really happening is very common in the Bible, and that is what we call prophetic telescoping. If you’re wondering, “Is Chapter 6 talking about today?” I would say, in one way, “yes.” Kind of like the mountain climber who sees the peak way up ahead. And so we know, I believe, that there is a literal tribulation time coming in the future. But as the mountain climber makes his journey, he encounters valleys and peaks that look just like the ultimate peak but aren’t quite as big. And so, in one sense, the riders are riding today. And that is why you see so many Christians martyred. Even the most conservative estimates by groups like Open Doors, they say 11 a day of your brothers and sisters will give their life for following Jesus. Today. So, if we think, “No, we live in America, so Revelation has nothing to do with me. You just need to pray that you’ll get saved and taken out. And this is for somebody else to worry about.” No, this word is very relevant for today and how we view who God is and what God is up to in Jesus. This book, again, forces us to wrestle with what we believe about people and about God.
Today, people are essentially viewed as products of nature and nurture, and depending on your view, you put the accent on one or the other. Some of the new atheists, like Sam Harris, will take it so far as to believe that we really aren’t accountable for our actions. Like yeah, we need a criminal system just to keep things from going crazy. But, as he writes in his book, Freewill,
“The idea that we, as conscious beings, are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map onto reality.”
He would argue that we’re simply reacting to the chemicals and our upbringing. You really don’t have a choice. When somebody guns down a bunch of people, all they’re doing is acting out of their chemicals and the way they were brought up. That is a scary view of people.
Rebecca McLaughlin, who got her PhD at Cambridge, wrote a great book called Confronting Christianity. Our summer interns, we went through this this summer. It wrestles with hard questions. She writes this:
“We twenty-first-century Westerners hate judgment. We fear being judgmental and blame horrific crimes on mental health problems, religious extremism, or educational deficits. To be sure, all of these things can be factors. And yet, when we hear of callous murders, carefully planned terrorism, or systemic abuse, part of us still yearns for justice.”
Deep down we all know there is a right and there is a wrong. And it’s not just out there, it’s in here. I’m part of the wrong. And Revelation will show us that, given the right conditions, all of us are capable of anything but by the grace of God. And rather than being dehumanizing, that actually is ennobling.
Listen to what one Dutch professor pastor wrote years ago:
“If only people could shed their self-awareness, their individuality, their sense of royalty; if only they could simply dissolve into the world around them like plants and animals do, without norms or morals! But they cannot. They are human. They exist with the indescribable greatness as well as the pathetic woefulness that that term covers. This is where God meets them.”
Now think about that. Right this morning, not somewhere out there, right here, God meets us right at the intersection of: “God I can’t imagine how unworthy I am, but yet how stunning your plans are for me, how overwhelming your grace is for me.”
Revelation 6 begins to open up the purposes of God, begins to unseal them, and we see a God who is greater than anything we could imagine. And that leaves us where? As the psalmist said in Psalm 130:3,
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”
That’s how Revelation 6 ended. Who can stand?
“But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”