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Taking Peace from Earth


Revelation 6:1-8
February 23, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 15:30 in the audio file.



Or, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Of the 1189 chapters in the inspired Word, none reveals a more explicit and more exalted scene of worship than Revelation 5. There are other visions of the heavenly throne room, but none that identify both the one sitting on the throne ruling history and the one standing as having been slain, the redeemer of men from every tribe and tongue and nation and language. There are other descriptions of angels in choir formation, but none that extend to the myriad millions in loud voice praising the worthiness of the Lamb. No wonder that the response of the four living creatures was, “Amen!”

But whatever view you take toward the book of Revelation, the amen at the end of chapter 5 is far from the final amen. Chapter 5 would have been a great climax, not just to John’s vision, but of all history. There will be echoes of this worship forever and ever, for sure. But not only are there 17 more chapters in the Bible (as our copies number them), the purpose of chapters 4 and 5 is of transition. The Lion-Lamb is worthy of the praise of every creature, and such is true doctrine. But the presentation of the Lion-Lamb reveals that He is worthy to take the scroll held by the one sitting on the central throne in heaven. We are brought with John to exalt David’s Lord, the slain but standing Lamb, but we are also brought with John to expect the Lamb to open the scroll and break the seven seals.

There were particular pains faced by the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2-3. Those afflictions were not just of sickness and aging, of sweat dripping off the nose dealing with thistles in the soil. Those judgments of God on earth were, and are, trials. But those who listened to what the Spirit said to the churches were also opposed or oppressed by those who denied Jesus’ name (3:8), who were not loved by Jesus (3:9), who were not ransomed for God by Jesus (5:9). What about them? What about all the tribes of earth that will wail on account of Him, anticipated as early as Revelation 1:7?

So the scroll, sealed with seven seals, and so the strong angel’s question: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2) As is true for all mankind, either we are swept up into great rejoicing as we worship the Lamb, or we are swept up by great tribulation as rebels against the Lamb.

The ransomed of the Lamb expect the judgment by the Lamb on His enemies. This is part of His glory. The worship in Revelation 5 would not be sufficient apart from the judgments that begin in chapter 6. If Odysseus returned to his house, and was restored to his wife Penelope, but did not deal with the many false suitors, the story would not be complete.

Remember that there are at least four common viewpoints to the book of Revelation. Chapter 6 and forward really require making a choice in order to make sense of the parts of John’s vision; it’s an interpretive crossroads. The Historicist traces the progress through Revelation as the progress of the church in stages of history. The Preterist explains the majority of Revelation as the outworking of judgment against Israel, especially fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the Roman Empire. The Idealist interprets according to symbols ruthlessly, so there are cycles of judgments throughout history. And the Futurist anticipates that most of Revelation is still to be fulfilled in the future, starting with chapter 4, and certainly chapter 6 and forward.

The general application stands no matter from which quadrant you read Revelation: the ransomed anticipate the judgment of the Lamb on all who reject Him. Even if chapter 6 was largely fulfilled leading up to AD 70, it was still future in John’s vision, and an encouragement by faith to his readers.

As I said when we began our study of the Apocalypse, I think everyone listening to the words of this Book must reckon with the fact that the turmoils and tribulations have not happened not to the scale and spectacle as John sees.

So we come to chapter 6 and the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. While there are seven seals, the first four belong together (as do the first four blows of the trumpet and the first four bowls). The breaking of the first four seals result in the four living creatures calling out four horses and riders, which have an emphasis on events on earth, while the last three seals have a different connection, and include earth as well as heaven.

Zechariah had a vision of four horses, though he saw only one rider, and the colors were not the same as in John’s vision (see Zechariah 1:7-17; 6:1-8). The horses and chariots Zechariah and John saw do not have the same purposes.

But here come the judgments in the Apocalypse, seals and trumpets and bowls through chapter 16.

The First Horseman: Conquerer (verses 1-2)

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. There is no good reason for the ESV to translate the beginning of verse 1 “Now I watched”; it’s the same “And I saw” that marked four parts of the previous chapter (5:1, 2, 6, 10), and that occurs more times in this chapter. The Lamb begins to open the scroll.

We do not know how the seals sealed the scroll. If all seven lined the lip of the scroll, some argue that the scroll itself is not revealed until all seven seals are broken. If the seals were on the edge of the scroll, breaking one would allow the first section of the scroll to be unwrapped. I don’t think it matters too much, because when each seal is broken, something happens.

The Lamb initiates the events, and one of the four living creatures was saying with a voice of thunder: “Come!” At his call, behold, a white horse, and the one sitting on it having a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came conquering and in order to conquer.

Does this rider have a name? Do we know who he is? Is he one person, or a symbol of a person? Is there significance to the color of his horse? Why a bow without a quiver of arrows? What is the crown for? Why the awkward conquering comment?

I have been surprised at the number of commentators who believe that this rider is Jesus. Their reasons: white symbolizes righteousness and victory, Jesus has a crown, Jesus said He has conquered (3:21), and very clearly Jesus, as The Word of God (Revelation 19:13) and King of kings (19:16), rides a white horse and makes war (19:11). Many who understand this rider as Jesus understand the conquering as the conquering of the gospel. The Lamb opens the first seal and the gospel goes out.

It’s possible that the Lamb opens the first seal and then pictures Himself as a rider on the horse, but not likely. Also, when the Word rides the white horse in chapter 19 He has a sword, not a bow. Also, it would be odd to say that this is when He is given a crown; He already has many crowns/diadems (19:12).

It makes more sense to see this horse and rider as similar in character to the other horses and riders. Note especially the “it was given” to three of the four horsemen, and each time “it was given” refers to the suffering the rider brings with him. The rider of this white horse is a poser. It may not be the antichrist himself, since the antichrist arrives later, but it belongs with that behavior (for example, the beast “conquers” the saints in 11:7; 13:7). This horseman has a bow, but doesn’t use it (he has no arrows). He gets a crown, and comes in a way to bring unity through victory, but it this conquering is not quite complete. Jesus told His disciples that false Christs would come near the end (Matthew 24:4-5).

The Second Horseman: Bloodshed (verses 3-4)

There are no time indications of how long between the breaking of the seals, but now the second horse and rider are called to come.

And when [the Lamb] opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come!” And another, a red horse came out, and it was given to the one sitting on it to take peace from the earth in order that they would slaughter one another.

The red horse is for blood, apparently for blood shed in battle in war and slaughter. The rider was “permitted” (ESV) or “was granted” (NAS) charge to take peace from the earth. Whatever peace may have been made by the white horse rider was short-lived, and there must have been peace of some kind, now it is gone. He takes the gloves of common grace and civility off. Restraint is removed. The slaughter one another is sometimes taken as civil war, neighbor against neighbor, rather than nation against nation, but there is nothing in the description itself that limits it to one location. The word used in verse 4 for slaughter (from σφάζω) was used for “butchering” and killing by violence (BAGD).

To [the horseman of the red horse] was given a large sword, a weapon for combat and conflict.

The Third Horseman: Hunger (verse 5-6)

Again there are no time indications, but it does seem natural for deprivation to result from warmongering.

And when [the Lamb] opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come!” And I saw, and behold a black horse, and the one sitting on it having scales in his hand. And I heard like a voice in the middle of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat is a denarius, and three quarts of barley is a denarius, and do not damage the oil and wine.”

These are famine conditions, economic inflation and more demand than supply. It’s not good when food has to be measured like this; rationing is a sign of scarcity, as are the steep prices. A denarius was a day’s wage for one man, and a quart of wheat was enough for one man to eat. So he could work all day and have enough for himself to work the next day. Barley was cheaper, but also less nutritious. The staple commodities were barely affordable, anywhere from eight to sixteen times the average price (per Cicero, Beale).

It is similar to the LORD’s word to Ezekiel prophesying a coming attack on Jerusalem:

“Son of man, behold, I will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. (Ezekiel 4:16)

Why the call for not touching the oil and wine? Some think these are more luxury items, therefore the rich would continue to have access to their things. Others consider that this is just a limitation to the famine itself; not every shelf in the store is bare. You could buy them, if you had any money.

The voice in the middle of the four living creatures is the one sitting on the throne. He is in charge of the judgment.

The Fourth Horseman: Death (verses 7-8)

The Lamb opens the fourth seal and the fourth living creature is saying, “Come!” And I saw and behold, a pale horse, and the one sitting on it is having the name Death, and Hades followed him.

The pale color is like soaked cashews, like yellowish grass covered by a kiddie pool for three days, like an anemic man, like a corpse (Mounce). It’s not a healthy color, and the color fits with the rider, Death. Here personified, Hades is the place where the dead go (and the name of the Greek god of the underworld), and is pictured here walking behind Death swallowing up the bodies (in Revelation Death and Hades go to together, see also 1:18 where Jesus has the keys to them and 20:13 when both are thrown into the lake of fire).

To Death and Hades were given authority on earth to kill by four ways: sword and famine and pestilence and wild beasts (see also Ezekiel 14:13-21), demonstrating some overlap with the purposes of the previous riders. Death would do his work over a fourth of the earth, which isn’t about location but population. The scale is large, but the limitation is merciful; it could have been more.

John looks from heaven as peace is taken from “earth,” not just the land of Israel. Even if John’s first readers thought of “contemporary historical events…John’s intent is to describe calamities that have partial effect throughout the whole world, and not merely in Jerusalem, Asia Minor, or Rome” (Beale).

Also, these are only the initial stages of judgment, it will get worse.

Conclusion

When did these riders ride? One commentator wrote, “Some of the events began immediately after [Christ’s] ascension,” and yet he also believes that “these tribulations will end only at the time of Christ’s final parousia, as the context of ch. 6 and the whole book demonstrate” (Beale). Even with the descriptions of Josephus about the terrors in the Roman siege of Jerusalem, and even considering the various horrors through history, “Never has there been a time when the four afflictions of the fourth seal have operated simultaneously over a fourth of the earth” (Thomas). In light of what’s still to come in Revelation, these seem to fit what Jesus described to His disciples:

Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Mark 13:6–8 ESV)

We learn at least a few things from this passage.

First, the glory of the Lamb consists not only in ransoming a people for Himself from earth, but also in judging all those on earth who are at enmity with Him. Think again to Psalm 2.

Also, the glory of the Lamb consists in His sovereignty to use political conflict and natural disasters to bring about His ends. “Evil agents are issued commands to carry out God’s bidding” (Beale). Even Death and Hades obey the Lamb.

And then the hope of the ransomed is that the Lamb will finish His work. We root for His conquering, just as the saints pray for His, and theirs with Him, vindication.


Charge

Cramming for a test usually has a bad reputation. And sure, if you played for the past three weeks and only studied for three minutes before the exam, that’s not studious. But if you work with diligence, there is nothing wrong with even extra effort at the end. So with our expectation of the day of Christ’s return. Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18), and cram in more encouragement to just conquer.

Benediction:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23–25 ESV)