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Who Can Stand?


Revelation 6:12-17
March 8, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 17:50 in the audio file.



Or, None Will Escape the Lamb’s Wrath

One of my greatest concerns with Postmillennialism—I’ll even call it my bias against it, however it was that I came to have such a bias—is that the Postmillennial hope for the future, where the gospel conquers and brings about a golden age in which Christian ethics prosper, while confident and comprehensive, isn’t quite cataclysmic enough to explain Bible language. When Scripture paints a picture of the last days, and of the coming of the day of the Lord in particular, I don’t imagine a calm day on an ocean shore while the artist keeps pushing paint into the corners of the canvas. When Scripture paints, the ocean crashes onto to the easel, thrashes it to pieces, throws it fifty yards in three directions, and all the beach-goers are running for cover that they never make it to. I’m willing to have my bias corrected, but part of my bias comes from a jealousy for the power of the inspired words to hold their own. Chicken Little/Henny Penny was paranoid because of gravity’s pull on an acorn and took it as a sign that the sky was falling, but when the prophets say that the sky vanished like a scroll whose holder lost his grip, that sounds cosmic and cataclysmic. It sounds terrifying. And as John saw his vision, it terrified the most powerful people on earth who ran for their lives like little girls.

For that matter, if the scene of judgment in the sixth seal (6:12-17) begins to answer the cry of the martyred souls under God’s altar in heaven in the fifth seal (6:9-11), then these dramatic, extensive events are a proportional response. The souls gave their lives for the Lamb. They cry to Him for justice, and He comes in such a way that men on earth would rather die than see His face. Now that I think about it, cataclysm itself may still be too calm of a word.

The Lamb has opened five of the seven seals on the scroll through Revelation 6:11. The four horsemen rode out on earth to begin the havoc in verses 1-8, then the fifth seal turned the focus back to the heavenly throne room, as the Lamb heard the voices of the martyrs, and then told them that it wouldn’t be long.

In Revelation 6:12-17 John sees the sixth seal opened, and by order of magnitude the kings and bankers, the movie stars and factory workers, all who had rejected the Lamb, some of whom were even directly responsible for Christian-killing, begin to reckon with the one with whom they have to do.

There are two parts to this paragraph, the creational cataclysm (verses 12-14) and the human fear and flight (verses 15-17) which is both completely understandable and completely futile. None will escape the Lamb’s wrath.

Creational Cataclysm (verses 12-14)

When we’re reading prophetic, poetic, apocalyptic language (which, by the way, all of these genres are meant as different ways to give understanding not to cause confusion), it can be challenging to distinguish the symbols from the substance symbolized. In other words, there is reality behind the representation, and the interpreter’s work is to identify what’s what. The Bible uses metaphors and analogies, so we don’t, for example, expect to see a knob coming out of Jesus’ torso just because He said He was the door (see John 10:7).

As we look at verses 12-14 note that there are numerous similes (comparisons of things using “like” or “as”), but there are not similes explaining similes, or similes within similes. The similes explain in what way the thing that is happening happened. Of the various attempts to symbolize all of these happenings or events, the typical approach is to take the sun and moon and stars as governmental leaders. But then why refer to governmental leaders in verse 15? If there was a transition explanation such as “the stars are the kings,” well, that would be different (as in Revelation 1:20 where the stars are identified as the angels of the churches). But in this paragraph we have heavenly impersonal rulers (see Genesis 1:14-18) and earthly persons as rulers and both are ruled by God. If the stars are merely symbols, why are the kings also not symbols? It’s not just mixing metaphors, it’s messed up interpretation.

When [the Lamb] opened the sixth seal, I saw, and there was a great earthquake. Is this an actual earthquake? Why wouldn’t it be? Doesn’t there need to be a bias even to ask that? Perhaps, as we read, we would see clues that tell us that a “great earthquake” merely conveys the idea of upheaval. Okay, an upheaval of what? The burden of proof is on those who have some other explanation for “earthquake” than as the shaking of the earth’s crust and tectonic plates. If it’s shaking up government, why say it again in the following verses?

The earth quakes at numerous key displays of God’s arrival and judgment, in the Old Testament and also in the Apocalypse. Earthquakes make a statement. But if the earthquake is merely a symbol of some intangible event, I’m not buying it.

Next, the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became [red] as blood. Here are two celestial phenomena. The sun, the central star providing light and heat in our solar system, is eclipsed. The metaphor of “as sackcloth of hair” refers to “a coarse coat made of black goat’s hair and usually worn in time of mourning” (Osborne). The parallel with the other major light-giving source to those on earth, due to various changes in the atmosphere, and undoubtedly a result of the great earthquake, caused the moon to appear red “as blood.” The color red isn’t named in the Greek text, but fits the comparison. It also fits with ancient prophecy.

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:31 ESV)

If these heavenly bodies represent earthly leaders, what is the point of the black and the red? And why add similes to the symbols? And how are these leaders different than the stars?

Speaking of which, and the stars of the sky fell to earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. These are not shooting stars, but falling stars, and falling all the way to earth. What is figurative about that? The metaphor shows how easy the stars fall. Come winter time, if there are any figs on the tree, it’s barely hanging on, like the last string of a second-grader’s top tooth. The branches can’t keep their grip against a gust of wind. This language also has history.

All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall,
as leaves fall from the vine,
like leaves falling from the fig tree.
(Isaiah 34:4 ESV)

Whether or not the original audience looked to astronomy for guidance, until Copernicus, the movements of the planets meant something. God Himself said that He gave the sun, moon, and stars to govern days and seasons and years (Genesis 1). He also said that His promises were as certain until they passed away (Jeremiah 31:35-36). The Lord is causing that to happen before the eyes of the world.

Though a fictional account, it reminds me of the following scene of Narnia’s end:

“Even one shooting star is a fine thing to see; but these were dozens, and then scores, and then hundreds, till it was like silver rain: and it went on and on. And when it had gone on for some while, one or two of them began to think that there was another dark shape against the sky as well as the giant’s. It was in a different place, right overhead, up in the very roof of the sky as you might call it. “Perhaps it is a cloud,” thought Edmund. At any rate, there were no stars there: just blackness. But all around, the downpour of stars went on. And then the starless patch began to grow, spreading further and further out from the center of the sky. And presently a quarter of the whole sky was black, and then a half, and at last the rain of shooting stars was going on only low down near the horizon. “With a thrill of wonder (and there was some terror in it too) they all suddenly realized what was happening. The spreading blackness was not a cloud at all: it was simply emptiness. The black part of the sky was the part in which there were no stars left. All the stars were falling: Aslan had called them home.” (The Last Battle. 83-84)

There’s one more verse of cataclysms: then the sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Imagine that the sky was being held open, and that it ripped apart in the middle. The two pieces would rapidly roll up toward each edge, as if each end was trying to get back to its resting position. It was only held open by God’s hands.

As for the mountains, the great earthquake has begun to level them, and as they fall into the sea, and as the seas themselves are stirred up, the islands are covered and moved.

Frightened Flight (verses 15-17)

Humans have a built in response mechanism often referred to as fight or flight. We either face something difficult or dangerous by putting up our dukes or by putting on our running shoes. But here is no fight. Also, there is an interesting awareness of why these things are happening.

All sorts of classes of earth-dwellers are mentioned. Kings are the national or tribal heads of state. The great ones are likely the second level officials, cabinet members, counselors of the king. The generals are military leaders (the Greek word contains the idea of overseeing a thousand men), not just the soldiers, though by implication the soldiers follow their generals. The rich and the powerful own the wealth and buy what they want with it. Then it’s everyone, the last class, both slave and free. This is all of society.

None are unaffected by the cataclysmic ruin. They hid themselves in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. This is irrational. Not even the mountains can be trusted, they are in process of being removed.

More drives the flight than protection from the earthly dangers, they fear the Lamb’s wrath. They are calling to the mountains and 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.” They are right to fear the holy one. They are wrong to think that physical death will spare them, and have a misplaced hope to avoid dealing with the King (on the throne) and His King (anointed by the LORD in Psalm 2:6-9).

The one sitting on His throne started this vision in chapter 4. The Lamb is His Son and the only one worthy to bring about the recompense as seen in chapter 5.

The earth-dwellers know, by conscience, that the cataclysms mean that they are guilty, and they are aware that they will give an account. They don’t want to. More than the first guilty pair who hid in the garden, mankind will do whatever to avoid the wrath, the anger, of the Lamb.

They say, “for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” This is the day of the Lord, the day of reckoning. Either God’s wrath is satisfied by the Lamb slain, through the ransom of His blood, or God’s wrath will bring about blood.

Who can stand? This rhetorical question caps the cataclysmic point. How can anyone escape the worthy Seal-breaker? It’s as if they realize, “How did we think we could get away with this? Who is going to put up any sort of resistance to the one who causes the cosmos to be undone?”

Conclusion

These things have not happened yet. There have been earthquakes and eclipses, there have been meteor showers, and there have even been some who have fled into the wilderness to avoid destruction on a city, but the stars have not fallen to earth and the sky has not vanished. For that matter, the full number of the martyrs is not complete, so the final judgment on the persecutors has not come.

We may still ask, if this is the end of all things, then how is there more of the story? Not just returning to the shire. The new heavens and the new earth doesn’t come until chapter 21. There are, in fact, more earthquakes mentioned, and all the mountains removed, and more men killed.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. (Revelation 20:11 ESV)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1 ESV)

Either there are repeating ways of referring to the same judgments (as in the sixth seal is also the sixth trumpet is also the sixth bowl), or, as I still think, the sixth seal is followed by the seventh seal which contains the rest of the judgments. It gets worse (for example, in 8:12, a third of the the sun and moon and stars are struck, not just changing color).

The question that ends the chapter is the great question: Who can stand?


Charge

Knowing that the Lamb is storing up wrath for the day of judgment, what ought we to do? Yes, we do have a warning to give to men that they can flee from the wrath now in repentance before the Lamb. But we are also told explicitly to cheer each other up and build each other up. We don’t just have one job (evangelism), but we do have one Lord, one hope, in one body. By His grace, stand firm.

Benediction:

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:8–11, ESV)