May 2, 2010
No catastrophe of the past or the future falls outside God’s plan.
I. Conquest (Revelation 6:1-2)
II. War (Revelation 6:3-4)
III. Famine (Revelation 6:5-6)
IV. Death (Revelation 6:7-8)
Okay, let’s think about some recent events. The earthquake in Haiti is rapidly moving up the list of deadliest natural disasters of all time. It is tenth on that list now, at 250,000 deaths, but could well make fifth if, as is expected, estimates are revised upward past 300,000. The number of homeless remains far above one million, as many refuse to live even in intact houses.
Of course, this is just one of many earthquakes. The one in Chile was an incredible 8.8 on the Richter scale, almost a hundred times as much energy as the Haiti event, though fortunately in a much less populous area. There was one in China on April 14th, and even a little one in Alice, Texas April 24th. Yet scientists say the earthquake total so far this year is in the normal range.
There are also no small number of wars going on around the world right now. The Iraq war, which tops the list, has resulted in between 200,000 and a million deaths: the number of Iraqi dead is very uncertain. Most other wars now raging are some kind of civil war, like the conflict in Somalia. Since 1991 vicious war-lords and factions have struggled for control of the country, as famously chronicled in the movie ‘Black Hawk Down.’ But the conflict has never ended, and as recently as this week thirty more were killed in fighting in the capital. The death toll for this war, along with famine, disease and displacement may be approaching a million individuals.
Famine is a frequent consequence of war. It can also come from the combination of bad government and bad weather. Authorities this week were warning about a growing food crisis in the West African state of Niger. Erratic rainfall last year devastated crops and herds, leaving millions of people hungry. Many have abandoned their homes in search of food, while others who remain are harvesting green fruits from usually inedible plants. "We planted but the harvest was not good. Since then we have been waiting for manna, from wherever it can come," said Maria Ali, a 55 year-old mother of 10. A government survey in December estimated 58 percent of the population, or 7.8 million people, were food-insecure.
Finally, disease itself often makes the news. Last year we heard probably way too much about the Swine Flu, or H1N1. By the end of 2009 this strain of influenza had killed about 25,000 world-wide, which is a small number compared even to HIV. AIDS has now killed twenty-five million people, mostly in Africa, where the incidence of HIV continues to grow.
The point is that wars, natural disasters, famines and disease are, today, a big part of the world picture; so much so in some cases, like earthquakes, that people begin to report them as signs of the end. The question we’re going to ask ourselves today is how the catastrophes of our world fit into a biblical understanding of God’s plan. We know that tragedies happen – but are they random? Are they evidence that evil has won and will triumph? Or are they something God has allow as part of his larger plan to rescue people from sin.
One of the main purposes of the book of Revelation is to re-assure the believers in Asia Minor, and later around the world, that God is in control. As we study Revelation 6:1-8 this morning, we need to be re-assured that no catastrophe of the past or the future falls outside God’s plan. These verses re-assure us that though the normal course of the world is tragic, God will intervene. And communion, which we’ll take later, reminds us that he has intervened.
Let’s read the section, which will launch some important theological and biblical thinking. I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" 2I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
3When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" 4Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
5When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"
7When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" 8I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
I. Conquest (Revelation 6:1-2)
In chapters 4 and 5 we focused on worship in heaven, at the throne of the Father and at the feet of the Lamb. But remember the Lamb was revealed to John because of a scroll in the right hand of the Father, which only the Lamb who was slain could open. This was God’s word of judgment for the last days.
So in chapters 6 and 7 we’ll see the opening of six of the seven seals on this scroll, and then two important scenes, one on earth and one in heaven. Biblically and theologically these two chapters address issues hotly debated from Jesus’ day to ours. These include: ‘What is the nature of the book of Revelation?’; ‘When will the end times come, and how will we recognize them?’; ‘Does God have a plan for the nation of Israel in the end times?’; and ‘If there is such a thing as a rapture, what will the timing be?’
We’ve already talked about the nature of this part of the Bible. The most common understanding, and the one I mostly hold, is that much of this book points to the future, giving a prophetic picture of what the end times will be like. But some see in Revelation a picture of a past event, the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. This view is called the Preterist view, from a word that means ‘completed in the past.’
Now there is no doubt Jesus did talk about the destruction of the temple. In fact in a passage we’ll refer to often, Matthew 24, he prophesies that destruction and elaborates on it. But to say that most of Revelation or even of Jesus’ teaching was fulfilled at the destruction of the temple is going way too far.
So another approach says it’s not just that one event, but all of church history that is pictured in Revelation. Historicists see in the seven churches seven epochs of church history, and most the rest of the book as symbolic representations of that history, especially the persecution of the church under the Romans.
Finally, there are those who see this book as primarily meeting spiritual needs. The images and symbolic accounts allow God’s people to take hope and comfort. So they would see the kinds of things pictured here as coming up over and over again in history, so that God’s people need to apply the comfort of this book to their own spiritual and historical circumstances.
And even though I’m mostly a futurist, I do see some merit in parts of these other systems. For example, the spiritual system in undoubtedly over-spiritualized, but the message and comfort of this book does need to be applied to present circumstances and challenges. The two past-fulfillment systems remind us that some prophecies have been fulfilled, or have been partially fulfilled while still looking forward to a fuller future fulfillment.
So as a futurist, I still don’t believe that everything in these chapters is future. I think we can see this if we look at the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24. Luke and Mark both record large parts of this discourse, but Matthew gives the fullest account. Matthew 24:1-3 “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.
2"Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." 3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
The first thing to notice is that Jesus clearly predicts the destruction of the temple: every stone will be thrown down. The second thing to notice is that the disciples ask two questions. ‘When will this happen?’ When will the temple be destroyed? And ‘what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ Jesus answers these two questions distinctly in the rest of the chapter.
Verse 4 to 8 give an important answer to the second question, the end of the age: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. 6You 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. 7Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8All these are the beginning of birth pains.”
The most important thing to notice here is what these verses deny: they deny that false Christs, wars, famines and earthquakes are signs of the end. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. These things are only the beginning of birth pains. We’ll explore Matthew 24 more fully next week, but it’s important that Jesus answers two questions, and he begins by talking about things that happen before the end comes.
We need to know that as we examine Revelation 6. Verse 1: “I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" 2I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” It is the Lamb himself who opens the first seal. He alone is worthy to set into motion these events. And as each of the four seals is opened, one of the living creatures calls out with a voice like thunder for the horse and his rider to come forth.
Verse 2 John looks, and behold, a white horse! Mounted on the horse is a rider with a bow and a crown who rides out as a conqueror. The identity of this rider has been extensively discussed. One interpretation identifies the rider with Christ and the white horse with the victorious gospel. Support for this view comes from Revelation 19:11, where Jesus appears on a white horse, with a sword that comes from his mouth, riding forth to judge the nations.
But similarity doesn’t prove it’s the same person or the same horse; the fact that the other three horsemen are negative weight against it. So maybe the rider simply represents the universal impulse toward tyranny, men dominating men and nations nations. A more specific interpretation makes the rider not Christ but anti-Christ, gaining control of the nations. The prominence of the anti-Christ in Revelation and the parallel with Matthew 24 all support this interpretation. Remember Matthew 24:4 said “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ.'”
II. War (Revelation 6:3-4)
The other three riders are easier to identify. Verse 3: “When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" 4Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.”
The color of this horse symbolizes bloodshed and slaughter. This rider’s goal is to cause people to turn their destructive instincts upon one another. Zechariah 14:13 says “On that day men will be stricken by the Lord with great panic. Each man will seize the hand of another, and they will attack each other.” The mission of the red horse would be well understood in John’s day, in which there were many insurrections, violence and civil wars. In the thirty-year period before Herod the Great more than one hundred thousand insurgents may have died in revolutions and rebellions in Palestine alone.
And this kind of destruction in equally obvious to us. We’ve already talked about the example of Somalia, where the utter chaos of a multi-sided civil war has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. And many of the other conflicts around the world, from Kosovo to Kazakhstan and the Congo to India have this same symptom of brother against brother at the core.
III. Famine (Revelation 6:5-6)
Verse 5: “When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!” The balance, or scale in this rider’s hand indicates a time of scarcity when the basic commodities of life are measured out at greatly inflated prices. In this extremity a whole day’s work would only buy enough wheat for one person, or enough of the less nutritious barley for three.
So the issue is famine, a normal result of warfare in ancient times, and even now. In World War II, in the siege of Leningrad, a million people, men, women and children no different than you and me died of starvation.
IV. Death (Revelation 6:7-8)
Finally, the fourth horseman is revealed: “When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" 8I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
The rider of this horse is Death, followed by his inseparable companion Hades. But we already learned that Jesus holds the keys to Death and Hades, so it has to be the Lamb who grants them power, and yet limits it to one-fourth of humankind. In practical terms, all this death doesn’t have to happen at once. There have been many generations in which nearly one fourth of the people have died of these causes, because even the ‘natural’ parts of this judgment ‘famine, wild beasts, plague’ are often the result of man’s sinfulness.
And it’s still true today. One of the articles I read in looking at these things was a Time magazine cover story called “The Deadliest War in the World.” It begins “Sitting on a bed in a refugee camp in Katanga, a cursed province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mukeya Ulumba, 28, recounts the epic losses she has suffered. Several relatives and neighbors were killed when antigovernment rebels stormed their village, moving from house to house in an hours-long murder spree. Ulumba and her husband fled with their four children, leaving behind bloodied corpses of family members and friends.
“Now Ulumba struggles to save another life, that of her 6-month-old son Amoni. His belly is distended by malnutrition, and although he appears to be in pain, he has no energy to cry. A nurse from Doctors Without Borders tries for half an hour to inject antibiotics into Amoni's twiglike arm, its wrinkled skin wrapped loosely around the bones. Without the drugs, he will die.
“Some wars go on killing long after they end. In Congo, a nation of 63 million people in the heart of Africa, a peace deal was supposed to halt a war that drew in belligerents from at least eight other countries, producing a record of human devastation unmatched in recent history. Experts say that 3.9 million people have died from war-related causes since the conflict in Congo began in 1998, making it the world's most lethal conflict since World War II.
“The country is plagued by bad sanitation, disease, malnutrition and dislocation. Routine and treatable illnesses have become weapons of mass destruction. 1,250 Congolese still die every day because of war-related causes--the vast majority succumbing to diseases and malnutrition that wouldn't exist in peaceful times. In many respects, the country remains as broken, volatile and dangerous as ever, which is to say, among the very worst places on earth.”
I believe that the four horsemen of Revelation 6 are not a future tribulation, but have put in their gruesome appearance time after time in the sad history of our world. In Matthew 24 Jesus told us to expect these things: wars, rumors of war, nation against nation, famine and earthquake. But he said ‘this is not the end, this is the beginning of birth pains.’ Paul tells us that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
But sad and catastrophic as it is, we praise God that this is not the end of the story. Revelation is starting to teach us that God is completing his plan and purpose. No catastrophe happens without his permission, no catastrophe is outside his control, and no catastrophe can ultimately touch his children. The presence of these verses in the midst of that hope reminds us that though the normal course of the world is tragic, God will intervene to rescue.