“The Sign of the Son of Man”
May 9, 2010
The beginning of wrath is the day of our rescue!
I. How Long, O Lord? (Revelation 6:9-11)
II. The Signs (Revelation 6:12-17)
The event people call the Rapture, when Jesus comes and gathers those who have believed in him, has been the subject of endless speculation. Books of every sort have been written, from serious theological inquiries to popular novels. Movies have been made, some Christian, some just capitalizing on the word rapture. Songs have been written, like the Larry Norman song popular when I was a new believer: “I wish we’d all been ready.”
And countless sermons have been preached on this subject. A few have been preached by me. In twenty years, nearly a thousand sermons, I remember two or three that had the rapture as a central idea. I’ve preached on Matthew 24, on 1 Thessalonians 4, and on 1 Corinthians 15. I preach on this subject when it comes up in the text of Scripture, but it doesn’t come up that often.
That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the subject, or don’t have an opinion. In seminary I spent some time studying the rapture and its timing and became convinced of a position not quite typical. Popular movies and authors would tell you the rapture occurs before any other event of the end times. It comes before the tribulation, before the beginning of God’s judgment. Others, less popular, would say it comes at the end of that period, that believers in Jesus will experience most of the events of the book of Revelation before Jesus comes to gather them out and win final victory. An even smaller group, of which I’m a part, would say it happens some time during that period, after the events begin but before the time of God’s wrath.
Now let me remind you that variations in understanding this specific doctrine are not critical to the Christian faith. You can hold any of these positions and still be a believer, saved from sin by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those things, sin, redemption and faith, are what is critical, and they appear on almost every page of Scripture. The things we’re studying today are important, but don’t affect our salvation. They appear on a few pages of Scripture: worth studying and taking seriously, but not worth dividing over.
Because the doctrine of the rapture, the reality of the rapture, is not supposed to be a source of division among believers, but of comfort and encouragement. Our text today makes that clear, and helps us understand the timing. It teaches us that the beginning of God’s wrath is the day of our rescue.
Last week we studied the first four seals on the scroll of God’s judgment, the four horsemen: conquest, war, famine and death. We said that such things are common in our world, not themselves signs of the end, but the beginnings, the birth pangs that make us desire the end of this world’s groaning labor.
I. How Long, O Lord? (Revelation 6:9-11)
When the fifth seal is opened we hear that desire expressed, and realize that during this same time many have been martyred for Christ. Revelation 6:9-11 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" 11Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
It may seem this fifth seal is very different from the others, maybe unrelated to the others. But it’s critically important both to what we’ve already seen and to what comes next. So the picture is of the souls of those who have been slain, seen ‘under the altar.’ The altar shows that John’s vision of heaven isn’t only a throne room, but a temple. Isaiah said, when he saw this vision, that God was seated on the throne and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Now, in temple sacrifices, the blood of the bull was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering. This blood contained the life, or soul, of the flesh: “The life of the flesh,” Leviticus said, “is in the blood.” That the souls of the martyrs were “under the altar” is a thus way of saying that their deaths have been, from God’s perspective, a sacrifice on the altar of heaven. In the same way, Paul viewed his own death as a drink offering poured out before God.
These martyrs had given their lives because of the word of God and the testimony they had borne. It’s quite possible the two phrases describe the same thing: the word of God was the testimony they proclaimed. I believe this group includes martyrs of the whole church age, from Stephen who was stoned in Acts 7 to the martyrs of today in North Korea and sub-Saharan Africa.
In Nigeria, for example, the conflict between Islamic radicals and Christians is being waged at the mob level. Two weeks ago, on April 24th in the city of Jos, seven people were killed by Muslim youths, according to Compass Direct News. Two journalists for the Church of Christ in Nigeria were among those killed. Nathan S. Dabak, a 36-year-old assistant editor, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, a 39-year-old reporter, were on their way to interview a local politician when they were attacked and stabbed to death.
An unidentified motorcyclist was also killed in that attack. Four other Christians were murdered on the same day when hundreds of Muslim youths rampaged through the area after the body of a missing Muslim teenager was found. Three of these believers were brutally stabbed, the other beaten to death.
So, verse 10, from beneath the altar there rises a plea for vindication: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” The inhabitants of the earth is a phrase John uses for the human race as hostile to God. In 11:10 they rejoice over the death of the two witnesses, In chapter 13 they are pictured as worshiping the beast, and in chapter 17 as intoxicated with the wine of the great prostitute’s adulteries.
The martyrs appeal to God as one who is “holy and true.” Totally separate from all evil, he will vindicate with integrity those who have given their lives for the cause of righteousness.’ Through centuries of oppression the cry ‘How long?’ has constantly risen to heaven. “How long will the wicked, O Lord, how long will the wicked be jubilant?” asks the Psalmist. “How long, O LORD, must I call for help,” asks the prophet, “but you do not listen?”
In verse 11 the martyrs are given white robes. In the book of Revelation this is a symbol of blessedness and purity. The twenty-four elders around the throne are dressed in white; those in Sardis who have not defiled themselves walk with Jesus, dressed in white. The church at Laodicea is told to buy white clothes from Jesus, because without them they are naked. In the next chapter the redeemed who throng before the throne are arrayed in white robes, white because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb.
These martyrs are told to wait a little longer until their number is completed. Clearly the fifth seal, the fifth horseman, is martyrdom, though viewed here from the heavenly rather than the earthly standpoint. This fits with what Jesus taught in Matthew 24 "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
So the four horsemen are loose on the earth, the number of martyrs is increasing, and those who have been martyred are told to wait until their number is complete. I believe it is a perfectly reasonable understanding of Scripture, both this Scripture and Matthew and the other parallels, to say these things in present tense. These things are happening, and the end is drawing closer. I can’t tell you when the sixth seal will be opened, but this fifth seal assures us that though things are difficult, they are moving according to plan. The things we talked about last week, which can be so discouraging, are included in the ‘wait a while longer, until the times are full’ comfort of this fifth seal.
II. The Signs (Revelation 6:12-17)
But the sixth seal reveals the future. Verses 12 to 17: I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?"
With the opening of the sixth seal the cosmic disturbances that herald the last days begin. For people who thought the well-ordered movements of heavenly bodies were a token of God’s providential control, the break-down of this order would indicate the end of the world. The details in this dramatic description of a universe in turmoil were probably not intended to be taken totally literally, but to paint a dramatic picture, just as the red horse whose rider held the sword was not a literal depiction of war, but a symbol of war released on the earth. Nonetheless, I think it goes way too far to equate these cosmic events with political events in the Roman Empire, as some commentators do – there is definitely more here than that.
These signs were already familiar from the Old Testament. When God descended on Sinai, “the whole mountain trembled violently.” Isaiah prophesies that people will hide in caves from the terror of the Lord “when he rises to shake the earth.” God says through Haggai that “in a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth.” This great quake is to be accompanied by the sun turning black like sackcloth and the whole moon turning blood red. In a passage quoted by Peter at Pentecost as partially fulfilled at that time, the prophet Joel says of the coming great and terrible day of the Lord, “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.” The stars of heaven are pictured as falling to the earth like unripe figs in a winter gale. Isaiah spoke of the starry host falling like withered leaves from the vine.
So it’s a huge disturbance of the natural order, one which terrifies all people, from the most powerful and influential to the lowliest slave. They flee from the cities and hide in caves and rocks among the mountains. They call out and appeal for the mountains and rocks to fall on them, as prophesied in Hosea 10:8. And the reason they give for preferring death is that the alternative is to see the face of Him who sits on the throne and the wrath of the Lamb who is opening these seals. For, they say, the great day of his wrath has come.
This ‘day of God’s wrath’ is the ‘day of the Lord.’ The prophet Joel described the day of the Lord as “great and dreadful.” God says through Zephaniah: “The great day of the Lord is near-- near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there. 15That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness.” This is the event being described in Revelation 6, the day when he will judge all sin, put all things right and make all things new. This day is not a 24 hour time period, but a short season in which a sequence of cataclysmic events must occur. And just as the prophets said “who can abide the day of his coming,” now the people of the earth say “who can stand” when he appears.
The implied answer is, ‘no one can stand!’ But what about believers? Do they go through this day of wrath? And if no one can stand, do they also come under this judgment? No. The clear teaching of Scripture is that believers do not face God’s wrath because Jesus has already taken God’s wrath for us. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” We will be rescued, and I believe that rescue happens right here, at the sixth seal of Revelation 6. Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 describe the same series of events, and those events include the rapture or rescue of the church by Jesus.
Now before I sketch that, let me remind you of a principle of Bible Study that is important to our thinking: start from what is clear. Revelation 6 doesn’t mention a rapture per se, so if I’m going to see it there I have to start from a Scripture that clearly teaches the rapture, and then see if that Scripture fits into Revelation 6. The Scripture that most explicitly teaches what we call the rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4. We just heard Paul say to the Thessalonians, ‘you’ll escape the wrath to come.’ So later he tells them:
“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe Jesus died and rose again and so we believe God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.”
We only have time to notice a few things: First, the Lord himself, Jesus, comes down from heaven. Second, there is a loud command and a trumpet call. Though some have said that the rapture is a secret or hidden event, these are not descriptions of something hidden, but something very visible, just as the coming of the Lord in Revelation 6 is very visible. Finally notice that the living believers and the resurrected dead rise to meet the Lord in the air. After that they will be with the Lord forever. So this is a clear description of the event we call the Rapture, being caught up from the earth to the Lord.
But if we now turn to Matthew 24, we will find, I think, that parts of that chapter have to be Revelation 6 and the same parts have to be 1st Thessalonians 4. In math we learned that if A=B and B=C then A=C, and that is exactly what is happening here. 1st Thessalonians 4 equals Matthew 24, and Matthew 24 equals Revelation 6, thus the rapture is also taking place in Revelation 6.
So Matthew 24, beginning at verse 29 "Immediately after the distress of those days "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' 30"At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Matthew 24:29 and Revelation 6:12 describe the same cataclysmic events in the sun, moon and stars, accompanied by a great cosmic earthquake in which event the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Matthew 24:30 and Revelation 6:16 describe the same event, and it’s not hidden: it’s the sign of the Son of Man appearing in the sky, the Son of Man coming on the clouds, which is what makes the people want to flee and hide from His wrath. But Matthew 29:31 and 1st Thessalonians 4:16 also describe the same event: a shout and a trumpet and angels, and the gathering of his elect, to him, in the clouds.
The gathering of the elect in Matthew 24 is the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4. And yet as we have seen, Matthew 24 also predicts the events revealed to John in Revelation 6. Now there is more to Matthew 24 than just Revelation 6: In Matthew Jesus was asked “when will the temple be destroyed?” and “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answers all of those questions in Matthew 24. Nonetheless, an important part of his answer is, as we have seen, the rapture. And Revelation 6 teaches us that this key moment takes places after the sixth seal is opened.
So my position on the rapture would have to be called a ‘sixth seal’ rapture. It’s not the most common position, and I don’t insist that anyone has to agree with me to be saved or godly or wise or anything else. The common view is of a pre-tribulation rapture, in which Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 have nothing to do with 1st Thessalonians 4, because they happen after the rapture. But to me the fitting together of these three sections is too strong for that answer.
And a growing number of people do agree with me, especially a group that calls themselves ‘pre-wrath’, because in Revelation 6 those who flee from the catastrophes say “the great day of his wrath has come.” And since believers are promised that we will not face that wrath, the position has come to be known as ‘the pre-wrath rapture of the church.” Pre-wrathers see the rapture happening at the sixth seal. They also see some other things I’m not so sure of, which is why I don’t call myself a pre-wrather.
But we’ll address those things in later chapters of Revelation. The point here, for us, is that the beginning of wrath is the day of our rescue. The Bible does teach that God’s people are rescued from the wrath to come, because when that day of wrath breaks on the earth like a flood, we will rise, and meet the Lord in the air, and be with Him forever. We’ve already been rescued from sin in the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. We will certainly be rescued from this fallen world, worthy of judgment, on that Day, at the dawn of the great day of the Lord. That’s the teaching of Scripture.
In May 1940, seventy years ago this month, the British Expiditionary Force was in full retreat before the German Blitzkrieg in France. Cut off by the pincers of the German army, the British, with many of their French allies, retreated to the small bombed out port of Dunkirque. Miraculously, Hitler halted his tanks for three days while the Allies organized on the beaches. Then, while holding off renewed German attacks and continuous bombing and strafing, the British Navy, aided by a fleet of private boats, ferries and cargo ships, removed nearly 400,000 soldiers from a beach and a causeway. The miracle of Dunkirk saved the British Army, and probably the British Isles from Hitler. Four years later the British returned on D-day, flanked by their American allies, and completed the destruction of Hitler’s Third Reich.
In the same way we, who are not the front line troops in Christ’s battle against our enemies, Satan and Sin and Death, we will be evacuated, in a spiritual Dunkirque which will save the body of Christ from the ravages of the enemy. Jesus himself will come to our rescue. And not long after our victorious Lord will hit the beaches one last time to complete the destruction all his enemies. The beginning of that victory is the day of our rescue.