The Seals Unsealed – Revelation 6:1-17 01/03/21

The Seals Unsealed – Revelation 6:1-17 01/03/21


Well, it’s been a little bit of a break from The Revelation while we explored the significance of Advent, but it\s time to get back to work. Now, we’ve already looked at the significance of numbers in Revelation, but now numbers are going to begin to become more significant. What’s more, now it will be less clear if they are symbolic, a general range, or literal. Before we get lost in the details, let me point out that the point of this passage is simple, Jesus is in control.


With the sixth chapter of Revelation we enter into a new category of material,[1] and interpretation becomes a bit more challenging. The opening of the seven seals begins the actual fore-looking of the book. In Revelation 1:19 John received instruction to record what he saw, what was, and what will be. The things he has seen, well that’s the vision of Jesus glorified.[2] The things which are, those things were the seven churches.[3] Finally, the things that will take place after, these are the things that begin in our chapter today.[4]


So, we are now in Revelation 6:1-17, I encourage you to take a few minutes to carefully read it through. Read it for what it says, not what someone has told you it says. At this point, it’s time to begin to consider when, “after this” will be, is, or was. Unless you come to the text with a predetermined expectation of what it says, the text is frankly… unclear. I freely acknowledge that many fine pastors and scholars are certain that these events are all part of that period of time we call the Great Tribulation. They may be right, but I’m not as certain about it as they seem to be.


From a simple textual standpoint, the symbolic and the literal are merged together. Whether they represent sequential events, or events that have been taking place during the entire Church Age, or if these events are bringing about the End, or whether these are only precursors to the end, all of this needs to be considered.[5]


With only a little thought, it’s apparent that none of the events described in our text may be exclusively reserved for the time generally referred to as the Great Tribulation.[6] The passages involving the Great Tribulation may well apply to the first four seals of Revelation chapter 6. However, if you take even a cursory look at history, what you find is something interesting. Revelation 6:7-8 says that one quarter of the population on the planet will die. Let’s set aside the question of symbolic or hyperbolic language for a moment and assume this is intended to be taken more or less literally (which is my personal assumption).


These are events foretold to take place from John’s perspective. That much is clear. But our passage need not be limited to refer, specifically, to the seven year period we call that Great Tribulation. In Europe, the Black Plague resulted in an estimated 50 million deaths during the mid-1300’s. The population of Europe was reduced by about 30 million people from at start of about 80 million people, or about 38% of Europe’s population died.[7]


Then we have wars; let’s limit ourselves to the “big” ones. Almost 48 million people died in World War 1[8] (including non-combatants) in a world population estimated to be 1.5 billion,[9] or about 32% of the world’s population died. About 60 million people died in World War 2 out of a population of 2.3 billion,[10] or about 26% of the world’s population died. These numbers are horrific, but they should not be a surprise. Jesus said this was going to happen in Matthew 24:5-8.


When we get to verse 7 we find a change. Unlike the other riders released with the opening of the other three seals, the fourth horseman is given a name, “Death.” What’s more, this rider does not come alone, “Hades” follows after him.[11] But the point of it all is that even these, “Death and Hades” (θάνατος καὶ ὁ ᾅδης), fall under the ultimate governance of Christ.[12]


This passage would be a sobering passage for first century Christians.[13] The message is that war, famine, and death were coming. At the same time, even in the face of coming persecution, they (and we) are shown who (or Who). God seldom asks for our opinions, and regardless of how hard it is to imagine how these things could possible serve some good purpose, the fact is Jesus is allowing these things for His purposes.[14]


This is a foundational belief of Christianity. God brings good out of every situation His children face, even when we cannot see how that could possibly be true. And… then He asks us to trust Him. Our text today reveals that Christ continues to rule, even over apparently chaotic and disastrous events.[15] It reveals that no suffering occurs indiscriminately or by chance, even if we cannot understand what’s taking place.[16] It is Christ sitting on his throne who controls all the trials and persecutions the Church faces.[17]


There are a ton of details that I’ve skipped over. If you are interested, my study notes can be made available to you. The passage contains cross references to the Hebrew Scriptures, there are references to Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospels. There is a ton of symbolic language and a lot of ambiguity. With all of that, what’s clear? What’s the main point?


What we find is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection Christ been granted sovereign control. Period, end of story. That control extends even over the forces of evil, forces that must bow to His purposes as He executes judgment.[18] With warnings of the Old Testament in mind, we find that these events not only purge and punish, they also serve to warn people of their need to repent.[19] In the suffering of this time, God is still showing His love as He grants time to repent.


This message would have been telling for Christians facing imminent severe persecution. But is it limited to that? No, this passage challenges us to examine our own faith. How do we respond in the face of suffering and adversity? How do we respond when the flow of world history is not on the path we would choose?

[1] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee: Volume V, 1 Corinthians – Revelation, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.: 1983), 938. [2] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee: Volume V, 1 Corinthians – Revelation, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.: 1983), 938. [3] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee: Volume V, 1 Corinthians – Revelation, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.: 1983), 938. [4] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee: Volume V, 1 Corinthians – Revelation, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.: 1983), 938. [5] Alan Johnson, Revelation, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 12, Hebrews – Revelation, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglass, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript eds., Richard Polcyn and Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1981), 472. [6] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 371. [7] Accessed from The Black Death: Key Facts About The Bubonic Plague That Ravaged Europe - HistoryExtra on 12/14/20. [8] Accessed from Casualties of World War I | Facing History and Ourselves on 12/14/20. [9] Accessed from What was the world population in 1914? - Quora on 12/14/20. [10] Accessed from What was the world population before and after WWII? - Quora on 12/14/20. [11] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 382. [12] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 382. [13] Alan Johnson, Revelation, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 12, Hebrews – Revelation, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglass, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript eds., Richard Polcyn and Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1981), 473. [14] Alan Johnson, Revelation, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 12, Hebrews – Revelation, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglass, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript eds., Richard Polcyn and Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1981), 473. [15] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 370. [16] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 370. [17] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 370. [18] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 385. [19] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 373.

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