Read the Passage: Revelation 6
Reminder: The book of Revelation is structured around seven parallel sections, each describing the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. These sections can be delineated into chapters 1–3, 4–7, 8–11, 12–14, 15–16, 17–19, and 20–22.
Seals One and Two (6:1–4)
In Rev. 5 we saw an account of Jesus’ coronation as Lord of the universe (cf. Dan. 7:13–14; Matt. 28:18). Having been qualified and able to receive and to carry out God’s plan for all things, Jesus—the Lion and slain Lamb—began to open the seals on the scroll. In his vision, John is invited to “come and see” (Rev. 6:1) as this happens, which is a repeated refrain in this passage. The seals symbolize events or patterns in history, over which God sovereignly presides, and specifically communicate divine judgment. In this vision the first four seals are related to four horses. These horses were first described at Zech. 1:8–11; 6:1–8. In Scripture, horses communicate strength, power, and conquest (cf. Job 39:19–25). The first horse John sees is white, and its rider is Christ Himself. This is Jesus who said He “did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) and is described in more detail at Rev. 19:11–16.
The second seal that is broken by the Lamb reveals “another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Rev. 6:4). Bear in mind that this horse and rider do not represent a single event, but a pattern of events throughout all of history. It is clear that this horse brings conflict, persecution, and perhaps warfare. What is not clear are the recipients or targets of this conflict. While it likely speaks of general conflict upon the earth, contextually, the specific idea here may be religious persecution. This idea better fits with Jesus’ previously cited self-description at Matt. 10:34–36. Note that whenever Christ appears and conquers, there is persecution of His followers. Note, as well, that the fifth seal (cf. Rev. 6:9–11) describes believers who had been killed for their faith.
Seals Three and Four (6:5–8)
John sees that the third seal reveals a black horse and rider who is transporting scales. The message of this rider communicates economic scarcity or persecution, as a days’ wages are needed to provide a days’ rations. As with the second seal, this symbolizes general economic hardship in the fallen world, but more specifically it may communicate financial persecution of believers. This would be in accord with the contextual experience of many of John’s original readers. The breaking of the fourth seal revealed a pale or ashen (literally “greenish”) colored horse and rider, who was Death itself. This rider was given authority by the Lamb to kill a quarter of the earth’s population by sword, famine, and natural means. This harkens back to Ezek. 14:21, “For thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!”
Seals Five and Six (6:9–17)
The fifth seal is the first seal not tied to a symbol of a horseman. When this seal is opened by the Lamb, John sees the redeemed of all the ages gathered below an altar in heaven. It is unclear if these are only actual martyrs who had specifically been killed for their faith, or if it includes general believers who had experienced persecution during their lifetimes and had given up earthly things in order to follow Jesus (cf. Mark 8:34–38). The latter is likely the case. The cry of these saints, which may be synonymous with the prayers mentioned in Rev. 5:8, is clear. John records their petition, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9). God’s response is to give each person a white robe, which symbolizes holiness and purity, and direct them to rest until their number is completed. As Jesus had earlier taught, “And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13:10).
The sixth seal is arguably the most terrifying, as it describes cosmic disturbances similar to those depicted by Jesus in the so-called Olivet Discourse of Matt. 24:3–31. While there is a sense in which the events described in this passage are ongoing, the picture here is that of the final judgment of all mankind at the end of the age. The seals then are progressive: 1-4 reveal current judgment on the earth, 5 reveals the rest of the martyrs in heaven, and 6 reveals cosmic judgment at the end of the age. That judgment is described here under the sixth seal is not a coincidence, as six is the number of man, for man was created on the sixth day (cf. Rev. 13:18). In this passage six objects are described as being impacted by this judgement: earth, sun, moon, stars, sky, and land. Likewise, six classes of men are presented as being in terror of the Lamb: kings, great men, rich men, commanders, might men, and common men.
- Do you have a hard time believing that God is in control of history, providentially overseeing good and evil (cf. Prov. 15:3; Lam. 3:38)? Why or why not?
- Why do many people want to talk more about Jesus’ love than His wrath? Has following Jesus cost you in regard to family, friends, opportunities, etc.?
- Why does God allow the forces of evil to affect a quarter of the world’s population with war, famine, disease, and death? Why do we die at all?
- How can we square the martyrs’ cry with Jesus’ example at Luke 23:34? How can we answer John’s question here, “Who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17).
- While most followers of Jesus will not be martyred for their faith, in what others ways do Christians suffer on account of serving Jesus?