This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 5.
As we begin Chapter 6, Jesus is still using the form of a bloody Lamb as He begins to break those seven wax seals on Yahweh’s scroll of Divine secrets.
Now Revelation is specifically addressed to Jewish Christians who are having no end of troubles in the Roman Empire. Non-Christian Jews hate them. The Romans hate them. In our introduction to this series, we learned about how Emperor Nero officially blamed the Christians for starting a fire that did major damage to the empire’s capital city of Rome (see Applying Revelation: Some Background). Ever since then, Christians have become national scapegoats and their lives are much harder. Nero’s successor Domitian is a cruel tyrant who is demanding that everyone conform to his personal religious views, which are quite demonic. This is a very lousy time to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Give it a few hundred years, and Christianity will become the empire’s official religion, but right now Christians are getting murdered right and left.
Think about the way you react when your own life starts falling apart. No matter how dedicated to God we are in the good times, we’re swift to start doubting His care of us when things start going badly. These Jewish Christians aren’t feeling very supported by Yahweh as they’re seeing their friends and neighbors get their heads lopped off. Adding to the stress is the fact that these Jewish Christians are still in the midst of a great theological transition in their personal lives. Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh demanded strict monotheism. Now He is demanding polytheism—the worship of multiple Gods—by saying anyone who fails to submit to Jesus as Yahweh’s Peer and equal is going to be rejected in eternity. Some of these Jews are really trying to stay on board with the Jesus thing, but it isn’t easy. Jesus ditched them sixty years ago with promises to come back soon. Since then, Yahweh’s Temple has been destroyed, Jerusalem has been sacked, and still there’s no sign of Jesus. It’s important for us to understand the kinds of questions and concerns these Jews are having if we’re going to appreciate the kind of imagery Jesus is using.
Now revenge was a major theme in the life of an ancient Jew. Their culture had no use for a “forgive and forget” mentality. Instead, keeping grudges alive for centuries was viewed as the righteous way to live. As we read through the Old Testament, we find generation after generation of Jews wholeheartedly hating some ethnic group just because they’ve heard stories of how centuries ago, their ancestors were treated badly by members of that ethnicity. The bigotry of the Jews was extreme, and once you start holding eternal grudges over every negative incident in your nation’s history, you end up with a very long list of enemies.
By the time we get to the New Testament, the Jews hate everyone who isn’t Jewish. They are so proud of their heritage of hate that they have laws about not publicly associating with any non-Jew. Now and then a non-Jew who sincerely converted to Judaism and did his share of sucking up to the Jews would be seen in a positive light. We find an example of this in the Gospels, where Jews ask Jesus to help a Roman centurion who they considered to be a friend because he built a synagogue for them. But in general, the attitude was that all non-Jews were inferior yucks and the Jews told themselves that it was pleasing to Yahweh when they went around snubbing all other ethnicities. Peter reveals how prevalent this nasty attitude towards non-Jews was in the book of Acts when he receives a series of visions from God which lead him to this shocking conclusion:
“You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner. But God has shown me that I must not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts. 10:28)
It’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with a non-Jew. The fact that such a law exists tells us volumes about the ideals of the Jewish culture. Now here in Revelation we’ve got Christian Jews being constantly assaulted by a bunch of nasty foreigners. How do you think they’re going to react? Their hatred for Rome is going to soar to new heights and they’re going to be flooding Heaven with cries for Yahweh to avenge them. This was the Jewish way. Read through the book of Psalms and you’ll find guys like David spewing out all kinds of hateful prayers towards those who are currently harassing him. When you’re taught from the crib that hating others is a wonderful thing, you don’t question it. All throughout the Old Testament, we find the Jews flipping out whenever some non-Jewish group does something they don’t like. We see them crying out to Yahweh to avenge them, and eventually we see Yahweh respond. Read through the Old Testament books, and you’ll find Jewish prophets relishing giving messages that declared the coming downfall of the nations around them. The Jews hated everyone who wasn’t a Jew. Naturally they considered it totally justifiable whenever they were cruel to others, but they had zero tolerance for anyone bothering them. This kind of blatant hypocrisy is a very common human trait. But it’s important that we understand the cultural mindset of the Jews if we’re going to understand who is being judged by God in this book.
Revelation is about Yahweh and Jesus responding to Their people’s distress over being assaulted by the Romans. The Romans are currently at the top of the Jews’ hate list and at this point, Jewish Christians are fixated on one question: “When is Rome going to get hers?” We find this same pattern over and over again in the Old Testament. The Jews identify an enemy, they work up a hearty hatred for that enemy, then they plead and cry for revenge until Yahweh finally consoles them by sharing His plans to cripple whoever it is that they currently hate. When Yahweh shares the details of His plans, He is very exaggeratory and metaphorical. He uses certain metaphors over and over again when He knows that those metaphors are remaining relevant to the Jews. As cultural traditions change, He also comes up with new metaphors that work for the new historical context.
Now as is often the case with humans who are feeling picked on, these Christian Jews that Jesus is working with consider themselves to be the ultimate victims. Being beheaded by icky foreigners is considered an outrageous crime. All the Jews see is the fact that they are being cruelly assaulted—they don’t care about anything else. But God does care about other things, such as the Jews’ fickle loyalty to Him, and this is why we see Jesus starting this letter by reaming out six groups of Jews who aren’t exactly wowing Him with their devotion. The Jews in Philadelphia were the only ones to receive an all positive report from Jesus—the others received sharp criticism. This pattern of calling His own people into check before starting with the future assurances is one that we find all throughout the Old Testament. Even today, if you should come whining to God about how someone picked on you, He’s not just going to talk about His sympathy for your situation. He’s also going to talk about how you contributed to the problem.
Now Jesus doesn’t smile on bigotry, and He knows how good the Jews are at whitewashing themselves in their own eyes and acting like everyone else is the problem. So Jesus’ first order of business in this book was to address His personal beefs with these Jewish Christians. It’s only after He makes it clear that they aren’t as innocent in His eyes as they want to pretend, that He goes on to address the topic that they’re really interested in: when is God going to do something about Rome?
Now there are three cycles of seven judgments in this book. Each cycle centers around a different symbol. First we’ll hear about seven seals, then seven trumpets, then seven bowls. All three of these items were far more commonplace in public society than they are today. When’s the last time you received a letter with a wax seal on it? When’s the last time you went outside and heard some government official sounding a trumpet? How many businesses do you enter where the owner is fussing around with bowls? In John’s day, these items were extremely common, so when we try to read mystery into these things, we’re being foolish.
Now Yahweh is still the ultimate God in the minds of Jews who grew up under the Old Covenant. In Chapter 5, Yahweh was the One who produced the scroll. That is how an Old Covenant Jew expects things to happen: Yahweh is the Leader, the Mastermind. Now in real life, we have three Creators who work in unity with Each Other and Yahweh does not consider Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be inferior to Himself in any way. We have to remember that Jesus is accommodating a lot of wrong assumptions in this book.
With the introduction of the New Covenant, this new God named Jesus has been introduced as a critical Figure. Suddenly it’s not just Yahweh who does things anymore, but Yahweh and Jesus working together. So although Yahweh produced the scroll, He is presented as unwilling to open it Himself. Only Jesus is allowed to open it, which exalts Jesus as playing a critical role in making Yahweh’s will happen.
Now as Lamb Jesus starts breaking open those seven wax seals, dramatic things begin to happen. Remember that John sees this as being Yahweh’s scroll, and he expects to have Yahweh’s secret plans of how He is going to avenge His downtrodden people finally revealed. This is the part that revenge obsessed John has been eagerly waiting for.
As I watched, the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll. Then I heard one of the four living beings say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked up and saw a white horse standing there. Its rider carried a bow, and a crown was placed on his head. He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory. (Rev. 6:1-2)
The four freaky looking beasts who are covered with eyes have taken a break from singing songs with the choir of twenty-four elders. Now they’re stepping in to assist with directing the activity of other supernatural beings who start showing up on horses. Horses were the ancient equivalent to the modern day car, so again, there’s nothing mystical about this imagery to John.
Now supernatural beings riding away on colored horses to do the work of Yahweh is nothing new. The prophet Zechariah recorded many strange visions in his book, and one of them was of four riders and their colored horses.
Then I looked up again and saw four chariots coming from between two bronze mountains. The first chariot was pulled by red horses, the second by black horses, the third by white horses, and the fourth by powerful dappled-gray horses. “And what are these, my lord?” I asked the angel who was talking with me.
The angel replied, “These are the four spirits of Heaven who stand before Yahweh, the God of all the earth. They are going out to do His work.” (Zech. 6:1-5)
Here in Revelation, our first white horse rider charges off and wins all kinds of military victories on earth. What happens when you win military victories? You end up with more territory. You conquer other nations and expand your empire. This is the first stage of Yahweh’s secret plans for Rome: to help the empire expand even more. This is not at all what Jews want to hear, yet Jesus and Yahweh want these Jews to stop interpreting Rome’s success as signs of Divine weakness and realize that Rome is only succeeding because Yahweh and Jesus are causing her to.
Throughout the Old Testament, we find Yahweh hammering the same theme over and over again: “I am in charge. I’m the One causing nations to rise and fall.” Yes, the Romans are making the Jews’ life hellish—but this is very intentional on Yahweh’s part. Just as He told the Jews that He was the One bringing the empires of Babylon and Assyria against them, He now takes full credit for the great success that Rome has enjoyed. Yahweh is a Sovereign King. Nothing happens on earth that He doesn’t want to have happen. Well, this isn’t what John wants to hear.
When the Lamb broke the second seal, I heard the second living being say, “Come!” Then another horse appeared, a red one. Its rider was given a mighty sword and the authority to take peace from the earth. And there was war and slaughter everywhere. (Rev. 6:3-4)
When this second rider gallops off, suddenly Rome’s great successes start turning into major defeats. Realize that the people living in these times did not view the world like you do today. They didn’t have satellite photos of that blue and green marble floating out in space. To them “the earth” simply meant “all the nations I’ve ever heard of.” So when John witnesses peace being taken from “the earth” in this vision, he’s only seeing what you would recognize as a very teensy portion of the entire globe. When the Roman Empire has gobbled up most of the nations you’ve ever heard of, Rome truly feels like a world power. So what John is seeing here is Rome getting majorly spanked on the battlefield. Wars are springing up everywhere. Her borders are probably getting heavily assaulted, and those fights are probably setting off internal battles as various nations revolt against her authority. There’s mass carnage. None of this is end time material—violent battles and high numbers of casualties were very familiar concepts in these times. When empires fell, it was ugly, and by now ancient Israel has seen many empires rise and fall.
When the Lamb broke the third seal, I heard the third living being say, “Come!” I looked up and saw a black horse, and its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice from among the four living beings say, “A loaf of wheat bread or three loaves of barley will cost a day’s pay, but do not harm the olive oil and the wine.” (Rev. 6:5-6)
What happens when an empire is getting ravaged? Her economy tanks. But how much will it tank? Freaky beast in Heaven passes on specific instructions from God for how things are to unfold. The price for essentials like bread are going to skyrocket, but other products will remain unaffected for now. This is another reminder that Yahweh is controlling every aspect of this situation. Why shouldn’t all the prices skyrocket until the people starve to death? Why not have the whole empire collapse overnight? Because Yahweh has a plan, and He wants to drag things out.
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the fourth living being say, “Come!” I looked up and saw a horse whose color was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was Hades (the Grave). These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals. (Rev. 6:7-8)
Hades was the Greek version of a mythical underworld where dead souls floated about without their bodies. In the Old Testament, before the Jews became influenced by the Greeks, we only find references to Sheol—which was the Jewish version of the same concept. Once Greek influence reached the Jews, they stopped talking about Sheol and started talking about Hades instead. Even though neither of these places really exist, we find Jesus referring to Hades in the New Testament as He works within the Jews’ flawed perspective of eternity.
So what is the point of this fourth rider? Well, when Rider 2 set out, great war broke out, and of course that resulted in many deaths. But now that Rome’s economy is tanking, people will start dying for new reasons. As society falls into disrepair, famine and disease quickly spring up while swords keep on swinging. Then there is the wild animal problem.
Wild animals leaping upon people in civilized areas is a crisis that we find referred to all throughout the Bible. If you live in some bustling metropolis today, it’s hard to imagine what a problem this was for people in ancient times. But in ancient times, animals and people were not nearly as separated as they are today. Lions, jackals, and vultures were common sights, and Yahweh often flaunted His control over the natural realm by bringing wild animals in to attack people who were rebelling against Him. In 2 Kings 17:25, we find Yahweh getting the attention of a bunch of non-Jewish foreigners by assaulting them with lions.
When the people first lived there, they did not revere Yahweh. So Yahweh sent lions among them, which killed some of them.
Lions were such a common and fearful threat that we find them popping up a lot in Jewish art and poetry. In Psalm 22:13, David is describing his human enemies when he says:
They open their mouths against me— lions, mauling and roaring.
In Psalm 58:6, we find David hatefully calling on Yahweh to massacre those who he considers wicked as he writes:
God, knock the teeth out of their mouths; Yahweh, tear out the young lions’ fangs! They will vanish like water that flows by; they will aim their useless arrows. Like a slug that moves along in slime, like a woman’s miscarried child, they will not see the sun. (Ps. 58:6-8)
Lions were one of the most common wild animal foes, but bears were also a local threat. When some mouthy youths were publicly jeering at His prophet Elisha, Yahweh brought two bears out of the woods to maul the little tikes.
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking up the path, some small boys came out of the city and harassed him, chanting, “Go up, baldy! Go up, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them, and cursed them in the Name of Yahweh. Then two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the children. (2 Kings 2:23-24)
Throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, we often find Yahweh dishing out the four fold threat of war, famine, disease, and wild animals.
“For this is what the Lord Yahweh says: How much worse will it be when I send My four devastating judgments against Jerusalem—sword, famine, wild animals, and plague—in order to wipe out both man and animal from it!” (Eze. 14:21)
Here in Revelation, these fearsome four are credited for wiping out a quarter of the earth. Why only a quarter? Again, Yahweh is flaunting His control over the situation. This isn’t just random chaos that’s happening, it’s His very purposeful, very controlled plan. The next time you hear someone try to argue that God has nothing to do with evil, remember these riders in Revelation. Not every person who was mauled by animals or struck down by disease was some diehard rebel. Whenever God starts with the mass slaughter, both the righteous and the wicked are affected.
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them. (Rev. 6:9-11)
Where did this altar come from? Well, in the mind of an ancient Jew, Yahweh’s Presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place—that sacred inner room of the Temple. Just outside of that room was the Holy Place, which contained several pieces of sacred God-honoring equipment. One of those items was a golden altar on which incense was continually burned.
A replica of that altar is here in Heaven because Jesus is intentionally including sacred Temple furnishings in this heavenly throne room for John’s benefit. Now it sounds strange to us that there are a bunch of souls stuffed under this altar—how big is this thing? But physical space issues aside, notice what kind of attitude these souls are displaying.
They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?”
Yep, this is the ancient Jewish mentality: “Where’s our revenge?!” Don’t miss what an absurd picture it is that souls should be residing this close to God’s Presence in Heaven and yet still be beefing about their trials on earth. Seriously? How lame would Heaven have to be to have such a lack of effect on us? Nothing about this vision should be taken literally—it’s all symbolism. Jesus is reflecting here the mindset that Jewish John probably believes he’ll have in Heaven if he should get chopped down by Roman soldiers. Today many foolish people believe that they’ll carry their earthly beefs with them to Heaven and sit around stewing until God does what they want. That’s certainly what these souls here in Revelation are doing: they’re sulking under the incense altar and grumbling against Yahweh for being so slow to spank those who they hate on earth. Wow. Talk about carnal.
The only way you get stuck in this kind of epic pity party is by deciding that you’re morally superior to everyone else. Okay, so some Roman soldiers are lopping off people’s heads. Do the Jews really think they’re any better in Yahweh’s eyes? Jesus said that to harbor hateful thoughts towards other people in our hearts was equivalent to murder in Yahweh’s book, and when He said that, He was speaking to a predominantly Jewish audience. The Jews are flaming hypocrites—we all are. We all want our Gods to take our side and only our side whenever we feel assaulted. We want oceans of mercy for ourselves while we ruthlessly withhold mercy from others. Does this nasty attitude please our Creators? Not hardly.
The critical point that John and his bitter peers are failing to grasp is that Yahweh loves the Romans as much as He loves the Jews. Should any Roman soldier align with the terms of Yahweh’s New Covenant, that soldier will receive total forgiveness for all of his murderous acts. It’s a real statement of how spiritually blind these Jews have become that they can stand in the Presence of the Lamb who atoned for their own outrageous sins and act like the sins of their enemies are unforgivable. The way Jesus is depicting Jewish martyrs in this vision is very uncomplimentary. He’s really showcasing their spiritual blindness and hardness of heart, but these things are probably going right over John’s head. It’s rare to find a Jew in the Bible exemplifying a truly God honoring attitude towards his enemies. The martyred Stephen was one shining exception when he prayed for God to have forgiveness on those who were stoning him. But then again, Stephen was stoned by his fellow Jews. Would he have prayed the same prayer if he’d been dying at the hand of Gentiles?
These griping souls in Heaven are giving us a great example of what not to do. They’re hateful, merciless, and more than a little irreverent to be demanding that God stick it to their enemies. Don’t miss the significance of how God responds to these little brats.
Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them. (Rev. 6:11)
Over and over throughout the Bible, we see Yahweh responding with both grace and boundaries towards those who gripe against Him. The white robe is considered a fine piece of clothing in these times, plus the white signifies how these souls have been graciously accepted by Yahweh. But notice how they are then told to zip it because Yahweh isn’t going to be doing anything against their enemies until He’s done using their enemies to kill still more Christians. This is hardly the kind of response these souls were hoping for, yet it’s a wonderfully informative response that reminds all of us that our Gods will not be led by us. This is Their world, not ours, and They’ll run it any way that They please. Should They decide to hand us over to our enemies, that’s what will happen. It is obnoxious for us to try and boss the Almighty Kings about. Certainly our Gods care about our suffering in this world and They invite us to share our frustrations with Them. But ordering Them about? No, that’s going too far. They understand that we often don’t like what They’re doing, but we need to own up to what selfish little beasts we are. If the ancient Jews had their way, Yahweh would have instantly mowed down all of the Gentiles in the Roman Empire. The Jews considered themselves to be the superior ethnicity. Yahweh did not. Our Gods love all people, and They want to see every soul thrive under Their care.
It isn’t Yahweh’s will to put His people in some bubble of protection here in the Roman Empire. Instead, it’s His will to keep having them brutally slaughtered by those who despise Him. So the next time some Christian leader tries to tell you that God doesn’t get involved with evil, you need to realize how blind that man (or woman) is. The sovereignty of our Creators is a critical theme that They hammer from Genesis through Revelation. Don’t miss it. With the real end times rapidly rushing towards us, it is vital that you open up your eyes and see just how gruesome and violent God’s methods can be. It is Yahweh and Jesus who are dispatching these riders to inflict all kinds of miseries on the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. This isn’t some whoops. This is a picture of God wanting humans to suffer and then causing them to do so in a very controlled and calculated way.