Our world faces inevitable death. Science makes its best prediction as to when the sun will burn out. The Bible spoke of the end of the world before anyone knew what science was. What we know for certain is that sin will continue to take its devastating toll on everything God created and called good.
In our lifetimes, one of two things will happen. They fall under the category of inevitability:
We will see Jesus face-to-face when our lives here on earth come to an end.
Or we will see Jesus face-to-face when he brings history to an end.
Both outcomes, for those called by God to be devoted followers of Jesus Christ, are not to be feared.
Revelation 6 gives us a glimpse of how the world will end. The first eight
verses introduce us to the ubiquitous "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." While John doesn't call them that, at some point, someone did and the name stuck. They are the most widely recognized symbols of the book of Revelation. And, it must be added, the most likely to be misunderstood and/or misinterpreted.
Before we jump on the first horse and its meaning, there's something we need to remember. Regardless of how or when or where our lives end, The Revelation to John calls us to remain steadfast in our walk with Jesus Christ. Bad things will happen to discourage us and good things will happen to distract us. But the point is, in all things, for our lives to reflect the hope of Christ that is in us. Are you with me on that? Here's something you might want to write down:
NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, HOLD FAST TO JESUS.
More than anything else, this book was written to keep us safely in Christ.
There was a time, in the Old Testament, when Jeremiah spoke of God's judgment to come upon Israel. It was a bit of a foreshadowing to Revelation 6:
“Thus says the Lord: We have heard a cry of panic, of terror, and no peace. Ask now, and see, can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor? Why has every face turned pale? Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be saved out of it."
- Jeremiah 30:5-7
The people of Israel were facing the inevitability of God's wrath. Yet there remained a faithful remnant who would be saved.
Lest we forget, Isaiah also spoke extensively about the wrath of God. Wicked people would be judged.
Now for the final Biblical depiction of judgment and the wrath of God. The imagery - remember, not to be taken literally, as if to draw a picture of something in its literalness, but rather something to give us a sense of what is coming - the imagery is vivid and shocking and potent and overwhelming and frightening. Those descriptives should be more than sufficient. John is given a glimpse into what will transpire as the Lord Jesus Christ restores the universe.
First, let's look at 6:1-2:
Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
The white horse brings to mind some sense of good conquering evil. If it could speak, it would cry, "Peace! Peace!" It gives the illusion that peace has been granted through the rule of a unifying empire. It's not difficult to imagine the Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace" that was perpetuated as a way to get people to submit to their authority. This horse represents a false hope and a false peace.
The thing to remember with the first horse is that there is no peace for the wicked.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came 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.
This second rider is war. But war of a specific kind.
In Matthew 24:6-7, Jesus warns us:
And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
So we should not be surprised by the second rider.
This strife is most likely internal rather than something carried out by an invading army. The sword referred to a Roman short sword, which would be well-suited to up-close-and-personal fighting. People turned on each other. In fact, a few decades before John was given this vision, in short succession, Rome had been ruled by four different emperors. And over one-hundred years earlier, during the reign of Herod the Great, revolutions and rebellions caused more than 100,000 deaths. John's audience was all too familiar with the destruction of civil disorder. Here, such anarchy and bloodshed are signs of the end. But even more than that, they are signs of the wickedness of people's hearts.
Here's an important thing to remember with the red horse. His actions represent God's permissive will. People are allowed to turn their destructive instincts on each other. We cannot emphasize enough the vileness of human nature when left unchecked. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-12:
And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Anarchy and lawlessness and totalitarianism and evil lurk within each person's heart, ready to pounce unless restrained by the gospel of grace and mercy. With the second rider, God allows where the human heart naturally wants to go.
Finally, in verses 3-4, notice two other big things:
These rebellions happen all over the earth, not just in any one country or geographical location.
And violent slaughter will happen all over the earth.
Now on to the third seal, verses 5-6:
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”
Who does it sound like the third rider represents? Right…famine. The scales were for measuring out limited supplies and calculating exorbitant prices. As Jesus warned in Matthew 24:7, "For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places." Again, remember, God allows this to happen as judgment on human wickedness. And our role, even as we're going through it, is to remain faithful to Jesus Christ and his claim upon our lives.
We can only imagine what a powerful image this was for people two-thousand years ago. You don't have to be an archeologist or anthropologist to understand how precarious their food supply was. Lacking the technology and innovation we have today, they were one drought or war or natural disaster from famine. While we are feeling the pinch of higher food prices across the board, we should be slow to complain, considering how well fed and supplied we are.
Based on the numbers in verses five and six, bread for one day would have cost the equivalent of a full days wages. Less nutritional barley would only last three days for the same cost. Barley was what you would normally feed your animals. This was brutal.
There was one saving grace. "Do not harm the oil and wine," meant two things:
Olive trees and grape vines can survive a short-term drought because their roots run deep.
These were staples essential in preparation of varieties of food. You never want to run out of such necessities.
So there was a limitation imposed on the famine.
Finally, the fourth seal is opened at verses 7-8:
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
This is the one we got a glimpse of two years ago. The pale horse with the pale rider represents plague. It's right there in his description. The Greek word translated as "pale" is chloros. Can you hear it? It means sort of a yellowish, pale-ish green, like death warmed over.
Picture it in your mind. The rider of the pale horse has the appearance of a
rotting corpse. As we've already seen, this one continues the death by sword and famine, with the now addition of pestilence and wild beasts.
The names are sobering. Death…thanatos…familiar name in Greek mythology…and Hades…the unseen world. Thanatos comes for a fourth of the world's population, while Hades is his perfect partner, like death's hearse, bringing his victims to their eternal punishment. Hades is the gravedigger who comes, with shovel in hand, to collect the bodies that death destroys. It is a bleak and odious scene.
Death comes by way of war and famine and now, as verse eight adds, pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
Pestilence we're all too familiar with. While the pandemic that struck two years ago wasn't as deadly as the worst-case scenarios predicted, no community went unaffected. People in our church family were stricken, while some were hospitalized and a few had loved ones die. Horrible in scope, it gave a glimpse into what a worldwide loss of 25% of the population would do. We saw disruption, panic, and irrationality at elevated levels. Multiply that eighty-fold or more to get a sense of what happens in verse eight.
Last year, there were around 100,000 opioid overdose deaths. I think that counts as a precursor to the pestilence to come.
And finally, there's the wild beasts of the earth. These are the small ones. The quiet killers. The subtle executioners.
The populations of Europe were once decimated by plague-carrying, flea-infested rats. Mosquitoes kill over one million people every year. This is the death and destruction God allows, driven by sin. The wickedness of a sin-sick world leads us down some dark paths.
And that's where we're going to stop today.
Next week, we'll open the fifth and sixth seals, where the news get worse
for those who have chosen to reject the salvation offered in Christ and
But what about us? When it feels like the world is crumbling all around us, where is our hope? When trial and tribulation hits, where will we be? What will anchor us to all that is good and right and decent in this world?
In Jesus Christ, we have been delivered from our sins and iniquities. Even as frightening things happen all around us, we know that the darkness is a fleeting thing. Eternity with Christ is our hope and our promise.
HEAVENLY FATHER, THANK YOU FOR THE GIFT OF CHRIST AND HIS PROVISION. TERRIFYING THINGS AWAIT THE WORLD. AND YET PEOPLE REJECT YOUR OFFER OF SALVATION. BUT THANK YOU, LORD, THAT YOU HAVE SAVED US THROUGH JESUS CHRIST. WHATEVER HAPPENS IN THIS BROKEN WORLD, THANK YOU THAT WE WILL BE NUMBERED AMONG THE BLESSED, NOT THE CURSED. JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS, AND HE HAS PREPARED A PLACE IN
HEAVEN FOR US. AMEN.