Reflecting on the Text
Welcome to the most difficult chapters in Revelation. In my opinion, the three cycles of judgments found in chapters 6, 8-9, and 16 are where many people totally mistake the meaning of this book.
In chapters one through five it is clear that John is a real person talking to real people. The first few chapters are obviously speaking about things happening in first century Asia Minor.
But for some reason when people get to chapter six they start to forget all about the first recipients of the letter of Revelation. John has been forced into all sorts of fanciful future-prediction grids simply because we want him to be talking directly to us instead of the people to whom he was originally writing.
Perhaps we need to briefly revisit the question of genre:
Remember the significance of saying that Revelation is a letter: It was written from a specific person to specific people, and it was designed to encourage them in their present circumstances. Certainly it is God’s word for us, but it was God’s word for them first, and the text probably won’t mean something they would have never imagined. For more on this see here.
Remember the significance of saying that Revelation is a prophecy: It’s purpose is to unfold God’s purposes and actions so as to call for a specific response of obedience in the present situation. Prophecy declares what God is up to in the world and how his people should respond. For more on this see here.
Remember the significance of saying that Revelation is an apocalypse: It is filled with all sorts of imaginative imagery and powerful pictures. Very little of this is meant to be taken “literal” in a wooden or static sense, and if we read things in a straightforward sense we will sometimes miss the point. For more on this see here.
Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s get back to the text.
In chapters 4 & 5 John has proclaimed Jesus King of the World.
Let that sink in for a minute.
According to John, because of his death and resurrection Jesus is now reigning over the universe.
John’s readers quite naturally had a hard time with this. In short, their world didn’t exactly seem like it was being governed by Jesus. And the way John deals with this reality can be found in Revelation 6. Kinda weird, huh?
As one might expect of a letter written in the first century, a little knowledge of first-century events will illuminate what we are reading.
- In A.D. 60 a series of earthquakes devastated the Roman region of Asia Minor. Almost everyone in the ancient world assumed that earthquakes were a sign of the gods’ displeasure.
- In A.D. 62 a Roman attempt to expand eastward was embarrassingly put to a halt by the Parthian general Vologeses.
- In A.D. 64 a fire broke out in Rome, which Nero then blamed on the Christians. Persecution broke out throughout the capital city.
- In A.D. 66-70 Jerusalem, the centre of Judaism (out of which Christianity was born), underwent a brutal massacre at the hands of the Romans. The Temple was destroyed.
- During the middle years of this war Nero committed suicide and four would-be emperors battled one another for the throne, shaking the stability of the Empire (A.D. 68-69).
- To top it all off, in A.D. 79 the volcano Vesuvius erupted, obliterating numerous luxury resorts and creating a widespread fear that the physical order was on the brink of collapse.
It is over this world of turmoil and uncertainty that John proclaims Jesus king. You can imagine why such an idea was hard to swallow.
The only way to understand these next few chapters is to realize that these are the issues John is dealing with, the questions he is answering. His task in these middle portions is twofold:
- To show that the disastrous things that have happened in the world are not outside the scope of God’s plan of redemption.
- To warn his readers that God will continue bringing judgment on those who refuse to comply with his agenda.
So now we come to the famous ‘four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ who have received much press as of late. [I’m not sure what was going on in 2006, when I first wrote this paragraph!] If we drop our preconceived ideas about what these images must represent, we will see clearly that they are best understood in their first-century context as representative of the various forms evil took in that world.
- The first horseman, who rides a white horse and carries a bow, is bent on conquering the world. Interestingly, in the first century the Parthians were famous for riding white horses, they were the only army of mounted archers in the whole world, and they lived in the only territory that Rome was never able to conquer.
- The second horse is red and goes out to take peace away from the world. You’ve probably heard the phrase Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”), which was the slogan of the Roman Empire, representing Rome’s supposed ability to bring security to a dangerous world.
- The third horse was black and its rider caused economic instability throughout the empire. Necessary products, such as wheat, underwent enormous inflation. Interestingly, the products that only the rich could afford (oil & wine) didn’t change.
- The fourth horse, whose rider was death itself, brought widespread death and destruction all over the world.
John’s readers would have immediately recognized these horses as symbols representing all of the ungodly and evil things happening right before their eyes.
And John’s main point is that these horses are not without leashes. Whatever power they possess is given to them by the Lamb who has become King (6.2,4,8).
Living what we learn
[This section is the part I wasn’t happy with, but I don’t know how to fix it so I’ll just leave it be. You can rip it apart if you want, and I may agree with you.]
So are we to say, then, that God causes evil. Or that he is an angry God bent on vengeful punishment of anyone who ticks him off. By no means!
John is saying the same thing here that Paul says elsewhere.
Read Romans 1.18-32.
According to Paul, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to acknowledge and obey God, but every single one of us chooses otherwise. God allows us to make this decision, and his wrath is revealed as the sin takes its destructive course in our lives.
Bruce Metzger points out that John’s message has the same effect:
“The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are brilliant little vignettes of God’s judgments working our in history. This is what happens in the sphere of politics whenever men and women oppose the will of God; and this in the military sphere; and this in the sphere of economics.”
God allows bad things to happen, and he uses them for his own purposes.
How, then, is he loving?
Let me leave you with two thoughts:
First, he gives us free choice.
Love is always risky. Love always allows the other person to reject us if they so desire. God could have forced us to worship him, but he chose love instead.
Second, he experienced the worst himself.
If there was ever anyone who experienced the full wrath of God, it was Jesus. And all we have to do to avoid whatever ultimate wrath is on the way, whenever it might come, is to stick close to Him. But for that message we’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
How does all this make a difference in the real world? Revelation 6 reveals to us that nothing can happen to us (or anyone else, for that matter) that God is not big enough to redeem.