Hard Times in Jesus' Hands
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 6:1–6:8
Throughout church history, godly men and women have written books to help Christians endure hard times. One of my favorites is by Jerry Bridges: Trusting God Even When Life Hurts. After recounting personal losses, he asks the question we all ask when facing the painful fallenness of this world: “Where is God in all of this?”[i] He says, “[We see the news] instances of grief, heartache, and pain on a massive scale. There is war, terrorism, earthquakes, famine, racial injustice, murder, and exploitation occurring daily in various parts of the world. The threat of a nuclear holocaust hanging over our heads…In such days when massive crises appear…almost daily, even the Christian is tempted to ask, “Where is God?”
Of course, he doesn’t stop there. Bridges goes on to explain why we can trust God in the hard times. One reason he gives is that God is perfect in love. Another is that God is infinite in wisdom. But a large portion of his book is spent on a third reason: “God is completely sovereign.”[ii] Page after page, Bridges points suffering people to God’s sovereignty over circumstances and over people and over nations; and he shows how God’s sovereign control enables us to trust him through hard times.
Long before Jerry Bridges, God wrote a book for Christians facing hard times. Revelation comes to a church facing great tribulation—a tribulation that includes persecution, Satanic revolt, political oppression, economic hardship. What will keep the church trusting God through these hard times? In Revelation, a big answer to that question is the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ. Nearly every page of this prophecy develops the sovereign rule of Jesus. Chapter 6 is no exception. Hard times are in Jesus’ hands. We’ll see this and also much more in verses 1-8. Let’s read them together.
1 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!” 2 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. 3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 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. 5 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. 6 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!” 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 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.
We start the seven seals this morning. The seven seals paint a sweeping picture that goes something like this: amid a world facing God’s judgments (that’s the four horses), Christians lay down their lives to spread the gospel (that’s the martyrs) until Jesus returns (that’s the last). Today, I’ll limit our focus to the first four seals that describe some of God’s judgments. But in doing so, I’d like to answer four questions.
Who opens the seven seals?
The first question is this: who opens the seven seals? In 5:1, we learned of a scroll in God’s right hand. The scroll contains God’s plan to bring history to its climax in the new heavens and new earth. But we also encountered a serious dilemma. The scroll is sealed with seven seals. Without someone breaking the seals, God’s purpose wouldn’t be complete. Worst of all, no one is worthy to open the scroll, no one is worthy to make God’s promises come true…except one. The Lamb, Jesus Christ—he is worthy.
“Worthy are you,” heaven says, “to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God…” As the Lamb, Jesus has conquered through the cross; and now, as the risen and exalted King with all authority, he takes the scroll and breaks the seals one by one. So, our answer to the first question is a simple one, one that children repeat often in Sunday school—Jesus.
But within John’s vision, it’s Jesus, the Lamb who is sovereign. Remember that the Lamb took the scroll from the right hand of God. Jesus holds history in his hands. Notice too that the Lamb opens each seal. He determines what happens in history and when. Soon we’ll discover awful calamities associated with each seal. Yet by opening them, Jesus reveals that even awful calamities do not transpire without his authorization. Also notice the passive verbs. Verse 2, “it was given to him;” verse 4, “its rider was permitted to take peace;” verse 8, “[Death and Hades] were given authority.”
Throughout Revelation you’ll find this kind of language emphasizing that evil is always under the Lamb’s control. Nothing happens without his sovereign say-so. The Lamb is always on his throne. All history, even with its hard times and evil empires and Satanic revolts—all of it rests in Jesus’ hands. The Lamb is sovereign. That’s who opens the seven seals to complete God’s purpose in salvation and judgment.
What do these horsemen represent?
Second question: what do these horsemen represent? Thankfully, Revelation isn’t the first place we find horsemen in a vision like John’s. They also appear in Zechariah 1 and 6. In the ancient world, horsemen stood for military domination. They were the superior war machine. But when Zechariah gets his vision, the Lord reveals a few horsemen of his own. In Zechariah 1:8, the prophet sees a man riding a red horse. He stands with others riding red, sorrel, and white horses. The Lord has commissioned these horsemen as scouts. They ride to evaluate the state of the nations, and they find the nations at rest. It isn’t a good rest, though. The nations are at rest in their rebellion.
The same horses then appear in Zechariah 6:1-8. Again we’re told of red, black, white, and dappled horses. Only this time the horses are pulling chariots. The Lord no longer commissions them to scout; he commissions them to war. If reading the NASB, 6:5 calls them “the four spirits of heaven.” These are God’s agents. He sends these spirits/horsemen to execute judgments on a world at ease in its rebellion.
That’s what they are in Revelation as well—agents of God’s judgment. Like Zechariah’s vision, the horses in John’s vision also go out for judgment against a world at ease in its rebellion. The first horse we see is white. In Revelation, white can signify purity. But it can also signify victory—such as when God clothes the martyrs in white, or when Jesus appears on a white horse in Revelation 19. This horse rides to conquer; and that has led some to believe the first horse represents Jesus. But I don’t think so. Again, if Zechariah is the backdrop, these horses function as one group commissioned by Jesus.
Also, the bow he carries is like the armies described in Jeremiah 50:42. In a prophecy against Babylon, the Lord intends to stir up a people from the farthest parts of the earth. “They lay hold of bow and spear…[they are] cruel and have no mercy. They ride on horses…The king of Babylon heard the report of them and his hands fell helpless, anguish seized him.” In Revelation, John compares the rebellious world to Babylon. The point is that regardless of how strong and stable a society may view itself, God is able to raise up another to conquer you. In fact, that’s why this horse rides. He represents God’s judgment in raising up one world power to conquer another.
Historically speaking, I don’t think it’s an accident that one of Rome’s greatest threats was the Parthians, also known for their mounted bowmen. Craig Koester observes, “Instead of commemorating the Roman conquests that produced the relatively stable social setting in which they lived, the vision raises the specter of conquests that could threaten the prevailing order…[This] first rider challenges the perception of invincibility that was integral to imperial propaganda.” We’ll return to that later.
Let’s move now to the second seal. John sees a red horse. Red likely stands for the bloodshed caused by his judgments. He’s also given a sword. He rides out for war. But notice how the war transpires. Verse 4, “Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another.” John wrote these words during a time called the Pax Romana (or “Roman Peace”). Comparatively speaking, Roman society was relatively calm. On the ground, it appeared that things were running smoothly. Perhaps we’d say the same in America—comparatively speaking, we’re living in a time more peaceful than others. “Perhaps humanity progresses after all,” some might say.
But this rider exposes that all God has to do is remove his hand of restraint, and humanity will devour itself. People will slay one another. I don’t think he’s including Christians in the group slaying one another. According to verse 9, they’re among those getting slain for their testimony. This judgment falls on the rebellious world in general. God removes peace, and in their depravity, people butcher one another. In other words, war itself is a judgment from God when he gives humanity over to its passions.
The living creatures call yet another horse in verse 5—a black one. Black was the color of mourning and sorrow. And sorrow makes sense, as this third agent of God’s judgment brings famine. It’s rider “had a pair of scales in his hand. 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!’”
The rider holds scales to signify economic catastrophe. It’s comparable to the curses found in Leviticus 26:26 and Ezekiel 4:10. Food must be rationed and weighed. High demand, but not enough. A quart of wheat was enough for one person to eat for a day. Three quarts of barley was enough for a small family day by day. A denarius was one day’s wages. In other words, you spend your whole paycheck just to eat. You have nothing left to pay for housing and clothing and protection and leisure.
On top of that, he says, “do not harm the oil and wine.” Some see this as God limiting how far the disaster runs its course—meaning, the oil and wine remain fine.[iii] It could also mean, “Don’t harm the oil and wine,” in the sense that there’s hardly enough to go around.[iv] Another reading is that people need more bread, but those in power keep making oil and wine, which nobody but the rich can afford. It becomes another way of saying, “Let the economic corruption have its day.”[v] In any case, the vision of the black horse signifies a disastrous economic situation, whether limited or not.
Then finally John sees a pale horse. He’s a greenish-gray color, like the color of a corpse. And that’s fitting because this rider’s name is Death. Hades also followed him. Hades is the place of the dead, the grave. As it is elsewhere in the prophets, Death and Hades are being personified. John says, “they were given authority over a fourth of the earth…” God has limited the damage they can do. But still they’re enabled “to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”
In one sense, this fourth rider encapsulates the other three. He brings the sword like the second horse. He brings famine like the third horse. In another sense, he worsens the judgments adding pestilence and wild beasts. Think of deadly illnesses sweeping across a land—like when the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel and 70,000 men fell. Wild beasts might sound stranger to you—but a couple of things should come to mind. One is that it’s an undoing of the created order—man was to have dominion over the beasts, but here they come to destroy man. The other is that the curse of death was sometimes depicted as beasts coming to scavenge a battlefield full of corpses. In Ezekiel 5 and 14, these judgments fell on rebellious Israel for their unfaithfulness and idolatry. In John’s vision, they’re falling on the world for its unfaithfulness and idolatry.
To summarize, then, these four horsemen represent God’s agents of judgment. Conquest, bloodshed, famine, and death—are themselves the very judgments of God. They happen when God delivers a society to its own devices. God does it to shatter pride when nations boast of being number one. God does it to expose the folly of finding security in the present world as we know it. God does it to reveal that man is truly powerless when Death and Hades come to town.
When do these things happen?
Third question: when do these things happen? Some would like to limit these events to the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. However, these judgments don’t seem limited to Jerusalem—they affect “the earth” in verse 4, and God sets a limit on a fourth of “the earth” in verse 8. They seem world-wide in scope. Also, there’s good reason to believe Revelation was written after Jerusalem’s fall, around AD 90. Others would like to limit these judgments to a seven-year tribulation at the very end of history. However, several clues lead me to say that’s too restrictive with respect to timing.
We know the seal judgments must occur after Jesus’ resurrection. As we saw in chapter 5, the Lamb was slain, but he’s also standing. God exalted Jesus to his right hand. Only then can he break the seals. That’s one clue. We’ll also see that the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl—all bring God’s judgments to a close at Jesus’ return. So that places these first four seals prior to Jesus’ return. Now, the views I stated earlier could both affirm this; and in that we find unity. I just think they go wrong in limiting the judgments to a place like Jerusalem or to a time like the very end.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:6-8 offer another clue. In fact, we can observe numerous parallels between Revelation 6 and Matthew 24—you can see those on the screen. But in verse 6 Jesus says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars [think red horse in Revelation 6]. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet…” Meaning, these aren’t the signs that immediately precede Jesus’ return. He goes on, “For nation will rise against nation [think white horse in Revelation 6], and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines [think black horse] and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains…”
When I read Jesus’ words in Matthew 24—and I look elsewhere in the New Testament at what characterizes the days between Jesus’ resurrection and return, I can’t help but conclude that these judgments transpire throughout the present age. They’re not “the end” but the “birth pains” that lead up to signs immediately preceding the end, when Jesus returns close the present age as we know it.
So, here’s how I view the seven seals with respect to history [screen]. John is painting a picture of the last days for us. Amid a world facing God’s judgments—judgments that are happening right now as precursors to the ultimate judgment. Amid a world facing God’s judgments, Christians lay down their lives to spread the gospel until Jesus returns. That’s how I understand these first four seals fitting the larger storyline.
How should these first four seals impact us?
Final question: how should these first four seals impact us? First, they help you fight sin by exposing the destructive nature of sin. Again, notice from verse 4 that God only has to remove peace and the result is people slaying one another. This is a picture of what sin does to humanity. This is a picture of how the depravity of man plays out in real life—when God hands us over to our own devices, when he lets the corruption run its course. How many wars have bloodied the earth? How many regimes have slaughtered millions? How many conquests have happened to seize land and riches and power, only to leave thousands dead and dying? Yet we still have teachers and books and movies telling people to look within for answers, telling people they’re good deep down inside. This is what happens to a society that looks within for answers.
Here’s what we do with that. Every news feed that you read—like this week’s BBC: “Troops told to fire without warning in Kazakhstan;” “Cannibal jailed for murdering engineer in Berlin;” “The baby whose hungry mother can’t feed him—Ethiopia;” “Two journalists killed in Haiti gang attack.” When you read stories like this, one thing we must see in them is the destructive nature of our sin. Every story like this should remind you of why you must always be killing sin. Sin will destroy you and your marriage and your family and this church and society as whole.
Here’s the other thing we do with that. When we recognize the sinfulness of sin—how evil and destructive it truly is—we cry out to Jesus for mercy. Our only hope for peace and salvation and unity and healing is look to Jesus, the Lamb. Through his cross and resurrection, Jesus alone delivers from sin and its destructive power. Through his cross, the Lamb delivers people from slavery to sin and makes them into a kingdom and priests to God; and they shall reign on the earth in peace. The one who is sovereign over judgment was slain to remove your judgment—come and acknowledge him as Lord.
Second, they compel us to preach the gospel as God warns the world. There is a final judgment coming at the end of history. When we get to verses 12-17, we will learn that that Day will be like no other. But until that day comes, the Lord sends smaller judgments on mankind as warnings of that great Day. These four agents bring judgments that are precursors to the one great Day at the end. These smaller judgments come to expose the boastful pride of man for the terrorist that he is, to expose the depravity of mankind, to expose how earthly kingdoms are not invincible, to expose that rulers and governments and human economic systems don’t have the answers. These smaller judgments leave humanity undone and desperately searching.
But while he sends these smaller judgments on mankind, he also sends his messengers with good news that saves. We’ll get to this more next time in verses 9-11, but those messengers are you and me. The reason God delays the great Day of judgment, the reason God sends smaller judgments that warn of the greater one to come, is that God wants others saved and coming to a knowledge of the truth. You have the message that will save them, just as that message saved you.
We follow Jesus. Consider Luke 13:1-5, “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
At least one purpose for awful calamities like these is repentance. The point isn’t to call every tragedy a direct result of God’s judgment. Even worse is for the person not suffering to look at those who are suffering and say, “If they weren’t in sin, then this wouldn’t have happened.” No, Jesus’ point is that tragedies like these should cause everyone to consider their eternal state. No one is better. We all need Jesus, or we perish. When these judgments fall, we tell the world that these circumstances come as no accident—Jesus is sovereign. They teach us about how sin has broken the world. They teach us that this world and its leaders and systems can’t save you. They anticipate a greater judgment to come. But Jesus is victorious over death—he has the keys to Death and Hades. Come to him and find eternal life. Come to him and reign forever! This is the message we preach to the world as God sends his warnings.
Third, be careful not to set your hopes in earthly powers, systems, or circumstances. These four seal judgments confront any thought that we can find true and lasting peace in earthly powers, systems, or circumstances. At the time John is writing, Rome is the superpower. Rome had conquered. Rome had brought decades of relative peace. Being a citizen of Rome had great benefits. In Acts, we even see Paul utilizing some of his rights under Roman law where that served the gospel’s advance.
At the same time, it was possible to put too much confidence in Rome. Over time, it became easy to get too comfortable with Rome’s protection. It became easy to find your security in Rome’s prosperity. Even for Christians, it became a temptation to put more trust in Rome than in Christ. That’s why Jesus had to confront the Christians in Sardis and in Laodicea. They were leaning on the securities and luxuries of Rome, and to the point that they didn’t feel a need for Jesus anymore.
The same temptations exist for us today, especially for Christians who live in more developed regions. We can get to a place where we find our security here. For the most part, people leave us alone, we go to work, we pay the bills, we eat and sleep without worry. We settle into these nice, normal circumstances afforded by the values and commitments of our society. We set our goals, we do our plans, we feel confident that we’re in control. We can even get to a place where we feel invincible.
But the Lamb commissions these riders to make people feel that we’re not as invincible as we think. God’s agents of judgment can overturn things in a day. With one pestilence and a freeze, he can shut down a nation and rattle its economy. With one ruler hungry for power, he can overturn another nation and leave its people reeling in poverty. Within one day an entire city can go up in flames as he removes peace and gives people over to their passions. These judgments ought to be constant reminders not to set your hopes here, not to walk so confidently in our systems.
Craig Koester put it this way: “The present order is not inviolable and those who compromise their faith to accommodate it are trying to placate powers that are not supreme.”[vi] Our economic systems—granted that some are far better than others—even then are still limited in a broken world and run by fallen people. They are no guarantee for this society to prosper. Conquest, war, famine, and death—all remind us that this isn’t our ultimate home and we aren’t invincible. Only Jesus’ kingdom lasts forever. Only Jesus is invincible. So set your trust in him and in his ways.
Finally, trust in the Lamb’s sovereignty through hard times. A passage like this one doesn’t answer all our questions about why evil persists, or why awful calamities happen. But it does answer who’s in control. Whether it be power-hungry leaders, international conflict, economic disaster, or even death itself—Jesus the Lamb controls everything. When these things transpire, from our earthly perspective it can feel like the evil rulers and war lords and famine and death is in control. At times, that’s also what contributes to people’s anxiety and depression and despair: “What hope do we have if so and so invades our country? What hope do our children have if the schools keep settling for these false ideas? What hope do we have if the bottom falls out economically?”
From earth, that’s what it can feel like. That’s why we need the message of Revelation. Revelation lets us see the world from heaven; and from the heavenly perspective, Jesus reigns. Jesus is in control. Nothing we experience surprises him or rattles him. Jesus never gets anxious about the way things are going to go. That’s why we can cast all our anxieties on him—because he is Almighty. He is sovereign. He can handle our problems. He governs the world and all that’s happening it.
More than that, though, we know that Jesus is also good and loving in his sovereign control. Mere sovereignty could be bad. But we know from the cross that Jesus is unquestionably good and loving. When Jesus exercises his sovereign control, he does so as the Lamb who was slain for us. Hard times are in his hands, the hands of the Lamb who died to save a broken world and replace all evil with his kingdom of peace.
[i] Jerry Bridges, Trusting God (Wheaten: Crossway, 1989), 16.
[ii] Bridges, Trusting God, 18.
[iii] Paul Hoskins, Revelation (North Charleston: Christos Doulos, 2017), 140
[iv] Buist Fanning, Revelation, ECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 243.
[v] Craig Koester, Revelation, AB 38A (New Haven: Yale, 2014), 397.
[vi] Koester, Revelation, 407.