Who Can Stand?
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 6:12–17
For several weeks, we’ve watched with grief one dominant nation threatening another. Russia wars against Ukraine. Pride and the hunger for power disrupt peace. News outlets keep the live-updates rolling while we ask, “What’s next? Will the war spread? Who will stop it?”
Not long before these events, we started the seal judgments of Revelation 6. The first two seals represent international conflict and bloodshed. I’m not saying that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine have uniquely started the last days. But I am saying that war characterizes the last days. Revelation has given us the lens through which to see these events. They fit within God’s judgments on a world at ease in its rebellion. One way God’s judgment falls is by handing people over to their own devices. He removes the restraint; he allows humanity’s rebellion to run its destructive course.
Yet even these times are in Jesus’ hands. In them he also shows mercy. Smaller judgments come, but God delays final judgment for a season. Between Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ return, God delays final judgment until the church finishes her witness. God commissions his people to lay down their lives to spread the good news about Jesus. Last Sunday, we saw this mission as part of the fifth seal. In this moment of international conflict, our mission is clear: we pour ourselves out like a sacrificial offering to see Jesus made known among the nations.
But that wasn’t all we learned from the fifth seal. The fifth seal left us with a question: How long until God avenges the blood of his people? That question brings us to the sixth seal. In the sixth seal, we’re assured that wicked rulers will not prevail. But we’re also left with a piercing question: before the Lord’s wrath, who can stand? Listen to God’s word starting from verse 12…
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When we started Revelation, I said the Old Testament prophets are some of your best teachers in understanding the book. Every line in this passage has roots in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Joel. Their prophecies came at different times. They also concerned different peoples. But this they share: all of them describe the Day of the Lord.
With the sixth seal, we get a portrait of events beginning the Day of the Lord, the Day when God comes to judge. To understand what’s happening, I want to walk you through the imagery and answer what the Day of the Lord is like. I then want to look at the Old Testament prophecies John uses to learn why God will judge. Then I want to relate this passage to others in Revelation to determine what the sixth seal means for us.
What is the Day of the Lord like?
So, let’s begin with what the Day of the Lord is like. Verses 12-14 teach us that it’s a Day when creation trembles and comes undone.
Verse 12 begins with “a great earthquake.” In Revelation, an earthquake occurs at the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl—all of which describe God’s final coming. It’s the language of theophany, of God appearing. When warriors approached a city with thousands of chariots, the ground shook. The Bible borrows the same language but applies it to God, the true Warrior. When God appeared to deliver the Law at Sinai, the whole mountain trembled, Exodus 19:18 says. Psalm 97:4 speaks of the earth seeing God’s majesty and trembling. Ezekiel 38:19 promises the land will one day quake when God comes in blazing wrath. Same here. When the true Warrior-King approaches for judgment, creation will tremble at his presence.
More than that, darkness and dread will replace light and laughter. Sun, moon, stars—these are the heavenly lights. From the dawn of creation in Genesis 1, God placed these lights in the heavens to remind us of his goodness. Jesus said the sun rises every morning as a sign of God’s mercy. But when the Lord comes for judgment, verse 12 says the sun will become black as sackcloth.[i] Sackcloth was worn as a sign of mourning. The sun that once brightened our day will become a sign of sorrow.
Also, the moon will become like blood. That’s from Joel 2:31. In Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, there’s a character named Armulyn the Bard. In the middle of a dark moment, someone brings him a ray hope. He says, “Sometimes in the middle of the night, the sun can seem like it was only ever a dream. We need something to remind us that it still exists, even if we can’t see it. We need something beautiful hanging in the dark sky to remind us there is such a thing as daylight.”[ii] That’s what the moon is like. But not on this day. On the Day of the Lord, the moon will signal bloodshed.
Verse 13 adds that the stars will fall like the fig tree shedding its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. That’s imagery from Isaiah 34:4. Think of the stars—their glory, their relative permanence to us. They’re so captivating that nations sometimes identify their gods with the stars. But that’s part of the point. When the Lord comes, the things we perceive as enduring and unshakable, even godlike in appearance—they are like nothing before the Lord’s greatness. They fall like the fig tree shedding its winter fruit.
Verse 14 says the sky will also vanish like a scroll being rolled up. That too from Isaiah 34:4. When a scroll is rolled up, it means that you’re finished reading it. The end of the story has come. So also here: God’s purpose for the sky seems finished. The barriers once fixed between heaven and earth, so to speak, are now gone. Everyone is exposed. All are vulnerable before the approaching Judge.
Also, every mountain and island will be removed from its place, verse 14 says. Mountains and islands weren’t just great land masses. Mountains represented kingdoms. Islands housed the distant peoples. The picture of all of them being removed displays God’s power and how far his judgment will reach. Whether inland or at sea, no one’s kingdom will stand when God comes to establish his kingdom on earth. As we saw from Daniel 2 a while back, the mountain of his kingdom will rise above all others.
But that’s not all that the Day of the Lord is like. Verses 14-17 teach us that it will also be a Day when humanity proves helpless and unable to stand.
Notice how verse 15 lists seven types of people: “kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free.” By listing seven, this is Revelation’s way of representing the fullness of humanity. That’s also why you see people of power as well as everyone else. You see the free as well as slaves. In other words, no one is excluded from judgment day. The powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor—everyone must answer to God.
Also, no one can escape. Notice how they respond. They “hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” The picture comes from Isaiah 2. It’s one of utter humiliation, of people who think they’re great but then scurry to hide when the true Majesty appears.
Here these people prefer death under the rubble than to face the Lord. They’re more terrified of the Lord in his unveiled glory than they are of the cosmic destruction around them. Notice, they fear not only the face of him who is seated on the throne; they simultaneously fear the wrath of the Lamb. Jesus carries out the Day of the Lord. All the Old Testament expectations for Yahweh to judge—they all get fulfilled when Jesus returns. For Jesus to come is for God to come, God to reveal, God to be seen.
No one is excluded. No one escapes. Then, at the very end of verse 17 we learn, no one can stand. “Who can stand?” they ask. It’s a question all of us should consider: Who can stand? The implied answer is Nobody. The prophet Nahum once asked the same question, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God…” he says. “[The Lord] keeps wrath for his enemies…The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger?” Nobody. On their own, nobody can stand before the wrath of the Lamb.
Why does the Day of the Lord come?
But why will God judge this way? Why such a Day of judgment? To answer that question, I now want to look at a few of the Old Testament prophecies John uses in this passage. They teach us why God’s judgement will come.
The first place is Isaiah 2. Isaiah 2:19 and 21 is where we encounter this picture of people entering caves of the rocks, to hide from the terror of the Lord. But just before that in 2:6, we learn why: “[They] are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with the children of foreigners. Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands.”
Why does God send judgment according to Isaiah 2? God sends judgment because he does not tolerate idolatry. God alone is worthy of worship, but they worship the work of their hands. They’re so impressed with what they can do on their own hands, with what they can make, with what they can earn, with what they can produce—that they’re not very impressed with God. They were made to worship God, but they have traded God for money and the world’s trinkets and military power. God is supposed to be their only Savior, but they have relied on political alliances with pagan nations.
Isaiah 13 is another one. Verse 10 talks about the stars not giving their light, the sun being darkened, the moon not shedding its light. But look at verse 11: “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity…” What kind of iniquity? “I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.” Why will the Lord judge? Arrogance. The pride of man. It’s all throughout Isaiah: those who, in their pride, choose to ignore God’s way to walk their own way—they merit God’s judgment on the last Day.
Hosea 10 is another prophecy. In Hosea 10:8, we find people calling to the mountains, “Cover us!” and to the hills they say, “Fall on us!” Why? Because God will bring a Day that exposes the emptiness of their idolatry. They pretended to be the Lord’s people, all the while building pillars to false gods. The Lord says, “Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt.”
Idolatry. Self-reliance. Pride. Going your own way. Having a false heart. That’s why God’s judgment comes. As a holy God, he will not tolerate sin. As the only God, he will not tolerate god-replacements. Therefore, he will come to judge idolators, the proud, those who stiff-arm his word. He will come to end the haughtiness of man; and when he does no one will be excluded, no one will escape, no one will be able to stand.
Wash yourself in the blood of the Lamb.
What hope, then, does anybody have? Is that all there is to say, that God will come in blazing wrath, and no one can stand? Here’s where I want to relate this passage to others in Revelation to determine what this sixth seal means for us.
If we belong to those he mentions here, then the sixth seal means awful things. There is no hope for these people—not one of them will stand. Perhaps you’ve recalled moments when your own pride has shown. Perhaps you can identify with trusting in the work of your own hands to save you. Perhaps you have loved something or someone more than you have loved the Lord. If I asked, “Who deserves to face the wrath of the Lamb?” the answer would be, “All of us.” On our own, no one could stand.
But this book was meant to be read in one sitting. The question at the end of verse 17, “Who can stand?”—God eventually answers that question. Look at 7:9, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” What are they doing? “…standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” How are they standing? Verse 14, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
In your sins, you have no hope of standing before the Lord. But if you wash yourself in the blood of the Lamb, you will stand! God will keep you from the wrath of the Lamb because he first gave that Lamb to die in your place.
Think of the cross with me, for a moment. You might recall that similar signs of judgment, like the ones we find here for the Day of the Lord—similar signs appear when Jesus dies on the cross. In Luke 23:44-45, we’re told that when Jesus died there was darkness over the land. The sun’s light faded. Matthew 27:51 tells us the earth shook and the rocks were split. Why? Because those signs tell us what the cross truly is—God’s end-time judgment fell on Jesus in our place. His sacrifice satisfies God’s wrath. There is none left for those in Christ. That allows you to stand before God forgiven and forever singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
What does that mean for you? It means that by calling on the name of the Lord, your judgment is taken away in Jesus. Jesus is your escape. So, call on the name of the Lord. It doesn’t matter who you are. No matter your religious background, no matter your history, no matter your ethnicity, your gender, your age, your social status—if you call on the name of the Lord, he will forgive your sins. He will deliver you from coming judgment. The works of your hands can’t save you. Only the work of Jesus saves.
If you already belong to Jesus, give thanks for your salvation. Give thanks for truths like this one: 1 Thessalonians 1:10, “…[we wait] for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Or Romans 5:9, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by [Jesus’] blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” That is your song every day! Don’t dismiss the weight of God’s judgment as it helps us feel the sweet relief of the cross. The more you see your need before God’s holy fire, the more you will rejoice in the Father’s love, the more you will cling to the cross, the more you will cherish his salvation. We owe him all our songs, all our obedience, all our lives.
Don’t weaken commitments to Jesus for more security with the world.
That brings us to another takeaway: don’t weaken commitments to Jesus for more security with the world.[iii] Again, Revelation is meant to be read in one sitting to the church. The things you read in later parts impact what you received in earlier parts.
Consider how this sixth seal would impact the Christians that Jesus confronted in churches like Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea. In Pergamum and Thyatira, some church members started tolerating idolatry in the church. Sardis had a similar problem: we observed that their deadness was related to moral compromises with the Roman culture around them. Laodicea also compromised faithfulness to Jesus, but they did so by depending on worldly riches and comforts.
By contrast, the two churches that remain faithful to Jesus are the ones experiencing the most persecution. What the bigger picture consistently shows us is this: if you ever want to escape persecution, weaken your commitment to Jesus and start getting chummy with the world. If you ever want an easier road, a more comfortable life, weaken your commitment to Jesus and partner with the world, make compromises with those in power, spend your life chasing the world’s riches.
That’s how some of the Christians in John’s day were being tempted. Isn’t that the way we find ourselves pulled sometimes? “It would make relationships easier if I just didn’t bring up Jesus.” “I could make more money if I just signed their papers about transgender pronouns.” “You know, we’re going to lose our biggest donor if we stick to the Bible’s moral high ground.” “Maybe the government will leave us alone if we publicly pretend like we agree with their policies.” So the temptations go to weaken commitments to Jesus to find security with the world.
The sixth seal helps you fight those temptations. The sixth seal exposes that all who side with the world, all who find their security with the world, with the rich and powerful—they will be shaken. They will fall. Taking the fifth and sixth seal together, with whom do you want to identify more? The kings of the earth, the great ones, the generals, the rich and powerful? Or do you want to identify more with the martyrs under the altar? Between these two pictures, only one group is shaken. The only people who are truly safe and forever secure in God’s presence are those who follow the Lamb. Stay true to the Lamb, beloved, and you will find more joy and riches and security and freedom than this world could ever offer you.
Rest assured that the Lamb will judge the enemies of his people.
Staying true to the Lamb this way will invite persecution. People will recognize you as a Jesus follower and hate you for it. But here’s something else the sixth seal teaches us to remember: Rest assured that the Lamb will judge the enemies of his people. Most immediately, the sixth seal looks backwards to the cries of the martyrs in verse 10. They cried, “O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth.”
God then tells them to rest a little longer. With the sixth seal, though, God assures his people that justice will come. There will be a delay. More of their brothers and sisters will be killed. But that will not mean God is indifferent to their cries. He will answer them. He will judge their enemies and make them pay for their wrongs.
One of the hardest things to do as Christians is wait on God to judge. We grow tired of waiting. More than that, sometimes when we look on the prosperity of the wicked, we seethe with envy. I was reading Psalm 73 to Anna the other night—she likes to hear the psalms before falling asleep. But in Psalm 73 Asaph confesses this when he saw the wicked prospering: “My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” He then goes on to describe how the wicked seem like they’re able to do whatever they want, and nothing happens to them. They’re always at ease. They increase in riches. “When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,” he says.
Then he says this: “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end…you set them in slippery places…those who are far from you shall perish.” It is only when we draw near to God’s dwelling that we gain discernment. In the book of Revelation, John has invited us to come with him into God’s dwelling. From God’s heavenly temple, he discerns the end of the wicked. Are you weary of the wicked prospering? Do you find yourself growing envious of their heyday?
Brothers and sisters, the sixth seal should also come as a comfort to you. God has appointed a Day to end evil. God has appointed a Day to answer all your cries for justice. God is not indifferent to evil. He will end the ways of evildoers. There are many great ones and generals and world rulers—some of whom are pompously starting wars and oppressing others right now. There are political parties and presidents like our own pushing agendas contrary to God’s ways, calling evil good and good evil. They will not have the final word. They may puff themselves up, win their wars, plant their flags. But when the skies roll back, they will cower before the Lamb.
Do not fear the coming days. The Lamb will end the day of evil. The Lamb will right all wrongs. The Lamb will deliver you from evil people. Rest assured in this truth, beloved. He will exalt his kingdom above all.
[i] Cf. Isa 50:3.
[ii] Andrew Peterson, The Warden and the Wolf King (Nashville: Rabbit Room, 2014), 153.
[iii] Koester, Revelation, 412. Koester observes, “Given the options, it might seem prudent to diminish one’s faith commitments in order to attain a more secure position in society, but the sixth seal shows that seeking refuge with the rich and powerful is futile, for they will ultimately come under the judgment of God.”