The Wrath of the Lamb
A sermon on Revelation 6 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 5/1/2005
How much does God control? Does He control everything that happens?
What about war? Terrorism? Civil strife? Disease? Does God control those?
Is there a purpose behind everything – everything – that happens? If so, what?
These are questions of central importance for everyone. Every person, at some point in his life, faces suffering and evil.
But each of you will face this, if you have not already. And you’ll ask yourself, “Is God really in control? Is He behind this suffering?”
The Scriptures we read during the service answer these questions in part:
So, when lightning and wind kill, did God send them? When rulers rise up that slaughter millions of people – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – does God give THEM their positions?
Consider Deuteronomy 32:39:
See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
The Bible presents us with a God who controls all the details of this life. He has all authority. Nothing thwarts His purposes
Revelation probably presents this idea more clearly than any other book of the Bible. We’ve seen this already in chapters 4 and 5. There, God is at the center, surrounded by everything that has breath praising Him. Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb, take the scroll that brings about the judgment of this world and the summing up of all things in Him. The Lamb and the One seated on the throne are worthy of ALL praise and honor. Any honor, power, might, wisdom, or glory we might have belongs to them, for they are the source of all good.
So in these chapters, God is in control, and the world rejoices!
But in chapters 4 and 5, there is no appearance of evil. Is God in control even of evil forces? And if so – when by God’s good pleasure destruction comes about - do we still praise Him?
This issue confronts us in today’s text, Revelation 6 – and indeed, in much of the rest of this book. Again and again and again, Revelation pictures God as sovereign. And in His sovereignty, He brings about destruction, He justly punishes His enemies. Does that lead to your rejoicing? Does that lead to your praise?
Let’s consider Revelation 6 in more detail, so that we might better understand the character of God, and praise Him for ALL His attributes.
We’ll use only two headings today: The Lamb Brings Destruction, and The Lamb Displays His Wrath.
As Revelation 6 opens, the Lamb has in His hand the scroll or book, sealed with seven seals. We saw last time that opening the book will set in motion events that will culminate in the judgment of evil, and mercy on God’s elect. In the course of chapter 6, the Lamb opens six of the seven seals. Next week, we’ll consider the interlude that follows the opening of the 6th seal, and then the opening of the seventh seal in the first verse of chapter 8.
Let’s read the account of the opening of the first four seals:
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 men 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.Revelation 6:1-8
Note the common pattern of events that follows the opening of these seals: The Lamb opens a seal, a living creature says “Come”, then John sees a horse and rider who bring some type of destruction to the earth. We’ll make three observations on these seals, and then consider other biblical passages that will help us understand these verses.
Note first that Jesus brings about this destruction. If Jesus had not been worthy to open the scroll, none of this would have happened. Sorrow and evil are occurring, under the authority of Jesus. For all authority in heaven and on earth is His.
Second, note that the living creatures – representing everything that has breath – are intermediate agents in bringing this destruction about. Chapter 4 tells us that they say continually, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!” Their primary purpose is to praise His Name. They are God’s servants – and they call the horses and riders. So Jesus and the living creatures are good: - yet they bring destruction to the earth.
Note third that all four riders are indeed evil:
Further evidence that all of the horses and riders are evil comes from the nature of the fourth. This effect of this fourth seal seems to summarize all the seals. Look at verse 8: Here Death and Hades are given authority to kill with the sword (that is, via war and civil strife, the impact of the first two horsemen), with famine (that is, via want and scarcity, the impact of the third horseman), with pestilence or disease, and with wild beasts. Thus, the fourth horseman includes and extends the impact of the first three.
Are Death and Hades good or evil or neutral? If you have any doubt, Revelation 20 makes this clear. In that chapter, Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire with Satan, the beasts, and those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life. Only God’s enemies end up in the lake of fire. So Death and Hades are clearly evil, and since they summarize and extend the impact of the first three horsemen, those are evil also.
So we have a conundrum: The perfect One – the Lamb – and the good living creatures bring about destruction through evil actors, the four horsemen.
As always in Revelation, our understanding of this passage is enhanced by looking at Old Testament allusions. So let’s do that now to try to help us with this conundrum. There are many echoes of the Old Testament in these verses, but the clearest is in Ezekiel 14. Recall the setting of the book of Ezekiel. The emperor of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, has invaded Judah and threatened Jerusalem. He forced the kingdom of Judah to pay him tribute, and he deposed one king and set up another to be his puppet. To prove his point, he took several thousand Jews into exile in Babylon, including the young priest Ezekiel. As several prophets indicate, this political disaster should have been a warning to the people of Judah, but they did not listen. They did not learn their lesson. They continued to engage in idolatry.
As chapter 14 of Ezekiel opens, the prophet is in Babylon. He has prophesied that God will destroy Jerusalem because of the sins of the people. The Jews in exile don’t believe him. But God tells Ezekiel that He will send famine, beasts, sword, and pestilence – the same four disasters listed in Revelation 6:8 - when a nation sins against Him. Furthermore, He says a few righteous people will not save a nation. Even if exceptionally righteous men – like Daniel, Job, and Noah – are in a nation, He will not spare the entire nation, only the righteous people themselves. God shows here that He distinguishes between the righteous and the unrighteous, and that He is intent on displaying justice by punishing the wicked.
I encourage you to read Ezekiel 14:12-23; we’ll only read the last three verses together:
21 "For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! 22 But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. 23 They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD."
The destruction of Jerusalem will be terrible: Terrible in what it symbolizes – the destruction of the temple, the picture of God dwelling in the midst of His people – and terrible in the actual suffering inflicted. If you doubt this, read Josephus’ history of the Jews, or read the book of Lamentations.
But what does God say here in Ezekiel?
1) HE sends these “disastrous acts of judgment”. He is in control.
2) He uses these to judge the disobedient nation: to show His wrath, to display His justice.
3) He will use the same disasters to refine His people in the city.
4) When Ezekiel sees the results, when Ezekiel sees the true believers who come out of the city, he will be comforted and will know “that I have not done without cause all that I have done.”
God is making the same four points in John’s vision of the horsemen in Revelation 6:
1) Jesus, the Lamb, sends these disastrous acts of judgment.
2) He uses these to judge the disobedient on the earth, showing His wrath and justice.
3) He uses such disasters to refine His people.
4) At the end, when we see the believers who have been refined through such trials, we will know that God had a purpose in allowing this destruction.
In addition to the Old Testament parallels, John’s vision in Revelation 6 has some parallels with Jesus’ discussion of what will happen after His death as recorded in Matthew 24 and Mark 13. Let’s look at Matthew’s account, beginning with verse 4:
See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray. 6 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.
These verses seem to parallel the first horse and rider, who comes conquering, riding on a white horse. Who else conquers and rides on a white horse? Jesus Himself, in Revelation 19:11-21. But this evil rider is not Jesus! He just looks like Him. He is a false Christ, who brings war and destruction, not Christ’s final kingdom.
7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, (here is the second horse and rider, civil strife) and there will be famines (the third horse and rider, want or scarcity) and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
This is key for understanding Revelation 6. Jesus here says that all these types of destruction are not signs that He is coming backing immediately thereafter, that these are not reserved for the last few weeks or months before His return, but that these are “but the beginning of birth pains” – the entire labor is still ahead. Here Jesus says that such destruction will characterize the entire time between His ascension and His return.
9 "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake.
Here is Death himself, the fourth horseman. Note particularly that in Matthew 24:9 death explicitly attacks God’s people. So in both the Ezekiel and the Matthew parallels, the destruction threatened affects God’s people.
10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
What is the impact of this suffering on Christians caught in the in midst of the destruction? Very similar to what happened during the destruction of Jerusalem. God will use this suffering to purify His people, partly by having false believers fall away, partly by building up and strengthening the faith of true believers. This strengthening is necessary, as they then are able to become a powerful witness, fulfilling the Great Commission:
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
So Ezekiel and Matthew help us understand the conundrum. Why would Jesus bring in such destruction? Why would living creatures, representing everything that has breath, usher in the destruction of so much that has breath? Because God is using this very destruction to refine His people and to usher in the summing up of all things in Christ.
Do you remember Romans 8:19?
the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
In Revelation 6, the living creatures are standing in for all creation. They want the end to come. And Jesus says in Matthew 24, “This is the path to the end. This is necessary to bring about the revealing of the sons of God.” So the living creatures call out to the evil horses and riders, “Come.”
But think now: What are they saying ultimately? The horses and riders are necessary intermediaries. The goal of the living creatures is not to bring destruction on the earth! What is the goal? What do they want more than anything?
Ultimately, the living creatures are saying, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come even if that means destruction has to come first. We want You to fulfill Your plan! We want You to come! We want You to reveal the sons of God! So come, even if that means exercising judgment first. Come horses and riders so that the Lord Jesus can then come in all His glory!”
So in Revelation 6, God unleashes evil forces – similar to Nebuchadnezzar, whom He calls “My servant” (Jeremiah 25:9, 27:6, and 43:10). They bring God’s punishment, in order to punish evildoers and to refine His people. This is necessary prior to Jesus’ return. God is in control. The Lamb brings destruction.
This display of destruction after the first four seals is only partial. A fourth of mankind is killed through these various types of destruction. But what percentage of mankind will die by some means? One hundred percent! Since everyone must die, this destruction is far from complete. Most who die during this time are not dying as a result of God’s judgment.
The suffering seen during this period is not ultimate. It is not final. It is not the lake of fire. But this suffering has served three purposes:
At the end, however, at the very end, the wrath of the Lamb is fully displayed. He rights all wrongs. He displays His perfect justice. This is the topic of the fifth to seventh seals.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Who are these under the altar? The text tells us that they are “those slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” But who is that?
They could be all those whom we would call martyrs: those who were killed physically for the Gospel. Or they could be all true martyrs in the sense of the Greek word: that is, all true witnesses to the Gospel.
Do other Scriptures help us to decide? Consider Mark 8:34-35:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.
Or as the author of Revelation says elsewhere,
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 1 John 3:16
Lay down your life. Lose your life. Take up your cross – that is, take up the instrument of your execution, dying to self, sacrificing yourself. Who must die in this sense? ALL true Christians! All Christians must die in this sense. So who is a martyr? Who lays down his life for the word of God and for his witness to the Gospel? All Christians! Especially, all Christians who suffer at the hands of evil men, not only those who are literally put to death.
So other New Testament teaching leads us to think that these souls under the altar represent all those who suffer for the Gospel.
Note how these Christians who suffered address God: “O Sovereign Lord” in the ESV. The Greek word is the source of our English word “despot.” It means an absolute ruler, and absolute master. These Christians know that He is in control.
They ask, “How long before you judge and avenge our blood?” Thus, they cry out for justice. They know that justice is good.
Question: Are these Christians disobeying Jesus’ command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)? No. They are not seeking private vengeance, but rather asking God to fulfill His promise. He is the One who says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19). So like the psalmist in Psalm 94, those under the altar are saying, “Lord, You say vengeance is Yours – but we don’t see it happening. We see the righteous suffering as much, maybe even more than evildoers. We know You will save some of these evildoers – and we rejoice at that, we will pray and work to that end - but when will justice be done on the remainder? When will You right every wrong?”
Far from rebuking them – as would have happened had they disobeyed Matthew 5:44 – God gives them white robes, represnting the righteousness of Jesus, and tells them to wait a little while, until the number of those to be killed is complete.
What does this last phrase mean? It clearly means God has more suffering in store for His people. But do you remember what Paul said about His own sufferings?
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. Colossians 1:24
What is lacking in Jesus’ afflictions? They are not lacking in the payment rendered for sin. That is fully sufficient! Paul can’t add to that! But as we Christians suffer for the Gospel, we are showing the supreme value of God. We display God’s glory in suffering – in way that God’s glory will not be displayed eternally! We have a temporary opportunity to show that Christ is worth more than life itself – and then God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more suffering or pain or sorrow ever again.
So God completes the glorification of His Name through the suffering of His people – and then the end comes. All this is planned by God to fulfill His central motivation: the glory of His Name.
Does God answer the request of these martyrs? Yes. In answer to their plea, the Lamb opens the sixth seal. Judgment comes at long last. The wrath of the Lamb is displayed:
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?" Revelation 6:12-17
Note that there are two scenes here: The overall picture of cosmic events in verses12 to 14, then a flashback to what’s happening on earth during this time in verses 15 to 17.
What is portrayed? Surely if stars are falling from the sky, this is the end of the earth as we know it. This is the very last day. This is the destruction of the cosmos.
What is the reaction of unregenerate mankind? Are they repentant? No. They fear the Lamb: “Oh, no! Who can stand?” But they seek physical death instead of seeking the mercy of the Lamb. They do not repent. Their hearts are hard. They cry out to the rocks, “Fall on us! Kill us! We want to die rather than face the Lamb! We want to end our existence!” Little do they realize that physical death will not end the wrath of the Lamb.
These verses also echo of many Old Testament passages, most clearly Isaiah 34. Again, I encourage you to read the entire chapter; we’ll only look briefly at verses two to four:
For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter. 3 Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. 4 All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.
The “little longer” of verse 11 is past. God wreaks vengeance on His enemies. God repays His enemies to their face (Deuteronomy 7:10).
Note that the nations are “devoted to destruction” (v2). This is a common phrase in the Old Testament. Remember that the entire city of Jericho was devoted to destruction – that is, the Israelites were to take no spoil from the city, but to destroy it in its entirety as part of God’s vengeance. So these enemies of God in Isaiah 34 are set aside for the special purpose of displaying God’s just wrath.
So with the opening of seal 6, justice is done.
“But Coty,” you might say, “We have 16 more chapters of Revelation! How can this be the fulfillment of justice?” Stay tuned.
How do you respond to such wrath?
How do you respond to God’s justice?
How do you respond to the suffering of the righteous?
Are you concerned about the fact that Jesus unleashes evil forces to accomplish His purposes? You should be! We must be very careful in the way we speak about the relationship between God and evil.
Consider these verses:
Psalm 5:4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.
Habakkuk 1:13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong . . .
James 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
1 John 1:5 God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
God never does evil. He never tempts anyone to evil. But He does use evil to accomplish His good purposes.
How can He do this without doing evil Himself? In the same way He sent Joseph to Egypt via the sinful acts of Joseph’s brothers. They were free moral agents. God did not compel them to sell Joseph; they always did what they thought would bring them the greatest pleasure. But God so arranged circumstances that even as they pursued their selfish ends, they were fulfilling His perfect plan. They were bringing about God’s good purposes – even for them! (See the section on “Sovereign Mercy” in this sermon on Genesis 50).
So how much does God control? He controls everything. Every minute detail of every event. He permits specific cases of evil, as sinful men do what they want to do. He arranges circumstances and changes their environment so that they fulfill His purposes. Thus, there is a purpose behind everything that happens:
God could have stopped any evil from happening. If He allows evil, it is as part of His wise, inscrutable purposes. We cannot and in this life will not understand what those purposes are in detail – but He does tell us His overall, grand purposes:
Do you believe? Are you heeding the warning? Are you filling up His sufferings – rejoicing that He is king? Are you rejoicing at what He is doing inside you?
Jim Elliot was a martyr in both senses of word. He wrote: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
This is the lesson of Revelation 6. You can’t keep this life by your own devices. Your life and your death are out of your control. But God is in control! So trust Him! Love Him! Delight in Him! Say to Him, “Mold me! Use me! Refine me! – then send me to be a witness, a martyr to all nations.”
The end is coming. Have you turned to Him? Have you trusted yourself to Jesus? Don’t wait! The day of salvation will end! Confess! Repent! Turn! Believe! Forgiveness by the blood of Jesus can be yours – no matter what sins are yours.
Then lay down your life – and complete the sufferings of Jesus. Show that He is your treasure, that He is worth more than all the world has to offer. Delight in Him – and He will use you, He will glorify Himself in You – and bring you safely to His arms.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 5/1/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was even more helpful than usual for this sermon, particularly in seeing that the fourth rider sums up the first three. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, (InterVarsity Press, 1975) was helpful in seeing the link between the commands of the living creatures and the coming of Jesus, as well as the parallels with Matthew 24. Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Crossway, 2004), was helpful in its discussion of the way that God relates to evil. See particularly the discussion of “compatibilist middle knowledge” in chapter 4.
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