|By: Dr. Robert Thomas; ©2000|
|The “divine purgings” detailed in Revelations 4 and 5 are compared to labor pains in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Dr. Thomas begins a look at these events.|
We have discussed the first five chapters of Revelation in these columns over the last fifteen months. Those chapters are in several ways introductory to the whole book. Revelation 1 told of the preparation of John to receive the new revelation. Revelation 2 and 3 told the seven churches how to prepare morally to avoid the horrors of “the hour of trial.” Revelation 4 and 5 described the throne room from which will proceed the dreaded divine purgings contained in the seven-sealed scroll. At chapter 6 where we begin this month, descriptions of those punishments begin. What we read about here is a dramatization by way of an “advance showing” of the Lamb’s cleansing of a rebellious world.
We call our discussion of Revelation 6 “The Beginning of Birth Pains,” because the first six seals described therein closely correspond to some events about which Jesus prophesied in His Olivet Discourse, a sermon delivered on Tuesday of the week of His crucifixion. As He described these future events in that sermon, He said, “All these things are the beginning of birth pains” (Matt. 24:8). Taking our title from His statement, we want to elaborate on the first six seals that cover that same period. In part 1 this month we will discuss the first four seals; in part 2 next month we will look at the fifth and sixth seals.
What are the “birth pains” of which Jesus spoke? A number of times the Old Testament so characterizes a future period, the one just before the Messiah’s coming to establish His kingdom on earth. It compares the period with a woman in labor just before giving birth to a child (see Isa. 13:8; 26:17-19; 66:7-9; Jer. 30:6-8; Mic. 4:9-10). Jesus referred to that time of human suffering when He referred to “birth pains” in His Olivet Discourse. The events to which He alluded in Matthew 25:1-14—the same as the events of the first six seals in Revelation 6—will be, in His words, “the beginning of birth pains.” These particular agonizing catastrophes will not occupy the entire period, but will signal when the period has begun to run its course.
By referring to Jesus’s Olivet Discourse once again, we can apply a biblical name to the entire period of trial just before Christ’s return. In Matthew 24:15 He referred to “the abomination of desolation” which according to Daniel 9:27 will divide the seventieth week of Daniel’s seventy-week prophecy into two equal parts. That seventieth week, each day representing a year, will be the entire period of human misery resulting from God’s judgment against a world in rebellion. In other words, it will be the entire period of “birth pains.” Jesus characterized the happenings before “the abomination of desolation” as “the beginning of birth pains.” Therefore, when looking at the first six seals, we are learning about events to transpire during the first three and a half years of that final seven years of misery.
With this orientation in mind, we are ready to examine the seals, one by one.
By demonstrating His worthiness through a sacrificial death for mankind, the Lamb earned the right and responsibility to open the seals and divulge the contents of the scroll (see Rev. 5:5-10). When He opened the first seal, one of the four living beings summoned a white horse with a rider possessing a bow and a crown. The rider went forth “conquering and that he might conquer” (6:2). Since the rider had no arrows to use with his bow, he must accomplish his conquests without the shedding of blood, i.e., by peaceful means. This was a scenic representation in the heavenly throne room of the first in a series of four horses with riders, a representation enacted as a prophecy in John’s vision.
Determination of whom the white horse and its rider represent must come from observing features of the vision. White, the color of the horse, stands for righteousness or a feigned righteousness, depending on whether the rider is a righteous deliverer or not. Some have taken the rider to be Christ because He appears on a white horse in Revelation 19:11-16, but this would not agree with the missions of the riders on the other three horses. All four must have negative impacts on the world as part of “the beginning of birth pains,” because they are agents of misery in inflicting God’s judgment against the earth. This rider has no bodily presence like the rider in Revelation 19:11-16. He is the personification of a growing movement to unseat Christ as the ultimate ruler. Numbered among those who are a part of this movement will be a counterfeit Christ who will over time rise to lead the movement.
In His Olivet Discourse, Jesus predicted that this period would see the emergence of many who would come in His name, saying, “I am the Christ,” deceiving many people (Matt. 24:5; Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8). That prediction corresponds with the symbolic prediction of the first seal. Through deception, this movement will accomplish world conquest by peaceful means, but that domination will be only temporary as an imitation of the everlasting peace that Christ’s personal rule will subsequently bring to the earth. It will merely set the stage for severe developments to come.
Following the Lamb’s opening of the second seal, a second living being summons a fiery-red horse whose rider had the power to take peace from the earth, the peace achieved by the first rider. His possession of a great sword sets the tone for widespread slaughter among earth’s inhabitants. The future events portrayed by this seal will consist of war, internal strife, and international and civil strife throughout the world. During His last week on earth Christ predicted the same conditions in more direct terms: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . . For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom” (Matt. 24:6-7a; Mark 13:7-8a; Luke 21:9-10). These turbulent conditions will follow on the heels of world peace earlier in the first half of Daniel’s seventieth week.
The horse’s fiery-red color, of course, implies the nature of the afflictions under the second seal judgment. The period will be a span of widespread slaughter and bloodshed. The depersonalized rider represents the forces of war and bloodshed, forces that God allows to prevail as part of His punishment of a rebellious world. The sword given to this rider symbolizes a specific period of dreadful carnage in the future that brings an end to the temporary peace.
With the Lamb and a third living being filling their customary roles, the third seal discloses a third horse, this time a black one. His rider had in his hand a balance for weighing out food supplies. A voice from among the four living beings revealed the lesson to be learned from the balance: “A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; and do not hurt the olive oil and the wine.” The blackness of the horse suggests a time of sorrow and mourning with the balance and its implied lesson furnishing the reason for sadness. This seal predicts a time when food will be scarce, causing widespread anxiety. The expense of provisions will mean that only the wealthy will have enough to eat. This rider is a personification of famine.
The only protected food will be the olive oil and the wine which were in New Testament times foods for the rich. A denarius was the average daily wage of a working man in those times; its purchasing power will be greatly reduced in the future time of “the beginning of birth pains.” Purchasing barley instead of the more nourishing wheat means that a worker will have barely enough for himself and his family. The nutritional value will be far less than desirable. Such conditions picture a great famine to come.
The opening of the fourth seal and the usual summons produces a pale-green horse whose rider was named “Death.” The rider’s companion Hades broadens the seal’s domain to include the implications of death for both the material and immaterial parts of man. This seal marks a conspicuous increase in intensity of judgment by producing death for one-quarter of earth’s population. The yellowish-green color of the horse appropriately resembles a corpse in the advanced state of corruption.
Under this seal the first three means of removing human life are the sword that suggests death by violent means, famine that has already been encountered under the third seal, and pestilence. Death by the sword will be more extensive than under the second seal, and that by famine will mean that shortages will become so severe that many people will die because of them. Also fatal diseases will be out of control, bringing death to sizable numbers. Luke 21:11 as part of the Olivet Discourse records Jesus’ reference to these plagues. A fourth agent of death will be wild beasts who roam the earth, looking for prey and taking advantage of all who cannot defend themselves. The combination of terrifying developments will take the lives of one-quarter of earth’s population in a relatively short time.
Perilous and troublesome days lie ahead for this world. God must punish sin by means of these temporal adversities in order to prepare the way for Christ to return and assume world leadership. The way to avoid being trapped on earth while all the turbulence transpires is to deal with God about sin right now. Trusting Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is the Bible’s established way to find God’s forgiveness. Jesus will take all the forgiven ones with Himself back to heaven before the future period of “birth pains” begins.
Note: For more details about the first four seal judgments, see my discussion in Revelation 1–7(Moody Press, 1992), pages 413-439. To order this volume, you may contact Grace Books International at (800) GRACE15 or www.gbibooks.com.