How a worsening mess makes the world situation clearer.
(You’ll need to view this short video in order to get the full effect of my opening example. If it doesn’t work for you, let me know).
Obviously, when the painter started, it was hard to tell where he was going. The puzzled audience is an apt example of the world as it tries to interpret its own past and present, guessing in vain what its future might look like. We’re all observing a work in progress, while the canvas, so to speak, is still upside down.
It’s not that God likes to confuse people, but he is actively laboring while negative forces work against him. Even as He lays down a color with His brush, someone approaching from behind splatters conflicting colors upon it. He initiates a beautiful detail, only to have an adversary come along with a can of paint thinner and a rag to “fix” it. No artist has ever worked under such duress, and so the canvas of earth’s history and its slowly developing future looks a soiled mess. Yet God allows it. He doesn’t eliminate His competition.
In Revelation chapter six, Christ, the Lamb of God, actively reveals and releases the will of God, including forces that seem hostile to that will. We find Jesus not trying to figure out how to turn a bad thing into a good one; but as the Person who pulled the release lever to begin with.
Consider this chapter. Who hasn’t heard of The four horsemen of the Apocalypse? It has become a common reference even in the secular culture. Yet the devil didn’t release these horsemen; Jesus did.
“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!” (v. 1).
The living creature says, Come!, Not as a command, but as a cry of anticipation and a show of alignment with the will of God and the work of the Lamb–much like we would pray, “Let your kingdom come,” or like John prays at the end of Revelation, saying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is always the attitude of the redeemed creature, whether what is being released is positive or negative.
“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.” (v. 2).
A great diversity of opinion exists as to the nature of this first horseman. Some readers see it and immediately believe it to be Jesus. But that doesn’t quite work, given that Jesus Himself is opening the scroll. Actually, none of the horsemen are supposed to represent individuals. Instead, these four are personifications of things loosed upon our world.
Other readers think that since the white horse is grouped with the negative horses about to come behind it, then it must be something evil–a false gospel maybe, or even the Antichrist. I am going to respectfully break rank here, and disagree. It seems incredibly wrong that the first thing the Lamb, the Redeemer, would release would be a false gospel. It seems His own gospel would be His priority.
Besides, The white horse is the color of purity. I realize that the meanings of color can change, even inside this book. But look how consistent this thought is: in chapter 3, white garments signify spiritual life. Later in chapter 6, white garments signify God’s approval. In chapter 7, white garments signify having been washed in the blood of Jesus. Twice in Revelation chapter 19, white garments and the white horse rode by Jesus signify righteousness.
And the first horse released here in chapter 6 is white.
Satan can fake the things of God, but this is the book of Revelation, not the book of Deception. When the devil is lying or deceiving (like in chapters 12 or 13), it’s typically called out, and made clear to the reader. It isn’t left ambiguous. That’s why I think if this is a gospel Christ is releasing, it’s His, not a false one. Wherever this horse goes, it brings spiritual life, God’s approval, the blood of Christ, and the righteousness of God.
Furthermore, this rider has a crown, that is, the rule, the lead, and the primacy over the other riders who don’t have crowns. It starts in victory, conquering, and will end up in victory, to conquer. Jesus himself said in Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” This gospel sets the schedule for everything else. It decides the end.
But that is only the first seal.
“When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, Come! 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” (3-4).
Even after the gospel has been released, the Lord permits the world to pursue its self-chosen madness, with people fighting each other, killing each other, and frequently escalating into war.
“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. 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!” (vv. 5-6).
This horseman brings hunger, and famine. That is why the prophetic voice here advertises prices so inflated that one little container of meal costs a day’s pay, and such supreme care being taken with food products like oil and wine.
“When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, Come! 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” (vv. 7-8).
You could say this Rider operates like a garbage truck, collecting the effects of the previous two horses, while adding to it disease and random natural calamities.
The appearance of these negative horses disillusion people. Why should such evil follow the gospel? But it is important to remember that the gospel does not directly produce war, famine, and death. Rather, human beings cause these things when they reject the first horse.
When men do not allow the gospel of peace to quench their native hatred, violence must emerge. When they refuse the living bread of Christ, famine must result. And finally, wherever humanity denies the gospel of eternal life, death reigns supreme.
Human beings cannot exist in a vacuum. They must have one or the other. Either it is the first horse with intrinsic peace, satisfaction, and life, or it is the other three, bursting out on the world stage, unchecked. Rather than miraculously eliminating these negative consequences with a wave of His hand, Jesus releases them. And now, over the course of many centuries, the world has been shaped by all four horses at once—that which comes from the blessings of the gospel, and the others from the destructive impulses of disobedient humanity.
Please remember though, that the first horse has the crown, and it therefore rules. The other three splash a lot of blood and a lot of mud, and look like they’re overtaking the lead horse, eclipsing it, and cancelling out its positive effects. Regardless, their efforts unintentionally create a dark backdrop from which people want to escape. The worse the stain becomes, the more the gospel of the kingdom shines forward. Even brute evil, though unrestrained and allowed its miserable freedom, must ultimately serve the kingdom message. And make no mistake, as this message crisscrosses the globe, galloping through countries, cities, and neighborhoods, it inexorably races toward the end of the age.
Every time we preach the gospel, or teach its further truths, we’re acting as heralds of the end of the age, linked to a message that decides the global timetable. In effect, we’re apocalyptic figures in our offices and classrooms—modern-day Noah’s. We’re in league with the first horse.
The church has a bigger agenda than maintaining its schedules and internal interests. We’re not about club maintenance. We’re dreaming and scheming, praying and planning, sowing and reaping. We continue the Word of life during this stretch of history, believing that our mission has been released, blessed, and crowned by someone greater than us.
Yet such solidarity has its risks. Some of those who cooperate with the white horse lose their lives.
“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” (v. 9).
The altar mentioned here is not a literal one, as we’d find in a church building. Instead, it is the altar of this world. Sacrifices and offerings are made every day on this planet. They come in different sizes, like in the book of Leviticus, where it could be a pigeon, or a sheep, or a bull. One Christian decides to wake up fifteen minutes earlier for devotionals, and thus offers a pigeon. Another begins tithing for the first time, offering a sheep. But then some give up their physical life, becoming a sacrifice of service, an immense offering the size of a bull.
In the Old Testament, such sacrifices would be burned (signifying God’s acceptance of the offering) and then the ashes would settle down through a grate to the bottom of the altar. The souls of the martyrs are there, apparently in an intermediate state not yet fully in the presence of the Lord, and yet closer to Him than we.
“They cry out with a loud voice, sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the Earth?” (v. 10).
This is a prayer not for blanket forgiveness, but for justice.
“Then they were each given a white robe [signifying approval] 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” (v. 11)
Though the gospel blesses us with every spiritual blessing free of charge, the application of these glorious things is often costly. The Person we follow is a sacrificial lamb, and He does not travel the path of self-gratification.
In fact, martyrdom will continue until it builds an airtight case against this world. The number of murdered saints will finally prove a perversity that is beyond dispute. At that point, coupled with the prayers from under the altar, the Lamb opens the next seal:
“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, and the stars of the sky fell to the Earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that has been rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 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, 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 is come and who can stand?” (vv. 12-17).
As mankind in general had gone about killing Christians, and opposing the gospel of Jesus, they had suppressed any acknowledgment of guilt or knowledge of God. But these threatening events stir that knowledge. The formerly numb, indifferent sinners begin running from the God they denied, and the Savior they mocked. They find no further refuge in their atheism, nor will alternative religious views shield them from the awful onset of divine vengeance.
At last the Lamb is shown here, no longer approachable, fierce to the extent that his anger blanches the confidence out of even the most powerful figures of this world. As He has shown unimaginable depths of grace to sinners for thousands of years, and His saints have followed Him to endure cruel hate, so now will His stern judgment appear, exacting the full measure of justice for the pains of his children.
I’ve occasionally heard the complaint that God’s attitude toward the suffering of His people is like the weather. He passively and indifferently engulfs everyone, both persecutor and persecuted. But this is no more true than the idea that we are indifferent to our own children.
When little johnny gets bullied at school, which of us doesn’t fantasize about marching onto the playground and giving the bully a thrashing? (Come on dads, be honest). You probably won’t say, Oh well, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. You will respond out of love, although a love tainted by sin. You will imagine doing something excessive. Maybe your love blinds you and keeps you from seeing that your child is actually part of the problem.
But the love of God is neither tainted nor blind. When He responds it is a holy, righteous love that reacts in perfect proportion to the sins committed against His people.
That is terrifying.
Overall, this is not the plan you would have rolled out. You would have released the gospel and then mandated righteousness, peace, and joy for everyone on the planet, whether they liked it or not. It’s no surprise then, that we often want to correct the grand painter as He goes about his work, sulking when He doesn’t follow our instructions, exasperated when we can’t figure out His current moves. But the truth is none of us have any idea how to paint an upside down two hundred million square mile canvas. We have no idea how to renovate this world by judging sin, destroying the devil, saving people, and bringing in the full glory of God. That is above my pay grade and yours.
In the meantime, we trust the Redeemer, the Opener of the scroll, to know what he is doing. And we do what we know to do…stand with his galloping gospel until it crosses the finish line.