Study On The Book Of Revelation – If you would like to comment on one of the lessons simply click on the title of the lesson and you will be take to the lesson page where you will find a comment section at the bottom.
*The material for these studies is from Jon Courson’s Commentary by Thomas Nelson Inc., R. Kent Hughes Preaching the Word series by Crossway, and Warren W. Wiersbe’s Commentary by Chariot Victor Publishing, and from James Montgomery Boice’s Expositional Commentary published by Baker Books, and from The Message of Romans, John R. W. Stott published by Inter Varsity Press, unless otherwise noted.
In verses 12 to 16 we hear the sounding of the sixth trumpet by the sixth angel. John now hears a voice that comes from the horns of the golden altar. We have already seen this altar in Revelation 8 – the altar of incense on which was offered before God the prayers of the saints who were then living on the earth. In that passage an angel took fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth – and judgment followed. Here, in the terrible events of the sixth angel and the sixth trumpet, the prayers of the saints in Revelation 6 are finally answered.
Notice that God’s answer takes the form of releasing four powerful fallen angels who have been bound for centuries at the great river Euphrates. But these evil beings have not been given free reign in the earth. God’s control over them is sovereign, and His timing of this event is surgically precise. These fallen angels are released at the “very hour and day and month and year” God had long ago predetermined. No power, human or demonic, could change the timing of that event by as much as a second. Notice that these events are all linked with the Euphrates River, the ancient boundary between the East and the West. It is at this ancient and historic river that four evil beings are somehow bound at this very moment, awaiting the very hour and day and month and year that God has foreordained for their release.
The 200-million-man army described in verse 16 has been subject to various interpretations. Many Bible commentators have claimed that this army is composed entirely of soldiers taken from the vast populations of Asian nations such as China, India, Japan, and Indochina. It is certainly true that the reference to the Euphrates River suggests that a barrier has been removed so that armies from the East can cross into the West. But note the number of angels released at the Euphrates: four. Four is the number of worldwide human government. It symbolizes the four directions of the compass – north, south, east, and west. This fact strongly suggests that 200 million soldiers will come not from any one country or even any one direction, but from all directions. And they gather in one place. We find the name of that place in Revelation 16, and it is a name which has become associated with the end of the world: Armageddon.
Armageddon – the Hebrew word for the Mount of Megiddo – is a place in northern Israel, less than 20 miles southeast of the modern port city of Haifa. Revelation 9 gives us our first glimpse of the terrible forces of death and destruction that will gather in the plain of Megiddo. There the great armies of the earth will assemble from every point of the compass to fight the last and bloodiest war of all of human history.
A fascinating mystery surrounds the additional description of this gathering of armies in verses 17-19. John recounts the vividly colorful symbols and images of his vision of the final conflict. It hardly seems possible that John himself understood what he was looking at. All he could do was record his impressions of future warriors, armor, and weaponry far beyond his ability to imagine. In fact, the events are still in our own future and may be beyond our own ability to imagine as well.
Yet is seems clear that what John envisions is machinery of future military destruction translated into the military terminology of his own day. Breastplates of various colors seem to suggest armored chariots – that is, tanks, troop carriers, missile launchers, rocket batteries, artillery pieces, and aircraft of various countries bearing the identifying colors of their nations of origin. The lions’ mouths which spouted fire and smoke suggest cannons, mortars, rocket launchers, and even missiles killing great masses of people with fire, radiation, and poison gasses. The fact that one-third of the human race is destroyed in this conflict strongly suggests that weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, will be used.
Another intriguing image is that of the horses’ tails, described as being like snakes, having heads that inflict injury. These words could apply to various kinds of modern armament – helicopter gunships with rotors mounted on their long tail assemblies, or perhaps missiles which leave a snake-like trail of smoke in their wake and inflict injury with their warheads. Perhaps it is a description of weapons that are yet to be invented. Regardless of what the details of these images mean, the overall picture is clear – and frightening. This scene will become still clearer as future chapters of Revelation return to this horrific scene and fill in additional nuances and details of the total picture.
The final scene under the sixth trumpet judgment is the reaction of these events of unprecedented calamity and horror (vv. 20-21). Even after all the catastrophes and upheavals that have occurred, both natural and man-made, the human race remains unrepentant and hard-hearted. Notice that the first and foremost sin mentioned by John is that of demon worship. This one sin explains all the rest, as well as mankind’s irrational and self-destructive unwillingness to repent. These people have willingly and completely enwrapped themselves in a satanic delusion.
In studying Revelation 9, we should learn three important lessons. The first is that because of its idolatry and sin, our world is judged by God with spiritual torments and destruction. These plagues originate in the Abyss where demons dwell. There are times when Christian influence is strong and a wholesome culture may flower in secular society. But when society turns away from God and rejects His Word, God will respond by judging that idolatry with spiritual forces of evil torment. Verse 15 suggests definite, foreordained times when God unleashes conquest on the pride of secular powers. Because we are called to live differently from the world, Christians will be accused of being out of touch and out of style. But according to Revelation 9, our holy separation from the spirit of the age protects us from the judgments even now being inflicted on the world.
Second, fearful as these judgments are, Christians should have no fear of them. This passage is filled with signs of God’s complete sovereignty over these plagues and torments. The chapter begins with God’s granting the angel permission to open the Abyss (v. 1). Verse 10 shows that God restricts the extent of the locust plague. The sixth trumpet begins with a command that comes from “the four horns of the golden altar before God” (v. 13). We have previously seen that this altar is where the prayers of the martyrs and saints are offered, so that these judgments are God’s response to His people’s pleas for deliverance. Fearful as these trumpet plagues may be, they are under the complete control of our covenant-keeping God, and thus they are unable to harm us. Many believers, however, are afflicted by their sinful lives before coming to Christ. They may therefore bear scars and enter the Christian life with habits picked up from sinful influences. But what a hope they have in Jesus Christ.
Third, we find at the end of the chapter that the purpose of these judgments is to awaken sinners to their need to repent and return to the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 20-21). There is no reason for you to follow this self-destroying example. To worship the idols of this world – money, pleasure, power, sex – is to be in service to demons and to receive the torments reserved in judgments for this world. God intends that through the misery of this life of sin, you will realize your need to be forgiven the guilt of sin and delivered from the power of sin. God offers all of these to you as a loving gift through faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
Revelation 9 is well summed up by a bumper sticker that you may have seen: “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Without Jesus – without the forgiveness and cleansing from sin that He gives – there is no peace in this world of sin. But if we come to know Him in saving faith, trusting His redeeming work to set sinners free from judgment and misery, we will know peace. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said; “my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Revelation 9:12-21 Study Questions:
What happens when the sixth angel blows his trumpet (vv. 13-15)?
How are the riders and their horses described (vv. 17-19)? What do the horses and riders symbolize?
What is the response of the rest of humankind who are not killed by these plagues (vv. 20-21)?
What are the idols that we are tempted to worship, and how do we become like them when we choose to serve them rather than God?
How is God calling us to repent today?
In chapter 9, we arrive at the judgment of the fifth angel and the fifth trumpet (vv. 1-11). In the judgment of the third angel with the third trumpet we saw a great star fall into the sea. In this remarkable passage another star falls – but this time onto the earth. Here, as in previous depictions of judgment, we are probably witnessing a literal event – perhaps the fall of a brilliant meteor from the skies. The text makes it clear, however, that this is also a symbolic event. The star represents an individual who is given a key by which he opens up the gateway of hell, which is called here the Abyss.
In Luke 8:31, when Jesus cast the host of demons named Legion out of a man by the Sea of Galilee, the demons “begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.” The same Greek word for Abyss is used in this passage as in Revelation 9. By examining other passages of Scripture we can see that demons have already been imprisoned in the Abyss. Jude 1:6 tells us there are angels which are “kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” It seems apparent that in these scenes in Revelation 9 we come to that “great Day” referred to in the book of Jude, for in this passage the “star” which falls to earth becomes a being who takes the key to the Abyss and opens it. Out of the Abyss come great clouds of billowing smoke, darkening the daytime sky. Then out of the inky clouds come hordes of locusts, so thick and numerous that they have the appearance of clouds – yet another image laden with literal and figurative meaning.
At the same time that we see a literal plague of locusts unleashed, we also see the release of demons – invisible spirit beings from the pit of hell. The demons are released to go out across the earth like a plague of locusts. As we shall see as we continue to explore this passage, the person represented by this second star is a Jewish religious leader who turns apostate and unleashes demonic forces, like clouds of deadly locusts, upon the earth. I believe this leader is Jewish because of the clues given in the passage.
The locusts/demons were told not to harm “the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Clearly grass, trees, and plants represent people, as we have already seen in Revelation 7. More specifically, they represent Israel. Yet there is a certain group of them – the 144,000 who have been sealed by God – who are guarded and protected from demonic influence and control by the Spirit of God. Those unbelievers upon whom the locusts/demons are unleashed are not destroyed, but are instead tormented for a period of five months.
The being represented by the second star, then, is that person the apostle Paul refers to in 2 Thessalonians as “the Man of Sin,” a crucially important individual who arises in the last days. This man sits in the temple of God and claims the worship of Israel and of the entire earth. He is well known, even among casual students of the Bible and biblical prophecy. He is sometimes called the Antichrist.
In verses 3 and 5 where John writes that the locusts/demons “were given power like that of scorpions of the earth” – power not to kill the unbelievers on the earth, but rather “to torture them for five months.” And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes a man.” The Antichrist has loosed a horde of demons upon the earth, and these demons afflict the human race with their agonizing “sting.” This “sting” is the demonic propaganda of the Antichrist, the hellish lies he uses to ensnare the minds and hearts of those who are naked to demonic attack because they have not been sealed by the Holy Spirit. The metaphor of a scorpion’s sting speaks of the lies which the Antichrist inflicts, deceiving and mentally tormenting the world on a massive scale.
In verses 7 through 11 John goes on to describe, in metaphoric terms, the locusts/demons from the Abyss and the horrible delusion they bring upon the earth. At first glance, the symbols in this passage may seem difficult to understand, but they are really not difficult to interpret. They are consistent with symbols used elsewhere in Revelation and other prophetic books of Scripture. The locusts take on the appearance of war-horses wearing something like crowns of gold, which speak of authority. As people hear the teachings and claims of this magnetic leader, he gives the impression of speaking with authority and power. The locusts wear human-like faces, suggests intelligence. The teaching of the Antichrist will appear reasoned and appealing to the mind. Hair like women’s hair suggests that which is alluring and attractive, which the Antichrist’s propaganda will be.
But his propaganda will also be like lions’ teeth – penetrating, cruel, and frightening. Iron breastplates speak of hardness and callousness of heart, for the demonic forces behind the Antichrist’s power are the most pitiless, merciless beings in the universe. Once their torment begins, there is no relief and no escape. The sound of the locusts’ wings is like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. His message will appear as an overpowering sound, symbolizing the fact that it will come forcefully and overpoweringly. This speaks of the fact that it will be irresistible to the masses, so that the Antichrist himself will become widely popular. The stings in the locusts’ tails, like the stings of scorpions, speak of the terrible aftermath of the Antichrist’s influence: mental, emotional, and spiritual torment inflicted by demonic powers upon all those who opened themselves up to their oppression.
Revelation 9:1-11 Study Questions:
John’s concept of the present creation includes a bottomless pit which, like a black hole in modern astrophysics, is a place of anti-creation, anti-matter, of destruction and chaos. What happens when the bottomless pit opens up (vv. 2-3)?
Why do you think John describes the super-locusts that emerge from the pit in so much detail (vv. 7-10)?
Where do we see evidence of this kind of widespread, cosmic harboring of rebellion and destructiveness in our own times?
What are the limitations of the locusts’ authority (vv. 4-5)?
Why such drastic measures are sometimes needed in order to bring about repentance?
We too have seen terrible things in our day such as using sophisticated military equipment to strike terror into human hearts. If we suppose that such destruction ultimately comes, like the insect-on-steroids in John’s vision, from the bottomless pit, under the direction of the Antichrist, what is our proper response?
Revelation 8:6 launches the third cycle of visions with angels blowing seven trumpets. In the Bible, trumpets are blown for a variety of reasons. They are sounded as a call to the people of God to assemble for an important occasion. The feasts of Israel were hailed “with blasts of trumpets,” as “a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:24). Trumpets hailed Solomon’s ascension to David’s throne (1 Kings 1:34, 39). According to the New Testament, a trumpet blast will herald the second coming of Christ, summoning the elect to join Him from all over the earth (Matt. 24:30-31). Against this background, verse 6 tells us that “the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them,” we can expect to see God intervening in history to defeat His enemies.
Let us now see what the trumpets of the angels signify. The description in verse 7 is reminiscent of the seventh plague that befell Egypt during Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, when hail and lightning came upon the whole land. In Revelation 8 we see hail and lightning mingled with blood. This is not a new phenomenon. Scientists and historians have recorded other times when red rain fell from the sky. Revelation 8 foresees a time when hail and fire, mingled with blood, will descend not on some isolated region of the earth, but over great portions of the land. It will devastate much of our natural world.
Notice that the plagues of the first four trumpets all fall on creation, causing massive environmental damage. It is as though the Lord were saying, “You have taken the natural world for granted, abused it, and plundered it. You want a devastated world? Very well then, you shall have it.” As always, the worst judgment God can mete out to sinful humanity is to give humanity what it demands. But the destruction that is depicted here doesn’t just have a literal dimension. It is also powerfully symbolic. It is designed to teach us a truth of God that is invisible to the eyes of men at that time. I believe this passage depicts a judgment that is directed not only against the natural world and the environment, but upon Israel – both its leaders (symbolized by the trees) and its people (symbolized by the grass). Old Testament prophets pointed to a future time when God would judge His people Israel, an example is in Zephaniah 1:12-13.
Next, John describes the judgment brought about by the second angel and the second trumpet (vv. 8-9). The first trumpet judgment assaulted the earth. The second attacks the sea. A great blazing mountain-like object falls into the sea. This could be the result of an unimaginably violent volcanic eruption or it could be a massive meteor falling out of space and flaming through the atmosphere, landing at last in the sea. Whatever this mountain-like object is, it will cause the sea to become blood-red resulting in leaving a third of all marine life dead and a third of all shipping destroyed.
If these are literal events, there is also a symbolic dimension to them. The image of the great mountain, blazing with fire and tumbling into the sea, symbolizes a great kingdom aflame with revolution. The prophet Jeremiah records some strikingly similar imagery when he conveys the Lord’s judgment against Babylon (Jer. 51:25). As we gather by comparing this passage with other passages of Scripture, the symbol of the mountain-like object falling into the sea probably symbolizes the influence of what is popularly called “the revived Roman Empire,” the ten-kingdom coalition of Western European and Western allied nations that will be prominent, under the leadership of the Antichrist, during the Tribulation period. So the symbolic image of these verses suggests a time when the Antichrist-led coalition will fall upon the Gentiles of the world like a flaming, destroying mountain, conquering the Gentile nations while destroying many Gentile lives.
As happened in the first trumpet judgment, and as will happen again and again throughout these seven judgments, we see the repetitive use of the term “a third.” Under the seals of judgment, the losses were limited to “a forth,” but here we see losses of “a third,” again and again. What is the difference between the judgments of the seven seals and the judgments of the seven trumpets? Four is the number of human government. Under the seal judgments God was indicating that He uses human government to limit the onslaught of the four terrible horseman of Revelation 6. Human government will still retain some vestige of restraining power during those days. But in Revelation 8, even that limited amount of restraint has been removed. Under the trumpet judgments, God alone restrains. Three is the divine number, the symbol of God’s attributes. By the repeated phrase “a third” God is indicating that only His mercy and grace limits these terrible apocalyptic judgments to one-third of the earth.
Now John describes the judgment brought about by the third angel and the third judgment (vv. 10-11). This great star which falls into the rivers and the fountains of the earth is very likely a comet or comet-like object which breaks up when it enters the atmosphere and scatters itself throughout the earth, falling into the rivers and springs and poisoning them. It is interesting to speculate that the form of poisoning described in these verses might actually be a form of radiation. In fact, we may have already witnessed a fore gleam of such an event when a nuclear reactor experienced a melt down at Chernobyl. It is no mere coincidence that the word Chernobyl is actually Russian for “Wormwood”! I believe God was desperately trying to warn us during that terrible nuclear accident – but, as usual, humankind refuses to listen.
Again, I believe the destruction depicted has a symbolic as well as a literal dimension. It is designed to teach us God’s truth about the invisible realm of man’s internal being. Rivers, of course, symbolize great masses of people moving together in one direction – entire populations caught up in one idea, one mindset, moving predictably and inexorably like a river toward a single destination. The springs symbolize the sources of moral or philosophical leadership. The star symbolizes a prominent leader. It appears from these symbols that the great person, widely recognized as a leader, will suddenly reverse his policy. He will, in essence, fall. Many people will be embittered by the turnabout of this influential leader. In the mass struggle that ensues, many will experience moral and spiritual death. This is exactly the scene that is described for us later in Revelation under the rule of the Beast that comes from the earth.
Next John describes the judgment brought about by the fourth angel and the fourth trumpet (v. 12). Now compare this verse with the words of the Lord Jesus from His Sermon on the Mount in Luke 21:25-26. There is no question that Jesus here describes the same event that John relates as the judgment of the fourth trumpet. But not only is this a literal event in which the sun, moon, and stars are darkened or fail for a time to give their light, this is also a powerfully symbolic event.
The sun, moon, and stars are used in various places in Scripture to symbolize earthly authorities. The highest such authorities – kings, prime ministers, dictators, and presidents – would be portrayed as the sun. Lesser authorities would be portrayed as the moon and stars. Thus, we see depicted here a hierarchy of civil authority – authority which somehow is eclipsed under judgment of the fourth trumpet. The darkening of these heavenly bodies means that these authorities will be morally darkened. Instead of displaying sound moral judgment, their judgment will be darkened and evil. They will display no ethical restraint, no compassion, and no justice. People under their government will experience only deceit, cruelty, treachery, oppression, and merciless exploitation. By the grace of God, this darkening will still be limited to a third. Some restraint of evil will still be possible in those evil times, but only by the sovereign grace of a sovereign God!
In verse 13, an eagle appears with a message of warning and lament. If you study in the King James Version, you will find the word “angel” instead of “eagle,” but the more authoritative and reliable Greek manuscripts use the Greek word for “eagle.” After the woes that have already befallen the earth, it is difficult to imagine what could follow in the next three trumpet blasts that could be any worst – yet as we shall see, the eagle’s threefold cry of “Woe!” is well-deserved.
As we examine this passage, we should note that there is a mistranslation in the text. The phrase “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth” would be better translated “Woe to those who make their home on earth.” This may seem a small difference at first, but it is actually an extremely important distinction. During the days of the Great Tribulation there will be many converts, redeemed followers of Christ, who are inhabitants of the earth but do not make their home on earth. They will live and act as though their citizenship is in heaven. Those “who make their home on earth” are a moral and spiritual class of people who live only for the present life and care nothing for the things of God and the life to come. They care only about the present, about their own immediate and self-centered needs, their own pleasures, their own will. They give no thought to others. They give no thought in the purpose of life or the meaning of their own existence. They give no thought to God.
The warning of the eagle is that a terrible doom is coming upon all those who live for the moment, who live for self, who have no larger framework for their lives than today’s pleasures. This is the kind of moral decay that will exist in that day. The first four trumpets, which should have been “loud” enough to awaken anyone with ears to hear, appear to have fallen on deaf ears among those “who make their home on earth.” The next three trumpets shall bring unimaginable woe upon those who live only for the moment and for self.
Revelation 8:6-13 Study Questions:
What do the first two trumpets bring (vv. 6-9)?
The idea of a huge mountain being thrown into the sea is an image used by Jesus himself on occasion, for example, Mark 11:23, and was familiar in other Jewish writings of the time. Why is it significant that this vision uses symbols and ideas that were already familiar to John’s readers?
What plagues do the third and fourth trumpets bring (vv. 10-12)?
The picture of a giant star falling from the sky (v. 10) has resonances with the ancient story of a fallen angel being cast out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12). By including this detail, how might John be pointing us to the ultimate meaning of what is being revealed in these plagues?
How does Revelation 8 underscore the seriousness of evil in our world?
There is nothing wrong with being an earth-dweller. But the point John is making, again and again, is that there are many who have lived on earth as though there were no heaven, or as though, if heaven there be, it was irrelevant. In what ways do we still see the tendency to think this way in our own day?
How might we set a counter-example as those who do embrace God’s re-establishment of the rule of heaven on earth?
At the end of Revelation 7, the apostle John had been treated not merely to a great musical performance on earth but to the mixed choir of saints and angels in heaven, giving glory to God and to the Lamb. The opening of the first four seals on God’s scroll had showed the riders of woe going forth into the earth. The fifth seal sounded the souls of the martyrs crying out for justice, followed by the sixth seal and the unleashing of God’s judgment. Chapter 7 cut back and forth between heaven and earth, showing how God’s servants are sealed below and glorified above. John’s angel interpreter finally looked ahead to the ultimate bliss awaiting Christ’s people, with God sheltering them with His presence and the Lamb leading them to springs of living water.
There remained one seal to be opened, however, and Christians naturally expect it to bring Jesus’ appearing to end the age of judgment. At the start of chapter 8, the seventh seal is opened, yet instead of a glorious vision of Christ’s return, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (v. 1). At the brink of the very end, the music above is stopped and every breath is held. “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord,” commanded the prophet Zechariah, “for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:13).
We should understand the silence of Heaven at the opening of the seventh seal in two ways. First, it reflects awe at the glory and majesty of the Sovereign Lord who comes in splendor and light. In the Old Testament, awed silence is commanded before the coming of God to judge: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near” (Zeph. 1:7). In addition to expressing awe, the silent pause of the seventh seal serves the literary purpose of John in writing the Book of Revelation. If we were listening to it being read for the first time, we might think that the book was concluding with the opening of the seventh seal. Yet there is more to reveal: more contours of history and more details of God’s plan to save His people. Therefore, just when Christ is about to step out from the clouds of glory onto the earth, Revelation pauses with only the silence that attends His coming.
The opening of the seventh seal produces more than silence in heaven. Immediately, John is shown “the seven angels” who will appear in the next section, who “stand before God,” and to whom “seven trumpets were given” (v. 2). We are not told the identity of these seven angels. However, in Scripture we find two angels “who stand before God,” Gabriel (Luke 1:19) and Michael (Jude 9). Jewish aprcryphal writings supply the names of the other five as Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Sariel, and Remiel (1 Enoch 20:2-8). Since John identifies these angels as “the seven,” it’s probably best to understand them as the seven archangels.
Before any trumpets are blown, however, another angel “came and stood at the altar with a golden censer.” This bowl or fire pan contained “much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne” (v. 3). As he made his offering, “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (v. 4). Having performed this ministry, the angel “took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were pearls of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (v. 5).
In Luke 12:49, Jesus said, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and I wish that it were already burning!” The flaming judgments of Revelation 8:5 correspond to the opening of the seventh seal, the silence of which signifies Christ’s return and the fiery cleansing of the world to which Jesus looked forward. It is further obvious that His fire is cast down in response to the prayers revealed by the fifth seal (Rev. 6:10). In judgment of the seventh seal, Christ has responded to their pleas and avenged His martyred church.
The emphasis on prayer in this passage makes a number of important points. First and foremost, we see that prayer is the means by which God accomplishes His purpose in history. This is the point that we are to notice in verses 3-5, a point so important that the seven archangels are interrupted from blowing their trumpets. God reveals the strength of His covenant bond with His people and His attention to their prayers by first sending the angel to offer up the prayers of the saints and only then using their container to cast fiery judgments on the world. One reason that this needs to be emphasized is that Christians tend to rely on our own activity and to focus on what we can do against sin and evil, while we often neglect the far more important resource of prayer. In contrast, the biblical idea of holy warfare places prayer first and our own activity second.
As Christians in America face mounting threats to religious liberty and furious assaults on moral decency and truth, we must therefore recommit ourselves to the ministry of prayer. Worldly powers advance, and Christians have tried to meet them with worldly means: through the legislature, the media, and the courtroom. These are legitimate means, but means that the world is able to use more effectively than Christians can. These are the arenas in which the spirit of unbelief has power. Prayer is the arena in which Christians have a greater power than that of the world. While our own activity must fail without prayer, prayer alone in the hands of God is mighty to bring God’s judgment on the enemies of His kingdom.
A second vital point from this passage is that the prayers of Christians are certain to be received and answered by God. This is the point of the incense that the angel mixed with the censer of prayers to offer before God. The function of the incense was to make the prayers sweet-smelling in God’s presence. There is no doubt that something needs to be done to make our prayers acceptable to and effective with God, as were the prayers brought to God’s temple by this angel. All our prayers are defective, many are selfish or foolish, and all are corrupted in some way by the sin that makes them unacceptable in God’s presence.
What will not only get our prayers through but make them sweet-smelling in God’s presence? The answer is not found in the angel himself, since angels cannot mediate for God’s people, which is why we should never pray to them. The answer is found in the mediation of Jesus Christ, through His perfect life and sin-atoning death, and by means of His present intercession on behalf of the church (Rom. 8:34; Heb 7:25). The Bible teaches that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus told His disciples, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give it to you” (John 15:16).
Finally, the vision of the seventh seal shows that the great prayer of the church is prayer for the kingdom of Christ to come. The prayers placed in the angel’s golden censer came from the martyrs who sought God’s judgment to avenge them (Rev. 6:10). Jesus’ teaching on prayer placed a similar priority of His kingdom (Matt. 6:9-10). Christians are encouraged in the Bible to pray for our own needs and for those of friends and neighbors. But the priority of our prayer lives should be given to the spread of the gospel, the preservation and strength of the church, the ministry of God’s Word, and the thwarting of godless and wicked powers in our world. These are the prayers that according to Revelation matter the most, the prayers that God will answer with power from heaven at the time of His choosing, and the prayers that we should be most privileged to offer in Christ’s name.
Will you commit to pray for the kingdom of Christ? Praying in His name for the cause of His gospel and for His judgment on rebellious evil, we may be heartened by the vision of the angel gathering our prayers into a golden censer, sweetened with the incense of Christ’s atoning work, and offered up before God’s throne, awaiting the day when our most fervent prayer will be answered. This is the prayer with which the entire book of Revelation – and the whole Bible – concludes. “Come, Lord Jesus!” we pray. He answers with words most precious to our hearts: “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20).
Revelation 8:1-5 Study Questions:
What mood and feeling is created by these opening verses of chapter 8?
How does the pause of chapter 7, as we wait for the seventh seal finally to be opened in chapter 8, heighten the drama and add emphasis here?
What role do you think the trumpets will play in this vision? What is the role of the angel with the censer (vv. 3-5)?
How does the picture of the prayers of the saints being offered up before the throne at this crucial moment challenge the way we think about prayer?
Now we see what takes place as a result of the preaching ministry of the 144,000. Remember that John is in heaven, and he sees all these things from an eternal point of view. As we have already discussed, there is no chronological sequence, no time limitation, no past, and no future in the heavenly orientation. From our earthly standpoint John sees events that are taking place at the close of the seven-year week. He seems to see ahead to the end of the seven-year period, witnessing a great multitude, too great to be counted, that has come through the Great Tribulation. They are not only Jews, but come from every tribe, people, and language. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. And they have palm branches in their hands (v. 9).
When was the last time a crowd of people stood with palm branches in their hands, giving praise to Jesus as their King? Palm Sunday of course; that is the day Jesus rode on the back of a donkey, down a mountainside and into the city of Jerusalem. In this vision of John, there is a clear prophetic link between the events of Revelation 7 and the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Israel was given the opportunity to receive her King – but tragically, the leaders of Israel rejected Him. But a day will come when Jesus is welcomed by a vast, innumerable throng of both Jews and Gentiles, people from across the planet. They will welcome and worship their King with palm branches, just as the throngs that lined the streets of Jerusalem did 2000 years ago – only this time, the King will not be rejected and crucified. Moreover, this event will be intimately associated with the final restoration of Israel.
The white-robed multitude in heaven is occupied in the praise of God for their salvation (v. 10). The word ‘salvation’ in verse 10 literally means ‘rescue’. But often in the Old Testament the word seems to mean ‘the victory through which rescue is won’. So it seems to be here. The church above is centered on the sovereign grace of God and the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross! This is what Christians should be excited about now as well, while still suffering the trials of earth. Not only does the church give praise to God for salvation, but the angelic host gathered around responds with their own adoration (vv. 11-12). How unbelievably great will be the joyful adoration of the heavenly host when all the redeemed stand before their God! If you can see yourself in this throng – and you can through faith in Jesus Christ – doesn’t the hope of glory strengthen you for the trials of your life?
As so often happens in Revelation, John’s vision becomes more animated as one of the worshiping elders turns to ask him a question to ensure that he got the point (vv. 13-14). At first, John’s vision was intended to show the suffering Christians of earth who they are as the glorified church of Christ. Now the elder wants to make clear how the church got there, highlighting the great deliverance achieved through Jesus.
The elder makes two points for John and his readers to emphasize. First, the church arrives in heaven, having come “out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). Christians on earth should realize that trials and persecutions are likely to occur and that we will be saved only by persevering in faith against all opposition. The elder’s second point directs us to the Lamb: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). The saints in heaven did not save themselves. It was not by their own prowess that they conquered through tribulation. With clarity that belongs to those already in heaven, the elder ascribes the salvation of believers to the cleansing power of Christ’s blood.
John’s vision has given us a glorious perspective on the heavenly reality that corresponds to the suffering church on earth. Yet even these saints in heaven have a future. John has shown the heavenly destiny of believers and has learned of their deliverance through Christ’s blood. He now concludes the chapter, and this entire cycle of visions that began in Revelation 4, with a spectacular description of the eternal destination to which this great multitude of Christ’s people are headed. For those who have trusted in Christ the vision of our future destination is the most uplifting source of encouragement, enabling us to endure the trials and tribulations of this life with joy and hope in service to Christ. If you have not turned to Christ, the blessings awaiting His people urge you to consider the future that you will never know unless your sins are washed clean through faith in His blood.
First, John hears of the shelter that God provides with His own glorious presence (v. 15). The saints are admitted before the throne of the holy God because their sins have been washed clean and they are justified in Christ. Worshiping in God’s sanctuary, they have immediate access to the glory of His presence. They are now, as Paul put it, “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). On His part, God receives the church as His own dearly beloved children. The Sovereign Creator spreads His presence over them like a tent, so that they dwell in Him forever. As a kingdom of priests, the believers fulfill the purpose for which they were made and then were redeemed in the unending adoration of a God whom they more fully know as eternity stretched on forever.
Second, John is told of the blessing that attends Christ’s people in the shelter of God’s love (v. 16). Here is the bliss of the salvation rest to which Christ’s people now journey in the wilderness of a sinful world. On earth, believers are subjected to every kind of deprivation and hardship, but the promise is held before us that our struggle will not be in vain. In the age to come, there is no hardship, trial, or loss, but only the gain of fullness and joy. David anticipated this bounty in the closing words of Psalm 23 (Ps. 23:5-6).
Psalm 23 connects with the third feature of our eternal destination: Christ’s eternal shepherding (v. 17). All through this vision, believers have stood before God on His throne and the Lamb. In eternity, just as God makes His presence a tent for us, the Lamb shepherds us to the fullest experience of eternal life, guiding us “to springs of living water.” “Come,” he summons, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…, that your soul may live (Isa. 55:1-3).
Revelation 7:9-17 Study Questions:
Who makes up the great multitude that John sees (v. 9), and how does this crowd seem to differ from those described in verses 4-8?
How does this passage help us understand how God is involved in our lives in the midst of great suffering or difficulty?
What is the response of the multitude to what God and the Lamb have done for them (vv. 14-15)?
What does it mean that God will “shelter” those gathered around Him “with his presence” (v. 15)?
At this point, John glimpses the further future, the vision of the New Jerusalem itself (Rev. 21). In a wonderful role reversal the Lamb will turn into a Shepherd, assuming the royal role of John 10 (the “good shepherd”) and indeed the divine role of Psalm 23. This Lamb-turned-Shepherd guides the flock of His people to springs of living water (v. 17). What does this symbolize?
When in your life have you experienced God as Lamb or God as Shepherd?
The central place of Israel in history, in current events, and in God’s plan for the future is abundantly clear: Israel occupies a central place in God’s program of human history and God will not let the world forget or ignore the Jewish people. Yet as I have studied various commentaries on the book of Revelation and on other books of the Bible, I have been struck by the fact that a surprisingly large number of Bible scholars ignore the important place God has reserved for this great and historic race of people. The same grace which God has shown to His church (to Christians like you and me, and to these Bible scholars) God is still in the process of displaying toward His people, Israel – yet so many scholars seem blithely unaware of God’s grace toward Israel. Across the span of history and throughout the pages of His Word, God has plainly stated His eternal plan for the people of Israel. Now, as we open the pages of Revelation 7, we shall see the culmination of that plan.
In Revelation 6, we saw the opening of the six seals of judgment. But as we come to Revelation 7, we come to a pause between the first six seals and the seventh and final seal. It is as though God declared an intermission after the terrible scenes of judgment in Revelation 6. In this beautiful interlude in Revelation 7, God treats us, the viewers of this astounding vision recorded by the hand of John, to a kind of a flashback. What we essentially have in Revelation 7 is a flashback that supplies a missing piece of the Revelation puzzle. We are taken back to the beginning of the judgments of the seven-year tribulation period to see the working out of God’s plan from a different vantage point. What we will see in this flashback is the selection of a special group of Jews who will be given a special mission during the last days.
The book of Revelation is an unusual blend of literal events and symbols, and there are certain symbols to be found in the opening of Revelation 7. One such symbol is the phrase “the four corners of the earth.” This phrase simply refers to the four compass directions, north, south, east, and west. In verses 1-3 four angels are depicted as holding something that is about to come upon the earth. They have been commanded to restrain the four winds, which symbolize the devastating power of natural forces. The land, the sea, and the trees also appear as symbols in these verses. The land or the earth is frequently used as a symbol for Israel throughout the Old Testament. The symbol of the sea is often used throughout Scripture to describe the Gentile nations in general and the pagan nations in particular. The symbol of the trees frequently speaks of individuals in various places in Scripture.
The four angels who hold back the winds are the first four of the seven angels which sound their trumpets in the following chapters of Revelation. If you carefully compare what takes place under the judgments of the seven angels you will see that the first four of the seven angels control events which affect the land, the sea, and the trees.
In this passage, the four angels are commanded to hold back the winds of destruction until a very important group of people has been sealed by God. The angel which seals this group is described as “coming up from the east,” or more literally “from the rising of the sun.” This is an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. There the prophet predicts that for those who revere the name of God, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” This is a poetic description of the coming of Jesus Christ in glory and in power. Thus it is in relationship to the coming of Christ that this special group is marked by the angel of the rising sun with the seal of God’s ownership.
There is no mystery about what it means when this special group is “sealed” by God. Today, all believers are sealed by God in a special way. That is why Paul tells us, “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” The presence of the Holy Spirit in us as Christians is the unmistakable mark of God’s ownership upon our lives; as Paul declares in Romans, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom. 8:16). The same Holy Spirit who has sealed us as God’s children will also seal this chosen group that is described in these verses. These are thus Spirit-filled, Spirit-led people. The seal is placed upon their foreheads, which indicates that the Spirit rules over their minds, their thoughts, and their will. They are governed by the mind of Christ.
Together with the vision of the angels, John heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel. The first question about this body concerns its identity. The 144,000 sealed servants are to be taken symbolically rather than literally. The number is achieved by multiplying twelve, for Israel, by twelve, for the apostles, to signify the entirety of the redeemed church. This matches the heavenly city of chapter 21, with twelve gates for Israel’s tribes and twelve foundations for the apostles (Rev. 21:12-14), signifying the entirety of the redeemed church. This number is multiplied by a thousand probably to show the great multitude of Christ’s people. The idea of the Christians’ being numbered like Israel’s tribes may suggest that the church forms an army, carrying forth the banner of the gospel. With the winds of judgment and calamity being restrained for their passage and having being sealed by God, the church triumphantly advances to heaven.
When we think of the church in terms of Israel marching from Egypt to the Promised Land in the days of the exodus, we are reminded of the necessity of or perseverance in faith. Most of the Israelites who departed from Egypt under Moses never entered the Promised Land because of their rebellion and unbelief. Hebrews 4:2 warns that many who attend church today are like the outward members of Israel who never entered salvation, explaining that “the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” This warns us that mere membership or attendance at church does not grant us salvation, but only by true saving faith and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Revelation 7 assures us that true believers are sealed by God so as to persevere all the way to heaven.
The question is: “Are we true believers, and do our lives bear testimony to the presence and power of God’s Spirit?” The first application of Revelation 7, then, is for us to know the reality of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, rather than a mere outward Christianity. Have we embraced Christ in a living faith, which alone can attest to our sealing by God for salvation?
Two more applications flow from these visions. Verses 9-10 show the church above praising God for its salvation. We should notice that this scene matches that of the Feast of Tabernacles in Israel, which celebrated both the successful completion of the exodus and the ingathering of the annual harvest. We see this especially in the waving of palm branches, which was one of the chief features of this festival, praising God for the ingathered harvest. How appropriate this worship will be in heaven, when the entire harvest of Christ’s people will have been gathered in. John’s vision continues in verses 11-12 with the angels of heaven worshiping God because of what they have learned through our salvation. Knowing this, we should endeavor to live now in such a way that watching angels will marvel at the power of God’s grace in our lives so as to praise our Savior forever.
Finally, we are reminded of the gospel imperative that shapes the calling of every Christian. Why has judgment not yet come? Why are the angels restraining the four winds? The answer: so that the full number of God’s elect people may come in. Our present history exists for the saving of the great multitude that will worship above. Like the twelve tribes in marching order, the church is sent through history on a gospel mission, to take the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world so that countless millions will be saved. Do we have a missional mind-set and zeal that fits this picture? What role are you playing in the great harvest of the gospel for salvation? Do you pray for specific people to be saved? Do you warmly invite neighbors to church? Are you prepared to explain the gospel message of Jesus to others, and are you willing to do so? What a joyful privilege it is for us to be His servants on earth, sealed and protected by His Spirit, to carry the gospel to the lost. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus told His disciples, but then sadly regretted that “the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37).
Revelation 7:1-12 Study Questions:
What are the angels at the four corners of the earth doing and why?
The idea of “harming” the earth, the sea and the trees in verse 3 is harsh. Why then, has the authority to harm God’s creation been given to these angels?
The “seals” on a scroll were the kind of sticky wax whose purpose, in the ancient world and sometimes in the modern as well, was to keep important documents secure against prying eyes. You could always tell if the seal had been broken, since it would be stamped with the mark of the one who had sealed it up. How does the term seal take on a new, though somewhat related, significance here (vv. 2-4)?
Who makes up the 144,000 that John hears will be sealed (vv. 4-8)?
What benefit might the “seal” offer to those marked with it?
In terms of the first cycle of history, found in Revelation 4-7, the Day of Judgment appears with the opening of the sixth seal. The first four seals unleashed the horsemen of conquest, violence, famine, and death, depicting the woes that will characterize the entire church age, from Christ’s ascension until His return. The fifth seal showed the souls of the martyrs in heaven who died in the midst of the woes of the first four seals. The sixth seal answers the prayer of the martyrs for justice and vengeance on the dwellers of earth. God told them to wait “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete” (6:11), and the sixth seal shows that this waiting will be fulfilled in God’s timing. Just as seven is the number of completion and salvation in Revelation, six is the number of man. Thus, when Christ “opened the sixth seal” (v. 12), the day of God’s wrath appeared.
As we consider the disruption of creation depicted in verses 12-14, two important questions need to be answered that must be taken together. First, are these descriptions to be taken symbolically or more or less literally, and second, what is the event they describe? There are arguments for both symbolically and literal interpretations of these verses. The arguments in favor of a symbolic interpretation are impressive. Primarily, they show that these images of physical calamity are drawn from Old Testament passages in which these same images are used of historical events describing God’s interventions and especially depicting the fall of cities and empires.
There are reasons, however, to take the differing view that the sixth seal foretells the literal dissolution of creation in the final judgment of God. While we agree that symbolism is often used in the Old Testament for falling empires and the conquest of cities, there are other passages showing that these temporal judgments anticipate the great and final Day of Judgment when the earth itself will be destroyed. Additionally, the sixth seal answers the prayers of the fifth seal, which call for judgment on the entire world (v. 10). Moreover, the language used here occurs elsewhere in Revelation to describe the final judgment of all mankind (11:13; 16:18-20; 20:11). Finally, a literal reading of the sixth seal fits Jesus’ depiction in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:29-32). Even in depicting the literal disruption of creation, there is probably symbolism in these verses also. Still, a mainly literal reading is possible.
Not only does the sixth seal destroy the corrupted cosmos, but the upheavals picture the terror and dread that the condemned human race will not escape. Thus, in addition to the dissolution of creation, John sees the dismay of sinful mankind (vv. 15-17). Here, John sees six categories of condemned mankind who experience the great day of wrath. They describe all classes of society, showing that God judges all on an equal basis regardless of their social, political, or economic standing. The prominence, however, is given to judgment of the rulers and the great of the world. The martyrs prayed for God to judge and avenge “those who dwell on the earth” (v. 10), and it starts at the top.
The dismayed human race responds to the final judgment in two ways. First is a vain attempt to flee. The people called “to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us’” (v. 16). In this way, they state that nothing is worse than facing the judgment that has come. Yet none will be able to escape. Coupled with their attempt to flee is their terror in God’s judgment. This is why they find death preferable to “the face of him who is seated on the throne” (v. 16). God is revealed to condemned humanity as the enthroned Creator and as the Lamb whose offered salvation was spurned and despised. How total will their alarm be when “the great day of their wrath has come” (v. 17).
In reflecting on the dire events depicted under the sixth seal, we should consider four applications. The first notes that since the earth is to be destroyed in God’s judgment, we should live with an aim to the world to come and not to this present, passing world. The New Testament is filled with this argument. This world will not last, and even its best achievements, monuments, and glories are destined to perish apart from Christ. If we believe that this world will make way for the eternal kingdom of Christ, then we should seek the treasures of His realm. We should honor Christ through obedience to His Word, serve the growth and well-being of His church, and share the gospel so that more people can inhabit eternity with us. This application urges each of us to take stock of our lives to see whether our priorities are on earth or in heaven.
A second application was likely on John’s as he penned Revelation to churches facing persecution. Knowing that God saves His people, Christians facing opposition and hardship should not give up or give in to the world but persevere in faith, prayer, and a loving gospel witness, knowing that redemption is near. The pattern of God’s judgment on enemies of His gospel and deliverance of His people is repeated throughout history. Whether the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, or Communist Eastern Europe and China, God has judged the rulers and powers that opposed His gospel and persecuted the church. Today, godless humanism and government hostility to Christianity can only bring divine judgment on America. Just as God answered the prayers of Revelation 6:10 with the judgment of verses 12-17, He hears and will answer the prayers of suffering believers today.
Third, believers in Christ should not fear being caught in this dreadful wrath. Verse 16 says that the final judgment reveals “the face of Him who is seated on the throne.” This is therefore not an overthrow of the plan of history described in the Bible but its fulfillment. The promises of God are established by this throne. Chapter 4 showed God’s throne encircled by the rainbow that reminds Him of His covenant grace. Romans 8:30 proclaims that “those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” This is the will of the sovereign God enthroned in heaven for His people in Christ. Reading this woeful passage we might ask, “Will I survive the end of the world in judgment?” There is only one sure way to answer that question. We must believe the message of the gospel that says that faith in Jesus Christ delivers us from the wrath which is to come.
Finally, those who have heard the gospel but have not yet believed should realize that the present age of grace, and the opportunity for salvation, will suddenly end and be followed by final judgment and divine wrath. If you have not embraced Jesus for salvation, then you will be in this picture, desperately unable to escape the wrath of the Savior whom you have personally spurned. The judgment to come is the great day not only of God’s justice but also of “the wrath of the Lamb” (v. 16). Mankind had rejected the Lamb who was slain for the forgiveness of sin and will now suffer God’s wrath at His hands. When the world’s only Savior has become its wrathful judge, there will then be no salvation for any who did not previously come to Jesus in humble, repentant faith.
Psalm 2 notes the rebellion of the kings and rulers of earth and their destruction under the iron rod of Christ. The psalm ends with an appeal, a warning, and a promise for us: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:12).
Revelation 6:12-17 Study Questions:
What series of events does the sixth seal reveal?
Why are the kings of the earth, the rich and the powerful, singled out among all the people who hide in caves (vv. 15-16)?
How does our view of “wrath” change when we realize that it belongs to the One who has embodied (in His own death) God’s own self-giving, sacrificial love?
The only people who should be afraid of the Lamb’s wrath are those who are determined to resist the call of love. In what ways might we respond to the call to love in the way of the Lamb in our lives?
Beginning with the fifth seal, the nature of the judgment changes; the last three seals contain neither horse, nor rider, nor the natural forces of judgment. With the fifth seal comes a different kind of activity – a supernatural activity. Here we see God working, bringing about both favorable and ominous results for the world’s people amid the judgments of the four horsemen.
There is a difficult concept embedded in these verses. How is it that the saints who lived and died over a period of centuries and millennia appear in this passage to be together in heaven at one time? The answer to this question is that this passage gives us a glimpse into the difference between time and eternity. We live in time; the events described in this passage take place in eternity. In this world, we are born, live, and die in time. But after we die, we enter a great eternal present called eternity. In the realm of eternity, time doesn’t pass moment by moment. Everything simply is. Everyone who died in the past, who will die in the future, or who is dying at this very moment in time emerges together in the same undivided moment called eternity. There is no past or future there. Those concepts belong to time.
When Jesus broke the first four seals on the scroll given to Him in heaven, they revealed woes that occur on the earth during the church age. Opening the fifth scroll brings our attention back to heaven. Here we see the souls of the believers who died for Christ in these tribulations. This emphasis should not surprise us, since Revelation has all along been preparing its readers for persecution. In the letter to Smyrna, Jesus said, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). Antipas of Pergamum was a faithful witness who had already died (2:13). In the Gospels, Jesus warned that “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” (Matt. 24:9).
With the fifth seal, John saw “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain (v. 9). Everyone dies sometime, but these souls are special for the cause of their death: they “had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (v. 9). The martyrs died because they would not renounce the biblical revelation about Christ’s divine person and saving work. The “witness” probably emphasizes the gospel testimony they received and then shared boldly with others. This reminds us that the basic meaning of the Greek word martyr is “witness.” They died because of their testimony to Jesus.
If verse 9 highlights the cause of the martyrs, the next verse notes the cry of the martyrs in heaven (v. 10). The martyrs cry out over the continued slaughter of the saints on earth. The martyrs cry to God is not over their own deaths, but over the injustice taking place on earth. The fact that glorified saints are praying this way near God’s presence in heaven should alert us that this must be a biblical prayer.
The first reason that this prayer is worthy of Christians is that the martyrs were not complaining only about their own sufferings but were crying for the injustice inflicted on fellow believers. The saints in heaven want to know how long the church on earth will suffer. Second, there is nothing inherently unchristian about praying against evil and asking God to judge the wicked. Such prayers are found throughout the Psalms. Third, the primary focus of this prayer is the honor of God. The martyrs pray to the Sovereign of history, knowing that His glory requires righteousness to prevail. We too, should pray for God to glorify Himself in the judgment of the wicked, knowing that He certainly will. As chapter 6 goes on, John is shown that the Day of Judgment is God’s answer to this prayer of the martyrs for vengeance (6:12-17).
Verse 11 concludes this brief but remarkable passage by revealing the condition of the martyrs above. First, the martyrs are each dressed in a “white robe.” The white robe signifies righteousness. Together with the righteous standing of the saints above, the white robes also speak of their purity. Whenever a Christian thinks of justification through faith in Christ, he or she should also be reminded of the calling to live in the holiness of sanctification. Moreover, white is “the color of victory. The martyrs appeared to have been defeated by their enemies. Actually they were given the victory by God.” The reality from heaven shows that it is the saints, though weak in the world and despised for their faith, who attains the victory through union with the crucified Christ.
Second, the white-robed martyrs enjoy the satisfaction of rest with God in heaven: they are “told to rest a little longer” (v. 11). The word for rest in Greek also has the idea of being refreshed. They rest in the finished work of Christ, and their joy is enriched by the treasures they stored up in heaven during a life focused not on the world below but on the world above (Matt. 6:19-20).
Although the martyrs are clothed in white and have entered their bliss, they have not yet arrived at the full extent of their desire. For while they rest, they are told to wait “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). The martyrs long to see redemptive history come to completion and all the elect gathered in, as well as God’s answer to their cry for justice.
These three verses provide a great wealth of lessons for us, in large part because of the rare glimpse they offer of believers in heaven after their death and before the final resurrection. Here are four important lessons: First, this passage teaches that the souls of Christians who die go immediately to heaven. This is true not only for those who suffer violent deaths for Jesus but for all those who die having trusted Him for salvation. Christians do not pass into death but pass through death so as to immediately enjoy the blessing of the presence of the Lord.
Second, the condition of the martyrs in heaven shows that the injustice of the world is overturned by God’s righteous judgment. Although the Bible has told us that this life involves tribulation, the experience can fill us with dismay. Yet the world’s persecutors achieved for these Christians exactly the opposite of what they desired. They sought to put an end to their lives, but instead they ushered the believers into glory. They condemned the Christians, but the white robes in heaven overturned their verdict.
Third, verse 11 shows that the number of those saved through Christ has been predetermined by God and all of them are certain to come to faith. God knows “the number of their fellow servants and their brothers” and has appointed a time for their gathering to be complete, just as God has ordained the manner of their lives and of their deaths. This should encourage us in our witness to the gospel, since the elect are sure to be saved and many may come to Christ through our testimony.
Fourth, these verses show the importance of the testimony of the martyrs to God’s redemptive plan for history. You don’t have to die violently for Jesus in order to play a decisive role in God’s redeeming plan. But you do have to be true enough to God’s Word that the world notices your faith. What was the message of all the martyrs, who by faith entered into death with joy in their hearts? Their message told of life eternal in the blissful rest of heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. Each of them knew the truth of Jesus’ words, which now speak to us today: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
Revelation 6:9-11 Study Questions:
Who does John see under the altar and what is their cry (vv. 9-10)?
Why are they given white robes and told that they must wait a while longer (v. 11)?
There is a long tradition, going back through the Psalms and the prophets to the children of Israel in Egypt, crying out to their God to do something at last (Exodus 2:23). This cry (“How long, O Lord, how long?”) echoes down through the centuries, and is heard again as the fifth seal is opened. How is this cry echoed in our own day – in our families, churches and the world around us?
If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
As John’s vision continues in chapter 6, the opening of the seals on God’s scroll unleashes great tribulations on the earth. Yet far from being without purpose, they are shown by John’s vision as reflecting the divine will under the lordship of Jesus Christ. While the four horsemen bring woe and death, they do not bring dismay to those who are trusting in Christ.
The visions of God’s throne and of the glorified Lamb in chapters 4 and 5 occupy the very heart of the book of Revelation, depicting God as sovereign over history. In chapter 6, Jesus begins opening the seals of the scroll that He has been found worthy to open. Four riders go forth at His command, showing that Christ reigns not only over the hearts of those who love Him but also over the dangerous forces unleashed in the world. Jesus truly is, as John has said, “the Ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5), and therefore His followers can face tribulation with hope.
Revelation 6 begins with the opening of the seven-sealed scroll, held by the Lamb who was slain (vv.1-2). There has been much disagreement as to who or what this rider on the white horse represents. Some identify him as Jesus, because in Revelation 19 Jesus appears on a white horse, bringing as end to the series of terrible judgments upon the earth. But it is a mistake to identify the rider in Revelation 6 with the rider in Revelation 19. The contexts of the two passages are entirely different, and there are important differences in the way these two riders are described. However, it is significant that there are similarities between these two riders on white horses. Both are crowned and both are bent on conquest. This suggests that the rider of Revelation 6 may be someone who is like Christ in some ways, but is not Christ. I submit that the rider of Revelation 6 is the long-predicted Antichrist, who is spoken of in various places in Scripture, and who is to appear in the last days.
The rider of Revelation 6 is given a bow, but there is no mention of arrows. This suggests that his conquest is a bloodless one. It pictures the conquest of the world by the Antichrist as taking place by the overpowering of the minds and wills of human beings, without the physical destruction of war. It will take place not by force but by deceit, by lying that misleads people and nations without the shedding of blood. Clearly, today we live in an age of runaway deception. But in this passage, the rider on the white horse appears as a sign that the worst deception is yet on the horizon. Paul writes about this in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.
In verses 3-4, the second seal is opened, revealing a new horse and its rider. This rider is easy to recognize. It is War, but this form of war is not merely war between opposing armies. It’s raw, red slaughter. It’s civil anarchy. It’s the kind of war that takes place when social order breaks down, when mobs of people take to the streets and begin killing with abandon. We have seen faint echoes of such war in our own world today. But these are only a faint foretaste of the massive destruction to come.
In John’s day people had no conception of the weapons of mass destruction that are stored up in the world arsenals – the missiles, nuclear warheads, chemical warheads, and biological weapons that threaten to destroy human civilization. The best words John had to describe the destruction he foresaw was the image of a “large sword,” clearly this “large sword” is a powerful weapon of destruction. If you read Ezekiel 38 and 39, you will find a vivid account of such warfare on a massive scale. There, armies come down out of the north, pour into the Holy Land, and are decimated by what appears to be radiation sickness. As we honestly face the prophecies of Ezekiel and Revelation, we have to admit that it is only in our century, with its efficient, high-tech approach to killing, that the fulfillment of these terrible predictions could even come about.
In verses 5-6, the third seal is opened, revealing another horse and rider. The third seal is related to economic upheaval – inflation, recession, panic. There were stories of economic distress in post-World War 1 Germany, where the Deutsche Mark, the German monetary unit, had declined in value so sharply that people would load thousands of bills into a wheelbarrow and haul them to market just to buy one loaf of bread! That is what runaway inflation does: it renders money worthless. Inflation may well be the justification the Antichrist will use to impose rigid controls over buying and selling, as we shall see in Revelation 13.
In verses 7-8, the fourth seal is opened, revealing another horse and rider. Though this horse is called a “pale horse” in the NIV text, the original Greek text uses the word chloros, from which we get the word “chlorine.” The chloros horse is pale green like the color of chlorine. The rider is named Death. Floating along behind Death is a figure identified as Hades (or Hell). Death takes the body and Hades takes the soul.
There are four forms of death referred to in this seal of judgment. First the sword, which refers here not to war but to murder, the deadly assault of one individual human being upon another. Under this seal of judgment, people will take law and vengeance into their own hands and will kill one another without regard to justice. Second comes famine and widespread starvation. The death that accompanies starvation is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. Third comes the devastation of plague. A plague is an epidemic, a rapidly spreading disease. In Matthew 24, Jesus predicts that famines, plagues, and earthquakes would come upon the earth in the last days. Fourth, the wild beasts of the earth multiply. Human beings become prey to these predatory creatures.
Verse 8 says that a quarter of the earth is given over to these four kinds of attack and devastation. It is difficult to say whether this means that a quarter of the earth’s physical geography will be devastated, or whether a quarter of the earth’s population will be destroyed. Either way the loss of life would be staggering. Here we have a picture of incomprehensible devastation visited upon the earth as a result of human hatred, barbarity, and sin.
These four seal judgments are references to forces that are already at work in our own society, right now. The only difference between this day and the last days is that these judgments will be carried out to their logical and unprecedented extreme at that time. These four seals confirm God’s method, which He has announced many times in Scripture, of forcing men and women to face the truth about themselves. What is that method? He allows evil – the evil that human beings themselves choose to commit – to operate without restraint till people see for themselves its terrible outcome.
God confronts us with the unpleasant truth about ourselves by giving us what we demand. If men and women choose to believe a lie, then God will send them the “powerful delusion” of the Antichrist. If men and women seek to kill and destroy, then God will give them the anarchy and mob rule they demand. He may even give them over to nuclear destruction. If men and women demand more luxury with which to gratify their lusts, then God will give them the economic upheaval and inflation that is the result of greed and immorality. Ultimately their luxuries and money will be worthless, and even the necessities of life will be beyond their reach. If men and women demand power and control, they will receive the brutal end of unrestrained power: intrigue, murder, disease, and desolation upon the earth. These judgments cannot be halted. They are the inescapable consequences of unrestrained human evil.
Revelation 6:1-8 Study Questions:
What does John see the Lamb begin to do?
When the Lamb opens the first four seals of the scroll, instead of four glorious remedies for the world’s ills, we find the four living creatures summoning four horses and riders, each (so it seems) to make matters worse. How are these horsemen described and what does each seem to represent?
What is the fourth horseman given the authority to do (v. 8)?
What seems to be the ultimate goal of allowing the horsemen to ride into the world inflicting so much damage?
For too long, over the last century at least, mainline Western churches have healed the wounds of the human race lightly, declaring “peace, peace” when there is no peace, except at the superficial level. How might we begin to look below the surface and help each other find deeper healing?
Next, the Lamb who is worthy takes up the scroll – and all of heaven breaks forth into song and praise (vv. 7-8). The court of heaven understands the meaning of history and the program of God. The realm of heaven rings with worship, and at the center of that worship is the Lamb who was slain. Each of the twenty-four elders has a harp, and there are bowls of fragrant incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The harp mentioned in verse 8 symbolizes the music of inanimate creation. Not only will all human and angelic beings in the universe glorify God, but all of creation – the rocks, the trees, the mountains, the hills, and the sea – will give praise and worship to God the Father and His Son, Jesus the Redeemer.
Notice that the elders are depicted as holding the golden bowls of incense. The elders are, in fact, presenting the prayers of the saints to God. There is a profound and exhilarating truth for you and me in this image: we, the redeemed, actually contribute to the work of redemption through our prayers! Of course, we cannot lay the foundation for our redemption. Only Jesus could do that, and He has accomplished that task perfectly.
But we do have a role in applying God’s redemptive power throughout the earth (1 Tim. 2:1-4). When you care about another person and you bring that person before the throne of God in prayer, you become part of the process of applying God’s work of redemption to that human heart. You actually become a partner with the God of the universe in changing and redeeming lives! The fact that you and I can become a part of God’s eternal program for human redemption should ignite, excite, and transform our prayer life.
In the next verses of this passage (vv. 9-10), the apostle John hears a new song. In these verses John hears the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, their voices joined as a heavenly choir, sing this new song. Why is this song called a new song? It is new to the elders and the four living creatures because, they have never sung such a song before for, as angels, they have never been redeemed! They have learned about redemption by watching God’s grace applied to sinning human beings.
For centuries these angels have observed the human race – willful, rebellious, defiant, sinning men and women like you and me, selfishly seeking our own way while rejecting the patient, forgiving love of God. They also have watched God calling to us, pleading with us, sacrificing His only Son for us, forgiving and redeeming us from our sin. Now, as the end of human history approaches, they join together to sing a song they have never known before, a song they learned from the saints – the song of the redeemed. That’s why heaven bursts forth in praise and worship: the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus!
As John watches, the entire universe is caught up in the wonder of God’s sacrificial love for mankind. He hears a great, swelling chorus – the voice of millions upon millions of angels! The apostle Paul refers to this same scene in his letter to the Philippians. After encouraging his readers to imitate the humility of Christ – who willingly took the form of a servant, humbled Himself, and died for our sakes – Paul writes, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Note that the divisions Paul mentions – heaven, earth, and under the earth – are the same divisions John sees in his vision. And in each of those realms, throughout the entire extent of the universe, there is the sound of praise and worship offered to Jesus the Redeemer. The allusion of those “under the earth” refers to those who have already died, including those who die in unbelief and are in hell. So even hell must join with heaven and earth in acknowledging the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Clearly there will be some in eternity who gladly confess the lordship of Christ because they have appropriated the sacrifice of Jesus for their own eternal lives. But others will be forced to reluctantly confess His lordship. Those who scoff at the Scriptures, who ridicule biblical morality, who mock or persecute godly people will one day be made to see they are wrong and their lives have been wasted. When the illusions and delusions upon which they based their lives have all been stripped away, they will have no choice but to join the rest of creation in openly confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.
John sees all this in a vision. It has not yet happened, but it will. When the seven-sealed scroll in finally opened, all of creation will join in acknowledging God and His Son, Jesus. That is the goal toward which all of history is quickly rushing. Every historic event that occurs, end every day that passes, is linked to the moment John witnesses in Revelation 5. All the momentous events that stream across our TV screens and social media headlines do not take place in a vacuum. They take place in a grand and cosmic context. They are being woven into an eternal plan. You and I are woven into that plan as well. We have choices to make. We cannot escape the eternal consequences of those choices.
Someday every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. There will be no exceptions. You will confess His lordship, and so will I. The question is: When that moment comes, will our hearts be filled with joy and gladness – or with regret? It is not a choice for the future, but a choice we must make today.
Revelation 5:8-14 Study Questions:
What happens when the Lamb takes the scroll (vv. 8-14)?
Why are the elders holding harps and bowls of incense in the presence of the Lamb?
How does this scene invite us to participate in what is happening in the very throne room of God and the Lamb?
How many creatures does John hear join in the third song of worship (v. 13)?
Why is it significant that in these songs the Lamb shares the worship which belongs, and uniquely and only belongs, to the one Creator God?
In what ways might the expressions of worship found in these songs inform and inspire us as we too join in the worship of the Lamb?