Dragons, locusts, fearsome mysterious beasts, seals, trumpets, and bowls – what on earth do they all mean? How are we supposed to interpret all these details and apply them to our daily lives? Who are the 144,000 who are sealed? What about the great multitude that no-one can count? The content of Revelation seems to be like a fast-running cartoon, with one ‘scene’ leading straight into another – and you get the impression that John is struggling to write down all that he sees, and to find the right words to describe the strange pictures before his eyes.
What does help is to avoid getting side-tracked by the individual details and to look for the central theme or thought of each scene. We do the same when we try to understand the parables of Jesus: ask yourself, ‘what is the core message in this?’. Don’t ‘lose the wood for the trees’. As for the individual details, like the trumpets and bowls and beasts, they probably refer to spiritual principles that apply throughout the entire gospel age, rather than a particular historical event in time.
Remember too that Revelation is probably not a chronological prophecy of world events beginning in chapter 1 and ending in chapter 22. Hendriksen’s view is that it is in seven sections, each section describing the entire gospel age, but with a different emphasis each time. The sections he suggests are Chapters 1-3; 4-7; 8-11; 12-14; 15-16; 17-19; 20-22. Almost all of them end with God’s final judgment and a new kingdom for the redeemed to live in.
Finally, use parallel passages in the Old Testament to help the interpretation. For instance, in Daniel 7, four beasts come out of the sea, first a lion, then a bear, then a leopard, then a terrifying one with lots of teeth. The interpretation of this dream was that each beast represents an empire that will oppress God’s people, and that eventually, the Lord himself will defeat these empires and will establish his own kingdom for us, his saints. In Revelation 13, the Beast from the Sea had a composite of bear, lion, leopard, and other images. Consistency of interpretation should mean that this beast also represents human empires that fight against God’s people using political and military power to oppose the true faith. If you were a Christian living in North Korea today, you would not need any convincing that you were trapped in a demonic political system that opposed Jesus.
Today we look through at chapter 6. The Lamb has triumphed and is worthy to open the seals on the scroll that allow the redemptive will of God to be implemented. Each opened seal reveals a new type of event, for example a white horse with a rider who conquers (probably Christ himself). The imagery compares closely to Rev 19:11 where the same rider is actually named as the ‘Word of God’, the ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’. It also echoes Psalm 45:3-5…
Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one;
clothe yourself with splendour and majesty.
4 In your majesty ride forth victoriously
in the cause of truth, humility, and justice;
let your right hand achieve awesome deeds.
5 Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies;
let the nations fall beneath your feet.
Christ is our victor, the conqueror, who has overcome sin, the Devil, and the rulers of this world.
According to Hendriksen, the red horse picture may symbolise the slaughter of Christians as they are persecuted; the so-called sword in the rider’s hand is actually a ‘machaira’, a sacrificial knife of the kind used by Abraham (almost) to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The word used for ‘kill’ is actually ‘slaughter’, which again has a more personal feel to is, rather than just a person being killed in battle. Believers are slaughtered for their belief in Jesus, for their testimony. Jesus himself predicted this: “I came, not to send peace, but a sword (‘machaira’)… He that loses his life for my sake shall find it”. (Matthew 10:34).
The black horse with its rider holding a set of scales, perhaps symbolising the poverty that Christians would soon live in, suffering discrimination and economic hardship, due to their principled stand against the world’s system. Believers would not remain in the trade guilds – based on idolatry – and so would be barred from many kinds of employment. We read in Rev 13:17 that anyone who did not have the ‘mark of the beast’ was unable to buy or sell.
The pale horse could mean death in all its forms, as suffered by all members of the human race. In this sense, Christians are having to suffer the same impact of living in a ‘broken’ world as the non-Christians are. Death and Hades face us all in a physical sense! The word ‘sword’ in this verse is different from that of the red horse; here it represents a battle sword, meaning ‘war’. The sword, famine, plague, and death by wild beasts could happen to anyone – but the point is that Christians are not exempt simply because they have been saved. In many ways, this horse represents some of the most corrosive attacks on our faith and confidence: we sometimes assume that we have the right to be preserved from the illnesses and disappointments of this world – but often God wants us to be right there in it, with him!
These are warnings, therefore to all of us. Christians who refuse to compromise their faith and who continue to call Jesus ‘Lord’ will be discriminated against, persecuted, slaughtered, and put to death by a political system that hates God. In North Korea today, it is a capital offence to own a bible! In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood have been going around burning church buildings with Christians inside. In many Middle Eastern nations today, Christians are denied well-paid jobs and can only scratch out a subsistence living with no luxuries. And yet, their Jesus is a conqueror!
We then see the souls (not the old or new bodies) of those who have died faithfully and with faith in Christ. They are now safe, close to the throne of God, and told to be patient until all God’s elect children have been brought into safety with them. There is a clear message, here, that the soul lives on after the earthly body is destroyed, and that a believer goes immediately into the presence of Christ upon his/her death. Of course, Jesus said as much to the thief on the cross beside him: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Then there is a final judgment upon the earth and its unredeemed people, who are desperate to hide from the “wrath of the Lamb” – a terrifying phrase! Better for the rocks and mountains to fall on them and to cover them, than to face that final judgment! The door of grace has been closed and hope is forever gone! Once the righteous have been removed to a safe place, the heavens and the earth are first destroyed and then renewed.