After John addressed the seven churches in Asia specifically, he describes a great scene around God’s throne. He describes the glorious worship of God by all of creation. In the context of this worship, a book is presented before the assembly and no one is found worthy to open its seals. In a courtroom setting in John’s time, a scroll would be brought to the judge and only he had authority to break the seal and read the judgment. In this heavenly courtroom setting that John describes, Christ is recognized in the courtroom and is the only one who is found worthy to break the seals and to pronounce judgment upon the world.
As Jesus breaks each seal, we make a realization: God’s judgment is not pronounced upon the whole world until all of the seals are broken. As we see the effects that come with the breaking of these seals taking place on the earth today, we take this as a warning that Christ Himself is preparing to pronounce judgment over the whole earth.
We know, already, that there are great natural disasters. We know that there are great wars where people kill one another. We know that famine causes people to go hungry and that people go hungry even without famine. People die of sickness and disease. People on the earth today are killed because of their religious convictions. People of the earth live in fear, not wanting to recognize God even though He has made Himself known to us.
As John was writing down these descriptions, the churches were under great persecution by the Roman Empire. Their question was, “Will this suffering ever end?” So, I pose the same question. God, when will You make things right?
Revelation 6:1-17 HCSB
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there was a white horse. The horseman on it had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he went out as a victor to conquer.
When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse went out, a fiery red one, and its horseman was empowered to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another. And a large sword was given to him.
When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and there was a black horse. The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius — but do not harm the olive oil and the wine.”
When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth.
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” So a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been.
Then I saw Him open the sixth seal. A violent earthquake occurred; the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair; the entire moon became like blood; the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a high wind; the sky separated like a scroll being rolled up; and every mountain and island was moved from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the military commanders, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, because the great day of Their wrath has come! And who is able to stand?”
In our world today, we see evidence of these seals being broken. Christ is preparing to issue His judgment against the world. If we look forward to chapter 8, we see that the seventh seal contains the blasting of seven trumpets (which will also sound before God’s judgment is declared). In chapter 7, verse 3, we learn that God places a seal of protection upon His people before the blaring of the seven trumpets.1 Since we are not currently protected from the effects on the earth of Christ’s action in heaven, we might deduce that the seals are not yet fully broken. When the seals are fully broken, those who genuinely belong to Christ will be protected through the more fierce preliminary judgments that come along with the sounding of the seven trumpets before God’s complete judgment is revealed.
Knowing that the preliminary judgments, which come with the breaking of the seals, have been taking place and will continue to take place for the time being, we are still left with the question, why? Why must there be natural disasters? Why must there be persecution? Why must there be death, famine, and sickness? The answer is simple. These things are warning signs that a judgment is coming, and no one who is apart from Christ will be able to withstand it. Why aren’t those who belong to Christ immune to these things in our current age? Why must God’s people endure the tribulation of the current age? In Revelation 7:14, we read that those who have come out of the great tribulation, which is a term John uses to describe the current struggles of the seven churches, have washed their robes and made them white with the blood of the Lamb (Jesus Christ). The tribulation of our current age serves a great purpose for both those who do not know Christ and those who do. For those who do not, the purpose is warning. For those who do and who follow Christ genuinely, the purpose is sanctification. It is the testing that brings about holiness in our lives. It is insurance so we can be sure that when we claim to follow Christ we actually do follow Christ. When we go through trials and tribulation, the faith we claim to have is tested. We will either show that we actually know Christ, or we will show that we do not. This is a good thing for us.
When I was in middle school, I did not know Christ. I considered myself to be a good person and I really did not see the benefit to having faith in Christ. I remember that there was this one girl whom I really liked. I pursued her and got to know her only to be rejected by her. It might have been because at the time I had a white man’s afro or because I was kind of a nerdy, wimpy kid, I’m not sure. What I do know is that the rejection stung. It stayed with me. When I did get over it, I hadn’t been changed for the better. I may have gotten stronger as a result of my experience, but that doesn’t mean I got better. I was the same person. After I gave my life to Christ, there was a girl whom I dated for about three years. I found out that she cheated on me and our relationship was over. It stung, too. I realize now looking back that this small tribulation caused less damage than the other. I was more equipped to deal with the pain. As I recovered, I now notice that God was using a tribulation in my life to make me more holy, or to conform me more to the image of Christ. He didn’t cause the tribulation specifically, and the tribulation did not specifically have a purpose in and of itself; but God did use it. There is a clear difference between when we experience tribulation as someone who has not given self to Christ and when we experience tribulation as someone who has.
When we question our own salvation or our own relationship with Christ, the fruit that we show in times of tribulation is evidence of the faith that we have. Without tribulation, we would have no reason to trust Christ in our fallen condition because we would never experience the hardships of a world that has rebelled against God. Tribulation increases faith. God allows us to go through the tribulation, while protecting His people from His judgment upon the world.
Does God cause specific tribulations in our lives? Most of the time the answer is no. We live in a time of tribulation that has been enabled by God for a purpose, but God does not cause most specific tribulations that we go through. We have to know, when we talk about tribulation in this world, that not everything happens for a reason, but God can use everything for a purpose; and He does for those who belong to Him.
The fifth seal
Now that we have taken a broad look at all of the seals, I want to examine one of the seals more closely. Because of time restraints, we cannot walk through all of them together. If there are any questions about any of the seals as you read on your own, please let me know.
When the fifth seal is broken, we see the martyrs (here meaning those who have been killed because of their faith in Christ) crying out from under the altar to God, “How long will this go on?” How long would God allow the suffering of His people? How long would the seven churches continue to be persecuted? How long must the people on the earth who follow Christ endure the great tribulation that they now experience? How long will families continue to be torn apart? How long will drug problems persist? How long will we (people on the earth, not the martyrs under the altar) experience famine, hunger, sickness, death, and martyrdom? How long will God wait before He finally raises His people up and issues His judgment against the people on the earth who have denied Him?
God’s answer is simple, and I am not sure how satisfying it is for us now. We want to hear that Christ is coming tomorrow, or tonight, to make all things right and to end suffering for His people; but this is not what we see in the text. God does not reveal for us a day or an hour. Instead, He answers, telling the martyrs to wait a little while longer until the number of martyrs is complete. Not only does God say, “Not yet,” but He also states that more people must be murdered for His name’s sake. There must be more tribulation experienced by God’s people on this earth. Thanks, God, for not giving us the answer that we want to hear.
This answer required faith and trust on the part of the churches in Asia. It requires faith and trust on our part today. When will the trial end? We do not know, and so we have to trust God with the timing. If God has all knowledge and all wisdom, and if God is all-good, then we can trust and have faith that His timing is perfect. We can be willing to endure these things for His name’s sake and for the sake of our own sanctification.
Think of the current hardship or tribulation in your own life. For us it is usually not the constant threat of imprisonment or martyrdom like it was for the churches in John’s time and like it is for many churches in other parts of the world today. Perhaps it is financial trouble. God, how long must we endure before You make things right? Perhaps it is problems at work because we live in an imperfect world. Perhaps there are relationship problems that cause tribulation. Perhaps our faith in Christ causes us to take stands that are unpopular in our day, causing tribulation for us. Perhaps there is sickness that plagues our families or us. Maybe we have lost loved ones and people keep dying around us. Perhaps we have entered into a stage in life and we don’t know how to adapt, causing tribulation. Here is the encouragement that John gave to the churches: Whatever tribulation we experience now and no matter how severe it may seem to us, God will use that tribulation to make us more holy. There will be a time when God will make all things right. We can trust completely in His timing.
Another encouragement for the church
In all of this, we might wonder what kind of existence those who go before us have. Is there a soul sleep? Do our loved ones live in the eternal bliss of heaven without us? Is there some sort of intermediate state for them? Surely these questions were also on the minds of the churches to whom John wrote. Surely they also wondered where those who had been murdered because of the faith were at or what they were doing. While we cannot answer this question fully based on this passage of Scripture, we do receive a clue. The spirits of the martyrs were under this altar taking part in this heavenly ceremony where Christ is breaking the seals, preparing to pronounce judgment. In Revelation 7:9-17, we see the multitude of genuine Christ-followers who are coming out of the tribulation that John is describing for our current age. They are also before God, serving Him day and night and God is also shepherding them and wiping the tears from their eyes.
There will come a day when there is a new heaven and new earth, but while Christ is carrying out His work of grace in the current age, those who pass on before us are taking part in that work along with us. Only, now they are in the full presence of Christ, serving Him day and night. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of a soul sleep. They do seem to currently exist in spirit without a body (this body will be made new and returned to them eventually).2 Our loved ones also do not seem to be in the eternal bliss of heaven that we usually might picture, yet. They are serving Christ as Christ accomplishes His current work from the heavenly realm. This, ultimately, is better than the other two options. It means that they may be aware of the events on the earth. Our loved ones may be able to see the work that we are doing for Christ and we honor them as we honor Christ. This is a great encouragement for us and for the seven churches during John’s time.
It also means that we ought to be very careful of books and movies like Heaven is for Real and The Shack. They, just as most books or movies written about either Heaven or Hell or some other spiritual experience, present pictures of Heaven, of Hell and of God that are entirely un-biblical or even contrary to the descriptions we find in Scripture. It is good that most descriptions are wrong. I would much rather know that my loved one is with Christ, participating in Christ’s work, and serving Christ than think that he or she is somewhere off by him or herself frolicking through the heavenly tulips doing something that causes him or her to be out of Christ’s presence. I am so thankful that God has given us some details in the text of Scripture so that we can measure every claim according to a standard that God has given us.
If there are some who like these books or movies, great! We simply need to be careful not to develop our theology from works of fiction. In fact, we shouldn’t rely on them whatsoever to reveal anything about God or about spiritual experiences. We have the text of scripture.
In our current age, then, there is tribulation for God’s people. Tribulation serves two purposes: to warn those who have not given their lives to Christ and to sanctify or purify those who have. If you do not know Christ, my hope is that the warnings serve to bring you to Him. Christ is the only one who has authority to judge and He is preparing to judge the whole world. I hope that you will not wait until it is too late. For those of us who have given our lives genuinely to Christ, my hope is that we are open to Christ’s sanctifying work in our lives. That we become better rather than bitter. The reality is, if we don’t see the fruit of sanctification in our own lives as a result of the tribulation we experience, we should question whether or not we have actually trusted in Christ. If we have, God uses the tribulation in our lives to draw us into a deeper holiness. God’s people do not endure tribulation in vain.
1Conclusion based on Ezekiel 9, 2 Timothy 2:19
22 Corinthians 5