The condition of the world has been reported to the just judge, God. The saints who have died responded by asking when God would vindicate them, set right the world’s injustices. Now, the whole world is exposed in light of the testimony that has been presented in this heavenly courtroom.
I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves 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 presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
Symbolism (v. 12-14)
I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
This passage of Scripture, like others, isn’t easily reducible down to smaller parts. We can’t cut this passage down, take it piece-by-piece, because it must be considered altogether in the context of the testimonies that were presented to God concerning the current condition of the world. The passage is complex, but irreducibly so. As Christ continues to break the seals, and we continue to anticipate the book’s contents, a sixth testimony is illustrated. Not only does the earth cry out, but the whole cosmos is in disarray. All of creation suffers under the weight of human sin (Cf. Genesis 3). Remember, John isn’t describing these events as hyper-literal but as symbols. The symbols in this passage all serve to point John’s audience to a single event.
There are many in the world today who are interested in the timing of events. They see these occurrences as literal and as happening sometime in the future. There may be some literal aspect to these signs because they are described as literal elsewhere in Scripture, but John’s symbol serves to allude to those prophecies and not, itself, as a literal occurrence. Because so many try to piece together a timeline of the “end-times” or eschatological events in the Bible, they assume that, at some point in the future from our current time, all of these natural apocalyptic events will manifest because God is pouring out His wrath in judgment. This does not fit what we have already read in Revelation. First, this symbol is in heaven and not on the earth (Cf. 4:1ff). Second, John is recording the current condition of things in His own time as represented by the four cherubim employed from Zechariah’s and Ezekiel’s prophecies. Third, John has already revealed that Jesus is renewing His world, not destroying it by apocalyptic cataclysms (Cf. 3:12). Jesus has already said that He will not finally judge the world, bring justice to the world, until He is finished building His church (Cf. v. 11). Jesus’s promise will be reaffirmed in the first interlude (Cf. 7:1-17). Jesus is not finished breaking the seals, and so is not yet reading the Father’s just decree. Whatever we see depicted in correlation with the breaking of the sixth seal is not God’s final wrath and the final establishment of justice on the earth. John does not, here, depict the final events of some great, seven-year tribulation—John has not even hinted at such a thing up to this point. John is revealing the person and work of Jesus Christ in light of Old Testament eschatological prophecy. He is pulling together imagery from quite a few Old Testament prophetic images. Jesus did the same thing in Matthew’s Gospel:
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matthew 24:29-31; Cf. Exodus 19:16; Deuteronomy 30:4; Isaiah 13:10; 24:23; 27:13; 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7; Daniel 7:2, 13; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15f; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zephaniah 1:15; Zechariah 2:6; 9:14).
The tribulation Jesus referred to had to do with the persecution of the apostles and the First Century church (Cf. Matthew 24:9, 34). Admittedly, a proper understanding of Jesus’s prophecy as recorded by Matthew requires a much closer consideration, but this will suffice to get at what John is getting at. Immediately after the tribulation of the apostles, these signs would manifest. In Matthew 27-28, Matthew describes the signs in conjunction with Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. The tribulation began with the apostles, the world would eventually succeed in killing them, and the cosmos were shaken at the crucifixion. All of this Old Testament eschatological prophecy John alludes to was fulfilled in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. From the cross, after “all things had already been accomplished to fulfill Scripture,” Jesus even cried out, “It is finished” (Cf. John 19:28-30). John’s imagery, then, serves the simple purpose of calling attention, once again, to the cross and Jesus’s perpetual work through the cross—where justice was accomplished.
Why does John now allude, again, to what has already been accomplished through the cross? The book of Revelation literally means the “unveiling” of Jesus Christ. Jesus is presented as the perfect revelation of God. Through Jesus’s ministry and at the cross, God revealed the fullness of Himself to humanity. You have heard it said that if God would simply peel back the sky and show His face, people would believe in Him. He did that in Christ Jesus. Even Jesus taught that if anyone has seen Him, that person has seen the Father (Cf. John 14:9). This is another current condition of the world—God has been fully revealed in Christ, His Messiah. The kingdom of heaven was at hand in Christ’s incarnation (Cf. Matthew 4:17). As we have discovered already, Jesus has been perpetually, and henceforth explicitly, judging the world and building His church. He waits for His final judgment because He is still gathering the elect.
What is John up to? (v. 15-17)
Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves 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 presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
In the incarnation, the sky was metaphorically peeled back and God revealed the fullness of Himself in the Son, Jesus Christ. The world’s response was not devotion to or belief in God. The world killed Him. Jesus came testifying against human religiosity and injustice. People hid from His truth. They preferred to die in their self-righteousness. They heard God’s Law and realized they could not stand. They hated and ran from Jesus because of His wrath. They did not repent. In this chiasm, John both begins and ends with Jesus conquering His world. When worldly people hear the testimony of and about Jesus Christ, this is their response because they only want to justify themselves. As people see the disarray of the earth and cosmos, they dread the future and assume these occurrences are God’s explicit wrath. They are not, but they are the signs that accompanied the fulfillment of the Messiah’s work according to the Old Testament. As we will see in the next chapter, God’s wrath is being withheld. We recognize this in our own day. People see the state of the world and dread the future. Prophecy watch programs are characteristic by John’s description, here. Contrarily, what we see described with the seals is creation’s condition because of the noetic consequences of sin as described in Genesis 3. All of creation testifies before Christ. Somehow, Christ’s reading the book will bring justice to and in the whole of creation. We must still wait to discover the book’s contents. There is one more seal.
John is revealing a very important truth about human nature. We have come to refer to this doctrine as total depravity or essential depravity. Worldly people reject God. They are their own gods. They are concerned about their own preferences, wills, interests, and identities. When God reveals Himself to them, they run and hide from Him. It is not sufficient for any human person to have a spiritual experience. It is not even sufficient for a person to have God obviously and powerfully revealed to him or her. Either Jesus, the rider on the white horse, conquers us or we hide from Him. People hide from God in many ways. They try to explain away His existence. They create gods or messiahs in their own images so they don’t have to look upon God as He is. They justify their own preferences, wills, interests, religions, and identities to make them seem godly. By nature, our wills and religions are set against God’s will and interests. We must be converted, which is only possible by Christ’s conquering—His building of His own church despite us. Total depravity means we are not capable of loving or honoring God by our natural selves; We must first be born again or the Spirit rather than the flesh (Cf. John 3). We witness the truth of human depravity in the world today. Oh how the cosmos shake; Yet, worldly people who have not been converted see and still refuse to repent. Oh sinner, please do not wait until Christ comes to you in personal judgment when it is your time. Be converted. Repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
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