Knowing that Jesus has the earth’s title deed, we can “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). With this in mind, let’s enter Revelation 6 and watch the Lamb open the seven seals.
It is the risen Jesus that sends four horsemen to earth (Rev 6:1-8). The horses are identified together as being the same in nature (cf. Zech 1:8-11; 6:1-8). Keep in mind that there is no clear indication that they are four single catastrophic events. Revelation is apocalyptic prophecy. Its rich imagery is meant to paint a picture—not to provide a chronological sequence of events. The horses are given permission to persecute Christians. Ironically, the faithful are refined through those who try to destroy them. “Such sufferings are not meaningless but are part of God’s providential plan that Christians should pattern their lives after the sacrificial model of Jesus” (Greg Beale). Following Christ is the way of the cross.
The first rider on a white horse imitates Christ’s appearance (cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15). Counterfeits are permitted to “conquer” (i.e., persecute) through deception. The second rider on a red horse allows tensions to escalate worldwide. Conflicts often enflame hatred toward Christians. The third rider on a black horse grants economic hardship. Like the previous two seals, targeting Christians economically is in mind. The fourth rider on a pale green horse is given the name, “Death,” to represent all kinds of death. For some Christians, persecution leads to martyrdom.
The fifth and sixth seals describe two very different reactions to this irony. When Jesus opens the fifth seal, the martyrs are resting in the Lord and saying, “How long, Lord, before you bring forth justice?” The fact that they “cry out with a loud voice” confirms three things about believers in heaven: 1) they are not asleep in a state of unconscious repose; 2) they are aware of time passing on earth; and 3) they know that the King’s plan is to one day cover the earth with justice, righteousness, and truth.
It must be remembered that Christ ultimately uses persecution as punishments for his enemies. When Jesus opens the sixth seal, cosmic disturbances signal a justified shake down. The perpetrators of persecution are not at rest. They’re seized with fear. They say, “Fall on us, rocks, for who can stand the wrath of the Lamb?” Believers look at persecution with hope, knowing that one day Christ will set things right. Bullies, on the other hand, can only hope that death means extinction without retribution (cf. Is 2:10, 18-21).
Although Revelation 7 is difficult, it explains how believers persevere through the persecution described in Revelation 6 without losing their faith. They are sealed on their foreheads (Rev 7:1-3; cf. Ezek 9). What does that mean? What we do know is that “God the Father has set his seal” on all believers, having “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (John 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim 2:19). The Lord seals us—not from suffering—but in order that we persevere through suffering and death by the power of his Spirit.
John “heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” but saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation” (Rev 7:4-14). We must remember that Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy. The broad brushstrokes paint a colorful Church made up of Jews and Gentiles from every ethnic group on earth. “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation,” explained Tertullian (second century). “That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church … you frustrate your purpose. Because those who see us die, wonder why we do … And when they find out, they join us.”
And one day we will stand before the Lamb’s throne—and then what will we do? We’ll be busy serving him “day and night” in heaven (Rev 7:15-17). What do you think your loved ones are doing? What do you think you’ll be doing?