In Revelation 6, Jesus begins to open the seven seals. This sets in train the events which will begin the Time of Distress. It leads up to the fullness of the Jews and the time when the Kingdom is established. As each seal is opened, an event takes place on the earth. We should remember that Jesus is the one who opens the seals. Although the events that take place are unpleasant, they will only come when he is ready. Satan has no authority to bring them to pass. Because they are initiated in heaven, we know that they will bring blessing to God's people.

A seal is a mark of ownership. When something is marked with a seal, it is a guarantee that it is backed by the authority of the owner of the seal. The seven seals describe a series of events which will be used by God to refine and purify his people. Those who are half-hearted in their commitment to Christ will fall away. Those who really belong to Christ will be forced into a deeper level of commitment. They will have to trust more in the Holy Spirit and depend more on each other. These testing times will make them more dependent on the Lord. The events that are described in the seven seals will stamp the mark of God's ownership on his people. Those who truly belong to Jesus will be sifted out. The seals also give the people of the world the opportunity to choose their loyalty. It will be a choice between Jesus and the Beast. Those who choose Jesus will be sealed with the seal of God.

As each of the first four seals is opened, John sees a horseman ride forth. The horses should not be taken literally; each horseman represents an actor in human history who causes a particular event. These follow on from each other, but may also overlap each other.

There is a parallel vision in Zechariah 6:1-8. Zechariah actually saw four chariots, but the horses are the same colours as those seen by John.

I looked up again and there before me were four chariots coming out from betwee n two mountains—mountains of bronze! The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled—all of them powerful.

All events spring from the eternal purposes of God, which are as unchangeable as mountains of brass. These powerful horses represent part of God's purpose and plan. Zechariah does not tell us what each one does, but he does tell us the direction in which they operate. This will help explain the events that were seen by John.

There are four horses in both visions. The four that John saw were:

  1. The White Horse
  2. The Red Horse
  3. The Black Horse
  4. The Pale Horse

Four is the number that represents the earth, so these events will have an impact towards the four corners of the earth.

There is a natural connection between the events symbolised by the four horseman. A decline in faith leads to increased warfare. The wasting of war tends to produce death and famine. Shortages of food cause sickness and death. The first two horsemen open the way for the third and the fourth horsemen.

Where Are We Now?

The birth pangs of the Kingdom age are described in the horsemen of Revelation 6. I believe that the first horseman (white) has already ridden forth. He represents the advance of Islam. There are now more Moslems in Britain than there are Baptists. The secular magazine, The Economist recognised Islam as one of three major cultural movements shaping the modern world.

I suspect that we have already seen the second horseman (red) at work in Beirut, Somalia, Bosnia Rwanda, Kosovo and Syria. His work will become much more evident in the next few years. In some places, the first horseman will have an influence first. This is the case in Bosnia. In Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan, Islamic groups are fighting for dominance. In many of the other states which formed out of the old Soviet Union various ethnic groups are struggling for freedom. This is the second horseman at work.

The third horseman may be starting his work in places where there is terrible poverty.

The result of all these wars will be death, famine and disease. This will automatically open the way for the fourth horseman (pale). It may already be at work. The beginning of the plagues released by the fourth horseman may be the AIDS plague which is decimating the world's population, especially in Africa. It certainly shows how a plague, which modern medicine cannot control, could develop.

We may have seen the beginnings of these events, but we have certainly not seen their complete fulfilment. The prophecy says that one quarter of the world's population will die by sword, famine, and plague. Although there have been some terrible troubles in this century, we have seen nothing on this scale. It will be quite obvious when the first four seals have been fulfilled. Death and destruction will take place on a scale, which the world has not seen before.

God promises that he will protect his people through this time. They will see the wicked punished, but God will cover them and be a refuge for them.

You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. Ps 91:5-7.

This Psalm is a wonderful promise of hope for those who are faithful to the Lord.

The Fifth Seal - Persecution

The fifth seal is different. When it is opened, John gets a glimpse into heaven.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice. "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed (Rev 6:9-11).

John looked at the heavenly altar and saw the souls of those who had lost their lives for the sake of the gospel. Many Christians had already died for the gospel, even in John's time. They were crying out to God that he might avenge their blood, but were told to wait until their number was complete. They were given white robes, which are a symbol of victory and honour. White robes are also a sign that their names are written in the Book of Life (Rev 3:5), and that their salvation is certain.

This vision indicates a further time of persecution on the earth. The number of those who have died for their faith is not yet complete. A great number of martyrs have yet to follow their master to the point of death. This persecution will help purify the church. The events described in the first four seals will have weaned God's people from the things of the world. Persecution will test their loyalty to Christ.

This vision is also a message of hope for those who face persecution and martyrdom. Those who die for the faith, live on in paradise. Their bodies have been killed but their souls live on. Satan can destroy the body but not the soul. God has provided a place that is better than the world, for those who die for him. They are very close to Christ in heaven.

Christians are also reminded that Jesus is the "Sovereign Lord, holy and true". He is a sovereign over the nations. They have no power against the Church unless he allows it. Thus persecution can only take place when it is part of his purpose and plan. He is holy and true, so his purposes are good for his people. Those who face persecution can have peace, knowing that the Lord will use it for their good.

What Happens Next

Most Christians assume that the opening of these seals means that the second coming of Jesus is getting close. This is not true.

The problem is that most Christians have a totally distorted view of what is going to happen next. They believe that a few signs will be fulfilled, a nasty European Anti-Christ will pop up and then Jesus will return to rule as the divine demagogue. We just have to hang on a bit longer till he returns. Christians with these views love signs and do not mind failure, because it means that Jesus is getting closer. Unfortunately, this end-time wishful thinking comes from Christian speculators and not from the scriptures.

The scriptures tell a different story. Jesus had a mighty victory over evil on the cross. He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven at the right hand of the Father. From there he poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church. The Holy Spirit is now working on earth through his Church to establish the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated. Jesus will not return until that task is complete.

Jesus is not returning to rescue us. He is returning to receive a kingdom that we (the Holy Spirit and the church) have prepared form him. A little bit of evil will not bring Jesus back. He will not come Back to rescue a struggling church. The only way to speed Jesus return is to allow the Holy Spirit to establish a Kingdom that is worth giving to Jesus as a gift.

The biggest obstacle to the kingdom of God is human political power. This comes in many forms, but it always opposes and undermines the Kingdom of God by offering the people of the world a false hope. Before the Holy Spirit can bring the kingdom of God to fullness, human political power in every form must be swept away. The sixth seal describes how this happens.

Human political power manifests in various ways that always lead to disaster. A great rush of hubris will climax in an effort to create the ideal human government and spread its influence throughout the world. Unfortunately, for those who trust human political power, which is most people in the world, this last grand endeavour will collapse into chaos that will leave the world totally disillusioned with what man can do and opens their hearts to the better way of the kingdom of God.

We are getting close to the time when all political power will be swept away. That will be messy for those who have trust political power, but it will free up the Holy Spirit to complete his work and bring in the Kingdom of God.

To Return to Book of Revelation.

To understand how these events fit see God's Plan for History.

See also What is Going On.