The Great Day of Wrath (Rev. 6:9-17)
We must not lose sight of the big picture as we make our way through Revelation. John is describing what he saw. Revelation paints vivid pictures for us, but not precise photographs or videos of reality. Revelation is about the victory of the Lamb. As we consider the breaking of these seals keep in mind chapters four and five, namely, that God is on his throne and that Christ is worthy to execute redemptive history.
The first four seals, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, revealed judgments executed upon mankind throughout this present age. The impact in each case is partial and perpetual. We have seen repeated instances of conquest, war, famine, and death throughout history. What these seals revealed is that the Lamb, the one breaking the seals, is in sovereign control over these judgments. They have always served as a means of sanctifying his people and judging his enemies.
This morning we come to the fifth and sixth seals. The goal of these seals seems clear enough. The fifth seal ought to embolden believers, while the sixth seal ought to terrify everyone else. Those who are persecuted now for their faith will be vindicated upon Christ’s return, when all wickedness is defeated.
There will be two kinds of people in the last days: those who long for the vengeance of the Lamb and those who fear the wrath of the Lamb. You are either with Christ or you are against him. There is no neutral third position.
Read Rev. 6:9-17
THE FIFTH SEAL: THE CRY OF CHRIST’S MARTYRS (9-11)
These martyrs are among the great multitude of saints standing in white robes (Re 7:9) and they are specifically mentioned as coming to life and reigning with Christ from heaven for a thousand years because they refused to be identified with the beast (Re 20:4). But why are they found under the altar?
In Leviticus 4, the priests were given precise instructions regarding sin offerings. They were to collect the blood of a bull that had been slain as a burnt offering. Some of the blood was sprinkled before the veil of the sanctuary, some of it was placed upon the horns of the altar of incense, then the rest of the blood was to be poured out “at the base of the altar of burnt offering” (Lv 4:7). Instead of the blood of a slain bull, John sees the souls of saints who had been slain as a sacrificial offering on account of their faith.
As the judgment from the first four seals are carried out, the number of souls under the altar grows. They have been affected by the judgments of those seals and now long for God’s justice to be fully and finally established. In other words, they want to see the end of Christian suffering and persecution.
Some argue that praying for vengeance is unchristian. They suggest that our attitude should be one of forgiveness. They point to Jesus who prayed for those who mocked and crucified him saying, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” They see a similar attitude in Stephen’s words when he prayed for those who were stoning him saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Taking vengeance into our own hands has always been forbidden. After Cain killed his brother and was cast away from his family as a wanderer, the Lord placed a mark upon him so that no one would retaliate (Ge 4:15). We are not to take vengeance or even bear a grudge against others, but we are to love our neighbors (Le 19:18). Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Dt 32:35). We are called to wait upon him for deliverance (Pr 20:22). This attitude continues and expands in the New Testament. Jesus called his disciples to respond to their enemies with love (Mt 5:38-45; Lk 6:27-36). Paul taught us to do good to those who do us evil (1 Th 5:15) and as far as it is possible, to live at peace with everyone (Ro 12:18). Peter encouraged his readers to repay evil and reviling with blessing (1 Pe 3:9).
But none of this is incompatible with the prayer of these martyrs. It is possible to long for both forgiveness and justice. Praying for one doesn’t cancel out the other.
These martyrs were not seeking personal vengeance, but the vindication of the name of Christ. As long as the injustice of their persecutors was left unpunished, the justice of God could be called into question by his enemies on earth. But John’s revelation gives us a picture from the perspective of heaven, where God’s judgment is stayed by none other than his own predetermined will to save a certain number of elect.
The martyrs’ prayer is in agreement with the song of Moses which concludes with rejoicing in the vengeance God will bring upon his adversaries (Dt 32:43). When David had an opportunity to kill Saul, from whom he was hiding for his own life, he did not take vengeance into his own hands but said, “May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you,” (1 Sam 24:12). Jesus commends the example of the widow who persistently begged the judge to grant her justice against her adversary (Lk 18:3). She serves as an example for believers to keep praying for justice and expecting God to bring it (Lk 18:7-8).
That is what these souls under the altar are doing as well. Their prayers are not a nuisance to God. He isn’t frustrated by them, nor is he tuning them out. Similar to the imprecatory psalms that are filled with curses upon the enemies of God and his people, the prayer of these martyrs reflect a good desire for God to bring justice. It reflects a desire for the elimination of wickedness.
God tells them to rest until the final martyr is added to their number (11).
Beeke More Christians have been martyred for their faith in the past century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.
The martyrs may appear to have been conquered by their enemies, but upon their death they receive the white robe of victory from God. The color white may also point to the righteousness and purity of the saints who have been united to Christ, from whom they received justification, sanctification, and glorification.
Does the vindication of Christ’s name weigh heavy upon your heart? Do you cry out with them in prayer? Are you willing to join them beneath the altar?
The martyrs’ cry for vengeance is answered in…
THE SIXTH SEAL: THE CRY OF CHRIST’S RIVALS (12-17)
The sixth seal marks the beginning of the day of judgment. It is God’s answer to the cry of martyrs in the previous seal. That being the case, we know that the number of martyrs has been fully reached, and therefore this can only be a description of the end. It is not a precursor to the end, but a description of the end itself. The same event will be described in further detail later on (as if from another camera angle), but this is indeed the Second Coming of Christ in judgment. Christ’s rivals understand things rightly, this is “the great day of…wrath” (17).
The various descriptions of the distortion and dissolving of creation (12-14) reminds us of the signs that Jesus said would accompany his return (Lk 21:25-27; Mk 13:24-26). All of these passages combine allusions to Ezekiel, Joel, Isaiah, and Hosea.
Imagine seeing this visual display unfolding before your eyes. Many of you felt the tremors of some fairly strong earthquakes in the past few days. Those were nothing like what the original audience understood. We saw some water splashing in pools, they witnessed the crumbling of buildings. Many of them had witnessed two devastating earthquakes in Asia Minor from which cities were demolished and had to be rebuilt. John’s description of “a great earthquake” was a fearful reminder of that.
Whereas the previous seals were limited in the scope of their devastation, this seal is not limited. This judgment extends throughout the earth (12-14) and effects all classes mankind (15).
Beale Humanity has become perverted and has worshiped the creation (cf. Rom. 1:21–25; Rev. 9:20). Therefore, creation itself (sun, moon, stars, trees, animals, etc.) has become an idol that must be removed.
Although the vivid description begs us to use our imagination and picture what is taking place, it is not meant to reveal a perfect representation of the end times. Prophecy is not like watching a video recording before the events occur. It is symbolic. Sometimes prophecy has a literal fulfillment, but oftentimes it is figurative. Christ’s return might very well be accompanied by a violent earthquake, but the main point is that it will be terrifying for those who remain opposed to him.
If the stars are falling and the sky is vanishing, whether literal or figurative, we are in a very bad scenario. These descriptions are not of a temporal and limited judgment. They are earth dissolving judgments. This is not a matter of rebuilding, this will require a “new heavens and new earth” (21:1-8).
The point is not to try to explain precisely how the final judgment will occur. We will almost certainly fail to get that right. Rather, we must acknowledge that Christ’s return will be marked by the devastation of evil.
Those who persecute the church as well as all idolators will cry to be put out of their misery (Isa. 2:10, 18-21). They will shout “Who can stand?” We will find the answer to their question in the next chapter. The only way to be delivered from the wrath to come is to belong to the number who shouts, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10).
The wrath of the Lamb is pictured as falling upon the nations that raged against the redemptive plan of God (Psalm 2, Rev 11:18). Rather than kissing the Son in submission, they have chosen to reject him. They will be defeated along with the demonic spirits who assemble them for the final battle (16:14).
But, when that day arrives Christ’s enemies would rather die than face God’s perfect judgment. The great day of God’s wrath is coming, and it will be a terrifying thing for anyone who has not united themselves to Christ by faith.
However, that won’t be the case for everyone. Those who believe in Christ look forward to his return. They long for it like the souls under the altar. Believers cry out “Come, Lord Jesus!” anticipating his return with hope (22:20). His return marks the end of wickedness and the vindication of the persecuted Church. If we are united to those martyrs as belonging to the body of Christ would suggest, then we ought to join with them in their prayer.
The bold cry of Christ’s martyrs for vengeance and justice in the fifth seal is contrasted with the fearful cry of Christ’s rivals in the sixth seal. One emboldens the believer, while the other terrifies the unbeliever. Those who suffer persecution now, are assured by the image of the martyrs rest in heaven. Those who remain enemies of the Lamb now will spend eternity in despair.
The only way to escape the wrath of the Lamb is to find refuge in the Lamb who was slain (5:6). The same Lamb who ushers in the final judgment has made a way for you to escape that judgment. Those who have been justified by his blood will be saved from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). Submit to him by faith, repent and believe, and you will be saved.