Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of the Book of Revelation give us an unparalleled and clear vista of the glory of God’s heaven and the contrasting devastations of the earth on which we live. They give us immense hope for the future and a sober warning for the present. The prophetic symbolism (unlike much of Revelation) is very clear and does not require any “clever” interpretation; the implications are all too evident.
Chapter 4 shows us a throne in heaven. The first thing we are told is that it was encircled by an emerald rainbow – a sign of mercy and goodwill. The Person on the throne sparkled like jewels of contrasting reds (jasper and ruby), and the sight was threatening. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder; these were certainly threatening. In front of the throne were the blazing lights of the sevenfold Holy Spirit – an awesome sight. Glory, power, judgement and mercy are all interlocked in this vivid sight. All heaven and earth is seen giving praise, honour and worship to the One on the throne. It is a vision of God in terms which we mortals can understand and to which we can relate. This is the great eternal God who alone rules and is truly to be feared but who offers mercy. The major impact of the vision was one in which the holiness and awesomeness of God was dominant. It must have been a life changing moment for John to whom the vision was given. It reminds us that we all need a vision of God that enters deep into our hearts, in whatever way it may come.
Chapter 5 moves the vision further on. Standing at the very centre of the throne was a “Lamb looking as if it had been slain” – unmistakably the crucified Jesus, but now very much alive and at the centre of power and glory. He had seven horns (complete fullness of power) and seven eyes (symbolising his utter oneness with the Holy Spirit). The Lamb took a scroll from the hand of the Person on the throne and prepared to open it, for such was his unique privilege. The scroll (as the succeeding chapters show) was what was determined for the future on the earth, and the Lamb alone could open the scroll and bring that future to pass. As he took the scroll all heaven and earth ascribed to the Lamb and to the One on the throne “praise and honour and glory and power”. Nowhere in the New Testament is there anything to surpass this majestic picture of Jesus, or to surpass the picture of his divinity, power and rule in this world. For John, suffering persecution, it would have brought an immense depth of comfort and strength. It may well be that we shall need for ourselves in the future this sort of clarity of vision of the reality of the power of Jesus; indeed for many in the world it is essential in their present sufferings.
Chapter 6 brings us to the scene where the Lamb starts to open the seals which fasten the scroll and in this chapter the lamb opens six of seven seals to reveal the essential features of the future of the world; the seventh seal (the final episode of what is planned for the earth) is kept over for much longer treatment. The first of these seals is opened to reveal a white horse whose rider held a bow, was given a crown and who rode out to conquer. There has been discussion over this but in context it seems clear that this represents the conquests of the gospel. The white horse contrasts very sharply and favourably with the garish colours of the next three horses who are to follow, and in Revelation 19:11 the white horse appears again and its rider unmistakeably identified as Jesus, the Word of God. The message is clear; the gospel of the Kingdom will make conquests in this world. It is most fitting that this good news with its certainty of the extension of the gospel in this world is announced first. Jesus has come to conquer, to gain a crown befitting the King of Peace, and whatever else may happen in the world this gathering in of a kingdom of believers will take place. We have now seen some two thousand years of this conquest of the gospel, and in our own generation there have been more conquests for the gospel than have ever been seen before.
The next three seals which the Lamb opens are a marked and unpleasant contrast. On these three occasions we see first a fiery red horse whose rider makes people kill each other – a picture of the wars that are to come. This is followed by a black horse whose rider holds a pair of scales; there is a shout indicating shortages and rising costs. It’s a picture of famine on the earth. When the fourth seal is broken there is revealed a pale horse whose rider is called Death and who is given power over a quarter of the world’s population to kill by sword, famine, plague and wild beasts. The overall picture given by the opening of these three seals has been precisely the story of world history ever since John’s Revelation was written. Moreover it echoes precisely the prophetic statements made by Jesus during the week before his crucifixion. This the reality of the world in which we live. The vision of John should never leave us in a mind-set of unalterable “fate”, for the rainbow is always over the throne and the Lamb is always open to the cries of his people. Those of us who love peace should never cease to work and pray for peace in the world, and there can be no doubt that such work and prayer will yield fruit. There is always mercy in wrath. But we should not be taken by surprise nor offended at what we see happening in the world around us. God has forewarned us.
There is a fifth seal which the Lamb breaks open and which reveals a further feature of the pattern of history. This takes the shape of a vision of the souls of those who have been conquered by the gospel and followed the Lamb but who have been killed for their testimony. Persecution of the people of God has always been part of the spread of the gospel. Jesus himself was the prime example, though even throughout Old Testament times it was feature among those who kept close to God and announced his word. Jesus himself during his earthly ministry underlined the fact of persecution in his teaching. Again this awful truth should in no wise prevent us from praying earnestly for those who are being persecuted, or those in danger of such persecution. On the contrary it should instil in us a deep sense of commitment to pray for them and to seek God for their strengthening and their release.
The Book of Revelation may be difficult in parts, but it is a book very much for the uncertain times in which we live. It’s prophetic clarity and accuracy is quite breath-taking. It sets out the world scene with a very great deal more of reality than the normal secular historical survey. Its real grandeur lies, however, in the great statements of the new creation that is to come and the glory that surrounds it. It offers the hope of becoming part of that new creation and its inexpressible joy. The note of hope is so much bigger than the note of the judgements, but that latter note is needed, nonetheless. More of that anon!