************ Sermon on Revelation 6:12-17 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 6, 2008
"The Sixth Seal"
Remember the setting of our passage? John has been summoned into the heavenly throne room. He sees God on His heavenly throne in all His splendor and might and awesome glory . Surrounding the throne he sees four living creatures, 24 elders, a rainbow, a myriad of angels, a sea of glass, and every other creature in the universe. John sees Jesus – the Lamb, the Lion, the Root – standing in the center of the throne. John sees the scroll of destiny in the right hand of God. John hears a cry, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" John is told that Jesus is the only One worthy to take the scroll and to open the scroll and to set its contents into motion. John watches as Jesus opens each of the seven seals.
Remember what happens with the first four seals? Four apocalyptic horsemen are summoned and spread a devastating judgment of God upon the enemies of God and His people. But, remember, how the judgment is restrained and limited? God's final judgment has not yet come. It is only a pre-judgment.
This leads us to the question that is screamed by the Gospel martyrs at the opening of the fifth seal: "How long?" "How long until the final judgment?" "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev 6:10).
The question is answered already at the opening of the sixth seal. John writes, "I watched as he opened the sixth seal" (Rev 6:12). Again, as we saw with the opening of the fifth seal, we notice that the pattern established by the opening of the first four seals is set aside. There is no summons. There are no living creatures. There are no horsemen. There are no Gospel martyrs. If you can imagine the opening of the sixth seal taking place on a stage, every person and actor has been ushered off the stage except for Jesus – the Lamb, the Root, the Lion. Jesus is the only One on the stage. In other words, what is about to happen is the work of Jesus. What John is about to see comes from Jesus. Jesus is responsible. Jesus is to blame.
"I watched as he opened the sixth seal" (Rev 6:12). What John sees is an answer to the cry of the Gospel martyrs. What John sees is the judgment of God and the Lamb upon those who hate God and His church. More specifically, John sees two things: a dissolving universe and terrified people.
I A Dissolving Universe
A "I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, (13) and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. (14) The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place" (Rev 6:12-14).
Notice, the entire universe is dissolved. Not just the earth but also the heavens. It is geological – involving earthquakes, mountains, and islands. And, it is astronomical – involving the sun, moon, and stars.
At the opening of the sixth seal, God is dissolving the universe. That is what John sees. People today cannot possibly fathom this kind of thinking. We hear predictions that the sun will become a white dwarf and a black hole in a billion years – because it runs out of energy. We hear predictions of global warming and a shrinking ice pack – because of ecological damage wrought by mankind. We hear predictions that the ozone layer is disappearing – because of air pollution. We hear predictions that acid rain will ruin oceans and fields – because of the fossil fuels we burn. Do you hear the common refrain? Ours is a closed universe. Ours is a self-sufficient world. Ours is a world of cause and effect.
But that is not the world of the Bible. John and Daniel and Ezekiel and all of the apocalyptic writers were radical theists. They all believed in a God Who was and is involved in the governing of the universe. When the Bible writers observed the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of the moon, and the changes of the season from Winter to Spring, do you know what they really saw? They saw the providence of God. They saw that God upholds all things – geologic, astronomic – by the Word of His power. And when the universe dissolves, when there are earthquakes and the upheaval of mountains and islands, when the sun turns black and the moon turns bloody red and stars fall from the sky, do you know what the Bible writers really saw? Not the absence of God – that's the wrong conclusion! They saw the judgment of God, the hand of God, at work.
B "I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake" (Rev 6:12). Remember who John is writing to? He is writing to the churches and Christians of Asia Minor. These Christians know exactly what John is talking about for three reasons. First, they don't have to imagine John's earthquake because they have lived through a couple of devastating earthquakes that destroyed Sardis and Philadelphia; many of them also know firsthand about the destruction of Pompeii when Mt. Vesuvius blew. Second, they know and understand their Old Testament. They know and understand, from the Old Testament, that the coming of the Lord in judgment involves earthquake (Judges 5:4-5; Joel 2:10; Ps 78:7-8). Third, they know what Jesus said about His return – that it involves earthquakes (Mk 13:24-27; Mt 24:4-8).
"The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair" (Rev 6:12). Sackcloth is a rough, coarse cloth made from the hair of a black goat. John sees the sun looking "black like sackcloth." Sackcloth is worn in times of mourning. So John is preparing his audience for a time of mourning and lamentation.
"The whole moon turned blood red" (Rev 6:12). The Ancient World knew what a bloody moon meant: it meant judgment.
"And the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind" (Rev 6:13). You need to know something about figs to understand this image. We don't have this problem in California, but in the midwest sometimes crops are not harvested before the snow flies; so, the corn stays in the field until the ground is frozen enough to support the weight of a combine. Some fig farmers of the Middle East have a similar problem with figs. Autumn has passed, Winter has come, but some figs are still on the tree. These figs have been subjected to cold and rain and the passing of the seasons. They are barely hanging on to the tree. Along comes a strong Winter wind and figs are flying loose left and right. Now, John wants us to think stars rather than figs. He wants us to think of huge meteor showers. Stars are falling left and right. Entire constellations are disappearing overnight.
Think of these three images together: a blackened sun, a bloody moon, and falling stars. Throughout the Old Testament these three images appear together to symbolize the coming of God in judgment:
(Is 13:9-10) See, the day of the LORD is coming --a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger-- to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. (10) The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
(Ezek 32:7) When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light.
(Joel 2:1-2) Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand-- (2) a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness.
The sun, the moon, the stars – all three are dissolving. Think of their importance to us for light and life, photosynthesis, the measurement of time, navigation, wind, the changing of the seasons. None of us think of them as accidents of evolution. We know them as evidences of God's common grace upon the created world. The day the sun, the moon, and the stars give up their assigned place and function is the day God's common grace is no more. The day the sun, the moon, and the stars give up their assigned place and function is the day of final judgment.
"The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up" (Rev 6:14). Think of a roll of paper. You cut off a twenty foot length. You hold it down with weights at both ends so the paper does not automatically roll up. What happens when you cut through the paper at the ten foot mark? It rolls up from the middle! This is the image John has in mind. John sees the sky being slit into two and rolling up from the middle like a scroll or a roll of paper. John borrows this image from Isaiah:
(Is 34:1-4) Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! (2) The LORD is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. (3) Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will send up a stench; the mountains will be soaked with their blood. (4) All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.As John tells us in Revelation 21, the old order of things is passing away (Rev 21:4).
Finally, in this symbolism of a dissolving universe, John writes "every mountain and island was removed from its place" (Rev 6:14).
I want you to consider the picture as a whole. Heaven itself is ripped in two, rolling up on both ends. The sun and its light are blackened. The full moon is a bloody ball. Stars are violently plunged out of their orbit. The earth itself shakes so violently that every building crashes to the ground. Every mountain and island is ripped from its place. In the apocalyptic imagery of the Old Testament, the dissolving universe is a message that God is coming in judgment.
II Terrified People
A "I watched as he opened the sixth seal" (Rev 6:12). What John sees is an answer to the cry of the Gospel martyrs. What John sees is the judgment of God and the Lamb upon those who hate God and His church. More specifically, John now sees terrified people.
When the first four seals were opened, judgment falls on part of the human race. I want you to notice that with the opening of the sixth seal, judgment falls upon every single enemy of God. "Then the kings of the earth" – the highest of rulers and even the most powerful of emperors. "The princes" – these are the great and high ranking government officials under the king. "The generals" – the Roman tribunes, the military commanders who send soldiers into battle. "The rich" – those who control industry and commerce. "The mighty" – those who exercise control over significant numbers of people. "And every slave and every free man" – the lower classes are included too. Count the categories. Seven of them. Seven. John's favorite number. The number of completion. The number of fullness. In other words, John is speaking of the entire human race, the complete human race, in its alienation from God.
B What does John say about the fallen human race in all its fullness? They "hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains" (Rev 6:15). Doesn't this sound like Osama Bin Laden? And why is he hiding? He is scared of judgment. Instead of facing judgment like a man, he is hiding scared and trembling in caves and mountains. And, why is the fallen human race hiding? From whom is it hiding?
(Rev 6:16) They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!""Fall on us." "Hide us." These are not gentle requests. More like screams of terror. Commands. Urgency. "Do it now. Don't delay. Fall on us now. Hide us now."
Doesn't this sound kind of drastic? Aren't they asking for death? That is exactly what they are asking for. That is the point. They would rather die than face the wrath and judgment of God. They fear God more than they fear death. So, they want to hide from the face – that is, the presence – of Him Who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.
C God and Jesus are coming in judgment. So, a fallen mankind goes into hiding. What does this sound like? Or, who does this sound like? Doesn't this sound like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? So, history ends the same way it starts – with a terrified and fallen humanity hiding from the judgment of God.
Do you realize what this tells us about humanity? There are those who believe we are becoming better and better, that the human race is elevating itself and improving itself, that we are growing in righteousness and holiness. But this cannot be the case because at the end of history the human race does the exact same thing it did at the start of history.
D The fallen human race hides "from the wrath of the Lamb!" "The wrath of the Lamb"? What could possibly be more gentle than a lamb? Yet, this Lamb has horns – seven of them (Rev 5:6). This Lamb is a Lion. This Lamb is ferocious and fierce. This is not a politically correct Jesus that John is showing us. This is not a Jesus, gentle and mild. This is not a Jesus Who is all love and mercy. This is an angry Jesus, a judging Jesus, a Jesus Who punishes His enemies. This is a Jesus Who punishes those Who reject Him and His sacrificial love. This is a Jesus Who is no respecter of persons – He is to be feared by kings, princes, generals, the rich, the mighty, the slave, and the free. No one is too exalted to escape His judgment and no one is too lowly to escape His judgment. All of His enemies – regardless of their social or economic or political status – will meet His wrath and experience His judgment. None excepted.
This might sound kind of strange – but I have to say that the enemies of Jesus have their theology right. They correctly recognize Jesus as the fierce Lamb of God. They correctly recognize the Day of Judgment as the day of reckoning. They correctly recognize their sin and fallenness – they ask, "who can stand?"
Do you hear what I am saying? They recognize Jesus. They recognize judgment. They recognize sin. Only one thing is missing. Do you know what it is? The only thing that is missing is repentance. The only thing that is missing is a seeking for mercy. But they won't take this step. They won't repent and believe – even on the Day of Judgment. They won't because they can't. The effects of the Fall into sin are so severe and so great that no man on his own is able to repent and believe. Apart from the mercy of God and the call of God, we all remain in sin and misery. Apart from the mercy of God and the call of God, we all face judgment rather than salvation.
III Three Observations
A I want to end with three observations.
First, did you notice the order in which the universe is destroyed? It begins with the earth – a great earthquake. Then the disappearance of what gives us light – the sun, moon, and stars. This is followed by the land – the uprooting of mountains and islands. And it ends with humanity – full of terror, fear, trembling.
Where have we seen this order before? Isn't this the order of the original creation in Genesis? In the Final Judgment we see God undoing what He did at the time of Creation. At the end of time, God unravels what He put together at the beginning of time. Peter spoke about this in his letter:
(2Pt 3:10) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.Isn't this what John describes to us? And, then, using this as the building block, God makes the new heaven and the new earth. But, before the final construction of the new heaven and new earth there is a deconstruction of the original heaven and earth.
B My second observation is more of a question: why does John and Jesus include the opening of the sixth seal in the Revelation?
I am sure there are church members sitting in front of me this evening who are nominal in their faith, who are complacent about their faith, who remain dead in their trespasses and sins. John and Jesus want to warn you that what happens to the ungodly when the sixth seal is opened will also happen to you if you do not repent and believe.
Is it safe to put Jesus off? Is it safe to deny Christ? Is it safe to neglect the Gospel? Is it safe to have a faith that is not heart-felt and real? You know the answer – of course it isn't! Of course it isn't because you cannot hide from the wrath of the Lamb!
The fact is, the final question of our Bible reading has an answer. It has only one answer. John and Jesus asks, "Who can stand?" "For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" "Who can stand?" (Rev 6:17). You know the answer – only those who repent of their sin and believe in Jesus alone for their salvation can stand. As for all others – they hide in caves and among the rocks. They would rather die than face Him Who sits on the throne. They would rather die than face the wrath of the Lamb!
C My third observation is a definition of salvation. What is salvation? If I were to ask you to define salvation for me, how would you define it? What are we saved from? There are all sorts of different answers that you would give me: we are delivered from sickness, poverty, slavery, lust, worldly cares, and so on. All kinds of theologies are based on all of these! But when it comes right down to it, salvation is deliverance from God's holy wrath. Salvation is deliverance from the wrath of the Lamb.
And here is the irony of it all: Jesus saves us from wrath by taking that wrath on Himself. The wrath He dispenses is the wrath He absorbed.
So, let me ask you, have you been saved? Have you been delivered from the wrath of the Lamb?
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