Since the start of 2020, there have been over three and a half million recorded cases of COVID-19 and over a quarter of a million recorded deaths worldwide. And in the same period:
- Another million people in Syria have fled their homes because of civil war.
- 15 million unborn children will have been aborted, according to WHO figures.
- 60 million more people could be pushed into extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.
- And the latest Open Doors report says that 260 million Christians have started 2020 facing high to extreme persecution. Over a thousand will already have died for their faith this year.
So no wonder someone wrote a book recently called, If I Were God, I’d End All the Pain.
But he hasn’t… yet. Which is why we’re living in the world described in Revelation chapter 6.
If you’re with us for the first time, Revelation is the Bible book we’re looking at. It’s a vision, given by God to the apostle John, of what’s going to happen up to the end of history and beyond.
And if John’s a cameraman, then two weeks back, he gave us a shot of what’s going on behind the scenes in heaven. And we saw the risen Jesus being given this scroll – which is the script of God’s plan – because he's the one his Father has given authority to make it happen.
And then last week (in Revelation 6.1-8), John’s camera cut back to what’s going on here on earth. And we saw this vision of four horsemen. And one stood for war-making, one for life-taking, one for famine and one for the 3 ‘D’s of disease, disaster and death. And between them, they stand for all the things I mentioned at the start: COVID-19, Syria, unborn lives being taken, poverty and starvation. And we saw that God allows those things to bring home to the human race that we can’t enjoy life as he meant it while we say to him, the Giver of life, ‘We don’t want you in charge.’
In other words, he allows the pain for a purpose – even if, as someone’s put it, that’s ‘a severe mercy’.
But what purpose could possibly be served by the last thing I mentioned at the start – the persecution and killing of Christians? Why would the risen Jesus allow that to happen to his own followers?
That was the question bothering John’s first readers, as the Roman empire ramped up its persecution of anyone who wouldn’t say Caesar was god. And that question may well bother us more – as Europe becomes first more aggressively secular and then probably more Muslim.
So if you’ve got a Bible to hand, would you turn to Revelation chapter 6. And remember: in John’s vision, the risen Jesus is gradually opening this scroll which is the script of history. And every time he takes off one of its seals, something new happens. So last week in Revelation 6.1-8, we saw the first four seals letting the four horsemen go. And we pick it up again at verse 9:
"When he opened the fifth seal"
And the first half of today’s passage is about…
1. The Painful Wait While the Gospel is Spread (verses 9-11)
Let’s read from verse 9:
"When [the risen Jesus] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne."
So the camera’s cut back to heaven again, where John sees the souls of believers in Jesus who’ve been killed for their faith. And he says they’re under the altar. Which is a good point to remember that Revelation uses picture language that we need to interpret carefully. So last week, we weren’t to think of four literal horsemen literally galloping across the world. And here, we’re not to think of these believers who’ve died – along with believing loved ones we’ve lost – all literally huddled together under a literal altar.
Because in the Old Testament, the altar was the place of access to God, where you were as close to God as you could be, and yet safe in his presence. So this is lovely picture language saying that believers who’ve died are as close to God as they can be, and that they’re finally perfectly safe with him – with all the pains and difficulties of living and dying behind them. That should comfort us as we think of believing loved ones we’ve lost.
So John sees these believers who’ve been killed for their faith. And verse 10:
"They cried out with a loud voice, 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'"
In other words, ‘Lord, when are you going to bring justice on the people who took our lives?’ Because right now God seems to have let their persecutors get away with it. Just like he seems to be letting all sorts of wrongdoers get away with all sorts of wrongdoing every day. So how does God answer? Look at verse 11:
"Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers [and sisters] should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been."
Isn’t that an extraordinary answer? Because God is basically saying, ‘Wait – until the number of believers whom I’ve planned will die witnessing to my Son is complete.’ To which the obvious question is: why would God allow even one more believer to die? Why doesn’t he stop it now?
But stopping persecution now would mean stopping everything now, wouldn’t it? Just like stopping any evil we wish he’d deal with would mean stopping everything now. Which means stopping history now, and bringing on judgement day now. And we need to be careful before we ask for that. Because where would you be if it all stopped now?
Maybe you’re someone who definitely wouldn’t call yourself a Christian – yet. And you know that if this is all true, you’re definitely on the wrong side of God as things stand. And if so, you’re one reason why he’s still waiting and hasn’t stopped everything yet. It’s because he’s giving Christians the opportunity to get the gospel to you, so you have the opportunity to respond.
But of course that always gives you the opportunity to respond negatively. And some people, in some times and places, will respond so negatively as to persecute Christians and even kill them. But verse 11 says: even that is part of God’s plan, because he wants to give even those people who are most hostile to him the opportunity to know his Son. He loves them enough to see his messengers hurt by them – just like he loved them enough to see his Son die on a cross for them in the first place.
But maybe, like me, you’re someone who would call yourself a Christian. And we need to be equally careful before we start wanting judgement now. Not only because we should be concerned for those who still need to hear about Jesus and respond to him. But because we ourselves might not be as ready to meet him as we think. And you see that in the messages to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Because several times the risen Jesus says – words to this effect – ‘You call yourselves Christians, but the way you’re living right now calls that into question. And you need to sort that out before we meet.’
And maybe the Lord Jesus would say that to you tonight. In which case you’re another reason why he’s still waiting, and hasn’t stopped everything yet. In fact, each of us is a reason why he’s still waiting.
So when we cry out, like in verse 10,
"O Sovereign Lord… how long before you will judge…?"
God’s answer is: wait while the gospel is spread to more people; and play your part in spreading it – and in accepting the pain (large or small) that goes with that.
So there’s the painful wait while the gospel is spread. But then in the second half of this passage there’s…
2. The Fearful Day When the Opportunity is Over (verses 12-17)
Let’s look on to verse 12:
"When [the risen Jesus] opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place."
Which is a vision of the end of this created order – the end of space and time. And if that sounds far-fetched, we need to remember that God began it from nothing, so there’s no reason he can’t bring it to an end – and bring about a completely renewed creation. But the focus here isn’t on what’ll happen to the creation, but to the people in it. Verse 15:
"Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne [that’s God the Father], and from the wrath of the Lamb [that’s the risen Lord Jesus, God the Son]'."
So here’s where that cry for justice is finally answered – because it’s the kings, great ones, generals and the rich and powerful in verse 15 who have the most power to persecute believers in Jesus – and who (seemingly) get away with it. But on the day when, like the creed says, Jesus ‘will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, they won’t get away with it any more.
And for those who have been forgiven back onto the right side of God, it’s great to know that all the wrongs that human justice has never brought to account will be brought to account. So, for example, one concentration camp officer, reflecting after World War II, said, ‘We did what we did because we told ourselves... no-one was watching.’ But God was. Which means justice will be done. And that's something an atheist can never say.
And this isn’t just great to know when it comes to things on the scale of the holocaust. It’s also great to know when it comes to the injustices we’ve faced personally, and which have maybe never been properly recognised or resolved. But God knows, and they’re on his agenda.
So verse 15 again:
"Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves... "
And that’s everyone who’s not been forgiven back onto the right side of God – everyone who’s said all the way through their lives, ‘I don’t want you in charge.’ And they’re trying to hide from God.
I remember, when I was very little, hitting a bad patch in my hide and seek career. Because whenever we played it as a family, I would just crouch down anywhere (even the middle of the lawn), put my hands over my eyes, and think that because I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me. But that illusion was always quickly broken, as the count to twenty ended.
And our default is to treat God the same way: to think that because I can’t see him, he can’t see me – or even to think that he isn’t actually there to see anything – and so to think my life is hidden, accountable only to me. But that illusion will be broken as well – on judgement day.
Now Bertrand Russell, the atheist philosopher, was once asked what he would do if, in the end, it turned out there was a God he was accountable to. And Russell replied, "I would say, 'Not enough evidence, God'." In other words, 'you didn’t give me enough to go on, to believe in you. And it's your fault, not mine.'
But the scene here in Revelation 6 is very different, isn’t it? Because there’s no-one standing up to God, no-one answering back to God. Instead, everyone’s trying to hide. Because everyone in the clarity of that moment has realised they did have enough to go on. They’ve realised that they had the evidence in creation of their Creator – but ignored it. They’ve realised that they had the evidence in conscience of what he says is right and wrong – but ignored it. And many have realised that they also had the evidence of the Bible – the evidence for Jesus – as well as the evidence of Christians pointing them to Jesus – but ignored it.
I’m often asked, ‘What about those who’ve never heard about Jesus?’ And it’s a right question, because it’s about how God can be just with them. And the answer is that although there are people without knowledge of Jesus, there’s no one – thanks to creation and conscience – without knowledge of God. And God will judge each of us on our response to what we did know, not to what we didn’t know.
So half way through verse 16 again, these people call out:
"Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb"
And ‘wrath’ is just another word for God’s judgement. It may be a word which, applied to human beings, makes you think of irrational anger – flying off the handle. But applied to God it means his totally reasonable, righteous reaction to the way we’ve ignored him, and mistreated one another and his world as a result.
And you might be thinking, ‘But don’t you believe in a God of love?’ Isn’t that what Christianity’s all about – John 3.16, "For God so loved the world…"? And the answer is that love and justice aren’t opposites. In fact, seeing justice done is love.
Some friends of a friend have a son. And they tell the story of how he came back from primary school at the beginning of a new year and said, ‘My new teacher doesn’t care about me.’ And they were worried he was being picked on by the teacher, or picked on by the other kids without the teacher doing anything. But when they asked him what he meant he simply said, ‘He never marks my work.’
You see what he’s saying? No marking (which equals no judgement) means no care (which equals no love). So it’s not judgement that’s the opposite of love, but indifference, carelessness. And the good news is that we don’t live in a universe where no-one’s watching. And we don’t live in a universe where someone indifferent or careless is watching. We live in a universe where a loving and just God is watching. Seeing everything.
So, thinking ahead to judgement day, that begs the question at the end of verse 17:
"for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?"
And the answer is: only forgiven people. The people who can stand safe from God’s judgement on that day are the people who’ve trusted that his Son Jesus died to pay for their forgiveness, and who’ve come to the risen Jesus and said, ‘Please forgive me for living my own way, please take charge of my life, and please start changing me to make me fit for heaven.’
And to come back to where we began, that’s why we’re still living in the world we’re in. That’s why God hasn’t ended all the pain – yet. It’s because he’s waiting for each of us to hear about Jesus, to respond to Jesus and then to help others to, as well – before all opportunity is finally over.