Revelation (Part 11): First Four Seals
You will notice as we begin each summary, I will review the major division in which we find ourselves in this study. It is important to keep a constant hold on the framework—the meaning of the scroll passages—of Revelation or we will get swept off our feet in the overwhelming flood of imagery that pounds us like tidal waves. (To realize that ease to losing footing, we just have to look around at the bazillion books on Revelation with their odd, exaggerated conclusions.)
We are in the first of three scroll sections (three pillars in our framework). The scroll represents redemption—the heart of God and the claim on his creation. In this first section, a problem is encountered. God’s creation is stained with evil. That sin necessarily separates us from a perfect, holy God. What can be done? God initiates his redemption plan through the identification of a Redeemer—a kinsman to God and to humanity who takes the scroll, showing his own desire to rescue, and sets out to accomplish that task of redemption. Chapters 6 and 7 will show this movement into the realm of sin-cursed creation in preparation for the redeeming activity.
This preparation that our first scroll section presents is easily seen as the OT movement from the fall into God’s dynamic interaction with his creation through Adam’s descendants, especially as we get to Abraham and the beginning of God’s people, Israel. It is through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) that God covenant to send his Messiah Redeemer. We must not get confused about the multiple covenants that the OT presents. The first covenant of life—that which was made with Adam—was broken by the sin of Adam. All humanity born to Adam is therefore under the sin of that broken covenant and therefore condemned to be apart from God. Only in the Redeemer can we be born again—removed from our heritage in Adam’s cursed family to the New Covenant family of God through Christ. That, technically, is the contrast between old covenant of life and new covenant of life. And that new covenant of life had its covenant beginning through the Abrahamic covenant as that Messiah Redeemer was promised to come through his line.
But in the midst of this progressive plan, God made another covenant with the people of Israel—the Mosaic covenant. This was not a covenant of redemption. It wasn’t as if God tried this Mosaic covenant to see whether that would cleanse humanity, and when that didn’t work he tried a new plan through Jesus. No, the Mosaic covenant was never meant to bring about salvation for Israel. It was actually more closely related to the first covenant with Adam in that it highlighted death (through the sacrificial system) and Law that was forever pointing out sin. As Paul writes about this old Law covenant, he even uses terms that help us to recognize it was not a covenant of salvation but a showcase of death. Paul writes, “Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stones, came with glory, . . . how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8). Notice that Paul calls this Mosaic covenant a ministry of death. But he also says that ministry of death did, in fact, hold some kind of glory because it did indeed point to the fact that the Jews could not save themselves. They needed the Savior Redeemer that God himself would provide. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit—the New Covenant—actually did bring about redemption.
Humanity was on a path to death ever since the fall. But exactly parallel to that, the Redeemer was on a path (through God’s progressive preparation through the OT) to heal. That picture is displayed for us in the Mark 5 story of the synagogue leader Jairus who had a daughter that was on her deathbed. She was dying (and would soon be dead), picturing humanity that was dying and dead. Jesus, in Mark 5:24, goes to heal her, just as the Redeemer prepares through the OT to go heal humanity. On his way to heal the girl, Jesus encounters another woman suffering from a disease causing an issue of bleeding (starting with Mark 5:25). This woman with disease encountering Jesus on his way to healing the girl pictures Israel through the Mosaic covenant in its interaction with God as the Redeemer is on his way to heal the world. Israel, through its sacrificial system, shows the constant issuance of blood, but never by it becoming well. Thus, for Israel to be healed, they must be healed through the Redeemer, not through the Law. Jesus goes on to heal Jairus’s daughter, actually raising her from the dead. Thus, both the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus daughter are healed through Jesus, just as both Israel and the rest of the world are healed through the Redeemer. The Bible ties these two—the woman and Jairus’s daughter—together with sickness and need. In fact, the woman’s issue of blood began 12 years earlier (5:25). And the little girl was exactly 12 years old (5:42).
This story in Mark points out the movement of God through OT history toward redemption, just as we see depicted in the first scroll section of Revelation. We see it depicted through the seals on the scroll that will be plucked open by the Redeemer one by one in Revelation chapter 6.
So let’s dive into chapter 6 but without losing our grip on the intent of the passage. Sin separated us from God (Revelation 4). God wants to correct the problem so that he can have relationship with his image bearers. He will send a Redeemer. That Redeemer willingly accepts that role (Revelation 5). But as the Redeemer takes up the scroll, we find the scroll sealed with seven seals. To open the scroll, claiming redemption, the Redeemer must break open those seven seals. This breaking open of the seals shows the preparation process that actually took place through the OT as the Redeemer was on his way to redeem. With that thought and sequence firmly in mind, we move to chapter 6 as the first seals are broken.
The four living creatures (angels who guard the holiness of God from sinful creation) take part in this involvement of God with humanity. Each of the four calls forth a horse and horseman of the first four seals. This activity seems logically to be that of the four living creatures because as guardians they stand at the gate between heaven and earth.
Jesus breaks the first seal in 6:1, and one of the four angels calls out for the first horse and horseman. A white horse comes forward. The horseman has a bow and is given a crown. He goes out to conquer. Now, without trying to imagine all sorts of wild interpretations about what this could possibly be, let’s just calmly think back on the scene. Jesus, the Redeemer, is opening the scroll—the heart of God for redemption. White is always shown as that which is pure and good. Therefore, the obvious understanding of this white horse and horseman going forth to conquer is that of God’s preparatory involvement with humanity to bring forth a Redeemer. Throughout the OT, we see God involve himself and reveal himself and his purpose in redemption’s plan. Even after the resurrection when Jesus is on the road to Emmaus talking with the two disciples, he takes them back to Moses (the first books of the Bible) to show how he—the Redeemer—was progressively presented throughout OT history. That white horse and rider symbolize this activity of God in preparing to redeem.
But into what kind of world is God bringing this good and hopeful message? The next three seals and horseman show that for us. The second seal is broken in 6:3. Another horse—this one red—comes forward to take peace from the earth. A large sword is given to him. Almost everyone recognizes this horse and rider as a symbol of war. But let’s look carefully at what is presented. The horseman, it says, is “empowered to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another.” Notice that the horseman doesn’t come to kill. The horseman comes to take away peace so that people kill each other. Keep that thought in mind as we move to the other horses because we will come back to it.
The next horse and rider come forward when the third seal is broken (6:5). This horse is black. The rider is said to have a set of scales. A voice is heard giving a ridiculously inflated price for wheat and barley. That inflated price indicates famine.
Now, that set of scales is translated from the Greek zygos. That word, everywhere else translated in the Bible, is translated as yoke. For example, Matthew 11:29-30 reads, “All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” The Greek zygos actually means yoke. It is that wood bar by which a pair of oxen would be yoked together to that they would pull a cart or plow in a balanced fashion. That’s why it is translated as “set of scales” in Revelation 6. The idea is of balance. But, as Jesus also pointed out in Matthew 11:29-30, accompanying the idea of balance is the idea of burden. A yoke was a heavy piece of wood resting on the necks of the oxen. The black horse of the third seal indicates an oppressive burden of not gaining from the earth enough crops to sufficiently feed. The burden is a conflict with the elements of the earth, especially to grow food: problems of sun, rain, soil, etc.
The fourth horse is variously translated pale, ashen, or green. The Greek there is actually best translated green, but the association with death doesn’t change. The Greeks associated the pale green look of a person as sickness toward death. And therefore, this horse and rider call out for death from all sorts and every sort of problem that the world has to bring—sword, famine, plague, wild animals, etc.
These three horses and riders (red, black, and pale green) signify the problems of the earth caused by sin into which the white horse and rider (God’s plan for redemption) is entering with the intent to conquer. We may recall that at creation (Genesis 2), God established three relationships—humanity with each other, humanity with the rest of creation, and humanity with God. When Adam and Eve sinned, Genesis 3 recounts God’s curses specifically on these three relationships. The three horses and riders in Revelation 6 signify the curses on these three relationships. The red horse takes away peace in the relationship of humanity with humanity. The black horse makes difficult the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation. And the pale green horse, indicating death, is the ultimate destruction in humanity’s relationship with God.