June 4th, 2017

How Long?

Patience while waiting also teaches me wisdom when doing. 

Revelation 6:1-11


Introvert Island

It’s good to be back from what I like to call affectionately “Introvert Island,” aka Bald Head Island (BHI). It’s a place that feels very much cut off from the world, especially on the eastern end of the island. Bald Head has no fast food restaurants, no mini-golf or movie theater, no amusement park or aquarium.

On Wednesday of this past week I rode the golf cart up to the market. When I came out there were three adults who looked like they were in their 70s, staring at the BHI map. I asked them if I could help them find something. As if they were teenagers, one of them said, “We’re bored.” I said, “That’s Bald Head Island.” I asked if they would enjoy a hike through the woods, and the lady in the front said, “Well, my husband just had knee replacement surgery.” I told them about the shops nearby and the nature conservancy, and they seemed happy. If you don’t like to sit on the beach, watch the sunset, play quiet games, and read, Bald Head’s not the place for you.

I read seven books and parts of a few others. I had forgotten how much I love time to read, and at home I don’t have enough of it. My reading included Jan Karon’s latest Mitford novel (which I enjoyed), Paul Young’s Lies Christians Believe about God (which I didn’t care for too much), Bill O’Reilly’s Old School (ask me about that privately), and David Jeremiah’s Is This the End? (perspective on the Revelation series).

Then there were two books that fit Revelation well even though they aren’t about Revelation at all. One is the autobiographical conversion story of Anne Rice, a prolific novelist who had written mostly vampire fiction in her atheist days until she returned to the Catholic faith of her youth, fully convinced that there is a God and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. The other was a book by Susan Casey called The Wave, a book about monster ocean waves and daredevils who attempt to surf them. What these two authors have in common is the uncanny ability to paint a picture with words. Rice can describe a cathedral or confessional booth and make you feel like you’re sitting beside her. Casey can describe the roar of a cascading barrel of water as high as a six-story office building so well your heart pumps like you’re riding it. Here’s one sentence: “The ocean pitched and surged from the incoming swell, distinct layers of green and blue, light and dark, confused and choppy and frothy with whitewater” (285).

John the Apostle wrote like that. Domitian the emperor had banished John to the island of Patmos for his faith in Jesus which conflicted with Domitian’s desire to be worshiped as Lord and God. Stranded on his own version of Introvert Island, albeit involuntarily and in far less ideal circumstances than ours on Bald Head Island, John had a series of visions that include both sights and sounds. He saw Jesus, presented with white hair, blazing eyes, and a voice like a giant rogue wave. Jesus instructed John to send envoys to seven churches of western Asia, representing the church everywhere and in every time. Jesus commends and corrects his churches, but he’s always among them.

When I was away last Sunday, my friend and colleague Chad Hall preached on the vision of chapters 4 and 5. The vision location moves to heaven, where God sits on his throne. John is told he is going to be able to see what will unfold in the future, contained in a scroll God holds in his right hand. The scroll is sealed with seven seals, but no one is worthy to open the scroll. John is told that the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll. The Lamb is victor and worthy of worship, but he also looks like he has been killed. He has seven eyes, which represent the Holy Spirit. (Revelation clearly presents the doctrine of the Trinity.) Chad said our response is to hope in him, imitate him, and worship him.

The four horsemen

The scene of Revelation 6 has not changed from chapters 4 and 5. God is on the throne, surrounded by four “living creatures” (archangels[1]) as Jesus opens the seals one by one. Because the scroll can’t be opened until all seven seals are removed, the seals are not about the end of the age. They are about what happens before the end – between the first and second coming of Jesus.

John says in 6:1, “I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals.” Remember, he had wept intensely and repeatedly (5:4) because no one was worthy to open the seals, so this is a holy moment of anticipation and excitement. John continues, “Then I heard one of the four archangels say in a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’” This word can mean, “Come” or “Go” in the Greek, and I’m going against most translations and commentaries to suggest it should be “Go!” It’s not a big deal either way, but I say that for two reasons. First, the scene takes place in heaven where the four archangels are with God, so the action originates there. I think the archangel is speaking to the horsemen, directing them toward the earth. Second, the Old Testament background seems to be Zechariah 1 and 6, where multi-colored horses are “sent to go throughout the earth” (Zechariah 1:10). The Lord has a message that peace is returning to Israel but he is angry with the nations. This scene seems to be to complete that vision.

As John looks, he first sees a white horse, whose “rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest” (2). If you’ve read all the way through Revelation, you might immediately think of Jesus returning on a white horse in chapter 19, but I agree with most commentators who say this is not Jesus.

At the end of the first century, the Roman empire was solidly in control of the Mediterranean rim, but its enemy to the east was an empire named Parthia. The Parthians were known as expert archers, and they rode white horses in battle. The situation might be parallel to the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century. As Americans, we were pretty sure we were the strongest nation on earth, but if we had a rival, if we feared any nation, it would be the Soviet Union – not only because of their military strength but because they were “bent on conquest.” If you wrote in the 1970s about a warrior carrying a banner with a gold hammer and sickle, it would be immediately apparent who it was. This symbol represents the terror of Parthia.

The meaning of the white horse is power. The quest for expanding power continues unabated on the earth during the entire time between the comings of Jesus.

The Lamb opens the second seal (3), and the second archangel says, “Go!” A fiery red horse goes out (4), sword in hand, with the ability to take peace from the earth. It’s not enough just to say that the desire for power continues between the comings of Jesus. That desire results in war after war after war after war. After it was over, World War I was thought to be “the war to end all wars” until, of course, World War II. We don’t know when Christ will come again, but we know the nations will be in constant conflict until then. We may eventually settle things in Germany or Vietnam or Ireland or Afghanistan or the Israel and the Middle East, but other wars will follow.

The meaning of the red horse is conflict. There will always be war among individuals, peoples and nations during the entire time between the comings of Jesus.

The Lamb opens the third seal (4), and the third archangel says, “Go!” to the third horse, a black one. Its rider is holding scales (5) and a voice explains their meaning: “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and wine” (6). Wheat was what the middle class used to make their daily bread. Barley was cheaper because it was more readily available, but less tasty and nutritious. Oil and wine were common to most diets, but in small supply unless you were rich. The voice seems to be saying there will always be inequality, with some people barely having enough and others enjoying excess. According to a recent university study, the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people, 50% more than the actual population. People still go hungry around the world and even in Hickory because of politics, inequality, and apathy – not because there’s not enough food.

The meaning of the black horse is scarcity. There will always be inequality of resources in a sinful world during the entire time between the comings of Jesus.

The Lamb opens the fourth seal, and the fourth archangel thunders, “Go!” A fourth horse rides out. Its color is variously translated as “pale” or “green” or “colorless… sickly pale” (Message). If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s what my roommate in college called “puke green.” This rider is labeled Death, and his companion is Hades. These two are given power to kill one fourth of humanity by sword, famine, plague, and attack from “the wild beasts of the earth.” Even on tranquil Bald Head Island, there are large alligators, snakes, and sharks just offshore. The meaning of the “fourth” here is not an exact ratio, as in 25% of the earth will die. It means that that Death and Hades constantly have their way at any given time, and not just with a few here and there.

The meaning of the pale horse is death. In between the comings of Jesus, we can expect constant death in large scales from natural and man-made causes.

All this fits with what Jesus said three days before the crucifixion as he taught his disciples about the end of the age on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pangs. (Matthew 24:4-8)

Every time a powerful anti-God world figure arises, or the nations erupt in war, or an earthquake rattles our fragile planet, some well-meaning Christian prophet says the end is near. Jesus is saying, “Don’t be gullible. The norm in a wicked world is false Messiahs, wars, and natural disasters.”

Revelation 6 teaches that between the comings of Jesus it will be common to see power grabs, international conflicts, scarcity of resources, death on a large and small scale. That’s what sinners do to each other. Jesus is not saying in Matthew 24 or Revelation 6 that you shouldn’t try to do anything about it. Make peace where you can, feed the hungry, develop better healthcare to attack black death or polio or HIV/AIDS. But you’re not going to solve all those problems before Jesus comes again.

How long?

The fifth seal is then opened. We originally had planned to stop with verse 8 in our reading, because the fifth seal is so different. I realized about a week ago what a mistake that was. The fifth seal is not only the natural response for John’s generation, where people are dying for their belief in Jesus, but the natural response of every believer in every age to a sinful world where conquest, conflict, scarcity, and death are normal.

How long? As long as there is time, we will ask that question. It’s a biblical question, repeated frequently in the Bible itself, especially in the Psalms.

The fifth seal is opened (9), revealing yet another common theme throughout the ages. John sees martyrs “under the altar” (9). You may think, “That’s not exactly how I picture heaven. Where are the harps and gold streets? Where’s the joy and peace? Where’s the joining in heaven’s worship? Where are the crowns for these overcomers?” You’re missing the point. To be “under the altar” is not about location. This is a symbol – in this case a symbol of safety. It’s also an image of prestige – they are closest to God.

The martyrs articulate the cry John’s suffering readers wanted to shout: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (10) Some have suggested that seems like an unchristian prayer. Shouldn’t these people have resolved their need for vengeance when they got to that heavenly scene? Once again, stop it! These are symbols of the common reaction of those who believe in a sovereign God who is holy and true to age after age of power, conflict, scarcity, and death. God, when are you going to do something about it?

They are not rebuked for the question. Instead, they are given a white robe. Jesus has already been seen in a long robe, and white is a consistent symbol of purity in and outside the Bible. In other words, they are reminded of who they are and where they are – secure and pure in God’s presence. They are told to wait a little longer (11). Others will join them in their martyrdom. God’s got this, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to change things right now. This age of history is not over. God offers no timeline to them or to John’s readers or to us. Whenever we try to put God on a timeline, we miss the point.

Waiting is the theme of Revelation 6, the seven-sealed scroll. We have seen Jesus among his churches, whether they’re faithful or not, whether they’re suffering or not. He’s always among his churches. At the same time, he is in the presence of his Father, having suffered for our sins and being worshiped as worthy to receive power and wisdom and honor before all heaven. He has history in his hands, and as it unfolds he knows what sin does in our world – power, conflict, scarcity, and death.

The book I read these past two weeks that I thought was most insightful and powerful was Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Once in a while, I come across a book I think everyone should read – or every Christian should read. This is the latest one. I plan to get some pastors together to read it. I’m going to suggest it to our Elders. I’d like our small group to read it.

In chapter 6, Scazzero discusses what he calls “The Wall,” what St. John of the Cross famously called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” It’s about those times in life where things go so badly we are prone to believe God has abandoned us. One of the subtitles in the chapter is, “How Long Will This Last?” It’s a cry of every struggling believer at the Wall.  It’s what John’s suffering readers will ask. It’s as if we can endure what’s happening if we know the end point. Do I have to deal with this for a day? A week? A month? Five years? Just tell me, and I’ll steel myself. What I don’t want is indefinite endurance.

Then the author talks about what happens to us on the other side of the Wall. The summary: we become more emotionally healthy as well as spiritually healthy. One of the effects is “A Deeper Ability to Wait for God.” Here’s what he says –

An outgrowth of greater unbrokenness and holy unknowing is a greater capacity to wait upon the Lord. Going through the Wall breaks something deep within us – that driving, grasping, fearful self-will that must produce, that must make something happen, that must get it done for God (just in case he doesn’t).

If I were to identify my greatest sins and errors of judgment in the last thirty years of following Christ, they would each go back to a failure to wait on the Lord. What does it truly mean when we read, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:14)? Or “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord” (Psalm 130:5-6).

From finishing people’s sentences to starting new daughter churches too quickly, I have struggled to wait upon the Lord. God, I believe, extended my Wall (and then added a few smaller ones) to purge out of me this deep, stubborn willfulness to run ahead of him. While I kick and scream, God slowly teaches me to wait. Now I understand why this is such a consistent theme in Scripture.

The Scriptures he quotes from the Psalms are typical of what the Bible says about waiting. It’s not about waiting for God to do something, as in, “I am waiting on God to heal me” or “I am waiting on God to show me whom to marry” or “I am waiting on God to end poverty or wars.” Waiting on God in the Bible is just waiting on God. Period.

Doesn’t that make us passive, unable to make a decision or move ahead? Not at all. Patience while waiting also teaches me wisdom when doing. God wants us to step out, to act, to move, even sometimes when we’re not exactly sure we’re making the right decision. We are not called to do nothing about conquest or conflict or scarcity or death.

We are called to recognize the limits of what we can do. And when we get into a situation that there’s just nothing we can do to change it – we’ve hit the Wall, and we cry “How long?” – we are called to wait on God. It means he is on the throne and the Lamb who was slain for us is with him, and we can trust him while we wait.

You may say, “OK, Bob, you’ve explained the seven seals, but the book’s going to get even more complicated with the trumpets and bowls ahead. What are you going to say about that?” For that you’ll have to wait. Amen.

[1] The word “creatures” sounds like they are monsters. Although John had symbolically described them in chapter four as having human and animal-like characteristics, they are clearly angels of the highest rank.

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