Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
Text: Revelation 6:1, 9-17
26 March 2017
OT Scripture Reading – Isaiah 53
Our sermon text for today is Revelation 6:1, 9-17. If you are willing and able, please stand for the reading of God’s Holy Word. The word of God reads:
The word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God!) May God add his blessings to the reading, the hearing, and the preaching of his word. All the church says: Amen!
The Lamb takes the scroll and opens the seals of the scroll one at a time. What we will see and hear over the few chapters is the Lamb’s seven-point sermon. He comes full of grace and truth to reveal the will of his Father.
The first four seals reveal the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
A white horse which is a picture of conquest. The mystery rider will be revealed later on in Revelation 19.
A red horse which is a picture of war, violence, and bloodshed.
A black horse which is a picture of economic collapse.
A pale horse which is a picture of disease and death.
“And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”
Like their shepherd, the lambs under the altar were slaughtered for the word of God and for their witness.
Who slaughtered them?
The souls under the altar were slaughtered by the red horse, the black horse, and the pale horse.
One of the questions most frequently asked in the scriptures is “How long?”
This is the question of the living-dead martyrs under the altar in the vision of the Lamb’s sermon.
This hard question is posed by God’s people throughout the OT.
The Psalmists asked God,
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psa 13:1-2)
How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? (Psa. 74:10)
How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? (Psa. 82:2)
How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me? (Psa. 119:84)
The Prophets asked God,
How long [shall I preach] O Lord? (Isa 6:11)
How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? (Jer 12:4)
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? (Hab. 1:2)
O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years? (Zech. 1:12)
Finally, the martyrs under the altar 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?”
The souls under the altar are all God’s people who have already died. Like their Lord and Savior Jesus, the souls under the altar laid down their lives for the Word of God (made flesh for the life of the world). And like the Lamb, they look as though they have been slain — they were dead but now they are alive.
They cry out because they want to know that their sacrifice and service means something — that it was not a mistake or all in vain.
The Greek word for cry does not mean cry tears. It is the same word used in John’s Gospel to describe Jesus crying out like a prophet in his preaching. The martyrs are not weeping — they are worshiping together; they are not pouting, they are praying in unison with one mega voice!
They cry out because they want the Lord God Almighty to take action and avenge their blood — to exact punishment on those who slaughtered them.
And so they want to make it loud and clear that they expect the Lord to make things right, to execute justice on their enemies, to prove that the judge of all the earth will do what is right and good for his people.
Like incense which releases its sweet and savory scent when burned by fire, so their prayers rise up in the Spirit, through the Lamb, to the Lord God Almighty.
The same holds true for our prayers!
As a pastor at the Hispanic Leadership retreat I just attended said,
“All our prayers, our works, ministries, all our suffering and tears pass through the wounds of Jesus, the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world.” (Manuel Padilla)
When their cry comes up to God and God hears their groaning rising up from under the altar, God remembers his covenant. God sees the people under the altar — and God knows what must be done. (Exodus 2:23-25)
So, he answers their prayers and assures them that he sees their condition and he hears their cry.
“Then they were each given a white robe” — not to pacify them, but to praise them for enduring the trials and tribulations of cross-bearing. Note: These white robes are like the white robe that Jesus was wearing in the first vision. As they once identified with Jesus in his death; so now they will always identify with Jesus in his life.
“and they were told to rest a little longer” — in Christ, death is not a life-less, null and void, final state of emptiness and nothingness, rather it a temporal means of rest on the way to an eternal end of rewards and rest.
Those who die in the Lord enjoy a restful experience from all their labors in the presence of the Lord. Here, they are told to wait a little while longer before God avenges their blood.
But how long is a little longer? — Answer: until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete – that is, all who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
As we will see in a moment, other servants and brothers are dying every day. The souls under the altar are still waiting.
This raises some really big and hairy theological questions.
In his book God in the Dark, Os Guinness says “the question ‘How long, O Lord?’ often turns into the doubt, Who does God think he is to keep us waiting? This doubt comes when a particular vision God has given us seems utterly impossible or hopelessly delayed. The hardest thing to do is to wait and work on. Waiting does something to us, and it tells us something about relationship to God.” (198)
The Lord God Almighty is sovereign over all things, including space-time history and the horses of war, famine, disease and death. So why does he allow these things to happen? Why doesn’t he act to stop the insanity?
Our world is a dirty and messy place. Violence, bloodshed, poverty, disease, injustice abound. What is God doing? Where is God when it hurts? Why doesn’t God answer us and fix this broken mess? How long must we cry out to him in prayer? When will he put things to right?
“How long?” is a question that needs answering. But it is a question that is often answered in surprising, unexpected, and mysterious ways.
As it is in this story (until the number of God’s people who were to be slaughtered as the other martyrs had been is complete).
That is a hard word — not only for them, but also for us.
It was estimated that each month of 2015:
332 Christians were killed for their faith. 214 Christian churches or properties were destroyed. 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians, including beatings, abductions, rape, imprisonment, forced marriages.
Most of us still remember the images of the 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on a beach in the middle east, with their captors standing behind them dressed in black. One by one, each man was brutally slaughtered, and as this happened many of them were praying “Lord Jesus Christ” with their last breath.
Like many others who came before them, they took their place under the altar and cry out “How long, O Lord?”
Earlier this year (2017), Christianity Today reported that “For the third year in a row, the modern persecution of Christians worldwide has hit another record high.”
Open Doors researchers say that, “In 25 years of ‘chronicling and ranking’ the political and societal restrictions on religious freedom experienced by Christians worldwide, 2016 was the “worst year yet” — their research shows that “Persecution rose globally again for the third year in a row, indicating how volatile the situation has become”.
Many of the refugees who are fleeing in the Middle east and risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter other countries are professing Christians. So are many immigrants who risk life and limb to cross our borders down south.
Like those who came before them, they fleeing the red, black, and pale horses of the apocalypse; they are fleeing the unholy trinity of violence, famine, and death.
It seems the more things change, the more they remain the same.
If we have any hope of making sense of these things we must fix our hearts and minds on the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the world.
In the Lamb, God became flesh and entered into our story — including our suffering and evil — and he sympathizes with us in our weakness and brokenness. Moreover, he solves the problem of evil and suffering by enduring it all for our sake and by exposing it to public shame. He became sin that we might become righteous. He endured unjust suffering that we might enjoy untold pleasures.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
The Lamb of God who was slain is the true and better martyr, the ultimate witness who laid down his life for the word of God. He was dead by crucifixion, but now he is alive by resurrection.
Not everyone takes this view of things.
All these stats and stories of persecution stand in sharp contrast to life here in the US.
For example, here in the Belt Buckle of the Bible-Belt, most of our suffering and sorrows are self-inflicted. They are caused by other professing Christians.
Many professing Christians play hop, skip, and jump with Christ and the church over silly things and petty matters. Many flirt with other congregations — or flee from one church to another — not to escape heresy or persecution, but to experience something new or to enhance their network. Why?
In the words of Flannery O’Connor said, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
These things hurt the body of Christ.
As you know, we have all suffered emotionally, relationally, spiritually, and financially as a result of this kind of “friendly-fire”. Sill, like the souls under the altar, we also cry out, “How long, O Lord?”
On March 24, 1965, after the march from Selma to Montgomery, MLK said: “How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
He was right.
As the vision of the Lamb’s sermon shows us, the wrath of the Lamb will break out against the enemies of his people. He will confront the red horse, the black horse, and the pale horse. He will conquer violence, famine, and disease, war, poverty, and death, sin and death.
Justice is coming for the enemies of God’s people. They will feel as if all hell is breaking loose against them. But it is not hell but heaven and it will feel like hell to them.
Since they refuse to kiss the Son his anger is kindled against them. He is slow to anger, but when his anger comes it is fierce and ferocious.
As the vision says, a storm is coming.
Who can stand?
Only those who turn and trust the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.