9 When he 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. 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?” 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 should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
12 When he 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, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 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, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
As with the 7 trumpets and 7 bowls, we will come to later, the first group of four always form their own unit separate from the last three. So, last week we saw the four technicolor horses and their riders working together as a description of the sins human beings inflict on themselves. God gives condemned sinners over to their own sinful desires as his judgment for their unbelief. He untethers the boat of their souls and lets them slip into the current of sin where they dash themselves on the rocks.
So, every act of evil we see in the world is one more taste of God’s great judgment on sin to come at the end of this present age. For believers, those tragedies and trails are the training he uses to strip us of our self-reliance as he batters down the walls of our own self-centered kingdoms of me. God judges the rebellious and trains the redeemed through the same events and the same personal trials and tragedies that happen to all people. God’s blessing for us is NOT that we won’t get cancer though our atheist neighbor will; his blessing is that he will use your illness to show you more of Christ. Because “See Step One: it’s all about Jesus.”
Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens outside of the sovereign purposes of God. That’s is the point of this letter to saints suffering at the hand of God-hating fellow humans and dealing with the effects of Adam’s sin. They worship in the midst of suffering because THAT is the true victory. They stand upon the solid rock of Christ and cry out for his Kingdom to come as fully to earth as it is in heaven. We see their brothers and sisters already in heaven crying out for the very same thing when Jesus opens the fifth seal.
THE FIFTH SEAL
When he 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. 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?” 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 should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. 
Though the tragedies and trial in 6:1-8 falls upon everyone in the world equally, the fifth seal shows John the reaction of the redeemed to persecution from the world, the flesh, and the devil. The words “slay” and “kill” used in connection with the horsemen’s activities are used in verses 9-11 to describe the saints’ persecution. John also sees an altar in the heavenly temple/throne room. It’s a symbol of the work of the freshly-slain-but-living Lamb. John sees underneath the altar the souls of those who have been persecuted and those who have been slaughtered. They are covered and protected by the sacrificial work of Christ.
It is possible that John sees only the souls of witnesses killed for their trust into Christ. But it’s likely these souls represent “the broader category of all saints who suffer for the sake of their faith (so 13:15–18 and perhaps 18:24; 20:4).” The word martyr means witness, not necessarily “murdered witness” although we tend to use it that way in English. Every disciple of Jesus is a martyr, and all go through sufferings to train them in Christ-likeness. These souls are the overcomers from chapters 2 and 3. Some have been executed. Others have conquered temptation and compromise in the face of worldly scorn and rejection without being put to death (Rom. 8:35-39; 12:1-2). We could also see here the souls of the faithful OT saints of whom St Author of Hebrews wrote in 11:35-38
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy….
Notice John sees souls, not bodies. These saints are crying out for their resurrection and vindication, for God to show his holiness and justice, and bring in the new heavens and new earth. How can souls wear white robes? It’s figurative, apocalyptic language. The robes are the righteousness of Christ which he counseled the church at Laodicea to buy with repentance and trust. The robes do NOT mean the witnesses died for Christ, but that Christ died for them because their robes are white with the blood of the Lamb (7:14). The souls cry out for deliverance from the “earth-dwellers” (v. 10). As well see in the next seal, these are the ones whose true citizenship is on earth, as opposed to those who true citizenship is in the Jerusalem that is above (Gal. 4:26).
We can imagine this was a comforting scene to a man who had spent 70+ years in ministry and seen all the Lord’s other apostles murdered, including his own brother, James (Acts 12:2). John knew many of the recent victims of Roman slaughter and he would know of many more. But it was also a comfort to know this picture also included those like John himself who had suffered much without being killed.
John not only sees the souls dressed in white, he hears them screaming out to God, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long…?” And we can imagine Johns saying, “That’s exactly what I have been asking. Lord, how long are you going to let your name be mocked by evil people?” This is not a cry for personal revenge; these saints are completed in perfection. They address God as holy and true because they long to see him demonstrate his attributes upon a rebellious creation. They long to see him demonstrate his perfect righteousness and justice and make good on his promise: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19).
The Lord shows John something about living a heavenly life on earth as John sees those who have entered through the open door of heaven to live in glory. The Lord says to his faithful witnesses to rest a little while longer. “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 should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” 
The robes John sees are long, flowing, stately garments that signified upper-class status on earth. These words “white robe” and “rest” conjure a modern image of being in a 4-star penthouse hotel suite wrapped in a white bathrobe so plush it feels like a fluffy cloud – ultimate luxury and ultimate relaxation. This is the eternal Sabbath. John is caught up through heaven’s open door and he hears the Savior tell his people to “rest.”
Ex. 31:17, 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’ 
Matt. 11:28, 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Heb. 4:9, So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 
God says to his faithful witnesses, “Just rest and trust me. I have a plan. The Lamb is opening the scroll. He is executing my covenant in my timing. To you who rest, it will seem but a little while longer.” God tells them the number of their fellow servants to be martyred is not yet complete. And you would expect both them and John to cry out, “Lord, not more! Please stop this before more suffer!” But the point is God has a perfectly-timed plan in which not one single step will be against his purposes to protect and glorify his Son’s brothers and sisters.
If the Father does not delay, then no one else will ever be saved from the wrath of the Lamb (6:16). God has a definite number of people to pluck out from among the earth-dwellers and he will not consummate all things until all his children have become citizens of the New Jerusalem. Peter wrote, “…the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment….”
The saints in heaven are absolutely satisfied in Christ. But in this picture, they say the same thing you and I and John and the Christians of Roman Asia say, “Lord, how long must these horses ride on the earth before you put a stop to all the misery and suffering? How long do I have to endure the pain of this trial?” And the Lord replies that he is not finished using his suffering saints to win the lost for his Son, Jesus. His glorious purposes have always involved the suffering of his people so that his people will see more of Christ and so more of the lost will come to trust and rest in Jesus.
The fifth broken seal shows the flawless plan of God to save his people and give them Sabbath rest in Christ’s perfect righteousness. The sixth broken seal reveals to John and the glorified resting saints under the altar, and to you and me, that God will vindicate his people and himself when he finally executes his complete judgment on the earth-dwellers.
12 When he 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, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
The persecution and suffering of Jesus’ witnesses have finally run their course in the sixth seal. All that remains is the settling of accounts with the earth-dwellers. In the OT, earth-dwellers were the idol-worshippers who reject God and his Promised Seed in favor man-made images and natural creation. The phrase earth-dwellers or “ones who dwell on the earth” is used in Revelation exclusively of idol worshipers (8:13 [cf. 9:20]; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6–9; 17:2, 8; the emphasis in 11:10 is on unbelievers who persecute the saints). Earthquake imagery in both OT and NT signifies the judgment of the nations, the Gentiles, the earth-dwellers (Hos. 10:1–3, 8; Haggai 2:6-7; Luke 21:11; 23:30; cf. Heb. 12:27). They are being shaken by the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
Then there is the apocalyptic imagery of the darkened sun and moon, vanishing sky, and falling stars (Ezek. 38:19; Joel 2:10, 31; Isa. 13:10; 34:4; Matt. 24:29; Mk. 13:24). Blood moon books may make money in our day, but they miss the point of this picture. “The Bible repeatedly refers to the heavenly bodies as representing false deities worshiped by Israel and the nations (e.g., Deut. 4:19; 17:1–4; 2 Kgs. 23:4–5; Jer. 8:2; Ezek. 8:16; Amos 5:25–27; Acts 7:41–43).” God’s repeated OT command was to remove and destroy all idols. That’s what he does in the last judgment. Everything besides him that can be worshipped is shaken and destroyed: sun, moon, stars, mountains, caves, material goods, military power, political systems, and kingdoms.
The earth-dwellers have committed themselves completely to things other than God for their happiness and security and some sense of control – whether politics, economics, nature, “the universe,” social rankings, or power. God’s people are pilgrims passing through and their eyes are not ultimately earth-bound, but heaven-bound. They look beyond the things that are seen and worshipped to the one who sits on the throne in unapproachable light and to the Lion-Lamb and to the Seven-Fold Spirit.
But for the earth-dwellers, every worshipped thing must and shall be shaken, brought down, and destroyed until there is no comfort, no consolation, and no place to hide. Even the earth itself, as the last refuge of the idol-worshipping earth-dweller, must be removed so that they stand naked and terrified before the holy, righteous wrath of the Lamb. Mother earth cannot comfort them for she is taken away. The “universe” is stripped of all supposed new-age power. The stars no longer give invented predictions through the Zodiac. Wealth and power are useless. Slaves have no hope of liberation. Poverty can make no plea bargain for leniency. Social standing is meaningless. Absolutely EVERYTHING into which the earth-dwellers can trust has been removed.
Isaiah prophesied (2:17-19):
17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, /and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. / 18 And the idols shall utterly pass away. / 19 And people shall enter the caves of the rocks /and the holes of the ground, /from before the terror of the Lord, /and from the splendor of his majesty, /when he rises to terrify the earth. 
The four horseman showed God turning earth-dwellers over completely to their sinful desires, ignoring and hiding from the Holy Creator and worshipping only what they could see. But now there is no hiding place. Their disillusionment over the loss of their idols turns now to sheer terror and total panic as there is nothing left for them to see but the face of the vengeful Creator and the Lion-Lamb. And they scream these spine-tingling words to the crumbling high places:
Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand? 
To be damned by Him who came to save sinners will be horrifying and hopeless. The Psalmist sang, “3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, /O Lord, who could stand?  Oh, would that the earth-dwellers would have had ears to hear the next line of that Psalm to God, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” 
Revelation is all about the lostness of the lost and the found-ness of the found. The lost long to be crushed under the mountain. The found rest in Christ’s righteousness under the altar of the Lamb. On that day of no more idols, where will you be found? Will you not give ear to the Lamb’s invitation as his Spirit and his church call to you this morning?
17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. 
 Beale, 390.
 Beale, 402.
 Id., 402–403.
 Sinclair Ferguson, Apocalypse Now: When the Seals Are Opened (Rev. 6), https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-082607pm