“Endure Suffering Patiently”
This morning, we’re in our fifth message in our series through the book of Revelation. It comes from Revelation 6-7 so if you’d go ahead and take your Bibles and turn to that passage, it will help as we move forward this morning.
A salesman was traveling on a rural road. From down a side road came a farmer driving a pick-up towing a stock trailer with a horse in it. The truck collided with the salesman’s car.
Awhile later, the salesman was trying to get the farmer’s insurance company to pay for his medical bills and some kind of settlement for the farmer’s negligence in the accident. The insurance adjuster asked, “How come you’re claiming damages now when the police report shows that you answered the question ‘Are you hurt’ with a response of “No.”
The salesman told the insurance adjuster, “Someone had removed me from my car and I was lying on the road in a world of pain. Someone said the horse had a broken leg so the deputy sheriff who responded to the accident shot the horse. When he turned to me and asked, “Are you alright, I told him that I was doing fine.”
Revelation 6-7 deals with suffering. Suffering is a universal condition. Augustine said, “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” Jesus was a suffering savior.
Is. 53:3-6 – He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Rembrandt’s painting of the cross is really no different than most of the Renaissance artists: dark ominous skies, the hill, three crosses – Jesus in the middle and a criminal on each side. There are Roman soldiers and a crowd of people – some who’ve come to mock Him and others who’ve come to mourn him.
But when you look closely at Rembrandt’s painting of the crucifixion, there is one strange addition that separates it from other renderings. You will see someone not in 1st century clothing but 17th century clothing. Rembrandt knew enough to paint himself into the picture of the cross.
The human condition is rife with suffering. It may be the death of a loved one, going through the process of treating a deadly disease, it might mean being persecuted for your faith, it might involve starvation and thirst, it might involve enduring great physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. Whatever it is, life here on earth is riddled with suffering.
Life is not a string of victories followed by another string of victories. I wish it was. While there are good times in life, we all know, or will know one day, that life is filled with difficulties. Life is filled with pain, disappointment, sickness, tragedy, hurt, and loss.
Remember that the book of Revelation is a letter written to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. These Christians receiving the letter are people who face suffering like few people have ever suffered. They’re persecuted, demeaned, abused, and tormented. Followers of Jesus have been killed outright for their faith.
So, as we go through Revelation 6-7, we see John addressing two very important questions in minds of those who will receive this letter. The first question: “Why all this suffering?” The second: “Is there a point to all this suffering?”
The vision in Revelation 6-7 is two-sided. Revelation 6 shows us suffering from an earthly point of view. Revelation 7 shows suffering from the heavenly point of view.
The Earthly View
Rev. 6:1-17 – I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
5 When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “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 the wine!”
7 When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us] from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
In his book, In the Eye of the Storm, Max Lucado tells the story of Chippie the parakeet. He was the joy of his owner’s life – a widow – because he filled her days with song. One day while vacuuming, she noticed that Chippie’s cage was dirty. So she opened the little door, and using an attachment, began to vacuum out the bottom of the cage.
Just then the phone rang. As she turned to answer it, Chippie’s owner moved the vacuum hose a little too high and—whoosh! To her horror she had sucked Chippie into the vacuum cleaner! She immediately dropped the phone, shut the vacuum off, opened the vacuum cleaner and pulled out the bag. She tore the bag open and began to dig for her beloved bird. To her amazement, his owner found him still alive, stunned, but covered with dus and debris. Her poor bird was dirty.
So she took him to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and stuck him under the torrent of ice-cold water. The dirt came off but then Chippie’s owner noticed that he was shivering from the shock of the cold water. Chippie was cold and drippy.
She did the first thing that came to mind. She grabbed her blow dryer and blasted that little bird with hot air to dry him out as quickly as possible. The heat in contrast with the cold left the poor bird feeling scorched.
A few days later, a reporter who had somehow heard about Chippie’s ordeal, called to get the details of the story. At the end of the call, the reporter asked, “Hos is Chippie doing now?” The owner said, “Well, physically he seems fine. But these days, he just kinda sits there. Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore.”
Sometimes life has a way of stealing your song. When we walk out of Revelation 4-5, we are singing! We’ve been in the throne room and have just experienced the best worship service of our lives. But we barely get four verses into chapter 6 when the song is torn from our lips.
The Bible points to several different causes of suffering. There are our own sinful choices, other’s sinful choices, the fact that we live in a fallen world. Satan causes suffering. There are even times when God causes suffering.
We need to be careful in assigning each tragedy a cause. Did God cause my wife’s cancer, or did Satan? Is it just a fallen world? I don’t know. What I can say is this: in his sovereignty, God will use suffering – no matter its direct cause – for his purposes.
That’s what we see in this section of Revelation. The suffering mentioned here is all under God’s control. No matter its specific cause, God is using the chaos to accomplish his desires in history.
We’ve been waiting for the Lamb to open the seven seals on the scroll. What can it say? What are we going to learn about God’s – his plans and purposes? As each seal gets opened, we find that things get worse and worse.
First we encounter what have been termed the four horsemen of the apocalypse. As each of the first four seals are opened, there is released a rider on horseback. Kentucky is my home state and the thoroughbred capital of the world but in all my years of living there I never saw horses like these.
The first is a white horse, whose rider carries a bow, is given a crown, and rides out as a conqueror bent on conquest. Some have tried to claim that this rider is Jesus because of a reference later in the book of Revelation to him riding a white horse.
However, in the minds of the1st century Christians to whom this letter was written, they
would have envisioned the Parthians – a warring group of people from north and east of the
Roman empire. They were the only horseback-mounted archers of the time and had some military success in skirmishes with the Roman army.
This rider represents the suffering that comes from an insatiable desire to conquer other countries. It is suffering brought about by the battlefield. This rider represents all military invaders.
When the second seal is opened, out comes the rider on a blood-red horse. He represents conflict and bloodshed. It can include the effects of war but is a more general designation of conflict and strife which leads to assault and murder.
Eugene Petersen, Reversed Thunder: History is a long sequence of battles. The battle rages in family circles; it is contested between nations. War is the human condition.”
When the third seal is opened, out comes another rider – this one riding a black horse and holding scales in his hand. This rider represents famine. The measure of wheat mentioned was starvation rations for a family. The cost for starvation rations? A full day’s wage. Even barley, the grain used by the poorest people of that day is outrageously expensive. Meanwhile, the oil and wine flow freely.
Famine is sometimes a by-product of war but sometimes, famine is simply the result of a planet with an operating system infected with the virus of sin. Drought strikes, locusts devour, crops fail. Whether it’s the 1st century or the 21st century, children starve.
The fourth seal is opened and out comes a rider riding a pale horse – the color of sickness and death. This rider is followed closely by Hades – the abode of the dead.
The echo of Death’s hoofbeats sound in every time period, every community, and every single life. He has many means whereby to accomplish his goal – sword, famine, disease, wild animals – but the end is always the same: caskets, funerals, graveyards, and grief-stricken families left behind.
The fifth seal is opened and we see the persecution of those who faithfully follow Jesus. We’re told that under the altar are the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
Under the altar are the children of God, who at some point in their lives, have crawled up onto the altar of God to lay down their lives for God. They painted themselves into the picture of the cross saying “I want to suffer with and I want to suffer for the Savior who suffered with and who suffered for me.” Every age has seen Christians targeted – be it wild animals released in a Roman coliseum or jihad released in a church in the Middle East.
The sixth seal is opened and what do we see? Natural disaster. There’s a great earthquake. The sun turns black and the moon blood-red. The stars fall from the sky like leaves from a tree. The heavens are rolled back like a scroll and every mountain and island removed from its place.
Ever since Genesis 3, our planet has been defective: earthquakes, meteors, hurricanes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, and tornadoes. When nature malfunctions, people are thrown into chaos, and this seal describes such disasters in horrifying apocalyptic language.
While God allows these calamities to fall on unrepentant sinners in the hopes of awakening them, the saints are sometimes unfortunately caught in the crossfire. So in the description of the fifth and sixth seals, we hear two important questions asked by the martyred saints. They’re questions that come from a heart of anguish. Rev. 6:10 – “How long, O Lord?” and Rev. 6:17 – “Who can withstand?” The answers to those questions will help us endure the suffering.
The first question: How long? If you’ve ever lived through difficult times, you know that time does not fly when you’re not having fun. Suffering seems to slow the clock, and trials are always long and hard. In the midst of pain, we ask, “How long? Will this go on forever? When will it end?”
You’ve heard me mention before that I’m a fan of the Rocky movies – not Rocky and Bullwinkle but the ones with Sylvester Stallone. Every one of those movies have what could be called a “training montage.”
Rocky trains to win and the theme music, Gonna Fly Now, builds through a quick sequence of training scenes – Rocky running through the neighborhoods of Philadelphia or the countryside in the Soviet Union, doing one-arm pushups, and punching a side of beef in a meat locker.
The point of the training montage is clear: Rocky is paying his dues so he can become the champion. Great struggles make great stories. Nobody goes to see a movie with the plotline: “Naturally-gifted athlete does nothing particularly demanding in preparation and easily wins title.”
However, there is some deception during the training montage. The deception of the is this: it seems as if the trials before the triumph are relatively brief. In the Rocky movies, the 2-3 minute long training montages are actually quite a few months in real life. The montage capsulizes grueling weeks of training into around 120-180 seconds. But when you’re living through hard times, time doesn’t fly so quickly.
Here in Revelation 6, the saints under the sixth seal cry out, “How long?” The answer is in vs. 11 – Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
That phrase “the full number” denotes that not all of the martyrs to be killed have been. But that concept points us to an important truth: the martyrdom of the saints, while tragic and wrong, is still under the watchful eye of God. Jesus said in Matt. 10:29-30 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
What we see here is that God is not causing this persecution but he is not unmindful of it either. God will not allow the suffering to go on forever. There will come a time when God says, “Enough!”
That’s good news – not only for the early believers but for us as well. When we know that suffering cannot last past its appointed time, we can endure more patiently.
As deceptive as the timeline of the training montage can be, it does remind us that suffering can have a purpose. The martyred saints gain a white robe. These white robes are symbols of blessedness and purity and we’re reminded that God uses suffering to purify us. James 1:2-3 – Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
But we need to be careful. We can allow suffering to make us bitter instead of better. Patient endurance means that we actually allow God to mold us and stretch us. As much as we wish that we could live pain-free lives, we would be the poorer for it.
How long? The answer is not a timetable but the knowledge that we are being prepared for a white robe.
The second question that helps endure suffering is, “Who can withstand it?” Rev. 6:15-17 – Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us] from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
No one is exempt from the wrath of God. Political possession, military might, economic success make no difference. Those who seem the strongest now end up trying to hide in caves and the rocky outcroppings of mountains – desolate places.
But notice that it’s not just the rich and powerful. It’s both slave and free, it’s everyone else facing the wrath of God.
So who can withstand it? We find the answer here at the end of Chapter 6 and into Chapter 7. The answer is that no one can withstand except those who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Before we move on to Chapter 7, I want to make mention of something very important. The casualties identified here with these seals are not so much a particular future sequence of events. Mark Moore, How to Dodge a Dragon, put it this way: “This is not a description of what will take place. Nor is this did take place. This is a description of what always takes place.” In every age we see these kinds of travails, all of which lead up to the end of time.
The main point of this section is not to identify exact references described in these seals with pinpoint accuracy. The point simply to be warned: before Jesus comes back, things are going to get bad, and then they’re going to get worse.
The Heavenly View
Rev. 7:1-17 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. 5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, 6 from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, 7 from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,
from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.Amen!”
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15 Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
These two visions in Revelation 7 are parallel visions. They are not two separate visions but rather two complementary ones.
First we see the 144,000 – 12,000 from each of Israel’s 12 tribes. This number represents the complete company of God’s people – the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God.
The number 12 communicates completeness. The number one thousand communicates vastness. So you get 12 x 1,000 x 12 = the vast and complete people of God.
The number is not 143,999. Not one is missing. The Good Shepherd never leaves a sheep behind. Not one will be forgotten. Each has been sealed by the King and while their bodies may suffer, their souls are safe. This first vision then is a figurative description of God’s people.
The second vision describes God’s people as they actually are: They’re from “every nation, tribe, people, and language.”
We see the entire company of God’s redeemed standing before the throne wearing white robes and waving palm branches – a symbol of victory. They enjoy the blessedness of heaven – no more hunger, no more thirst, no more suffering, no more tears, only rest and peace and security and refreshment. The message is simply this: In light of eternity, it’s wise to endure.
2 Cor. 4:16-18 – Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
What helps us maintain our endurance? We see it painted in three words or phrases here in Chapter 7.
Rev. 7:1-3 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
The command given: Don’t release the winds UNTIL we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of God. This seal is the Holy Spirit of God. It means that God has inscribed himself on your soul. You are precious to him.
You might feel like God doesn’t understand. It may seem like he is far away. But it’s just an illusion. When we see it from god’s perspective, we find that his fingerprints are all over us.
Rev. 7:10-12 – And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
So we ask, “Where is God”? The answer: He’s on his throne! That’s the second phrase. God is on his throne. This earth may be going to hell in a handbasket but God isn’t going anywhere. He’s where he’s always been.
The third is found in Rev. 7:16-17 – “‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
Here we get a quick view of heaven. We are encouraged by the third set of words: “Never again.” No hunger, no thirst, no scorching heat, no tears. Never again.
There may be no earthly end to suffering. That’s why God gave us this vision – so that we might realistically evaluate life in the here and now. Through this revelation we’re able to envision God’s broad scheme and our ultimate destiny.
In a German prison camp in World War II, undiscovered by the guards, some Americans built a homemade radio. One day news came that the German high command had surrendered, ending the war. Because of a communications breakdown, however, the guards did not yet know this. As word spread among the prisoners, a loud celebration broke out. For 3 days, they sang, waved at guards, and shared jokes over meals. On the fourth day, they awoke to find that all the Germans had fled leaving the gates unlocked.
In the three interim days, the prisoners still suffered. They were still mocked, still abused, but they were changed. They waved to the guards and laughed at the German Shepherd dogs, told jokes over meals, and in the midst of their captivity, they sang. Why? Because they knew their salvation was both sure and soon.
As we endure suffering, we know that God has the end of it in sight. And so we sing: Salvation belongs to out God who sits upon the throne and unto the lamb. Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
(This series is developed from a variety of resources. The primary resource is “Victorious – A Devotional Study of Revelation” by Matt Proctor. Other resources include “Revelation for Everyone’ by N.T. Wright, “Breaking the Code” by Bruce Metzger, “The Book of Revelation – An Introduction and Commentary” by Homer Hailey, “Worthy is the lamb” by Ray Summers, and “Reversed Thunder” by Eugene Peterson.)