May 26, 2016

Revelation 6 and a millennial melt-down

by Jesse Johnson

I started this month with an experiment: listen to 12 sermons from Revelation 6, from 12 well-known pastors; half amillennialists, and half premillennialists.  I ended this month with a new (to me) argument for premillennialism. Let me explain: 

Revelation is obviously the book of the New Testament where one’s millennial view substantially affects the interpretation of the book as a whole. Premillennialists and amillennialists disagree over chapters like 1 Corinthians 15, Acts 1, and Romans 11. But overall, millennial views allow for substantial agreement on things like 1 Corinthians 1-14, Acts 2-27, and Romans 1-10/12-16.

But when it comes to Revelation, all bets are off.

That is not to say that there is not some agreement on parts of Revelation. For example, while most premillennialists insist that the churches of Revelation 1-3 were literal churches, there are many amillennialists that will say the same thing.

Even in Revelation 4-5, where John’s vision moves from earth to heaven, there too is substantial overlap between postmillennialists and premillennialists—Jonathan Edwards and John Piper say the same thing about Revelation 5, for example.

And then comes Revelation 6. Revelation 6 is the description of the first six of the seven seals of God’s judgement. The first four seals are represented by the four horseman—a passage so familiar that “the four horseman of the apocalypse” has become idiomatic. For non-Christians, this just might be the most well-known passage in Revelation.

With that in mind, in preparation to preach Revelation 6 I listened to a dozen sermons from well-known preachers on this passage. While I normally don’t listen to sermons on a passage I’m about to preach, the change in between Revelation 5 and 6 is so stark that I wanted to see what other pastors did with it–the kind of pastors whose conferences I go to and whose books I buy.

What I found surprised me.

First, a side note: there is nothing in this chapter that is expressly millennial. In Revelation 7, there is a pause between the sixth and seventh seals, and 144,000 Israelites are sealed. But in the confines of Revelation 6, there is nothing about Israel, the kingdom, or the return of Christ.

Nevertheless, unlike Revelation 1-5, those who hold to premillennialism preached Revelation 6 very differently than amillennialists.

But what surprised me the most was not that gulf. Rather, it was the remarkable consistency between premillennialists on this passage, in contrast with the utter inconsistency among amillennialists.

For background: here are the six seals:

  1. False peace led by the anti-Christ
  2. Global war
  3. War-induced famine
  4. One-fourth of the earth dies
  5. Martyrs pray for vengeance, and the Lord hears their prayers
  6. Cosmological collisions rock the earth.

All of the premillennialists I listened to saw the six seals as sequential. If not strictly chronological, at the very least logically correlated; one leads to the other. They all saw the first seal described in detail in Daniel 11:36-ff. They all took the unrolling of the seals as the continuation of the scene in Daniel 12, and they all understood this as the fulfillment of Daniel 12:9. They all saw the first four seals described in Luke 21:20-25, Matthew 24, and Mark 13. They took Revelation 6 as what was prophesied in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. They understood Revelation 6 to be the Day of the Lord foretold in the Old Testament.

In other words they all agreed that these seals are sequential, future, prophesied, and constitute the Day of the Lord (and when D.A. Carson, John MacArthur, and S. Lewis Johnson—among others—all preach a difficult passage with essentially the same points and cross references, it is somewhat noteworthy). They understood Revelation 6 not to be teaching something new, but rather connected it to almost a dozen other passages, and most of the six guys all used the same passages.

For the premillennialists, Revelation 6 makes sense in connection with many others passages, and harmonizes with them quite nicely.

In contrast, the amillennialists I listened to were all over the map.

One said that all seven seals were unrolled when Adam ate the fruit in the garden, and that Revelation 6 describes the way the world has been ever since Eden. This pastor said that these seals explain why there is suffering in a fallen world. For his preacher, the seals were chronological, and describe the exit from Eden to the flood. But he also said that believers are spared the wrath of these seals because Jesus bore the wrath of the seven seals for the elect of all ages.

Another said that the seals were opened at the cross of Christ, and they are poured out on the world from the cross forward until heaven. This person noted that believers do indeed receive this wrath, and thus this passage explains why even believers suffer and die in a fallen world.

Still another said that the seals were opened at the ascension/Pentecost, and mark the wrath that God is pouring out all those who reject Christ. For that reason, they cannot be chronological or correlated, but are rather just different descriptions of the wrath of God poured out as God ushers this world into hell.

Yet one more prominent amillennialist said that these seals are not for earth at all, but instead give a picture of the wrath reserved for those in hell.

One of the pastors I listened to was apparently aware of the diverse interpretations, and explained them by saying that the genre of Revelation is like a modern art painting. It conveys diverse (“and even contradictory”) messages, but “the beauty of the genre of Revelation is that all of those views can not only be true, but also intended by the author.”

Finally, I heard one pastor preach this at a missions conference (he was apparently assigned the text), and he pointed out how impossible it is to get any two commentators to agree on anything in Revelation 6, so the obvious take away is that Revelation 6 is in the Bible to keep us humble, and help us realize that God’s wrath is horrible, and it falls upon the proud.

This experience not only confirms me in my premillennialism, but the longer I’ve thought about it, the more it has become to me a strong argument for premillennialism. When premillennialists tackle this passage, their hermeneutic allows them to make sense of it, and tie it to other places, and demonstrate the fulfilment of prophecy.

In contrast, the amillennialists I listened to—the very people that often wax eloquently on the genre of Revelation, and how understanding it helps them rightly interpret the book—come away not making a great deal of sense of the passage. A few even claimed it was designed to teach contradictory things, and on the major issues (are the seals sequential? Is this the prophesied Day of the Lord? Is this even future at all?) it seemed like no two agreed with each other.

I started this study thinking Revelation 6 did not have a lot to say about millennialism, but ended it seeing that the same hermeneutic that leads to premillennialism, also leads to clarity in difficult passages.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Amen.

  • rhutchin

    Technically, I don’t think Revelation 6 says much about any millenialism.

    It does say certain unique things that serve as an anchor for understanding the passage.

    v1 – “…the Lamb opened the…seals.” We should agree that the lamb is Christ.

    v2 – “…a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” If we can agree that this is Christ, we should be off to the races even if with much imagination

    v11 – “…they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.” This is a time clue that might point to Romans 11 – “…so all Israel will be saved…”

    v12-14 “The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place….For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” If this is an accurate physical description of events, then it would appear to be the end.

    Those seem to be four key verses that encase whatever imaginative things one might want to add.

    Are you preaching Rev 6 this Sunday?

  • Gary V

    Good post. Premillennialism–Yes. Pretribulationism–No.

    • Ha.

    • Stacia M

      I was just wondering what you would think of this article! 🙂

  • Mike Shayne

    I read this with interest. Ihave read this blog for months to great benefit and this is my first time commenting. I thank you for the time undertaken to write this, but I find your conclusion to be unwarranted. Let me offer an example from Shakespeare. Sonnet 130 reads, “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” A literal hermeneutic would mean that there are literally wires growing out of a woman’s head. A hermeneutic that does more to recognize symbolism would come to the conclusion that this is poetic, at the least, for a dark-haired woman. However, such interpretations are divided. Some might say that the symbolic interpretation means that we have simply a dark-haired woman while others would say that Shakespeare was describing a woman of African descent. A hundred people committed to the first hermeneutic would all probably come to the same conclusion. A hundred people coming to the sonnet committed to the second hermeneutic would come to a larger diversity of conclusions. However, it is clear the literal conclusion is ridiculous, even though one would suppose that 100 out of 100 people would come to the same conclusion. Just because a hermeneutical method results in a more streamlined conclusion with little variance does not mean necessarily that the conclusion is right. In other words, your conclusion is the “argumentum ad numerum” fallacy.

    • Jonathan Dale

      Hi Mike, what you are describing is a “woodenly literal” hermeneutic. While there are people that do ascribe to that, that group is a minority and I’m certain includes none of the Cripple Gate writers. The literal hermeneutic that more accurate exegetes support is identified as being grammatico-historical (rather than historical-critical, etc.), where authorial intent is sought after and a single meaning is intended by that author. Literary devices (such as metaphors and similes) and typographies are not rejected by such people, but rather carefully recognized according to a variety of factors. For instance, we understand when Jesus said “the seed is the word of God” in Luke 8:11 that He was not saying God’s word is literally a seed that is planted in the ground.

    • I get what you are saying, Mike. Thanks. That’s a very reasonable reply.

  • Sam Hendrickson

    So Jesse, you don’t accept nuance, you want simplistic clarity… [smirk]. Sadly, I have heard this too many times. Good post, thanks!

  • Jonathan Dale

    Excellent post; thank you brother! Premillennialism is simply so much more consistent than any other eschatological view, and it is fascinating and encouraging how viewing Scripture from a grammatico-historical, single meaning, and authorial intent perspective leads to so much more consistency in exegesis than man-made confessions.

  • Scott Staffiery

    Would you mind sharing the 12 sermons used as reference in this post?

    • Pastor Johnson’s reply to rhutchin above contains the two links to his sermons on Revelation

      • Scott Staffiery

        Thought those were his sermons (which I plan on listening to). Listening to the three linked in the article, which is excellent and timely btw.

    • I linked to three of the premil ones (links in blue above), but not to the others, because I don’t want to sound like I’m picking a fight with guys above my weight class (who I respect tremendously). Also b/c I get that commentaries are meant to be quoted critically, but sermons are meant more for the audience at hand. I’m hesitant to go down that road.

      • Scott Staffiery

        I totally understand and respect. I have a couple of brothers that are amillennialists and they have been trying to “educate” me so in addition to being interested in listening to them myself, I was trying to head off that argument. Thank you for this post…it really is very very helpful! Can’t wait to get to your sermons 😉

  • Wow! That’s incredibly insightful! In the past I had recognized the consistency of Rev 6 with other passages of Scripture, but never gave attention to how difficult that would be for an Amillennialist! Very exciting!

  • Andrew Callaway

    Thanks for your labors here Jesse. btw- I couldn’t help but see the irony of your title: “a millenial melt-down”

  • Derek Vester

    I’d love to see some sources cited if you get a chance.

  • Scott Christensen

    It seems to me that the same approach can be done with the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. Once you abandon the literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic that clearly yields a 6 day creation, then all sorts of wildly diverging interpretations arise.

  • Greg

    It’s all about the hermeneutics. Thanks, Jesse for the reminder.

  • Mike Yonce

    Jesse, thanks for the great article and insight. It is very encouraging and strengthens my faith. The examples of interpretation you gave of the amillennialists shows so clearly what happens when you change horses in the middle of the stream with your hermeneutics. And when they go full bore allegorical, Revelation becomes no more than some good science fiction. Most of Revelation is not only an accurate preview of what is to come, it IS the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1), seeing Him as we have never seen Him before.

  • David Doolittle

    Amen

  • Alan E. Kurschner

    Jesse,

    Your argument is selective and thus skewed. You give the impression that premillennialists are in consensus that Revelation 6 depicts the day of the Lord’s wrath. But that is far from accurate. Many post-tribbers and all prewrathers would disagree with you.

    Are you willing to defend your pretribulationism on this point? You seem to assume this point, assumptions that I have found characterize pretribulationism.

    I am happy to come to Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA and have a public debate with you on whether Revelation 6 depicts the day of the Lord or not. I think it would be a beneficial debate where theological traditions are challenged by the Word of God.

    Warm regards,
    Alan E. Kurschner

    • Fibber MaGee

      So you want to go to his church and show how wrong he is in front of his congregation? Will the church be required to pay for this privelage? If you want to make your case for prewrath, do it here. What this looks like is you promoting your prophecy business at Jesse’s expense.

      • Alan E. Kurschner

        Fascinating how quickly pretribs resort to personal attacks and libel when they are challenged on their theology. Talk about a “meltdown.”

    • The six guys I listened to all did link it to the Day of the Lord, yes.

  • Tim Brittain

    It helps greatly if you understand the reasons for the scroll that is sealed. In Roman times, wills were executed while the testator was alive. He wrote on a scroll what was to be done with his estate and the scrolled was sealed. He then “sold” it to a familiae emptor or family buyer. This person had to be well trusted and of impeccable character since he now owned the estate. When the testator died, only the family buyer could open the seal, read the scroll, and carry out the testator’s wishes. He was the only one “worthy” to open the scroll. Christ is our familiae emptor, the only One worthy to open the scroll. The scroll’s opening reveals Christ’s judging work of reclaiming creation through the judgments that come on the world. He is Worthy!

    • True that. This is why (esp. in connection with Daniel 12:9) I can’t understand how people think that the scrolls are unrolled *now. It has to be future.

  • Tim Brittain

    Great observations by the way!

  • James Kime

    The amill handling of Scripture is incredibly clumsy. One simply can look to Matt 24 for the parallel to Rev 6. Jesus spoke of Matt 24 as still future from His day. At the very least, Matt 24/Rev 6 couldn’t have occurred until sometime after Jesus ascended. I suspect one reason they don’t go there is because of how many amills try to force Matt 24 into the destruction of Jerusalem alone instead of a global catastrophe.

    Great insights.

    Study the beginning of the DOTL some more Jesse. The cosmic cataclysm must occur prior to the DOTL (Joel 2).

  • 4Commencefiring4

    Jesse–you named three premill pastors/authors you listened to, but didn’t name any of the amill ones (I assume R.C. Sproul was among them?). It would be helpful to have three of those, too.

    I recently ran across a very interesting PhD academic and Bible teacher up in Washington state whose credentials are quite impressive, in terms of his extensive knowledge of biblical and several other ancient languages and cultures. He delves into this topic in a way that gives credence to both sides of the fence.

    For someone like me, who has become somewhat jaded over the years with the same pat answers and no new information, his is a fresh look that I find informative and very thought provoking because he’s not so dogmatic on which camp is “right”, but rather on being aware of the assumptions we begin with that led us there…and we all have some. In fact, as he likes to say, we all “cheat” a little bit to make our desired outcome fit the verses.

    I would invite others to take a listen to one of his sessions and see if he brings out some questions on this topic you may not have thought of before.

    • Fred Butler

      Be careful with Heiser. He has some wonky views, especially in Genesis.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Lots of people have a wonky view of something. Take this lecture out for a spin and see where it goes. I found it interesting.

        P.S., I didn’t see much problem with his Genesis approach. Unless, of course, you have to have a 6,000 year old universe or something. Lots of people aren’t married to that.

        • Mike Yonce

          Yes, and fortunately we have men such as Tim Keller and Hugh Ross leading us out of the darkness.

  • Ron Francis

    The best sermon series on Revelation is by Dr. Stephen Dilday. You can find these on Sermon Audio.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?sortby=added&sourceonly=true&currSection=sermonssource&keyword=prcnova&subsetcat=series&subsetitem=Revelation

    Also consider reading the work of EB Elliot and James Durham.

  • I give links to three of the premil sermons I listened to above. I don’t link or ID the amil ones because I’m trying to make the point w/o picking a fight with guys above my weight class, whom I respect tremendously. Plus, obviously commentaries are meant to be read critically, but sermons are more for the audience at hand. If you are super curious, try your own experiment!

    And with that, I’m wrapping this thread up. You can find me on twitter @jarbitro if you want to keep the conversation going.

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