For at that time there will be great distress, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again (Matthew 24:21).
The Lord is angry with all the nations, furious with all their armies. He will set them apart for destruction, giving them over to slaughter (Isaiah 34:2).
I think that the words of our Lord in Matthew 24:21 say it all. But what exactly makes the Tribulation period so much worse and unlike any other troublesome period in human history? There are two primary factors: First, this will be a worldwide event. Unlike today where the world continually experiences localized or regional wars and conflicts, the Tribulation will affect the entire planet. Not one nation will escape the deadly effects of this unparalleled time of judgment, persecution, calamities, war, and devastation.
The second factor that distinguishes this period from any other period in human history is man’s behavior and attitude. Just listen to John’s words,
And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16).
I am pretty certain that most of us, if not all of us, have heard at some time or another, or have even said it ourselves, that the end is near; that considering the state of the world, there must not be too much time left. The curious thing is that despite everything we have heard and the warning signs we have seen, we do not act or behave as if we really believed it. We live as if nothing were happening. So, what is the point? Well, according to John, when the Tribulation begins, man will no longer think the end is near, man will know the end is at hand and their actions and behavior will prove it. During that period, man will not seek to preserve his life; instead, he will seek death.
In this chapter, I will start covering the greatest catastrophe that ever has and ever will occur on this earth.
At that time Michael, the great prince who stands watch over your people, will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time. But at that time all your people who are found written in the book will escape (Daniel 12:1).
For at that time there will be great distress, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again (Matthew 24:21).
Because you have kept my command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth (Revelation 3:10).
The events that will take place during this seven-year period, events which the entire planet will experience, will be unprecedented, unparalleled, and unequaled. Just consider the names the Bible uses in reference to this time period; the day of his anger (Lamentations 2:1), the day of our God’s vengeance (Isaiah 61:2), a time of trouble for Jacob (Jeremiah 30:7), the day of indignation (Ezekiel 22:24), the days of punishment and the days of retribution (Hosea 9:7), and the day of the Lord (Joel 2:1). What a list of names that is quite descriptive of the terrible and devastating times that will befall the entire earth.
At the start of the Tribulation, the Jewish people will have been re-gathered to their land by the Lord Himself (Deuteronomy 30:4-5; Ezekiel 20:40-44; 34:11-14; 36:22-36; 37:1-14). They will be returning in disobedience, for they will still be an unbelieving nation.
For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:24-26).
They will first come back to the land and then come back to the Lord.
It appears that many of the Jews will return to their ancient system of worship which involved animal sacrifices centered at the temple in Jerusalem. According to Daniel and Matthew, midway through the Tribulation period, a temple will have been erected in Jerusalem and the Levitical sacrificial system will be in place.
He will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and offering. And the abomination of desolation will be on a wing of the temple until the decreed destruction is poured out on the desolator (Daniel 9:27).
“So when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” (let the reader understand) (Matthew 24:15).
During the first three and a half years of the Tribulation, in spite of what else may be going on around the world, Israel will experience peace resulting from the treaty they entered into with the Antichrist, which promised them protection, independence, and security.
The Judgments of God
The Seven Seals
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”(Revelation 6:1).
David Jeremiah writes that,
“After the mass disappearing act of millions, those who remain will be tense, wondering what will happen next in this time of uncertainty. Some may cry, “God, where are You?”
God is on His throne in heaven. In His right hand He has a record of the sequence of events for the next seven years. The Father is holding a scroll with writing on both sides, containing seven seals that will reveal the sobering judgments to come upon the world before Jesus returns to earth.
Only One is worthy to take the scroll and reveal its contents, and that is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb.
John, his old eyes filled with tears, watches while Jesus takes the scroll from His Father and breaks the first seal. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders are so overcome that they fall down to worship. Then heaven echoes with a new song:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9).
As the scroll unrolls, one seal is removed to disclose the first in a series of judgments. When successive seals are removed, the scroll unrolls again, each time revealing a worse horror. Altogether, there are three series of judgments: seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls.
When the first seal is removed, John sees one of the infamous four horsemen of the Apocalypse.”1
The Tribulation period does not necessarily begin right after the Rapture occurs. Many prophecy scholars agree that there will be a relatively short interval of time between the Rapture and the beginning of the Tribulation. The Tribulation will begin when Israel signs a treaty with the Antichrist, the leader of the confederation of Western nations, the revived Roman Empire. The description of the Tribulation Period begins in Revelation 6 with an account of Christ breaking the seals on the scroll, then God’s judgments will begin (Revelation 5:1-6:1). Jesus said that, All these events are the beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:8). John Walvoord explains that,
“The opening of chapter 6 of the book of Revelation marks an important milestone in the progressive revelation of the end of the age. In chapter 5 John is introduced to the seven-sealed book in the hand of Christ. In chapter 6 the first six seals are opened with the resultant tremendous events occurring in the earth.”2
In Revelation 6:2-17, John tells us what the world will experience as he describes the seal judgments.
The Coming Seven Seal Judgements
|Jesus’ Words||Seal #||The Seals Content|
|Matthew 24:3-4||1||False peace|
|Matthew 24:6-7||2||Global war|
|Matthew 24:9||5||Divine judgment|
|Matthew 24:29||6||Cosmic darkness|
|Matthew 24:37ff||7||Calamitous events (seven trumpet judgments|
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The first four seals involve four riders and four horses. Following the typical pattern of the Revelation, they give us an overview of events to come. The order of events is always the big picture first, then the snapshots. The panorama always precedes the individual landscapes of prophetic detail in the Apocalypse.
Leon Morris observes that the first four seals form a unity (four horsemen). The two seals that follow deal with things in heaven (martyrs and cosmic disaster). The final seal doesn’t come until Revelation 8:1, and it ushers in the seven trumpets.3 Again, the pattern is the same: overview followed by details.
The Seal Judgments are as follows:
- White horse: conquest
- Red horse: bloodshed
- Black horse: famine
- Pale horse: death
- Martyrs: “How long, O Lord?”
- Earthquake and heavens shaken: “great day of His wrath”
- Seven trumpets: silence, then disaster.
Galloping across the earth, the four horsemen appear suddenly on the horizon.
These judgments are providential in character but are executed by human agencies. The picture in this chapter assures us that God is in control of the future. No judgment shall fall, nor any disaster occur without His divine permission. The massive catastrophes yet to come are part of the fulfillment of the divine will. The rulers of this world shall be brought to their knees before His omnipotent power.
|Matthew 24:4-8||Revelation 6:1-8|
|False messiah’s||Rider of the white horse|
|Wars and rumors of wars||Rider of the red horse|
|Famines||Rider of the black horse|
|Epidemics||Rider of the pale green|
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow; a crown was given to him, and he went out as a conqueror in order to conquer (Revelation 6:1-2).
The white horse is the symbol of peace and victory; it represents a time of world peace, though be it a false and short-lived peace. A description matching the picture of the beginning of the Tribulation is given in 1 Thessalonians 5—it will be a day when men are talking about peace and safety.
When they say, “Peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
The rider of this white horse is the Antichrist, the false messiah, whom the whole world will follow in pursuit of what he knows is false peace. This rider is not to be confused with the white horse and its rider in Revelation 19:11, who is Jesus Christ Himself in His glorious triumphant return to bring real peace.
As the false Christ who imitates the Lord Jesus, he comes on a white horse promising peace. The revived Roman Empire will end all war; for a brief time, there will be peace on earth after the true Church is raptured. When he has convinced the world that the golden age of peace has come, he will then unleash his wrath upon the unsuspecting countries and plunge the world into war. This is revealed when the second seal is opened.
The bow is a symbol of war yet to come because of the absence of arrows, it signifies distant warfare. The Antichrist comes offering a promise of peace and conquers with deception. He will shed no blood; his will be a bloodless conquest. He will achieve bloodless victories through agreements, treaties, and political maneuvering. Of course, the peace he offers is a false peace and this promised golden age will be short lived. True peace does not exist without the presence of the Prince of Peace. Ray Stedman writes,
“The rider of Revelation 6 is given a bow, but there is no mention of arrows. This suggests that his conquest is a bloodless one. It pictures the conquest of the world by the Antichrist as taking place by the overpowering of the minds and wills of human beings, without the physical destruction of war. It will take place not by force but by deceit, by lying that misleads people and nations without the shedding of blood.”4
The Greek word for crown (stephanos) is the word used of the laurel wreaths given to winning athletes. The crown was given to him, which seems to indicate that the people of the nations which make up the revived Roman Empire, elect or appoint the Antichrist as their leader and subsequently submit to his leadership.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse went out, a fiery red one, and its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another. And a large sword was given to him (Revelation 6:3-4).
The rider upon this red horse is undoubtedly the same as the rider upon the white horse. His identity is now revealed, he is not the Prince of Peace whom he mimics, but the old enemy of mankind and God.
The fiery red horse indicates bloodshed. There will be open warfare throughout the world, again, it brings to mind the words Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3). The judgment of God comes down and the Antichrist’s false peace disintegrates into war. Notice that the rider is allowed to take peace from the earth. God in His sovereignty allows for the false peace and then ends it. You recall that Jesus described this time when He said,
You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places (Matthew 24:6–7).
As peace is taken from the earth, people will be slaughtering one another. This rider is given the ability to create global conflict of unprecedented proportions.
For at that time there will be great distress, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again. Unless those days were cut short, no one would be saved. But those days will be cut short because of the elect (Matthew 7:21-22).
The verse indicates that violence, slaughters, assassinations, massacres, etc., will become commonplace (cf. Daniel 8:24),
His power will be great, but it will not be his own. He will cause outrageous destruction and succeed in whatever he does. He will destroy the powerful along with the holy people.
The sword this rider will be carrying is a “machaira,” the sword of an assassin.
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a set of scales in his hand. Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, but do not harm the oil and the wine” (Revelation 6:5-6).
The black horse signifies famine, poverty, and economic upheaval. Famines are always the result of war because much of the food supply is destroyed in the process. The pair of scales he is carrying highlights the fact that food will be rationed because it will be in short supply and very expensive. It will take an entire day’s wages just to get enough food for one day for one person, imagine having a family with multiple members. The world will suffer hyper-inflation. Inflation tends to grip the world right after a world war. Jeremiah says that,
“The rich and influential will have the ‘oil and wine,’ or the gourmet food from the deli. They will display their special pass, issued by the Great World Leader, and able to stock their shelves with choice products from the state-owned supermarket, but the poor will starve.”5
Charles Ryrie writes,
“There is an ironic twist to this famine. Oil and wine, the very things a majority of people cannot afford, will not be in short supply. The scarcity of basic foods and the availability of luxury items will taunt the common people in their impoverished state.”6
Famine of unprecedented magnitude and economic collapse will set the stage for the Antichrist to move into position to begin seizing control of the world economy as described in Revelation 13.
Seal # 4
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following after him. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8).
After this seal is broken, John sees two riders, Death is riding the pale horse and Hades is behind him. These two riders will have the power to kill a fourth of the world’s population, that is 25% of all human beings living on planet earth at the time. If this were to take place today, approximately 1.2 billion people would be killed by Death and Hades! At this stage, let me remind you of what Jesus said in Matthew 24:8, All these events are the beginning of labor pains. Death will claim the physical part of man, the body, and it is accompanied by Hades, the place of the dead, which claims the immaterial part, the soul.
Charles Swindoll captures it this way,
“In this terrifying scene John saw the grim reaper and the grave digger moving together across the face of the earth. “Death” slays the body while “Hades” swallows up the soul. These two figures symbolize the massive number of deaths that will follow in the wake of the first three horsemen. One-quarter of the world’s population will be lost in their rampage!”7
Wild animals of the earth is a reference to the military and political leaders who, during the tribulation, will oppress and persecute those subjected to them. The Greek word for wild animals (theerion) is used thirty-eight times in the book of Revelation and it always refers to the coming Antichrist or the false prophet. Its most frequent usage is in Revelation 13, where the beast coming up out of the sea (verse 1) and the beast coming up out of the earth (verse 11) rise to power and afflict the world. This word beast elicits the vicious, brutal, bestial character of the Antichrist’s kingdom.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the word of God and the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, the one who is holy and true, how long until you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” So they were each given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow servants and their brothers and sisters, who were going to be killed just as they had been (Revelation 6:9-11).
The result of the breaking of this seal is different from the others, in fact, the last three seals, of which only seals five and six will be discussed in this chapter, contain neither horse, rider, or the natural forces of judgment. The focus here is on believers who have been martyred during this time for their faith.
The fifth seal gives us a peek into heaven. Under the altar in heaven John sees those who had been slaughtered during that intense period of the first four seals.
Notice why they were killed; they were martyred for their loyalty and faithfulness to the Lord and His Word. Also notice that the Lord promises that in due time, He will avenge their death. They are assured that they have not died in vain but that they are to be patient, for He will avenge their deaths in His time.
Because his judgments are true and righteous, because he has judged the notorious prostitute who corrupted the earth with her sexual immorality; and he has avenged the blood of his servants that was on her hands (Revelation 19:2).
The sovereign God of the universe has predetermined the number of martyrs who will die during the Tribulation; He says, until the number would be completed of their fellow servants and their brothers and sisters, who were going to be killed just as they had been. Then God will destroy those who have killed the martyrs (see Revelation 11:7; 12:11; 14:13; 20:4-5).
Since a person’s days are determined and the number of his months depends on you, and since you have set limits he cannot pass (Job 14:5).
Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began (Psalm 139:16).
From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live (Acts 17:26).
Scripture is clear that God is sovereign over life and death.
M. R. DeHaan says that,
“With the opening of the sixth seal we note an alarming increase in the tempo and intensity of the judgments falling upon the earth after the removal of the true Church, the body of Christ. The first four seals concerned war on earth but with the opening of the sixth, judgments from heaven are poured upon the earth.”8
This is a seal of almost incomprehensible terror and calamity.
Then I saw him open the sixth seal. A violent earthquake occurred; the sun turned black like sackcloth made of hair; the entire moon became like blood; the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a high wind; the sky was split apart like a scroll being rolled up; and every mountain and island was moved from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the generals, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, because the great day of their wrath has come! And who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:12-17).
The only thing that could be said is that this is an intense and disquieting picture of nature in chaos. Compare this passage that reveals the sixth seal judgment with the Lord’s description of the same event in Matthew 24:29-30,
Immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
The sixth seal, which is broken most likely towards the end of the first half of the Tribulation (and may introduce the final three and a half years), will bring with it incredible and catastrophic events. It will create absolute havoc and chaos on earth. A great earthquake convulses the crust of the earth, and every mountain and island was moved from its place (Revelation 6:14). This will be accompanied by great cosmic disturbances affecting the sun, moon, and stars (verses 12-13). As bad as these events will be, that is not the reason why people will be crying out seeking death. They will cry out and their hearts will be filled with fear because they will see God on His throne! This judgment will include 6 catastrophic events:
- A single great earthquake will take place. John MacArthur says that,
“There have been many earthquakes in recorded history and more during the first half of the tribulation (Matthew 24:7). Yet the event John saw in this seal is to be far more powerful and devastating than any previous earthquake. In fact, this one will shake more than just the earth (6:13–14). The Greek word translated here as “earthquake” literally means “a shaking…” This event, however, causes far more than the earth to be shaken. It will shake the heavens as well as the earth.”9
- The sun will be darkened so that it becomes black. God turned Egypt into darkness before His final judgment (Exodus 10:21-23). The sun, which hid its face when Jesus was crucified, becomes black like sackcloth made of hair. God is giving the Kingdom of Darkness a foretaste of the darkness which to them is to be forever.
Look, the day of the Lord is coming— cruel, with fury and burning anger—to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners. Indeed, the stars of the sky and its constellations will not give their light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shine (Isaiah 13:9-10).
- The moon will become as red as blood. Whatever turned the sun black as sackcloth of hair had a corresponding effect on the moon, not turning the moon to blood but making it appear as though it were blood.
- There will be a meteor shower. MacArthur states that,
“There will be vast clouds of ash and smoke spewed out by the volcanic activity associated with the great worldwide earthquake. That ash and smoke will eclipse the moon, coloring it blood red as it attempts to pierce the smoke-darkened sky.”10
Isaiah also described this terrifying phenomenon,
Look, the day of the Lord is coming—cruel, with fury and burning anger—to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners.Indeed, the stars of the sky and its constellations will not give their light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shine (Isaiah 13:9-10).
- Apparently, heaven will be opened for a moment so that the men on earth can have a glimpse of that awesome scene of God on His throne. Ryrie notes that,
“The result of these judgments will be to strike terror into the hearts of people living on the earth. It is most interesting to note that what strikes fear in them will not be so much the physical disturbances in heaven and earth as the sight of God on the throne.”11
- Every mountain and island will be moved. John tells us that the whole unstable crust of the earth begins to move and shift, perhaps due to an earthquake of greater severity than any quakes prior.
Those who dwell on the earth will now unquestionably recognize that what is being experienced is the wrath of the Lamb. There will be no turning to God in repentance but rather a turning from God’s face, … hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. Earth’s inhabitants will desire to be put out of their misery.
These catastrophic events produce panic on earth as all people cry out and hide themselves in the caves and crevices of the earth. Instead of fleeing to the God of mercy for refuge and, in humility bowing before Him in submission and worship, they hide in caves, consumed with fear. Ironically, they will “pray” to the mountains and rocks as they reject the everlasting Rock (Isaiah 26:3-5).
God the Father, who is seated on the throne, and God the Son—the Lamb, are now unleashing their wrath. Edward Hindson states that,
“The opening of each seal has led to a progression of events that intensifies the divine judgment (“wrath of the Lamb”). That intensity culminates in international wars, planetary devastation, and what certainly appear to be the consequences of nuclear holocaust. Despite the human instruments who cause this devastation, the catastrophe itself is called the “great day of the Lord.” Amos predicted it would be a day of darkness (Amos 5:18). Isaiah said it would “make the earth tremble” (Isa. 2:19, 21) and make the earth empty and waste, distorting its surface and scattering its inhabitants (Isa. 24:1).”12
Then comes the question in verse 17, who is able to stand? Only those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation, those who have availed themselves of God’s grace, will be the ones able to stand as God deals with the world in this final period of great distress. Those who can stand will be martyrs, but they will be ultimately victorious.
Again, this is just the beginning of labor pains. The worst is yet to come.
1 David Jeremiah, Escape The Coming Night (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1999), 163-164.
2 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1966), 122.
3 Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 102-103.
4 Ray C. Stedman, God’s Final Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1991), 142-143.
5 Jeremiah, Escape The Coming Night, 118.
6 Charles C. Ryrie, The Final Countdown, 1982. (Database @ 2009 WORDSearch Corp.), 92.
7 Charles R. Swindoll, Insights on Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 111.
8 M. R. De Haan, Studies in Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), 125-126.
9 MacArthur, Because The Time Is Near (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 135.
10 John F. MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1 – 11 (Chicago, IL Moody Press, 1999), 205.
11 Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation (Chicago, IL; Moody Press, 1968), 48.
12 Edward Hindson, The Book of Revelation – Twenty-First Century Biblical Commentary Series (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 84-85.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.
Dr. Miguel J. Gonzalez is the Founder and President of Reasons for Faith International Ministries. He served as a pastor for ten years in Charlotte, NC and has taught in churches and conferences throughout the United States. He currently hosts the Time in the Word and Truth To Live By podcasts and writes at KnowingChristianity.blogspot.com.
Copyright © 2006–2021 by Miguel J. Gonzalez Th.D. and published by Reasons for Faith International Ministries, Inc. by permission. No part may be altered or edited in any way. Permission is granted to use in digital or printed form so long as it is circulated without charge, and in its entirety. This document may not be repackaged in any form for sale or resale. All reproductions must contain the copyright notice (i.e., Copyright © 2006-2021 Miguel J. Gonzalez Th.D.) and this Copyright/Limitations notice.