How the four horsemen of the apocalypse bring hope – not fear

There is probably no book in the entire New Testament that is less read and less understood than the Book of Revelation.

All the great interpreters of the past have struggled with this book that comes at the very end of the New Testament and Christian Bible. Martin Luther called it ‘an offensive piece of work.’ John Calvin questioned its value. And many modern readers simply ignore it.

Part of the problem is that we know little, if anything, about the genre of Jewish apocalyptic writing – which is the context in which Revelation was written (around 95AD during a time of Roman persecution.) The secret language and visions of apocalypticists would have been familiar to Jewish readers – but, to us today, seem senseless, bizarre and grotesque.

So what can we make of it?

Does Revelation have any significance? Or is it to be dismissed as an unfortunate mistake by the early church, which should never have been included in the New Testament canon?

One important thing to say, in answer to these questions, is that Revelation is a very Christian book. True, it does draw on the apocalyptic writings of its time, but it also stands in contrast to them.

Apocalyptic writings saw God acting to destroy human society in its entirety and set up a new world order. Which is not a very Christian outlook and is at odds with the message of both the New Testament and the Old Testament. Revelation uses apocalyptic imagery but it sees God acting - in an incarnational way - through Jesus – not to destroy the world, but to save it.

So let’s look at the book more carefully.

First, Revelation is written by a person called John. And the whole book is a vision that John received.

It starts with seven ‘letters’ to seven regional churches (Chapters 1-3) – which are similar to other New Testament letters insofar as they relate to specific situations and individuals in real churches. The letters aim to encourage the churches to stand firm in the face of persecution and to be wholehearted in keeping faith in Christ. But they are not real letters that were actually sent. They are visions given to John, in the power of the Spirit, from the risen Christ.

Chapters 4-22 are, however, quite different.

And here is where the apocalyptic language and imagery really kicks in. We find monsters and dragons and truly terrifying events being portrayed. We find the four horsemen of the apocalypse – Conquest on a white horse; War on a red horse; Famine on a black horse; and finally Death on a pale green horse.

The vision, although shocking, is of God acting powerfully to bring justice. Not by scrapping the entire creation and starting over (as apocalypticists forewarned) – but by confronting evil and eliminating all those who stand in opposition to the will of God. So that the people of God can enjoy an unfettered relationship with God, where God will dwell with his people and ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes (Revelation 21:3-4.)’

The apocalyptic part of Revelation is ordered into seven sections of seven. (The number seven signifies completeness in the Bible.) There are:

  1. the seven seals
  2. the seven trumpets
  3. the seven visions of dragon and kingdom
  4. the seven visions of the coming of the lamb of God
  5. the seven bowls of God’s anger against evil
  6. the seven visions of the fall of Babylon (understood to refer to Rome)
  7. the seven visions of the end.

Perhaps a better way to think of Revelation is less as a work of theology and more as a work of art or poetry.

Once we get into the book, we begin to see that the overall message is not one of fear but one of hope.

The overall message of John’s vision is that persecution will not endure. The great enemy – Babylon (that is, Rome) - will ultimately come under the judgement of God. And injustice and evil will not win the day.

Those who reject the values of the new world God brings will have no part in it. But it is not God’s intention or desire that any should be excluded.

Perhaps one of the most hopeful and uplifting verses of the entire Bible comes towards the end of the last chapter of Revelation when everyone responds to Jesus saying, ‘Come. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.’

So don’t let the four horsemen of the apocalypse frighten you off this extraordinary scripture. Enter into it and discover within it a deep and enduring message of hope.

Posted by Martine Oborne