Olivia Cannon | 17
Anyone who has ever thrown a temper tantrum (and this is most if not all of us) knows the frustrating nature of authority. We cry out and protest against it, but when we are under it, we cannot escape.
But all authority is not equal. If we think carefully, we notice that in the case of (good) parents and their children, the parents wield authority for the child’s well-being. Yet in many other situations— dictatorships, unfair bosses, slave masters, even siblings who get power-hungry—authority is not so just.
The book of Revelation presents a unique opportunity to consider God’s authority in John’s vision of the four horsemen (Revelation 6:1-7). It causes us to ask: Is God the One True Authority? And if so, what do we make of human authority being used unjustly? The book of Revelation is a whirlwind of images and spiral of finalities. In the midst of one such sequence, we see a scroll with seven seals, which are opened one at a time by the Lamb (Jesus Christ). He is the only one worthy to open the scroll—all others who tried have failed.
As each of the four first seals is opened, a horse emerges! These are no ordinary horses—white, red, black, and pale, each with a rider as ominous as the horse. They come to bring conquest, war, famine, and death, respectively. As verse 8 says, “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.”
What are we to make of this? Why would God give power to the four horsemen to wreak such havoc on the earth?
First and foremost, I would like to point out two things. The scene is still the heavenly throne room, and the Lamb is running the show. This is not an oversight or a mistake. Jesus is in control, even where the four horsemen are unleashing their destruction.
We believe that God’s authority is of the first kind—wholly just and for our good.
Then how do we live with the apparent contradiction of a good God allowing such destruction?
Firstly, notice this: the authority given to the horsemen is limited to the earth. It is finite, and it does not last into eternity. God’s authority, however, does. Evil is horrid, and gruesome, and unnatural, and should be mourned. But it has no place in heaven. The judgments come to an end, but God’s authority remains.
But the fact that God has this authority still raises the question, why give the four horsemen this authority at all, and why at this time?
We cannot know for sure, but it is important that its place is firmly settled in the apocalyptic narrative. In these end times, we see the earth reaching a level of destruction and chaos that it never did before. Secondly, we remember that earthly, finite life is not the end goal in itself. We also note that God himself is not the source of the evil; he merely gives brief authority to eventualities which emerge from our own human vices.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, consider a more subtle point about authority itself. We humans cherish authority because it is synonymous with power. But God himself, when he became human, did not think of authority in terms of earthly power.
Jesus in fact charges his disciples, after they marveled at their own ability to cast out spirits in His name, with the following instruction: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Holding authority on earth, in God’s eyes, is not cause for celebration. By the same reasoning, we should not mourn for lack of authority, for it alone cannot save us.
Why else would Jesus tell us, “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves?” Why else would He, God of the universe, have come as a servant, refusing every semblance of an earthly kingship? We see a kingdom where authority does not act as it should. This, more than anything, should be our clue as to how earthly authority works.
Heavenly authority, on the other hand, belongs to the all-powerful God, and his Son. Jesus holds the key to the unfolding of history, and his authority stems from His death and resurrection for His people (Revelation 5:9-10).
Then amidst the darkness we find a surprising message. We see that even these warlords must draw their time of authority from God. Even evil gets its authority from God.
The question of why it exists at all is deeper, and is tied intimately to our human nature. But we do know this: evil will only exist for a finite time. God is entirely and completely in control of history.
So what do we do when we are faced with undeniably unjust earthly rulers?
We can worship, trusting in God’s control over eternity despite whatever circumstances may be present. We remember that even Jesus submitted to earthly rulers who killed him mercilessly, but that this in no way violated God’s authority. In fact, it was His plan to save humanity. God’s power is eternal, and His justice plays out in eternity.
Doing this is hard. Especially when we feel the cry for justice like a heavy ache, to worship can be difficult, and yet it is the most freeing thing we can do. For God promises justice to His people. We see this in the fifth scroll, where the saints are promised not only comfort but also true vengeance (Revelation 6:9-11).
We can resist evil authority by refusing to worship it. Evil is not the highest power. It does not deserve our worship or our longing. Jesus does.
Finally, we can follow God’s will, and His example in Jesus. We can humble ourselves before him, relinquishing our desire for earthly authority and power.
In all, the horsemen teach us the following: we need to look past the seat of earthly authority and shift our focus to the heavenly throne where it comes from.
Olivia Cannon, Bowdoin Class of 2017. Mathematics. Minneapolis MN.
Olivia’s preparations for the end of the world include musings on color, math, and theology, or some combination of the three.