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We now come to the sixth seal, which speaks of divine judgment upon the Roman Empire, which began in 310 A.D. when Constantine became Emperor.Rev. 6:12 says,
12 And I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood;
As usual, this section begins with the Hebrew connector, “and,” which shows a progressive revelation built upon the previous section. This seal opens with “a great earthquake,” which, in prophecy, can represent either a literal quake or an event which emotionally or politically shakes the people and nations. Natural disasters, when they occur, may also foreshadow great political changes. This may be the way we are to interpret the great shaking prophesied in Haggai 2:6, 7 at the end of the age.
Such natural phenomena often depict political and social events. The sun represents the king, and the moon the political establishment who “reflect” (or carry out) the decrees of the king. After the change in government from Diocletian to Constantine, the moon represented (or included) church leaders who reflected the will of the new emperor.
The blackened sun describes a solar eclipse. The red moon becoming “like blood” describes a lunar eclipse. Certainly, this is how any reader in John’s day would have understood his metaphor.
This change in the political order of Rome also brought about a change in the church. This is reflected in the change from the persecuted "Smyrna" church to the church of Pergamum which in turn runs parallel to the Old Testament "Balaam" church.
As I showed earlier, the final ten “days” (303-313 A.D.) leading to Constantine’s Edict of Milan were characterized by the most intense persecution in the history of the Empire. Hence, the fifth seal portrays the persecuted ones as “souls under the altar,” just before the fall of the pagan empire in the sixth seal.
However, persecution was not uniformly carried out in the empire during these ten years, because Constantius and his son, Constantine, carried out the edicts of the Emperor only minimally in Britain, Spain, and Gaul. As their power increased—and especially after the death of Constantius—his son aggressively forced his fellow caesars to adopt a spirit of tolerance. First the Edict of Toleration (311 A.D.) and then the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) granted religious freedom especially to Christians.
In the great shaking that took place in the early fourth century, the Empire itself did not disintegrate; rather, the new Emperor (Constantine) changed it into a different sort of Empire. For a few years Christianity and other religions were given relative freedom of religion. But the sun of paganism was setting, and it would only be a matter of time before the Christian emperors would restrict and finally abolish the practice of paganism. They closed the pagan temples and converted them into Christian temples. Their pagan statues were renamed in honor of Christian saints.
The sun being darkened depicts Constantine’s conquest of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the end of the pagan gods, particularly the god of the sun. It is of interest to note that Constantine himself had earlier considered himself to be under the special protection of the sun god, although this changed after his vision of the cross just before the crucial battle before he took Rome.
Previous emperors beginning with Julius Caesar had used the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus (Latin for “High Priest”). Constantine at first assumed that title, then later abandoned it. Constantine also threw out the heathen standards of the Roman army and substituted the Cross in their place. Pagan temples were closed and heathen sacrifices banned. The great “earthquake” hit the entire political structure of the Roman Empire, and the pagan rulers fell from their positions of authority and were replaced by Christians. This was an unprecedented revolution in Roman history.
The moon became as blood. An eclipse blots out the sun or moon for a short time, but afterward they emerge as seemingly new entities. Hence, eclipses were viewed as omens of change. Kings, nations, or powers were in danger of being overthrown and replaced by new ones. In this case, the church bishops emerged as the new power brokers of New Rome.
The moon is a symbol of the Church. This phase of prophecy began in 325 A.D. when the Church held its first Council at Nicea. The Emperor himself called for this Council in order to establish unity in the Church and in the empire itself after the controversy erupted over the nature of God and the trinity.
It is not our purpose to discuss these doctrinal disputes here, but rather to show that the Nicean Council set a precedent in how the Church would deal with those who might deviate ever so slightly from the official decisions of the majority of bishops. Some men believed that Jesus Christ was of the same essence as the Father while some said He was of like essence. Each side seemed more than willing to spill the blood of the other side over theoretical minutiae that really made no practical difference in one’s Christian walk.
In the bloody dispute over precise terminology that might define God and Christ, they only splintered all the more with the introduction of other terms that seemed more suitable. The arrogance of men thinking that their carnal minds could precisely define an infinite God is truly astounding. But that is precisely the pride of the carnal mind and the religious spirit. And the fact that they were willing to shed blood over the use or misuse of a single word shows the fanaticism of the carnally-minded rulers of the Church.
Not a single Church Council truly met to pray about their doctrinal differences. Those who came in a spirit of love could do little to influence the proceedings. Not a single Church Council apparently had the ability to hear God’s voice and to receive a true revelation of truth in the spirit of the prophets and apostles. They came to argue, to make deals behind the scenes, even to threaten or bribe the votes of fellow bishops. This was how “truth” was established “by the Holy Spirit.”
Hence, the Church came to be ruled by religious politics, and the Church Councils established “traditions of men” in the same way that the Jews had done in previous centuries.
And so the year 325 A.D. and the Council of Nicea marks the beginning of the time where the moon (Church) would begin to turn to blood. The light of revelation in the Church dimmed with each new tradition of men that they established with the sword and the bribe.
Revelation 6:13 says,
13 and the stars of the sky [ouranou, “heaven”] fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.
The stars were called metaphorically “the sons of God” (Job 38:7). Many religions taught that the stars were literally the gods or great men and women who took their place among the stars in the afterlife. Today we know that stars are not literal people, yet they represent the saints, or overcomers.
John saw that the stars “fell to the earth.” Among the casualties of the newly-empowered Church religion were the overcomers. These were men and women who, like Christ, had no personal ambitions and did not value wealth. Overcomers seldom, if ever, became bishops, because it required too much political ambition to hold such a position.
When the Church came to be ruled by the traditions of men, anyone having a genuine revelation from God was likely to find himself differing with official Church leaders both in doctrines and methods. This was certainly the case with Jesus Himself, who was always at odds with the religious hierarchy of His day. The overcomers, in following His example, could not help but be among the “heretics” from that moment to the present day. And so the Church took the sword from pagan Rome and continued the persecutions—but now in the name of Jesus Christ.
The overcomers—the stars of heaven—fell as unripe figs, for they died at an unripe age. The “stars” of Rev. 6:13 are “the host of heaven” in Isaiah 34:4, where we read,
4 And all the host of heaven will wear away, and the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; all their hosts will also wither away as a leaf withers from the vine, or as one withers from the fig tree.
The stars in Revelation 6 fall to the earth (in death), while Isaiah sees them wearing away, or dwindling in numbers. This is mentioned again in Dan. 7:25, where the “little horn” wears down the saints. Daniel uses the Chaldean word bela, which the KJV translates as “wear out.” Strong’s Concordance tells us that it means “to afflict” and is from the root word balah, “to fail; by impl., to wear out, decay.” To wear down or decay means to diminish the size of the body or object.
Daniel tells us that this little horn (power) comes as an extension of the fourth kingdom (Rome) and succeeds in overpowering the saints for a season (Dan. 7:21). Thus, we see the Church—the new Roman power—afflicting the saints, persecuting them, and diminishing their numbers, either by forcing them to recant their views of the Word or by executing them as heretics.
Revelation 6:14 says,
14 And the sky [ouranos, “heaven”] was split apart [“parted asunder”] like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
This is not talking about literal mountains, islands, or the literal sky splitting apart. Men used to write things on scrolls until about 360 A.D., when they began to bind together smaller sheets as books. Heaven being rolled up as a scroll speaks of the revelation of God being rolled up like a scroll. In other words, it is like closing a book. This is what happens when church leaders—like an eclipsed moon—become red like blood. When men prefer the traditions of men to the revelation of God, the Spirit of Truth departs, and divine revelation diminishes or ceases altogether. The word of God becomes a closed book.
And so, as time passed, the Church stopped teaching the Bible to the average Christians. In 663-664 Pope Vitalian of Rome mandated that the Church liturgy itself be spoken only in Latin, depriving more and more people from understanding anything other than to remain subservient to the Church leaders.
Any real understanding of the Word of God dropped to a very low level for more than a thousand years. The Bible became a closed book, and did not begin to reopen until Gutenberg’s use of the printing press in 1452 A.D. His first project was the Bible. This began to bring the Scriptures back to the common people. We will have more to say about this when we study the “little book” that is opened in Revelation 10.
The judgment upon the kings and other great men of the earth at the end of Revelation 6 is referring to specific events that occurred in the early fourth century. Though the basic principle may be applicable to modern times, the historical fulfillment of these verses took place when God judged pagan Rome. Rev. 6:15-17 says,
15 And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us and hide us from the presence 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 is able to stand?
This is a graphic way of describing the fear among the wealthy and powerful pagans, who were apprehensive about their own future under Constantine and the other Christian Emperors who succeeded him. Constantine had a policy of toleration, but within a century paganism itself was banned under Theodosius, who ruled from 379-395.
In 380 Theodosius declared the Roman Empire to be “Christian.” In 395 he banned all pagan animal sacrifices, closed the pagan temples, and prohibited pagan rites. Gibbon writes on page 409 of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
“The ruin of Paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition, and may therefore be considered as a singular event in the history of the human mind.”
Although the Roman senate still had a pagan majority, these senators saw that their political future hinged on their conversion to the religion of the Emperor. Gibbon says on page 410 that up to that time “paganism was still the constitutional religion of the senate.” But in 395 the great families of Rome submitted to the Christian religion and concurred in the abolition of paganism. Gibbon writes on page 412,
“The hasty conversion of the senate must be attributed either to supernatural or to sordid motives; and many of these reluctant proselytes betrayed, on every favourite occasion, their secret disposition to throw aside the mask of odious dissimulation. But they were gradually fixed in the new religion, as the cause of the ancient became more hopeless ...”
The problem, of course, was that many remained secret pagans even while they maintained membership in the Roman church. In time, their secret paganism added perversions of Christianity, the worship of Mary Magdalene in particular, who was identified with Persephone, the ancient goddess. Thus, Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalene (the supposed wife of Jesus) were honored, one by the many and the other by many of the old nobility. Catholicism included an overt and a covert religion under the same roof, which has only recently been uncovered by authors such as Dan Brown and Laurence Gardner.
This is what happens when men are forcibly converted to another religion, or when they feel threatened by religious persecution. Beginning with the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the church began to rely upon their creeds rather than upon the revelation of the word. Faith in Christ was replaced by faith in the church. The light of revelation waned; the artificial light of men’s traditions replaced it. The moon was darkened and turned red like blood, no longer lightened by the sun but darkened by the shadow of the earth.
Another important consequence of this political earthquake was seen in the transfer of the Empire’s capital to Constantinople—a new city, free of pagan temples—that Constantine built on the Black Sea at the border of Europe and Asia. This transfer occurred in 330 A.D. Constantine never again saw Rome. Constantinople quickly became more important than Rome itself.
Constantine died on Pentecost, May 22, 337 A.D. Throughout his reign, he adhered to his original policy of religious toleration, not only for Christians but for pagans as well. Philip Schaff writes about Constantine in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, p. 34,
“Nevertheless he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313, protected the pagan priests and temples in their privileges, and wisely abstained from all violent measures against heathenism, in the persuasion that it would in time die out.”
After Constantine’s death, however, this policy of toleration was reversed by his sons. Schaff says in Vol. III, page 38,
“The sons of Constantine did their Christian education little honor, and departed from their father’s wise policy of toleration.”
Though Constantine had reunited the Empire (after Diocletian had divided into four pieces), he divided it among his three sons upon his death. His sons, being adherents of a religion rather than true Christians from the heart, fought among themselves. To make matters worse, the sons were divided by religious belief as well. Constantius had adopted Arianism, the sect banned by the Council of Nicea in 325, while his two brothers were orthodox. The result of this was that Arianism dominated the East for the next 40 years, while the Orthodox view dominated the West.
Constantine’s sons did not act as true Christians but fought each other in the manner of all other despots seeking power. In 340 Constantine II was killed by his brother Constans, who was in turn killed by another rival, Magnentius ten years later. Constantius then defeated Magnentius in 353 and ruled the Empire until he died in 361.
In Constantinople, Constantius zealously persecuted the non-Christians, destroyed and robbed pagan temples, gave the booty to the Church, and even tried to impose the death penalty against those who would dare make a pagan sacrifice or worship the images of the gods. But after visiting Rome in 357 and seeing how utterly pagan the city was, he abandoned any further attempt to enforce this law.
Perhaps then he began to understand why his father had abandoned Rome for a freshly built city in the East, which had no pagan temples or altars. Constantius was polite enough to visit the Roman temples, permitted them to sacrifice, and confirmed privileges upon their priests.
After Constantius died in 361, an inevitable backlash occurred. His nephew Julian (“the Apostate”) was one of the few who had escaped the slaughter when Constantine’s three sons fought for the throne. The abuses that he saw firsthand caused him to reject Christianity, though he received a nominal Christian education and was raised in the sterile atmosphere of ritualistic Christianity.
Julian revolted against this. Constantius’ partial prohibition of such classic Roman authors as Homer, Plato, and Aristotle made him determined to study their writings with greater devotion. Julian himself dated his rejection of Christianity to 351, when he was just 20 years of age, but wisely kept his apostasy hidden. Then in 355 he went to Athens, where he was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, completing his transition.
The sudden death of Constantius in 361 brought Julian to the throne, and then he felt secure enough to openly repudiate Christianity. During his short reign of only 18 months, he showed himself to be a brilliant military commander, and an outstanding intellectual with great executive ability, having good moral character that far exceeded most emperors. However, he was bitterly opposed to Christianity and made it his life’s mission to reinstate the worship of the Roman gods.
Julian called into the open a multitude of pagan priests who had gone into hiding. He also attempted to reform paganism with many precepts of Christianity to enhance its morality and reduce its excesses. His zealous reforms of paganism actually caused him to lose support among many of the pagan priests, much like later Christian reformists were persecuted by the bishops and popes who preferred money and the life style and concubines that money could purchase. Julian discovered too late that the religion he sought to revive was morally worse than the Christianity that he sought to suppress.
Julian’s attack on Christianity took the form of religious toleration, rather than open persecution. Open persecution had not worked in earlier centuries, he knew, so his tactic was to legalize all the various factions of Christianity which had been suppressed since the Council of Nicea—the Arians, Apollinarians, Novatians, Macedonians, and Donatists. His policy of religious toleration was not so different from the modern idea of freedom of conscience. Competing denominations were put on an equal footing while Julian ruled the Empire.
For this, of course, he was castigated by the more orthodox Christian leaders, who held the view that there was only “one Church” and its legitimacy was upheld by the Church Councils. Hence, his name has been immortalized by the epithet, Julian the Apostate.
Julian died in his prime on June 27, 363 A.D. Buried with him was the last chance for the revival of paganism as such. Even so, Schaff says, at the end of the fourth century, there were still 152 pagan temples in Rome, along with 183 smaller chapels dedicated to various deities.
The death of Julian ended the rule of the Constantinian family. Julian was succeeded by Jovian, a Christian general who was chosen by the army. He ruled just eight months, however, and was succeeded by Valentinian, who ruled until his death in 375. Both Jovian and Valentinian adopted Constantine’s policy of religious toleration.
Valentinian felt that he needed help in ruling such a large empire, and so in March 364 he appointed his brother Valens as co-emperor. Though Valentinian was orthodox, Valens was Arian and was thus a “heretic” as viewed by the Council of Nicea in 325. Valentinian ruled from the capital of the empire, Constantinople, but gave Rome to his brother. After Valentinian died in 375, Valens persecuted the orthodox Christians until his death in 378.
Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378. This was the disastrous battle against the Goths, Alans, and Huns, wherein two-thirds of the Eastern Roman army was killed, and it marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.
After Valens died in 378, Gratian succeeded him. Yet with the Roman army so decimated, Gratian was unable to defend the empire from the incursions of the “barbarians,” so he promoted Theodosius as co-emperor of the East on January 19, 379. Theodosius in the East and Gratian in the West agreed to make Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Rome in 380 A.D.
Though in some ways they continued the policy of toleration among Christians, they ended the public support for the pagan temples, confiscated temple properties, and withdrew privileges of pagan priests. Paganism then became fully dependent upon voluntary offerings from the people. In 382 Gratian removed the statue and altar of Victoria from the senate building in Rome. Paganism’s days were numbered, but Gratian was assassinated the following year.
The political upheaval (earthquake) did not take place all at once, but over a period of time from 313-395 A.D. In 395 the Emperor Theodosius died, and the Empire was divided between his two sons. Honorius was made Emperor of the West at the age of nine, and he set up his capital in Milan. His older brother, Arcadius, was 17 or 18, and so he was given the Eastern portion of the Empire, based in Constantinople, for that was considered to be the greater inheritance.
This began the final break-up of the Roman Empire. In 410 Rome was overrun and sacked by the Goths, and for the next half century, the Western half of the Roman Empire gradually disintegrated.