Monday, March 25, 2019

One Powerful Half-Time Snack-Revelation 10

I don’t know about you, but with all of this judgment, torment, death, and destruction, I could really use a timeout! Thankfully, the book of Revelation offers us such with chapters 10-11 as yet another pause/literary interlude is wedged between major units of the unfolding action. This leaves us with something else to look at, learn about, appreciate, and apply to our lives . One of the things that I remember about timeouts and breaks in the middle of an athletic competition (or, in my case, little-league soccer games), were snacks! Oranges, Capri suns, granola bars, Rice Krispy treats, etc. made the games worth it for someone like me who wasn’t very good on the field. 😊 Interestingly, in this next timeout (which is about halfway through the book of Revelation), John is given a snack as well—a most unusual snack. Let’s take the timeout with John and look closely at what goes on in this huddle so that we might learn how we ought to live when we break from our time together here and head back onto the mission field.

a. REVELATION #1: The Appearance of the Angel-10:1-3

Chapters 10-11 of Revelation once again break up the unfolding action of the plagues (seals, trumpets, and bowls) with a dramatic pause. As with the interlude of chapter 7, this does not mean that nothing worthwhile is mentioned or revealed in these verses/passages. In fact, much to the contrary, these interludes allow John to highlight other phenomena that he is witnessing.
In this particular pause, John says, “I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven, clothed with a cloud; and the rainbow was upon his head, and his face was like the sun, and his feel like pillars of fire;…” (10:1). This “strong angel” is, in many ways, similar to the mighty angel of Revelation 5:2 who asked “who is worthy to open the scroll?” Interestingly, both in Revelation 5 and in Revelation 10 a scroll is mentioned. The only difference is in Revelation 5 the scroll was sealed up seven times. Here, in Revelation 10, the reader sees a scroll open in the hands of this mighty angel. (By the way, a third and final mighty angel will appear in 18:21 and throw a large boulder into the sea).

This strong angel has a fourfold description. First he is “coming down out of heaven clothed with a cloud” (10:1a). Clouds often serve as indicators of God’s glory (Exod. 16:10; Lev. 16:2; 1 Kings 8:10; Ezek. 10:4) and here, the cloud encasing this angel serves as a sign of God’s presence and of end time glory. Second, the angel has a rainbow on his head (“the rainbow,” in fact), demonstrating, along with the One of the throne in 4:3, the mercy of God (think of the rainbow following the ark and the promise that came with it). Third, the angels’ face is “like the sun” (10:1c)—a description that is parallel to Christ’s own face that shown the same way in Revelation 1:16. Therefore, the exaltation of Christ is also present in this angel’s appearance. Finally, his legs are “like fiery pillars” (10:1d). This characteristic is again comparable to Christ who in Revelation 1:15 is described as having feet of “burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace,…”. Though this characteristic render this angel similar to Christ, the background here, and also in light of the cloud mentioned earlier, is of the pillar of fire and cloud by day that was used to guide the Israelites in the wilderness wanderings (Exod. 14:24) (Osborne, Revelation, 394). In all, this mighty angelic messenger is a representative of the presence, mercy, and Christ-focused guidance of God.

In this angel’s hands is “a little book which was open.” Many believe that this book is not the same book as the seven-sealed scroll described earlier in John’s Apocalypse (Kiddle, Roloff, Mounce). In Revelation 5, the seven sealed scroll was referred to as a biblion (book/scroll). However, this book in Revelation 10 is called blaridion (little book). Also, the scroll of Revelation 5 was sealed seven times and in the right hand of God. This book is open in the hand of the mighty angel. That said, many believe that the two books are the same volume. If the scroll of Revelation 5 contains the title dead to the universe and all of the events that must transpire for a new heaven and new earth to emerge, certainly what has yet to occur in Revelation would be included in that volume (including whatever is revealed in Revelation 10-11) (Sweet, Bauckham, Holwerda). The best option is that the scroll that was sealed in the right hand of God in chapter 5 and was progressively opened by the Lamb, now lies in the hand of the mighty angel in chapter 10, ready to disclose the remainder of God’s divine plan for the end of the age.

As the angel holds this book he also maintains a peculiar posture. In a cosmic game of twister, the angel places “his right foot on the sea and his left on the land;…” (10:2b). This stance demonstrates the angel’s dominion over the whole world and the significance of the message of the little book for all the earth (Thomas, Revelation, 64).  

Accompanying his glorious appearance and powerful stance is a loud voice-“ and he cried out with a loud voice, as when a lion roars; and when he had cried out, the seven peals of thunder uttered their voices…” (10:3). Comparing the announcement of this angel to a “lion’s roar” accentuates how loud the sound is. The shout of this angel is followed by seven peals of thunder. Most scholars agree that this is an allusion to Psalm 29 where God speaks like thunder seven times in a celebration of his sovereignty. This allusion fits this present context as God, by means of this mighty angel, is demonstrating his power over sea and land (Osborne, Revelation, 396). Though this passage does not reveal what the voice cried or the thunders echoed, it is safe to assume that at the very least, these sounds telegraph more terror yet to be unleashed upon the earth.

b. REVELATION #2: The Mystery of the Thunder-10:4-7

John continues “When the seven peals of thunder had spoken, I was about to write; and I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Seal up the things which the seven peals of thunder have spoken and do not write them’…” (10:4). Up to this point, John has been doing his best to record all of the many visions and messages that have been disclosed. However, whatever was revealed with loud cry of the strong angel and the corresponding peals of thunder was to remain a mystery.

Reflecting on this for a moment might be healthy. Though God has given his church a preview of the end, like a trailer to an upcoming movie, not everything about the future has been revealed in the book of Revelation. That said, what he has disclosed brings great hope and should motivate the church to be on mission.

Next, John reveals, “Then the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land lifted up his right hand to heaven” (10:5). By repeating the unusual stance of the angel, John highlights God’s sovereignty over all the earth. The peculiar posture is made more impressive (twister in 3-D!) as the angel lifts his right hand to heaven as if to prepare for an oath. This gesture serves as an allusion to Daniel 12:7.

Daniel 12:7-“I heard the man dressed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, as he raised his right hand and his left toward heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever…”

After raising his right hand, the angel of Revelation 10 then, makes his oath—“ and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things in it, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and the things in it, that there will be delay no longer,…” (10:6). Many oaths in the Old Testament are introduced with “as the Lord lives” in order to invoke the eternality of God. Here this idea reiterated with “by Him who lives forever and ever,” suggesting that the promise to be made is as sure as God is eternal and in control (Osborne, Revelation, 399). The theme of control and sovereignty is further emphasized by the dominions invoked in the oath made—“who created heaven and things in it, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and the things in it,” (10:6). In other words, the angel is swearing by the one who is forever and over all.

What is promised in the oath is that there will no longer be any delay—“ that there will be delay no longer,…” (10:6). Delay for what? Delay for the end along with the corresponding judgment of the world. “When God has decided to complete his purposes and to terminate history, there will be no delay in its termination” (Beale, Revelation, 539). Here, it would seem, God has instigated the final events of world history and nothing will hold back their speedy roll down the hill of destiny. On this mystery, John concludes, “but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he is about to sound, then the mystery of God is finished, as He preached to His servants the prophets…” (10:7). All of the prophecies of Daniel, Ezekiel, Matthew, etc. that have looked ahead to the final days, are now being fulfilled.

c. REVELATION #3: The Consumption of the Book-10:8-11

Following the revelation of the strong angel and the mysterious oath is the revelation of the task that John must execute—the consumption of the book and the disclosing of the prophesy. Verse 8 states, “Then the voice which I heard from heaven, I heard again speaking with me, and saying, ‘God take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land.’” John has already recorded what has transpired as a result of the opening of the seven-sealed scroll in Revelation 6-9. Now, John is called upon to take the remaining revelation recorded in this document from where it now sits in the hands of the strong angel, the idea being that he would then disclose it to the world.

John dutifully obeys—“So I went to the angel, telling him to give me the little book” (10:9). However, thereafter John is commanded to do something unexpected—“And he said to me, ‘Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will sweet as honey’…” (10:9). While this might sound weird to many readers, it is not the first time something like this has been commanded of a prophet.

This odd snack is actually in keeping with John’s formal commission as a prophet and is very similar to what is required of his Old Testament colleague Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 2:8-3:3, Ezekiel is commissioned by being told to take a scroll and eat it. In that context, Ezekiel is called to warn the Israelites of coming despair if they failed to repent of unbelief and idolatry. He is asked to preach so that they will “know what a prophet has been among them.” Yet, he is also told that “Israel will not be willing to listen” to this message because “the whole house of Israel has a hard forehead and a stiff neck” (2:2-8; 3:4-11). The prophet’s consumption of the scroll signifies his identification with its message—“take into your heart all my words [of woe] that I will speak to you” (Ezek. 3:10) (See Beale’s discussion of this background in Revelation, 550-551).  

For John, the eating of the scroll is similar, although the situation is different. Both totally identify with the message being given (both eat the scroll) and as such are called to prophesy to a group of people. However, John’s message is not exclusively to Jews, but to the world in general—a world that in large part has proven itself stubborn and unwilling to listen to God (see 9:20-21) and a world in which God’s tribulation saints are being persecuted.

John dutifully “took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it” (10:10). In direct correlation with what was predicted by the angel John says, “in my mouth it was sweet as honey, and when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (10:10). The sweetness reveals the pleasure prophets take in God’s word because of the following: 1) God’s word expresses his holy will, which will ultimately turn circumstances of woe into opportunities for his glory; 2) God’s righteousness, justice, and holiness are clearly witnessed when he punishes sin, and 3) punishment of the church’s persecutors vindicates Christians and reveals that they have been right all along (Beale, Revelation, 551). 
Ultimately, it is “sweet” because God’s sovereign will is always for the final benefit of his chosen people—they will be vindicated and rewarded for their sacrifices. However, John reveals, “when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (10:10b). The bitterness comes because in order for God’s will for his people to be executed, a great deal of judgment of the evil world and a great deal of suffering and persecution, even martyrdom of the saints, must take place.

This two-fold message of the scroll reiterates the apocalyptic dualism at play throughout this book. Good vs. evil, judgment vs. reward, sweet vs. bitter. Ultimately, the book as a whole accomplishes two things simultaneously—it inspires the saved and frightens the lost. This comes about because at its core, Revelation spells hope for God’s people and doom for God’s enemies. What has yet to take place and what has not yet been revealed will play into this bifocal message—a message that John is then instructed to share.

“And they said to me, ‘You must prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings’…”(10:11). John’s work of disclosing this preview of the end times is not over. There is more to share with the church and that will take up the remainder of the book. What John would disclose from this point on, much as earlier in Revelation, would involve all the world and her people and her leaders.

So What?

You might say that part one of this literary pause reenlists John for the rest of his task. He is commissioned to once again take part in sharing God’s plan for the end—a plan that spells victory and hope for God’s people and doom and destruction for God’s enemies. Though some things will be left a mystery, God has decided in his sovereign will to disclose just enough for his church to obtain two things: 1) the hope they need to endure to the end in spite of all the pressures and persecutions they might come across and 2) the kick in the pants they need to share the hope of the gospel with those who, without it, will be judged most severely for their sin. Do you know this hope today? Does the promise of ultimate victory with God overwhelm your present struggles? Is God’s Word and will sweet like honey to you? If not, the Bible is clear, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved! By turning from your present path and in faith following after Christ with all of yourself, you can know the peace that surpasses all understanding and the hope that brings perseverance through life’s struggles.  

For those who know the sweetness of God, are you on mission today? Does the proposition of God’s judgment on a wicked planet and your lost friends and family turn your stomach? Are you moved with urgency to be about the business of showing and sharing the love of Christ and his gospel with those who don’t yet know him? As John was enlisted in his special role, may today help remind you that you, brother and sister in Christ, have already been enlisted as Jesus’ witnesses sent out into the world to testify about Christ’s work. It is about time we make the most of it!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Death and Denial (Or, another reason to pray fervently and share the gospel regularly)-Revelation 9:13-21

Five trumpets have already blown in Revelation and, as a result, devastation has ravaged the planet and tormented many of her inhabitants. After reading/studying what we have looked at so far in our journey through this book, some might begin to wonder, “Why seven trumpets, why not just one big one?” or, even better “why three waves of judgment? Why seals, trumpets, and bowls?” More to the point, some might ask, “Why doesn’t God just get on with it and execute his wrath all at once?” Today, as we take a look at John’s description of the sixth trumpet, judgment is increased even further. What is God up two. The plagues described so far (and those to come) demonstrate two truths about our sovereign Lord: 1) he is holy and takes sin seriously 2) he provides opportunity to the undeserving for forgiveness and redemption. These truths are reiterated in Revelation 9:13-21 and remind us of how important it is to share the gospel why there is still time for us to do so.

1) The Demand of the Angel-9:13-15

When “the sixth angel sounded” his trumpet, John “heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God” (9:13). The location of the voice (the golden altar) connects what follows in this trumpet judgment with the calls for retribution in Revelation 6:10-11 and 8:3-5 from the same space.

Revelation 6:10-“and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’”

Revelation 8:3-4-“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.”

The prayers of the martyrs who have died at the hands of wicked oppressors are now being answered in this unfolding saga as this voice calls forth from the same place that the cries for vindication were uttered—the altar. The four horns of this golden altar probably refer to the four protruding corners of the structure itself that together demonstrate the strength and power of God.

This voice, probably of an angel (see 14:18; 16:7; 19:5), was “saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’…” (9:14). Though the beings to be released per this command are referred to as “angels,” good angels are never bound (see 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6; Rev. 20:1ff) (Thomas, Revelation, 43). Therefore, these angels are probably fallen angels that have, until now, been bound on the earth until this divinely-appointed time. Once released, these will be able allowed to perform as agents of God’s wrath. The judgment that they will be used to execute is connected to a particular geographical position “at the great river Euphrates.” This river forms one of the borders of the land promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 15:18. It is also the natural border that separated Israel from her two chief historical enemies, Assyria and Babylon. Interestingly, the same region remains unfriendly to the Jewish people to this day. In Isaiah 8:7, the Assyrian invaders were described as “the mighty floodwaters of the River” and in ancient times many of the terrible invasions of Palestine—by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians—came across the Euphrates. As such, it became more than just a natural boundary for Israel; it was also a symbol of foreign invasion (Osborne, Revelation, 378-79). Preparations for a new invasion appear to be suggested in the introduction of this sixth trumpet.

A familiar note of the sovereignty of God is sung again in verse 15 when John reveals, “And the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released, so that they would kill a third of mankind” (9:15). Notice, even these murderous angels are at the beck and call of God who has decided exactly what moment they would be loosed upon the earth. The Lord is still in the driver seat, even here. Unlike the previous plague of demonic locusts that was sent to torment men for five months, these four fallen angels are actually given the go ahead to kill 1/3 of mankind. Much like an angel of death was sent to kill the first born sons of Egyptians in the Exodus, so too are these fallen angels of death sent to kill 1/3 of mankind all over the earth! 

Remember, in Revelation 7:3, four angels had “power to harm the land or the sea” and were restrained “until we have put a seal on the foreheads of God’s slaves.” The saints have since been sealed and the time has come for their vindication. This “time” takes place after the first four trumpets disturbed the natural order (land, sea, fresh water, and sky) and after the fifth trumpet had people crying out for death (once they were stung by demonic locusts). All of these previous judgments culminate here as a third of the world’s population is destroyed. According to Osborne, that is “more than the accumulated deaths of all the wars of the twentieth century put together” (over two billion dead!) (Osborne, Revelation, 380). While the death tole of the seals was a quarter of the population; now, in the trumpets, this figure swells to 33.3%--the same proportions that were affected by the first four trumpets and their attack on the land, sea, freshwater and sky. In those judgments as in this one, God still exercises restraint and provides, surprisingly enough, an opportunity for people to heed the warning that this mass destruction provides and accept his grace in repentance and faith before it is too late.

2) The Description of the Armies-9:16-17

John continues with a description of the armies amassing near the Euphrates in verses 16-17. First he counts their ranks—“the number of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them” (9:16). This immediate shift from 4 angels to 200 million strong suggests that either a human army very quickly assembles in this region (Thomas) or that the four angels suddenly transform into this terrifying cavalry of 200 million (Osborne) or that the four angels have power over ungodly forces that are portrayed as a multitude of armies on horses (Beale). Just to give you an idea of how large this number would have been to the original audience, consider that the size of the Roman army in the first century was composed of about 125000 soldiers (with an auxiliary army of comparable size) (Lane, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1:197). The legion described in this context is 1000 times that number! It almost seems as though John can’t believe the number himself as he states at the end of verse 16—“I heard the number of them” (i.e., “no really, that what they told me!”).

After reporting their number, John describes what this army looks like, complete with some of its capabilities—“ And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sat on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone; and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone…” (9:17). There are many parallels between this army and the locusts described in 9:1-12. For instance, both descriptions include a central figure of a warhorse with grotesque features. Both are also demonic in nature and bent on destruction. However, a difference between these two is that this army can kill while the locusts could only torment.  

That they are “horses” also connects these figures to warfare as horses in the Bible are usually found in episodes of war. The riders of these apocalyptic horses adorned breastplates of fiery red “the color of fire” (the same color used later for the red dragon in Revelation 12 and earlier for the second horsemen in Revelation 6 that symbolized war). The themes of evil and wrath are indicative of these distinct colors. The heads of these horses are like lions—devouring lions that are comparable to Satan himself (1 Peter. 5:8). Lions in Revelation imbue terror (in their roar-10:3), ferocity (in their teeth-9:8), and destructiveness (in their mouth-13:2) (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 48). However, aside from their fiery appearance and their ferocious face, the most destructive characteristic of this cavalry is their mouths which emit fire and brimstone. In the Old Testament fire and brimstone/sulfur is often employed to indicate fatal judgment.

Genesis 19:24-“Then the Lord rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

Ezekiel 38:22-“With pestilence and with blood I will enter into judgment with him; and I will rain on him and on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, a torrential rain, with hailstones, fire and brimstone.”

This idea of fatal judgment is also highlighted by the fire and brimstone emanating “from the mouth” of these creatures (9:17). Later two witnesses will shoot fire from their mouths to kill enemies. Even later Jesus will annihilate his enemies with a sword from his mouth. If out of the mouth the heart speaks, here it is speaking wrath and judgment upon those on earth who have not been sealed by God.

3) The Devastation of the Plagues-9:18-19

In keeping with the purpose for this horde revealed in verse 15, “a third of mankind was killed by these three plagues” (the fire, smoke, and brimstone at the end of verse 17) (9:18a). This plague finds no parallel except for in Sodom in Gomorrah where these three elements are also employed to judge a wicked people (Gen. 19:24, 28). While the devastation in Sodom and Gomorrah was reserved to a couple of cities, here, the human tole is worldwide.

The tole on human life will come “by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeded out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents and have heads, and with them they do harm” (9:18b-19). This added description of fire-breathing demonic horses with tails like snakes is as grotesque as it is frightening. The introduction of the snake and the repetition of the “mouth” (the power of the horses is in their mouths) in this context also suggests that the judgment is two fold—a judgment of deception and death. Much like the deceiving serpent tempted Eve to her sin and death through his manipulative words in Genesis 3, it is possible that these creatures deceive the masses and then kill off those who are vulnerable in the end (the unsealed) (Beale).

There is an awful lot of communication taking place in Revelation. Jesus speaks, the One on the throne speaks, angels speak, John speaks, etc. However, so too do demons, monsters, and later dragons and beasts. All of this speech highlights the significance of messages spoken from different speakers and provides a warning against entertaining the wrong narrative. O that the church would be discerning in a world saturated with communication.

4) The Denial of the Survivors-9:20-21

As dire as this text proves to be, what is even more tragic is what is revealed at the chapter’s end—“The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear not walk” (9:20). Though God is showing restraint by not annihilating mankind altogether and is providing another chance to turn to him, many of the lost do not make the most of such.  Instead they continue their willful denial of Christ. Rather than being broken by these blows so as to repent and worship the Lord, these stubbornly cling to their idolatry and decide to continue their worship things. In many ways, this is similar to what is said in the Book of Romans.

Romans 1:25 -“For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

Not only do these prove to be unrepentant of their idolatry, many of the lost during this period will also prove unrepentant of their wicked behavior—“and they did not repent of their murders nor their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts” (9:21). To be sure, if one is worshiping the wrong god (if one is idolatrous), you can expect that he/she will also endorse wicked behaviors. This is true of these who in the end, in spite of all of the catastrophe around them, choose their own way rather than God’s way.

This stubbornness in the midst of judgment is similar to what we read about in Exodus with Pharaoh. It took nine plagues before Pharaoh finally relented and allowed God’s people to escape slavery in Egypt. However, even then, he changed his mind and chased after them. This is because, as the Bible says, “the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses” (Exod. 9:12). While there are various interpretations of exactly what this means, one things is certain: those who don’t respond positively to the revelation of God will experience a hardened heart much like these we read about in Exodus and Revelation. Paul reveals as much when he says, “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” (Rom. 2:5). Patterns of unbelief over long periods of time, like calluses, decrease one’s sensitivity to the redemptive overtures of God.

So What?

In lieu of the description of this coming judgment on an unbelieving world, the church ought to eagerly share the message of the Gospel that saves from the wrath of God. Jesus took on what we deserved—punishment for sin—so that we would not have to suffer what we all have coming to us. Turning away from our dependency on ourselves or any other thing and embracing his grace through faith is the only remedy for our problem. Is your problem yet solved in the person and work of Jesus? If not, salvation is available! Respond to his call upon your life! Heed the word of the Lord before the cotton the world would place in your ears becomes too dense to hear it! Accept the grace God gives before you become too content with your life as it is! Turn from your sin before it becomes too familiar to deny!

For those who already have experienced salvation through Christ, pray! Pray that people would be broken so that they are made aware of their desperation for what only Jesus can provide. Pray that ears would be unclogged so that people might hear the message of the gospel. Pray that hearts might be softened so that we might be used of God to share the love of Jesus in a winsome way. Pray these things and then do them. Share Christ’s love with someone this week. Share the gospel truth with a friend or neighbor. Share how God has healed your brokenness. Pray for these things and do these things before the trumpets sound!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Other-worldly Pestilence-Revelation 9:1-12

As a movie buff I’m always impressed by how CGI experts and graphic artists give life and likeness to imaginative characters with other-worldly features that are found in works of fiction. One notable example of this is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. In the movie franchise that was produced in the early 2000s, elves, dwarfs, wizards, dragons, and other creatures came to life on the big screen in impressive ways to tell an epic story of good verses evil. An infamous case of imagination/innovation in this particular endeavor was the rendering of the orc. These muddy monsters were as grotesque as they were frightening and really added to the portrayal of evil in the arc of the narrative.

See the source image

However, these orcs have nothing on the vision and description we are given in Revelation 9:1-12 following the sounding of the fifth trumpet. As God continues to execute his wrath on a wicked world during the tribulation, something truly terrifying emerges onto the scene that makes orcs look relatively tame. Therefore, with some trepidation, let’s read through this passage and catch a glimpse of what the forces of evil will be capable of so that we might engage the struggle we are in now with greater fervency.

1) The Emergence of the Locusts-9:1-6

John reports, “then the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven which had fallen to the earth; and the key of the bottomless pit was given to him,…” (9:1). Stars throughout the Bible are often used a symbols for angels (Judg. 5:20; Job 38:7; etc.). The star in verse 1 of chapter 9 is probably another angelic messenger sent form heaven to do God’s will (not unlike the trumpeting angels and the angel that filled the golden censer earlier in the context). “The key to the bottomless pit was given” to this angel. But what exactly is this pit/abyss? Some have suggested that this abyss is a metaphor for the accumulated power of an evil world system (Caird). Others believe that the pit is synonymous with hell. However, a better position holds that this abyss probably refers to a “preliminary place of incarceration for fallen angels from which some of them are about to be released under this trumpet” (Thomas, Revelation 9-12, 28). In fact, this interpretation appears to be consistent with how “abyss” is used elsewhere in John’s Apocalypse (9:2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3) and throughout the new testament. For instance, in a context where Jesus is in the process of healing a demoniac, the demons possessing the victim “were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss” (Luke 8:31).  Therefore, this abyss probably refers to the realm in which demons are kept—a place that is, up to this point, in some ways hidden from the physical world.

As the vision continues, the angel proceeded to take the key given him and “opened the bottomless pit, and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the pit” (9:2). In Revelation, smoke most often coincides with judgment, doom, and torment (9:17, 18; 18:9, 18; 19:3). This is consistent with what was witnessed when God judged Sodom and Gomorrah and appeared at Sinai.

Genesis 19:28-“and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace.”

Exodus 19:18-“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace and the whole mountain quaked violently.”

Just as trumpets are often employed to indicate that God is about to do something big (see discussion on 8:1-6), these passages indicate that the presence of smoke means judgment is coming. So thick is this judgment that it darkens the sky.

As the smoke rises out of this pit, so too do locusts emerge onto the earth—“then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth” (9:3a). Though in some ways parallel to the eight plague against Egypt in Exodus 10:12-20, these locusts are markedly different from a typical plague of pestilence.
One reason for believing that this isn’t your typical plague of locusts is found in the second part of verse 3. Unlike average locusts, these have special other-worldly features (see 9:7-10) and powers-“and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power” (9:3b).

Also, these locusts are instructed not to destroy what locusts typically destroy—“They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months; and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man,…” (9:4-5). 
Normally locusts eradicate crops; they don’t torment human beings. However, this plague is not on vegetation but on those who do not have the seal (see chapter 7). Even still, these locusts are not given power enough to kill. Instead, they can only torment, and even this they can only do for five months. The limitation of their power and the scope of the havoc they create once against reiterates their subservience to the ultimate sovereign in this unfolding drama—God who sits on the throne. Much as the horsemen, angels, and natural disasters proved to be tools in the hands of almighty God, these locusts serve in the same capacity. In this case, the judgment takes the form of a painful scorpion bite, the side-effects of which appear to linger and fester for weeks!

So bad is the pain these stings cause that John reveals, “in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them” (9:6). The verb for “seek” is defined as the “desire to have or experience something, with the probably implication of making an attempt to realize one’s desire” (Louw & Nida). Applied this this context, not only will people wish they were dead, they will make attempts to that end. However, death “will be escaping them.” Though people wish for and work toward death, death is personified as a fugitive running away from those oppressed by this plague of locusts.

Before the text moves toward a description of the locusts, it might be helpful to consider what these locusts are/what they represent. Several choices have been offered by scholars over the years. One perspective is that these locusts are a symbol for human armies. Joel 2:1ff, after all, compares a large army to a swarm of locusts. However, the description that follows goes well beyond what this perspective is capable of containing. Others suggest that this is a highly figurative representation of God’s superhuman judgment against men. However, this is too vague given the detail present in this passage. The best possibility is that these locusts are demons/fallen angels who assume the form that is described in this context. (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 30; Aune, Revelation 6-16, 527). After all, they come from the abyss where evil spirits are imprisoned, their attack is against men, not nature, they have a form that no human being has ever seen before, and often demons are seen assuming other material forms (like frogs in Revelation 16:13). In other words, “what emerges to afflict rebellious mankind,…is a horde of supernatural creatures bent on spreading as much misery as possible” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 30). Ultimately the purpose of this fifth trumpet judgment is to “intimidate, demoralize, and terrorize the earth-dwellers” in apocalyptic ways (Osborne, Revelation, 365). No longer are demons kept hidden in a spiritual domain. Instead they are allowed to break through the physical realm and enact their own brand of horror upon the earth (dualism seen in the juxtaposition of physical vs. spiritual and good vs. evil is a staple of apocalyptic literature).

2) The Description of the Locusts-9:7-12

After reporting on the scope and nature of the judgment of these locusts/demons, John describes their peculiar appearance saying, “The appearance of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle;…” (9:7a). You can sense how difficult it is for John to put the description of these demonic beings into words with the repetition of “as” (wV) and “like” (omoioV) (nine times in this passage). This means that reader ought not read too much into the details, hoping to reap important insights about the particulars. It appears as though John is combining the locust, the scorpion, and the warriors of an invading army (see Joel 2:4-5; Job 39:19-25). It also seems these demonic beings were supernaturally large and horrifying. While these were sent to inflict pain with their tails, they also will instill terror with their appearance (Osborne, Revelation, 369).

The particulars of the appearance of these locusts move from the head to the tail. Concerning the head John says, “and on their heads appeared to be crowns like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men. They had hair like the hair of women, and their teeth were like the teeth of lions” (9:7b-8). Interpretations for each of these elements abound and ultimately together reveal that these are especially scary beings. They are powerful (golden crown), anthropomorphic (human heads) disheveled and unclean (long hair); and hungry (lion’s teeth—associated with the devil who prowls around like a roaring lion [1 Pet. 5:8]).

In addition to their facial features, John reveals that “They had breastplates like breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle. They have tails like scorpions, and stings; and in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months,…” (9:9-10). The “breastplate” is perhaps a double reference to the thorax of a locust that resembles a breastplate and the armor that horses would adorn in the ancient world as they went into battle. This breastplate also insinuates that these locusts are relatively invincible during this five-month span, impervious to measures that might be employed to exterminate them.

Another battlefield reference is given with the terrifying sound that the horde makes—"and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle” (9:9b). No doubt before people even see these grotesque creatures, they will be paralyzed in fear upon hearing their approach.

Joel 2:4-5-“Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; and like war horses, so they run. With a noise as of chariots they leap on the tops of the mountains,…”

As scary as these features prove, it is the tail that is most fearsome—“they have tails like scorpions, and stings, and in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months” (9:10). The verb used in the present tense emphasizes the ongoing torment that these creatures will deal during this span.
Interestingly, these locusts also have a leader—“they have as king over them, the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrews is Abaddon, and in the Greek he has the name Apollyon” (9:11). The two names given in two different languages for this leader mean the same thing—“destroyer.” In apocalyptic terminology, this word is often used for the destruction of the world (Osborne, Revelation, 373). Such a name fits this context of global destruction in the trumpet plagues and the bowls that follow.  Though some believe this is Satan and others draw connections between this figure and the angel of death in Exodus 12:23, it is more probable that this is an arch-demon (kind of the opposite of an archangel) who is given charge over this demonic horde.

Interestingly, the Greek term for “Apollyon” is similar to the name of the Greek god Apollo and the locust was one of his symbols. Also, the emperor Domitian (who ruled Rome at or around the timing of the writing of Revelation) believed he was Apollo incarnate. Therefore, John may be framing his description of this plague in ways that were connected to the powerful pagan players on the world’s stage during his lifetime. Whether that is true or not, it is important to at least appreciate that ungodly pagan forces on the earth are no doubt inspired/influenced/and empowered by the wickedness in the spiritual realm in general and demonic activity in particular.

This fifth trumpet satisfies the first woe that corresponds to what was introduced in 8:13—“the first woe is past; behold, two woes are still coming after these things” (9:12).

So What?

However, before we hear the sound of the sixth trumpet, let us take a moment to appreciate what has been described for us in these verses and peak behind the curtain so-to-speak in an effort to remind ourselves of the very real spiritual struggle that is going on  around us now and will, according to this text, be elevated during the tribulation period. The Bible is clear: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Though we may not see demons in the flesh at present and are only privy to their activity in indirect ways (in their oppression or possession of a host or system), this passage illuminates just how ugly, sinister, and horrifying they truly are. These are the kinds of creatures that we are up against as we seek to promote the gospel and serve in the mission of God! Though God’s common grace keeps at least some of these creatures relatively at bay, one day they will be loosed upon the earth for all to see, enacting a period of suffering never before seen.

So what are we to do in light of so gross a description and so demoralizing a plague? We must allow the reality of what is coming to motivate us toward mission, put on the armor of God, and improve the way that we pray, recognizing all the while that ”greater is he that is in me than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). After all, don’t we want our friends, family, and neighbors to avoid the horrors we read about in this passage? Are we not convinced that there is an ongoing spiritual battle for the souls of those around us and we are on the front lines? As epic as the battles of Lord of the Rings franchise are on the big screen, what is even more impressive is the spiritual warfare we are engaged in on any given day! It is time for us pray like we know this, live like we know this, and share with others like we know this!

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Fanfare of Judgment-Revelation 8:7-13

There are a myriad of organizations that exists in our world today to help save the planet from what they argue is the coming destruction brought on by human dependence on fossil fuels, carbon emissions, etc. In many ways, some of these groups are more apocalyptic in their thinking than many Christians! While there certainly is a responsibility to take care of our planet and be good stewards of what God has entrusted us with that all believers ought to take seriously, it is against the Scriptures and the gospel to believe that this planet, in and of itself, is our ultimate hope or source of sustainability. This is clearly articulated in Revelation 8:7-13 that describes the first four trumpet judgments. While the seals earlier in the book of Revelation dealt more with geo-political maneuvering and the consequences of human activity, the trumpets take on a whole new tone and directly afflict nature itself. Ultimately by listening closely to these trumpets and observing what happens as a result of their fanfare, we will learn afresh not to place our ultimate trust in the creation around us but in the creator above us for salvation both for this day and on into eternity.

1) Trumpet #1-8:7-“…The first sounded and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up…”

While “when the Lamb broke” introduced the seven seals that were broken in the preceding chapters, we now have a new repetitive introductory phrase that is employed in the introduction of each of the seven trumpet judgments-“the first sounded” (8:1). Each subsequent trumpet is announced in the same way (albeit with its appropriate cardinal number). From the start of this next phase of the vision John receives, the reader can sense that the acuity of the wrath God is unleashing upon the earth has grown—“and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up” (8:7).  

Not only do these judgments appear to grow in severity, they also appear to allude more and more the book of Exodus. For instance, the seventh plague launched against a stubborn pharaoh involved Moses raising his staff to the sky and God sending hail mixed with fire upon an unrepentant Egypt (see Exod. 9:13-35). So overwhelming was this plague and so devastating did this prove for all Egypt’s vegetation that the hail fire was even referred to as the greatest storm the city had ever seen. Interestingly, though this hail fire in Revelation 8:7 is the first of the trumpets, like the hail fire in the Exodus, it too is the seventh judgment God sends (6 seals plus 1 trumpet = 7th judgment). Also, both plagues were sent against a wicked and deserving people led by a leader who (as we will soon learn in Revelation) attempted to play the part of God on the world’s stage.

Though similar to the Exodus narrative, this first trumpet is even worse than that hail fire Egypt witnessed. After all, it is “mixed with blood.” This probably refers to the “awesome color of the storm …this lightning would cause” (Mounce, Revelation, 178). Also, the idea of a storm of blood is given in Joel 2:31 and Acts 2:19.

Acts 2:19-“And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, Blood, and fire, and vapor and smoke.

Such hail fire mixed with blood is “thrown down” to the earth, indicating that these phenomena are not acting independently of God’s sovereign hand. Ultimately, just as the Lamb was in control of the breaking of the seals, so too is God in control of these plagues that rain down upon the earth, issuing their devastation.

The devastation brought on by the hail fire is described in the remainder of verse 7—"and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up…” (8:7b). John employs “a third” almost compulsively in this passage (12 times, in fact, between verses 7-12) to, in part, reveal that God’s judgment, although severe, is not yet final (Smalley, Revelation, 220). Though punishment is literally raining down upon a deserving planet, God is withholding complete destruction almost as if to invite the lost to repent before it is too late. This is, believe it or not, one manifestation of the grace of God found even in this apocalypse.

Just imagine what the scene would be like following this plague—a third of all vegetation destroyed! People today marvel at forest fires in the pacific northwest and wonder at the deforestation taking place in places like the Amazon. However, none of these compare to the scope and scale of the first trumpet. Such will deal an enormous tole on agriculture, farming, the food supply, and the prices thereof.

2) Trumpet #2-8:8-9-“…The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed,…”

“The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed” (8:8-9). While the first trumpet dealt devastation to the land, the second deals the same to the sea (and in similar proportions). Like the first trumpet, there appears to be an allusion to Exodus, particularly the first plague dealt to Egypt with the water turning into blood. There, it was Moses’ staff that caused the transformation. In Revelation 8, it is a large foreign burning object tossed into the sea. There is a lot of speculation as to what this object is/represents. Mounce points out that fewer than twenty years prior to the writing of this book Mt. Vesuvius had erupted and destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Perhaps what John sees in his vision here is similar to what he must have imagined that geological event to be like. However, extra-biblical Jewish apocalyptic literature speaks of “seven stars like great burning mountains” (1 Enoch 18:13) and a “great star from heaven” that falls into a divine sea (Sib. Or. 5:158). Perhaps John is borrowing from all of the above in an effort to describe the catastrophe that he witnessed in this second trumpet plague. Regardless of exactly what it represents, God is understood as the one hurling this flaming mountain down to the earth (see the passive voice, once again, of the verb ἐβλήθη translated “was thrown”). He remains in control of the situation from the throne room.

As a result of this foreign object being hurled into the sea, 33.3% of the sea life and ships perish. Such will upset both ecosystem and global economics in unprecedented ways. However, the trumpets are just getting warmed up.

3) Trumpet #3-8:10-11

In verse 10 John reveals “the third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers, and on the springs of water” (8:10). It is interesting that the first three trumpets involve the use of fire. Mounce speculates that the fire motif in these plagues corresponds to the angel of verse 5 who filled his censer with burning coals from the golden altar and then hurled them upon the earth. Perhaps as a direct result of this activity, there is first a violent electrical storm that set the earth ablaze (see the first trumpet in verse 7), then a great fiery mountain is thrown into the sea (see the second trumpet in verse 8-9), and then a burning star descends upon the fresh water supply (see the third trumpet in verse 10-11) (Mounce, Revelation, 180). This assault on the fresh water supply would have been perceived as especially terrifying to the original audience of John’s apocalypse in the first century. “Springs of water” refers to natural springs from which Judah received most of its water supply—a supply that was already scarce in this part of the world (Osborne, Revelation, 354). Springs were, viewed as a source of life and such were often employed figuratively to describe the spiritual life God brings to those who love him and follow his commands (Prov. 10:11; 13:14; 14:27; Jer. 2:13; 17:13). Therefore, an attack on the springs of water was really an attack against life itself—that is, a third of the life left on the earth.

The fiery meteor that pollutes the fresh water supply possesses a name and special description given in verse 11—“the name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter” (8:11). “Wormwood” is a bitter-tasting shrub that was common in the ancient world both in its landscape and in the Jewish consciousness.

Proverbs 5:3-4-“For the lips of an adulteress drip honey and smoother than oil is her speech; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood.”

Lamentations 3:19-“Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.”
The effects of this wormwood being introduced into the water supply prove deadly in Revelation 8 as “many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter” (8:11). Such is yet another example of judgment against the wickedness of the world that is not unlike what the prophet Jeremiah spoke of in his day or Moses in his.

Jeremiah 9:15, 23:15-“therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood and given them poisoned water to drink’…’behold, I am going to feed them wormwood and make them drink poisonous water,…”.

Deuteronomy 29:18-“so that there will not be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; that there will not be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood.”

As in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, poison, particularly the use of wormwood, is witnessed alongside God’s divine judgment for sin and rebellion. This appears to be an appropriate background to consider when looking at what God is doing to the rebellious world in Revelation 8. Also, one might also consider, though it is difficult to prove John had this in mind, that what is going on in this third trumpet is the reversal of the miracle at Marah in Exodus 15:23 (Osborne, Revelation, 355). There Moses throws a piece of wood into the bitter water, turning it sweet; here God throws a foreign object down into the sweet water, turning it bitter. This juxtaposition compares and contrasts how God relates to his people verses his enemies.

Agriculture, Marine life, and now the fresh water supply have all taken a huge hit. How could it possibly get worse? How about God cuts off the lights?

4) Trumpet #4-8:12-13

The fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were struck, so that a third of them would be darkened and the day would not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way,…” (8:12). The parallels between this and the Exodus narrative are once again fairly obvious as this scene reminds the reader of the ninth Egyptian plague of darkness that came upon the region for a period of three days (Exod. 10:21-23). To be sure, darkness is not only a symbol of God’s judgment there, but throughout the Old Testament.

Joel 2:2-“A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

Amos 5:18-“Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord, for what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you? It will be darkness and not light.”

In fact, the New Testament refers to those who are in sin as those who are in darkness (John 8:12; Eph. 5:8; etc.). While this is the case spiritually, here in this fourth trumpet judgment, the global ambiance matches the condition of the hearts of those without God during this tribulation period. Again, the darkness is not total (“a third of them would be darkened” for “a third of the day”) as God’s judgment is not yet total either.

Before the next trumpet sounds, something very briefly interrupts the flow—“Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, ‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!” (8:13). Throughout the Apocalypse the eagle stands as a symbol for majestic power (see Rev. 4:7) a harbinger of judgment (8:13) and strength or swiftness (see 12:14). This particular eagle is flying “in midheaven” (midair) and announces with a loud voice that more is coming and what is around the corner is far worse. These coming plagues will be worse in two ways. First unlike the first four trumpets which affected the source of people’s physical life, the last three will fall upon individuals themselves (Mounce, Revelation, 183). Second, not only will they be personally experienced by the lost, they will be worse and more horrifying than any preceding them. The three woes of the eagle correspond to the two judgments in chapter 9 (the fifth and sixth trumpet) and the final trumpet judgment in Revelation 11:14-15 and what follows.

It is important to remember that those already sealed (the 144,000 and perhaps others in the multitude that represent Jewish and gentile converts during this tribulation period) will be protected from these plagues. These judgments are intended for the lost and unbelieving world, not those who belong to God, though many who belong to God will be suffering under the intense pressure and persecution that the evil world system will lodge against them during this time.

So What?

Though this text testifies once again to the holiness of God and the reality of his divine wrath against the wicked, the first four trumpets and the implications thereof also demonstrate that nothing in this world, in and of itself, is a fitting foundation upon which to stake one’s life. Food and foliage, trade and commerce, even water itself is not an adequate sustainer of the human person and/or the human condition. In many ways, these first four trumpets teach the world that the earth and all its wonders is neither a suitable savior nor the source of one’s ultimate hope. Only God can ultimately satisfy, satiate, and sustain what humans require most. Unfortunately, as Romans 1:25 reminds, many in this world, and many on into the tribulation, “exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.”  Will the world be purged of its worship of the planet rather than the one who hung it there in the first place by means of these trumpet plagues—plagues that deny many the fruits/blessings the planet provides? We will soon learn the answer.

However, for now it is appropriate to ask ourselves, in what is our ultimate hope? Nothing contained in this world can bring us what it is we need most—not food, not water, not the landscape, nor any other created thing. It is Father God, not Mother earth, who saves us now and forever. Do you know this? Do you live in light of this?