Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Bowls of Wrath-Revelation 16:1-12

There is an old expression that marks the ominous expectation of something bad taking place—“waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Interestingly, this familiar idiom came from a joke about a man who is awakened by a drunk who lived upstairs and was in the habit of loudly dropping his shoe. The man could not return to sleep because he was waiting for the second crash on the ceiling. Eventually he yells upstairs “For Heaven’s sake, drop the other shoe!” Similar expectations have been building for us as we’ve read through and studied Revelation. God has been dropping all kinds of judgments on the earth for some time—seals and trumpets. However, you and I know, based on the preparations made in chapter 15, that there is another round of plagues coming that is even worse than before—another shoe to drop. Before you cry out “for Heaven’s sake, drop the other shoe!” (i.e. “For heaven’s sake, share with us the seven bowl judgments”) let’s turn to Revelation 16:1-12 and observe the pouring out of God’s wrath in this final series of plagues and learn something about the awesome consistency of God and the important opportunity to repent.

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Bowl #1: Malignant Sores-16:1-2

With all the preparatory steps complete, the bowls begin to pour in Revelation 16. In verse 1, the command rings forth, “Then I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God’…” (16:1). Something of the immediacy of the command is highlighted in the present tense—“be pouring out.” The “loud voice” that is heard from the temple is none other than the voice of God who instigates this final program of judgment upon the deserving world. This judgment would come as bowls filled with His wrath are emptied on the earth. This depiction of God pouring out wrath is similar to how drink offerings were used in the Old Testament Temple (see Exod. 30:18; Lev. 4:7, 18, 30) (Osborne, Revelation, 579). Also, Jeremiah 10:25 uses this image figuratively to describe judgment upon the nations—“Our out Your wrath on the nations that do not know you.” These Old Testament referents help cast the unfolding events in Revelation 16 as equal parts worshipful vindication and severe judgment (see discussion on 15:1-8).

In response to the emphatic command from the Temple of heaven, “the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth; and it became a loathsome and malignant sore on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image” (16:2). This first bowl suffers parallels with the sixth plague lodged against Egypt in Exodus 9:8-11. As in Egypt, those suffering these painful plagues were stubborn against the will of God and stood in opposition to God’s people. Although the specific nature of these boils is unknown, the text reveals that they are repulsive and extremely painful (Wilson, ZIBBC, 338-39).

b. Bowl #2: Bloodied Sea-16:3

“The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man,…” (16:3a). The second bowl appears to be similar to the first plague in Egypt in which the Nile River and freshwater sources were turned into blood (see Exod. 7:17-21). Here, in Revelation 16, there is an added description that renders what happens here more gruesome—it is “like that of a dead man,” (16:3a). No doubt, this serves as an ominous prediction of the fate many on the world will face in their stubborn defiance to God as these judgments are lodged.

As a result of a similar plaque in the context of Exodus, all the fish died. Here, things appear to be far more severe as John says “and every living thing in the sea died,…” (16:3b). The theme of death and destruction –destruction in a total sense—is in reiterated time and time again. Notice here how quick the report reads. This terseness of language—in a book that has, at times, proved loquacious—almost highlights the severity of these judgments. Its matter-of-factness is eerie and troubling.

c. Bowl #3: Bloodied Rivers-16:4-7

“Then the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood,…” (16:4). This fourth plague is more in keeping with the first plague in Exodus 7 as it affects rivers and springs (like the Nile River in the day of Pharaoh). Again, the simplicity of language cuts through and requires no special dressing or exaggeration.

Following the pouring out of this third bowl, special commentary is provided by “the angel of the waters.” This commentary begins with an exclamation—“Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One” (16:5a). Though the spectacle upon the earth is gruesome and terrifying, this angel reminds the reader that it is necessary given God’s holiness—holiness that cannot tolerate sin and must judge wickedness. In exercising judgment upon the planet, God, in fact, proves His righteousness—that same righteousness that is confessed here by this angel.

After exclaiming the holiness of God, the angel proceeds to explain the nature of these two bloody bowl judgments—i.e. the bloody sea and the bloody rivers—“ because You judged these things, for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it,…” (16:5b-6). In true “punishment fits the crime fashion,” this text explains that because the wicked world shed innocent blood (see 17:6), God now pours out these two blood judgments. This principle—an eye for an eye—is referred to at lex talionis and it forms the foundation for the Old Testament law (Exod. 21:23-25). Many believe that Jesus’ New Testament teaching in the Sermon on the Mount overturns the concept that the punishment should fit the crime (Matt. 5:38). 

However, serious injury is not involved with any of the three examples he gives (being slapped, being sued, and forced to go one mile). Also, his comments are directed toward citizens of the kingdom of God. He is not addressing the punishment of the wicked either by divine or secular justice.
That said, God (being God), needs no defending in how he decides to punish the world that stands against him. He is just in doing whatever he sees fit in this effort as he is the righteous, eternal, holy One. Instead of questioning his methods, you hear those around the altar of heaven affirming these acts “Yes O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments” (16:7). It is similar to the affirmation shared in 15:3 in which the saints sing “Just and true are your ways.” It also shares similar language with a song of Moses found in Duet 32:4 in which Moses says, “His works are true and all his ways are just.”

d. Bowl #4: Scorching Sun-16:8-9

“The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire” (16:8). This is the only one of the first five bowls that does not look like any of the plagues in the Exodus saga. Elsewhere in John’s account the sun is a symbol of majesty (1:16; 10:1; 12:1). Earlier, in judgment against the world, the sun and moon were darkened (8:12). However here, the sun is intensified so much so that it burns those on the earth severely. The literal picture here is not simply one of severe sunburns, but of actual tongues of fire burning people. Though claims of global warming might be tenuous today, this prophecy reveals that things will be really hot on the earth when this is all fulfilled.

It is a horrifying picture of people being nearly incinerated by the solar flares of God’s incredible judgment. Fire is a common weapon of judgment in the book. Christ is described as having “eyes like blazing fire” in 1:14 and 2:18. The trumpet judgments began with a burning censer hurled to the earth (8:5), and three of the trumpet judgments involved fire (8:7, 8; 9:17-18). Also, two witnesses engulfed their enemies in flames (11:5) and later Babylon the great will be consumed with fire (18:8). Ultimately, all of God’s enemies will be thrown into the lake of fire (14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8). Therefore, this bowl judgment appears to be a particularly strong warning—a warning that should be heeded.

However, what is more terrible than the judgment itself is the response of those upon the earth. While some might think that these supernatural and miraculous displays of power would convince some that God is not only real, but worthy of worship and glory, as it was in Egypt, so too is it here—“ Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory,…” (16:9). Much as Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against God with every passing plague, so too does it appear to be for the earth-dwellers who will endure these many judgments. In fact, never in the Book of Revelation do we see much evidence of mass repentance of those who belong to the world’s system. Jews, yes (see the 144000), other gentiles initially, sure (see the multitude in chapter 7), but for others, hearts appear to be hardened against the Lord.

e. Bowl #5: Darkness-16:10-11

“Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened,…” (16:10a). Notice a very subtle move in the plagues as they are described in this chapter. The first four are poured out on the earth, the next three are more specifically poured out over the Beast’s throne (seat of the antichrist’s power). World-wide pandemonium becomes more personally concentrated against the temporary ruler of the world. God begins to focus his judgment against this figure and all that he represents by throwing his domain into darkness. Again, this has parallels in Exodus, particularly the ninth plague lodged against Pharaoh (Exod. 10:21-29). Darkness is used in many ways in the ancient world (and in the Canon) to describe sin, ignorance, danger, judgment, and death. All of these connotations with this image are in view here. Though, in Egypt, darkness was God’s way of “throwing shade” on the false Egyptian god Ra (the sun god), here, God “throws shade” on the ruler of the world order that probably assumed power under the pretense of bringing enlightenment to the entire planet.

Left to lick their wounds in the darkness, John continues with “and they gnawed their tongues because of pain” (16:10). This is a bit unusual as there is nothing inherently painful about darkness (aside from, maybe, psychologically). “Gnawing their tongues” is also interesting and might have as precedent Matthew 8:12.

Matthew 8:12-“but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Louw and Nida argues that the two expressions “gnashing of teeth” and “biting their tongues” are virtually synonymous for the agony of intense suffering. Perhaps the reason for this association of darkness and terrible pain is to link this judgment with the eternal punishment to come in hell. Regardless of what this envisions, it can’t be good.

As in the previous plague, rather than be drawn to the light from the dark, victims of this catastrophe “blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds,…” (16:11). The same stubborn defiance introduced in verse 9 is repeated here—there is no sign that at this point it will be probable that those left in the world’s system will change their allegiance. So hardened are they by their sin that even in the face of demonstration after demonstration of God’s power, they shake an angry, pain-riddled fist up at God as they cower under the weight of his irrefutable and obvious wrath.

f. Bowl #6: River Dries Up-16:12

 “The sixth angel pouted out his bowl on the great river, the Euphrates; and its water was dried up…” (16:12a). As with the darkness, the sixth plague appears to target a particular area—wherever this kingdom of the beast is situated. In this case, the Euphrates river dries up. The drying up of this waterway runs parallel to the parting of the Red Sea and later the parting of the Jordan river (and also hints at the purpose of this plague). In Exodus, the Red Sea (and later, the Jordan river) was parted so that the Hebrews could pass through safely on dry land. Here, the Euphrates appears to dry up for a very different reason. 

John reveals the purpose at the end of verse 12 when he says “so that the way would be prepared for the kings from the east” (16:12b). While many interpretations abound for exactly who these kings from the east are, most agree that whoever they are involves major preparations for what will eventually transpire for the battle of Armageddon. Therefore, the drying up of this body of water is not for the safety of God’s people left on the earth, but in preparation for the final conflict between God and his enemies (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 263; Osborne, Revelation, 591). Perhaps God’s supernatural protection for his people has become so distasteful to those suffering under the weight of these plagues that these cross the dried river bed on their way to put down this new center of disloyalty to the beast, who himself (as we will soon learn) has his headquarters in Babylon on the Euphrates. Interestingly, while this dried up river might appear to pose a threat to God’s people and an opportunity for the world empire as they  will use it to lodge one final assault against the Lord, this judgment actually foreshadows the enemy’s defeat, not a victory. This too is not without precedent. After all, Babylon was captured in 539 BC when the Persians diverted the Euphrates River and marched into the city on the dried-up river bed.

So What?

The vivid descriptions of these first six bowls demonstrate to what ends God will go to vindicate his people and punish pervasive evil in the world. It also demonstrates, in its many connections to the Exodus narrative, that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He has and will always be holy. He has and will always deal with sin. He has and will always put his enemies in their place. And He has and will always be victorious. Praise the Lord!

We as God’s people should remind ourselves of these timeless truths in our ever-changing world. One of the many reasons we ought to have worship our Lord and enjoy peace in our lives is rooted in the unchangingness of God. However, those who are not yet counted among God’s people today need to pay heed to this prophecy and acquaint themselves with this holy, awesome, righteous, and unchanging Lord today. Those without a relationship with God need to repent now and follow him, for, if one waits too long, it will be near-impossible to do so later.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Cue the Music-Revelation 15:1-8

One of my favorite classical works is Beethoven’s fifth symphony—not for its overplayed first movement, but for its incredibly dramatic final movement. It is an ending to a monumental piece that just doesn’t quit—perhaps because its doesn’t want to. It is as though Beethoven threw everything he could to punctuate this famous work with an exclamation point. The moment you think it is over, it keeps going, and going. Then you think its finally done, but then it keeps finishing. 

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Revelation behaves the same way. In fact, Revelation will say something to the effect of “it is finished” several times before really finishing. So much culminates at the end of the book that brings the world as we know it to a close in a most dramatic way. However, rather than waste too much time setting things up, let’s read how the final chapter of the tribulation will end in Revelation 15 as we observe three preparatory steps taken before the bowls of wrath are poured out upon the wicked world. In many ways, Revelation 15 might be summarized as follows: "cue the music, final judgment is on the way." 

STEP #1: The Sign of Coming Judgment Emerges-15:1

In Revelation 15:1, John picks up where he left off in Revelation 11. Now that he has introduced us to some of the major characters (in chapters 12-13) and has foreshadowed the events that we are about to observe (in chapter 14), we move back to the major action in Revelation 15. The prophecy can ultimately be organized by means of the series of plagues that span from Revelation 6-19. We’ve seen seven seals broken, seven trumpets blown, and now we are going to be introduced to the final and most severe judgments yet—the seven bowls. Three preparatory steps set up the bowl judgments in Revelation 15 and the first of these steps involves a sign of the coming judgments. As with so many other presentations, the sign is introduced alongside angelic beings—“then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues” (15:1a). While Jesus broke the seven seals, instigating the plagues that set everything in motion, angels blew the trumpets and will be used to pour out the bowls of judgments here at the end. While we won’t learn more about these angels until verse 8, John introduces them here in an effort to set up what is about to transpire.

These angels possess the final plagues—“which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished” (15:1b). Eventually, the reader will learn that these plagues are not merely the “last” of the series of judgments lodged against the world, they are the final judgments in history (Osborne, Revelation, 561). The theme of finality is highlighted by the use of “is finished” (ἐτελέσθη)—coming from the same word uttered by Jesus upon the cross. It conveys the completion of a process or the end of some enduring work. Though we are still a long way from the end of the book, Revelation can’t help itself but punctuate its final passages with this theme of “the end” (much like the end of the fourth movement to Beethoven’s 5th symphony).

STEP #2: The Redeemed Celebrate the Coming Judgments-15:2-4

After setting things up with the description of this sign, John sees the redeemed celebrating the coming judgments in 15:2-4. The location of this joyful chorus is described first—“and I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire” (15:2a). Jewish texts often spoke of rivers of fire proceeding from God’s throne (based on Daniel 7:9-10). Here, this image is mixed with the imagery of the heavenly temple on the glass sea (see also Gen. 1:7; 1 Kings 7:23-26; Ezekiel 1:22).

Revelation 4:6-“and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal…”

Ezekiel 1:22-“Now over the heads of the living being there was something like an expanse, like the awesome gleam of crystal, spread out over their heads,…”

The crystal sea is a major metaphor for the awesome majesty of God. However, the addition of “fire” also highlights the holiness of God as well—holiness that will be witnessed in the judgment of the world soon to come.

Those worshiping through song here on this glassy sea are doing so in the glorious presence of God as victorious conquerors “and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God” (15:2b). These saints have conquered on three levels. First, they have ultimate victory over the beast himself (the antichrist) as will be witnessed on an existential level in Revelation 19. Second, they have victory over his image—i.e. the temptation to capitulate and worship the beast. “Image” conveys the worldly tendency toward idolatry (do not make for yourself a graven image…-Exod. 20:4ff). This was true in John’s description of the Antichrist’s henchman (the false prophet) in Revelation 13:15.

Revelation 13:15-“And it was given to him to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast would even speak and cause as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed.”

Third, they have victory over the “number of his name”—i.e. the worldly pressures that come with the beasts’ wicked order. If one remembers that the “number of the beast” will be required to purchase goods and services (Revelation 13:16ff), she can see that to be victorious over the number is to not give into worldly assimilation under extreme pressure.

These that have overcome so much are shown “standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God” (15:2). Notice here that the posture assumed by these saints is the same taken by their Savior—“the Lamb, standing as if slain” (Rev. 5:6). Just as Christ was victorious after death and humiliation, these saints are standing in victory after their perseverance in the face of death and persecution. In fact, there is an awesome paradox at work here. Though the beast appeared to conquer the saints by killing them (11:7; 13:7), in reality he will be conquered by the saints (12:11) and the Lamb. Their death—both of the saints and of the Lamb earlier—does not spell defeat, but victory (Osborne, Revelation, 562). The theme of victory in death is not new.

Galatians 2:20-21 –“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me…”

1 Peter 2:24 –“and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

Romans 6:8- “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

These passages teach that giving one’s life for Christ is the most victorious and life-giving thing that can even happen, both on a spiritual level and, if necessary, on a physical level. This is true for believers today and will be true for the tribulation saints who endure the most extreme persecution even experienced in the end.

With harps in hand, the saints in this passage sing an old spiritual first published by Moses—“And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (15:3a). Though Moses penned several songs, the song that Revelation 15 has in mind is probably the song of triumph and praise that Moses wrote after his people came safely across the sea, where their enemies drowned (see Exod. 15:1-18). In fact, these saints (many of whom are probably saved Jews who placed belief in Jesus during the tribulation period and died for their faith) will probably delight in the parallels between their position on the crystal sea before the throne of God and the Hebrews who walked through the trials of Egyptian slavery, witnessed the plagues of judgment against a wicked pharaoh, and were safe and sound after miraculously crossing the Red Sea that swallowed their enemies whole (see Keener, IVPBBC, 760). Here, the saints conflate the ancient song of Moses with a new song “of the Lamb,” recognizing that any and all ultimate victory comes in and through him who also endure persecution and gave up his life in persevering obedience to God.

The song exclaims the following: “Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Your ways, King of nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy; For all the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed,…” (15:3b-4). The first part of the song celebrates the works and ways of the Lord. These works create impressions of greatness and amazement (as was shared earlier in verse 1). “Much as his works were great and wonderful in judging the Egyptians at the Red Sea, they also are and will be great and will cause astonishment in punishing the world through the seven last plagues” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 236). The song indicates that these great and mighty works are being performed by the “Lord God, the Almighty” (15:3b)—a title that refers back to the label employed in the song of the four living beings in 4:8 and by the twenty four elders in 11:17. The “ways” of this Almighty God are called “righteous and true” in the stanzas of this tune (15:3c). In other words, the saints profess that God’s ways are absolutely just and sound. God is also called “the King of nations”—i.e. in total control over the goings on in the world.

As the song progresses, the celebrants notice the inevitability of fearing God and giving him glory (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 237)—“who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name?” (15:4a). After all, as Philippians 2:10-11 states, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.” (see also Isa. 45:23; Rom. 14:11). Whether in confession leading to salvation or in awful realization at the hands of judgment—all will acknowledge the great glory of God. Such is appropriate as, the singers share, “for You alone are holy; for all the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed” (15:4b).

STEP #3: The Bowls of Judgment are Distributed-15:5-8

The final step in the preparations for the last round of judgments concerns the distribution of the bowls in verses 5-8. As has been seen repeatedly in the book, the mandate for these and other judgements comes from the temple—that is the heavenly temple/abode of the presence of God—“After these things I looked, and the temple of the tabernacle of testimony in heaven was opened” (15:5). God is both directly and indirectly involved in all the details that will result in the end of this world and the ushering in of the world to come. It is he who instigates every stage of the process to that end.

After the opening of the door to the heavenly tabernacle—“seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the temple” (15:6a). These are the same angels already mentioned in verse 1. However, here John describes these in greater detail—“clothed in linen, clean and bright, and girded around their chests with golden sashes” (15:6b). The unique garb of these angelic mediums is reminiscent of the garments worn by priests in the Old Testament (Lev. 16:4, 23). Perhaps these angels are serving a priestly function in the temple of God much as the priests of old managed activities in the earthly temple of the Old Testament. Their “clean and bright” robes match those given to the bride of the Lamb later in 19:8 and those adorned by the army of 19:14. Not only are they pure and glorious as indicated by the linens, they are prepared as they are “girded with a golden sash.” Prepared for what? Pouring out the wrath of God upon a deserving planet.

This task is handed to them by “one of the four living creatures,” who “gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of wrath of God, who lives forever and ever” (15:7). Up to now, these four living creatures have been fairly active. They have guided heavenly worship in 5:6-7, sent the four horsemen of the apocalypse in 6:1-8, and they participates in worship in 7:11 and 14:3. Here, they distribute the bowls that contain the final plagues that will be poured out over the earth. Though the meaning of the golden bowls is debated (are they the golden bowls of incense and the prayers of the saints as in 5:8 or the golden saucers that were found on the table of showbread and used for sacred libations to God (see Exod. 25:29; 27:3; 38:3)). Two things can be sure: 1) The outpouring of the judgment to come will be a sacred offering to God that will vindicate his name and bring him glory and 2) these judgments come in response to the prayers of the saints (see 5:8; 8:3-5) (Osborne, Revelation, 570).

These bowls are filled with God’s wrath—the wrath of the eternally existing God. Such wrath against a wicked world has been building up for some time and will, quite literally, spill over.

After these bowls of wrath are given to their respective agents, “the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power; and no one was able to enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished” (15:8). Similar spectacles were seen in the Old Testament in and around the tabernacle. For instance, when the tabernacle was first set up in Exod. 10:34-35, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Also, when the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple in 1 Kings 8:10-12, a “dark cloud” symbolizing the presence of God filled the temple. In Isaiah 6’s vision, the seraphim proclaimed that the holiness of God caused the whole world to be filled with his glory and at that time “the temple is filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:3-4). Osborne writes, “these three images—smoke, glory, and power—combine to make the outpouring of judgment in Rev. 16 an act of worship. The name of God is vindicated, and his glory is demonstrated in these bowls of wrath” (Osborne, Revelation, 572).

The smoky temple will be off limits until the “seven plagues of the seven angels were finished” (15:8b). Here, the same verb is used that was introduced in verse 1 to suggest finality (“is finished”). This inclusio (bookends for the passage), is used to highlight that what is about to happen will bring about the end of the world as we currently know it.

So What?

Three important preparatory steps are taken in this passage that set up the final round of culminating judgments upon the earth. These steps demonstrate the sovereignty of God and the ultimate victory his people can expect over their many foes. However, as far as things can be applied today, this passage also demonstrates a couple of timeless lessons. First, God responds to the cries of his people. Just as God heard his people’s cry in Egypt and answered in a most deliberate and miraculous way, so too will he hear the cries of his people in the end and respond by bringing them victory and vindication. The same God who listened then and will listen in his future is listening to you when you cry out to him. What a comfort to know that the omnipotent sovereign Lord of the universe listens and responds when we cry out to Him! Second, this passage teaches that the best way to experience true victory in this life and the next is by giving everything over to Christ and his purposes, even/especially if this requires your life! Jesus said as much in Matthew 16:25-“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” This passage has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that those who stand for Christ against all the pressures of the world, though they may fall at the hands of persecution, will ultimately be standing on the crystal sea worshiping in the glory of heaven. Can this be said of you today? Cry out to God! He will respond!

Monday, August 12, 2019

A Different Kind of Harvest-Revelation 14:14-20

Biblical imagery is an incredible phenomenon. Often the same image/metaphor can be used to illustrate two completely different things with completely different connotations. Water, for instance, can be employed to speak of refreshing life and regeneration (John 4; Titus 3:3-5) or judgment and chaos (Noah’s flood and Gen. 1; Rev. 13:1ff). Fire can describe the presence of God (Exod. 3; Acts 2) or hell fire and torment. However, there is another familiar theme that Revelation 14:14-20 calls the reader’s attention to—the harvest. While we often associate a harvest and/or harvest time with positive images of blessing, abundance, and redeemed souls in the scriptures, here, the harvest theme takes on an entirely different tone. In fact, we are going to observe TWO HARVESTS in Revelation 14:14-20 that reveal something of the holiness and justice of God and call God’s people to be laboring well in the fields that are white for harvest today.

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As John reaches the end of his literary interlude that spans from chapter 12 all the way through to chapters 14, he introduces something new—“then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud was one like a son of man” (14:14a).  Though there is a lot of debate concerning who this figure is (some say that it is another angelic being who looks human while others believe it is Christ), the best evidence suggests that it is Jesus. After all, the “son of man sitting on a cloud” is a direct allusion to Daniel 7:13-14.

Daniel 7:13-‘’I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days…”

The only other allusions to this passage in Revelation are clearly used to speak of Christ (1:7, 13)

Revelation 1:7-“Behold, he is coming with the cloud, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced Him,…”

Revelation 1:13-“and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet,…”

While in the preview immediately preceding this passage the doom of the world system is portrayed as God’s judgment through fire and brimstone resulting in eternal torment (see 14:6-13), John describes the same/similar events here with the Son of God as the principle agent.

The Son of Man (Jesus) has three characteristics that John reports on in this passage. First, he is sitting “on the cloud.” Again, this refers to Daniel 7:13; however, here the cloud is said to be “white.” Typically a color used to symbolize purity, wisdom, and glory, these attributes render this perch a fitting seat from which its occupant (Christ) is able to judge a wicked world (Osborne, Revelation, 550). Second, the Son of Man is wearing a “golden crown on His head.” In Daniel 7:13, the same figure adorns a golden wreath. Both passages employ this unique headdress to demonstrate the sovereign authority of the Son of Man. Finally, and perhaps most curiously, the Son of Man is shown holding “a sharp sickle in His hand.” Seven of the eight occurrences of “sickle” in the New Testament are found in this passage. The other is in Mark 4:29.

Mark 4:26-29-“And He was saying, ‘The Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately pits in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

As in this parable, the sickle of Revelation 14 introduces the idea of a harvest and reveals the judgment that the Son is about to execute in the world (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 219). The “sharpness” of the sickle suggests something of the nature and finality of the pending condemnation. In all, the Son of Man emerges from a position of power and with every indication that he has both the authority and ability to judge the world.

Joining the Son of man in this presentation is “another angel” who “came out of the temple” (14:15a). The “temple” has always stood for the location of God’s presence. In the Old Testament it housed the Holy of Holies. In Revelation 7:15 it is where the throne of God is said to be. Some even argue that heaven itself (the abode of the Father) is a temple, sanctuary, or holy place (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 219). However, it is not only a special location for God’s presence, it is the command center from which orders of judgment are issued. Later, in 15:5-8, the angels with the last seven plagues will emerge from the temple and in 16:1, 17 the command to pour out the bowls of wrath will come from the same location. Here in chapters 14, the two harvests are directed from the heavenly temple as well (Osborne, Revelation, 551).  

This is supported by the exclamation of the angel-“crying out with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, ‘Put in your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe’…” (14:15b). The tone of voice is shrill and the command the angel carries from the Father is resolute—now is the time for the Son of Man to execute the final judgments on the deserving world, thereby fulfilling what was prophesied earlier.

Joel 3:13-“Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, tread, for the wine press is full; the vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.”

Matthew 13:30, 39-“ Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’ …  and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.’”

The same Son who was the active of salvation in his first coming will prove to be the agent of judgment in the second coming. Though some want to draw an acute distinction between the harvest of verses 14-16 and that of verses 17-20 (one for the elect and one for the wicked), the connotations of both passages suggest that judgment, not salvation, is what is in view. Though these two harvests target different produce (wheat and grapes), Joel 3:13 has already revealed that two illustrations can be used to describe the same judgment, emphasizing the terror associated therewith (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 220).

Once prompted, “He who sat on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped” (14:16). Though this passage seems to describe the judgment of the Son with one swoop of the sickle, this function of the verb for reap in verse 15 suggests the beginning of a process—“begin to harvest/reap.” The harvest of grain envisioned here is a figurative way of describing what is soon to be revealed in chapters 15-19 (the bowl judgments, the fall of Babylon, etc.). Once again, John uses this literary pause/interlude to foreshadow what he will reveal in greater detail later.


The second harvest (or second description of the same series of judgments) provided in this passage begins in verse 17 with the introduction of yet another angel—“and another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven and he also had a sharp sickle” (14:17). Emerging, once again, from the locus of the Father’s presence, this angel is equipped with his own instrument of judgment.
The angel with the sickle is joined by “another angel, the one who has power over fire,” who “came out from the altar” (14:18a). This altar is the same golden altar of incense in chapter 8 verse 3.

Revelation 8:3-“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.”

There is an important connection between these two passages. In 8:3, those who have suffered for Christ’s sake at the hands of the wicked world are depicted. Here in Revelation 14, an angel emerges from that somber place to judge the world that persecuted God’s people. In fact, the altar is the location from which God’s judgments against the earth have proceeded all along (see also 6:9; 8:3; 16:17).

Revelation 6:9-“When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;”

Revelation 16:17-“Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, ‘It is done.’”

The presence of these two angels predicts the coming judgment they will both be used to carry out—one holds an instrument of judgment (the sickle) and the other comes from the place of judgment (the altar).

Though a sickle was used to harvest wheat in the first harvest described, here, the image of judgment is symbolized by a sickle used to gather grapes—“and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, ‘Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, because her grapes are ripe’” (14:18b). Believe it or not, there were different types of sickles used in the ancient world (and are still used today). Grain was often harvested with a short-handled hand scythe, while other curved knives were smaller and used to cut grape clusters from the vine (Wilson, ZIBBC, 335). In Revelation 14, both types of knives are in view describing two harvests that are each used to foreshadow the judgment that is about to come. Note here that the time is right for these judgments to take place because “her grapes are ripe” (14:18b).  

The angel responds to this call to harvest as follows: “the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God” (14:19). Though a “vineyard” is often used in positive contexts to describe Israel (Isa 5:1-7) or the people of God (John 15), in this context it refers to the enemies of God. These will be cut down because of the fruit they have produced. While God created the world perfect and called upon humankind to cultivate it appropriately, sin has so infected the planet that she has yielded ripe, yet spoiled fruit. Such fruit is destroyed in a most deliberate and graphic way.

After these spoiled grapes are thrown in the wine press the text goes on to describe what happens next—“and the wine press was trodden outside the city,…” (14:20a). The metaphor pictures the repeated stomping of the grapes in a huge vat to produce juice. This activity describes the kind of relentless judgment that will be lodged against the world. That said, what is not explicit is the stomper (i.e. the agent of judgment). Given what precedes this passage and the authority one requires to judge in the first place, it is best to understand that Christ is the one stomping the grapes in this illustration. While the world in general will receive wave after wave of judgment (stomp after stomp), the epicenter of all of this is “outside the city.” To which city does this refer? Though some would say Babylon, Jerusalem is the obvious choice [the use of the anaphoric article also suggests as much]. After all the Old Testament predicts that the final battle will happen near there—in the valley of Jehoshaphat near the Kidron valley (see also Revelation 11:2; 14:1). Also, Jesus was crucified outside the city gates (Heb.3:12). To be outside the city gates came to be used among the Jewish people as a figurative way to describe those outside of the covenant—i.e. those without a special relationship with God. These are the ones who will suffer this coming judgment.

And what a judgment it is. The description continues with “and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses’ bridles, for a distance of two-hundred miles” (14:20b). Winepresses were square or circular pits, hewn out of rock. The grapes would be placed in the press and then trampled upon until the juice produced flowed through a channel to a lower vessel (Wilson, ZIBBC, 335). Here, as Christ tramples the grapes of wrath, not grape juice, but blood pours out of the vat. This graphic description portrays the slaughter that will accompany the harvest of the unrighteous. The bloodbath will flow for a distance of about 200 miles (1600 stadia) and run so deep that it will reach up to a horse’s bridle.

1 Enoch 100.3-“the horse will walk through the blood of sinners up to his chest and the chariot shall sink down up to its top”

[Several fascinating explanations for the scope of this carnage have been offered. Some hold that the distance, if taken literally refers to the length that runs from the Syrian border in the north to the Egyptian border in the south (making this the largest slaughter in history, covering the entire Holy Land in blood). Others believe that these numbers could be taken symbolically. 4 squared times 10 squared could symbolize the completeness of God’s judgment—(4 corners of the earth, 4 winds meet the tens that are often employed to speak of the fallen world system). Still others hold that 1600 stadia might be 40 squared, symbolizing divine judgment as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years and Deut. 25:3 describes a criminal beaten with forty lashes)-Osborne, Revelation, 556]. Though the meaning of the number 1600 is debated, the overall emphasis of this graphic image is on the finality and horrifying scope of the divine judgment on the wicked.

So What?

The same general period of acute judgement that is to come upon the earth is described here by means of two harvests. In many ways, what is reaped from the world is a result of what has been sown ever since sin has polluted everything therein. This has been a longtime coming and yet, when the grapes are ripe and the grain is ready to be harvested, the same Jesus that came in grace to save in his first coming will return to judge the wicked world who denied him. Now that several important characters have been introduced (Revelation 12-13) and telling previews have been provided (in chapter 14), John can finally disclose the final round of judgments that will bring this future period of tribulation to a close.

However, before we leave this passage, let us ask what this teaches us about our God and how it ought to move us to act here and now. First, in no uncertain terms, this passage reveals the awesome holiness of God that cannot tolerate evil. It also highlights the justice of God who will deal with the world as it deserves. As a result, God’s people today need not take justice into their own hands (“vengeance is mine says the Lord”). They can trust that God will deal with the world as it deserves. Instead of spending energy condemning the world (a task for which we are neither qualified nor equipped to entertain), we need to spread the message of the gospel that alone can spare people from this fate. We need to involve ourselves as laborers in the fields that are white with harvest today (John 4:35). Let us pray "Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest" (Matt. 9:38). This we must do before the harvests of Revelation 14 come to pass.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Spoiler Alert Pt. 2: Revelation 14:6-13

In addition to heavy symbolism, angelic beings, cosmic conflict, and unveiling what was previously mysterious, dualism is another important characteristic of apocalyptic literature. When I say dualism I am referring to good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, and all the many juxtapositions that are similar. While Revelation is ripe with dualism, chapter 14 is an especially compelling example. While last week we looked at what the people of God can expect in the end in the spoiler that John provided, this week we are confronted with what the world can expect in the end in another spoiler. The two kinds of people and the two fates they will experience couldn’t be more different. So without any delay, let’s turn to Revelation 14:6-13 and listen to three angel’s as they share the next preview that John discloses to the reader.

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a) An Angel Supplies a Warning for the World-14:6-7

After disclosing the preview he was given for the people of God in verses 1-5, John is given another vision with a different target audience—the world. This vision is handed down by three different angels with three different, but related, messages. John introduces us to the first of these heavenly intermediaries by saying, “and I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven” (14:6a). “Midheaven” probably refers to the domain below God’s throne and above the earth’s atmosphere—i.e. “hovering over the earth” –according to the three-heaven scheme endorsed by many in the ancient world (Keener, IVPBBC, 746) (see 2 Cor. 12:2-4). The location of the angel implies that the message he has come to herald is for the whole world.

This idea is reiterated when the angel is described as “having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (4:6b). Several important characteristics of the “good news” are given in this verse. First, it is a message to be shared—“to preach.” Second, it is a message for those under the power of sin and death—“to those who live on the earth.” And third, it is for everyone—“to every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (4:6b). Whether this angel shares this message of the gospel because the church entrusted with sharing the good news has already been taken up into heaven or not is debated. However, at least one thing is certain: this herald and his message demonstrates the grace of God. For the Lord to disclose, even in this dark age, the only hope that saves reveals his great love for a world that, in large part, is already suffering under the condemnation it deserves!  It is obvious that even in a period of judgment, God desires that all would come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). Though this is the only time “gospel” is used in Revelation, “everywhere that euaggelion is found in the New Testament, it implies the gracious offer of salvation” (Osborne, Revelation, 535).

Repentance and faith ought to be directed toward this “eternal gospel.” In other words, the gospel (Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection) is unchanging in both its content and in its power. The same gospel that saved in the days of the apostles is the same message that saves today and will saves those who heed it in the end.

The angel frames this idea as follows: “and he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come” (14:7a). Rather than share the means of salvation explicitly, this proclamation frames the offer of salvation against the backdrop of fast-approaching judgment. [“fear God and give him glory” appear to be code words for repentance and conversion given what is found in 15:4; 16:9; and 19:5]. There is, in other words, an urgency behind what is being shared here. The final epoch is upon the world and Jesus is soon to touch down on planet earth again—this time to bring judgment upon her. While John’s gospel shares that Jesus did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (Jn. 3:17), when he returns in the end it will be to judge the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:1-8).

Now is the time for the world to fear God—in the scared kind of way—and give him the glory due his name! After all, as the angel discloses “the hour of His judgment has come.” This phrase uses a cumulative aorist, emphasizing that the time of judgment, after a period of long anticipation and preparation, has already arrived—that is, when this preview is fulfilled. Again, in this context, the certainty and imminence of God’s judgment makes the call to repentance all the more critical—there will not be another opportunity. Last call!

Not only did the first angel hope that the world would fear God and glorify him (turn in conversion), but he also requests that the world “worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters,…” (14:7b) (follow him). By calling attention to the uniquely divine office of creator, the angel suggests that Creator God is the only one worthy to receive worship in the first place. This same One who created the world will recreate it and, when all this comes to pass, he will be in the process of just that. Part of that recreation process involves the purging and/or judging of the wicked world and her inhabitants. “The God who created and sustains this world will end it on the basis of his sovereign will” (Osborne, Revelation, 537) and one ought to be in right relationship with him before this comes to pass.

b) An Angel Shares a Prediction for the World-14:8

Following this warning (in true “turn or burn style”) “another angel, a second one, followed, saying, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great,…’” (14:8a). Herein lies the core of John’s second major spoiler in chapter 14. In 1-5 John spoiled the ending that God’s people could expect on Mt. Zion by describing the glorious victory and celebratory worship that will ring out when all things are said and done. Here, John spoils the ending that the world could expect. “Fallen, fallen” stresses the certainty and completeness of what will eventually transpire.  But what/who has fallen? “Babylon the great.” This label refers back to Daniel 4:30—the only place in the Old Testament where this phrase is used—and describes the empire under Nebuchadnezzar. There, Nebuchadnezzar asks, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built…by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” Immediately following this haughty statement, the judgment of God fell upon him. From this point on, Babylon was established as an archetype that is employed elsewhere in God’s word to speak of proud worldly empires. For instance, “Babylon” became a common epithet for Rome in John’s day (1 Pet. 5:13; 2 Bar. 11.1; 67.7; 79.1; Sib. Or. 5.143, 159; 2 Esd. 3:2) (Osborne, Revelation, 538). Certainly, Rome was the “Babylon” of John’s day as Revelation was written. However, Babylon, as will be described later, is a term used to represent any and every corrupt and prideful world system in general and the ultimate culmination of corrupt worldly power that will come to a head in the end, perhaps under a future world order. Therefore “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” might be understood (at the very least and in its most general sense) as “fallen, fallen is the haughty world system of wickedness.” Such a world system will suffer total annihilation—this is what John spoils for the unrepentant world. Not a pretty picture!

After revealing to whom this prediction applies, John describes this fallen world system in greater detail—“she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality” (14:8b). Whatever this world system is, one thing is sure, she will corrupt the planet. This is described figuratively by the wine which is here used as a symbol not only of sexual impurity, but of every kind of excess that expresses unfaithfulness to God (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 207; Hughes, Revelation, 162). The entire planet will be, in other words, drunk on its own indulgences—physical, sexual, moral, spiritual, financial, etc.—ultimately resulting in unprecedented immorality. Thankfully, this system doesn’t win in the end. In fact, as the third angel emerges, the reader learns of the impending doom that will be lodged against this wicked worldly order.

c) An Angel Spells Doom for the World-14:9-13

“Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image, and received a mark on his forehead or on his hand,…” (14:9). In this opening remark of verse 9 the reader learns to whom this doom will be dealt. Unlike those who have the name of the Lord God on their foreheads (14:1) who are promised victory and celebration, those who worship the beast and are marked by him will receive the destruction described here.

The doom dealt to those owned by the beast is explained in verse 10—“ He also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger,…” (14:10a). While earlier these same were getting drunk to their delight on immoral acts and passions, their beverage of choice has become too much to handle. In other words, those who make it their practice to raise a glass to the fallen world and her many gods today will be made to drink of the wrath of the one true God in the end. Ingesting the wrath of God is no small thing as it is described as “full strength in the cup of his anger.” Typically wine was mixed with water in the first century in the following ratio: one part water to one part wine. Sometimes, depending on the occasion and what was desired by the consumer the ratio was 3 parts water to two parts wine or even three to one. Normally the only reason one would drink undiluted wine in the first century was to get drunk (Osborne, Revelation, 540; Aune, Revelation 6-16, 833). This is the picture here—God had “mixed” or “prepared” his wine “full strength” to get the world drunk not on pleasure, but on wrath. The wrath content of the beverage the world will be forced to chug is 100% proof, not of alcohol, but of condemnation.

John continues to describe this ordeal by saying, “and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,…” (14:10b). Suffering a similar fate to Sodom and Gomorrah, the wicked world and her people will experience fire and brimstone with the Lamb and the angels looking on from the heaven.

Luke 12:9-“,…but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”

This passage is consistent with the Old Testament concept of the angels participating not only in worship but also in judgement (Dan. 7:9-12; 1 Enoch 14.19-23; 40,1-10; 60.2-6). The same characters that were celebrating with the 144000 in verses 1-5 will be overseeing the judgment of the wicked world in verses 6-13.

“and the smoke of their torment goes up forever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name” (14:11). According to this passage, the judgment is not a single event, but an ongoing reality for those who are not in Christ. Anyone who worships the beast and bears his image can expect ongoing torment separated from God.
John ends this spoiler with a comparison between those he has been describing in this passage and those who were described earlier (in verses 1-5). He introduces this comparison with “here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (14:12). Contrasting those “who worship the beast” are those “who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” The two participial phrases stand in contrast to each other, demonstrating two opposite kinds of people.

After this comparison is drawn a beatitude (the second of seven—see 1:3 for the first) rings out: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from no one!’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them,’…” (14:13). In these beatitudes, John breaks the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader. Here he tells the reader that it is to be preferred to die in Christ than to either see or suffer the fate described in this passage. Getting right with Christ now will not only spare believers from the judgement that is seen here, it promises peace and rest in its place.

So What?

These three angels and their description of the fate of the world highlights the contrast between what the people of God can expect and what the followers of beast will see. God’s people are distinguished by the Lord’s name on their foreheads and obey his commandments while the followers of the beast bear his name on theirs and worship him. Those in verse 1-5 were described as pure and righteous while those described in verse 6-13 are drunk on immorality. Those in Christ will celebrate, those bearing the mark of the beast will face torment. The 144000 will be standing with the Lamb and his angels while the world will be separated from these characters. Followers of the Lamb will see unparalleled victory while followers of the beast will see nothing but defeat. The saved are promised peace and rest while the lost are promised ongoing destruction. Revelation provides a spoiler for each group, but they couldn’t be more different. These previews illustrate two divergent destines available to those who inhabit the world—life or death, victory or defeat, celebration or torment, heaven or hell. What determines where one will end up? The text spells the answer: it is all about who you are following. Are you following Christ or following after something else? That “something else” in the future period this passage describes is a false Christ. However, following after anything other than Jesus is just as consequential today. Spoiler alert: the world loses! This is why we must choose to follow the One who is not of this world.