Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:17-20

17 And another angel came from the temple, the one in heaven, having also himself a sharp sickle. 18 And another angel [came out] from the altar, having authority over the fire, and he cried out with a loud voice to the one with the sharp sickle saying, “Send your sharp sickle and gather the bunches of grapes of the vineyard of the earth, for its grapes have ripened. 19 And the angel threw his sickle to the earth and gathered the vineyard of the earth, and he threw [it] into the great wine press of God’s wrath. 20 And the wine press was trampled outside of the city, and blood came out from the wine press up to the bridles of the horses, about 1,600 stadia.

Last time, we looked at 14-16, which we believe depicts the harvesting of God’s people. I believe part of the reason the Lord showed that to John at this point, even though he has seen visions of God’s people in the presence of the Lord (7:1-17; 14:1), and he’s seen visions of the Lord’s return (8:1; 11:15-19), was to contrast the gathering of the saints with the reaping of the earth-dwellers, those who bear the mark of the Beast. In 14-16, we see God’s grace and mercy to His people, those who are in the Book of LIfe, and who have the name of the Lord on their foreheads. Verses 17-20, however, show us God’s righteous judgment against those who have the name of the Beast on their heads, who have rejected the Lord and His church.

The section begins with another angel coming from the temple, which we understand to represent the presence of God. The origin of the angel is important because it tells us the angel is acting as God’s representative, and not on his own authority. John calls this a “heavenly” temple. Some suggest this is because on the Day of Judgment there will be an earthly temple, too, since the Jews will have rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple. Others believe this is for John’s readers to distinguish this temple from the Temple in Jerusalem which, they believe, was still standing when John wrote Revelation (i.e., they believe it was written during Nero’s reign). I think both of these suggestions read too much into what John’s saying. The point of the “heavenly temple” is simply to remind God’s people that He is with them. I think it also points us back to Revelation 11:19, when, at the Lord’s return, the temple in heaven is opened and the Ark of the Covenant is visible.

Another angel comes out, this time from the altar. Why make the point that the angel comes from the altar, as opposed to the temple? Both could signify the same thing, that is, speaking or acting on the Lord’s authority. I think there’s more to it, however. If you recall, chapter 7 presented us with a vision of God’s people gathered around His throne. Chapter 8 began with the opening of the seventh seal, and silence in heaven preceding the judgments of the seven trumpets. Those trumpets will herald God’s righteous punishment on the godless, not, I think, as something that will only happen when the Lord returns, but something that has been going on over the course of church history. Just prior to the first trumpet, an angel stood at the altar with a golden censer, the incense from which represents the prayers of the saints rising up to God. The angel then fills the censer with fire from the altar and throws it onto the earth. The prayers of the saints could well be the cries from believers under the altar in 6:10, crying out, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood?” We see in 8:3-5 that prayer rising before God, and then that prayer being answered. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to equate the angel at the altar in chapter 8 with the angel from the altar here who has “authority over the fire.” That angel tells the sickle-holding angel to reap the grapes: the time for the Lord’s vindication has come. Those who have followed after the Beast, including those who persecuted the church, will receive their final judgment.

The “grapes,” “vineyard,” “wine press” language is purposeful here, since it points back to Old Testament judgment language. Two passages to note in particular are Isaiah 68:1-6, and Joel 3:13 and 17. Both are passages where God pronounces judgment, and they use imagery very similar to what we read here in Revelation 14. The process of stomping on grapes in a wine press to produce wine was familiar to the Mediterranean culture of John’s readers. John says that the blood from those entering the wine press of God’s wrath is as high as a horse’s bridle, and about 1,600 stadia. Why give height and length measurements? What’s their significance? We’ll return to that in a moment.

In his vision, John says that the treading of the wine press takes place “outside the city.” Which city? Is this the city in 11:8, where the bodies of the two witnesses lie in the streets? This city was called “Sodom” and “Egypt,” that is, it represented a city in rebellion to God (and, hence, the earth-dwellers and their response to the gospel). Alternatively, is this the city, Jerusalem, the city of God’s people? We know that criminals were punished outside the walls of Jerusalem, signifying the fact that their crime put them outside the dwelling of God’s people. That idea would fit here, since the earth-dwellers are receiving the just judgment of God for their rejection of Him and His church. Given that “the city” is symbolic, I’m not sure it’s important whether or not Jerusalem is intended. It’s the concept of being judged outside of the city walls, where criminals are punished, away from the Lord’s protection that I think is foremost here. God’s people are with Him on Mount Zion. Those who are not the Lord’s suffer the just penalty for their sin beyond Mount Zion.

What do we make of the measurements? First, the blood of the judged reaches as high as a horse’s bridle. This is battle language. We’ve already seen horses used as part of God’s judgment (e.g., 6:1-8), and measuring blood flow in terms of horses’ bridles was part of the language of the battlefield. It was familiar to them, and rarely taken literally. In this instance, I don’t think it’s hyperbole. Rather, it’s symbolic, painting a picture of how great the judgment will be, and how many will be affected. In chapter 19, we’ll see a battle scene involving horses, with quite a graphic description of what happens.

Similarly, I don’t think the 1,600 stadia (which, by modern reckoning, is about 184-190 miles) is meant to be taken as literally how far the blood flow reaches. But it’s not a random number, either. We’ve learned by now that when John mentions a number in Revelation, it means something. Normally we can figure it’s meaning by the way it’s used (7 is a number of spiritual completeness, 10 is earthly completeness, 4 represents the whole world, 1,000 represents a very large amount, etc.). However, I’m not 100% certain what this 1,600 is supposed to represent. The two best suggestions I have are:

  • The Mathematical Answer: 1,600 = (4 x 4) x (10 x 10). If 4 represents the created order, and 10 represents worldly completion, then perhaps it’s saying that the blood covers all of creation totally. No-one of the earth-dwellers is saved from the wine press.
  • The Geographical Answer: The approximate distance from Tyre, which is in modern-day Lebanon, north of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, to the Egyptian border is 1,664 stadia. So it would cover about the length of Israel. That may not mean anything more than the fact that it’s a distance John’s readers would have been able to picture, like saying it’s the length of California.

I am certain that John did not intend us to take these measurements literally, mainly because in the midst of all this symbolism, a literal quantity would be out-of-place. To be consistent, if everything else is symbolic, then so must this number. And whether we take the Mathematical solution, the Geographical solution, or some other understanding, John’s point is to describe the extent of God’s judgment.

As we consider these verses, it’s well for us to remember that the enemies of God who are consigned to the wine press are not only those who have been actively and verbally persecuting God’s people. They aren’t just the most outspoken critics of the faith, or bold-faced God-haters. These are all people who wear the name of the Beast on their foreheads. They are people who would rather be owned by the Beast than by Jesus. They could be your neighbor, your brother, your sister, a parent. Not all earth-dwellers are nasty people. Many are, indeed, nice, ordinary, decent, upstanding people. But in their rejection of the Gospel, they have declared themselves for the Beast. This is why the outpouring from the wine press of God’s wrath is so large. But let’s not forget that the number of the saints is also extremely large (chapter 7).

We don’t know either the final count of the earth-dwellers, or the final count of the heaven-dwellers. And this should drive our evangelism. Our heart’s desire should be that the number of souls in God’s wine press will be few, and the number on Mount Zion with the Lamb will be much greater. May our evangelism always be with a vision of the wine press before us, that we may reach out to the lost that, by the grace of God, they may be spared that final reckoning.

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