1 And I saw another sign in heaven, great and wonderful: seven angels having seven plagues–the last ones, for with them the wrath of God is completed. 2 And I saw [something] like a sea of glass mixed with fire and those who overcome the beast and his image and the number of his name standing upon the sea of glass, having harps of God.
We began with a quick overview of chapter 14, and a reminder of the pattern we see frequently in Revelation, where John is given a vision of judgment along with a reminder of the saints’ standing before God. The seven letters to the churches (chapters 2 and 3) contain chastisement from Christ coupled with promises to those who persevere. At the end of chapter 6, we had a terrifying scene of cataclysmic judgment falling on the earth, with people crying out “who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb?” This is followed in chapter 7 with a vision of God’s people around the throne, enjoying the presence of the Lord. Chapter 14 began with a vision of the saints with the Lamb on Mount Zion, and then went on to talk about the fall of Babylon. The harvesting of the righteous is followed by the reaping of the reprobate. We must never lose sight of the fact that Revelation was written to persecuted churches, congregations under pressure to conform to society, and even under threat of extinction from unbelieving rulers. This is the reality the church has lived with for over two thousand years, so the message of Revelation is as meaningful to us as it was to John’s audience.
Chapter 15 isn’t a long chapter, and it serves as a prelude to the judgment of the bowls, which takes up chapter 16. Verse 1 introduces us to the seven angels and seven plagues, and we then take a brief detour to remind us of where God’s people are before resuming the narrative with the angels in verse 5 and following. The bowls that will be our preoccupation when we get to chapter 16 are introduced in verse 7. It’s these, coupled with the angels’ plagues, that will be poured out–the last of these kinds of judgments we’ll see in Revelation, after the seals and the trumpets. Note, they are not necessarily the last in earthly chronological sequence, but they are the last that John sees in his visions.
We will see the angels pour out each of these bowls in turn, bringing plagues that resemble the plagues on Egypt in Exodus 7-11. The connection with the Exodus plagues is made certain first by the fact they are called “plagues.” Also, as we will see, they are accompanied by the “song of Moses” sung by the “overcomers” (parallel to the song of Moses in Exodus 15). Finally, the similarity of these plagues to the Exodus plagues makes the intentional connection undeniable.
John describes these bowl judgments as “the last.” He has received a series of visions depicting end-time events: seven seals, seven trumpets, and now seven bowls. Both the seals and the trumpets pause after the sixth of each, with the seventh bringing the Lord’s return. This convinces me that these accounts are supposed to be, in some way, parallel, with the trumpets either expanding on the seals, or giving the same information from a different viewpoint. The same applies, I think, to the bowls, as we will see.
Having introduced the theme for the next couple of chapters, we cut away to another vision, one that contrasts the people of God with what we will see becomes of the people of the Beast. John sees a sea of glass mixed with fire. He last saw such a sea in 4:6, in the heavenly throne room. Back when we studied that passage, we observed that the sea is often portrayed in Scripture as the source of evil (Daniel 7:2ff; Psalm 74:12-15; Revelation 12:1). These seas are tumultuous, but the sea john encounters here is like glass: calm. It is a conquered sea, symbolizing the fact that God has conquered evil, and every beastly foe that should come against the church. The presence of fire here and in chapter 4 speaks of judgment, to say that God has judged His enemies righteously, and His church has overcome. We noted how this picture of victory comes before John sees the vision of the bowls. The Lord is reminding His people that the battle is already won, and the victory is ultimately theirs, even before the battle is engaged. A timely reminder to us all.
John describes the saints as those who have overcome the beast, his image, and his number. The Greek grammatical construction here is a little strange. Literally, it says, “those overcoming out of the Beast and out of his image and out of the number of his name.” That preposition I’ve translated “out of” (ek) often describes coming out of, or being apart from something. I think we are to understand that the saints have overcome because they separated themselves from the Beast, and his image, and his number. They refused to be part of that, and differentiated themselves from those who followed the Beast. This is, I believe, consistent with them maintaining their faith despite the persecution that would follow. There’s another place in Revelation that uses ek in a similar way, and that’s where Jesus is addressing the church in Philadelphia (3:10). He promises the faithful of that church that he will keep them from the hour of testing. They will not be subject to the judgment we are about to see fall upon the world, because Christ has already taken their punishment for sin. Again, this doesn’t mean the church won’t undergo physical trial and torment, but they will not be judged and condemned. Instead, they are with the Lord in glory.
These saints overcame the Beast in that they did not become enticed by his power. They overcame his image in that they did not fall to idolatry. And they overcame the number of his name because they did not come under his ownership.
Finally, we see that the saints have harps. I’ve noted before, and I will repeat for the benefit of those in piano-only churches: the Greek kithara is the etymological root of the word “guitar.” 🙂 Harps are clearly part of the symbolism for heavenly worship, since we saw them in 5:8, where the elders are gathered around the throne singing God’s praises. The harps here are “harps of God.” Some translations take that to mean they are harps given to them by God. That’s a grammatical possibility, but I prefer the understanding that they are harps for the purpose of worshiping God. The Greek construction could be taken either way, though.
We’ll get into the “song of Moses” next time…