Category Archives: Revelation

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 16:1-3

1 And I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Depart and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God onto the earth.” 2 And the first went out and poured his bowl onto the earth, and there was a bad and painful sore upon the men who have the mark of the beast and worship his image. 3 And the second poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood as of a dead person, and every living soul, those in the sea, died.

Last time we discussed chapter 16 generally, making comparisons between the bowl, the trumpets, and the Exodus plagues. We noted, once again, how important the entire Exodus event is not only for these judgments, but for Revelation as a whole. As a picture of the gospel, God’s dealings with Israel with regard to Egypt is used by the Lord (through John) to show how He is dealing, and will ultimately deal, with fallen mankind. The way He freed Israel from bondage to Pharaoh and judged the Egyptians is a type of the way God has rescued His people from bondage to sin, and has secured their spiritual safety while He brings judgment upon the earth.

We are now ready to start digging into the bowl judgments in more detail. The chapter opens with a voice from the temple, which we understand to be the voice of the Lord. As previously noted, the temple is the place where God resides (symbolically, in any case). It makes sense, then, that the voice from the temple would be the Lord speaking.

God commands the angels with the seven bowls to commence pouring out the wrath of God toward the earth. In chapter 14, we saw two harvests. The first was Jesus harvesting his people from the earth. In the second, an angel harvested the earth-dwellers (i.e., those who are not the Lord’s) and threw them into the winepress of of the wrath of God. I think what we’re about to see is an expansion of this. That’s not to say the church has been physically removed from the earth during this time. Indeed, if we believe these judgments have been going on throughout the church age, that can’t be the case. The ultimate judgment is condemnation and eternal punishment, from which believers have been preserved through the blood of Christ shed for them. The believers’ security is that whatever the Lord may unleash upon the earth in terms of punishment, they have an eternity in His presence promised to them. The rest of the world does not.

The “bowls of the wrath of God” is definitely judgment language, echoing Hosea 5:10, Jeremiah 10:25, and several places in Ezekiel. In those passages, it is either God’s judgment against Israel for breaking their covenant with Him, or His judgment against those who attack God’s people that’s in view. Both concepts are relevant to Revelation, as we will see.

The first bowl delivers “a bad and painful sore” on all who bear the beast’s name. Most translations make this plural, but the Greek is singular. I don’t fault the translations for using the plural here since the singular makes for awkward English. The meaning of the verse doesn’t change whether it’s “sore” or “sores.” This is a sore that is experienced by a large number of people, so it’s not inappropriate to translate it “sores.” But why is the Greek singular? A possible reason is because John (under Holy Spirit inspiration) is underscoring the connection between this vision and the Exodus plague of sores. While God preserved Israel from the physical plagues, He warned them that if they did not keep His commands, they will experience suffering like the Egyptians did. In Deuteronomy 28:35, a passage where God is detailing some of the curses that will befall Israel if they are unfaithful to the covenant they made with Him, He threatens bad sores, presumably like the ones visited upon Egypt. However, the Hebrew is singular, as is the LXX (Greek Old Testament) translation.

Not only does this use of the singular connect Revelation 16:2 with Deuteronomy 28:35 in terms of the sores, but I think it makes another important point about the nature of God’s judgment. As I said, God warned Israel against breaking His covenant, and failing to keep His commands, i.e., the Law. We need to remember that it’s our failure to keep God’s Law that condemns us. That Law did not come into existence on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20), but has been written on our hearts since Creation. That’s how God could hold Cain liable for murdering Abel, for example. “You shall not murder” was carved into the human soul before it was ever etched in stone. All of humanity is guilty of breaking God’s Law. Just take the first two commandments and it’s clear we are all born as Law-breakers. That’s why no-one is innocent before God. We are all justly condemned, and only the blood of Christ can save us from the penalty for that sin.

Are these sores literal? While I don’t rule out the possibility that God’s judgment may manifest itself physically, there are two main reasons why I think we’re supposed to understand the sores symbolically. First, the fact that the mark of the beast mentioned in the same verse is clearly symbolic (as we discussed previously, the mark on the forehead denotes ownership). It would be inconsistent to have a literal sore on those with a symbolic mark in this vision. Secondly, our understanding is these judgments aren’t something that’s going to happen in the future. These are judgments that God has been pouring out upon the earth since Christ’s ascension. If the sores are literal, we’d be able to identify the non-elect quite easily!

If the sores are not literal, how should we understand them? Perhaps, like the symbolic “mark” of the beast, the sores are a “mark” of God’s wrath. It’s not so much the sores themselves that are the judgment, but the suffering that goes along with them. In Deuteronomy 28, God’s judgment is said to come with madness–mental anguish and psychological turmoil. We also noted a similar reaction to the scorpion sting in Revelation 9:4-6, the fifth trumpet. Particularly striking is verse 6, which speaks of men “seeking death but not finding it.” This is a consequence of sin. When you disobey the Lord, and you live contrary to the way God designed for you to live, it should come as no surprise that you will experience all manner of psychological disordering. Granted, Christians are not immune to mental health issues, but even that is a result of the Fall. I think the point is that unbelievers, through their rebellion, expose themselves to the full consequences of their sin. And while the Christian can seek help and comfort in the Lord, no such help is available to the earth-dweller who has rejected the only true source of hope and healing.

The next bowl turns the sea into blood. There’s another clear parallel here with Exodus 7:17-25, the first of the Exodus plagues (and also the second trumpet, Revelation 8:8-9). In Exodus 7, the Lord turns the Nile into blood. All the fish die, the river stinks and becomes undrinkable. And it’s not just the Nile that’s affected. All the waters of Egypt become blood, “their rivers, their canals, and their ponds… there shall be blood throughout the land even in vessels of wood and vessels of stone.” Note, the water didn’t just have blood added to it. The water became blood. It literally turned from H2O to hemoglobin. The Egyptians resorted to digging beside the Nile to try to find usable water. In Revelation 8:8-9, a great mountain is thrown into the sea, and one-third of the sea becomes blood, killing one-third of the sea creatures and destroying one-third of the ships. Aside from the horror of dead fish floating on blood, the symbolism here is of economic disaster, and of famine. Fishing was a major industry in those days, and in the communities to which Revelation was originally addressed, this kind of catastrophe would have had devastating consequences.

Two phrases stand out to me in verse 3 as unusual. The first is “blood of a dead man” or “blood of a corpse” (Greek: haima hōs nekrou). This phrase is unique to Revelation 16:3 in the New Testament and the LXX. How is “blood of a dead man” different to “blood of a man”? Why qualify with the adjective “dead”? What’s the significance of that? It could be a counter-parallel to the idea of the “life blood” (Greek: haima psuchōn) that we see in Genesis 9:5, when the Lord tells Noah not to eat the blood of meat, or shed another man’s blood (i.e., commit murder). This isn’t life-blood but death-blood. But is it simply making the imagery more vivid? Maybe the fact that the dead were considered unclean, and blood was also thought of as ritually impure (as well as unsanitary), serves to double- or triple-underscore the utter uncleanliness and uselessness of water turned into blood.

One of our study group who used to be in law enforcement gave an interesting insight. It seems the blood of someone whose wound is mortal (i.e., they are dying) is a darker color than the blood of someone whose injury is non-life-threatening. It’s possible this “death blood” is what John is referring to, either to give us an indication of the blood’s color, or to affirm it’s association with death, uncleanliness, impurity, uselessness, and judgment.

Another suggestion is that John is indicating that this is blood shed unto death, not blood sacrificed unto life, like Jesus’ blood. Again, the point being that this is judgment against those who belong to the beast.

I don’t think any of these possibilities are mutually exclusive. Some or all of them are possible. After all, that’s the nature of symbolism. One symbol can represent layers of meaning.

The other phrase that stands out for me is “every living soul, those in the sea.” English translations usually smooth this out, but that’s a more literal rendering of the Greek. Why the qualification “those in the sea”? Isn’t it clear from the context that we’re talking about all the life in the sea, since the water has become blood?

The first thing to note is the use of the word “soul” (Greek: psuchē). This might suggest that John is referring only to humans, since only humans have a “soul.” However, the word can be used broadly to refer to “life”–that which animates all creatures. In this sense all animals, as well as humans, have a “soul.” This is certainly the ancient Greek understanding of the word, and this broader definition is perhaps behind some New Testament uses. For example, passages that refer to the taking of “life” (Matthew 2:20 and Romans 11:3, to name two) use psuchē.

Given that broader usage, it’s possible the reference here is to all life on earth being affected. We’ve seen the “sea” as a symbol of the source of all evil in the world, so this could refer to all the earth-dwellers. But I think the point here is that the sea turning into blood affects all the sea creatures, and John is simply emphasizing that every sea creature died. In Revelation 8, only one-third of the living creatures in the sea died. Here, it’s total annihilation. This indicates to me a progression over time. The world does not get the full blast of God’s judgment from day one. Over the last 2000 years, the Lord has restrained evil in the world, but now and then lifted His restraining hand that we might get a glimpse of the punishment our sin deserves. One day, that restraint will be lifted fully. And that’s what we’ll see in coming chapters when John gets a glimpse of that final day.

We’ll continue with the seven bowls next time…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 16: Introduction

We started our study of chapter 16 by reading through the entire chapter, and making some general observations about the bowls.

First, this is the last of the three (or four if we count the “thunders” in 10:3-4 that John was told to seal up and not write down) sets of seven judgments. There were the seven seals in 6:1-17 and 8:1, the seven trumpets in 8:2-9:20 and 11:15-19, and now the seven bowls that occupy the entirety of chapter 16. It’s notable that all three end with the Last Day, which suggests some kind of parallelism going on.

Another striking feature of these judgments is the way they correspond to some extent with the plagues the Lord sent against Pharaoh and Egypt in Exodus 7-12. This correspondence is less pronounced in the seals judgments, but certainly more noticeable with both the trumpets and the bowls. We laid them out in a chart:

1 Hail, fire, blood Sores Boils (Ex. 9:8-12); Hail and fire (Ex.9:22-26)
2 Sea becomes blood; 1/3 sea creatures die Sea becomes blood; all sea creatures die Water turned to blood (Ex 7:17-25)
3 1/3 of rivers + fountains poisoned Rivers and fountains turned to blood Ex. 7:17-25 again
4 1/3 of sun, moon, stars go dark Sun affected; scorches people Darkness (Ex. 10:21-23); Fire (Ex. 9:21-26)
5 Darkness from smoke; locusts Beast’s kingdom darkened; anguish Locusts (Ex. 10:4-20); Darkness (Ex. 10:21-23)
6 Angels @ Eurphrates; 1/3 people killed Euphrates dries up; Frogs Frogs (Ex. 8:2-15)
7 Kingdom comes; lightning, thunder, earthquake, hail “It is done.” Thunder, lightning, earthquake, hail Hail (Ex. 9:22-24)

The parallels are not precise, but that’s to be expected. The visions given to John by the Lord are not simply a replay of the Exodus plagues. The Lord is creating a connection between the historical Exodus and these visions. Why? Because of what the Exodus foreshadowed. In the Exodus event, we see God bring judgment against Egypt, Pharaoh, and the Egyptian deities (i.e., the idolatry of Egypt). We also see God redeeming His people, breaking their bondage to Pharaoh, and leading them through the desert to the Promised Land. This key moment in Israel’s history is a picture of our redemption in Christ, the centerpiece being the Passover, which ultimately symbolizes Christ’s sacrificial death on behalf of his people.

What John sees in these visions is a picture of God’s judgment against the “earth-dwellers,” those who worship the Beast, and reject the Lamb. It’s also a picture of God’s loving provision for His own, those whose names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life, who wear his name on their foreheads. This protection is not an earthly, worldly protection. As we will see in chapter 17, those who run after the Beast despair when the riches and power are stripped away, and the full wrath of God is poured out upon them. God’s people, however, know that this world is passing. In the grand scheme of eternity, this life is a blip. It doesn’t matter what happens to them in this world, because their sins have been paid for, and their lives are in Christ. Through him, they have security, and heavenly promises that make the things of this world pale in comparison.

We’ve discussed before whether or not there’s a chronology to these visions. Our view is that these visions were given to John one after the other, but the sequence in which John sees them does not necessarily map to an actual chronological sequence. Rather, John is seeing vignettes, glimpses at things the Lord wishes to show him. The seals, trumpets, and bowls are not all judgments yet to come, but most are judgments that have happened, and will continue until the Lord returns. I think it’s possible to see an intensification in the global turmoil that happens as the Lord lifts His hand of restraint and pours out His judgment, both in terms of the progression from the first seal/trumpet/bowl to the seventh, and from the seals to the bowls. But all these judgments cover the same time period. This is why we see correspondence and parallels between them.

The most striking parallel is the the fact that they all end with the Last Day. Both the seals and the trumpets are quite explicit that the Lord’s return happens on the seventh seal/trumpet. I think this is also the case with the seventh bowl, since with that bowl, the Lord declares “It is done.” This suggests quite strongly that the seals, trumpets, and bowls all finish at the same time.

As we turn to the bowls, notice that the bowls are called “the bowls of the wrath of God.” This is not God’s indiscriminate judgment on an undeserving people. As Ephesians 2:1-3 reminds us, we are all children of wrath by nature, sinful and rebellious, and deserving of God’s righteous anger. It’s only by His grace in Christ that He turns His wrath away from any of us. Jesus’s death for our sin satisfies the wrath of God, so there is peace between the Christian and God. For those who are left to account for their own sin, God’s wrath remains upon them.

We’ll begin digging into Revelation 16 next time…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 15:6-8

6 and the seven angels having the seven plagues came out from the temple, wearing clean, shining linen, and golden belts wrapped around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven gold bowls filled with the wrath of the God who lives forever and ever. 8 And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no-one was able to go into the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels are completed.

Last time we discussed the song of Moses and the Lamb in 3-4. We then started into the last section of the chapter, but ran out of time at the end of verse 5. So this discussion picks up from where we left off. See the notes on 15:3-5 for context.

Next, John sees seven angels with seven plagues coming from the temple. These angels are wearing clean, or pure, shining linen, and golden belts around their chests. This description brings to mind Jesus’s attire in Revelation 1:13. Back then, we noted the similarity of these robes to priestly garments. Perhaps, however, the significance of the way the angels are dressed is in their association with the Lord. They are dressed like him because they are going about his work. It’s also interesting that the belts are around their chests, not their waists. This suggests some kind of shoulder belt, more suited to carrying a sword. In Revelation, and elsewhere in Scripture, the sword is symbolic of judgment. See the notes on 1:13 for more about this.

How do these angels “have” the seven plagues? They don’t have bowls yet, so in what sense do they have these plagues? If the angels are the instruments of the Lord’s judgment, then perhaps John is saying they have authority over the plagues, to unleash them on the earth at the direction of the Lord.

There are seven plagues, one for each angel. We know the number is symbolic of completion, or perfection. God’s judgment is never lacking. It is full and it is complete. We looked at Leviticus 26, where God promises blessings for Israel if they obey His Law, and curses if they disobey, with particular attention given to the sin of idolatry. What’s notable about this passage is the fact that God promises seven-fold punishment for their sin, and he makes that promise more than once (see verses 21. 24. and 28). So the idea of seven-fold punishment for sin is not new.

We first encountered the four living creatures in Revelation 4:8, where they surrounded the throne, and were described as having eyes “within and without.” The symbolism of the creatures represent all of creation, and they are around the throne because all of creation is in submission to God. Further, creation is all-seeing, not in a divine sense, but in that all of creation bears witness to the work of the Lord, and the justice of God in how He deals with sinful mankind.

These creatures participated in the administration of the seal judgments in chapter 6. Now we see them helping with the bowl judgments. This, to me, further forges a link between the seven-fold visions John has seen (scrolls, trumpets, bowls). They are not separate events, but are linked, perhaps three different perspectives on the same judgment.

The golden bowls are reminiscent of the golden bowls filled with incense that the 24 elders held back in 5:8. In that passage, the incense represented the prayers of the saints rising up to God. Perhaps even a specific prayer: the cry of the saints in 6:10, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Perhaps the angels’ bowls are golden because they carry the answer to the prayers of the saints: God’s wrath and judgment upon those who hate Him and His church.

Why bowls? We often see bowls in the Old Testament connected to temple worship (see, for example, Numbers 4:14; 7:13, 19, 25). There is a mention of golden bowls in 1 Chronicles 28:17 and 2 Chronicles 4:8, 22. But perhaps more pointedly relevant is Isaiah 51:17-23, where God’s people have drunk from the cup of God’s wrath, and that judgment will now be given to their tormentors (i.e., Babylon). The Lord says, “the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.”

The temple is then filled with smoke, perhaps as in Exodus 40:34 ff., when the tabernacle was erected, a cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Even Moses couldn’t enter the tent because of the cloud. We also see angelic beings, a cloud, and the glory of God in Ezekiel 10:1-4, where God is pouring out judgment. There are, perhaps, a combination of symbols here, to do with the glory of God and judgment. God is about to unleash devastating judgment on the earth from His throne by means of these seven angels. And that judgment comes out of His glory. It is not separate from His holiness, His goodness, or any of the rest of His attributes. God is glorified not only in the salvation of His people, but in his just and perfect judgment of the lost.

The fact that no-one was able to enter the temple until the judgments were complete points to the fact that God’s judgment cannot be stopped. God has decreed to bring judgment, and that decree stands from eternity past. It will certainly come to pass. It’s interesting that John sees and relates this vision as something that happened, and yet we believe these judgments are on-going in our present time, and will ultimately culminate in the Lord’s return. To God, these are things He has done. To us, they are still happening. But we can rest assured that there will be an end to all things one day. And in the end, God will be vindicated, and His people will receive the fullness of their redemption bought by Jesus.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 15:3-5

3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: “Great and wonderful [are] your works, O Lord God Almighty. Righteous and true [are] your ways, King of the nations. 4 Who would not fear [you], O Lord, and glorify your name? For [you are] alone holy, for all the nations shall come and they shall worship before you. For your righteous requirements have been made known. 5 And after these things, I looked, and the temple, that is the tabernacle of the witness in heaven, was opened.

Chapter 15 opens with a vision of seven angels holding seven plagues, which will complete the outpouring of the wrath of God. We then cut away to a vision of a sea of glass (like the one we saw in chapter 4), and the “overcomers”–the heaven-dwellers–standing beside (or on; the preposition could be taken either way) it, holding harps.

God’s people then begin to sing “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” I don’t believe these are supposed to be two different songs. The “and” there could be translated, “even,” what grammarians would call the epexegetical use of the conjunction. In other words, “the song of the Lamb” further explains, or describes, “the song of Moses, the servant of God.” Could this be a tie-in with the “new song” sung in 5:9-10, which proclaimed the Lamb’s worthiness to open the scroll? Possibly. This song certainly has the same theme of victory and conquering.

But which song of Moses does it refer to? The words of the song here in 15:3-4 don’t correspond exactly to any song of Moses in the Old Testament, but there are certainly thematic parallels. The song sung in Exodus 15:1-18 is a victory song, recounting the mighty way the Lord rescued Israel from the Egyptians. Just prior to the song, in Exodus 14:31, Moses is referred to as “servant of God,” further hinting at an intentional connection with Revelation 15. There is, however, another song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:1-43, delivered near the end of his life, after Joshua had been named his successor. God told Moses that Israel would stray and break their covenant with Him. The song Moses sings bears witness against Israel, warning them this will happen and exhorting them to return to the Lord. This is a very different song, one that speaks of judgment against God’s wayward people.

We noted this song of victory in Revelation 15 is sung before John sees the vision of the bowls. This speaks to the fact that God’s judgment is certain. It is an eternal truth. And this is why the church need not fear the wrath of the Lamb: God’s people are secure. What has been decreed by God from eternity past will come to pass exactly as He ordained.

As I noted, the words of the song in 15:3-4 are not the exact words of any particular song of Moses in the Old Testament, but neither are they random “religious” phrases pulled out of the air. They derive from Old Testament passages, and the context of those passages help illuminate what the song here is communicating.

Great and wonderful are your works” echoes words found in Deuteronomy 28:58-60. This is part of a passage in which Israel is warned to keep the Law or suffer plagues like those visited upon Egypt. Also, Psalm 111:2-4 speaks of God’s great works bringing redemption to His people.

O Lord God, the Almighty” is found numerous times in the Old Testament (throughout Job, also Isaiah 13:6, Ezekiel 1:24, Joel 1:15). We also saw it at the beginning of Revelation (1:8), and will encounter it a few more times yet in chapters 16, 19, and 21. This is a strong affirmation of God’s ability and authority, in this instance, to judge, and do the works He does.

Righteous and true [are] your ways” reflects Deuteronomy 32:4, part of the song of Moses mentioned earlier, which warns Israel of the fate that awaits them for turning away from the Lord. This is an affirmation of the fact that God does not sin, and has absolute moral authority to act as He does.

King of the nations//Who would not fear [you], O Lord…” These two lines can be found in Jeremiah 10:7 in reverse order. In this passage, Jeremiah compares idols to the true God, declaring there is none like Him. The same is true comparing the Beast-idol with the true God–there is no god like the one true God, and He alone is worthy of worship.

… and glorify your name?” A little later in the same Jeremiah passage, 10:16, the prophet declares, “Not like these [idols] is He who is the portion of Jacob, for He is the one who formed all things, and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance; the Lord of hosts is His name.” The nations should all glorify His name. As it is, only God’s people do.

for [you are] alone holy” The word “holy” here is the Greek word hosios, which has more the sense of “pious” or “upright.” It’s a statement regarding God’s righteousness, rather than His being set apart. Psalm 86:9-10, 12 contains this kind of language, and, indeed, much of what we find here in 15:4. It further emphasizes the true God’s superiority over idols and everything in His creation.

For all the nations come and they shall worship before you.” We can take this in two ways. Either, as in Revelation 5:9, 7:9, and 14:8, “all the nations” is referring to people from all nations without distinction, not every person from every nation. Alternatively, this could be saying, as in Philippians 2:10-11, that all nations will acknowledge the worthiness of the Lamb and the glory of God, even those who are bound for destruction. Jesus’s lordship is a fact, not an opinion, and all people will bow the knee and acknowledge that fact, either in joyful acceptance, or in grudging admittance.

For your righteous requirements have been made known.” Not only in the redemption of His people, but in His judgment of the lost. Psalm 92 begins with an allusion to Exodus 15:1, 6, and verse 2 seems to echo these words. So the context of this Psalm is the song of Moses, and Israel’s victory over the Egyptians. The psalm ends with the promise that the Lord will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. This is what we’re about to see in chapter 16.

John then sees the temple, in other words the tabernacle of the witness in heaven, opened, and seven angels coming out. We didn’t have time to talk about the seven angels, but we did consider this “temple.” The ESV renders the Greek “the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven.” I’m not sure this is helpful to our understanding of what’s going on here. The Greek word naos is the word used for the Temple, and I take the rest of the verse to be a further description of this temple: the tabernacle of the witness, or testimony, in heaven.

In Exodus, the 10 Commandments are often referred to as “the testimony” (Exodus 31:18, and 32:15, for example). Under God’s direction, Moses put these tablets of the Law in the Ark of the Covenant, along with manna and Aaron’s rod. The Ark then went into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, and then ultimately in the Temple.

The Holy of Holies, where the Ark resided, was God’s dwelling within the Tabernacle. And the Tabernacle itself, especially while it was being carried around in the wilderness, was symbolic of God’s presence with His people. So the Temple John sees here is this Tabernacle containing the testimony, but in heaven. In 11:19, John saw the Temple in heaven, and the Arc of the Covenant in the Temple. And he made note of the fact that the Temple was open, and there was thunder, lightning, earthquakes, hail, and so on. In other words, the open, heavenly Temple brought judgment. The testimony–the witness, the Law–is the standard by which all mankind is judged. Those in Christ, bearing his name, are covered by his blood, so their penalty for failure to keep the Law has been paid. These are the heaven-dwellers. The earth-dwellers, however, stand alone in their dirty garments, about to receive the just judgment for their sin.

This, I believe, is the significance of the open Temple, and the visible witness, or testimony. It reminds the heaven-dwellers that the Lord is with them, and they are secure in Him, Christ having paid the penalty for their sin. But it also represents judgment on the earth-dwellers who have wantonly and willfully violated His Law.

We’ll pick up with verse 6 next time…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 15:1-2

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…

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.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:14-16

14 And I saw, and behold a white cloud, and sitting upon the cloud [someone] like a Son of Man having upon his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle. 15 And another angel came out from the temple crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud, “Send your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 And the one sitting upon the cloud threw his sickle upon the earth, and the earth was reaped.

We began this week by reading the entire section, 14:14-20, depicting a harvesting of souls, presumably the End Times gathering. But what is the nature of this harvest, or in-gathering? Is it judgment or salvation, or both? It’s hard to deny that 14:17-20 is to judgment since the souls harvested end up in the wine press of God’s wrath. But what about 14-16? Is this a harvesting of the elect, or a reaping of the godless? Maybe they show the same harvesting of the godless but from two different angles? That appears unlikely given the different actors involved (the Son of Man lays in the sickle in the first part, but it’s an angel doing the work in the second). So either God’s people are being called home in 14-16, or His enemies are receiving their just punishment.

Before getting into that debate, we noted some important points about 14-16. First, the Son of Man on a white cloud. In Revelation 1:13, John saw one “like a Son of Man” standing in the midst of the lamp stands. From what he says in 1:17-20, this is clearly Jesus. On that basis alone, I see no reason to think this is anyone other than Jesus again, here. Daniel 7:13, the source reference for the “Son of Man” language in the New Testament, shows this Son of Man coming with the clouds and being presented to the Ancient of Days. In our study of Revelation 1, we observed how John mixes descriptions of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man from Daniel 7 in his description of Jesus.

As for the white cloud, Jesus spoke of “the Son of Man” coming on a cloud with power and glory. The context there was a discussion of the End Times (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). When standing before Caiaphas and the Council prior to his crucifixion (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62), Jesus told them they would see the Son of Man coming on a cloud, pointing to his glorification. The Jewish leaders understood that he was daring to associate himself with the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and they tore their garments and accused him of blasphemy. They got what he was saying about himself. When he ascended into heaven, Acts 1:9-11 tells us that the Apostles witnessed a cloud removing Jesus from their sight. They are then told by two men in white that Jesus will return the same way he left. I think this leaves no doubt that the “Son of Man” on the white cloud is Jesus.

The significance of the golden crown points back to Revelation 4:4, where the 24 elders on thrones around the main throne all wear golden crowns. So, Jesus has authority as they do, but more so since he is the Son of Man, who, in Daniel 7:14 is given dominion and an everlasting kingdom, where all peoples will serve him.

The big difference with this picture of Jesus to all previous ones is that he is holding a sharp sickle. The sickle is a harvesting tool, commonly used in John’s day, and familiar to his readers. It was used to cut crops for harvesting. Here it is used symbolically for gathering souls… for judgment, redemption, or both? We’ll get to that in a moment.

In verses 15 and 16, “another angel” comes out from the temple and tells the Son of Man to send forth his sickle and reap, because the “crop” is ripe and the time to reap has come. The reference to another angel, and the fact this angel issues commands to the Son of Man, have led some to suggest that the Son of Man is not, in fact, Jesus, but an angel. After all, the next angel is “another angel,” suggesting the figure we saw before was also an angel. And this angel addresses the Son of Man at best like an equal, if not a subordinate.

In response to these, we need to remember what we said previously about the use of “Son of Man” in Daniel 7, and the depiction of Jesus in Revelation 1. No-one else in Revelation has been called “Son of Man” previously, and the use of the phrase by Jesus as a self-reference was known (as is evident by the Gospels). When John says “another angel,” he could simply be saying that this is another angel apart from the three we’ve met in this chapter already, and apart from all the other angels in Revelation.

But what do we make of the fact that this angel commands Jesus to do something? Notice from where the angel came: the temple, i.e., the presence of God. The angel is being used by God the Father to issue a command to His Son. In Mark 13:32, Jesus tells his disciples that no-one knows the hour of his return, not the angels, nor the Son, only the Father. Within the Trinity, each Person has a specific function. They are equal in terms of their being–they are all the one God–but they have different roles within the Godhead. It was neither the Father’s, nor the Spirit’s role to become incarnate for the salvation of His people. And it was not the Son’s role to set the hour for his return. For that, the Son looks to the Father. This is, I believe, what we see here. The angel is delivering a command from the Father to the Son, saying the time has come to harvest.

So… is this a reaping of the heaven-dwellers, or the earth-dwellers? There are a couple of reasons to question whether 14:14-16 is speaking of the reaping of the elect. First, we’ve just seen the elect standing on Mount Zion with the Lamb (14:1). It wouldn’t make sense if they were only now being gathered. Also, John says that “the earth was reaped.” Surely this suggests a reaping of the earth-dwellers? Finally, vv. 12-13 could be read as saying that the elect have entered into their rest, contrasted with the unbelievers in vv.14ff.

On the other hand, we need to consider the fact that “reaping” can have a positive connotation. In Matthew 13:30, Jesus tells a parable about tares and wheat growing in the same field. The reapers reap both the tares and the wheat. Also, in John 4:34-38, Jesus tells his disciples that the fields are “white for harvest,” using reaping as a metaphor for gathering his people to himself though evangelism. It’s also possible that vv. 12-13 introduce 14-16, saying that the believers have entered into their rest at death, and this is how that happened. There may well be significance to the fact that Jesus is the reaper in 14-16, whereas an angel reaps the unbelievers in 17-20–as if to say the Lord looks after his own, personally. A final consideration is the possibility that 14-16 and 17-20 are set against each other as contrasts. The reaping of believers is painless and personal (i.e., the Lord does it). Whereas, the reaping of unbelievers involves the winepress of God’s wrath. As for the fact we’ve seen God’s people gathered with the Lamb on Mount Zion already before this reaping, we know that John’s visions are not ordered chronologically. There is purpose for the sequence in which he sees these things, but that sequence doesn’t necessarily relate to the order in which events will happen in time.

While both views have legitimate arguments, I am persuaded that 14-16 speaks of the gathering of God’s elect. But no-one will face the winepress if they disagree with me. 🙂

We’ll talk in more detail about 14:17-20 next time…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:12-13

12 Here is the steadfastness of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and faith in Jesus.” 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write! Blessed are the dead who die in [the] Lord from this time.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “in order that they might have relief from their hardships [or labors], for their works will follow with them.”

We started this week with a recap and an answer to a question raised last time, namely whether “mark” in 13:18 is the same Greek word used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), in passages such as Ezekiel 9:4, 6. Without spending too much time on that here, the answer is no. The word in Revelation 13:18 is charagma, which, by the way it is used, refers to a stamp, or a mark of ownership. The word in Ezekiel 9:4, 6 is sēmeion, commonly translated elsewhere as “sign.” This same word is used in Genesis 4:15, speaking of the “mark” of Cain. In those contexts, it seems that “mark” is being used in the sense of a symbol pointing to something significant. In Genesis 4, the “mark” of Cain is symbolic of the protection of God.

We also spent a little more time talking about the “rest” promised to believers in verse 11. Hebrews 3:7-4:11 talks of the rest that is for those in Christ as symbolized by Israel entering the Promised Land. The “Sabbath rest” of God is like that, where God takes His people to a place of security. Of course, there is a “now-and-not-yet” aspect to this promised rest. We do indeed have that rest in Jesus right now, even in the midst of our daily trials. However, we have not come fully into that rest. We are constantly assailed by our own sin, the demands of the world, and the temptations of the flesh, which all conspire to draw us away from that rest. The day is coming, however, when we will fully rest in God, free from the sin within us and the snares around us.

Verse 12 has a structure very similar to the opening of 13:18 in the Greek: hōde hē hupomonē tōn hagiōn estin. 13:18 begins: hōde hē sophia estin (“here is wisdom”). It bears an even closer resemblance to 13:10: hōde estin hē hupomonē kai hē pistis tōn hagiōn (“here is the steadfastness and faith of the saints”). This construction with hōde estin is calling our attention to something significant. In 13:10, it was the fact that steadfastness and faith is required of God’s people in the midst of the persecution happening at the hands of the Beast. The use in 13:18 is to alert us to the identity of the Beast, and the fact that, with wisdom, we should be able to identify him. The vision John sees now is one of the saints at rest, so the heavenly voice is reminding us that this is the reward of the faithful. Those who, by the grace of God kept the commandments, and were firm and unwavering in their faithfulness to the gospel. While the Beast-worshipers received unending torment without rest, God’s people will fully enter into that blessed rest.

John then hears a voice from heaven commanding him to write, just as he was commanded to write the seven letters in chapters 2 and 3. This time, it’s a blessing: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from this time!” And the Spirit responds, “Yes, such that they will rest from their labors.” This begs the question: From what time? From the time of the End, the Last Day? But surely all who die in Christ enter into eternal rest? Maybe it’s from the time of John’s writing (whether during the reign of Nero or Domitian–whichever you subscribe to). But what then of those who died before that time?

I believe there are two ways to understand “from this time” that make sense in the immediate context, and the context of the book. The first has to do with the way we split the sentence in English. The original Greek text, at least in the earliest manuscripts, was written all in uppercase, and with no spaces or punctuation. This sounds like it would be confusing, but if you know Greek well enough, you can decypher what it says easily enough. For example, ifiwritewithoutanypunctuationorspacesallinlowercaseyouknowenoughenglishtofigureoutwhatimsaying. It may take you a moment or two to figure out that last sentence, but I don’t doubt you’ll understand it without too much difficulty. Even placing proper punctuation marks shouldn’t present much of a problem. Though sometimes it can be a challenge knowing when one sentence ends and another starts. Knowledge of grammar, syntax, and common practice helps a lot. But on occasion, even the best minds will differ.

This could be one of those places. If “from this time on” could be the beginning of a new sentence. “From this time on, yes, such that they will rest from their labors.” However, the Greek phrase ap’ arti (“from this time on”) doesn’t usually stand at the beginning of a sentence. And making that a new sentence doesn’t really change the meaning. But, what if it’s not ap’arti, but aparti? The apostrophe after ap is a later convention indicating a dropped vowel (strictly it’s apa arti). Most translators assume it’s ap’arti, because it’s more common than aparti, and it fits the context. However, aparti, which means “certainly” or “exactly,” while less frequent, would equally fit the context. The following “yes” might support this: “Certainly, yes, says the Spirit…” I think that reads better than if the sentence starts with ap’arti.

Another possibility is to understand ap’arti as “from that time on,” that is, from the time of the believer’s death onward. The point of this is to remind and encourage those who die in the Lord during these days of oppression, persecution, and judgment, that death is not the end, and their labors for the Lord are not in vain. This is consistent with the overall theme of Revelation as a letter of hope to the suffering church, both in John’s time, and ours.

I’m torn between “certainly” and “from that time.” Ultimately, however, I think the message is clear: Those who reject the Lord, and are marked for ownership by the Beast, will suffer at the hands of God. They will receive the full measure of His cup of wrath. And even though His people have endured much under the Beast’s reign of oppression and persecution, they will see the reward for their endurance and their faithfulness. Theirs is the rest that is denied the Beast-worshipers.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:8-11

8 And another, a second angel, followed saying, “Fallen, fallen [has] Babylon the great. She has made all the nations drink from the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality. 9 And another angel, a third one, followed them, speaking in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the Beast and his image, and receives the mark upon his forehead or upon his hand, 10 also he will drink from the wine of God’s wrath poured out undiluted in the cup of His wrath, and he will be tormented by fire and by sulphur before [the] holy angels and before the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises up forever and ever, and they do not have relief day and night, those who worship the Beast and his image, and if anyone receives the mark of his name.”

John now sees a second angel following right on the heels of the previous one. The last angel proclaimed an “everlasting gospel,” which we said was the judgment side of the gospel message. The call to fear God and give Him glory is not restricted to Christians. It is the duty of all mankind to do that, and the depravity of the human heart is revealed in its refusal to obey this command. In verse 8, the second angel declares the fate of “Babylon the great”: she has fallen, having made all the nations drink “from the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.”

We first looked at that last line, because in the Greek it could be taken a couple of different ways. One way of understanding the grammar says that Babylon made the nations drink “from the wine consisting of the passion produced by her sexual immorality.” Another way says Babylon made the nations drink “from the wine leading to passion, or desire for sexual relations with her.” In the first sense, the wine is full of Babylon’s passion which comes from her sexual immorality. In the second sense, Babylon’s wine leads to a desire to have intimate relations with her. Do the nations drink in order to partake of the passions of Babylon, or does their drinking of the wine lead them to desire intimacy with Babylon?

A clue to our interpretation of this passage lies, perhaps, in Revelation 18:1-3. This passage seems to parallel 14:8, only with a bit more detail, and it includes this same line. We will study 18:1-3 in depth when we get there, but it says that the kings of the earth have committed porneia, sexual immorality, with Babylon. The way that is described in 18 supports the understanding that the wine the nations are made to drink causes them to desire “passionate relations” with Babylon.

It is good to note that while the 14:8 suggests the nations have been forced into drinking this wine, there is no hint of any objection. The nations are glad to drink Babylon’s wine, again, as chapter 18 makes clear.

Who is this “Babylon the great“? That phrase in the Greek is only found one time in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Daniel 4:30, where Nebuchadnezzar is boasting about the great kingdom he has built. He did not fear God and give Him glory, and God humiliated him, driving him from the city, and reducing him to grazing in the fields like an animal. Given that we’re talking about the fall of Babylon in 14:8, “Babylon the great” is being used here, I think, sarcastically. Just as Nebuchadnezzar was humbled, so will be his great city.

I have little doubt that in John’s day, “Babylon” was code for Rome. In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter makes reference to “she who is in Babylon.” The “she” there is most likely a church (a possibility that the KJV translation takes for granted), and since there wasn’t a church in literal Babylon, it could only refer to another prominent city known as a center of oppressive power: Rome. The name is a symbol, so it can also be applied to any such city in any age. We understand “Babylon,” therefore, to be any city, or perhaps any world power, that hates God and persecutes His church. And maybe also the demonic forces at work behind that world power.

Looking ahead to chapter 17, there we see a prostitute holding in her hand a cup of “impurities of her sexual immorality.” On her head is written, “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes.” This, again, associates the city of Babylon with lustful, passionate immorality. Chapter 17 is, indeed, a very strong condemnation of the evil city, or evil empire. We’ll get to it eventually. 🙂

The imagery of wine is, no doubt, intended as a negative. Wine is not in itself a bad thing. The cup of the Lord’s Supper contained fruit of the vine, and Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). But in excess, wine becomes an intoxicant, something that dulls the senses and, perhaps, the conscience. Wine is also addictive. This is why, I think, the symbolism of wine is used here. Not only are the nations drunk on the power and pleasure that comes with intimacy with Babylon (18:3), but they are addicted to it. They are willing to turn against God and His people to hold on to all that Babylon offers. Which is why, when Babylon falls, the nations despair instead of repent. Their source of power has been removed, and all they see is emptiness and unfulfillment. This is the same difference we see between Judas and Peter after Jesus’s arrest. When Judas’s plans went awry, so consumed was he by his sin, he didn’t seek repentance. Instead, he despaired and hung himself. Peter, on the other hand, after betraying the Lord three times, felt convicted of his sin and repented. Those who belong to the Lord will never be intoxicated by Babylon’s wine, though the temptation to will be real. However, they know the way of true fulfillment and joy.

In verse 9, John receives the third of these three angelic visions. This angel declares what will happen to those who have the Beast’s mark and worship him, drawing a contrast with what we saw in 13:15-16, where we were told of the penalties for not worshiping the Beast and receiving his mark.

There seems to be a progression in the angelic messages, from the general to the specific. The first message was a call to fear God and worship Him, because judgment is coming. The second announced the fall of Babylon, the judgment of the evil city and those nations that likewise disobeyed the call. Finally, we have here the punishment of those people who ran after the Beast and received that mark.

Verse 10 is another contrast, this time with verse 8. Instead of Babylon’s wine of passion, we have here the wine of God’s wrath. The same word is used for “wrath” as for “passion” in verse 8. That Greek word, thumos, refers to strong feeling, and takes its specific nuance from the context. “Wrath” would not fit the context of verse 8, so “passion” is a better translation. In verse 10, it isn’t God’s passion that’s on display, but his intense displeasure manifest in His judgment, which is why “wrath” is the better translation there. By using the same word in these different contexts, the angel is drawing our attention to the parallel. Babylon’s cup is full of wine that leads to desire for her, by which she leads the nations into idolatry and greed. The Lord’s cup, however, is full of the wine of his wrath, which leads to punishment upon those who deny Him, who prefer Beast-worship. It is those who received the mark of the Beast on their foreheads (and not the mark of the Lord) who will drink the wine of God’s wrath.

The angel says God’s wine is poured out–literally, having been poured out, poured out in the past but with lasting effect–and is “undiluted,” i.e., full-strength. These words are used in the Old Testament also within judgment contexts. Jeremiah 25:15 (32:15 in the LXX) uses the term “cup of the wine of wrath” in the context of God’s judgment on the nations, including Jerusalem and Judah because of their disobedience. He promises to send Babylon against them, and will then punish Babylon. The Greek translation of this verse uses the word for “undiluted” instead of the word for “wrath” (i.e., “the cup of this undiluted wine”). It’s possible that by using both “wrath” and “undiluted” in Revelation 14:10, the angel is drawing our attention to Jeremiah 25, and the cup of God’s wrath that he promised to make all the unfaithful, sinful nations drink.

Psalm 75:8 (74:9 in the LXX) speaks of how God will bring judgment upon all the wicked of the earth. The Hebrew says that the wine in the cup which is in God’s hand “foams,” is fully mixed, and he pours it out so the nations can drink it down to the dregs. The Greek, however, uses “undiluted” instead of “foams,” no doubt intending the same understanding–God’s anger, which he pours out on the nations.

The judgment proclaimed by the angel isn’t, therefore, simply something that God is doing in reaction to the latter-day rebellion of the nations. This is something that God has been doing from Old Testament times, and has promised from of old to do finally on all the wicked of the Earth.

The torment of God’s wrath will be by means of fire and sulfur. These two elements have a long history as instruments of judgment, going all the way back to Genesis 19:24 and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Psalm 11:5-6 says that the Lord hates the wicked and the one who loves violence, and “fire and sulfur and scorching wind will be the portion of their cup.” Perhaps most significantly, we saw fire and sulfur used to describe the color of the breastplates worn by the horse riders in Revelation 9:17-18. Also, their horses breathed fire, smoke, and sulfur. This was the sixth trumpet, which takes place directly before the Lord’s return, and resulted in the death of one-third of the people of Earth. The rest refuse to repent of their idolatry, murders, sorceries, immorality, and thefts. (SPOILER! We will see the Beast and the false prophet thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur in 19:20. See 20:10 and 21:8 for other judgments to come involving fire and sulfur.)

The sentence structure of verse 11 is a little awkward in the Greek, because it puts the judgment itself ahead of naming the recipients of that judgment. This is a common literary device in languages like Greek and Latin, where word order is flexible, to draw attention to the most important part of the sentence by putting it first. In this case, we understand that those who received the mark of the Beast, and worshiped him and his image, will suffer torment, and the smoke of their torment will rise up forever. They will have no relief, or rest, day or night.

Once again, we have Old Testament background to this picture of the smoke of judgment rising forever in Isaiah 34:10, and mentioned also in Joel 3, Obadiah, and Malachi. The image is of total destruction, as God intended to do to Edom. Verse 9 of Isaiah 34 says that streams will be turned to pitch, soil to sulfur, and the land will be like burning pitch. There we have sulfur and fire, and verse 10 says the smoke from Edom will go up forever.

In Revelation 8:3-4, we saw the smoke of incense rising with the prayers of the saints, which we took to be a symbol of the fragrant prayer offerings of God’s people. The smoke in 14:11 is similar in that it rises up, but it is not the prayers of the saints. Rather, it’s the torment of the unbelievers, the earth-dwellers. I think this is another deliberate contrast.

We recalled the locusts in Revelation 9:1-12, the fifth trumpet, that looked like horses with women’s hair and lion’s teeth, and tails and stings like scorpions. These locusts rose up from the bottomless pit, out of the smoke from that pit, and were directed to damage only “those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Another use of smoke in the context of judgment, perhaps pointing to what we see in 14:11.

The angel says that those receiving judgment will have no rest “day and night.” The use of this phrase underscores relentless restlessness. In other contexts, “day and night” is used to indicate on-going, perpetual activity. The proclamation of the four living creatures in 4:8, for example, or the ministry of the multitudes before God’s throne in 7:15. Even the work of the Accuser of the saints before God’s throne in 12:10.

The idea of “rest” makes us think, perhaps, of spiritual, salvific rest in Christ (e.g., Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” or the Sabbath rest spoken of in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 that is the reward of those who are in Christ). The lack of such a rest for the earth-dwellers is in contrast to the rest that is promised to the heaven-dwellers in verse 13. There it speaks of them having “rest from their labors,” which makes it sound like a physical, not a spiritual rest. Indeed, it goes on to say that “their works will follow them.” However, if we understand these “labors” in terms of gospel faithfulness, then their works do indeed follow them, in the sense that God’s people are known for their faithfulness (they are the “overcomers” of the seven letters), and those works which they do because Christ redeemed them and enabled them, qualify them to enter into the rest and joy of their Master (Matthew 25:21-23).

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:4-7

4 These are those who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are pure. These [are] those who follow the Lamb wherever he may go. These have been redeemed from mankind, [the] firstfruit to God and to the Lamb. 5 And in their mouth no falsehood was found; they are without blemish.

6 And I saw another angel flying high in the sky, having an eternal gospel to proclaim upon the earth-dwellers, and upon every nation and tribe and tongue and people, 7 saying in a loud voice, “Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour has come of His judgment. And worship the One who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and springs of waters.”

Jesus, the Lamb, is on Mount Zion with the 144,000. The opening passage to chapter 14 seems focused on telling us about these people. We’ve established before (see the notes on Revelation 7) that the number 144,000 is figurative, and represents all of God’s people, Old and New Covenant. The way they are described in the first three verses underscores this. They have the Lamb and the Father’s name on their foreheads–they belong to him, something we know is true for all believers. They, and they alone, are able to sing the new song, a further distinction between them and those who belong to the Beast (i.e., unbelievers, or “earth-dwellers”).

In verses 4 and 5 John continues his description of these people. He states four specific things about them:

  1. They are parthenoi, literally “virigins”–they haven’t defiled themselves with women.
  2. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
  3. They are a “firstfruit” to God and to the Lamb, as a result of being bought by God.
  4. They are without blemish; there is no falsehood in their mouth.

We looked at each of these in turn:

They are virgins. Some might want to take this literally, i.e., that they have abstained from sexual relations. This view would go along with taking the 144,000 literally, as a sub-set of believers who have kept some kind of vow of chastity. I see a couple of problems with this. First, since their virginity is based on the fact that “they haven’t defiled themselves with women,” the 144,000 would have to be male. Second, it seems to elevate those who abstain from sex as being better than the others, especially since there is a connection drawn between being a virgin, and not being “defiled.” Such a negative view of sex is unbiblical.

I think there are two ways we can see the “virginity” of the 144,000. First, we can take parthenoi in this context to mean the opposite of molunō, to make unclean or defile, and hence mean “pure” or “clean.” This would include not only abstaining from sexual immorality, but also refraining from idolatry, and other practices that would compromise their moral integrity as they try to stand for Christ and show themselves to be his people. We should also bear in mind that no believer could stand “pure” and “clean” before the Lord in their own strength. They are able to do this because they are washed in the Lamb’s blood, and clothed in the white robe given to them (7:9-10; 6:11). Secondly, there is a contrast here between the “virginal” people of God, and the Great Prostitute, who we’ll meet in chapter 17, and also the nations who “have drunk the wine of the passion of Babylon’s sexual immorality” (14:8 and 18:3). The symbolic prostituting of the nations is in contrast to the symbolic sexual integrity of God’s people.

They follow the Lamb. This is not in the sense of simply calling oneself a Christian and doing things Jesus would do. Remember the context of Revelation: these are churches under persecution. They aren’t just following Jesus’s teaching; they are following Jesus’s example of servant living, perseverance under persecution, and personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel–even unto death. This is what it means to wear the name of the Lamb and the Father.

They are the “firstfruits” to God and the Lamb. The “firstfruit” is usually that which is offered to the Lord as the best pickings from the harvest. One might reasonably assume that if there is a first-fruit, there’s more fruit to follow, which some believe supports the idea that the 144,000 are a sub-set of God’s people. Again, however, this sets up an elite group of believers that are somehow better than the rest, which doesn’t correspond to the egalitarian nature of the gospel. We are all redeemed in Christ; our holiness is not our own but his. We derive our purity from him. So any redeeming good in us is of no credit to us, but to Christ. And nowhere in the New Testament do we get the idea that some people are “more saved” than others.

A better understanding of “firstfruits” here is to relate the use of the term back to Jeremiah 2:2-3, where all of Israel is called “the firstfruits of [God’s] harvest.” There isn’t a group within Israel that is God’s “firstfruit,” but rather the nation of Israel is God’s choice “crop” out of all the nations. The emphasis is on God’s people as being chosen, special, set apart from all the other peoples of the Earth. To underscore this, John says that the “firstfruit” were bought, or redeemed, from mankind. The same Greek verb, agorazō, is used here as in 5:9, in reference to those who were bought, or redeemed, with the blood of the Lamb.

They are without blemish and with no falsehood in their mouth. Similar language is used of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:9, which we understand to be speaking of Jesus (see 1 Peter 2:22). Those who “follow the Lamb” will strive to follow his example, and, by his grace will display the same kind of purity and integrity as their Savior. This integrity may go beyond simply not telling lies, and speak of their faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel. There is a consistency between the proclamation of their mouths and the lives they lead. In the letters of chapters 2 and 3, we have seen that there are those in the church who may profess faith in Christ, but they wander into idolatry, and seem more concerned with not offending the culture than being faithful to the Lord. Just as Christ was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and was found without deceit, so we too, under the same circumstances, should be true to our Lord, and be prepared to accept the consequences.

In verse 6, John sees “another angel.” This is the first of three angels in this chapter. Why “another”? Probably in addition to the other angels John has seen so far; this is not an angel he has seen before. The angel is flying “high in the sky”–literally, “in mid-heaven.” John used the same term to describe the location of the eagle in 8:13. This is significant because that eagle spoke with a loud voice proclaiming woes upon the “earth-dwellers,” warning about the final three trumpet blasts. In other words, it appears that the eagle in John’s vision was the mouthpiece of God, declaring judgment upon the nations. Similarly, this angel, and the two following, will bring warnings of judgment from God to the nations.

If the angel is proclaiming judgment on the earth-dwellers, why is his message called “an eternal gospel“? Surely this implies some kind of evangelistic call to the unbelieving people on Earth, with, implicitly, the opportunity for them to repent and be saved? That the message goes out to every “nation, tribe, tongue, and people” seems to suggest there are those marked out for redemption among them (see 5:9, where those bought by the Lamb include the same type of people).

We’ve discussed before (e.g., in the notes on chapter 11) the fact that there are two sides to the gospel message. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God to those who are saved. He goes on in verse 22 to declare that we preach Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jew and Gentile, it is Christ, the power and wisdom of God.” The gospel is life to the elect, but to the non-elect, those who are dead in their sins, it is death and judgment. When believers proclaim the gospel, it is a reminder to unbelievers of the knowledge of God that they are trying to suppress (Romans 1:18).

This is why the angelic “gospel” is a proclamation of judgment. Notice the content of the message: Fear God, give Him glory, and worship the One who made heaven, earth, sea, and spring of water, because the hour of His judgment has come. Fundamental to the gospel message is the fact that, by nature, we disobey this very basic command of God, to fear Him, glorify Him, and worship Him. We would sooner fear our neighbors or our politicians, glorify those who give us what we want, and worship ourselves, our work, our money, our TV/film/music idols. One’s response to this angelic call reveals one’s core sinfulness and the need for a heart-change that only comes through Christ. We already know how the earth-dwellers respond, because we’ve seen it in 9:20-21: they don’t repent of their evil deeds, or their idolatry. This why they are judged.