When time runs out
Most people consider tolerance to be a feature of Christianity and Christians in general. I checked through my NIV-UK electronic copy of the bible and was somewhat surprised to find that it is not a word associated with the character of God.
In fact, intolerance (of sin) is more associated with God’s character than tolerance. Patience is however clearly a trait that ought to be associated with Christians – it’s one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. God is patient with the sinner, willing him or her to come to repentance, but there will come a time when God will deal with sin and Satan once and for all – his intolerance of sin will become plain for all to see.
The Old Testament prophets spoke much about the ‘Day of the Lord.’ It is described as a terrible day of judgement and trouble, but in contrast Isaiah uses the phrase ‘in that Day’ partly to refer to the difficulty of the time but also to speak of a time of peace and prosperity. How are we to understand this? The Jewish day begins at night and then the sun rises and the daytime begins – it’s darkness followed by light. That’s just the sequence in the day of the Lord: judgement and trouble followed by the daytime of peace and prosperity. The night is associated with God’s cleansing judgement and the day with his kingdom on earth. The night is associated with his intolerance of sin and of the reign of Satan. This 15th and 16th chapters of Revelation mark this final 7 years of Daniel’s 70 weeks of years. It marks God’s judgement on the world and then the king comes. We need to wait a few chapters before we reach the arrival of the king: John has some more detail to share in chapters 17 and 18. But for now it’s time for God’s wrath.
1. Seven angels, seven plagues
The scene is heaven and John sees another, this time marvellous, sign. Remember that often John is describing what he sees which appears to be an accurate playing out of future events, but at other times he sees ‘signs’. The signs are representations of real events yet to take place: for example the woman of chapter 12 is associated with the sun, moon and 12 stars and represents Israel. The sign John see in this 15th chapter is 7 angels with the 7 last plagues. John will later give us a few more details but for now he tells us why these are the 7 last plagues: ‘last because with them God’s wrath is completed.’ We have become rather accustomed to being the underdogs in our world, as I grew up in the 60s and 70s it very much felt that the UK was moving on from its Christian heritage and as Christians we were a relic of the past and of little or no importance. If that was true then it’s even more true now. But just because God is silent as he patiently waits for people to respond to the gospel, it does not mean that he doesn’t exist or that he will not be the final victor. He will have the last word and his wrath will be known.
During the latter half of this 7 year period described in Revelation, the situation for those who side with God will become desperately difficult. Those who align themselves with Satan will receive the mark of the beast on their bodies and they will be free to buy and sell, not so those who refuse to worship the beast. They will suffer greatly. In fact we read in chapter 14 these words ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ This presumably means that they are better dead than suffering under the wicked rule of Satan, but I wonder if the meaning is that the thing they really need to avoid is God’s wrath when it is poured out on the world. Perhaps God in his mercy will spare at least some of them and they will be brought into the presence of heaven. If this is the case then these presumably are the people John sees in heaven: ‘And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image ad over the number of its name.’ These are the victorious ones and they are no longer on earth but in heaven – they are spared God’s coming wrath. They have musical instruments to play and they sing: it’s the song of ‘Moses and the Lamb.’ So what is this song? Moses sang after Israel proceeded through the Red sea, the pursuing Egyptian army was destroyed as the sea closed in around them. It was a remarkable rescue: Israel was free and now ready to enter the promised land and set up a theocratic kingdom. This freedom was won by the Passover lamb. Now those who had resisted the beast sing a song of Moses which marks their rescue from the forces of evil, their new birth through the sacrifice of the lamb and their readiness for the coming kingdom. As this song is sung in heaven it speaks of God’s coming judgement and ultimate victory on the earth. The song itself seems to be a compilation of Old Testament verses. Three themes emerge from the song: 1. God works ‘great and marvellous’ deeds – he does indeed! The world is about to experience it first hand! 2. God’s works are no longer hidden but revealed for all to see – there is no doubt as to his existence and no doubt as to his power. 3. He is the king of the nations and nations will bow down before him. Just after Abraham’s faith in God was tested when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac, God told him that all nations would be blessed through his offspring. When Jesus comes as king, nations will indeed be blessed as the king begins his righteous reign.
After the song, John looked and saw the temple in heaven which is described as ‘the tabernacle of the covenant law.’ This seems to look back to the promises or covenants that God made with Israel and specifically the covenant of law. The tablets of stone on which the law was written were placed inside the ark of the covenant. The gold lid was known as the mercy seat, but the law condemned and none could approach God’s presence: a presence that was protected by the chrubim. It was when the blood was sprinkled on the lid that it was transformed from a seat or throne of judgement to a place of mercy! From the temple John saw 7 angels with 7 plagues. The 7 angels are handed 7 bowls filled with God’s wrath. One of the living creatures hands them the bowls – one of the cherubim who is the agent of God’s wrath. You will remember that the cherubim guarded access to the mercy seat, if anyone approached without the blood there would be judgement. Now the cherubim prepare God’s judgement on this world. The temple is filled with smoke: a symbol of God’s presence – no one now could enter the temple until these judgements are complete.
2. The first 4 bowls
As we work through this chapter you will notice a significant correlation with some of the 7 seal judgements we studied earlier in Revelation as well as a connection to the 10 plagues visited on Egypt at th time of Moses. This time however the plagues are much greater in severity and this time they prepare the way for the arrival of the king. Commentators have noted that the progression of these bowl judgements are rapid, universal and conclusive. John heard a loud voice from the temple instructing the angels to ‘pour out the 7 bowls of God’s wrath on the earth!’ The effect of the first bowl is personal and particular: people who accepted the mark of the beast and worshipped him experience ‘ugly, festering sores.’ In Contrast the 144,000 servants and those who had remained faithful were spared.
The second angel pours out his bowl, and this time all sea water became like the blood of a dead person. This is a worldwide and devastating judgement – again this is reminiscent of the first Egyptian plague. The effect would have been dramatic and devastating, but worse was to follow: the third angel’s bowl affected fresh water and resulted in it becoming blood too. The horrific effect of this almost defies imagination and it should not surprise us that these series of judgements must come in quick succession otherwise none could survive for long. At this point an angel who is ‘in charge of the waters’ praises God declaring him to be righteous, eternal (‘you who are and were’) and holy.
The fourth angel now pours out his bowl on the sun! The effect was that the power of the sun was increased such that people were scorched and seared by the intense heat. Sunburn is bad enough but this is in a different category. This is again an agonising and serious ‘plague’ that surely could not be survived for long. The next verse (9b) is one of three tragic verses in this chapter: ‘they cursed the name of God who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.’ The debate about the existence of God is no more, the debate about evolution is dead and buried, God’s power is perfectly plain to everyone, but still men and women refuse to acknowledge the God of the universe. Perhaps by this stage the hearts of men and women have become hard, just as Pharoah hardened his heart to the point when it was too late. If God is speaking to you now, do not harden your heart, now is the day to give your life to him.
3. The final 3 bowls
The target for the next bowl is none other than the throne of the beast! This is of some significance: the whole point of this book of Revelation and I think the whole point of the bible is that God’s kingdom is coming and the throne of Satan and his kingdom is bound for the lake of fire! The result of this bowl is that the world is thrown into darkness. This reminds us of the 9th Egyptian plague. Now, the entire kingdom of Satan is turned to darkness. This sounds not so bad! But imagine no light from the sun or artificial light of any kind – just total darkness, and this added to the other plagues described above. It’s a dreadful series of events. Surely now people will turn to God even if only to gain some relief. John’s words are a stark and disturbing reminder of opposition to God: ‘People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.’ Sadly we see the seeds of this hardened attitude in our world today. I sat opposite a man on the underground the other day – he was reading the ‘God delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. Unless professor Dawkins puts his faith in the Lord Jesus he will be amongst those who suffer but refuse to do what is right, tragically he the means of blinding people from the truth.
The sixth angel pours out his bowl: strangely this merely results in the drying up of the River Euphrates. This is the eastern border of the land God promised to Abraham. Interestingly the city of Babylon lies on this river. The purpose of this judgement is to prepare the route for the kings of the east. The great armies of the world are to congregate against Jerusalem and God is preparing the way for their defeat. John now sees a strange thing: three impure spirits ‘like frogs’ emerge from the mouths of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. John informs us that they are demonic spirits that perform signs and bring the kings of the whole world together for the ‘battle of the great day of God Almighty!’ Frogs are an unclean animal to Israel and no doubt John is describing a great anti-Semitic event. Satan has always been against God’s people through whom God will bring blessing to the whole world. This final battle has been described previously in the Old Testament: it marks the coming of the kinsman redeemer to take possession of the earth. In spite of the difficulty of these days there will remain a few who will remain true. They are encouraged to stay awake and be in a state of readiness. Jesus spoke of this time in the parable of the 10 virgins, it seems that the bridegroom is Messiah Jesus, the bride is the church and the virgins represent those on the earth awaiting his return. The kings gather for the final battle of Armageddon.
Now it’s time for the final bowl of judgement: ‘the seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘it is done.’ This bowl brings about physical changes and events on earth that prepare it for the return of the Lord Jesus: lightening, rumblings, and a severe earthquake – an earthquake that will be off the Richter scale! These physical events totally change the earth: ‘every island fled away and the mountains could not be found.’ This seems to be preparing the earth for a return to an Eden-like state. Interestingly when Peter quoted Joel on the day of Pentecost he said: ‘I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' (Acts 2). Shortly after this Peter then said: ‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you-- even Jesus.’ (acts 3). Times of refreshing, literally means ‘genesis again.’ Peter was saying that if Israel repented then the Messiah would come and restore the earth, but Israel formally rejected the gospel. But (as Paul put it) God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. Here is Israel again, now in a repentant state and the earth is being prepared for Genesis again. We leave chapter 16 with another tragic verse. Huge hailstones (about 40 kg each!) fall on the people, their response? ‘And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.’ A final chance is spurned. We must make our response too. As believers are we living half hearted Christian lives, with too much invested in this world and little thought of the world to come? If you are not a believer, be assured that God loves you and wants you to become his child – don’t delay another minute.