The 15th and 16th chapters of Revelation present to us one last picture of the wrath of God falling upon unrepentant humanity. The 7 vials or bowls or plagues as they are called are the culmination of God’s wrath poured upon humanity. As this scene opens up, we are told that John is seeing “another great and marvelous sign” (Rev 15:1). Some say this is the 3rd sign, others say the second. For those following the 3rd sign paradigm, Christ’s birth in Rev 12:1 was the first great and wondrous sign, the casing out of Satan from heaven was the 2nd, though Rev 12:7-10 merely calls this a sign not a great and marvelous sign, and this final judgment upon the earth’s inhabitants is the 3rd sign. To those who follow the 2 great signs Christ’s birth and Satan’s fall from heaven are conflated into one great sign and Rev 15-16 serve as the 2nd great sign.
I am not sure it matters too much, for if there are three signs then we have a complete picture of God’s intention to judge and redeem pictured in these signs, and if it is only 2 signs, the it serves like the 2 witnesses to declare with certainty that God is going to carry out his intention to redeem a people for himself and judge the rest. In my understanding, what is important isn’t whether there are 2 or 3 great and marvelous/wondrous signs, but that these signs always picture God’s redemption and salvation of his people.
What we read in Rev 12 and what we are reading again in Rev 15-16 is akin to the Exodus deliverance, in fact it is the culmination of the Exodus of God’s people from this falling world into the next. If you recall what we just read in our Scripture reading and then read Deuteronomy’s commentary on the Exodus you would find these words, “He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” (Dt 10:21).
And those wonders in Egypt were catastrophic judgment upon the oppressors of God’s people, and Revelation records a similar kind of catastrophic judgment upon those who are oppressing God’s people and refusing to worship the one true God. When we read the plagues and judgments of God, we get very uncomfortable don’t we? We can’t see how all this death and destruction and wrath can be good. To most of us, if we are honest this feels more like malevolence from a vindictive God. We are quick to back peddle when non-believers bring up passages like this, claiming that God is a grumpy old man, and we want to counter quickly that God is love and forgiving and longsuffering, instead of saying, “Yes, God is angry.”
Most of us have forgotten that “God’s wrath is a burning zeal for the right coupled with a perfect hatred for everything that is evil.”1 We have lost the understanding that God’s wrath must be viewed from the perspective of redemption and total freedom for the people of God and the Kingdom of God from all that is opposed to the glory of God. God’s wrath is a necessary part of our redemption, for if he never poured out judgment upon that which is vile and opposed to his reign and rule, then evil would be eternal and God’s people would never find rest and creation would never be released from its bondage to decay and Satan would always have a foothold. God’s wrath is part of our redemption for God promises that (Rom. 2:7-8) To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
This is our first point of application, we as Christians must not shy away from talking about the wrath of God, the judgment of God and the anger of God when we talk about the gospel of God. We must not downplay the holiness of God in order to make people more accepting of the good news. The day will come when the wrath of God will be displayed full force and if the world has never heard about that wrath, then they will never be ready to respond to gospel. To preach the Gospel, requires preaching judgment and condemnation, for that is what the cross is, the place where the believer’s sin is crucified, judged, by God and the wrath we deserve was poured upon Christ. Grace requires the preaching of judgment if grace is to be properly understood.
The second thing to notice is that the seven angels come out with seven last plagues which are poured upon the earth. These plagues are like the final strokes of a whip or a blacksmith’s hammer that are meant to bring the people to repentance. They are calamities like the calamities of the seals and the bowls that have been intensified from 14/ of the earth to 1/3 of the earth to the entire earth. Chapter 16 tells us about these plagues. They are plagues that cause painful sores, turn al the water to blood, cause sun to intensely burn the earth and plunge the world into a final battle against God. But these are the last plagues. With them Scripture says that God’s wrath is completed (Rev 15:1). That ought to comfort the saints, for that means this state of affairs in the world is not forever. The time will come when Christ will be glorified. But that also ought to cause us great pause as believers for God’s longsuffering has a limit but individually, nationally and cosmically.
Too often we fail to properly fear the Lord when we engage in our sinful habits. We presume upon grace. Israel was notorious for this. As the prophets preached about the coming judgment, the people and the leaders would say, those words are for a time long in the future. They kept relying on the longsuffering of God and then one day, the invaders arrived and the people were exiled. God’s wrath will come and it will not be stalled forever.
I had a high school friend who accepted Jesus in 11th grade and then went on to graduate and begin living a wild life till he was about 30 or so. During that time he came down with a severe and rare form of brain cancer that eventually took his life. He continued to profess Christ and trust in his mercy and love but all along he lived a life of sin. He presumed upon grace and the wrath of God finally took him home where he could no longer blaspheme the name of his Lord. God’s wrath comes, when people refuse to acknowledge him. And that is what is going on in Revelation, nations are judged, some rise, some fall as God’s wrath comes upon history and the final day of his wrath will come in the future when time will cease and all rebellion judged since people refuse to repent of their idolatry and instead of turning to the Lord in contrition, they cursed the God of heaven…and they refused to repent of what they had done” (Rev 16:11) and that is why the angles can say you are just in these judgments” (Rev 16:5).
Now how do the people of God respond to all this wrath and judgment? They worship. Did you see that? They held harps given to them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb (Rev 15:2-3). God’s people are worshipping because God is judging. They are exalting the name of God the deliverer. When was the last time you worshipped God because of his fiery wrath? Revelation says that is reason to worship. Because the nations of the world are being purged of their opposition to God, the people of God are proclaiming the goodness of God.
Did you notice where the people of God are? They are in the throne room of God, the text says they were standing beside the sea of glass mixed with fire (Rev 15:2). The last time we saw the sea of glass was in Rev 4:6 where the sea is before the throne. Now if we look ahead in the book, we will find that the many waters are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages (Rev 17:15). So here we have an image where the nations of the world are pictures as being consumed by fire, while the people of God have been called out of the fire and are standing on the shore worshipping.
They are victorious beside the sea. They are citizens not of this world but their Phil 3:20 citizenship is in heaven, 1Pt 1:1 strangers in the world, Heb 11:13/1Pt 2:11 aliens and strangers on/in earth/world. They are (Ezek. 20:41) I will accept you as fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will show myself holy among you in the sight of the nations.
They are victorious because they have overcome the beast, his image and his number. They have been wholly devoted to the Lord God Almighty and not to the false worship of the world. They haven’t worshipped the unholy government and looked to it for their provision and protection, they haven’t worshipped the unholy philosophies of the age, which deny the Christ and promote human glory. They haven’t bought into the practices and thoughts that mark the people of the world as belonging to the world. They have been victorious because they refused to worship and bow down to anything that claims sovereignty or allegiance, other than God alone. They were willing to suffer for their devotion, some being killed, others imprisoned, and though the world thought that they had conquered the Christians, God is telling us that the Christians conquered the world by remaining faithful.
And so the people of God worship, for justice is being meted out. They worship by singing two songs that are closely related. One is the song of Moses and the other the song of the Lamb. In the bible we have 3 songs attributes to Moses. Exodus 15, Dt. 32 and Ps 90 are all songs that Moses sang. None of the words echoed here are exact or equivalent to anything in these three songs, but all of the songs of Moses speak about God judging those who refused to worship and submit to him and all of them praise God for rescuing his people from oppression and all of them praise him because he is worthy. And that is what the saints are doing here “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and try are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, o Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev 15:3-4).
The people of God worship because God’s righteous acts are his judgment upon every sin and act of rebellion. This is what Moses was celebrating in the Exodus and it is what the saints continue to celebrate and will forever celebrate. And to that they add the Song of the Lamb which Rev 5:9-12 tells us is this: Rev. 5:9-12 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” 11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
And as this worship occurs, as the wrath of God is executed, the temple is opened, the angels come out dressed in white with sashes, showing us that Judgment is an act of worship and Judgment is an act of purification and judgment is an act of redemption. And so the glory of God is revealed and the end comes.
So what do we make of all of this? How do we apply it to ourselves?
- Don’t shy away from talking about and contemplating the wrath of God. Imagine a world where God never punished anything. Would it be a place where peace and justice reigned? It will breed in you a holy fear of the Lord. It will spur you one to devotion and to take seriously the words and commandments of God.
- Consider those places where you have compromised with the world and are functionally worshipping two gods – The Lord and money, power, self. What could you not survive without in this world? Answer that truthfully and you have probably found the god in your life who competes with YHWH. Then repent of this idolatry and turn to the Lord, instead of being stubborn and refusing to submit to his yoke.
- Imagine all that stands opposed to your growth as a Christian – every person, cultural moray, every law and write a song of worship or a poem of worship or a short story that celebrates the defeat and destruction of these things, and then recite it in the presence of the Lord.
- Consider what it really means to be a victorious worshipper called out from among the nations. Ask God to direct you into a new way of living. And then act upon the guidance he gives you.
For all of these are ways that the overcomers can put into practice a faith that lasts.
1 Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pg.209