The Final Countdown (Revelation 14:6-16:19)
The tendency of Revelation to look at the same subject from different angles means it is sometimes difficult to detect progress in the overall theme. However, chapter 14 marks a definite ‘gear change’. In particular, the mention of Babylon (v 8) heralds a subject which will be fully dealt with in chapters 17-18.
The gospel, which undergirds Revelation, is not a message of ‘warm fuzzies’ but a summons to obedience. The angel of 14:6 calls on all people to fear God and honour (“worship”) him (14:7). The alternative is the worship of the beast (14:9) which is enmity with God (cf Rom 5:10), the inevitable result of which is to be subject to God’s personal and unremitting anger (14:10-11). During the Lambeth Conference, one could make a fair guess that many Western bishops would be highly uncomfortable with these verses, unlike their Third World counterparts. Of course human wrath against sin can be ugly, since it is always tinged by hypocrisy (hence the injunction, “Judge not that you be not judged” – Matt 7:1). Nevertheless, it is one thing to obey this injunction regarding ourselves, quite another to fail to warn people of God’s judgement or to identify the things which incur his wrath.
The message to God’s people, however, is a call for endurance (14:12), which means obedience and faithfulness. Before admonishing the Corinthians about their immorality (1 Cor 10), Paul notes that he also cannot presume on his salvation: “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). This is not to call into question the perseverance of the Saints, but rather to observe that it is the Saints who persevere. It is quite right that we should work out our salvation “in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), for the outcome of our earthly lives is eternal glory or eternal horror. For the dead who die in Christ, God’s “rest from their labours” awaits them (14:13, cf Gen 2:2; Psa 95:11). For those who die without Christ there is “no rest, day or night” (14:11).
Chapter 14 therefore concludes with a vision of twin harvests. One is carried out by “one like a son of man”, whom we may presume to be Jesus (14:14, cf 1:13). His harvest is the fruits of the gospel (14:15-16, cf John 4:35-36). The other harvest is carried out by an angel (14:17), but it is the harvest of God’s wrath (14:18-20, cf Matt 13:30; Isa 63:3).
These visions of judgement and harvest, however, are only preparing us for the final part of Revelation, and chapters 15-16, with the vision of the seven plagues, represent something of a reprise. Nevertheless, we are nearing the end of our theme for, as John notes, with these plagues “the wrath of God is ended” (15:1).
The vision of the plagues begins with the redeemed saints standing before God (15:2-3). By contrast with the earlier effects of God’s judgement on the earth which Christians could not entirely escape, these plagues are not for them. (However, we should not assume they have therefore been ‘raptured’! We are still in the realms of visions and signs – 15:1.)
The plagues are highly destructive and are specifically targeted against the enemies of God who are the allies of the beast (16:1-10). Unsurprisingly, they do not produce repentance, but rather more determined opposition (16:9,11). The determined counterattack may perhaps be associated with Paul’s revelation of the Man of Lawlessness (16:13-14, cf 2 Thess 2:9-10). 16:15 is a reminder to Christians, however, that the events John is describing in his vision will not necessarily be so obvious ‘on the ground’. We must be alert all the time, for we do not know when Christ will return.
The enemies of God assemble at ‘Armageddon’ – perhaps the most famous battleground in the world! Yet curiously, no battle takes place. Instead, with the pouring out of the seventh bowl there is a sudden end to this part of the vision (16:17-19). But our attention is now drawn to Babylon, which represents the greatest enmity to God and the greatest peril to his people.
Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped