Saturday, July 31, 2010

Revelation 16

The seven bowls of wrath (vs. 1-21)--As we move towards the final climax, punishment will now be meted out on the earth in the form of seven "bowls of wrath." The first six come rapidly (vs. 2-12): "foul and loathsome" sores came upon those who "had the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image" (v. 2). Then the sea became blood (v. 3), rivers and springs also became blood (v. 4), men "were scorched with great heat" (v. 8), the kingdom of the beast "became full of darkness" (v. 10), and the Euphrates River dried up. In the midst of this, one of the angels proclaimed the justice and righteousness of God. "They have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. For it is their just due" (v. 6). "True and righteous are Your judgments" (v. 7). Men "blasphemed the name of God...they did not repent and give Him glory" (v. 9).

The specific meaning of these first six bowls is almost surely impossible to determine, and it is extremely problematic that they have no reference to any precise historical events. The whole effect, God's retributive wrath, is what is important. Those to whom John wrote would of a certainty see this as wrath executed upon the Roman Empire.

Verses 13-16 are an interlude between the sixth and seventh plagues. The three great enemies introduced so far--the dragon and the two beasts--attempt to fight back. They each belch out "unclean spirits like frogs" who are "spirits of demons, performing signs" (vs. 13-14) and they round up the "kings of the earth and the whole world" to do battle against God. They gathered at a "place called in Hebrew, Armageddon" (v. 16).

Armageddon, or the valley of Megiddo, was a famous Hebrew battlefield. It was in this region that Gideon and his 300 defeated the Midianites, Saul was defeated by the Philistines, Deborah and Barak won a victory over the Canaanite king, Jabin, King Ahaziah dies of Jehu's arrows, and the Egyptian Pharoah Necho conquered and killed Josiah. Megiddo had long symbolized to the Jews an example of national grief. Sometimes God's people won victories there, sometimes they lost. Thus, Armageddon fitly served symbolically to John's readers as a place for the final, ultimate battle of good and evil. This is NOT a literal battle, nor is it going to be; it must be understood as a figure--unless the devil's forces are going to be led by three frogs! If the battle is literal, then why aren't the frogs? We must be as consistent as possible in our interpretations, and always remember that this is apocalyptic literature where grotesque, awesome, sometimes frightening visions are used to describe great spiritual truths. There is no non-figurative passage of Scripture in the Bible that speaks of some actual "battle of Armageddon" in the future. It is extremely, extremely dangerous Biblical hermeneutics to build systems of doctrines on symbolic language. Such is the grave error of the premillennial system.

In the midst of this horrible picture, there is a word of comfort (and warning) to God's people: "Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame" (v. 15). Faithfulness is demanded in the face of persecution. There is no excuse, especially since God has given advance notice in this book of what the saints will have to face.

The final scene of the chapter (vs. 17-21) has the seventh angel pouring out his bowl "into the air," and a voice is heard "out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying 'It is done'" (v. 17). The judgment and condemnation of the wicked is sure. John heard noise of thunderings and lightenings, and there was a great earthquake "such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth" (v. 18). These great events picture the forthcoming of great judgment upon "the great city" (v. 19)--Rome--which was divided into three parts (falling apart?), and the nations standing with her "fell.” God "remembered" the city ("Babylon"--Rome), to "give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath” (v. 19) This is certainly a message of comfort to John's readers who were and would suffer at the hands of this pagan city. Another plague (hailstones which weighed either 55 or 113 pounds, depending upon whether Greek or Jewish weights for the "talent" is used) fell upon men, who "blasphemed God" (v. 21), but apparently did not repent. This sets the stage for the four final scenes of the book, where all the enemies of God will be punished and victory and glory are assured.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Revelation 15

The song of Moses and the Lamb (vs. 1-4)--In one major sense, this chapter sets the stage for the ending of the book. John sees seven angels appear, "having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete" (v. 1). The earlier judgments of the angels (the seals, the trumpets) did not affect all the wicked; the final judgment is approaching, however, with glorious victory for God's people. The "sea of glass" had been introduced in Revelation 4:6, apparently separating God and His people. Now, those "who have the victory over the beast" are "standing on the sea of glass" (v. 2)--getting ever closer to the heavenly Father. Revelation 21:1 says, "There is no more sea." Nothing will separate us from God throughout eternity. These victorious saints in chapter 15 "sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb" (v. 3). The "song of Moses" refers back to Exodus 15, a beautiful ode to God at Israel's deliverance from slavery and the final defeat of the Egyptians—two themes John’s readers would be glad to be reminded of. This current song combines praise for the power of God, His justice, His holiness, and His righteous judgments, which "have been manifested" (v. 4). Those "judgments" had not been fully "manifested" yet; that won't happen until the final Day of Judgment. But they are so certain that the song is sung as if they had already happened.

The seven angels with the seven plagues (vs. 5-8)--John then witnesses seven angels, dressed in pure, exquisite clothing (vs. 5-6) come out of the heavenly temple, having seven plagues which were lodged in "seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever" (v. 7). They are about to pour out these bowls of wrath (mostly in chapter 16). The final scene is an awesome one, with the temple being "filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power" (v. 8). Clouds and smoke often represent the power and splendor of the Almighty. Such a scene as John describes is reminiscent of God's appearance to Israel on the mount: "Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly" (Exodus 19:18). Who can stand before the might, majesty, and power of this unrivaled Deity? No one, and now, in Revelation 15:8, no one was allowed to enter the heavenly temple till the seven plagues were completed. God must finish His work and then He will welcome us into His eternal abode.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Revelation 14

The Lamb protects His own (vs. 1-5)--Chapters 12 and 13 introduced us to some fearsome monsters, adversaries of God's people who have great cunning, strength, power, authority, and charisma. Who can protect the elect from such horrible creatures? A Lamb. Quite an irony. Perhaps the most helpless animal on earth can defeat the most terrible foes of God's faithful. In verse 1, He stood on Mount Zion, with 144,000 with Him--the totality of the saints, not one being overlooked. They had "His Father's name written on their foreheads.” Remember, in chapter 13, that those who serve the beast have "a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads" (13:16). God's people carry His stamp. There was great rejoicing in heaven; a new song was sung that only the redeemed could sing (v. 3). Nothing, NOTHING could harm them as long as they remained pure and followed "the Lamb wherever Him goes" (vs. 4-5). Incidentally, if the 144,000 is literal, as the Jehovah's Witnesses and some others teach, then why not the statement "these are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins"? No women among the 144,000? This shows the tremendous danger of trying to literalize apocalyptic language. His people, pure in life and tongue, will be perfectly protected in the judgment to come.

Judgment announced upon the wicked (vs. 6-13)--For truly judgment was about to come. Again, keep in mind John's readers. They were under the threat of severe persecutions. Frightful enemies had been introduced (chapters 12 and 13). But here they are given assurance that they will be sheltered by the Lamb they serve and that those who trouble and hurt them will get their just due. In verses 6 and 7, and angel appears "flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth--to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people" (v. 6). His message of good news is for all of mankind. And that message is one including judgment (v. 7). Thus, all men are encouraged to "fear God...and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water" (v. 7). Another angel followed and pronounced doom upon "Babylon": "Babylon is fallen, is fallen" (v. 8). This language is borrowed from Isaiah 21:9 regarding the destruction of that once-powerful city/empire. No doubt John's readers would understand this to be Rome, "that great city, [which] has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication." Babylon, in ancient times, was a symbol for wickedness and debauchery, and the saints in the first century would certainly believe the same of Rome.

A third angel then appeared "saying with a loud voice" (so that all could hear and understand) that any who served the beast in any way would "drink of the wine of the wrath of God" (v. 10). So those who drank Rome's "wine of wrath" would soon drink of God's "wine of wrath." Those who meet that fate "shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (v. 10). In the presence of the angels and Jesus? Are those in hell going to be able to see the joy and rejoicing in heaven? Luke 16:19-31 (the rich man and Lazarus) seems to indicate so as well. Regardless, their punishment is eternal (v. 11). There is, of course, an implicit warning for John's readers. Christian martyrs who were burned at the stake suffered only a few minutes of torment, and afterwards possessed eternal life in fellowship with God. The torment of fire never ends for those who reject the Lamb. Indeed, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on" (v. 13). They rest from their labors and their works follows them (v. 13). Who are these people? Those who have been patient, "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (v. 12). The contrast in eternal destinies could not be starker.

The sickle of judgment (vs. 14-20)--John then sees a "white cloud" (purity and holiness) with one "like the Son of Man" sitting on it. He had a crown on His head ("King of kings") and a sharp sickle in His hand (v. 14). Another angel came forth ("out of the temple") and announced the reaping of the earth via the Son of Man's sickle (v. 15)--"the time has come...the earth is ripe." This reaping takes place in verse 16: "He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped." Two more angels then make their appearance, one carrying another sharp sickle, and another telling him to "Thrust in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for her grapes are fully ripe" (v. 18). The angel with the sickle obeyed, and cast the vines "into the great winepress of the wrath of God" (v. 19). The grapes were trampled, and blood came out, "up to the horses' bridles, for one thousand six hundred furlongs," about 200 miles (v. 20). The judgment of God is severe upon those who oppose Him and harm His saints. This chapter (and the coming ones) give great encouragement to the readers. Satan has vicious, powerful foes and many will submit to them. The saints will be oppressed (13:17), but, as long as they stay faithful, a new day of victory and judgment will dawn, all demonstrated in the typical signs and symbols of apocalyptic literature.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Revelation 13

The beast of the sea (vs. 1-10, 18)—The dragon of chapter 12 was not without helpers when he attacked the people of God.  Indeed, such helpers would be his main tools.  We are introduced to two of them in this chapter, the “beast of the sea” and the “beast of the land.”  These two beasts have engendered countless attempts to identify them, but if we hold true to our foundation point—how would John’s readers understand them?—then I think we can come up with a pretty good idea on both.  This first beast had “seven heads” (all wisdom) and “ten horns” (all power).  The dragon “gave him his power, his throne, and great authority” (v. 2).  This wisdom, power, and authority is from a worldly perspective, of course; this beast is certainly not in God’s camp.  Even if you cut off one of his heads (and this doesn’t represent any major historical event), he still lives—he seems invincible.  So “all the world marveled and followed the beast” (v. 3).  He blasphemed God and everything related to Him (v. 6), and persecuted His people (v. 7), but only for a limited, but indefinite, period of time (v. 5).  “And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation” (v. 7).  Everybody, except the saints, submitted to him (v. 9).  He will eventually be destroyed by his own weapons, but until then, God’s people must be patient and faithful through this period of trial and persecution (v. 10).

Now, you’re one of John’s readers.  Who would you identify the above with?  It’s not hard to figure out.  This is a pretty good description of the Roman emperor.  His number (v. 18) is “666.”  The symbolic number “6” falls short of the divine number “7,” and was a number of evil to the ancients (much like the number 13 is to many today).  So take “6,” stretch it out three times—“666”—and you have evil, evil, evil.  Read again my article on “Numerical Symbolism” elsewhere on this blog (check the March archives) for a full explanation of this exceedingly important part of apocalyptic literature.  There can be little doubt, if we put ourselves into the minds of those to whom John wrote, that they would identify this creature with their greatest enemy, the Roman emperor, who demanded they worship him, and often persecuted them severely if they did not.  This is further confirmed by John’s statement in verse 18 that the 666 “is the number of a man.”

There is no reason to make this any harder than it is, which is what some people have done.  If it’s too hard, then John’s readers wouldn’t have been able to understand it, either.  If so, then what good would it have done them?

The second beast (vs. 11-17)—This beast is a little more difficult to identify.  His main characteristic is that he “causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast” (v. 12).  He performed great signs, and deceived the world (vs. 13-14).  Part of his authority was “to give breath to the image of the [first] beast” (v. 15), that is enforce his laws, and “cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (v. 15), which was pretty literal.  Just as God’s people were “sealed” on their “foreheads” (7:3), even so, those who submit to the [first] beast were “to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads” (v. 16).  This was significant, because “no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (v. 17).  There is some literalness to this, but mainly the idea is that those who did not serve and worship the Roman emperor and religion were going to be in dire straits—perhaps lose their lives, but at best, not be able to buy, sell, or get gain.

Who is this second beast?  Again, he’s a little more difficult to pinpoint exactly, but given his description, he certainly represents the false religion of the Roman empire.  Summers believes that the beast would be understood by John’s readers as the Roman “concilia” (committee) to enforce emperor worship—that legal arm that put the emperor’s religious demands into practice.  This is the best explanation I have seen.  Or, John’s readers might simply see this beast at the whole bureaucratic structure that implemented the emperor’s laws. 

These two beasts, added to the dragon of chapter 12, provide strong forces of evil engaged in battle with the forces of righteousness.  And the devil isn’t through unsheathing swords yet.