"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Made Known to John" (Continued)
The End-Time in Freehand Sketch (Rev. 12:1-14:20)
John now is ready to go through an end-time account for the third time; but in this instance he chooses to discard his pattern of the seven-series and do it freehand We can be glad he does, because it produces what is probably the most meaningful treatment of all. The freehand approach carries a number of advantages. John can let the story make its own way. He will now set the end-time into a somewhat larger perspective, recounting a bit of what preceded the period and what follows it. Also, he will now develop his basic symmetry far beyond what he has done thus far. These chapters constitute a very important portion of Revelation.
Rev. 12:1-6, The Woman and her Child
1 A great portent appeared in the sun: a woman clothed the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great dragon, with seven heads and horns, and seven diadems on heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
There appears the woman robed with the sun--a beautiful and glorious figure. She is the church--not only her crown of twelve stars but everything else we are told about her makes this plain. Here she is presented specifically as mother of the Christ; but John also may intend her later when he describes "the bride of Christ"--which also is the church. Normally, of course, for one's mother to be his bride would be the greatest of scandals--but not when John is doing things his way.
Although John never has them meet, this woman, most likely, is meant to be placed in conscious juxtaposition over against the great whore, the woman of the world, who enters a few chapters on down the line. Their distinctions are these: this one has beauty, that one has glamor (there's a difference); this one is pregnant, that one is sterile; this one bears life, that one bears death. John is on target.
We already have seen how fluid is John's concept of the church; and here it is particularly so. The woman who gives birth to the child obviously must be Old Testament Israel, the Jewish people of God. The woman who must then flee into the wilds is just as obviously the Christian, New Testament church. The woman who is the bride of Christ is a Christianity that includes the Jews. Yet all three are the same woman. And by the way, John is correct that it was out of "the anguish of her labor" that Israel brought forth the Christ--that is what the Old Testament story is all about. We seldom think in these terms; but profound insight is involved in the suggestion that God chose Israel to be the bearer of his Son and that Jesus was mothered and brought up in the faith she represents. There is no anti-Semitism in John.
A great red dragon, out to get the child, takes his stand before the woman (and the stars come unglued again). A few verses later, the dragon is specifically named as being Satan, or the Devil. Surely John means to present him as the anti-God and head of the Evil Trinity; we will see a good deal more of him before we are done. (We already have discussed the "iron rod" which the child is to wield. It comes from Psalm 2:9; but in John's mind, it cannot mean simply brutality.)
Satan is well aware that this child is the key to universal history. If he can get the babe, he's got the ball game; if he misses the babe, he loses everything. It is shrewd of John not to have introduced Satan until now; his appearance at this moment pinpoints it as being the most critical of all history. The child is born, and the dragon makes his grab; but he misses, the baby is snatched up to God, and it is all over! The snatching up can be nothing but Jesus' resurrection. John has collapsed the entire career of Jesus into his birth and resurrection; but the move is entirely proper in this sort of symbolic presentation.
The scene was so set that, when the dragon missed his grab, it was all over; and in what follows, John will make it plain that this is just what he meant to say. But how can Jesus' resurrection be taken to signify that it is all over, when it leads directly into the end-time where, as John has so graphically portrayed it, things proceed from bad to worse? It is precisely to this paradox John now will speak; and it is precisely the understanding cf this paradox that will enable John's original readers (and us) to handle the history that must be lived through. We are at the heart of John's argument.
Although her child has been saved, the woman must flee into the wilds (namely the trials of the end-time), there to spend the three and a half years of Evil's domination.
Rev. 12:7-17, The Dragon Thrown Down
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world--he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
"Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!"
13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
The scene shifts to heaven, because that perspective is necessary in order to understand what is happening on earth. Recall what heaven represents in John's thought; it is the locus of the throne, the control room from which earthly history is ordered, the place where the sealed scroll of the future is opened. What we see here tells us much more about the reality of things than does a look at the actuality of earthly events. Noting a racing car's fuel gauge may tell you much more about who is winning the race than to see who is out front at the moment.
Jesus' resurrection both triggers and decides the war in heaven. The dragon and his angels are cast out and no foothold is left them. Thrown out of the control room and with absolutely no possibility of getting back in, it is all over! The matter is decided once for all; there is no way the dragon can save himself or anything of his cause.
The first line of the hymn in verse 10 interprets the event precisely: "Now, have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah." These words come with Jesus' resurrection, which is the beginning of the end-time. But recall that in the chapter just previous we were given a scene from the end, at the close of the end-time, in which the hymn read: "The sovereignty of the world has passed to our Lord and his Christ."
There is no problem; John has his hymnody well in hand. What was accomplished in Jesus' death-and-resurrection was the decisive victory-none other is necessary. Whatever power and sovereignty the dragon henceforth may show is illusory. And what the hymn from the end celebrates is not any new victory but simply the inevitable working out and being made apparent of the heavenly victory that had gone before. Both moments are significant, of course, but only the first is decisive; the second follows from and is dependent upon it.
But where the cast-out dragon lands is upon earth. And he's mad; he comes down clawing and spitting-ready to fight! Yet his fight is not that excited by any prospect of winning; he can't win, and he knows it. No, he is moved by the kind of despair that throws all plan or prudence to the wind and is out simply to be mean for meanness' sake--aware that he has nothing to lose because he's lost it all already). As verse 12 has it, he is in great fury, because he knows his time is short. As those of us realize who have had enough farm experience to have seen it, the most active period of a chicken's life is the first few moments after it is dead; with the cutting off of its head, the body goes into most violent spasms of flopping and lurching around--"like a chicken with its head cut off," as the old phrase so appropriately puts it. John relates that a dragon dies the same way--particularly when it is Jesus who administers the decisive blow.
This tells us something. During the end-time in which we live, as we see the tantrums and traumas growing ever more wild and reckless, it is not an indication that Evil is growing in strength and about to take over. Quite the contrary, it is evidence that the dragon already has been decapitated and can't last much longer. This knowledge, of course, does not change the seriousness of his depredations or the reality of the damage he yet can wreak; but it does enable us the better to stand up under them. Through John, he word of God comes to us: "Hang in, fellow! Hang in! You've got it won, just stay in there until the bell!" And the final bell, be assured, will ring soon!
Rev. 12:11--a great one--tells us what hanging-in Christians can and should do to help hasten the demise of the devil.
- It is by the sacrifice of the Lamb, his death-and-resurrection, and only by his, that the conquest takes place. This is the fundamental and necessary factum.
- Yet, it is through the testimony, the maryria Jesu, Christians make to him that his victory is kept active and the dragon kept confronted with it.
- And this witness, finally, is full powered only when it is supported by and includes the willingness "not cling to life even in the face of death." This victory cost the Lamb everything, and he was willing to give it for our sakes; why do we think it should cost us nothing?
In Rev. 12:13ff., the scene shifts from heaven back to earth, where we see the end-time in progress as Evil focuses its attention on the persecution of mother church. God preserves her, although not in any easy, complacent security. The dragon launches his worst at her, but friends come to her aid. The earth itself and the course of history are on the side of the church. Yet notice carefully that nothing is said or hinted about the church's fighting--or even resisting--the dragon. She is to take care of her martyr-witness and let God do the "sustaining."
With Rev. 12:17, John apparently distorts his analogy a bit in order to introduce a new idea. Historically it seems correct that persecution against the church first focused on the Jewish Christians; later it moved on to engulf the Gentile Christians (among whom most of John's hearers would be counted). This probably is as much as John has in mind with his reference to "the rest of her children"--and would tend to confirm our earlier interpretation of "the two witnesses."
Rev. 13:1-10, Enter, The Beast
18> Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. 1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear's, and its mouth was like a lion's mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?"
5 The beast was given a month uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.
9 Let anyone who has an ear listen:
10 If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
The previous scene brought on stage the great, red dragon. It is significant that, in John's book, he lasted a grand total of six verses before he was dead. But from here on out we need always to bear in mind that it is a dead--although quite active, even hyperactive--dragon with whom we have to deal. He now takes his stand by the seashore, in order to introduce to us his colleagues. John, from his Old Testament background, understands the sea as a soupy place of chaos, darkness, and monstrosity. It is as if this new character stuck his head up out of a garbage can.
This is therion, the beast, the Fancy Fake in a different getup--or perhaps the Fancy Fake seen for who he really is. Yet notice that virtually every detail we are told about him suggests a counter comparison with arnion, the Lamb; Fancy Fake he still very much is.
John constructs the forepart of this beastly description out of the four beasts described in Dan. 7. But then, "the dragon gave it his power"--as God had upon the Lamb. The beast, although living, bears a mark of slaughter upon him--as does the Lamb. The beast leads the world to worship the dragon--as the Lamb leads the church to worship God. The beast has the right to reign (in appearance) for the three and a half years of the end-time--as the Lamb will (in reality) for the thousand years of the millennium. And finally, the beast commands a pseudo-universality that corresponds to the true universality of the Lamb.
Rev. 13:8, then, confirms the point we argued earlier: a person's loyalty belongs either to the Lamb or to the beast--there is no other option. The urgency and cruciality of this choice--plus the fact that the vote seems currently to be going for the beast--moves John to close off the scene with an exhortation: "Be very clear! If you go with the beast, you go with the beast. What he stands for, you stand for; what he gets, you get! God's people had better be ready to stand by and hang in at all costs!" And note that the Lamb's people are identified as those whose names have been written "in the book of life." Here, again, is the basic distinction: those who are in the Lamb have LIFE; outside of him, all is DEATH.
Rev. 13:11-18, And Another, The Unholy Spirit
11 Then I saw another that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performes great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.
The dragon made his entrance out of the air (accidentally, as it were, falling on his tail from heaven). Therion arose out of the garbage-can sea. Number Three now comes out of the ground (he's the dirty one); and his, obviously, is intended as a counter description of the Holy Spirit.
This Unholy Spirit is called "another beast" That could make for confusion; but whenever John talks about "the beast" it seems evident that he has in mind the Antichrist. Elsewhere he calls this third member of the Evil Trinity "the false prophet"; inasmuch as the Holy Spirit acts primarily as teacher and communicator in behalf of God and Christ, so does this one serve his colleagues--although, of course, in a false way. That he has "horns like a lamb's" establishes his relationship to Antichrist, who is a fake lamb. That he "spoke like a dragon" establishes the relationship in that direction.
This beast wields the authority of the first beast and leads men to him--as the Holy Spirit does with Christ. He performs miracles--as does the Holy Spirit (and the coming down of fire could be a reference to the Pentecost miracle of the Holy Spirit's coming in tongues as of fire). Catch the implication; the sheer occurrence of miracle is no proof that the Holy Spirit is at work; the Unholy Spirit can fake that sort of thing. Through his miracles he wins men, leads them into the worship of Antichrist, and even breathes life (false life) into that worship--as the Holy Spirit wins men for Christ, leads them to worship him, and inspires (breathes into them) their spiritual life.
Verse 16, then, brings John to the counterpart of his earlier scene, namely the sealing of the Lamb's people. Again the implication is plain that every person bears one seal or the other; he carries the brand of either arnion or therion; none is unclaimed.
With the observation that "no one was allowed to buy or sell unless he bore this beast's mark," John may be saying something quite profound. "Buying and selling," the whole business of economics, is, of course, one of the central activities of this world; John knows this and will make that knowledge explicit at a later point. "Buying and selling" is the world's big operation; the world has set up the game, defined its rules, and is running the tables; and never forget, the beast is lord of "this world." You won't get very far at these tables, then, John is saying, unless you can show proof that the boss has okayed you. You'll never win at this game unless you're willing to play according to the way of the world.
Now I am confident that John does not mean to say that, if you so much as go to the supermarket, you have sold out to the beast. He probably does not even mean to say that the fact that a person has chanced to amass some worldly riches necessarily is proof that he wears the mark of the beast. Nevertheless, John's observation is true, and we need to be greatly alerted by it: "buying and selling" is the world's game, and you can't go far in it without selling your soul to the boss who runs it.
The parenthesis of Rev. 13:18--and it is significant that the translators have understood it as being a parenthesis--is one of the most difficult passages in Revelation. It is a riddle which, quite plainly, goes along with some similar material in Chapter 17. We can be more effective if we handle the two passages together; let's hold this verse in abeyance for now and come back to it then. Such a procedure will not affect our understanding of the present scene.
Rev. 14:1-5, The Lamb and His Hundred Forty-Four Thousand
1 Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.
John's introduction of the hierarchy of Evil closed with the picture of those who were sealed into that company. The matter immediately recalls those who had been sealed the other way. John moves, then, to the positive side of his counter play. In the process, this move will take us beyond the end-time (which belongs to the side of Evil) and into the end (which is a transition into the Good). We stand now at what would be the spot between Items 6 and 7, if this account were one of the seven-series.
The scene opens upon the hundred forty-four thousand whom we met earlier; they stand upon Mount Zion (Jerusalem), which is their proper location, the home of the church. With them stands the Lamb. This is most significant, being the first time he has appeared on earth since John undertook to portray the end-time. With that, another very interesting thing happens: the scene shifts to heaven--but without any sense of a shift.What is happening is that the line between heaven and earth is beginning to dissolve which is what occurs as Evil disappears. The church on earth and the church in heaven show signs of coming together. That the church--the united church--now sings "a new song" indicates that something is taking place that never has happened before.
By now it is becoming clear that John's "interludes" are not interludes at all, in the sense of being a break in the action for the sake of a break; they are an integral part of his sequence. Think back: In the Seal Series, Part A of the "Interlude" was a picture of the church on earth, the sealing of the 144,000; Part B was a picture of the church in heaven, the numberless throng of those who had washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. The two churches were presented in juxtaposition but as being quite distinct from each other. The "Interlude" of the Trumpet Series, then, gave us a picture of the church on earth being martyred and then resurrected and called up to heaven. The church in heaven was not mentioned, but certainly something was beginning to happen in their relationship.
The Freehand Sketch which we presently are treating, although it is not structured as a series of seven, follows the same sequence of action as the others. The dragon's fall from heaven, his chasing of the woman, and the descriptions of the works of Antichrist and the Unholy Spirit, all correlate with the earlier accounts of the traumas of the end-time. Indeed, the sealing of the beast's people and their domination of the world may be meant as corresponding to the final intensification normally presented as Item 6. The present scene of the church on earth "blending into" the church in heaven comes, then, at the proper spot for the "Interlude." And notice that John's interludes are making progress each time they are repeated; the two churches are moving into convergence--and we will have more to say on that point in a moment. From here, then, we move directly into the two events that consistently characterize the end (normally Item 7): the collapse of Evil's kingdom, Babylon, and the parousia of Christ.
John has been moving the earthly church toward the heavenly church until now the 144,000 stand on Mount Zion. From heaven is heard a song; and behold, it is a new song, the song of the 144,000 alone.
The way John has led up to and now performs this dissolution of the line between earth and heaven tells us a great deal about his concept of the two. He has never understood the basic distinction between them as being a space gap, heaven being up there and earth down here. Rather, "earth" is the historical situation as it actually is; and given the presence of some of the characters we have just met, that means the situation inevitably has a considerable degree of "wrongness" about it. "Heaven," on the other hand, represents the rightness that is coming to be. So, of course, any development toward the elimination of Evil can be portrayed as earth's moving into heaven or a dissolving of the line between them. And this happens, John tells us, through the church.
Yet it is important to note--as we have done previously--that even heaven itself does not represent final perfection, the absolute end of God's work. It represents that which is coming to be rather than the firm accomplishmentof that perfect state. Heaven is sufficiently with earth that, as long as earth is wrong, heaven cannot be entirely right (just as we observed earlier that, as long as any of my brothers are still lost, I cannot be saved to the uttermost; there is too much of me that is of a part with them).
And thus John's heaven still has a temple, a symbol of mediation and thus distance between God and man (11:19); it still has saints crying, "How long, O Lord?" (6:10); it still has talk about what God must yet do for his people (7:15-17).
When, then, at the close of his book, John does present the final perfection that is the end of God's work, it is not simply "heaven." It is "the new Jerusalem," the city come down from heaven. It cannot be identified directly with either heaven or earth, although it includes something of both. It is neither simply earth redeemed nor heaven completed. It is a new work of God which catches up both of these and yet is a new thing. The new Jerusalem is "rightness" in the situation of an "actually now is. " Yet this new Jerusalem is also a "12"-numbered city and a "Jerusalem," the home of the church. It is in and through the church that all this is to happen. Of course, we are not at that point in our story yet; but when the line between earth and heaven begins to go, things are moving in the right direction.
In verses 4-5, we are given a definition of the church of which we speak. What we are told fits completely with what we have been told of the church all along; but this is probably John's most succinct and penetrating statement. At first blush it seems way off the mark--male chauvinism raised to the power of blasphemy. Not only is the Lamb's church exclusively male, but these are men "who did not defile themselves with women"--both sexual intercourse and women themselves are directly equated with evil. But this reading cannot be allowed to stand; if it is, the whole book of Revelation is compromised, in that it would then contradict the gospel which clearly proclaims that "there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).
To this point we have seen nothing indicating that John shared the mentality seemingly betrayed here. Sex distinctions would seem to have been the farthest thing from his mind; he has presented people simply as people.
Almost certainly, then, John now is harking back to the very familiar Old Testament model in which idolatry and other forms of apostasy are portrayed as sexual promiscuity. But no, the church is the virgin bride of Christ, a bride who never has had and never wants any other Lover (except that in this passage--contrary to what we find elsewhere--the church is male; it just goes to show how oblivious John is to sex distinctions). Indeed, John may have it in mind, here, that the particular woman with which the church does not defile itself is the great world whore, to be introduced a few chapters on. In any case, John is speaking of "fidelity" rather than "sex."
Such an interpretation is virtually assured by the next line, which specifies that the 144,000 "follow the Lamb wherever he goes"--which is what "fidelity" means. Also, it goes without saying that the "way" the Lamb goes is that of the self-giving martyr-witness which leads even to death and resurrection. This is the quality and content of the loyalty that typifies the church of the Lamb.
And then, in a new and mind-boggling note, we are told that this church is "the first-fruits of humanity for God and the Lamb." We need to know, first, what a "first-fruit" is; it is a basic biblical concept. With apples or any other crop, it is not the case that one night every fruit is still green and the next morning every one is ripe. No, some naturally will ripen a little ahead of the rest. This first-ripe fruit is the "first-fruit"; and it is very precious in the eye of the farmer, because it is as much as a guarantee that he is going to get a crop. The first-fruit is considered as bringing the entire harvest in its train. Further, in Old Testament practice, this fruit-fruit was dedicated to the Lord as a "thank offering" and an expression that the harvest as a whole was his doing and belonged to him.
This little phrase, then, tells us that the church is not merely that community out of the world which is moving toward heaven--and, with heaven, toward the new Jerusalem. Not at all; the church also is the vehicle by which God means to move "humanity," the world itself, along that course; the church's experience is also the sign of what the experience of mankind is to be. Put these words into the collection of John's universalistic references.
It later will become evident that the primary way in which the church acts as vehicle, the means by which the world is brought along, is by the church's incorporating men into herself; the world is saved by becoming church. Nevertheless, the church dare never act as though she exists only for her own sake, as though her only goal were to get herself saved. Her need to be faithful is a double one, because humanity itself, and not simply her own salvation, is dependent upon it--the first-fruits determine the harvest.
In all this, of course, we are talking more precisely about what the Lamb is doing and will do through the church than about what the church can or will do on her own. Yet this in no way lessens the church's responsibility to he his faithful instrument. And so, as Rev. 14:5 has it, she must be the church of truth; the gospel--and never any lie--must be found on her lips; the fate of humanity hangs on it.
Rev. 14:6-13, The Collapse of Evilís Kingdom
6 Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth--to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."
8 Then another angel, a second, followed, saying, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication."
9 Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, "Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, 10 they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name."
12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.
13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them."
We come now to John's first description of the events of the end itself; recall that, in both the Seal and the Trumpet Series, he backed off from or jumped over the spot without actually describing it. As the TimeLine indicates, the end is signaled by two different events:
- the collapse of Evil's kingdom, and
- the parousia of Christ.
The present scene portrays the first of these. In the scene just previous, we saw at least the beginning of a movement of the church (the Lamb's people) toward heaven. Now in what is probably a deliberate counter play, we see a movement of the beast's crowd in a different direction.
It is highly significant that the scene opens as it does with "an eternal gospel (good news)" being proclaimed universally "to those on earth." The good news, obviously, is the possibility of repentance: "Even if you have been part of this evil kingdom right up until now, to the very point of its collapse, you don't have to go down with it. It is not too late; turn to God and be saved!" Yes, the proclamation does have an urgency about it and does itself call for action on the part of the hearer; but if it isn't good news for those to whom it is addressed, I don't know what would be. Ask yourself, also, whether it would be accurate for John to term this possibility of repentance an "eternal gospel" if he has in mind that the invitation will terminate the next moment in the fall of Babylon. The eternal gospel proclaimed to the whole earth belongs in our collection of universalistic texts.
A second angel follows the first, proclaiming that Babylon, the great whore who symbolizes promiscuity (as opposed to fidelity), has fallen. As a much more detailed scene will establish later, Babylon is the city of this world, of "worldliness," and thus the very capital of therion's realm. Babylon falls--but notice carefully that neither here nor anywhere else is there a hint that she was attacked by outsiders. There are no armies from heaven, not even a thunderbolt. More significant, there is no suggestion that the Christians had been working to subvert her, that they had plotted a revolution designed to overthrow the regime of Evil, not even that they had huffed and puffed in an effort to blow the house down with their railing.
John's book customarily is classified as apocalyptic.Likewise, the mood of the revolutionist, liberationist movements that have swept both society and the church in our own day customarily has been identified as apocalyptic. Yet if that connection has any validity at all, it obviously does not hold on this most central point: our modern movements organize to overthrow wicked regimes; John stands by to watch them collapse.
John's picture here fits in beautifully with his earlier scene of the dragon's fall from heaven. A headless chicken can't sustain its frenzy for very long--and inevitably that whirl is going to end in total collapse. Just so, structures built upon evil cannot stand for very long; they have no foundations. In our own history, we have seen the relatively weak and insignificant communities of God's people--both Jewish and Christian--outlast the imposing edifices and impressive power alignments of regime after regime, civilization (so-called) after civilization. Yes, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!" And we do not simply have to take John's word for it that this will happen in a grand smash at the end of history; we have seen Babylon fall time and again. And that being the case, John makes it plain that the Christian's call is to be doing the self-giving service and making the self-giving witness that moves the church toward heaven and makes it the firstfruits of humanity--this, rather than being out trying to engineer things in Babylon itself.
The third angel comes with a message which, both in its placement and basic content, clearly is appropriate and as much as inevitable. The word of warning must be heard: "You people who have chosen to build your pleasant homes in Babylon, who have found the life of the world so attractive and convenient, who either through deliberate choice or carelessness have let yourselves be marked for the beast--you must know that, when Babylon goes, you go. The situation is of utmost seriousness; please, please give some thought to it!"
That much certainly is in place-and even part of the good news. It is a favor to a person to warn him of a danger he has not seen. But even so, most of us will feel that John has overdone it when he talks about "the wine of God's wrath," "the cup of his anger," "tormented in fire and sulfur before the Lamb," "the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever." The issue no longer has to do simply with whether punishment is a proper and necessary part of justice and how much and what kind of punishment is enough. Now it becomes a question of the basic character of God and the Lamb; the language is the sort that has been associated with the dragon and beast up to this point.
I do not at all claim to have a neat solution for this problem; I will try to offer what help I can.
- The easy move--and one a number of scholars are inclined to take--is to suggest that John did not write this passage; someone else stuck it in. I do not feel it justified to go such a route in this case. In the first place, regarding the overall structure of John's thought, this entire scene of the fall of Babylon is just too "right" to suggest that he did not have it here. In the second place, the three angelic messages together--and even the basic idea behind the third message--are so much a part of one another and so typically "John" that it is hard to believe they are not all original.
- Whoever wrote these words, we must not let them determine our own understanding of God and Christ; the whole thrust of the Bible is too much the other way.
- We dare not even allow these verses (and a few others yet to come) determine what we will accept as being John's understanding of God and Christ. The book of Revelation, in and of itself, has too much evidence pointing another direction--evidence that includes our entire collection of "universalistic" texts, plus much other material. Both in amount and emphasis, that material far outweighs anything of the tenor of what we find here.
- Although we must take care to be honest about the actual wording that appears, it also is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to interpret the words so as to make them as consistent with the rest of John's thought as is possible. In relation to any speaker, it is we who have the control of our own bias as to what construction we will put upon his words; try your best, now, to hear John as a teacher of the Christian gospel--which we have abundant proof he is.
- In this regard, even if the passage carries implications we cannot accept, we dare not allow them to turn us off to the truth that is present.
- At any number of places, the Bible speaks about "the wrath of God." Scholars have given a great deal of attention to the phrase and come to the conclusion that it should not be read as carrying the implications we normally give to the word "wrath." When applied to God, "wrath" does not describe an emotional state with overtones of rage, irrationality, self-assertion, and destructiveness. God's "wrath" is rather an aspect of his deep sense of justice. His concern is wholly that things be made right; but he also knows that the only way this can happen is to let evildoers feel the "wrath" they have created for themselves. If God did not let men know that he has this concern and feels this way about evil, they could never know what love is represented in his efforts at saving them from that evil. Even a very small child, found playing in the street, catches on that the consequent parental "wrath"--including even a swat or two--is the expression of a love that cannot stand to see the child destroyed. This consideration is not adequate entirely to resolve the difficulty of this passage; but use it as far as it will go.
- In Rev. 14:11, the phrase "for ever and ever" should be translated "for the aeons of the aeons"; it does not necessarily denote endlessness. If the torment has the possibility of an end, it can be understood as redemptive in character. If it has no possibility of an end, then, of course, there is no way it can be understood as redemptive.
- This passage will need to be put alongside some others yet to come suggesting that even punishment after death has a redemptive purpose behind it.
- Rev. 14:12 shows us where John wants the main thrust of this passage to come. His primary purpose is not in giving us the satisfaction of seeing bad people fry (and we ought not try to deny that there is in us that which does take satisfaction in such a scene). Many of the people who would be most upset over this passage from Revelation are quite willing to use a rather similar sort of language in regard to this or that public official or some other favorite target of their own "righteous indignation." But John is not indulging such feelings; he is warning God's people of what can happen if they relax in their endurance and lose their loyalty to Jesus.
- It may be that John's language has distorted his thought--and to whom has this not occurred? In such case, let's go with his thought!
The third angel spoke of what is in store for those who bear the beast's mark. In Rev. 14:13, a voice from heaven appropriately winds up the scene with a beatitude regarding those who belong to Christ: "Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord" [i.e., since faith in Christ was made possible through his death and resurrection]. "Yes," says the Spirit, "They may rest...." They have nothing to fear from all the punishment now taking place; their forehead-seals attest that they have accepted the lordship of Christ and lived in loyalty to him.
Rev. 14:14-20, The Parousia as Harvest
14 Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! 15 Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, "Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe." 16 So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
17 Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, "Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." 19 So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. 20 And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse's bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.
The fall of Babylon is the first event of the end; the parousia of Christ is the second; we are now at the second. It is presented here as a harvest (a most appropriate figure), based upon a suggestion from Joel 3:13 and with much of the imagery taken from Isa. 63. It is a double harvest: a positive grain harvest of blessing and a negative grape (wine) harvest of "wrath."
In the first instance, the harvester is "one like the son of man" (the phrase from Daniel which John already has used as identifying Christ); he wears "a golden crown on his head"; and it is, by the way, appropriate that he uses a "sickle" rather than his two-edged sword (this is a harvest and not a battle scene; judgment is not involved). There would seem to be no doubt at all that John intends this as an account of the parousia. That an angel must come from the heavenly temple to give the signal may be John's way of affirming what Jesus himself had said, that not even the Son knows the day and hour but only the Father.
Particularly in light of the previous scene, it is important to note that John very explicitly dissociates Christ from the grape harvest of wrath; a mere angel is the harvester there. Yes, the wrath is a proper and necessary aspect of God's plan; but it is not the proper work of Jesus Christ; he is to be preserved as the symbol of forgiveness and redemption. This is somewhat different than people being tortured by fire before the Lamb.
The wine that flows from this winepress is, of course, human blood; people are being killed. Yet we need to realize that "getting killed" does not have quite the same significance for John as it does for us. We tend to see death as signifying finality. But "dead and gone" was never John's phrase; he paints on a canvas large enough that he can include characters who would be off the edge for other artists.
With John, the dead go on playing their roles almost as though nothing had happened. We already have seen this regarding the saints of the earth-and-heaven church; but we will see it regarding bad people as well. For John, death (first-order death) is a transition of comparatively minor theological significance. Certainly John intends the bloody winepress as a symbol of punishment; but just as certainly, it is not for him a symbol of annihilation.
For calendarizers who might be interested, I can report that some clever head has figured out the amount of blood that could be squeezed from an average human being and divided that into the volume of a puddle two hundred miles in radius and as deep as a horse's bridle. His conclusion is that, even if everyone went through the press of wrath, the cumulative population of the world still has not been nearly enough to provide the juice. It's a bloody shame!
Copyright (c) 1974