If people believe anything about God today (if they believe in God at all) it’s that he is good and loving. I’ve heard someone say on more than one occasion that they like Jesus, but they really don’t care for all the talk of judgment in the Bible. The thing is, Jesus says more about judgment (hell to be exact) than any other figure in the Bible. In fact, he will be the one sitting in judgment over people at the end of history. He is loving, but he is just also.
This essay focuses on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. It is a “revelation from Jesus Christ” delivered to the church through the apostle John (Rev 1:1-2). Most of us aren’t very well acquainted with this book of the Bible. Probably the main reason is that few teach from it. And the reason for lack of teaching is often the symbol-laden content of the book. The apocalyptic genre, which Revelation falls into, is not a literary genre one is likely to find on the New York Times Best Sellers list. No one writes this way today. So when we come to Revelation, we really don’t know what to do with it. The next two essays (including today’s) come from this strange book. We’ll look at chapter fourteen this time, and chapters twenty-one and twenty-two next time.
The Proclamations of the Three Angels (Rev 14:6-13)
We pick up our look at Revelation 14 with verse 6. This section, verses 6-13, contains three angels with three messages. Why the use of angels to declare these messages? The safest answer is that in apocalyptic literature angels frequently proclaim divine messages.
The First Angel
The first angel proclaims the “eternal gospel … to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev 14:6). The exact content of the angel’s message is: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7). A couple of things are interesting about the angel’s message.
First, the angel proclaims the gospel without any mention of Jesus, the cross, or the resurrection. Now this doesn’t mean what the angel proclaims isn’t the gospel, or only a partial gospel. It is not always necessary to unpack everything that the gospel means. The emphasis here is on the necessity of believing the gospel to escape God’s judgment. That’s certainly part of the gospel message, although I admit it isn’t everything. One may assume the angel’s message is meant to elicit repentance of sin and trust in Christ from “those who live on the earth.”
Second, one might say that the reason to “Fear God and give him glory” is not only that the hour of judgment is at hand, but also because he is the Creator of everything, including those created in his image. This language should draw our minds back to Genesis 1–2. The God who created everything deserves all glory and worship, precisely because he is above all else and everything is dependent on him.
The Second Angel
The second angel announces that “Babylon the Great” is fallen (Rev 14:8). Who is “Babylon”? Babylon is referred to six times in the book of Revelation (14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21). It is usually used in one of three ways: (1) “literal Babylon, because the name of the Euphrates River also appears (9:14; 16:12); (2) a code name for Rome, which Peter [and early Christians] apparently used (1 Pet 5:13); and (3) a reference to the converging of evil in particular places throughout history.”[i] Most scholars argue for (2) and (3).[ii] I tend to think (3) is correct, because of what is to take place in Revelation 14:14-20. What the second angel proclaims is the certain end of all evil over all human history. A time is coming when those who have lived in direct opposition to God will fall under his just judgment.
The Third Angel
The third angel declares the fate of everyone who receives the mark of the beast (14:9-11). I don’t think the mark of the beast is visible, in the sense that 666 is tattooed on people’s foreheads or hands. The reason it doesn’t make sense is that God’s people, those “purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb” have the “Father’s name written on their foreheads” (14:1, 5). I know of no one (although there may be someone) who argues that Christians, during this time or any other time, will have printed on their foreheads “the Lord.” In the context of the book, everyone receives one mark or the other. Either you receive the mark of the beast or that of the Lord. This is just a symbol-laden way of saying one is either an unbeliever or a believer. One serves and worships Satan or God.
Now to the fate of those who bear the beast’s mark. First, the third angel states, “they … will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath” (14:10a). God’s wrath has been poured out at other times in the biblical record. The ten plagues unleashed against the Egyptians is one such instance. As horrible as those plagues were, they were not the “full strength” of God’s wrath. In the ancient world, wine, after the fermentation process, usually contained about 15% alcohol (30 proof). Often, the wine was cut with water anywhere from 1 part wine to 10 parts water or 1 part wine to three parts water for daily consumption.[iii] So, one may say that the ten plagues or even the great flood of Genesis 6 was God’s wrath cut with, say, his mercy. However, when the Day of Judgment comes, the full strength of God’s wrath will be poured out on all his enemies, including human beings who refuse him in this life.
Second, the angel states, “They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb” (Rev 14:10b). “Torment” is a very descriptive word. Torment with burning sulfur is even more descriptive. Given the symbol-laden character of apocalyptic literature, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to interpret this as real physical burning with sulfur, no more than I think it is necessary to take the descriptions of heaven, like streets of gold, to mean that the streets of heaven are paved with real physical gold. Rather, the images in the book serve to stimulate the horribleness of separation from God and the gloriousness of communion with him. That is not to say there aren’t a real hell and a real heaven. The Bible certainly indicates that such places exist. But the images of hell should instill fear, while the images of heaven should elicit praise of the one who fills it.
Some may wonder what we’re to make of the phrase “the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb.” Does this refer to only the judgment of God’s enemies on the Day of Judgment? Does it refer to the angels and the Lord in some way reveling in the destruction of the wicked? Does it mean that God and the angels, those in heaven, are always cognizant of what is going on to unbelievers in torment? I’m not sure any of these are the right referent. I tentatively think that this means something like those in torment are always aware of what they refused, enjoying God forever.
Third, the angel declares that this state of suffering will go on forever. They will never have any relief (14:11). Just as believers will eternally dwell in heaven, so unbelievers will experience torment forever and at all times.
This section closes with a warning and encouragement. The warning is for believers to be mindful of the eternal torment that awaits all who are outside of Christ. It is a means that God uses for his people to keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus (14:12). The encouragement is also for Christians. Believers who die in Christ receive their eternal reward. They go to be in the presence of the Lord forever. The trials and difficulties of this life end, and they no longer have to battle against the temptation to sin. As the text says, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (14:13).
The Harvest of God’s People (Rev 14:14-16)
The remainder of the chapter describes the harvests that are to take place at the end of the age. The first harvest that is described is the “grain harvest.” Although the phrase “grain harvest” doesn’t appear in the text, the verb “is ripe” (Gk. xērainō) in verse 15 is typically used to indicate the ripeness of wheat or barley. A different verb for “is ripe” (Gk. akmazō) is used of the ripeness of grapes in verse 18. Since there is no mention of judgment or punishment, we must assume the harvest in these verses is of God’s people, Christians. The “son of man,” that is Jesus Christ, is the one who reaps this harvest. That an angel dispatches the message to him for the readiness of the harvest shouldn’t surprise us. The angel comes from the “temple,” the dwelling place of God, in this case, God the Father, to tell Jesus now is the time for harvest. This is in keeping with what Jesus reveals in the Gospels and Acts about not being privy to when the Day of Judgment and gathering of God’s people will happen (cf. Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32; Acts 1:7).
The Harvest and Punishment of God’s Enemies (Rev 14:17-20)
The next harvest is the “grape harvest” and describes the gathering of God’s enemies. The language is again that of judgment and punishment of the wicked. It is extremely graphic language. Those who are gathered will experience the “full strength” of God’s wrath (Rev 14:10). The image is of grapes thrown into a winepress so that the juice can be pressed from the grapes. In the ancient world, and even in some places today, grapes are tossed into a large barrel or stone structure with holes near the bottom, so that the juice can be squeezed out and collected. People step up and down on the grapes to supply the pressure to juice the fruit.[iv] So what we have here, in Revelation 14, is the image of God’s enemies being thrown into a winepress to be trampled by God himself (Jesus is the one who treads the winepress in 19:15) to the extent that their “blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia” (14:20). 1,600 stadia comes to about 180 miles or 300 kilometers according to the NIV footnote. While this should not be taken literally, in the sense that Jesus will actually stomp God’s enemies, it does provide a picture of the severe end of all who oppose God in this world.
Theological Reflection & Application
Several things need to be said as we close out this chapter of the history of redemption.
- These passages remind us of God’s sure and final judgment against all sin and those who continue to commit it willfully.
- The fact that God will and does judge sinners does not negate the fact that he is a God of great love and astounding grace. All of us deserve what happens to God’s enemies in Revelation 14. But for those who repent of their sin and trust Jesus alone for salvation there is forgiveness. Neither are we God’s enemies any longer, but his friends and his sons and daughters in Christ.
- God does not revel in the destruction of his enemies, particularly his image bearers. The Bible quotes God saying, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall … For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:30b-32). Elsewhere he also declares, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (32:11). In Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time, he weeps over the city because in large part they have rejected him as the Messiah (Luke 19:41ff). In another Gospel, Jesus expresses his desire to gather the Jewish people into the people of God under the new covenant and spare them from judgment: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Matt 23:37-38).
- All this talk about God’s wrath and judgment should cause us to remember another time and place where the full measure of God’s wrath and judgment against sin was meted out. Just outside the city of Jerusalem, some two thousand years ago, Jesus hung between heaven and earth to be punished so that we would not have to be. Here we see the greatest display of both God’s love and wrath in a way we will never fully comprehend.
[i] Simon J. Kistemaker, Revelation, NTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 409.
[ii] Some who argue in favor of (2) are: Craig S. Keener, Revelation, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 373 and Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 538. Some who argue in favor of (3) are: Kistemaker, Revelation, 409 and Leon Morris, Revelation, TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987; Reprint 2009), 173.
[iii] Mark Wilson, “Revelation,” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, vol. 4, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 334.
[iv] John C. H. Laughline, “Winepress,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, eds. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003), 1675.