Chapters 14-17 - Judgement Day - Revelation 14

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 2nd March 2008.

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A couple of years ago a judge became famous for his slightly unorthodox judgements. Judge Cicconetti who is a court judge in Ohio in the USA believes that not only should criminals be punished for their crimes, but they should also have to feel something for the people they have made victims. So for example, when Michelle Murray was convicted of abuse against animals for dumping 35 kittens in a forest, she was expecting a short jail sentence. But Judge Cicconetti had other ideas. Not only would she receive a jail sentence but she would also have to spend a night in the forest on her own to experience what the kittens felt. “I wanted to set an example for anyone else who was contemplating doing such a thing,” said the judge. His judgements are always novel. Yes, criminals pay the price for their crimes, but their punishments fit the crime. Two teenagers who defaced a nativity scene in a local town by writing 666 on the Jesus figure were told to walk through town leading a donkey which had a sign on its back saying “sorry for the donkey of an offence.” Another couple of teenagers who pelted a neighbour’s car with paintballs, were forced to paintball their own car and then wash off the paint as well as having a hefty fine and community service. Now all this makes the point in a rather light-hearted way that justice matters. We long for justice in our society. And when a judge imposes what appears to be a just, albeit novel, penalty then he gets a lot of credit. What we hate is when criminals get off scot free or their sentences are meaningless. And sadly in our world, that seems to happen on a regular basis. 

            Well one of the themes that runs through the book of Revelation is the theme of justice. If you’ve been with us these past few weeks as we’ve looked at the book, we’ve seen that Revelation is a book mostly about today. It’s about what happens before the Lord returns and when he does return. And we’ve constantly seen three themes reoccurring. The sovereignty of God- God is on his throne and is totally in charge, even over the evil that seems to run riot in our world. The victory of Jesus- the great battle in Revelation is not Armageddon in the future but Calvary in the past- Jesus has won the victory. All that is left is the mopping up operation. And thirdly the security of God’s people. Amidst all the chaos, we are secure spiritually speaking, sealed with the seal of the Lamb. And alongside those three key themes runs the theme of justice. Again and again we’re promised that justice will be done. God will act in justice to punish wrong doing, and especially those who rebel against him and who persecute the people of God. If you remember back in chapter 6 vv 9-11, we saw when the fifth seal was opened, that the people of God are under the altar and they are crying out for justice. They say: “How long sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” And we have never really had a satisfactory answer to that question. The saints were told to wait a little while longer. But we have not yet seen judgement come in the book. Now the trumpets of chapters 8-9 were a partial answer and the seventh trumpet at the end of chapter 11 showed us that judgement would come. But still we’re not there yet- we’ve not been given a clear picture of the judgement of God. And as we’ve gone through the book, the cry of the saints has been heightened, because chapters 10-13 that we looked at over our last two sessions showed us that in the church age, the time between the first and second coming of Christ, the people of God will be persecuted. There will be great trouble for those who follow the Lamb. And when we go through tough times, and when we face persecution and ostracism for the sake of the gospel, or when we or friends and family face injustice, then we ask, “how long O Lord?” But as we near the end of the book, we find that question is beginning to be answered. Jesus will show us that justice will be done and be seen to be done. And chapters 14-17 which we’re looking at today really answer that fundamental question, “How long O Lord?”

           

            Now of course in a passage this size, four chapters, we’ve only got time to look at basic themes. There is a lot of detail here. But these four chapters reveal four characteristics about judgement. In one sense all these chapters overlap slightly. If you remember our TV football match illustration with the different camera angles and action replays, then the same principle works here. John will show us the same picture but from different angles, pictures of judgement working out at the very end of time and also today. And it needs to be said as well that these chapters are among the most sobering of he entire Bible. It gives me no pleasure to speak on judgement. But it must be done, because it is clearly in the Bible. And to ignore it or to write it off as merely symbolic is highly dangerous and extremely foolish. However unsavoury we find these chapters this evening, we need to humbly sit under God’s word, not over it, and see the implications for us. And we’re going to see four aspects of judgement from the four chapters.

1) Judgement Explained (Chapter 14)

2) Judgement Proclaimed (Chapter 15)

3) Judgement Experienced (Chapter 16)

4) Judgement Expected (Chapter 17)

1) Judgement Explained (Chapter 14)

So first then in chapter 14, we see judgement explained. Now to my mind Revelation 14 is one of the most gruesome pictures of final judgement in the whole Bible. There is some shocking and disturbing language here. But it’s written to warn us and to urge us to press on following Christ. The chapter shows three angels bringing messages about this final judgement to come in verses 6-20. So let’s ask four questions. First who is doing the judging? Well notice in verse 10 that the judgement of those who reject God happens in the presence of the holy angels and of the lamb. The Lamb, Jesus, is present somehow at this judgement. Now quite how this works, whether we are to imagine Jesus literally standing over hell, or whether more likely it’s symbolic is not immediately clear. But the implication is that this is the work of the Lord Jesus himself. And notice in verse 14 how the one who has the sickle, who will harvest the earth and bring judgement is one like a Son of Man. That’s a reference to Jesus that we saw back in chapter 1. The clear teaching is that Jesus is the one who is Lord over judgement. Now that’s not a truth that is explained only in this passage. It’s told us many times in the New Testament. The person who will judge is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. For he alone knows what it is to live the human life and he only is uniquely qualified to judge as the only perfect fully human and fully God. As God he knows and sees all things. As man he understands humanity so that no-one can accuse him of injustice. It is Jesus who judges, the one who is perfectly loving and compassionate, and at the same time perfectly just. The wrath of Jesus at human rebellion is just as much a part of his perfect character as the love of Jesus. And that is something we often fail to grasp. So if you and I find that we’re about to read too much to stomach, remember the one who judges- Jesus- the very same Jesus who cradled children in his arms and had compassion on the dregs of society. Reject this teaching and you ultimately reject the character of Jesus himself. This is the Jesus who judges.

            But the second question is who is the judgement for? Well notice in verses 9-10 what is said: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury.’” All the way through Revelation we have been faced with a division in humanity. You either worship the beast, that is Satan and his minions, or you worship the Lamb. You are either marked with the mark of the beast or the seal of the lamb. You either face the wrath of the Lamb in the future, or the wrath of the beast now. The question is who do you want to follow and whose wrath do you want to face. And John’s point here is that you do not want to face the wrath of the Lamb. For his wrath is directed at all those who follow the beast, that is all those who reject Jesus as their Saviour and King. They may be lovely, moral people from all walks of life, all creeds and backgrounds, but in their heart of hearts they worship the beast. They don’t follow Christ, the follow Satan, either consciously or subconsciously. That’s the plain teaching of the book of Revelation. Judgement will fall on those who reject Christ.

            Thirdly what will judgement be like? Well let’s read from verse 9 again: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.’” Put very simply this judgement is eternal. The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast. And notice too in verse 10 how such people drink the cup of God’s wrath full strength. There’s a sense in which the judgement of God that we see in this world, which the seals and trumpets and bowls describe for us- those judgements are somewhat diluted wrath. God has not yet poured out his wrath on the earth full strength. He is merciful. He is patient, giving more opportunity for repentance. But the time will come at the end of time, when, we might say, God’s patience runs out. Judgement will be poured out full strength. And whilst all this language is symbolic, yet it is not so symbolic that it is devoid of meaning. We are meant to think that this judgement to come is horrific. There is just no getting round it. So in verses 14 and following, John describes two harvests. Judgement will be like a grain harvest where the crop is cut down and brought in for sifting. Or in verses 17 and following, we read of a grape harvest. Verse 19: “The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God's wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses' bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.” What we are witnessing here is a great winepress. The grapes are thrown in the press and then trampled down so the juice flows out to be collected at the bottom. Except here it is people who are thrown into press and they are crushed and their blood flows out for 180 miles and rise to a height of four feet. It is truly very gruesome and very sobering.

            Now some people might well say, “How can a God of love do such a thing? I cannot believe in a God who sends people to such hell.” Well we could spend a long time answering that question, but bear in mind these things. It is Jesus who spoke of hell most graphically and most clearly. Jesus the God of love. He does not lie and he is not meaning to scare us. He loves us and wants us to see where we are heading if we reject him. But remember too that God is a God of perfect justice. We simply cannot grasp fully how horrific sin is in God’s eyes, how much of an insult our rebellion is to his character. Yes, as a God of justice he must punish. But as a God of perfect justice, then no-one will suffer in hell more than is right and just. And if you say that you cannot believe in this God, then ultimately you cannot believe in the cross of Jesus Christ. Because on the cross Jesus bore hell for you and me. Somewhere along the line, hell has to happen. The question is, who will it happen to? Will you allow Jesus to bear it for you, or will you take it yourself. But we cannot say I don’t believe in a God who sends people to hell. Because that’s where he sent himself on the cross. But there’s another thing about hell. And that is there is no repentance in hell. We saw that in chapter 9 and we’ll see it again in chapter 16. Perhaps one of the reasons why hell is eternal is because people refuse to repent. They go on sinning. And the more you sin, the more you must face the consequences.

            So it begs the question is there a way out? Is there a way of not facing such judgement? Well wonderfully that is what the first five verses of chapter 14 tell us. There are a group of people who will not experience hell. And they are God’s people. These are people who in verse 3 have been redeemed. Are these people better than anyone else? Not at all. Christians deserve hell as much as anyone else. The only difference is that we have been rescued. We’ve been saved through the cross of Christ. And that is a gift that is open to everyone. So if you are not a Christian here this evening, then I urge you to trust Christ’s forgiveness and death on the cross. Otherwise you will receive this judgement of God’s wrath full strength.

            You see the doctrine of judgement is not an idle academic interest. It is highly emotive. I have friends and family who are heading there as we speak. Never treat this subject lightly, or joke about it. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a minister in Dundee in the 19th century, and every Monday, he and his friend Andrew Bonar would go walking to talk and pray about the previous weekend. And one time, Andrew Bonar told M’Cheyne that he’d preached on hell the Sunday before. And M’Cheyne turned to him and said: “Did you preach hell with tears in your eyes?” Judgement is a reality. It is rooted in the character of God. Believe it and repent while there is still time.

             

2) Judgement Proclaimed (Chapter 15)

Chapter 15 introduces us to the seven bowls and also builds on what we have learnt in chapter 14, so we discover here judgement proclaimed. And again before the chaos of chapter 16 we get a picture of the people of God. Often we’ve seen in Revelation how we’re given a picture of awful judgment but also we’ve seen how in the midst of it, the people of God are secure. So verse 2, John sees the people of God victorious over the beast. It’s a picture of the end, when God’s people are victorious. Notice they are beside the sea. And if you remember from chapter 13, the first beast came from the sea. The sea was symbolic for evil in Jewish understanding. And remember too that the people of God in Exodus were brought through the red Sea to safety. So to stand beside the sea means to stand in victory over the beast, or evil, who came from the sea. So it’s no surprise that the song they sing in verse 3 is the song of Moses and the Lamb. It’s the song of Moses because the victory achieved in Jesus is the new Exodus. Back in Exodus 15, the people of God sang Moses’ song of victory and deliverance after God rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. But now God has rescued his people in a greater exodus, through the cross of Christ. So here are the people of God having conquered over the beast and the forces of evil, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb. And particularly in verse 4 the people of God praise God for his true and just ways, his righteous acts. So verse 3: “Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true 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.” God is righteous and true and just when he judges the earth. And the people of God have eyes to see that. And they praise God. In other words, they proclaim and praise his judgement. And if it’s not clear already that judgement comes from the hand of God, then in verses 7-8 it is crystal clear. The judgements of the bowls to come appear from the throne of God. Verse 7 it’s one of the four living creatures who we saw before the throne of God, who gives the bowls to the angels to pour out on the earth.

            Now as I read this, I find it an immense challenge to what I like to praise God for. You see we are happy aren’t we to praise God for his love, for the cross of Christ, for his kindness and grace in our lives. But how about his judgement? How about praising God for the realities of chapter 14, for hell? That’s a different matter isn’t it? It’s not that we’re to gloat over those who face judgement. Nothing could be more crass and dishonouring to God. But there is a right sense of praising God for his justice. It is a mark of God’s character that must be delighted in and rejoiced over. It’s just as important as his love or his grace. And it might help us on the question of whether in heaven we can cope with the knowledge of the reality of hell. For the simple truth is that now we are sinful. We do not see things from God’s perspective. In heaven we will be perfect and will see things perfectly from God’s perspective. Judgement is a good and right thing, and the people of God praise him for it. It’s all a question of how big an understanding of God you have. Judgement proclaimed.

3) Judgement Experienced (Chapter 16)

Thirdly in chapter 16 we see judgement experienced. Chapter 16 is a chapter that tells us about the seven bowls of God’s judgement. This is the final series of seven after the seals and the trumpets. But there is something a bit different about these judgements. For a start they are called in 15 v 1 the seven “last plagues, last because with them the wrath of God is completed.” And whereas with the seals and the trumpets a third of the land was destroyed or a third of the sun etc, here total judgement is seen. There are no thirds here. Rather God’s judgement is poured out on the whole earth. What do these bowls represent? Well there is more judgement to come in chapter 19, so we’re not at the end yet. And yet there is an intensity in the bowls that we have not yet witnessed. But it maybe that we are simply seeing things from a different perspective than the seals and the trumpets. There those judgements were warnings to repent, even though some refused to repent. But here the judgement is full! The bowls are last because John sees them last in his series of visions. And God’s wrath is completed because after this, the time for full judgement has come. There is no more delay after this. So here we are perhaps seeing more judgment on the earth, before Jesus returns, things which are happening now, but for some such judgements only harden their hearts. And as one commentator has put it, for a good number of people these judgements are the end, because they die. There is no more time- their end has come.

            So what is happening? Well bowls 1-4 describe disasters coming upon the earth. These are horrific judgements afflicting people on the earth or at sea. Notice in verse 2 how such things seem to happen on those who follow the beast. These are judgements on those who are not Christians. It’s not that Christians do not suffer disasters in the last times, but here John is describing specific judgements on those who refuse to worship God. Bowl 5 in verses 10-11 refers to judgement being poured out on Satan’s throne. Darkness covers it, which is a reference to the fact that Satan’s kingdom is darkness. When people decided to follow Satan as opposed to Jesus they are given what they want- darkness. In judgement God gives them over to what they want to do.

            Bowls 6-7 however, describe something a little different. Here it seems we are taken to the very end of human history, because John describes a great battle taking place in v14 at a place called Armageddon. This is the only reference to Armageddon, but the battle is mentioned several times in Revelation. What we are seeing here is a symbolic attack by Satan on the people of God for one last chance against God and his people. John calls it “the” battle. We’ll see it described again in chapters 17, 19 and 20. It’s a massive attack on the church. We saw something similar in chapter 11 when the two witnesses were killed. At the end of the last times, just before the Lord returns there is a massive bout of persecution against the church. Many people make much of this battle, but there is much here that is symbolic not least the three frogs in verse 13. But the point is, as we’ll see next time, no sooner is this battle started, then it’s all over. Jesus will come and utterly destroy the forces of evil. Satan might think he can rise up and defeat God and his people, but there is no chance. He is defeated instantly. And so bowl seven in vv 17-21 describe the end as judgement falls.

            So here again we are seeing judgement falling now but it’s also pointing us to the end. And the whole point of these judgements is that we are meant to see them as signs. Signs that the end is near- the next thing in God’s diary so to speak is the return of Christ. It might take a while to happen, but it’s coming. And so we need to be ready, verse 15. But notice what happens in verses 9 and 11. Surely you would think that all this judgement would make people repent? No- all it leads to is hard hearts and a refusal to come back to God. Never be surprised when people turn their backs on God even in the toughest times of life. For some it might lead them to turn to God for help. But for many they will simply shake their fists in God’s face and curse him. It’s very sobering to realise isn’t it that when judgement falls, men and women still refuse to repent. That’s what happens when judgement is experienced.   

4) Judgement Expected (Chapter 17)

Then finally we see judgement expected. And this is the judgement that will fall on Babylon in chapter 17. Now we looked at part of this chapter when we looked at the beast in chapter 13, and we’ll see more of this next time, but let’s just get a little taster of what happens. John sees a prostitute in verse 1, and she’s committed adultery with the kings of the earth. Not only that, but she’s in league with the beast, which if you remember represented Satan working through the state to oppose Christians. It’s no surprise then that we’re told that this woman is drunk with the blood of the saints, in verse 6. It’s a grotesque image to show that this woman is responsible for the church’s persecution. And in verse 5 we’re told who this woman is. She is called Babylon. Now in Biblical imagery Babylon whilst a real kingdom in the 6th century BC, also came to represent humanity in opposition to God. She became symbolic for humanity indulging herself and fattening herself on wealth and power, and opposing all who get in her way. A prostitute is a very apt image, for Babylon sells herself to the latest fad that comes her way and indulges till she is drunk. It’s human civilisation proudly going her way without reference to God. And she actively opposes the people of God because they live a different way. And in John’s time this human pomp and pride was perfectly fulfilled in the Roman Empire. Whilst there was some good in Roman civilization yet it was also a picture of humanity indulging herself in every conceivable way, sexually, materially, religiously, and ignoring God.

            But in verse 15, Babylon’s fate is sealed. And ironically, she is destroyed by the very being with whom she has formed an alliance. Verse 16, it’s the beast which destroys the prostitute. It’s a picture of how quickly human civilization can turn in on itself and destroy itself. Proud sinful humanity is heading for destruction. There is no doubt about it. Her destruction foretold in chapter 14 is coming true. 

            Now all of this teaching on judgement gives us a huge challenge. Because we need to see that judgement is coming. It’s a certainty. It’s been explained to us, it should be proclaimed by God’s people, it is being experienced now to a certain extent, and it is expected in it’s fullness when God’s judgement falls on Babylon, sinful humanity. So how are we to act in the meantime? Well 14 v 7 in a way sums up the message of the book: “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.” When faced with the reality of judgment, of hell itself, we need to work out who we worship. The question is who will drink the cup of God’s wrath? Will we drink it ourselves, proudly refusing to worship our creator? Or will we allow Jesus to drink the cup of God’s wrath for us, something he did on the cross? That’s the stark choice Revelation lays before us. And if we have decided to follow Christ, then the challenge in the meantime comes in 14 v 12: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” Remain faithful. Don’t be swayed. Justice will be done. Keep faithful.

So as we finish, let me tell you about one young girl who did just that, a teenager who understood the book of Revelation and the character of God, and who lived it’s message passionately. Her name was Lady Jane Grey. If you know your history, you’ll know that Lady Jane Grey ruled England for nine days in 1553, between the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, until she was executed by Mary for so called heresy. The heresy that Jane died for was the Christian faith and a belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For what many do not know was that Jane had a very strong faith. Now when Jane died she was just sixteen. That’s the age of someone in Mark 2. And Jane was willing quite literally to put her head on the block for the sake of the gospel. She refused to deny her faith. And just days before she climbed the scaffold to be executed she wrote this to her father: “Although my death may seem to you to be woeful, yet to me there is nothing that can be more welcome than to go from this vale of misery to that heavenly throne of all joy and pleasure with Christ our Saviour.” And on the 12th February 1554, she saw her Saviour face to face. She made the right choice but it cost. May God grant us courage to walk in her footsteps.

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