Revelation (Part 32): Readying for Wrath
Here is the chiasmus again as an outline for how we are proceeding through this section.
1. Angel Message 1: Eternal Gospel (14:6–7)
2. Angel Message 2: Babylon Fallen (14:8)
3. Angel Message 3: Beast Followers Drink Wrath (14:9–11)
4. Dead in Christ Blessed (14:12–13)
5. Gathering of Good and Bad (14:14–20)
6. Singing the Song of Moses (15:1–4)
7. Wrath of God (15:5–16:21)
8. Fall of Prostitute Babylon (17:1–18:24)
9. Christ, the Word, Rides Forth (19:1–21)
We are readying to discuss point 7—the Wrath of God—which corresponds to point 3—the third angel message that speaks of the beast followers (or human-focused) drinking wrath. I want to discuss another couple of ideas that derive from point 3 that correspond with the next few points before we begin with the wrath of God in point 7.
Under point 3, we read in verse 10 that the beast worshippers will be “tormented … in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb.” Why is that? What is the purpose in emphasizing that the human-focused will be tormented specifically in the sight of angels? Will they care? Do we care? Do the angels care? Do we care whether the angels care?
Obviously this statement is not some throwaway idea with which John (and God) wanted to fill up space. Understanding this point has to do, I think, with understanding the purpose for the angel ministry throughout this book. Time after time we find (and realize) that angels (messengers) act as the means to bring revelation to God’s people. John has angels explaining things to him personally (in the style of Daniel). John also has angels shown as the messengers of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Fittingly as well (although we haven’t studied the section yet), Christ gives messages to angels as a means of revealing to the churches in the seven letters of Revelation 2 and 3. So overall, we note that angels are used again and again as a literary (and/or other) device to show revelational message delivered to us.
Here then, as angels witness the torment of the human focused, we should understand, I believe, that the message of their ongoing torment is something that we need to realize during this time in which they live with us through this age. We have been told (back in chapter 11) that we are witnesses through this age. Witnesses not simply to watch, but to bear the testimony of the gospel. Realizing the fact of the torment of the human focused should not result in us drawing away from them, but rather pursuing them with the gospel and the hope of redemption.
But it also does speak to us personally in this age. As we realize the sufferings of this age, we may be encouraged based precisely on our hope. We know that we are forever knitted to God. Our eyes are set on his truth, goodness, and beauty. This reminder, that in this age we watch the despair of the human focused, strengthens our endurance in living in faith through these still troubling times. And verse 12 of chapter 14 tells us that this scene “demands the perseverance of the saints.” And again, even here we see the connection with the angels as delivering the message. John uses the same word—holy—as an adjective for the angels watching the torment in verse 10 and for the ones (us) who must persevere in verse 12.
The bowls of wrath section has its official beginning in verse 5 of chapter 15. But back in verse 1, the subject seemed to begin before being interrupted to present the song of Moses. Many Christians have wondered why the seemingly false start of verse 1. I believe that what we have seen through the three central points of our chiasmus is a series of contrasts between the rest given to the God focused and the torment given to the human-focused. Notice in chiasmus point 4, the dead in Christ are blessed. How are they blessed? Verse 13 tells us that they will find rest. Of course, this rest refers to our innate desire for truth, goodness, and beauty in relationship being satisfied in the truth, goodness, and beauty delivered in relationship with God. In that same section we read the contrast for the human-focused who, we are told, have no rest day or night. Our next point, the central one of the chiasmus, contrasts the God-focused being gathered to God by Christ to their rest with the gathering of the human-focused to wrath. So then in the third of the three central points of the chiasmus, again we need to see contrast. In 15:2–4, we have the redeemed singing Moses’s song of victory and deliverance as they cross the sea to God and their rest. To create contrast to that scene of rest, John inserts verse 1 giving a preview of the bowls of wrath that are prepared for the human-focused—the unredeemed—of this age.
Before we turn our attention fully to the passage showing the bowls of wrath, we need to try to understand what exactly is the wrath of God and how he expresses it.
First, let’s look at how God shows his love. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God speaks of relationship as the demonstration of his love. In passages too numerous to list, God tells Israel that he will dwell or live or walk among them. (Here are a few: Ex 29:45, Lev 26:12, Zech 2:10–11, Zep 3:15, and Is 12:6.) This all comes into fulfillment in Matthew 1:23 as Matthew clarifies this birth of Jesus as the birth of Immanuel, which means God with us. And in the end, we read in Rev 21:3 that indeed God’s dwelling is with humanity. We learn in James 4:8 that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. Thus, God with us—coming to us, turning toward us, living with us—all speak of God’s love and favor and the dissemination of his glory—his truth, goodness, and beauty—to us. In this our God loves. And indeed we say God IS love (I John 4:8) because of the gift of himself to us in relationship.
But would it be right to say God IS wrath? I don’t think so. Before the world began, God—being God alone—did not engage in wrath. It was not a necessary characteristic that he had to display. It came about only in reference to his creation turning away from his essence in truth, goodness, and beauty. So God is not, in his essence, wrath.
How then does God express wrath that is not part of himself? He does so by doing the exact opposite of what he does to bring love. He brings love in his being by turning toward the one to be loved. He delivers wrath by withholding—turning himself away—from the one to whom wrath is delivered. Think of it this way: the opposite of light is dark. But how do we define dark? We define it as the absence of light. Just so, the wrath of God is defined as his absence.
This only makes sense. If God is truth, goodness, and beauty (not just lives according to those virtues, but actually IS—is the source of—truth, goodness, and beauty), the turning away of God is the turning away of truth, goodness, and beauty. What is left when truth, goodness, and beauty are gone? The horrible is left—pain, ache, frustration, agony, despair, loneliness—and every evil imaginable. And so we read how God judges. He took his faithful love away from Saul (2 Sam 7:15). We read in Romans 1 that he gave over those who turned from him (the idea of giving into the hands of another).
And how does God intend us to act toward evil? We are his image bearers. We image our God. And so we are instructed as well to turn away (I Cor 5:13, Eph 4:31, Ps 101:7).
But does not the Bible say explicitly that God acts in hostility toward evil doers? That doesn’t sound like simply turning away. While true that it doesn’t sound like it to us, it is only because our turning away doesn’t carry with it the enormous effect as when God turns away. God turning away is an action that yields immeasurable horrific consequence to that from which he turns.
And notice how the Bible marries the two ideas of God acting in furious hostility with his turning away. Leviticus 26:23–24 read as follows: “If in spite of these things [God’s discipline] you do not accept My discipline, but act with hostility toward Me, then I will act with hostility toward you.” The same contrast is given in verse 27–28 as well. God says if you act a certain way toward me, I will act in the same certain way toward you. God calls their action “hostility” toward him. What precisely did they do that is characterized as hostility toward him? They…turned from him. They went off to worship other gods. They did not listen to him. And so God promises he will perform the same hostile action toward them, which must mean that he will turn from them. And in his turning away, terrible consequences result.
The opening of the wrath of God section in Revelation 15:5–8 reveals seven angels carrying the seven plagues of God. They come out of the sanctuary, which is the tabernacle of testimony. The reference to the tabernacle of testimony is an OT reference. The tabernacle was called this because in it—in the naos or Holy Place and Holy of Holies—the testimony (10 commandments in stone) were carried. The reference here links that testimony or witness or evidence with God’s plan and purpose—his Zion purpose. All the good as well as the wrath are delivered in this age for the purpose of revealing, confirming, and executing his Zion purpose: gathering those of faith (and turning from everything else) for everlasting love relationship.