On God's Wrath

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 12, 2015

Revelation 14-16 *Jesus Wins: On God’s Wrath *

A Somber, but True, Subject
Today we are going to talk about a somber, but true, subject. Today we are going to talk about God’s wrath.

The Bible, as a whole, is good news. But it is only good news as we realize how insistent the Bible is on our guilt and condemnation. The good news doesn’t make much sense apart from the bad news.

But these days, you aren’t too likely to hear much about the bad news. Religious and secular liberals have decided that God’s wrath is just too distasteful an idea to be true. If God is really a loving God, they reason, then He would never send anyone to Hell. It’s just beneath Him.

Church growth and religious media types don’t say much about God’s wrath because it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to appeal to seekers. Postcards that invite folks to learn about the God who is angry about sin don’t usually bring them flocking in.

If a preacher does talk about God’s wrath, he’s usually dismissed as a right-wing, fundamentalist whack-job full of bigotry and hate.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s not a popular doctrine.

But that doesn’t make it any less true. Like I said, you can’t make much sense of the good news of scripture without understanding the bad news. It doesn’t mean too much to say that Jesus saves you unless you understand what a terrible destiny He has saved you from.

And the Bible, throughout, is very clear about our guilt and the terrible condemnation it brings on us.

Just consider a brief overview of the Bible. In Genesis, you have God’s good creation, but already by chapter three the first man and woman have sinned and you have God’s pronouncements of pain in labor, weeds in the field, and banishment from the Garden. By chapter four you have murder between brothers and all this mayhem and infidelity leading up to the cataclysmic flood of chapters 6, 7, and 8.

In Exodus, you read not only about the evil of slavery and oppression of God’s people, but also evil in the people as they whine and complain to Moses and debase themselves in front of the golden calf.

Then comes Leviticus and all these sacrificial rules and the thing you cannot overlook is how bloody it all is. If there’s one thing we need to know about temple worship in the Old Testament it is that it would have stunk like a slaughterhouse. Why so much blood? Because of guilt. Because bloodshed is the penalty for sin.

And keep going. Judges is horrific in its description of the lawlessness of the people. 1st and 2nd Samuel have these stories of wonderful heroism, but also breathtaking barbarity. King David, a man after God’s own heart, falls into terrible sexual sin and then murders to cover it up. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us about the rise and fall of all these dynasties that just can’t stay loyal to God. The writings of the prophets are filled with direct statements of devastating judgment straight from the mouth of God.

And, of course, in the New Testament Jesus probably had more to say about judgment than any other single individual in the Bible. He pronounces terrible woes on the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount—the same place where He talks about turning the other cheek—He says: “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven…I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21, 23)

All of this to say, the themes of guilt and judgment flow through the entire Bible. It is the background of bad news that makes the good news so good. And so when we come to a passage like Revelation chapters 14 through 16, which describes judgment so vividly and talks about “seven bowls filled with the wrath of God,” we cannot simply dismiss it as a sort of aberration in a book that is otherwise all about love. We need to realize that wrath is a prominent part of God’s revelation to us.

So, we’re covering three chapters today. I’m not going to be able to talk about everything here, so I’m going to focus on Revelation 14:6-20 and the picture of judgment it presents, and then I’ll grab a few thoughts from chapters 15 and 16 at the end. There are four things we are going to learn about God’s wrath.

The Fate of those Who Follow the Beast
So, Revelation 14, starting at verse 6. This section begins with the appearance of three heralds, or angels, each offering a proclamation.

6Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. 7He said in a loud voice, "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."

The first angel flies above the earth so he can be heard by all. His message is for those who “live on the earth”, which is a phrase we have seen repeatedly as a sort of shorthand way of talking about those in opposition to God. You have two camps in Revelation, those who belong to God, and those who belong to the earth (or the beast). And we get another familiar phrase: “every nation, tribe, language and people.” This is a universal message.

And what the angel proclaims is the eternal gospel—that is, the message that Jesus saves us from the punishment our sins deserve. Therefore, the angel says in verse 7, everyone should respond with worship to the God of all creation, “because the hour his judgment has come.” This is like one last warning cry.

Then comes the second angel. Verse 8:

8A second angel followed and said, "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries."

This takes the warning cry a step further.

This is our first introduction to Babylon in the book, but we’re going to hear a lot more about her in the chapters to come. Babylon is portrayed as a great prostitute, a sort of evil queen consort to the beast. Remember what I’ve said about the devil trying to imitate God? The dragon, the beast and the false prophet make up a false trinity. They wanna be like God, but fall short. Well, Babylon is like that. God has the church, which is portrayed as His bride. Satan has Babylon, which comes of as an adulterous woman.

And the thing is, as soon as we’re introduced to her, we’re told she is fallen. She’s leading the nations astray, making them drink the “maddening wine of her adulteries”. But she’s doomed. We’ll consider Babylon more next week.

Then the third angel begins to speak. Verses 9 and 10:

9A 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, 10he, 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 sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.

Here’s where all this is going: if the people of the earth will not heed the warning, if they insist on drinking the wine of Babylon, then they’re also going to get a taste of God’s wine.

The cup of God’s wrath is a fairly common Old Testament image for describing God’s judgment. You’ll remember that just before His arrest—which would lead to the cross and the outpouring of all of humanity’s sins upon His shoulders—Jesus prayed that, if possible, the Father would like this cup taken from Him. It’s the same idea.

And here, we’re told that the “wine of God’s fury” is poured “full strength”. In the ancient world, common practice was to cut wine with water. But not here. Now God is pouring it out full strength. This is 100 proof. This is Hell.

And the first point that I want to make is that God’s wrath is the destiny for those who deny and defy God. Do you see that in verse 9? We have these two camps, we’ve been talking about them throughout Revelation. Those who belong to the earth, and those who belong to God. Those who take the mark of the beast, and those who are sealed by the Spirit.

And here’s what happens to those who take the mark of the beast: they drink the wine of God’s fury.

The point is, Hell is real, and it awaits those who deny and defy God. In a way, for all its vivid pictures and colorful symbols, Revelation is very black and white. Either you deal with the wrath of the Beast here on earth, or you face the wrath of God for eternity.

Hell is described here as burning sulfur. That’s clearly a symbol, a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. I don’t know if we’re supposed to expect literal fire. Other places describe Hell as utter darkness (i.e. Matthew 22:13, 2 Peter 2:4). I’m not sure if you can have both. But the point is, just because it is symbolic doesn’t make it any less serious. If anything, it makes it worse. John has to resort to metaphor in order to get across the point of a very dreadful reality.

For Ever and Ever
The third angel goes on in verses 11-13:

11And 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." 12This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
13Then I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on."
"Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them."

Here you have a contrast between those who die in the Lord, and those who die in opposition to Him. And the difference, you’ll notice, is a difference in rest. For those who follow the Lamb, there will be rest from their labor. For those who follow the beast, there is no rest day or night.

Here’s the second thing we learn about God’s wrath: it lasts forever.

The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. Later, in chapter 20, we’re told that the unholy trinity—the dragon, the beast and the false prophet—will be thrown into a lake of burning sulfur where they will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” There is no escape clause from Hell.

Some people teach an idea known as annihilationism. They suggest that those subjected to God’s wrath will at some point be given an opportunity to repent, and if they refuse then God will wipe out their existence. They’ll be annihilated. They’ll simply cease to exist.

The argument, again, is that a loving God would never punish souls for eternity. But this passage is very clear in its use of “for ever and ever”, and there is nothing else in the Bible to suggest that there is ever a point when anybody’s soul will simply cease to exist.

Moreover, there’s nothing to suggest that people in Hell will ever be given a chance to repent, or even that they would be willing to. The whole reason people will be sent to Hell is for choosing to reject God. For the pride of putting themselves ahead of God. Punishment is not going to make them repentant, so much as it will cause them to further rebel—sort of the way a petulant toddler responds to discipline by digging in even deeper.

There is no escape clause from Hell. It lasts forever.

The Right Time
At verse 14, we get another scene change. From the three heralds, we now switch to two pictures of harvest. First, the wheat harvest:

14I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one "like a son of man” with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. 15Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, "Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe." 16So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.

Here’s the third thing we learn about God’s wrath: judgment will come at the right time.

The “son of man” in verse 14 is clearly the Lord Jesus. And He’s pictured something like the grim reaper here, harvesting the people of the earth. I don’t think that the idea of the Grim Reaper originates here, and I’m guessing you’ve never associated Jesus with that image, but it is a reminder that, ultimately, Jesus is in control of life and death.

The image also brings to mind the parable of the wheat and the weeds, where all the people of the earth—good and bad—are gathered at once. And that seems to be the idea here as well.

The emphasis of these verses, though, seems to be on the timing. The time is right, declares the angel, the harvest is ripe. So the Son of Man swings the sickle, and boom, it’s over.

While we may not know God’s plans or timing, He does. And judgment will come at the right time.

Tramping out the Vintage
Then verses 17-20, the grape harvest:

17Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, "Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth's vine, because its grapes are ripe." 19The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God's wrath. 20They 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.

This is one of the most terrifying images in Scripture, and that seems to be the point. The fourth and final thing we learn about God’s wrath is that it is horrific. There is a violent thoroughness to God’s wrath.

The imagery shifts from a wheat harvest to a grape harvest. You want to be wheat, you don’t to be a grape. What is pictured is the winepress. The children and servants of the grape farmer take all the grapes and throw them into a giant vat and they clean off their feet (at least I hope they do) and they role up their pant legs and they jump into the vat and they start to tramp down the grapes. They just stomp, stomp, stomp until all the grapes are smashed and the juice starts to run out of the little holes in the bottom.

Only here, it’s not grapes that are being smashed, but people. The people who defy God. And it’s not grape juice that is produced, but blood.

Blood that rises 5 feet, 6 feet high—however high a horse’s bridle is—and flows out over 1600 stadia, or about 180 miles, said to be the approximate dimensions of the promised land.

Again, this is symbolic, we shouldn’t expect to see Israel covered in blood. But that doesn’t make it any less horrific. There is a violent thoroughness to God’s wrath. When the time is right and He pours it out full strength, when He stops holding it back, it will be awful.

Take Away
So, again, this is one of the most somber sections of scripture. God’s wrath is real, it’s a truth clearly taught in the Bible. It is for those who deny and defy God. It lasts for ever. Judgment will come at the right time. It is almost indescribably horrific.

Now, what can we take away from this passage? What is there for us to learn? If we move into chapters 15 and 16, which continue on the theme of judgment and wrath, we can find three observations to take home with us.

First, notice how deeply sin is imbedded in the human condition. Those who suffer God’s wrath show no inclination of changing their ways.

Chapter 16, verses 8 and 9:

8The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch the people with fire. 9They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.

Verse 11 says essentially the same thing: those experiencing God’s wrath “cursed the God of heaven” but “they refused to repent of what they had done.”

Hell is a place people choose, however warped that sounds. It is a place people choose because they are unwilling to acknowledge that God is God and they are not. And so people in Hell will keep on sinning, and be punished. And they’ll respond by sinning more, and be punished. More sinning, more punishment. Sin. Punishment. And on and on and on forever.

J. Vernon McGee writes: “This reveals that the human heart is incurably wicked. No amount of punishment will purify it and change it.” The only thing that will break through hard hearts like this is a work of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes we think that we can just go on sinning and defying God now, and change later. But this is clear, it might turn out that we are unable and unwilling to repent. We need God’s Spirit to come and clean house.

Second, notice how God is just to be pouring out these judgments. The justice of God’s punishment reveals His holiness.

In chapter 15, those who have overcome the beast and remained faithful to Jesus are pictured as a heavenly chorus and they sing:

Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the ages.
4Who 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."

Notice the attributes they praise God for: “Just and true are your ways”, “you alone are holy”, “for your righteous acts have been revealed.” God is being praised because of His justice. He has handed out a just sentence on evil.

Then, again, in chapter 16 an angel cries out:

"You are just in these judgments,
you who are and who were, the Holy One,
because you have so judged;
6for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve."

7And I heard the altar respond:
"Yes, Lord God Almighty,
true and just are your judgments."

There is something undeniably terrible about the doctrine of God’s wrath.

And yet, at the same time, must we not admit that we need God to be a God who judges evil? Would we want to live in a world where evil has no consequences? Oh, sure, we’d like to live in a world where our evil is ignored, but don’t we really want sin to be dealt with?

We need God to be a just God. We want Him to be just. And the whole point of Hell, just like it was the point of the Cross, is to demonstrate that God is holy and just when it comes to dealing with evil.

And so we worship our Holy God. We praise Him, because Hell reminds us that in truth, God is good.

Finally, notice how we are called to be ready. We need to be ready for the final outpouring of God’s wrath by taking refuge in Jesus.

Revelation 16:15:

Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.

In my Bible, this verse is printed in red ink, because it is understood to be a statement of Jesus. He is saying that He could come at any time, without warning.

And it is not so much about being caught in your pajamas or your drawers, so much as a military metaphor. A soldier in battle would want to sleep with his equipment nearby. Alert soldiers would be ready to spring into action at any moment.

And the clothing we are called to have here is the clothing of the righteousness of Christ. That’s our only hope of escaping God’s wrath: we need to take shelter in Jesus.

Passages like this, on God’s wrath, serve as a dire warning, but also an invitation. It’s not that the Bible is excited about people going to Hell. It’s not like it can’t wait to catch you and snatch you up and throw you into the pit of suffering. The Bible doesn’t contain these passages on God’s wrath because it delights in the prospect.

Rather, it wants you to know the truth so you can take the appropriate action. This is the fate of those who do not take Jesus as their Savior. You have to know the bad news in order to see why the good news is so good. This passage is in the Bible to urge you to flee the wrath of God. The third verse of Rock of Ages puts it like this:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling,
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me Savior, or I die!

Wash me Savior, or I die! That’s the cry Revelation 14-16 is meant to bring. So take warning. Fly to Christ as your savior.