Given my theater background, I was tempted to title this sermon, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. But it is not that. Revelation 15 is much more serious. Here we have seven angels delivering seven plagues. Let’s read Revelation 15 together and see what the Lord might be saying to us…
I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb:The Victors
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, 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.”
After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened. Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests. Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.
First, let’s talk about the victors in this part of John’s vision.
The victors stand beside a fiery sea of glass reminiscent of the Red Sea crossed by Moses and the Israelites. It is fiery, perhaps, because of the shekinah glory of God, the glory cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness by day and that turned into a pillar of fire at night.
The song that the victors sing is the song of Moses. It is like the song that was sung after the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea. The actual words are lifted by John from various Psalms and other Scriptures. (Psalm 111:2,3; Deuteronomy 32:4; Jeremiah 10:7; Psalm 86:9; 98:2)
John is sending a clear message with all this imagery. Just as the Israelites were delivered from slavery to Pharaoh, so also, his Christian community will be delivered from persecution under Domitian. They will be delivered by the Lamb of God.
The victors are also holding harps. This identifies them for us as none other than the 144,000 we have already met earlier in Revelation. The 144,000 are martyrs but they are also symbolic of all followers of the Lamb.
The Song of the Victors
Second, let’s talk about the song of the victors.
Let me begin by asking a question: what is it that attracts people to worship? I bet if we went around the room right now and each of us answered that question, we would have several different responses. For my part, I made the decision to start attending church, at a time in my early teen years, when my parents didn’t go, because a friend my age invited me.
One thing is almost certain. I would be willing to bet that none of us would say, “I come to worship because of God’s judgment.”
And yet, that is what it says in verse 4. Those who have been victorious over the beast, mentioned a few chapters ago, sing a song in which they say, “All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” This is a quote from Psalm 86. Some translations of Revelation 15:4 have the word “judgments” instead of “righteous acts”. The word in Greek can be translated either way. What is going on here? Who would come and worship God because of his judgments?
One answer is: people who perceive themselves to have been wronged, and who also view God as a righteous judge, they might just come to worship God because of his judgments.
I know this seems a bit foreign to most of us. That’s because we tend to view God’s justice like a courtroom scene and we have been trained, by our Christian tradition, to view ourselves as the defendants in that courtroom. We are sinners after all, and what we are hoping for, in God’s courtroom, is mercy, not strict justice per se.
But how would it look from a different perspective in the same courtroom? What if you were the plaintiff rather than the defendant? And what if you had been longing for justice, for things to be set right, for some time? If that’s how you view God’s judgment, then you will be happy when your day in court finally arrives.
This latter view of God’s courtroom is the view that predominates in the Old Testament. Israel viewed herself as a helpless little nation caught between superpowers, the Poland of her time. Israel viewed herself like a child repeatedly wronged by the neighborhood bullies. Thus, Israel longed for her day in court. Israel’s belief was that God was a righteous judge, and one day he would indeed set all to rights.
This second perspective on God’s courtroom seems to be one shared by the writer of Revelation, and so for him, God’s judgment is a welcome thing—a thing that should make all the nations come and worship.
But there is something else to consider. There is a note of hope here. I realize that we are about to see bowls of God’s wrath poured out on unbelievers. But it is still John’s hope, that once warned, these same unbelievers will come to worship God in Christ. In fact, John hopes and believes, that all nations will come to worship the Lord.
G. B. Caird writes,
What is this revelation of God’s justice which the martyrs are applauding? It can hardly be the sentence of doom which the seven angels are about to execute, because it is given as the reason for the confidence of the singers that all nations will be brought to the worship of God. The best way to discover what John meant by God’s just decrees is to ask by what means he thought the nations would be drawn to God, for to that question there can be only one answer: it was God’s decree that the death of the innocent should bear eloquent and persuasive witness to the redeeming love of the Lamb. By implementing this decree God has proved to the world that he is ‘both just and the justifier of anyone who puts his faith in Jesus’ (Rom. iii. 26).
In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto myself.” At the cross, God took his own judgment upon himself. And this judgment, does it not draw out of us our praise and worship of the Lamb who was slain for our sins?
The Avenging Angels
A third thing I want to talk about in this part of John’s vision is the seven avenging angels. They bring with them the seven last plagues. We will talk more about these specific plagues next week. But again, this is reminiscent of the story of Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. They were delivered through ten plagues being visited upon Pharaoh and his people when Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. The story from Exodus reminds us that God gives repeated opportunities to all people to repent and do what he asks. It is only when we are resistant that we must face the pain inherent in rejecting God’s way.
Notice, the avenging angels are dressed like Jewish priests. This image fits with the fact that we are looking into the heavenly tabernacle.
Austin Farrer has pointed out that the bowls that the angels carry are libation bowls. “The libation, or drink offering, was poured at the daily sacrifice just after the trumpets had begun to sound, so that by placing bowls in sequence to trumpets St. John maintains the sequence of ritual action which began with the slaughtered Lamb, continued in the incense-offering and passed into the trumpet-blasts.”
Bruce Metzger notes that the word for “bowls” denotes vessels that are broad and shallow, shaped like a saucer, so that their contents can be poured out completely and suddenly. “Seven angels with seven saucers”—how does that sound?
The “Unapproachable” Glory
Fourth, let me say something about what William Barclay has called “the unapproachable glory” in this passage. In Revelation 15:8 we read…
And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.
As with so many of his images, John takes this one from the Old Testament as well. When Moses dedicated the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later when Solomon dedicated the Temple that replaced the tabernacle, the place was filled with a cloud, so that the priests dared not go into minister until it departed. Also, when Isaiah saw God in the Temple, the place was filled with smoke.
This is all symbolic of the fact that God is shrouded in mystery. The end of Revelation 15 reminds us that God’s holiness involves not merely goodness. It also involves what Rudolf Otto called “the numinous”. Our Judeo-Christian tradition is made of a fabric that includes non-rational numinous experience as the woof as well as the rational and ethical as the warp.
… we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, mysterium tremendum… The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. . . It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.That is what we meet in Revelation 15, and in fact, throughout the book of Revelation. We meet a God who is at once holy, mysterious, other, and at the same time gracious, loving, forgiving, approachable. Surrounding God there is a mystery that is both tremendous and fascinating.
God’s wrath, mentioned in verses 1 and 7, is part of what Barclay calls God’s “unapproachable glory”. The English word “wrath” appears 152 times in the Old Testament and just 29 times in the New Testament. The Greek word for wrath, θυμοῦ, accounts for 18 of these occurrences in the New Testament. 10 of these are in Revelation. The word is used both of God’s wrath and human wrath. Human wrath is condemned whereas God’s wrath is not. As Fleming Rutledge says,
God’s anger … is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object, but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and the fact that he has come to set matters right.
And N. T. Wright has noted that…
The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.
John draws the idea of the cup of God’s wrath from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. In Isaiah 51:17 we read,
Rouse yourself, rouse yourself! Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering.
Judah and Jerusalem had experienced God’s wrath against sin when they were sent into exile.
But then in Isaiah 51:22 we read,
Thus says your Sovereign, the Lord, your God who pleads the cause of his people: See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath.
Isaiah was telling his people that God was now going to judge their oppressors. John had a similar message for his community. Yes, they had suffered persecution from Rome, but now Rome was going to experience the wrath of God.
The amazing thing is not that John speaks of the cup of God’s wrath but that there is hope amidst this dreadful picture. John holds out hope that eventually all the nations will come and worship the Lord. “All the nations” includes Rome. I think John would have agreed with the prophet Habakkuk who prayed…
O Lord, I have heard of your renown,
and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.
In our own time revive it;
in our own time make it known;
in wrath may you remember mercy.
In conclusion let me say this. In considering John’s vision of the tabernacle in heaven we must not become so focused on what is at the periphery of the picture that we forget what is at the center. Remember what was in the very heart of the tabernacle on earth—the Ark of the Covenant. That was the place where the blood of the sacrifice was poured on the mercy seat.
Paul writes of this in Romans 3:21-25…
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
That phrase, “sacrifice of atonement”, is one word in Greek, ἱλαστήριον. It is the word that designates the mercy seat in the tabernacle and later, the Temple. Paul is telling us that Jesus is now our mercy seat. He is our place of atonement. Jesus is the place where law and grace meet, where wrath burns away sin, leaving only love.
As I said in an earlier message: God is not mad at us, he is mad about us. In his wrath he doesn’t want to burn us up. He wants to burn away everything that makes us less than human. His wrath is the flip side of divine love.