The End? Making sense of judgment

Our 20th stop in the journey together through the book of Revelation has brought us to chapters 15 and 16.  A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

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“It’s not fair!”” Our craving for justice.

“Where is the justice?”  How do you feel when another corrupt politician escapes the law through bribery? Or when another rapist go free because of sloppy police work? Or gang members buy off another local police precinct to look the other way?

We are all born with an innate sense of right and wrong, a desire for justice.  Justice affirms there is indeed a universal right and a wrong and particular right and wrong within a community (customs and traditions).  Justice demands retribution (punishment) and reparation (restoration) to allow reconciliation (peace).  A system of justice aims to act for the weak ones in society, who are ignored by the powerful ones in their pleas for justice.   Without justice, there is no peace.

A lot of judgment. The middle section of Revelation (chapters 6-20) is devoted to God’s just judgments.  For fourteen chapters God’s wrath is being poured out as seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls in natural disasters, great wars, cosmic chaos and celestial visitations. Knowing that this is heavy reading, the Author graciously allows for interludes depicting God’s care for his people and his invitation to participate with his  work of redemption. 

These judgments are in response to the rebellious nations’ idolatry, immorality and violence (9:20-21), and in particular the suffering saint’s cries for justice (6:11; 16:7).  These three sets of judgments illustrate increasing intensity, inviting repentance, yet repeatedly we read the wicked nations “cursed God” and “did not repent”.

Before we make sense of these three sets of judgments together, let’s get an overview of  the bowls (chapter 15-16). 

Victory in the fire.  The scene opens again with a contrasting view similar to the previous chapter (chapter 14). The saints are depicted as victorious over the Beast, at peace and worshiping while the fires of God’s judgment are lighting up the world (15:2; compare 4:6; 5:10; 14:3).  They sing about God’s “righteous acts” (15:4) from the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), the lyrics which describe the judgments being poured out not only in the seven bowls (chapter 16) but also the seven seals and seven trumpets.

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Just, holy wrath.  These bowls of judgments are portrayed as coming from the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle (15:5-8).  By referring to “the Song of Moses” (15:3; Deuteronomy 32), these judgments on the wicked and rewards for the righteous are depicted as the blessing for obedience (Deuteronomy 27-28) and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 29-32) recorded in the Law and kept in the Most Holy Place in the Dessert Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 31:24-30).    

Patient in mercy. These bowls of judgments are called “seven plagues” (15:1).  As God demonstrated his patience towards Pharaoh and Egypt, allowing 10 times to repent before every plague, we also see God’s rich mercy allowing for the nations to turn from the rebellion in repentance to him.  But the nations did not repent from their wickedness and cursed God (16:9, 11, 20).

Plagues (again?)  The judgments poured out over the earth allude to the plagues against Egypt through which God delivered the Hebrews from slavery and oppression (15:1; refer Exodus 4-12).  Here the seven bowl judgments are directed at the kingdom of the Beast, his city Babylon, and those who bear his mark (16:2, 10-11, 19).  The first five bowls of judgment result in painful sores, death of the sea creatures, rivers becoming like blood, the sun scorching people, and anguishing darkness (16:2-11).

The sixth bowl dries up the Euphrates river, making a way for the “kings of the East” to invade the land, resulting in a battle at Armageddon (16:12-16).  As we commented on sixth trumpet blasts, this 6th bowl judgment hints to the immanent threat of the Parthian army, who were advancing East of the Roman Empire at the time of John’s writing – an immediate threat to the seven cities to whom this Revelation was directed.

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The pouring out of the seventh bowl results in hailstorms and a massive earthquake “like never before”, sinking islands, flattening mountains and destroying the cities of the nations – in particular Babylon (16:17-20).  Still the nations cursed God and refused to repent – as Pharaoh did.

Sound familiar? There are great parallels between the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls, especially the last two sets of judgments (see table below).  All of these contain allusions to the fulfillment God’s promises in the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) to which Jesus also alluded in his end times teachings (Matthew 24).  Deuteronomy 32:22-25 (famine, plague, pestilence, wild animals and the sword) is the substance of the first four seals, and 32:41-41-43 is the substance of the last two seals. With a slight change in order, the seven trumpets and seven bowls follow a similar pattern, alluding to God’s plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-11).  The first five come by means of natural disasters, the last two by warfare.

Seven Seals

(Revelation 6)

Seven Trumpets

(Revelation 8-9)

Seven Bowls

(Revelation 16)

1.      Conquest

2.      War (civil)

3.      Famine (& injustice)

4.      Death by war, famine, plagues, wild animals (earth)

5.      Persecution

6.      Cosmic collapse.

7.      Silence.

1.      Earth stricken

2.      Sea stricken

3.      Rivers stricken

4.      Sky stricken

5.      Torment (darkness)

6.      Warfare & Conquest

7.      Final judgment.

 

1.      Earth stricken

2.      Sea stricken

3.      Rivers stricken

4.      Sky stricken

5.      Torment (darkness)

6.      Warfare & Conquest

7.      Final judgment.

 

As mentioned before, these judgments increase in intensity: the seals affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3 of the earth, and the bowls all the earth (compare 6:8; 8:7-10; 16:2-10).  But they are similar in nature, seemingly repetitive.

How then do we read and respond to these sets of judgments?

We must remind ourselves that apocalyptic genre does not allow us to read these images as literal, once-off events.  Just as we don’t see Christ literally having seven eyes and seven horns (chapter 5), so we don’t expect talent-sized balls of hail (about 40kg! 16:20) or all the sea turning into blood at once (16:3).  Also, apocalyptic genre does not allow us to take these judgments as occurring chronologically in 21 consequential acts of judgment.  John did not write what happened next, but what he saw next.  Note the great similarity in both pattern and content.  The 7th seal, 7th trumpet and 7th bowl each indicate the Last Judgment or Final victory of the Lamb.  Why then three sets of seven judgments?

  1. Three perspectives on God’s judgments are highlighted in these three sets of judgments.    The seals are Christ’s perspective on these judgments, reminding us that only One is worthy to unfold God’s redemptive purposes through his cross.  The trumpets are the rebellious nations’ or Beast’s perspective on these judgments, alerting us to God’s victorious advance over the pagan kingdoms.  The bowls are the Church’s perspective on these judgments, depicting the judgments as God’s response to response to the prayers of the saints (8:5).   Thus we are always to see God’s judgments as God’s Christ’s redemption of creation, as God’s discipline on pagan kingdoms, and as God’s answers to the cries of the saints for justice.
  2. Just and Mercy.  As noted above, these judgments proceed from God’s holy place where his law is kept (15:5-8).  The judgments emanate from his holy and just nature; if God does not judge wickedness, he would not be just and mankind would forever be subject to abusive leadership with no one to save us.  These judgments  on wicked nations are just, i.e. deserved (9:20-21; 16:5-7).  Yet there is a way out!  Each of these judgments call people to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and repent of their rebellion.  These judgments are increasingly severe, urging repentance as it points to a final Day of Judgment. Indeed, “today is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
  3. Overwhelming urgency. These apocalyptic scenes are meant to overwhelm us of the sudden and severe judgments of God’s wrath poured out on the wicked.  It is meant to invoke the fear of God in the reader.  These scenes aim to call the reader to sober assessment of God’s impending Day of Judgment when Christ’s will come “as a thief in the night” (16:15).
  4. Encouragement and exhortation.  These overwhelming images of God’s judgments are meant to encourage the church that Christ is at work, delivering the world from evil, exhorting them to remain faithful to him and not submit to the intimidation of the Beast and seduction of Babylon.

Bringing it Home

fallen_world

In reading these judgments in Revelation, I am invited to look through God’s eyes at the  natural disasters and wars in our fallen world.  These are Christ’s redemptive works, calling the nations to repent of their claims to self-governance and self-sufficiency; warnings of God’s kingdom advancing in the world, and answers to the prayers of the saints for Christ’s return to reign.

I’m also called to look in the mirror and see my own sin deserving of judgment, and celebrate the mercy God offers me in the cross of His son.

Parted Seas

I’m both encouraged and exhorted as I look ahead to Christ’s renewal of all things, seeing that he is already at work making all things new in these redemptive acts.

Lastly, I’m called to look at the clock and recognize the urgency in these vivid images pointing to God’s Day of Judgment.  People get ready, Jesus is coming soon!

 

 

 

The End? The dragon, the woman and the boy

The age-old war between the dragon, the woman and her offspring is our focus in this 17th study through Revelation, stopping at chapter 12 today. A recording will be uploaded to Shofar’s Youtube channel

If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?  This was the question that whirled in the minds of the oppressed believers in John’s day – the question that gets answered clearly in chapter 12.  The first half of the Revelation focused on the reality of the church (ch 1-3), God’s throne room and Christ’s unfolding reign played out on earth (ch 6-11).  Chapter 12 reveals the cosmic battle in heaven which results in the chaos on earth and persecution of the saints.

Revelation 12 paints the picture of an epic war between a woman with a male child and a great read dragon.  This scene in the middle of the book is the first of seven “signs” or symbols which explore the depth of the message of the scroll.  These seven “signs” depict greater mysteries that govern the realities of our world and is rich in theological substance, helping the church make sense its struggles on earth. (See 12:1-7; 13:1-10; 13:11-18; 14:1-5; 14:6-13; 14:14-20; and 15:2-4).

You will note again in this chapter that Revelation is not a chronological roll-out of God’s redemptive plan, but in various ways depicts the church’s struggle with evil throughout history.  Although chapter 11 concludes with a picture of the 7th trumpet as God’s Final judgment and victory the end, chapter 12 revisits the origin of this battle starting in Eden, in Bethlehem and Jesus’s ministry.  But this time the struggle is shown from heaven’s perspective.

Three characters are introduced in this sign: the woman, the great red dragon, and the male child.  Who are they?

woman_Rev12_1
By Ted Larson (2004)

The woman is said to be clothed in the sun, the moon at her feet, having twelve stars around her head – an allusion to Israel in Joseph’s dream (12:1; Genesis 37:9).  But there is more: this woman “gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5; compare Psalm 2:9) – representing Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Furthermore, the dragon wages war with the woman and her offspring – an allusion to the curse on the serpent in the garden of Eden and Eve (12:17; compare Genesis 3:15).  And lastly, we read that this woman’s offspring are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17)– meaning the woman also represents the church.

The woman here in Revelation 12’s first sign simultaneously represents Israel, Mary, Eve and the church – God’s redeemed Kingdom people throughout the ages.  This is another depiction of the Lamb’s army or 144’000 from every tribe, tongue, people an nation depicted in Revelation 7.

OXYGEN

The Red Dragon is “great”, with seven heads, seven horns, seven diadems and a large sweeping tail – a picture of full of strength and reign.  This dragon is “the ancient serpent” of Eden, named “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).  In the chapters to follow we will see that the Dragon is the source of power behind the beasts (all that is oppressive and intimidating), Babylon the great prostitute (and all that is sensual and seductive), and the False Prophet (all that is deceptive).  The Red Dragon symbolises all that is oppressing and seducing and deceiving God and his people.

Revelation-12-woman-child-dragon

The Male Child is the man Jesus, the Son of God, “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron… [and] was caught up to God and to his throne” (12:5, compare with Psalm 2:9 and Acts 1:9).  This is not meant to be read that the Jesus was taken away as child, but these things are said that we may know his identity and the identity of the Woman. The focus of this drama is on the battle between the Dragon and the Woman.

The drama describes how the Dragon wants to “devour” the male child at his birth, hinting to the great infanticide of boys by Herod the Great in Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:16).  Satan’s lethal pursuit of Jesus is seen during in his wilderness testing (Matthew 4:1-11), but most vividly when “Satan entered Judas” (Luke 22:3), to sell him out to his executioners.  Yet Christ conquered the worst the Dragon could do to him and ascended.  With the Child seated on the Throne, the Dragon’s vengeance is directed at the Woman who had “fled into the wilderness” (12:6).

The wilderness is said to be “a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1260 days” (12:6).  This is an allusion to Elijah, God’s prophet against the wicked king Ahab and his sorcerer wife Jezebel, who announced God’s judgment of drought on Israel’s rebellion against his rule (1 Kings 17:1).  Elijah was hidden and nourished by God in the wilderness for 3½ years, which equals 42 Jewish months or 1260 days (1 Kings 17:2-16; compare James 5:17).  As with all the numeric values in apocalyptic genre, this should not be read as a literal duration of time, but as symbolic.  Paul Spilsbury says

“They – 1260 days, 42 months and a time, and times, and half a time – don’t tell us anything of the literal duration of the time of the ‘tribulation’, but what the tribulation will be like.” (The Throne, the Lamb & the Dragon: A Reader’s Guide to the Book of Revelation, Intervasity Press : 2002)

I explained in the previous post why the period of 1260 days represent a season for the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.  As in the case of Elijah’s wilderness hide-out, the Woman’s 1260 days in the wilderness after the Child’s ascension represents the time required for God’s purpose on earth to be fulfilled.  Gordon Fee concludes on this number:

“In apocalyptic literature such numeric imagery refers to a time of national distress. John now is using it to point to a limited time of suffering on the part of God’s people which precedes the coming of the glorious kingdom of God.” (Revelation, New Covenant Commentary, Cascade Books : 2010)

In plain language, “1260 days in the wilderness” speaks of the Church’s preservation in suffering during the time of God’s redemptive judgment on the kingdoms of the world.  This period began at Christ’s ascension and will conclude at his return.

Times of trouble.  This drama shows that this period is marked by trouble for the church, and the sustaining grace of God, as their place is being prepared.  This image of God’s sustenance of his people in the Wilderness, awaiting their full salvation is also an allusion to God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel during their Exodus journey towards the Promised Land (compare “two great wings of an eagle” in 12:14 with Exodus 19:4).  This wilderness period for Israel was characterized by God’s protection and provision, but was not free from trials, tribulation and temptation.  Likewise the church’s time on earth is marked by Christ’s victory over sin and slavery, yet not free from the presence of intimidation, seduction and deception.

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The cosmic conflict.  In verse 7 the vision moves from what takes place on earth to what takes place in heaven (similar to transition between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-5).  The drama shifts from Christ’s work on earth to the result from his victory played out in heaven.  This is depicted as a angelic battle, wherein Michael the arch angel dispels Satan.  Six times this scene describing the cosmic conflict John reaffirms that Satan has been “thrown down”, a result secured “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

Why the hardship? At this point the early church should have interrupted the reader of John’s message and ask the logic question: “If the Dragon has been defeated, why is the church suffering so much?”  John’s vision answers this question next, describing the “wrath” and “fury” (12:12, 17) which the Devil lashes out in vengeance against the Woman who bore the child. He is angry “because he knows that his time is short” (12:12) – he will  be thrown into the lake of fire forever (20:10).  He is angry because the Dragon’s domain is shrinking as Christ’s Kingdom Gospel is spreading (Matthew 16:19; compare Luke 10:17-20).  And therefore he persecutes the Woman who finds shelter in the wilderness.

Satan’s Schemes. How does the Dragon wage war on the Woman? This chapter reveals his strategies as accusation, deception and violence/ murder.  The word for Satan means accuser.  Accusation drowns the believer in guilt, causing him to feel discredited, dishearten and defeated.  Without confidence before God the believer will not witness and might walk away from Christ. Secondly the Dragon deceives believers, luring away with lies – either through temptation or false religions.  Thirdly, the Dragon vengefully persecutes through violence, intimidating the church into caves into by the threat of pain and death.  These images of the Great Dragon’s schemes would have been very relevant to the early church, even as it is very relevant to the church today.

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Defeat the vengeful Dragon

Defeating the Dragon. John’s vision inspires and instructs the church by showing believers in God’s throne room who “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (12:11)   They overcame accusation by the blood that washes away all sins, giving a clear conscience before God (Hebrews 9:14).  They overcame deception by their testimony that Christ is risen, conquering death (Matthew 28:6; 1 Corinthians 15:8ff). They overcome the threat of violence and the love of pleasure by following Christ’s example of enduring all for the prize set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-3).

In chapter 13 this drama is depicted in greater detail, unveiling more of the church’s struggle on earth.

Bringing it Home.

We are right to ask the question the early believers struggled with: If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?

MiguelCabrera-Virgin_of_ApocalypseThis apocalyptic vision describes our context by unveiling the reality of Satan’s vengeful pursuit of Christ’s church. Satan is angry because he is losing his domain and his time is short.  It helps us understand that we live in this period where God’s redemptive grace leans a measure of protection and provision for the church, while opening a door for the nations to turn to him in light of his redemptive judgments.

The comfort in this vision is that the Dragon’s time for vengeance is short, but the church’s victory is eternal.  The challenge in this vision is that Satan is is behind the voices of accusation, the seduction of pleasure and power, the fear of pain and death there is a Dragon lurking, “looking for someone to devour. [Therefore,] resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”   (1 Peter 5:8-9)