Please take a seat, and if you would also take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands, turn with me to Revelation chapter 15 at verse 5, we’re going to read through the end of chapter 16. You’ll find it on page 1036-1037 of the church Bibles. You will remember there is a recurring motif in the book of Revelation – the number 7 – so much so the book itself is structured around cycles of sevens. We’ve seen seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, and now here tonight there are seven bowls of God’s wrath. We ought not to read each cycle of seven as though it were following chronologically upon the next one after another, but rather as each new cycle offering another perspective on the same period of time – the whole time between the resurrection and the return of Jesus Christ. Each cycle of seven recapitulates the same story from a different vantage point. Whether it’s the point of view of the suffering Church or the rebellion of unbelieving humanity or the reign and rule of God through the Gospel, over and over again we are shown our whole history as though by repeated hammer blows on the same nail, God might drive home to us the big idea that through every trial, over each tribulation, Jesus Christ reigns supreme as Savior and Lord and Judge.
And tonight, as we turn our attention to the seven bowls of God’s wrath, we return yet again to that same great theme, although this time there’s a particular accent, a special focus on the judicial triumph of Jesus Christ. Before we read our passage, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?
God our Father, we pray now that You would give to us the Holy Spirit anew to illuminate Your Word and our understanding that we may tremble at its threatenings, rejoice at its promises, and turn and rest on Christ who is held out to us in it. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Revelation 15 at verse 5. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“After this, I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.’
So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say,
‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’
And I heard the altar saying,
‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (‘Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!’) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’ And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail because the plague was so severe.”
Amen, and we give thanks to God who has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
Kathryn Rawlins lives in London. Recently she discovered that her favorite flower vase, which she has used as a coffee table ornament for about thirty years, was, in fact, an unexploded shell dropped by a German zeppelin during World War I. When she was fifteen, apparently, she dug it up in the school yard with some friends and ever since she’s been unscrewing the conical cap of the shell, filling it with water, and there the live explosive would sit on her mantelpiece with flowers sticking out of the top of it. One day after watching a television show about the unexploded ordinance, she began to worry about the shell turned vase. A quick call to the police and sure enough she was told that for the past thirty years she had been sitting next to a bomb capable of killing anyone within a twenty-meter radius.
It is possible to live in close proximity to devastating danger and not know, and never realize how precariously near to destruction we’ve come. It wasn’t until that TV documentary opened her eyes to the possible danger sitting right there on her mantelpiece that Kathryn Rawlins took action. And in many ways, the book of Revelation aims to do the same thing for us, doesn’t it? It’s intended to open our eyes to the reality of what, to most of us who’ve been enured to our danger by the culture we inhabit may seem at first to be perfectly safe human behavior. But the truth is, sin like that unexploded bombshell is waiting to go off in our hands. Chapters 15 and 16, of the book of Revelation, in particular, aim to help us understand our danger by directing our attention to the judgment God will bring on the earth.
Would you look at it with me? As you do, I want you to see five things about the judgment that God brings. First, in 15:5 through 16:1, I want you to see the origin or the source of judgment. And then in verses 2 to 7, the justice of that judgment. Then 8 to 11, the aim, the purpose of it. Then in 16:12-16, the use of judgment. Then finally in 16:17 through verse 21, the end of judgment. So the origin, justice, aim, use, and end of judgment. That’s where we’re going. Are you ready?
The Origin of Judgment
Then let’s look at chapter 15 verse 5, through 16 verse 1, first of all. Here’s the origin of judgment. John says that he “looked into heaven,” verse 5, “and saw the sanctuary,” or perhaps better, “the temple of the tent of witness.” The tent of witness, you will remember, is another name for the tabernacle, the details of which in the providence of God we have been studying together on Sunday mornings in the book of Exodus. Two things for our purposes are worth remembering about it. First of all, remember it is the place where God’s presence and glory are said to dwell. And secondly, you will remember the ark of the covenant houses the stone tablets that are the transcription of the Law of God, the transcription of the character of God in His holiness. This is the symbolic place of the holy dwelling of God among His people and it is, notice, from this place that the seven angels come. They are dressed, verse 6, like priests. These are the heavenly attendants who minister to God in His presence. Their pure bright linen, the golden sash around their chest, communicates their holiness, their sanctity. And the smoke that fills the sanctuary comes from the glory of God and from His power. The whole scene is redolent of the holiness and transcendence of God in exalted glory and majesty. And it is from this place that the plagues poured out from the seven bowls come. This is the source of the judgments that Revelation depicts for us.
We really do need, I think, to understand that point carefully. Isn’t there a great temptation in our day to suggest that, as a matter of fact, such dreadful plagues as we see here afflicting the world, cannot possibly be sourced in God? They are, after all, bad things, dark and terrible. “God surely has nothing to do with them! No, no, our God is a God of love,” we say. And well, so He is, but the love with which He loves us is a righteous love; a love that is not incompatible with holy justice and divine wrath. Leon Morris once wrote that our difficulty at this point arises, “because we are making a false antithesis between the divine wrath and the divine love. We are handicapped by the fact that we must necessarily use terms properly applicable to human affairs and for us,” Morris says, “it is very difficult to be simultaneously wrathful and loving. But upon analysis, this seems to be largely because our anger is such selfish passion, usually involving a large element of irrationality together with a lack of self-control. Those who object to the conception of the wrath of God should realize that what is meant is not some irrational passion bursting forth uncontrollably, but a burning zeal for the right coupled with a perfect hatred for everything that is evil.”
And that is exactly what John sees here. The door opened into the Holy of Holies where God Himself resides in majestic splendor and righteousness and issuing from that place come the angelic agents of the divine will who are sent, 16 verse 1, to administer the purposeful, calculated zeal of God for righteousness and the settled hatred of God on sin. Again and again, we hear it said, don’t we, after the terrible tragedies of a natural disaster or the awful effects of human error or malice, again and again, we hear it said, “God had nothing to do with it.” It’s an attempt with which we must all surely sympathize. It’s an attempt to exonerate God, to get Him off the hook. But a careful reading of Revelation shows us God isn’t looking to be excused. The calamities of the world, in fact, are at least in part designed to be judicial warnings to which we must all take heed before it’s too late.
The Justice of Judgment
Then secondly, look at verses 2 through 7 of chapter 16. Here is the justice of the judgments that God brings. First the origin, now the justice of God’s judgment. The first three angels begin to pour out their bowls upon the world. The first in verse 2 pours out harmful, painful sores upon those who bear the mark of the beast. The target of the plagues, notice, is people with the beast’s mark. They bear this satanic likeness and so they endure his condemnation. The second angel, verse 3, pours out a bowl-like blood from a corpse that pollutes the sea, kills everything that lives within it, and the fourth does the same for the rivers and springs of water, verse 4. The earth in verse 2, the sea in verse 3, the rivers and streams in verse 4 – that is to say, the whole world touched by divine judgments. Sores and blood from a corpse are unclean things according to the Jewish law. That is to say, this is a picture of alienation and exclusion from fellowship with God which is what sin always does.
Why God’s Judgment is Expressed
And in verses 5 through 7, we’re told why the judgment of God is expressed in these terms particularly. Look at verses 5 to 7. “’Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’ And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’” The nature of the judgment, do you see, the nature of the judgment corresponds to the nature of the offense. “They shed the blood of the saints and the prophets and you have given them blood to drink.” The judgment of God is just. It corresponds precisely to the sin that provoked it. It is what they deserve. And the altar says, “Yes, Lord, true and just are your judgments!” That is the correct perspective on the judgments of God, whether we’re always able to see how it is so or not. Heaven at least, we are being told, can see that the Judge of all the earth always does right. While human justice often miscarries, the judgment of God unfailingly corresponds to the offense.
The Unfaithful Servant
Jesus actually tells a sobering parable to that effect in Luke 12 verses 43 and following. Speaking about servants in a great house, Jesus says, “If that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will-will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him, much will be required. And from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Both servants deserved to be punished, one more than the other, but both are punished nonetheless in keeping with their degree of guilt.
Even in hell, this principle applies. The justice of God shall match His wrath to our guilt perfectly so that no one suffering that terrible sentence will ever say, “This is not fair! The punishment is too extreme for the crime! I don’t deserve this!” No, no. Hell is nothing other than the final, universal, public vindication of the righteousness and justice of God matching sin with just judgment perfectly. And these bowls of wrath here are the precursor and the warning signs of that final judgment to come.
The Aim of Judgment
The origin of judgment, the justice of judgment, then, thirdly the aim of judgment. Look at verses 8 to 11. The fourth angel pours out his bowl and the sun scorches people with fierce heat. The fifth angel pours out his bowl, verse 10, on the throne of the beast and its kingdom is plunged into darkness. Judgment gives people over to the consequences of their sin. If you play with fire, you will get burned. And so on the one hand, the judgment here is likened to terrible scorching heat. But on the other hand, belonging to the kingdom of the beast is, in fact, to give yourself to life in impenetrable darkness.
But the thing I want you to see especially here, in both cases, is the failure of the people who endure these judgments to read them correctly. You see that in the text? They do not connect their afflictions to their transgressions. Instead, verse 9, “they curse the name of God. They did not repent or give him glory.” Or verse 11, “they cursed the name of the God of heaven. They did not repent of their deeds.” The afflictions of the ungodly are designed to be a wake-up call. Like the television documentary Kathryn Rawlins watched that day that made her see, that opened her eyes to the fact she had been playing with an unexploded bomb for thirty years. Could it perhaps be, could it be that God has been at work in your sore trials, in your hard, wounding circumstances, seeking to open your eyes to the fact that the way you’ve been living could well destroy you in the end? Has He been speaking, calling in the loud hailer, the bullhorn of our pain, seeking to summon us back to Him, calling us to repentance?
Time to Repent
The world is a bad place sometimes – filthy and perverse. And so sometimes the question arises in our minds and hearts, doesn’t it, “Why doesn’t Jesus just come back already and put it all to an end? What’s He waiting for?” And the answer, at least part of the answer from our passage, is that He is waiting for repentance. Right? Isn’t that part of the message? Judgment is coming so be warned. Repent! 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a roar and the heavenly bodies burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done in it will be exposed.” Judgment is coming, but not yet. Now it’s time to repent.
Time for Missions
Which also means, by the way, that also now it’s time for missions. Isn’t that so? Before the final day dawns and ultimate judgment descends, we still have time to go into all the world and make disciples, to call men and women, boys and girls to repentance. Many, our text says, will not repent. They curse God, we are told. They double-down on their sin. What a heartbreaking prospect that should be for every Christian believer. But not all who hear will refuse. We saw that last time. Remember the vast multitude that no one can number from every tribe and people and language and nation gathered around the throne of the Lamb, worshiping Him and giving Him the glory. So there is time for repentance. There’s time now for repentance. Which means there’s also time for mission – to go across the street and around the world with the Good News before the bad news of judgment to come begins to play out.
The Use of Judgment
The origin of judgment, the justice of judgment, the aim of judgment, then fourthly the use of judgment. Look at verses 12 through 16. The sixth angel begins to pour out his bowl, this time on the great river Euphrates. Its waters dry up, making a path for the kings of the east. The sixth bowl actually mirrors the sixth trumpet that sounded back in chapter 10 verse 14. You remember these cycles of seven are telling the same story over and over from different vantage points. This ought not to surprise us. In chapter 10, a great army from across the Euphrates is summoned. One of the great fears of the Roman Empire, remember, was an invasion from across its eastern border, from across the Euphrates river. A picture of military conflict.
And the same message reappears here. In verse 13, we’re told the counterfeit trinity, the dragon, and the two beasts, spew demonic spirits from their mouth that go out to deceive the rulers of the world, provoking them to assemble for battle. Verse 16, says they will all gather at a place that, in Hebrew, is called Armageddon. That’s a transliteration of “Har Megiddo,” which means, “the mountain of Megiddo.” Now there is a place in Scripture called Megiddo where the army of Judah fought against the armies of Egypt and lost. You can read about that in 2 Kings 23. But there is actually no place in Palestine called Har Megiddo. Megiddo is not a mountain; it’s a plain. That also shouldn’t really surprise us since, as we’ve seen, John is using symbolic language and symbolic imagery. Rather, John’s point is that just like Judah’s battle with Egypt in this valley long ago, the world again mobilizes to destroy the Church before the end of the age. The dragon, Satan himself, the first beast, anti-Christian, state power, the second beast, anti-Christian religion, all provoke the world to turn on the Church seeking once and for all in a rerun of Judah’s defeat to destroy the people of God. Only this time, Armageddon is not fought. Armageddon doesn’t happen. However mighty the armies of anti-Christian power may appear, Jesus Christ will triumph, as we’ll see, simply by showing up at the end of the age.
The World’s Rebellion Against God
Do look at verse 15! The surrounding verses depict the world in rebellion against God swirling in a demon-fueled mad rush to destroy the Church. And into the midst of the storm, a voice speaks. “Behold, I come like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed.” As we’ve watched the forces of darkness drop battle lines – isn’t that precisely what we’re seeing today all over the world? Think about China’s recent crackdown on Christianity as what they call a form of outside interference tearing crosses from church steeples, suppressing house churches with new fervor and unholy zeal. Radical Islam striking into the heart of our democracy again and again. The LGBTQI agenda established as a new orthodoxy of political discourse all across the western world. And in a thousand other ways, the dragon and the two beasts deceive the nations and provoke their hostility toward the Church.
How Should we Respond?
And as we watch the battle lines being drawn, how should we respond? That’s the point of verse 15. As the sixth judgment is poured out, the final confrontation of the devil and his allies with the people of God, what should our stance be? We are to get ready and to be prepared. Jesus is coming like a thief, so stay awake like you remember the wise virgins in Jesus’ parable who kept their lamps trimmed. We need to be ready for when the bridegroom comes – dressed and prepared, not exposed in our nakedness and shame but clothed, alert, knowing that no one knows the day or the hour and so we must keep watch. We’re not to watch with a worried glance at the way the world flexes its malignant power, threatening and intimidating us. Instead, we are to watch with vigilance for the return of our Savior, the Judge of all the earth. Our confidence rests in Him, after all. Our hope rests on Him, doesn’t it? When He comes, the battle is over!
So let me ask you, believer in Jesus – Have you been asleep when Christ has called you instead to watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation? If Jesus were to return tonight, perhaps while we are sitting here, would He find you exposed and ashamed in the nakedness of your backsliding? Or do you perhaps fill your gaze with fearful visions of political collapse and moral decay and global terror and find yourself paralyzed with uncertainty and doubt? This text is actually calling you instead to look to the horizon, to “wait for the Lord,” in the words of the 130th Psalm – to look for the Lord with more confidence and certainty “than a watchman looking to the east looks for the rising of the sun at each day’s dawn.” The watchman waits for the morning and we are to wait with more hope and more trust and more assurance than they. The Lord is coming; the daybreak is at hand! “O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is steadfast love and plentiful redemption.” Do you believe that? What do you fill your gaze with most? Troublesome scenes of a world in collapse? Or are you looking to the horizon line waiting for the dawn when our Savior will come in triumph when the battle will be over?
The End of Judgment
The origin, the justice, the aim, the use, and now finally, the end of judgment. Look at 17 to 21. The seventh angel pours out his bowl into the air and the apocalyptic signs of the final cataclysm appear, don’t they? Flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, a great earthquake. The great city Babylon is torn in three made to turn on itself as it collapses. God makes it drink the wine of the fury of His wrath. The islands fall, mountains melt, hail strikes the world and still, notice people still curse God even as He destroys them in their sin. It’s an awesome, actually terrifying scene. And at the foundation of it all stands the cry of Christ the King. “It is done. It is done,” He says. The final judgment has at last arrived. History is done. Time to repent is done. Evangelism and mission are done. The suffering of the Church is done. The apparent free reign of evil and wickedness is done. The malice of Satan, the attractions of sin are done; finished forever.
Of course, you will remember Jesus said those words once before. At another scene, if judgment He declared, “It is finished,” as the wrath and curse of God fell upon human sin. Then it fell not to destroy us, but to condemn Him instead of us. At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was judged and the fury of the wine of God’s wrath was given to Him to drink and He drained the cup to the bottom. “It is finished,” He said then. “The accusations of Satan against My people are finished. The condemnation of the Law is finished so there’s now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. The wrath of God against believing sinners is finished!”
And today, right now, we live between those two cries of Christ, don’t we? Between the two judgment days; between two declarations that justice has been done in full. “It is done!” cries our text. “It is finished!” our Savior said at Calvary. The cry from the cross is our only refuge when the cry from the throne, at last, is heard. You see, the great news is, if you are resting in Jesus Christ and His cross as your only hope, judgment has already been done for you. Justice has already been satisfied for you. Sin has already been paid for in full in your case. And when, one day soon I hope, you hear from the lips of Christ the same words for another time, “It is finished,” it will not strike fear or terror into your heart nor will there be a curse of God on your lips, but a song of praise and the fullness of joy because it will mark the end of sorrow and the long course of your perseverance having reached its finishing line at last. Dear believer, press on! Hold on! Fight on! Pray on! Keep watch! Be ready! Christ is coming! And soon it will be gloriously finished indeed. Look to the horizon where the dawn will one day soon rise. Fill your heart with hope rather than be paralyzed with fear, because Jesus Christ has triumphed.
Let’s pray together!
How we bless You, O Lord our God, that the victory is Yours. And though we’ve watched the solemn scenes of divine judgment play out in our passage, help us to hear the warning that we might all be prepared for when the great day at last dawns. That for us, believing in Christ, the declaration, “It is done. It is finished” will be the ground of our joy and not the cause of our everlasting shame and fear and terror and horror under the wrath and curse of God. Help us to be people who live in a posture of repentance, who keep watch, who are found clothed and ready when the bridegroom comes. And while all around us the wickedness and perversity of the world swirls like a maelstrom, like a great storm, give to us the serenity and the confidence of those who know that the Lamb wins and Christ is on the throne and the Judge of all the earth will do right. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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