Monday, October 25, 2021

56: The Revelation - The Bowl Judgements (Revelation 15:1-16:21)


Revelation 15 and 16 present the specific phenomena of the final outpouring of God’s wrath before Christ’s return. That wrath is expressed by the effects of the seventh trumpet (11:15), which are the seven bowl judgments described in Revelation 16.

Remember, though, that God’s nature encompasses not only righteousness and holiness, but also grace and mercy. Even during the devastating judgments of the tribulation, God will continue to call sinners to salvation. He will do so using the 144,000 Jewish evangelists (7:2–8; 14:1–5), the two witnesses (11:3–13), a host of redeemed Gentiles and Jews (7:9–17), even an angel flying in the sky (14:6–7). This reflects the amazing divine paradox: God is busily working to save sinners from His own wrath. And so, as the outpouring of divine wrath escalates, God’s evangelistic efforts will escalate as well. The result will be the greatest harvest of souls in human history (cf. 7:9).


Chapter 15, the shortest in Revelation, forms a preview of these rapid-fire judgments. As this chapter unfolds, three motives for the final outpouring of God’s wrath become evident.

1. The Vengeance of God

"Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished. And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God." (Rev. 15:1–2)

A scene in heaven anticipates the bowl judgments, as it did in the case of the seal (chapters 4–5) and trumpet (8:2–6) judgments. This is the third heavenly sign that John has seen in Revelation (12:1, 3). The terms “great” and “marvelous” express the enormous importance of this sign as it contains the final outpouring of God’s wrath on the wicked, unrepentant sinners of the earth.

The sign itself consists of seven angels who had seven plagues. The same beings who serve God’s people will bring God’s wrath to the sinful world. The word translated “plague” literally means “a blow,” or “a wound.” Thus the seven plagues are not really diseases or epidemics, but deadly blows that will strike the world with killing impact.

These seven plagues (the seven bowl judgments) are the last and worst plagues, because in them the wrath of God is finished. It is important to note that the fact that they are called the last implies that the preceding trumpet and seal judgments were also plagues expressing the wrath of God. God’s wrath extends throughout the tribulation and is not confined to a brief period at the very end, as some argue. That they are the last also indicates that the bowls come after the seals and trumpets in chronological sequence.

In verse 2, John “saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire.” The sea was not an actual ocean, because in 21:1 he “saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.” What John saw was a transparent crystal platform before God’s throne, shimmering and glistening like a tranquil, sunlit sea (4:6; cf. Exodus 24:10; Ezekiel 1:22).

But the tranquil beauty of the sea was mixed with the fire of God’s judgment, which was about to be poured out on the earth. Those who reject God’s grace and mercy face “a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27), because “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Fire is frequently associated in Scripture with God’s judgment (Numbers 11:1; 16:35; Deuteronomy 9:3; Psalms 50:3; 97:3; Isaiah 66:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9; 2 Peter 3:7).

John saw gathered around the throne of God those who had been victorious over the beast. These are the believers redeemed during the tribulation (6:9–11; 7:9–17; 12:11, 17; 14:1–5, 12–13). They will be victorious over the beast because of their undying faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Revelation 20:4–6 describes their resurrection and reward. Tribulation saints will also triumph over the beast’s image and the number of his name. The false prophet will perform many lying wonders to deceive people. One of them will be to set up an image of the beast, which he will order everyone to worship on pain of death. The false prophet will also require everyone to receive a mark representing either the beast’s name, or the number of his name. Those without that mark will face execution and will be unable to buy or sell. But tribulation believers will, by God’s power, eternally triumph over the whole enterprise of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet. Even those martyred for their triumphant faith will receive their glorious rewards (20:4).

That the tribulation saints are seen holding harps of God indicates that they are rejoicing and singing praise to God. Harps were also associated with praise earlier in Revelation (5:8; 14:2) and frequently in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8; Psalms 33:2; 71:22; 144:9; 150:3). These believers rejoice because their prayers for God to take vengeance on their persecutors (6:9–10) are about to be answered.

2. The Character of God

"And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

    “Great and marvelous are Your works,

    O Lord God, the Almighty;

    Righteous and true are Your ways,

    King of the nations!

    Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name?

    For You alone are holy;

    For all the nations will come and worship before You,

    For Your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Rev. 15:3–4)

The song sung by the glorified saints before the throne is an anthem of praise to God. The ultimate motive of God’s wrath—to uphold His holy, righteous character—demands that He judge sinners. It is God’s holy nature, soon to be revealed in judgment against their persecutors, that elicits this song from the redeemed. The song of Moses is the first of several songs recorded in the Old Testament. It comes from the time of the Exodus. As the bond-servant of God, Moses was called to lead the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt. God delivered them from Pharaoh’s pursuing army by parting the Red Sea, stacking the water on either side of a path, thus allowing the Israelites to cross safely on dry land. After they were safely across, the collapsing waters drowned the Egyptian army. On the far side of the Red Sea, the Israelites sang a song of praise to God for their deliverance.

The redeemed saints before God’s throne also will sing the song of the Lamb, who is their eternal Redeemer (5:8–14). Like the song of Moses, the song of the Lamb expresses the themes of God’s faithfulness, deliverance of His people, and judgment of His enemies. The words of the song recorded here do not match exactly either the song of Moses in Exodus 15, or the song of the Lamb in Revelation 5. But the themes and many of the key terms are similar.

The song of these redeemed saints extols God’s character as the omnipotent, immutable, sovereign, perfect, and righteous Creator and Judge. Because He is all that, God must and will judge sinners; if He ignored their sin, He would not be holy, righteous, and true to His nature. The song closes with joyful anticipation of the millennial reign of Christ, when all the nations will come and worship before God. In the words of the psalmist, “All the earth will worship You, and will sing praises to You; they will sing praises to Your name” (Psalm 66:4).

3. The Plan of God

"After these things I looked, and the temple of the tabernacle of testimony in heaven was opened, and the seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the temple, clothed in linen, clean and bright, and girded around their chests with golden sashes. Then 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 temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power; and no one was able to enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished." (Rev. 15:5–8)

Each of the angelic players in this unfolding drama will fulfill his assigned duty according to God’s plan. It has always been God’s purpose to judge sinners and destroy sin. The “eternal fire … has [already] been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) and awaits those whom God will one day sentence to eternal punishment there. Here, in a new vision, they are given the instruments of execution.

As it does throughout Revelation, the phrase “after these things I looked” introduces a startling, dramatic new vision. Something is about to draw John’s attention away from the redeemed saints singing their praises before God’s glorious throne. This new vision revealed to him the bowl judgments (16:1–21), but first John saw the angels who will carry out those judgments. As he watched, the “temple of the tabernacle of testimony in heaven was opened.” “Temple” refers to the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary where God’s presence dwells, emphasizing that God is the source of the plagues.

As John watched, the seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the temple. “They were clothed in linen, clean and bright,” their apparel representing their holiness and purity. As befits such glorious and holy beings, the angels were “girded around their chests with golden sashes” that ran across the torso from the shoulder to the waist.

One of the four living creatures, a high-ranking cherubim, gave the seven angels “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God.” This Greek word for “bowls” refers to shallow saucers. The imagery is not that of a stream being poured gradually out of a pitcher, but of the whole contents of the shallow saucers being hurled down in an instant flood of judgment. Bowls were part of the temple furnishings (1 Kings 7:50; Zechariah 14:20) and were associated with the sacrifices (Exodus 27:3; 38:3). Those who refuse to drink the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13) will be drowned in the judgments poured from the bowls of wrath. Because God lives forever and ever, He has the power to put an end to sin, so that it cannot exist again forever in His holy presence.

Out of the heavenly temple came not only the angels, but also smoke symbolizing the glory of God and His power. Smoke, an emblem of majesty (Exodus 19:16–18), also symbolized God’s glorious presence in the Old Testament tabernacle or temple (Exodus 40:34–35; 1 Kings 8:10–11; Isaiah 6:1–4). This smoke also symbolizes God’s wrath. No one was able to enter the temple until the seven plagues were finished. The glory cloud will remain in the heavenly temple until the earth is completely purged and prepared for the King and His kingdom.