Revelation 11 of 16Listen
We’re going to be in Revelation 14 today.
The Bible ends with a strange book,
in case you haven’t noticed
over the last ten weeks.
It’s this letter bursting with symbols, colors, and patterns;
it’s overflowing with memorable characters and battles and beasts;
it’s telling this story with scenes of unspeakable darkness
but also the happiest ending of them all.
The chapter we’re looking at today is essentially the end
of a small cartoon in the middle of Revelation.
In chapters 12-14, John pauses in the story he’s telling—
like a Spielberg or Scorsese using a flashback–
and circles back around on something really important:
On the central “revelation” of Revelation—
the scroll that’s been unsealed (Rev 5-7)—
that he’s making known to his churches (Rev 10).
He’s circling back around on how God saves the world,
and reflecting on it from different angles.
John had started revealing God’s plan to save the world
back in chapter 11 when he told us a parable about two witnesses.
He told a story about the church itself
embodying the love of Jesus to the point of death (11.3-12)
and that loving witness doing what nothing else could.
No act of judgment, no show of force, no plagues of Egypt,
can do what love to the point of death does.
The witness of the church sees a huge symbolic number of people
turning from darkness and worshipping God (11.13).
When the church follows the pattern of the Lamb—
wherever he goes, even into death—lives are changed.
The world is changed.
And ever since that eye-opening “revelation,”
John has been giving a strange, dream-like cartoon
that reflects on this from different angles.
He told us about the very real (very historical) baby (12.5)
whose very arrival—whose very birth—defeated
all the forces of evil backstage (12.7-8).
He introduced us to great symbolic “signs” in heaven—
a dazzling, beautiful Woman representing the people of God,
a terrible Dragon and its two Beasts that wage war on them (13.7).
The forces of evil from everywhere—
from heaven and the sea and the earth1—
all conspiring against and actually conquering those who love God.
Those who love Life.
Those who love the Lamb.
It’s been a surreal and strange few chapters
in an already strange book.
Today, in chapter 14, is where
the mythic animation starts to blend together
with the main story that John has been telling.
So after the Woman in the wilderness,
and the Dragon waging war against the people of God
with the two Beasts of idolatrous government and local culture,
we John tells us this:
(14.1-20) Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
Then 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. He 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.”
A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: 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.”
I 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. Then 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.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still 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.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They 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.
Have you ever heard a band or an orchestra warming up?—
you know, getting ready to play?
The strings and the brass and the percussion
are all making something like controlled, chaotic racket?
That might be what’s happening here.
On a literary level, the climax of Revelation
is coming very soon in chapters 16 through 20.
The cosmos is going to pass through the cross,
evil and the Enemy and his beasts are going to be destroyed,
resurrection is going to flood the universe.
The secret symphony of salvation is about to be played.
The Song of the Universe is about to be sung.
It’s like John is hearing
various parts of the orchestra warm up
as he’s being swept back up to heaven.
Chapter 14 is like one those sweeping camera shots in a movie—
you know, the kind that fly over plains and mountains
and even into outer space.
That’s what this chapter is like if you watch John’s movement.
The last couple of chapters,
a cartoon has been unfolding in the desert wilderness (12.6,14)
and then at the seashore (13.1) and on the earth itself (13.11)
but now suddenly John is sweeping back to heaven.
And there are three primary moments—
three key moments—on his way back.
He’s suddenly on Mount Zion (v1)
and then he’s in midair with some angels (v6)
and then he’s on a white cloud (v14) with a view of the temple2 in heaven (v17).
These are the moments
where he’s hearing various parts of the orchestra warm up.
And it all sounds like a disjointed, confusing racket
if we forget that a symphony supreme
is about to be played.
So I just want to look briefly at all three of these moments—
I want us to listen carefully and see if we can anticipate
the music that’s coming.
The first part of the orchestra warming up
that John hears is in verses 1-5.
As he begins to be swept upward back to heaven,
John finds himself on a mountain—on Mount Zion (v1)—
that literal mountain in Jerusalem on which stood the Temple.
Now the Lamb and his followers—are standing on that mountain.
And at first John sees them
but can’t make sense of what he’s hearing.
It just sounds like a loud noise (v2)—
like the rushing roar of a waterfall
or a crackling thunderstorm.
But then he realizes that beneath the noise
there isn’t chaos—there’s music.
“Now that I’m listening
it actually sounds like the string section—
like harpists playing their harps (v2).”
This is that great, uncountable army of people—
the symbolic number of people—the 144,000—
that we first met in chapter 7.
That’s the language in verse 4
about these 144,000 “not defiling themselves”
and “being virgins” is all about…
That’s the way the Old Testament talks about
a devout, ritually pure military force.3
Now this army is standing victorious on a mountaintop.
Even though the Enemy is waging war against them (12.17),
even though the Beasts are killing and conquering them (13.7),
they are victorious.
Singing a mysterious, secret song.
A song that no one can learn
expect those who have been redeemed (v3)
and who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (v4).
Even though there IS darkness in the world—
there’s plenty of monsters and chaos and suffering and evil—
not only in the world back then or in the world one day,
but in our world, in our lives, right now—
but there’s something more real than the darkness.
There’s a song behind the noise…
and it IS possible to learn the song.
It’s not as quick or simple as praying a prayer
or checking off a list, or believing “the right things”—
We learn the song over time—gradually—as a habit of our lives.
As we follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
Further into love, further into giving, further even into death.
And that brings us to the second moment—
the second of the orchestra.
John is swept further up—higher than any mountain—
and sees angels flying in midair (v6).
Three of them.
Maybe they’re the woodwinds—
the clarinets and the oboes and the flutes.
They’ve got a beautiful but haunting sound.
It’s a beautiful sound
because they’re proclaiming eternal gospel—
eternal good news—to those who live on the earth (v6).
“Fear God!—discover the beginning of wisdom!—and give him glory!”
Those who do will find rest.
Those who patiently remain faithful to Jesus (v12)
will rest from their labor, rest from suffering, rest from fear…
In the words of lyrics from Les Mis:
“Rest from pain and rest from wrong.”
Because “their deeds will follow them” (v13).
Even in death, they’re going to be blessed.
They’re going to find rest.
That’s not saying
that these people did the right things
to somehow get God on their side.
No—God is already, always on our side.
That’s the good news—the eternal gospel—
that we’re always invited to believe.
And as we believe this good news,
God’s Spirit begins to slowly, mysteriously
bring every bit of our lives into alignment with who he is.4
And that—of course—includes our actions.
Our deeds. Our outer lives.
Deeds don’t save anyone, but they’re an evidence—
an indicator—that God is saving us.
That God is forming us into the kind of people
who will enjoy his presence.
Because not everyone is.
That’s the haunting sound of the woodwinds—
the terrifying part of these angels warming up.
There will be “no rest” (v11)
for those who love a particular woman
(is the image John uses)>
There’s this woman—Babylon the Great (v8)—Lady Babylon—
some kind of adulterous woman with a drinking problem.
This is the first we’re hearing of her
(and we’ll meet her more fully in chapter 17),
but orchestra prepping is giving us a taste of her story—
This woman—Lady Babylon—represents life
that totally rejects the purposes of God.
Life in opposition to God.
And this woman is “fallen.”
She’s coming to an end.
Like other ancient cities of Old Testament,
she’s described as being destroyed by fire and sulfur.5
The way that this “no rest” is described.
All the talk of burning sulfur and smoke rising forever—
is the symbolic way the prophets communicate
the seriousness of rejecting God.6
As graphic and terrifying as burning sulfur sounds,
that’s what our lives—what human existence—become
when we reject God’s purposes.
We’re in love with something
that will cannot last and that will forever destroy us.
Life in opposition to God is a tortured existence.
An existence of
Even in the presence of Love himself (v10)—
this is a life of absolute torment.
It would seem that if you want to forever drink
the “maddening wine” (v8) of life in opposition to God—
God in his mercy will give you that wine forever (v10).
And that brings us to the third moment—
the third section of the orchestra.
The angels preparing for harvest (v14-20).
They’re the ones banging the drums
that the moment is almost here—
the great holiday of harvest time is about to arrive.
We don’t live in an agrarian society
where we have to grow our own food,
so it’s hard for us to imagine
the excitement that harvest time brought
to people throughout human history.
Harvest is when all all the work finally pays off.
Harvest is when there’s nothing left to do but enjoy.
Harvest is when we feast and drink and celebrate.
Thanksgiving and Christmas might be the closest thing to that for us,
but we don’t usually have moments of worrying
that the holidays might not arrive.
That a swarm of locusts might destroy all our turkey and dressing,
or that our Christmas tree will wither away from a lack of rain.
Our holidays are almost always
right on time and free from any threat.
Harvest, however, doesn’t feel like a sure thing.
It’s something you long for, something you hope to see.
And when it arrives, you celebrate in a big big way.
These angels are banging the drums—
maybe they’re the percussion section—
saying the holiday of the harvest is about to arrive.
That day that the people of God are longing for—
that we’re hoping to see—is coming.
And because of the Church—
those Two Witnesses, that dazzling Woman, the 144,000—
because they loved to the point of death—
because they were offered (v4) as a sacrifice of firstfruits,
there’s going to be an even bigger harvest.
The earth is ripe (v15)—
full of people who revere God and love the Lamb.
And the percussion warming up is banging the drums that say:
“Bring in the harvest!
It’s time to feast! It’s time to celebrate!”
Chapter 14 is an orchestra warming up and saying:
“This is where it’s all headed—
this is the song we’re going to play.
“We’re going to play the symphony of salvation—
the secret song of those victorious martyrs on Mount Zion—
the eternal good news of rest for those who follow the Lamb—
the hymn of the harvest—a feast that never ends.8
“Can we go ahead?—can we get started?—
let’s play the symphony!”
And they will.
The orchestra only warms up so long…
the symphony WILL start.
Next week, chapter 14 will give way to the rest of the book.
One day, history itself will give way to God’s great day of love.
But the path forward—
the way into a world remade by love—
is a hard road.
It calls for “patient endurance” by those who are clinging to Jesus.
We heard that last week in 13.10
and we’ve heard it this week in verse 12.
Next week we’ll see seven bowls of wine—
the wine of God’s fury (v10), the wine of God’s wrath.
God’s love fermented—God’s love distilled—
into such a blistering vintage
that it burns away all that is not love.
That’s what is coming.
And here at the end of chapter 14
it’s like we catch a glimpse of the wine being made.
The image of harvesting wheat
is followed by
a different kind of harvest.
The harvest of grapes—the making of wine.
The common, everyday process
of gathering grapes (v18) and crushing them in a winepress (v19)
is used as another image of God’s plan.
But I think John is so surprising
with his image of grapes and wine.
Because best I can tell—
(I’m trying to read Revelation really carefully)—
it doesn’t seem like
it’s the blood of the enemies of God
that runs for 1600 stadia.
That’s what we think a lot times—that’s our instinct.
“God is going to crush his enemies
and make their blood flow.”9
But if you read carefully, it doesn’t seem like
the enemies of God are the grapes.
The enemies of God aren’t
the ones trampled in the winepress.
As we keep reading, we discover that
the enemies of God are
the ones who drink the wine.
brings us next week to chapters 15 and 16,
where we see seven great bowls of wine—seven bowls of wrath—
being poured out on the enemies of God.
That’s the way God judges evil—
he gives it more and more of its own wine.
After the bowls of wine in chapter 17 we’re told
Lady Babylon was drunk on the blood of God’s people (v6).
And chapter 18 looks back on the bowls of wrath
and celebrates that God poured her a double
of her very own wine (v6).
It’s like Lady Babylon’s deeds follow her too.
So what are the grapes?
What’s the wine?
Sixteen hundred stadia is some kind of symbolic number
(if you couldn’t tell) and it happens to be
an approximate length of the Promised Land—
the land of Palestine.10
It’s like this is a symbolic for the people of God.
Best I can tell—and I hold this with an open hand—
it’s the people of God who are the grapes.
Just as the people of God are the wheat,
the people of God are also the grapes.11
This percussion section really surprises us here.
It’s an strange beat that they give us,
It’s a unusual rhythm that they set for us.
But it’s always the rhythm of God’s salvation—
it’s always the rhythm of the cross.
The people of God are victorious,
the people of God are harvested and safe and at rest,
but the people of God are also crushed.12
It’s like John is saying again—in yet another picture—
that our safety comes through sacrifice.
Through following the Lamb wherever he goes.
Jesus makes our blood like his—
blood poured to ultimately destroy evil
and heal the world.
Again and again in Revelation—
especially here as the great symphony gets ready to play—
John reminds the Church of something crucial:
Jesus does not spare us from suffering—
but Jesus does transform our suffering.
As we come to the table this morning,
maybe we all need to hear this.
In the times when life is impossibly hard,
in moments when it looks like evil is winning,
in seasons when it feels like we’re being crushed,
take heart, be encouraged, have faith.
God saves the world
by pouring out his own blood,
and by pouring out those who follow him.
That’s always the pattern of the cross.
Evil defeated by painful love.
The world healed by painful love.
Following the Lamb wherever he goes,
does NOT mean that we can avoid suffering—
that we get to avoid being crushed.
In fact, it’s basically the opposite.
What Jesus gives us is his very own life.
And Jesus’s life was crushed for the life of the world.
His blood poured out—flowing like a river—
so that love can transform the world.
That’s what we’re always given—God always gives us himself.
That’s what we’re invited into—into the life of the Lamb.
Even our suffering—
even our struggle, our defeat—
even our being crushed—
somehow God takes all of it
and transforms it into wine.
The world and our lives sometimes sound
like a disjointed, confusing racket.
As we’re waiting for the symphony to start—
as we’re longing for Jesus to return and transform the world—
maybe I should be praying less
that God would spare me from suffering,
and more that God would transform my suffering.
For many of us,
this calls for patient endurance.
Maybe God is making wine out of our suffering—
white-hot, healing love that vanquishes evil and heals the world.
Maybe Jesus is sharing his life with us.
Until that great and glorious day when God strikes up the band
and plays the symphony of love that makes all things new,
may we be learning that secret song today—
may you follow the Lamb wherever he goes
and may your deeds follow you,
may we trust that even our deep struggles—
even our deep sufferings—
will be used to usher in God’s new age of love,
- Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 32.
- Like all of the language in Revelation, the language of “the temple in heaven” seems to be symbolic of realities too mysterious and too real for us to understand. In chapter 21, we’re told that God’s new reality has “no temple” (v22) because of God’s immediate, accessible presence with his people.
- Compare Dest 23.9-10, 1 Sam 21.5, 2 Sam 11.8-11.
- This is part of why Revelation makes a big deal about “lies” (Rev 14.5) and “liars” (20.8). This seems to be talking less about a pattern of telling white lies (as dangerous as that pattern may be to one’s character) and more about a pattern of living in a way completely counter to what is ontologically True (capital T)—namely the self-giving, sacrificial love of the Lamb.
- The archetype of a city destroyed by fire is, of course, Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). The prophets frequently evoke this image when denouncing the practices of the culture around them.
- Particularly relevant is Isaiah 34.9-10 talking about the literal, historical fall of the nation of Edom. The language there is demonstrably symbolic. (The land is obviously not still literally burning nor smoke forever rising.) The grave and dire seriousness, however, of willfully, continuously living counter to God’s nature and purposes can only be hinted at—even with the powerful symbols of fire, sulfur, and smoke.
- Whatever else we might say about Rev 14.10-11, the poetic, artistic metaphors employed are a serious warning about “torment” not “torture.” Jesus does not torture people; Jesus endures torture for people. And Jesus is what God is always like. The character of God is at stake. The gospel is at stake. (Matthew 18.34 is a judgment parable that actually DOES use the word “torture” but its point seems akin to Rom 1.18,24,26,28 where God hands us over to what we’ve chosen even if they—not God, not “the king”—torture us.)
- The image of feasting returns positively in 19.9 and ominously in 19.21. The poetic prophecies of Isaiah 25.6-8 and Ezekiel 39.17-20 seem to stand behind these respective images.
- John seems to be drawing on a long tradition of harvest as God’s eschatological setting-right-the-world, and both Joel 3.23f and Isa 63.1-6 (cf. Rev 19.13-16) seem to be a primary source for his imagery. John, however, seems to have reworked Joel’s dual images of “harvesting” the wicked into dual images of “harvesting” the righteous—that is of safety (wheat; cf Matt 3.12, Lk 3.17, etc) and of sacrifice (grapes; cf. Matt 26.27-28, Phil 2.17, 2Tim 4.6). This combination of victorious safety and sacrificial witness is, of course, a common motif throughout Revelation (the Lamb = 5.6; “the witnesses” = 11.7 + 11.11-12; in song = 12.11; victorious over beasts = 13.7 + 15.2)
- Robert Mounce, NICNT, 281.
- Perhaps John is tapping into Zechariah’s image of “mak[ing] Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding nations reeling” (Zech 12.2).
- The people of God being crushed is probably is why the crushing takes place “outside the city” (v20) instead of inside the city. Revelation promises that the challenge issued in Heb 13.12-14 will not be fruitless.