The picture in heaven

Chapter fourteen continues the interlude that began in chapters ten and eleven. (We looked at this back in study twenty-two.) During this break in the unfolding of God's judgements, John's attention is first drawn to heaven, where he is told to measure the temple of God. Then it switches to earth and the appointment of the two witnesses. Following their death and resurrection, John's focus moves back to heaven, where the seventh angel sounds his trumpet. In chapter twelve, John begins to introduce some "signs" (as he did in his gospel) and these also switch from heaven to earth. We have seen the woman in labour and giving birth, the appearance of the red dragon and war in heaven, giving rise to the banishment of the dragon and his followers, which results in great rejoicing in heaven.

The earth is then subjected to the fury of the dragon and his cohorts. They are joined by the beast from the sea the antichrist) and the beast from the earth to form a satanic counterfeit of the Three-in-One: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we now move to chapter fourteen, John gives us three further pictures to reassure believers that, despite the horror of what is happening during the "tribulation", Jesus' eventual triumph and victory are assured. All will be well!

We have to understand that what John is seeing here is a brief look into the future. One of the difficulties that we have in studying this book is that it doesn't follow a strict chronology. It is more like some recent films where a story is often told through a series of "flashbacks" - or even glimpses into the future - and the timeline is not simple and straightforward. Revelation is much the same. We have to imagine heaven as being outside our normal experience of time flowing in one direction only.

The song of the 144,000

Revelation 14:1-5

During the short break between the sixth and seven trumpets being sounded, we looked (in study seventeen) at two groups of people in heaven: a defined group of one hundred and forty-four thousand Jewish people and "a great multitude that no one could count". John is now taken back to heaven where he sees this first group standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion. These anointed Judeo-Christians are now in the eternal dwelling place of God, having completed their work on earth. They have been witnesses - evangelists - in extremely difficult circumstances. Immediately before their mission began, all the believers on earth were taken up into heaven to be with their Lord. This left the world in a precarious situation with a sudden loss of people - some in significant positions of influence or knowledge and experience. The appearance of the dragon and the two beasts helped to establish some order and control, but only through the introduction of a system of thinking and government that was totally opposed to God. The 144,000 evangelists had God's protection but their task must have seemed almost impossible.

Now they stand with Jesus - in His very presence - and they are singing. They are accompanied by harpists and are singing "a new song" - a song that only they are able to learn and sing. New songs were usually written and sung in the Old Testament as a way of celebrating some new act of mercy by God, often victory over an enemy. (Exodus 15:19-21; Psalm 40:3; Psalm 98:1; Psalm 149:1) These evangelists have been through an experience together like no other and they now have a unique bond with Jesus. On top of this, they are marked out for specific reasons as being worthy of special honour:

  • They have remained celibate.
  • They have been (and continue to be) faithful followers of Christ.
  • They have been redeemed as "firstfruits" to God and the Lamb because they stuck to the truth in the midst of lies and deception and were considered "blameless" by God.

These Jewish evangelists were especially chosen by God and given his "seal" as a form of protection for the unusually difficult job that they were called to do. As ordinary believers, God calls us to serve Him in various ways and many different circumstances of life. Although we are not part of this select group, we are nonetheless followers of Jesus Christ and citizens of the kingdom of heaven. As such, we also are "sealed" with God's mark: the presence of the Holy Spirit of God in our hearts and minds. "In Him... [we] were stamped with the seal of the long-promised Holy Spirit. That [Spirit] is the guarantee of our inheritance [the first-fruits, the pledge and foretaste, the down payment on our heritage].” (Ephesians 1:13-14 - Amplified version) This seal is the guarantee of our eternal salvation, while we live out His purposes on the earth. It is the assurance that we will live eternally in heaven.

(Click on the button below for a brief, separate study of the kingdom of heaven).

The kingdom of heaven

Like the one hundred and forty-four thousand evangelists, we too need to be faithful followers of Christ. We may not be called to celibacy in the same way, but we are certainly called to avoid sexual immorality. The apostle, Paul, writes to the Corinthian church: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but those who sin sexually, sin against their own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20) The subject of sexual purity is such a challenge in our modern day, amidst enormous changes in social standards and thinking. Increasingly, sexually deviant behaviour is regarded as acceptable and even encouraged through easy, free access to pornography online. Easier travel and the widespread movement of people around the world have also made it easier for criminal gangs to profit from sex trafficking.

Christians are not exempt from sexual sin and traditional attitudes and teaching in churches, that promoted marriage and the family as the means to enhance and protect the importance of sexual relations, are set aside under the pressure from "progressive" social norms. Sadly, the non-Christian world is relentlessly squeezing us into its mould! Paul, the apostle, understood that his own role was special but, in every generation, other Christians have had a similar call from God to be different: perhaps to go out from their own culture and society in order to take the good news abroad, or to perform a particular task that demands a different level of commitment. For himself and all such people, Paul recommended celibacy, but emphasised that it is a special gift. (1 Corinthians 7:6-7)

Three angels and four messages

Revelation 14:6-13

John's attention is now diverted to three angels. They fly "directly overhead" and speak loudly so that their message will be heard by all. Each one brings a distinct message:

Angel #1

The first angel proclaims the eternal gospel: “Fear God! Give Him glory! Worship Him!” Those left on earth have been distracted by the appearance of the dragon and the two beasts. God is about to deliver His final judgements and people need to recognise and understand the reality of the situation; they need to fear God. They need to acknowledge who He is, what He has done and what He can do. Finally, they need to worship God, not the dragon. Time is short but God's message of grace continues to the very end.

We are not yet in these desperate times, but we may be close! Our own society is equally distracted from God; perhaps not openly by the appearance of a dragon and two beasts, but certainly by the endless tide of experiences and new ideas that seek to turn us from acknowledging the one true God and, instead, to find satisfaction in a whole host of other projects and pleasures... idols. Our own world needs the eternal gospel as never before and this needs to be our primary mission as believers.

Angel #2

The second angel pronounces the fall of Babylon. Some have though that "Babylon" might be a code name for Rome because it was used as such by early Christians, especially when the Roman empire was persecuting them. (1 Peter 5:13) However, the description of the city as "great Babylon" is an echo of King Nebuchadnezzar's comment in the book of Daniel (Daniel 4:30) so it may refer to the actual city of Babylon on the Euphrates River. This is reinforced by John's second comment, which personifies Babylon as a woman who tempts men to commit fornication. In the book of Daniel, Babylon is a centre for idolatry under both Nebuchadnezzar and his son, Belshazzar. It also encouraged liberal, sexual activity but, for the Jewish people, the primary danger was spiritual fornication: the constant temptation to compromise their worship of the one, true God, JAHWEH.

Now this second angel announces a prophetic judgement on "great Babylon". As was often the way with biblical prophecy, it is spoken as though it has already happened but, in strict, chronological terms, we have to wait until chapter seventeen to see the outworking of this prophecy. We can see "Babylon", therefore, as representing the entire idolatrous system of worship established by antichrist during the "tribulation". This second judgement follows on from the first because "Babylon" is the system that has rebelled against God; it does not acknowledge Him, fear Him or worship Him.

Angel #3

The third angel announces a warning to all those who are seduced by "Babylon" and accept the mark of the beast to become part of the new world order. All those who are left are given a very clear choice: worship the beast and receive God’s fury, or worship the Lamb, obey His commandments by remaining faithful to Jesus and receive His eternal reward of rest in heaven. (Revelation 14:9-13) It's true that those who choose to worship God will be killed by the beast but, after that, he will have no further power over them and they will be sealed with the mark of the Holy Spirit. For those who are coerced into receiving the mark of the beast, they may find relief in the short term, but their final situation will be far worse: cast into the eternal lake of fire reserved for Satan and all who follow him.

Their suffering will continue for all eternity and because "eternity" has no concept of an ending, there will never be an end to their agony. Should that not make us focus more passionately on the work that we have been entrusted to do – to reach out to those who have never yet made the decision to follow Jesus Christ? Does it not encourage us to be bold enough to rescue them from the brink of everlasting damnation, perhaps because of their pride, laziness, lack of attention, or whatever other erroneous belief they may hold as their excuse for not accepting the Son of God’s sacrifice for all?

Many have raised questions about whether or not "hell" is to be understood as a literal lake of fire or other place of unending torment, but the warnings of these angels and the urgency with which they treat their messages should make us all think carefully about where we are choosing to spend eternity. John writes that, "this requires the steadfast endurance of the 'saints' - those who obey God's commandments and hold to their faith in Jesus... Blessed are... those who die in the Lord from this moment on!" (Revelation 14:12-13)

The final harvest

Revelation 14:14-20

John's final picture of what is to come is that of a harvest with two reapings. If we link this to Joel's prophecy of final judgement, it appears to be a twin harvest of wheat and grapes. (Joel 3:12-13) For the first reaping John sees "a white cloud... and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man". The "Son of Man" is used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus, identifying Him as the Messiah. (Matthew 24:30; Matthew 26:64; John 5:27) This figure also has a golden crown on his head and holds a "sharp sickle in his hand". It seems highly likely that this is intended to refer to Jesus Himself, who will carry out the work of judging. (The fact that He receives the instruction to start judging from another angel does not necessarily mean that He is inferior to the angel; it simply means that He is following the instruction as though God Himself had given it.)

Two more angels appear for the second reaping and "gather the clusters of grapes off the vine of the earth". Although these sound like two separate actions, they may be intended simply to describe two aspects of one and the same act of judgement. Not only is the final judgement going to be thorough, it is going to be swift as well! This final image of grapes being harvested brings out very clearly the horror of God's wrath against sin and unrighteousness. The final picture of blood pouring out "to the height of horses' bridles for a distance of almost two hundred miles" is little short of horrific.

We now stand on the threshold of the last seven judgements to be delivered: the "bowls" of God's wrath. Let's give the last word for this study to Joel:

"Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision!" (Joel 3:13-14)

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