The final preparations

Chapter fifteen is the preface to the final few chapters of this amazing book. We start with another "sign": seven angels who have seven plagues - the very last of God's judgements because, with them, God’s wrath is completed. It is key for us to understand that God has infinite mercy and loving-kindness. We have seen examples in many other places in this book (and, indeed, throughout Scripture) of how He is not willing that any should perish. He will do all that He can to encourage those who are yet undecided to change their ways and to follow Him. (2 Peter 3:9) But the ultimate choice lies with each one of us – individually. God has no grand-children!

The wrath of God

Many people have struggled to understand that God can be both a "God of love" and a "God of justice". They see love as something that requires God to forgive human beings for any and all of the wrong things they do, with the result that punishment must be imcompatible with God's nature. So people say that the notion of "hell" must be wrong because God loves everyone! Unfortunately, words (and the ideas they represent) can take their meanings from different points of reference. If we want to understand each other clearly, we have to share the same points of reference.

For example, as human beings, we tend to think of 'love' as an emotion because we are emotional creatures. For us, 'love' can have a multitude of meanings. I may say that I 'love' my husband, but I also 'love' poetry and I 'love' ice cream. Our 'love' of things may change over time. The things that we 'loved' as children often lose their taste or appeal as we grow older. We tend to apply the same thinking to people so that we 'fall in love' one moment but then 'love dies' and we want to move on to someone else. Our point of reference may be ourselves or the collective experience of many human beings; as we share our experience with others and find that they agree with us, so our understanding of love becomes a common understanding between us and we come to expect that everyone in the world shares this understanding.

But God is not a human being. He created us and made us in His image, but He is not like us. We can hazard a guess as to what we think He is like, but the only one who truly knows God is God Himself. Because He is unique, our only point of reference is Him, what He says and He does. In order to help us in understanding Him, God has - over the course of many, many years - given us a record of His words and actions, His thoughts and feelings. They are collected together in what we know as 'the Bible'. So, when God tells us that He loves us, we have to be careful not to confuse what He means by love with what we have always thought of as love. With God, love is not simply an emotion but a choice, based on what He has decided.

In the same way, we cannot expect God to be like us in everything. He tells us that He created us in His likeness but that this likeness has been corrupted and damaged. God is righteous and pure and cannot look upon evil. We have concepts of 'good' and 'bad', but those are modelled on what humans are like. We struggle to understand pure goodness, because we don't know anyone who is like that! God has given us plenty of material in the Bible to help us understand both love and righteousness (or goodness). But it's crucial that we understand that His purity means that He cannot co-exist with any form of evil. Whilst He loves human beings and has made it possible for them to be re-created in His likeness, He has also shown us that true love depends on the lovers each having the freedom to make a choice. He loves us, but it means nothing if we do not choose to love Him in return. At some point, that decision has to be made. This book of Revelation tells us that God will not wait for our decision for ever, because He will not allow evil to continue for ever. As this chapter opens, God is preparing to judge the human race. We are about to see the final stage of human history. People are about to find out that, whilst God's love and heaven are very real, so too are God's wrath and hell.

Songs of praise

Revelation 15:2-3

Once again we see the glassy sea (as in Revelation 4:6) but, this time, it is mingled with fire, representing judgement. The martyrs, who had resisted the beast and his image and not taken his mark during the "tribulation", are gathered beside the sea. They did not compromise their faith, but triumphed over the beast and all he stood for. (Revelation 15:2) Martyrdom was indeed victory! “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; and they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:11) Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Fire is often used as a symbol of judgement. For example, God Himself is described as a “consuming fire”. (Hebrews 12:29) He burns up the dross: the rubbish of wrong attitudes, 'stinking thinking' and all the other rough edges we do not need.

The saints and martyrs are holding "harps given to them by God,” which reaffirms that victory leads to praise! Heartfelt praise is thanking God for all He has done, but it also includes exalting Him, by faith, for all He is yet to do! This is the greatest act of faith - to praise God when everything around us appears to be catastrophic - or perhaps not working out as we would wish. Praise turns our focus outwards towards God Himself and away from our inward, negative thinking, regardless of the circumstances. Praise enables us to reach a higher perspective and rewards us with the blessing of God drawing nearer to us, as we draw closer to Him. Focusing on Him reminds us of who is in control and that His word is our final authority, regardless of the opinions of others.

These victorious saints, who surround the throne, remind us that, when we become believers, God begins a process of conforming us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. “For God knew His people in advance, and He chose them to become like His Son, so that His Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And, having chosen them, He called them to come to Him. And, having called them, He gave them right standing with Himself. And, having given them right standing, He gave them His glory.” (Romans 8:29-30 - New Living Translation) What an awesome concept: to realise that we are covered in His glory! This process begins to transform us, as we learn obedience. When we read something in His word, we need to decide, not only to believe it, but also to do it. The word ‘faith’ in Hebrew is a verb, regardless of what our background traditions might have taught us. The presence of God within us helps us to become 'God-pleasers'.

The martyrs sing two songs: "the song of Moses" and "the song of the Lamb". We have two songs from Moses recorded in the Old Testament. (Exodus 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 32:1-43) Of these, it is perhaps more likely that they were singing the first one, because it is a song of victory to celebrate how God led the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom in the 'promised land'. After finally being thrown out by Pharaoh, they came to a place called 'Pi Hahiroth' (meaning the 'throat' or 'gorge' of 'the serpent'), beside the Red Sea. Here, to the human eye, they were trapped! Ahead was the sea, which they had no means of crossing without enormous loss of lives and possessions. The people were filled with terror, but God told Moses what to do and, in obedience, Moses stretched out his staff and the sea parted! The Israelites walked through on dry land but, as the Egyptian army followed in hot pursuit, the sea swept back once again and literally wiped them out.

There is no "song of the Lamb" recorded elsewhere in Scripture and it seems likely that what we have in verses three to four is it. (Revelation 15:3-4) Like the 'Children of Israel', the martyrs have passed through a 'sea' of martyrdom and arrived safely on the heavenly shore. They can now look back on the terrors and trials through which they have passed, rejoicing with all the other believers at their final and undeniable victory! Although it is possible to see this as a hymn of praise to the Lamb, it is linked here with a song written by Moses, so it is perhaps better to understand this as a song written by Jesus in praise of His Father. It praises God for what He has done, demonstrating His power, His justice and His truth as King over all the world. It calls on all humanity to worship God for His unique character and righteousness.

The bowls of God's wrath

Revelation 15:5-8

The "tent of meeting" and the "temple of Solomon" on earth were both examples (shadows) of the temple in heaven. God provided detailed plans for their construction because they were intended as an earthly representation of God being constantly present amongst His people. The book of Hebrews gives us this explanation: “Here is the main point: we have a high priest who sat down in the place of honour beside the throne of the majestic God in heaven. There He ministers in the heavenly tabernacle, the true place of worship that was built by the Lord and not by human hands. And since every high priest is required to offer gifts and sacrifices, our high priest must make an offering, too. If He were here on earth, He would not even be a priest, since there already are priests who offer the gifts required by the law. They serve in a system of worship that is only a copy, a shadow of the real one in heaven. For when Moses was getting ready to build the tabernacle, God gave him this warning: ‘Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you here on the mountain.’ But now Jesus, our high priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for He is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises.” (Hebrews 8:1-6)

John now sees the temple in heaven as the place where God Himself is now present. It is filled with smoke to indicate His power and His glory and it is from here that seven angels emerge and are each given a golden bowl "filled with the wrath of God who lives for ever and ever". As the songs of praise have expressed it so clearly: God is a God of righteousness and justice. In His great mercy, He has done everything possible, especially during the last seven years of the "tribulation", to show people who He is. He has continually reached out to them, imploring them to turn to Him and be saved, but now the time has come to show His justice. In God's creation, there are always consequences to actions. So, the punishment of the plagues to come, for those who have totally rejected God and have chosen to follow Satan and his beasts instead, is entirely just.

It is as if the whole of heaven holds its breath. The seven angels, who are God’s servants to implement the plagues of judgement, come out of the temple and receive them from one of the four living creatures. The way the angels are dressed signifies their purity and the solemnity of the occasion as they appear from God’s presence. Each wears a royal and priestly long, white, linen garment with a gold embroidered girdle around the chest. Their given task is to administer the wrath of God. No one on earth has yet seen the wrath of God in all its fury and horror, but those of God’s enemies who are alive at this time are not only going to see it; they are going to experience it. Contrast these bowls of plagues with the sweet-smelling incense being burned on the altar of incense, just outside the 'Most Holy Place'. We saw in study twenty that this sweet-smelling incense was mixed with the prayers of martyrs, crying out for justice. There will also be believers – those who have given their lives to Jesus during the "tribulation" – who are still alive and asking God to save those who are still in a position to listen to His word, prior to the pouring out of these bowls of judgement.

God’s glory is symbolised by smoke, which is tangible and visible to those who are willing to attend to Him. The same thing was seen after the exodus from Egypt. We read that, when Moses led the people out to meet with God at the foot of Mount Zion: “there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast... Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.” (Exodus 19:16-19) Similarly, when King Solomon and the Israelites brought the ark of the covenant (signifying the presence of God) into the temple, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD and the priests could not perform their service. (1 Kings 8:10-13) This smoke and cloud signified God’s glory and presence. Oh that we would experience such a presence of God in our day – in these "last days" in which we live - that we might see revival in our land and among the nations, before the time of tribulation, when believing in God will be so much more difficult!

Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before You! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make Your name known to Your enemies and cause the nations to quake before You! For when You did awesome things that we did not expect, You came down, and the mountains trembled before You. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides You, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.” (Isaiah 64:1-4) This needs to be our daily prayer for our nation, as we agree with His word - in other words, His will.

Surely God will hear our prayer and pour out His Spirit upon all flesh again, to enable us all to see His glory manifested in a new and magnificent way? Revivals in the past have lasted just a few years – maybe three or four at the most - but I believe that, if we pray now, we shall see - in our lifetime - a revival like none we have seen before: a revival that will continue until Jesus comes to take us home.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)

What an awesome day of praise and worship!

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