Life and its Consequences
In chapter fourteen the focus is still on the main period lasting many centuries since the christian age began, with the opening of the seals, and its ending in the bowls of wrath. This is the last part of the middle section of the book which began in chapter seven and which deals with our own period of time.
It is also about the future consequences of our present life and its purpose is to encourage us to labour for Christ and stay faithful to Him.
Some people think that life is pointless. It is a popular fantasy because it enables us to do what we want and indulge our sins because "nothing really matters". Christians who find life tough are often attracted to this point of view. But our lives now really do have an everlasting bearing on our futures - which may be beautiful or dreadful.
1. Encouragement From Israel (vs1-5)
The vision of the Lamb and 144,000 faithful Jews takes us back to chapter seven. The church out of Israel is already glorious and rejoicing in heaven. On earth they were often a small remnant - despised and persecuted, even by their own countrymen. But they kept themselves pure and stayed true to God's Word and are now glorified.
This example of exaltation and glory for those who remained true to God is meant to inspire us to similar faithfulness in the hope of a similar future. The faithful Jews are the vanguard of a mighty army of believers, saved by God through faith.
The mark on their forehead is crucial. We have just learnt that we are to avoid the mark of the beast and refuse to worship him. The positive alternative is to worship God and so receive His mark. It is important to realise that this is not something we do ourselves, but rather it is something which God does to mark His own. It is a gift of grace which we must seek.
In Ezekiel ch.9 we have an account of a similar marking of the faithful children of Israel. In Revelation 3:12 this idea is developed in an even more wonderful way since there it is promised that, instead of an angel writing the mark, the Lord Jesus Himself would write the three names of Himself, His Father and the new Jerusalem on those who overcome. The faithful of Israel who overcame by faithful witness in their own day have now received this blessing, along with their white robes, from Christ Himself.
The Lamb (the Lord Jesus Christ) is stood with them on Mount Zion. This is the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God, which we will learn much more of in chapters twenty one and two. The throne of God is the centre of that city which is in heaven in this chapter but will one day be united with the earth.
Before the throne the 144,000 sing a new song. As we saw in chapter six, a new song is sung when God's people experience deliverance. The mark of a redeemed people is that they sing God's praises in response (v3). We should not imagine that salvation comes through any other route than by faith in the Christ who shed His blood. New and Old Testament saints are all purchased by His blood (v4).
The reference to not defiling themselves with women does not mean that they are virgins sexually since normal marital relations are holy and in no way unclean or defiling (Hebrews 13:4). The exaltation of virginity and the single state which occurred in a later time is a result of misunderstanding the nature of holiness which forgot that marriage is part of the goodness of God's creation (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Some christians may choose not to marry to be more effective in working for the gospel but that is a tactical rather than moral decision.
This reference to staying pure must refer to their refusal to take foreign [idolatrous] wives. This was a repeated source of trouble in the time of Israel. Marriage with Canaanites etc. was forbidden in Deuteronomy 7:3,4 and the reintroduction of idolatry into Israel was connected with Solomon's foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8).
There is a contrast with the "maddening adulteries" of wicked Babylon in v8 which stand for the impurities of false faith and licentious behaviour.
The temptation for us will be to compromise with whatever modern forms of idolatry are being promoted around us today. Just as the 144,000 stayed faithful and uncompromised, so must we. This vision shows us that God's gracious reward for faithful worshippers is wonderfully assured.
Verse 5 tells us that "no lie was found in their mouths". This is a contrast to the insincere Jews who were persecuting the early churches. Christ calls those Jews liars (2:9, 3:9). Judaism without Christ is a lie because the whole point and purpose of Israel is the Messiah. To be religious and yet fail to be devoted to Jesus is nothing more than self-deception.
To believe Christ, on the other hand, is to be wedded to truth. There is no line between religious truth and practical or personal truth, so true believers must be people of integrity since we have come to Him Who is the Truth.
2. Encouragement From God's Word Now (vs6-13)
In these verses there are four words from heaven. Three are brought by angels and the last is spoken by God himself. They are not so much new words as restatements of New Testament doctrine. They are reminders that in this age we are to be like Israel in the desert and "live by every word that comes from the mouth of God".
The message of the cross (the eternal gospel of v6) is a word of encouragement which tells us to repent and worship our Creator and also warns us that judgement is near and has begun on the cross.
The phrase "eternal gospel" tells us that there has only ever been one message from God and one way to be reconciled to Him. That message was amplified and filled out through the centuries until, in Christ, it was fully revealed. Some over-keen dividers of God's word actually believe that there are different gospels in the Bible and that this is one of them! The adjective "eternal" is to tell us that there is only one gospel just as there is only one, eternal, God.
Once again, we are reminded that in these last days the gospel is to be proclaimed to every nation on earth (v6). This is the period when the elect are gathered from the four corners of the earth (Mark 13:27).
The angel here seems to follow after the eagle of 8:13 with a last offer of salvation towards the end of the age - "the hour of his judgement has come". We are reminded that there is a movement in history, reflected in this book, and that is leading to the time of judgement.
We are told to worship the creator of those things affected by the plagues of chapter eight (14:7). The two beasts may dominate society but all creation belongs to the Lord Almighty. So when the earth is shaken by His wrath we should turn to Him for grace. In times of great crisis there is no new word of God to be found out and preached. It is the same, old message of the eternal gospel which needs to be preached and obeyed.
The command to "fear God and give Him glory" is a call to repentance and faith. We glorify Him by believing His Word, turning from sin and giving our lives in service to Him. Worship is much more than religious rites (Romans 12:1-2). This is why theories about the mark of the beast are useless distractions. What matters is the worship of our hearts and the direction of our lives. Immature christians who spend their time avoiding credit cards and tattoos should be careful about the "weightier matters of the law" as Jesus called faith, mercy and love.
The second announcement from heaven in V8 introduces the name of Babylon the Great for the first time. Babylon was one of the great cities which stood against God in the Old Testament. The name is re-used in the Revelation to represent the great city of 11:8 which has already been called Jerusalem, Sodom and Egypt.
This final world-wide urban culture is the last and most wicked form taken by rebellious human society. Her downfall is announced here and accomplished afterwards (chs 17 & 18 describe it). Whenever one of the great cities of old was bound for destruction the Lord first announced it through His prophets and doom followed. Christ himself spoke of the end of Jerusalem and the disaster occured forty years later (Mark 13:30). In just the same way, it is the task of the church to warn the world of the wrath to come.
There is nothing new in this announcement. The message of judgement to come is in the whole of scripture. The new element is this naming of the city as Babylon with all the associations of glorious wealth, pagan magic and arrogance which it carries from the Old Testament.
The third angel brings a terrible description of hell in vs10-11. Few of us think about hell very much but perhaps we should. Those who are condemned suffer in the presence of Christ and His angels. The very Presence in which christians will delight will become a terror to those who would not worship Him. This is a warning that life does have eternal consequences. The mark of the beast is on all who who do not obey God and remain faithful to Jesus - there is no middle ground left.
The cup of God's wrath (v10) is a frequently recurring theme in both Testaments. It is God's anger against all the unrighteousness and rebellion of men. It is also the cup that Christ had to drink from in His agonies (Mark 14:33-36). The great promise of the Gospel is that God has allowed His Son to drink it in our place if we are His disciples. If we are not then we ourselves must taste its bitterness.
There is an inevitable connection with the cup of adultery in v8 and the cup of wrath in v10. This image of the two cups is repeated more than once in the prophets. If we do not stay true to God, Who is our real husband, then we must drink another cup of grief. The strange ceremony of drinking bitter water in Numbers chapter five finds its fulfilment here. The adulterous and unfaithful will come under the curse of God.
God's anger is sometimes portrayed as swift destruction and sometimes as slow lingering death of unlimited duration. Here we are told that God's wrath ON THE EARTH will be over quickly but it will be endured for ever in the fire of v10.
This torment is eternal without any ceasing or relief. In the face of such a prospect christians who suffer now have every reason, both positive and negative, to patiently endure the comparatively light afflictions of today and stay faithful unto death.
The fourth message from heaven is from God Himself (v13). It seems as though the Father and Spirit are giving a personal message to believers telling them that those who die in the Lord (Jesus Christ) are not only saved securely but are also entering into privileges which are a total contrast to the eternal state of unbelievers.
There are two great promises to encourage us. Those who die in this age "in the Lord" (i.e. faithful to Him) are blessed. Firstly, they enter the Sabbath Rest of God which is denied to the unfaithful (see v11). Secondly, their deeds will follow them.
Our deeds follow us in three ways:
Firstly, in our characters, which are the fruit of our lives. Christ often taught that faithful service in our current life prepares us for greater service in the life to come (see, for instance, Matthew 25:28-30).
Secondly, in the lives of others, who have been saved through our witness or have been encouraged in faith by our help. Our deeds are used by God to save and construct His eternal church.
Thirdly, in God's memory, so that He will reward our deeds richly in mercy. As we saw in chapter two, these rewards are not quid pro quo payments for services rendered but they are, rather, gracious gifts given to those who work faithfully.
This verse has been read at countless funerals and has rightly comforted millions of dying or grieving christians. Those interpreters who believe chapter fourteen is not for today have missed its entire point. It is right now that we need the strengthening and hope of this verse.
3. Encouragement And Warning In The Two Harvests (vs14-20)
The two harvests in 14-16 and 17-20 are very different. Christ Himself is reaper of the first harvest which gathers the whole faithful church. The 144,000 are the firstfruits and the unnumbered multitude are the main crop of this happy and glorious harvest. The safe gathering in of this harvest is the final point and climax of the history of our age.
An angel of judgement reaps the other harvest of the "grapes of wrath". The evil and injustice of this world daily gathers the wrath and condemnation of God which will be poured out on the day of Christ. The image of masses of mankind being crushed like grapes in a vast winepress is a hideous reminder that God's anger is real. If the outpoured blood of Christ does not save us then it will be our own blood that flows.
The order of the two harvests is significant. The harvest of the church is the really important one. The harvest of the grapes of wrath must wait until the earth has been fully harvested. God's patient work through the centuries has all been designed to this end and purpose (2 Peter 3:9). This is why Christ came (Mark 10:45).
In this way God will save His world. Not every individual will be saved; many will perish as this chapter tells us. Yet God will have His harvest and He works patiently through the witness of the churches, the prayers of His people, and the Holy Spirit brooding over the world until His harvest is fully ripe.
Just as in Jesus' parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-42) both the harvests ripen together. There is a progress and development in human history. The believing churches are meant to ripen in understanding, holiness and love while "Babylon" ripens in a different direction.
There is a close connection between chapters seven and fourteen of the Revelation. They mark out the start and end of that part of the book which describes christian living today. In this section we have been shown the reason and purpose behind the struggle of Christ's churches on earth. We have learnt why we must be faithful witnesses and why we often seem to be defeated rather than victorious. We have been able to see through the powerful governments and religions of our era to see the satanic inspiration behind them. And, most important of all, we have seen that our labour is not in vain.
Both chapters seven and fourteen tell us that God's purpose will succeed. He will use our prayers and faithfulness to accomplish His plan to gather His elect people, the unnumbered multitude, out of our troubled times, the great tribulation. Chapter fourteen - coming at the end - contains the extra element of warning. Destruction awaits the world and, after that, the torment of hell for those who refused to follow Christ.