WRATH POURED OUT Revelation 15–17
“Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever” (Rev. 15:7).God is just in His judgments, however terrible they may appear to you and me.
After describing further judgments that are poured out on earth, John introduces something called Mystery Babylon. In symbolic form this is a woman, drunk on the blood of the saints, who is herself done away with by the Antichrist. Identification of the Antichrist rests again on language found in Daniel’s later chapters; language which suggests leadership of a consortium of political powers. The woman is often interpreted to represent a single, false, worldwide religion which featured worship of the beast and persecution of those who believe in God. The image of her riding the beast (17:3) suggests that religion is a tool used by the Antichrist in his rise to power—but discarded when power is achieved (see v. 17). Certainly some of this is speculative. At the same time, within this context, explanations are given that make one thing sure. The beast of Revelation is the evil ruler and enemy of Israel whom Daniel describes in chapters 11 and 12. And the events here fit that prophecy so closely that we must assume Daniel and John share a common vision of things to come.
John sees seven angels, who are given bowls filled with the wrath of God (15:1–8). These are now poured out on the earth, but mankind’s only response is to curse God (16:1–21). John also witnesses the destruction of a woman generally taken to represent false religion (17:1–6), which is done away with by the Antichrist, who demands the total allegiance of all (vv. 7–18).
Understanding the Text
“Last, because with them God’s wrath is completed” Rev. 15:1. The judgments described in Revelation 15 and 16 are the last in the series of punishments to be experienced by earth’s unrepentant population. These are terrible indeed. Yet we should remember that whatever happens on earth, to believer or unbeliever, is but a prelude to eternity. Some comfort themselves with the notion that a loving God would have no use for hell. The horrors which now take place on earth are evidence that God will deal most harshly with sin here and hereafter. “Those who had been victorious over the beast and his image” Rev. 15:2–4. What a strange description: “Those who have been victorious.” Victorious? When the context makes it clear that those so praised have died in the beast’s vicious persecution of believers? Yet they are victorious. Their victory consisted in resisting every pressure to join the powers of evil. The fact that they suffered is irrelevant. The fact that they were killed is of no account. What matters is that they remained true to God, and in that, they triumphed. What a principle to remember as we enter another year. It is no matter what we may lose on earth, or how weak we may appear. In doing what is right, and remaining true to God despite the cost, we triumph. “Out of the temple” Rev. 15:6–16:1. The seven angels that John now sees receive seven bowls filled with the dregs of God’s wrath. When the content of these bowls is poured out on the earth, the temporal phase of God’s judgment will be complete. But note that these angels appear from the temple. In Israel’s religion, the temple was the place God’s people came to meet with Him. They worshiped God there. They brought their sacrifices and their offerings, and sang their praises on the temple steps. There, hidden beyond the curtain that sheltered the temple’s inmost room, God’s presence rested. The wall and curtains that shielded Him from profane gaze also shielded the worshipers. The essential holiness of God, the blazing glory of His righteousness, was too overwhelming for any man to see and live. But now we see seven angels, who have been within the temple and who are themselves afire with smoke and glory. They emerge to accept the bowls that bring God’s judgments to a fiery close. Let’s remember, as we approach God, confident of our welcome, that His temple is a place of worship, but a holy place as well. We must approach Him in holiness and purity, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). “And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail” Rev. 16:2–21. This chapter summarizes the series of judgments that are poured on the earth from the angel’s golden bowls. It also reemphasizes a theme we’ve seen expressed before. After the first series of judgments, John says that men tried to hide from God (6:15–17). After the next series he reports that mankind “still did not repent” of their idolatry or immorality (9:20–21). Now, after this series, John says, “They cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.” These responses must be contrasted with the enthusiastic welcome given the Antichrist when he exhibited supernatural powers. The basic difference is that the judgments from God reveal His power—and man’s sin. The wonders worked by the Antichrist reveal his powers—but appeal to man’s sinful nature. I’ve been interested in a new school of evangelism which argues that “signs and wonders” are and have been a key to winning people to Jesus. I doubt it. A person who will not respond to God’s Word about Jesus will not be moved by signs and wonders. The issue lies in the heart of a man, and nowhere else. “The great prostitute” Rev. 17:1–6. All through Scripture false religion has been identified with adultery and prostitution. This is in part because the pagan religions we meet in the Old Testament were nature faiths, and sexual orgies intended to stimulate nature gods to send rain were essential elements. Even more significantly, however, idolatry is associated in the Old Testament with immorality because the worship of false gods is a violation of covenant relationship with the Lord. There is only one God. To abandon Him in favor of another spiritual relationship is nothing less that adultery on a cosmic scale. Thus interpreters of Revelation agree that in this chapter, Mystery Babylon, the great prostitute, the woman drunk with the blood of God’s saints, is false religion. Even more, it is false religion developed to the nth degree: religion for its own sake, religion that hates the true God, religion that actively persecutes faith. The reformers loved to identify the woman’s purple and scarlet clothing with dress adopted in the Catholic church, and delighted in the fact that Rome is a city set on seven hills. As corrupt as 16th and 17th-century Catholicism became, that identification is unlikely. What is sure, however, is that “religion” often is the enemy of God, and of His people. Cults today, and the possible future world religion portrayed here, are not friendly to true Christianity, which calls us simply to love Jesus and one another, and to be zealous of doing good.
Riding the Beast(Rev. 17)
Whatever else we may draw from Revelation 17, it seems quite clear that it’s dangerous for religion to hitch a ride on politics. Granted that the imagery is obscure. Even so, if we take the scarlet-clad woman as religion, the beast she rides (v. 7) fits Daniel’s and Revelation’s description of the Antichrist. It’s such a natural marriage. Religion, eager to gain adherents, unites with the current political power. But religion, which planned to use the marriage to gain her ends, suddenly discovers that she is herself being used! And when there is no more use for religion, she is cast aside. I don’t want to identify American Christianity with Mystery Babylon, or the beast with any political party. But it is worthwhile to observe that no marriage between faith and politics is secure. What is even worse, a marriage between an authentic Christianity committed to spiritual warfare and any political party, committed to maintaining political power, is disastrous for faith. The weapons of our warfare, Paul once wrote, are not carnal, but are spiritual. Why then would we ever abandon the source of our power, to ride the beast?
Prayer and witness overcome the world.
“Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the ideal.”—Russell Kirk