THE WRATH OF GOD AND THE LAMB – [1] The Conquerors – Revelation 15

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

Chapter 15 begins with John saying that he saw another ‘great and marvellous sign’. He has said this about one other sign – the sign of the woman who gave birth to the male child. There the great event of the incarnation was portrayed – that incarnation by which God’s eternal purpose of salvation was completed [see John 19:30]. Here are ‘seven angels with the seven last plagues’, called ‘last’ because ‘with them God’s wrath is completed’. In both of these the word translated ‘is completed’ is teleo – a word we have seen before and will see again. With these seven plagues about to be described God’s wrath is finished. Beyond these seven plagues there is no more wrath of God, and nothing that will ever elicit the wrath of God ever again. [Note that the same word is used in verse 8 – ‘completed’.]

 

A. A VISION OF THE REDEEMED – 15:2-4

Before being given a fuller description of the seven angels and seven bowls, John is given a vision of the redeemed. This parallels what he has just seen in 14:1-5 – like the redeemed there, those in this vision are playing harps and singing a song.  Here, by different symbols, we are given some additional information:

They are ‘standing beside the sea’ – that is, they are standing beside ‘what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire’. We read of a ‘something that looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal’ before the throne of God in 4:6. Scholars are divided about what is symbolised by this glassy sea. The mention of ‘fire’ here supports the understanding that the ‘sea’ is the sea of God’s holiness – a holiness which has banned sinners from his presence, a holiness which requires that sin be judged. Here, at this point when the complete wrath of God is about to be poured out, this ‘fire’ almost certainly points to judgment. But here are the redeemed standing on or beside [the Greek epi can mean either] this sea. The meaning is that the redeemed are not threatened by either the holiness of God or by the judgment that his holiness demands. They are, as we have seen before, beyond the judgment. Like the Israelites having crossed the Red Sea, they have crossed over and are safe on the other side. [If we think further, we realise that they are standing in the presence of God on the basis of his holiness and on the basis of his judgment that has already been poured out on them in their perfect substitute, Jesus Christ – they are not saved by a sneaky by-pass of God’s holiness and judgment, but by the perfect fulfilment of that holy justice. This is affirmed in Romans 3:25,26.]

They are described as ‘those who have been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name’. They had not worshipped the beast; they were therefore those whose names were written in the Lamb’s book of life [13:8], for it is only those who are victorious over the beast. This parallels ‘they kept themselves pure’ and ‘no lie was found in their mouths’ in 14:4,5. As we have seen already, their victory over the beast and his image was assured: they belonged to the Lamb and they followed the Lamb, not the beasts [14:4]. Note that the word translated ‘who had been victorious’ is the present participle of the verb nikao, which means ‘conquer’. This is a word that occurs repeatedly in Revelation. These are ‘the conquering ones’ – the ‘he who overcomes’ [same present participle in the Greek] in the seven letters. But there is something else we must take note of here: the Greek text does not say that they were victorious ‘over’ the beast etc, but that they were victorious ‘out of’ the beast, his image and the mark/number of his name. They did not personally conquer the beast etc. Indeed, they once were aligned with the evil one [Ephesians 2:2,3; Colossians 1:13]. The only reason they are ‘victorious’ is that the Lord Jesus Christ has rescued them from, out of, the dominion and power of the evil one by his blood. We saw a similar truth in 7:14 where the redeemed are described as those ‘who have come out of the great tribulation’, and the reason for this is ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’.

They ‘held harps given them by God’ – their ability to praise and worship God and their right to do so is God-given. The Greek reads ‘having harps of God’.

They sang ‘the song of Moses … and the song of the Lamb’. The original song of Moses [Exodus 15] was an exultant song praising God for his mighty victory in redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt and bringing them safely across the Red Sea. Moses sang this song on the safe side of the Red Sea after the destruction of the enemy. Although a real physical event, the exodus is also symbolic of the greater spiritual reality – the spiritual deliverance from spiritual bondage wrought by God through the death of his Son. When Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, ‘they spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem’ [Luke 9:31] – where the word translated ‘departure’ is ‘exodus’. What ‘the Lamb’ achieved is what ‘Moses’ prophetically symbolised. Salvation of countless multitudes through the death of the Lamb is the deep reality embedded in the massive exodus of over two million Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It is no wonder that their song sounds from heaven ‘like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder … like … harpists playing on their harps’ [14:2]! The number of people involved and the sound of their combined harps and voices and the conviction and joy that fills their hearts … surely their praise excels the praise of the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, the thousands upon thousands of angels! Surely their praise resonates more loudly than the rest of the heavens and earth together!

Note: there is also a very long ‘song of Moses’ in Deuteronomy 32. Although, like Exodus 15, it contains far more than the ‘song’ in Revelation 15:4, it does contain every concept expressed in this song.

A.1 The song they sang – verses 3,4
The lyrics of the song, which are surely just a summary of the song, focus on the worthiness of God:

He is addressed as the ‘Lord God Almighty’. This title is used of God in his self-introduction [1:8]; in the praise of the four living creatures before the throne [4:8]; in the worship of the twenty-four elders when the final kingdom is established [11:17]; here in the song of the redeemed [15:3]; by ‘the altar’ [16:7]; and in 21:22, where, together with the Lamb ‘the Lord God Almighty’ is ‘the temple’. The adjective ‘Almighty’ is also ascribed to God in 16:14 and 19:15. The concept of God as ‘Almighty’ draws our attention to his unparalleled power and authority. He is omnipotent, all-powerful in himself, and in addition he has unlimited authority by which he can summon to do his bidding anything and everything in the whole universe – visible and invisible. In its Old Testament counterpart it was translated as ‘the Lord of hosts’, referring primarily to the angelic armies that serve him.

He is addressed as ‘King of the ages’ [1984 NIV], ‘king of the nations’ [2011 NIV]. [Some ancient manuscripts have ‘ages’ some have ‘nations’.] Given the context of the preceding chapters, where ‘the nations’ have all come under the power of the beasts and ‘Babylon’, it is reasonable to understand ‘nations’ here. It is God, not Satan and his minions, who is the real King and this will be clearly demonstrated at the end.

His actions are described as ‘great and marvellous’, ‘just and true’, and ‘righteous’. This reflects the praise of the ‘song of Moses’ in Deuteronomy 32:3,4 where Moses refers to the greatness of God, the perfection of his works, the justice of his ways:

‘Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.’

He is described as ‘holy’ – ‘you alone are holy’. This unique, otherness of God, of which his justice is an expression, is stated as the reason God is feared and worshipped – the reason why the redeemed are worshipping him, and why everyone ought to worship him. His justice, and the success of his justice, are inseparable from his holiness – see Deuteronomy 32:39. Note the pure logic of the question in Revelation 15:4:

‘Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.’

But the inhabitants of the earth, deceived by the enemy, do not think logically.

All nations will worship before him because his righteous acts have been revealed.  The simplest way to understand this is: that people from every nation, tribe, language and people group will worship God because of the revelation of his twofold righteous acts:

Firstly, the righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel by which sinners are acquitted. This is usually referred to by the Greek dikaiosune, but in Romans 5:16 and 18 by the same word, dikaioma, that is used here in Revelation 15:4. This word is also used in Revelation 19:8 to refer to the ‘fine linen, bright and clean’ worn by the redeemed. [7:14 has already explained that it is the blood of the Lamb that makes their robes white.]

Secondly, the justice of God’s judgment on the unrepentant.

As we have seen before, God is perfectly just [righteous] in acquitting repentant sinners on the basis of the sin-bearing death of Christ, and God is perfectly just [righteous] in applying sin’s penalty to those who are unrepentant. The redeemed recognize this and praise God because of it.

Note: It is quite common for Christians to question the justice of God in relation to the execution of his justice in regard to various categories of unrepentant people. Revelation assures us that God’s execution of his justice is indeed just. Rather than being a point of criticism of God, Revelation sees it as a point of worship.

Similarly, the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:40 concludes with these words:

‘Rejoice, O nations, with his people,
for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
he will take vengeance on his enemies
and make atonement for his land and his people.’

By the final judgment about to be revealed in the last plagues God brings to completion the justice here anticipated in the song of Moses.

A.2 Already and not yet
Although there is obvious reference to the future, when all the redeemed have been taken up by Christ, prior to the final judgment, it is also true that the redeemed are already in the presence of God. As we have seen before, all who are saved by faith in Christ are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms [Ephesians 2:6]. We can, and should, sing this song of Moses and of the Lamb, even today while still here where the evil one and his associates still pressure us. We know that God is who this song says he is. We know that God alone is holy, that God alone is God, that God alone is worthy of praise. We know that people from all nations will come and worship him, indeed have come and are still coming, to worship him. We know that we stand before him on the basis of that act of righteousness whereby he acquitted us through the blood of Jesus, and that not one of the accusations of the evil one has any legal right against us. And we know, although it has not yet happened, that he will bring justice to the earth: that he will do what is right and will right all wrongs.

We are not yet released from everything that is wrong – but we can already sing of the certainty of it.

 

B. THE SEVEN ANGELS – 15:5-8

Having assured the saints with the vision of their secure position in the presence of God, the revelation now returns to the theme introduced in 15:1 – the symbolic vision of the seven angels with the seven last plagues, with which God’s wrath is completed.

B.1 The sanctuary is opened – verse 5
We saw the sanctuary opened in 11:17 in association with the final judgment and the final state, and now we see it again. But there are some differences. There the ‘ark of the covenant’ was mentioned, pointing to the covenant faithfulness of God. Here the sanctuary is called ‘the tabernacle of the Testimony’ [where ‘testimony’ is marturion – ‘witness’. And we wonder ‘why the change?’

In Deuteronomy, prior to reciting his song in the presence of the whole assembly of the Israelites, Moses had given two instructions to the Levites:

[1] the Book of the Law, which he had just read, and which was to be read to the assembled Israelites every seven years [31:10-13], was to be placed in the sanctuary beside the Ark of the covenant as a witness against the Israelites [31:24-28].

[2] The song of Moses was to be written out and taught to the people so that they would remember it [31:19-22]. This song also would, God said, ‘be a witness for me against them’ and ‘will testify against them’ [31:19,21].

The fact that the ‘song of Moses’ was being sung by the redeemed Revelation 15:3-5 intensifies our awareness of the justice of the final judgment about to be poured out. The unrepentant are without excuse. We might suggest excuses for those who ‘had not heard’, but even these who had heard – who had seen the mighty hand of God at the Red Sea, who had the Book of the Law, who learned the song of Moses – even these with all this additional revelation and reason to honour God, did not do so. How can we then, on the basis of their ‘lesser’ revelation excuse those outside of Israel? The greater revelation given to Israel testifies against them, revealing the hardness and impenitence of the human heart that attracts the wrath of God on the day his righteous judgment is revealed [Romans 2:5].

Hence the sanctuary here in this vision in Revelation 15 is referred to not in terms of ‘the Ark of the Covenant’ which testified to God’s faithfulness, but in terms of ‘the tabernacle of the Testimony’ – the tabernacle of the witness – which testified to human unfaithfulness.

B.2 The seven angels with the seven plagues – verse 6,7
In the symbolic vision, the seven angels with their seven plagues come out from the sanctuary – they come out from the symbolic presence of God, and they come out from the place where the Book of the Law testifies against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, defining the necessity for and justice of the wrath of God about to fall.

These angels themselves cannot be touched by the judgment – they wear ‘clean, shining linen’ [which symbolizes purity] and have golden sashes [gold also symbolizes purity].

They are given, by one of the four living creatures beside the throne, ‘seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God’. Note the repeated ‘seven’ – seven angels, seven plagues, seven bowls. All of this points to the perfection of the impending judgment. Although applying ‘perfection’ to the concept of ‘judgment’ seems out of place, let us think for a moment: do we want, or expect, that when God applies the final judgment it will be less than perfect? Do we not want him to do it perfectly? With perfect justice? With everything covered and nothing left out? When God comes to judge the world it will be the perfect judgment. Nothing will be left hanging around, skulking in some dark corner: there will be no dark corners. Nothing will be left that has not been dealt with – not even a nano-particle of evil will remain undetected and untouched by the judgment.

Their bowls are ‘filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever’. The wrath of the eternal God is contained in these symbolic bowls. No sin from Genesis 3 right up to this day of God’s wrath will escape. God was there when the first sin was committed, and he has been there all the time … never sleeping, never distracted, never forgetting.  Except the sins of the redeemed … they are not remembered. They have already attracted his wrath, borne by the Son in his body on the cross. For God those sins have ceased to exist. But for the rest, the God who lives for ever and ever, the eternal God, is about to exact the ultimate judgment. Here his eternal wrath against all that is evil is about to be revealed in its final expression.

B.3 The power and the glory of God – verse 8
Unlike the vision in 11:19 where the sanctuary was open and John could see right into it, here in this vision the sanctuary is ‘filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power’. The vision in 11:19 assumes that the judgment is past, and all evil has been removed from the universe. There nothing prevented open access to God and open vision of God. But in this vision in 15:8, immediately prior to the judgment, it is impossible to see inside the sanctuary, it is impossible to enter the symbolic presence of God.

This is not significant for the redeemed. They already stand in the presence of God – they are beside the glassy sea which is in front of the throne [15:2; 4:6], singing their powerful and beautiful song [15:2-4]. [Indeed it may well be that we are meant to understand that they are hidden within the smoke.]

But what does this ‘smoke from the glory of God and from his power’ mean for the unredeemed? If no one can enter the sanctuary, it means that no atonement for sin can be made – for the ‘mercy seat’, the place of atonement, is there in the sanctuary. It means that the day of grace has ended and the day of judgment has come. That same power and glory of God that excluded the Israelites from Mt Sinai, that same glory of the Lord that excluded Moses from entering the Tabernacle, that same glory and holiness that overwhelmed Isaiah, here now excludes everyone.

Suggested readings
Exodus 19:9,16-18; 24:15-18; 40:34-38
Isaiah 6:4

In the Old Testament the Israelites in their escape from Egypt were accompanied by the powerful presence of God. There was a real physical symbol of this presence: the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud [sometimes referred to as ‘smoke’] by night. Much could be said of this visible, physical symbol of presence of the Lord, but two are of significance here: it spoke protection to God’s people, and it spoke danger to God’s enemies. One reference is of relevance to this ‘smoke’ from the glory and power of God that filled the sanctuary in Revelation 15:8:

In Numbers 10:35 and 36 is a beautiful little cameo of the significance of the ‘cloud’ for the Israelites – scattering for the enemies of the Lord, and the protective presence of the Lord for ‘the countless thousands’ of his people.

This symbolic ‘smoke’ that comes from the glory and the power of God that prohibits anyone from entering the sanctuary while God executes his wrath on his enemies … is it not also protecting the redeemed who are already there in the real sanctuary, the real presence of God

In the symbolic vision here and in what follows in chapter 16, it looks like it is the angels who are pouring out God’s wrath. The reality is that it is God – God in his power and God in his glory.