The Lamb’s people are slain. From the view of the Throne this is the proof of the Lamb’s victory, proof His followers have overcome.1 From the view of the earth, it is another proof of how these foolhardy Christ-followers cannot see the truth the Beast always has and always will overcome their insignificant sacrifice.
Either you believe the Throne or the Beast. There is not middle ground. The gloves, as they say, are off.
Though, to say that in Revelation the gloves had ever been on is probably going a bit too far; this work is at every point intensely antagonistic and critical of the systemic injustice carried out in the name of Caesar’s gospel. Yet up till now there seems to have been a measured understanding of both individual Christians’ responsibilities and the persistent unbelief of those caught within the lies of Roman life.
But after the two vignettes in chapters 12 and 13 we discussed last post, there seems to be little room afforded those who continue to believe the lies of the beasts, who, remember, represent the two ruling arms of the dragon’s puppet, Caesar: military or governmental might and religious control.
In the mind of our author, the shroud of evil covering the dragon who energizes these unjust systems has fallen.
With the death and resurrection of the Lamb, humans can no longer deeply believe in the redemptive power of violence, for it has been revealed as the tool of the Accuser within our hearts, only ever bringing harm upon ourselves with no lasting peace to show for all the bloodshed.
With the attendant deaths of the Lamb’s followers, that ancient serpent’s longest-told lie of gaining “life” through taking “what’s mine” in a world of scarcity, cannot long survive (cf. Gen. 3), for the sort of Life flowing in these dying men and women is deeper and fuller than any riches or comfort Caesar could offer.
So now, as we turn to Revelation 14-16, we see the result of the brave new world we’ve entered, where the conflict and its sources are out in the open. This is why the motif of truth takes center stage, as Bauckham says:
“The followers of the Lamb resemble the one they ‘follow wherever he goes’ (14:4). This following means imitating both his truthfulness, as ‘the faithful witness’, and the sacrificial death to which this led. Thus the victory of the Lamb’s army is the victory of truthful witness maintained as far as sacrificial death.”
Now this truth-speaking crowd who follow the Lamb “wherever He goes” has been seen before, way back in chapter 7, as the messianic army gearing up for a holy war against the enemies of God. Remember though, in that post we discussed how the very ethnocentric, warlike imagery was mitigated by the peaceful, multicultural multitude that followed. And here once again we have two visions of God’s people: in chapter 14, the 144,000 are still an army, but we see them conquering with the weapon of worship (vv2-3), which will connect to the harp-playing multitude in 15:2-4. They’re still ritually cleansed as a holy army would be (14:4), only here we see that this cleansing is not to prepare for the shedding of other people’s blood, but their own: They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb (v5).2
Jumping ahead, we contrast the army-turned-sacrifice of 14:1-5 with the rescued multitude of chapter 15, where we finally see an overt reference to that which John has been obliquely calling out throughout the work: the exodus. Here we see God’s victorious people standing beside a sea and singing a song of salvation (more on that in a minute), which is then followed by a scene of the heavenly tabernacle that looks an awful lot like God’s appearance to the people on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:16-25).
Remember, the salvation of the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt is the primary reference point for Old Testament theology. From the rabbinical perspective, Genesis is essentially a prequel describing how these people ended up in Egypt, while the monarchial narratives and the prophets basically tell the story of how Israel became Egypt, the oppressed slowly becoming the oppressors.
So a new Exodus is the fulfillment of all that fell short in the national history of Israel, only this time God is fulfilling the promises made to Abraham and reiterated by the prophets hundreds of years later: that the people of all tribes and nations would come to worship God at the holy mountain of Jerusalem, which would be remade and become the true home of God on earth.
The hymn of 15:3-4 is called “the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb,” a direct reference to Exodus 15, when the Israelites, having crossed the Red Sea and witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, sing of the God who saves them and destroys their enemies, casting “both horse and driver into the sea” (Exod. 15:1). This greatest hit of Israel’s psalter ends with the proclamation that they will not only inherit the Promised Land, but will also be planted on “the mountain of Your inheritance,” the place and sanctuary prepared by God’s own hand (v17).3
But the amazing thing about Revelation’s remix is the new spin John puts on the salvation they sing, interpreting Moses’ song through the lens of, as Bauckham describes it, “The most universalistic strain in Old Testament hope: the expectation that all the nations will come to acknowledge the God of Israel and worship him.”4
In the first stage of his work, the Lamb’s bloody sacrifice redeemed a people for God. In the second stage, this people’s participation in his sacrifice, through martyrdom, wins all the peoples for God. This is how God’s universal kingdom comes.”
Note the repeated difference between Old Testament-style Divine judgments (like the plagues of Egypt), and their apocalyptic counterparts in Revelation: namely, that God gives Moses no indication of wanting to save Egypt in the same sense of saving (i.e. choosing) Israel, whereas all of Revelation’s judgments are intended to bring people to repentance before it’s too late.
But therein lies the caveat. Before it’s too late. This vision of ultimate reconciliation is sandwiched between two scenes of judgment in chapters 14 and 16; scenes where people have indeed chosen to drink Babylon’s “maddening wine” over-against the eucharistic Life-giving offering of Christ. And the result is judgment and total destruction.
So which is it? Total reconciliation or total destruction? We don’t know. We can’t. And that’s the point.
As we read on – both in today’s text and to the end of the book – our goal is not to try and divine and divide the “saved” from the “damned,” but simply to appreciate the tension which John is content to have present in his work. Christians are not called to sacrificial witness because we know God will save everyone just as we are not called to believe as insurance because God will only save a few, but to make our own choices and present the truth of The Christ – the “eternal Gospel” – hopefully entrusting ourselves and others to God’s justice and mercy.
All of which leads us back to the first of our two judgment scenes bookending John’s Song of Moses.
Following our vision of the 144,000 in chapter 14, we see three flying angels followed by a confirming message from God (the “voice from heaven” and “Spirit” of v13). Now pay attention, because this section which at first might seem insignificant in the scheme of the book, is actually of vital importance if we want to understand the total judgments in the coming chapters. What we see in the three angels’ messages is not some new thing God has done but rather what is always happening:
God’s word (the “eternal Gospel”) is spread throughout the earth, not necessarily through the reading of the “Bible” (which would’ve existed in a very incomplete form for the average Christian at that point), but in the simple witness of all things to the One from Whom they come (cf. Rom. 1:18ff). This is not just a one-time thing, but that which is always occurring since the creation of the cosmos.
Those who rebel against God’s rule, the “Babylons” of the world who further the lies of the Accuser, blinding the eyes and hearts of people, have fallen. Since Revelation is an apocalypse, we can’t totally ignore the fact that John envisions a future ultimate destruction. However, I think we’re primarily talking about something that always happens. Destruction is always the result of systems and cultures that fail to recognize the Divine in the world. Not only do they physically disappear from the world, but more importantly, due to the type of victory of the Lamb, they are already defeated even when they are currently in power.
Now we come to the difficult result of these messages. The eternal Gospel is always being proclaimed by all creation and is heard by those who have not been deadened (i.e. “maddened with the wine of her adulteries,” v8) by the message of Babylon. However, the fact is that from our current view, there are some who are, as C.S. Lewis would put it, “Rebels to the last.” Those who ultimately are allowed to choose their own destruction in lieu of unity with Christ.
Such is the ever-present situation of those who choose false life over true Life, for, if The Christ’s eternal Life is about life-before-death, then the dragon’s false life will surely display itself as death-before-death: a life lacking in vitality, urgency, or care for the one beautiful world we’ve been given, which is always proclaiming the eternal Gospel to us. The sobering fact of this choice, however, is that a Christian can just as easily be drunk with this maddening wine of death as much as your run-of-the-mill pagan.
I think this is why we end Revelation 14 with two harvests, one depicting the salvation of earth’s peoples, and the other depicting their destruction. Both images are interpretive plays on Joel 3:13, but also bring to mind many of Jesus’ own teachings, the thrust of the symbolism being that the grain harvest (minus threshing/winnowing/fire images) depicts God saving the earth’s peoples who are, as Christ Himself said, “ripe for the harvest” (John 4:35), whereas the winepress shows the destruction of the unrepentant who have been removed from the city of God (14:20).5
The fact is, the angels’ three-fold proclamation (14:6-11) opens up the possibility of both acceptance and denial, with salvation and destruction as the accompanying consequences. We should not hide the possibility of judgment and destruction. I would only reiterate the double point that this message is first and foremost always directed to me, not “you,” and also that the double ending of chapter 14 leaves the results of these choices in sufficient doubt to both witness and hope.
As we move towards the end, we haven’t spent really any time thus far on the bowls of chapter 16, but that’s because I see both 15-16 as chapter-long examples of the double-ending of chapter 14.
In the grain harvest, the whole earth has been saved – which looks quite similar to the Song of Moses (Cosmic Christ remix), where the nations stream to God and worship.
In the grape harvest, the earth has been judged and a large number of its inhabitants destroyed by God’s just wrath – which is basically the story of chapter 16. Here, exodus-esque plagues destroy the unrepentant earth while God’s wrath is consistently justified (16:5-7, 19). Babylon is depicted as utterly demolished (cf. 14:9-11) and the saints are called to pay attention (16:15; cf. 14:12-13).
Again, the issue at stake here is not that we attempt to figure out who will be elected to eternal life and who will be too drunk on death to see the judgment coming. Rather, the message is the same as that of virtually every great spiritual teacher across millennia and traditions: wake up. Attend to life. Consider the world and its transitory power, and choose Life, the eternal Gospel of the Christ, over death – even if that Life will cause you to die. Choose the right wine.
The wine of death presents a double lie, tailored to its audience: to the unbeliever it presents the phantom of life here-and-now, but ultimately fails to turn this world into anything other than a rock caught in entropy’s inexorable net. To the escapist Christian it presents the hope of life here-after by getting through this life as quickly and painlessly as possible, thereby taking away the point of being given the gift of life in the first place. Those who swallow this lie will drink the intoxicating vintage of Babylon, and will find themselves slowly but surely becoming deadened to anything Real.
However, there is another drink.
The wine of the Lamb leads to fullness in the here-and-now and provides hope for the here-after. It helps us remember the past and hold hope for the future, while providing the sustenance we need for today. This wine is strong, but it also strengthens. To drink it is to follow the Lamb wherever He goes, even unto death. It is to remember His cross so we can accept our very own. It is to share in His Life by “proclaiming His death until He comes.”
May we choose to be numbered among those who drink this wine. May we be blessed to share such a cup.
1. I can’t help thinking about ancient accounts of the martyrs’ deaths and the rulers’, executioners’, and spectators’ utter confusion at the peaceful, confident deaths of these men and women were often the sources of communal repentance and conversion. Start with the amazing tales of the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.↩
2. Emphasis mine.↩
3. For textual criticism nerds, sections like this are great indicators of later editors and redactors, if not also later writing itself, since the concept of God’s mountain (envisioned as Jerusalem) is not in Israel’s consciousness until the time of David.↩
5. While Bauckham views this as two possible outcomes of Christian witness, many commentators see these two judgments as sequential: the first a reaping (taking) of the saints away from the earth followed by a violent destruction of all who are left. Others such as Greg Boyd have seen the grapes as another image of the martyred Church. I find both interesting, particularly Boyd’s take, but also lacking for my taste. The sequential approach negates the biblical use of the concept of being “taken” (as we’ll discuss in a later post), while the latter, while a much more fulfilling interpretation, doesn’t seem to take the “Divine wrath” motif here and later seriously.↩