As those of you that have been attending this series on revelation will know we have just tackled probably the most famous or perhaps infamous chapter, chapter 13. We have seen the beast from the sea, the beast from the earth and we have examined the meaning of this mystic number 666. We saw that the roots of that chapter go back to chapter 12, where we see the adversary, Satan cast to the earth determined to wreak as much havoc as he can in the three and a half years he has left, the so-called great tribulation. The beasts we saw were really world leaders that were able to institute a world dictatorship because of the crisis situation the world was in.
To find out how the world got into a crisis situation you have to go back even further to chapters 4 to 11. In those chapters we see a period called the tribulation three and a half years where the world has been allowed to turn upon itself and do it's worst. We also saw, during that time, that heaven declares war upon the earth. In case you are wondering if that is happening now, the answer is no. The first three chapters of revelation describe the period we are currently in; it is the church era, or the dispensation of grace. This is the period where we can trust in the Lord Jesus and become part of his bride the church. This period ends when he comes again to collect us, you may have heard this referred to as the rapture. We don't know when that will happen, it could be tonight, it could be a thousand years away, although I doubt it.
So in summary, the story so far, is that the Lord has come back for the church, we have all gone. A three and a half year period is ushered in that causes general catastrophe and mayhem; about 2.5 Billion people will die during that time. Satan then comes to the earth to try to instigate a revolt against God, his pawns in this game are two world leaders described as the beast of the sea and the beast of the earth. These people will instigate a world religion that is designated by a mark that is to be received by all the converts; the mark is on the hand or on the forehead. Only a very small group will resist this, those that have started to follow God and the Lord Jesus during this tribulation period, they will be hunted down and killed. This lasts for the second three and a half years, making a total of seven.
Now in chapter 14 we are at the mid-point between these two sets of three and a half years and we see God's answer to the devils little alliance. 'And I looked - a lamb'. Not exactly what you want to fight a consortium of beasts is it. A lamb. Not even a ram. In this kind of situation we could use a few horns and a bit of stamina but what we get is a lamb. Now, of course, this lamb is the Lord Jesus Christ but this is hardly the representation of him we would expect to take on the powers of darkness. Although he does have some backup troops; 144,000 of them.
Now, in today's relatively peaceful times 144,000 seems like a lot, but remember in Rev 9 the Devil had raised up an army of 200 million. 144 thousand men is not going to seem like a whole lot. But they are fully given over to God. Look at their foreheads; they have his name stamped there. In fact we have already seen this troop in Rev 7. There we see the whole of the tribulation being delayed after the rapture whilst these 144,00 are receiving their mark, they are to be witnesses and are probably responsible for most of the converts we see during the first three and a half years. And we find that these 144,000 are untouchable, they will survive the tribulation. But we also see that by the mid-point they have been confined to Jerusalem. This will severely restrict their ability to witness and we will see the consequence of this in later verses.
We see this voice from heaven, with attendant thunder and lightning many times in Revelation but this verse has a new twist. The harps. You may remember that the voice of many waters implies a noise that covers the whole sound spectrum, you cannot shout over a waterfall because all of the sound frequencies are taken. A harp is really the opposite; it plays a very simple pure note. So whereas the general message of Revelation is going to be so obvious and brutal that no one can miss it we are here being introduced to a melody theme that you need a very precise ear to be able to pick up. And you know that is a challenge to you this evening. There are going to be certain points I bring out with sufficient force that it is unlikely that you will miss them. But are you going to focus and concentrate hard enough to pick out the melody?
I would love to tell you what the song is, we know it will speak of an experience that no one else can relate to, but I really don't know. We can still get a lesson from it though. This group is going to witness the worst persecution of all time and yet is going to remain faithful throughout. Even the Lord Jesus was perfected through sufferings. Sometimes as we go through life things happen and we say, why me? Why do I have to go through this? Part of the answer is that the experience of suffering is one of the best ways we have of getting closer to the Lord.
This verse fills in some very specific details on the group. From Rev 7 we know they were Jews. From this verse we know they were Nazarites. They had made a vow to follow God at the exclusion of a normal life and in particular had thus abstained from marriage. That doesn't mean that marriage in general defiles, on the contrary, in Hebrews we are told the marriage bed is pure and undefiled. But if you make a vow to stay single then you have to stick to the vow. This group did and they follow the Lord that is they are totally faithful to him wherever he leads them.
However the key word is in the latter part of the verse. Firstfruits. In the Old Testament (Jer 2:3) Israel is the firstfruits. In the New Testament it is Christ (1Co15:20) and then ourselves (James 1:18) that are the firstfruits. But during the tribulation time there is to be another harvest and the first fruits of this new harvest is going to be the 144,000. And we shall see as we go through this chapter a very close parallel between the deal offered during the great tribulation and the dispensation that we are currently under.
Verse five shows us another parallel. No guile. How much of what you say is actually true. Oh, I don't just mean not an outright lie, but without guile. How many times do you say one thing but actually have a hidden agenda? In the Old Testament we get Ps 32:2 "Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile". In the New 1 Pe 3:10: "For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:". And in the tribulation: no guile. This verse then describes them as blameless. I don't think that means they never make a mistake. But they never cover a mistake up or try to justify it. They bring each mistake to the lamb, ask for forgiveness, and then move on.
I love this verse. I have a number of books on theology and this one verse blows more than half of them out of the water. You see the gospel as we preach it, that which you will be hearing this evening, is always transmitted by human beings. Angels are not allowed to do this. Then suddenly 3.5 years into the tribulation we suddenly find an Angel flying backwards and forwards across the sky declaring the gospel. And it isn't a different gospel. There is only one gospel. (Which is an interesting thing for people to remember, especially those who think Paul had a different message to the Lord: there is only one gospel. The deal does change, but the basis is always exactly the same).
So why the change of tack? Throughout the dispensation of grace, and the early part of the tribulation, God chooses to work through those that seek him. But we are now reaching a period where time is actually going to be cut short. And God is ensuring that everyone gets an opportunity to make the decision, do you want the mark of the beast, the mark of the world, the mark of satan, or are you prepared to be rejected by the world and follow God.
This verse really gives us the gospel in a nutshell. You are at least three and a half years away from hearing this from an angel so for this evening you're going to have to make do with hearing it from me.
Working backwards: God is creator, God is going to judge us, and we have to live in the light of the coming judgment. I wonder where you find on that line. Do you accept God as your creator? Do you accept that he therefore has a right to judge our behavior? Do you assume that your behavior is ok independent of any external help?
So far in these meetings I have been presenting two groups of people, those that overtly followed God and those that overtly followed Satan. In fact there is a third group that is majored on in Revelation 17 but we have a mention of them here so I'll introduce them to you. The third group is described as Babylon. The Old Testament (Jer 51:64) says that Babylon will be destroyed and will not be rebuilt. So how can we have Babylon again? Well Revelation 17 describes this Babylon as a mystery, and as well shall see when we look at that chapter this Babylon is not so much a city as a way of life. It is actually a church, a false church. You see there will be those that follow God, those that follow the devil and those that actually do the devil's will whilst pretending, or possibly even thinking they are following God. In Matthew 24 the Lord talks about separating the wheat from the tares, they are both in the same field and the tares are taken first. In other words before the true believers are harvested, and that is coming later in the chapter, the false believers are removed. That is what we get in this verse.
But let us understand how chilling this is, the language is the same as that used in Rev 2 about Thyatira, a church in our age. Just because you claim to be doing things in God's name, just because you attend a place of worship that claims to be Christian does not mean you are going to heaven. Even today Satan is build a false church, we see it most obviously in the ecumenical movement and in Roman Catholicism but it can be happen even when you least expect it. This is our reference book. If your church isn't following the book then it is probably, not necessarily, but probably getting it wrong.
Now comes a third angel, detailing the group that is considered to be adversaries of God. In the time to come this is going to be a fairly easy distinction, they will carry the mark. Today we don't have this benefit, there is no, or very little visual clue as to where your allegiance lay although be aware that the Bible says that "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart" (1Sa 16:7). So you may be able to fool me, maybe even your spouse, but you can't fool God.
Preaching Hell Fire has become very unfashionable. But the fact that the message has gone out of favor does not imply that the furnace has gone out of commission. Further Hell Fire is not "just an Old Testament concept". In fact it is not really an Old Testament concept at all. It was really the Lord Jesus that introduced the concept and mentions it more than anybody else. And here we see that in the future there is a class of people that will be cast into it. Note too there is no apology made. Many Christians today tend to view hell as some kind of dark dirty secret to be discretely glossed over. But look at this verse; the torment is to be in the presence of the lamb and his Holy angels. They key point here is holy. The world will and has rejected God, they have done things that they have been told will cause punishment and that is what is going to happen.
Look at how graphic it is the wrath of God, seen here as a fruit. Poured into a cup of indignation. Cups speak of judgment. When believers take the cup with the wine in it is to remember that this wrath, referred to here, justly belongs to us. But the Lord took it in our place. Just think about that: a cup of ultimate bitterness, containing the wrath of God. If justice is to be done then you should drink of that cup. Being, or becoming saved, ultimately boils down to two things.
Verse 11 speaks of the smoke of torment, you find the same expression in Is 33:14&34:10, on both occasions it is linked with the same thing. Eternity. You'll find the same in this verse, "for ever and ever". Here is the picture. Have you ever thrown a log on a fire and had a wave of dust and smoke suddenly blast into your eyes? You quickly turn away, your eyes smart and in a few minutes you are recovered. Imagine if you could not turn away. The flames don't get any hotter, they won't terminate you, you just have the agony of the smarting eyes, the desire and inability to turn away, forever.
We also get in this verse the lack of rest. Interestingly if you go through your Bibles you will find two groups that don't get rest. In Dt 28:65 we find the Jews were to have no rest among the nations. They were out of place. In the future we find it is the wicked that won't get rest. Sleep deprivation is supposed to be one of the most effective forms of torture. I suspect that when coupled with fire and smoke it is particularly efficient. Is that really how you want to spend eternity?
I don't really have a way of describing eternity for you; the closest I can get to what we have here is four hours. I had kidneys stones, without painkillers I would cry with the pain. The painkillers were on a four-hour cycle. By about two hours in I would be watching the clock, walking, dipping in a tub, reading doing anything I could counting down every minute until I could take the next painkiller. On one occasion the pain was so bad that the Spirit woke another believer up to have the pray for me, 3 in the morning that was. I cannot begin to consider how I would have coped if I didn't have the four hour relief period to look forward to. That I suspect is lost eternity.
We now, at first sight at least, and some of the commentators claim this, have a quick digression where the Spirit points out the blessedness of the saints compared to the plight of the sinner. And the contrast is marked. Those that are laboring for God now will have an eternity of rest. Notice too an importance answer to the death question. These saints to not need to fear death, in fact death is a release. We work until we die, we should fear death any more than we fear clocking out at the end of a hard day. Again if you scan through you will find this promise of rest appeared to Old Testament saints (Jb 3:17, Is 35;10) to the New Testament saints (2 Th 1:6&7, Heb 4:9-10) and now to this group.
It is interesting too that their works are said to follow them. This is a great biblical principle - whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. Or 1 Co 15:58 "for as much as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord".
However, I don't think these two verses are an interjection, I think this whole chapter is really about a division between two groups of people, verses 9-11&17-20 deal with one set, 12-16 deal with the second set.
I'll warn you now that the commentators all diverge on their interpretation of these final six verses and none that I have found fully agree with me. However I really do believe that if you just read these verses and assume the Bible means what it says then it really is very simple. These 7 verses seem at first sight to be two different ways of saying the same thing. Both repetitions involve a couple of angels, a sickle, a temple, a harvest and quite a lot of bloodshed. The commentators then try to synthesize the two repetitions, explain away the differences and then generally come unstuck.
But are they the same? If you have a good look at these two little passages and write down the similarities and differences at a detailed level I think you will find there are more differences than similarities.
Let us look at the first one: a white cloud carrying the Son of Man wearing a golden crown. Although there are a lot of golden crowns mentioned in scripture they are usually connected to a king that has been established. One like unto the Son of Man, that is usually a picture of the Lord Jesus. So is this the son of man coming in judgment. I don't think so. He is on a white cloud. Thunder, lighting and other bad things usually come from black clouds not white ones. And if you look at when the Lord spoke of harvesting the earth, eg Matthew 9 and especially in Matthew 13 it was pictured as a good thing. In fact it is the story of the wheat and tares. We have already had the gathering together of the tares for burning, that is the fall of Babylon, the false church, in verse 8. Now the Lord is commencing the gathering together of his own. Surely that is just what we had in verse 13. The earth views the extermination of believers as a victory for Satan, the Lord views it as his own being gathered in, to enter into their rest and to receive their reward.
Some commentators have a problem with this, how could the angel have a command for the Lord? That is because they confuse the temple in heaven that we get in verse 17 with the temple on earth, which is the one being referred to here. Remember we are at the mid-point of the tribulation for the last three and a half years Jewish sacrifices have taken place in an earthly temple. Now the beast is setting up the abomination of desolation, the image of the beast if you like, in the most holy place. While he is doing that the angel is observing him. Once the deed is committed the angel simply comes out to announce the signal. Note too the word used for 'ripe' in verse fifteen really means 'dried' it suggests that this is a harvest of wheat. Verse 16 now shows that the reaping commences; we are not told in this chapter what happens to the harvest.
Now for the second version of the story. This time it is a fairly plain angel although he is also geared up for harvest. This time he is coming from the temple in heaven. Also there is no cloud white or otherwise. In fact whereas the previous angel was referred to as the one that sat upon the cloud, this one is referred to as the one with the sharp sickle.
The next difference comes with the second angel in the story, in the first version the second angel was fairly anonymous, in this version his is identified as having power over fire, and he comes from the alter not just the temple. Why is the identity of this angel important? Perhaps it is pointing out that he was put out of commission when the false prophet brought down fire from heaven. More probably it is identifying this angel as the one we see in Rev 8:5 that launched the attack upon the earth heralded by the 7 trumpets. If this is the case then the logic is clear, he is coming back from the alter and announcing the second wave of the attack.
However the key to this second version comes at the end of the verse. Here we are harvesting from a vine. You don't harvest a vine using a sickle. This brutal treatment of a vine would destroy it, which I suggest is clearly the intent.
But let us just take a minute to look at these two harvests. In the first version the harvest was dried. (The work rendered ripe in the AV). In the second it was 'fully', juicy if you like. An interesting contrast, those belonging to God had had all the moisture burnt out of them, those following Satan felt full and juicy. Short term it will pay to be on Satan's side, but now let us switch to the long term.
Let me start these verses by noting an objection that many expositors raise to the interpretation I'm giving you. They say that the Lord Jesus will judge alone, and they (correctly) cite Is 63:3 in support of this. I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.
So does this contradict an angel doing the work in verses 19&20. No, actually it supports it, look at what it says: the angel gathers the vine and casts it into the winepress. Then the winepress was trodden without the city. Rev 14 doesn't say who treads the winepress. Is 63 says it was the winepress He treads alone, it doesn't mention the gathering of the vine.
Ok, so we've fixed the theology but what is actually happening here. I think the clue is where it says the angel gathered the vine not the clusters, and remember he used a sickle. What we see over the next three and a half years is a mobilization of the whole world against God: A tremendous militarization. The USA is currently pondering if it can put 250 thousand people onto a battlefield, which is less that 0.5% of the population. In the 7 vials to come we will see a shift in the world mindset to the point where millions upon millions of people gather for battle. Home ties, our roots, if you will become secondary to an all out desire to overthrow God's dominion upon the earth.
Practically we know from elsewhere, including Is 63 that the nations will be gathering around Jerusalem, probably in the valleys. It is quite possible to imagine massed ranks of cavalry standing 200 miles deep in a circle around Jerusalem. The earth will view this as a prelude to an assault upon God. Verse 20 tells us what this is actually a prelude to.
Here we look into the future and see two harvests, one of those the follow God and one of those that don't. If the harvest were to come this evening, it won't we are at least 3.5 years away, but if it did would you be part of the hand-picked grains going to the Lord Jesus or would you be part of the bloody pulp. If you're not sure then you may be part of Babylon that has gone already by this point.
I cannot tell you where you are; only you can. I can tell you that in the days of these verses you will have to choose, today you may get away with delaying your decision for a year or two, but then again you may not. Why risk it?