Rev. 14:15 – Another angel came out of the sanctuary, crying out in a loud voice to the One who was seated on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the time to reap has come, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So the One seated on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. (HCSB)
The earth was harvested
John picks up the narrative in verses 15-16: “Another angel came out of the sanctuary, crying out in a loud voice to the One who was seated on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the time to reap has come, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.’ So the One seated on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.”
The harvest in these verses, though not stated explicitly, refers to wheat or barley. The word for ripe (Gr.: xeraino) describes dried heads of grain and is different than the word used of ripened grapes in verse 18.
The phrase “another angel” does not imply that the “One like the Son of Man” is an angel. John simply is continuing his observation from the point of the three angels in verses 6-13. This angel comes out of the sanctuary and heads straight for the One holding the sickle. He bears a message from God the Father, who is seated on His throne in the heavenly Holy of Holies (Rev. 6:9; 8:3; 11:19). The message is simple: The time to reap has come; the earth is ripe for harvest. The One seated on the cloud asks no questions, nor does He hesitate. He swings His sickle over the earth, and it is harvested.
No doubt this is a harvest of people on the earth. But who are they? Commentators differ in their understanding of this passage. Some believe this is the harvest of the just, coming before the harvest of the unbelievers (vv. 17-20); it is distinct just as the wheat harvest is distinct from the harvest of grapes. Others, however, argue that scripture normally speaks only of unbelievers being cut down. Therefore, both the One like the Son of Man and the angel with the sickle are engaged in destroying the wicked; one harvest, two perspectives.
W.A. Criswell makes a case for seeing these as separate judgments rather than two views of the same judgment. In his view, there is little reason to depict the judgment of the wicked in two different ways. “To me, that difference of reference lies in this: The harvest is superintended by the Son of God, who always carefully separates the chaff from the wheat; the vintage is gathered by an angel without regard or distinction. The harvest is a discriminating reaping. It is not all the same. There is a harvest of wheat and at the same time there is a harvest of tares. The Son of God is taking care of his own. There is discrimination in the first vision, in the visions of the harvest of the earth. In the second vision, presided over by an emissary of God, an angel, there is no discrimination, for it is the harvest of the grapes of wickedness” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, Vol. 4, p. 160).
No doubt, the parables of Jesus regarding the kingdom of heaven warn us of a separation at His return. The parable of the wheat and weeds tells us the Sower claims His good seed at harvest time, while the tares – the children of the evil one – are gathered by the angels and cast into hell (Matt. 13:26-30, 36-43). Likewise, in the parable of the dragnet, the angels are sent to separate the good fish from the bad fish, which are cast into the blazing furnace (Matt. 13:47-50). Criswell notes, “An angel may superintend the execution of the wrath of the judgment of Almighty God, but when the Lord harvests this earth He, Himself, carefully watches over lest one of His least, humblest saints be forgotten or overlooked. There is everything in the Bible to comfort and to give assurance to those who lean on the strong arm of our Lord” (pp. 162-63).
Ripe for harvest
There is another matter to consider in these verses: Three times the “earth” is referenced with regard to harvesting. The angel declares that “the harvest of the earth is ripe.” And John records that the One seated on the cloud swings his sickle over the earth, and the earth is harvested. Does the earth mean the entire world? Or could it mean the inhabited earth – the Roman Empire, for example? Or is it a specific reference to Israel?
Early readers of John’s apocalypse might see the earth as Israel, in which Christ saves observant believers from the Roman juggernaut that destroys the temple and flattens Jerusalem. The wheat harvest is His gracious deliverance of faithful Christians, while the vintage is His use of the Romans to destroy wicked Jews who have clung to their manmade traditions and corrupt practices at the expense of their resurrected and glorified Messiah. Some early readers might also see the earth as the Roman Empire, with the wheat harvest symbolizing the martyrs taken up into heaven during the early centuries of the church age and the vintage depicting God’s wrath against Rome.
However, much of the imagery in the Old and New Testaments concerning harvest seems to have both immediate and end-times relevance. What the earliest readers of Isaiah and Jeremiah understand, for example, is that God is going to judge His people for their wickedness. They are going to see their capital city destroyed, their temple demolished, their women ravaged, and their people exiled. Later, the Lord will punish the very instruments of His wrath – the Babylonians – have compassion on His people, and return them to their land.
But in these prophecies also is a sampling of what will occur on the Day of the Lord, when He judges the whole earth in righteousness, saves His own, casts the wicked into hell, and creates new heavens and a new earth. Perhaps we interpret scripture wrongly in the 21st century when we create prophetic timetables at the expense of historic context. Our first concern should be to understand what the writer intended his contemporary audience to see.
With that in mind, perhaps John is providing a glimpse of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. and the diaspora (if Revelation is written in the 60s), or a preview of God’s wrath on the Roman emperors who suppose themselves to be gods (if Revelation is written in the 90s). In either case, the message of Revelation cannot be confined to the early centuries of the church age, for today we still await the return of Jesus, resurrection and final judgment, and the creation of new heavens and earth. And by “earth” in that context, no reasonable expositor would confine the new heavens and earth to Israel or the Roman Empire.
Next: Another angel had a sharp sickle – Revelation 14:17-18