Rev. 15:1 – Then I saw another great and awe-inspiring sign in heaven: seven angels with the seven last plagues, for with them, God’s wrath will be completed. (HCSB)
This chapter describes the preparation in heaven for the final set of judgments. Seven angels emerge from the “tabernacle of testimony.” They are dressed in clean, bright linen with gold sashes around their chests. One of the four living creatures gives each of the seven angels a bowl “filled with the wrath of God.” John informs us that with these final judgments “God’s wrath will be completed.”
John also views something like a sea of glass mixed with fire. Standing on the sea are those who have won victory over the beast. They have harps and sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. The sanctuary is filled with smoke from God’s glory, and no one may enter until the last seven judgments are complete.
Why are these judgments depicted as bowls filled with God’s wrath? Why does one of the four living creatures give the bowls to the angels? What is the sea of glass mixed with fire? Why are the people standing on the sea and holding harps? What are the songs of Moses and the Lamb? Why is there a sanctuary in heaven, and why is it filled with smoke?
Let’s search for answers.
Another great and awe-inspiring sign
The chapter begins with John witnessing “another great and awe-inspiring sign in heaven: seven angels with the seven last plagues” (v. 1). With these plagues, God’s wrath will be completed. This is the third sign (Gr.: semeion) in the Apocalypse. In the first sign, John sees a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head; this is Israel (Rev. 12:1). In the second sign, the apostle sees a great fiery red dragon having seven heads bearing diadems, and seven horns; this is Satan (Rev. 12:3). The third symbolic display is quite different. John sees seven angels with the seven last plagues.
But perhaps these signs are connected in some way. The first sign is of Israel, which God ultimately judges – either at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., as preterists contend, or during the Great Tribulation, as futurists believe. In either case, unbelieving Israel is brought under the rod of divine discipline. At the same time, the Jews are the people through whom Messiah is born to be the Savior of the world; God’s wrath vindicates His Son and saves “true Israel,” the people of faith. The second sign is of Satan, whom Christ defeats on the cross, limits throughout the church age, and ultimately casts into the lake of fire that has been created for him. The third sign, displaying angels and bowls of judgment, are the instruments by which God judges the Jews and the evil one, while saving His own and demonstrating His holiness.
Jurgen Roloff argues that “the wrathful judgment that God now prepares himself to execute is nothing other than the dark reverse side of his saving activity and belongs inseparably together with it. The revolt of the satanic powers must also serve to prove his glory; as God overcomes this revolt, he shows himself to be Lord of the world, whose works are great and wonderful because they create occasion for life and righteousness” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 182).
The image of the seven plagues harks back to Lev. 26:18-33 in which seven-fold punishment is threatened to the disobedient for their sins. While the number seven in the Leviticus passage should not be taken literally – it is used figuratively to mean “many times” or “thoroughly” – it is clear that God’s wrath falls upon those whom Moses writes “act with hostility” toward God and “are unwilling to obey” Him. Among the promised forms of discipline are unproductive land, wild animals, the sword, pestilence, military defeat, famine, destruction of pagan altars, death, demolition of property, scattering of people, ruined cities, and captivity. No doubt, John’s first-century Jewish readers would remember God’s wrath against His own people during times of sinful rebellion and tremble at the thought of these seven last plagues being poured out in their generation or a generation to come.
Three sets of judgments
Before moving on, we should take note of the order of the three sets of seven judgments – the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments. While there are many schools of thought, generally it is believed either that the three sets of judgments run consecutively or concurrently. In all three series of judgments, the first four judgments focus on the earth, while the last three are more cosmic in nature. There is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals and the sixth and seventh trumpets, but there is no pause between the sixth and seventh bowls.
As for the order in which these series of judgments play out, some see a chronological progression as the seventh seal turns into the seven trumpets and the seventh trumpet transitions into the seven bowls. Others see the series of judgments overlapping because of certain similarities – specifically, the four-three grouping of each series and the fact that each series reaches a climax in a storm-earthquake depicting the end of time.
There seems to be at least some overlap, as well as a common increase in intensity as the series of judgments play out. For example, while there is a pause in the seal and trumpet judgments, there is no interlude in the bowl judgments as they hasten the completion of God’s wrath. Further, we see one-fourth of humanity under the authority of Death and Hades in the seal judgments; one-third of the earth, sea, fresh waters and heavens impacted in the trumpet judgments; and seemingly every unbeliever suffering under the intensity of the bowl judgments.
There is little value in being too dogmatic about a specific timetable. Rather, we should focus on the clear teachings these acts of God offer us: These judgments are poured out on unbelievers, while believers are protected (Rev. 3:10; 7:1-8; 9:4; 16:2); they are God’s response to the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8; 6:9-11; 8:3-5); they expose the hardened hearts of unbelievers, who understand that the judgments come from God and yet refuse to repent (Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9, 11); and the creation comes under increasingly intense pressure, preparing for a final purging resulting in new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:10-13; Rev. 21-22).
Next: A sea of glass mixed with fire – Revelation 15:2