Rev. 15:2 – “I also saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had won the victory over the beast, his image, and the number of his name, were standing on the sea of glass with harps from God.” (HCSB)
A sea of glass mixed with fire
We have encountered a sea of glass before. In Rev. 4:6, John records, “Something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal, was also before the throne.”
As noted in the commentary on chapter 4, the sea may correspond to the brass vessel before the sanctuary, where the priests wash in preparation for service. The sea of glass also appears in prophetic visions of God’s throne room. For example, in Exodus 24, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 of Israel’s elders see “something like a pavement made of sapphire stone, as clear as the sky itself” beneath God’s feet. And Ezekiel sees “[T]he shape of an expanse, with a gleam like awe-inspiring crystal” spread out over the heads of the living creatures (Ezek. 1:22).
The ESV Study Bible notes that the sea of glass “is the ‘floor’ of heaven and the ‘ceiling’ of the created universe, and its transparent tranquility shows heaven’s peace in contrast to earthly turmoil” (Rev. 4:6-8). Jurgen Roloff writes, “This glassy sea is the dome of the firmament, the heavenly ocean, which in ancient thought was considered to be transparent” (p. 182).
Matthew Henry adds this thought: “As in the temple there was a great vessel of brass filled with water, in which the priests were to wash when they went to minister before the Lord (and this was called a sea), so in the gospel church the sea or laver for purification is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, who cleanses from all sin, even from sanctuary-sins. In this all those must be washed that are admitted into the gracious presence of God on earth or his glorious presence in heaven” (Rev. 4:1-8).
But there is a significant difference between the sea in Rev. 4:6 and Rev. 15:2: The latter sea is “mixed with fire.” Why?
Some commentators explain that the fire symbolizes the persecution the faithful have endured at the hands of the beast. Others say it represents divine judgment proceeding from the throne. Still others believe it is the reflecting sun setting on human history. Or as William Hendriksen writes, this image “symbolizes God’s transparent righteousness revealed in judgment upon the wicked” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 347).
These are good explanations. Building upon them, it could be that John is drawing a parallel between the heavenly sea and the Exodus. Just as Israel is saved by passing through the sea, while the Egyptians are destroyed in it, so believers are carried through the heavenly sea into God’s throne room, while judgment of the wicked proceeds from that same throne and destroys them. “In other words, the glassy sea might be an image of the world from which those who overcome were rescued, while fire is the symbol of the wrathful judgment that will befall God’s enemies in the world” (Roloff, p. 183).
Those who had won the victory
Standing on the sea, and holding harps from God, are “those who had won the victory over the beast, his image, and the number of his name” (v. 2b). Quite possibly we are seeing the same multitude John saw in Rev. 7:9-17 – a vast assembly from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and the Lamb. They worship God in the presence of the angels, elders and living creatures and are identified as “the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14).
Preterists contend that these are the saints who remained faithful to the Lamb in spite of intense persecution at the hands of the first-century Jewish establishment and the cult of Caesar. Futurists say these are martyrs from the coming Tribulation. Other commentators argue that these are faithful Christians throughout the church age who have persevered at great personal expense and are now rewarded with close proximity to the throne in heaven. There is no doubt they have won the victory over the beast, and John already has revealed how: “They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14b). They also are victorious over Satan as they “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not love their lives in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).
They have won victory over the beast by resisting him and remaining steadfast in their devotion to the Lamb. They have won victory over his image by refusing to compromise and pay homage to a mere shadow of the beast, an act they might have justified as expedient for their survival. And they have won a victory over the number of his name by denying all association with this wicked beast and suffering the consequences of persecution and, likely, death.
A state of glory
Those who have won the victory in this passage are not necessarily martyrs, but they are Christians who have placed obedience to the Lord above concern for their own lives. At death, they are ushered into the presence of God and join the heavenly crowd in worship and service as they await the consummation of the age. The intermediate state of glory is a promise to all who trust in Christ, as the New Testament assures us. For example, Jesus assures the believing thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Just before his martyrdom, Stephen gazes into heaven and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father; moments later he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:54-60). The apostle Paul writes that “we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). And he expresses the tension that exists between Christian service now and our future hope when he pens these words, “I am pressured by both. I have the desire to depart and be with Christ – which is far better – but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (Phil. 1:23-24).
All believers share the promise of heaven. At the same time, there seems to be a place of preference around the throne for those who overcome hardship in the cause of Christ. This may be signified in this passage by the fact that they are given harps previously reserved for elders in heaven (and perhaps the four living creatures, Rev. 5:8). The phrase “harps from God” may be translated “harps of God,” meaning harps belonging to the service of God. The harp accompanies songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. Harps are used in songs of cheerfulness and praise (Gen. 31:27; 2 Chron. 20:28; Ps. 33:2; 137:2). David plays the harp to soothe King Saul’s troubled soul (1 Sam. 16:23). And in Rev. 14:2 the 144,000 standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion are praising their Redeemer with a sound “like harpists playing on their harps.”
Listen carefully and you will hear the sound of harps wafting up toward the throne, carrying with them the singing voices of the overcomers. Their close proximity to God is not an occasion for self-adulation but for humble praise. While the elders around the throne cast their crowns before their sovereign Lord, the victors raise their voices in the purest form of worship.
Next: They sang the song – Revelation 15:3-4