Rev. 15:8 – Then the sanctuary was filled with smoke from God’s glory and from His power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed. (HCSB)
The sanctuary was filled with smoke
Finally in this chapter John writes, “Then the sanctuary was filled with smoke from God’s glory and from His power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed” (Rev. 15:8). Smoke and clouds are manifestations of God’s presence. At Sinai, the Lord comes to Moses in a “dense cloud” so the people will hear God speak with Moses and believe him (Ex. 19:9). After the tabernacle is assembled in the wilderness, Moses cannot enter the tent of meeting as long as the cloud rests on it and the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35). God instructs Moses in the way that Aaron must enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement so that he, unlike his two sons, will live. God’s reason: “I appear in the cloud above the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:2).
While this awesome divine presence no doubt strikes terror in the hearts of some Israelites, there is a strong element of comfort to be found. As promised, God reveals Himself to His redeemed people at a place of meeting. Much later, when Solomon finishes a prayer of dedication for the newly built temple, fire descends from heaven and the glory of the Lord fills it. The priests are not able to continue ministering for this same cloud Moses once encountered now inhabits the place where holy God has condescended to meet sinful people (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 7:1-2). Later, in Isaiah’s vision of the Lord, he sees the temple filled with smoke (Isa. 6:4).
The cloud and smoke are thick and dark, but the brightness of the Lord shines within it. Ezekiel describes a brilliant light around the Lord in the opening vision of his prophecy. “The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day,” he writes. “This was the appearance of the form of the Lord’s glory” (Ezek. 1:28). This same glory progressively departs the temple and abandons Jerusalem through the eastern gate in Ezekiel 8-11. The Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem is where the Lord will “stand” and fight for Israel (Zech. 14:1-9). Jesus ascends to the Father from this same mountain and will return to its lofty slope one day to judge the earth.
In short, God’s appearance in cloud and smoke often depict His pleasure with people, as in the dedication of the tabernacle and the temple. But it also may serve as a terrifying reminder of His holiness and wrath. “The ultimate privilege of faith is access to the presence of God” (HCSB Study Bible, p. 1365).
John notes that there are two attributes of God leading to the thick smoke in the heavenly tabernacle. The first is God’s glory, or doxa, from which we get the word “doxology.” The Hebrew expression “Shekinah Glory” refers to the very presence of God. The Greek word doxa describes the brightness, brilliance and splendor of the presence of God. The second attribute of God is His power, or dynamis, from which we get the word “dynamite.” It means force, especially miraculous power, ability, might, wonderful work, even violence. It is these qualities of God’s nature – His brightness and supernatural power – that fill the temple in heaven. If His glory leaves the temple in Ezekiel’s day due to the people’s grievous sin, and if Jesus departs the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem never to enter it again, leaving it desolate (Matt. 23:37-39), we can be sure that the sanctuary in heaven – where there is no rebellion – is filled with his bright presence and great power.
As in Old Testament times, when His presence fills the temple, no one may minister there. Regardless of one’s perspective on Revelation, most commentators agree that God’s brightness and power keep everyone out of the heavenly sanctuary until His wrath has been poured out on the earth. James Moffatt writes, “Smouldering fires of indignation are now on the point of bursting into punishment from the arsenal of anger. Hence, till the plagues are over, God’s presence is unendurable” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 351).
It is not that God refuses to be worshiped at this time; the natural response of the believer toward God always is adoration and praise. Rather, it seems He is putting an end to intercession. He is at last answering the prayers of the martyrs for vengeance, and He is turning a deaf ear to those who are praying for the salvation of the earth’s wicked. The hour of mercy for those who shake their fists toward heaven and blaspheme God is over. Their measure of sin is full. The cup that Jesus drank on the cross on their behalf has been rejected; it now becomes a chalice filled with the wrath of the spurned Almighty.
Four major views of chapter 15
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view this scene in which heaven prepares for the final set of plagues?
Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the last seven plagues refer to Israel, not to God’s final judgment upon the earth. The time frame of the bowl judgments is the end of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.). David Chilton writes that “in terms of the specifically limited purpose and scope of the Book of Revelation, [the judgments] comprise the final outpouring of God’s wrath, His great cosmic Judgment against Jerusalem, abolishing the Old Covenant world order once and for all” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 344). The “song of Moses” is meant to be a reminder to apostate Jews that Jerusalem has become the new Egypt. The “bowls” or “vials” should be seen more as “chalices” that offer a “negative sacrament” to those who have rejected communion with Jesus. Finally, the smoke from the temple, which prevents anyone from entering, shows that intercession for Israel is no longer allowed; the day of grace is past.
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – generally believe that the last seven plagues are contained within the seventh trumpet (Rev. 8:1), which extends to the end of secular history and the ultimate triumph of Jesus. The pouring out of the bowls covers a period beginning with the French Revolution and continuing to events still future from today’s perspective. These plagues are designed for the punishment of papal Rome and do not preclude God from bringing final judgment upon the world. The smoke from the temple bars anyone from interceding on behalf of the apostate church. The sea of glass mingled with fire suggests that judgment is ready to proceed from God’s throne.
Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – see the seven last plagues as occurring in the future, just before the return of Jesus. The sea of glass upon which the martyrs stand is mingled with fire, depicting the divine judgment that proceeds from God’s holiness. Dispensationalists say these are saints martyred during the Tribulation; they cannot be part of the church, for the church is raptured prior to the Tribulation. Others argue that we have seen these people before – the martyr-harpists of Rev. 14:2-3, the two witnesses of Revelation 11, or the innumerable host of Rev. 7:9. In any case, futurists point out that judgment does not fall until the saints are removed from the scene. Merrill Tenney points out, “They may experience the wrath of the devil (12:12) and the persecution of the beast (13:15), but they do not experience the wrath of God” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 347).
Some idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – view these plagues as the last judgment acts in history as the return of Christ approaches. Others, however, argue that the finality of these plagues is not with respect to history but to individuals who have refused to repent despite ample warnings. Every unrepentant sinner eventually exhausts God’s patience, resulting in final judgment upon his or her life. The sea of glass mingled with fire symbolizes “God’s transparent righteousness revealed in judgments upon the wicked,” according to William Hendriksen (Revelation: Four views, p. 347). The song of Moses and the song of the Lamb are intended to show that God’s deliverance in the Exodus foreshadows Christ’s deliverance in the cross. The smoke in the tabernacle reminds us that God is not to be approached when He is revealing Himself in judgment.
Next: The first bowl judgment – Revelation 16:1-2