Rev. 14:6 – Then I saw another angel flying high overhead, having the eternal gospel to announce to the inhabitants of the earth — to every nation, tribe, language, and people. 7 He spoke with a loud voice: “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come. Worship the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.” (HCSB)
In Revelation 14, John sees three angels and records their unique messages. The first angel flies high overhead and proclaims the “eternal gospel” to the earth’s inhabitants. The second angel announces the fall of Babylon the Great. The third angel warns that those who worship and beast and receive his mark on their foreheads or hands will be severely punished. Finally, John hears a voice from heaven promising comfort to those who “die in the Lord from now on.”
This passage raises many challenging questions:
- What is the “eternal gospel?”
- Who or what is “Babylon the Great?”
- What does it mean to “drink the wine of God’s wrath?”
- Do verses 10-11 speak of temporal punishment on earth, or of everlasting torment in hell?
- What does the third angel mean when he says, “This demands the perseverance of the saints?”
- And who are the “dead who die in the Lord from now on?”
Let’s take a closer look.
Rev. 10:1 – Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, surrounded by a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, his legs were like fiery pillars, 2and he had a little scroll opened in his hand. He put his right foot on the sea, his left on the land, 3and he cried out with a loud voice like a roaring lion. When he cried out, the seven thunders spoke with their voices. 4And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write. Then I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders said, and do not write it down!”
5Then the angel that I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. 6He swore an oath by the One who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it: “There will no longer be an interval of time, 7but in the days of the sound of the seventh angel, when he will blow his trumpet, then God’s hidden plan will be completed, as He announced to His servants the prophets.”
8Now the voice that I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, “God, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”
9So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take and eat it; it will be bitter in your stomach, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.”
10Then I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It was as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I ate it, my stomach became bitter. 11And I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.” (HCSB)
God’s hidden plan will be completed (v. 7)
The second phrase of special interest in the mighty angel’s oath (the first is that there will no longer be an interval of time) is that “God’s hidden plan will be completed” at the sound of the seventh angel’s trumpet. Note carefully that the angel does not say God’s hidden plan will be revealed, but completed. And he adds, “as He announced to His servants the prophets” (v. 7). In other words, we are not to look for further revelation when the third woe is declared; we are to watch as the Lord reclaims what is rightfully His – the kingdoms of this world. He already has told us this day will come. Now He’s going to fulfill His promise.
Rev. 9:1 – The fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth. The key to the shaft of the abyss was given to him. 2He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft. 3Then out of the smoke locusts came to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. 5They were not permitted to kill them, but were to torment [them] for five months; their torment is like the torment caused by a scorpion when it strikes a man. 6In those days people will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7The appearance of the locusts was like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were something like gold crowns; their faces were like men’s faces; 8they had hair like women’s hair; their teeth were like lions’ teeth; 9they had chests like iron breastplates; the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots with many horses rushing into battle; 10and they had tails with stingers, like scorpions, so that with their tails they had the power to harm people for five months. 11They had as their king the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he has the name Apollyon. 12The first woe has passed. There are still two more woes to come after this. (HCSB)
John writes that “out of the smoke locusts came to the earth, and power was given them like the power that scorpions have on the earth” (v. 3). Who are these locusts? There are numerous views:
- Some suggest they are Arabs who come from the east. In biblical times, locust plagues often came from Arabia. Also, the Hebrew word for locust (arbeh) and the Arab word (arbi) sound similar. Those who hold this view believe the fifth trumpet judgment describes the Muslim campaigns against the Eastern Roman Empire in the 7th and 8th centuries.
- Others argue that the locusts symbolize the spiritual plague of the last days and cite all sorts of errors including Christian Science, the New Age movement, Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Still others argue that these are demonic forces released from their prison deep in the heart of the earth to inflict physical or spiritual damage on those who reject the gospel.
- Then, some interpreters see the locusts as an invading army, perhaps the horde with Gog described in Ezekiel 38.
Almost no one contends that these are actual locusts. W.A. Criswell writes, “John is telling us here that they are not actual locusts, for locusts eat green things. Where there is an actual visitation of locusts, nothing is left behind but devastation. Again, the wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, as a keen naturalist and observer, said in the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Proverbs that the locusts have no king over them. But John is careful to tell us that these have a king over them, the angel of the bottomless pit …” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 185).
It seems best to view these locusts as evil spirits who rush to inflict harm on human beings. Demons often do this in scripture, causing physical ailments, mental illness, and personal injury. John records that they are given power – actually, authority is a better translation – like the power that scorpions have. This is curious, for scorpions don’t seem to have authority on earth, but that is the word John uses. They can sting, which leads to pain and sometimes death. Perhaps John is describing a form of spiritual torment that these locusts impose on people who do not know God. It is an excruciating torment because the victims seek death but cannot find it.
Interestingly, locusts are declared “clean” for food by the Lord in the Levitical dietary laws (Lev. 11:21-23). John the Baptist sustained himself on a diet of locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:1-4). While locusts are important in the pagan superstitions of the Egyptians, the Lord uses a plague of locusts as agents of His wrath (Ex. 10:12-15). He also sends locusts to judge His own disobedient children (2 Chron. 7:12-14). For these reasons, some argue that the locusts described in Revelation 9 could not be demons, for nowhere else in scripture are they identified with the armies of Satan. However, God is perfectly capable of turning the evil actions of demons into righteous acts of judgment. While the action is the same – the torment of unbelievers – the intention behind the action is different; the demons intend evil, and the Lord intends holy wrath.
John describes God’s sovereignty over the locusts:
- “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads” (v. 4). Who placed these restrictions on the locusts? No doubt it is the Lord, either directly or through an angel. Locusts naturally consume vegetation but do no direct harm to humans. These locusts, however, are instructed to torment only those not under the Lord’s protection, further indicating their demonic identity.
- “They were not permitted to kill them, but were to torment [them] for five months; their torment is like the torment caused by a scorpion when it strikes a man” (v. 5). Again, the Lord restricts the locusts’ authority. They may torment, but not kill, the ungodly. God even sets the duration of their activity: five months, which is about the lifespan of the insect. But the number five also could symbolize half of 10, a metaphor for limited judgment.
- “In those days people will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them” (v. 6). Whatever torment the demons inflict on the wicked, it will not be sufficient to kill them, but it will be sufficient to lead them to seek death. The Lord determines the day of a person’s death; no one’s life is taken without His knowledge or permission.
Next: The appearance of the locusts (Rev. 9:1-12)
Rev. 7:9 – After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! 11All the angels stood around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength, be to our God forever and ever. Amen. 13Then one of the elders asked me, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His sanctuary. The One seated on the throne will shelter them: 16no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat. 17Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (HCSB).
One of the elders asked me
One of the 24 elders asks John, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” (v. 13). John replies, “Sir, you know.” John readily admits he does not know the answer and seeks insight from the elder. As Matthew Henry puts it, “Those who would gain knowledge must not be ashamed to own their ignorance, nor to desire instruction from any that are able to give it” (Rev. 7:13-17).
The elder replies, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). But to which tribulation is the elder referring? The Greek puts it, He thilipsis – he megale; that is, “the tribulation – the great.” This gives strength to the futurist position, which holds that this is the post-rapture tribulation, not tribulation in general, which believers have experienced throughout the church age. W.A. Criswell points to the distinction between the vast multitude and the 24 elders, who represent the church. “This great multitude has no thrones,” he writes, contrasting them to the elders, who do have thrones. “They have no crowns; they have palm branches. They have come after the resurrection and after the rapture and after the church has been taken up into glory” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 151).
Criswell goes on, “These are they whom God has saved and is saving in that great and final trial that shall come upon the earth. Is that not astounding? No wonder John did not know who they were. No man would ever have known or guessed such a thing had it not been by the grace of the revelation of God Himself.”
Tribulation and wrath
While there is strong support for the view that this great tribulation matches a futurist world view, other commentators argue convincingly for other points of view. Perhaps this tribulation is a first-century phenomenon, with Jews and Romans persecuting Christians; certainly, believers in John’s day are experiencing first-hand the universal attacks on the body of Christ. Others contend that these saints around the throne in heaven are the product of various Roman campaigns against those who will not bow to Caesar. Still others argue that this great tribulation describes martyrs – the millions of faithful believers throughout the church age who do not “love their lives in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).
In any case, it is clear that these are saints in heaven prior to the return of Christ, and the “great tribulation” is the persecution of believers at the hands of non-believers. Two Greek words often are translated “tribulation” or “persecution” in the New Testament. Diwgmos appears 10 times in the New Testament and always refers to the persecution of believers at the hands of unbelievers. Thilipsis appears 45 times and is translated “tribulation(s),” “affliction(s),” “anguish,” “distress,” “persecution,” or “trouble.” Nearly every time it, too, refers to violence against believers at the hands of unbelievers.
This must not be confused with God’s wrath against the wicked. Two Greek words are used to describe the suffering of non-believers at the hand of God. The first word is thumos. It occurs in 18 verses in the New Testament and is translated “angry tempers,” “fierce,” “indignation,” “outbursts of anger,” “passion,” “rage,” and “wrath.” In nine of these 18 verses, the term specifically refers to the anger and judgment of God against the unrighteous (the other nine refer to the anger of people against each other). The second word is orgay, which occurs in 34 verses in the New Testament and is translated “anger” or “wrath.” Twenty-eight of those verses refer to the wrath of God the Father or Jesus against the unrighteous; one refers to the persecution of believers; and five refer to the anger of people against each other. “Therefore, whereas tribulation almost always refers to the persecution of believers, wrath almost always refers to the anger of God against the unrighteous that results in punishment” (Will Christians Go Through the Great Tribulation by Rich Deem, www.godandscience.org).
Saints before the throne
As we read on, it is clear why these saints stand before the throne in heaven: “They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). It is not merely that they died for a just cause, although that in itself is no mere thing; great men and women throughout history have died for families, nations, freedom and many other God-ordained gifts and institutions. The martyrs John sees around the throne, however, stand there for one reason: Christ has purchased them with His blood. They do not claim any merit. They do not boast of any personal rights. No doubt on earth they refused the offers of life, possessions and freedom in exchange for recanting their faith. But they held fast. They joined the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).
Yet whatever fleeting and temporal things they have forfeited for the cause of Christ are now repaid with eternal rewards. The angel explains to John: “The One seated on the throne will shelter them [or spread His tent over them]: no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat …” (vv. 15b-16). Missionaries that Fidel Castro imprisoned after seizing power in Cuba often were taken from their cells in the morning and made to stand in the blistering sun all day before being returned to their cold and dank dungeons at sunset. There is no doubt their skin festered and peeled and their throats became parched as they were punished for nothing more than being faithful to the One seated on the throne. But now, as John sees them stand before the throne, they are safe beneath their Savior’s protective wings.
The angel continues: “Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17). Jesus is the good shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep, and who knows them and is known by them (John 10:11, 14). This is a claim to deity, since Yahweh is described in similar terms in the Old Testament (Ps. 23:1, 80:1; Isa. 40:10-11). But even more, this divine shepherd became a sheep, a “lamb led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
“A shepherd, in order to know his sheep and care for them, has to live among them,” writes Carl Haak. “He has to be close to them. Jesus not only came from heaven to earth to be near His sheep, He actually became like them. The Shepherd became a sheep, took on our nature, and lived our entire life (except without sin). This is why He is the good Shepherd, perfectly qualified to know us and to care for us. He is like us in our flesh. There is no shepherd like this Jesus” (“I Am the Good Shepherd,” www.reformedwitnesshour.org, Oct. 5, 1997, No. 2857).
Springs of living water
As a good shepherd leads his sheep to water, the Good Shepherd guides His saints to springs of living water. In John 7, on the last and most important day of the feast of Tabernacles – a day in which water plays a significant role – Jesus stands up and cries, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture hath said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him” (vv. 37b-38). The observant Jew could not miss the significance of this claim.
On each day of the feast, priests draw water from the pool of Siloam and return to the temple, circling the altar while the choir chants Psalms 113-118. The water is then poured out as a libation at the morning sacrifice. This is a time of great joy associated with Isa. 12:3: “You will joyfully draw water from the springs of salvation.” On the seventh day of the festival, the priests carry the water around the altar not once, but seven times. It is at this high point of the festival that Jesus stands and makes His dramatic cry to the people. He repeats the offer of the Father, “Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1), and offers fulfillment of the very things they were celebrating. Indeed, he is fulfilling the role of God, “their compassionate One [who] will lead them to springs of water” (Isa. 49:10). This is more than a prophet pointing to God’s grace; it is God Himself extending His grace.
Note these insights from Biblegateway.com: “In Jewish writings water is a very rich symbol. God himself can be called ‘the spring of living water’ (Jer 2:13; 17:13). Other texts that use water imagery speak of Wisdom (Baruch 3:12; Sirach 15:3; 24:21, 25-27, 30-31), the law (Sifre on Deuteronomy 48) and, as here in John 7:39, the Holy Spirit (Genesis Rabbah 70:8; Targum of Isaiah 44:3). Jesus, in offering the Spirit (v. 39), is claiming to be able to satisfy people’s thirst for God. The cries of the psalmists are answered. David prayed, ‘O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (Ps 63:1). The sons of Korah sang, ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?’ (Ps 42:1-2)…. When Jesus cries out at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles on this particular day, the worshipers meet God in his sanctuary – in the person of his Son. The longing for God is met with God’s invitation to come and be satisfied. In Jesus, God’s own desire for man is expressed and the desire of man for God is met. All that the temple represented is now found in Jesus” (“Jesus, the Source of Living Water, Extends an Invitation to All Who Thirst,” www.biblegateway.com).
There is one final image that bears mention as the angel says, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” a promise repeated in Rev. 21:4. The sinful and fallen world in which we live produces oceans of tears. Babies die in their mothers’ wombs. Natural disasters destroy in a moment what has taken a lifetime to build. War ravages lives, steals dreams, erases borders, violates treaties, brings a sudden end to enduring peace, eliminates security, and hastens the loss of innocence. Gossip ruins reputations. Angry words divide families. Ungodly leaders speed the demise of nations. Rancor in the church undermines unity in the Spirit. Even the most humble servants of Christ get sick, grow old and die. On top of all this, these martyrs around the throne have suffered additional hardship at the hands of those who hate Jesus and thus hate His sheep.
But there is an end to it all. And the day is coming when Christ will hold our faces in His nail-scarred hands and wipe the tears from our eyes with a gentle sweep of His thumbs. This is good to remember when we attend funerals, lose our jobs, suffer the slights of the wicked, and endure the pains of sickness, disease, and aging. All the more reason to look up as our redemption draws near.
Four major views of the vast multitude
Finally, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the vast multitude?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the vast multitude represents the Gentiles who are saved as a result of God disowning His rebellious wife and children and seeking a new family (Hos. 1:10; 2:23; and their applications in Rom. 9:24ff and 1 Peter 2:9). These are coming out of the great tribulation in the sense that their entrance into the kingdom of heaven results from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the end of formal Judaism. Some preterists, however, see these as Christian martyrs slain by Roman emperors after the fall of Jerusalem. Still other say these could be Jews converted at Pentecost, one of three Jewish feasts requiring all faithful Jewish males to come to the temple, thereby resulting in the salvation of Jews from every nation.
- Some historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the multitude as the same group identified in verses 4-8. In the first vision, John sees them sealed for preservation on earth. In the second vision, he sees them glorified in heaven. This would be a great encouragement to the early church, which suffers widespread and brutal persecution. Other historicists see these as Gentile believers, who will make up a far greater number in heaven than their Jewish brothers and sisters.
- Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say these are Gentile believers brought into the kingdom during the Tribulation. The 144,000 Jews and this vast multitude of Gentiles, while saved, are not part of the church, which was raptured prior to the Tribulation. Other futurists, however, understand this palm-bearing crowd to be the church after the tribulation is over.
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – tend to see this innumerable host as symbolic of the church finally glorified in heaven. The 144,000 represent “spiritual Israel,” or the church on earth, while the multitude depicts the “church triumphant” in heaven. The palm branches and white robes symbolize victory and purity. These believers are coming out of the great tribulation – the afflictions through which all saints pass on their way to glory.
Next: The seventh seal — Revelation 8:1-6