Overcoming the Beast – Part Three (Rev 14-15)

Last week, we looked at the mark of the beast – going along with the rest of the empire in worshipping the emperor as a god, in place of the one true God. And we saw how we, too, often go along with our world and its idolatry. This week, we’re looking at how Revelation encourages its readers not to go along with the world, by appealing to the four cardinal virtues of advantage, justice, courage, and self-control – how Revelation helps us to resist the mark of the beast.

The three angels

Revelation 14:6-7 Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

As we noted last week, there are two reasons given to worship God – and not the emperor. Firstly, he’s about to judge the world. That’s an appeal to (dis)advantage. It’s very much in your interests not to worship the beast, because the true ruler of the world is about to judge it. We’re told to fear him – and fear (according to ancient orators like Aristotle) was one of the most important emotions to invoke when trying to persuade someone not to do something. Fear God, because he’s the one who is truly the judge of the world. Not the Roman emperor. Not your boss. Not your friends. Not the media. Not whatever it is the world tells us ought to govern our behaviour. But God.

Secondly, he made the world. This is an appeal to justice. If God made the world – including us – then the right thing to do is to worship him. Not some human in a toga. Not humanity itself. Not what everyone else thinks. But God alone.

Then, like the comparison advertisements we talked about on Monday, the second and third angels compare the outcome for those who worship the beast with those who worship God.

Revelation 14:8-11 A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, 10 they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

“Fallen is Babylon” comes from Isaiah 21:9, which is about… Babylon. The literal city which enslaved God’s people and had an emperor – Nebuchadnezzar – who set himself up as a god to be worshipped. (Sound familiar?) Here, Rome is the new Babylon, because she, too, opposes God’s people and sets up a human ruler as an object of worship.

So what’s with the wine? There are two OT texts about Babylon which are the background here:

Jeremiah 51:7 Babylon was a gold cup in the Lord’s hand; she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad.

Rome – the new Babylon – has seduced all the nations with her idolatry.

Jeremiah 25:15  This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.

Now , and now Rome – and the nations – are going to have to drink the results, namely, the wrath of God.

And what’s with the burning sulphur? The imagery is borrowed from another OT story, the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24). We shouldn’t take it too literally as describing the final state of those who die separated from God, as this is a symbolic apocalypse:

‘By this point in the Apocalypse, the reader should be well aware that John’s language here is metaphorical. Divine punishment will no more be actual fire and sulphur than Christ will literally be a lamb’ (Mitchell Reddish, Revelation, p.278).

This isn’t to minimise the consequences of rejecting God, but to point out that the whole fire-and-brimstone, demons-with-pitchforks imagery is built on a symbolic depiction of judgement, rather than literal description. At any rate, the point of the imagery is to induce fear – appropriate fear at the consequences of rejecting God and choosing, instead, the emperor.

The contrast is with the fate of those who refuse the mark of the beast, but remain faithful to God:

Revelation 14:12-13 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus. 13 Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

A clear appeal to advantage: endure, and you will receive rest, rather than suffer the fate of those who worship the beast, which involves no rest day or night. But it’s also an appeal to two other virtues, calling for patient (self-controlled) endurance (courage) in the face of adversity.

The harvest of the earth

The scene quickly changes back to a description of the fate of those who persist in rebellion against God. There’s not a lot to explain:

Revelation 14:14-20 I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. 15 Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.

17 Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” 19 The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. 20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.

It’s designed as a gruesome, fear-inducing depiction of what it’s like to incur God’s wrath, using the image of a harvest. The dominant images are of a sickle, reaping the crops of the earth. Then the grapes are trampled, but blood comes out of them – a massive description of slaughter. While the crops might have been as high as an elephant’s eye (and a big hello to all of the older people reading this), the blood flows out as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about 300km.

By the way, a little later in Revelation, Jesus turns up as a conquering warrior, described in this way:

Revelation 19:13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

You might have thought (as I often did) that the robe is dipped in his own blood, referring to his atoning death. But no, it’s just that he’s been busy trampling the winepress mentioned here, and didn’t have time to change. Because we read a few verses later:

Revelation 19:15b … He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

The blood on his robe here is a symbol of conquest and judgement, not sacrifice.

At any rate, the point of this chapter is to be scary. To make you think that being on the wrong side of God is far worse than merely being on the wrong side of a human emperor. Or mainstream public opinion. Or your friends, family, and workmates.

And it is.

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