(Rev 16; Ex 7-12; Hag 2:6-7; Mat 24:42-44; 2 Peter 3:10)
The sixteenth chapter of Revelation contains a sequence that is difficult to read, a word of the LORD that is enshrined within it, and the assurance that God remembers what He has planned to do for the sake of righteousness. This passage echoes the events of Exodus 7-12, when God wrought salvation for the Hebrews, though here in the Apocalypse we watch a series of seven rather than ten plagues, and it is apparent from the beginning that the consequences of judgment are not merely physical or historical. St. Andrew of Caesarea understands one of the first plagues in Revelation 16, where the sea water is changed into blood, as being allowed by God “so that both those steadfast in faith will be strengthened, and those who are not firm will be fearful, seeing creation oppose them during the time when the Destroyer is honored” (Commentary ch. 47). Thus St. Andrew reminds us that the context of this dramatic judgment is a period when human beings have largely turned from God to the Pretender, the Enemy. Moreover, though the bowls are poured out by God’s angelic emissaries, the events themselves occur as human “rulers agitate against each other,” spilling each other’s blood in the water supply. God is sovereign, but the actual evil comes from His enemies, both human and demonic. Chapter sixteen shows us what happens when God removes any divine restraint, and allows evil to come to its peak. In this way, the chapter reminds us of Jesus’ own words (Matthew 24) concerning human hatefulness, and the wars to come before God consummates all things. Here is the passage from Revelation:
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”
So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say,
“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was,
for you brought these judgments.
For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
And I heard the altar saying,
“Yes, Lord God the Almighty,
true and just are your judgments!”
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.
As the bowls are poured out, we see a movement from the particular and personal to the corporate and cosmic. The first plague is a kind of pointed warning, affecting the bodies of those who are opposing God. The seventh bowl, on the other hand, affects the entire world, since the “cities of the nations” fall, islands and mountains are levelled, and all is capped by an earthquake and unimaginable hail. With this, the wrath of God is complete, or “done.” This final stage is not reached until God has already warned the earth by striking the so-called throne of Satan, with the result of darkness. Indeed, the “kings of the earth” have joined forces with the Beast and his two minions, that unholy trinity, and are setting themselves up for war against the LORD. Then, at the final stage, there is a kind of “dividing” or “discerning” that takes place, since the godless society which goes by the mysterious name of “Babylon” is at last judged and divided into three parts. Various ancient commentators describe these groups in different ways, but one seems particularly helpful. Caesarea of Arles sees the division as referring to the faithful, to those who have rejected Christ or are steadfast heretics, and to the pagans who have not yet heard the gospel (Homily 13 in Exposition on the Apocalypse 16).
Weeds and tares grow together in the field, and must be separated. How God will discern among those of the last group we may infer from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, where those among the nations who cared for the helpless have had their good-hearted actions credited for service to the LORD. (This is not salvation by works, but a recognition that our actions bear out what is in our hearts, as with the Calormene character, Emeth, in the Last Battle, who thinks himself the worshipper of a demon, but is recognized as an incognito servant of Aslan, the wise). What has been hidden will be revealed. This “shaking up,” made explicit by the prophet Haggai (chapter 2) and recalled in Hebrews 12:26-28, means that human cities and their way of living cannot stand, either. All is to be made anew, and solid:
“Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
The inevitable movement from the particular to the cosmic is broken up at three parts: first, as the angel and those around the altar approve of God’s judgment; second, as we are let in on the machinations of the unholy trinity throughout the world; and third, as we hear an echo of the Lord Jesus’ warning concerning his unexpected coming as a thief in the night. Two of these disruptions of the sequence –the approval from the angel and the altar, and the words of Jesus—act as reminders concerning God’s sovereignty, even during a time of difficulty and terror. The just and holy God will always do what is right, and we are here reminded that His judgments as well as His redemption show forth His character.
It is good to be reminded, also, that John’s vision does not stand alone, but that it is consonant with Jesus’ own warnings to His followers, warnings that are quoted several times over in the New Testament:
“Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24 cf. Luke 12)
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (1 Thess 5:2, 4)
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10)
Indeed, even one of the edicts to the seven Churches has Jesus speaking directly to the Christians in Sardis, reminding them that He will come like a thief (Rev 3:3), so they should repent and return to God.
This reminder about the community of Sardis, who included in its midst many who had compromised the truth, should make us realize these final chapters of judgement are not simply meant to be a “gotcha” finale levelled against nonbelievers. Rather, these hard chapters of judgement are for all of us who follow the LORD, reminding us to follow Him in all of His ways, and not to “soil” the garment of baptism that we have been given, so that we will walk with Him in white eternally (Rev. 3:4).
White clothing for Christians as they enter the presence of God, is an ongoing theme in the NT, not only in this vision, but in Jesus’ parables, and even in the letters of St. Paul. The apostle looks forward in 2 Cor 5:3 to the home kept for us in the heavens, and longs to be reclothed with a glorious body. Jesus speaks in several of his end-time parables about being clothed for the wedding feast (for example in Matthew 22). We are reminded by Gregory the Great that this clothing cannot simply be our faith as something internal, but involves also our living out that faith: “A person is outside [of the chamber, in Jesus’ parable] because he has not yet come to believe. [But the man without the wedding garment is inside the hall.] What then must we understand by the wedding garment but love?” (Forty Gospel Homilies 38.9) *John would extend that, it seems, to mean “love in action.” For we hear, at the end of the book of Revelation, about the Bride dressed in white linen, which is the righteous evidence, or deeds (dikaiōma) of the saints —those outward signs of her union with Christ. So, being dressed in white for the wedding, is an image that studs the entire book of Revelation. It is found in 3:4-5, 3:18, 6:11, here in our chapter, and later in 19:8. And, lest we think again that this is “salvation by works,” notice that the “righteous deeds” of the saints, the clothing of the Bride, is GIVEN to her to wear. How we live is involved, yes, but this, too, is the grace of God, who has taken our humanity upon Himself to raise it up.
This chapter seems mostly to be about God allowing punishment to visit us, to be poured down upon the earth. But all this is in preparation for the final chapter that He has planned in our salvation story —that we will, with Christ, be raised up to the heavenly places. In Exodus 19:10, we hear that the Hebrew people were instructed to wash their garments prior to meeting God, at a distance, who would touch down to them by means of signs—clouds, thunder, and smoke— from His holy mountain. But we who are in Christ anticipate more than this. Saint Andrew of Caesarea puts it this way:
But…with joyful torches of the virtuous manner of life, adorned with sympathy, offering ourselves with the clean and blameless wedding garments of holy souls, let us enter together into the bridal chamber of Christ our God. (Commentary 51).
This week, then, as we celebrate the Ascension of our LORD, let us remember how the incarnate God has not simply visited us—wonderful though that is!—but has done all so that we could join Him with His Father. We may look back with profit to the troparion and the other hymns sung in Holy Week, and take their words to heart, along with the grave warnings of this chapter. For the LORD has better things in store for us!
Behold the bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given over to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself, crying: “Holy! Holy! Holy! art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!”…
Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me…
How shall I, the unworthy one, appear in the splendor of Thy saints?
For if I dare enter Thy bridal chamber with them my garments will betray me: they are unfit for a wedding.
The angels will cast me out in chains.
Cleanse the filth of my soul, O Lord, and save me in Thy love for mankind.
O Christ the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness.
I have no lamp aflame with virtues.
Like the foolish virgins I wander aimlessly when it is time for work.
But do not close Thy compassionate heart to me, O Master.
Rouse me, shake off my heavy sleep.
Lead me with the wise virgins into the bridal chamber, that I may hear the pure voice of those that feast and cry unceasingly: O Lord, glory to Thee!
These seven bowls, the embedded word of the LORD who will come as a thief, and God’s remembered holy judgment upon Babylon, are sobering. As we contemplate the actions on Armageddon, a name that refers to a deep cutting, or division, we are encouraged to keep in mind the admonition of Andrew of Caesarea: “May our way of life in God become the cause of dejection in the demons and gladness for the angels, so that, in common with them….we might give thanks for the victory” (Commentary 48).