Read Revelation 14
Continuing in the interlude between the first two sets of judgments, the seals, and the trumpets, and the coming bowl judgment, John records a final “harvest” of those who believe in Jesus Christ and are seals with God’s name on their foreheads. We first saw the image of the lamb back in chapter five which is a reference to Jesus and talked about the number of people sealed, that being 144,000, as being symbolic of the full number of the people of God. John hears them learning and singing a new song, something other than the worship that we had witnessed in chapters prior to this. This new song, perhaps, is one of deliverance for the people of God. We see that only those who are among the 144,000, those who are God’s people, can learn the song which creates a distinction between God’s people and “the inhabitants of the earth.” The distinction here is, in many ways, the theme of this chapter.
John points out the fact that those standing with the lamb “did not defile themselves with women.” Some have argued, and we actually see a living testimony to this in the leadership of the Catholic church, that true obedience to God means sexual abstinence. This, however, is not necessarily what is being referenced here. Paul speaks to this in his letters pointing out that there are some advantages to being single, but also saying that those who are married have not sinned. In fact, it is better, Paul writes, to be married than to succumb to lust, which could be what John is referencing here. The reference to defiling oneself could also be a direct reference to the idolatry committed by the people of Israel in the Old Testament which is often mentioned in terms of the people “prostituting themselves” before other idols. Those who stand with God here are those who have Him and Him only.
Following this, John sees three angels who are heralding the coming of the final set of judgments known as the “seven bowls of God’s wrath.” Interestingly, the message of these three angels are intimately linked together: The Gospel, the defeat of Babylon (sin and evil), and the wrath of God. This is an interesting dichotomy of themes, but all flow within the same line of thought.
People often talk about the difference between God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament. In the New Testament, God shows love and grace whereas in the Old Testament God is a God of killing and wrath. How is it possible that those things are linked? The answer is that God’s wrath and God’s love are meant for the same thing, to bring people to God. If we think about God as a loving Father, we recognize that loving parents do discipline their children in an effort to raise them up correctly. Similarly, you may remember us talking about the fact that the judgments on the earth that we have seen so far, as well as those to come, are all meant to draw the people’s attention to God. Scripture says that it is not God’s desire that any should perish; it also says that as a loving father disciplines his children, so God disciplines those He loves. We know that God loves the whole world, every human that has ever and will ever live. The purpose, then, of God’s actions both then and now, is to draw people to Himself.
When we think about this we have to be careful about how we approach the subject, especially as it pertains to human suffering. Some people call earthquakes and hurricanes a “judgment” from God for people’s sins. However, we must take great caution in thinking this way because those references are toward God’s willful killing of people to prove a point or to punish; this is not the God of Scripture… even though it could seem that way here in Revelation. God did punish sin in the death of Jesus Christ, and sin has been defeated. This is the message of the Gospel and of the first angel. At that same point, the ultimate defeat of sin and evil (as symbolized by the city of Babylon) was sealed as well.
The third angel’s warning, then, is that while the invitation to turn and place our faith in Jesus Christ is always open now, there will come a time when that decision, or its opposite, will become a permanent part of our lives. God offers grace to all people, willingly accepting and forgiving those who turn and place their faith in Him. However, there will come a day when our allegiance, wherever it lies, will become permanent. Those who chose the beast or any part of the opposition to God will be eternally separated from Him.
This thought line brings us to the topic of hell. Many have asked the question of whether or not hell, a place of eternal separation from God and suffering actually exists. Others have asked the question of how a loving God can condemn people to eternal suffering. Perhaps those people just cease to exist when they die (doctrine of annihilation) or at the final judgment? Scripture offers no support to that. In fact, there is much more support offered to the notion of an eternal trajectory for all people, whether in the presence of God or not. It’s a hard reality, but it is a reality that the Bible supports. One thing that Scripture does not say, however, is that this is a place where the devil gets to torment people forever (implying that he will get what he wants). This place, as imaged by a pit of fire and sulfur and other such awful images, is a place where he too will be punished for his rebellion against God.
And so, like Jesus talks about in Matthew with the parable of the sheep and the goats, there will come a time when everyone’s fate will be decided. This is the harvest that John speaks to at the end of this chapter. Remember the theme that Jesus often brought up in the Gospel of John: they will be known by their fruit. John picks up on that theme here with the harvest metaphor.
How does this work? I’m not necessarily sure. What about the people that never heard? I don’t necessarily know though Scripture does point to the fact that all of creation points toward God which then put everyone on the line and leave no one with an excuse. Like much of what we are reading here, there is a lot that is still a mystery. We don’t necessarily know how this all fits together. One thing, however, is for sure, in this image the spread of the Gospel is an intimate part of the series of events. The Gospel message comes first before anything else because of God’s love and desire to see all people come back to Him. We, as followers of Christ, are called to participate in the bringing of that message to the world so that as many as possible can hear and come to know God’s love for them.