Revelation: The Time is Near
Turn in a Bible to Genesis ch. 3. Our current study is in Revelation. Yet, the last book of the Bible requires us to deal directly with a very difficult subject – God’s wrath. It’s an uncomfortable topic. It can leave us confused. But we cannot avoid it, especially in Revelation 16, where we will turn shortly. To understand God’s wrath we look back to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, ch. 3.
God’s wrath is His deep opposition to all that is evil and his determination to overthrow it. We’ve encountered God’s wrath several times in Revelation. In this message we focus on it to learn: the release of God’s wrath; the reason for God’s wrath; and the response to God’s wrath. The release of God’s wrath (or “how he displays His wrath”); the reason for God’s wrath (or “why He displays it”); and human responses to His wrath.
The Release of God’s Wrath
God demonstrates His deep opposition to all evil and his determination to overthrow it in three phases. That’s why we’re in Genesis 3. God demonstrates His wrath first through his judgment against Adam and Eve’s sin, the first expression of human rebellion against God.
When God confronted the man and woman about their disobedience, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. So God judged all three. He displayed his wrath against the serpent in vv. 14-15. These verses also provide the hope that in his wrath God would remember mercy and send a Savior.
Then he turned to the woman in v. 16. Follow there as I read:
16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” 17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:16–19)
Scan down to v. 22
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22–24)
This is what Christians refer to as the curse. It can be summed up in a single word – alienation. Because of human sin, alienation exists between human beings: raising children is painful and marriage involves conflict. Alienation also exists between human beings and the environment: work is frustrating. Alienation exists between human beings and life itself: death affects all people. No one has access to the Tree of Life. Supremely, Alienation exists between human beings and God. Hostility replaces fellowship. We cannot enjoy God and He cannot delight in us.
The curse applies to all creation and every person since the fall. Let’s call this the Persistent Release of God’s wrath. It is continuous and universal. The curse affects all aspects of life, and we have no hope of self-salvation. Each of us in this room is experiencing the curse right now. The curse prompted Moses to speak about the human condition with these words in Psalm 90,
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. (Psalm 90:9)
We are dying, however slowly or quickly, we are all dying. In Romans 8, Paul refers to the Persistent Release of God’s Wrath.
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him, [God,] who subjected it in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:20–23)
Even those redeemed in Christ groan under the curse.
However, in addition to the curse, God demonstrates his deep opposition to evil through specific judgments in history. We see this in Exodus. God sent plagues on Egypt because of that empire’s idolatry and enslavement of God’s people. Frogs, gnats, flies, disease, hail, and grasshoppers were among the releases of God’s wrath. Let’s call this second phase Periodic Release of God’s wrath.
Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address while the Civil War over slavery raged in this country. In his speech, he expressed hope tempered by a sense of divine wrath.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' [quoting Psalm 19].
The third phase of the release of God’s wrath appears after final judgment when those who rejected God’s salvation endure His wrath forever in a place called Hell. Jesus spoke of it in Matthew 13.
40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:40–43)
This is the Permanent Release of God’s Wrath. It replaces the first two. In the new heaven and new earth, God’s wrath is finished in this creation. It remains only in the place of eternal misery. We will discuss permanent wrath in greater detail when we come to Revelation 20.
For now, let’s go to Revelation 16 and ask, “Which phase is most evident in this chapter? (p. 1037). Last week in the heavenly vision of chapter 15 we met seven angels who received seven bowls full of God’s wrath. In the vision of chapter 16, the angels carry out their mission on earth. They pour out God’s wrath.
The bowls symbolize real judgment. They picture instances of God’s wrath released on rebellious human beings between Christ’s first and second comings. We have seen the pattern repeated in the seven seals and seven trumpets earlier in Revelation. The vision of Chapter 16 portrays the periodic release of God’s wrath; His deep opposition to evil and his determination to overthrow it by periodic judgments even now before the end of history.
What do we learn about the release of God’s wrath through these seven bowls poured out by the seven angels? First, God’s wrath grows more intense as the second coming approaches. In the trumpet cycle, a third of the earth was affected by the plagues inflicted. The bowls cover the whole earth.
Second, God’s wrath also grows more specific. The first five bowls pour out recurring judgments that happen periodically leading up to Christ’s return. The last two involve specific events that prepare the nations for a showdown before Christ’s day of judgment.
God’s wrath specifically targets those who refuse Him. Look at 16:2.
2 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. (Revelation 16:2)
But we must remember that since the curse continues (God’s persistent wrath) and these plagues are universal, God’s people will suffer because of these bowl judgments.
When a believer experiences the effects of any release of God’s wrath, it is not for the same purpose as the unbeliever. Suffering for the believer is not condemnation but salvation. Because believers have eternal peace with God, God’s wrath develops rather than destroys them. Paul testifies,
3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)
We will say more when we get to the response to God’s wrath.
The symbols in Chapter 16 portray various kinds of suffering: Physical, economic, psychological, political, and spiritual. God’s wrath inflicts senseless pain and spiritual darkness on those who refuse to trust and worship Him. Revelation 16:5 makes clear that God sends these judgments. He employs angels to do his work but he oversees the operation to accomplish his purpose. V. 9 affirms that God has power over the plagues.
Even while God is at work releasing his wrath, Satan tries to hijack the operation for his purposes. Look at v. 12.
12 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. 13 And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon [Satan] and out of the mouth of the beast [corrupt political power] and out of the mouth of the false prophet [corrupt religion], three unclean spirits like frogs. 14 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. (Revelation 16:12–14).
Satan’s unholy Trinity sends out demonic spirits to deceive the world’s powerful to turn against the church. Christians have always believed that we live in a world invaded by aliens. Persecution is more intense today than at any time in church history. But demonic deception only sets up a showdown when Christ will prevail as promised.
God will continue periodic displays of his wrath that will intensify until Christ returns. So, we should not be surprised to see the world falling apart. We should expect it. We cannot predict the date of Christ’s return, but we know it’s closer. This is no time for panic. This is no time for hibernation. Christians do not advance the gospel by complaining about how bad the world is getting. We live in a cursed world, that is visited periodically by God’s wrath, and is ultimately headed for hell. We can wring our hands or ring out the Good News of eternal life in Christ.
The Reason for God’s Wrath
That’s the release of God’s wrath. Intensifying but under His control. Building on the curse, He continues to exercise and display his wrath through events in history up until the final release after the judgment. But, what is the reason for God’s wrath?
We can ask the question looking backward or forward. We can ask “Why?” and seek explanations or purposes. The answer can begin with the word “because” or the phrase “so that.” Let’s first look backward. God releases His wrath for at least three reasons.
Looking at the Cause
God releases his wrath because of idolatry or false worship. V. 2
… harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. (Revelation 16:2)
We were created by God to worship Him, to find delight and joy in Him, to exalt Him as the greatest good, and to devote all to His glory. Instead, we choose to worship the beast. We’ve seen in previous messages that this means worshiping the god of never enough; making God’s gifts most important and ignoring God; worshiping creation instead of the Creator. The bowls show us that God is willing even to damage his beautiful creation to show his creatures that He deserves their ultimate love and devotion.
The late Tim Keller tells the story of how he asked his family to sacrifice for three years so that they could move to New York and plant a church in the city. He estimated that three years of long hours and hard work on his part would get the church plant off the ground. They anticipated not having as much of his time as they might have liked.
But more than three years passed and Tim did not adjust his schedule. He ignored his wife’s pleas to cut back and rearrange his routine. One day he returned to their apartment to find Kathy on the balcony with a hammer. She was smashing pieces of their wedding china. When he confronted her, she reiterated that she wanted him back, and that he had to change. She was breaking the china to get his attention.
You should know that later Tim commented on how angry she must have been and she denied it. “But you were breaking our good china,” he argued. Kathy responded, “Oh, I only broke the saucers for the cups that were already broken.
Jesus Christ as the Almighty God deeply opposes all human efforts to worship something that is infinitely unworthy of our worship. John Newton experienced God’s periodic wrath and imagined God saying to him,
"These inward trials I employ From self and pride to set thee free And break thy schemes of earthly joy That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”
A second reason why God releases His wrath is intimidation toward His people. Listen to the angel at the end of v. 5 into v. 6.
5 …“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. 6 For they [those worshiping the beast] have shed the blood of saints and prophets….” (Revelation 16:5–6)
Those who refuse Christ persecute those who love Him. And He will defend his people. Satan’s opposition to the church is so strong and so universal that, if Christ did not periodically release wrath against those who intimidate and harass the church, the church would not stand. But the Lord promised that He will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).
Acts 12 gives us the account of one of the early church’s most ferocious opponents, Herod.
21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. 24 But the word of God increased and multiplied. (Acts 12:21–24)
God visits plagues on those who intimidate his people.
A third reason that God releases wrath periodically is injustice. V. 11 attributes God’s wrath to the fact that the worshipers of the beast did not repent of their deeds. They had committed sins worthy of God’s wrath. They not only love the wrong things but they abuse others to get the things they want. V. 10 notes that they chew their tongues. They are frustrated that they cannot get their way.
God is at work in the world even now restraining evil. One way he does that is by releasing wrath before the final judgment. Apart from such intervention, human evil would rage out of control and destroy every vestige of goodness in human society. The fact that death comes to all is a major deterrent to rampant evil.
When we see injustice met by divine wrath, it is a reminder that final judgment is coming. It gives hope to those who suffer injustice when they see God act even if it is temporary. Idolatry, Intimidation, and Injustice are reasons for God’s wrath.
Looking at the Purpose: Repentance
But let’s ask the question looking forward. Why does God release his wrath? His wrath extends an opportunity to repent. Twice in Chapter 16, Jesus points out to John that those who experience God’s wrath do not repent. You see that mentioned in v. 9 and again in v. 11. Even as God’s wrath intensifies, He offers repentance. Those who refuse will have no excuse at the judgment.
The appropriate response to the expression of God’s deep opposition to evil is to repent – to reject all kinds of idolatry and false worship, to renounce all forms of injustice. Repentance seeks salvation from God and abandons all attempts at self-salvation.
Sadly, so many face God’s wrath and refuse to repent. Instead, they curse God.
Response to God’s Wrath
This brings us to a third theme, our response to God’s wrath. Revelation 16 sets out two basic responses. One response is to worship the God who perfectly opposes and will overthrow evil. In v. 5 we hear God extolled for His justice, holiness, and self-existence. In v. 7 the praise echoes magnifying God’s faithfulness (truth), justice, and power. He is the Almighty.
The other response is to join those loyal to the beast and curse God. Three times in the chapter we hear that those who worship the beast curse God (vv. 9, 11, and 21). They refuse to give him glory (v. 9).
All humans experience suffering because of persistent and periodic displays of God’s wrath. When we do, we can bless God or blame God.
The blame God script has many lines, “I don’t deserve this kind of suffering. Why didn’t God protect me? I can’t believe in a God who would allow this. I know people who are worse than me who have it better. It’s not fair. God should bow to my wisdom. He’s picking on me. He’s unjust in the way he handles me.”
The truth is that we deserve far more than any suffering we experience in this life. We do not know what God is doing and are not wise enough to figure it out. We can either bless Him or blame Him.
How is it possible to suffer and not curse God? It can happen only when we realize that one day God cursed God.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— (Galatians 3:13)
The God who inflicts wrath on human sin embraced that wrath on the cross so that he might destroy the evil that keeps us from enjoying fellowship with him. He longs to restore fellowship with rebellious human beings.
Notice the invitation from Jesus in v. 15,
15 “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!” (Revelation 16:15)
Those who bless God experience his blessing. Those who bless God stay awake. They realize the world that they live in and refuse to get sucked into its deceptive, false worship. They also keep their garments on. This may be a reference to standing clothed in Christ’s righteousness as the only covering for our wrath-deserving sin.
But some commentators suspect that Jesus is picking up on the language of the OT which describes idolatry as spiritual adultery. To worship money, power, and status is like a married person taking off his clothes to jump into bed with another woman.
Jesus exclaims, don’t do it. Don’t give in. I’ve given my life for you. I’ve taken your wrath and given you my wealth. I’m coming soon to marry you. No one else can love you as I love you. Stay faithful to me. Be ready.
The hill on which Jesus died held three crosses, two criminals, and only one Savior. All three suffered. All three died. Before they died, one criminal reviled Jesus as a hypocrite and would not fear God. The other criminal revered Jesus as King. Jesus left the first to suffer his deserved punishment. To the second he promised, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
What kind of criminal are you?