With this article, we begin the next section in the book of Revelation, namely, chapters 15–16.
Before we delve into these chapters, however, it is good for us to re-orient ourselves to the structure of the book. There are seven sections in the book of Revelation, and those sections are as follows: chapters 1–3, 4–7, 8–11, 12–14, 15–16, 17–19, and 20–22. These seven sections are parallel sections; that is to say, each of the seven sections covers the same period of time, namely, that period of time between Christ’s first coming and His second coming. This means that each of the seven sections covers the time period in which we live. We are there in the text. Our story and our history are there in the text. We are not merely spectators sitting up in the stands watching the events unfold before our eyes. We are participants in the arena. We are involved in the action. Thus, we cannot help but read the book of Revelation with the greatest of interest, as each section of the book gives us a snapshot of the history of the church as she lives between the first coming of Christ and His return.
The book of Revelation must not be surrendered to the premillennialists. The events of Revelation are not to be understood only as future events—events that occur just prior to the return of Christ. Such a view renders the book largely irrelevant for the church today. Such views must be left behind.
But neither should the book of Revelation be surrendered to the postmillennialists. The events of Revelation are not to be understood only as past events—events that occurred just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Such a view renders the book largely irrelevant for the church today. Such views are little more than Jewish dreams.
It is the amillennial view alone that does justice to the book of Revelation in understanding it as the spiritual history of the church as she lives between the first coming of Christ and His return. Such a view sees the supreme relevance of the book for the church today. This is the view we must embrace, for it is the view that the book of Revelation itself sets before us.
Since the seven sections of Revelation are parallel sections, all describing the same period of time, we fully expect to see connections between them. And indeed, we do. In chapters 1–3 we find the seven letters to the seven churches; in chapters 4–7 we read of the opening of the seven seals; in chapters 8–11 we hear the seven trumpets; now in chapters 15–16, we come to the seven angels with the seven last plagues. Chapters 15–16 are connected then with chapters 1–3, 4–7, and 8–11 by means of the number seven. And what of chapters 12–14? Note how chapter 12 begins, “Now a great sign appeared in heaven . . .” Compare this with the beginning of chapter 15: “Then I saw another sign in heaven . . .” Chapters 15–16 are connected to chapters 12–14 by virtue of the way in which they begin. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees “another sign.”
Before we consider the sign itself, we need to take note of the location of the sign. John tells us: “Then I saw another sign in heaven . . .”
You may recall that signs are of the utmost importance in John’s Gospel; in fact the first half of John’s Gospel has been rightly identified as the “Book of Jesus’ Signs.” These signs performed by Jesus on earth were intended to point beyond themselves to the reality of heaven. In His first miracle-sign, Jesus turned water into wine, thereby pointing to the abundance of heaven—there is nothing but abundance in heaven. In His second miracle-sign, Jesus healed a sickly boy, thereby pointing to heaven—there is no sickness in heaven. In His third miracle-sign, Jesus healed a man lame for thirty-eight years, thereby pointing to heaven—in heaven the lame leap for joy. In His fourth miracle-sign, Jesus fed the five thousand, thereby pointing to heaven—in heaven we shall feast for all eternity on, and with, the Bread of Life. In His fifth miracle-sign, Jesus walked on water, thereby pointing us to heaven—in heaven the redeemed of the Lord stand on the Sea of Glass. In His sixth miracle-sign, Jesus healed a man born blind, thereby pointing to heaven—in heaven there is no blindness; in heaven we shall see Jesus face to face. In His seventh and final miracle-sign, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, thereby pointing us to heaven—in heaven there is no death; in heaven we shall live a deathless life. The intent of Jesus’ signs performed on earth in John’s Gospel was to point us to heaven, to the life of heaven, and above all, to heaven’s King. How does John put it? “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30–31).
In the Gospel, the signs were performed on earth, and intended to direct us to heaven, to that eternal world that can never be shaken. In Revelation 15–16, everything is reversed. Here the sign is found in heaven, and is intended to direct us to earth, that temporary world that will be utterly shaken.
What exactly is the sign that John sees in heaven? It is the sign of seven angels having the seven last plagues. These seven last plagues are then described for us in chapter 16. There John writes, “Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out the bowls of the wrath of God on the earth.’” The first bowl is poured out from heaven, and men are afflicted with foul and loathsome sores (v. 2). The second bowl is poured out from heaven, and the sea is turned to blood (v. 3). The third bowl is poured out from heaven, and the waters turn to blood (vv. 4–7). The fourth bowl is poured out from heaven, and men are scorched with great heat (vv. 8–9). The fifth bowl is poured out from heaven, and men are afflicted with darkness and pain (vv. 10–11). The sixth bowl is poured out from heaven, and the river Euphrates is dried up to make way for the battle of Armageddon (vv. 12–16). The seventh bowl is poured out from heaven, and great hail from heaven falls upon men (vv. 17–21).
This is the sign of the seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete. Notice that there are seven last plagues, the number of completeness. It is evident, then, that we have moved beyond the previous sections of the book. We have moved beyond chapters 1–3 with the seven letters to the seven churches; beyond chapters 4–7 and the opening of the seven seals; beyond chapters 8–11 and the sounding of the seven trumpets; and even moved beyond chapters 12–14 and their depiction of the great spiritual battle.
Chapters 15–16, while parallel with the previous sections, have progressed further than the previous sections. This has been a recurring theme throughout the book. We read chapters 1–3 with the warnings given to the church—warning about losing the lampstand—and we are sobered by them. But then we read chapters 4–7, and we find that things have intensified; here there are not merely warnings; here we find descriptions of seals being opened—seals that unleash the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the cries of the martyrs, and the chilling cries of unrepentant man crying out for the hills and mountains to fall on them—these things are terrifying. But then we read chapters 8–11, and we find that things have intensified further still; here there are not merely the opening of seals; here are the blasts of trumpets—trumpets in which a third of the earth is struck, a third of the waters, a third of the rivers, a third of the heavens, trumpets that open the bottomless pit, unleashing the hordes of hell, trumpets that cause men to endure hell, as it were, through brutality and horror of war—these things are horrific beyond description. But then we read chapters 12–14, and we find that things have intensified further still; here there is not merely the blasting of trumpets; here the curtains are pulled back, and we see firsthand the spiritual warfare that exists, as Satan and his cohorts—the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth—wage war against the church. These are things that will keep us awake at night, for here is a depiction of evil, the like of which even Hollywood cannot portray.
But then we read chapters 15–16, and we find that things have intensified further still. Here we reach a new level. These chapters bear the stamp of finality. Note again the number seven: seven angels, seven plagues, seven bowls. That number indicates completeness. Note also that these seven plagues are expressly called “the seven last plagues”; nothing less than the termination of the world as we know it is being set before us. In these seven plagues “the wrath of God is complete.” A loud voice accompanies the pouring out of the seventh bowl from heaven, saying, “It is done!”
There is an end to this world. This world will not endure forever; it is not eternal. This world is temporary, fleeting away. This world will be shaken and removed. It will be burned up in the fires of judgment. This world has an end, and that end is coming. And it comes from the throne of God. Even as the windows of heaven were opened in the days of flood—God pouring forth His judgment upon the earth from heaven—so the wrath in view here is being poured out from heaven upon earth. The wrath of God is being poured out from heaven upon earth.
In fact, God’s wrath is being poured out even now. Revelation 15–16, while bearing the stamp of finality, also speaks of the wrath that is presently being poured out. These bowls are being poured out from heaven today. Paul speaks of that in Romans 1:18–32. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” (Romans 1:18). Here is the picture of God reaching an end with sinners and giving them up to uncleanness (Romans 1:24), giving them up to vile passions (Romans 1:26), giving them up to a debased mind (Romans 1:28). The wrath of God is even now poured out on the earth, and it will reach its completion in the great and awful day of His wrath, when this world shall reach its end.
And yet all of this is intended for our comfort. The wrath of God, described so vividly and powerfully here in Revelation 15–16, cannot and will not touch us. How do we know that? We know it because wrath originates in heaven—it originates from the throne of God—it originates from that very throne before which we are forever accepted through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Christ has borne the wrath of God in our place. Christ is our propitiation. There is no more wrath for us. Christ endured the complete, unmitigated, and unrestrained wrath of God in our place once and for all.
Chapters 15 and 16 make this very point by the way they are structured. Note that while the seven last plagues are introduced in 15:1, these plagues are not actually poured out until chapter 16. And what do we find in between? We find verses 2–4, where the redeemed of the Lord stand on the sea of glass, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb. The point is this: in Christ Jesus we shall never be exposed to the wrath of God.
O dear church of Jesus Christ, let not the day of judgment confound your heart; let not the termination of this world strike fear within you. Our home is an eternal home. Our home is heaven, and it is secure. For our Savior is there already, and He will never give us up, for He is, even now, preparing a place for us.
May it be with this confidence and comfort in Christ that we turn our attention to this next section in the book of Revelation.
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan