(A sermon based on Revelation 15 & 16 for Sunday, August 30, 2009)
In the Bible, the bowl or cup is a stock symbol of judgment so it is appropriate that the last series of visions that John has employs the symbol of the bowl. We should see the visions of the seven bowls as parallel with the earlier visions of the seven seals and the seven trumpets. They describe more or less the same kinds of events, namely, God’s judgments on the false gods of the world and on the people of the world who worship those gods. One difference with the judgments pictured by the bowls is that they appear to be more complete and final than those we have witnessed up to now; that fact communicates that the time is coming when the judgments of God will be completed and there will be no more chances for repentance.
We should keep in mind the main messages that the book of Revelation is trying to communicate. The primary message is that God is working God’s purposes out. If God is working God’s purposes out, then God’s people can confidently believe that God will deliver them and save them. Moreover, if God is working God’s purposes out, then God’s people can confidently believe that justice will be done. The world powers and the world citizens who continually deny the reality of God and who try to create their own reality will inevitably be judged by God.
Those messages were meant first for the Christians in the churches of Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Those persecuted Christians who lived with the constant temptation of giving in to emperor worship and to other forms of idolatry needed to know that if they held on God would finally deliver them and would finally punish their oppressors.
So on one level the vision of the seven bowls signifies that Rome and its cohorts would be judged for their actions against God’s people. On another level, the vision reveals that God always, in every period of history, judges such oppressive, egotistical, and power-hungry institutions and people. On a final level, the vision affirms that in the end, God will finally judge all such powers that have opposed God.
All of the talk in these two chapters about plagues and seas reminds us that we are in the middle of an exodus—not the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt but the church’s exodus from the oppressing world. Just like Israel did after crossing the sea and seeing the Egyptians drowned in the sea, so does the church triumphant sing a song beside the crystal sea. Only now it is both the “song of Moses . . . and the song of the Lamb.”
John has the martyrs mainly in mind but he is probably also thinking of all who have died in their faith without giving in to the worship of the beast. In his day, he would have meant those who did not worship the emperor. In any day, he means those who do not sell themselves out to the vain promises of the world. Notice that the focus of the song is on what God has done, not on what the believers have done.
Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed (15:3-4).
Everything for which we have to give praise is something for which we should praise God. When we persevere, when we hold on, when we are victorious, it is because of what God has done through Christ in our lives.
The plagues in chapter 16 symbolize the judgment of God on an unbelieving and unrepentant world. Again, they are patterned after the plagues inflicted by God on Egypt during the Exodus; most of the images used here are drawn from the Exodus plagues: sores, water turned to blood, hail, frogs, and darkness. We can profitably comment on the possible meaning of some of these symbols.
For one thing, note that it is those who bear the mark of the beast who are afflicted with sores. To bear the mark of the beast is a symbolic way of saying to have sold your soul to the world. If you bear that mark in your soul, then you will be subject to a tormented conscience and to a troubled spirit.
The turning of the water into blood with the attendant death of marine life could be a reference to economic difficulties. The economic systems of this world that are built on exploitation and that are used to injure God’s people will inevitably fall.
The darkness of the fifth bowl can signify the reality of the sinners’ separation from God.
The “three foul spirits like frogs” that emerge from the mouths of the dragon (Satan), the beast (the Empire), and the false prophet (the second beast which is the local councils that promote Emperor worship) when the contents of the sixth bowl are poured out are interesting. Frogs traditionally represented evil spirits. Moreover, the facts that they engage in meaningless and endless croaking and their function in the vision is to gather people together for their own destruction give us a clue as to their meaning here. They represent the propaganda of the world systems opposed to God. Totalitarian systems are especially skilled at such propaganda, but even in our own setting we sometimes see how a lie that is told skillfully enough and loudly enough and regularly enough can come to be seen as the truth.
In the context of the sixth bowl, John also saw the Euphrates River dried up in preparation for a great battle. In the Bible, God causes waters to dry up and to flood as a part of his judging and delivering activity such as during the Exodus. Also, we know that Cyrus the Persian diverted the waters of the Euphrates so that he could conquer the city of Babylon in the sixth century BC and a result the Jews were set free from Babylonian Captivity. In a similar way, the Lord is preparing to set his people free from the oppressive world in which we reside.
The place Armageddon literally means “mount of Megiddo.” There is no such thing as a “mount of Megiddo” in Israel; there was, however, a town of Megiddo that was beside the Plain of Esdraelon where many significant battles have taken place. John is using a famous Israelite battleground to symbolize the great conflict between God and Satan, between the forces of good and evil. On one level, the conflict would be acted out one day when Rome would fall to the barbarians. On another level, this conflict is always taking place. On a third level, one day it will culminate in a showdown, though not necessarily a military one, in which Christ and the Church will prove ultimately victorious.
The seventh bowl symbolizes the final judgment, when God will make all things as they are supposed to be. Finally, when Christ returns, all will be made right and God’s way and God’s people will be vindicated. The victory that has already been won through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ will be finalized.
As I said at the beginning, the bowl or cup is a symbol of judgment in the Bible. God’s judgment is always being exercised against those who oppose God and God’s will and way. In every generation God’s justice works its way out. Always there are evil and oppressive systems that have to be overcome; it happens when totalitarian aggressors are vanquished and it happens when the structures of racism and prejudice crumble in our own nation and in our own time.
But one day, God’s perfect justice will be accomplished finally and forevermore. When that day comes, God’s people will sing a victory song praising God for what God has accomplished, even as we can sing that song all along the way. Evil will not win; Satan will lose; his servants will be punished eternally. We don’t gloat about what will happen to those who persist forever in rejecting God—but we do praise God for the fact that God’s grace and love are stronger than any other force, and what God is going to accomplish can’t be stopped.
Our lives and all of history are in God’s hands—and God is faithfully working God’s purposes out!