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Revelation 15:1-16:21: The Just Judgment of God Print E-mail
Sunday, 27 May 2012

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I often talk about the importance of having an eternal perspective.  We have a tendency as humans to be only concerned with the here and now.  We focus on what is directly in front of us and forget completely about the eternity that is to come.  The Bible, of course, encourages us to fight against this obsession with the present by always keeping eternity in front of us.  As Christians, we donít just live for today, but for forever.  Likewise, the book of Revelation has much to say about eternity.  Of all of the books in the Bible it gives us the clearest descriptions of what eternity will look like.  Why does it do this?  Why does the Holy Spirit inspire John to give us these visions?  So that we, along with the original recipients (the seven churches in Asia), would not lose our eternal perspective even in the midst of difficult suffering.  We know what our eternities will look like, John tells us what the Lord is going to do, so that we can hold fast to Him and trust in Him no matter what the enemy throws at us in the present.

The book of Revelation deals repeatedly with the judgment of sinners.  The Church in Pergamum and the Church in Thyatira are told that God will judge false teachers and those who do not repent (2:14-16, 20-23).  The martyrs are told to wait for judgment, but it is clear that it will come (6:9-11).  The three cycles of seven (seals, trumpets, and bowls) all tell us of the judgments of God against those who remain in their sins.  John describes in chapter 14 (as we saw last week) the eternal torment that awaits those who receive the mark of the beast.  They will be thrown into the great winepress of the wrath of God (14:19).  God will punish the wicked.

Yet, one question that often arises when one deals with these difficult passages is this: Is God just?  Are these punishments truly deserved?  People regularly question the justice of God.  They wonder why God would allow the death of children or the suffering of the poor or some particular circumstance that has made their lives so hard.  Likewise, when you add to that these passages that speak of eternal torment, many come to the conclusion that God is simply not just (or that He does not really exist or that He is not worthy of our devotion).  But the Bible never questions the justice of God.  In fact, the Bible makes it plain that God is just because He is God.  In other words, the question itself betrays our arrogance.  Who are we to question Godís justice?  He is just because He is God.  Whatever He does is just.  He is the standard. 

Wayne Grudem writes: ďWhenever Scripture confronts the question of whether God himself is righteous or not, the ultimate answer is always that we as Godís creatures have no right to say that God is unrighteous or unjust.Ē 1  But this does not mean (and Grudem would agree) that the Scriptures do not at times explain or demonstrate Godís justice.  In Revelation 15-16 we see both the proclamation of Godís justice and at least a partial explanation of that justice.  These chapters contain the final cycle of seven: the seven plagues or bowls of Godís wrath.  Although the cycles are not chronological, we do see that they build to this final series leading up to the final judgment of God (ch. 20).  As we look at this final cycle this morning, I want us to note again the severity of Godís judgments but also the justice.  John begins with the preparation.

The Preparation (15:1-8)

Following the extended interlude of chapters 12-14, John sees another great sign in heaven.  Look at 15:1.  John sees seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last.  These will be the last plagues on the earth because after they are finished the end will come.

Yet, before the plagues begin, John gives us another vision of Godís people.  Look at 15:2-4.  Again the people of God are present singing praises to God.  They are those who have conquered the beast.  They sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, which praises God for His amazing deeds, His justice and righteousness.  Here we see the proclamation of Godís justice over all.  The nations will worship Him because His righteous acts have been revealed.  The questioning of Godís justice will end for all will be made right and all will be made clear.  One of my commentators notes: ďAt the final judgment, all questions will be answered, and the one fact that will emerge is the justice and righteousness of God.Ē 2  His judgments are just.

After the description of praise, John returns to the seven angels and their preparation.  Look at 15:5-8.  The seven angels are given seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God.  It is these bowls of wrath that are poured out in chapter 16.  At the giving of the of the bowls we read that the sanctuary is filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power.  Our God is great and majestic.  He is powerful and mighty.  And He is sovereign over His judgments.  One commentator notes: ďOnce the time of final judgment has come, none can stay the hand of God.Ē 3  The end will come when the sovereign Lord says so.  The preparation will be complete.

The Pouring (16:1-21)

The command to pour out the bowls comes in 16:1.  Look at that with me.  All that remains now is the pouring out of wrath.  This cycle of seven is similar to the others.  In particular, it follows the pattern of the seven trumpets (the first four deal with nature, the fifth deals with the enemy, the sixth mentions the Euphrates, and the seventh involves a great earthquake).  Yet, the trumpets only dealt with a third of creation while the bowls of wrath will cover it all.  So then, letís look at these together.

The first bowl brings painful sores on the earth dwellers.  Look at 16:2.  Notice again who receives these sores.  It is those who did receive the mark of the beast and worship its image.  They refused to worship God and worshipped the beast instead.  These are not innocent bystanders, for no such people exist.  They are those who have rejected God.  Their punishment is deserved.

The second bowl is poured into the sea.  Look at 16:3.  When the second trumpet was blown, a third of the living creatures in the sea were killed.  Yet, here we see that every living thing died that was in the sea.  This is the end of the sea supporting life.

The third bowl destroys the rest of the waters.  Look at 16:4.  Again this echoes the third trumpet but deals with all of the rivers and springs and not just a third.  Before the fourth bowl is poured out, we read of praise being offered by the angel in charge of the waters.  Look at 16:5-7.  Again we see the proclamation of Godís justice.  Yet, this time, we also see an explanation.  The people, the earth dwellers, who suffer from these plagues were those who shed the blood of saints and prophets.  Since they had killed Godís people they were given blood to drink.  The angel concludes: It is what they deserve.  The punishment fits the crime. 

You might object: ĎNot all are involved in killing the saints and prophets.Ē  But the truth is that you are either for or against the people of God.  There is no neutral ground.  If a person has not turned from their sins and trusted in Christ, then they remain enemies of God and His people.  As such, they take part (knowingly or not) in the suffering of Godís people.  I believe this will be even clearer in the final days, but it is true even today.  Godís enemies will receive what they deserve.  His judgments are true and just.

The fourth bowl brings judgment from the sun.  Look at 16:8-9.  The sun is allowed to scorch people with fire, which again highlights Godís control over these judgments.  Do these people respond to such judgment with repentance?  No, they respond by cursing the name of God.  Once again we see that they are getting what they deserve.

The fifth bowl is poured on the enemiesí throne.  Look at 16:10-11.  The enemiesí power is limited and judgment will fall on him as well.  Once again John notes that the people do not repent but continue cursing God.

The sixth bowl, like the sixth trumpet, involves the Euphrates river.  Look at 16:12.  The Euphrates was the eastern boundary of the land of Israel and its drying up symbolized the coming war and destruction which we read of in 16:13-16.  Look at those with me.  We will speak of Christís warning here in a minute, but for now I just want you to notice that they are preparing for the coming battle of Armegeddon.  This name is a possible reference to a city close to Jerusalem (Megiddo) where many battles have been fought throughout history or it could just be a symbolic term.  Either way, a final battle is coming.  We will read more of this battle in Revelation 19-20.  Here, the unholy trinity is continuing to deceive and turn people against God.

The seventh bowl is poured into the air and mirrors the destruction of the sixth seal and the seventh trumpet.  Look at 16:17-21.  A final earthquake splits apart the ground and is the worst that has even been known.  Babylon is destroyed, which we have already seen (14:8) and will see furthered described later (ch. 17-18).  Finally, hundred pound hailstones fall on the earth and we still see people cursing God for sending such plagues of judgment.  With this plague comes the final declaration: It is done.  The end has come.

As we have seen before, we see again that the judgments of God will be severe.  His wrath will be fierce and terrible.  Yet, it is just.  Sin must be judged.  ďIf God were not to punish unrighteousness, the concept of a moral universe would have to be discarded.Ē 4  Godís justice demands that those who refuse to repent must be judged.  Thus, His judgments are just.

Yet, His mercy is just as well.  How can this be so?  How can God be just in His mercy?  How can God forgive sinners and not compromise His justice?  How can any of us escape these judgments to come?  The answer lies at the foot of the cross.  The only way, the absolutely only way, for God to remain just and to forgive our sins was to find a worthy substitute to take our place and suffer under the wrath that our sins justly deserved.  This is what happened at the cross.  Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, took our sins upon Himself and died under the righteous wrath of God so that God might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). 

God is just in His judgments.  He is just in punishing sinners and pouring out His wrath on all who refuse to repent.  And He is just is forgiving all who turn from sin and believe in Jesusí sacrifice at the cross.  If you have not repented and placed your faith in Christ, then I plead with you to do so today.  If you have, then let me close with Christís repeated call to us in this book: Behold, I am coming like a thief!  Blessed is the one who stays awakeÖ(16:15).  May we be numbered among those who persevere in our faith.  May we praise God for His just punishment of sinners and His just forgiveness of saints.  Amen.  

1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1994), p. 204.
2 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), p. 573.
3 Robert H. Mounce, The book of Revelation NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977), p. 290.
4 Ibid., p. 304.

~ William Marshall ~

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