The Ultimate Destiny Of the Followers of the Lamb And of the Beast
As we approach chapter 14, we need to bear in mind the overall context of this passage. One of the greatest flaws of many of the interpretations of Revelation is that they fail to take into account both the historical context of the book AND the general context of the individual chapters in the book. Chapter 14 is part of the "breather" in the Book of Revelation. Starting in chapter 12 and running through chapter 14, John stops the flow of action, pulls us back for a type of breather--a chance to catch our breaths, and explains to us ultimately why God is pouring out all this wrath upon the world. We saw in chapter 12 that the main conflict in Revelation is ultimately between God and Satan. Since Satan cannot overcome God and His Son directly, he tries to vanquish God's people by means of an Antichrist and false prophet (chapter 13). The persecution the Beast wages against the people of God is so vicious that we are led to ask: "Will the Antichrist be victorious over God's people?" Moreover, we may well ask: "What is the ultimate outcome not only for the people of God but for the Antichrist and his followers?" Chapter 14 answers these 2 questions.
THE ULTIMATE VICTORY OF GODíS PEOPLE (14:1-5)
After all looks lost for God's people because of the viciousness of the Antichrist, God reveals to John another vision. In this vision, Jesus the Lamb is standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000 who had been sealed earlier in chapter 7. Just exactly what was the content of this seal placed upon them in chapter 7? The names of Jesus and His Father on their foreheads. Although these seals were not physically visible, they nevertheless were spiritually visible, forever identifying them as belonging to both the Father and His Son. (Note the emphasis on their belonging to Jesus. Whoever these 144,000 people were--Jews saved after a pre-trib rapture or the church with no pre-trib rapture, they were Christians because they bore the name of Jesus on their foreheads.
Now where is this Mt. Zion mentioned in verse 1? Mt. Zion itself today is part of the city of Jerusalem covering the SW part of the Old City. Sometimes the OT called the entire city of Jerusalem Zion, while at other times heaven itself is called Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22). Here Zion appears to be the city of Jerusalem during the 1000-year reign of Christ upon the earth. As we shall see in chapter 20, Jesus Christ will reign upon the earth for 1000 years after He defeats the Antichrist. His capital will be Jerusalem. If Zion in Rev. 14 does not refer to this place and time, then it would refer to the 144,000 in heaven after having passed through the tribulation victoriously. Whichever of the 2 this Zion is, the vision shows that those Christians who lived during the tribulation come out of it victoriously.
What purpose does this vision serve? In movie terms, this device is called "flash forward," that is, taking a scene which occurs in the future and showing it ahead of time to tell us of the final outcome before it actually occurs. The reason people use this device is to give them assurance when external circumstances indicate otherwise. For example, some times when Molly and I are watching an intense movie, she may get a little nervous about the fate of the hero. The hero is in dire straits and looks like he is going to die. She wants to know right then whether or not he is going to die. She doesn't want to wait till the end of the movie to find out. She has to know right now because she can't take it any longer. So I tell her to alleviate her fears; this way she can enjoy the rest of the movie and not have to go through any undue stress. Well, the same thing is occurring here. Tension is running pretty high since the arrival of the Beast and the false prophet. To help us get through the rest of the book, John gives us the ending before it actually occurs.
Moreover, this passage also communicates to us that God is going to be faithful to those who are faithful to Him. Many times when Christians face times of persecution, they have to ask themselves if God really wants them to be faithful to Him even if it means certain death. Well, this passage and the following say, "Yes, God not only wants our loyalty even upon pain of death but also demands it." Only the person who perseveres during time of tribulation will be with Christ on Mt. Zion during that time of victorious jubilation.
John enlarges upon the scene by first describing the activity the 144,000 are engaged in and second giving more details about the identity of the 144,000. First, the 144,000 are singing a new song before the throne, the 4 living creatures and the elders. This song is a new song of redemption that only the 144,000 can sing. Their singing a new song reinforces the idea that they have come out of the tribulation victoriously because normally new songs would be composed for great occasions when God would rescue His people. The song is a song of jubilation and victory as seen in the fact that it sounded like many water, like multitudes of harpists playing upon their harps. Note that only the 144,000 could learn this song of deliverance since only they had experienced God's deliverance. Angels may look upon us with envy as we sing God's songs of deliverance but look is all they can do. They cannot genuinely praise God for what they have not experienced.
Next, John describes in more detail who make up this 144,000. First, they have not been defiled with women. Second, they follow the Lamb wherever He goes. Third, they have been purchased by God, and fourth, no lie was found in their mouths. The first description puzzles many Christians because it seems to refer to male celibates. Such an identification would be strange since the Bible endorses marriage and with it sexual relations between a husband and wife. Keeping the historical context of the Book of Revelation in mind, this qualification refers to the fact that none of the 144,000 have committed spiritual fornication or spiritual adultery with the Beast. Throughout the OT, God would describe His people as guilty of fornication or adultery because they had gone after idols and false gods. One of the key descriptions of the Antichrist is that he blasphemes by claiming to be God. Well, none of the 144,000 have violated their relationship with God; instead they have remained faithful to Him like a faithful wife does towards her husband. They also follow the Lamb wherever He goes and have been purchased by the blood of Christ to be His.
Lastly, John claims that there is no lie in their mouths. Does this mean that they never lie? Whereas Christians are not supposed to lie, John means more than that. According to Paul, the gospel is not only true, it is God's truth. When God presents people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, He presents them with truth. Paul claims that because people reject God's truth, God punishes them by sending them a lie. Whereas they may reject the truth which has evidence behind it, they accept a lie which logically is so preposterous. For example, one day I was speaking with a Hindu about the resurrection of Jesus and all the evidence which supports it. With one breath, he totally scoffed at the idea of Jesus rising from the dead; with the next breath, he started telling me about the monkey god that he and other Hindus worshipped. Jesus with all the evidence pointing to His resurrection was preposterous in the eyes of the Hindu, while the idea of a monkey god was quite acceptable. Paul claims that the same phenomenon will occur at the end of time. People will persist in refusing to accept Jesus as Lord and God; therefore, God will send them a lie that is so preposterous, yet one which they will believe--that the Antichrist himself is god (2 Thess. 2:11-12; see all of 2 Thess. 2:1-12 to understand it in its context). Although the world will accept these claims he makes for himself, the 144,000 will see them for what they really are and will hold firm to the deity of Jesus.
JUDGMENT UPON THE ENEMIES OF GODíS PEOPLE (14:6-12)
The First Angel (14:6-7)
Just like the previous passage showed that those who were faithful to Christ during times of persecution would enjoy positive benefits, so the present passage shows the negative benefits upon those who refuse to remain loyal to Christ during times of persecution. In this next vision, John sees an angel flying in mid-heaven (the zenith of the heavens so that all can see him), proclaiming with a loud voice the gospel of God. The title "gospel of God" and its contents appear to be at odds with each other because whereas the word "gospel" literally means "good news," the message the angel proclaims is that God is bringing judgment and wrath upon the world.
The "discrepancy" causes problems only for modern Christians. Judgment is just as much a part of the gospel as salvation in Christ is. In fact, the reason we need salvation in Christ is that judgment and wrath are coming. The only way the righteous God can respond appropriately to our sin and rebellion against Him is by pouring out wrath; it is only by His grace that He provides Christ's death on the cross as the means for our escaping this wrath.
Whereas we may question God's right to pour out wrath upon those who are not loyal to Christ, this passage informs us that God has the right to do so because He is our Creator. I did not create myself; God did. What I make I own, and what I own I have the right to do with as I see fit. Each week when I sit down to write Sunday School notes on the passage we're studying, I write, rewrite, edit, throw away, etc., parts of the paper I am writing. I don't ask people's permission. What I write is mine, and I have the right to do with it as I desire. The same applies to our relationship with God as our Creator. As a result, He has every right to make certain demands upon my life and the right to punish you and me if we do not live up to those demands.
The Second Angel (14:8)
With the announcement of the second angel, God's judgment upon the wicked becomes more specific. Whereas the first angel commanded us to worship God in order to escape wrath, the second angel singles out a city which has refused to worship God, which in fact has risen up in rebellion against Him--the city of Babylon. In the OT, Babylon stood as a symbol of idol worship and rebellion against God. Nebuchadnezzar had built a huge golden idol and demanded that all bow down and worship it at appointed times during the day. Three Hebrews--Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego--had refused and brought down Nebuchadnezzar's wrath upon themselves as a result. In John's day, Babylon became a code word for the city of Rome because like Babylon, Rome had tried to cram idol worship down the throat of the people who lived within her empire. Peter writing from Rome around 64 AD actually calls Rome "Babylon" (1 Pet. 5:13). The angel claims that this new Babylon has fallen. Although her actual demise will not occur until chapter 18, the angel can say it in the past tense because her fate is as good as sealed. It's not a matter of "if" Rome will fall but a matter of "when."
The Third Angel (14:9-12)
The third angel becomes even more specific and pronounces wrath upon those who follow the Beast. The angel declares that those who renounce Christ and follow the Beast will first drink the cup of wrath God will give him. How horrible is this wrath? First, John likens it to a cup of wine which remains full strength. Normally, whenever people drank wine, they would either dilute it with water or else they would mix other spices with it in order to sweeten it. This all had the effect of lessening the effects of the alcohol in the wine. Well, God claims that there will be no diluting of His wine of wrath. Instead, those who follow the Beast will drink every last drop of His wrath. Second, John likens the wrath of God to being burned alive in a lake of firm and brimstone, that is, sulfur. This wrath is not just for a temporary amount of time but instead occurs forever in the presence of the Lamb and His holy angels. Why in their presence? Most likely to heighten the reality that if they had remained true to the Lamb during the time of tribulation, they would be experiencing Him as their Savior instead of their Judge.
Three questions arise from this passage. First, isn't the concept of hell passť? Surely 21st century man has risen above the absurd level of believing in a hell, hasn't he? In response, we need to remember that as Christians we have the obligation to be faithful to the Christian message. Whether hell is a reality or not, time will only tell; however, if I claim to be a Christian, then I need to have enough integrity to announce the same message that the founders of Christianity announced. Part of that message is that hell awaits those who reject God's Son. A second question asks, "Would a kind benevolent God actually send people to hell?" Remember that John wrote the 2 greatest books of love in the NT (John and 1 John); however, he also knew that God would send wrath upon the one who rejected His Son (John 3:36). Second, Christ who is the epitome of love preached more about the reality of hell than any other writer in the Bible. The message about hell came not from some aberrant apostle but from the lips of Christ Himself. Third, is God just in sending to hell those people who reject His Son? If they were good people, shouldn't they get to go to heaven also? Remember first that Jesus is the essence of heaven. Whatever else is true about heaven, this statement is ultimately true: heaven is basically realizing to the fullest our relationship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. If somebody did not want to have a relationship with Christ while on earth, what justifies their having a relationship with Him in heaven? Second, remember that God takes the rejection of His Son very personally. If you sent your son to die on the cross for me and then I rejected him, I don't think you would be wanting to spend an eternity with me either. God has sacrificed the ultimate for you and me; for us to reject that sacrifice deserves nothing less than hell.
According to verse 12, John says that he has written these things about judgment in order to encourage us to persevere during times of persecution. Perseverance is not really an option. It determines our very destiny during the time of judgment. If you wanted to sum up the way John wants you and me to respond to everything that is going to happen in the Book of Revelation, then you need to look no further than verse 12.
BLESSING UPON THE FAITHFUL (14:13)
Before closing this interlude which started in chapter 12 with the final harvest, John pronounces a beatitude upon those who are faithful during the time of tribulation. A voice from heaven (Jesus?) blesses those who die in the Lord from now on. In other words, He is blessing those who die because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. They were under intense pressure to deny Him; however, they continued to claim Him as Lord and suffered martyrdom as a result. The Holy Spirit confirms what Jesus pronounced. In fact, these martyrs will enjoy eternal rest because their deeds will follow them into heaven. The rest they will enjoy contrasts sharply with the eternal nightmare that the followers of the Antichrist will suffer. John had promised them that they would not have any rest at any time--day or night but that the smoke of their torment would ascend forever and ever. The statement that their deeds would follow with them means that their deeds determine their final destiny. Did they remain faithful to Jesus during times of tribulation? If so, then their faithfulness will qualify them to enter into heaven. If not, then they deeds of unfaithfulness will usher them into the lake of fire and brimstone. (Note that John says that they will rest from their "labors." Many times, the Christian life is just that--labor. Sometimes it's tough hanging in there, trying to be faithful to the Lord. This verse assures us though that it will ultimately be worth it.)
THE TWO HARVESTS (14:14-20)
John concludes the interlude which started in chapter 12 with a depiction of the great judgment upon the entire world. In His parables Jesus pictured the Last Judgment of the world in terms of a great harvest. On that day, the Lord of the harvest will send harvesters (angels) to reap the wheat (true believers) and weeds (those who reject Jesus). The wheat will be gathered into the barns, whereas the weeds which have been separated from the wheat will be thrown into a pyre of fire.