The Terrible Goodness of the Wrath of God

Posted: March 6, 2011 in Revelation

Revelation 15:1-8, “The Terrible Goodness of the Wrath of God”

Can something that is terrible also be good?  We tend to think of the terms as opposites.  If we say a movie was “terrible,” we’re certainly not recommending it to our friends as something “good.”  Like the term “jumbo shrimp” we think of “terribly good” as an oxymoron…something that just doesn’t sound right.  Yet there’s another aspect to the word “terrible” which comes to mind – something so intense & powerful that there’s not really another way to describe it.  To stare directly at the sun would be to experience a terrible light (and eye damage!) – it’s so intense that we can hardly stand it.

Likewise with the wrath of God.  It is incredibly intense, thus it is terrible.  Yet at the same time, the wrath of God comes from the hand of God, which by definition means it must be good.  That’s exactly what we see as the book of Revelation progresses & the wrath of God is introduced.  In fact, an “introduction” is all we see in Ch 15.  The bowl judgments themselves aren’t actually described until the next chapter.  In Ch 15 we get the background to those judgments, but the background is absolutely necessary because of the nature of the judgments.  Because what we see will be so intense (like staring into the sun), we need to first remember the character of God in all of this, in order that we would understand His goodness.

What does Rev 15 tells us about God’s wrath?  God’s wrath is complete – God’s wrath is justified – God’s wrath glorifies God.

Revelation 15 (NKJV)
1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous: seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete.

  1. The last time John mentioned specifically that he saw a “sign” was in Ch 12 regarding the woman who represented Israel (clothed with sun, moon, 12 stars) & the dragon who represented Satan.  Now the scene changes to where John sees another sign – this time of angels.  Unlike the woman & dragon, there’s no reason to assume this is anything other than angels bringing out the last seven plagues.  What’s symbolic about them is the act itself (which Ch 15 describes), which serves to underscore the seriousness of what is taking place.
  2. The bowls of wrath don’t actually get poured out until Ch 16.  What we see here is the great & solemn introduction of them.  Vs. 1 sums up the events of the chapter.  Transitions here back to the basic narrative of the Tribulation time.
  3. Note how the wrath of God is described here: “complete.”  What is going to be seen in the content of the 7 bowls is the fullness of the wrath of God.  What has been expected since the fall of Adam in the Garden (and even the fall of Satan) has come to a point where it is to be fulfilled.  Gk τελέω = “come to an end/fulfilled.”  Jesus used the exact same word (though a different tense) when hanging from the cross: “It is finished.” (Jn 19:30)  At the cross, the full price of our sin had been completely paid – there was nothing left over for which Jesus needed to pay atonement.  It was complete.  As complete a payment as the cross was for sin, so complete will the wrath of God come upon the world during the final judgments of the Great Tribulation.  During the bowl judgments, nothing will be left undone; the world will be fully & completely judged according to the righteous judgment of God.
  4. Question: “How can God’s wrath be fully poured out if there is still an eternal Hell to face?  If Hell is the destiny of those who face the wrath of God, wouldn’t the 7 bowls of wrath only be a “partial” fulfillment of His wrath?  After all, as terrible as His wrath is, there’s at least an end to the bowls.”  Good question.  To answer, we need to look at who (or what) is the object of God’s wrath.  For the 7 bowls, it is humanity as a whole – the entire world system that has persisted in idolatry & rebellion against God. (The 24 elders sang of the nations’ anger & God’s wrath coming – Rev 11:17, c.f. Ps 2.) … Yet regarding Hell, who is being judged?  Individuals. It’s not just a system that is in rebellion against God, but individuals.  Every man & woman has looked into the heavens & seen the witness of God in Creation & willfully chose to reject the Creator to follow a god of their own making or choosing.  Thus at the Great White Throne, all who reject Christ are judged, each one according to his works (Rev 20:13), with those whose names are not found in the Book of Life being thrown into the lake of fire.
    1. Keep in mind that cultures & systems can fill up on their measure of God’s wrath.  (Re: amorites prior to Israel with Abraham – Gen 15:16; Jews who persecuted Paul & Christians – 1 Ths 2:16)  One day, that measure will be complete for the entire world, culminating in the days of the Great Tribulation.  At that point, after the 7 seals have been opened & the 7 trumpets sounded, the sin of the world will be complete, and the full measure of the wrath of God will be poured out upon it.
    2. Question: “What if as an individual I’VE filled up on the measure of God’s wrath?!”  The fact that you’re still breathing means God in His great mercy has given you one more day to repent.

2 And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God.

  1. John sees 2 things.  The 1st is the “sea of glass.”  We’ve seen this before, back in Ch 4:6 when John’s visions of the events began & he saw the 4 living creatures & 24 elders.  This isn’t likely a body of water (which is the typical translation of the word), but rather a broad expanse best described as a “sea,” made of crystal or diamond. It’s smooth, yet solid in order for people to stand there.  This tells us where John is looking: he’s seeing the throne room of God Almighty.  Yet there’s one thing different here: the sea of glass is “mingled with fire.”  Scripture doesn’t specifically tell us the meaning of the appearance of fire – most likely it’s a reference to the judgment of God.  Our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29) – at the judgment of believers (the Bema Seat), our actions in Christ will be judged through fire (1 Cor 3:13) – the 1st martyrs of the Tribulation prayed for God’s vengeance from under the altar of fire (Rev 6:9) – one of the angels taking part in the final harvest was an angel that had power over fire (Rev 14:18).  The scene is easy to imagine…as the judgment of God is prepared to be poured out on the earth, fire lights up the throne room of God – symbolic of His righteous vengeance upon those who have brutally killed His people & acted in willful rebellion against Him.
  2. The 2nd thing John sees is the people of God.  Some have suggested these are the 144K, shown in Ch 14, yet the chronology of events here seem to have gone back to the end of Ch 11, when the 7th trumpet had sounded & the preparation for the wrath of God had been made.  Remember that in Ch 14, John had looked ahead in the future to the end of the Tribulation because he saw the 144K standing on Mt. Zion with the Lord Jesus Christ.  (By necessity, that places the event either at Jesus’ 2nd Coming, or after the Tribulation has ended & the saints are victorious in heaven.)  If indeed we’ve picked up the normal timeline of the Tribulation, the only people who could be considered victorious over the Beast would be the multitude of martyrs in Heaven.
    1. How could martyrs be considered victorious?  After all, by definition, they will have been killed for their faith.  They are victorious because they were faithful unto death!  They did not give into temptation, pressure or threat to deny the Lord Jesus & be identified with Antichrist.  They were faithful to the Lord, even if it cost them their very lives.
    2. Will the same be said about us?
  3. Note two things about the people of God: they’re standing & have harps.
    1. They’re standing. Speaks of their victory.  They’re not beaten down or buried.  They’re not bowed under pressure.  Instead, they freely stand strong in the presence of Christ the King because of the victory given them by Jesus.
    2. They’ve got harps.  Speaks of their praise.  They are ready to sing.  Tribulation and death did not quiet their hearts full of worship.  Once in the presence of the Lamb of God, they eagerly await the opportunity to erupt in praise.  Their earthly lives were laid down specifically for the gracious opportunity to give worship to God through Christ Jesus.  They were prepared for this moment, and with their harps they were ready to sing!

                                                                          i.      Is this how we view worship?  As a glorious invitation by God to give Him praise…  No one HAD to be invited; God is worthy of worship whether or not we choose to do so.  Yet God DOES invite us to worship Him, and He gives us the grace we need to be able to do so without impunity as we come through Christ Jesus.

3 They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb,

  1. There’s a bit of difficulty here in that we know of at least three songs from Moses, and none of them contain the words of Rev 15.  Exodus 15 (upon the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea)… Deut 32 (prior to entering the promised land, extolling the covenant & faithfulness of God)…  Psalm 90 (praying for the mercy of God upon His people)…  The song does touch on many of these themes, but doesn’t quote them.
  2. We get a bit of hint here in the description & context: “…and the song of the Lamb.”  This isn’t a reference to two different songs; grammatically they are linked together – these are two descriptions of the same ONE song.  What’s descriptive of the song of Moses the servant of God is also descriptive of the song of the Lamb, the Son of God.  Thus Moses only had part of the picture; he didn’t have the full revelation – that only comes through Jesus Christ.  What we see here is probably best thought of “another verse” – a continuation of what was originally sung by Moses that can now be seen as complete in Jesus Christ.  The most famous of Moses’ songs was from Exodus 15, singing of God’s victory over the enemy (which was often recited in Jewish synagogues of the time).  Contextually, that’s the same theme we see here with the people of God having victory over the enemy of God, singing praises to God because of His great power and judgment.
  3. BTW – why would Jesus be described as a Lamb in a song that speaks of His victory & judgment?  He is the Lamb of God in His sacrifice; not the ruling Lion of the Tribe of Judah.  Answer: the sacrifice at the cross is where the victory was won!
  4. Keep the overall context of this song in mind.  The whole song is bookended by the wrath of God.  1st John declared that in the sign of the 7 angels having the 7 plagues, the wrath of God is complete.  Then, after the song John will see the angels being given those 7 plagues containing the wrath of God.  As the saints of God sing this song about the glories of God, what is it that they are saying?  Simply this: the goodness & greatness of God is shown even in His terrible wrath.  Look at how it begins:

 

…saying: “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!

  1. God’s ways are good – they are “great and marvelous.”  This goes beyond the idea of “great” as “A-OK”; this is more of the idea of “astounding.”  God’s works amaze those who see & inspire wonder.  This is especially true when it comes to the idea of God’s wrath.  The events of the bowl judgments are truly terrible – in the sense that they are extreme & extraordinarily intense…and yet at the same time they are brought to the earth by the same God who loves the world so much that He sent His only begotten Son to die for us.  It’s no wonder that when we read of the outpouring of His wrath, we have a tough time understanding it – we’re reading of the amazing extremes of the passions of God in His day of vengeance.
    1. We ought to expect that the works of our infinite God would astound our finite minds…that just comes with the territory.  This is true not only regarding God’s wrath, but regarding our salvation.  Isaiah 55:8-9 (8) “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. (9) “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. []  The whole context of these verses is that God’s word would be fulfilled among the people of Israel & that His covenant will be fulfilled. Because of their sin, God would allow Israel to go into captivity, but because of God’s covenant He would bring them back in joy.  They had an open invitation to seek the Lord’s mercy & receive His gracious pardon…precisely because God’s ways are higher than ours.  If God’s ways were like our own, He would have severed ties with us long ago & merely wiped every human off the face of the earth – such was the extent of our sin & offense against Him.  Yet because God is faithful (even to the word He gave to the very 1st human), He goes to marvelous extremes to see His word accomplished to its fullest extent.  Because He does so, we can praise God for our salvation, which is “great and marvelous,” yet is also true of His wrath.
  2. God’s ways are righteous – they are “just and true.”  Again, this is important to keep in mind regarding the wrath of God.  When we read of the bowl judgments we read of incredible death and pain.  It would be easy for some to read Rev 16 all by itself & come away with the claim that “God is unfair,” yet that cannot be further from the case.  By His very nature, God is just & righteous – God is the very standard of righteousness.  [Standards of weights & measures]  This was actually sung by Moses in his 2nd song: Deuteronomy 32:3-4 (3) For I proclaim the name of the Lord: Ascribe greatness to our God. (4) He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He. []  This is simply who God IS; He cannot be anything OTHER than righteous & upright.  Thus when we read of the judgments of Rev 16 & the outpouring of God’s wrath, we’re not reading of a little boy throwing a temper tantrum or a megalomaniac looking to see how many people he can torture – we’re reading of the righteous response of God to a world that has lived its entire existence in willful rebellion against Him.  We often quote Rom 12:19, “Vengeance is Mine” in regards to us not avenging ourselves, but waiting upon the Lord’s judgment…what we will read about in the bowl judgments IS the vengeance of the Lord.  Jesus specifically called it “the days of vengeance, that all things that are written may be fulfilled.” (Lk 21:22)  We will no longer be waiting for the righteous vengeance of God; in Ch 16 we will see it fulfilled.
  3. God Himself has the right to rule – He is “Almighty” & the “King of the saints.”  The majority of manuscripts actually say He is “King of the nations” – which is certainly true & likely better said in the context of His judgment over all the earth & right to rule all the earth (which is the basic meaning of the word “Almighty”).  The God who is the Creator of all the earth has the right to rule all the earth, and yet from virtually the 1st days of creation, the earth has lived in rebellion against its rightful King.  The King has been extraordinarily merciful up to this point, but there comes a time when He must act, if He is truly righteous.  A righteous king does not ignore injustice in his kingdom; that would be a sign of a lazy uncaring king.  The King of the Universe is anything BUT that!  He has the right to rule & the responsibilities to rule, and He will righteously exercise those responsibilities in His day of wrath.

4 Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, For Your judgments have been manifested.”

  1. God is worthy to be feared.  This is a concept that is often lost within the church of today.  We have truly grand promises because of Christ, in that those who receive Christ as Lord have the invitation to boldly come before God to find grace in our time of need (Heb 4:16) – we’ve been given the spirit of adoption by which we can call God our Abba Father (Rom 8:15) – we’ve been called the friends of Jesus (Jn 15:15).  Those are truly wonderful promises!  We have an intimate relationship with God as our Father because of the work of Christ Jesus.  But though that relationship is intimate, by no means is it casual or without weight.  Because God is GOD, He is worthy to be feared.  He is not the weak hippie-Jesus genie-in-a-bottle that exists only to serve the whims of mankind; He is the righteous Almighty King Jesus that is worthy of our fear & reverence.  This isn’t just true of those in Christ; ALL the nations of the world are to fear God.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pro 9:10) & knowledge (Pro 1:7).  When God is properly feared, then people understand their own need for salvation & they humbly fall upon the mercies & grace of God which can only be found in Christ Jesus.
  2. Why? Because God is holy.  God is worthy of our fear because God is truly holy.  This is different than the normal used translated “holy.”  Normally the word means to be “set apart – righteous – sanctified for a purpose” (and God truly is all of those things).  Yet here, the word means “sacred – pure,” or contextually, purely faithful in regards to obligations & duties.  Over & over through the Bible (OT & NT), God promises that all the world WILL come & recognize Him as God.  These prophecies WILL be fulfilled as the day of God’s wrath is completed.  What the saints sing in vs. 4 isn’t so much a question of “will anyone come & fear God?”; it is more of a declaration of assumed fact: “Everyone WILL come & fear God, because God is holy & He will see it done.”
    1. This is exactly what God has promised regarding Jesus Christ: Philippians 2:9-11 (9) Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, (10) that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, (11) and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. []  Understand, this will happen.  Whether in heaven or in hell, every human throughout all history will recognize & confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The glorious invitation we have today is to come humbly & willingly to Jesus now as our King…to experience Him in His love & grace, rather than in His righteous wrath.
  3. God is worthy to be worshipped.  Not only is God to be feared by all creation, He is to be worshipped by all creation.  He alone among all the universe is worthy for us to bow down & give Him adoration & allegiance.  We sometimes hear that to worship means “to kiss” – and there’s definitely an idea of that in the word – but this is not a romantic kiss or a peck on the cheek; this would be to kiss the hand of a ruler…an expression of extreme humility & devotion.
    1. Sometimes we get the idea that we’re going “up & above” what other Christians might do when we lift our hearts to God is worship.  Not true!  Worship is something God is already worthy to receive…this is something that all the nations will do one day.  Our privilege is that we aren’t forced to worship God, we GET to worship God.
  4. Why?  Because God’s judgments (His wrath) has been made known (“manifested”).  It’s amazing to think that even in the midst of the bowl judgments when the fullness of God’s wrath is being made known upon the earth, that mankind will still persist in their sin & rebellion (which is exactly what happens – Rev 16:11).  Yet at the end of it all, when the judgment is complete & Jesus has come back to rule & reign, all the nations WILL worship God.  Satan will be bound & there will be no more resistance after God’s wrath has been revealed.

5 After these things I looked, and behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened.

  1. The song ends, and after extolling the goodness of God & the glory of God shown in His holy wrath, now the wrath is to be presented.  Where does it all begin?  In the heavenly tabernacle.  We’ve seen the temple mentioned in Revelation before, but this is the 1st time that John calls it “the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony” – a reference to the tent that Moses built in the wilderness to house the ark of the testimony (which contained the 10 commandments).  We know that what Moses had built at the base of Mt. Sinai was a copy of heavenly things (Heb 8:5); it seems that there is a perfect ark of the covenant kept in heaven.
  2. Why bring up the “testimony” at this point?  Because the expression of God’s wrath is all a part of His faithfulness to His word & covenant.  Again, there must be an answer to the sin & rebellion that has lasted throughout history, and for the world system that has rejected the sacrifice of Christ, God provides that answer in the final days of the Great Tribulation.

6 And out of the temple came the seven angels having the seven plagues, clothed in pure bright linen, and having their chests girded with golden bands.

  1. The deliverers of the wrath of God: seven angels.  There’s no reason to assume the identity of these angels, though many do.  Some claim these are the seven angels of the seven churches, or that they are the seven angels seen in Ch 14 – but Scripture gives us no indication of that.  These are simply seven angels charged with the specific (and solemn) duty of pouring out the bowls of the judgments of God.
  2. Note how they are dressed…basically as priests clothed in white linen, symbolizing the righteousness of God.  The “golden band” (or sash) perhaps symbolizes the purity of God – it may simply be a belt.  As Revelation opened, John saw Jesus dressed in much of the same way, clothed “with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.” (Rev 1:13).  These angels have been commissioned to act on behalf of the Lord Almighty in dispensing His judgment, and they are dressed as the representatives of Christ.

7 Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever.

  1. The angels deliver the wrath of God, but where does the wrath itself originate?  The throne of God.  One of the four living creatures (one of those that continually surround the throne of God & worship Him) is the one to hand the golden bowls to the angels.  It may be delivered by the angels, but make no mistake that it comes from God Himself.
  2. Does the wrath of God endure forever & ever?  Depending on what we’re talking about, perhaps (esp. when we think of Hell).  But the description here is of God.  GOD is the one who lives forever & ever.  God is infinite in all His aspects.  Regarding His existence, there will never be a time when God does not exist. 
    1. Don’t miss the really good news here.  Because God lives forever & ever, we can be assured that we will be in His presence forever & ever.  Those who belong to Christ will ALWAYS belong to Christ.  Heaven is not a short-term deal; it’s the remainder of existence because our God is always going to be the Living God.
  3. BTW – the KVJ translates this as “vials” because of the similarity to the Greek (φιάλη).  But our use of the word has changed.  We think of “vials” today as little more than chemistry class test-tubes; the original word refers to a bowl or saucer.  People might drink directly out of it – whatever was put in it was intended to be poured out.

8 The temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power, and no one was able to enter the temple till the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.

  1. What accompanies the wrath of God?  The glory of God.  God’s glory was often demonstrated as smoke.  Israel was led by a pillar of cloud by day & fire by night (Exo 13:21) – the presence of God descended upon Sinai in smoke & fire (Exo 19:18) – when the tabernacle was dedicated, it was filled with smoke (Exo 40:34) – likewise for the temple (1 Kng 8:11).  This was the “chabod” – the weighty glory of God.  The same picture is shown here.  Once the bowls of wrath are handed to the seven angels who came out of the temple, God’s glory enters the temple & remains there through the entire time that His judgments are being poured out.
  2. How long does the smoke of the glory of God stay in the temple?  The entire time that the plagues are being poured out of the bowls.  The idea is that nothing at this point will stop the judgment & wrath of God.  What has begun will not be reversed, nor paused, nor left undone.  It will be absolutely complete.
  3. What does all this demonstrate?  God is glorified even in His wrath.  It’s easy for us to understand how God is glorified in creation – in miracles – in grace & in love – but His wrath?  How can the wrath of God serve to give glory to God?  Because it shows the righteousness of God.  Again, because God is righteous, there must be an answer to sin.  Because there is indeed an answer for sin, it means that God is indeed good.  Thus even though His wrath is terrible, His wrath is good & serves to bring glory to God.
    1. There is hardly a better example of this than the cross.  At the cross, the judgment of God for ALL sin (not just the sin of the world, but every individual sin we individually committed throughout history) was placed upon Jesus Christ.  While hanging there, Jesus experienced the fullness of the wrath of God.  Yet was God glorified?  Absolutely!  Isaiah 53:10-12 (10) Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. (11) He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. (12) Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors. []  Because Jesus was bruised & crushed for you & me, we have been justified & God has been glorified.  Our sins are forgiven because the wrath of God has been poured out; not because it’s been ignored.  Our sin met its match in the blood of Christ Jesus, and for that we will glorify God for all of eternity!

Conclusion:

Will the wrath of God be terrible?  Yes.  There will be pain & anguish, and no days like it have ever existed on the earth, and there will be no days like it that will ever exist after it. YET – the wrath of God is still good.  In it we see the greatness of God – the righteousness of God – the glory of God.  As a just King who has the right to reign His creation, God will bring judgment upon the world at the end of the Great Tribulation, and in the process God will be glorified through it all – even as terrible as it will be.  God’s wrath is complete – God’s wrath is justified – God’s wrath glorifies God.

What does this tell us as believers in Jesus Christ?  Is this included in Revelation simply so that we can smugly sit back & say, “Well, at least I won’t be there on the earth.  Sic ‘em, God!”  Perish the thought!  Obviously we ought to thank God that He has promised to remove us from that time because of the work of Christ, but there’s a reason that God revealed all of this to John & included it in our Bibles.  We need to understand Who it is that we worship.  We need to understand the immense privilege & grace it is to be called a “child of God.”  We need to get a glimpse of the incomprehensible love of God that would change our destiny from someone who deserves to endure the same wrath the rest of the world will endure to someone who has been saved from that wrath.

Far too often it seems that the Church takes our salvation for granted.  As if because we prayed the right prayer & do the right things & attend the right church that God somehow owes us our salvation.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Our salvation is a gift of His grace, and to understand how encompassing the grace of God is, we must look deeply at what we ought to receive outside of His grace: the judgment of God.

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