November 3: Revelation 14:6-13

Revelation 14:6-13

This is the second of three visions in chapter 14 (on the first in vv. 1-5, see the previous note). In terms of the basic framework of early Christian eschatology, it marks the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) and announces the beginning of the great Judgment (kri/si$). It thus holds the same place as the half-hour of silence (at the opening of the seventh seal) in 8:1f; note the parallel structure:

  • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 5-6)
  • Vision of the 144,000, together with the Lamb (chapter 7)
  • Angels & the preparation for the Judgment (8:1-2)
  • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 8-9)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 12-13)
    • Vision of the 144,000 together with the Lamb (14:1-5)
    • Angels & the preparation/onset of the Judgment (14:6-13, 14-20)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 15-16)

While the 144,000 symbolize the People of God (believers) generally, there is also a specific reference to those who have faithfully endured the period of distress (7:14; 14:4-5), whether or not they were put to death for following Christ. Since the author/seer and the first readers of the book would have assumed that they were about to enter into this period (i.e. that it was imminent and about to begin), there is no real contradiction in this. Modern-futurist interpretation (in its various forms), of course, requires that the period of distress is yet to come, and so the 144,000 must symbolize future believers.
[The entire question of modern-futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation will be discussed at the end of this series]

The vision in 14:6-13 describes the appearance of three heavenly Messengers (Angels), each of whom delivers a different, but related, message regarding the coming Judgment.

Verses 6-7: First Messenger

“And I saw another Messenger taking wing in the middle of the heaven, holding (the) good message of the Ages to deliver (as) a good message upon the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, upon every nation and offshoot (of the human race), and (every) tongue and people, declaring in a great voice: ‘You must fear God and give to him honor, (in) that [i.e. because] the hour of His Judgment (has) come, and you must kiss toward [i.e. worship] the (One) making the heaven and the earth and (the) sea and fountains of waters!'”

The image of the Messenger flying “in the middle of the heavens” echoes that of 8:13, confirming the Judgment-setting. There, however, it was a message of woe to the people on earth; here, along with the warning of the Judgment is a message of hope. The idea seems to be that God is giving humankind one final chance to repent and turn to Him, much as we saw in the earlier Trumpet-cycle depicting the Judgment—note the remnant motif (i.e., two-thirds survive) and the specific notice at the close of the cycle (9:20-21).

I have translated the expression eu)agge/lion ai)w/nion literally (“good message of the Age[s]”). It is typically rendered “everlasting Gospel” or “eternal Gospel”; however, I feel it is especially important here to preserve the etymological meaning, since the “good message” relates to the consummation of the Ages, the end of the current Age. The Judgment marks the moment when God will eradicate evil and wickedness from the world, fully establishing His justice and rule over humankind. At the same time, no early Christian reader could hear the word eu)agge/lion without associating it with the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like many symbols in the book of Revelation, the great Judgment itself has both earthly and heavenly aspects—i.e. Judgment that takes place on earth, and that which takes place (subsequently) in Heaven. It would seem that the visions allow for the possibility of people turning to faith in God (and Christ?) during the earthly Judgment (cf. below).

For the expression “good news” (using the eu)aggel– word-group), its background and usage in connection with the Roman emperor and the imperial cult, see my earlier Christmas season note and the recent Word Study series on Gospel/eu)agge/lion.

The use of the aorist tense (h@lqen, “came”) in verse 7 is interesting, since it suggests that the Judgment is a past event, even though it is just now being announced by the Messengers. Most translations render this like a perfect (“has come”); it may be considered as an ingressive aorist, indicating the start of an action. The focus on God as Creator, may reflect a style of Gospel-preaching to (Gentile) non-believers (cp. Acts 14:15-18; 17:23-31), but may also refer back to the idolatry and false religion emphasized in the chap. 13 visions (cp. Wisdom 13:1-19; Rom 1:18-25; Koester, p. 612). The chain of terms in verse 7, summarizing all of the inhabited world, is a direct echo of 13:7.

Verse 8: Second Messenger

“And another Messenger, a second, followed declaring: ‘Babilim the great (has) fallen, fallen!—the (one) who has made all the nations drink out of the wine of the (evil) impulse of her prostitution!'”

This second Messenger continues the “good message”, concerning the end of the current (and wicked) Age, with an announcement regarding “Babel” (i.e. the city Babylon). Greek Babulw/n is a transliteration of the name, presumably deriving from Akkadian b¹b-ilim (“Gate of God”); Hebrew lb#B* (B¹»el) is a similar transliteration, while English Babylon comes from the Greek. The nation-state centered on the city of Babylon was the pre-eminent (imperial) power at the time of the Judean exile, thus making it a fitting symbol for the conquering imperial power (Rome) in the first-century A.D.—the time of the Judean distress (c. 40-70) as well as suffering/persecution of believers when the book of Revelation was written. Most commentators regard “Babylon” as a cypher for Rome, both here and in 1 Peter 5:13. On the whole this is correct, and the identification is made more clear and specific in chapter 17; however, I believe that the symbolism is actually somewhat broader in scope. The interpretive key lies in the vision(s) of 11:1-13, especially the reference to the “great city” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) in v. 8, which is there identified with Jerusalem (cf. also vv. 1-2), but also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”, names specifically indicating worldly power and wickedness. Here, too, Babylon is called “the great (city)” (h( mega/lh), and, I believe, the meaning is generally the same. Whether identified by the specific name “Sodom”, “Egypt”, “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Rome”, the symbol refers primarily to the center of earthly power and influence, which is fundamentally (at least in this current Age) wicked and opposed to God.

Again an aorist form (e&pesen, “fell”) is used to describe something which, from the standpoint of the overall narrative, has not yet taken place. The use of a past tense (whether aorist or perfect in Greek) is sometimes used in reference to future events, speaking of them as something already completed—i.e. proleptic aorist. The use of the prophetic (and precative) perfect in Hebrew does much the same thing, often used to assure readers that something will take place. The specific form of the message (regarding Babylon) derives from Old Testament tradition and the nation-oracles in Isaiah and Jeremiah—specifically Isa 21:9 and Jer 50-51 (50:2; 51:8). It will be greatly expanded in chapter 18.

As is frequently the case in Jewish and early Christian tradition, the noun pornei/a (lit. referring to acts of prostitution) is used figuratively for wickedness and faithlessness to God (i.e. ‘idolatry’ and false religion, etc).

Verses 9-11: Third Messenger

“And another Messenger, a third, followed them declaring in a great voice: ‘If any one kisses toward [i.e. worships] the wild animal and its image, and takes the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between his eyes or upon his hand, even (so) th(is person) he will drink of the impulse of God’s (anger) having been poured out (for him), without (being) mixed (with water), in the drinking-cup of His anger, and he will be tested severely (and proven false), in fire and sulphur, in the sight of (the) holy Messengers and in the sight of the Lamb!—and the smoke of their severe testing steps [i.e. goes] up into the Ages of Ages, and they hold no resting up (from this) day and night, the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] the wild animal and his image (and), indeed, if any one takes the engraved (mark) of its name!'”

I view the message in vv. 9-11 as comprised of a single long (elliptical) sentence, which I have sought to make more readable by punctuating with commas throughout. Its elliptical structure can be illustrated with a chiastic outline:

    • Any one who worships the creature…and takes its mark
      • he will drink from the cup of God’s anger (i.e. divine judgment)
        • they will be tested severely in fire (judged & punished)
          • in the sight of the holy Messengers and the Lamb
        • the smoke of their severe testing rises (judged & punished)
      • they have no rest from it day and night (i.e. eternal judgment)
    • ones who worships the creature…and take its mark

The description of the one who worships (lit. “kisses toward”, vb proskune/w, a common Greek idiom signifying worship/veneration) the “wild animal” (qhri/on, i.e. the Sea-creature) occurs both at the beginning and end of the message, a dual-emphasis that shows just how serious the matter is. It also confirms the context of the visions in chapter 14 as that of chap. 13, with its depiction of the wicked influence exerted by the Sea-creature over humankind. It is specifically stated that anyone who so venerates the Sea-creature (and its living ‘image’ on earth), and takes the engraved mark (xa/ragma) showing that he/she belongs to the creature, will face the full brunt of God’s anger (o)rgh/) in the Judgment. The immediate context of these verses makes clear that it is the heavenly aspect of the Judgment that is in view.

Drinking from a cup (poth/rion) is a traditional motif for the fate a person will experience, often in the negative sense of suffering and/or punishment. For the idiom in the Old Testament, cf. Psalm 16:5; 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-17; 49:12, etc. Jesus famously uses it in the garden scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par, cf. also 10:38-39 par). This cup is controlled by God, and given out to human beings (who meet their fate over the course of their lives). Here it is meant as a precise contrast with the wine that Babylon made the nations drink (v. 8; cf. Jer 51:7). In both instances the noun qumo/$ is used, which I regularly translate as “impulse” (for lack of a better option in English); it basically refers to a violent or passionate movement, as of air, breath, etc, sometimes internalized as a movement of the soul or mind. The wine Babylon gives is from her wicked impulse to “prostitution”, whereas the wine God makes people drink in the Judgment comes from His impulse to anger, to punish the wicked. This wine is said to be a&krato$, “without mixture”, that is, without being diluted by water—at its full strength.

The verb basani/zw (and related noun basanismo/$) is typically translated as “torment”, but more properly refers to an intense testing, as of metal that is tried by fire. That is the basic image here. The wicked, of course, are proven to be false in the fire of testing, which becomes a painful torture for them (a common denotation when basini/zw is used of human beings). The motifs of fire and sulphur, along with the rising smoke, allude to the destruction of cities (even a “great city”, cf. above), following the traditional imagery of the destruction of the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24, 28) which came to be used as a symbol of the end-time Judgment (Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; cf. also Rev 11:8). Many Christians are naturally disturbed by the idea of the wicked being tormented endlessly; however, any ethical-religious issues we may have today are quite foreign to the text itself and its first-century setting. We should not try to soften or mitigate the imagery, nor should any attempt be made to view it as an absolute metaphysical description of the afterlife.

Verses 12-13: A Fourth Voice

“Here is the need for the holy (one)s to remain under [i.e. endure faithfully], the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and the trust of Yeshua. And I heard a voice out of the heaven saying, ‘Write (this): happy the (one)s th(at are) dying away in the Lord from now (on)’. ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘(so) that they will rest up out of [i.e. from] their beatings, for their works follow with them’.”

Verse 12 represents the author/seer’s own words to his readers. He stresses again the importance of remaining faithful to Christ during the end-time period of distress (which he and his audience are believed to be entering). The dangers for believers described in the chap. 13 visions—both in terms of being led astray and of being persecuted (and put to death) for remaining faithful—would have been realized already by the surrounding pagan culture and, especially, the imperial cult tied to Roman rule. What is envisioned in chapter 13 is a more extreme, intense, and wicked version of what Christians in Asia Minor, at the end of the 1st-century, were already facing. The description of believers in v. 12b echoes that of 12:17, there referring to believers as children of the Woman (i.e. the People of God on earth). See the prior note on that verse for a discussion of the plural noun e)ntolai/, usually translated “commandments”. In my view, the expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” is best understood and comparable to “the law [no/mo$] of God” in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21). It refers generally to the will of God, such as is expressed in the Old Testament law (Torah) and the teaching of Jesus, but should not be reduced to a specific set of commands or teachings. The pairing of expressions means that believers are people who generally live in a manner that corresponds to the will of God, and who also, specifically (and most importantly), have trust/faith in Jesus.

The final message is one of comfort for believers, given by a heavenly Messenger, and echoed by the Spirit. The main difficulty lies in the expression a)p’ a&rti (“from now [on]”); it can be understood three ways, moving from narrower to broader focus:

    • It refers to believers (or those who come to be believers) alive during the great Judgment on the earth. The message of the first Angel (cf. above) seems to allow for the possibility of people coming to faith during the Judgment, or just prior to its onset. Given the terrible events that will occur on earth at the Judgment (vividly described in the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles), death certainly would be a blessing.
    • It refers primarily to the period of distress that precedes the Judgment on earth; believers certainly will live through this (according to the visions of chaps. 12-13 and elsewhere in the book), and will suffer greatly. Here, too, death, even as a result of execution, would be a comfort.
    • It is meant more directly for the audience/readers of the book, who, it must be said, were expected to live into the (imminent) period of distress.

In my view, the last, and most inclusive interpretation best fits the context of both the vision and the book as a whole. In any case, the blessing (or happiness) of believers who die during this time is two-fold: (1) they receive rest from suffering and distress (referred to as “beatings” ko/poi, something with weakens or reduces strength), and (2) they are rewarded for their faithfulness (referred to here as “works”, e&rga).

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