Seven angels with seven plagues! That’s an apt title of this next section of just two chapters in the Book of Revelation. Previous sections have focussed successively on:
- God’s churches as light-bearers for the gospel (chapters 1-3)
- God’s persecuted people, persevering through trials and persecutions (4-7)
- Warning judgments visited upon an ungodly world that does this persecuting (8-11)
- The heart of this conflict being between Christ and Satan (12-14)
Now the focus is firmly upon the fate of the wicked and unrepentant person and nation in the world (15-16)
We must avoid thinking that this relates only to the end of the age; it is clear from scripture that God administers a degree of justice throughout the gospel age. However, the full measure of his wrath against the godless is reserved for that great final judgment when there is no more opportunity for them to repent. Previously, we have seen the devastating effects of those trumpets (8-11), but the effects of such punishments were not wholesale, since only one third of the earth was affected in each case. Trumpets are there to ‘warn’, whilst here, in chapters 15-16, the ‘Bowls of Wrath’ seem to be much more widespread and final in their effects on mankind. But many of these events in 15-16 clearly occur simultaneously with the ones in 8-11.
Today’s chapter is short, containing only eight verses. First, John sees another great sign in heaven: seven mighty angels lined up ready to dispense the seven last plagues of judgment. Seven symbolises perfection and God – as Judge of all the Earth – is perfect in his decisions and in his justice. Seven is also the number of completeness – this time the judgment will cover the entire earth, over the entire timespan of this age.
Before any plague is sent, we see the Church triumphant, standing before the throne of God and singing the great song of redemption. It is based historically upon the story of Israel’s rescue from the Egyptian army through the Red Sea but is now changed in its focus to include the victory of Christ at the cross and his triumph over all the forces of evil. The only way to learn this song is to experience the journey!
The ‘sea of glass glowing with fire’ is a significant feature of the vision. God’s transparent righteousness is mixed with righteous judgment; every sin requires punishment. For the believer, this is no longer a problem since – as we read in Romans 3:25a-26 – “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement…he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”. Through Christ, God can now punish sin without punishing us. He is able to hate the sin and love the sinner at the same time.
And so, we now see a heavenly temple, with the sanctuary opened up and the seven angels clothed in pure dazzling linen, with golden sashes around their chests. They are given golden bowls filled with the wrath – or righteous anger – of God himself. God’s glory fills the temple as smoke – symbolic of the full operation of God’s anger and no-one could enter that sanctuary again until the plagues are completed.
It is important to note that it is God himself who metes out the punishment – he does not delegate this work to the Devil or some underling angel. In fact, the Devil plays no part in any kind of punishment, ever. Punishment is a judicial act of a righteous God who has been offended by our sin and rebellion. The angels dressed in pure linen symbolise that his justice and his wrath are pure – not driven by rage or overblown emotion – and that the punishments are totally just. Gold is the symbol of God, and the sashes and bowls reinforce the fact that God is the source of all justice.
Since, in Old Covenant law, the only source of atonement and mercy was the temple, the fact that it has now been barred from entry – by the smoke – is indicative that there is no further sacrifice for sin other than the one already given (Christ) and that further intercession for the unsaved will not work. Too late!