Last week, we looked at the mark of the beast – going along with the rest of the empire in worshipping the emperor as a god, in place of the one true God. And we saw how we, too, often go along with our world and its idolatry. This week, we’re looking at how Revelation encourages its readers not to go along with the world, by appealing to the four cardinal virtues of advantage, justice, courage, and self-control – how Revelation helps us to resist the mark of the beast.
We arrive today at chapter 15, which jumps again to a vision of those who overcome and resist the mark of the beast. (Those who didn’t were a big, bloody mess at the end of chapter 14, if you recall.) Here, John’s vision paints their situation like that of Israel as slaves in Egypt. In fact, he describes their future deliverance – their final salvation – using exodus terminology. It will be a new, and greater exodus!
Firstly, there are plagues coming on all those who are opposed to God:
Revelation 15:1 I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.
In the future, they’ll be standing on the other side of the Red Sea, having crossed over:
Revelation 15:2 And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God.
(This is where the line from When the roll is called up yonder comes from: ‘when the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore…’ It’s also where the Gary Larson cartoon (right) comes from, and the whole playing-harps-in-heaven thing. It’s a symbolic image from Exodus. So feel free to quit the harp lessons.)
And they’re singing the song of Moses (from Exodus 15) – the song they sang after the original crossing:
Revelation 15:3 and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb: “Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations.”
There’s also reference to inclusion of all nations found in the covenant with Abraham, and in Israel’s calling as a witness to the nations:
Revelation 15:4 “Who will not fear you, Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
There’s another Mount Sinai-like experience; the giving of the covenant and the priesthood:
Revelation 15:5-6 After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened. Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests.
God’s enemies are again destroyed:
Revelation 15:7 Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever.
Why bowls? Bronze bowls were used by the priests to carry ashes away from the altar (Exodus 27:3).
(Confession time: My parents gave me a “big person’s bible” just a touch before my reading age was up to it. I read this chapter (and the next) in Revelation as referring to the “bowels of God’s wrath” – quite plausible in the context, I think you’d agree – and spent a fair bit of my life thinking that’s what it was.)
And God’s presence again appears, in a cloud of smoke, which no-one can enter (just like Moses in Exodus 40:34-35).
Revelation 15:8 And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.
So what’s the point of all this Exodus imagery?
It isn’t accidental. It shows first-century Christians – and it shows us – how to view our present experience. The original Exodus was all about coming out of a hostile, evil society which sought to enslave them.
So by describing our future as a new exodus, it reminds us not to get too comfortable with this world. To resist the pressure to ‘fit in’ with it. For in many ways, it’s our enemy. And we’re not going to be in it for all that long. Very soon, we’re going to be delivered from it; we’re headed for the promised land.
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King used this same strategy. Painting the struggle for civil rights in terms of the exodus. He ended one of his most famous speeches in this way:
‘And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!’
He wanted to inspire his people. To hope for the future. To press ahead with confidence that their deliverance was at hand. To refuse to settle down and accept things the way they are.
That’s John’s prayer for his readers, too. That they would refuse to settle down and accept the world the way it is. Refuse to compromise. That they would live as a people about to be rescued from a hostile world.
It confronts us with the question: How much of our life is about settling down in Egypt? About making the best out of slavery, rather than struggling for freedom? About making peace with the beast, when we should be fighting against it with every ounce of our energy? About choosing comfort and convenience over what is prudent, what is just, what is courageous?
Revelation reminds us to focus on the future. To look forward to the promised land. Again, to quote MLK:
‘And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’