Revelation 14. A vision of the 144,000 resurrected and in heaven, three messages from heaven, the harvest of the righteous and the wicked, and the winepress of God’s wrath.
Mount Zion, distinct from the distinct from the western hill with that name in present Jerusalem, was the site of the Temple. It is mentioned only here in Revelation, and signifies the place of God’s throne and dwelling-place in heaven, in new Jerusalem, before he reigns on earth (Heb 12:22). “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6). Martyred because of their testimony, the 144,000 are temporarily in heaven with him. They are a new presence before the throne. The comparison with ‘many waters’ and loud thunder suggests that they come from the nations (Isa 17:12), not therefore from the twelve tribes of ethnically defined Israel. No longer needing the protection of God’s seal, they instead bear his name on their foreheads and his son’s name (which is the same – ‘written’ in the Greek is singular). It is a sign that they are owned by God, the reward for having conquered (3:12). Like the twenty-four elders, and like the others who will have conquered (15:2), they are given a lyre – the instrument of David – so that they praise with hands as well as voices. With joy they sing a song known only to them, just as those who conquer are promised a name known only to them (2:17). The many others purchased by and for God will learn the song when they have been raised, but the 144,000 are the first. The threefold ‘these’ accentuates their honoured status.
Israel was commanded to observe three festivals through the year: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First-fruits, and the Feast of Ingathering, when the main harvest was gathered (Ex 23:14-17). The Feast of Unleavened Bread began with the Passover, when Israel was to kill and eat a male one-year-old sheep or goat without blemish (Ex 12:5, Mark 14:12, 15:42). On this and the next seven days, their bread was to be unleavened, in remembrance that when God rescued them from slavery they left in haste. The lamb was not a sin offering as such but a whole-body substitution. Israel belonged to God because he had redeemed them, and the price paid was the blood of the animal killed in their place (Ex 12:13). All life came from him and belonged to him; therefore every male that opened the womb had to be redeemed (Ex 13:12).
The Passover was the only animal sacrifice that every Israelite household had to make. They internalised it by eating it, and eating it all. Apart from the peace offering, other sacrifices were either burned to ash or, in part, consumed by the priests. Grain and other animal offerings were made on the day following Passover, including a sheep or goat of the same description as the Passover offering. This animal did make atonement (Num 28:17-23). Sin needed to be atoned for notwithstanding the Passover (Heb 10:1-18).
On the day after the first sabbath following Passover, the priest waved the sheaf of the first-fruits before Yahweh and repeated the offerings. In AD 30, that day coincided with the day Christ rose from the tomb, for he was the sheaf of the first-fruits (I Cor 15:20). With him rose rose others whom he brought up from Hades and Tartarus, the assembly of the firstborn in heaven (Matt 27:52f, Eph 4:8, Heb 12:23). These were the first-fruits of the spiritual harvest that was prefigured in the week-long Feast of First-Fruits, held seven weeks after the waving of the sheaf (Jas 1:18, I Pet 3:19, cf. Jer 2:3). The feast celebrated the completion of the grain harvest.
Finally, there were the solemn feasts of the seventh month. On the first day trumpets were blown, analogous to the trumpets in Revelation; on the tenth Israel again made atonement; and on the fifteenth the end of the harvest was celebrated. Having gathered from the threshing floor, the vineyard and the orchard, they were instructed to take branches of palms and other trees, make booths (sukkot) from them and rejoice. The week-long festival was therefore also called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Lev 23:34).
The Day of Atonement was the one day in the year when the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. After expiating his own guilt with animal blood, the priest took two goats. The one he slaughtered, sprinkling its blood both on the incense altar outside the curtain and the mercy seat inside the curtain. Unknown to Israel, it prefigured the day when the Messiah would shed his own blood and enter the tabernacle ‘not of this creation’ to mediate a new covenant for the nation (Heb 9:11ff); they were to humble themselves, because the blood was an atonement for their souls (Lev 16:29, 17:11).The other goat the priest did not kill. Instead, he confessed the people’s sins and all their transgressions and laid them on the animal’s head, then sent it into the wilderness. Again unknown to them, the goat enacted how God would drive Israel out of the land for rejecting their Messiah.
Moses was alone when he received the Law at the top of Mount Sinai. After writing it down, he descended the mountain to read the Law to the people. They bound themselves to it in a ritual solemnised by blood. Then he went up again to receive the tablets on which God had summarised the Law by way of ten commandments. He remained there more than five weeks. In his absence the people became impatient and made a golden calf, sacrificed to it, and worshipped it as if it was their deliverer. When Moses eventually did come down, he saw them dancing before the calf, was outraged and in his fury smashed the tablets. The idol was prophetic, for five centuries later Jeroboam persuaded the northern tribes to split from the house of David; in place of the temple in Jerusalem he set up golden calves, at Dan and Bethel, and told them to worship them as Yahweh (I Ki 12:25ff). The sanctuary platform at Dan can still be seen. Moses’ wrath prefigured God’s wrath. But Moses also said, “Perhaps I can atone for their sin.” So God made a second set of tablets and thereby prefigured the re-acceptance of Israel under a new covenant when he would write his law on their hearts (Deut 10:1-16, 30:6, Jer 31:31-37). The generation baptised into Moses died without entering the promised land; the generation after them entered under Joshua (I Cor 10:2), crossing into the land by the same river as the disciples of Jesus would one day be baptised in. Indeed, the disciples were baptised at the same location, at present-day Al Maghtas, opposite Jericho. ‘Jesus’ is simply the Greek spelling of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’.
For over 300 years that place was Shiloh. In David’s reign, the Tabernacle was brought to Jerusalem and that city became the national place of worship. Preparations were made to replace the Tabernacle with a Temple, completed under Solomon. However, when the northern tribes seceded from Judah, just three decades later, they reverted to paganism. So did the southern tribes. Like their Canaanite neighbours, they erected pillars of Baal on every high hill and wooden Asherahs under every green tree, and sacrificed to them (I Ki 14:22-24). The Temple itself was closed for a time. Only after a long period of abeyance did Hezekiah (727-c.686 BC) restore centralised worship. Meanwhile the book of Deuteronomy, which set out the covenant as renewed under Joshua, was completely forgotten, and only resurfaced when another king ordered the Temple to be repaired, decades before the Exile (II Chr 34:14f). The one festival that probably was kept throughout was the Feast of Ingathering. Even then, its deeper significance, reminding the Israelites that they were made to live in the wilderness before they came into their inheritance, did not register until after their return from Babylon (Neh 8:17). The requirement to read out the Law every seventh year during the Feast was also not observed: it had been commanded in the very book that had gone missing (Deut 31:10-13).
Like the other rites, the Feast of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, had prophetic significance, for a time would come when the Jews would again find themselves in the wilderness, living in tents as refugees. That is why Peter, not knowing what he was saying, offered to make tents for Moses and Elijah at Jesus’s transfiguration. The two witnesses were to instruct the Jews about their Messiah before he came in his glory. He himself would then lead them into the land and bring them into the bond of the covenant (Ezek 20:37). He would thresh and glean them one by one (Isa 27:12).
So far as Gentile believers are concerned, the first-fruits are the 144,000, and the main harvest is the resurrection of those who have died in Christ since his first coming, including the many who have perished during the great tribulation (7:9). (In II Thes 2:13 the correct reading is ap’ arches, ‘from the beginning’, not aparchen, ‘first-fruits.’) When the kingdom of God comes, those who have survived his wrath will be required to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (Zech 14:16-19), for then they will be in the same interim position as Israel was after the Exodus: they will have received and begun to practise the Law (Isa 2:3), but they will not yet have entered his promised rest (Heb 3:7-4:10). They will enter his rest, if at all, only at the general resurrection.
|First-fruits||Christ and his train||144,000|
|Main harvest (1st resurrection)||Those who respond to the gospel||Those who respond to the gospel|
|End of harvest (2nd resurrection)||The rest of Israel||Nations in the millennium|
Why be afraid of him if everything came into existence by itself? The proper response on entering his presence is to fear him, as the disciples did when he spoke to the sea (Mark 4:39); it is to glorify him by the amendment of our lives. What the angel proclaims is itself, in summary, the gospel. The Holy Spirit comes to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgement (John 16:11). Whoever is inwardly convicted and believes in the Son will not be not condemned.
With its dogma of the ‘theory of evolution’, scientific atheism has led our own society down the same path. Tolerating no opposition, its priests tell the peoples of the earth, “We have examined the evidence and discovered that the appearance of design is only appearance; believe our testimony, not what you see. Do not worship an illusion.” They contradict the second of the two most fundamental laws of physics in order to claim that molecules have a natural tendency to self-assemble into forms ever more complex. They ignore the fossil record, which shows plant and animal phyla appearing suddenly – animals not until five-sixths through the record, terrestrial plants still later – in order to portray all organisms as genealogically linked. Contrary to our experience of ourselves and how we relate to others, they tell us that there is no such thing as a soul: our ideas, atheistic as well as religious, are the products of atoms that know nothing about truth; our sense of free will is a self-affirming illusion. So the western Church, not wishing to seem futile in its thinking, has gone along with the denial of spirit and of the witness of God in creation, and ingested a heresy of the first order, a corruption of the gospel itself. She cannot believe that the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man might be in conflict. She is ashamed of his words. Unresisted by those who were appointed to champion a God-given understanding of reality, the corruption of society inevitably follows. Those who believe that Nature brought itself into being end up worshipping Nature, an Asherah-like sex-goddess.
‘Heaven’ can refer to one of three places: the firmament containing the solar system (Gen 1:8), the ‘face’ (Gen 1:20) of the firmament where birds fly, or the ‘heaven of heavens’ (Gen 1:1, I Ki 8:27, Ps 148:4) beyond the solar system. Obviously, since God is not a physical being, neither is his dwelling-place in heaven. ‘Earth’ denotes the land, distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10). Springs or fountains are singled out because in the first world there was no rain; instead, water oozing up through springs from the great deep kept the earth moist and supplied the water for lakes and rivers (Gen 2:6, 7:11, Prov 8:24).
‘Raging’ renders adjectivally the noun thumos, which denotes strong emotion, usually anger. ‘Fornication’ translates porneia; ‘sexual immorality’ (ESV, NIV) is somewhat evasive, because it does not say what sexual immorality is. The root word porne means a female prostitute, that being the only social category for an unmarried woman who regularly lay with a man. Pornos is the corresponding male (I Cor 5:9, 6:9). Porneia refers to all copulation outside marriage (John 8:41, I Cor 5:1, 7:2), not just ‘adultery’ (Heb 13:4) and sodomy (Jude 7). Again, the western Church has almost given up on insisting that the sexually impure will not inherit the kingdom. The identity and fall of ‘Babylon the Great’ are dealt with in chapters 17-18. Mention of the city’s fall here functions like the prophetic finger that interrupted Belshazzar’s feast as he drank with his lords, wives and concubines and praised Babylon’s gods. Its days are numbered and about to end. That is now part of the gospel’s message.
In the end we either worship God or we worship his adversary. The fire, smoke and sulphur refer back to the demons of the fifth and sixth trumpets and forward to the ‘lake of fire and sulphur’ (19:20) into which all workers of evil are pitched, not only those in the last generation.
The phrase is repeated in 19:3, where the smoke is that of ruined, tormented Babylon the Great (18:10). But here the focus is on the worshippers of the beast who have invaded Israel. Angels are mentioned many times in the New Testament but described as holy in only one other place, where Jesus says that he will come with the holy angels in glory, not humility. Then he will be ashamed of whoever is ashamed of him and his words (Luke 9:26). We are approaching that same moment. ‘Have no rest, day or night’ ironically echoes the phrase used to describe the cherubs’ worship of God (4:8), with the twist that the worshippers of the beast will find no spiritual rest.
The first angel urges the world to worship God and accept his mercy, because, as the second warns, judgement of the world’s civilisation is imminent, and as the third warns, individuals who worship his enemy may expect no mercy. To fall into the hands of the living God is a fearful thing.
The comparable phrase in 13:10 refers to the Jewish saints. Here the saints are defined as those who hold to the faith of Jesus. John reminds Christians that they too must be steadfast, for life will be hard. He who endures to the end will be saved: that is, they will gain their souls (Matt 24:13, Luke 21:19). Therefore we should pray that we will have strength to endure, remembering the example of our Saviour (Heb 12:2f). Jesus does not nullify God’s commandments (Matt 5:19f, Rev 12:17), but gives us desire and power to obey them.
‘A voice from heaven’ is God (e.g. Matt 3:17, Rev 11:12), even when it speaks of God in the third person (Acts 11:9, Rev 11:1, 21:3). In English, to ‘bless’ means to pronounce his favour on a person, the opposite of curse or blaspheme; to ‘be blessed’ means to enjoy his favour. In Greek the two senses are distinct: eulogetos (verbally blessed) and makarios (enjoying God’s favour). The word here is makarios, as elsewhere in Revelation (eulogia in 5:12, 5:13 and 7:12).
The command to “write down” the blessing adds emphasis to the assurance. Many in the last three and a half years will be killed because of their faith, but they must hold onto the promise that their diligence will be recognised and their works rewarded. There will be a final day of rest.
The description ‘like a son of man’ identifies the reaper as Christ (1:13). He wears a victor’s crown, and the cloud suggests that he is the same figure as the angel at 10:1. The parallelism of the two harvests, in which one angel bearing the authority of God instructs another, also suggests he is an angel.
The first-fruits – the 144,000 who prophesied about the wrath and the kingdom – are already in. After them comes the main harvest. In the parable about the wheat and the darnel, the good seed is the sons of the kingdom and the darnel the sons of the evil one. They are harvested together at the conclusion of the age (Matt 13:36-43, Luke 3:17), though not necessarily at exactly the same time. The sons of the kingdom are harvested at the seventh trumpet, so they are also already in, and wheat here is not specifically mentioned. Although the normal presumption is that a reaper goes out to harvest something valuable, the crop must be the unrepentant, the hour to reap the ‘hour of judgement’ (v. 7). Accordingly the crop is exeranthe, ‘withered,’ as it would be if the time was that of the grape harvest. The same verb is used to describe the seed that fell on rocky ground (Mark 4:5f), the fig tree that Jesus cursed (Mark 11:20f) and the vine branches that will be gathered and burned because they did not abide in the vine (John 15:6). Also the waterless Euphrates (Rev 16:12).
This is the ‘banquet of God’ described in Revelation 19. There the language is equally gruesome, upsetting any notion that the deity of the new covenant differs from that of the old. God comes to to redeem Israel, because ‘they have scattered them among the nations and divided up my land; they have cast lots for my people, and traded a boy for a prostitute and sold a girl for wine’. He tramples the surrounding nations because they have trampled Jerusalem. The extent of the bloodshed recalls the carnage at the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, when the Romans ‘went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils’ (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:5).
1600 stadia is about 184 miles: if we take the number at face value, the carnage cannot be confined to the Jezreel valley. It is vengeance against all the nations that rejoiced at Israel’s ruination and hoped to possess the land for themselves (Ezek 36:5). Bozrah was the ancient capital of Edom, its location still evident from the name of the village next to its ruins, Basira in southern Jordan (not to be confused with Bosra in southern Syria). It lay on the Kings’ Highway 40 miles north of Mount Seir. As the crow flies, 1600 stadia is the distance from Mount Seir to Megiddo (Rev 16:16). It is possible to imagine armies stationed at intervals between these points. If the measurement is hyperbolic, the meaning remains that the land will be drenched in blood (Isa 34:7).