Text: Rev 15:5-16:11
OT Text: Luke 16:19-31 (The story of the rich man and Lazarus.)
Featured Verse: Rev 16:10-11 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.
Main Idea: The resistance of the human heart to God is on full display in this passage. Even the full measure of God's wrath is not enough to push people to repentance. We need the Spirit of God to intervene and give new life.
A quick reminder of where we are in the book. The middle chapters (6-16) consist of 4 sets of judgments. They have similar patterns, but increase in intensity. The 7 seals affect 1/4 of the earth, the 7 trumpets impact 1/3 of the world, the 7 thunders are replaced by 7 visions which show spiritual warfare. Now we have the final series of judgments, the 7 bowls of wrath. Unlike the prior judgments, they impact the world in totality. As they are introduced in 15:1, "with them the wrath of God is finished."
The Seven Bowls of Wrath follow a similar pattern as the Seven Trumpets*, but the judgement is no longer restrained. It seems that in this section, John has zoomed in on the end. He shows a final display of judgment as God's wrath is poured out on the world. Like the Trumpet judgments before them, they are modeled after the 10 plagues that God used to defeat Pharoah and lead the oppressed Israelites out of the promised land.
Conclusion and Application
The challenge of this section is not trying to figure out what it means. Rather, the challenge is to wrestle with the larger concept of God's wrath. When John sees this full display of God's wrath, he hears a voice from the altar in heaven** saying, "Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments."
This perspective highlights our difficulty. I would suspect that most people don't read about the wrath of God being poured out and immediately respond with praise to God for his true and just judgment. Instead, we may think: How can this bloodthirsty celebration square with the mercy and forgiveness of Christ?
First, we should notice that all of the Bible tells us that patience in suffering is grounded in the confidence that God will one day mete out perfect justice. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but he also spoke clearly about the coming judgment. (For example, Matt 24-25) Paul called Christians to forego self vengeance. But the reason for this was the promise that "vengeance belongs to God."(Rom 12:19)
Rather than try to tie this up in a neat package, I think that it is better to sit with this a little longer. On one hand, the Bible clearly calls the followers of Jesus to suffer patiently after the model of Christ. On the other hand, it does not deny the reality of evil, the difficulty of suffering or the honest assessment that the world is a broken and fallen place. Recognition of God's coming judgment on the world necessarily challenges our understanding of what the world is like. It is far more deeply fallen than we are tempted to believe. Human rebellion is more entrenched than we would like to believe.
Of course, we need to remember that the mercy of Jesus is sufficient to pardon anyone who would call on the name of Jesus and seek forgiveness in him. We should be quick to bear witness to that saving mercy. But the Bible is also realistic about the hardness of the human heart. Just as Pharoah hardened his heart in the sight of the terrible plagues, so it is that human stubbornness refuses to turn to God even when the full measure of his wrath is poured out.
* The pattern is, in part, 1st - earth, 2nd - sea, 3rd - rivers and springs, 4th - sun/moon/stars.
* There are two connections back to the fifth seal in chapter 6. First, the the angel ties the pouring out of God's judgment to the suffering of the saints. (16:5-6.) Second, in the prior vision, the saints are shown to be "under the heavenly altar." Here the voice of approbation comes from under the altar. (16:7)