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The third vision: the beast from the earth
Revelation chapter 13, verses 11-18
Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men. Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.
The third of the seven visions pictures another agent of Satan, the beast coming out of the earth. This beast has two horns like a lamb. This threat to the church poses as Jesus, the Lamb of God. We see through his deceit, however, because John has pictured the real Lamb with seven horns (chapter 5, verse 6). This beast’s treachery is not well masked because when he speaks “like a dragon” (verse 11), he reveals himself as an ally of Satan.
The identity of this beast becomes clearer when we watch what he does. Jesus said: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew chapter 7, verse 15 and 16). The fruit of a false prophet is his message and its effect on his hearers. The beast from the earth demonstrates by his actions that he is in a league with the beast from the sea. He “made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed” (verse 12 and also chapter 13, verse 3).
Other clues to his identity follow. He “performed great and miraculous signs” and led people into idolatry. These activities of the beast correspond to Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 3). “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles. . . . He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verses 9 and 4).
The second beast “was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast” (verse 15). The first beast, the beast from the sea, represented the evil that Satan exerts through human government. In partnership with this beast, the beast from the earth provokes world governments to speak against Christians and persecute them.
The mark that this unholy beast forces his followers to wear (verse 16) is a cheap imitation of the seal God puts on his people (chapter 7, verses 2 and 3). This mark on the right hand or forehead of the beast’s followers indicates that their work and thinking belong to the beast. With this identifying mark and through his unholy alliance with the beast of the sea, the second beast influenced the government to practice economic discrimination against believers.
Taken together, these pictures of the beast of the earth provide us with his identity. With his lamb’s horns, he poses as a representative of the Lamb, but his message sounds like Satan’s. He collaborates with worldly authorities in order to harm the real followers of the Lamb. He performs miraculous signs that deceive people into the idolatry of earthly power. He cooperates with human authorities to persecute Christians and cause hardship to those who do not accept his message.
John identifies this beast at the end of the vision (verses 17 and 18), but with symbolic language. He says the mark of the beast is the name of the beast. In the Bible, name often means reputation or what is known about a person. This beast, then, may be known from what he teaches. What message in this world masquerades as religion, is preached by false christs and governmental powers alike, impresses the majority, destroys the gospel, and leads to the persecution of Christians?
To help us answer this question, John offers one more piece of identification, the beast’s number. He says that the beast’s mark, his name, and his number are all the same. The number of the beast is 666, “man’s number” (verse 18). As the number 7 stands for God’s gospel efforts in the world, 666 signifies a message that comes close to sounding like the gospel but always falls short of it. Man’s number is man’s religion, the man-made notion that we can save ourselves, the devil’s lie that we can earn our own salvation. Work-righteousness is the one religious notion shared among all pagan religions, all false doctrines, and all political systems. It is the self-deceit that if we do our best, God will have to accept us.
The evidence of this beast at work in the New Testament can be seen in various places, but some stand out more than others. The Roman papacy must be included. Our Lutheran Confessions identify that office as the antichrist because it teaches salvation by works, claims to be the vicar of Christ, and has operated in partnership with civil government for most of history. Modern Protestantism’s social gospel is also evidence of the beast at work. The New Age Movement and the resurgence of Islamic and oriental philosophies bear the mark of the beast too.
Identifying this beast “calls for wisdom,” John writes (verse 18). Spiritual wisdom, the insight gained from Bible-based faith in Christ, is needed to identify the beast outside and inside of ourselves. We must identify the beast in the world but not stop with that. The beast is the religion of man. He represents the religion of work-righteousness, which lurks within our own souls too—that insidious error that we can earn or contribute to our status with God. Daily sorrow over our sins and our sinful nature—always linked with renewed trust in the blood of the Lamb—will give us wisdom.
The fourth vision: the 144,000 with the Lamb
Revelation chapter 14, verses 1-5
Then I looked, and there before me was the lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
The fourth of the seven visions swept John up to heaven, away from a world plagued by threatening beasts. As the scene changes, the time changes too. The third vision pictured the suffering church before the judgment. This fourth vision pictures the victorious church after the judgment. John’s mood changes abruptly as he leaves the vision of the impostor lamb (chapter 13, verse 11) and sees Jesus, the real Lamb, in front of him (chapter 14, verse 1). John first saw the Lamb when his second vision drew him before the throne of God in heaven (chapter 5, verse 6). John mentions the Lamb a total of 30 times in Revelation.
The Lamb was standing on Mount Zion. Zion is the hill in the city of Jerusalem on which Solomon’s temple was built. Both Old and New Testament writers used Mount Zion as a symbol for the church. With Jesus are the “144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (verse 1). John earlier described the 144,000 as the elect, those who were sealed by God on earth to protect them from the calamities of the last days (chapter 7, verses 4-8).
Those who wear God’s seal on their foreheads on earth wear the name of the Lamb and the Father in heaven. In his Gospel, John recorded Jesus’ words that he and the Father are one (chapter 10, verse 30). Here he sees no inconsistency in reporting that the elect have the name of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads. God’s name is his reputation, what he reveals about himself in his Word. Although the Father and the Son are distinct persons of the Trinity and their personal names are different, they are one in essence, and what they reveal about themselves to believers is the same.
John heard the sound of a majestic chorus in heaven. The “rushing waters” and the “loud peal of thunder” signify the exuberant joy of the singers. The sound like “harpists playing their harps” reflects the beauty and spiritual harmony of their song. The heavenly chorus was singing “a new song.” The books of Psalms and Isaiah encourage believers to sing a new song. Both on earth and in heaven, a new song thanks God for his salvation (chapter 5, verse 9). Only the redeemed can learn this song because only they understand the joy of salvation.
The choir of the elect directs its praise to the throne in the company of the four living creatures and the elders. The four living creatures represent the created world, and the 24 elders represent the church (chapter 4, verse 4). Amid the 144,000, the elders may stand for the leaders of the Old and New Testament church.
John describes the 144,000 in heaven for the sake of the elect who are still on this earth. The NIV translation says, “They kept themselves pure” (verse 4). John literally wrote, “They are virgins.” Old Testament prophets often spoke of God’s church as his bride. Hosea, in particular, pictured the unfaithfulness of God’s people as adultery and threatened that God would divorce them. So when John speaks of the elect “who did not defile themselves with women,” he is saying that God’s people will not lose their faith to idolatry and false teachings. In a spiritual sense, they go to meet their bridegroom in heaven as virgins (see chapter 21, verse 2).
In heaven the bride, the church, follows Jesus wherever he goes. Heaven is the consummation of the bridegroom’s promise to his church. When John writes that the church was “purchased from among men,” Paul’s words come to mind: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians chapter 5, verses 25-27).
The Father purchased the church with the blood of the Lamb. Here he presents the elect to himself as “firstfruits” (verse 4). God himself will harvest all the earth at the last judgment (chapter 14, verse 16), but he will gather only the firstfruits to himself. John also says of the elect, “No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless” (verse 5). This refers not to their personal conduct but to their faith. They did not believe the deceit by which Satan tried to wean them from the truth of the Lamb.
The fifth vision: the three angels
Revelation chapter 14, verses 6-13
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
A second angel followed and said, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
John’s visions do not always follow in order of time. This vision is another indication of that. In the last vision, John was with the elect in heaven following the judgment. This vision takes him back in time to the New Testament age prior to the final judgment.
This is the fifth of the seven visions. In this vision John sees three angels. Many Lutheran writers identify the first angel as Martin Luther. John saw this angel “flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth.” Certainly Dr. Luther, with his clear preaching of the gospel, must be included among those who fulfill this prophetic vision. The Lutheran church has well chosen verses 6 and 7 as a Scripture reading for the festival of Reformation. Yet it is clear that the setting for this vision is the entire New Testament age. Thus this angel symbolizes every faithful gospel witness from John’s writing until the end of the world. He flies “in midair” so that this message will be heard by “every nation, tribe, language and people.” His gospel is “eternal” because, even though the time for its proclamation will end, the fulfillment of its promises stretches into eternity.
The angel’s message is direct: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come” (verse 7). The fear the angel calls for is the fear of faith. It is not fright but deep respect for God in response to his gospel promises. The psalmist knew this fear of God: “With you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130, verse 4). Giving glory to God with their lips and in their lives is the way believers demonstrate their faith. This call to faith in the eternal gospel is urgent “because the hour of his judgment has come” (verse 7). This does not mean that judgment day is here. Rather, it means that the time until God judges every sinner is short. Repentance and faith must not be delayed.
To those who may not respond to his clear gospel call, the angel makes a more general appeal: “Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” Those who do not feel a need for a Savior from sin should at least begin thinking about the origin of their existence. They will soon face their Creator. If they “seek him and perhaps reach out for him” (Acts chapter 17, verse 27), they may learn, before it is too late, that the Creator sent his Son, the Lamb, for them.
The second angel announces the fall of Babylon. Isaiah uttered a similar prophecy of doom against the ancient city of Babylon: “Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!” (Isaiah chapter 21, verse 9). Babylon, a marvelous city in the ancient world, oppressed God’s people, Israel. But within two hundred years of Isaiah’s prophecy, proud Babylon lay in total ruin. It no longer exists.
Babylon the Great is a symbol for every proud oppressor of the church. The angel said that Babylon “made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” Intoxicated with pride and power, many are led to spiritual adultery by impressive human institutions. The elect do not “defile themselves with women” (verse 4), but constant pressure from the church’s enemies embitters their stay on earth. The impending destruction of the church’s enemies, which strikes fear in the heart of the unrepentant, brings comfort to the faithful.
The first angel proclaimed the gospel in the New Testament age (verse 6). The second angel announced the coming judgment (verse 8). Now a third angel announces the outcome of the judgment. There will be eternal punishment for those who worship the beast (verse 9). Two beasts were mentioned in chapter 13, the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth. The reference in verse 9 is to the beast from the earth (see 13:16). The beast from the earth represents the destructive heresy that we can somehow save ourselves (see chapter 13, verse 18).
John identifies both idolatry and the punishment for idolatry with wine. Those who were led astray by the “maddening wine” (verse 8) of false teachings on earth will be forced to drink “the wine of God’s fury” (verse 10). The wine of God’s fury is his anger against those who refused Jesus and sought to save themselves by some other means. This wine will be poured “full strength” on the day of judgment (verse 10). God’s anger against unbelief shows itself already in this life (see chapter 9, verse 20). Sinners go through this life with accusing consciences, they suffer the consequences of their sins, and they reel under the warning judgments God sends to lead them to repentance. But none of that trouble matches the undiluted display of God’s anger in eternity.
Eternal death is the “cup of his wrath” (verse 10). This cup is the instrument from which God serves the idolater the bitter wine of his fury. “He will be tormented with burning sulfur” (verse 10, chapter 19, verse 20, and chapter 21, verse 8). The burning sulfur reminds us of the way God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude writes, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude chapter 7).
The Bible regularly describes hell as a fire. Jesus said that anger puts us “in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew chapter 5, verse 22). The writer to the Hebrews describes hell as a “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (chapter 10, verse 27). The anguish of the damned will be intensified because they will suffer “in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb” (verse 10). As “those who pierced him” (chapter 1, verse 7) will have to face the Savior at the judgment, so those who fought against the Lamb and his holy angels will suffer in their presence.
The last judgment is final. There is no second chance, no opportunity for the enemies of the church to repent. “The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast” (verse 11). Jesus called hell “eternal fire” (Matthew chapter 18, verse 8) and said it is a place “where the fire never goes out” (Mark chapter 9, verse 43). At the judgment Jesus will say to his enemies, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew chapter 25, verse 41).
Those who deny the existence of hell speak against Scripture. Those who say that hell is annihilation, not eternal punishment, ignore John’s record of the third angel’s words. The saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” helps explain the angel’s threat: “The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” (verse 11). The fires of hell that cause torment are never extinguished.
“This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (verse 12). John’s encouragement to believers comes at the end of the three angels’ messages. The saints must contemplate all they have heard in this vision. Remain faithful to Jesus, he says. Hold on to the eternal gospel. With patient endurance bear the hardships of the last days, trusting that God has already declared Babylon’s destruction. Obey God’s commandments and refuse to be marked by the image of the beast.
The voice that John heard “from heaven” (verse 13) is the voice of Jesus that first commissioned him to write (chapter 1, verse 19). For the sake of the patient, suffering saints, Jesus offers another view of the glory of the saints in eternity: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (verse 13). Appropriately, these words comfort mourners at every Lutheran burial service. Those who die in faith are forever blessed. Blessedness is spiritual happiness. Jesus promised that those who hear the Word of God and obey it will be blessed (Luke chapter 11, verse 28). The taste of blessedness we receive through the promises of the gospel on earth results in the perfect happiness of eternity. Revelation provides fuller descriptions of this blessedness in chapters 7, 21, and 22.
The Holy Spirit confirms Jesus’ promise of heaven. Jesus once said, “The Holy Spirit . . . will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John chapter 14, verse 26). The Spirit says heaven is a rest. The Old Testament Sabbath provided God’s people a day of rest once a week. But the Sabbath foreshadowed a greater rest, one that only Jesus can provide. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Hebrews chapter 4, verses 9 and 10). This rest, however, should not be confused with the boredom and inactivity that many cynics have ascribed to heaven. Heavenly rest is an end to the labor of this life that is constantly embittered by sin. Heavenly rest involves service, ruling (chapter 22, verse 3-5), and joyful singing (see chapter 14, verses 2 and 3).
The deeds of the saints will “follow” them (verse 13). This does not mean that God will judge us worthy of heaven on the basis of what we have done. This may mean that even after we die, our good works follow us on earth as a testimony to our faith. The more likely meaning, however, is that our good works follow us to the day of judgment when God cites them as evidence that we believed in Jesus for our salvation. This is the sense in which Jesus recounted the good works of the righteous in his parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew chapter 25, verse 31-46).
The sixth vision: the harvest
Revelation chapter 14, verses 14-20
I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one “like a son of man” with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.
The vision of the harvest is the sixth of the seven visions. John saw Jesus seated on a white cloud with a sharp sickle in this hand. Like so many of the visions, the harvest comforts the saints while it causes dread in the hearts of the unrepentant. Believers look forward to their Savior’s return. Jesus told us, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke chapter 21, verses 27 and 28).
At the Last Day we will be judged by a peer, by someone who is like us. John emphasizes Jesus’ human nature when he writes that the one he saw on the white cloud was “one ‘like a son of man.’” Paul made the same point: “He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts chapter 17, verse 31). The crown of gold on his head is not the pretentious diadem worn by the dragon (chapter 12, verse 3) and the beast (chapter 13, verse 1). His crown is the crown of victory that he shares with his fellow victors, the saints (chapter 4, verse 4).
Jesus will come to harvest the earth with a “sharp sickle in his hand” (verse 14). The sharp sickle will not miss a single stalk. “Every eye will see him” (chapter 1, verse 7). In the verses that follow, three angels assist Jesus in the final harvest. The number 3 indicates that they are all agents of God. They came “out of the temple” and “from the altar” in heaven. Jesus said that he would return “in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark chapter 8, verse 38). In the parable of the weeds, he explained that the “harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels” (Matthew chapter 13, verse 39). The first and second angels assist Jesus in the harvest of the righteous.
In a loud voice, the first of these two angels heralds this important announcement: “The time to reap has come” (verse 15). As in the rest of Scripture, the imminent return of Jesus and the final judgment is a recurring theme in Revelation. John the Baptist announced Jesus’ first coming in anticipation of his final harvest: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew chapter 3, verse 12). Time for repentance runs out. The time for Jesus’ return will come soon. All seven visions in Revelation reflect this urgent tone. The Lord’s last words to John at the end of this book endorse this theme: “Yes, I am coming soon” (chapter 22, verse 20).
The third angel “had charge of the fire.” He is God’s agent for punishing the damned. This angel resembles the angel with the golden censer who stood at the altar (chapter 8, verses 3-5). That angel filled the censer with fire from the altar. And that fire signified the judgments God brings on the unrepentant before the final judgment. By contrast, this third angel has charge of the fire of hell.
John’s mention of the sickle, grapes, and the winepress in connection with this angel makes this part of the vision consistent with a prophecy of Joel. Joel wrote, “Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow—so great is their wickedness!” (chapter 3, verse 13). The grapes are the wicked. The fact that the grapes are ripe (verse 18) means that their wickedness has matured to the limit God had set for it. John explains that the winepress is God’s wrath (verse 19; also chapter 14, verse 10).
The horrifying picture of eternal punishment in verse 20 attests to the absolute holiness of God. God overlooks no sin. If sin goes unrepented and unforgiven, God must punish it. To complete his picture of harvesting grapes, John says that the unbelievers “were trampled in the winepress outside the city” (verse 20 and also chapter 11, verse 2). The Holy City, Jerusalem, is a symbol of the presence of God and the dwelling of his people. Old Testament writers used a burning dump site outside the Holy City as a synonym for hell. When Jesus was crucified outside the city, he cried out in anguish that God had forsaken him. The unholy will be punished away from the presence of the holy God.