The Bowls of Wrath Upon the Cross

John has described the age in which the Gospel is going out, persecution abounds, and the church experiences all sorts of distress—the tribulation of which he is a partaker (cf. 1:9). After describing the dragon and two beasts, he turned to describe the result of the tribulation experienced in this world—the harvests of the earth. Now, in 15:1, John begins a new apocalyptic image.

Revelation 15:1-8

1 Καὶ εἶδον ἄλλο σημεῖον ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ μέγα καὶ θαυμαστόν, ἀγγέλους ἑπτὰ ἔχοντας πληγὰς ἑπτὰ τὰς ἐσχάτας, ὅτι ἐν αὐταῖς ἐτελέσθη ὁ θυμὸς τοῦ θεοῦ.  

2 Καὶ εἶδον ὡς θάλασσαν ὑαλίνην μεμιγμένην πυρί, καὶ τοὺς νικῶντας ἐκ τοῦ θηρίου καὶ ἐκ τῆς εἰκόνος αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐκ τοῦ ἀριθμοῦ τοῦ ὀνόματος αὐτοῦ ἑστῶτας ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν τὴν ὑαλίνην, ἔχοντας κιθάρας τοῦ θεοῦ.  3 καὶ ᾄδουσιν τὴν ᾠδὴν Μωϋσέως τοῦ δούλου τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν ᾠδὴν τοῦ ἀρνίου λέγοντες· Μεγάλα καὶ θαυμαστὰ τὰ ἔργα σου, κύριε, ὁ θεός, ὁ παντοκράτωρ· δίκαιαι καὶ ἀληθιναὶ αἱ ὁδοί σου, ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν αἰώνων·  4 τίς οὐ μὴ φοβηθῇ, κύριε, καὶ δοξάσει τὸ ὄνομά σου, ὅτι μόνος ὅσιος; ὅτι πάντα τὰ ἔθνη ἥξουσιν καὶ προσκυνήσουσιν ἐνώπιόν σου, ὅτι τὰ δικαιώματά σου ἐφανερώθησαν.  

5 Καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα εἶδον, καὶ ἠνοίγη ὁ ναὸς τῆς σκηνῆς τοῦ μαρτυρίου ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ,  6 καὶ ἐξῆλθον οἱ ἑπτὰ ἄγγελοι οἱ ἔχοντες τὰς ἑπτὰ πληγὰς ἐκ τοῦ ναοῦ, ἐνδεδυμένοι λίνον καθαρὸν λαμπρὸν καὶ περιεζωσμένοι περὶ τὰ στήθη ζώνας χρυσᾶς.  7 καὶ ἓν ἐκ τῶν τεσσάρων ζῴων ἔδωκεν τοῖς ἑπτὰ ἀγγέλοις ἑπτὰ φιάλας χρυσᾶς γεμούσας τοῦ θυμοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων.  8 καὶ ἐγεμίσθη ὁ ναὸς καπνοῦ ἐκ τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐκ τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὸν ναὸν ἄχρι τελεσθῶσιν αἱ ἑπτὰ πληγαὶ τῶν ἑπτὰ ἀγγέλων.

It is finished (v. 1)

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished.

John sees another sign. Like we see throughout the book of Revelation, John tells us when he is starting a new apocalyptic symbol. Further, he tells us explicitly that this is a sign. So, if we are interpreting the text literally—taking a historical, grammatical approach to interpretation—we must take John at his word. This is a sign, not a literalistic event. John has explicitly told us. This sign is great and marvelous. There are seven angels having seven plagues. As we have seen, seven is the number of completion. The number of plagues symbolizes the fact that they are complete. John tells us explicitly, these are the last plagues. In these plagues, the wrath of God is finished.

In the church, we hear two different narratives. We either hear that the wrath of God was finished at the cross or that there will be a final day of wrath at some point in the future from our perspectives. In some cases, both narratives are presented side-by-side even though they are incompatible. The wrath of God was either finished at the cross or will be finished at some point in our future—but it cannot be both. John has consistently pointed us to the cross of Jesus Christ throughout the Revelation. Every apocalyptic sign exalts Jesus’s work on Calvary and the initiation of His kingdom at the cross. It is the reason John can speak of the reigning kingdom of Christ in the midst of worldly nationalism. When John writes, here, that the wrath of God is finished, he intends to draw our attention to the cross, and Christ’s coronation, again. According to John (who wrote Revelation), in his Gospel account, Jesus even declared, “It is finished” as the final wrath of the Father was being poured on Him (John 19:28-30). At that moment, the Scriptures are entirely fulfilled, according to John—everything for the salvation of God’s people and the judgment of the world:

After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit (John 19:28-30).

This necessarily means that the narrative we often hear concerning the end of the world, and the pouring out of God’s wrath at some end-time event or battle is false. The wrath of God was satisfied at the cross according to the entire New Testament and according to John himself. The event symbolized by this sign is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The confession of the saints (v. 2-4)

And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God. And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy; For all the nations will come and worship before You, For Your righteous acts have been revealed.”

Recall from John’s previous signs in Revelation. The sea of glass and fire is the throne room of God (cf. 4:6). The beast is Rome and represents all worldly nations (cf. 13:1-10). The image of the beast is the Imperial cult and represents worldly religion and nationalism (cf. 13:11-18). John here depicts those standing on the sea of glass, before the throne of God above. As we recall John’s previous sign, the saints standing on the sea of glass represent all of those who are in Christ—past, present, and future (cf. 4:1-11). The people of God sing two songs. (1) They sing the song of Moses. Found in Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses is a foretelling of humanity’s inability to keep the Law and be righteous. In the song, the people lean on God’s promise to deliver His people despite their sin. (2) They sing the song of redemption, praising God for his works, might, righteousness, and kingship over the nations. They sing the same song that the 24 elders in Chapter 4 sing. God’s righteous acts have been revealed. How have they been revealed? They have been revealed in the person and work of Christ on Calvary. Consequently, John is here explicitly claiming that God has become king of the nations in Christ on the earth as a result of the crucifixion. He is reigning over the nations on the earth. His work is finished. The world is being saved, not destroyed (cf. John 3:17). All the nations will come to worship before God as a result of Christ’s work on Calvary.

The wrath of God, satisfied (v. 5-8)

After these things I looked, and the temple of the tabernacle of testimony in heaven was opened, and the seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the temple, clothed in linen, clean and bright, and girded around their chests with golden sashes. Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power; and no one was able to enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.

John looks, and the temple is opened to release the angels who are to pour out God’s wrath in conjunction with the crucifixion of Christ. Think about what was accomplished at the crucifixion. The temple, particularly the holy of holies, was closed to anyone but the high-priest who interceded for the nations. Christ’s gives up His spirit and the temple is opened—the veil tears in two, there is darkness and earthquakes (cf. Matthew 27:51-54; Mark 15:33-39; Luke 23:44-49). There is no more division between God and people—no more need for an intercessor or priest because Christ has finished His work. The wrath of God symbolically exits the Temple. One of the four living creatures, an agent who observes the condition of the world (cf. 6:1-8), gives the seven angels each a bowl of wrath—interesting since the angels already carry the wrath of God. This is the full wrath of God to be poured out at the crucifixion. The work is finished upon Jesus’s declaration in John 19.

The temple fills with smoke. John tells us what this sign means. It is the glory and power of God. No one is able to enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels are finished. I am reminded about what happened at Calvary. The Holy of Holies was restricted. People could not approach God. When God’s wrath was poured out on Christ as a substitutionary atonement, the veil was torn and the nations can now enter to approach God despite their sin. If this wrath is far off in our future, then no one today can enter to commune with God. We are still cut off. Since the wrath of God is satisfied with Christ on the cross, the temple is open to the nations—so that the nations can come and worship before the only righteous one (Yahweh; v. 4).

Whatever we read next, it was finished at the cross. We would have to disbelieve Christ, His finished work on Calvary, and God’s satisfied wrath through the cross in order to claim coherently that the bowls of God’s wrath are literalistic and strictly future from our perspective. Scripture’s claim is that God’s wrath is satisfied and His work finished once-for-all at the cross. John has made this point throughout his Revelation. Once again, Revelation proves to be encouraging and edifying rather than a depressing account of some future destruction of the earth. This is our hope, the hope of the Christian, that Christ is saving the world, not condemning it to destruction.

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