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As we move towards the final phase of judgment from chapter 15 onwards, we begin with a number of interludes that prepare us for the circumstances on earth when the final set of judgments is poured out.

  • The Woman and the Dragon: 12:1 – 13:1

This first interlude presents us with another strange symbolic image: first we see a pregnant woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars. As she is about to give birth a red dragon with 7 heads and 10 horns sweeps down from the sky and prepares to devour her child when he is born. However, God snatches up the child and the woman is supernaturally given wings so she can flee to the desert to hide in safety for a period of time. The angels and archangels fight against the dragon and his angels and defeat them, and they are cast on to the earth where again they try to devour the woman and all who are faithful to God’s commandments.

So who is the woman? Well, it may be a symbolic representation of Mary who gave birth to Jesus, who was tempted by the devil, but who did not succumb and who, after his death and resurrection did ascend to God’s right hand. However, with the reference to the faithful in the last verse of the chapter, the woman may represent the faithful remnant who, at any time, are faithful to God’s will.

And who is the red dragon? It’s clearly a personification of all that is evil so represents Satan – and in verse 9, this is specifically said. This section ends with the dragon standing on the shore of the sea.

  • The Unholy Trinity: 13:2 – 18

This interlude continues with what I’ve called the Unholy Trinity, because it amounts to a blasphemous representation of the true Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  1. The father figure is the dragon, Satan, whom we’ve already met.
  2. The second person of this unholy trinity is a beast with 7 heads and 10 horns who comes up out of the sea; his heads are covered with blasphemous names and he has characteristics of several wild animals. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, in a mockery of this, the beast is fatally injured but he is restored to life, and people marvel at him and begin to worship him. Whilst Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, the Antichrist is very much a political figure who exercises power and authority over the whole world.
  3. The third person of this trinity is a second beast who rises up out of the earth looking like a lamb but speaking like a dragon. He led people to worship the beast, and performed miracles including calling down fire from heave – a parody of the tongues of fire which represented the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Whilst the Holy Spirit compels no one, this unholy spirit forces everyone to receive a mark on their forehead or right hand, the infamous mark of the beast. Notice that there’s nothing spiritual about this mark: it’s actually economic – no one can buy or sell anything without this mark. And the number of the beast is 666, which, the passage says, is the number of a man…and according to chapter 13:18, if you’re wise and have insight, you might be able to work it out. Well, over the years, people have had a whale of a time trying to work out who this antichrist figure is. You see, in both Hebrew, Greek and Latin, numbers are represented by letters of the alphabet with certain letters representing larger number like 100, 500 or 1,000. You’ll all be familiar with Roman numerals which use letters for numbers. The earliest suggestion was Caesar Nero which does indeed add up to 666. One of the latest theories might send shivers down your spine if you have a computer: the Hebrew letter used to represent 6 is w, so 666 is www; so is the mark of the beast the worldwide web?
  • A further heavenly vision: 14:1 – 20

Moving on to a much more pleasant interlude, we see the redeemed once more surrounding the Lamb of God: unlike the beast who had blasphemous names on his head, the redeemed are marked with God’s name on their foreheads. I love the way that John keeps on focussing us back to heaven, and the redeemed, and praise and worship. It’s as if to say, we know some awful things are happening but through it all and after it all, the redeemed with be with God in heaven.

This is followed by a series of six angelic messages to people from God:

  1. First a call to worship God and accept the gospel.
  2. Second, an announcement about the fall of Babylon: its fall is actually in the later chapter 18, but, as often with prophetic and apocalyptic words, events still to happen are treated as if they’ve already happened.
  3. Third, the promise of judgment on those accepting the mark of the beast. Let’s hope it’s not the web, otherwise I’ll have to start writing out my sermons in longhand!!
  4. Fourth, an announcement that it is nearly time for the harvest of men.
  5. Fifth, an angel appears with a sharp sickle in his hand.
  6. Finally, a massive bloodbath is foretold in which an area the size of Israel in covered with blood to the depth of the horses’ bridles.
  • Preparation for God’s final judgments on the earth: 15:1 – 8

Seven final bowls of judgment are now prepared and placed in the hands of seven angels. Even as this ultimate period of violence is about to be unleashed on the earth, praise and worship continues in heaven and assurance is given once more that eventually all nations will worship before God.

  • The Seven Bowls: 16:1 – 21

As these bowls of judgment are poured out, I can’t help but be reminded in part of the plagues in Egypt before the Israelites were released from their bondage, but they’re also intense forms of some of the events which have already taken place.

  1. plague of sores on all who have received the mark of the beast.
  2. Polluted seas which killed of all the life in the sea.
  3. Polluted rivers, depriving people of decent drinking water.
  4. Intense heat from the sun, sufficient to scorch people, and they cursed God for it.
  5. period of utter darkness.
  6. The River Euphrates dries up and there seems to be some sort of demonic activity as evil spirits emerge from the mouths of the unholy trinity and prepare world leaders for battle.
  7. Finally, massive natural disturbances of thunder, lightning, earthquakes, huge hailstones and tsunamis which lead to the wholesale destruction of mountains and islands.
  • A Tale of Two Cities: 17:1 – 18:24

The two cities which appear in the closing chapters of the book are Babylon and the New Jerusalem. We’ll deal with New Jerusalem next week, but these next two chapters portray the city of Babylon. The city is portrayed as a prostitute dressed in purple and scarlet and with all the trapping if enormous wealth, and she is sitting on the back of a scarlet beast – which is, I assume, the red dragon of earlier chapters. She sits on seven hills, and has a number of kings in alliance with her, but her downfall and end are imminent.

There is a complete absence of any kind of morality in this city and also a significant absence of any references to religious activity: everything about Babylon is economic rather than spiritual. All that really matters to the people of this city is trade, business, consumerism. As the city’s demise comes about, listen to these words from chapter 18:11 – 13:

                  The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her

                  because no one buys tier cargoes any more – cargoes of gold,

                  silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk,

and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of

every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and

marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and

frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat;

cattle and sheep, horses and carriages; and the bodies and

souls of men.

Those final words are so chilling: trading in men’s souls. Doesn’t that remin d you of jesus’s words, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” So where is or was Babylon? Three suggestions made by a range of theologians:

  1. Literally Babylon: very unlikely, as, by the time John was writing, Babylon was already a city in decline; today, all that’s left are a few mounds covering about one square mile about 50 miles south of Baghdad.
  2. The Vatican and the RC Church: this has been widely held by fundamentalist protestants, particularly in America and Northern Ireland, and you will still find some quite horrific websites portraying the Pope as the whore of Babylon astride the beast; but this is also rather unlikely as the city is seen far more in economic and business terms than in religious terms.
  3. Rome: the reference to seven hills certainly suggests Rome. The treaty of Rome was the treaty on which the European Union was founded, and one of the key elements of the EU is its status as a trading organisation, which is why so much was made of this during the referendum debates.

Whatever you decide, you can see how the early Christians could certainly see the link with Rome, which was a major trading empire, and modern applications could certainly relate to economic activity around the world. You could almost read the banking crash into this, as the consequences of that are still being felt here and globally. The passage clearly envisages some kind of major economic disaster. For me, its greatest application for us today is its judgment on consumerism and material greed.

  • Hallelujah: 19:1 – 10

The vision now takes us back to heaven and, as Babylon falls, there is once again great celebration in heaven as the wedding supper of the Lamb is announced. There is an interesting little aside in 19:10 as this section comes to an end. John is so carried away by the vision and the angel revealing it that he kneels to worship the angel and is rebuked because he is only a fellow-servant with John, and John is directed to focus his worship on God.

So finally, what application is there for us from these central chapters of the book?

  1. God’s word to us can sometimes be bitter as well as sweet. Are we always ready to hear his challenges as well as his encouragements?
  2. We are constantly being called to faithfulness, which always results in blessing, if not here, certainly in the kingdom of heaven.
  3. How materialistic are we? Consumerism and material greed lead in Babylon to disaster, complete economic collapse and loss of wealth.
  4. Finally
  • 2 Corinthians 10:17-18

    “But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”

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