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Seven Bowls Emptied

Anglican scholar N. T. Wright tells of an encounter with a former tutor while Wright was working on his doctoral dissertation. Both were out cycling on a day off, and the tutor asked Wright how his research on the doctrine of justification was going. ‘Actually,’ he confessed, ‘I’m having a hard time with wrath.’ ‘Aren’t we all!’ the tutor said cheerfully and rode off on his bicycle.

Wright’s teacher was undoubtedly correct: everyone (or most everyone) struggles with the terrifying descriptions of God’s wrath in the Bible. Even the prophet Malachi bemoaned, ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’ (Mal. 3:2). ‘This impulse,’ notes Richard Phillips, ‘has led liberal scholars to reconstruct the biblical image of God without the notions of holiness and wrath. H. Richard Niebuhr scorned the liberal undermining of the Bible’s message, describing it in these terms: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’ Phillips then concludes, ‘However palatable such a message may be to secularist trend-setters it is very far from the Christianity of the Bible.’

Indeed, as we look this week at Revelation 15:5-16:21 we are faced with two significant expressions that only serve to underline the truth of God’s wrath. First, according to the opening sentence of chapter 15, John saw ‘seven angels with the seven last plagues – last, because with them God’s wrath is completed’. Secondly, after the outpouring of the seventh bowl, a loud voice from God’s throne cried out ‘It is done!’ (16:17). The construction of this phrase indicates that God’s work of judgment had been accomplished once and for all. ‘Completed’ and ‘done’. These are the two significant and tell-tale verbs.

The previous judgments (the seals and the trumpets) were partial; those of the bowls are final. It could be expressed thus: ‘the eye of faith sees in the breaking of the seals the permissive will of God, in the blowing of the trumpets the reformative purpose of God, and in the pouring out of the bowls the retributive justice of God’ (John Stott).

In John’s preparatory vision (15:5-8) we are told that it was by the direct sanction of God that the seven angels emerged as agents of judgment. Their seven bowls were filled with the wrath of God. The first four bowls, like the first four trumpets (8:6-12), were targeted in the same sequence upon the created sphere. The main difference is that the trumpets damaged only one third of each aspect of creation, whereas the bowls damaged each completely.

The pouring out of the fifth bowl plunged the kingdom of the beast into darkness and consequent anarchy, causing great human suffering. Yet the people still ‘refused to repent’ (16:9, 11). Like Pharaoh, who endured five of the plagues described here, they had hardened their hearts, and it was now too late. Instead of glorifying God, they cursed him.

The contents of the sixth bowl were poured out on the River Euphrates. By drying up the river, the way was open for ‘the kings from the east’ to invade. At this point three evil frog-like spirits appear out of three mouths (of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet). Could these represent the lies of propaganda by which the kings of the whole world are persuaded to assemble for the final battle ‘on the great day of God Almighty’?

John then notes a mysterious gathering of the kings of the east, and their rendezvous at a place called in Hebrew ‘Armageddon’ (16:16). The meaning of Armageddon is not seriously in doubt. The Hebrew to which John refers means ‘Mount Megiddo’. Har is the Hebrew word for ‘mount’, and Megiddo was a fortress city overlooking the plain to the northwest of Jerusalem that hosted numerous great battles of Israel in antiquity and as recently as Napoleon and the British army of WWI. One writer notes that ‘It was the battlefield of Israel’.

What does this mean for us? Is this the location where the armies of the world unite to battle the people of God? Join us this Sunday as we consider the meaning of Armageddon and these bowls of wrath. As the sequence of both the seals and trumpets ended in the climactic coming, so does the sequence of the bowls. A loud voice from the temple cried, ‘It is done!’

Will you be ready? You don’t want to miss this Lord’s Day. In fact, bring someone with you. Several decades ago, Larry Norman wrote the song: ‘I wish We’d All Been Ready’

Life was filled with guns and war
And everyone got trampled on the floor
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
How could you have been so blind
The Father spoke, the demons dined
The Son has come….

Even so, come Lord Jesus,