The End of the World: “The Belt” – Revelation 16

Ah, the sounds of summer! I remember the sounds of “kick the can” in my old neighborhood – a child with closed eyes counting loudly down from 100 to 0. We had what seemed like a massive number of kids growing up together on Billings Avenue, a prolific Italian Catholic neighborhood in South Jersey. Summer meant FUN! Yet, one of my most profound memories was not of the sunny days, but rather the stifling heat as the sun set outside the bedroom I shared with my older brother growing up. On those hot and muggy summer nights, life seemed long and uncomfortable. Central air conditioning was not yet popular, and certainly not yet affordable for the Smith family. Long and sometimes loud times of talking, laughing, joking and getting into trouble between bedtime and midnight were standard fare for the Smith boys. If you two don’t knock it off, I am coming up there with the belt! That was the familiar sound of my dad, who was sounded certain that we were going to need more than talk to get us in line. Why did he delay? Because he wanted us to listen, change our behavior, and receive grace in spite of our earlier bad behavior. Why did he eventually come up with the belt? Because it was the only way we would ever learn. This was the scenario for early discipline in my life. Dad says that I recall it as being more harsh than it actually was – but no matter. Our relationship has not only survived, but thrived in adulthood.

Now, let me change the story from a memory to a hypothetical – this time an entirely different scenario. In this scene, my brother Russ and I are still in our bunk beds on that hot, summer evening – but we are not alone. Seeing the open window, an evil man climbed up the low back roof to our old home, and got into the upstairs of the house. How should my dad respond? Should dad deal graciously with him, as he would to instruct a wayward son – or should he come forcefully and stand in strength of right – to remove him from the house by whatever means necessary? Most of us have no problem understanding defense of home and family – standing up for what is right. My father’s impulse to discipline his children is not the same as his deliberate and forceful stand to secure what is right – nor should it be. Most of us would do it, but many of us seem to be less clear when our Heavenly Father reveals that He plans to do exactly that.

Let me explain. The Bible says that God made the world, and God made man. Man rebelled against God, and decided that he would be the master of his own life. In doing so, man abandoned the place of blessing as a son and took up a rebel position against God – actively abandoning His rightful rule and helping God’s enemy. The Bible describes lost man as being “at enmity with God”. Lest someone be deceived – no one is ambivalent to God. Either you are surrendered to His leading, or you are resisting it. Either you want to know and follow God, or you want to run your own life. Even passive resistance is a choice to be un-surrendered. Our forgetfulness of God and His longing to walk daily with us, is a type of passive rebellion.

Remember, in the Bible, there are two kinds of people – those who know God and those who need to know Him. The first group is called in the Bible “God’s children” – the second group is called “lost”. The process of adoption – going from “lost” to a “child of God” is an open door, but costs our deliberate intent to surrender of our will to our Loving Master for entrance. He paid the price to settle our sin debts, but insists that we surrender our future to Him. Let me be clear: There is no Biblical plan that assures Heaven to the self-willed and self-led man or woman. Grace is no blanket for arrogance and self-reliance, despite the number of voices that try to theologically justify life-long disobedience as an option of permanent carnality among the children of God.

Among God’s children, there are two kinds of people – those who are surrendered and those who need to stop walking as disobedient children. It is possible to be a child and be disobedient – but doing so removes our sense of security concerning our salvation. We forget that we have been saved from our sins, and walk about unsure of the relationship – a God induced state to draw us back to Him (2 Peter 1). Thus, as God’s children we are disciplined – the process of pain that is designed in order to mature us to be yielded. At the same time, the Bible clearly and graphically says the lost are not disciplined – but in the end they are punished. They are like the man who broke in to my house – set for evil and repulsed by force. The sin and rebellion of their lives, and the failure to ask the Redeemer to pay the penalty for them, makes punishment inevitable. God’s purpose in that punishment is not redemption, but a graphic demonstration of both His Supreme power and ultimate justice. (In the Bible, hell is NOT a prison for re-training, but unending separation and destruction).

In the Biblical story, we are coming to the end of the lost – the wrath and punishment – and that is our story as we open to Revelation 16-19 in the next few lessons. It is a heavy passage, and careful preparation is essential. We must be sure we understand what God revealed He will do – adding nothing and subtracting nothing. Pastor Sid Litke offered some excellent words concerning the final disposition of men and women. He noted the Bible teaches three truths concerning life after death:

(1)   Everyone will exist eternally either in heaven or hell.

The prophet Daniel heard about the afterlife from an angel: Daniel 12:2 “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. 3“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

Jesus spoke to Jerusalem aristocracy about the afterlife in real terms: John 5:25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26“For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; 27and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. 28“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”

Revelation 20:14 “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

(2)   Everyone has only one life in which to determine their destiny.

The writer to the Hebrews reminded of Christ’s second coming in 9:27 “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.

(3)   Heaven or hell is determined by whether a person puts their trust in Christ alone to save them.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life”…and later in verse 36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

With that in mind, let’s examine the final story of wrath in the next several lessons. In Revelation 16, some key truths are unfolded… These truths are not speculations, for they are gleaned from His Word. At the same time, these truths are under steady and heavy attack – both in the world and now increasingly within the church!

Key Principle: God told us the story of final judgment against the rebellious earthly system of men because He wanted us to know and face important truths.

First, a brief walk through the details of the story…

The End Begins:

Revelation 16:1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”

Angels don’t hunger to pour out punishment, but they don’t hesitate, either. They have to be COMMANDED loudly, and that command comes from the very holy place of God’s Heavenly Temple. The call to judgment is the call from the Creator. The power behind the judgment is the pent up sense that wrong must be righted.

Seven Bowls Spilled Out:

The text released in rapid succession each of the first six judgments, and then offered a pause – just as it did in the case of the seals in chapter 6 and the trumpets in chapters 8 and 9. The first two had no commentary added, just the judgment angel and his effect:

  • Revelation 16:2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth; and it became a loathsome and malignant sore on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image.

It appears that those who took the physical mark of the beast and the number of the name of the man and system were stricken with a terrible malady, manifesting itself in sores. It was directed against them specifically, and may have been a byproduct of the taking of the mark itself – some kind of severe infection or reaction to the process of the marking. There simply is little detail about what will be obvious in that time.

  • Revelation 16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing in the sea died.

On the heels of the pouring out of the sores came a second calamity – the fouling of the sea. It is impossible to know if the sea referred to is only the Mediterranean – called “Mare Nostrum” or “our sea” by the Romans of John’s day. It may refer to all seas, but it surely, at least, referred to that one, so familiar to any first century Roman.

By the third “wrath pourer” – we have a bit of commentary from Heaven and earth about the judgments. From here, the formula appears to be “judgment delivered” followed by comments either from other beings, or by the author himself, about the weight, significance and justice involved in the judgment.

  • Revelation 16:4 Then the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; 6 for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”

The third wrath bearer was sent to foul fresh water rivers and springs – making the polluted and of no use. The commentary suggests that this was in response to the bloodshed of martyrdom in the final age. The angel reaffirmed the righteousness of God in the judgment – a point we will return to later – because even the church today finds it hard to do. We emphasize God’s love and grace, and hesitate to annunciate the equal eternal truths of God’s power and justice. The God of the modern church often sounds more a passive paternal Santa Claus – not an absolute Sovereign and Righteous judge.

  • Revelation 16:8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. 9 Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.

The fourth angel was directed toward daylight with its intensive sunshine. The searing heat pressed upon man – and his response was to hurl insults to God, as though He had no Divine right to inflict them. Lost man, at his core, believes God (if He exists) – certainly possesses no special right over him, for he has been educated past both Creation and a Creator – and feels no responsibility to recognize rights of God. Further, in his political ideals of democracy and inherent disdain for slavery, he has been “enlightened” to the point that he can no longer be called upon to please an owner. Modern man has liberated himself from God – the only trouble of such a state of self-made position is this: It is not true to reality. Believers need to be careful not to adopt these attitudes… God has rights. Through most ages of western history, this case would not have had to be reminded.

  • Revelation 16:10 Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, 11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds.

Yet another angel was directed to pour out wrath- this time against the place of the evil one that caused the mark on man. The response of people was to “gnaw on their tongues” because of the pain. The term for PAIN (ponos) is the word for distress. The darkness was not painful, it was disconcerting and distressing. The bit upon their tongues; but did not do so long enough to cease wagging them in front of God. They did not change. They would not change. They felt wronged when the Master of Creation insisted that they were not His equal, nor His judge. They argued like the sound of the violator when caught by the policeman. In guilt, there is often a good reason – or so the perpetrator argues.

  • Revelation 16:12 The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river, the Euphrates; and its water was dried up, so that the way would be prepared for the kings from the east.

The sixth angel folded back the waters of the rivers that had defined civilization since the end of the Neolithic age – Mesopotamia. The basins of the two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates – yielded the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians and Persians. Some of man’s greatest early achievements were founded in them. The base sixty system found on the face of our modern watch has its foundation in Babylon. The angel caused the river system to stall, offering passage from the east to the Holy Land without land obstacle. From this, the author offers three observations:

The first observation was the enemy’s response to the removal of the obstacle – to incite war against God and His people. The enemy drew man’s national forces together. They were not one world government – but rather separate nation states that were drawn by one authority to fight. Some demonic arm twisting was offered to persuade men around the globe that the fight was in their own self-interest.

Revelation 16:13 And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs; 14 for they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.

The second observation was an added remark that seems to have been the collaborating Savior’s quote. He was one of the writers noted in Revelation 1, and He interjected this: Get ready, because the time is very short. I suggest this was directed to any who are alive in that moment – that they should see the days as nearly over.

Revelation 16:15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame.”)

Finally, there was a marker to reveal the nature of the final struggle and its locale – a war in the Near East. Let me be clear: the end of all rebellion will be fought on Near Eastern soil. For this, many of my Muslim friends and I agree. The end is in fire, and the place of the war is in that part of the world.

Revelation 16:16 And they gathered them together to the place which in Hebrew is called Har-Magedon.

  • Revelation 16:17 Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, “It is done.”18 And there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great an earthquake was it, and so mighty. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. 21 And huge hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, came down from heaven upon men; and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, because its plague was extremely severe.

The seventh angel is called upon to do his work – the great finishing sound that appears to yield the quake that devastates the earth. So much can be said of this event, but there is an expansion of it when we look carefully at Revelation 19, so “stay tuned”.

Step back for a moment, because the final pummeling of the earth in the wrath of God is a horrid scene for lost humanity. We cannot simply dispassionately offer a report like a newsman at the scene of a horrendous natural disaster. God has reasons for revealing the wrath end of man.

Five Truths from the Final Judgment

Let me suggest there are at least five lessons that I see in this reckoning of wrath. Each is significant, but for time economy, we will touch them lightly:

Truth #1: Wrath is not God’s desire, but it is His responsibility – so we should be understanding.

A father must both discipline and protect. A government must aid provision as well as defend right. God is BOTH a King and a Father. He has no desire to harm man, but rebellion cannot be rewarded nor overlooked. For this reason, wrath is inevitable and Hell is both eternal and irreversible to those who will not yield to His authority. The Bible is not silent on this:

  • Revelation 14:11 “…the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day and night”
  • Revelation 20:14 “This is the second death, the lake of fire” 15 “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”

Truth #2: Evil has an end – so we should be encouraged.

We must take heart that wrong will be righted, that injustice will be remembered. Every victim can rest assured that this life may let “the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing” – but there is coming a day when all the wrongs will be paid for entirely. I do not seek to evoke a hunger for revenge in us, but simply to acknowledge on behalf of anyone who has ever cried out to God: “It is not fair! Don’t you see that?” He did. He saw it. He will make it right. Count on it and take courage – God misses nothing.

Truth #3: Effect has a cause – and we should not be deceived.

The revelation of wrath closes a Biblical loop between cause and effect that is part of God’s Holy Plan. We have to admit to a problem. People don’t connect punishment with anything positive in modern life, but there is a benefit to knowing the punishment before the crime is committed. The knowledge of punishment is both a DETERRENT and an EDUCATION to reality – everything has consequences. Heaven’s story is incomplete without the revelation of God’s wrath. Why? Because disconnecting the penalty of judgment from the mutiny of man removes the real sense of the heinousness of sin.

  • When we disconnected sex from pregnancy, people took it as a way to make wrong behavior more convenient. Birth control was not, in my view, immoral in and of itself – but it did seem to quickly have the net effect of promoting promiscuous behaviors. When pregnancy was a more likely result, more care to maintain purity seems to have been inferred – because cause and effect were connected. Now health care professionals, faced with a deluge of sexually transmitted diseases, seek to move on to eliminating other symptoms of our wrong choices. One day, perhaps, they will wake up to the fact that there are psychological and spiritual effects that cannot be passed over with a simple pill.
  • When we disconnected educating our children from parents to outsourcing, many people divested themselves of the responsibility to pass on values. Again, public education is not immoral in itself, but it has contributed to the sense of the responsibility of raising a child being shifted to the state and common society – and not back onto the shoulders of nuclear families.
  • When we disconnect our marriage commitment from our parental duty, we quantifiably diminished natural child bonding and balanced child rearing. People now make a proud statement that “I didn’t want to stay together just for the children.” I keep asking, “Why not?” When did our personal pleasure become more important than taking responsibility for the decision to bring children into the world and raise them in a stable home environment, providing both a father and mother – God’s obvious biological plan for the home? Why is selfishness and lack of self-control in learning to get along with your chosen spouse now a celebrated value among adults that are trying to train children not to exhibit the very same trait of selfishness? We need to admit that our children KNOW that love is a choice. If we choose to stop loving our spouse, we can choose to stop loving our children – and they already know that. Their security, in part, IS drawn from our commitment to marriage.
  • When we systematically disconnect work from sustainability – that is, pay people for not working, we can easily slip from aiding the downtrodden to de-linking cause and effect. In the end, people can end up seeing greater benefit from the freedoms they feel in NOT working. The net effect is not a more energized and creative work force, but a lazier and less motivated one – that possesses even higher expectations from their society to provide for their needs. We need to reassert that WORK IS GOOD, and as Paul reminded Timothy – the “hardworking farmer is the one who benefits first and most from his labor.” (2 Tim. 2).

Truth #4: Second chances are not guaranteed – so we should be warned.

This week thousands of Americans will file for extensions for taxes. A system that was designed as a failsafe has become a regular part of American expectation – there should always be a way for me to get another chance, because my circumstances are not the same as everyone else. I am not arguing against the measure of grace afforded by the US government, nor am I suggesting an extension is a sin – only that we can slowly begin to adopt an attitude from it.

God’s absolute right as Creator to insist that all things belong solely to Him must not be diminished in the grace message of salvation through Christ alone. God is not my buddy – He is my King. He is not just my friend – He is Righteous altogether. The Bible defines what God considers His responsible duty – to stamp out all effects and power of sin and rebellion. John wasn’t embarrassed to report that is exactly what He will do. He knew and wrote of God’s absolute right to judge and crush all rebellion.

Truth #5: Warning is a blessing – so we should be changed.

Without cause and effect, Grace is indistinguishable. We can only understand the sacrifice of Jesus and our undeserved salvation BECAUSE we know what SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED to sinners like us. We rebelled and continue to live in varying shades of rebellion – and we know it. Our nature is to grow downward into the mud of self. When God acts in wrath, He openly repays rebellion. When God writes about it ahead of time – He offers GRACE and invites CHANGE!

John thought this sign was something “great and marvelous” because it ended the war introduced in the Garden of Eden. Seven angels dumped out saucers of wrath. As they were emptied – all of man’s insurrection was crushed, and God’s holy right over His wayward Creation was publicly and permanently restored. All legal requirements were satisfied. All opposition was stopped… that day is coming soon. You don’t have to face God’s wrath – He has warned you today.

Paul reminded the first century believers at Thessalonica:

1 Thessalonians 5:1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. 7 For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.

God told us the story of final judgment against the rebellious earthly system of men because He wanted us to know and face important truths.

Perhaps you’ve seen the famous French sculpture’s work called “The Thinker.” The first cast of the statue (originally referred to as “the Poet”) from 1902 was part of Auguste Rodin’s larger work ‘The Gates of Hell” – an ornamental door for a proposed Palace of Decorative Arts. Critics believe they know what the thinker was thinking about. The nude man (probably a nude Dante), stripped of all his adornments as the day he was born – contemplated in mute amazement the end of lost man. He sat before the gates of hell –contemplating the wrath of God and an un-yielding man’s fate. Perhaps we should sit beside him for a moment, and ponder it as well.