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"God’s Righteous Judgments" Revelation 16

The Causes and Timing of God’s Judgment

To Reveal and Magnify Jesus Christ

Popular interpretations of Revelation focus on scary end-of the world scenarios and dramatic predictions. These always fail, for prediction is not the purpose of Revelation. As a result of this misuse, many believers have lost practical confidence in Revelation and rarely turn to it for the encouragement it was intended to give. What is that encouragement? Jesus Christ sits enthroned in his mediatorial kingdom, the promised throne of his father David, at his Father’s right hand (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:30-36). He is ruling over all things for the sake of his beloved church (Eph. 1:20-23). The kingdom promised by the prophets and by our Lord and his apostles is his saving rule over men and nations who confess and submit to his word; it is his judging, destroying rule over all the rest. His kingdom includes men and nations from every tribe and tongue under heaven. He rules men from the inside out, by the power of his saving grace and the quickening work of his Spirit. He is not trying to gather white people into one branch of his kingdom, black people into another branch and place, and brown people into another. He is gathering all his elect into one fold, and there will be one flock and one shepherd, as he said (John 10:16). We must serve him fervently and lovingly and be about the kingdom business he has given to us until he returns.

To Avenge the Blood of his Saints and Prophets

Part of his ruling work is to judge the rebellious nations, beginning with Israel. We rarely hear of this; I suspect we do not believe it – that the calamities in the world, the spiritual blindness of our nation, and the perversity plaguing us are his judgments upon his enemies. Revelation is our Lord’s Jeremiad – his declaration of a cataclysmic judgment against the people who rejected him in the first century. He warned them that “upon you will come all the righteous blood shed on the earth” (Matt. 23:35). Now, the seven vials or bowls of judgment are about to be poured out. This will be the conclusion of the three series of seven judgments: seals, trumpets, and bowls. Why tell of this one event in three ways? To emphasize its certainty and significance. This is the way God’s prophets have always foretold God’s mighty works – prismatic repetition with unfolding clarity and specificity. The destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the Levitical order was not only a public judgment upon Israel’s unbelief but also the public termination of the old covenant order. It had served its purpose by bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Upon whom were these bowls to be poured? First century Israel. Why? To avenge the blood of the saints and prophets (16:6). By these judgments, our Lord’s word of warning was vindicated (Matt. 24:36) and his authority as judge of nations is upheld.

To Encourage His Persecuted People

Our Savior’s rule over all gives peace in troubling times – not the peace of passivity but the peace that enables prayerful, confident, wise, and bold actions. Our Lord’s rule overcomes the fear of man and inspires us to serve him in our place with the gifts he has given to us. The church in the first century needed encouragement. Satan was attacking Christ’s precious bride. He used the beast of Roman statism and the second beast of apostate Judaism to try to slay her. Simply earning a living could be dangerous. Assembling for worship was life-threatening. It was much to ask such a young church to spill her blood for Jesus Christ, to live out “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Our Lord’s encouragement did not take the form chosen by many today: compromise to save your skin, your positive social media presence, or your friends. He did not recommend escapism or mystical forms of piety that avoided proclamation and conflict with the world. His encouragement to them and to us is to see his glory at the Father’s right hand, to walk with him, and to live by faith in him – whatever that might cost, wherever it might lead. He is worthy, and in him we are the light of the world. We are strangers and pilgrims here. We will bear a certain level of reproach and must boast in his cross as our highest badge of honor. We need this same encouragement – as we raise our children, work to provide bread, and shine as lights in this perverse age. Our encouragement is to see Christ’s glory and to walk with the King so that he shines his light through you and leads many to his everlasting kingdom.

The Seven Bowls of God’s Judgment

The First Three Bowls (vv. 1-4)

The key point of these seven bowls is finality. They are strikingly similar in content to the seven trumpets. Most commentators therefore see them as representing the same judgments – albeit with the seven bowls adding the element of extreme misery and terror upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the seventh bowl being the destruction of the city itself. The first bowl is poured out upon those who worship the beast. They are filled with loathsome sores, like the boils with which God plagued the Egyptians. The Jews crucified the Christ while kissing Caesar, and now they will feel the evil of this apostasy. This is strong encouragement to us not to worship the beast, for statism is a plague upon us, body and soul. The second bowl of judgment turned the waters into blood – like the Nile. All died in the sea – Jerusalem was struck with extreme thirst during the Roman siege. The third bowl similarly infects the waters. The Jews rejected Jesus Christ, the living water, and gave him vinegar and gall to drink in the hour of his suffering. Now the righteous Lord will inflict unbearable thirst upon Jerusalem. Those with ample and safe drinking water can form no just conception of real thirst without any possibility of relief. Imagine the rich man in hell, begging for one drop to cool the tip of his tongue, and perhaps we will be motivated to hold fast to the Lord Jesus and to reject the beast.

Interlude of Glory (vv. 5-7)

Do not miss the point of this symbolism. The Lord is righteous. He is the Judge of the nations. The Lord Jesus Christ is now ascended and reigning at the Father’s right hand (Matt. 28:18). If once you get this truth into your soul, it will forever change you. He, the Lord Jesus Christ, not man, is reigning. Not political parties or armies, not wealthy families or corporations, not forums and foundations, but Jesus Christ. I know this will require us to adjust what we think “kingdom success” looks like. It is too much informed, as Judaism and later Romanism was, by earthly success, human armies, forced cultural unity without underlying spiritual vitality based upon the new birth. False shepherds settle for lesser, fraudulent substitutes for Christ’s kingdom, for they do not know the Lord. He “is, was, and is to come.” He thus judged Israel in the first century. He is working out his purposes. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Mediatorial King. Into his hand, the Father has given all rule, authority, and power. He will vindicate his church. “It is a righteous thing with God to repay tribulation to those that trouble us” (2 Thess. 1:6). And the voice answers: “Even so, Lord God Almighty; true and righteous are your judgments.”

God Almighty, the Judge of heaven and earth, rules through his Son. He is bringing salvation to his people, and he is a tearing lion against his enemies. This is the reason that truth matters so much. The Lord judges men and nations by his word and gospel (Rom. 2:16). Therefore, those who live in rebellion against him, he will judge them. Men do not need to feel better about their sins but to feel as badly as possible about them – so that they will turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, the righteous Judge, before it is too late. This is hard for us to hear, for we are at heart peacemakers and want to see men blessed. We must also recognize that the risen Savior will judge his enemies. He is “expecting until all his enemies are made a footstool for his feet” (Heb. 10:12-13). The Holy Spirit is working in the world not to teach men to find their happy heaven on earth but to flee to Jesus Christ from the wrath to come. His work is sober, and it sobers us up. His work is not to make us feel better in our sins but to lead us to hate and forsake them, to be forgiven and then comforted by our Savior.

The Last Four Bowls (vv. 8-21)

The fourth bowl is a scorching burning; this hearkens back to the plague of hail that fell upon the Egyptians and the fire from heaven that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. As Jerusalem has become Sodom and Egypt (11:8), it is just that God’s plagues would fall upon her. She has become an enemy of God and persecutor of his people. This scorching fire did not lead to repentance but to blasphemy – a dreadful picture of hell and one reason it will never end. Men will never stop sinning. In the absence of transforming grace, God’s judgments harden the heart. O, pray that the Lord will give us tender hearts that will respond to his judgements by forsaking our sins. Receive this warning now, for we see it all around us – that when the Lord judges sin, unrepentant sinners grow more hardened and angry in their sins. So it is with the fifth bowl – darkness so intense that men injure themselves and are in pain because of it – but still, no repentance. If the Lord has hedged up your way and you know his hand is against you because of your sins, turn to him quickly. “I made haste and delayed not to keep your commandments” (Ps. 119:60). Do not overestimate your strength against his darkness. He is able to plague men so severely that they gnaw their tongues until they bleed and to unsettle them so that they have ulcers. It is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

The sixth bowl is the same as the sixth trumpet (9:14) – the Euphrates River symbolically dried up so that the kings from the east can sweep over the land and destroy Jerusalem. The language of the sixth bowl is more universal because we are moving to the end of the judgments. The Lord has loosed unclean spirits upon Israel and Jerusalem (v. 13) – the dragon, Satan, the beast (the Roman Empire), and the false prophet, the little beast of the emperor cult in Jerusalem. Together these are the lying spirits, a plague like frogs, by which the Lord once judged Egypt but now judges apostate Jerusalem. She rejected the light of the world and is now given wholly over to deception. The Jews thought they could win against the might of Rome and that crucifying the Lord’s Christ and persecuting the church would have no consequences. They are wrong. Our Lord has now, as he promised, overrun their land with false prophets (Matt. 24:24). He is coming like a thief upon Jerusalem, gathering his armies to battle against his harlot wife. That this is not a literal battle is seen by the name of the place – Harmaggedon: the mountain of Meggido. There is no mountain there, for it is the famous Plain of Esdraelon, where Barak defeated the Canaanites and Gideon the Amalekites. It is not meant to be taken literally but symbolically – a place of great slaughter. Now, however, it is Jerusalem that will be slaughtered.

Let us not work backwards trying to understand Revelation – finding ways to make its statements fit what we think will happen at the end of history. Let us work in the direction the Spirit has indicated. The timing is imminent: that generation. The judged is specifically revealed – the place where our Lord was crucified, spiritually called Sodom and Egypt (11:18). All the symbols should be interpreted in the light of the clearly indicated historical context. They certainly apply to us in our times, but their application is not a roadmap of the end times but a warning to hold fast to Jesus Christ. Israel and Jerusalem did not, and now the city will fall. The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air – from the temple of heaven, the Lord’s voice – It is done. Jerusalem is done. Lightning and thunder, and then a great earthquake – the city was split open – huge hailstones fell from the sky. This is likely a general reference to the Roman bombardment – stones as heavy as 75 pounds, painted black so that they could not be seen at night. The great Babylon now falls – there is no possibility this is Rome. It is clearly a symbol, as Babylon did not exist when John wrote. It is a symbol for Jerusalem – like Sodom and Egypt. Jerusalem, its apostate leadership, its obsolete temple, and its persecuting hatred of Christ’s church has become God’s enemy. The full cup from the winepress of God’s anger will be poured out upon Jerusalem. Our Lord Jesus proclaimed “It is finished” from the cross, as the great declaration of victory over sin and death. He now declares “Jerusalem is finished” from his heavenly throne. God’s plagues destroyed the city that was once his throne and dwelling place. It lost its place. The daughters of Jerusalem wept bitterly as the hail fell from heaven. No Savior appeared to save her. He had already come, and they crucified him.


The Urgency of God’s Judgments

Stand in Awe of His Righteousness

Heaven worships the Lord God Almighty for his just and true judgments. And we want to hear as little as possible about what makes heaven rejoice! This is the reason men sin with such recklessness and then live with such guilt and dangerous methods to remove and forget their guilt – they do not fear the Lord. If we respect the Lord’s righteousness, it makes us hate sin (Ps. 97:10). Fear of the Lord motivates repentance and coming to Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can deliver us, and he will deliver us. He has delivered many of you since the day he revealed his righteousness and your sinfulness to your heart. You must tell others who the only deliver is – the holy and righteous Savior. Since the Lord is righteous and judges heaven and earth, we can be bold in the face of man’s threats and persecutions. We are restrained in our use of this world and participation in our present world system. We know a reckoning draws near: that we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). All will stand before him. In his world, no one gets away with anything, ever, no matter how much our sins are hidden from men. We are naked and open before him. Let this open door into heaven’s response to the Lord God Almighty and his righteous judgments humble you. Be reminded that the world is not what sinners say it is. Not one sin escapes his notice; he will reward every good done by faith and love. It is very different to live before the face of the holy God in this way. I pray we shall stand in awe of his righteousness and praise him for the clear judgments happening daily around us.

Search Your Heart Honestly

Why does the Bible speak so much about judgment? It is a jarring message to our careless and self-excusing hearts. Those who warn of sin and judgment usually find little support, no matter how sweetly they also woo men to come to Jesus Christ. Sinners want to live without consequences for their actions. There is no such thing as sin, only mean people who tell you “no” about the things that matter most to you. But we cannot preach God’s truth unless we speak of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:9-11). This world is fallen. Judgment is coming. You and I are sinners. We must search our hearts honestly on this point and not listen to the liars. The lies are very inviting – feel good religion that makes its peace with the world, a God who is affirming and never negative, and a Bible full of pithy stories and pathways to earthly success but without any bite of warning. This is not simply the religion of our age. It has been the preferred religion of every age. It is not the religion of Jesus Christ. He sends his Spirit to warn men of sin and to flee to him for refuge from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).

Settle with the Judge before He Comes

The true gospel is honest. It tells us that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who humbled himself beyond all calculation to share our nature and bear our judgment. He obeyed God’s law for us, because not one of us can obey it. One of his names in the Bible is “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:5-6) because he makes us righteous before the holy God. And he bore our sins – the Father laid the full weight of our judgment upon his Son. And having paid the price, he rose from the dead. He was such a worthy sacrifice, being God’s eternal Son and the sinless Lamb of God, that death could not hold him. He paid its wages in full. He made a full satisfaction for sin to God. And now, he is exalted to heaven, reigning over all, inviting men and nations to come to him to be cleansed from their sins and made righteous by his obedience imputed to them. This exalted Savior is coming again in the flesh to destroy all sin and punish all unrepentant sinners with eternal fire. This is the reason we must settle with him now. When he comes, it will be too late. If you die still loving your sins and enslaved to your sins, it will be too late. There are no after death chances. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). I urge you to kiss the righteous Judge, Jesus Christ, today.

You say, “How do I do this?” I do not feel anything when you say this. I understand your words, and the warning is hard to hear, but what can I do? I am so small and meaningless in the whole scheme of things. God would forgive me? I have asked him before, but I do not feel any differently and love my sins as much as ever. Do not worry at this point about your feelings. Believe what God is saying to you. You are not saved because your feelings change but God is faithful to save you when you believe in Jesus Christ. He is commanding you to repent now. He is inviting you to trust his Son for forgiveness, not your feelings. There is a vast difference between feeling forgiven and being forgiven. The latter is his promise to you when you believe on the name of his Son. Come now and fall before the Savior, like the lepers and blind men in the gospels. They did not measure what might happen by how they felt or their inability as they approached – they saw Jesus Christ. Someone had told them about him. They came and cried out to him. They asked him to save them, and he did. You do the same. Leave the cleanup of your life, the restoration of your burned-out emotions and of your sin-darkened thoughts to him. Simply come to him. He is the Savior. Believe God’s promise and come and entrust yourself to the strong arm of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Serve the Lord with Joy and Hope

Nothing more energizes the Christian life than a sense of living before the face of the satisfied judge, who is also our reconciled Father. He has judged us in Christ. And since Jesus Christ has born our death penalty, we must boast in his cross and live unto him. Because of this great change in our standing before the Lord God Almighty, the Christian ethic is completely revolutionary – husbands loving as Christ loved, wives loving and submitting as the church does to Christ, as unto the Lord, children obeying their parents and seeking out their parents’ help rather than avoiding their parents, and all of us doing our work heartily as unto the Lord. And who is that Lord? Jesus Christ, the One who has made peace for us by the blood of his cross – he rules over all for our sake. This gives us incredible joy and hope as we serve the Lord in the world. We shall soon see our Beloved, the Bridegroom, the Suffering Servant now exalted, extolled, and very high. We want to obey him. It is the strangest, most wonderful thing to be a Christian – the desire for the old sins begins diminishing, new desires for righteousness springing up like fresh flowers. When we fall, we see Jesus Christ with his open arms and meek heart to forgive and help us up. We serve the risen Savior. We know the righteous Judge. We obey not because we must but because we love him who loved us and gave himself for us. Pleasing Christ is becoming our pleasure. This is the surest sign that the judgment coming will not fall upon us, but that we will have boldness in that day – we are being made like Christ (1 John 4:17).

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