Suffering Now or Later: Revelation 14:1-20 (Thomas Schreiner)
By Thomas Schreiner–
Revelation 14:1-20 asks the question, is it worth it to endure as a Christian? Does it pay to be a Christian? Is it worth it to be a Christian if your family faces discrimination, if your children are threatened with death? Does it pay to be a Christian for fourteen Khmu familes in Laos, whose homes and church buildings have been destroyed more than once? In 2003 fourteen Khum families were evicted from their homes. And now they are being forced to move again. The roof of their church has been torn off by unbelievers over and over. But the Khum are staying strong in the faith. They continue to worship together three times a week. What keeps them going? What is their secret? And what will keep us going so that we trust Jesus until the end?
Revelation 13 focuses on the persecution of God’s people, but chapter 14 teaches us how we can endure persecution. Is it worth it to be a Christian? Is the cost and sacrifice too great? Let’s look at the first five verses in chapter 14.
Children of God
The 144,000 are with the Lamb on Mt. Zion. Who are the 144,000? I argued in Revelation 7 that the 144,000 represented the church of Jesus Christ—all Christians. I am not going to review those arguments again here. If that is right, these verses represent our story. John is talking about our lives, our destiny. This isn’t the story of Christians who live in another galaxy far, far away. This is our story. This is about uncle Jim who is a Christian and your mother and father, and your sons and daughters who know Christ.
Where are these Christians? They are on Mt. Zion. And where is that? Mt Zion stands for heaven. The heavenly Jerusalem. So, even though John is talking about Christians, he takes us to the future. He transports us to heaven itself. And why does he do this here? We immediately see after the persecution of Revelation 13 one reason why Christians should endure persecution. They are promised a heavenly reward. They will be with Lamb on Mt. Zion forever. They have the name of the Lamb and the name of the Father on their foreheads. This language is obviously symbolic. It means that they belong to God. They are his children.
Christian, who are you? You are a child of God. You are part of his family. Do you ever feel like you are a nobody? Do you feel that no one cares for you? We all have moments like that. You may feel like even fellow-believers in the church don’t love you. But we are reminded here that you belong to God. God loves you and you are his child. You are precious to him. Maybe you even feel like your husband or wife doesn’t love you. But God loves you. And his love should motivate you to obey him and to keep his commandments.
A New Song
The second thing we see here is the loud roar of waters and the crash of thunder. John tells us that these noises are like harpists harping on their harps. Remember the 144,000 are in heaven, and what are they doing? They are playing on their harps! Now you may be saying, Oh no. I knew heaven was going to be boring. We will be up in the clouds wearing white robes and strumming on harps forever! I am going to be eternally bored! I don’t want to spend all of eternity playing a harp. But we won’t be literally playing harps. The harps stand here for indescribable beauty. What John is saying is that heaven will have a piercing, aching kind of beauty that we experience most profoundly when we listen to music.
Can you think of a song right now that transported you out of yourself, that was a foretaste of heaven? Well, that is what John is talking about. I have listened to some Mozart pieces that have lifted me to the heights of heaven. And I have been brought to tears by singing in church too. The joy that awaits us is confirmed by verse 3. The 144,000 are singing a new song in heaven. Again, that doesn’t mean that we will be literally singing songs forever. A new song in the Bible comes when God intervenes and saves us. We sing a new song when there is a great deliverance, when there is a great victory. Think for instance of Ps 40:1-3. “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.” When God lifts us out of quicksand and securely sets us on a rock, we shout for joy. John isn’t saying: Heaven will be deadly dull because we will be playing harps and singing songs the entire time. Instead, heaven will be like a celebration. We will break out in song because we have been saved and delivered.
Heaven will be like a joyous celebration. That’s why it is compared to a wedding party. In the parable of the prodigal son, when the younger son came home and the older son sulked outside, the father said to his older son. “We just have to have a party and celebrate, for the lost one is now found.” And John tells us in v. 3 that no one can learn the song except the 144,000, which is another reason I think he refers here to all Christians. Only Christians can learn the song. You are not invited to the party unless you are part of the redeemed, unless you belong to Christ.
Betrothed to Christ
Why will the 144,000 go to the party? Because they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. Because they have been saved from their sins. Because they have confessed their sins and asked God to forgive them. Because they have given their lives to Christ. And John tells us here the consequences and results of their new life in Christ. They have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. This seems very strange indeed. Is John saying that the 144,000 are literal virgins? The answer is no, for it would contradict everything else we find in the NT. For notice, John doesn’t just say that they are virgins. He says that they haven’t defiled themselves by having sexual relations with women.
But the Bible doesn’t teach that sexual relations with a woman defiles us. Instead Paul teaches us in 1 Timothy 4 that marriage is good, and that those who say that people shouldn’t get married are teaching demonic theology, that such teaching comes straight from the devil. So, it is clear that the language here, as is so often true in Revelation, is symbolic. It contradicts the rest of the Bible to say that sexual relations with a woman defiles someone! The Bible teaches that sexual relations within marriage are good and positively delightful. The Bible isn’t bashful about this at all.
If you are a non-Christian and think that God is anti-sex, then you are wrong. God intended there to be much delight in sexual relations, but only within the confines of marriage. So, what does the language symbolize here? It picks up on the OT where Israel is criticized again and again for her spiritual harlotry, for worshiping other gods. Those who go to heaven are those who worship God and have not given themselves to false gods. They have not defiled themselves by worshiping other gods. They are, as Paul says, pure virgins who are betrothed only to Christ. As John says here they follow the Lamb wherever he goes. True Christians, in other words, love Jesus and serve him. And in v. 4 John says no lie was found in the mouths of the 144,000, for they are blameless.
You may be saying. Wait a minute? That can’t be about me, for I am not blameless. Notice that what John says here is true of all Christians. So, if you are a Christian, you are blameless. But being blameless is not the same thing as being sinless. Those who are blameless are those who have trusted Jesus Christ to redeem them. Blameless people are not extra good people who have kept moral rules better than others. Blameless people are those who have been freed from their sin by the blood of Jesus Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6, blameless people are adulterers and homosexuals, those who are greedy and thieves, and those who have gossiped and slandered others. But they have given their lives to Jesus and trusted him for salvation. So, God has washed them clean of their sin. God has said that they are not guilty of the crimes they have committed. God has said they are holy before him. So, that message of forgiveness is for you too. You have messed up your life with sin, but you can be right before God and live in a new way—a way that is pleasing to God. And then you will be blameless, and there will be no lie in your life as v. 5 says.
And what is the lie here? The lie here almost certainly refers again to idolatry, to worshiping a false god. Often in the OT a lie refers to a false god. For instance, Isaiah criticizes idols in 44:20, saying “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Idols are lies because they don’t tell the truth about the universe. Our idols promise to bring us happiness and joy, but they let us down every time. What kind of false gods can get into our lives? In America it can be the false god of materialism and comfort. We can say we love the true God, but what we really dream about night and day is buying new things for our house or our wardrobe. What we really dream about is our entertainment, whether it is sports or video games or movies or music. Our god is the passion of our lives.
We read in v. 4 that the 144,000 are those who are redeemed. I think that is another reason that the 144,00 stand for all Xians. We are God’s redeemed. We are those who have been freed by the Lamb’s blood from the sin that enslaves us, and are the firstfruits of the new creation that is coming. Our redemption is not the end but the beginning of something new. There is a whole new world coming that will dazzle us with its beauty.
Let’s think of another idol. I have already said it is a great thing to get married, but maybe your idol is marriage. You think you will find true happiness and joy only if you marry, but that is a lie. Marriage can bring great joy. But marriage is also the union of two sinners, and it can be a shock to find that marriage increases your problems instead of lessening them. Now if you are in that situation, God will give you the grace to make your marriage pleasing to him and a joy to you! He works all things together for good and for our sanctification, even our sins. Don’t twist what I say as an excuse for having a bad marriage, but don’t make marriage an idol either and vainly think it will make you happy.
The Day of Judgment is coming
The second main truth I see in this chapter is that a day of judgment is coming. We see that at the end of the chapter. There is a day of harvest coming, a day of reaping, and that reaping will be a day of judgment. This is clear from v. 20 which says that the blood will flow as high as a horse’s bridle. Again, I don’t take the language as literal, but John uses this picture or image for a reason. God wants you to think of the judgment like this. It is like blood flowing through the streets about 5 or 6 feet high. Now imagine that. We are not to take the day of judgment lightly. It will be more fearsome than the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It will be more horrific than the horrors of Auschwitz. It is the expression, as v. 19 says, of the wrath of God. Our God is love, but he is also angry at sin. His anger is ferocious—the anger of a ferocious lion and a marauding bear.
Does God’s anger seem wrong to you? Does it seem out of place for God? If it does, you have a very low view of your sin. But the Bible views your sin as wicked, shameful, and horrible. In God’s sight you are like a person who molests children. Now if you were a judge and you were to pass a sentence on a person who harmed and violated children, you would be a bad judge if you were not very angry at what happened to these children. In the same way, God is angry at our sin. His anger is not proof that he is bad. It is proof that he is good.
The theme of judgment dominates this chapter. In v. 8 an angel predicts the fall and judgment of Babylon. And verse 7 warns us to be ready for the judgment. We are to fear God and to give him glory because the hour of his judgment is at hand. We have already seen that the judgment is compared to blood flowing through the street as high as horse’s bridles.
We are told more about the judgment and who will experience it in vv. 9-11.
9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Again, I think it is doubtful that John refers to literal mark on the hand or forehead. We know from chapter 13 that those who have the mark worship the beast and his image. Those who receive the mark are those give their lives over to evil, those who compromise with Caesar and say, “Hail Caesar instead of Hail King Jesus.” Their compromise may land them better jobs up the corporate ladder. They may get choice political positions. They may make scads of money, so that their family enjoys luxury vacations, but none of what they experience is worth it. For all those who worship false gods will drink the wine of God’s wrath. They will drink the full cup of his anger, and they will stagger under its power and fury. What they drink won’t make them high and happy. No, they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of God’s holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
But isn’t this language symbolic too? Probably. There is no need to think that those in hell will be tormented with literal fire and sulfur. But the question is this? Why does John use the picture of being tormented with fire and sulfur? He does so to tell us that hell will be unbelievably horrible. It will involve bodily suffering. It will involve psychological distress (there will be tribulation and distress Paul tells us in Rom 2:9), and those who are there will face the wrath of God. It will be personal and conscious suffering that lasts forever and ever. John tells us this doesn’t he? The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no need for the smoke to go up forever, if the suffering has ended. The fire keeps smoking because the punishment keeps going. This is confirmed by the next line. There will be no rest day and night forever and ever for those who worship the beast and take his mark.
One of the things we look forward to when we are sick is relief: the suffering will end! We will get better. That cold you have will run its 10-14 day course. The stomach flu will pass. Even the disease with which we die will end, for we will die and it will be over. But there is no relief in hell. No rest. No mitigation of the suffering. Oh, what a motivation to repent and turn to Christ. Not the only motivation but oh what a motivation! And oh what a motivation to tell others about Christ. When I read this, I think that I am way too causal about telling others about Christ. And oh what a motivation to keep following Jesus. Do you want to go to hell? I don’t!
The Endurance of the Saints
Notice the next verse (v.12). Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. God is saying to us: Hang on and endure. Does life seem hard now? It will be incredibly terrible, astoundingly painful, for those who aren’t Christians. Hold on. Don’t let go of Jesus. Keep on following the Lamb. Obey his commandments. Keep trusting Jesus.
And then think about v. 13. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” Hell is real, but so is the heavenly Mt. Zion with which we began our chapter. It is hard to die. It can be hard physically. And it is hard emotionally to say goodbye to family and dear friends. But it is a blessing, for something better in coming. We rest from the labors and trials and difficulties of our present lives. We will fly away to glory, and we will rejoice forever more.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.