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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Revelation 14

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-20

Chapter 14

THE FATHER'S OWN (Revelation 14:1)

14:1 I saw, and behold the Lamb stood on Mount Sion, and there were with him one hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name, and the name of his Father written on their foreheads.

John's next vision opens with the Lamb standing in triumph on Mount Sion and with him the one hundred and forty-four thousand of whom we read in Revelation 7:1-17 . They are marked with his name and with the name of his Father on their foreheads. We have already thought about the meaning of the marking but we must look at it again. In the ancient world a mark upon a person could stand for at least five different things.

(i) It could stand for ownership. Often the slave was branded with his owner's mark, as sheep and cattle are branded. The company with the Lamb belong to God.

(ii) It could stand for loyalty. The soldier would sometimes brand his hand with the name of the general whom he loved and would follow into any battle. The company of the Lamb are the veterans who have proved their loyalty.

(iii) It could stand for security. There is a curious third or fourth century papyrus letter from a son to his father Apollo. Times are dangerous, and the son and the father are separated. The son sends his greetings and good wishes, and then goes on: "I have indeed told you before of my grief at your absence from among us, and my fear that something dreadful might happen to you, and that we may not find your body. Indeed, I often wished to tell you that, having regard to the insecurity, I wanted to stamp a mark upon you" (P. Oxy. 680). The son wished to put a mark upon his father's body in order to keep it safe. The company of the Lamb are those marked for security in life and in death.

(iv) It could stand for dependence. Robertson Smith quotes a curious example of this. The great Arab chieftains had their humble clients who were absolutely dependent on them. Often the sheik would brand them with the same mark as he used to brand his camels to show that they were dependent on him. The company of the Lamb are those who are utterly dependent on his love and grace.

(v) It could stand for safety. It was common for those who were the devotees of a god to be stamped with his sign. Sometimes that worked very cruelly. Plutarch tells us that after the disastrous defeat of the Athenians under Nicias in Sicily, the Sicilians took the captives and branded them on the forehead with a galloping horse, the emblem of Sicily (Plutarch: Nicias 29). 3 Maccabees tells us that Ptolemy the Fourth of Egypt ordered that "all Jews should be degraded to the lowest rank and to the condition of slaves; and that those who spoke against it should be taken by force and put to death; and that these when they were registered should be marked with a brand on their bodies, with the ivy leaf, the emblem of Bacchus" (3Maccabees 2:28, 293Maccabees 29).

These instances involve degradation and cruelty. But there were others. The Syrians were regularly tattooed on the wrist or the neck with the mark of their god. But there is a more relevant instance than any of these. Herodotus (2: 113) tells us that there was a temple of Heracles at the Canopic mouth of the Nile which possessed the right of asylum. Any criminal, slave or free man, was safe there from pursuing vengeance. When such a fugitive reached that temple, he was branded with certain sacred marks in token that he had delivered himself to the god and that none could touch him any more. They were the marks of absolute security. The company of the Lamb are those who have cast themselves on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ and are for ever safe.

THE SONG WHICH ONLY GOD'S OWN CAN LEARN (Revelation 14:2-3)

14:2-3 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the voice of great thunder, and the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps. And they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders, and no one was able to learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased for God from the earth.

This passage begins with a wonderful description of the voice of God.

(i) It was like the sound of many waters. Here we are reminded of the power of the voice of God, for there is no power like the crash of the mountainous waves upon the beaches and the cliffs.

(ii) It was like the voice of great thunder. Here we are reminded of the unmistakableness of the voice of God. No one can fail to hear the thunder-clap.

(iii) It was like the sound of many harpers playing on their harps. Here we are reminded of the melody of the voice of God. There is in that voice the gentle graciousness of sweet music to calm the troubled heart.

The Lamb's company were singing a song which only they could learn. Here there is a truth which runs through all life. To learn certain things a man must be a certain kind of person. The Lamb's company were able to learn the new song because they had passed through certain experiences.

(a) They had suffered. There are certain things which only sorrow can teach. As someone made the poets say: "We learned in suffering what we teach in song." Sorrow can produce resentment but it can also produce faith and peace and a new song.

(b) They had lived in loyalty. It is clear that, as the years pass on, the leader will draw closer to his loyal followers and they to him; then he will be able to teach them things the unfaithful or spasmodic follower can never learn.

(c) That is another way of saying that the company of the Lamb had made steady progress in spiritual growth. A teacher can teach deeper things to a mature student than to an immature beginner. And Jesus Christ can reveal more treasures of wisdom to those who day by day grow up into him. The tragedy of so many is static Christianity.

THE FINEST FLOWER (Revelation 14:4 a)

14:4a These are they who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.

We take this half verse by itself, for it is one of the most difficult sayings in the whole of the Revelation, and it is of the utmost importance to get its meaning clear. It describes the unsullied purity of those who are in the company of the Lamb, but in what does that purity consist?

(i) Does it describe those who in sexual relationships have been pure? That can hardly be the case, for the people in question are described, not simply as pure, but as virgins, that is, as those who have never known sexual relations at all.

(ii) Does it describe those who have kept themselves free from spiritual adultery, that is, from all disloyalty to Jesus Christ? Again and again in the Old Testament we find it said of the people of Israel that they went awhoring after strange gods (Exodus 34:15; Deuteronomy 31:16; 2:17; 8:27; 8:33; Hosea 9:1). But this passage does not read as if it was metaphorical.

(iii) Does it describe those who have remained celibate? The days soon came when the Church glorified virginity and held that the highest Christian life was possible only for those who renounced marriage altogether. The Gnostics held that "marriage and generation are from Satan." Tatian held that "marriage is corruption and fornication." Marcion set up churches for those who were celibates and from which all others were barred. One of the greatest of the early fathers, Origen, voluntarily castrated himself to ensure perpetual virginity. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (11) it is the charge of Demas against Paul that "he deprives young men of wives and maidens of husbands by saying that in no other way shall there be a resurrection for you save by remaining chaste and keeping the flesh chaste." There is a record of a Roman trial (Ruinart: Acts of the Martyrs, 27th April, 304) in which the Christians are described as "the people who impose upon silly women and tell them that they must not marry and persuade them to adopt a fanciful chastity." This is precisely the spirit which was to beget the monasteries and the convents, and the implication that everything to do with sex and the body is wrong.

This is far from the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus glorified marriage, saying that for this cause a man left his own family and was so closely united to his wife that they were one flesh, and warning that what God has joined no man may put asunder (Matthew 19:4-6). In his highest teaching Paul glorified marriage, likening the relationship of Christ to his Church to the relationship between man and wife (Ephesians 5:22-33). The writer to the Hebrews lays it down: "Let marriage be held in honour among all" (Hebrews 13:4).

What, then, are we to say of our present passage? If we are to treat it honestly, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it praises celibacy and virginity and belittles marriage. There are two possible explanations.

(a) It is possible that the writer of the Revelation did mean to exalt celibacy and virginity; the likelihood is that he was writing about A.D. 90 when this tendency was already in the Church. If that is so we will have to lay this passage on one side, because, tested by the rest of the New Testament, it is not a correct statement of the Christian ethic.

(b) There is another possible interpretation. When scribes were copying New Testament books they often added notes and comments in the margin, to explain the text. It may well be that some scribe in later days, copying this passage wished to give his opinion as to who the one hundred and forty thousand were; and added in the margin: "This means those who never defiled themselves with women and who remained virgins." This is all the more likely since many of the later scribes were monks. When the manuscript was recopied, the comment in the margin may well have been included in the text as very commonly happened. This would then mean that the first half of Revelation 14:4 is not the words of John at all but the comment of a scribe.

THE IMITATION OF CHRIST (Revelation 14:4 b-5)

14:4b-5 These are they who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were bought from amongst men, a sacrifice to God and to the Lamb, and no falsehood was found in their mouth, for they are without blemish.

The company of the Lamb are those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. The simplest definition of a Christian is simply one who follows Jesus Christ. "Follow me!" Jesus said to Philip (John 1:43), and to Matthew (Mark 2:14). "Follow me!" he said to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21), and to the unnamed disciple (Luke 9:59). When Peter asked what was to happen to John, Jesus told him not to bother about what would happen to others but to concentrate on following him (John 21:19-22). He left us an example, said Peter, that we should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).

John calls the company of the Lamb three things:

(i) They are a sacrifice to God and to the Lamb. The word for sacrifice is aparche (Greek #536). This really means the sacrifice of the first-fruits. The first-fruits were the best of the crop; they were a symbol of the harvest to come; and they were a symbolic dedication of the whole harvest to God. So the Christian is the best that can be offered to God; each Christian is a foretaste of the time when all the world will be dedicated to God; and the Christian is the man who has consecrated his life to God.

(ii) No falsehood was found in their mouth. This is a favourite thought in Scripture. "Blessed is the man," says the Psalmist, "in whose spirit there is no deceit" (Psalms 32:2). Isaiah said of the servant of the Lord: "And there was no deceit in his mouth" (Isaiah 53:9). Zephaniah said of the chosen remnant of the people: "Nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue" (Zephaniah 3:13). Peter took the words about the servant and applied them to Jesus: "No guile was found on his lips" (1 Peter 2:22). There is something here which we can well understand. Just as we desire friends who are sincere, so does Jesus Christ.

(iii) They are without blemish. The word is amomos (Greek #299) and is characteristically a sacrificial word. It describes the animal which is without flaw and so fit for an offering to God. It is interesting to note how often this word is used of the Christian. God has chosen us that we should be holy and without blame before him (Ephesians 1:4; compare Colossians 1:22). The Church must be glorious, not having spot, or wrinkle or any such thing (Ephesians 5:27). Peter speaks of Jesus as a Lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:19). We received life to make of it a sacrifice to God; and that which is offered to God must be without blemish.

There follows the vision of the three angels, the angel with the summons to worship the true God (Revelation 14:6-7), the angel who foretells the doom of Rome (Revelation 14:8), and the angel who foretells the judgment and destruction of those who have denied their faith and worshipped the beast (Revelation 14:9-12).

THE SUMMONS TO THE WORSHIP OF GOD (Revelation 14:6-7)

14:6-7 And I saw another angel flying in the midst of the sky with an everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell upon the earth and to every race and tribe and tongue and people. And he was saying with a great voice: "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and the springs of waters."

One of the signs which were to precede the end was that the gospel would be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations (Matthew 24:14). Here is the fulfilment of that prophecy. The angel comes with the message of the gospel to all races and tribes and tongues and peoples.

The angel comes with an everlasting gospel. Everlasting could mean that the gospel is eternally valid, that even in a world which is crashing to its doom its truth still stands. It could mean that the gospel has existed from all eternity. Paul in the great doxology in Romans speaks of Jesus Christ as the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret since the world began (Romans 16:25). It could mean that the gospel is the eternal purpose of God for man. It could mean that it deals with the eternal things.

It may seem strange that the angel with the gospel is followed immediately by the angels of doom. But the gospel has of necessity a double-edged quality. It is good news for those who receive it but it is judgment to those who reject it. And the condemnation of those who reject it is all the greater because they were given the chance to accept it.

The words of the angel are interesting. They are a summons to worship the God who is the Creator of all things. This message is not specifically Christian but the basis of all religion. It corresponds exactly to the message which Paul and Barnabas brought to the people of Lystra, when they told them that they must "turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all that is in them" (Acts 14:15). H. B. Swete called this "an appeal to the conscience of untaught heathenism, incapable as yet of apprehending any other."

THE FALL OF BABYLON (Revelation 14:8)

14:8 And another angel, a second angel, followed him saying: "Fallen, fallen is the great Babylon, who made all the nations to drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication."

Here is prophesied the doom of Rome. Throughout the Revelation Rome is described as Babylon, a description which was common between the Testaments. The writer of 2Baruch begins his pronouncement against Rome: "I, Baruch, say this against thee, Babylon" (Baruch 11:1). When the Sibylline Oracles describe the imagined flight of Nero from Rome, they say: "Then shall flee from Babylon a king shameless and fearless, whom all mortals and the best men loathe" (Sibylline Oracles 5: 143). In the ancient days Babylon to the prophets had been the very incarnation of power and lust and luxury and sin; and to the early Jewish Christians Babylon seemed to have been reborn in the lust and luxury and immorality of Rome.

The fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian had been one of the shattering events of ancient history. The very words which the Revelation uses are echoes of those in which the ancient prophets had foretold that fall. "Fallen, fallen is Babylon," said Isaiah, "and all the images of her gods he has shattered to the ground" (Isaiah 21:9). "Suddenly Babylon has fallen," said Jeremiah, "and been broken" (Jeremiah 51:8).

Babylon is said to have made all the nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication. In this phrase two Old Testament conceptions have been fused into one. In Jeremiah 51:7 it is said of Babylon: "Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord's hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore, the nations went mad." The idea is that Babylon had been a corrupting force which had lured the nations into a kind of insane immorality. The background is the picture of a prostitute persuading a man into immorality by filling him full of wine, so that he could no longer resist her wiles. Rome has been like that, like some glittering prostitute seducing the world. The other picture is of the cup of the wrath of God. Job says of the wicked man: "Let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty" (Job 21:20). The Psalmist speaks of the wicked having to drink the dregs of the red cup in the hand of God (Psalms 75:8). Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem having drunk the cup of God's fury (Isaiah 51:17). God instructs Jeremiah to take the wine cup of his fury and to give it to the nations to drink (Jeremiah 25:15).

We might paraphrase by saying that Babylon made the nations drink of the wine which seduces men to fornication and which brings as its consequence the wrath of God.

Behind all this remains the eternal truth that the nation or the man whose influence is to evil will not escape the avenging wrath of God.

THE DOOM OF THE MAN WHO DENIES HIS LORD (Revelation 14:9-12)

14:9-12 And another angel, a third angel, followed them saying with a great voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark upon his forehead or upon his hand, he too shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, mingled undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. The smoke of their torture ascends for ever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image have no rest by day or night, nor has anyone who receives the mark of his name.

Here is the summons to steadfastness on the part of God's dedicated ones, who keep the commandments of God and maintain their loyalty to him.

Warning has already been given of the power of the beast and of the mark that the beast will seek to set upon all men (Revelation 13:1-18 ). Now there is warning to those who fail in that time of trial.

It is significant that this is the fiercest warning of all. Of all dooms, as the Revelation sees it, the doom of the apostate is worst. The reason is that the Church was battling for its very existence. If it was to continue the individual Christian must be prepared to face suffering and trial, imprisonment and death. If the individual Christian yielded, the Church died. In our day the individual Christian is still of paramount importance, but his function now is not usually to protect the faith by being ready to die for it, but to commend it by being diligent to live for it.

The doom of the apostate is thought of in pictures of the most terrible judgment that ever fell on this earth--that of Sodom and Gomorrah. "Lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace" (Genesis 19:28). John echoes the words of Isaiah describing the day of the Lord's vengeance: "And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into brimstone; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up for ever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever" (Isaiah 34:8-10).

The wicked will be destroyed in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. As we have seen before, part of the blessedness of heaven was to see the suffering of the sinner in hell. As 2 Esdras has it: "There shall be shewn the furnace of hell, and opposite to it the paradise of delight" (2 Esdras 7:36). We have the same idea in the Book of Enoch: "I will give them over (the wicked) into the hands of mine elect: as straw in the fire, so shall they burn before the face of the holy: as lead in the water shall they sink before the face of the righteous, and no trace of them shall be found any more" (Enoch 48:9). A feature of the last days will be "the spectacle of righteous judgment in the presence of the righteous" (Enoch 27:2, 3). When Chrysostom was encouraging Olympias to steadfastness, he encouraged her by promising that in due time she would see the divine torture of the persecutors, just as Lazarus saw Dives tormented in flames.

We may dislike this line of thought; we may condemn it as subchristian--and indeed it is. But we have no real right to speak until we have gone through the same sufferings as the early Christians did. Many a time the heathen had looked down from the crowded seats of the arena on the sufferings of the Christians; and the early Christians were sustained by the thought that some day the divine justice of heaven would adjust the balance of earth's injustices.

THE REST OF THE FAITHFUL SOUL (Revelation 14:13)

14:13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed, because they rest from their labours, for their deeds follow with them."

After the terrible prophecies of the terrors to come and the terrible warnings to those who are false, there comes the gracious promise.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord--the idea of dying in the Lord occurs more than once in the New Testament. Paul speaks of the dead in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:16) and of those who have fallen asleep in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:18). The meaning of all these phrases is those who come to the end still one with Christ. Everything was trying to separate men from Christ; but the supreme happiness was for those who came to the end still inseparable from the Master whom they loved.

The promise is of rest. They will rest from their labours. Rest is never so sweet as after the most strenuous toil. As Spenser had it:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,

Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.

Their works follow with them--at first this sounds as if the Revelation is preaching salvation by works. But we have to be careful what John means by works. He speaks of the works of the Ephesians--their labour and their patience (Revelation 2:2); he speaks of the works of the Thyatirans--their charity and their service and their faith (Revelation 2:19). By works he means character. He is in effect saying: "When you leave this earth, all that you can take with you is yourself. If you come to the end of this life still one with Christ, you will take with you a character tried and tested like gold, which has something of his reflection in it; and, if you take with you to the world beyond a character like that, blessed are you."

THE HARVEST OF JUDGMENT (Revelation 14:14-20)

14:14-20 And I saw and behold a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man. On his head he had a victor's crown of gold, and in his hand he had a sharp sickle. And another angel came forth from the temple, saying with a great voice to him who was seated on the cloud: "Put in your sickle, and begin to reap, because the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe and more than ripe." And he who was seated on the cloud put in his sickle upon the earth, and the earth was reaped. And another angel came from the temple which is in heaven and he too had a sharp sickle, and there came forth from the altar another angel, the angel who controls the fire, and he called with a great voice to him who had the sharp sickle saying: "Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, because the grapes are ripe." So the angel put his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vintage of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood came out of the winepress, as high as the horses' bridles, for sixteen hundred stades.

The final vision of this chapter is of judgment depicted in pictures which were very familiar to Jewish thought.

It begins with the picture of the victorious figure of one like a son of man. This comes from Daniel 7:13-14 : "And I saw in the night visions, and, behold with the clouds of heaven, there came one like a son of man and he came to the ancient of days, and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him."

This picture goes on to depict judgment in two metaphors familiar to Scripture.

It depicts judgment in terms of harvesting. When Joel wished to say that judgment was near, he said: "Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe" (Joel 3:13). "When the grain is ripe," said Jesus, "at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4:29); and in the parable of the wheat and the tares he uses the harvest as a picture of judgment (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:37-43).

It depicts judgment in terms of the wine press, which consisted of an upper and a lower trough connected by a channel. The troughs might be hollowed out in the rock or they might be built of brick. The grapes were put into the upper trough which was on a slightly higher level. They were then trampled with the feet and the juice flowed down the connecting channel into the lower trough. Often in the Old Testament, God's judgment is likened to the trampling of the grapes. "The Lord flouted all my mighty men in the midst of me...the Lord has trodden as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah" (Lamentations 1:15). "I have trodden the winepress alone; and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger, and trampled them in my wrath; their life blood is sprinkled upon my garments" (Isaiah 63:3).

Here, then, we have judgment depicted in the two familiar figures of the harvest and of the winepress. To this is added another familiar picture. The wine press is to be trodden outside the city, that is, Jerusalem. Both in the Old Testament and in the books between the Testaments there was a line of thought which held that the Gentiles would be brought to Jerusalem and judged there. Joel has a picture of all the nations gathered into the valley of Jehoshaphat and judged there (Joel 3:2; Joel 3:12). Zechariah has a picture of a last attack of the Gentiles on Jerusalem and of their judgment there (Zechariah 14:1-4).

There are two difficult things in this passage. First, there is the fact that the one like a son of man reaps and also an angel reaps. We may regard the one like the son of man, the risen and victorious Lord, reaping the harvest of his own people, while the angel with the sharp sickle reaps the harvest of those destined for judgment.

Second, it is said that the blood came up to the horses' bridles and spread for a distance of sixteen hundred stades or furlongs. No one has ever discovered a really satisfying explanation of this. The least unsatisfactory explanation is that sixteen hundred stades is almost exactly the length of Palestine from north to south; and this would mean that the tide of judgment would flow over and include the whole land. In that case the figure would symbolically describe the completeness of the judgment.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 14:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-14.html. 1956-1959.

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Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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