After a great earthquake the sun turns black and the moon red like blood, the stars fall from the sky, the sky itself crumples like a piece of paper, the mountains slide into the valleys and islands sink into the ocean. Survivors hide in caves and under rocks from more terrible disasters to come. What is wrong with this picture? Most Americans today would probably say, "Everything. It sounds like bad science fiction." However, if we rephrased the question--"What is missing from this picture?"---and if we directed it to John and his first-century readers, we would get a very different answer. The picture is not so strange to anyone who has read the Gospels. Jesus told his disciples that "in those days, following that distress, `the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken'" (Mk 13:24-25; compare Mt 24:29; Lk 21:25-26). He immediately added that people "will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens" (Mk 13:26-27; compare Mt 24:30-31; Lk 21:27).
These parallels show what is missing from the picture in Revelation. There is no coming of the Son of Man in the clouds, no gathering of his chosen ones from all over the world. John sees all the terrible events heralding and accompanying the Second Coming of Jesus, but not the coming itself. The prophecy given in 1:7 ("Look, he is coming with the clouds") is almost, but not quite, fulfilled.
The scene echoes Zephaniah 1:14-15: "The great day of the LORD is near. . . . That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom." It is the scene grimly celebrated in the medieval hymn, "Dies Irae, Dies Illa" (in Sir Walter Scott's paraphrase), "That day of wrath, that dreadful day! When heaven and earth shall pass away, what power shall be the sinner's stay? How shall he meet that dreadful day?"
What is striking in the book of Revelation--and strange, perhaps, to the modern reader--is that the wrath is the wrath of the Lamb (v. 16). The slaughtered Lamb of sacrifice in the center of the throne is no passive victim, but "the Lion of the tribe of Judah." The Lamb's role in judgment should come as no surprise in light of his equality and partnership with him who sits on the throne in the worship of the elders, living creatures and all creation (5:13). From that point on, God and the Lamb never act independently, but always in unison. When they act together in judgment, the inevitable question is, Who can stand? (v. 17).
The question has its answer in chapter 7, where John sees four angels standing at the corners of the earth to preserve a group of servants of our God from destruction (7:1, 3) and an innumerable multitude standing in the presence of God and the Lamb (7:9). There are indeed those who will "stand" in the great day of wrath, but they must be prepared and protected.
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