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Revelation 14 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Three Angels

John sees next another angel (v. 6; compare 7:2; 8:3; 10:1) proclaiming the eternal gospel (v. 6). Because he has seen no angels individually since the seven that blew the seven trumpets (8:2--11:19), it is natural to infer that this angel, commencing a new sequence, is another in addition to those seven. The angel is flying in midair, that is, directly overhead, like the eagle or vulture that announced the three woes terminating the trumpet series (8:13).

This eternal gospel to all the earth's inhabitants is a strange gospel in two respects. First, it is not "good news" (as the term gospel suggests), but quite the opposite--much like the "woe, woe, woe" of the eagle in the earlier vision (8:13). Second, and more surprising, there is nothing distinctly Christian about the message. The angel's eternal gospel does not mention Jesus Christ and contains no promise of salvation. Yet it is the only instance of the noun gospel in the entire book of Revelation. The eternal gospel is perhaps best understood on the analogy of Jesus' own proclamation of the kingdom of God ("The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news" or "gospel," Mk 1:15; compare Mt 4:17). That proclamation had two parts: an announcement ("the kingdom of God is near") and a command ("repent!"). John's eternal gospel has the same two parts, but in reverse order: first a command, Fear God and give him glory, and then an announcement, for the hour of his judgment has come. The announcement of God's judgment is equivalent to one aspect of the announcement of God's kingdom, for the coming of the kingdom involves judgment as well as salvation. In the case of the command, fear God and give him glory is a fairly exact equivalent to "repent" (see 16:9), except that John's vision spells out further implications of this repentance: Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water (v. 7).

The analogy with Jesus' "gospel of the kingdom" helps us to understand how the angel's proclamation here can also be described as "gospel." The very word "eternal," in fact, is probably linked to the absence of anything explicitly Christian about the angel's message. There is something almost contradictory about the terms "eternal" and "gospel." The Christian "gospel" by definition is new--"good news"--implying that God has done a new thing in the world by sending Jesus as Messiah or Savior. "Eternal," on the other hand, refers to that which has always been true.

Fear God and give him glory is the God of Israel's message to the Gentile world always and everywhere--whether the Messiah has come or not. It closely resembles the "good news" Paul and Barnabas brought to the citizens of Lystra, "telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them" (Acts 14:15). Such a "gospel" is pre-Christian, Christian and post-Christian, and in that sense "eternal," for it is a call to the earth's inhabitants to repent, leave their idols, and turn to the one true God (compare Acts 17:24-31; 1 Thess 1:9). It puts into words the implied message of the seven trumpets, a message that went unheeded when humans "did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols," and did not "repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts" (9:20-21).

The call to fear God and give him glory also makes explicit the message that was heeded when "a tenth of the city collapsed . . . and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven" (11:13). The worship demanded is worship of God the Creator, and the spheres of creation (the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water) correspond to the spheres of God's judgment according to the first four trumpets (compare 8:7-12).

A second angel follows with a message apparently directed to the same audience (v. 8). This time the message focuses specifically on Babylon the Great, an ancient city about which we have heard nothing so far in the book of Revelation. Like other cities, Babylon is personified as a woman, in this case an immoral woman. The angel's proclamation echoes Isaiah 21:9 ("Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!") and Jeremiah 51:7 ("Babylon was a gold cup in the LORD's hand; she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad"). The new element in the text of Revelation is the definition of Babylon's wine as the maddening wine of her adulteries. We will hear more of "Babylon" and her "wine" in 16:19 and throughout chapters 17 and 18. For now it remains simply an allusion to the prophets, and to Israel's memory of oppression at the hands of a foreign empire long ago. Yet we sense that Babylon the Great is also linked somehow to the two beasts and the more contemporary oppression described in the preceding chapter.

The voice of the third angel makes it explicit: If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath (v. 9; compare 13:15-16). The warning confirms our suspected link between the beast of the preceding chapter and Babylon, with the wine of God's fury as Babylon's appropriate punishment for the maddening wine of her adulteries (v. 8). Yet for the time being Babylon the Great remains unidentified. John's original readers may have known her identity, but we do not--at least not without looking ahead to chapter 17.

The third angel adds that those who worship the beast and receive its image will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb (v. 10). The smoke of their torment will ascend forever, and they will have no rest day or night (v. 11). Although the language of these verses has contributed mightily to traditional Christian images of hell, it is difficult to say whether or not "hell," as commonly understood, is in view here. Why, for example, is the torment going on in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb, thus (apparently) in heaven itself? The announcement seems related to a celebration of Babylon's doom five chapters later: "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever" (19:3). That celebration too goes on in heaven (19:1). Probably both scenes are momentary previews of "hell" and hell's finality in "the lake of fire" (19:20; 20:10, 14; 21:8), not the reality itself.

There is no way to be certain whether the word to Christian believers that immediately follows (v. 12) is a continuation of the third angel's speech or simply John's prophetic appeal to his readers, in the manner of 13:10 ("this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints"). The words here are virtually the same: This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus (compare 12:17). The effect of placing the appeal here is to make the alternatives (either worshiping the beast and receiving its mark or remaining faithful to Jesus Christ) as clear and as stark as possible.

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