The Seven Bowls of Wrath


Book of Revelation Series, Part 7

11th Sunday After Pentecost, August 28, 2011

Revelation 15-16

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheel of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” So wrote the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alluding to his involvement in the ill-fated plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. “We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Many a Christian has grappled the ethics of that decision by Herr Pastor Bonhoeffer. Even if it was for the good of his nation…how could he as a Christian, a pastor, actively participate in the murder of another human being?

Our passage from Revelation today is hard like that. These two chapters are among the most difficult in the whole book. No, not so difficult because of the details of the visions. Difficult, because there is so much joy expressed over so much vengeance.

15:1 “I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.” 16:1 “Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.” And in anticipation of this vengeance, the saints are singing, 15:3, “Great and marvelous are Your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are Your ways, King of the ages.” And as the bowls are poured out an angel sings, 16:5, “You are just in these judgments… v6, “for they have shed the blood of Your saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” And all the saints respond, v 7, “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are Your judgments.”

These days we shudder at this kind of language. Rejoicing over the violent destruction of others? Isn’t St. John always writing about “God is love”? We have, perhaps unconsciously, bought into the wedge which critics have driven between God in the Old Testament and God in the New. The critics and skeptics say that in the Old Testament God, Yahweh, is this wild, capricious God of the mountain, always ready to smite someone in His anger. In the New Testament, they say, God is spoken about, but He rarely puts in an appearance. He’s more of a detached, serene Buddha sort of God. And the critics just love to skewer the faithful on the horns of this dilemma!

But St. John, alone among the 4 Evangelists, writes in such a way to contradict that notion. With all of those “I AM” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel, John is keen for his readers to understand that the so-called angry God of the mountain in the Old Testament walks the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee of the New Testament in the person of Jesus. Yahweh and Jesus are one and the same. “I and the Father are one,” He says. And the difference between God in the Old Testament and God in the New is far more profound than anything the snarky critics have ever imagined!

So whoever recoils from the expressions of joy at God’s vengeance here in Revelation, and from all the blood in this book (and in John there’s always a lot of blood)…well, such a person still does not really understand what happened on the Cross.

You see, you cannot read the Book of Revelation and make any sense of it without the cross of Jesus Christ. Without the cross you get nothing but the wildly ridiculous scenarios painted by every Tom, Dick and Harry Endtimes Preacher. And they are legion!

God’s righteous vengeance on all the godless has already come over us. The blood of the godless has already flowed. God’s death sentence on the wicked has already been pronounced. God’s justice is fulfilled. It all took place on the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ died the death of the ungodly, struck down by God’s wrath and vengeance, stricken, smitten and afflicted. God Himself, in Jesus, sheds the blood that God’s own justice demands for the transgressions of His holy commandments. God’s vengeance has been carried out right here on earth, and far more terribly than John’s visions could ever portray. God, bearing His own wrath in His own innocent, holy flesh. God dies the death of the sinner so that we sinners do not have to bear God’s wrath. Good Friday and Easter means that though we die, yet shall we live!

At the cross the difficult puzzle of all these violent visions in Revelation is solved: As the bowls of wrath are poured out on Jesus, He prays “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Looking at Jesus’ crucifixion, we recognize God’s true and holy anger toward us sinners, and at the same time we see our liberation by God from His righteous anger.

Now, that St. John has Jesus’ cross firmly in mind with this vision is shown at the end of 15:8 “…no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.” No one may have access to God until all of this is finished! As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds…And I, when I am lifted up [the cross], will draw all men to Myself.” It happens with the 6th bowl of wrath. Back with the vision of the 7 seals, it was the 6th seal. In the vision of the 7 trumpets, it was with the sounding of the 6th trumpet. All the violence poured out on that 6th Day, Good Friday.

So now, 16:12, “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet [Beast 2 in the last vision]. They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.”

As Psalm 2 says, “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One” The whole world was gathered there at the cross. St. John in his Gospel is the only one of the 4 to note that the sign over Jesus’ head was written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic, the languages of whole world in John’s day. Jews and Gentiles, the whole world, conspiring against Jesus. V16, “They gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.”

“Armageddon”…the mountain of Megiddo. In ancient history Megiddo, in northern Israel, was the site of a wide expanse of land, perfect for fighting battles. From the 15th century BC onwards, many a battle was fought and won and lost there on the plains of Megiddo. Blood flowed there like rivers.

But while John uses the imagery of ancient history…the River Euphrates, the dreaded kings of the east, a great battle…what John is focusing his readers’ attention on with this imagery is that little mountain, the little Armageddon called Golgotha…the little mountain outside Jerusalem where The great climactic Battle is fought, the ultimate Armageddon. The end of the world is revealed at the cross. The final outcome of human history is decided there.

So why all this weird, violent imagery? V2, with Bowl 1, ugly, painful sores breaking out on the people who have the mark of the beast! No, the mark of the beast is not our Social Security numbers, a bar code tattooed on a person’s arm, a microchip inserted under their skin, or any of the wacky suggestions of modern prophets of doom. As the Church has her marks, and the people of Christ wear them—the Word, Baptism, Lord’s Supper, Office of the Keys, Holy Ministry, the Divine Service, the Cross of suffering—as the Church has her marks identifying those who belong to Christ, so there are identifying marks, signs, revealed in the lives of those who live without Christ identifying them as being without Christ.

V3, Bowl 2, the sea turns to blood and everything dies. V4, Bowl 3, the fresh water springs become blood. V8, Bowl 4, the sun burns and sears the people of earth. V10, Bowl 5, darkness, tongue-gnawing darkness envelopes the earth. And then bowl 6, as we’ve noted.

So why all this violence? It’s a vision, like the previous visions, except now all the violence is complete. The angel with bowl 7, declares, v17: “It is done!” No, not the same exact word in Greek as “It is finished,” but the word means the exact same thing. And the perceptive reader cannot but hear echoes of that famous cry from the cross in John’s Gospel, and it’s meaning, here in this vision of violence. “It is finished!”

“You are just in these judgments” cry the saints and angels of God in joy. “Your righteous acts have been revealed.” It is the joy of God’s people at the triumph of God’s justice on the Cross.

The image of the blood-stained Savior clearly emerges from the midst of this violent vision given to St. John. The image of God in Christ struck down by God’s own dread vengeance, for our salvation. No one is excluded. God in Christ bearing the fullness of God’s wrath for all people, every one.

So all this divine wrath and vengeance in the visions of Revelation no longer falls on anyone who stands at the side of Christ. Whoever they are. Whatever they may have been. In Christ there is now no more vengeance, no more wrath. (That’s where Bonhoeffer found himself in his struggle with that terrible decision, whether to act against Hitler, or do nothing and watch his nation go to destruction under Hitler. Bonhoeffer did not try to justify his decision. He placed himself in the hands of the crucified Christ; with Christ, who justifies the sinner, not the sin.)

But…whoever does not want to stand (or as John puts it, those “who refuse to repent”), whoever does not want to stand with Christ at the Cross…for them only the wrathful judgment remains. But without Christ, that end is very grim. That’s coming up in the closing chapters!

Yes, John’s visions are wild, v18, “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake.” V19, “the great city split into three parts.” V20, “every island fled away…huge hailstones about a hundred pounds….” But that’s nothing compared to the reality of what will be the Last Judgment, a Bigger Bang at the end than the Big Bang at the beginning. Neither John nor we can even imagine it. But by the visions in Revelation, John reminds us that we have already seen the outcome of the Last Judgment there at the cross of Jesus on Good Friday.

So until the Last Day, the dragon, Satan, continues to incite the enemies of Christ and His Church to their violence. Yet in the midst of this battle that rages across time, Christ embraces the vision—God with us and for us—suffering by His cross all the vengeance portrayed in this Book of Revelation.

And we, in humble, joyful gratitude that we have been granted deliverance from the wrath of God in Jesus, we pray each and every day that God might yet bring all His enemies to stand under that Cross, and there grant them the same mercy that He has granted us.