PART TWO – CHAPTER TWELVE
The Angels and the Voice
Once more I must warn you against a literal conception and interpretation of the text. There are many who all of a sudden forget that they have to do with symbolism and that in our text we have to do with a vision when they come to this portion of the book. And then they read as if the text said: “Then shall an angel fly in mid-heaven and shall preach the gospel once more to every creature.” And yet that is certainly not the meaning. John tells us that he sees a vision. And in that vision he first beholds the beasts representing Antichrist coming out of the earth and out of the sea. And, in the second place, he tells us how he sees the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, surrounded by His people. And now once more, he beholds three angels and hears one voice. And therefore also this part still belongs to the vision. As such it must be explained. If we bear this in mind, we will not reach the absurd conclusion that in this portion Scripture teaches us that in the end of time angels will proclaim the gospel of Christ in order to sound a last warning to all nations. That certainly is not the meaning. In fact, this entire portion is not written for the people of the beast at all, but to comfort the people of God and of the Lamb. Hence, the text does not mean that an angel shall preach the gospel in the end of time as a last warning. We have no literalism, but symbolism, a vision, in the words of our text. The contents of the symbolism is that an angel flies in mid-heaven and shouts to all the earth, to all nations and tongues and tribes, that they shall fear and worship God. Thus it is in the vision. And the question is: what is the significance of this?
There are many who maintain that here we have a symbol of the preaching of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The angel and his voice represents the call of the gospel to all nations. Among these there are again some who find in Rome the antichrist, and who therefore find the fulfillment of this vision in the rise and work of Martin Luther. Immediately before the days of Martin Luther, so they say, the power of Rome was supreme. And therefore chapter 13 is really fulfilled in the dominancy of the papacy. And when Martin Luther rose and recovered the Word from the dust of the convent and preached that Word to all nations, the fulfillment of the prophecy of this angel was seen. Others claim that here we have no reference to the time of the Reformation, but rather to the time of the judgment, to the end of time. And they are undoubtedly more correct. This entire vision has reference to the time of the end. And according to these interpreters, this portion symbolizes the fact that in the end the gospel will be preached to all men, so that it may cover the earth. But none of these interpretations fits the contents of our text. In regard to the first it may be said that the Romish papacy may be a type of Babylon, but it was certainly not the final manifestation of Antichrist pictured in chapter 13. It was only a very partial realization of that power. And therefore, our portion, which evidently refers to the said Antichrist, cannot refer to Martin Luther. And again, as to the second interpretation, as if in those latter days there will be a special preaching of the gospel, I would maintain that in those days the preaching of the gospel has, well-nigh finished its course. There is no place for it, at least not in the kingdom of Antichrist. That kingdom is not characterized by heathen darkness, in which the light of the gospel never shone. On the contrary, Antichrist shall rise from the midst of the Christian world. It shall be well-acquainted with the gospel. It shall know the truth. But it shall deliberately depart from the truth. The sin against the Holy Spirit shall be a general phenomenon in that kingdom. And therefore there is no hope, and there is no gospel. But, in the third place, against all such interpretations stands the plain indication of the text that this angel does not preach the gospel of Christ Jesus at all. He does not come with the message of salvation. He does not preach Christ. He does not urge men, “Be reconciled to God.” Not at all. Interpreters have been deceived by the word “good tidings,” or “gospel.” Just because we read that this angel proclaimed eternal good tidings, they draw the conclusion that he was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to all men once more. But that is not the case. The good tidings of this angel have nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation. For, in the first place, let us notice that he preached an eternal gospel; and the gospel of Jesus is not eternal. God does not eternally proclaim that gospel; He does not eternally come with the call to accept Him and believe in His name. That gospel to all men covers but a very brief period of history. And therefore, the gospel of Christ cannot be meant. Still more clear this becomes if we read the contents. It merely states a demand. It does not speak of salvation. It does not mention the name of Christ. It does not tell the old story at all. It simply comes with the demand to all people and nations: “Fear God, and give him glory, and worship him.” And therefore we must discard all these interpretations.
In order to understand the words of our text you must grasp the whole situation once more. Antichrist is, supreme. Just imagine that you, as a child of God, live in those days. Antichrist has set up his kingdom. He rules over all the world, and all the world admires him and his kingdom. That antichristian reign will be characterized by apostasy from the living God. God and His truth shall be denied, and the blood of Jesus shall be trampled under foot. The devil and the beast shall be the object of worship. On every street and corner, in every shop and store you meet with the image of the beast; and universally men bow before him. Everywhere you meet with men that bear the sign of the beast on their forehead and on their right hand. You, as a people of God, shall not be able to buy or sell; and they shall push you to the wall. There is no refuge, it seems, and the suffering is awful. It is a world of tribulation, and the blasphemy against God’s name is seemingly unpunished. What now will be the question arising in your mind? It will be this: shall God allow this? Shall He let the glory of His name be trampled under foot, and shall He let His saints be un-revenged? That all depends. If God will let go. His eternal claim, namely, that the creature shall worship Him, and worship Him alone, and fear and glorify His name, He shall let these things go, and there is no end in sight. If God has changed His mind, if our covenant God can renounce His eternal claim, namely, that He only should receive the glory, then indeed the case is hopeless. Then He shall do nothing. Then He shall not arise to crush this awful power and to save His own people. Then we are the covenant people of a God Who has surrendered the glory of His own name. But that is not the case. No, the Lamb stands on Mount Zion. And because the Lamb, the Anointed of God, stands in the place of His power, God will not let go His demand. And therefore, to every nation and tribe and tongue comes the demand: “Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.”
From this point of view all is plain. The meaning of these words can now be understood. The angel sounds the eternal gospel. It is the gospel that God is sovereign, the gospel that God is supreme. It is the gospel that all creation must fear Him, and Him alone, and that He will judge all who refuse to worship Him. It is the gospel that He alone is worthy of worship since He made all things and therefore is the sole sovereign of them all. That demand is as eternal as God’s own decree, and it will last forever. That gospel God will never change. For unto all eternity, even in the new heavens and the new earth, it will still be the gospel. That demand is now placed over against the wicked kingdom of Antichrist. There, in that kingdom, they worship the beast; there they give glory to Satan, and they fear Antichrist. There they say; “Antichrist has made all things. Who is like unto the beast, and who can war with him?” There they cast God’s glory in the dust and trample His precepts under foot. But even over against this state of things God maintains His claim: “Fear Me, and give Me glory. For the hour of My judgment is come. And worship Me: for I have made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and the fountains of waters.” Then also is clear the whole significance of the scene. This sounds like gospel in the ears of God’s people. Even though it may seem as if God has relinquished His eternal claim, they may depend on it that He shall vindicate it to the end and that He shall reveal His wrath to the kingdom of Antichrist. It does mean that in the future it shall actually go forth. It does not mean that an angel shall bring it, but it does mean that the people of God may depend on it: God shall maintain His glory and claim. And because the Almighty maintains that claim, the kingdom of darkness must be destroyed.
If this is clear, then the rest is not difficult to understand. The first angel announced that God maintains His eternal claim over against the power and the kingdom of Antichrist. And the second and third angels announce the destruction and punishment that must naturally follow where this eternal demand of the Almighty is not obeyed. In that eternal gospel which the first angel in the vision preached we have the deepest ground, the supreme reason, for the judgment of Antichrist and his kingdom. Just because God is sovereign and maintains His claim to be feared and worshipped and glorified by all creatures, and because, in direct opposition to this claim of the Almighty, stands the kingdom of Antichrist, trampling that glory under foot and worshipping the beast, the latter must be judged and destroyed. Already the first angel announced that the hour of God’s judgment is come. The second angel prophesies of that judgment and speaks as if Babylon is fallen already. And the third angel announces the terrible punishment that will be inflicted upon those that worship the beast and his image.
It is here that we meet with the term Babylon. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, who hath made all the nations to drink of the wine of her fornication,” so the first angel shouts through mid-heaven. As to this name Babylon, we may remark, in the first place, that this is not the place to explain it in detail. Naturally not: the angel merely makes a pre-announcement of its destruction. He is prophesying. And prophesying, he sees the objects of his prophecy so vividly that it appears to him that Babylon is fallen already. In a future portion of the book of Revelation we read of the fall of this Babylon in detail, and then is the time to explain it. And therefore, here we merely must understand the general idea. There are different interpretations of this Babylon. There are some who make it the apostate church pure and simple, without anything else, while others claim that it denotes not the apostate church but the center of the political world-power. It seems to us that neither is quite correct, and that for the simple reason that the apostate church and the power of the world in the future will be perfectly one, one in life and view, one in hope and doctrine, one in purpose and aspiration, one in power and attainment. And for that reason apostate Christianity, or the apostate church, must not be separated from the power of the beast. In our, portion it is evident that the entire power of Antichrist is denoted by the name Babylon. It rather denotes the heart of the antichristian kingdom, just as Jerusalem was the heart of Canaan and of the theocracy of Israel. And as of the name, we remember that Babel, or Babylon, is originally the name of the city of mighty Nimrod. When the peoples came together and made the attempt to establish the world-power and maintain themselves, they also tried to build a city and a great tower. That city is the city of Babel, or Babylon. And therefore this name reminds one of the wound which the beast had received and which was healed. Babylon in Scripture stands for the great opponent of the people of God, the center of the world-power that oppresses God’s saints. By Babylon the children of Jerusalem were made captive. In Babylon they suffered in captivity, far from the holy land. There they sang in lonely exile, yearning for the land of their covenant God: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Of Babylon’s fall in the literal as well as in the symbolical sense of the word the prophets of old had spoken. Babylon stands for all that opposes and oppresses the people of God’s kingdom. So here it denotes in one term the rule and dominion of Antichrist. That kingdom has made the nations drunk with the wine of her fornication. It has through its false prophet led all the tribes of the earth to blaspheme the name of Jehovah and to worship the beast. It has oppressed the people of God and made it that they could neither buy nor sell. Its destruction and judgment is the hope of the people of God. For its destruction they pray. For its judgment they long. And they can sing it with the people of God of old: “Happy is he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against a rock.” And now, behold, the fall of that great and powerful Babylon is announced. That kingdom of Babylon seemed permanent and impregnable. But the Lord had appointed His Holy One over Zion. And the angel announces the fall of the great city with a certainty that leaves no doubt and that looks upon the whole scene as if it were already accomplished: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon, the great, that had made all nations to drink of the wine of her fornication.” Again, it is to the comfort of the people of God that this vision is seen. For in the fall of Babylon they see their own victory and the victory of Christ.
A third angel comes upon the scene and announces the judgment upon the individual worshippers of the beast. Here upon earth it seemed as if they were supreme and as if they could oppress the people of God with impunity. They lived like lords and participated in all the blessings of creation. And often the people of God were perhaps inclined to complain with Asaph that there is no knowledge with the Most High. They themselves, who served the Lord and followed Him wheresoever He goeth,—they themselves suffered want and tribulation, were in pain and distress every day. But the wicked and unbelievers, the worshippers of the beast, prospered and knew of no suffering. And therefore the people of God are given a glimpse of their end. Even as Asaph of old went into the sanctuary and considered their latter end, so also, the people of God that live at the time of Antichrist receive a vision of the end and of these worshippers of the beast in their eternal estate. Their eternal punishment is described in vivid terms. The torment of hell is pictured as God has prepared it for them.
Let us notice, in the first place, that this torment is both internal and external. Everyone that worshippeth the beast, so the text reads, and receiveth a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God which is prepared unmixed in the cup of His anger. Evidently these words refer to the spiritual and internal suffering of the ungodly. The wine of the wrath of God is evidently a figure. The meaning is that these worshippers of the beast shall receive a wine to drink, the spirit, or alcoholic contents, of which is the wrath of God. Even as common wine affects the spirit of man, so shall the wine of the wrath of God affect the worshippers of the beast. By drinking this wine the worshipper of the beast shall receive the wrath of God as a burning fire within his soul, so that this wrath of God burns him from within, troubles him, leaves him no rest day or night. It shall be spiritual torment night and day. Even as the greatest happiness and the most profound peace consists of communion with the God of grace and love, so the most terrible suffering shall be that which is caused by the consciousness of the wrath of the Almighty. It shall be unmixed, that is, undiluted. Never shall the worshipper of the beast in eternity receive one glimpse of God’s love. Here upon earth he received the things of the world, and God let His sun shine upon the wicked and the good alike. But when the measure of iniquity shall once be full, they shall receive nothing but the wine of the wrath of God unmixed. But it shall also be an external suffering. They shall exist body and soul. And therefore they shall suffer as such. With tire and brimstone they shall be tormented, and that forever. Little are we able to describe the terribleness of hell. No more than we can fully describe the bliss of the new heaven and the new earth, no more can we describe the state of the damned in hell. But we may be sure that these symbols of fire and brimstone stand for grave realities. Worse than all the suffering of the earth, worse than all the agony that may be seen upon the battlefield of the world, shall be the suffering of those that worship the beast and his image. And, in the third place, that suffering shall be everlasting. Their smoke goeth up forever and ever. God is vindicating His righteousness and glory in the wicked that are prepared unto the day of destruction.
Wonderfully strange, at first sight, stands the sentence: “Here is the patience of the saints, that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” And yet, if only these words are read in their proper light, the whole is plain. The idea is that because the saints see the end of their enemies, see it and believe it, that Babylon is fallen and that the worshippers of the beast are doomed to everlasting punishment, they can be so patient. What is their patience? It has been described in a portion of Chapter 13. It was they that did not kill by the sword. It was they that did not lead into captivity. In other words, that patience consists in this, that in all the tribulation and suffering in the reign of Antichrist, they were calmly, serenely submissive. They did not try to gain control of things. They did not employ main force. They were patient. Even though they could not buy or sell, they did not use the sword to obtain what they wanted. Their suffering did not persuade them to deny their God and their Lord, did not seduce them from the way of God’s covenant. One word, one nod, one bow might suffice perhaps to gain for them the favor of the power of Antichrist and would supply them with the necessities of life abundantly. But they refused. Patiently they bore the cross and followed the Lamb whithersoever He led them. And that patience is explained. Why were they so patient? Why could they bear the suffering? Why could they submit without rising in rebellion and employing main force? Simply for the same reason that Asaph became patient when he regarded their latter end in the sanctuary of his God. They knew that their enemies could not escape their reward, and that in the day of the Lord they would be judged in righteousness. And hence, they left it all to their Lord, mindful of the warning of Scripture that vengeance belongeth unto Him.
But this is not all. The scene does not close with the announcement of destruction upon the enemies and upon the kingdom that follow the beast; but it also pictures the great and glorious victory of believers, that do the will of God and die in the Lord. For after the angels have retired and sounded their voice, another voice is heard from heaven, we, do not know of whom. He commands John with special emphasis to write: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth. Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” These words have been often misunderstood, and preached at many a funeral. They have been wrongly interpreted. It was thought generally that here we have a proof of the fact that the soul is blessed immediately after death. “From henceforth” would then mean: from the time they depart from this earth, immediately after physical death. And of course, this is true in itself. The dead shall be blessed, shall rest from their labors immediately after death. But it is not true that this word refers to that truth. In the first place, we might remark that in that case it would be very ambiguously expressed. Instead of “from henceforth” an expression like “from death on” or “immediately after death” would have been much clearer. In the second place—and this is a far weightier objection—we read that their works do follow them, evidently referring to the day that each one shall be judged according to his works. And this cannot be said of the soul immediately after death. And therefore, that explanation does not hold. On the other hand, there are interpreters that limit the blessedness of the ones that are mentioned here to the saints that die during the time of Antichrist or in some other period. They limit the expression “that die in the Lord.” But also this is not to be done. It simply says that the dead that die in the Lord shall be blessed henceforth. And that does not allow of any arbitrary limitation.
In order to obtain a clear view of the meaning of these last words we must remember that the entire portion places itself upon the standpoint of the very last. That is plain, for instance, from the voice of the three angels. The first one announces that the hour of God’s judgment is come. The second one announces that Babylon is already fallen. The third one announces that the worshippers of the beast are to be sent to everlasting torment. On that same standpoint also the voice that is here speaking evidently places itself. It speaks, therefore, not of the bliss of the soul which it shall enjoy immediately after death, but rather after all is past. Henceforth, that is, from the time that the voice speaks, after all the battles are fought, after Babylon is fallen, after the wicked are sent to hell, when the judgment day is past,—henceforth shall be blessed those that die in the Lord. And therefore, not merely the dead that die during the time of Antichrist, but the dead of all ages shall be blessed from that time forth and forevermore. Are they then not blessed before that time? Surely, they are. They have entered into life, and they are free from the tribulation of this present time the moment they pass away from the scene of battle of the church militant. But their bliss is not perfect. Their body is still in the grave. And all the brethren have not been gathered in. But henceforth, that is, from the point of view of the angel that speaks, when time shall be no more and when eternity shall dawn, then shall be fully blessed all the saints that die in the Lord. Just because they died in the Lord, just because they belong to Him and because He has paid for all their sins, they shall enter into everlasting glory.
But there is still more. Surely, all the saints shall die and be blessed in the Lord. It is not because of their works, but because of the work of Christ Jesus that they shall enter into the eternal kingdom. And therefore the bliss shall be general. But shall there be no distinction? Surely, there shall be. All shall be perfectly blessed. But not all shall reach the same state of glory. In the covenant God has prepared some of His people to do great things, to be special witnesses of His name, to fight the kingdom of darkness in a special way. And just because God has prepared some of His children for special works, so that they do more than others and suffer more than others and bear the brunt of the battle more than others, they also shall have a special place in glory. They were in suffering more than others. They were despised more than others. They were in tribulation in a special sense of the word. God prepared Elijah to do great things. But he also fought more than all the prophets of his time. God prepared His prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, for special work. But they also went through special suffering and tribulation. God prepared the apostles and the martyrs to be faithful in a special sense of the word. And they suffered more than others. And so it shall be at the time of the Antichrist. Not all are equally strong among the children of God. Not all are equally fit to testify and bear the brunt of the battle.