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The Lord's Church

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promised to build a church. In Acts 2:47, Luke tells us that people were being added to that church. Thus, we can conclude that Jesus built His church sometime between His promise in Matthew 16 and Luke’s statement in Acts 2. Indeed, a closer study of the events in Acts 2 reveals that the Lord’s church was established on that first day of Pentecost following the Lord’s resurrection when Peter preached the first gospel sermon. That church is the

A common misconception about the church of Christ is that “The Church of Christ” is its name. It is not. The “church of Christ” is its description. The church of Christ is the church that belongs to Christ, that was established by Christ, that was built by Christ, and that was bought by Christ. It is not our church; it is His church, the Lord’s church. We are not voted into the church by men, and we do not join a church the way some might join a country club. Instead, God adds us to His church when we obey His gospel.

Are those in the church of Christ the only people who are going to be saved? Of course they are! God adds people to His church when they are saved. If you are not in the Lord’s church, then you are not saved. If you are saved, then you are in the Lord’s church. To be saved outside of the church of Christ is to be saved outside of the body of Christ – and that can never happen. Jesus is not just a way to the Father; he is the way to the Father. As Jesus said in John 14:6, “ I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

Thus, the real question is not what is the church of Christ, but is rather how do you become a part of the church of Christ? That question was asked in the first century as it is asked today, and the answer remains the same. We are saved and added to the Lord’s church when we obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the Apostle Paul, we are saved when our sins are washed away at our baptism.

There is one church of Christ. If you are a member of something else or something more or something less, then you are not serving God according to His plan or according to His will. He wants you to be a Christian and only a Christian, wearing only the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the head and the savior of the church, His body.

What Must I Do?

What must I do? That same question was asked in Acts 2:37 at the end of the very first gospel sermon ever preached. Before we look at Peter’s answer in verse 38, let’s look at some answers Peter did NOT give.

What must I do? John Calvin answers, “Nothing!” According to Calvin, there is nothing we must do and nothing we can do. Each of us has already been personally predestined to Heaven or Hell without regard to anything we do on Earth, and so, logically, according to Calvin, the only answer to the question in Acts 2:37 is “Nothing.” But that is NOT how Peter answered that question.

What must I do? Many preachers today answer, “You must make Jesus the Lord of your life.” But that answer makes absolutely no sense then or now! Peter had just said in Acts 2:36 that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Jesus was already Lord of their lives! Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, which means he is your Lord and your King whether or not you obey him or believe him. We obey Jesus because he is Lord and King – not to make him Lord and King.

What must I do? Many preachers today answer, “You must pray the sinner’s prayer and invite the Lord Jesus into you heart.” But no one in the Bible was ever told to do that. In fact, Paul prayed after he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), and yet Paul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always (Acts 10:2), and yet there remained something he still had to do after calling for Peter (Acts 10:6). If praying the sinner’s prayer was all that Paul and Cornelius needed to do, then why were Ananias and Peter needed?

What must I do? Listen as Peter answers that question: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38) That answer has not changed one bit in the intervening 2000 years. If your preacher is telling you something different, then you need a new preacher! “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16)

Want to know more? Here is God's Plan of Salvation.

Lesson 19

More on the Two Beasts...

Last week, we considered several possible reasons why there are two beasts in Chapter 13. There is an additional possibility that we should consider as well. According to Roman mythology, Rome was founded by the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. That same mythology tells us that Romulus was the first king of Rome, and that shortly after their birth the twins were ordered to be killed by exposure, but they survived and were nursed by a wolf — which is often depicted in Roman art and Roman coins.

Because Romulus was raised by a wolf, one early source called him “the son of the beast.” It is possible that the two beasts in Revelation 13 are pointing all the way back to the two mythological founders of Rome.

Revelation 13:18 Continued...

With regard to verse 18, one commentator has noted that “no verse in Revelation has received more attention than this one with its cryptic reference to the number of the beast.”

Last week we discussed the famous number 666 in verse 18, and we concluded that it depicts something that has fallen hopelessly short of divine perfection, which would be denoted by 777. As Lenski explained about 666:

In other words, not 777, but competing with 777, seeking to obliterate 777, but doing so abortively, its failure being as complete as was its expansion by puffing itself up from 6 to 666.

There is another possible significance for 666 that we should discuss, and it stems from something called gematria. Gematria refers to the representation of words by their numerical equivalents so that the number conveys a message.

We know that the use of gematria was common at the time. At Pergamum, inscribed stones have been found containing numerical riddles based on gematria. Graffiti from the ruins of Pompeii reads “I love her whose number is 545” and “Amerimnus thought upon his lady Harmonia for good. The number of her honorable name is 45.” A difficult passage in Suetonius is explained by noting that Nero is there numerically resolved into “matricide.” One commentator states that “gematria was widely used in apocalyptic [literature] because of its symbolic and enigmatic quality.”

Here are the questions we need to consider: (1) Is the reference to 666 in verse 18 an example of gematria? (2) If so, then to what or to whom does it refer? (3) And, again if so, is that meaning the primary meaning of the symbol or a secondary meaning?

Let’s start with the third question first. Earlier we discussed the symbolic meaning of 666 as something that has fallen hopelessly short of the divine 777, and we saw how that symbol perfectly depicted the second beast from the earth. That fit is so perfect and is explained so well in terms of the symbol 7 (around which this entire book is constructed), I am convinced that this symbolic understanding of 666 is the primary meaning behind the symbol. And so, if we determine that gematria is in use in verse 18, I submit it must be a secondary meaning of the symbol. And there is some additional evidence for that view — the verse itself begins with a call for wisdom, which may be an indication that a dual meaning is involved here. We have discussed before how difficult it is to determine secondary meanings for prophecies absent being explicitly told by God. There is no such explicit statement here, but there may nevertheless be a suggestion.

So, that leaves us with two questions — was gematria used, and, if so, to what or to whom does it refer?

Before we answer those questions, we should pause to consider an important warning. One has to be very careful when heading off into this direction in the Bible because right near the edge there is a very steep slope heading straight down into sheer speculation and utter nonsense. Those going down this road sometimes find themselves trying to read some numerical significance into every word of the Bible. Many books have been published that claim to have discovered a secret code in the Bible that predicts the names, locations, and dates of future events. What those books fail to tell you is that those same methods could be applied to almost any book to obtain similar secret messages.

We need to be particularly careful with gematria because, as we know, it is possible to prove anything with numbers if one is willing to twist the facts while ignoring the context and all other evidence to the contrary. Some people treat numbers and statistics in the same way that a drunk treats a lamppost — for support rather than for illumination!

Here are two quick examples: Here’s a numerical “proof” that Hitler was the antichrist. Let A = 100, B = 101, C = 102, etc. and note that 107 (H) + 108 (I) + 119 (T) + 111 (L) + 104 (E) + 117 (R) = 666! Or, consider the following numerical “proof” that Shakespeare translated the King James version of the Bible: How old was Shakespeare in 1611 when the King James version was published? 46. The 46th word in Psalm 46 is “shake.” The 46th word from the end of Psalm 46 is “spear.” Coincidence? Certainly. Silly? Yes. More silly than most of the crazy notions people have about 666? No. People need to quit looking for secret messages in the Bible and start obeying the message that is clear for all to understand.

But with that said, anyone who studies 666 and the history of its interpretation must be struck some strange curiosities. For example, we all know the six Roman numbers: I(1), V(5), X(10), L(50), C(100), and D(500). What do you get when you add up the values of the five Roman numbers? 666. Take the first seven primes numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, and 17) and sum their squares: 4 + 9 + 25 + 49 + 121 + 169 + 289. What do you get? 666. Spooky! (and irrelevant!)

So, going back to the text, is gematria used in verse 18? Possibly. We know that gematria was common at the time, and we know that some of the earliest commentaries on Revelation have turned to gematria to explain this verse.

But then what could 666 denote? There are a number of words and names that could be represented as 666, depending on the language we choose (Hebrew, Greek, Latin) and how we then associate letters in that language with numbers. Having this many variables makes it very difficult to determine which (if any) was the word or phrase that God intended for us to associate with 666.

We should probably not expect a perfect fit. Why? Because in my view the primary meaning of 666 does not rely on gematria but rather relies on the symbolic meaning of 666 as falling short of 777. That is, the number 666 was not chosen to represent a name but was chosen for its symbolic significance. It may also represent a name, but if it does we should probably not expect the same perfect fit we would have had if the number had been chosen solely on that basis.

There is evidence that some have tried to change the text to make what they consider a better fit. Some of your Bibles may have a footnote that says some early texts have 616 in verse 18 rather than 666. Lenski describes that textual issue:

This is not a faulty transcription but a deliberate alteration that was made very early and against which the strongest protest was at once raised. The alteration was made so that by gematria the number would fit the emperor [Caligula]. This was the man who made the effort to have his image erected in the Temple at Jerusalem...

Thus, those early texts that show 616 in place of 666 most likely represent someone’s attempt to make the number 666 a better fit for someone’s name by changing it to 616. The correct value is 666.

But those early manuscripts with 616 do tell us something important. Those changes from 666 to 616 confirm that from very early in its history commentators have understood verse 18 to include an example of gematria. We should not be too quick to discount viewpoints that are closely related in time to the original readers of this book.

So what could 666 represent? There are numerous candidates, but, not surprisingly, the leading candidate is Nero, whose name could also be said to denote Domitian as Nero Redivivus. Various numerical representations will give you 666 from either Nero Caesar or Neron (the Latin form of his name that appears, for example, in the subscript in the KJV at the end of 2nd Timothy), but other names can be made to fit as well. In short, no one can be certain that gematria is used, and if it is used, no one can be certain who is represented, but Nero is a likely candidate because of the context of verse 18.

Let’s next consider the other side of the argument. A very good case can be made for the proposition that no gematria at all is involved in verse 18. For example, verse 18 omits a definite article before “man,” which may indicate that no particular man is in mind. Also, as one commentator notes, “what is not generally stressed is that [the most commonly given] solution [pointing to Nero] asks you to calculate a Hebrew transliteration of the Greek form of a Latin name, and that with a defective spelling.” Lenski gives us other objections as well:

It is surprising to note how many men think that “666” is the product of gematria. ... Yet nowhere is Scripture, nowhere in Revelation do we meet with another case of gematria. ... A number that is produced by gematria would remain an insoluble conundrum; yet the very title of this book is “Revelation.” ... Take some name and set down the value of each of its letters, add these, write the sum. A hundred other names may produce the same sum.

Those are all good objections, and some of them are even compelling. But with those objections stated, I still believe it is possible that 666 has a secondary significance based on gematria, and I would point to verses 17-18 for support as well as the view of ancient commentators on that subject.

So, in summary, my opinion is that the primary significance of 666 is that it falls hopelessly short of the divine perfection denoted by 777. That idea fits perfectly with the context of this second beast representing the false perverted religion of Rome. I also think there is possibly a secondary meaning in which 666 denotes Nero.

What then is the setting at the end of Chapter 13? A terrible dragon has given his authority to a seven headed beast that has arisen from the sea. The beast is killed but comes back to life. A second beast arises and looks like a lamb but sounds like a dragon. The second beast performs signs and wonders and causes the earth to worship the first beast. The chapter ends with the whole earth in the spell of the dragon and the beasts.

What does the church need at this point? The church needs comfort and assurance, which is exactly what Chapter 14 provides.

Chapter Fourteen

1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, 3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless.

Look at the incredible contrast between the last verse of Chapter 13 and the first verse of Chapter 14! Chapter 13 ended with the mark of the beast that was written on all those who worshiped the dragon. Chapter 14 begins with those who have the name of the Lamb and the name of the Father on their foreheads. There is no doubt to whom these people belong! 2 Timothy 2:19 ― “The Lord knows those who are His!”

And right away we have a lesson for us today. Is there ever any doubt about to whom we belong? There was no doubt for those Christians in Rome. To be a Christian in Rome meant a constant risk to one’s life and livelihood. There were very few nominal Christians at that time. But what about today? What would happen to our attendance if our country began to persecute those who confess that Jesus is Lord? We need to live our lives in such a way that no one will ever have any doubt that we belong to Christ. Our Christian walk should be so apparent to the world that it is as if we literally had the name of Christ marked on our foreheads.

We have already seen many of these symbols, and we won’t repeat here all that we said about them earlier (but we will repeat some of it).

The Lamb, of course, is the resurrected Christ. Although the Lamb had been slain (Revelation 5:6), the Lamb now stands on Mount Zion. What about the harps? We’ve already talked about them. What about the new song? We’ve already talked about it. What about Mount Zion? That’s a new one!

What is Mount Zion? Zion was initially introduced as the stronghold and city of David in 2 Samuel 5:7 and 1 Chronicles 11:5. In time it came to represent God’s dwelling place among his people, as in Psalm 9:11. It was a refuge because God was there, as in Psalm 48:2-3 ―“Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is known in her palaces for a refuge.” It was a symbol of security, as in Psalm 125:1 ― “They that trust in the LORD shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever.”

Zion also denoted deliverance. Psalm 14:7 tells us that Zion is the place from which deliverance comes — “O that deliverance for Israel would come out of Zion!” Romans 11:26 quotes Isaiah 59:20 and tells us that Zion is the place from which the Deliverer will come ― “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” What did the church need? Deliverance! Where are these people now standing? At the very source of deliverance!

Finally, Zion played an important role in the Messianic promise:

• Psalm 2:6 “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.”

• Psalm 110:2 “The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.”

• Isaiah 2:3 “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”

• Isaiah 59:20 “And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD.” (Romans 11:26)

• Isaiah 28:16 “Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.” (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6)

• Micah 4:7 “and the LORD shall reign over them in mount Zion from henceforth, even for ever.”

• Isaiah 35:10 “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

• Isaiah 62:11 “Behold, the LORD hath proclaimed unto the end of the world, Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.”

In Hebrews 12:22-24, we read:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.

Chapter 14 shows the Lamb standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000. Is this a future scene or a present scene? Look at the verses we just read! The promises of Zion arrived with Jesus! The writer of Hebrews said that we “have come” to Mount Zion. The apostles quoted the Zion promises and said they had been fulfilled in Christ. Zion is something we have right now — and something those first century Christians had as well.

So who are the 144,000? We have already looked at this symbol and discussed it at length in our discussions of Chapter 7. The 144,000 here represents what it did earlier — the church, the people of God, ALL of God’s people. That is what the symbol means: 12 times 12 times 1000! ALL of God’s people with no one left out!

Chapter 14 adds to the earlier description of the 144,000 and confirms that our identification is correct. Verse 3 tells us that the 144,000 had been redeemed from the earth, which is also true of the church ―

• 1 Corinthians 6:20 “You were bought with a price.”

1 Corinthians 7:23 “You were bought with a price.”

• 1 Peter 1:18-19 “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

Verse 4 describes the 144,000 as virgins, and in 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul describes the church as a “pure bride” presented to her one husband, Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 5:21–33 Paul describes the relationship between Christ and his church as a marriage. Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry was viewed as spiritual fornication. Thus, the church, following the command in 1 Corinthians 10:14 to flee from idolatry, is pictured as a virgin. This image of virginity may also be intended to emphasize that the redeemed had no congress with the harlot (depicting Rome) that we will meet in Chapter 17.

Verse 3 tells us that only the 144,000 could learn the new song. This new song is the song of redemption we saw in 5:9–10. This is not a song for angels because angels do not share in the saving help provided by Christ (Hebrews 2:16). “The angels might look with admiration and wonder on the work of redemption, but they have no experience of it.” This is a song for the redeemed! That only the 144,000 could learn this song tells us that the 144,000 is all of the redeemed. The 144,000 is not just a part of the church. The 144,000 is the church. To argue otherwise is to say that there are some in the church who cannot sing the song of redemption.

Verse 4 describes the 144,000 as those redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb. James 1:18 describes the church as “a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” And that image fits best with the church of the first century, who were literally the first fruits redeemed from mankind. And yet many today would have these first fruits refer instead to the last fruits at the end of time!

Verse 4 describes the 144,000 as those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. In Luke 9:23–24 Jesus says “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”

This is a beautiful picture. We generally think of a lamb as following a shepherd, but here the church is the one following and the Lamb is the one leading. Earlier we saw the wrath of the Lamb. A lamb that has wrath? A lamb that leads? Our Lamb is like no other lamb!

Verse 5 describes the 144,000 as spotless. Ephesians 5:27 describes the glorious church as being without spot or wrinkle or blemish.

The 144,000 represents all of God’s people, which at this time was the church — ALL of the church. No one is left out. God has marked each one so that none will be misplaced. Had God forgotten about the church? Absolutely not! Did Jesus care what was happening to his church? Absolutely he cared! That is the message of these beautiful verses. There are no more beautiful descriptions of the church of Christ than those found in Revelation. We must always seek to see the church as God sees it. If we ever do, then this book of Revelation will become a book of revolution!

6 Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; 7 and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.”

Verse 6 is the only occurrence of the word “gospel” in any of John’s writings. This angel delivers an eternal gospel ― good news to those who follow God and a warning to those who don’t. If there is a final opportunity for repentance in this book, this would seem to be it. The hour of judgment has come. But even as that hour comes, God continues to proclaim the eternal gospel. It is not God’s will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

Those who were worshiping the emperor would soon discover they had made a very bad choice. The emperor did not make heaven or earth or the sea or the fountains of water. The emperor is not a creator; the emperor is a creature. The judgment about to come will demonstrate to all that God alone is worthy of worship.

8 Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of her impure passion.”

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” We have been waiting 14 chapters to hear that message proclaimed! Who is Babylon? Who else could it be but Rome? Who else made all nations drink the wine of her impure passion? Who else did Peter refer to as Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13? Who else at this time could better be described as Babylon, the great enemy of God’s people? In Chapter 17 we will see Babylon as a harlot who is drunk with the blood of the saints. Who else could that be but Rome?

Some might say that Jerusalem could be this Babylon. But what effect did Jerusalem have on the seven Asian churches who initially received this letter? How did Jerusalem make nations drink the wine of her impure passion? Was Jerusalem identified with seven mountains? Babylon is Rome. That was true in First Peter, and it is true in Revelation.

And the good news is that Babylon is fallen. The past tense emphasizes the certainty of the event. In Genesis 17:5 God said to Abraham, “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations,” even though at the time Abraham had no children! The past tense stressed the certainty of the fulfillment. At least 50 years before the actual Babylon fell to the Medes, God said, “Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed.” (Jeremiah 51:8) And remember Isaiah 48:3 ― “I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I shewed them; I did them suddenly, and they came to pass.”

The “wine of her impure passion” is likely a reference to Jeremiah 51:7 ― “Babylon hath been a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad.” We see a mingling of two images — the wine of Rome’s fornication and the wine of God’s wrath. Swete: “The wine of Rome, as of Babylon, was the intoxicating influence of her vices and her wealth; but viewed from another point it was the wine of wrath, the wrath which overtakes sin.” Psalm 75:8 ― “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them.”

We will learn in Chapter 17 that the “wine of her impure passion” also denotes the blood of the saints and the martyrs. The next angel will serve Babylon another drink — the unmixed wine of God’s wrath!

We should pause here to consider a modern day lesson. Was Rome the last nation to have and to share with other nations the wine of its impure passion? Was Rome the last nation to be a source of moral infection to the world? Hardly. Our own country also shares the wine of its impure passion with the entire world. By the age of 16, the average child raised in the U.S. has witnessed 26,000 overt sex acts and as many as 400,000 sexual references and innuendos, as well as 200,000 portrayals of violence, including 33,000 murders, in television and in movies. And those numbers do not include video games. Is it possible that we are already drinking the wine of our own impure passion?

And what about the church? Do we stand apart or join right in? Tertullian writing in the second century said that the principal sign of a man’s conversion to the Christian faith is that he renounces the bloodthirsty Roman spectacles. (Spectacles, Chapter 24) What have we renounced? What is the principal sign of our own conversion?

9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” 12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

God’s wrath is reserved for those who worship the beast. Their judgment is coming, and the penalty is severe.

Is this language literal or figurative? Our general rule in interpreting apocalyptic language is to view it figuratively unless we are forced to do otherwise, and here it would seem we are if anything forced to view it figuratively. Otherwise, how do we explain the wine of God’s wrath? Literal wine? We should similarly view the fire, the sulphur, and the smoke.

So what is this figurative language describing? Is this a description of Hell? We see similar language used elsewhere to describe Hell and the final judgment yet to come, but as we know that alone is not enough to conclude that the language here is describing the final judgment. In fact, similar language is used elsewhere to describe previous judgments of God.

Fire and brimstone (or sulfur) were literally used to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24 and afterward became a symbol for other judgments of God.

We find similar language in Isaiah 34:9-10 describing a judgment against Edom ―

And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.

Was Edom literally destroyed by fire and brimstone as Sodom was? No. Was Edom judged by God as Sodom was? Yes. Could this description from Isaiah 34 be taken literally? No. In Isaiah 34:9–10 we read that the land of Edom would burn endlessly, and yet in verses 13–15 we read that at the same time wild animals would live there. The language is intended to create an image of utter devastation.

What happened to Edom? After they helped Babylon conquer Judah, Babylon also conquered them. See Psalm 137:7, Obadiah 1:11-14, and Jeremiah 27:3-6. Eventually they ceased to be a nation, thus sharing the fate of Sodom, albeit not in quite the same swift and spectacular fashion.

So if the judgment of Edom can be described by Isaiah in terms of fire, brimstone, and smoke, why can’t John use that same language to describe the judgment of Rome?

In my opinion, the final judgment is not being pictured in verses 10-11. Instead, those verses are showing us the same thing all of the surrounding verses are showing us — God’s judgment of Rome. And those verses are describing that judgment in terms used elsewhere in the Bible to describe other judgments by God.

Could this language also be used to describe God’s final judgment against the ungodly at the end of time? Yes. Does that mean it is being used that way here? No. In fact, the judgment pictured here takes place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (verse 10), whereas in 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 we see that the punishment brought about by the final judgment will take place “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

But saying that this language is not describing the final judgment at the end of time does not mean this language is not describing Hell. Hell is what awaited these faithless persecutors, and Hell was the judgment they received. Hell was where they were headed once their lives on this earth ended. There is no earthly punishment that could ever compare with the eternal judgment of Hell.

Note that in verse 10 the wine of God’s wrath is poured unmixed. One commentator suggests it is undiluted with mercy because the day of mercy and longsuffering is now past. These people had been offered mercy in the gospel that was proclaimed earlier, but that offer had been rejected. The time for judgment is here for those who reject the truth and persecute the faithful. And what a terrible price to pay for rejecting Christ and bowing to Caesar! There is a high cost to compromise, and the time for payment has arrived.

Verse 11 includes the haunting phrase, “they have no rest, day or night.” Can we imagine a punishment worse than suffering eternal restlessness? That is what is in store for the wicked. But with that said, we should note an interesting parallel all the way back to 4:8 ― “And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”

Jude 7 tells us that the judgment of Sodom continues to serve as an example: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Likewise, Isaiah 34:10 tells us that the smoke of Edom’s destruction “shall go up forever.” The smoke in verse 11 tells us that Rome also serves as an example.

Verse 12 is “a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” We see here again the weapons of the Christian warfare with the world — endurance and faithfulness.

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