14 I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. 15 Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
17 Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” 19 The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. 20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.
I really enjoy ethnic food, but not everyone in my family appreciates my refined taste in all things spicy. We have young children, ages 2 and 4, so when we make something with a little bit of a Tex-Mex flair, we often prepare the dish without much as far as chili or cayenne pepper. I am okay with this, because I know that I can always add a little bit of hot sauce at the table.
It is not uncommon to see me walking to the dining room table carrying my plate in one hand and a bottle of Texas Pete in the other. You might even see this at breakfast time, because if we are honest, we all know Cheerios can be a little blandJ. Shake a little on here, take a bite, life is good. The problem is that Hadley, our 2-year-old, wants to experience everything that mommy and daddy are eating. Paxton (4-years-old) might notice that I put something on my food, question it, I say “It’s spicy,” and that’s the end of the conversation. But Hadley insists on having a taste.
We can have long conversations about why she can’t have the hot sauce. I say, “No, it will burn your mouth,” but she still wants some. I say again, “It will hurt you,” but she sees daddy loading it on his burrito, so why can’t she have any? Eventually I just give in, open the bottle, and give it to her. She then proceeds to drink the red stuff right from the bottle. No, I don’t let her have the bottle! We are better parents than that. After some time I finally learned to load up my burrito with hot sauce before coming to the dining room to prevent table tantrums.
I believe that being in charge of another human being gives me a little more insight to how God operates. I tell my children what is best for them, I tell them that if they do something that they will get hurt, it won’t go well, and that they will have to deal with the consequences. What usually happens? They do it anyway.
My example with Hadley is a little bit different because she is 2. I’m not going to allow her to drink Texas Pete straight from the bottle. But there will come a time when she is old enough, moves out of the house, and I’ll have to allow her to make her own decisions. I can’t keep all the Texas Pete in the world away from her.
For those of you who do not know my theology, I am a strong believer in free will. God created us humans as rational, thinking beings, giving us the ability to discern. Often we make the wrong decisions. I don’t know about you, but I make bad choices every day. I also make good choices every day. We as human beings are capable of showing great love to one another, and we are capable of committing great atrocities. Genocide, the Holocaust, and nuclear warfare come to mind.
I’m sure that God gets angry when we do the things that God says not to do. And I am sure that it saddens God when we experience pain as a result of our own decisions. But that is the result of having been given free will. We have to pay for our choices here and now, and we have to pay for our decisions down the road as well.
We have been working through the book of Revelation for the last five weeks, and I have presented this book as letter intended to be circulated to the churches of Asia Minor during a period of intense Christian persecution. John the Revelator received a message from God encouraging the church to stay strong even when their lives are threatened. And the strange images and cryptic language that we find was meant as a bit of a code, which would have confused any Roman soldier who acquired this letter, but would have made perfect sense to anyone well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Today’s passage reminds us that there are consequences for those who choose to worship that which is not God and neglect God’s people.
Last week we looked at the non-violent Jesus in the book of Revelation. He is the slaughtered lamb who triumphs, not by the shedding of blood, but by bleeding for others. As I mentioned then, Jesus being non-violent does not mean that there is no final judgment. Our society seems to have established a false dichotomy between love and judgment, as in “If God is love, God will not punish us.” But remember that Jesus will continue to act like Jesus even during judgment.
I am such a strong believer in free will that I cannot believe that God is going to force anyone to be with him forever. As CS Lewis wrote in his book The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”
I believe that God is doing something here in this world through Jesus. God is working for reconciliation, God is working for redemption, and God is working for shalom. We can choose to partner with God as followers of Jesus, or we can work against God. The choice is ours to make.
Before we get into all of that, I want to look at today’s scripture, which has often been used to highlight God’s/Jesus’ vindictive nature. I believe that this scripture is about judgment, but this is not God squeezing the very lifeblood out of those who reject him. This is God preparing for the judgment of those who bow down to Babylon.
Today’s text is as gory as you’re going to find. I’m going to paraphrase much of this passage to cut out some of the symbolic language. We are told that Jesus shows up and he is holding a sharp sickle, a tool used for harvesting. Then in verse 15 an angel calls out, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.”
The scene is then repeated, this time with an angel doing the harvesting. The harvest, which is paired with the image of grapes, is thrown into a winepress which is just outside the city. The location of the winepress is important, and we will come back to that in just a few minutes.
Since the popularization of rapture theology, this passage has been interpreted as Jesus harvesting, gathering, and smashing in the winepress those who oppose him. But that isn’t the only way to read this passage, and I would say it isn’t the best way, either.
Think of all of the times when the image of harvest is used in the New Testament. I think of passages like John 4:35b-36, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together” and Matthew 9:37-38 (and its parallels), “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”
The New Testament consistently uses the imagery of the harvest as a reference to collecting those who are followers of Jesus for eternal reward, not punishment! But then what’s the deal with the winepress just outside of the city? Check out Hebrews 13:12-13: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
The winepress outside the city is a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus (see N.T. Wright and Preston Sprinkle). The harvest is those who are faithful, the martyrs. The imagery of squeezing the blood out of the martyrs is indeed a disgusting one for us, but even more so for the 1st century Jew.
Remember the Jews were commanded to avoid blood and abstain from eating blood or anything with blood in it. In Acts 15, a passage of scripture often referred to as the Jerusalem Council, the Jewish Christians are talking about just how Jewish a convert to Christianity had to be. The main issue had to do with circumcision. Look at verse 29, which is a list of requirements for the Gentile converts: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.”
Blood is a no-no. Stay away from it, we are told.
It is the very blood of the martyrs squeezed out in this metaphorical winepress that is used to bring judgment on those who are not faithful to God. And as I have now said about 1 gazzillion times, when we read these symbols and metaphors in Revelation, we have to keep in mind how a 1st century Jewish Christian would have understood them.
One of the most significant stories of idolatry in the Old Testament is found in the book of Exodus, the story of the golden calf. Moses was up on the mountain receiving teaching and instructions from God while the people, fresh out of slavery in Egypt, waited on the flat land below. The people started to worry and wonder about Moses. They start to gripe and complain. And eventually they talk Aaron into making a god for them to worship. Aaron collects their gold, melts it down, a golden calf is made and immediately receives worship from the people.
Obviously, this is a problem. When Moses sees what is going on at the foot of the mountain, he gets angry, breaks the tablets which held the Ten Commandments, and throws the calf into the fire.
I love the punishment that Moses hands out to the Israelites: he grinds the golden calf up into a powder, puts in in the Israelites water supply, and makes them drink it.
No, their reprimand did not end there, but the beginning of the punishment handed out to them was to drink something detestable; they had to drink their idol.
Just before our text for this morning, we read this in verse 9-10: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury.”
Let’s continue through Revelation. 16:6, “For they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” 16:19, “God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.” 17:6, “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” 18:24, “In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people, of all who have been slaughtered on the earth.”
There are more references to Babylon, or more specifically, the Prostitute of Babylon, drinking this wine/blood of the martyrs and this wine/blood is a symbol of the judgment of God. As Preston Sprinkle notes, “All of these passages seem to draw out the meaning of the grape harvest in Revelation 14: 17– 20. God has stored up the blood of the martyrs in a massive winepress and is thrusting it down the throat of Babylon in seven bowls.”
Michael Gorman distills the sins of Babylon down to two categories: idolatry and injustice. Remember that Babylon is most likely a code for the Roman Empire, but this can apply to pretty much any society throughout time. Idolatry is the worship of that which is not God; injustice is failing to love people created in God’s image as God has called us to love them. Recall that when Jesus was asked to give the greatest commandment that he gave two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Idolatry and injustice are the antitheses of the greatest commandments.
I don’t like the idea of judgment, perhaps because I have heard so many people over the years who seem to think they get a say in how other people are to be judged. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that God will judge us, but I believe that it is good to be reminded from time to time it isn’t our call. Jesus could not have been clearer when he told his disciples “do not judge or you too will be judged” in Matthew 7:1. He went on to say that most of us would do well to remove a few logs from our own eyes before we begin to critique the speck of sawdust in the eye of our neighbor. This is different from mutual accountability, but that is a topic for another day.
I have heard a fellow pastor say on a number of occasions, “It’s not like one day we will be sitting up in heaven next to Jesus as he judges people standing in line to get in and he is going to say, ‘Hey, Kevin, can you take over for a minute? I really have to use the bathroom.’” We don’t get a say in the final judgment of anyone. Only the triune God has a say in that one. And I for one am very happy to pass off that responsibility to someone else!
Let’s think about this one together for a few minutes. We sometimes like to think we know exactly who is getting into heaven and who is not. But an honest assessment of Scripture reveals that things aren’t going to be that simple. Matthew 25 talks about the “separation of the sheep and the goats.” There are people who think they are getting in who don’t and people who don’t seem to follow Jesus who get in. Matthew 7 says that there will be some who prophesy in Jesus’s name and chase out demons in Jesus’s name, and Jesus will say, “I never knew you.”
There are still questions that I struggle with like what about people with mental handicaps that cannot wrap their mind around that confession of faith, or children who die before they make a choice to follow Jesus. I grew up in a theological tradition where we had something called The Age of Accountability. I was told that if you died before you reached that age, you were still under God’s grace. That’s fine, that’s encouraging, that’s helpful even.
But it isn’t biblical.
Is anyone else glad that final judgment is not up to us? I sure am. And here is the good news: we know that we can trust God to do what is right. We see through a glass dimly, we are limited in our understanding. But God is good, God is righteous, and God is just. We do not need to fear.
Perhaps it would be helpful for me to simplify things a bit. Jesus invited 12 men to follow him, to learn from him, and then to continue the work that he began. This work often looked different from the established religious system of his day, and it definitely looked different from the Roman Empire that had overtaken much of the known world of the 1st century. Jesus was looking to bring heaven and earth together, God and humanity reunited. It is like the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
There is grace for disciples of Jesus because we have failed, are failing, and will continue to fail. But I believe that one day Jesus will come back and make this prayer come true. And like CS Lewis said, there will be two different groups. One group says, “Thy will be done,” and the other says, “My will be done.”
I would simplify things by saying that I believe that those who partner with Jesus, participating in God’s plan for reconciliation, restoration, and shalom with be with God forever in paradise. If you don’t want to join God in this, God isn’t going to force you.
For those of us who find ourselves in Babylon, participating in idolatry and injustice, there is good news: you are not stuck there. Revelation 18:4-5 says, “Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ‘Come out of her [Babylon], my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.’”
I’m sure that God would rather that we never slip into Babylon and take part in idolatry and injustice, but for those of us who have, and if we are being honest, we will all admit to being guilty here, we do have the opportunity to repent, to turn around and “come out of her.”
Next week we will get practical and look at what it means to participate in God’s plan for reconciliation, restoration, and shalom.