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You asked for a sermon on Revelation 16 and Armageddon

 

Revelation 16:1-23  

[1] Several years ago Mr. Hal Lindsey wrote a runaway bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth. The book sold eighteen million copies. No other publication came close to it throughout the 1970s. In this book and in four others (including one with the ominous title, The Road to Holocaust, Hal Lindsey stated that God has foreordained that we fight a nuclear “Armageddon”. Immediately the word “Armageddon” entered the English vocabulary as the war to surpass all wars, the history-ending conflagration which would involve the armies of the earth and the nuclear arsenals of the nations. “Armageddon” came to mean all-out war, war from which the defeated could never recover.

Not only has God foreordained the nuclear Armageddon, said Hal Lindsey, Christians should welcome it, since Christians are going to be lifted above it; Christians will be spared the conflagration which consumes everyone else.

Hal Lindsey was supported in his statement by other well-known religious personalities. Jimmy Bakker insisted that such a war must be fought in order to bring on the final manifestation of Jesus Christ. Jimmy Swaggart said the same thing. At the peak of their fame Bakker’s TV programme was seen by six million households every day, Swaggart’s by 4.5 million households.

These men, together with all who support them, have always maintained that scripture foretells an end-time war between the USSR and the USA. Soviet forces are to move south to Megiddo, a small valley twenty miles outside the modern Israeli city of Haifa. Megiddo is a valley not much larger than a farm in southern Ontario, nowhere near as large as a ranch in Texas. In this small valley all the armies of the world are to mass, millions upon millions of troops, and the final battle will begin.

On the one hand, because you and I are sceptical of Lindsey and repelled by Bakker and Swaggart, we are not prone to take their prognostications seriously. On the other hand, we dare not minimize the influence these men have had. After all, millions of households are exposed to this scenario day after day. Plainly the public is being conditioned to support the escalation of the nuclear arms buildup. Armageddon, it must be remembered, cannot take place in a world devoid of nuclear arms. Moreover, those who hold on to this scenario are correspondingly cavalier about the domestic programmes of the US government. As one “Armageddonite” said, “There is no reason to get wrought up about the national debt if God is soon going to foreclose on the whole world.” In order to make sure that God does “foreclose on the whole world”, in order to make sure that nuclear holocaust does occur, some “Armageddonites” have stated that Jesus Christ himself will launch the first strike.

How do people come to hold such views? How can people long for nuclear obliteration? I have neither the time nor the expertise to probe the psychology of such people. I know only that they misuse scripture woefully. Let us remember that the word “Armageddon” is mentioned once only in 1,189 chapters of the bible.

 

[2] Yet even more must be kept in mind when we ponder the matter of Armageddon. We must remember that war — any war — is a contradiction of the kingdom of God. However necessary some conventional wars may have been, it can never be pretended that scripture holds up war as the primary will of God. The psalmist says that God is finally the one who makes wars to cease. Isaiah’s God-inspired vision of God’s intention for the creation includes the elimination of war: “…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.”

We must also remember the nature of our Lord’s Messiahship. People deserted Jesus in droves, even turned on him nastily, just because he was not the strong-armed military messiah they wanted. Hepreferred the power of righteousness to the so-called righteousness of power. Where he insisted on sacrifice, they insisted on coercion. The result was that they cast him aside. It is plain that the Lindsey/Bakker/Swaggart team falsifies Jesus Christ in order to bend him to their ideology.

 

[3] It is time for us to look at the book of Revelation itself. Before we examine the 16th chapter (and the 16th verse in particular) we should say something about the book as a whole.

The book of Revelation has long been the happy hunting-ground of extremists. They reach into it and pull out any religious oddity at all. They do so inasmuch as they fail to understand something crucial. John does not communicate with his readers through abstract argument. John communicates by means of pictures. His pictures are vivid; no one could ever call them vague or bland or unremarkable. Think, for instance, of the picture of a dragon which fumes and spews and vomits at the same time as it slays Christ’s people. Not only are the pictures vivid; they are also immense, grotesque, and surreal. They would appear to come out of a science fiction novel or a horror movie. In fact most of John’s pictures he has borrowed from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Despite the fact that modern readers, at least initially, find John’s pictures off-putting, John expected his readers to find immense comfort and help and hope in the pictures. You see, John’s first readers were undergoing savage persecution; he wrote as he did to provide comfort and help and hope for people whose suffering was intense and relentless.

As a matter of fact there are three books in the New Testament which were written specifically to sustain persecuted Christians: the gospel of Mark, the first epistle of Peter, and the book of Revelation. In the year 65 Nero, the Roman emperor, began brutalizing Christians in a vicious outburst worse than anything which had victimized Christians so far. Several years later Nero committed suicide. By the year 95 another Roman emperor, Domitian, picked up where Nero had left off. Persecution fell on Christians once again. The book of Revelation was written to provide comfort, help and hope to Christ’s people during Domitian’s reign of terror.

 

[4] The 16th chapter opens with a vivid depiction of God’s judgement, God’s wrath. As the “bowls of God’s wrath” are emptied out, bodily sores, as loathsome as they are foul-smelling, break out on whom? — break out on those who “bear the mark of the beast and worship its image”. Now everywhere in the book of Revelation the “beast” is imperial Rome; cruel, bloody, tyrannical, cut-throat Rome. Rome is totalitarian government which operates through intimidation and torture. Its viciousness can be directed to anyone who resists it and opposes it. Its viciousness, of course, was always turned against Christians during the reign of Domitian, since Christians always named the murderous beast for what it was: evil.

Those men and women, on the other hand, who “kow-tow” to tyranny, who docilely submit to it and flatter it in an attempt to exploit it or merely survive it; these men and women, says John, “bear the mark of the beast”. They have kow-towed to the viciousness of political tyranny for so long that they have become vicious themselves; in a word, inasmuch as they have toadied to the beast, the beast has stamped its mark on them. They may have begun simply by “going along with the system”, merely “playing the game” in order to survive. But now they are poisoned with the selfsame poison which the beast embodies.

The dishonesty and cruelty and coercion and bullying which you and I flatter and play up to as a means of surviving in our turbulent world (never mind getting ahead in it) soon takes us over and puts its mark upon us. The nastiness we say we are only pretending to agree with, only pretending to conform to actually gets into our bloodstream and remakes us in its image. The very thing we say we are only mimicking outwardly in fact takes us over inwardly, and we become that very thing. We take on the character of the very thing we kow-tow to. At this point, says John in his picturesque language, we have worshipped the image of the beast, and the beast in turn has put its mark upon us.

Think of the tyranny we have known in our own century, as well as the torture and torment connected with that tyranny. Stalin, Hitler, Pot Pol (the leader of the Khmer Rouge who liquidated millions), Mao Tse Tung, General Pinochet of Chile. What have all these men done? How many “ordinary” people cozied up to them, pretended to agree to the tyrant’s tyranny, were used by them, only to become inwardly what they thought they were only pretending to outwardly? In other words, how many supporters of these wicked men came to be stamped with the mark of the beast themselves? By way of answering my own question I often think of Klaus Barbie, known as “the butcher of Lyon”. Barbie deported thousands of French Jews to extermination camps and tortured indescribably the leaders of the French resistance movement. When Barbie was finally arrested (only three or four years ago), tried and convicted, prior to being sentenced he was asked if he had any regrets. “Yes, there is something I regret”, he replied, “I regret that there is still a Jew alive in the world.”

In his psychedelic vision John imagines those men and women who play up to tyrannical Rome breaking out into loathsome, foul-smelling sores. Plainly John’s vision is rooted in the plagues of Egypt. You know the story of the seven plagues of Egypt. Pharaoh had enslaved and brutalized the Israelite people in Egypt. Through assorted instrumentalities God had pleaded with Pharaoh to let God’s people go free. Pharaoh had refused. And so another plague. After each refusal, another plague. God’s purpose in all of this was not to torment Pharaoh; God’s purpose is to relieve the oppressed and liberate the enslaved. In much the same way, says John, God is going to shake the leaders and supporters of tyrannical Rome in order that Christ’s people might be relieved.

We need not read the book of Revelation with wooden literalism; we need not think that at some point 25% of the population broke out in stinking sores, or that on one occasion the Mediterranean Sea around Italy turned into blood, the ensuing pollution killing all the fish. John, we must remember, is picturesquely telling his persecuted readers that while they may feel that God has abandoned them and their situation is without hope, God has not and their situation is not. God has not forgotten them; his judgement, poured out on their tormentors, will eventually release them. In the same way John is not, in chapter 16, forecasting the dissolution of the physical universe. He is speaking instead of God’s righteous reaction when God beholds his people tormented; he is assuring his readers that God’s righteous reaction will bring them release and relief, and for this they must wait with that patience which only God-inspired hope can bring.

 

We must be aware of a most significant difference between the plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the judgement of God visited upon tyrannical rulers in Rome and ever since Rome. The plagues visited upon Pharaoh were sent in order to induce him to repent. “Change, Pharaoh”, God shouts at him, “Change, repent, while you have opportunity to do so, and let my people go.” The judgement visited upon Rome, however, is different. It does not aim at inducing Rome to repent. John has no expectation that Rome will ever repent. None. Tyrants, together with their flunkies, plan on remaining tyrannical indefinitely; they are not about to change anything.

Think of it this way. With respect to the Egyptians God’s wrath was a warning to Pharaoh and a pleading with Pharaoh. With respect to Rome, however, God’s wrath is not a plea; God’s wrath initiates Rome’s doom. Rome will be annihilated. Tyrants cannot be pleaded with; they can only be dispelled. Only as Rome is crumbled will God’s people find release and relief.

Remember: John’s psychedelic vision is not an announcement that God plans to ruin the ecology or destroy the world; John’s vision is meant to supply his readers with fresh heart. God will do anything, enlist anything, to come to the aid of his people. “Therefore”, says John to his readers, “however beaten-up you might be, don’t be beaten-down. God has not abandoned you to your suffering”.

Then John speaks of yet another “bowl” of God’s judgement. This bowl is emptied on the throne of the beast, on the very seat or centre of totalitarian power; immediately the kingdom of the beast is plunged into darkness. What once stood, apparently invincible, is now toppled.

The Roman empire fell apart, didn’t it. The power of the mightiest state the world had seen dribbled away. The seemingly invincible was now has-been dust and litter. Where is the Roman empire today? What is Italy today? — a country whose poverty has driven millions of its people to live elsewhere.

In the eighth century the Arab conquest meant that Arabia ruled from Spain to India, and ruled with a ferocity and cruelty you must read to believe. The Arab nations today would love to go back to their centuries of conscienceless brutality and arrogant strutting. They cause a little trouble here and there today, but the bowl has been emptied on their throne, and their kingdom is in darkness.

In this context we cannot help thinking of the USSR. From 1917 on it seemed invincible. Massive armies to defend it from without, massive secret police to maintain it from within. Any citizen of the USSR who criticized it or contradicted it was dealt with as quickly and conclusively as the emperor Domitian dealt with Christians in first century Rome. Stalin executed thirty million of his own people, systematically starved farm-families in the Ukraine, and ruthlessly sent millions more to the wastes of Siberia. Since these measures were always weeding out and eliminating anything that resembled opposition, the USSR should have remained invincible forever. But it has crumbled, hasn’t it. God’s bowl has been emptied on it. It is now a has-been nation, fragmented, with a standard of living no better than that of a penurious third-world country. Possessing some of the best wheat-growing land in the world, it can’t even provide its citizens with a loaf of bread. Once the bowl of God’s judgement is emptied on the throne of the beast, says John, the kingdom of that beast is in darkness.

John has even more to tell us. In his vision he speaks of “foul spirits like frogs”. The foul spirits represent the stream of court flattery and lying propaganda which saturate any anti-human state. Oppressive regimes invariably use lying propaganda in order to deceive people and control them. Court flattery is the grovelling seen in functionaries who think that flattery will keep them alive when sincere people are put away. John tells us that the foul spirits — flattery and propaganda — eventually stir up the kings of the world and provoke them into an alliance against Rome. Of course! Propaganda incites a people to overstep itself. Flattery blinds leaders and people to reality. The blind leaders incite a blind people who overstep themselves, and their aggression galvanizes opposition from other nations.

Within our own lifetime we need think only of Nazi Germany. The foul spirits (flattery and propaganda); opposition provoked in other nations; the alliance against Germany. The result? — the Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years as a demonstration of human superiority lasted only a few years and acquainted the world with new levels of depravity. And when Nazi Germany had crumbled, when its kingdom was in darkness (in the words of John) the faithful people of God who had groaned within it groaned no more. Centuries earlier John had said to beleaguered Christians, “However beaten-up you might be, don’t be beaten-down, because God has not forgotten you and will deliver you.”

Armageddon, then, is not the world-ending nuclear holocaust which some people say God has ordained. Armageddon is any battle which the oppressors of this world provoke with other nations. Armageddon is the conflict in which other nations, provoked by a tyranny which has overstepped itself, become agents of God in releasing and relieving his people.

 

At the conclusion of Revelation 16 John’s psychedelic vision heats up one more time and he sees lightning, thunder, earthquake, and hailstones the size of cannonballs. When all of this over, “no mountains were to be found”. Rome was famous as the city that was built on seven hills — and no “no mountains are to be found”. Imperial Rome, together with its tyranny, cruelty, propaganda, boasting — no more; flattened out.

But of course when John wrote his tract none of this had happened yet. John merely foresaw it in his mind’s eye. When John wrote his tract his fellow-believers were still undergoing savage mistreatment. John urges them not to lose heart. God has not forgotten them. John also tells them to keep alert: “Blessed is he who is awake…”. God’s people must ever be alert to what God is doing, watchful, discerning, able to recognize the signs of their promised deliverance.

Because the descendants of Pharaoh and Nero and Domitian are still with us, and because they still torment all who point them out and resist them, John’s psychedelic tract will always be relevant.

 

[5] In concluding this sermon I want to leave something very important with you. Today we have probed together one chapter in a tract which aims at putting fresh heart in God’s people. Nonetheless, the chapter we have examined sounds utterly bleak, doesn’t it. Ancient Rome, Mediaeval Arabia, Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, the USSR — written off, all of them, since all of them have been the beast. All have had the fifth bowl of John’s vision emptied on them, and their kingdoms, without exception, have become darkness. Written off.

No! We must look to the last chapter of the book of Revelation. Listen to its opening words:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the
street of the city; also, on the other side of the river, the tree of
life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month;

and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

John’s vision, ultimately, is of Eden restored. And into this paradise restored come the nations; to be sure, they are wounded, bloody, bleeding still from their former hostility to the Messiah-Lamb. Nonetheless, the tree of life, in this restored Eden, is for the healing of the nations.

In the worst of the nations we have mentioned today there were many people, countless people in fact, who never did worship the image of the beast. Equipped with the truth of God born of their knowledge of God, they were never taken in by the beast’s propaganda. They have suffered too, and suffered more than we shall ever know. Anonymous though they may be to us, they are known to God, and their healing is guaranteed. Because of the “Armageddon” which they have endured, they know better than we that the conflict which brought release and relief is but a step along that road whose end is Eden restored, where nothing bars access to the tree of life, and where the creation is healed. For there swords have been beaten into ploughshares, and war is not learned any more.

 

F I N I S

Victor A. Shepherd                                                                                               February 1992