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21. Prelude to the Seven Last Plagues (Rev 15:1-8)


Chapter 15 is introductory and prepares the reader for the execution of the judgments described in chapter 16. They are first described as the seven last plagues and then as seven bowls full of the wrath of God (vs. 7; 16:1). These seven plagues will chronologically bring to an end the ordered events of the Tribulation judgments in a dramatic crescendo. The plagues described here are extremely severe and occur in rapid succession, which adds greatly to their severity. The plagues are culminated by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the final phase of Armageddon. The purpose of chapter 15 is a vindication of God’s holiness. It shows these judgments stem from the holiness of God and the perfection of His plan. Under the three figures of God’s final judgment—the cup of wine (14:10), the harvesting of the earth (14:14-16), and the vintage (14:17-20), chapter 14 has anticipated what is now more thoroughly developed under the symbolism of the seven bowls.

Remember, the seven plagues and seven bowls used in this chapter refer to the same judgments. The use of different terms is designed to display the different aspects and character of these last judgments. They are plague-like calamities, and each is poured out suddenly, all at once as the contents of a bowl when it is turned over.


Chronologically speaking, remember that we are first given a graphic description of six seals (6:1-17), but the seventh (8:1) is never described. We are only told that when it is broken, there is silence in heaven (8:1). The implication is that the seven trumpets come out of the seventh seal and actually express the content of the seventh seal (8:1-9:21; 11:15-19). This seventh trumpet takes us up to the return of Christ and includes within its judgments the events of the seven last plagues or bowls of chapters 15 and 16, which occur rapidly at the end. The final great event is the return of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory (19:11-21).

Again, let’s not forget that chapters 10:1-11:4; 13-14; and 17:1-19:10 are interludes and do not advance the Tribulation events chronologically. They simply fill in the picture of the Tribulation giving important details about key personages, events and concepts. Alan writes:

The inclusive series of bowl judgments constitute the “third woe” announced in 11:14 as “coming soon” [see comment on 11:14]. Since the first two woes occur under the fifth and sixth trumpets, it is reasonable to see the third woe, which involved seven plagues, as unfolding during the sounding of the seventh trumpet, when the mystery of God will be finished (10:7) … These last plagues take place “immediately after the distress of those days” referred to by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse and may well be the fulfillment of his apocalyptic words in Mt 24:29. Significantly, the next event that follows this judgment, the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds (Mt 24:30-31), is the same event John describes following the bowl judgments (19:11).193

The Prelude to the Bowl Judgments

The Sign in Heaven (1)

John sees another sign in heaven, which he described as great and marvelous. “Another” (allos) means another of the same kind. It is a different sign, but with the same purpose. As seen previously, the term “sign” refers to something that is used as a symbol to signify and teach an important truth. Here in this scenario, the seven angels with the seven last plagues point to God’s judgment on the beast, his system, and his worshipers. The other signs previously mentioned are those in 12:1 and 3 (Israel, the woman, and the red dragon who is the head and source of the empire of the beast).

The sign is called “great” because of the awesome implication of these judgments in both extent and degree. “Marvelous” means “wonderful, awe inspiring,” and shows the effect this sign had on the heart and soul of John. It should have the same effect on us the same way as we think on the results these plagues will have. Not only will they result in the return of the Lord, but they also will lead to the establishment of His righteous rule on earth when God’s will will be done on earth just as it is in heaven.

In the “seven angels with seven last plagues” we again see the number seven, the number of perfection and completion. That there are seven plagues again reminds us these judgments will accomplish a perfect and complete work on earth to prepare its inhabitants for the return of Jesus Christ. These plagues will demonstrate as never before the rebellious heart of man and the character of Satan and His kingdom. In so doing, they will vindicate the glory and holiness of God. These judgments are not vindictive, but they are vindicative.

“The seven last plagues” is literally “seven plagues, the last ones.” This construction draws our attention to the fact these are the last of God’s judgments of this period and suggests the preceding judgments (seven seals and trumpets) were also plagues. “Plague” is plhgh, “a blow, stripe, wound,” then a “calamity, plague,” is metaphorical of divine judgment. These plagues constitute God’s wrath poured out on man in his rebellious and sinful state. “Last” shows these are the climactic judgments, those that occur in rapid sequence and with greater intensity. As the last judgments, they will be concluded by the personal return of the Lord Jesus and His personal defeat of the enemies of God and His people.

“For in them is filled up the wrath of God.” This clause, introduced with “for” (the Greek %oti, a causal conjunction pointing us the reason these are the last plagues), explains and points us to the reason for these plagues as the last ones.

“Is filled up.” The combined force of the tense and the verb used here stress the concept of culmination, completion. The verb is telew and means “to complete, bring to an end” in amount, number, degree, effect or purpose. It is in these last plagues that God’s wrath finds its culmination and accomplishes His purposes.

“The wrath of God.” In the Greek language there are two words used for God’s “anger.” There is orgh, “anger,” which emphasizes the divine attitude toward sin as it proceeds from the holiness of God. But then there is qumos, “wrath,” which points to the expression of God’s anger or God’s holiness in action or His wrath overflowing in righteous indignation. Here we have the last and final judgments of the Tribulation, but they will also perfectly accomplish God’s righteous purposes through this seven-year period.

(1) As the time of Jacob’s trouble. The Tribulation is first of all God’s discipline on the Jews for their willful rejection of Christ as their Messiah and for their stubbornness. It will purge out the rebels and cause the rest to turn to Christ (cf. Ezek. 20:33-44; Zech. 14:9-10).

(2) The Tribulation will bring God’s judgment on the Gentiles for anti-Semitism. It will be a strong source of motivation for men to repent and turn to faith in Christ, and judge the rest for their unbelief and rebellion.

(3) As to Satan the Tribulation is to demonstrate the true character and program of Satan as the source of sin, misery, war and murder.

(4) It will demonstrate to mankind as a whole (Jew and Gentile) the true rebellion and spiritually corrupt nature of man and the depths to which he will go when given the chance. Remember, at this time the restraint of the Holy Spirit who is at work today through the church, the body of Christ, will have been completely removed. The Tribulation, without this special restraint, will be a time of unprecedented lawlessness and unrighteousness, which will demonstrate the failure of man and how desperately he needs the Lord Jesus Christ.

(5) As to God and Christ it will demonstrate their absolute holiness, grace, faithfulness to their promises, and that God is still on the throne and He is just in his decisions against Satan and unbelieving man.

So these last seven plagues will complete these purposes as well as bring an end to the judgments (16:9-11, 13-14, 21).

The Sea of Glass (2a)

The phrase “as it were” in the NASB qualifies this statement. John didn’t see a real sea, but a broad expanse like a sea of white transparent glass or stone that has a glassy appearance and reflects an image. But why this picture? What does this teach us? (a) The glassy expanse like a sea is designed to communicate the concept of the reflection of God’s glory. Perhaps also it stands as a symbol for the Word of God and its many promises and truths that reflect God’s character or person, plan, principles, and purposes. (b) In 4:6 it was likened to crystal and stood for the perfect righteousness of God (Hab. 1:13; Isa. 59:2). (c) Here in 15:2 it is seen mingled with fire, which, as a symbol of judgment, stands for the perfect justice of God and his actions with men. (d) It is also seen upholding the saints who stand firmly upon it. This reflects the immutable faithfulness of God in His grace and love to His people through His perfect plan of salvation in Christ. This plan, like a rock, upholds man and brings sinful man into God’s presence if he will come to God through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).

The Saints Who Were Martyred (2b)

Because of the reference to the beast and his work which sets the context, these are clearly the martyred dead of the Tribulation. They are described as “those who had been victorious over the beast …” The word for victorious is nikaw and means “to be a victor, conquer, to prevail.” Biblically, the means of conquering is faith in Jesus Christ and the Word, but this is always a victory based on the victory accomplished by the Savior’s death for us through the cross and His resurrection (John 16:33).

Nikaw, however, is used here with the preposition ek three times, one for each of the areas of victory—the beast, his image, and his mark. Ek means “out of, from, away from.” It is used to introduce the person, place, or thing from which a separation takes place. Here, nikaw carries the idea of deliverance. Because of their victory in Christ, they were delivered from the beast, from his image, and from his mark. The three-fold repetition emphasizes the element of victory and deliverance. These believers will find themselves living in the sphere of the beast’s power and under great pressure to worship him, his image, and to wear his mark even to the point of death for refusing to do so. By faith they will refuse and will come out victorious from it all. Death is not a defeat but a glorious victory (1 Cor. 15:54-57). This is to be contrasted with church age believers in which Tribulation saints come out victorious from the Tribulation pressure, church age saints are kept out and never enter (tereo ek) (see the study in chapter 3:10).

These martyrs are seen standing on the glassy expanse. As mentioned, this reminds us their victory and position is a result of who and what God is to the believer as revealed in the Word. He alone can uphold us. All victory comes from faith in the Lord and His immutable and faithful promises. “Standing” is an intensive perfect, which emphasizes the permanence of this position in contrast to the temporary victory that would have been theirs had they rejected Christ and worshipped the beast.

John sees these saints holding harps of gold. This is part of their reward as mentioned in 14:13 (a position before God, abiding in worship and praise to God’s glory). “Holding” is a descriptive present pointing to the continuance of their worship of God. “Harps” are lyres, stringed instruments plucked or played with a plectrum or with the fingers. It is somewhat a combination of a mandolin, banjo and guitar. This certainly gives precedence for the use of musical instruments in worship.

The Songs of Moses and the Lamb (3-4)

These are two distinct songs. Note that “song” is mentioned two times and in both cases it has the article which specifies two distinct songs. However, they do seem to be harmonized into one. The Song of Moses emphasizes the power and faithfulness of God both in Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32. The Song of the Little Lamb emphasizes the redemptive work and plan of God in Christ. It lays stress on Christ’s submission to the plan of the Father. “Lamb” is arnion, the diminutive form which is also a term of endearment. It means, “a little lamb.”

In verse 4, the question is asked, “who will not fear?” Of course, the answer is no one! The Tribulation will not only vindicate God’s holiness and character, but it will clearly demonstrate that He is the almighty and brings every man to his knees even though it will be too late for some to turn to Christ.

The Sanctuary Opened in Heaven (5-6)

“And after these things I looked.” “After these things” refers to the sign, the seas of glass, etc. This implies an interval of time between these two sections. John distinguished these two sections, for though their theme is much the same (vindicating God’s holiness as the cause of the Tribulation judgments), their emphasis is different.

In the first section we saw the saints in glory praising God and fully understanding the cause of wrath, but here the emphasis is on the divine side which emphatically and impressively stresses the source and cause of what is about to happen. So literally John says, “After these things I saw and understood.”

“I looked” occurs for the third time (vss. 1, 2, 5). The verb is @oraw, “to see and understand.” John not only saw this with his eyes, but he spiritually grasped the meaning of this vision (as should we).

God is a holy God and one of the great purposes of the Tribulation will be to demonstrate this and to prove Satan’s age-old lies are just exactly that, lies. God is a God of love and of holiness and He must condemn the sinner who rejects His plan of salvation in Christ. Furthermore, He is perfectly just and righteous in rejecting the sinner who rejects His love and grace. The complete lawlessness of the Tribulation era will demonstrate this. The two age-old lies of Satan are: (a) If God is truly love, He would not send His creatures to hell, and (b) God would be unjust to do so.

“The temple.” “Temple” is naos, which refers to the Holy of Holies. The design was given to Israel in Exodus. The earthy tabernacle with the naos was a picture and type of the heavenly place (Isa. 6:2f). Today the believer’s body is called the naos (1 Cor. 6:19) because God the Holy Spirit Himself dwells within every believer. Within the earthly counterpart of the Holy of Holies was the ark over which the shekinah glory, representing God’s presence, hovered. Naos stands for the very abode of God and His personal presence.

“Of the tabernacle of the testimony.” Literally, “the tabernacle, the one of witness.” The whole tabernacle was a testimony and witness to the grace plan of God in Jesus Christ. However, of special importance here is the witness of the Ark of the Covenant, which was within the naos (Rev. 11:19). Note the following points regarding the Ark of the Covenant.

(1) The ark stood for the divine presence of God. It is here the glory of God’s presence hovered over the mercy seat of the ark and from whence God would commune with Israel (Ex. 25:17-22; 30:6; Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89; 2 Kgs. 19:15; Ps. 80:1).

(2) By its contents, the ark stood for God’s faithfulness. It contained: (a) the law or the tables of stone, which represented the whole law and guided the people as a way of life and pointed them to Messiah; (b) Aaron’s rod that budded, which portrayed resurrection and God’s choice of leaders; (c) the pot of manna, which portrayed the person of Christ and God’s daily provision, but it also taught them happiness comes only from the Lord and not the details of life (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4).

(3) The ark stood for God’s holiness, grace, and love through the tables of stone within, the cherubim above and on either side of the top of the ark, and by the mercy seat, which formed a lid for the ark. But how? The tables of stone declared the perfect holiness of God and demonstrated the sinfulness of man since no man is able to keep the law. The law declared man a sinner and cut off from God. The sprinkling of blood by the high priest on the mercy seat (under or in front of the cherubim) showed that God’s holiness could only be satisfied by the shedding of blood. This foreshadowed the person and work of Christ on the cross as did the whole ritual of the tabernacle, priesthood, and the sacrifices (cf. Acts 7:44; Ex. 32:15; 38:21; Numb. 1:50, 53; 17:7-10; Ex. 16:33; Heb. 9:1-5).

John saw that the temple in heaven “was opened.” In front of the Holy of Holies was a large curtain, a veil, which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The high priest could only go into the Holy of Holies only once a year and then only after proper sacrifices. He went in with blood to sprinkle over the mercy seat signifying the way into God’s presence was not yet open (Heb. 9:7-8). When Christ died on the cross one of the things accomplished was the tearing of that veil in the temple from top to bottom, signifying the way had been opened and the work complete (Mark 15:38). It signified the barrier, those things that separate man from God, had been removed—sin, the penalty of sin or death, and man’s absence of spiritual life and righteousness.

Today man can have access into the very presence of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:4-6, 11-18; 3:12). However, today and also in the Tribulation, Jesus Christ now forms a new barrier, a new veil, one that excludes from God’s presence all who reject Christ (John 14:6; 3:3, 16). Upon these, the judgment of God must fall because of their failure to trust in Christ (John 3:13, 36).

This opening of the naos in Revelation 15 symbolizes the parting of the veil, but in reverse order. Here, rather than access to God, it symbolizes the outpouring of God’s perfect justice and wrath for rejection of Christ. Here the veil is pulled back, not to let man in, but to pour out God’s justice.

“And the seven angels … came out of the temple.” As the ministers and agents of God’s holy justice, these angels proceed from the presence of God acting on behalf of God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice. That they are “clothed in pure white linen” refers to the nature of their commission as representatives of God’s holiness. Pure white portrays righteousness and reminds us of the truth of 1 John 1:5b, “God is light and in Him is not darkness at all.” “Linen,” as in the garment of the wife of the Lamb (19:8), symbolizes righteousness in action. They have been clothed with this linen as a symbol of their commission and work in the outpouring of the righteous acts of judgment.

“And having their breasts girded with golden girdles” is also symbolical. Gold stands for the glory of God and girding was an act of preparation. What they are seen doing here is preparatory for bringing maximum glory to God and will cause all creatures to fall on their knees and acknowledge the sovereignty and perfect holiness of God.

The Seven Golden Bowls Given to the Angels (7-8)

The “four living creatures” are undoubtedly cherubim who manifest and protect certain aspects of God’s glory and essence, especially His holiness. They are seen here engaged in this role by distributing the bowls to the seven angels. Previously these seven angels were given the responsibility for these last plagues. The giving of the seven bowls sets forth their authorization to use the plagues and describes the overall nature of what the plagues would be like, i.e., like a bowl which is overturned causing the contents to be poured out all at once or suddenly.

“Full of the wrath of God.” The word “full” is a descriptive participle from the Greek verb gemw, which means “be full to the brim.” Verse 1 teaches us the seven last plagues complete the judgments of the Tribulation. There we have telew, “to complete, fulfill.” Here in verse 7 the verb gemw, “be full,” adds to this emphasis and stresses the full devastating character of each bowl.

“Wrath” is again tJumos which refers to God’s divine justice and anger in action.

“Who lives for ever and ever.” Literally the Greek reads, “of the wrath, the one of God, the One who lives unto the ages of ages (eternally).” This is a solemn reminder that God, as the eternal One, is first a long-suffering God. For centuries God has withheld his judgment in grace (2 Pet. 3:8-9). At this point, not only will God’s period of grace be over, but once God pours out His justice in divine wrath it will have eternal ramifications. Through the Lord Jesus Christ man has the opportunity and the means to come to God and be with Him eternally, but if he rejects God’s grace in Jesus Christ, he must eternally face God’s wrath (14:11).

“And the temple was filled with smoke.” The “temple” of course is the heavenly temple, the very abode of God, the Holy of Holies of God’s presence.

“Was filled” is a causative verb which means to “cause to be full.” It is the perfect holiness of God’s divine essence that causes the temple to be filled with smoke. As the setting in Isaiah 6:3-4 shows us, the smoke represents the holiness of God; here it is acting in divine justice against sin. Our passage in Revelation tells us this smoke proceeds from two sources: (a) “From the glory of God.” “Glory” stands for God’s divine essence and particularly God’s righteousness and justice. Together they form the holiness of God. (b) “And from his power.” This refers to God’s sovereign omnipotence, His inherent and sovereign power to execute and carry out the demands of His holy character.

“And no one was able to enter the temple until the seven plagues … were finished …” The smoke, which points to the awesome holiness of God, will make access into the presence of God impossible. This strongly stresses the principle of Habakkuk 1:13a, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil and You cannot not look on wickedness with favor …” It also reminds us of Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The smoke illustrates the truth of God’s righteousness; He is unable and unwilling to have fellowship with sin. Further, the seven golden bowls proceeding from God illustrate the concept of God’s justice acting to judge sin in the world.

Note that this smoke continues until the plagues are finished, until God’s holy character is satisfied and God deals with sin. This teaches us that God will so completely turn to anger and justice in these final moments that all else seems to cease. Absolute and undiluted wrath will be the business of these final days. It will be as the Psalmist says in Psalm 76:7, “You, even You are to be feared; and who may stand in Your presence when once You are angry.”

This chapter has prepared the way for the judgments to follow as cause and effect or root to fruit. The judgments of chapter 16 stem from the ineffable holiness of God. “It is an ominous sign of impending doom for those who persist in their blasphemous disregard of the sovereignty and holiness of God.”194

193 Alan Johnson, Zondervan Bible Commentary, electronic version.

194 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Moody Press, Chicago, 1966, p. 230.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)

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