A Study of Revelation 19:1-21 - Part I
John’s focus in this chapter is the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, at the time of his parousia (or, “presence”) or second coming. In conjunction with that day John also describes the wedding feast of the Lamb and the destruction of his enemies at the so-called “war” of Armageddon.
We must first determine who this “great multitude” is in heaven shouting praise to God. Some argue that these are the angelic hosts gathered in ceaseless praise. Others would restrict it to the 24 Elders, although it seems odd to refer to only 24 beings as a “great multitude”! Other possible candidates are the four living creatures of Rev. 4-5. The martyred saints of Rev. 6 are also a possibility. But it seems more likely that all the inhabitants of heaven, both angelic and human, of all ages are in view.
Their declaration of praise is no doubt in response to the judgment on Babylon described in chapter 18. This is confirmed by v. 2 (note the transitional word “because”). God is to be praised and all power and glory ascribed to him precisely because he has “judged the great harlot” (v. 2). Far from the outpouring of wrath and the destruction of his enemies being a blight on God’s character or a reason to be offended or to question his love and kindness (as unbelievers so often suggest), they are the very reason for worship! As we saw earlier in 15:3-4 and 16:5-7, God’s judgments against the unbelieving world system and its followers are “true and righteous”. The reason for the latter is that the harlot “was corrupting [cf. 17:1-5; 18:3,7-9] the earth with her immorality,” thereby meriting divine vengeance.
Two additional observations:
· The word translated “Hallelujah” (lit., praise Yahweh) occurs only four times in the NT, all of which are found here in Rev. 19:1,3,4,6).
· The NASB translates the final phrase in v. 2, “on her,” when it literally should read, “from her hand.” This may simply be a figure of speech in which a part (“hand”) represents the whole (all of Babylon). Or it may be that God “has avenged the blood of his bondservants which was shed by her hand” (cf. 2 Kings 9:7).
As if once were not enough, now a “second time” the cry of Hallelujah! is sounded. The wording here comes from the OT description of God’s judgment against Edom (Isa. 34:9-10) and is similar to Rev. 14:11, all of which points to the never-ending nature (or effect?) of Babylon’s judgment. Beale suggests that “the portrayal of the city’s eternal judgment may be a partial polemic against the mythical name Roma aeterna (‘eternal Rome’), which was one of the names for the Roman Empire” (929). This verdict is then echoed (note their “Amen”, a formal expression of ratification and endorsement) by the 24 elders and 4 living creatures (cf. Ps. 106:48 for this combination of “Amen” and “Hallelujah”).
Once again we are not told explicitly whose “voice” this is. Some have pointed to Jesus, others to Michael or one of the other angels. Perhaps it is the voice of one of the four living creatures. The fact that it came “from the throne” has led some to say this is Jesus calling everyone to worship the Father. If so, would he say, “Give praise to our God,” “Give praise to your God,” or even “Give praise to my God”? In any case, those called on to praise God (again, given the context, for the judgment of Babylon and all God’s enemies) include all God-fearing bondservants, both great (powerful and important) and small (weak and unnoticed). Worship is incumbent on us all, regardless of our earthly status, reputation, or accomplishments.
Again, a “great multitude” shouts forth its praise (v. 6). Surely this is the same group, whoever they may be, that began this worship service in v. 1. Only here their voice is even louder (like the “sound of many waters” and “mighty peals of thunder”), gradually increasing as they reflect more deeply on the reasons why God is worthy of praise (as stated in v. 2 and all of chapter 18).
The judgments of God against Babylon are indicative of God’s “reign” (v. 6). This may be translated in either of two ways: “He began to reign” (ingressive aorist) or “He reigns” (timeless aorist).
The reason for worship now shifts from the judgments against Babylon to the arrival of the marriage of the Lamb to His bride (although the best manuscript evidence supports the reading of “wife” [gune], not “bride” [numphe]). Two things are said of the wife/bride: (1) she “has made herself ready” (v. 7b), and (2) “it was given to her to clothe herself . . .” (v. 8).
Let’s begin by noting her clothing, or as Aune has put it, “the bridal trousseau” (3:1030).
· The “fine linen, bright and clean” is an obvious and intentional contrast between the garb of Babylon (where it functions as “a symbol of decadence and opulence” [Aune, 3:1030]), and the garb of the bride (where it functions as a symbol of righteousness and purity; see esp. the OT background for this imagery in Isa. 61:10). =
· The “fine linen” is then said to symbolize “the righteous acts of the saints” (v. 8b). Some believe this points to the idea repeated throughout Revelation of the saints “holding to the testimony of Jesus” (cf. 19:10), i.e., bearing witness to Jesus in both word and deed (see 1:9; 6:9; 11:7; 12:11,17; 20:4). Others emphasize the idea of purity that results from persevering faith amidst trials and suffering (cf. 3:5-6).
· Another suggestion is that the phrase “righteous acts of the saints” points instead to God’s act of vindication on behalf of the saints. In other words, God’s act of judgment against Babylon and the beast, persecutors of the saints, is a declaration of acquittal. In other words, God has vindicated them. He has passed judgment on their behalf. If so, the “fine linen” points to the final reward for having lived righteously rather than to the righteous living itself.
· Finally, note the classic theological tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility: on the one hand, the bride “has made herself ready” (v. 7), yet on the other hand, “it was given to her [by God] to clothe herself” (v. 8). On this tension see Phil. 2:12-13. Yes, the bride must actively and willingly pursue purity of life (“work out your salvation with fear and trembling”), yet all the while acknowledging that it is God’s grace that makes it possible (“for it is God who is at work in you to work and to will for his good pleasure”).
There is a slight change in perspective from vv. 7-8 to v. 9. In the former verses the bride is viewed corporately, on the verge of marrying the Lamb. But in v. 9 the focus is on individual believers who are portrayed as invited guests at the marriage supper. Both pictures describe the intimacy of communion between Jesus and his people.
There is an obvious contrast between, on the one hand, the marriage “supper” of the Lamb, to which the Bride is invited, and, on the other, the “great supper” of God (vv. 17-18), to which the birds are invited that they might eat the flesh of His enemies! At the end of history there will be two great suppers, at one of which all people will attend. Either you will eat or be eaten! Either you are a guest who dines, or you are the dinner!
· Verse 9 is the fourth of seven beatitudes (“blessed are those. . .”) in Revelation (see 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 20:6; 22:7,14).
· Once again it is unclear who the speaker is in v. 9 who twice addresses John. It is most likely the angel who had the seventh bowl (cf. 17:1-2,7-14,15-18) or perhaps the angel of 18:1 (if he is a different one).
· Of all possible scenarios or spiritual metaphors that could have been used to portray the relationship between the Lamb and his people, that of marriage and a wedding feast (cf. Isa. 25:6) were chosen. Evidently there is something in this imagery that John finds particularly appropriate when describing the nature of how we feel about and relate to Jesus. Joy! Celebration! The beginning of a new life together! Intimacy! Trust! Oneness! Commitment! Delight in one another!
(I addressed the issues in this text in my study of Revelation 22:8-9. If you read that material you may want to skip down to v. 11.)
People have often wondered why John would be so nave as to fall at the feet of an angel and worship. Some have tried to dismiss the problem by saying that the word “worship” (proskunesis) need only refer to a normal gesture of respect, far short of genuine worship. Whereas the word can often have this meaning in the Bible, the angel’s response in v. 10b and his advice to John indicate otherwise. There are at least three answers to this problem, all of which bear a measure of truth.
· First of all, this is only the first of two such occurrences, the other in 22:8-9. It may be that John, much like Daniel in chp. 10 of his prophecy, was overwhelmed with the brilliance and power of this angelic being. Let us remember that in 18:1 an angel is described as “having great authority” and so completely reflecting the glory of God that “the earth was illumined”.
· Second, the angel has just pronounced an awesome beatitude on John and others who are invited to the marriage supper, immediately followed by a powerful declaration that authenticates its reality: “These are true words of God” (v. 9b). The impact of this statement may have been simply more than he could fathom. He may have thought that any spiritual being commissioned from the throne of God with such profound news was deserving of special reverence.
· Third, it has been argued that John’s desire was “to counter a tendency to angel-worship in the Asiatic churches to which he addressed his work” (Bauckham, 133). However, as Bauckham goes on to note, “in that case it is surprising that no reference to this aberration is made in the seven messages to the churches” (133).
But there are other reasons why the Spirit, through John, would include this story.
· First of all, note that it is the angel as the giver of prophetic revelation (esp. seen in 22:8-9) that explains why John prostrates himself in this way. But “in rejecting worship the angel disclaims this status: he is not the transcendent giver of prophetic revelation, but a creaturely instrument through whom the revelation is given, and therefore a fellow-servant with John and the Christian prophets, who are similarly only instruments to pass on the revelation. Instead of the angel, John is directed to ‘worship God’ (19:10; 22:9) as the true transcendent source of revelation” (Bauckham, 134). As 22:16 makes clear, “the angel is mere intermediary, Jesus is the source of the revelation” (134). The angel wants to make it clear that when it comes to revelation, he belongs on the side of the creatures who receive it, while Jesus belongs on the side of God who gives it.
· Second, it may be that John is reinforcing in this story one of the principal themes of the entire book: namely, the difference between true worship and idolatry. Everyone in Revelation either worships God or the dragon/beast/Babylon. There is no third way or middle ground.
· Third, and related to the above, is the fact that “this passage presents an example of how easy it is to fall into idolatry, for which the judgment described throughout ch. 19 comes into play” (Beale, 947). If someone like John, who has been the recipient of such marvelous revelatory experiences as found in Revelation, can fall prey to this temptation, how much more should we be on the alert!
The phrase “the testimony of Jesus [cf. 1:2,9; 12:17; 19:10b; 20:4] is the spirit of prophecy” deserves comment. The Greek would allow us to render the first part either of two ways: (1) “the testimony about Jesus,” or (2) “the testimony which comes from Jesus,” i.e., which Jesus himself bears or declares. The latter option points to the idea that all true prophecy has its origin in the words and acts of Jesus; the former option highlights the idea that all true prophecy consists in testimony or witness to/about Jesus himself. I.e., he is its content and focus (whether directly or indirectly).
The second half of this statement may mean that all true prophecy is inspired by the Holy Spirit (i.e., energized and sustained by him). Or it may mean that the essence of prophecy, the purpose and principle of it all, is bearing witness to Jesus. Or again, it may mean that the (Holy) Spirit is chiefly characterized by prophetic manifestations. Aune also suggests the possible translation, “the prophetic Spirit,” by which he would be referring to “the power that allows certain individuals to have visionary experiences and gives them revelatory insights not available to ordinary people” (3:1039).