Blessed is the One Who Stays Awake
June 12, 2022

Blessed is the One Who Stays Awake

Passage: Revelation 16
Service Type:

Blessed is the One Who Stays Awake
Revelation 16
By William Klock


There’s an old story of a clergyman, who out of concern for a parishioner who had been absent for some time, went to visit her at home.  He saw her car in the driveway.  The drapes were drawn, but he could see the lights were one.  He could hear the faint sound of the TV.  She was clearly home.  He knocked on the door and waited.  No answer.  Then he heard the TV go silent.  He knocked again.  Still no answer.  He waited.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw a faint movement of the living room drapes, as if someone had peeked around the edge.  Still no answer.  He rang the doorbell and waited again.  Still nothing.  He sighed, pulled one of his cards from his pocket, and slipped it into the front door’s weather stripping.  Then he had an idea.  If anyone needed to read her Bible, it was she.  So he took the card back, pulled out his pen, and wrote on the back “Revelation 3:20”—“Behold, I stand at the door and knock”—and slipped the card back into the weatherstripping.  “She’ll have to look that one up,” he thought, “and maybe she’ll keep reading while her Bible’s open.”  He rang the bell one more time, waited again, and left.


On Sunday morning he was pleased to see that the woman was in church, but she left too quickly for him to greet her.  Then, as he was getting ready to leave the church, one of the wardens approached, holding a little card.  “It was in the offering plate,” the warden said as he handed it to him.  The priest took the card and saw it was one of his own.  He turned it over and saw the Bible reference he’d written: “Revelation 3:20”.  Underneath it the woman had written another: “Genesis 3:10”.  He laughed.  That’s Adam’s answer to the Lord, “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”


Revelation 16 continues with the Lord’s judgement on Greco-Roman world.  We looked at Chapter 15 two weeks ago and saw the announcement of seven plagues, carried by seven angles in bowls like those used for drink offerings in the temple.  In Chapter 16 we’ll now see those plagues poured out—the wrath of God revealed.  And in the middle of the plagues John stops—in verse 15—to give a warning to God’s people:


“Behold, I am coming like a thief!  Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”


It’s a warning from Jesus for his Church to stay alert and on guard—not to be distracted, but to be diligently about the work he’s given.  He gave similar warnings to the churches at Sardis and Laodicea.  The reference is to an officer in the temple in John’s day, who was tasked with making sure that the men on watch stayed awake.  He would make the rounds of the temple and if he caught anyone asleep, he would beat him.  If he found the same man asleep a second time, he would strip the man naked and burn his clothes.[1]  One commentator writes, “The danger is of being caught not momentarily but habitually off guard—not, to put it crudely, with trousers down, but without trousers at all.”[2]


Consider Jesus’ warning to the Christians in Sardis:


Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. (Revelation 3:2)


Brothers and Sisters, it is easy to become complacent.  Either we become complacent and neglect our calling to proclaim and to live out the good news about Jesus and to declare the mighty works of God.  Or we become complacent in that we become worldly.  We live in the world and it’s easy to be unconsciously influenced by it when we keep our guard down and neglect to feed ourselves on God’s word and to share in the means of grace found in the Church.  It’s also easy to become complacent through wilful compromise with the world.  We face opposition and instead of standing firm, we compromise in the hopes that the world will oppose us less—maybe that they’ll even like us.  We see an awful lot of this today.  Churches looking to attract “seekers” structure ministry and worship around what is attractive to unbelievers—which can be great when done thoughtfully and carefully, but disastrous when, as so often happens, we end up looking more like the world than the church.  Or we cozy up to the world’s system, especially to politics—Left or Right—it can go either way.  When we allow ourselves to be overtaken by the world’s ways of thinking, whether that be commercialism and materialism or expressive individualism, the sexual revolution, and post-modern gender theory.  Or—I think most appropriate in light of our text today—we water down our message.  Large parts of the Western Church today are hesitant to talk about sin and about the consequences of sin, about the wrath of God and of judgement.  H. Richard Niebuhr famous described the gospel of much of modern Christendom as: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[3]  Such a faith is worthless—for those who believe—and for the world to which it is proclaimed.  The Church that preaches such a message is no church at all and when God’s judgement does come, such churches will be swept away with everything else not of the kingdom—caught naked and asleep at her post.  It’s important that the Church be clear about the difference between the things of God and the things of the world, the difference between godliness and sin, and knowing the kingdom of God, and be able to persevere in the midst of tribulation—that, to use John’s metaphor, we stay awake and keep our pants on.


As John announces the judgement that was soon to come on the pagan world of Caesar, using the language of cataclysmic plagues, the Church was expected to recognise the judgement of God in the same way that Israel had seen, recognised, and praised the judgment of God on Pharaoh, the supposed god-king, and on his pantheon of false gods.  John saw those who had conquered the beast, like Israel of old watching Pharaoh’s army drown, singing the praises of their victorious God.  Brothers and Sisters, God’s people are called to singing of his victory for the sake of the world and, in doing so, we glorify him.  Now look at Chapter 16.  John writes:


Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”


Remember that in the last scene, John saw the heavenly tabernacle filled with smoke—so full that no one could enter.  And out came seven angels bearing bowls.  The image is of the priests of the old covenant bearing their drink offerings at the conclusion of the daily service.  Since no one could enter the heavenly tabernacle because of the smoke, this must be the voice of God directing the angels.  John then goes on:


So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.

  The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.

  The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood.  (Revelation 16:2-4)


Just like the plagues poured out on rebellious Jerusalem, the plagues poured out on the pagan nations are meant to remind us of the plagues the Lord brought on Egypt.  First, painful sores reminiscent of the boils that afflicted the Egyptians.  Second, the sea turning to blood and then, third, the fresh waters turning to blood as well.


In contrast to the plagues poured out on rebellious Jerusalem, these plagues are universal in scope.  The earlier plagues were limited—a third of the water, a third of the people.  I think the idea in this distinction is that when God disciplined his rebellious children, there was an opportunity for the pagan nations to see, to take heart, and to repent of their wickedness themselves.  Now that opportunity has passed.  The wine of God’s wrath has been tread out in the winepress and the wicked peoples who drank the blood of the saints are now—metaphorically—left with nothing but putrid blood to drink.


That raises another question?  Are these plagues meant to be understood literally?  I think it’s fairly clear, given the context, that they are not.  The imagery draws on the Lord’s past judgement on the nations that afflicted his people, first Egypt and then, we’ll see, Babylon.  The point is that the Lord is now going to judge Rome.  Remember the point of Revelation: tribulation, perseverance, and kingdom.  Jesus’ main purpose in giving John this vision is to encourage the saints to persevere in the midst of tribulation.  The great New Testament scholar, George Caird, puts it this way: “The theme of the whole series [i.e., the plagues] is neither the collapse of the physical universe nor the punishment of individual men for their personal contribution to the world’s iniquity, both of which come later when the record books are opened…but the ending of persecution through the removal of the persecutor.”[4]  The angels underscore this when they sing out between the third and fourth plagues.  Look at verses 5 to 7:


And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say,

“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was,

         for you brought these judgments.

For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets,

         and you have given them blood to drink.

It is what they deserve!”

  And I heard the altar saying,

“Yes, Lord God the Almighty,

         true and just are your judgments!”


The Lord’s judgement vindicates his saints and brings justice on their persecutors.  The songs of the angels and of the altar—I assume these are the martyrs we saw earlier under the altar—the song is a needed reminder of the goodness of the Lord’s judgement.  We modern Christians have often become uncomfortable with judgement—Niebuhr’s God without wrath and kingdom without judgement.  One morning this week I left my prayer book at home.  I had left a Canadian prayer book on my desk—the 1962 edition—after looking up something in the lectionary last week, so I picked it up for Morning Prayer.  And I was jarred by the changes they made in the Psalter.  Wherever they could, they eliminated or watered down the passages that speak of or call for the Lord’s judgement.  Whole psalms were removed.  Because modern Christians have—to our shame—become exceedingly uncomfortable with the topic of the wrath and judgement of God.  And yet, the angels sing here, it is God’s justice which reveals his holiness.  Do we consider that when we sing “Holy, holy, holy Lord God almighty”?  And do we consider that it is the Lord’s justice that is our consolation as we face a world that opposes us because it opposes him?  Brothers and Sisters, we need to remember that the Lord is revealed to be true and just because he judges wickedness and, in that, he deserves our praises.  There is no reason to preach the gracious mercy of the cross, if there is nothing from which we need deliverance.


Now the fourth plague—verses 8 and 9:


The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire.  They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues.  They did not repent and give him glory.


The fourth of the trumpets that announcement judgement on Jerusalem heralded a plague of darkness.  Now the fourth bowl brings the opposite.  It metaphorically highlights the Lord’s vindication of his saints.  The martyrs we saw under the altar back in Chapter 7 were consoled with the words:


They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;

         the sun shall not strike them,

         nor any scorching heat.  (Revelation 7:16)


In contrast, the wicked are exposed to the full justice of the Lord.  And yet, even as they experience his wrath, like Pharaoh, their hearts are hardened.  They know the source of their affliction, but rather than repent, rather than turn from their evil and give him glory, they curse him.


With the fifth bowl, the judgement narrows from the wider pagan world of the Greeks and Romans to its throne—to the heart and embodiment of its wickedness.


The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness.  People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores.  They did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:10-11)


The Lord’s judgement now falls on the beast, on Caesar, on Nero himself.  Darkness—political chaos—descends on the empire.  In a.d. 69 the Senate declared Nero a public enemy.  He fled and committed suicide.  A year of chaos—referred to as the Year of the Four Emperors—ensued.  Galba became emperor.  He was murdered by Otho.  Meanwhile, Vitellius popular for his military victories in Germany, vied for the throne and won the support of the imperial guard.  Otho committed suicide.  But Vitellius had his own rival in the general, Vespasian, who was besieging Jerusalem.  In the end, Vespasian’s supporters in the military outnumbered those of Vitellius, who abdicated and was promptly lynched by a mob in Rome.  It was a year of chaos and civil war.  But again, even as the beast was toppled from his throne, there was no repentance.  Nero, who had initiated the empire’s persecution of the saints, was cast down, but in quick succession four others seized his throne and made the same blasphemous claims to divinity that he had.


And the sixth bowl.  Verses 12-16:


The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east.  And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs.  For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.  (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”)  And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.


John has referred to Rome symbolically as Babylon—historically the great enemy of the people of God.  And now the symbolism of the judgements recalls the fall of Babylon, while at the same time conjuring up the great fear of Rome at that time.  Ancient Babylon fell to the Medes when the invaders diverted the Euphrates River so that they could enter the city.  Now it’s Rome’s turn to fall.  Rome’s great enemy to the east was the Parthian empire—on the other side of the Euphrates.  In the midst of Rome’s political chaos, war was coming.  John writes of the kings of the nations assembling to battle at a place called in Hebrew, Harmageddon—the Mount of Megiddo.  It’s a little interesting in that there’s no Mount Megiddo.  Megiddo is a valley between the mountains—the route from the coastal plain of Palestine to the interior, to Syria and Damascus.  For that reason it had a been a place of many battles.  Deborah and Barak had won their victory there in Judges.  It was the place where King Josiah met his Waterloo, so to speak.  And that’s precisely how John uses “Megiddo” here.  That there’s no actual Mount Megiddo suggests strongly that John isn’t using this location literally.  When we say someone has met their Waterloo, we don’t literally mean that they’ve gone to Waterloo to lose a battle.  Waterloo is a metaphor for defeat and John uses Megiddo in a similar way here.  Rome will meet her enemies and she will fall.  The beast’s own wickedness will catch up with him both at home and abroad and he will be toppled from his throne.


But in the middle of all this there’s that warning.  “Stay awake,” warns Jesus.  Hearkening back to the plague of frogs in Egypt, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet spew forth demonic spirits imaged as frogs.  These unclean spirits perform signs that deceive the kings of the nations and summon them to the battle.  Jesus warns his people not to be conned by the false prophets and their lying signs.  Pharoah’s magicians had once mimicked the Lord’s miracles and the prophets of the dragon and the beast will do the same.  God’s people must be alert, he warns, that they not fall prey to the enemy’s propaganda.


And in verses 17-20 the seventh and final bowl is poured out.


The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.  The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.  And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.  And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.


The final judgement is poured out into the air, the space between heaven and earth, and the only language John can employ to describe the result is the language of de-creation used by the Old Testament prophets.  Zechariah had once described the fall of Jerusalem using this metaphorical language—the city being split in two by an earthquake.  Now Rome is metaphorically split in three in the chaos of lightning, thunder, and earthquakes.  I think it’s very possible this is a reference to the civil war that was about the rattle Rome to its core, but it was a civil war that would topple the beast who had persecuted the saints.  And yet, still, the wicked continue to curse God.  The men who took Nero’s place on the throne did not continue the persecution of the saints, but they continued with their blasphemous claims to divinity.  Nevertheless, John says, “God remembered Babylon the great”.  This is our lead-in to Chapters 17 and 18.  The great city will be revealed as the world’s whore.  But in that revelation, the faithfulness and the beauty of the Lord’s bride will also be revealed.


John saw the end of pagan Rome.  Or it might be better to say that he saw the beginning of the end of pagan Rome.  As Caird also rightly points out, Israel’s prophets had always used this kind of apocalyptic language “to give theological depth and urgency to this historical crisis which he and his people were facing at the moment.  John, too, had his vision of the End, but because he had learnt his theology at the foot of the Cross, he knew that an end could also be a beginning.”[5]


The Lord’s judgement would cast down the beast, break his empire, and in time the good news about Jesus, proclaimed by saints and witnesses by the blood of the martyrs would transform the world.  And, Brothers and Sisters, it will continue to do so.  Throughout history the power of the gospel has brought transformation, but it’s never as simple as we might like: Okay, the gospel has conquered here, now the Church can go over there or over there to conquer and forget about here.  The Church triumphs there, and then wanes here, only to triumph again here, later.  We in the West are experiencing what it’s like to live in a post-Christian world—the waning of the gospel here—to fall out of favour, to experience opposition.  If John were here today he would warn and exhort us as he did the Christians of his own day: “Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”  Don’t give up.  Don’t succumb to the spirit of the age.  Don’t be swayed by the lies of the unclean spirits.  The gospel will triump here again and it will do so through the witness of faithful Christians.  So live in deep community with your church family.  Drink deeply at the well of grace provided by the sacraments.  Steep yourself in the word of God.  Don’t be afraid to be different—to be holy—and to proclaim the sinfulness of sin, the gracious mercy of God revealed at the cross, and the lordship of Jesus over all things.  Be shaped by faith-filled hope for Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.


Let’s pray: Almighty God, we thank you for the exhortation you have given us through John.  You judge the wicked and deliver your people.  Your gospel is powerful and transforms the world.  Strengthen our faith and fill us with hope in these truths, so that we can live courageously for Jesus in the face of hatred and opposition.  Renew us by your Spirit and make us faithful witnesses of the transforming power of your word.  Judge the wicked, we pray, vindicate your people, and set your fallen creation to rights.  Through Jesus we pray, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, new and for ever.  Amen.

[1] Philip Carrington, The Meaning of Revelation (London: SPCK, 1931), 265.

[2] J. P. M. Sweet, Revelation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), 249.

[3] The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 193.

[4] The Revelation of St. John the Divine (London: A & C Black, 1966), 201.

[5] 210

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