“Here is the patience of the saints” (Rev. 14:6-13)
The Bible tells us that the primary and fundamental problem with humanity is that we have made an exchange: we have exchanged the worship of the true God for the creature. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 1:21-25).
It is suicide to choose the creature over the Creator, and yet we all do it. It is suicide because it alienates us from the true source of our blessedness happiness and eternal life. Because he is eternally blessed he is able to bless us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3; Rev. 14:13). But when we turn to idols, we exchange truth for lies, and we exchange what God has ordained for what is unnatural.
One way you see this in our country and culture today is in the whole-hearted embrace of what has been called “expressive individualism.” For example, thanks to the secularism that now pervades our culture, we have lost any grip on objective reality, especially the reality that gives us an objective ground for what it means to be human, for what it means to be man or woman. We think we can just make it up, that we can be whatever we feel like at the present moment. But in doing this we are exchanging the Creator for the creature. We are replacing God’s order with our own wishes. Instead of calibrating our desires to the identity God has given us, we are resting our identity upon the changing and unstable foundation of our fickle desires. And in in the long run it is causing a lot of people to hurt themselves, to mutilate their bodies, to cause irreversible damage, all in the name of following their own hearts. Of course, we should not mock such people; we should weep over them. It is just another form of worshiping the creature over the Creator, of hewing out broken cisterns that can really hold no water.
The way out of this maze of endlessly trying to find yourself is to know the true God and his Son Jesus Christ. It is to gladly surrender to his sovereignty over us. This is not oppressive; it is the only way to true freedom. It is to worship him, for you cannot truly know him without worshiping him. For to know him is to know that he has made us, that we are not our own, that we are the sheep of his pasture and that as a Good Shepherd he leads us beside the still waters, restores our souls, provides for our needs, walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and causes goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives and into eternity. And unlike the devotees of our modern pagan gods who love to use cancel culture on each other, the true God never turns on his people. Jesus gives his life for his sheep. He gives us life abundant. He holds us fast.
God is God and God is good. The fact that he alone is God means that it is the ultimate treason to abandon him for other gods, whether it is the god of self, or some other creature. The fact that God is good means that it is very good news that we – even sinners who have embraced false gods – are through the mercy and grace of God called and invited to worship him. That fact that God is God means that those who ignore the call to worship him and abandon him for self-sovereignty and a life devoted to doing their own thing means that they are justly condemned and will experience everlasting punishment if they do not repent. The fact that God is good means that he has ordained that those who turn from this idolatry and embrace him through faith in Christ will have eternal joy at the Father’s right hand.
In the verses we read just now, we see both the good news that calls us to worship the true God and the very bad news that warns those who abandon the Creator for the creature. In these verses, we hear three announcements of three angels. The first angel announces the good news that calls us to worship the Creator (6-7). The second angel announces fall of Babylon, the seat of opposition to God (8). A third angel then announces the very bad news that those who have worshiped false gods will drink God’s wrath unmixed with mercy for ever (9-11). We then are told the point of these verses: they are a call for the saints to endure and persevere in the faith of God and in obedience to the commands of God (12-13).
In other words, these verses show us what the call to perseverance is a call to: it is a call to remain faithful worshippers of the true God. This is the connection between verses 6-7 and 12-13. They also tell us that you are a true worshiper of God when you keep God’s commandments and the faith of Christ (no vague spirituality here). The intervening verses (8-11) help us to see why we should persevere in the true worship of God. First, because the false gods will fall (8); second, because the Divine and just retribution which will fall upon the worshipers of false gods is inevitable and eternal and unbearable (9-11). Hence, we have the description of faithfulness (we are to be faithful in true worship) and the motivation to faithfulness (in the futility of false gods, and the certainty, eternity, and enormity of the punishment for those who worship false gods).
The Description of Faithfulness
In verses 6-7, we read, “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” John sees an angel flying through the sky overhead and proclaiming “the everlasting gospel.” But what follows is not what you would expect to hear: it is not the gospel as we normally think of it in terms of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus over sin and a corresponding call to embrace him as Lord and Savior. Rather, it is a call to fear God, to give glory to God, and to worship God. Notice that all humanity is called to do this: it is a genuinely universal call to repent of idolatry and to turn to the true God in worship.
Why call this “the everlasting gospel”? Another way to translate this would be, “the eternal good news.” But then this “good news” is attached to a warning of judgment. So how again is this eternal good news?
It is good news in the same sense that the ministry of Jonah to Nineveh was good news. When the people believed Jonah’s message about impending judgment and repented, God spared the city. The message itself was quite dire (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” Jon. 3:4). But the effect was good: it resulted in repentance and the staying of God’s hand in mercy. In the same way, the warning of judgment and the call to worship the true God (which implies repentance of idolatry) is an instance of the mercy of God towards humanity. God doesn’t have to do this. There is no reason why God has to extend the mercy of repentance to anyone. Seeing repentance as mercy is one of the reasons why I like the definition of repentance given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” What is repentance? It is, in part at least, an “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.” The warning of judgment and the call to repentance is an act of grace and mercy on God’s part, and that makes this good news.
We should not think that this good news is to be thought of apart from “the mercy of God in Christ.” After all, this book is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. He is the Lamb slain for the sins of people from every nation, kindred, and tribe. However, the focus here is on the worship of the true God in contrast to idolatry. To worship the true God is to worship the Triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit. We have seen that this letter highlights the Trinity in a number of ways. So this is not just a call to worship some vague Divine Being or a call to some kind of vague spirituality, but this is a call to worship the God of the Bible, the Creator of all things, the Lord over all, the Savior of sinners.
The fact that the call is a call to worship God shows that repentance from idolatry is not just a matter of lip-service to God. It is not just being intellectually convinced that there is a God. Rather, this is a matter of the heart. You can’t fear and reverence God, give glory to him, and worship him if your heart is far from him. This requires conversion of the whole person: heart, mind, and will. It means that we love him and his commandments and the way of salvation that he reveals to us in his word.
Gospel conversion is not saying a canned prayer and walking an aisle: it is such a change of life that the fundamental allegiance of our heart has changed from self and the world to Christ. This is why the eternal good news, the gospel, is a call to worship and fear and give glory to God. Saving faith, gospel faith, is a worshiping faith. You see the effect of this change also in verse 12: “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” Those who worship God, who fear him and give glory to him, are precisely those who keep God’s commandments and the faith of Jesus. Not simply those who profess to be Christian, but who obey God and persevere in the faith of Christ.
So this is what God requires of all, and this is what those who have been called by God are required to persevere in. The saints keep the faith of Jesus; that is, they trust in him as Lord and Savior. The saints keep the commandments of God; that is, they have repented of their sins and they are seeking to obey him in everything he has commanded them. The saints keep the worship of God; they are people who love God and treasure him above all things and have given the ultimate allegiance of their hearts to him. This is the direction in which the saints persevere; this is how they endure.
Before we leave this point, I just want to point out again the universality of the everlasting gospel. All men and women are called to fear God and give him glory. Why? Because God is their Creator: he is the one who “made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” Christianity is not a religion for white people only or for Western people only. It didn’t even begin among white, Western people. It is a global religion, and it is right that it be so, for Jesus Christ is the one to whom every human being owes their life. He alone has the right to rule over every individual on this planet, and any attempt to wrest that from his hand is wicked and wrong. And it is right that we obey the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations for all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him (Mt. 28:18-20). As the psalmist puts it, “ O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon the earth” (Ps. 67:4).
The Motivation to Faithfulness
There are three motivations to the faithfulness urged upon the saints here in these verses.
The first is this: the powers allied against the Lord Jesus Christ will certainly and inevitably fall. This is the point of verse 8: “And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.”
Now John has not yet introduced Babylon at length here; he will do so in later chapters. But he certainly expects his readers to know what he is talking about in this passing reference to Babylon. And the reason why he expects them to know what he is talking about is that he knows his readers know their Old Testaments. They would know that Babylon was the city responsible for the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the people of God out of the land of Canaan. In fact, John is almost certainly thinking of several OT passages here. For instance, in Isaiah 21:9 the prophet announced the destruction of Judah’s (at the time, future) enemy: “And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.” There is also a parallel in Jer. 51:7 with Rev. 14:8: “Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord's hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad.” In both places, Babylon is said to have made the nations drunk on the wine of her idolatry.
But Babylon on the Euphrates was no longer a menace; the city had by John’s time long since faded into oblivion (just as the prophet Jeremiah predicted). So what is John talking about? He clearly is not talking about the literal city of Babylon. In any case, this doesn’t comport with what he says about it later (for example, being the place where the followers of Jesus were martyred, Rev. 17:6). We should see this as a symbolic reference to the powers of this world of any age which oppress and persecute the people of God. In John’s day, Babylon would have been represented by the power of Rome. Mounce argues, “It is the symbol of the spirit of godlessness that in every age lures people away from the worship of the Creator. It is . . . ‘secular humanism’ in its attempt to destroy the remaining vestiges of true religion.”
Babylon was the largest city on the earth in its heyday. It was the center of idolatrous and godless power. It was the place that sent out armies to persecute the people of God. It was in the center of this godless center of power that the exile Daniel the prophet was to exercise his faithful witness. The rulers of Babylon tried to take God’s people and indoctrinate them in the idolatries of their paganism.
The old city of Babylon and its empire may be long gone, but this kind of thing is still going on today. The temptation to give in is powerful because the inertia of history seems to be behind the forces of secular humanism and atheism and godlessness. The privileges of this present world belong to those who go along with those who oppose the gospel and the faith of Christ. In our own country at the present time, things are changing in a way that will probably make it harder and harder to be a Christian.
How do you brace yourself against a world that opposes Christ? How do you remain faithful to Jesus when faithfulness will put you on the margins of society and will cost you? What if it meant losing your job or losing a promotion? What if it means ridicule and hardship? We don’t know the cost of being a Christian like many in the world experience every day. But no matter where you live, to follow Christ will require bearing your cross. It will require sacrifice. So again: how do you joyfully endure hard things in obedience to Christ in a world that not only won’t support you but is against you?
One of the ways we do this is to remind ourselves that the powers of this world will fall. The world in opposition to God and his people will one day be overthrown. Karl Marx and his devotees envisioned a world in which forces would inevitably lead to a utopia where there would not only be no different economic classes but also no religion. And they saw history on their side. But the fact of the matter is that history is on the side of the Christian. All history ends at the judgment seat of Christ, and all of life is to be lived in light of this reality. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Wherefore we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9-10).
Babylon will fall. No matter how mighty it looks today, one day it will be a waste and a wilderness. In the prophet Isaiah’s time and in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, Babylon was unimaginably great. I don’t think anyone could ever have imagined it to fade in significance or power. Imagine New York City being nothing more than a pitiful collection of empty and broken buildings. Babylon is worse than that. It has virtually disappeared from the face of the earth. One day, all the power arrayed against Christ and his people will be thrown down. You need to remember that when you feel the pull of the world on your heart. You need to remember that when you feel attracted by the power and the privilege of a godless world. It may look dazzling today, but we will all one day see it fallen into rubble before the majesty and might of the true Sovereign to whom we all owe the final allegiance of our hearts. This world is a sinking ship; don’t anchor your heart to it. Remember what the apostle John said: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).
The next motivation is the certainty, the eternity, and the enormity of God’s judgment upon those who gave their hearts to Babylon and its idols instead of to the true God. You see this in verses 9-11: “And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.”
Those upon whom this judgment will fall are precisely those who do not worship the true God – that is, the God who is revealed to us in the pages of Scripture – but who “worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand.” Again, this doesn’t refer to people worshiping a literal beast or who receive a literal mark on or in their bodies. It is a reference to those who have given the allegiance of their hearts to an idolatrous way of living, who reject Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who do not keep the commandments of God. They do not love God with all their heart and soul and strength. They love themselves first. They give themselves to lifestyles that God hates. They fall in with the order imposed by secular and worldly authorities. They live to cash in on whatever is the easiest path to prosperity in the here and now. These are the people referred to here in verses 9-11.
What will happen to them? First of all, they will “drink of the wine of the wrath of God.” This is in contrast to the wine of the wrath of Babylon’s idolatrous immorality in verse 8. The wrath of Babylon is the hostility of the enemies of God against the people of God. Its anger is manifested in the marginalization and the persecution of the followers of Christ. We must remember that the world has two weapons in its arsenal when it comes to trying to get people to abandon their faith in Christ. It will either try to allure us or it will try to destroy us. If it can’t allure us and get us to worship the beast and to receive its mark in our bodies, then it will try to destroy us. If it can’t entice us with its smiles it will persecute us with its sword.
It is hard to resist the smiles of the world. It can be even harder to resist the sword in its hand. How do you resist it? You do so by reminding yourself that the enemies of Christ will not only be defeated but they will also be punished. They will drink of the wine of the wrath of God. There is no more fearful enemy to have than to have God as your enemy. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:29). Indeed, as Babylon falls, it will fall into the hands of a justly angry God.
Second, we are told something more about this wrath of God. God’s wrath can be poured out on the earth in temporal judgments. But God’s wrath now is tempered with mercy. However, we are told here that the wrath of God poured out here “is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation.” What does that mean? It means that it will not be watered down with mercy and grace. Right now is the day of salvation; right now is the day of grace. But there is coming a time when the wicked will be cut down. And in that day there will be no more mercy. No more rain on the just and the unjust. No more sun rising on the good and the evil. No more common grace. In that day, the wicked will receive their just due: unmitigated wrath untempered with mercy.
If you want to know what wrath without mercy looks like, just keep reading: the wicked “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb.” Now some people go to great lengths to drain this of anything that would provoke the kind of unsettling terror this is actually meant to inspire. They do this by arguing that this is just a symbol. They argue that we should not imagine that in the age to come the wicked are actually tormented by actual flames and so on. Well, I’m not so sure about that. Fire is a pretty consistent way the Bible speaks of God’s wrath in the age of come and one reason for that could be that this is actually the way God’s wrath will come. But let’s suppose that it is a symbol. That does not mean that we can now relax and stop worrying about God’s future judgment. Quite the contrary: if anything symbolism is used here because the actual thing is so awful that it cannot be put into words. Imagining the wicked in fire forever is the way that God intends us to see the punishment of the wicked in the age to come. This is not meant to downplay anything; it is meant to show us the enormity of the wrath of God which the wicked will experience.
Third, we are told something about the eternity of this punishment: we are told that “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night.” This is a punishment that does not end. It is eternal. There is no respite from it; there will be no rest for the wicked. Whereas the righteous will rest (verse 13), the wicked will not. There is no redemption beyond the grave; it is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment (Heb. 9:27).
The righteous have to endure the wrath of the world now but they will enter into rest later. On the other hand, the wicked have rest in this world now but they will endure the wrath of God “for ever and ever.” I cannot imagine anything more awful and terrible than that. There is nothing more terrible than that.
And this is certain. Notice the language here: “shall drink,” “shall be tormented,” and so on. The wicked may escape judgment now. Or they may be caught and get off easy. But it will not always be so. Eternity will tell a different story.
However, there are a lot of folks who have a problem with this. They cannot imagine a God who would punish anyone with eternal judgment like this. And when they realize that this is not just for Hitlers and Stalins but for anyone who aligns himself for herself with a secular and godless way of thinking and living, for anyone who does not submit himself or herself to the righteousness of God in Christ, they are even more revolted.
Perhaps one of the reasons we are revolted is that we have participated in trading the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creature – man himself. Once we make man into a god and put him in the place of the true God, hell becomes unthinkable. But man is not God. To sin against God is finite dust and ashes sinning against infinite majesty and glory. The Bible teaches that the only appropriate punishment for the rebellion of the creature against the Creator is the kind of judgment pictured here in Rev. 14. We must not judge the seriousness of our sin in the light of our own excuses. We must judge the seriousness of our sin against the testimony of Scripture, which is God’s word to us. We must be taught by the horror of hell just how horrible our sin is.
But there is another point to this: “Here is the patience of the saints.” It is as the saints, God’s people, remember that God’s wrath is coming on their enemies and God’s enemies, that they are both comforted in their affliction and warned against apostasy. Those who once named the name of Christ but then abandon him for the beastly power of idolatrous Babylon and who do not respond to the mercy of God in repentance will participate in the wrath of God unmixed with mercy forever.
There is yet another motivation for faithfulness, and we see it in verse 13: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” Here we are motivated not by God’s punishment on the wicked, but by the future blessedness of the believer. Whereas the wicked will suffer forever and have no rest, those who “die in the Lord,” that is, those who die belong to Christ by faith, who have fought a good fight, who have kept the faith, who have finished their course, will find that they will inherit a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:7-8). They will have eternal rest. They are “Blessed . . . from henceforth.” Just as the punishment of the wicked will never end, the blessedness of the righteous will also be forever (cf. Mt. 25:46).
When the voice from heaven tells us that “their works do follow them,” we learn that there is a reward of grace and glory in the age to come for those who have endured to the end. God will never forget, not now nor in the age to come, the works and labor of love that the saints do in his name and for his people (Heb. 6:10). Our labor is never in vain, for however we may be rewarded here, God will always bless those who follow him, if not in this age then in the age to come.
Just as the punishment of the wicked is awful beyond imagination, so the blessedness of the righteous is wonderful beyond description. When Paul went into heaven, he said that he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor. 12:4, ESV). It is so great it is simply indescribable. “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!”
Brothers and sisters, let us live in light of eternity. As Jonathan Edwards put it, may God stamp eternity upon our eyeballs! Let us live in light of the certain and eternal judgment upon the wicked but also in light of the certain and eternal blessedness of those who embrace Christ by faith and endure in that faith.
We have considered in these verses the awful end of the wicked, and I have said that we should gauge the seriousness of sin by this. But as I close, let me remind you that there is another place we can see how serious sin is. It is on the cross, for on the cross God the Son, Jesus Christ, willingly laid down his life as a sacrifice in order to bear the punishment for the sins of all who would believe on him. So terrible is sin is that it took God himself in the person of Jesus Christ to bear the guilt of our sins away. Hell is eternal because no mortal human can ever pay the debt he or she owes to God. But Jesus on the cross drank damnation dry. We cannot even begin to imagine the suffering he endured, not only the physical suffering, but also the suffering of the soul.
But God did this, Jesus willingly did this, so that all who believe on him might have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16). Our Lord himself said that all who come to him by faith he will never cast out. Will you flee from the wrath to come? Then flee to Christ!