The Song of Moses and the Lamb (Rev. 15)
This past Tuesday saw a catastrophic defeat for the pro-life cause in our state and a complete failure on the part of our society nationwide to protect the most vulnerable, the most innocent of human life among us, namely, the unborn. Fifty years of Roe v Wade taught our society to think that this is about a woman’s right over her own body. But it is a complete fable to say that in passing Issue 1 we are protecting a woman’s right over her own body. We are not. In abortion, a woman is not primarily doing something to her body; she is having another human life ended. There is no doubt about this, quite apart from religious or Biblical perspectives. This is the standpoint of basic biology and science. When confronted with these facts, those who support abortion will sometimes shift and say that these are human beings but not human persons, simply because the baby has not been born yet. But to say that is to draw the line at a completely arbitrary point. It is completely arbitrary to deny a human being personhood either on the basis of development, location, or size. The same arguments would also make infanticide legitimate, as some of the pro-choice advocates (like the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer) actually argue. Our society needs to come to grips with the fact that we are justifying the killing of millions of human beings by arbitrarily denying them personhood for the sake of our convenience. It’s that simple. And it’s the same way people in the past justified the way they treated native Americans, the African-American slaves, and the Jews in Europe during the Second World War.
As Christians, we believe all human life is valuable. A human being is a human person from conception, made in the image of God. For that reason, as Christians we must abominate and grieve over recent political developments.
And we do. But we must be careful that even as we weep, we don’t descend either to despair or to hate. How then do we guard our hearts from sinful reactions to a wicked world? How do we not be overcome by the evil around us? Well, I think the Book of Revelation is especially helpful here. It is a book-long reminder of the reality the apostle Paul speaks of in his leWer to the Romans: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21). We overcome evil with good partly by reminding ourselves that God is sovereign, and God will repay.
A Proper Perspective
This chapter (Rev. 15) helps us to see that. In this chapter, we see the way prepared for the final cycle of seven judgments in chapter 16 and introduces us the “seven angels having the seven last plagues” which bring to completion the pouring out of God’s wrath on the wicked (15:1). Towards the end of this chapter, we see the angels come out of the temple, indicating again that what happens in history is according to God’s eternal plan (5-6). The four living creatures who guard the throne of God give them “seven golden vials full of the wrath of God who liveth for ever and ever” (7). (These vials were shallow and wide, rather than narrow and thin, which is the reason why the Greek word behind the word “vial” is often translated as “bowl.” They would have been easily emptied of their contents, the content being “the wrath of God.”)
Verse 8 reminds us of scenes from the tabernacle in the wilderness and Solomon’s temple, both of which were filled with smoke from the presence of God when he manifested his glory in those spaces at the time of their inauguration. Now we are reminded of God’s presence in the heavenly temple. The fact that “no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled” (8) indicates that once God begins to bring about his purpose in bringing justice to the world, he cannot be stopped.
All this sets the stage for the events of the next chapter, the seven bowls of wrath. Each cycle of seven judgements has brought us successively closer to and has focused more intently on the end of the End. In other words, the bowls of wrath will not be a description of the way things go through all of human history, but this is a description of the final outpouring of God’s wrath upon a wicked world at the very end of human history.
However, in between the introduction of the seven angels with the bowls of wrath in verse 1 and verses 5-8, the scene shifts to the “sea of glass mingled with fire,” which according to 4:6 is immediately before God’s throne, that is, in the immediate presence of God. On this sea are “them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name” with “harps of God” (2). Here we have another perspective of heaven. On the one hand, there is the perspective of coming judgment. On the other hand, there is the perspective of God’s victorious people.
What are they doing? Well, they are singing, as at the beginning of chapter 14. The contrast between the people of God singing in heaven and the wicked about the receive God’s wrath on earth could not be greater. It reminds us again that there is coming a great change one day. Joy comes in the morning. The righteous will shine like the sun in his strength while the wicked are gathered up and thrown into the fire of God’s wrath. This is the perspective that we are to have.
A Proper Pattern
However, it’s not just perspective that is being offered to us here. We are also being given a pattern. Even though we are not yet in heaven, we ought to as much as possible be like the saints who are in heaven. And when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” surely we mean for God to begin with us, in our hearts and homes, right here and right now. Heaven is our future hope, yes, but it is also our goal and pattern for the present.
The pattern offered here is a pattern of worship which manifests itself in song. As in chapter 14, the saints are singing praise to the Lord. Even as we see the wickedness around us, we need to remind ourselves that the wicked do not define ultimate reality or the end of all things. God does that, and it will be eternally sweet for the Christian. We ought to be singing Christians, like the saints in heaven pictured for us here in Rev. 15.
What are they singing? They are singing “the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (3). The song of Moses is recorded for us in Exodus 15. It was sung by Moses and the children of Israel immediately after they had been delivered from Pharoah, when Pharoah’s chariots had been engulfed in the Red Sea. It was a marvelous deliverance, and the people of God could not help but to respond with singing. But there will be a greater deliverance of which the Exodus was the sign. And just as the deliverance in the Exodus took place after the Passover, even so the deliverance anticipated here take place because of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, because Jesus Christ our Lord died on the cross for our sins. The Exodus points to a greater deliverance and the Passover to the atoning death of our Lord. So the song of Moses is the song of the Lamb. It is the song of God delivering and saving his people through the atonement of their sins.
Even though the song sung here in heaven is not an exact reduplication of the song of Moses, it does borrow from the wording as well as the spirit of the Exodus celebration. In fact, it is suffused through and through with the language of the OT, coming not only from Exodus 15 but also from passages in Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and the prophesy of Jeremiah.1 There is a lesson here for our worship. Though I don’t think that the NT teaches exclusive psalmody, the fact that in heaven the saints are singing the song of Moses and the Lamb indicates that NT worship is informed by the worship of the OT. Do our hymns reflect that? We shouldn’t sing songs whose content is foreign to the spirit and the leWer of OT worship, especially as it is expressed in the book of Psalms. In fact, I think it is good for us to sing Psalms – our hymn book has several of them put to music (Psalms 18, 23, and 42, for example). On the other hand, we need to beware of songs that are completely alien to the kind of worship that you see in the Bible (almost every hymnbook that I’ve seen has them!). Worship in the Bible is God-centered and full of robust truth rather than centering on sentimentalism and the celebration of the “good old times.” We should want to worship the way heaven worships, shouldn’t we?
Worship is so important in terms of maintaining a proper perspective and pattern of life, that what I want to do today is to focus primarily on the content of the saints’ worship in verses 2-4, which is God and his attributes and his deeds. We need to be constantly immersed in the vision of God, who he is and what he has done, is doing, and will do. Our spiritual health depends on this. Dan. 11:32 tells us that it is “the people that do know their God” who “shall be strong, and do exploits.” In fact, our Lord in his high-priestly prayer said that it is eternal life to know God and his Son Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:3). Now the problem is that we not only live in a God-denying world, but we also live in a God-disfiguring world. We are either told that God does not exist, or we are told that God is not who the Bible tells us that he is. And if we’re not careful we can begin to imbibe some of these ideas in our own hearts and minds. We need therefore to constantly come back to the Scriptures and let them refocus our vision on the one true and living God. It is the pattern of worship that will give us a perspective of hope, especially in trying times.
Our text is a great place to do this. In particular, in verses 2-4, we see truths about who God is and what our response to him ought to be. I want you to notice the logic especially of verse 4: “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.” Note that a response is called for, and it is the response of worship: “Who shall not fear thee . . . and glorify thy name?” But then this response of worship is based on three realities (note the word “for” repeated three times), all of which are about God. These three realities are first, for thou only art holy; second, for all na1ons shall come and worship before thee; third, for thy judgments are made manifest. Just as the worship of heaven is based on their vision of God, so ought ours. So I want to focus our thoughts around two things: to help us meditate on the reality of God as he is revealed in these verses, and then to look at the response which this ought to elucidate in each of our hearts. God is spirit, our Lord tells us, and as such he is to be worshiped in spirit and truth. We must have heat and light, not light without heat (the mind without the affections), nor heat without light (the affections without the understanding), but heat and light, a mind full of God creating hearts on fire for God. Let’s look first at God’s worth, and then his worship.
I love the way the Lord is described in these verses. Each characterization of God is worthy of our strictest attention.
Lord God Almighty
We have actually already come across this title, which is used 9 times in the book of Revelation.2 But it is such a glorious title that it is worthwhile to meditate upon it each time we come across it. To say that God is “Almighty” is to acknowledge his omnipotence. It is to say that he is all-powerful, that there is no power in the universe that equals that of God’s. In fact, we should go further and say that the Biblical picture of God is not only that he is the most powerful, but infinitely powerful. He not only has the most power, but he has all power. God is characterized by none of the limitations that we are characterized by. He is incomparably great. There is no one like God in this way. This is certainly one of his incommunicable attributes. There is a sense in which we can be holy as God is holy, but we cannot be omnipotent as God is omnipotent.
Now someone may argue that God is not omnipotent because he cannot do certain things. The Bible acknowledges this: God cannot lie, for instance. He cannot do what is evil. He cannot sin. But these are not limitations on God’s might – to sin is a weakness, not a strength. To say that God is omnipotent, therefore, does not mean that God can do absolutely everything; it means that God can do whatever pleases him. This is exactly what the Bible affirms. Psalm 135, for example, says, “For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places” (5-6). Or consider another Psalm, which says, “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3).
However, the reality of God’s omnipotence has been often disputed. One of the arguments against God, especially in modern times, has been that if God truly is Almighty, then why so much sin? Why so much evil? Why the Holocaust, for example? Why so much senseless evil? Doesn’t this argue that God is helpless to prevent such things? Or that God doesn’t exist?
The answer is no. To argue that God either doesn’t exist or is helpless because there is so much pain and evil is to assume that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for allowing such things. But how can finite men and women reasonably and confidently arrive at such a conclusion? I think one of the points of the book of Job is to keep us from this kind of obscene hubris. In fact, the apostle Paul indicates in the Roman letter that God does have good reasons for allowing evil and suffering, and he argues that it is wrong for creatures of the dust to arraign the Creator for wrongdoing because he saves one person and not another. Here is what he said:
Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fiWed to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Rom. 9:18-23).
Do you see what the apostle is doing here? He has just been arguing that God is sovereign in salvation. That means that if not everyone is saved it is because, at the end of the day, it is because God willed not to save them from the judgment they deserve. But this is not because God can’t save them. It is because he willed not to do it. In response to the objection that this can’t be just because no one can resist God’s will, Paul responds that God has the right to endure with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction in order to magnify his holy wrath against sin and to make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy which he afore prepared to glory. In other words, Paul is saying that God has reasons, reasons which are holy and right for bearing long with the wickedness in the world, and one of those reasons is to demonstrate the power and justice of his wrath against sin.
In a significant way, the book of Revelation is about the demonstration of God’s holy wrath in the judgment of the wicked. And we see over and over again that the saints are not cringing at it; they are rejoicing in it. They aren’t condemning God – how can they? For God in punishing the wicked is doing what is just.
We need to remember that the best thing for God to do is not to magnify human beings. It is to magnify himself. It is to put on display the full panoply of his perfections – not only his love, but also his wrath, not only his compassion and grace but also his power. In heaven, God’s people will be able to see more fully, I think, the justice of God in all his ways. We will know then more fully how that God’s power could never have been called into question because of the presence of evil men and evil deeds.
It's important for us to remember all this when we either see or experience for ourselves painful things, whether they come from moral evil or natural evil. It does not mean that God is not present, or that he doesn’t exist, or that he is powerless to intervene. But here is what it does mean, and the book of Revelation helps us to keep this perspective: it means that no matter what happens to us or around us, or how bad things get, God is omnipotent, he is Almighty, and he is going to make everything right in the end. The perspective of the book of Revelation is not that God’s power means that nothing bad will ever happen to the righteous. It tells us about the dragon and the beasts who hate God’s people and persecute them and kill them and make life hard for them. Our Lord didn’t tell the church at Smyrna that they were going to be delivered out of suffering, but that some of them would be killed! But then he said this: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
This is what the power of God can do. It can take people who are broken in a broken world and give them a crown of life. It’s the same sort of thing our Lord said to his disciples: “And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake. But there shall not an hair of your head perish. In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:16-19). This is the power of God: not to keep us from suffering and death, but that even if we are killed, not a hair of our head will perish.
By the way, I think that sometimes people who respond to the problem of evil by rejecting belief in God, aren’t really in fact rejecting belief in God. They are simply very angry at God and part of their anger against him is manifested in refusing to acknowledge his existence. If that describes you, let me plead with you: it doesn’t make sense to require that God rule this world the way you want him to or because in your finitude you can’t understand how God could be just and allow this or that to happen. Rather, let us who are clay in the hands of the Potter, submit our wills and our lives to him. He promises to make all things right. He promises to turn the valley of Achor into a door of hope. He promises that those who weep will laugh one day.
And the guarantee for this is that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was himself mistreated, misjudged, and killed on a cross. But he willingly submitted to this because he was doing so, not as a solitary individual but as the Representative of sinful men and women, the Lamb of God bearing the guilt of our sins and bearing our punishment upon himself. And then by the power of God he rose again from the dead, and he promises that all who trust in him and repent of their sins will rise with him one day. That is the promise of the gospel, a gospel which also described as the power of the omnipotent God for salvation (Rom. 1:16).
Now if God is almighty, then it is no wonder that his works are “great and marvellous.” They are to be wondered and marveled at. He is almighty in his work of creation, in speaking all things into existence by the word of his power. He is almighty in his works of providence, his “most holy, wise, and powerful preserving, and governing all his creatures and all their actions” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He is almighty in his work of salvation, demonstrated in history in the nation of Israel (especially in the Exodus) and finally in the person of Christ. It is demonstrated every time God takes a sinner who is dead in sin and brings them to life in Christ. It will be finally demonstrated at the end of time when God makes all things new.
King of saints
In verse 3, God is also praised as the King of saints: “just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.” Now, depending on what version of the Bible that you have, it might instead read either, “King of ages” or “King of the nations.” It turns out textual scholars are divided over which is the best reading. But here’s the thing: they are all true descriptors of God. I point this out because liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman (as well as some KJV-Onlyers) make more of the textual variants in the manuscripts than is warranted. They will say that there are thousands of variants among the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and that is true. But here’s the thing: probably close to 98% of all variants don’t even affect the way the text is translated. And the ones that do (like the text we are considering now) don’t affect any doctrine. Here is a case where it just doesn’t maWer because all three variants are true. God is the King of saints. He is also the King of the nations. He is also the King eternal!
With that being said, I am going to stick with the reading of the KVJ: “King of saints.” God is the King of saints. What might this mean? That he is only the King for the people of God? No. If Revelation teaches anything, it is that God is the God of the whole earth, of all the nations. It means, however, that he exercises his kingly power and sovereignty for his glory on behalf of his people and for their good. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying that because God instructed us to pray it. And he instructed us to pray it because it is not only in this way that God’s name is hallowed, but also in this way that we find our greatest good.
God is the king of saints because the people of God are saints, not in the sense that they are super-holy people, but in the sense that they are sanctified by Christ and belong to him. We are a purchased people. All God’s people are saints, from the least of them to the greatest of them, from the most well-known to the least known. If you belong to Christ, you are a saint. And God is your King, ruling over you and for you. And because the King of the saints is the King of the nations and the King eternal that we can know that we are without doubt on the winning side. This is what the Book of Revelation shows us. In fact, we read in verse 4 that “all nations shall come and worship before you.” They will do so, because God’s universal sovereignty will be recognized, even by his enemies. Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).
This King of the saints is a King who ways are “just and true.” He never betrays his people. He never promises one thing and then does another. If they are unjustly treated in this world, he will bring justice for their sake. He will work all things for the good of those who love him, for the good of his saints.
God is holy
“For thou only art holy.” We’ve noted in past messages that in Scripture the holiness of God is not just about his moral perfections. More fundamentally it is a reference to the transcendence of God. What we mean by this is just simply that God is unique in the sense that he is in a category all by himself by being distinct from every created thing. In other words, there are two categories of being: uncreated and created. God is the only uncreated being. He is the only being who is self-existent, self-sufficient, immortal, invisible, God only wise. There is no one even remotely like God. He is the only being who necessarily exists. In other words, we are not like God. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” (Isa. 40:18). The answer of course is, “No one!” It is in this sense then that God only is holy.
In contrast to the presentation of the holiness of God which the Bible gives us, many today in our culture want to argue that there is no one who is Other like God. They argue that all that exists is matter in motion. This idea has consequences, and one of the saddest consequences of humanism is that it cannot rise above dust and ashes. In a humanistic outlook, there is no God to save us; we must save ourselves. Unfortunately, however, we are part of the problem; how then can we save ourselves? This fact is illustrated in that every aWempt to create utopia on earth by men inevitably ends in more misery and hopelessness and injus=ce. Moreover, we cannot save ourselves from death. We cannot save ourselves from our sins. We need someone who is outside the created realm to do this. We need God.
Of course, we also need someone who is like us. We need someone who can come into our world and rescue us. We are like a man who is drowning. The last thing that person needs is to hear someone tell him to save himself. He cannot. He needs someone who is not drowning to jump into the water with him and pull him out. This is what the God who is holy has done. He is other, different from us; but in the person of the Son of God he became a man, took on human nature, and become another like us. He came from out of the water and jumped into the water to rescue drowning sinful men and women. So the holiness of God not only points us to our need for salvation in that he is of purer eyes than to behold evil and will judge all unpunished sin. But it also points us to the possibility of salvation, for only a holy God is able to save. Only a God who shares none of our limitations could be able to restore us to his favor. This is what he has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This is of course more that could be said. But to say that God is Almighty, that he is King and Sovereign, and that he is holy is saying a lot, and if we really see it and feel it, we cannot but be led to worship. Which brings us to our next point.
“Who shall not fear and glorify thy name?” (Rev. 15:4), ask the heavenly choir. What they are saying is that worship is inevitable when you see and feel these realities about God. There is not a moment of worship in heaven that is constrained. There is not a heart in heaven that does not feel in all its intensity the marvel and the glory and awe and the wonder of the holiness and power and sovereignty of God. No one is forced to worship in heaven. There are no hypocrites singing in God’s presence. For them, it is impossible not to sing. It is the natural expression as well as the completion of their joy in God.
Brothers and sisters, we are not in heaven yet. Which means that when we come to worship we bring along with us hearts that are not perfect, that are oBen laden with sins and griefs and weariness. Sometimes, let’s be honest with ourselves, it is hard to worship God. But we need to be worshiping people, people who worship God in spirit and in truth. Let us cultivate a spirit of worship. This is so important, for a number of reasons; let me give you at least three.
First, because when we worship God in spirit and truth, which is what God seeks, it means our minds and our hearts have been captured by God. It means that we are not trading God for the creature. It means that we are fleeing idolatry in its most basic manifestation. It means that we are true to God. We are going to be faithful people.
Second, when we worship God in spirit and in truth, we are thankful people. The apostle Paul links idolatry and false worship with ingratitude in Romans 1. It follows, I think, that you cannot separate true worship and gratitude and a spirit of thanksgiving. It is God’s will for us to be thankful at all tomes and for everything.
Third, when we worship God in spirit and in truth, we are going to be hopeful people. Those who worship God are precisely those who hope in him. Psalm 147:11 tells us that “the Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy.” To fear God is to worship him and to fear him is to hope in him. I also think that in general hopeful people tend to be joyful people, but this does not necessarily have to be the case. There are times when our worship is mingled with tears. And yet even then we can worship God.
This is the kind of person we want to be: faithful to the Lord, thankful, and hopeful. And if we want to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things and make it most attractive, this is the kind of person we must be. This is what we will be when we cultivate a spirit of worship. To that end, let us meditate upon the vision of God which the Scriptures give to us. Let us not look at ourselves and the world around us in order to interpret God, but rather let us look at God and behold him as he is held out to us in the mirror of his Word and in the revelation of his Son, in order that we may truly glorify him and shine his light in this world.
1 See, for example, Deut. 28:59; 32:4; Ps. 86:9; 98:2; Jer. 10:7.
2 Rev. 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7, 14; 19:6, 15; 21:22. The only other time it appears in the NT is in 2 Cor. 6:18.