The Two Harvests (Rev. 14:14-20)
The book of Revelation brings us again and again to the End. The book itself tells its story through many cycles; not that history itself is a cycle in this way, but that the Lord is putting the same lesson to us in many different ways. The lesson is that this world is coming to an end. But what it ends in will not end. For the righteous, the end is eternal life. For the wicked, the end is everlasting punishment. So far, we seen two explicit cycles of seven judgments: the seals in chapters 6-8 and the trumpet judgments in 8-11, Each cycle brings us to the Final Judgment and the Second Coming of our Lord and the establishment of his kingdom. And we see it again in the events in chapters 12-14, which starts with the power of the devil and the beast and ends with the saints singing in glorious triumph in heaven and the enemies of God worn down and destroyed.
In the text we are considering today, we are beckoned to the world of agriculture in order to behold the End of the world in terms of two harvests. The first is a harvest of grain in verses 14-16 and the second is a harvest of grapes in verses 17-20. That the first harvest is a grain harvest is implied in the word “ripe” in verse 15, which literally means to be dried up, and is probably a reference to grain ready to be harvested. In the first harvest, the harvester appears to be the Lord himself (we will argue why in a bit), and in the second an angel does the harvesting.
Now one of the big questions we are confronted with as we consider the interpretation of this passage is whether or not the two harvests represent essentially the same realities from different perspectives or two different things altogether. On the face of it, the second harvest clearly appears to be a harvest of judgment, for the grapes which are harvested are “cast into the great winepress of the wrath of God” (19). But what about the first? There are a number of ways to look at this (I won’t go into all the different ways this has been interpreted), but just say that I am inclined to think that these two harvests represent the same reality (namely, the final resurrection and general judgment) but with the second focused especially on the judgment of the wicked.
The Scriptures teach that there will be a resurrection (a harvest) of the just and the unjust [“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28-29).] and that at the time of the end the wicked will be separated from the righteous [“So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 13:49-50).]. The first harvest in Rev. 14 points us to the general nature of the final resurrection for it is a “harvest of the earth.” However, the second harvest points us to the fact that it will be at this time that the wicked will be decisively and finally punished for their crimes against God and his people.
The other question has to do with the identity of the figure sitting on a cloud with a golden crown and sharp sickle in verses 14-16. Some interpreters say this is an angel – if so, it would give you seven angels in chapter 14, and thus another pattern of seven with which the Book of Revelation is already filled. However, we have already met with “one . . . like unto the Son of man” in 1:13 and this is clearly our Lord (see 1:17-18). The fact that he is seated on a cloud reminds us also of the vision of Daniel: there the prophet “saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). You will notice that the KJV has Son capitalized, which means that the translators believed this to be Jesus, and I think the cumulative evidence points to the fact that they are right.
The point of this identification is to remind us of the realities underlined in chapters 4-5: the events of this world are ruled over, not by blind chance or fixed yet unseen material forces, or even by wicked spirits working through human agents, but by God himself ruling through the person of the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, for his glory and the good of his people. The angels come in both harvests from the temple of God in heaven (15, 18) in order to bring about the harvest. This is another way of pointing to the reality that it is heaven, not earth, God, not the beast, which determines when the end comes. And just as a stalk of wheat cannot keep a sharp sickle from cutting it down, neither can the powers of men keep God from bringing about his sovereign purpose for history. This passage brims with the power of God and the authority of God and the sovereignty of God over all things.
Here in chapter 14 of the book of Revelation, we find ourselves face to face again with the end of the end. I say “end of the end” because the NT sees all of history from the resurrection and ascension of our Lord to his Second Coming as the end of time. For example, the apostle John writes: “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” (1 Jn. 2:18). However, there will come an end to the end. This age will not go on forever. Christ will return and history as we know it will be wrapped up. Our Lord promised his church that he would be with it to the end of the world, or to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20), which implies that there will be an end to the age inaugurated by our Lord’s ascension into heaven. What the Bible in general, and Revelation in particular, teaches, is that this age will end in the harvest of the world, in the resurrection of the just and the unjust, in the judgment of the wicked and eternal life for the righteous.
And this is not a teaching based on one or two verses: it is pervasive throughout both the OT and NT, and especially the NT. This is a big deal, and one of the lessons we are to take from this is that this is a reality that we ought often to think about. And that implies that this is a reality that ought to shape not only our thoughts but our affections and decisions, indeed, our entire lives. Which leads me to the doctrine of this passage, which is this: that the harvest analogy for the end of time shows us how we ought to live all of life now in light of eternity, in light of the end of the age. And the analogy itself is meant to help us to do that.
So what I want to do today is to help us think through the practical implications of the analogy of harvest which is used here. I think there are at least three.
First, it teaches us that this present age is coming to an end.
One of the parables our Lord gave was the parable of the wheat and the tares. This is the parable:
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn (Mt. 13:24-30).
Our Lord then gave this interpretation of the parable, which not only sheds light on the parable in Matthew 13, but also on the symbolism of Revelation 14:
He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear (Mt. 13:27-43).
According to our Lord, this world is like a field which is ripening for a harvest. The harvest is the end of the world, or the end of the age. This is true in Rev. 14 as well. The symbolism of Mt. 13 and Rev. 14 represent an important reality, and the reality is that things will not go on as they have forever, and the reason they will not is that God will himself bring all things to an end. We are to live in light of this fact. This present order is not what God intends for eternity. This present order is something that God wills to come to an end. We often wonder why God allows bad things to happen. But what we can tend to forget is that there is an expiration date to the present age and to the bad things that happen in the present age. God has purposed that there will be a day in which evil will forever pass away. And this will be good. It is good when the harvest comes and it will be good when this present world comes to an end, when the curtains come down and the whole show is over.
In other words, everything around us is temporary. We need to remind ourselves of this fact. Sickness and death are temporary. Injustice is temporary. The prevalence of wickedness and the power it wields in the halls of governments around the world is temporary. It will not always be this way. It may seem that way sometimes. We may live an entire lifetime in places where the wicked rule. But . . . the harvest is coming.
This is surely what the apostle Paul reminds us of when he writes, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18). Don’t be discouraged for one day the temporary will be exchanged for the permanent and the eternal, affliction with glory. Live your life in light of that reality.
Second, this implies, in turn, that the age to come will never end.
This is because there is one harvest, not many. We should not interpret the two harvests in Rev. 14 as different events. There is one harvest, one resurrection, and one general judgment. The world does not keep on going in endless cycles of growing and harvesting. As the author of the book of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
While our Lord can speak of the end of the world, this is not the way the Scriptures speak of the age to come. This world is temporary; the age to come is eternal. This world will come to an end; the age to come will never come to an end. We sing it, but do we really understand just how incredibly wonderful this is?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize more and more just how short life here really is. You don’t realize it when you’re young, and that is probably a good thing. But life is just a vapor here, as the apostle James puts it. As Moses wrote in the 90th Psalm, “For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (9-10). But the age to come – for the believer, how wonderful! Look, our lives here are short, but that means so are our sorrows. There is coming a day when sorrow will be replaced with shining like the sun, and this will last forever, with no diminishing of the glory – in fact, I think the glory will just grow brighter and brighter forever. The joys here grow thin and dim, and disappointments increase, but in the age to come, joy and peace keeps coming forever and ever, with a never diminishing newness to them.
On the other hand, the sorrows of the wicked will have just begun, with no end! As I cannot imagine the happiness of the righteous, so I cannot imagine the misery of the wicked. The harvest is coming, and it will be terrible for the ungodly, for those who reject the gospel. But it is as certain as the glory of the righteous.
At this point, we ought to say something about the imagery of verse 20: “And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.” This refers to the practice of taking the grapes and trampling them under foot in order to squeeze the juice out to make wine. Here, the juice of the grape is a metaphor for the blood of God’s enemies, who will perish in the final judgment. It’s a lot of blood. In fact, it’s a river of blood deep enough to reach to a horse’s bridle, and long enough to stretch for about 184 miles long. Why so much blood, you might ask? Why so much violence? Isn’t this below and unworthy of God?
You must remember two things to keep the metaphor here in perspective. The first is that the blood of God’s enemies, in the context of Revelation, is the blood of those who have been persecuting and shedding the blood of the people of God. These are not innocent victims. Those who are enduring the winepress of the wrath of God are the wicked oppressors of God’s people. This is not genocide; this is justice, pure and simple.
Second, the reason there is so much blood at the end is that literally thousands of years of long-delayed justice will happen all at once at the end of the age. There is a lot of blood here, not because God delights in the death of the wicked, or takes pleasure in violence, but because there has been a lot of injustice and violence against God’s people throughout history. The wicked often think they have gotten away with it. But they will pay for what they have done. Justice will not always be delayed. That is the point here. No matter how much suffering the saints have had to endure at the hands of wicked men, their time is coming. There will come a day when the martyrs will no longer need to cry out: “How long, O Lord?”
Third, that the reason for the present age is for what is coming on the other side of the harvest.
A farmer does not plant a field primarily to watch the crop grow. The entire reason for planting is the harvest. In the same way, we can see from the fact that there is only one harvest and that what comes after is eternal whereas what went before is temporary is that this world and its order exists in order to give way to the age to come. Our lives in this world exist for the purpose of the age to come.
So we shouldn’t think that the temporality of the present and the eternality of the future means that this present age is meaningless. It is not! This present age serves the ends of the age to come, just as the growth of a crop serves the ends of the harvest. Just as you cannot have a harvest without the previous growth, the age to come cannot happen apart from what precedes it.
Furthermore, just as God sends the rain and the seasons which allow plants to grow, even so God has determined the length of time till the end of the age. This world is not running on like a horse out of control; it is proceeding according to God’s eternal plan. And that means in part that the days we live here in this world that God has allotted to us are days of purpose and meaning.
The harvest analogy helps us to see how our lives now have eternal significance. The harvest does not represent an absolute disjunction between what came before and what come after, for the farmer carries the crop that grew up to the harvest to the barn after that harvest. In a similar way, it is the lives we live now for Christ that will redound to the glory of God in the age to come. We quoted this earlier, but it bear repeating; listen to the way the apostle Paul puts it to the Corinthian believers: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18). Our light affliction, that’s now. What is it doing? It is working for us, it is producing something for us, like a crop planted by the grace of God in our lives, a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. It’s not just that we suffer now and celebrate later and that the suffering and the celebrating have nothing to do with each other. What the apostle is saying is that our sufferings now work for our celebrating later. Our afflictions today will blossom into an eternal weight of glory in the age to come.
Again, what this means is that our lives here are not meaningless. Some people think that if you preach to people about heaven, you are just keeping them from present productivity or numbing their minds to their present sorrows so that they won’t work for change. But that is false. The Bible motivates the believer to vigorous labor and work in the present because of the glory to come. It is in light of the resurrection of Christ that guarantees the resurrection of the believer that ought to motivate every thing that we do: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:28). Because the resurrection of Christ guarantees this harvest in the future, our labor now, done in faith and obedience to the Lord, is not in vain. It cannot be in vain.
And this doesn’t just apply to the work that pastors and evangelists do. It means that everything a Christian does in faith and obedience to Christ, from schoolwork to pushing a broom to cutting the grass to filling out a spreadsheet to programming a computer to working on a car to whatever, all of that done for the Lord is work that is part of the growth now that will be harvested by the Lord in the age to come and will redound to his glory and our good throughout eternity.
On the other hand, suppose that this life is all there is to it. Suppose, in other words, that there is no harvest. Suppose in this scenario that you do something great. Suppose you make some great scientific discovery, one that will benefit millions of humans in many years to come in terms of making their life on earth better than it would have been otherwise. That would be wonderful, and we ought to thank God for the men and women who make such discoveries! But if there is no harvest, if there is no resurrection, if there is no age to come, no future blessedness and no future judgment that makes right all the wrongs, then what’s the point? As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Even more fundamentally, if there is no God who is over it all, then there just is no real, objective meaning to anything, period. Your life has no answer to the question “why?” behind it if scientific materialism is all there is to it. Science can explain how things work or why they work in a particular way, but all the science in the world can’t tell you that you life has any kind of meaning to it or that there is any kind of transcendent purpose to it. To use an illustration from the mathematician John Lennox, science can tell us why a pot of water is boiling in terms of heat transfer, but science can’t tell you about the reason for the boiling water. To explain that, you have to refer to the person who put the water on the stove. They might tell you that they put the pot on the stove in order to make a cup of tea. In a similar way, unless you can invoke the Divine Person who spoke all things into existence for good and wise ends, you are left without an explanation for meaning and purpose.
And if that’s the case, what is the point of doing anything? What is the point of work? What is the point of doing good, especially when it means sacrifice on your part, if there is nothing ultimately meaningful in anything you do? So I would argue that the realities of God and heaven and eternity are far more important in terms of motivating us to do meaningful and fruitful and sacrificial and hard work than all the empty theories of secularism. (I’m not of course saying that atheists can’t work hard; all I’m saying is that they can’t think too hard about the meaning of it all or they will end up too depressed to keep on keeping on.)
Of course, to compensate our society tries to create its own meaning. But this is a cheap substitute for the real thing. And deep down, we know it’s fake. We are lying to ourselves. But this is the price you have to pay for the religion of secularism.
So the harvest points us to three realities: that this present age will end, that the next will not, and that the reason for the present is the future. We are to live in light of these realities. And we’ve seen that this means that we value what is eternal over what is temporal. It means that our affections are set on things above not on things on the earth. What are those things? It means living in love. It means sacrificial living, holy living, gospel living, and evangelistic living. It means that we are willing to suffer now to shine forever instead of sinning now to suffer forever.
We gladly live this way because our Lord Jesus Christ who is over the harvest has risen from the dead himself, the first fruits from the dead, for all who belong to Christ will rise in him gloriously to eternal life. Will you have this life? You will find it in Christ and in Christ alone. Come to him, receive him by putting your trust in him as Lord and Savior and his promise to you, recorded in promise after promise in the Bible, is that you will not only have life, but have it abundantly.