The Seven Bowls

Revelation 12 of 16


We’re going to be in Revelation 15 and 16 this morning—

John of the island of prison island of Patmos
under the reign of Roman Empire
has had a vision.

And he’s been sharing that vision with us for 14 chapters.

It’s this vision of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus (ch1)
written to seven churches (ch2-3)
concerning God’s plan to save the world (ch 4-5).

The big problem at the beginning of the story
is God’s plan was locked up tight.

No one can figure out how God save the world.
No one can read the scroll.

But then here comes Jesus—here comes the Lamb
he can read the scroll (5.5).

The One Who is Slaughtered yet still standing
the One Who is Crucified yet still conquering—
he can tell us how God saves the world.

And so Jesus began breaking
the seven locks and getting into this scroll.

John teased out
this opening of the scroll
as a
cycle of seven—the seven seals (ch6-7).

And then he brought us to the point
where God’s plan to save the world was finally open
finally unsealed—it was finally ready to be read.

And then it seemed like
God started answering prayer.

For all of us who live in a broken world
full of stress, full of sin, full of situations that fall apart,
full of relationships that aren’t working,
full of patterns and entire systems working to pull us away
from Truth and Light and Freedom and Joy and Love

This is good news.

God is—God actually IS—answering the prayers for justice,
the prayers for healing, the prayers for righteousness
for things “to be made right.”

John teased out the God who answers prayers
with another cycle of seven—the seven trumpets (ch 8-9,).

God’s answers are often difficult to recognize
they’re mixed with fire (8.3-5)—
but God is answering prayer.

God’s most miraculous answer to all our prayers
is, of course, his entering into the world
as human being named Jesus.

In the person of Jesus,
God has loved the world to the point of death,
shedding his own bloodGod’s own blood!—

and somehow—mysteriously, miraculously—
healing creation by absorbing its wounds.

God answers prayer—God heals the world—
by loving to the point of death.

God’s plan to save the world isn’t meant to be read…
it’s meant to be eaten (10.8-11).

It’s meant to be embodied.

God himself has embodied it
in Jesus God has loved to the point of death

and then comes the central “revelation” of Revelation—
the mysterious, miraculous challenge of Revelation—
we’re invited to participate in this love.

The church is at the heart of how God saves the world.

By God’s Spirit,
we’re invited to become witnesses (ch11)
to become martyrsto his love.

To embody believe and receive and embody
the love of Jesus even to the point of death.

Because that’s what will save the world.

That’s God’s plan.

John has been circling back around
and reflecting on this revelation—on this reality
for the last few chapters (ch 12-14)
by shifting into mythic animation:

Telling us about a dazzling Woman and a Dragon (ch12)

painting us pictures of terrifying beasts (ch13)
conquering God’s people

sketching out the army of martyrs (ch 14)
victorious on a mountain singing with excitement about what’s coming:

God is going to save the world.
It’s going to happen.

We’re about two-thirds the way through his letter.

Two-thirds the way through…
that’s usually the point in a movie
where we start approaching a climax.

We’re at the point where
Luke is getting in an X-Wing
and flying towards the Death Star.

We’re at the point where
Indiana Jones has escaped the snake pit
and is barreling after the Ark of the Covenant.

Revelation is headed into its climax as well.

To borrow a metaphor from last week,
the orchestra is done warming up,
and is beginning to play its symphony.

And the path forward into a world of love
into a world emptied of hatred and war and darkness—
is going to require God to destroy evil—
completely and totally.

That’s what our world needs:
for God of infinite goodness and love
to completely and totally destroy evil down to the root.

Would anyone disagree?

If there’s an all-powerful, good God,
he’s got to eradicate evil
one day in the future.

And that seems to be where
John is pointing us now:

(ch 15) I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb:

“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
    Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
    King of the nations.

Who will not fear you, Lord,
    and bring glory to your name?

For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
    and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened. Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests. Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.

Let’s pause right here for a second.

As we’re reaching chapters 15 and 16

it’s like we’re returning to John’s main story
but now it’s mixed with animation.

John’s larger-than-life Dragon and Beasts
have now merged with the main story.

His cartoonish characters for ultimate evil
and the complex political and cultural realities hijacked by evil—
these cartoon characters
have joined the main story.

And they’re about to meet their end.

Because you’ve got seven bowls of
God’s love that destroys evil

about to be poured out.

That’s what the Bible always means by the “wrath of God.”

We tend to think of
words like “wrath” and “fury” (cf. 14.10)—
in petty, trivial, reactionary ways

My fury is what happens
when I have a really bad day,
when I sat in traffic too long,
when I’m hungry, when my blood sugar is off,
when things just aren’t going my way
and to top it all off, I just stubbed my toe:

I lash out in a frenzy of fury.

But that’s never what the Bible is pointing toward
when it talks about God’s “fury”—God’s “wrath.”

[slide #1]
God’s “wrath” is a way of talking about God’s love.

That’s what Christians confess God to be—
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
IS infinite, relational, unchanging Love.

What we call God’s “wrath”
is NOT equal but opposite to love.

In fact, it actually IS God’s love
God’s love doing painful, uncomfortable,
impossibly hard things.

God’s love moving mountains,
God’s love overthrowing tyranny,
God’s love destroying evil.

Think about it:

God’s love is absolutely incompatible
with crimes against children and crimes against adults
and ethnic cleansing and hatred in general.

God’s love is absolutely incompatible
with all that darkness in the world
that the Church calls “Sin.”

“Anger” and “wrath” is what it feels like
when Sin shipwrecks against
the immovable love of God.

Chemo therapy feels like wrath for the cancer—
and it doesn’t look pretty for anyone who is watching—
but the goal of chemo therapy is healing.

The goal of chemo therapy is new life.

And this is the final treatment (v1)—
seven blistering bowls of God’s love
distilled to destroy evil.

God’s wrath is completed with this.

Seven angels receive these seven bowls
and notice where they get them (v7).

They receive the bowls
from one of the four living creatures we met in chapter four.

One of those four living creatures
who seemed to represent all of creation.

Now we’ve got one of those four living creatures
handing out great bowls of blistering love.

Perhaps here we finally have
an answer to why those four living creatures
seemed be welcoming evil in chapter six (“come,” 6.1,3,5,7)

An answer to why Jesus himself
seemed to be giving power
to the Enemy
in chapter nine (9.1).

(He was handing out the keys to the Abyss.)

Perhaps here we have
some kind of mysterious, provisional answer
to why God hasn’t stopped evil yet.

Why evil seems free run amok.
Why God lets bad things happen.

Revelation seems to be saying that

God lets darkness grow and bloom,
God lets evil rise to its full strength,
and then God pulls evil up by its root.

God often allows evil flower
so that it can be completely uprooted.

That’s the way God often works in our lives.

Twelve Step Programs call it hitting rock bottom.

Once darkness and disorder
have become completely unmanageable, unsustainable, and unlivable,
once you’re at rock bottom you’re ready for complete healing.

John seems to be saying
that’s the way God works in human history too.

Creation itself inviting darkness and disorder to reign completely
is in preparation for complete healing.

God is letting evil grow fully
so he can uproot evil fully.

And that brings us to chapter 16:
the moment when God pours out
his painful, healing love:

(ch 16) Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”

The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died. The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say:

“You are just in these judgments, O Holy One,
    you who are and who were;
for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets,
    and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”

And I heard the altar respond:
“Yes, Lord God Almighty,
    true and just are your judgments.”

The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.

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 agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.

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. Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.

“Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

In the seals and the trumpets,
there’s a break between the sixth and the seventh
some kind of intermission, some kind of delay.

But here—with the bowls—now there is no delay:

(v17) The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

This is part of our tour through Revelation
where we can’t possibly see it all.

One helpful way of meditating on these seven bowls
is to remember that John is telling us
the story of the Exodus again.

[slide #2]
John began chapter 15 by describing
the people of God next to the sea singing (15.3)
the Song of Moses and the Lamb.

That sounds like Exodus 15.

The chaotic forces of the sea
have submitted to the will of God

and the people of God find themselves saved and singing.

Here the sea has been calmed—it’s like glass (v2)—
and having submitted to the fiery love of God
and the people of God find themselves saved and singing.

That’s the entire point of Revelation
of God’s judgment, of the seven bowls:

To create a world full of salvation and full of song.

And to get there, God has got to uproot evil—
got to destroy Babylon, got to conquer Egypt (cf. 11.8).

And so we’re given symbolic pictures
of God uprooting evil.

This is NOT a literal forecast
of weather and tides in the future.

This is NOT an Almanac;
this is an Apocalypse.

Chapter 15 begins by telling us
that these bowls are “a sign” (v1).

“Another great and marvelous sign.”

Just like “the Woman” in the wilderness was a sign (12.1),
and like “the Dragon” was a sign (12.3),
these bowls are a sign.

These bowls are symbolic.

John uses the language of the plagues of Egypt
to describe God’s decisive, final judgment on evil.

From sores on people’s bodies (v2)
and water turning to blood (v3-4)
and a kingdom plunged into darkness (v10),

to the pictures image of frogs1 (v13)
and the worst kind of hailstorm (v21)—
these are all of these are images from Exodus.

These are pictures of God conquering
everything that opposes him.

This cycle of seven is the end of the story:

There’s no more breaks,
there’s no more delay,
there’s no more repentance.

Everyone who is going to turn to God
everyone who wants real and lasting Life
has already turned to God.

Everyone else would rather “curse the name of God” (v9)
than live with him or sing his praise.

They would rather “gnaw their tongues” (v10)
than learn to use them for Song of Life.

The time for repentance has passed
because some people have made
their hearts as hard as Pharaoh’s.

God isn’t trying to change minds anymore
God is overthrowing Egypt.

God is setting his people free.
God is setting the entire created order free.

Free from Babylon, free from Egypt,
free from the powers of Sin and Darkness.

If you take the signs literally,
you’re left with a really disturbing view of God
that looks nothing like Jesus.

In verse 6 of chapter 16,
the people of God sing:

“[God has] given them blood to drink as they deserve.”

If is were literal and not symbolic
you’d have to wonder whether God has a sadistic streak.

What a graphic, horrible,
disgusting, terrifying image

We said this with the Trumpets,
but it bears repeating here:

John is NOT saying that Jesus has been in heaven nursing a grudge
only to return with dark vengeance and a bag of tricks
for beating up bad guys.

Jesus is not returning as Batman.
Jesus is always the Crucified One.

The One who has already drained the bowls of wrath dry
who has already drank the cup of wrath to its last drop.2

These seven bowls are actually
a great but painful mercy
for the world.

That’s why so many people in the text are excited about this.

Why the people of God sing (15.3):
“Great and marvelous and your deeds…
Just and true are your ways.”

Why an angel sings (16.5):
“You are just in these judgments.”

Why the altar in heaven echoes back (16.7):
“True and just are your judgments.”

The seven bowls are actually
a great but painful mercy.

They’re the last treatment—
the final round of chemo.

With the bowls, God’s healing
his complete and just and fitting healing
is finally brought to the world.

What I think John is saying here is something like:

When God finally brings healing to the world,
it will be complete and just and fitting.

Complete—hence, the number seven.
God will bring an end to the old order of things.

Just—God is eradicating evil
and establishing a world of love.

Fitting—God is going to give everyone what they want.

That’s what is super strange and mysterious
about what the Christian tradition calls “hell.”

Nobody is in hell
who doesn’t want to be there.

In the next chapter, we’re told that Lady Babylon and her followers
have already been drinking violence and hatred (17.6),
and God is just pouring her a double (18.6).

God is going to give everyone
what they desire most dearly.3

If you want to live a life in opposition
to Love and Goodness and Beauty and Truth

if you want to side with
the dehumanizing forces of evil
and march against God in battle,

if you want to hate God,
and exist forever in unreality
you can.

The sixth bowl talks about the forces of evil
gathering God’s beloved creation in war against him (v16)—
in a place called “Armageddon.”

That’s a Hebrew word for
“the Mountain of Megiddo.“

Megiddo was a place in the Old Testament
where several decisive battles took place for the people of God,4

and John is tapping into that place as a symbol
for the most decisive battle of them all.

It’s unspeakably strangeutterly mysterious
why anyone would choose to side
with eternal death over eternal life…

But John seems to warn us that we’re capable of it.

But did you notice?—there’s no battle here.

When God chooses to remake the world—
when the seventh and last bowl is poured out into the air—
into that space between earth and heaven
ruled by powers and demons and things that are not God5

it’s just over.

Every tower of Babel, every false kingdom
the “great city”6
 (v19) and “all the cities of the nations”—
just collapses.

Evil just evaporates.

There is no decisive battle
between good and evil
in Revelation.

Good is the only thing that really, truly exists
everything else is just a shadow.

No matter who the Enemy deceives into gathering against God.

Even if it’s the kings of earth (v14),
the victory is completely and totally one-sided.

Goodness wins as effortlessly as the sunrise (cf. 21.23).

Evil and darkness simply evaporate—
because they never really had any substance.7

The question raised by the bowls raise is this:

[slide #3]
“Are we living lives of substance?”
“Are we living lives that will last?”
“Are we living lives that keep step with Spirit of God?”

On that great day of Love—
where everything that is not Love vanishes
what in our lives will left?


Are there habits, are there patterns,
are there ways that we are living,
that—if we got honest—we’d have to confess:

These choices are deceived choices
I’m gathering in opposition to God.

“This way of living isn’t the way of love.

“This is a pattern—this is a habit
wouldn’t survive the blistering bowls of God’s love
it won’t survive the sunrise of God’s new world.”8

Most of us have something that comes to mind.
(God, in his mercy, brings it to mind.)

Wherever those places are,
whatever those patterns or choices or habits might be,
it’s good news that they won’t survive the sunrise.

Those things are death—
and the good news of the seven bowls
is that death, my friends, will die.

So may we believe the good news of love that sets the world free
and announce this news to a world in bondage,

may we resist the dehumanizing spirits of evil
who gather us in opposition to true life,

and may we allow the Spirit of the Father and the Son
to prepare us for his new world of substance,
and give birth to lives that last—lives of love—in us today.

  1. The frog-like evil spirits coming from the mouths of the Dragon, the Sea-Beast, and the Land-Beast (now called “the false prophet”) seem to serve the dual purpose of invoking the plagues of Egypt (Ex 8.1-15) and illustrating how inhuman and dehumanizing are their deceptive suggestions (“the almost pornographic quality of their demonic speech,” Mangina, 188).
  2. The cup of God’s wrath is a frequent image of judgment in both the prophets (Isa 51.17,22; Jer 25.17,28; 49.12; 51.7; Ezk 23.31-32; Hab 2.16) as well as the gospels (Matt 20.22-23, 26.39, etc). The good news, of course, is that God himself in Jesus has drank the cup himself (Matt 26.27-28).
  3. In the words of Paul from Romans 2.7-8: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
  4. See Judg 5.19, 2 Kgs 9.27, 23.30. The plains of Megiddo, therefore, invoke a significant and decisive battle for those familiar with Israel’s story. In the words of Joseph Mangina: “It was therefore the archetypal battlefield… If John is alluding to Megiddo, it is because he wants to evoke the image of a decisive battle and not because he wants us to locate his story on a map of northern Palestine” (189). And since there is no mountain on the plains of Megiddo, that seems a clue that we’re not supposed to find it on a map.
  5. This is a common notion that even Paul adopts and assumes (Eph 2.2). On a literary level, the air has been polluted by froggy, unclean “pneumata” (“spirits” or “winds”; 16.13) and now they’re begin cleansed (Mangina, 191).
  6. While “the great city” could correspond to Rome, the cities are iconic representations in Revelation of systems and patterns of living. So “the great city” correlates more properly to all system and patterns (any “city”) that stand against God and his anointed (cf. 11.8, Ps 2.2). Likewise the new city coming down from heaven (Rev 21.2) correlates to the people of God themselves (cf. 11.2; also the 12 foundations and 12 gates of the city – 21.19-21)
  7. There is a long tradition in the Church (back to at least Augustine) which recognizes that evil itself has no ontological substance. Evil is not a thing in itself but essentially parasitic—a privation of the good.
  8. Notice how in the imagery of Malachi 4.1-2, the same heat source (the day of the Lord) will simultaneously destroy and give comfort.

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