This week I was engaged in two unrelated tasks—appearing on a US podcast about the Book of Revelation, and writing some Bible reading notes—but their juxtaposition suddenly pressed a question about Revelation in a fresh way. One of the key questions for the podcast was ‘So how is Revelation relevant today?’ and I was considering this whilst writing the Bible notes about Revelation 14. What struck me with fresh force was the intense relevance of this text for pastoral ministry and discipleship!
Philip Long sets out quite nicely some of the objections to a theological reading of Rev 14 in his post on the passage. The first question, whether this scene is situated ‘in heaven’ or ‘on earth’, seems to me to treat the two realms literalistically as separate geographical locations. This ignores a major theological perspective of the whole NT, that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ has come to earth in the ministry of Jesus, and also ignores Revelation’s own use of language in the previous chapter that the followers of the lamb are ‘those who dwell in heaven’ (Rev 13.6) in the present.
The second group of comments, about chronology, are dogged either by the temporal schematisation of dispensationalism, or suffer from the idea that Revelation has a kind of linear, chronological procession that needs to be teased out. Again, I think these kinds of approaches fail to do justice to the simplicity of NT chronology (the move from this age to the age to come, without complex schedules) and the way that Revelation itself handles the question of time, in particular the way that John locates himself and his readers in the ‘tribulation’ which sits alongside the ‘kingdom’ (= ‘age to come’) that are ours in Jesus (Rev 1.9), a perspective of ‘partially realised eschatology’ that the rest of the NT shares (see, for example, Acts 14.22).
I therefore offer for you, dear reader, the section of my IVP commentary on Revelation on chapter 14, in pre-publication form, and with additional notes added arising from further reflection on some issues in the text. If you want to see how this works out in an applied way, see the write-up of the sermon I preached on this in 2019.
In this section of Revelation we are offered another form of interlude between the account of conflict in Rev. 13 and the introduction to the next judgement sequence that follows in Rev. 15. The images here are especially evocative, with the ideas of clouds, harps and both sickles and ‘grapes of wrath’ as signs of judgement in the popular imagination.
This continues John’s typical sense of narrative discontinuity and sudden changes of scene, and also undermines any neat sense of cosmic geography, where heaven and earth are separated or act as a kind of mirror to one another as they do in Greco-Roman mythology. The shift in scene and the introduction of a new set of symbolic vocabulary has the effect of keeping the plot moving, as have the sudden changes previously at the beginnings of chapters 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10. Together, chapters 13 and 14 offer a contrast between the outward reality and the inner truth, a dynamic set up at the start of Rev. 11 in the contrast between the trampling of the outer court and the holy preservation of the inner sanctuary. It is the dynamic that John himself experienced in the tension between ‘suffering’ and ‘kingdom’ in Jesus (1:9).