As we said in chapter 7, the 144,000 represent the whole body of believers. The name of the Father and the Lamb is the counterpoint to the Beast’s mark. God and Evil are claiming their own before things come to an end.
The announcements of the three angels are strange because once again John has blurred our time frame. The Gospel proclamation is self-explanatory as are the hints of coming judgment. But Babylon seems to have pre-fallen. Once again John shies away from anything like a climactic battle scene. Babylon’s fall is somehow already complete, a result of the very crucifixion and resurrection which occurred before his narrative even began. The battle is already over, they just don’t realize it yet.
The language of eternal torment should be considered carefully. We return to earlier reminders that Revelation has specific characteristics that soften this as a universal principle. First, Revelation is indeed an internal document. It was intended to bolster the flagging spirits of the Christian community, not provide a coherent final doctrinal statement. Second, the communities who first received this story were under a combination of government authorized violence and harsh social pressure, oppression licensed by the seemingly invincible empire which had no accountability or reproach. Modern Western Christianity has trouble imagining a bright side to language of judgment. But honestly its because most of us are rarely in a position of powerlessness, where we earnestly need the rescue of external judgment to restore life. It doesn’t answer all the questions about this passage but it helps us visualize it in the context it was intended.
The image of the reaper and the winepress is perhaps the most perplexing in all of Revelation. On one level it reads very negatively. There is blood everywhere. Blood for days. It runs in huge rivers and streams. This seems like a bad thing. But the reaper is either Jesus himself or an angel reflecting the presence and glory of Jesus. Also, in the entirety of Scripture, wine imagery is always good. If the process proceeds correctly, ripe grapes harvested and pressed, it is always a metaphor for good. It is only a negative image when the vineyard is somehow damaged or flawed. So what does that mean here? I think the former combined with the locale “outside the city” point to martyrdom rather than judgment. The vintage being gathered is not God’s wrath poured out but the blood and sacrifice of the Saints who followed Jesus and found their deaths “outside the city.”
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
When moderate Christians talk about judgment we often feel uncomfortable. When we read passages where God threatens or enacts some kind of judgment we might even feel embarrassed. Like hanging around an older relative who’s started to say awkward things in public. We have this subtext of “Oh God, you don’t mean that.” Jesus and mercy and forgiveness and love are the whole story now. Judgment is some sort of historical holdover.
But this isn’t really a whole answer. Ultimately, we don’t want to go to either extreme, completely ignoring words of judgment in Scripture or making them the central or even only thing we talk about. But this leaves us in a hard place. People just generally have a hard time finding balance between two contradictory positions. So what do we do?
Well we have to remember something important right out of the gate. We have a very different perspective on judgment in this time and place because we are living very comfortable lives. God’s judgment looks like an unnecessary burden. But there are places in the world where horrific things are happening. Where people strive and struggle and do their best and then something awful happens. Something or someone takes what little they had away. There is weeping, bleeding, bone deep brokenness being inflicted on the world and if God is God that has to matter.
We see this so rarely around us because we are blessed to be in a place of deep safety. But much of the world needs judgment, needs the profound intervention of God and God’s people which says “this evil which has happened and continues to happen is not right and will not continue forever” Thousands and thousands of children under five die each day from poverty and hunger. Girls seeking an education to free them from poverty are harassed and abducted and killed. Millions go hungry when we have enough food to feed the world twice over. If Jesus is who we believe He is then we cannot call ourselves his followers and say that these things go unnoticed by God and will be allowed to go on forever. We cannot be uninvolved.
What is even more amazing is what Jesus claims here. The distant infinite cosmic, mountaintop and creation, heights and depths and stars in the sky God took on flesh at Bethlehem. God incarnate. But Jesus goes a step further. Because Jesus didn’t just take on the human condition of one first century dusty peasant rabbi but here in Matthew 25 he takes on all the human condition. Everywhere someone suffers and hurts, every time someone is struck or beaten or broken down, Jesus is there.
God stakes God’s self on and in humans. Jesus says if you want to see me, know me, serve me, go find the broken and the hungry and there I’ll be. When we fix our eyes on Jesus in worship Jesus points beyond himself and back into the world, reminding us of our brothers and sisters in need. When we serve our brothers and sisters in need and look into their eyes we see Jesus staring back at us.