The Winepress

“After that, another angel came from the Temple in heaven, and he also had a sharp sickle. Then another angel, who had power to destroy with fire, came from the altar. He shouted to the angel with the sharp sickle, “Swing your sickle now to gather the clusters of grapes from the vines of the earth, for they are ripe for judgment.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and loaded the grapes into the great winepress of God’s wrath. The grapes were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress in a stream about 180 miles long and as high as a horse’s bridle. 
Revelation 14:17-20 NLT

John’s vision has become rather gruesome. In fact, he describes a scenario that, if taken literally, would be inexplicable. So to make any sense of what is going on, we have to try and interpret the events. If we take the key players in the scene, we have angels, the Heavenly Temple, sickles, fire, grapes, a wine press and lots of blood. They all add up to nothing short of a devastating war of some kind. This might even be a picture of the Armageddon that appears so often in literature and film. As in all good films there are “goodies” and “baddies”. We know who the “goodies” are because the angels are associated with the Temple. The clusters of grapes are the “baddies”, and the picture emerges of a complete victory over the “baddies” by God’s forces, His angels, and their subsequent annihilation. The reference to the quantity of blood perhaps implies that the forces arraigned against God’s angels were numerically considerable. We don’t know what weapons the “baddies” had, but they turned out to be totally ineffective against the angels, who had sickles and fire.

So what do we pilgrims make of all this? It seems that a war of proportions never seen before on Planet Earth is coming. And the slaughter of those who dare to take on God will be complete. This must be a comforting thought for all those who are, and have been, persecuted during their lifetime, for being counted amongst God’s holy people. Those people who have been crying out to God for relief from the abuse they have been receiving will be encouraged to keep on, because they know what will happen, in the end, to their abusers. 

As we read the next chapters, the world will enter a period of effective meltdown, as a number of events are rolled out to complete the End Times. But at this point, God’s wrath against sin and wicked people is finally being dispensed. The season of grace is over. In the end we know that a holy and righteous God, no matter how patient He has been, has to set right the imbalance between holiness and unholiness, between purity and impurity. In the post-End Times world, whatever form that will be, wickedness and sin will be unknown. Evil will have been flushed away in the blood flowing from the wine press of God’s wrath.

We pilgrims, perhaps becoming a bit weary of the increasingly bleak scenes coming our of John’s vision, must follow the Scripture written in Hebrews 12:12-13. “So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.” Our journeys haven’t yet ended. Our promised land is just over the horizon, but we will arrive there one day, if we “endure to the end”. And those brothers and sisters journeying alongside us, who are perhaps finding the going too tough and who want to give up, the “weak and lame”, they need our encouragement and support as well. They need kind words and friendship. They need our prayers and, often, practical help. Together God’s people will arrive at the finishing post, listening to the cheers of the angels and those brothers and sisters who arrived before us. The pilgrim’s journey through life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. 

Dear Father God. We thank You for the Heavenly home, within which we will be a resident one day. Please help us to stay true and firm in our faith on the journey ahead. Amen.

The Second Flying Angel

“Then another angel followed him through the sky, shouting, “Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen—because she made all the nations of the world drink the wine of her passionate immorality.””
Revelation‬ ‭14:8‬ ‭NLT

The Apostle John’s vision is certainly full of action. The first of the three flying angels is still in his memory, as he mulls over the implications of the global declaration of the Gospel. Perhaps the first angel is still visible, just on the horizon. But he now sees another one coming towards him, shouting a very different message. A message about the fall of Babylon.

Babylon was the capital city of successive empires that flourished many years before the birth of Christ. And today its ruins are located quite close to Baghdad, in Iraq. It was probably the largest city in the ancient world and had enormous significance in the lives of the Jews because so many of them were attacked and killed, and many of their people exiled, by Babylonian oppression. There are several passages in the Old Testament that detail the evil intent of the Babylonians. In Jeremiah’s day, the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem, and we read about a request made to the prophet in Jeremiah 21:2, “Please speak to the Lord for us and ask him to help us. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is attacking Judah. Perhaps the Lord will be gracious and do a mighty miracle as he has done in the past. Perhaps he will force Nebuchadnezzar to withdraw his armies.” Daniel, a young Jewish man, was exiled to Babylon, and what happened to him and his colleagues there can be read in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. His story starts in Daniel 1:1, “During the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.” And continues with Daniel’s exile, recorded in Daniel 1:3, “Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief of staff, to bring to the palace some of the young men of Judah’s royal family and other noble families, who had been brought to Babylon as captives.” And there are many further accounts in the Bible about Babylon and its role in Jewish history. Babylon became a symbol of evil and oppression, immorality and idol worship, cruelty and a place where you just didn’t want to be.

So in John’s vision what was the implication of the angel’s message, “Babylon is fallen” and what was “her passionate immorality”? To the Jews, the oppression and cruelty of the Babylonians made them a feared and evil enemy. The word “Babylon” came to mean wicked, debauched, evil, hated. In fact, every negative descriptive phrase all bundled up in just one word. Psalm 137:8 encapsulates what the Jews dreamt of concerning Babylon. “O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us“. I’m sure this is the sanitised version of what the psalmist really thought!

Babylon became associated with sinful sexual acts, prostitution, idol worship and other immoral content too graphic to be shared here. And in Revelation, John wrote that “all the nations of the world” came to be the immoral legacy of the Babylonians. Here in the End Times, Babylon and its influence is finally dealt with and destroyed. No prizes for guessing who was really behind Babylon, its culture, its society, its influences, and its peoples.

We pilgrims can only look on with sadness and concern, that so many generations of people in the earth’s nations were taken in by the Babylonian immoral and evil spiritual influences. Not for us that sinful life, but we must be careful because the lusts of our sinful nature could quickly cause us to be sucked into a Babylonian lifestyle. Our twisted logic could be something like, “Just once won’t hurt”. Or “I’m only researching for my essay”. And before we know it we are fully paid up members of the Babylonians. Our enemy, the devil, knows where we are weakest and he will pick away at our resolve unless we stand firm against him.

We have all the tools we need to stand firm against the devil’s ploys. Ephesians 6:13 says, “Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armour so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm“. And the remaining verses in Ephesians 6 break down the weapons we have at our disposal. We have the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. We have Gospel shoes and a shield of faith. A helmet of salvation and an offensive weapon, the sword of the Word of God.

We pilgrims are called to a life of purity. It isn’t easy. In fact it is very hard. The Apostle Paul knew that, and he appealed to the Ephesians to “throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. (Ephesians 4:22-24). But if we stumble and fall, there is a remedy. 1 John 1:9 reads, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness“. 

The second angel announces the demise of the Jews’ arch-enemy Babylon and its associated immorality. Most of the world would have been stricken with regret, their lifestyles overturned. The party over. But is that a cheer I can hear from that synagogue over there?

Dear Father. Thank You that through the gloom of the End Times comes a ray of light, as the wickedness in the world is finally dealt with. Please help us to stay strong in the face of temptation. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Incense

“Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. Then the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth; and thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and there was a terrible earthquake.”
Revelation‬ ‭8:3-5‬ ‭NLT

In John’s vision, another angel appears. He was carrying a “gold incense burner”, which is a vessel usually ornately carved or adorned with a variety of designs, and punctuated with holes to allow the burning incense smoke or fumes to be released into the atmosphere. It would be suspended by a chain or cord, so that it could be carried around. The angel carrying it “came and stood at the altar”.

What is incense and what is it for? Incense is a fragrant oil or wax that, when heated or burnt, gives out a fragrant or pungent smell. In early Jewish liturgy, incense was burnt as a holy offering to God on a purpose built altar. Spiritually, incense is associated with prayer, symbolically rising into God’s presence as the incense smoke rises into the air. So the prayers of God’s people are considered to be an acceptable offering to Him, confirming that we must never neglect our prayer life. He thinks it is something special and pleasing.

The first mention of incense in the Bible was in Exodus 30, where the Lord gave instructions to Moses about the building of an incense altar. So in this picture in John’s vision, we see that incense was still being burnt in Heaven, this time on a gold altar located before God’s throne. 

In the vision, John saw incense being given to the angel, who mixed it with the prayers of God’s “holy people”. That’s important. Incense is associated with holiness. Unholy and inappropriate prayers are unacceptable to God. Paul reminded his protégé, Timothy, of this. We read in 1 Timothy 2:8, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In Psalm 141:2, we read, “Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering.” Whatever our liturgy or theology, Biblically, there is an association between the act of lifting our hands and our holy prayers. Just by opening our hands in God’s presence, as we stretch them up to Heaven, bares our souls before our mighty Creator God, in an attitude of worship and service. And by so doing, our prayers somehow become as pleasing as incense before His throne.

As the scene in John’s vision rolled on, he wrote, “The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out”. This had a dramatic impact. The holiness of the incense and the altar contrasted with the unholiness prevalent on the earth, and as a result, the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it to the earth resulting in thunder, lightning and a “terrible earthquake”.  

For pilgrims everywhere the importance of holiness is non-negotiable. We read in 1 Peter 1:16, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”” Believe it or not, there are some things that is impossible for God to do. One of these is that He is unable to accept or allow any form of unholiness in Heaven. Because God is perfectly holy, anyone or anything tainted by even the most infinitesimally small amount of unholiness will fail to gain entry into His presence. And that includes mankind, big time. Thankfully, through Jesus, we can attain that holiness, but we have a big responsibility in ensuring that we remain on the “Highway of Holiness”, as described in Isaiah 35:8. “And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there.” We cannot claim the righteousness that was gained for us by the death of Jesus, and then continue in our old sinful ways. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church the following (Ephesians 4:21-24), “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.”

So we pilgrims turn our backs on our previous lives, tainted as they were by sin and all forms of unholiness. And we keep short accounts with God, confessing our sins with repentant hearts. We have a new nature through Jesus, truly holy. And that is what we must wear.

Dear Father God. Once again we thank You for Jesus, the Alpha and Omega of our faith. There is none other worthy of praise and worship. Amen.

Honour the Lord

“Honour the Lord, you heavenly beings; honour the Lord for His glory and strength. Honour the Lord for the glory of His name. Worship the Lord in the splendour of His holiness.” Psalms‬ ‭29:1-2‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This Psalm of David starts with the words, “Honour the Lord”. Other versions read “Ascribe to the Lord”. And they build a picture right at the start of how we should come into the presence of our amazing Creator God. With a reverence so deep, so significant, that we cannot do anything else than acknowledge who God is. With a realisation that He is infinitely great and we are infinitely small. That He is so holy and perfect and we are not.

I’m reminded of two things. The Lord’s Prayer right at the beginning states that our Father God lives in Heaven and we should “hallow His name”. The word “hallow” is an old fashioned verb expressing honour and respect. It contains a hint of God’s awesomeness. His lofty elevation above His creation.

Secondly, in those denominations that inhabit those ornate churches and cathedrals that can be found everywhere in our lands, there is a deep respect manifested in people who approach the altar. A respect seen in congregants bowing and prostrating themselves before an ornate and raised table, or platform, richly decorated, presumably because that is what they associate with the presence of God. And I must admit that I often feel “something” approaching this respectful stance in such places, perhaps because that is how I was raised as a child.

The Psalm says who should honour God, for what they should honour Him – His glory, strength and name – and how He should be honoured – with a worship enwrapped in His infinite and splendid holiness. And the Psalm continues as a hymn of praise underpinned by God-wonders, as many as David can think of.

What a wonderful place to be, lost in the presence of God. A place that many can only dimly see in the distance, with a yearning unrequited. But it is there nevertheless. I find it often in His creation. At this time of year there is an explosion of greenery in the woodlands near where I live. A place of blessing because I find God there. Because He made it and His fingerprints are all over it.

Let’s worship our amazing Creator God together today.