Sermon: The Seven Bowls, Broadly Considered: Revelation 16

Sermon Text: Revelation 16

“Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.’ So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’ And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’ The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. 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 anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. 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. And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (‘Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!’) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’ And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.” (Revelation 16, ESV)


Whenever we have come to a new cycle of seven in the book of Revelation it has been my custom to, first of all, consider that cycle broadly in one sermon and then to move through it more methodically in subsequent sermons. That was my approach with the letters to the seven churches, the seven seals, and the seven trumpets, and I’d like to take the same approach with the seven bowls of God’s wrath as they are described here in Revelation 16. We will consider this passage in it’s entirety today, making some general observations, before moving through it more slowly in the the week (or weeks) to come.

There are four general observation that I would like to make about this text today.

It Would be an Error to Interpret this Passage in a Literal Fashion

First of all, we must remember that it would be an error to interpret this passage in a literal fashion.

This is a point that you’ve heard me make over and over again in this sermon series, and so I will not try to prove the point here, for I’ve already done that. I simply need to remind you that the book of Revelation, given its apocalyptic genre, is not meant to me interpreted literally. Generally speaking, the book uses symbols to communicate truth to us. Most of the Bible is to be interpreted literally. And it is a tragedy when people take passages of scripture that are meant to be taken literally and interpret them symbolically or spiritually (this they do so that they might interpret them, not as author intended, but as they would like to). We must resists that impulse with all that is in us, for it is a distortion of God’s word. But with that said, there are some passages of scripture that would be wrong to interpret literally, for they are symbolic by nature. To interpret the literal as symbolic, or the symbolic as  literal is equally problematic, for both approaches will yield error. The student of the Bible must pay careful attention to the type of literature that he or she is handling, and interpret it accordingly and with consistency. The text that is before us today is apocalyptic and prophetic. Here we have truth communicated via symbol.

Now, please do not misunderstand. The event that is symbolized here in this passage will literally happen. God will indeed pour out his wrath upon the ungodly at the end of time. But that event is described to us in a symbolic way. In other words, John was not shown video footage of the second coming of Christ and the outpouring of God’s wrath ahead of time as if exactly what John saw is exactly what will one day happen. No, John was shown a vision filled with symbols which reveal to us what will indeed happen on that last day.

When interpreting symbolism an extra step is required in the process of interpretation. Not only must we read the words to understood what the author is describing to us, but we must go a step further and ask, what does that thing represent? Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field” (Matthew 13:31, ESV). The literalist thinks, “if I wish to further the kingdom of God I must learn how to farm!” But the one who rightly divides the word of truth recognizes the symbolic nature of Jesus’s words and adds another step to the process of interpretation, asking, “what does the sowing of mustard seeds represent concerning God’s kingdom in the world?”

So no, I do not believe that on the last day those ungodly who are alive upon the earth when Christ returns to judge will experience things exactly as they are stated here in Revelation 16, as if John were shown video footage of the event ahead of time. No, I don’t believe that the outpouring of God wrath will happen just like this, with seven literal angels pouring out seven literal bowls, as they, like crop dusters, fly over the face of the earth.

But I do believe that the wrath of God will be poured out, and that the outpouring of God’s wrath will be terrible and awesome and perfectly just. The symbolism of Revelation 16 communicates these truths very effectively.

The Key to the Symbolism of the Bowl Judgments is Found in the Old Testament

Secondly, it is important to recognize that the key to the symbolism of the bowl judgments is found in the Old Testament.

Two passages are primary: First of all, the ten plagues as described in Exodus 7 and following, and secondly, Leviticus 26, where Israel was threatened with sevenfold punishment should she fail to keep the covenant that she did enter into with her God – the Mosaic Covenant – a covenant of works that could be broken.

I will not go into great detail here. For now, recognize that the seven bowl judgments of Revelation 16 are clearly patterned off of the ten plagues that God poured out upon the Egyptians by the hand of Moses to bring about the deliverance of the people of Israel so that he might lead them to the promised land. It is the historical event of the exodus and the ten plagues that stand behind and give meaning to the symbolism of the seven bowls of Revelation 16.

Remember that the bowls were first called plagues in Revelation 15:1-8. In 15:1 John said, “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished” (Revelation 15:1, ESV). Now they are called “the seven bowls of the wrath of God” (Revelation 16:1, ESV).

Notice that the seven bowls, or plagues, of Revelation 16 correspond to the ten plagues of Exodus 7 and following.

The first bowl of Revelation 16 corresponds to the sixth plague of Exodus wherein sores and boils did inflict the ungodly.

The second and third bowls correspond to the first plague wherein the waters were turned to blood, this time not just the Nile, but all the waters of the earth.

The fourth and fifth bowls corresponds to the ninth plague, I think, in that the sun is affected, first resulting, not in darkness, but in scorching heat, and then darkness.

The sixth bowl corresponds to second plague with the mention of frogs.

And the seventh bowl corresponds to the seventh plague with the mention of hail stones falling from the sky.

Clearly, the plagues that were poured out upon the Egyptians in the exodus event stand behind the symbolism of Revelation 16. We have only considered these things very briefly, but the similarities and the differences are obvious.

Leviticus 26 is also a significant text. In verses 1-13 blessings are promised to Old Covenant Israel should they keep God’s commandments. In verses 14-39 judgments are promised to Israel should they decide to break the covenant of works that they did enter into with their Redeemer. These blessings and curses have to do, not with the salvation of individuals, but with the nation and their prosperity or ruin in the land of promise.

The repeated threat is that, should the people disobey, God would “strike” them, or “discipline” them “sevenfold”. There is in this passage a noticeable intensification in the threatening, and it does culminate with these words from God:

“But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” (Leviticus 26:27–33, ESV)

Clearly, both the plagues of the exodus event and the sevenfold threats leveled against Israel in Leviticus 26 do stand behind the outpouring of the seven plagues of Revelation 16.

The meaning is this, therefore. At the end of time something like the exodus event will happen again, but on a universal scale and with finality. God’s people – all in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike – will be redeemed, and the wicked – all not in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike – will be judged.

These plagues – or these sevenfold judgments – will come, not upon one people, but upon all who do not have Christ as Lord, who have taken upon themselves the mark of the beast, and not in a limited way, but fully and with finality.

God’s people will be redeemed, not from Egypt, but from this world, being rescued, not from Pharaoh, but from the Ancient Serpent himself, being delivered, not from earthly bondage, but from sin and death.

More will be said about the relationship between the bowls of Revelation 16 and the Old Testament in coming sermons. For now I simply want you to recognize, one, that there is clearly a connection (the key to understanding the symbolism of the Revelation 16 is the Old Testament, and not today’s news paper!), and two, that the book of Revelation is picking up these Old Testament themes having to do with judgment and is intensifying and universalizing them.

If you’ve spent time reading your Old Testament you’ve undoubtably come across those passages of that describe the judgment of God coming upon peoples and nations and their, so-called, gods.

The exodus event would be an example of this. The ten plagues did culminate with the death of the firstborn throughout all of Egypt. Pharaoh’s army was indeed swallowed up in the sea. It was  and act of deliverance for Israel, and act of judgment upon the Egyptians.

Also, in Leviticus 26 we read the threats that God did level against Israel at the beginning of the Mosaic Covenant, but later in the Old Testament we have an account of God actually making those threats a reality because of the Israel’s disobedience. Indeed, Old Covenant Israel would eventually be vomited out of the land and sent away to exile – those threats of Leviticus 26 did eventually fall upon Israel, for they broke the covenant.

And we also find in the Old Testament many descriptions of the judgment of other nations too. God is indeed merciful and patient, but when the iniquity of a particular nation was complete (see Genesis 15:16), God would judge them. For example, this happened to many nations at the time of the conquest, when Israel did finally enter into the promised land with Joshua at the lead. God commanded Israel to devote those peoples to utter destruction.

I know that many people are bothered by those passages of scripture where God commanded the utter annihilation of a particular people by Israel at the conquest. One thing that should be remembered is that for Israel this was an exception to the rules which typically governed their warfare. These instances of herem warfare were unique to Israel’s conquest of land promised to them. this needs to be recognized.

But the thing I wish to focus upon now is how many, even amongst professing Christians, feel compelled to explain away those difficult passages of scripture that have to do with God’s judgment of a nation. And what is their complaint? “That is not fair”, they say. Or, “God is love, never would he command such a thing.” And so with that assumption firmly rooted within their hearts they go to work to explain away those difficult passages found within the Old Testament.

One of the most common explanations is that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New. The God of the Old is wrathful, the God of the New is love, mercy, and grace, some say.

This view is problematic on so many levels. I’ll mention two things: One, our God does not change, but is the same yesterday, today, and forever – the scriptures are clear about this! And two, I wonder if those who make a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the New have ever read either! For God is loving and gracious, merciful and kind in both Testaments; and in both Testaments he is also just. He has forever hated that which is evil and will, in due time, punish all iniquity.

Friends, the New Testament does not throttle back one bit on the theme of wrath and judgment, but intensifies it. I suppose we could also say that God’s love and grace is also intensified in the pages of the New Testament. Why? Because the Christ has come! Christ suffered and died for our sins. It’s at the cross we have the greatest manifestation of the love of of God the world has ever known. And it is also at the cross that we are given a glimpse of what it is that our sins do deserve.

But the New Testament does still speak often of judgment and the outpouring of the wrath of God. And when it speaks of God’s wrath and the final judgement it refers back to those Old Testament instances of judgment and speaks of them as merely a sampling or taste of the wrath that is to come.

Jesus himself did say concerning the town that rejects the proclamation of the gospel that, “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:15, ESV). Those instances of judgment that we find in the Old Testament are to be viewed, therefore, as but a small foretaste of the judgment that is to come – a judgment universal, full and final.

To put it bluntly, if you are one of those who, when you read of instances of judgment in the Old Testament, think, “I’m not fond of the God of the Old Testament”, then I doubt you’ll be fond of the God of the New Testament either, for he is the same. What God did to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Egypt, to the Amorites at the hands of Israel, and to Israel at the hands of other nations will be done at the end of history by God himself against all who have sinned against him who are not in Christ – these God and Christ will judge fully and finally at the end of time.

When you read of the seven bowls of God’s wrath poured out, and when you see that the symbolism is rooted in the ten plagues of the exodus event and in the sevenfold punishments of Leviticus 26, only modified to be universal, full and final, this is the conclusion we must come to: those judgments of old were but a partial and restrained manifestation of the wrath of God to be poured out in full strength upon all ungodly at the end of time.

Relationship to the rest of Revelation – seals; trumpets; Armageddon; judgment of dragon, beast, FP harlot; great white throne

The Bowl Judgements Reveal Something of The Final Judgment, Particularly the Outpouring of the Wrath of God Upon the Unrighteous Alive on Earth on the Last Day

Thirdly, and briefly, notice that the bowl judgements reveal something of the final judgment, particularly the outpouring of the wrath of God upon the ungodly alive on earth on the last day.

I mention this because we tend to speak of the final judgment, or the return of Christ, or the last day in general terms, but we should remember that that day will be a complex day. Here in the bowl judgments we have a depiction of the wrath of God poured out upon the ungodly alive upon the earth on the last day, but that is not all that will happen.

When we consider all that scriptures have to say about the time of end we must conclude that when Christ returns the dead in Christ will be raised and caught up with the Lord to meet him in the air, then those alive will also be caught up. Those alive and not in Christ will have God’s wrath poured out upon them (that is the thing symbolized here). All not in Christ will then be raised to stand before God at the Great White throne judgement. Also, Satan and he demons will be judged. And what should we say about the dissolution of the heavens and earth, and the ushering in of the new creation?

The book of Revelation does picture all of these things, but not all at once, and not necessarily in the order in which they will take place. These cycles give a glimpse of one thing and then other, sometimes with greater detail, and sometimes with less. For example, notice that the battle of Armageddon is only briefly mentioned here in this passage, but the book of Revelation will return to that event to describe it in greater detail in chapter 19.

The Heavenly Opinion Concerning the Judgments of God Is That They are Righteous

Fourthly, and finally, notice the heavenly opinion concerning the judgments of God is that they are righteous.

After the pouring out of the third bowl John “heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve’” (Revelation 16:5–6, ESV)!

This angel emphasizes the justice and holiness of God and his eternality. God is just. All of his judgments – and even the final judgment – are perfectly right. He is holy and can do no wrong. He is the one “who is and who was”. In Revelation 1:4 and 8, and 4:8 God and Christ are called the one “who was and is and is to come”. The “is to come” is dropped here, for here we have a description of his coming! According to this angel God’s judgments are perfectly fitting – the punishment does fit the crime – “for they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve.”

After this John heard the alter speak. This must refer back to Revelation 6:9 and the breaking of the fifth seal where John “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9–10, ESV).  Now that that question has been answered by the subsequent visions, the voice from the alter says, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”

So both the elect angels and the redeemed do agree that the judgments of God are perfectly fitting, just and right.


I wonder, what do you think of the judgments of God?

Some scoff at the idea, I know. They are those that Peter spoke of when he warned, “that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:3–4, ESV). Is this you? Do you disregard the word of God, saying, “these things will never happen” to comfort your conscience so that you might continue in your sin? Friends, do not disregard God’s word. And do not ignore the judgments of God that have already been poured out as warnings of the wrath of God to come.

While some scoff, others recoil at the thought of the judgments of God. I have in mind those who, when they hear of instances of God’s judgement, either past, present, or future, say, “that’s not right!”, or, “that’s not fair!”, or, “how could God do such a thing to us?”. It’s not surprising when the un-believing do this, but many who profess faith in Christ in our day also recoil at the thought of the judgment of God. And so they must do something with the scriptures they claim to believe. They must find a way to disregard those passages which speak of judgment.

Some simply ignore the texts that mention God’s wrath, judgment, and condemnation. These are those who love to quote John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV), but neglect John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18, ESV).

Some attempt to explain those judgment passages aways, usually by applying some kind of evolutionary principle to the history of religion or to God himself. Their argument is basically that something has changed with God, or with our conception of God, so that we no longer think of God in those terms.

But the Christian must confess that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the one who was and is and is to come”. And the Christian does also believe that God’s word is indeed God’s word so that what it says is true! And so we are bound to believe, not parts of it, but all of it. And what do find when we handle it with care? That God is indeed merciful and gracious and kind. Though he would have been right to judge all for their sin, he has provided a way for salvation through faith in Jesus the Christ. And he is patient with sinners. He gives good gifts even to those who blaspheme his name – he causes it to rain upon the just and the unjust alike. But God is also holy and just. All sin must be punished. The punishment for sin was either poured out upon Christ on the cross, or it will poured out upon the sinner at the end of time.

Brother and sisters, I’m not saying that we should rejoice at the thought of the judgment of the wicked. Ezekiel 33:11actually reveals that God himself takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”, and neither should we. But neither should we scoff or recoil all thought of the judgments of God. Our minds must be thoroughly renewed by the word of God so that when we think of him we do see him as loving and kind, but also holy, righteous, and just! And when we think of man we must also confess that we are, apart from Christ, very sin and deserving of God’s just condemnation. In short, we must agree with the angel and the alter who say, “It is what they deserve!” And, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” (Revelation 16:6–7, ESV).

Lastly, the thought of the wrath of God poured out at Christ’s return should stir us to be ready. Notice the words of Christ in verse 15, and with these words will close: “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” (Revelation 16:15, ESV). Friends, be ready. Repent and believe upon him for the forgiveness sins, for there is no other way to stand before God righteous! You do not have a righteousness of your own. You must be clothed with Christ’s righteousness received by faith. And once you have believed upon him, cling to him continually until he returns our takes you home.

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