Whenever earthquakes topple cities, famines or civil wars decimate populations, or weather patterns are disrupted, then it is that the world, grasping for adequate words to name the horror, turns to the Bible. Then it is that newspaper headlines warn of “apocalypse” and “Armageddon”—or variations thereof. So it shouldn’t be surprising that President Obama referred to the recent snowstorm that crippled the nation’s capital as “Snowmageddon.”
In my next few sermons, I’d like to spend some time looking at the book of Revelation. I’m going to start today with that battle that seems to sum up the fears of many: Armageddon.
I stopped in at Lifeway Christian bookstore to see what they are currently selling, and it is all the same. Every book on prophecy or the book of Revelation sold by this Baptist chain says that Armageddon will be a literal battle fought in the contemporary state of Israel. The Christian church, they say, will have disappeared from the earth in an event they call the Secret Rapture. It is not a player on that day. The Jews are the focus. The antichrist will be ruling in Jerusalem, having betrayed them. The Euphrates River will literally be dried up, allowing China or India to attack (evidently they can’t build bridges, launch missles, or do airborne missions).
I don’t think the Bible teaches any of these things. I think the biggest mistake people make with Revelation is assuming that it should be understood literally. That’s why they suppose there will be a literal battle, and a river will be literally dried up, and kings from the literal east will attack literal Israel.
Much of this misinterpretation can be dispelled if we take to heart the first verses of the book. Turn with me to Revelation 1:1.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.
Notice the end of that verse. “He (meaning Jesus) sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” A lot of translations brush over this word, “signified.” Some replace it with “communicated.” Some merely say, “He told the angel.” But the word is important. It means, he put it into symbols. If you think the book is to be interpreted literally, you are off base. This is a book of symbols.
And as we’ll see, some of those symbols are clearly explained by John. Most are drawn from the Old Testament. Within the book itself, the same reality is sometimes expressed in different ways, sometimes in the same chapter, sometimes in different parts of the book.
John tells us in verse 4 that he was writing to the seven churches in Asia, and by extension, to the whole church—all who can praise the one who “loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and made us kings and priests.” The book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus. It was written for Christians. It illumines God’s love for us, and his plan of salvation. We may be despised by the world, but in the kingdom of heaven, we are kings and priests. What this means is that any interpretation of Revelation that has to get the church out of the way, and that puts emphasis on the earthly nation of Israel, is wrong. The church is not an afterthought in the divine plan, as Dispensationalism teaches, it is the divine plan. And it is because of this that the church is the object of the devil’s wrath, and why he seeks to destroy it. But God will have the victory—God has already obtained the victory in the Lamb who was slain—and we who overcome in the final battle will be seated with him in heavenly places. That is the meaning of the book of Revelation in a nutshell.
Let’s turn then to Revelation 16. It describes the seven last plagues—the seven bowls of God’s wrath, poured out upon the earth and upon those who have the mark of the Beast. These plagues only fall after the fate of all has been decided. Only after the seal of God has been given to the righteous, and the mark of the Beast to those who reject God. Sores break out, the sea becomes blood, and the rivers and fountains, the sun scorches men with fire, the world is plunged into darkness. Do these plagues remind you of anything? They should remind you of the ten plagues that fell upon Egypt.
12And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared. 13And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. 14For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. 15Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. 16And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
Let’s take the symbols one by one, starting with the last one. What is Armageddon? It only appears here in the New Testament. It means, literally, the Mountain of Megiddo. The city of Megiddo stands at the entrance to a valley that spreads to the north and to the east, the Valley of Jezreel, that was the scene of battles throughout history; here King Josiah was defeated and killed by Pharaoh Neco. Here, in World War I, General Allenby defeated the armies of the Ottoman empire. This has confused folks, though. It is a valley, not a mountain. There is no “Mountain of Megiddo,” they say.
Yet there is a mountain next to Megiddo. Megiddo is at the entrance to the valley, but it’s in the foothills—to the northwest those foothills rise to a mountain, a high mountain range that played an important role in the Bible. Its name—Mount Carmel. It was here, we read in 1 Kings 18, that Elijah gathered the prophets of Baal and challenged them to a test. It came at the end of three years without rain, as Elijah had prophesied. Verse 21 of 1 Kings 18,
21And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.
You know the story. The prophets of Baal built and altar, and called on their god, but nothing happened. Elijah mocked them, and they grew furious, but nothing happened. Then Elijah built and altar, and put a sacrifice on it, and poured water over it, and prayed a simple prayer:
LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. 37Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. 38Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.
Compare this with Revelation 11. There John is told of two witnesses, who will prophesy for 1260 days. “5And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. 6These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.” Elijah shut heaven for three years. He called down fire. But who turned water to blood? Moses.
So the name, Armageddon, emphasizes that this is a contest between good and evil, like that Elijah sponsored on Mount Carmel. But the stakes are raised. Not only can God’s witnesses can bring down fire—so can the enemy, as we read in Revelation 13. It says of the Beast, in Revelation 13:13–“ 13And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men.”
And the miracles that the Beast can do will deceive the world. Let’s go back to Revelation 16.
13And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. 14For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.
We saw the dragon in Revelation chapter 12—he caused 1/3 of the stars to fall from heaven. He stood before the woman with child, to devour her child. When that failed, 12:17, “The dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” And in chapter 13 he allies himself with a beast from the sea, and a beast from the land—the powers that are referred to in chapter 16 as “the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.” It’s an unholy Trinity—a last alliance of the demonic powers. And they wage their war against God and against the Lamb and against the remnant by means of deceptive miracles.
Now what about the frogs? The plagues remind us of the plagues against Egypt. One of the things we see in the story of the Exodus is that Pharaoh’s magicians tried to copy the signs that Moses gave. He threw down his stick and it became a snake—they did the same. He made the waters turn to blood—they did the same. He brought a plague of frogs—they did the same. But that was the limit of their ability to deceive. That was the last plague they could counterfeit. So the devil has power. He can copy lots of miracles. He can fool the world and harden the hearts of those who are evil—but his power is limited. He can only do so much.
Let’s return to verse 12 of Revelation 16.
12And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.
Though the verses that follow describe the workings of the demonic powers deceiving the world, this verse is the plague itself—the drying up of the Euphrates. This is God’s act of judgment. Can you think of a time in history when the actual river Euphrates was dried up? It happened when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. The city was built on both sides of the Euphrates, with a wall around it. The city was impregnable. But Cyrus diverted the river. While Belshazzar feasted, the Persian engineers dug a canal, and diverted the river, drying it up, and allowing them to enter the city and destroy it.
Cyrus was a king from the East, from Persia, today’s Iran. Long before Cyrus was born, the prophet Isaiah had mentioned him by name. He said, Isaiah 44:28, “He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure.” And in Isaiah 45:1, “Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; …. 4For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.”
So God says here that the waters of the Euphrates shall be dried up again, so that kings from the East, like Cyrus, will be able to enter and do battle. Against whom? Against Babylon, of course.
Babylon isn’t mentioned by name here in this passage. But jump to the next chapter, Revelation 17:1
“And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:”
So the angel who poured out this plague comes back and tells John more of the story. And John sees a woman dressed in purple and scarlet, with jewels and a golden cup. She’s a harlot, and she has committed fornication with the kings of the earth. Her name, verse 5, “Mystery, Babylon the Great.” She sits, verse 3, on a scarlet colored beast. It has seven heads, which are seven hills—that makes us think of Rome. But they’re also seven kings, who rule after one another. But verse one said the harlot sits on many waters. And verse 15 says, “The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.”
Try to sort out the different images. There is Babylon, a city, which sits on waters—the river Euphrates. These waters, the angel says, “are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” They are the kingdoms and powers of the world, represented by a beast. And above them all there is Babylon, a prostitute, who commits fornication with the kings of the earth.
What does a woman signify in the Bible? Jeremiah 6:2 says, “I have likened the daughter of Zion to a comely and delicate woman.” And in Revelation 12 we see a pure woman, who is the object of the dragon’s wrath. But God’s people in the Old Testament did not always behave in virtuous ways. Jeremiah 3:20 says, “Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the LORD.” And in the book of Hosea, the prophet is told to marry a harlot to demonstrate Israel’s unfaithfulness—she went after other gods, she entered into alliances with pagan nations, she abandoned the covenant—she had become a harlot.
So here we have a symbol of an unfaithful woman, God’s people gone astray. A woman like Jezebel (mentioned in the letter to Thyatira, earlier in the book), who deceived the people and led them to worship false gods.
Put the symbols together and we see a union between an apostate religious power and the political powers of the world. The religious power deceives the people of the world, and gets them to do her bidding. She accomplishes this through the demonic powers of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet—demonic powers working miracles.
And who are they fighting against? It’s the same battle we read about in Revelation 12:17—“And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
And so now we see the true nature of Armageddon—it is the last great conflict between truth and error, between Satan’s powers and God’s faithful people. It is a spiritual battle, not a battle of literal armies. It is a battle for the souls of men, and their eternal allegiance, not for real estate. It is the final act of the ancient conflict that we call the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan. It echoes the drama on Mount Carmel, and asks the world the same question: “How long halt ye between two opinions? Make up your mind. It’s either God or Satan.” And the devil, working through Babylon, a faithless religious power, and making use of his full repertoire of miracles and lies, unites the political powers of the world, and they do her bidding.
All of this has happened by the time we get to the plagues. The plagues only start falling on the powers of evil after all have made their final decision. The plagues only fall after the righteous receive the seal of God, and the evil have received the mark of the beast. This plague is God’s judgment on the powers of evil. Verse 12:
12And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.
We want to understand what this means. First, compare this with Revelation 17:15ff. This tells us what the waters represent:
15And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.
Verse 17 says these peoples and nations will “agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.”
But this agreement isn’t going to last long. In verse 16, the beast turns on the woman:
16And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.
So just at the moment when the nations of the world have been persuaded to go along with Babylon, just as she stands ready to strike at the people of God, God pulls the rug out from under her, and she comes to sudden ruin. Her support is dried up. Her lies are exposed, and those powers that had agreed to do her bidding now turn on her in fury and hate, and destroy her.
This, I think, is the key. Whether you use the image of the beast turning on the woman, or the river under the city being dried up, the content of the image is the same—the contest ends just as it did on Mount Carmel, with the exposure of the lie, and the triumph of the truth of God.
There’s one last group I haven’t said much about. We need to turn our attention to it now—to that little faithful remnant that is the object of the dragon’s fury. In chapter 17, the woman, Babylon, is said to be drunk with the blood of the martyrs. Together with the beast, she wages war against Christ and his faithful people. Verse 14:
14These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.
These called, and chosen, and faithful followers are elsewhere likened to 144,000 virgins from Israel. That’s how John hears them described. But when he turns to look, he sees a great multitude, from every tribe and nation. They aren’t literal Jews. They are the church. They are spiritual Israel.
And they haven’t been silent in this battle. They, too, have been waging war. But where the dragon and his followers do battle through lies told by three unclean spirits, the Lamb and the remnant do battle through the good news proclaimed by three angels. We read in Revelation 14:
6And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, 7Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.
8And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.
9And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, 10The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: 11And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.
12Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
These are the victors in the battle. These are the kings and priests who will reign with the Lamb. Together with the Lamb, they are the “kings of the east” whose victory is preceded by the self-destruction of their enemies. Remember Cyrus? That Persian king of the east? He was said to be God’s anointed one—in Hebrew, a Messiah. He not only destroyed Babylon, but then gave a decree for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple. Cyrus was a symbol of Christ—and in the last battle Jesus destroys Babylon and prepares a New Jerusalem where his faithful followers will reign with him forever. It needs no temple because he is with them always. That’s the victory that awaits.
The question for us today is, how can we know we’ll be on the right side? How can we prepare for Armageddon?
We’ve already seen the answer. Revelation 16:15 “Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed [is] he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.” Does that sound familiar? It echoes what Jesus told the church of Laodicea back in chapter 3 of Revelation:
18I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
19As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
20Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
21To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
22He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
That’s his invitation to you today. I stand at the door and knock. Don’t be afraid. You can overcome, because he did, and if you do, you will sit on his throne in glory.