Reformation Day • Revelation 14:6–7 • October 31, 2010
by Gerhard Bode
The pericope is commonly appointed for the festival of the Reformation. The assignment has less to do with the fact that Martin Luther was regarded by some of his contemporaries as the first (or even third) angel of the apocalypse and more to do with the Reformation’s emphasis on the good news of the person and work of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and on the distinction between law and gospel. The interpretation of the text should not be limited to Luther or the Reformation; more important than the reformer is the gospel message he proclaimed.
The text focuses on the appearance of the first angel and its message. Key to understanding the context here is to recall John’s vision of the dragon’s two beasts in chapter 13. The terrible beasts emerge from the sea and the earth respectively, and having been given the authority and power of the dragon, they make the earth their dwelling place. John’s vision continues in chapter 14 with the appearance of the lamb standing on Mount Zion together with the 144,000 who had been purchased from the earth. Then John sees the first angel flying in mid-heaven—between the sun and the earth—“having the eternal gospel to proclaim to those dwelling on the earth, people of every nation and tribe and language and people” (14:6).
The “eternal gospel” to be proclaimed is the good news that the angel, as God’s messenger, brings to all the inhabitants of the earth. But this good news is not limited to Christ’s work of saving the world from sin and death; it is a message speaking both law and gospel. In a mighty voice, the angel announces God’s imminent judgment, but also calls for the reverence of God as God and for a response to him as judge of the earth and as its creator. This preaching of the gospel to all nations is one of the signs of the end of the age as prophesied by Christ himself (cf. Mk 13:10). In Revelation, Christ’s work of salvation is completed, and now the work of judgment remains.
The content of the “eternal gospel” that the angel proclaims involves three aorist imperatives, all of which relate to God’s final judgment. Those dwelling on the earth— those of every nation, tribe, language, and people—are commanded to “fear God and give him glory … and worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water” (14:7). (The third imperative, προσκυνήσατε, can mean also “bow/ fall down and worship.”)
Several features of the angel’s proclamation are striking and may serve as themes for the preacher to develop. First, through the angel God calls upon the inhabitants of the earth to fear, glorify, and worship him. This message comes from outside the earth—from above—and from God himself. God’s revelation to the world through his word is in itself a gracious act, one that should not be overlooked. He does not deal with his creation in silence and at a distance, but coming near he speaks words of exhortation with authority. The fact that many on the earth have been deceived by the false prophecies of the beasts and are under their control does not deter God’s gracious actions. God, the creator of heaven and earth and everything under the earth is more powerful than the beasts that come out of the earth and the seas; his authority far surpasses theirs, and they too will be judged (14:9–11).
Another key point of the text is the emphasis on the angel’s summons to repentance, centering on the command to “fear God … because the hour of his judgment is come” (14:7). The dragon and his agents, the beasts, have exercised their power and authority to great effect in the preceding chapters. They have waged war against Christ’s church and have oppressed it (chapter 12). With their false prophecies and signs, the dragon and his beasts have deceived many people and led them to forsake the true God. During all this tribulation God has not forsaken his holy people. Yet even as the hour of judgment approaches he still calls the unfaithful to turn to him and to confess their sin and guilt.
A final important feature of the text is found in the phrase, “eternal gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον αἰώνιον, 14:6). This good news is not to be disconnected from God himself. God is an unchanging God (Mal 3:6), who is righteous and gracious. God’s word is an unchanging word, one that announces judgment as well as mercy. Indeed, God’s mercy does endure forever. He is faithful. He keeps his promises. This good news is also proclaimed with reference to the victorious lamb surrounding by the saints of God. The lamb, Jesus Christ, sent from God to the earth to redeem sinful humanity and restore the fallen creation, is God’s ultimate and eternal good news to the world. God redeems his fallen creatures through Christ so that he may restore them to himself. As his people they glorify and worship him as their God forever.