Teaching series from Revelation

The Great Tribulation: God's Judgmental and Redemptive Activity

Revelation 6-16

Teaching t09178


We come now to the longest section of this book, Revelation 6: 1-16, which is a multi-faceted look at the end of this age, the Great Tribulation.

7:14 speaks of people who have come out of the great tribulation (read). This term purposefully echoes Jesus' description of the period of evil and judgment immediately prior to his return (read Matthew 24:21-22).1

Over the next few weeks, I want to take a close look at some of the key characters of this period, who have such symbolic names as “the dragon,” “the beast,” “the false prophet,” and “mystery Babylon.” But this morning I want to survey this entire passage and note the overarching theme—that of God's judgmental and redemptive activity.

God's Judgmental Activity

During this period, God is unusually active in judging the world. God's judgmental activity is portrayed as a series of three 7-fold judgments: the seal judgments (6:1-17; 8:1), the trumpet judgments (8:2-9:21; 11:15-19), and the bowl judgments (15:5-16:21). It is not exactly clear (to me, at least) how these judgments are related to one another chronologically. There are three common views on this subject:

EQUIVALENCE: These judgments represent three ways of viewing the same judgments—all ending with the return of Jesus.

CONSECUTIVE: These judgments are sequential, and the 7th seal and trumpet judgments open the trumpet and bowls judgments, respectively.

PROGRESSIVE INTENSIFICATION: These judgments are staggered and appear at nearly the same time, resulting in greater and greater intensification until the seventh judgments occur simultaneously resulting in the return of Jesus.

I'm not really sure which view is correct. The three sets of judgments increase in intensity, and they seem to end with the return of Jesus—yet the 7th seal and trumpet judgments seem to open the trumpet and bowls judgments. The main point is that they describe God's temporal (distinct from his final judgment) judgment on humanity, and that they end with Jesus' return to defeat his enemies and establish God's kingdom.

This brings us to an important insight about these judgments—namely, how God judges. Because God is sovereign, all of these events are ultimately his judgments. But it is clear that some of them are active judgments directly initiated by God, while many of them are passive judgments—initiated by wicked people, but used by God for his purposes.

The Bible is full of examples of God's active and passive judgment. The plagues of Egypt during Moses' day, through which God put increasing pressure on Pharaoh, are examples of God's active judgment. The conquest of Israel (by the Assyrian by Shamanesar) and Judah (by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar) are examples of God's passive judgment. God permitted these wicked rulers to do what they wanted to do, but used their actions to discipline Israel and Judah for their rebellion—after which God judged these rulers for their wickedness.

So also in Revelation, most of the Tribulational judgments are God's passive judgment. He removes his normal restraint of evil and permits wicked persons (demonic and human) to do what they want and to give rebellious humanity what it wants. Paul's overview of this same period makes this clear (read and explain 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10). Before we turn to the question of why God does this, let's first look at the Tribulational judgments themselves and see which are passive (white) and which are active (yellow).

All but one of the “seal” judgments are God's passive judgment. Read 6:1,2. This is evidently a description of the emergence of the Antichrist to arise, as he sets out to conquer the world militarily. This sets in motion a series of horrible consequences in the next 3 seals: worldwide war (6:3-4), famine (6:5-6), and death (6:7-8). He also kills many of Jesus' followers (6:9), which is obviously not God's direct judgment. Only then do we read of the direct intervention of God (6:12-17) through a series of unique seismic and cosmic events that signal the return of Christ and his direct judgment on his enemies.

It appears that most of the “trumpet” judgments are also God's passive judgment. Trumpets 1-4 evidently record the devastation caused by the Antichrist's (and Satan's) horrible rule over humanity: land, ocean and aquifer devastations, and (possibly) nuclear winter (8:6-12). Trumpet 5 records the unleashing of demons to attack humanity (summarize 9:1-11). Notice that an unfallen angel “unlocks” the pit that unleashes Abaddon (Satan or a demonic ruler). Trumpet 6 describes the “releasing” of an army to kill a third of humanity (read 9:14-16). Only then do we read of the direct judgment of God in the 7th trumpet to establish his kingdom and destroy those who have destroyed the earth in this way (read 11:15, 18).

Only in the “bowl” judgments do we read of a terrible series of (apparently) direct judgments by God on the Antichrist and his unrepentant followers. The first five are a series of plagues on them (16:1-9). The sixth is a passive judgment, by which the Antichrist gathers the rebellious nations together for the final battle against Jesus (16:12-16). The seventh describes God's direct judgment of “mystery Babylon”—Satan's evil system (16:17-21).

SUMMARIZE: Most are God's passive judgment; while some (final) are active.

This brings us to another important insight—why God judges. Why does God judge passively through most of the Great Tribulation, and why does he judge actively at the end? These two forms of judgment appear to have distinct purposes.

God intervenes in direct, active judgment to destroy his enemies in order to rescue the earth and humanity from destruction.

Why does God passively allow his enemies to do so much damage before he intervenes directly?

Part of the answer seems to be that God is demonstrating the utter folly of rebellion against him (the ancient lie that angels and humanity need to be independent from God to be “free”). By permitting rebels to have what they want, God demonstrates to the whole universe and for all time that the only plan that does not end in total disaster is his rule.

Another part of the answer is that God is working through these passive judgments to polarize humanity so that as many as possible will turn to him. Revelation describes just such a polarization. Many people recognize that this is the hand of God, but refuse to repent and so harden themselves irretrievably (RECURRENT PHRASE: “they did not repent;” “they blasphemed God”). But evidently, millions of others turn to God in part because they realize through these judgments that there is no other answer. The other reason they turn to God is his amazing redemptive activity during this same period of time . . . 

God's Redemptive Activity

At the same time that God pours out his judgment on humanity (in the above senses) in an extraordinary way, he also acts in extraordinary ways to reach out to people and invite them to come to his Son Jesus for salvation. These same chapters describe at least four extraordinary ways God does this.

THE MARTYRS: Like all tyrants, the Antichrist hates the followers of Jesus because they refuse to worship him and his false religious system (e.g., Rome, Hitler, Stalin, Mao). But as the arch-tyrant, he evidently kills them in numbers that make these tyrants look tame. Read 6:9-11. These are evidently Tribulational martyrs (see also 20:4). God promises that he will judge their killers, but urges them to wait until the full number of martyrs has been killed. Why would God permit this? Because, as church history has shown, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The ultimate witness for Jesus is when his followers actually die for their faith. This was true in 1st and 2nd century Rome, and it was true in 20th century China (STATS). God is willing to allow many of his servants to be martyred so that unsaved people will see the reality of their faith and turn to Jesus. How can let his people go through this? Because he did it himself through Jesus, and because he will more than make up for it in his eternal kingdom.

THE 144,000: During the Tribulation, many Jewish people come to faith in Jesus. God raises up 144,000 of them (read 7:1-8) and protects them from the Antichrist, apparently so they can evangelize millions of people all over the world (read 7:9-10).

THE 2 WITNESSES: God raises up two extraordinary individuals and supernaturally protects them for a 3.5 year preaching ministry centered in Jerusalem (read 11:3). Many believe that these two witnesses are none other than Moses and Elijah (see their unusual departures, their appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration as a foretaste of Jesus coming into his kingdom, 11:6 for similar miracles, and Mal. 4:4-6). The Antichrist murders them, apparently demonstrating his authority over Jesus—but then God raises them from the dead to heaven in full view of the world (read 11:7-12). We may infer that many come to Christ through their preaching.

THE WITNESSING ANGEL: God even sends an angel to proclaim the good news to the whole earth (read 14:6,7). We should assume that many people respond to this amazing witness.

All of this extraordinary evangelistic activity apparently culminates in two “reapings” when Jesus returns. His angels “reap” the ripe harvest of living believers by rescuing them and bringing him into his kingdom (14:14-16), and they “reap” all unrepentant rebels into judgment (14:17-19).

Christians disagree over the specific identity of these figures—but the main point is clear. The God of the Bible, who will eventually judge all unrepentant rebels, is also the God who cares about people, does not wish for any to perish, and takes extraordinary measures to reach out to them (2 Peter 3:9).

So What?

God's dealings with humanity during the Great Tribulation parallel the ways in which he deals with each one of us individually.

“I am allowing you to go your own way and to experience the futility of life without me.” How does God normally respond in this life when we don't want anything to do with him? He lets us go our own way in the hope that we will discover that all of our idols are empty, that we can't make life work without him (EXAMPLES). This is the passive judgment of God (Romans 1:18ff.).

“If you persist in your rebellion against me, I will reluctantly sentence you to eternal alienation from me.” But there is a finite time to change your mind about bowing to God. He will not allow us to run roughshod over his universe forever. There will come a day when God will enforce forever what we have chosen in this life. This is the active judgment of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

“I love you and I am inviting you to come to me through Jesus.” Even as he lets you go, God is hoping that you will come to your senses and come to him. And he makes it clear that no matter how much you may have rebelled against him, he is ready to forgive you and indwell you and transform your life. This is why he sends his people to share with you, pray for you, invite you to meetings like this, etc. This is God's redemptive activity in your life (John 3:16). What are you going to do with God's invitation?


1 Additional reasons that Revelation 6-16 is about the end of the age include the following. Any literal interpretation of these events is obviously unfulfilled. Granted that John uses symbolic language, he is still communicating a literal series of events. Unless we completely spiritualize this passage, we are reading about things that have never happened before. The beast (Antichrist), described in chapter 13, corresponds exactly to other passages describing the same person—all of which place this figure at the end of the age, interrupted by the Messiah's rule (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8). The dozens of Old Testament quotes and allusions in this passage are to passages describing the end of the age and establishment of God's kingdom (cf. 6:12 and Old Testament references).

Copyright 2002 Gary DeLashmutt