Another seven! This time it is seven bowls filled with God’s wrath that are poured out. As we’ve seen so far in Revelation, God’s Word goes out into all the nations and forms churches (chapters 1–3), believers are persecuted (chapters 4–7), God sends initial judgments on the unbelieving world who persecutes (chapters 8–11), this church/world conflict is a sign of a much deeper conflict between Christ and Satan (chapters 12–14), and now we see what happens when the trumpets that announce initial judgment fail to result in penitence and conversion.
Does God allow impenitence and rebellion to go unpunished? Revelation 16 is a resounding “no”. These seven bowls happen at the same time as the seven trumpets. Both trumpets and bowls are calamities that fall upon people on earth. Here’s where the bowls are different though: they are judgments rather than warnings. There is a finality about these bowls that wasn’t the case with the trumpets; the bowls affect the whole of creation, whereas the trumpets only affected one-third of it.
We might say that the greatest wrath that God can pour out on an unbeliever on earth is allowing them to remain impenitent and allowing them to die in their impenitence. Thus, as William Hendriksen says, these bowls “hurl” people into hell. The first five bowls (in order) represent incurable disease, the sea, rivers and fountains, the sun, and the downfall of anti-Christian governments as instruments by which God ends the lives of unbelievers and calls them to stand before his throne in judgment. It can also be said that one person’s bowl may be another person’s trumpet. For instance, King Herod at the end of Acts 12 is struck down by some disease; for Herod, that was a bowl, but, for all those around Herod, it was a trumpet. Herod was “hurled” into hell through his disease, but the onlookers had the opportunity to see it and repent. It’s a good reminder for all of us: once we die, there is no more opportunity to repent and turn to God for salvation. Repent now, and believe the gospel message in Scripture.
The sixth bowl brings about Armageddon. Maybe this is just the devotional that some of you have been waiting for in Revelation! “What in the world is Armageddon?” you’ve been asking. One thing to be said is that this scene has lots of Old Testament imagery in the background. Judges 4–5 (see the reference to “Megiddo” in Judges 5:19) and Ezekiel 38–39 (see the reference to “Gog and Magog” in Ezekiel 38:2) are two precursors to Revelation 16:16. There are lots of mini-Armageddons in the Bible. All of them, including the big one in Revelation 16, symbolize large-scale attacks on God’s people where God himself intervenes to help his oppressed people. This final Armageddon will be a time of extra persecution and affliction of the church just before Christ’s second coming. Though there won’t be a physical war being fought, anti-Christian governments and anti-Christian religions will throw every evil they can at Christianity (vv. 13–14), but Christ will be with his people when that battle comes (v. 15). And after this short season of intense persecution, the final bowl is poured out, God’s people are delivered once and for all, and the final judgment comes.
Now, it’s important to note that believers may feel like they are experiencing the first five bowls. But we must remember, at no point are the afflictions that we experience judgments. God does not see you do something wrong and immediately send something bad in your life to punish you for it. He may chastise you at times, but the trials we have in this life are never wrath or judgment. How can we be so sure about that? Because Christ took all the judgment you deserved for every sin already. Romans 8:31–39 reminds us that there is no accusation or condemnation for any believer, because Christ himself died and was raised for you. Though we undergo many tribulations, distresses, dangers, and swords, God’s disposition towards you is only ever love, never wrath. Even death itself, for the believer, is not a wrath from God. It is an enemy defeated by Jesus. Praise God that there is no wrath for us because of what Christ has done!