Chapter thirteen concludes with a call to wisdom. The picture of the Beast and the False Prophet exercising domination reflects the perspective many of John’s readers would have had. Some would have welcomed the Empire’s kind of “peace” and sought to accommodate with its ways to protect themselves from the kinds of consequences to resistance that are alluded to with the Beast “making war on the saints” (13:7). Others would have still believed in resisting the Beast but would have despaired of fighting “against it” (13:4).
So the call to wisdom is crucial (much more so than the exact meaning of the 666). The Beast might simply destroy the witness of the Lamb’s assembly—either by crushing the resisters or, more likely, by converting them to an accommodating approach to faith where the Beast and the Lamb seemingly coexist.
John wastes no time, though, in countering the temptation to accommodate or despair. Of course, the content in Revelation leading up to the vision in chapter thirteen also gave powerful reasons not to take that vision as definitive of the actual situation. Jesus already has been identified as the ruler of the kings of the earth, worthy to be worshiped by all creation and the one who brings healing to countless multitudes from all corners of the earth. Chapter fourteen, then, actually does not provide the antidote to the Beast’s claims so much as reiterate what has already been asserted—but with new depth.
The impact of the contrast between the “I saw…” of 13:1 and the “then I saw…” of 13:11 with the “then I looked…” of 14:1 is lessened a bit by the chapter division. However, the three need to be read together. The vision of 14:1-5 is the conclusion to the Beast account. What is seen in chapter thirteen only has meaning in Revelation in light of the conclusion in 14:1-5.
“There was the Lamb” (14:1). This is the answer to the “who can fight against [the Beast]” of 13:4. The Lamb stands, the victorious conqueror. The images that follow are full of military allusions—the “one hundred forty-four thousand … have not defiled themselves with women” (14:1, 4) represent a mustered army, ritually pure and ready for battle. And they are well-trained: “They follow the Lamb wherever he does” (14:4).
To understand the number 144,000 we need to go back to chapter seven. There we have a key “hear one thing, see another” vision. John hears “144,000” (12,000 from each of Israel’s twelve tribes—a metaphor for the people of God). Then he sees a countless multitude from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). That is, the 144,000 defines the multitude as the people of God and the multitude defines the 144,000 as actually symbolizes a number beyond counting. This meaning of the 144,000, when applied to what John sees in 14:1, provides a counter to the sense in chapter thirteen of the Beast having authority “over every tribe and people and language and nation” (13:7).
The two pictures—the multitude in 13:7 and the 144,000 in 14:1—are counter claims to who actually will win the battle for the hearts and minds of the world’s peoples. The point of view of Revelation is made clear from the start. Jesus, not the Beast, is the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). So, don’t believe the claims for the Beast implied in the visions of great power in chapter thirteen. The true conqueror is the Lamb, who in face of the violence conquering in chapter thirteen nonetheless stands. “Mt. Zion” here likely is synonymous with what will later be called the New Jerusalem—the center for God’s healing work in the world.
The imagery of “many waters,” “loud thunder,” “the sound of harpists,” “a new song,” and “before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders” (14:2-4) points back to the vision of God in chapter four. And that vision, as we saw, is part of a vision of a worship service that carries on into chapter five and has as its focal point the victory of the Lamb through persevering love and the resultant worship of the Lamb. So, part of the point here is to reiterate the supremacy of Israel’s God and the centrality of the faithful witness of the Lamb to the work of God in the universe to bring healing. That is, these allusions directly counter the notion that the Beast has ultimate power.
The statement that “no one could learn the song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth” (14:3) is not a reference to a small number. The idea here is not the access to this song is limited to only a few, or even that it is a difficult song to learn. Rather, the idea is that only by following the path of the Lamb—that is, the path of persevering love—can people learn the song. The message of Revelation is, on the one hand, that the song can be learned by everyone and will be learned by multitudes beyond counting, and, on the other hand, that the way to learn this song is quite specific. This specificity is ethical more than doctrinal. It is not confessing a certain doctrine but confessing a certain way of life.
The allusion to non-defilement (14:4) is not meant to be taken literally as a statement about avoiding sex. It is following in line with many prophetic references in the Old Testament that equate sexual acting out with idolatry. There is likely also in mind a sense of the warriors in the Old Testament being made ritually pure before entering into battle. What is crucial is to see that this purity and rejection of idolatry are linked with “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). The point, again, is ethical. Follow the path of persevering love as a form of “battle”—conquering as Jesus conquered, a direct contrast here with the Beast’s way of conquering.
It is important to read the judgment scenes in Revelation fourteen in light of the overall message of the book. Part of John’s agenda is to provide an angle of vision for understanding the true character of the Roman Empire (and other human empires) that literally does rest on a foundation of violence and injustice even if there is a modicum of peace and harmony in the experience of many Romans. Another part of John’s agenda is to emphasize that there are negative consequences for those of his readers who might give in to the temptation of give Rome the kind of allegiance it demands—allegiance that John believes cannot be compatible with following the Lamb’s way.
Most fundamentally, though, John’s agenda is to encourage his readers with the promise that indeed the Lamb’s way is the way of the Creator and that following this way is the path to life. This promise ultimately is for all human beings as well as the rest of creation. Whatever sense of punitive judgment the visions might give, the point remains that all the happens is somehow subsumed under the overarching reality of God’s healing love. As it will turn out, the “destroyers of the earth” who are to be destroyed are the spiritual forces of evil, the structures of systemic violence, the ideologies of domination and oppression—not the human beings who might align with those Powers. However, John also indicates that human beings who might align with those Powers are living in mortal peril. God will not force them to turn toward life. Hence, part of the urgency in reflected in the spiraling intensity of John’s visions stems from his sense that those among his readers who are tempted to give their loyalty to empire must turn, or they might indeed turn into that which they worship and share the evil Powers’ fate.
John sees three angels (messengers from God) who give one version of the dynamics of judgment—probably the most direct portrayal of these dynamics in the book. First, crucially, he sees an angel proclaiming “an eternal gospel” that is proclaimed “to every nation and tribe and language and people” (14:6). And we know already from chapter seven that in fact this gospel is received and embodied throughout the world by an uncounted multitude. This first is the operative angelic affirmation of the three here. This is not a pro forma “proclamation” that makes the ensuring punitive judgment “justified” (since the people “heard,” they can therefore justly be punished). It is a statement of one of the basic truths Revelation presents. The eternal gospel is proclaimed—and is embraced.
The call to worship (14:7) comes first and follows on the heals of the vision of the victorious Lamb in 14:1-5. This is not worship that is evoked by fear and displays of God’s overwhelming might. It is worship evoked by the persevering love of the Lamb and those who follow him wherever he goes (14:4).
Then John sees a second angel who briefly confirms what is implied in the juxtaposition of the vision of the Beast in chapter thirteen with the vision of the triumphant Lamb in chapter fourteen: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (14:8). We will learn much about this assertion in the chapters to come. This is the first mention of “Babylon,” but we have to assume that John’s readers would have immediately recognized that this allusion to one of ancient Israel’s worst enemies, the one who destroyed the Temple and the Israeli kingdom of Judah, is meant to be linked with the present Roman Empire—that is, with the Beast. However, it is useful to note that Babylon as a metaphor ranges more widely that simply Rome. “Babylon” likely alludes to any human empire that wantonly sheds the blood of prophets (18:24).
That Babylon means the Beast is made clear when Babylon’s activities are described in terms of making nations drink the “wine of her fornication.” This is a graphic description of what John described in chapter thirteen when he wrote of the Beast being worshiped by “every tribe and people and language and nation” (13:7). As has already been made clear with the reference to the Lamb standing (14:1), the domination of the Beast/Babylon does not stand. Babylon falls. We will learn much more about that process of “falling” in the chapters to come. Just as the Lamb’s ability to “stand” follows from his persevering love to the point of death (5:5), so we will learn that it is the blood of the saints that brings down Babylon (17:6).
The troubling imagery linked with the third angel’s cry (14:9-11) is best seen as mainly rhetorical, not a literal description of what will happen. Given what has come before and what will follow after this, it is impossible to understand “the smoke of [the] torment … forever and ever” as the actual fate of those who worship the Beast (14:11). This graphic picture will be described as applying to the spiritual forces of evil that God destroys, the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. The best way to read these three verses is to see this as a hyperbolic warning to John’s readers—the consequences will be terrible should you put your ultimate trust in the Empire and its values and ways of life.
We will learn more about what is meant by “the wine of God’s wrath” in the verses to follow. The keys to understanding this image are to recognize that the actual embodiment of this process is the shedding of the blood (figuratively in the sense of faithful witness in general and literally in the possibility of martyrdom) of Jesus and his followers. And “wrath” generally in Revelation has the sense of the processes of life lived out of harmony with God’s love wherein those who trust in the way of the sword tend to be transformed by that trust into violent, fearful, alienated people.
Part of John’s point is to draw a contrast between those who are persecuted by the Beast because they refuse his mark (13:15) and those who suffer God’s wrath because they accept the mark. In light of the message of Revelation as a whole, we should see this contrast as the difference between those who are able to worship and embrace life and those for whom life becomes a burden, a source of fearfulness and self-destruction. The Beast “conquers” with violence against those who refuse his mark. The Lamb “conquers” with persevering love that is perceived as something to be afraid and to avoid by those who accept the Beast’s mark. And what could be worse than living life afraid of love?
After the three angels speak, John reiterates the point of these their messages: “A call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (14:12). And we should remember that one of the fruits of that endurance will be the healing of the nations and the presence in the New Jerusalem of the transformed kings of the earth (21:24). John intends his readers to desire that healing and transformation, not to take delight in the possibility that some of those aligned with the Dragon might remain alienated from life to the very end.
The fruit of such “endurance”—which is another way of saying, the fruit of following the Lamb wherever he goes and conquering the Beast through the means of faithful witness—is blessing and rest (14:13).
Chapter fourteen concludes with two harvest visions, first of grain and second of grapes. The reaper of the grain harvest is “one like the Son of Man,” almost certainly a way of identifying the reaper with Jesus (this same phrase is used of Jesus in 1:13). This seems to be a picture of judgment (see similar allusions in Hosea 6:11 and Matthew 13:30, 39). The meaning that is in mind here is not totally clear, the reaping is simply described. But since it is Jesus, most likely the idea is to portray salvation, the “judgment” of the followers of the Lamb to be found worthy to join him in paradise (see 2:7; 21:7).
The grape harvest is much more complicated, and variously interpreted. Is this a scene of punitive judgment? I’d suggest not, and in fact the meaning here is clearer than the judgment that is spoken of in 14:9-11. There are good reasons to see the grape harvest as another way that John portrays the style of conquering characteristic of Jesus and his followers, victory through faithful witness and persevering love even to the point of shed blood and death. Crucially, the “shed blood” is that Jesus and his followers, not their human enemies.
The reaper in this second harvest vision is not Jesus but an angel (14:17), possibly suggesting something similar to various allusions to angels participating in the plague visions described in chapters five through ten—that this harvest is another way of portraying the present time where followers of the Lamb are involved in the process of conquering the evil Powers through their persevering love, even to the point of shedding blood. The second angel “came out from the altar,” evoking the martyrdoms of 6:9.
The angel reaps the ripe grapes and throws them “into the great wine press of the wrath of God” (14:19). As we learned from the plague visions, the “wrath” may be understood, at least in part, as the outworking of the rebellion of humanity against God and, adding the information from chapter thirteen, the outworking of humanity empowering the Beast to go conquering. These dynamics call for persevering love from the Lamb’s followers, not for retaliation (13:9-10).
Adding support to interpreting the grape harvest as a picture of the bloody consequences of the Lamb and his followers resisting the Beast with their persevering love, we are told that “the wine press was trodden outside the city” (14:19). This “outside the city” image was used in Hebrews 13:12-13 to refer to Jesus’s death. Certainly the model of Jesus’s faithful witness that lead to his blood being shed would reinforce that sense that John has in mind here “blood” as a symbol for the entire process of “conquering” the Dragon “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [the comrades’] testimony” (12:11).
The final image in the harvest scene is extraordinarily gruesome, “blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (14:20). This is a picture of terrible excess. But what does it mean? It would be out of character in relation to the rest of Revelation to see this blood being the blood of God’s enemies. Every other reference to “blood” in the rest of the book refers to the blood of Jesus or his followers. Nowhere are we told of any other blood being shed.
So, it seems likely that the excess here should be seen as a powerful way of underscoring the importance and effectiveness of the way of life that Jesus embodied and called upon his followers to imitate. We could link the picture here with the vision in chapter seven. The picture there is also of excess, “a great multitude that no one could count … [that] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:9, 14). It would take a lot of blood to wash that many robes!
Finally, we will learn later that in fact the blood of Jesus and his followers turns out to be the precise means that are used to bring Babylon down. In chapter seventeen, Babylon is pictured as a Great Harlot that “was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). Then, in the next chapter we read how the nations “have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (18:3). This leads to Babylon’s fall when she drinks “a double draft [from] the cup she mixed” (18:6). The “wrath” that John has in mind with “the great wine press of the wrath of God” may best be understood as the dynamic during the “three and a half years” of historical existence where the processes of the Powers resisting God lead to the Powers own demise. And the role of Jesus and his followers of giving up their lives in loving resistance is crucial in how God does destroy the destroyers of the earth and bring the New Jerusalem down as the place of healing, even for the kings of the earth and the nations.
So, all the language in Revelation about “conquering” is to be taken seriously. Jesus conquers through his faithful witness and his followers share in the conquering with their faithful witness. And this “faithful witness” is bloody—at least metaphorically in that it involves living lives of nonviolent resistance to the Empire’s hegemony, and at points literally when such resistance leads to death. The book promises from the very beginning, though, that such witness is vindicated and that Jesus indeed is “ruler of the kings of earth” (1:5).