I Come Like a Thief!  Revelation 16:15

Revelation 16:15 “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Biblia Dudesch, 1522

This verse is a curiosity for several reasons. First, the verse appears to be Jesus’s own words. In Revelation 3:3 he warned the church at Sardis to wake up, otherwise he would come like a thief. Many English translations therefore put the verse in “red letters” like the letters to the seven churches.

Second, how is this verse related to the context? It interrupts the flow of thought: the nations are deceived by demons in verse 14 and assembled for battle, in verse 16 the location of the gathering of the nations is Armageddon. Because it seems like an interruption, many translations also put the verse in parenthesis (ESV, NRSV).

Third, this verse may be a hint of some editorial revisions of Revelation. David Aune suggests the verse is an interpolation, inserted into the text into the “second edition of Revelation” (2:896). In his view, a later editor added 1:3-14, the letters to the seven churches, this line and 22:5-21.

Jesus used the metaphor of a thief in the night in Matt 24:42-44 / Luke 12:39-40. Paul may allude to this teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. In both cases the point of the metaphor is to encourage watchfulness. 2 Peter 3:10 also says the day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night.” One main difference is the subject in the Gospels is the Son of Man, in Revelation the saying is in the first person, I am coming like a thief.” Unfortunately, this metaphor was co-opted as a warning to be ready for the rapture, but that was not the point of the metaphor in the New Testament. Watchfulness and readiness, yes, but because God’s great day of judgment is coming very soon, not the rapture of the church.

As part of his response to the disciples’ question about the signs of his return, Jesus says to be alert and awake, like someone who knows when a thief will break into their house. There are two main ideas in this saying. First, the disciples are to “stay awake” or “remain alert” (γρηγορέω), the first part of Revelation 16:15. Second, the disciples are to be prepared (ἕτοιμος), the second part of 16:15. Ironically, in the garden on the night to his arrest, Jesus told Peter, James and John stay alert (γρηγορέω) while he prayer (Matt 26:41 / Mark 14:34) yet they fell asleep. Perhaps it is not a coincidence a young follower of Jesus is sleeping when Jesus was arrested and “ran away naked” (Mark 14:51).

The second part of the verse is a beatitude: blessed is the one is stays away and dressed. Like the thief in the night saying, remaining awake and prepared is found in the Gospels and Paul’s letters as a warning to be prepared for the return of Christ. In Revelation 3:18 Jesus warning the Laodiceans to dress properly themselves in order to be prepared for the soon return of the Lord. They thought they were dressed in fine clothing but they actually shamefully naked. In Revelation 6:11 the souls under the altar were given white robes; in 7:9, 13 the 144,000 are also given white robes.

If they are not awake and dressed, then they are “going about naked” and their shamefulness (ἀσχημοσύνη) will be seen. Aside from the general embarrassment of being caught naked, the word refers to a shameless act or anything which leads to disgrace.  In the Old Testament, “uncovering nakedness” is used in the context of God’s judgment on Babylon. Speaking to the “virgin daughter of Babylon,” the Lord says, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace (ἀσχημοσύνη) shall be seen” (Isa 47:3, cf., Lam 1:8). The Lord covering one’s nakedness is a sign of his provision for his people (Ezek 16:8; Hos 2:11).

The ultimate conflict between God Almighty and the kingdom of the beast demands watchfulness and preparation. But this is not an instruction to hoard food, guns, and toilet paper out of fear of the government. For John, this is a spiritual battle. The spirit of deception has gone out into the world already (1 John 4:1-3) and demands the follower of Jesus remain awake, alert, and prepared at all times.

What are the Three Evil Spirits in Revelation 16:13-14?

Revelation 16:13-14 contains one of the stranger images in the whole book: three evil spirits come out of the mouth of the dragon, beast, and false prophet. These three demons look like frogs and perform miracles and gather the kings of the whole world for battle on the great day of God Almighty. What are these “demon frogs”?

Demons as Frogs in Revelation

Between the sixth and seventh seal and trumpet there was a lengthy interlude. Many commentaries consider Revelation 16:13-16 to be an interlude between the sixth and seventh bowls. Following Robert Mounce, Robert Thomas disagrees. He considers these verses as a “topical commentary” on the sixth seal explaining why the kings of the earth gathered in Armageddon (2:263).

There is one additional problem in verse 13. The verb “coming out” (ESV) is not in verse 13. “Out of the mouth of” appears three times, but John has omitted the verb so most translations supply “coming out.” Emerged or even “breathed out” are possibilities as well.

This is the first time this satanic trinity is mentioned together explicitly for the first time although all three appear separately in Revelation 13, and they will appear again in 19:20 and 20:10. The dragon was identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9. The beast is the government lead by a parody of Jesus, the antichrist (the beast from the sea, Rev 13:1-10). The false prophet is the religious support for the kingdom of the beast, doing miracles like an anti-Holy Spirit (the beast from the earth, Rev 13:11-18).  David Aune draws attention to similar passage in 1 John 4:1-3 (see this post on 1 John 4:1 and deceptive miracles). John says some spirits are false prophets (4:1) and the spirit that does not confess Jesus came in the flesh is the spirit of antichrist (4:3).

Why are the Three Evil Spirits Described “Like a Frog”?

There is nothing quite like the three evil spirits in Second Temple literature. Josephus describes a Jewish exorcist who “put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils” (Ant. 8.47). This fits well with the frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, beast and false prophet, but there is nothing in other literature describing demons “like frogs.”

There are several possibilities for the image of a frog for evil spirits in Revelation 16:13. First, these are unclean spirits, so the image of a frog may have been prompted the fact frogs are unclean (see Leviticus 11:10). Second, Beale suggests the image was chosen “partly because of their characteristic croaking, which is loud but meaningless” (revelation 832). Third, since there are many other allusions to the Exodus in this chapter, John may be alluding the plague of frogs (Exod 8:2-11). Finally, perhaps all that is meant this adverbial phrase is the spirits “leapt like frogs out of their mouths.” Since the verb is missing, the adverb is not modifying anything. In either case, the demons do not look like frogs (despite medieval illustrations of this scene or weird online Christian digital art).

These unclean spirits do miracles deceive the kings of the earth to gather for a final battle against God Almighty. John uses the title pantokrater, (παντοκράτωρ), a title used to describe Roman emperors. Although it refers to Trajan, see this post for the combination of pantokrater, earth and sea at Pergamum. These demons set up the ultimate confrontation between the one who claims to be all mighty and the God who is the All Mighty.

The  Bowls of God’s Wrath – Revelation 16:1-12

In Revelation 16:1 John hears a loud voice coming from the temple commanding the angels to our out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth. In rapid succession the angels pour out God’s wrath on the kingdom of the beast. The sixth bowl allows the nations to gather at Armageddon and the seventh bowl announces, “it is done!”

Revelation 16 Bowls of God's Wrath

What is a “bowl of wrath? The word is phiale (φιάλη) and refers to a variety of containers including funeral urns, shallow cups used for drinking or pouring libations, or smaller containers for perfumes and ointments (BrillDAG). The KJV translated the word as “vial”; Middle English spelled the word phial, following the Greek closely. This translation is not wrong, but it is outdated. In modern English the “vial” word refers to something like a test-tube; this Greek word refers to a flat bowl or cup used in a religious ceremony.

David Aune cites Varro De lingua Latina 5.122, “it is this kind of cup that the magistrate uses in sacrificing to the gods, when he gives wine to the god” (2:879). Josephus says there were “two vials full of frankincense” in the Tabernacle (Ant. 3.143). In Testament of Solomon 16:7 the word is used as part of an exorcism ritual, “I ordered him to be cast into a broad, flat bowl, and ten receptacles of seawater to be poured over (it).”

These bowls are “poured out” (ἐκχέω), a word associated with spilling blood in battle, although it is used for the blood of Jesus in the New Testament. Since the bowls come from the sanctuary the background is likely pouring out a libation on an altar. For example, in Sirach 50:15, the high priest Simon “he held out his hand for the cup  and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all” (NRSV).

In LXX Jeremiah 7:20 and Lamentations 2:4, 4:11 God will pour out his wrath on Jerusalem, in 10:25, 14:16 his wrath is poured out on the nations.

The bowls were first introduced in 15:7, the seven angels come from the sanctuary with golden bowls of the wrath of God.” These are the final judgments specifically target the kingdom of the beast and his followers. Like the seals and trumpets earlier in Revelation, as each angel pours a small shallow bowl, a plague occurs on earth.

The First Bowl: A Painful Sore (16:2). This judgment falls only those who have the mark of the beast and worship his image (Rev 13:4; 13:14-16). The ugly and painful sores are similar to the Egyptian plague in Exodus 9:9-11. These are more than just blemishes, the noun ἕλκος refers to ulcers or abscesses that need to be cut out or amputated (BrillDAG). The word is modified by two words both meaning something like bad or evil. Translations try to capture this in various ways, the ESV has “harmful and painful”; the NIV has “ugly, festering sores”; the NRSV has “a foul and painful sore”; BDAG suggests “a foul and vile sore.”

The Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood (16:3). Similar to the second trumpet or the plague on the Nile (Exodus 7:20-21; Ps 78:44; 105:29), this judgment destroys all of the life in the sea, turning it to “blood as a corpse.” When Judas Maccabees captures Caspin, the slaughter is so great that “the adjoining lake, a quarter of a mile wide, appeared to be running over with blood” (NRSV).

The Third Bowl: Rivers to Blood (16:4-7). Similar to the first plague on Egypt (Exod 7:14-19) and the third trumpet, the third bowl destroys fresh water. In the fourth Sibylline Oracle freshwater turning to blood is included as a sign of war, “the great Euphrates is flooded with blood” (4.61).

After the water is destroyed, the “angel in charge of the waters” praises God for his just judgements. Is there an angel “in charge of waters?” In 1 Enoch 61:10 the writer lists a series of angles, including “the other forces on earth (and) over the water.” On the other hand, the angel may be the one who poured out the third bowl.

The reason given for turning all the waters into blood is the government of the beast has been spilling the blood of the people of God. It is a just judgment that those who have spilled blood will now be given blood to drink.

Sib. Or. 3.311–313 you will be filled with blood, as you yourself formerly poured out the blood of good men and righteous men, whose blood even now cries out to high heaven.

The Fourth Bowl: The Sun Scorches (16:8-9). Unlike the previous bowls, this angel pours out his bowl on the sun. The fourth bowl is the reverse of the fourth trumpet and the ninth plague (Exod 10:21-23), but instead of reducing the power of the sun, the power of the sun is increased, causing the people of the earth to be scorched with an intense heat. The verb (καυματίζω) is usually used for plants scorched by a hot sun (Matt 13:6). Rather than repent, the curse God (βλασφημέω) and refuse to give him glory.

The Fifth Bowl: Darkness on the Beast (16:10-11). While the fourth bowl increase the heat, the sixth plunges the throne of the beast into total darkness. Darkness is a common theme in Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic literature.

Amos 8:9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.”

Sib. Or. 5.346–350 The imperishable flames of the sun itself will no longer be, nor will the shining light of the moon be anymore in the last time, when God assumes command. Everything will be blackened, there will be darkness throughout the earth, and blind men, evil wild beasts, and woe.

Assumption of Moses 10.5 The sun will not give light. And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee. Yea, they will be broken in pieces.

In response to this unnatural darkness, people will gnaw their tongues in anguish and continue to curse God. Although it is not exactly the same language, in Matthew 22:13 the man who is expelled from the wedding banquet goes into the “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as are the foolish, unprepared women who are left in the darkness outside the wedding banquet. In the parable of the net, the bad fish are thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt 8:11-12).

The Sixth Bowl: Euphrates Dries Up (16:12). Similar to the sixth trumpet, the river Euphrates is dried up when the sixth bowl is turned. This “prepares the way for kings from the east,” presumably to gather at Armageddon. The Romans were deeply concerned about the Parthians on their eastern border and the Euphrates formed a natural defense (Aune calls an “irrational Roman fear of the Parthians,” 2:891-93). There are several references in the Old Testament to God drying rivers, see Isaiah 50:2 for example. But this drying of the river Euphrates may allude to the Exodus, the Red Sea dried up and allowed Israel to escape Egypt. In any case, it is unimaginable the Euphrates would dry up.

God’s Wrath is Completed – Revelation 15:1-8

In Revelation 15:1 John sees another great and marvelous sign, seven angels with the seven last plagues. They are the last plagues because God’s wrath has been completed. Revelation 15-16 alludes to the book of Exodus to describe God’s final wrath on the kingdom of the beast.

Seven Bowls of God's Wrath

Although God’s wrath is often associated with Israel’s rebellion, the prophets associate God’s wrath to eschatological events. For example, in Zephaniah 1:15 the final judgment will be a day of wrath, distress, anguish, and ruin. On that day the Lord will sweep everything away like chaff (2:2) and make a sudden end to all who live on the earth (1:18).

The wrath of God has been completed or accomplished (aorist passive of τελέω). The wrath of God is mentioned in several key passages in the book.  In Revelation 6:16-17 the great day of the wrath of the Lamb “has come” and in 11:18 God’s wrath came, judged the dead and rewarded God’s servants. Those who have worshiped the beast will drink the wine of God’s wrath (14:10) and the harvest of the earth was described as grapes in the “winepress of God’s fury” (14:19). The seven bowls introduced in 15:17 and describe in chapter 16 are called “bowls full of the wrath of God” and Babylon the Great will drink the wine of God’s wrath (16:19; 19:15).

After seeing the great and wondrous sign, John sees those who have been victorious over the beast worshiping the Lamb (Rev 15:2-4). This worship scene has elements from Revelation 4-5, now familiar scenes of heavenly worship.  John sees worshipers with harps beside a sea of glass mingled with fire.

The worshipers are the ones who are conquered the beast, its image and the number of his name. Although the text does not say they have been killed, that they are worshiping in a heavenly seem implies they have refused to worship the image of the beast or take his number.  Like the souls under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11 and the 144,000 in 14:1-5, they have been killed by the beast and are now worshiping the Lamb.

The song they are singing is identified as the “Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb.” The Song of Moses is found in Exodus 15:1-18, Deuteronomy 31:30-32:43 and Psalm 90. The problem is the Song of Moses in Revelation 15 has no literary relationship between the song of Moses in the Old Testament.  Perhaps what follows is only the Song of the Lamb and the reader is assumed to know what the song of Moses is.

The context of the original song is important: God rescued his people out of Egypt, he overcame the Egyptians and their gods. There are obvious connections between the following judgments and plagues in Exodus. God is working again to preserve his people by sending plagues on their enemies.

The seven angels are given “bowls filled with the wrath of God” (Rev 15:5-8). The angels come out of the open “the sanctuary of the tent.” This is another allusion to Exodus. The tent of meeting was the place where Moses spoke face to face with the Lord. Temples with open doors were considered a “bad sign” in the ancient world.  David Aune lists several sources indicating a temple door opening by itself was a sign of God’s wrath (2:878). Like angels in Daniel, these angels are dressed in white with a gold sash.

When the four living creatures given these angels the bowls of God’s wrath, the whole sanctuary is filled with the smoke of the glory of God (15:8). This is another allusion to Exodus: when the ark was installed in the Tabernacle the tent was filled with a cloud, representing the glory of God (Exodus 40:34-35).

What is the Winepress of God’s Wrath? Revelation 14:17-20

When the last two angels appear in Revelation 14, they begin a final judgment on the earth. Is this the battle of Armageddon, the final judgment before God establishes his kingdom?

Blood flowing from the great winepress of God's wrath, no.55 from 'The Apocalypse of Angers', 1373-87 (tapestry)

Although there are a number of ways to understand the structure of Revelation, this is the final scene in a cycle of visions (Revelation 12-14). This conclusion foreshadows the final battle in in the book. In Revelation 16:16, all the nations of the world will gather at har-meggido, the mountain of Megiddo, or Armageddon. There are also similarities to the gore in the final battle described in 19:17-21.

The image of the great winepress of the wrath of God is drawn from Isaiah 63:1-6. In this disturbing passage, the Lord is clothed in a white robe stained with the blood of his enemies. When asked why his robes are stained, the Lord responds, “I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments and stained all my apparel.” In 63:6 the Lord says, “I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”

This is a disturbing, violent image for God. But the metaphor of Israel as a grape vine is common in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 5:1-7, for example, Israel is a vineyard planted and cultivated by the Lord, but it only yielded wild grapes; so the Lord destroys it (anticipating the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the exile).  In Joel 1:7 the Lord lays to waste his vine; in Lamentations 1:15 the virgin daughter of Judah is “trodden as in a winepress.”

There are a number of passages in the Old Testament describing God as a divine warrior, sometimes riding the storm and clouds like a chariot. For example, Psalm 18:7-15 describe the earth reeling at the appearance of the Lord riding on a cherub with the wings of the wind. In Psalm 104:1-4 God “makes the clouds his chariot” and he “rides on the wings of the wind.” Tremper Longman suggests Revelation uses this divine warrior motif to describe the Lamb’s eschatological victory. This is not surprising, Longman says, because “the Divine Warrior is the one to whom the apocalyptists looked forward with hope that he would intervene in history to judge their enemies, save them and establish himself as king” (300).

The winepress is “outside the city.” What city is this, Babylon or Jerusalem? For some interpreters, this must be Jerusalem since Revelation is about the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. But “outside the city” is simply where a vineyard and winepress would be located. Some commentators suggest an allusion to Jesus’s crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem.

The angel harvests the grapes and gathers them into the winepress of God’s wrath where the are trampled. The blood flowed “as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia,” or about 184 miles, the distance from Dan to Beersheba (a common measure of the promised land in the Old Testament). Is this chest deep blood intended to be a literal river or gore, or is this hyperbole?

Most commentaries consider this as hyperbole. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Revelation, NCC, 230) pointed out the number is a square of 40, which he states is the “number of judgment” (citing Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, although there are other examples of forty which are not related to judgment). Similarly, Robert Mounce sees this as a square of four (hinting at the four corners of the earth), and is therefore a symbol of the whole world (Mounce, Revelation, 283).

There are a few who see this as a literal river of blood. Robert Thomas points out the valley of Megiddo drains into the Jordan system, so a massive slaughter there would result in a river of blood (Thomas, Revelation, 2:224). Fanning states this should not be taken in any way as a literal five- or six-feet deep river of blood, but rather “the cataclysmic defeat and destruction of all enemies arrayed against [Christ] in that day will unimaginably vast” (Fanning, 400).

The image of hyperbolic amounts of blood and gore is not uncommon in apocalyptic literature. For example, in the third Sibylline Oracle “the plain will sweep to the sea with the blood of perishing men” (3.453-454). “Rocks will flow with blood and every torrent will fill the plain” (3.684-685) and “all the impious will bathe in blood. The earth itself will also drink of the blood of the dying; wild beasts will be sated with flesh” (3.695-697). Similar to the Great Supper of God in Revelation 19:17-18, the fifth Sibylline Oracle says “wild beasts will devour the table from all dwellings. Even birds will devour all mortals. The bloody ocean will be filled with flesh and blood of the senseless, from evil war” (5.470-473). Other examples of exaggerated gore in an apocalyptic context:

1 Enoch 100.3–4 The horse shall walk through the blood of sinners up to his chest; and the chariot shall sink down up to its top. 4 In those days, the angels shall descend into the secret places. They shall gather together into one place all those who gave aid to sin.

Sibylline Oracle 3.319-323 Woe to you, land of Gog and Magog, situated in the midst of Ethiopian rivers. How great an effusion of blood you will receive and you will be called a habitation of judgment among men and your dewy earth will drink black blood.

Even Josephus exaggerated the blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem when Rome captured in the city in A.D. 70:

Josephus, Jewish War 6.406–407 Yet, while they pitied those who had thus perished, they had no similar feelings for the living, but, running everyone through who fell in their way, [407] they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the whole city with blood, insomuch that many of the fires were extinguished by the gory stream. (LCL)

Although this section of 4 Ezra (sometimes called 6 Ezra) may influenced by Christian writings, a similar image of horses wading through blood is used:

4 Ezra 15.35–37 They shall clash against one another and shall pour out a heavy tempest on the earth, and their own tempest; and there shall be blood from the sword as high as a horse’s belly 36 and a man’s thigh and a camel’s hock. 37 And there shall be fear and great trembling on the earth; those who see that wrath shall be horror-stricken, and they shall be seized with trembling (NRSV).

The image of treading a winepress lends to the description of rivers of blood, since the crushing of extremely ripe grapes may very well look like a river of dark blood. The picture is not so much of blood flowing than the quantity and quality of the enemies of God that are under his judgment at the return of the Messiah.  The enemies of God are described as very ripe grapes, and there are so many of them that by treading them the land is filled with their juice.

Standing at the background of the gore-tradition is Ezekiel 39:17-21. The passage describes the invasion of Israel by Gog and Magog and the account of the bloody gore is similar to this passage and Revelation 19:17-18.  John also alludes to Ezekiel in Revelation 20:8, another epic final battle.

Bibliography: Tremper Longman III, “The Divine Warrior: The New Testament Use of an Old Testament Motif” WTJ 44 (1982): 290-307.