Revelation 14 is a chapter of extremes. It opens with the Lamb standing on Mount Zion with 144,000 men, pure and undefiled, and it ends with God’s enemies being judged, their mingled blood rising to the level of a horse’s bridle for a hundred and eighty square miles. Revelation is a book of symbols and metaphors, so it may be that John’s visions have been painted with a broad brush intentionally. We don’t necessarily have to take every word as a literal depiction of events that have unfolded or may yet unfold.
For example, there is nothing in Scripture that requires perpetual virginity in order to be considered clean before God, yet the 144,000 are said to be “ones who have not defiled themselves with women, since they remained virgins” (Revelation 14:4). It could be that virginity is being used as a symbol of devotion to God, something that we should all strive for, regardless of our marital status. The number 144,000 is also likely to be emblematic, since it’s the sum of twelve times twelve times a thousand. Twelve is the number of tribes in Israel and also the number of Jesus’s apostles, and a thousand is often used in Scripture to signify vastness. In addition, it is unlikely that the judgment of the wicked will take place in an actual winepress.
Reading this chapter through, I am struck by how perfectly understandable it all is, despite it being about as clear as mud! What I mean is that even though all the details are mysterious and perplexing, I know exactly where everyone stands. The 144,000 are followers of Jesus, faithful and true. And the grapes harvested and crushed in the winepress of God’s wrath? They’re those who have rejected Christ, who have delighted in wickedness and scoffed at the gospel of peace.
It’s fitting that between these two portions of Scripture there is a gospel proclamation delivered by an angel: “He spoke with a loud voice: ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water’” (v.7). This angel is followed by two more: one with a declaration of Babylon’s destruction (v.8) and another with a summary of the punishment that will befall all those who worship the beast and take his mark (vv.9–11). There is God and life in the one hand, the beast and death in the other. Despite the confusion that surrounds the symbolism of this chapter, the angels have made the choice before every person quite clear.
This same decision stands in front of all the complex issues we face—theological, social, political, and everything in between. Before we answer any other questions, we must answer the most important one: Whose side am I on? The answer to that question will inform all the others, and it’s one we must continue to ask ourselves. It’s no wonder one of the angels says, “This calls for endurance from the saints, who keep God’s commands and their faith in Jesus” (v.12). Brothers, let us endure, for the way we answer this most important of questions has the power to shape every minute of every day for the rest of our lives.
Written by John Greco