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No. 64: The Grape Harvest of Revelation 14:17-20

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 64
August, 1994
Copyright 1994, Biblical Horizons

The two harvests of Revelation 14:14-20, of grain and of grapes, are most often understood as symbolic of God’s judgment against the wicked, or against Babylon, as amplified in chapters 16 & 17. Some commentators, however, notice that the gospels speak of the grain harvest as a reaping of the saints, and thus take the grain harvest as picturing the death, perhaps martyrdom, of the saints, while the grape harvest pictures the destruction of the wicked. The only expositor I have found who associates the grape harvest even slightly with the martyrdom of the saints is Eugenio Corsini, and he associates it primarily with the actual death of Jesus on the cross (The Apocalypse: The Perennial Revelation of Jesus Christ [Wilmington, DW: Michael Glazier, 1983]). Of course, I don’t have access to everything written on Revelation, so there may be a few who have taken the grape harvest as a martyrdom, but they must be very few, for this view does not even surface as a possibility in most commentaries.

The burden of this essay is to argue that the grape harvest, like the grain harvest, is the harvest of the "Firstfruits Church" in the years immediately preceding the destruction of the Old Creation order in ad 70.

Prima facie it would seem obvious that a positive harvest of the Godly is in view. Grain and fruit (the foundation of wine) have been associated together ever since the third day of creation. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine. Joseph replaced both baker and cupbearer, bringing new bread and wine to the world. The tribute offering under the Law required both grain and a libation of wine. Both bread and wine were found on the Table of Showbread, signifying Israel. Bread and wine signify Jesus Christ at His supper, and by eating them, we become new bread and wine ourselves. Thus, a harvest of both grain and grapes would seem to be two sides of one coin, and clearly a harvest of the saints.

The reason some commentators do not entertain such an interpretive possibility is that they are caught up in the idea that Revelation is completely about the judgment of the wicked (and for such expositors this usually means judgment at the full end of history), with the result that such expositors immediately and unreffectively take every scene of judgment in that light. Others are more considered in their approach, but simply miss the true sequence of thought in this section of Revelation, thereby misinterpreting this scene of harvest, as I shall seek to show below.

Why, though, do we find a number of commentators who take the grain to be the saints and the grapes to be the wicked? There are several factors that coalesce in causing expositors to make this distinction. First, it is the Son of Man who harvests the grain, while a mere angel harvests the grapes. This is taken to hint at a contrast. Second, the harvest of grapes is called for by the angel who has power over fire (14:18), suggesting the same kind of fiery judgment shortly to be visited on Babylon in chapter 16. Third, the grapes are thrown into "the great wine press of the wrath of God," which certainly seems to point to the judgment of the wicked, especially when in 19:13-15 it seems that the bloody robe of Jesus comes from His treading "the wine press of the wine of His fierce wrath," and this seems to be a picture of the destruction of the wicked. And fourth, 14:20 says that the wine press is outside the city, and thus in a place of judgment.

Let us take these in order. First, if we look at Revelation 6, we find that the first of the four horsemen is Jesus Himself, with the other three following Him and clearly filling out the work He initiates. We should assume the same pattern here. The fact that the Son of Man is the first of the four actors in this harvest drama does not mean that His work contrasts with theirs. In fact, in Revelation 14:6-20 we find a series of seven actors: three proclaiming angels, the Son of Man, and three acting angels. Thus, centrally the Son of Man is the Captain of the whole enterprise described here.

Second, the involvement of the angel of fire in this judgment is important, but the fire is only partially a symbol of God’s wrath. More fully, it is a symbol of His presence, which is warming to the righteous and destructive to the wicked. The full explanation of the involvement of the angel of fire will be discussed below.

Third, the phrase "great wine press of the wrath of God" might mean that the wine press represents God’s wrath, or that the press produces the wine of God’s wrath. In the light of 19:15, "the wine press of the wine of His fierce wrath," the latter is the more likely: "the wine press of His fierce wrath-wine." As we shall see, the context makes it clear that it is the wine that has wrath, not the wine press. The grapes do not die under God’s wrath, but their blood, poured out upon Babylon, contains His wrath. The blood of the saints is "wrath-wine."

Fourth, the fact that the wine press is outside the city is not a sign of judgment but of union with Christ. The saints die as their Master did. In fact, Hebrews 13:12-13 makes the association clear: "Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate; hence let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach." Bearing His reproach to the ultimate extent means martyrdom. Moreover, Jesus had predicted that the saints would be put out of the synagogues (John 16:2), and in Acts 8:1 they were driven from the city (compare Revelation 12:14, which speaks of the same event). Thus, dying outside the city is not a symbol of judgment but of blessing, for the city in 14:20 has already been identified as apostate Jerusalem (11:8).

The nature of the grape harvest is made clear by the sequence of events in Revelation 13-17. In chapter 13 the seabeast, landbeast, and beastimage are revealed. Then in 14:1-5 we are shown the 144,000 Jewish believers from chapter 7. They stand with the Lamb, not the beast, and they have the name of the Lamb, not that of the beast, on their foreheads. These are specifically identified as "first fruits to God and to the Lamb" (14:4). They are not, then, the whole Church of all of history but only the beginning of the Church. They are the believers brought out of the Old Creation church, Jews and God-fearers, into the New Covenant during the period after ad 30.

In 14:6-7 the first angel proclaims the eternal good news to all the world, saying that an appointed time of judgment has arrived. The good news is the judgment and destruction of apostate Jerusalem, mystically Sodom and Egypt, and Babylon. What follows are the events that set in motion that judgment. Jerusalem, meaning Judaism and the Christian apostates called Judaizers, was the great oppressor and enemy of the fledgling Church, and thus the destruction of apostate Judaism is good news. Allied with Jerusalem was the Beast, the apostate World Empire set up in the days of Daniel, now fallen from the good days of Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and Darius into the oppressive apostasy of Nero. The judgment of the Beast, simultaneous with that of Jerusalem, is great good news.

Then in v. 8, the second angel announces the destruction of Babylon the great, clearly the great city of 11:8, which is Jerusalem. Jerusalem should have been a light of salvation to the nations, but instead has become a new Babylon, corrupting the nations.

Then in vv. 9-12 the third angel states that anyone who serves the beast and receives his mark will drink the wine of the wrath of God, which is not diluted with any water, and which contains His anger and His fire. This is very important for our study, because what follows is the generation of this wine. Clearly, it is not the wicked who are trodden in the wine press, for the wicked will be made to drink the wine. It is someone else who is trodden in the wine press.

In v. 13 we have a beatitude, proclaiming that those who die in the Lord will be blessed from now on, for they rest from their labors. Since a harvest immediately follows, it seems rather obvious that it is the saints, not the wicked, who are being harvested.

In v. 14 Jesus appears as one like a son of man, a fulfilled human being, a second Adam. He is on a white cloud, as He has already been on a white horse and will be on a white throne. An angel comes from the sanctuary in heaven and calls on Him to reap the grain harvest of the earth (or land). This seems to indicate that the timing of this event is the Father’s, and so an angel communicates to the Son that the time is now.

If we translate ge as "earth," then we would take this as a picture of an event at the end of history. As we have seen, however, this is the harvest of the first fruits. Thus, in keeping with the symbolism of Revelation, which uses "land" for the Jews and "sea" for the gentiles, we should translate it as "land" here. It is most specifically the Jewish church that is harvested here. It is the harvest of true Judaism, after which Judaism comes to an end in ad 70.

Then in verses 17-20 a second angel emerges, serving the Son of Man, with another sharp sickle. The third angel, the one with power over fire, calls on him to harvest the vintage. Again the "land" and the "vine of the land," true Israel, are harvested.

Who is this "fire angel"? He is the angel of Revelation 8:3-5, who may well be Christ Himself, for as altar-angel he seems to be a priest, indeed likely the Great High Priest. He takes fire from the altar before God’s throne and throws it down to the land, after which follow peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake. This is the event recorded in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, when tongues of fire came from heaven to create the Firstfruits Church. The thunder, lightning, fire, and earthquake recall the first pentecost, at Sinai, when the Law was given; but these same phenomena are found in the book of Acts and signify the shaking of the land that commences when the Spirit is poured out. Thus, the Fire Angel initiates the Firstfruits Church, and so it is fitting that he also calls for its harvest. That which the fire has produced is now harvested.

The blood flows out from Jerusalem to 1600 stadia (200 miles). Whether this is a sea of blood flowing in every direction, or a stream of blood, is not clear. The fact that the number is composed of 4×4 times 100 calls to mind the four corners of the land and the use of 4 as a symbol of a geographical area, in which case it is a sea, not a river of blood that is intended here. What is clear from Biblical theology is that innocent blood shed on the land calls up the avenger of blood. The blood of the baby boys thrown into the Nile when Moses was an infant turned the Nile to blood 80 years later, which called up the Angel of Death, the Divine Avenger. Here it is the blood of the martyrs that calls forth the Divine Avenger and the seven libation bowls of wrath. Jesus does not avenge His own death, but He avenges the murder of the members of His bride.

This is the event, or summation of events, that necessitates the destruction of Jerusalem, which "kills the prophets" and upon whom the blood of all the innocent from Abel forward was to be placed (Mt. 23:34-38; Rev. 6:9-11). The blood, the wrath-wine of God, is to be placed upon Jerusalem; thus, it is collected in bowls and poured upon the city.

The harvest concludes the Trumpets section of Revelation, which began with the Fire Angel creating the Firstfruits Church at Pentecost (Rev. 8), and ends with the harvest of that Church. Thus, the 144,000 who stood with the Lamb on earth at the beginning of chapter 14 are now shown in heaven in chapter 15. This is another indication that it is these saints, not the wicked, who have been harvested. They have come off victorious from the beast and his associates, who killed the saints (13:15), again an indication the harvest in the immediately preceding verses refers to the martyrs, not to the wicked.

At this point the Holy of Holies in heaven is opened and seven angels appear with (libation) bowls of wrath. These are the equivalent of the cup of God’s anger, which contains the "wine of the wrath of God" (14:10), and which is given to those who follow the beast and kill the saints.

Since the bowls contain wrath, it is clear that they contain the wrath-wine of God, the blood of the saints. The association is made even clearer in that the effect of the bowls is to turn liquids to blood, first the sea (16:3) and then all drinking water (16:4-6). The result of the latter is that the wicked actually drink the blood, so that their own inner being calls forth the Divine Avenger.

Moreover, in 17:6 the harlot is said to be drunk with the blood of the saints and of Jesus’ martyrs. This liquid drunk by the faithless bride not only calls for vengeance, but is also to be associated with the Jealousy Inspection of Numbers 5, Exodus 32:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:27 & 30. All of this blood was produced back in 14:17-20, the martyrdom-harvest of the Firstfruits Church.

Now we can understand more fully the sequence of events. Babylon-Jerusalem kills the saints in chapter 11, and the Beast-Rome kills them in chapter 13. This is explained theologically and redemptive-historically in chapter 14: the saints are with the Slain Lamb on earth. They will participate in His sacrifice, in a sense, extending it. As Paul writes, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the Church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s aflictions." Thus, our sufferings and martyrdom extend Christ’s work. He died for all of us, fully. But in an historical sense, He died for the first generation, the first generation dies for the second, and so forth. Thus, each generation of Christians participates in the glory of suffering to bring the world to its fullness of fruition. More pointedly, He died for the apostles, who died for the Firstfruits Church, which then died for the Millennial Church (which began in ad 70).

So, in Revelation 14, we see that though it appears to the eye that Babylon and Beast are killing the saints, in reality Christ is harvesting them. They are being trodden down by His gracious feet (Rev. 19:15). Their blood is on His robe, so that He never forgets them, and always is reminded to avenge them (Rev. 19:13).

The blood-spattered white robe of Christ in Revelation 19:13-15 points to the blood-spattered white robe of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. The blood of the saints participates in the blood shed on the Day of Atonement. As Christ died for the world first and foremost, so we also die for the world, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Naturally, we also participate in His position as scapegoat, being driven into the wilderness (Rev. 12:14; 14:20). He, as High Priests, sacrifices us for the sake of the world. This is the glory of all our sufferings.

The blood of the Atonement is sprinkled seven times before the throne of God, to show Him that atonement has been made (Lev. 16:14, 15, 19). But the blood of the Lamb is not sprinkled on the wicked, for His blood is not wrath-wine. He forgave His enemies on the cross.

Jesus does not, however, forgive those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who creates the Church. In other words, He does not forgive those who attack and murder the members of His holy bride, for that is what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. The blood of the saints, thus, has a double use. It participates in the atonement, in that we die for the world and our death extends the gospel. But it also is sprinkled seven times upon Babylon, actually poured out from seven libation bowls, thus placing God’s wrath upon Babylon. The blood of the saints, sprinkled seven times on Babylon, calls forth the Divine Avenging Husband, who then destroys the city. The blood of the saints, under the altar, cries for vengeance (Rev. 6:9-11), and now vengeance is visited on Babylon and the Beast (Rev. 19:2).

It remains only to comment on the common misinterpretation of Revelation 19:13-15. Expositors refer to Isaiah 63:1-6, where the Lord is pictured coming from Edom, His garment stained with the blood of His enemies, which He has trampled down. Thus, it is usually maintained that Revelation 19:13-15 must refer to the trampling of the wicked, and this is then applied to Revelation 14:19-20.

If we run straight from Isaiah to Revelation, however, we run into two problems. The first is the material we have been considering in this essay: The blood in Revelation is rather clearly the blood of the saints. Revelation 19:2 says that Jesus "has avenged the blood of His bond-servants on" Babylon.

The second problem, which illuminates our interpretation and serves to confirm it, is that running straight from Isaiah to Revelation overlooks the cross. On the cross Jesus took on Himself the vengeance due His enemies. He was splattered with His own blood. Thus, Isaiah 63:1-6 is applied to Jesus Himself at Golgotha. Following through, the principle therefore is also applied to those in union with Christ, His Church. Jesus put Himself into the wine press of God’s wrath, and He puts us into it as well! In union with Him, the shedding our blood is not for our destruction, but for the furtherance of the world’s salvation. Accordingly, when Isaiah 63:1-6 is cited in Revelation 19, it is applied in union with the cross.

The comfort for us is this: When the world and the false church oppress us, and even kill us, it is not a sign of God’s wrath against us. Behind the scenes, Jesus is in control. It is His wondrous feet that trample us, not to destroy us, but so that we may participate in His wondrous, redemptive work.