The Harvests of the Earth
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 14:14–20, Joel 3:13
Perhaps you’ve heard the ol’ proverb, “What goes around comes around.” Or maybe you’ve heard of Karma—the more good or bad you perform, the more good or bad it will bring you in the future. Both ideas share a view of history that’s cyclical. Meaning history has no beginning, no goal. The universe just passes through an eternal recurrence of events. You find this in ancient Greek thought among the Stoics. It’s present in Hinduism and Buddhism. Nietzsche entertained this idea as well. If the universe is infinite, as he believed, and there is only a finite quantity of energy, then everything must repeat itself.
When history is cyclical, morality is determined by ideas like, “What goes around comes around.” Would you want that to keep happening to you? Is this going to improve your next reincarnate existence? And so on…
But viewing history this way runs contrary to what our Creator has revealed. In Scripture, God reveals that history is linear. It has a beginning at creation; it also has an end. There are repeated patterns designed into the history—exile and return, exodus and new exodus. There are also repeated days and weeks and seasons. But the Lord has designed all of it to progress toward his goal in the new heaven and new earth.
But one step in getting us there is final judgment. Judgment stands at the end of history; and therein lies a significant piece to our moral outlook. We must live in ways that please the Lord because the Lord will judge. History is heading to judgment. A great harvest awaits us. The question is, Are you ready? Look at God’s word in verse 14…
14 Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. 15 And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” 16 So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. 17 Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” 19 So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. 20 And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.
We’re continuing the seven signs of chapters 12-15. Today is number six. These signs have been telling a story that runs from Jesus’ ascension to Jesus’ return; and here we encounter events associated with Jesus’ return. God depicts final judgment using the metaphor of a great harvest. But unlike the harvests you know, there won’t be another planting season following this harvest. No, the whole present age is like a growing crop that will reach harvest with none to follow. It’s final. It’s the end. Are you ready?
The Grain Harvest of God’s People
The first image is that of a grain harvest. Verses 14-16 don’t use the word grain/wheat. But the word behind “fully ripe” in verse 15 differs from the one used of grapes in verse 18; and it means to dry up as when grain is ready to harvest.[i]
More important, though, is the “one like a son of man” in verse 14. Some view him as an angel. After all, verse 15 says, “another angel,” implying perhaps that the figure in verse 14 is also an angel. They’d also say, “If the son-of-man figure is Jesus, then why’s the angel in verse 15 telling him what to do?” But these aren’t insurmountable problems. “Another angel” could also recall the angels of verses 6, 8, and 9. And the command in verse 15 comes not from the angel but from God in the temple.
More likely, the “one like a son of man” is Jesus himself, now fulfilling his Father’s will to judge. In 1:7, Jesus comes with the clouds. In 1:13, Jesus is one like a son of man. Also, we have the testimony of Jesus, who, on several occasions, described his return with the imagery we observe here. Luke 21:27, for example, “…then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”[ii]
So that’s how I take it. The one like a son of man is Jesus; and there are several things to note about him. To begin, he comes seated on a white cloud. That’s from Daniel 7:13, where God’s messiah—one like a son of man—comes to receive dominion over the nations. God grants his messiah the power to judge. But it’s more than that. Sitting on a cloud recalls places in the Psalms that depict God riding into battle as a Warrior.[iii] In the same way clouds of dust billowed beneath the chariots of warriors, God is said to make the clouds his chariot. Jesus approaches as this great Warrior.
He’s also wearing a golden crown, verse 14 says. It’s a sign of royal dignity; and in Revelation, it’s a sign of victory. As we’ve seen elsewhere, Jesus is the King from Judah’s line who conquered.[iv] Lastly, he has a sharp sickle in his hand. A sickle was the instrument used to cut grain. Since judgment is like a harvest, it’s fitting that Jesus has a sickle. And it’s a sharp one. A dull sickle isn’t effective. But Jesus’ judgment is effective. The prophet Joel expected God to execute final judgment by “putting in the sickle.” Same here, only now we get the full story: God enacts final judgment in the person of Jesus. So, not only is Jesus a great Warrior and a conquering King, he’s also the divine Judge.
As divine Judge, he executes God’s final judgment in a two-fold way. In the grain harvest, Jesus will gather the righteous—that’s one way he will execute God’s will. Now, someone could argue that both the grain harvest and the grape harvest speak only to God punishing his enemies.[v] But several clues lead me another way. One is how John described the 144,000 back in verse 4. He sees God’s redeemed people, and he calls them “firstfruits for God.” Firstfruits are signs that the rest of the harvest is coming. It seems fitting that Jesus—now in verse 16—swings his sickle across the earth to gather the whole harvest of believers to himself.
Also, when we look at some teachings in the Gospels, the final grain harvest includes more than just punishing the wicked. It includes gathering the righteous. John the Baptist, for example, speaks of Jesus gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:12). Jesus repeats the same teaching in the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13. “The harvest,” he says, “is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But he also adds this: “Then the righteous [i.e., the wheat gathered into the barn] will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” So, Yes, there’s a judgment piece to the grain harvest. But the grain itself seems to represent the final ingathering of God’s elect people.
The full number will be complete—the final martyrs will have given their lives; the work of missions will be finished—and the Lord will gather his righteous ones to himself from across the earth. That seems to be the focus of the grain harvest.
The Grape Harvest of God’s Enemies
The grape harvest, by contrast, is without question focused on the judgment of God’s enemies. We see that in verses 17-20. Another angel comes from the temple in heaven. He’s got a sharp sickle as well. Now, if we’ve read the Gospels, that shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus taught that God would involve angels in final judgment.
So, in verse 18, another angel comes. But more specifically, notice how this angel comes from the altar and he has authority over the fire. Why’s that important? Because God is reminding us how to view the enactment of his judgments. In 6:9 the altar was where the martyrs were crying, “How long, O Lord, before you avenge our blood?” Then in 8:3, an angel stands at that same altar with a golden bowl full of our prayers. He then fills it with incense and fire and throws it on the earth.
God is tying these visions together. They inform one another. The judgments of the grape harvest come in answer to our cries for justice. God is answering the church’s cries by judging our enemies. The angel calls with a loud voice, “‘Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So, the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.”
Of all the portraits of judgment, this is one of the most gruesome metaphors. Joel 3:13 is the main backdrop. In that prophecy, the Lord’s judgment will be like him gathering the nations for a great war. “Let the nations stir themselves up,” God says, “and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat (i.e., the Valley of Yahweh’s judgment).” But the irony is that once he gathers them for a fight, the Lord sits to judge. It’s Joel’s way of saying the nations have no chance. God gathered them only to announce their fate.
Joel 3:13 then compares God’s judgment to a great harvest. “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” God’s enemies are compared to grapes filling a winepress. He tramples them under foot until their blood flows. But notice what fills the vats—their evil. The blood of the grape coming out is their evil. Their evil is so great that it fills up the vats. In other words, their final destruction was deserved. It’s a picture of God destroying evil, so that the other good things can flourish in a new earth, which the rest of Joel’s prophecy describes as hills flowing with milk and God’s fountain refreshing everything.
Isaiah 63:3 is another instance of this imagery. Edom has a terrible history opposing Israel. When Babylon ransacked Jerusalem. Edom took advantage of the situation. Not only did they stand aloof and not help Israel, they looted the city after Babylon finished them off; and it describes them as rejoicing and gloating over Israel’s distress. So, in his jealous love for his people, the Lord goes to war against Edom.
And in Isaiah 63, the prophet sees the Lord as a great Warrior. He’s returning from that battle against Edom; and from a distance the prophet asks, “Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength?” The Lord then answers, “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” But as the Lord draws near, Isaiah notices that there’s something different about his attire. His clothes aren’t crimson because they’re dyed with expensive colors…
“Why,” he asks “is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?” Then the Lord answers, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come. I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
That’s the backdrop. In Revelation, John borrows that imagery but he applies it to Jesus. Revelation 19:15 says that Jesus “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” He is the Warrior who comes to crush the enemies of God’s people. When his wrath finally falls, his judgment will be awful. It will be like God crushing his enemies in a winepress. It will also be universal. The Lord’s sickle will sweep across the entire earth. None of the wicked will escape.
The Lord’s judgment will also exclude them from the blessings of his kingdom. Notice that the trampling happens outside the city. What city? God’s city. Inside the city are God’s people. Outside the city are those he will trample. They will never get to enjoy fellowship with God in the New Jerusalem.
“Why, though?” someone might ask. Why will the Lord do this? Because, like we saw in Joel 3:13, their evil is great. God’s judgment will be deserved. In Joel’s prophecy he said their evil filled up the vats. Here it’s even worse. The blood flows from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia. Meaning, when the people (or the grapes) are pressed, this is how much evil comes out. Remember from 14:8, Babylon made all the nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality. In 17:6, Babylon is drunk with the blood of the saints. That’s the evil inside the grapes. The grapes are so ripe they’re bursting with evil. God has been patient, but people have kept ignoring him and increasing their evil to the point of bursting.
The imagery of blood high as a horse’s bridle (about five feet)—it comes from warfare. After a great slaughter, blood flowed into the rivers and streams; and when the horses crossed to return home, that blood splashed against their bridles. There’s a river of evil flowing here. It also flows 1,600 stadia—that’s nearly 200 miles. That could be the length of Israel. If so, it could picture the whole land filled with evil. Or, 1,600 is also the product of 4 squared times 1000. In Revelation, four usually represents every point on the compass. So, the picture would be God judging all evil everywhere.
Prepare for the Harvest
What do we do with such an awesome and awful vision of judgment? How should this final harvest affect our living now? What does it look like to keep the words of this prophecy, as 1:3 tells us? One, prepare yourself for the harvest. To return where we started: history isn’t cyclical; it’s linear. Jesus is taking history to the new heaven and new earth. But to get there, everyone must face the harvest. Are you ready?
If you do not belong to Jesus, you are not ready. You won’t be gathered like wheat into the Lord’s barn; you will suffer in the winepress of God’s wrath outside his city. Jesus will tread the winepress of the fury of God’s wrath. That’s what you deserve for your evil—it’s what we all deserve. But before he comes to tread that winepress, Jesus the Warrior went to battle for you at the cross. At the cross, he warred against your evil; and when he did, he soaked his garments not with your blood, but with his own blood in your place. The Lord crushed Jesus in your place. He put on him all our evil and judged it in the death of his Son. Prepare for the harvest by trusting in Jesus to save you.
Also, prepare for the harvest by turning from the evil of the nations. If God feels this strongly about sin and evil, then it ought to renew a passionate hatred for your own proclivities to evil. If you asked, “Like what? What evil are we talking about?” Joel 3—which is where John gets the winepress imagery—gives clear examples.
In Joel 3:2, the nations mistreat God’s people. This week, I read several threads where Christians could, in humility, interact with each other’s political positions with integrity. But instead, they’ve resorted to lying about their brother’s position to gain traction for their position. The goals are noble. But bearing false witness—mistreating God’s people—to achieve those goals is following the nations’ evil.
In Joel 3:5, the nations use the Lord’s possessions to serve their own gods. One way to prepare for the harvest is to ask yourself, “How am I stewarding my possessions? Be careful not to use the Lord’s possessions to serve other gods, to serve your own passions. Our possessions should draw others to God’s praise—Psalm 67. Our resources should help others in their time of need—Ephesians 4:28. If you’re using God’s possessions for purposes other than his kingdom, check yourself.
In Joel 3:3, the nations also disregard the vulnerable to satisfy their cravings. They traded boys for prostitutes; they sold girls for wine. Complete disregard for human life. As one writer put it, “The true measure of any society is the way it treats those who cannot protect themselves.”[vi] How do you treat those who cannot protect themselves? The orphan, the widow, the pre-born. Is our church a refuge for the vulnerable. Is your home a place where the vulnerable find nurture and care and acceptance?
Revelation has its own smattering of examples as well. Some of those include idolatry—from the love of money to setting your hopes in the political figures of this world. They include moral compromises that defile the soul and forgetting Jesus for the comforts of Rome. Prepare yourself for harvest by not following these things.
Instead, follow the Lamb wherever he goes. You prepare not only by turning from the world’s evil, but also by throwing yourself into everything Jesus commanded. The Master is away for a little while. You prepare for his return by doing the things he has asked you to do in his word. That includes things like being a faithful witness to the truth. Showing hospitality. Devoting yourself to prayer. Working hard unto the Lord. If you follow the Lamb and commit yourself to his teachings, then you will be ready.
Making disciples—who are you discipling right now? Is there anyone that you’re reading the Scriptures with and teaching about Jesus? God has also gifted each of you with various gifts and skills—how are you utilizing those gifts and skills to build Christ’s church? The things that you own—how are they strategically serving Christ’s kingdom? To what use are you putting them to advance Jesus’ cause? In what ways are you sharing them with others? When it comes to missions and evangelism, does the harvest compel you to get the message out with urgency?
Which brings us to another way this vision should affect us: warn others about the harvest. Prepare others. Judgment is coming. People need to know that. Peter O’Brien puts it this way: “If we know the desperate plight of men and women under divine judgment—we ourselves had once been in that predicament—and that the gospel is the only hope for deliverance from the wrath to come, then we should be wholly involved in bringing it into the lives of others.” The Son of Man will come with power and great glory. Do your friends know that? Do your coworkers know that?
So many live like the world is heading nowhere. So many live like nothing matters, like we won’t have to give an account. But you are the Lord’s messengers. You have the only good news that will save them. Let people know that there will be a judgment; and offer them the person of Jesus who saves from the wrath to come.
Lastly, the vision of final harvest should give us hope for the defeat of evil. When you read about evildoers being trampled, don’t forget the people John is writing to. Look at 11:2. What are the nations doing to God’s people right now? Trampling them. For 42 months—the whole tribulation period—the nations trample God’s people. Same word for trampling in 14:20. God will avenge his people. Jesus is a Husband jealous to protect his Bride. In jealous passion, he will rescue his Bride from the abusers. He will fight to see you delivered and safe in the Holy City.
It can feel like the Lord doesn’t see their evil at times. We pray with Psalm 10, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” You may be discouraged because of the way evil prospers. But take heart, beloved, the Lord sees. He will return to right all wrongs. He will judge our enemies.
This gives us hope for the future. It also means we don’t have to avenge ourselves in the present. We can live peaceably with all, knowing that God will judge. Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 1 Peter 2:23 also sets before us the example of Jesus to imitate: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Knowing that God will judge our enemies frees us to lay down our lives for them in the path of love. God will see to it that they are brought to justice.
[i] BDAG, s.v. xērainw.
[ii] Matt 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62.
[iii] E.g., Pss 97:2; 104:3.
[iv] Rev 1:5-6; 5:1-9; 14:1-5.
[v] They could base this on the allusion to Joel 3:13, the use of “hour” in Rev 14:7, 15, and the way Isa 17:5 uses a grain harvest to illustrate a negative judgment.
[vi] Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 351-53.