The Surpassing Value of Knowing Christ

A sermon on Revelation 14:1-15:5 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 7/10/2005

Do you love Lord yr God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? If not, why not?

Does your next-door neighbor love the Lord with all his or her heart, soul, mind, and strength? If not, why not?

Ask this question of your school classmate, your relatives, your colleagues at work. Why do they fail to love God with all their being?

But many of these same people will turn away when told about Him, and how to approach Him. Why? Why don’t they see Jesus’ beauty? Why don’t they accept the Gospel?

Paul answers this question in 2 Corinthians 4:4: After saying the Gospel is veiled to those who are perishing, he continues:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

 If you don’t see the glory of Christ you are blind. Or, in the image used in today’s text, you are drunk. So drunk that your vision is blurred, and you cannot see the One who is most beautiful, most satisfying, most delightful.

Instead, what do you delight in?

All these would say: “Hey, this is life! I’m pursuing life! This is what life is all about!” But no matter whether you are pursuing joy through crime or joy through helping the poor, you are lost, you are without hope apart from Jesus Christ. Thinking you are pursuing your joy, if you stay on that track, you will find horrible pain. You will find death. But if your head clears from your drunkenness, if you then repent, and see Jesus as your Lord and Savior, He will be your greatest treasure; you will know what Paul calls “the surpassing value of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8), and you will find true life.

We’ve come now to Revelation 14. Once again we see a stark contrast between two types of people. The first type appears in 14:1-5 and 15:2-4. Our text today thus begins and ends with glorious pictures of the joy of God’s people singing His praises before Him. These have conquered the beast. They are blameless before God. They are redeemed from the earth, and they rejoice to give God all the glory.

In between these two glorious pictures, we have a promise and a warning given to all of God’s enemies, and then a horrible picture of judgment. So once again this sermon raises the question: Which type of person are you? Where do you stand?

Our outline will be simple. We will look at the  two types of people under the headings:

The Surpassing Value of Christ

The Limited Value of the World

Before looking at these pictures of types of people, recall what we saw last week in chapter 13. Two beasts appear. The first is an amalgamation of four beasts from Daniel 7 which represent empires in that text. So the first beast seems to be a picture of an oppressive world system, political power used against God’s people. This beast is an ally of Satan. He impresses those who dwell on earth – that is, God’s enemies – who say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” Those from every ethnicity become his followers, because of his impressive might and power. It clearly seems dangerous not to follow the beast.

The second beast exalts the first. Using persuasion rather than raw power, he performs miracles. He gives life to an image of the beast, and thus intimates that he holds power over death. He puts the mark or name of the beast on people, identifying them as belonging to the first beast. Without such a mark, they can neither buy nor sell

This second beast – later in Revelation called “the false prophet” – seems to represent false religion allied to state power.

Consider people asking themselves, “Should I follow beast?” There seems to be every advantage gained from answering, “Yes!” Economic gains, security gains, even spiritual fulfillment. And, indeed, many people follow the beast, including some from every people group.

Thus, anyone who resists the allure of the beast must exhibit faith. So this is the chapter’s call to God’s people. They must believe that, despite all the seeming power of the beast, God really is in control behind the scenes. So John tells us, have faith! Endure! Be discerning, so you can tell the true from the false!

As we will see, Chapter 14 expands on these themes.

The Surpassing Value of Knowing Christ

Note the characteristics of God’s people found in 14:1: They are on Mount Zion, which is the true Jerusalem, the true city of God, the holy city. They are in the presence of Jesus, the Lamb Himself. They are called the 144,000. As we saw in chapter 7, this is a symbolic number for all the redeemed of all time. Like the followers of the beast, the 144,000 have something written on their foreheads - but it is not the number or name of the beast! Instead, these have the name of Jesus and the name of the Father’s written on them.

What are they doing? Here I think the ESV lets us down. In an attempt to be clear, the ESV translates one Greek word with three different English words in verse 2. These are all plausible translations, but instead of clarifying the meaning, the multiple words make it harder for the reader to figure out what is going on. Here’s another translation of verses 2 and 3 that always uses the same English word for this Greek word:

And I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The sound I heard was like [the sound of] harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.

John hears a sound. What is that sound? This translation makes the answer clear: The sound of the redeemed singing praises to God! These redeemed have become so much like those whose names are on their foreheads that they even sound like Them (Revelation 1:15 says that Jesus’ voice is like the sound of many waters, and throughout Scripture God is said to thunder).

And what are they singing? A new song. This may not seem special – we sing new songs many Sunday mornings! – but in the Bible, people are said to sing new songs primarily when God rescues them from a dangerous situation. Psalm 40 is an example:

I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  2 He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.  3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Psalm 40:1-3 (emphasis added)

God has rescued these redeemed from all kinds of dangers and brought them safely to Himself.

Note that they are the only ones who can sing this song. Having been saved by Him, only they know God’s character; only they are truly able to exalt Him.

Verses 4 and 5 describe these 144,000 in seven different statements. Helped by the grammatical structure of the Greek, we can summarize these statements with three primary ideas, three characteristics that all of God’s people must have:

First, they are loyal to the Lamb. As is often the case in Scripture, loyalty is expressed in sexual terms. Time and again, to be disloyal to God is likened to adultery. So here the 144,000 are described as sexually pure, male virgins, not stained by any form of immorality. Furthermore, to be loyal to Jesus requires following Him. So the 144,000 follow Him wherever He goes. As His disciples had to leave their nets and their tax-collecting booths, all His followers must be willing to leave their life as they know it and strike out after Him.

Second, they are bought by Him, redeemed from among men. The 144,000 belong to Him and not to themselves. Remember the song sung to the Lamb by the four living creatures and the 24 elders in 5:9:

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

As Paul says, “You are not your own; for you were bought with a price.” (1 Corinthian 6:19b-20a).  

Third, they become like the Lamb. They take on His character, by His grace. They become blameless. Unlike Satan and the beasts, they are not liars or deceivers, but proclaimers of the truth.

Do you see how these three should characterize all of God’s people, and not just a subset? We all must be loyal. We all must be redeemed. We all must become like Him practically. Indeed, we all must rejoice in His presence, being marked as His – or we don’t belong to Him.

The remainder of chapter 14 deals primarily with the judgment of the wicked. We will return to that shortly. But now let’s jump ahead to 15:2-4. These verses describe those who “have conquered beast and its image and the number of its name.” Who are these people?

Do you remember the repeated refrain in the letters to the churches chapters 2 and 3? In each letter, Jesus says something like, “To the one who conquers or overcomes, I will give . . .” Those promises are given to every person in every church. All God’s people are expected to conquer. This is emphasized again in 12:11. Referring to all the “brothers”, John writes:

they have conquered [Satan, the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony

Thus, in referring to those who “have conquered the beast”, John refers to all of God’s people. So the multitude in 15:2-4 is the same as the 144,000: a picture of all the redeemed.

What do God’s people do in these verses? In response to God’s judgment of His enemies, they sing as Moses and the people of Israel sang after God’s judgment of the Egyptians. They praise God for His great deeds; they acknowledge that all He does is just and true - even the horrible judgments we will examine in chapter 14. And they instruct us in the proper response to God: ”Who will not fear, and glorify your name?”

This is in stark contrast to the response of God’s enemies. Look back at 13:4. There, God’s enemies say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The beast seems to have power. But God has real power! The beast seems to offer joy. But God gives His people real joy! Who can fight against the beast? God is able to! He is the One to fear – not the beast!

Thus, through judging the beast and those who follow Him, God’s displays His might, His power, and His justice. His righteous acts are revealed.

This is the surpassing value of knowing Christ: Having the privilege of declaring God’s worth along with others from every tribe and tongue, standing before His throne, seeing Him as He is, face to face, delighting in Him for all time. As we say in our doctrinal statement,

The righteous will experience ever-increasing happiness and ever-deeper worship, as God displays to them more and more of His infinite and inexhaustible greatness and glory.

The Limited Value of the World

There is a stark contrast between these pictures of the redeemed and the pictures of judgment in between. Look at the structure of 14:6-20. In verses 6-11, three angels fly overhead, making three proclamations to God’s enemies. Verses 12 and 13 relate implications of these proclamations for God’s people. Then verses 14-20 describe the reaping of the earth, God’s judgment of His enemies.

Look briefly at this last section, verses14-20. The image hardly needs explanation or elaboration. Twice, in verse 15 and 18, an angel is told to put his sickle to the earth. In the first case, the angel evidently is reaping wheat or barley, for the word translated “ripe” means “dried”. Grain are best harvested when they are dry, for then they are less likely to rot in storage. Now, a sickle is made for this purpose. Wheat is harvested well with a sickle. So the angel is using the usual tool to harvest grain. As in Matthew 13:36-43, perhaps this is an image of God bringing His people to Himself on the Last Day.

But in verse 18, another angel is told to use his sickle to harvest the world. This time, however, he is harvesting grapes, not wheat. And a sickle is not made for harvesting grapes. A sickle works well for harvesting wheat, because the heads of grain are all about at the same height. The curved handle can envelope a lot of stalks at the same time and cut them. But a sickle is a clumsy instrument to use when bunches of grapes are interspersed with the each other and with the vines. You need a short, sharp knife for harvesting grapes.

What happens if you use a sickle to harvest grapes? You damage them. You destroy them. You would only use a sickle if you were ripping out the vineyard. And that is what happens. For all these grapes are headed to the “great winepress of wrath of God” (verse 19). There, the grapes are trampled, and blood flows for miles and miles.

This is a horrible, gory picture of the end of everyone who rejects Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Now, remember: It is in response to this punishment that the redeemed say, “Just and true are Your ways!” (15:3).

Much within us rebels at this. Is this severe punishment really just? That’s why verses 6-11 are here. They exhibit the clear justice of the coming judgment. So let’s turn to those verses now.

Three angels speak to “those who dwell on earth.” Again and again in Revelation, this term is used to refer to God’s enemies, to those whose home is on earth. Note that they are not of one ethnicity or another, but are from every nation, every people group..

The message of the first angels is called “an eternal Gospel”. This is the most basic of all messages from God:

"Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."

In essence, the angel says, “He is your creator! You must fulfill the purpose of your creation – to glorify Him! If you do not, your Creator has a perfect right to do with you whatever He wishes.”

Remember the question the redeemed ask in 15:4? “Who will not fear and glorify your name?” That’s what this angel calls on those who dwell on earth to do! Fear God! Glorify His Name!

But they still reject God. Why?

The second angel tells us in verse 8:

Another angel, a second, followed, saying, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality."

What happens to people when they are drunk? What happens to people when they are aroused with sexual passion? In both cases, they often do things that are to their harm. Their physical vision may be blurred; their moral vision may be blurred. In either case, they end up working to their own destruction. Thinking they are pursuing pleasure, they may well kill themselves.

That’s what Babylon, the world around us, does: It holds up something that looks alluring, and then sucks us in. Stupefying us to the nature of reality, the world makes us think we can never live without the pleasures she gives, and thus blinds us to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. And this is true whether the allures of the world are literal drunkenness and literal sexual immorality, the allures are status, prestige, money, and houses, or the allures are the pleasures that come from doing good deeds to help others. All of these allures can blind us to the nature of true joy and true hope.

So the second angel is saying, “You who are looking to find joy in the world: It is fallen! It looks mighty; it looks powerful; it looks alluring. But it will not last! Don’t place your hope in it!”

The third angel takes this a step further by pronouncing doom on anyone who does place his hope in the world:

"If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name." Revelation 14:9-11

God’s enemies become “drunk with wine of the passion of Babylon’s sexual immorality”. They are blind. Their minds are foggy. They are overcome with passion. They don’t see reality as it is. They don’t fear their Creator or fulfill the purpose of their creation.

So, having drunk Babylon’s wine, God justly gives them the wine of His wrath. Since they fearing the beast and glorify him instead of God, He justly punishes them forever and ever. They think that no one is like the beast, that he is the mighty one; they think that it is very pragmatic to go along with the false prophet, for they can’t buy or sell otherwise. But they will suffer forever because of that pragmatic decision.

Just and true are your ways, O King of the Nations.


What lessons can we glean from this passage?

Verse 12 states a lesson for those following the Lamb:

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

That is, “Your mighty opponents are doomed! So endure to the end! Don’t let the allurements of this world blind you to the surpassing value of knowing Christ! Don’t drink the stupefying wine of success in this world! Keep your head clear! Put up with temporary pain to gain the deepest joy of all for all eternity!’

So where are you in this? How is the world alluring you?

Many of us face some temptation to the gross sins of this world, whether:

These can all blind us to the only true source of joy.

But my guess is that the most serious temptation for most of us here this morning is not in gross sins, but in allowing the good things in this world to blind us to the best. What are some of these good things?

But if you attain all these yet do not know Jesus Christ, you miss the value that surpasses all else. You miss your greatest joy. And you will not only miss the great joy of joining the throng around His throne; you will justly suffer torment for all eternity: “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:11).

Are you drunk with the things of this world, and thus blind to the reality of Jesus Christ?

Even Christians: have you been sipping the alcohol of the world – and you like what you taste? Are your thoughts and desires becoming distorted? The joys of this world will do that to you! You will become blind! That’s why we so desperately need the Word of God in our lives daily; that’s why we so desperately need accountability with other believers regularly; that’s why we so desperately need to hear the preaching of the Word of God at least weekly, to keep from being deceived by the deceitfulness of sin.

One of John Piper’s teachers used to say regularly, “I try only to do those things I won’t regret in 800 years.” If you give in to the allures of this world - whether to gross sin or to a focus on good things to the exclusion of the best - in 800 years you will regret that, exceedingly.

So, my friends: Open your eyes! Do not let yourselves be blinded by Satan to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus! To live is Christ! He’s all that matters. If you have Him and die this afternoon, you are better off than not having Him, and switching places with Bill Gates.

So endure in faith! Believe in Christ! Turn from empty, unsatisfying pleasures! Follow the Lamb wherever He goes, wherever He may lead you. And rejoice forever in His presence.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 7/10/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful,

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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