Chapter 14 of Revelation: The Wheat and the Tares

CloudsBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

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 (Matt 13:40-42).

I love agriculture. As a young person I spent summers with my grandparents living on the farm in Iowa. I learned patience watching the corn grow. I learned to drive stick-shift on a tractor. The Apostle John’s images of rural life speak the language of my youth.

Picturing judgment as a harvest, where the wheat and tares are separated and the tares burned, evokes both a message of patience and a reminder of justice. Harvest is a joyful time because for most of human history food was scarce. At the time of Napoleon, French soldiers were noticeably shorter than other Europeans because they starved—agricultural workers in France could not work an entire day for lack of energy. They were not alone. The practice of fasting during Lent is pre-Christian and evolved out of the reality of a lack of food at the end of winter in most of the pre-modern world. Tares were a threat to one’s life as well as one’s livelihood. In this context, burning tares—what we call weeds—is just.

Revelation 14 reports three signs. In the first sign (vv 1-5), we see the lamb and the 144,000 singing a new song—a song reserved for the redeemed. In the second sign (vv 6-11), three angels announce God’s judgment on Babylon (think Rome) and those that follow the beast. This includes a graphic picture of what God’s wrath will look like (vv 10-11). In the last sign, we see two more angels welding sickles used as instruments of judgment with grapes and a winepress adding to the graphic imagery of this judgment.

What is interesting is that these images of judgment remain part of John’s vision. The key verse is: Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus (Rev 14:12). We are given a glimpse of the future in order to inform our behavior today—endure, keep God’s commandments, and remain faithful.

The sickle and winepress images are an allusion to: 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 (Joel 3:13). The sickle allusion brings to mind the use of the hammer and sickle image by communist states in our own time because they were officially atheistic regimes. Their downfall highlights the paradox of Christianity—Satan was defeated at the Cross of Jesus Christ. Nowhere in the world is the church growing faster than in these formerly atheistic states. The conversion of Rome was equally dramatic.

In both case, just when things seemed the darkest, God intervened.


  1. What are the three requirements cited in v 12?
  2. List the three signs cited (vv 1-5, 6-11, and 10-11).
  3. What is the allusion with the sickle? (Joel 3:13)
  4. What is the teaching on the wheat and the tares? (Matt 13:40-42). How is Revelation different?
  5. What is the paradox of the cross?
  6. What is the new song being referenced in v 3? (Isaiah 42; Psalm 33, 40, and 144; Rev 5)

Chapter 14 of Revelation: The Wheat and the Tares

Also see:

Chapter 13 of Revelation: What is True Worship? 

Chapter 1: Alpha and Omega 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading

Chapter 6 of Revelation: Seals, Creatures, and Horses

CloudsAnd when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be
alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation
will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will
be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These
are but the beginning of the birth pains (Mark 13:7-8).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What exactly does judgment look like?

The images of the four horsemen of the apocalypses in Revelations 6 are as vivid as any in scripture (and likely taken from Zechariah 1:8). The allusion here is to the Olivet Discourse when Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives before entering Jerusalem for the last time and prophesied the destruction of the city (Mark 13; Matt 24; Luke 21). The prophecy was quickly fulfilled as Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 70—within that generation (Mark 13:30).

If you think that the four horsemen are a horrible judgment, take a look at the blessing and curses listed in Deuteronomy 28—stipulations for the Mosaic covenant. There we read: And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God (Deut 28:2). The voice of the Lord, in this case, is articulated in the Mosaic covenant. Later we read: But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you (Deut 28:15). And, of course, Deuteronomy 28 lists more curses than blessings.

The blessings and curses are attention grabbers. The expected response is: exactly what commandments, Lord, did you have in mind? (Remember: when scripture talks about the future, the purpose is to inform the present).

The clue to this question in Revelations 6 arises in the opening of the fifth seal. The martyrs of the faith ask: how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? (Rev 6:10) What is the response? The martyrs are told to: rest a little longer (Rev 6:11). In other words—the message to the seven churches is: be patient under persecution and remember who you serve. So the four living creatures may be saying: come, but not yet!

The Olivet Discourse underscores this point in the next verses: But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations (Mark 13:9-10).

While looking out for the fearsome horsemen, we are to be about our father’s business (Luke


1. Do you have questions from last week? Did any important events happen in your life this week? Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share?
2. What is the basic subject of chapter 6? a. What was judgment like under the Mosaic covenant? (Deuteronomy 28)
b. What does judgment look like in the Olivet Discourse? (Mark 13; Matthew 24; Luke 21)
c. What must happen before judgment? How are we to wait? How are we to respond?
3. Who are the four horsemen? What do they represent? (Zechariah 1:8)
4. What is special about the fifth seal?
a. What do the martyrs ask? (v. 10)
b. What is the response? (v. 11)
5. What is the allusion in the opening of the sixth seal? (Hint look at the references to the moon and what comes after in Mark 13; Matthew 24; and Luke 21

Chapter 6 of Revelation: Seals, Creatures, and Horses

Also see:

Chapter 5 of Revelation: Harp and Bowl

Chapter 1: Alpha and Omega 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading

41. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webAlmighty and Compassionate Father,
The Bible says that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are to become witnesses to our neighbors, the region, and to the whole world (Acts 1:8). Convict us, Lord, that our witness reaches all in need.
The Bible says that Saul approved of Stephen’s execution and afterwards a great persecution arose (Acts 8:1). And that many churches were founded as the disciples were scattered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:19). And even the grand persecutor himself, Saul of Tarsus, was himself transformed into an evangelist who we know as Paul (Acts 9:5).  Convict us, Lord, that our witness reaches all in need.
Grant us the mind of Christ, we might focus on your priorities, not our own. Transform ours hearts that we might feel the things that you feel, not feelings of our own. That on the day of judgment, we will be judged according to Christ’s righteousness, not our own. In the power of your Holy Spirit, give us eyes that see and ears that hear and feet that obey. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Continue Reading

Mercy as a Path to Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is no accident that we feel the tension with God over the question of mercy. We do not want to admit to our sins (or our need for forgiveness) because we spend most of our lives trying to hide our sin from other people. We deny our sin from morning to night. And it is painful, in turn, showing mercy to other people —we would much rather have them fulfill their promises and pay their debts.

Our problem with mercy is that it requires action.  We would rather talk about love because it is a squishy sort of emotion.  Easy on the action; easy to redefine; easily to confuse with.  We are always in compliance with a law of love, at least in our own minds.  Mercy requires concrete action.  Billy Graham wrote:  “What are some of the areas in today’s world toward which we can show mercy? First: We can show mercy by caring for the social needs of our fellow men…Second: We can show mercy by doing away with our prejudices…Third: We can show mercy by sharing the gospel of Christ with others.” (Graham 1955, 61-65).  Concrete. Doable. Undeniable.  Highly personal.

God’s priority is showing mercy. Jesus cites the Prophet Hosea twice [1] in Matthew after citing the beatitude:

“For I desire steadfast love [2] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 ESV)

The heart of paganism in the church lies in trying to bribe God with sacrifices other than the sacrifice of our own hearts.  We prefer to bribe God with sacrifices (”burnt offerings”) than own up to our own sin.   Arguing that we are basically good (denying original sin), in effect, denies Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.  That is to say, we don’t need Christ’s mercy and, as a codicil, we do not need to practice mercy with those around us. The echo of Cain’s question still haunts us: “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9 ESV)

It is interesting that in the Gospel of Luke, the double love command (love God; love neighbor; Matthew 22:36-40) is cited, not by Jesus, but by a lawyer (Luke 10:25-28) who then proceeds to narrow the definition of neighbor [3]. He asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 ESV) Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end, Jesus pulls a Jedi mind trick asking: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV) Notice how Jesus substitutes the question—”who proved to be a neighbor” for the question—”who is my neighbor”. Jesus turns a direct object (neighbor) into a verb (to be a neighbor). To this question, the lawyer responds: “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:37 ESV)

Notice how in the story of the Good Samaritan we started out talking about love, but ended up talking about mercy? God’s identity—

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

—includes both mercy and love, but mercy comes first. Jesus’ brother James makes a similar observation saying:

“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13 ESV)

Judgment requires truth (אֱמֶֽת) which in Exodus 34:6 is translated also as faithfulness. Mercy also comes before truth and judgment. Interestingly, James has in the citation above restated Jesus’ beatitude in the negative—essentially it is now in the form of a curse—it is a curse to be judged without mercy.

The link of mercy and judgment necessarily brings us back to the atoning work of Christ. The Apostle Peter clearly linked these two ideas when he wrote:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)

It is the mercy of God to provide us a path of salvation to Himself.

[1] Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.

[2] There is tension in the Greek and Hebrew texts on this word. The Greek reads mercy (ἔλεος) and the Hebrew reads love (חֶ֥סֶד).  The citations in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 go with the Greek.  The translation of Hosea 6:6 in the English Standard Version (ESV) goes with the Hebrew.

[3] Today, the lawyer would not only try to narrow the definition of neighbor, he would narrow the definition of love.


Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Passionately Pursue the Kingdom of Heaven

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

With the fourth beatitude we move from tension with ourselves to tension with God. Beatitudes four, five, and six speak of God’s righteousness, mercy, and purity—which we can never fully attain. Our tension emanates from our finitude compared with an infinite God and our sinfulness compared with God’s holiness. Yet, we go on knowing that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:28) and redeemed by His Son, Jesus Christ, because we hunger for God’s righteousness—a precious thing in a fallen world.

The fourth beatitude taps into deep physical and spiritual needs outlined in the words: “hunger and thirst for righteousness”.  Hunger in the Greek, πεινάω, means both “to feel the pangs of lack of food, hunger, be hungry” and “desire something. strongly, hunger for something” (BDAG 5758) which bridges both physical and spiritual needs (Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21).  Likewise, thirst, διψάω, in the Greek means both “to have a desire for liquid, be thirsty, suffer from thirst” and “to have a strong desire to attain some goal, thirst, i.e. long for something” (BDAG 2051). Righteousness, δικαιοσύνη, means the: “quality or state of juridical correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness” (BDAG 2004(2))

The  Gospel of John expresses this symbolism best.  Jesus says:

  • “Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 ESV)
  • On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”  (John 7:37-39 ESV)

The theme of need runs deep in John’s Gospel.  Jesus first reveals himself to a couple of newlyweds in danger of being stigmatized for their poverty (not having enough wine; John 2:1-11). Our need is then contrasted with God’s super-abundant provision—of wine (John 2:1-11), bread (John 6:5-14), and fish (John 21:3-13).

Still, to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” speaks of extreme suffering:   the most basic of human needs have gone unmet. The laments in the Book of Psalms provide the backstory of this beatitude [1].  There we read: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1 ESV) And “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Ps. 89:46 ESV)  [2]. It is ironic that we are able to experience God best when we wander in the desert.  As God tells Moses:  “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod. 7:16 ESV)  In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this idea must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16)

The second beatitude affirms that the expectations of human needs will be met and exceeded.  Jesus reassures the disciples later in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:31-33 ESV)

Amidst our suffering and need, Jesus gives the disciples permission to pray for the simplest needs in life: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11 ESV). Jesus’ God is one  who cares deeply about his people. Even in judgment God cares for his people: the righteous are separated from the wicked by their attitude about and care for those in need (Matt 25:31-46).

[1] Christian songwriter Michael Card (2005, 19 ) writes at length about lament.  A lament has two parts.  The first part is cathartic–we pour out our hearts to God emptying ourselves of the anger, fear, hatred, and other vile emotions that we harbor.  Once this catharsis is complete, then in part two are hearts are open to remember God grace and mercy to us in the past and we are able to praise God from the bottom of our hearts.

[2] Modern atheism feeds from this painful stream. Modern atheists question God’s provision and care: if God is all powerful and all good, then the existence of suffering and evil suggests that God is either not all powerful or not good or not both—he does not exist. In contrast, Jesus testifies that those who passionately seek righteousness will be satisfied. The Greek word here for satisfy, χορτάζω, means “to experience inward satisfaction in something be satisfied” (BDAG 7954). Far from deserting us, in life Jesus suffered alongside of us, on the cross paid our penalty for sin, and in resurrection became our guarantor.  “While some continue to argue that Auschwitz disproves the existence of God, many more would argue that it demonstrates the depths to which humanity, unrestrained by any thought or fear of God, will sink.” (McGrath 2004, 184).


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow Experience Guide:  Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism. New York: DoubleDay.

Continue Reading


Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Are you ready for your final exam?

When I taught in the university, my final exam was never a surprise. The week before the final I would pass out ten questions as homework and announce that five of these questions would be on the final exam. Now these were not easy questions—my questions were designed to encourage my students to master the subject. My good students invariably typed up answers to all ten questions and simply turn all of them in on the day of the examination; my lazy students showed up empty handed and unprepared to answer the questions.

God’s judgment works a bit like a take-home exam. We know the questions from scripture and from our ongoing relationship with God and His people, the church. Jesus’ commands and teaching are not a surprise.

So why does judgment create such drama?

One answer comes from a surprising source. Immanuel Kant observed that an evil person was not one who wills evil, but one who secretly exempts themselves from judgment, perhaps hoping that God does not exist (Arendt 1992, 17) [2].

Another answer is that many people avoid making decisions, hoping that they can escape accountability. Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who, having escaped Nazi death camps before coming to America, was asked to report on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961) for the New Yorker magazine. Eichmann was the German officer during the Second World War who organized Adolf Hitler’s program of extermination of the Jews known as the “Final Solution”. Arendt attended the trial expecting to see a hateful, anti-Semite only to discover that Eichmann was more of a petty bureaucrat, someone unable to think for himself. In the case of Eichmann, the face of evil was that of someone unable or unwilling to think for themselves (Arendt 1992, 97–101).

Why do we care about the Hannah Arendt story? Because we worship a righteous judge in heaven who expects that we will exercise sound judgment here on earth. We must be good stewards of the wisdom and knowledge of truth entrusted us. Not judging is not an option—robotic thinkers walk the path of Adolf Eichmann, not the path of Jesus Christ. We are accountable both for judgments we make and those we refuse to make.

So what does God’s judgment look like?

The picture of God as a divine judge brings to mind the story of King Solomon and the two prostitutes. Both women had babies but when one baby died the women fought over the living child. Solomon tested the hearts of the women by threatening the child with death. In doing so, the women revealed their true feelings for the child and he was able to return the child to its rightful mother (1 Kgs 3:16–28).

Just like Solomon, God is a passionate judge who pursues truth and refuses to accept lies at face value [3]. Woe to the person who invites such testing! This is perhaps why the Lord’s Prayer includes the petition: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matt 6:13)

[1] The references in this chapter to the Apostle’s Creed are all taken from FACR (2013, Q/A 23). Another translation is found in (PCUSA 1999, 2.1—2.3).

[2] Kant further speculated that true justice requires that our lives be examined in their entirety which is only possible if resurrection and eternal, impartial judge exist. Therefore, justice and accountability require both eternal life and God!

[3] If you do not like Solomon test, think about the testing of Job who innocently lost everything (Job 1). Or, how about testing of Jesus in the desert? (Luke 4:1–13).


Arendt, Hannah. 1992. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Faith Alive Christian Resources (FACR). 2013. The Heidelberg Catechism. Cited: 30 August, 2013. Online:

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Continue Reading

JOHN 16: The Helper

Maple_leaves_11162013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long (Psalm 25:5 ESV).

It is hard to image the terror of the disciples on the other side of the cross.  In John 16, we get a glimpse.

The chapter opens with Jesus facing a leadership crisis.

Jesus starts by saying:  I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away (v 1).  The word translated as falling away, σκανδαλίζω, means: to cause to be brought to a downfall, cause to sin (BDAD 6682.1).  In other words, the disciples are at risk of breaking up as a group and losing their reason for being.

This theme is repeated at the end of the chapter.  In verse 32, for example, we see a word similar to falling away—scattered.  The Greek word is σκορπίζω which is translated as meaning:   to cause a group or gathering to go in various directions, scatter, disperse (BDAG 6717).

The particular significance of this word, σκορπίζω, is that it brings to mind a prophecy from Zechariah:   Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land, declares the Lord, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, they are my people; and they will say, the Lord is my God (Zechariah 13:7-9; also: Malachi 3:1-3).  Zechariah sees the scattering as a means to create a remnant of believers.

Between the falling away and the scattering references, Jesus discusses the coming persecution (v 2), his death (v 20a), and his resurrection (v 20b).  All of this discussion is accompanied by confusion—image how you would receive prophecy of a friend’s death. The key point of this section is Jesus’ discussion of the Holy Spirit which he describes as the Paraclete (helper—v 7) and the Spirit of Truth (v 13).

As Jesus describes the Holy Spirit, two separate tasks are outlined.  Among non-believers:  he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (v 8).  In convicting the world of sin, demonstrating righteousness, and bringing judgment, the Holy Spirit acts independently of the church (vv 9-11).  Among believers: he will guide you into all the truth (v 13a).  Part of this truth will take the form of prophecy (vv 13b, 15) and part will consist of pointing back to Christ (v 14).

Jesus ends by saying:  In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (v 33).  This is the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

Continue Reading