Summary: God planted Israel - both the old and the new - to bear fruit. At harvest time, only the good fruit will be kept.
This passage is another tough one, dealing with wrath and judgment and punishment. And as you know scaring people into the kingdom is not my favorite style, although it may very well be that fear is a better motivator for some people than it is for me. But in our day and age, it’s more likely, I think, that people will respond to hellfire and brimstone sermons by simply deciding not to believe in eternal punishment. Recent surveys show that far more people believe in heaven than in hell, and most of those who do believe are sure they’re headed for heaven, because after all they’re pretty good people, and the God of love we know through Jesus couldn’t possibly be that mean. In fact,"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [Jn 3:16-17]
But this same Jesus who came to seek and save the lost is also the one presiding over the great harvest at the end of the age. Hear how John describes him: “Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! [v. 14] How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory pictures?
If we just look at this chapter of Revelation on its own, it doesn’t seem like the same God at all. Is this the good shepherd who went out searching for the lost sheep? Is this the same loving father who welcomed home the prodigal son without a word of blame or demand for repayment?
Yeah. It is. And the key is in the idea of harvest. There are a lot of passages in Scripture which liken God to a farmer, or a gardener, or to the owner of a vineyard. And there are really two harvests in this one passage. The first is of wheat, and the second is of grapes. And it looks very much as though the harvested grain represents believers, and the harvested grapes represent unbelievers. ”The hour to reap has come,” said the angel, “ because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe." So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped. [v. 2-3]
Now some people are puzzled by this picture because if the one holding the sickle is Jesus, what is he doing taking orders from a mere angel? But if you recall Jesus’ words to his disciples when they asked him when the end would come, he said, "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. [Mt 24:36] The angel isn’t giving Jesus orders, he’s just a messenger announcing the time.
So Jesus' part in the harvest is to gather in his own - the ones whom he recognizes, the sheep who know his voice, to mix the metaphors again. “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word ... on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” [Jn 12:47-48] Note that Jesus isn’t the one who does the rejecting.
The ones who don’t respond, the ones who are left over, those are the ones left for the mopping up operation the angels conduct. “Then another angel came out ...and swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God.” [v. 19]
But why are grapes showing up as a metaphor for the deaf and the disobedient? I would have expected chaff, or weeds, or dry branches. But grapes? the grapevine is a metaphor for Israel. What happened?
Listen again to the passage from Isaiah, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there
to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? [Isaiah 5:1-4]
This is the opening scene in God’s lawsuit against Israel. The vineyard is a metaphor for the bride, and the bride is of course a metaphor for Israel. And the jurors, many of them, are hill-farmers. They live in Jerusalem and they know what it takes to produce a good yield of grapes. I can see them, can’t you, listening intently to the plaintiff‘s case. They are being asked to say if there is anything the owner had left anything at all undone, if in any way the owner is at fault in his care of the vineyard, if there is any reason to hope that if the owner changes his methods or his fertilizer or anything else that the vines will begin to bear good fruit. He challenges them to find anything wrong with his care of the land.