Revelation 7:1-8

Revelation

Revelation 7

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

Roni and I were recently traveling and, during our vacation, we had a lazy day where we did not feel like doing anything in particular. We had had our fill of museums and statues and paintings and, well, history. We were sitting in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and were talking about how we were very happy to be where we were but we did not really want to walk around anymore that day or do anything per se. But we had some more hours of daylight. I pulled my phone out and said, “Hey, there is a theater 3/10ths of a mile from where we are. Want to see a movie?” And she did. However, the only movie showing at that time was a scary movie called “The Conjuring.”

So I warned Roni: “This is going to be scary. Are you sure you want to see this?” And she said she did. “Why not!” We decided to see the scary movie. And so we went to Regal Gallery Place & 4DX theater in Chinatown in Washington, D.C.

Now, we are movie people, but I must say that I was unprepared for what happened next. I did notice that the ticket seemed more expensive than usual, but I figured that was just because we were in D.C. And then we noticed that the chairs in the theater were really unusual, but we figured it was just a really nice theater with updated chairs. But then the previews started and suddenly it dawned on me what “4DX” meant in “Regal Gallery Place & 4DX.”

The chairs began to move in synchronization with the screen. They would lurch this way and that. Lights flashed around us. Then I saw the nozzles in the plastic bar in front of me and realized, “We are going to be sprayed and wind-blasted and jerked around and jostled and jolted through this whole movie!”

Roni looked at me and said, “I do not like this.” Now you must understand that Roni was already on edge because this was a scary movie, but she had determined to watch it. Watching a scary movie is one thing. Actually being in a scary movie is another!

So we left and went into the lobby and asked the lady if we could possibly see “The Conjuring” that started 30 minutes later in a normal theater. I explained to the lady that I was unfamiliar with “4DX” and we did not know it would be such an immersive experience. I finally told her: “Ma’am, we’re from Arkansas. Our chairs don’t move in Arkansas.” We all had a good laugh and we saw the later movie.

It is one thing to know that something scary is coming. It is another thing to think that you are going to be a participant in the scary thing that is coming.

I think this helps us understand what is happening with the reticence that a lot of people feel with the book of Revelation. They know there are some scary things in Revelation. But what really jars people is the thought that they will be forced to be a participant in the scary things, that they might be the victim of the scary things.

I want to show you this morning a wonderful chapter that helps us understand this rightly. Revelation 7 tells us that, yes, we will be in the theater when the scary things happen, and we will go through some difficulties ourselves, but, ultimately, the scary things are not aimed at the people of God and God will protect us and see us through the scary things that are coming! Yes, some scary things will happen in the events leading up to the culmination of all things, but the people of God are driven by an assurance of victory and the presence of God with His people through the darkest moments of tribulation to come.

Revelation 7 is oftentimes referred to as an “interlude.” We are between the breaking of the sixth and seventh seals. Before the seventh seal is broken, however, we are shown a powerful and beautiful image and vision of a truth that we most need to know. G.K. Beal puts it well when he writes of this interlude that “[t]he section stands as a kind of parenthesis explaining how God will keep believers safe during the tribulations of the church age.”[1] In other words, chapter 7 is here to show us how God will be with His people in the tribulation and how the scary things going on around us will not conquer and overwhelm us.

Those who are in Christ will not be the objects of God’s wrath in final judgment.

To understand what is happening in chapter 7, this interlude between the 6th and 7th seals, we need to remember what happened at the very end of chapter 6. Remember that the 6th seal is a terrifying image of cosmic and personal devastation for the fallen world order and for those who reject the Lamb. Chapter 6 ends like this:

15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

That last question, “Who can stand?” is important. The objects of God’s wrath realize that they cannot escape the terror that has come upon them. The wrath of God has been unleashed. “Who can stand?!” Indeed! Who can? And at this point we are tempted to be overwhelmed, because we too understand the question: Who can stand? The answer, of course, is nobody can stand against the wrath of God if they are the objects of it.

But I want to show how Revelation 7 hits pause in the midst of our fear and speaks comfort to us. Revelation 7 is saying, in essence, “Nobody can stand when the wrath of God comes against them…but, church, the wrath of God does not come against you! You may be in the theater of these things, but you are not the object of these things.” Revelation 7 shows us this in a powerful way. Let us listen:

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

Notice that the four angels are standing over the whole earth (i.e., this is what “the four corners of the earth” means) and they are restraining “the four winds.” Many believe that these “four winds” or “four spirits” are none other than the four horsemen we saw in the first four seals. I think that is a compelling and reasonable idea. So before these things are unleashed upon the earth, the angels of God restrain them—war and violence and economic hardship and suffering and death and all that these things bring. But why? Why are these restrained? Why does God hit pause for a moment? We are told why:

Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

What is this? The angels, before unleashing these four destructive winds, “seal” the servants of God on their foreheads. Why? Because these who are sealed are not to be the objects of God’s wrath, of the four winds that the angels are restraining. They are to be protected! And who are these who are sealed?

And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

Those who are sealed and protected in the midst of the events that are about to unfold are 144,000. Here we find one of the famous numbers of scripture, a number about which many people write and talk and argue and pontificate. These 144,000 are (a) in the tribulation and (b) sealed and thereby protected in some sense from the horrors to come.

Who are these people? A popular opinion among pre-tribulationists is that these people are Jewish believers who will come to know Christ and who will evangelize others in this period. That is, I hasten to add, one of many theories: that this is ethnic, national Israel, exclusively literal Jews from the literal tribes of Israel. The assumption behind this view, as we discussed last week, is that the church has been raptured by now (i.e., before the tribulation) and is not here to witness and evangelize, so God raises up these 144,000 to do so. But, as I showed last week, I believe the assumption that the church will not go through the tribulation is quite problematic for a number of reasons.

I want to argue, however, that this idea that the 144,000 represent ethnic Israel is problematic for a number of reasons. I want to argue that the 144,000 are better understood as all of God’s people, the church—all who have called on the name of Jesus whether Jew or Gentile—who will go through the tribulation but will be protected in the midst of it.

Now why would I say that? Why is it best to see the 144,000 as an all-inclusive reference to all of God’s people, especially since the tribes are named?

Let me offer a number of reasons why I believe this is most likely.

  1. The number 144,000 is itself almost certainly an all-encompassing symbolic number.

In Revelation 21 John is shown the new Jerusalem. There are two significant “twelves” in this vision:

12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed

14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

This picture of the new Jerusalem combines “the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” and “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Thus, the new Jerusalem will consist of the totality of God’s children: Israel and the church, all united in Christ. With that in mind, consider:

12 tribes

x 12 apostles

144 (God’s people)

x 1000 (completion / possibly military imagery)

=

144,000 (all of God’s redeemed people)

It is best to see the number itself as 12 squared times 1,000. 1,000 may be seen as a number of totality and completion or, as many biblical scholars argue, may be seen an allusion to militaristic imagery (Israel’s thousands). In this sense, the 144,000 are being depicted as the church militant in and through the tribulation, the church standing faithfully in opposition to Satan and his minions and preparing for ultimate victory. (Consider Numbers 31:5, for instance: “So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.”)

  1. Language usually reserved for Israel is applied to the church elsewhere in the New Testament.

We note as well that it is not unheard of for the church at large to have imagery normally applied to Israel and her tribes applied to her (i.e., the church). Consider James 1, where followers of Jesus are referred to as “the twelve tribes.”

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Consider Matthew 19, where Jesus’ followers are seated “on twelve thrones.”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Consider 1 Peter 1, where the church—Jew and Gentile—is referred to as “elect exiles of the Dispersion,” a very Jewish image indeed!

1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia

No, it is not a problem to see the 144,000, defined by the tribes listed, as representing the church at large passing through the tribulation.

  1. Problems are created if you try to take this list as a literal list of the twelve tribes.

Furthermore, if you take this as a literal list of the literal tribes of Israel, you run into a couple of problems.

Problem #1 – The List Itself

The first clue that this list of tribes is a symbolic reference to the people of God at large and is likely not meant to be taken literally is the fact that the list has some unique features. Gordon Fee points out, for instance:

In the Old Testament itself, one should note, there are no less than eighteen different listings of the twelve tribes of Israel—and the present one is not identical with any of them!…We simply note here the idiosyncrasies of the present listing, without trying to give any meaning to them: first, both Joseph and his son Manasseh are mentioned, while Ephraim is not; second, the tribe of Dan is omitted altogether; and third, the tribe of Levi is included, whose place in the Old Testament listings, along with Joseph’s, is regularly taken by Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Moreover, apart from the apparently purposeful placing of Judah at the head of the list, and Benjamin at the end (thus the whole is embraced by the two southern tribes), there seems to be no further significance to the order in which they are listed.[2]

It likely, then, that the list of tribes is arranged in such a way and contains certain omissions in order to communicate a broader point about the people of God in toto. The 144,000 is meant to refer to all of God’s people.

Problem #2 – The Challenge of Consistent Literalism

Other problems arise when pressing this as a literal list of 144,000 from “the twelve tribes.” Scott Duvall rightly points out:

Taking other details about the group literally becomes very problematic (e.g., does 14:4 really mean that only 144,000 male virgins from twelve tribes of Israel will be protected?).[3]

Revelation 14:4, the other part of Revelation that mentions the 144,000, says of them: “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.” But, as Duvall points out, surely it is not to be argued that only (a) males and (b) virgin males are among these who are saved and come out of the tribulation victorious and faithful. This reference to the 144,000 as virgins is most likely a symbolic reference to the fact that God’s people as a whole remained faithful and did not render themselves impure by whoring after other gods or by abandoning their faith in tribulation.

  1. There are a number of all-encompassing verbal clues that point to the 144,000 meaning all of God’s children.

Another verbal clue is found in the fact that the 144,000 are referred to as “servants of God” in Revelation 7:3. Throughout Revelation that phrase, “servants [Greek: doulos] of God,” is used to refer to all believers in the others instances when it is used. To limit it to a Jewish remnant exclusively is problematic. So, too, the word “seal,” when applied to believers, is applied to all believers. What is more, the seal of God is a contrast to the mark of the beast which is applied to all who are outside of Christ. It is most natural then to see the contrasting seal of God as being applied, similarly to all who are in Christ, as opposed to only a portion of those who are.

  1. It is most natural to see Revelation 7:9, the verse that immediately follows our text, as a further description of the 144,000 and not as a separate group.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

In other words, it is best to see the 144,000 as the great multitude that no one could number. 144,000, as we have seen, is itself an all-encompassing, total, symbolic number that points to the whole of God’s people!

All in all, then, (a) there are good reasons not to see the 144,000 as limited to literal Israel and the literal tribes and (b) there are good reasons to see it as applied to the church at large in the tribulation. The church, the true Israel of God, is present and will not be the object of God’s wrath.

Those who are in Christ will be protected through tribulation.

On the contrary, believers will be protected through the tribulation in whatever way God sees most fit. While we do not know exactly what this looks like, we see the emergence of the victorious church out of tribulation in another later interlude of the book in Revelation 14.

1 Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice 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. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.

I agree with Robert Gundry when he says:

In chapter fourteen the 144,000 are with the Lamb on Mount Zion—hence probably a millennial scene…(It is difficult to equate Mount Zion in 14:1 with the heavenly Zion, because the 144, 000 will be preserved on earth throughout the tribulation [7:14]. For the same reason, however, the scene is posttribulational even though Zion here be taken as heavenly.)[4]

In Revelation 14, then, we see the people of God, the church of Jews and Gentiles who trust in Christ, with the Lamb, likely in the millennium after the tribulation. They have been brought through. How? By the protection of God.

What will this protection look like? It is hard to say in any overly-detailed way. Two ideas have been put forward about this protection:

  1. It is physical and spiritual protection.
  2. It is mainly spiritual (faith / endurance / protection from judgment) protection.

Is it literal physical protection in every sense? In most senses? Or does it mean that God will protect our faith from wavering? We would do best to limit our conjectures to the biblical examples of divine protection in the midst of judgment and woe that we have. Consider three.

First, it is almost certain that John is drawing on the imagery of Ezekiel 9 in our text. In Ezekiel 9, the Lord God brings judgment upon those of His children who had given themselves over to idolatry. But not all had done so. Watch closely:

Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. And the Lord said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house.

Here is an Old Testament example of the Lord bringing devastation on a people but marking some out for safety and protection. Another is found in Revelation 9:

Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

In that text we see specifically what happens when the fifth trumpet is blown and the locusts arise. They are told to strike humanity, but “only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”

And, finally, we have the example of the Passover in Egypt, when the angel of the Lord struck the firstborn of Egypt but passed over those who had the blood on the doorposts.

The church can rest easy in this fact: God is capable of protecting His children while allowing judgment and woe to fall upon the rebellious world. Is that protection spiritual or physical? Perhaps we should simply say this: God will protect His people through tribulation in the way that He deems best, but in a way that will allow them ultimately to stand in triumph with the Lamb.

And how are those who are protected marked? They are sealed. And what is this seal? Some have suggested the Holy Spirit. Certainly that is true. We might also say the blood of Christ is the seal.

We who have trusted in Christ are sealed. We will not be abandoned. God will see us through. We will not be the objects of His wrath and judgment. We will stand beside the Lamb in glory and in triumph…for He has won the war!

Take heart. Do not abandon hope. Trust in Jesus and receive the seal and safety of the conquering Lamb upon whom the wrath of God will never again come.

We might summarize Revelation 7 with these beautiful words from Paul in Romans 8:

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Now now. Not ever.

Let the church say Amen!

 

[1] Beale, G. K., Campbell, David. Revelation (p. 166). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Fee, Gordon D.. Revelation (New Covenant Commentary Series Book 3) (p. 107). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[3] Duvall, J. Scott. Revelation (Teach the Text Commentary Series) (pp. 121-122). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Gundry, Robert Horton. Church and the Tribulation. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

 

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