Last year, I came home from late from a conference to find my wife folding clothes and watching, “This is Us,” a new NBC sitcom. My wife was totally engaged in the show, so I sat down and tried to follow it along with her. After ten minutes I was extremely confused with the who, what, where and when of the show. It was hard to follow the storyline for several reasons. First, this was not the first show of the season, but it was the 4th or the 5th. I did not know who the characters were and how each of the various storylines fit together. Secondly, I did not know when each scene was happening as the writers weaved in flashbacks to help provide greater contexts for the present-day storylines. For most people who begin to watch the show from episode 1, it is not hard to follow, and everything seems to make perfect sense, but if you come in the middle of the story with no background of the individual characters, no knowledge of how the characters are interconnected or how the writers regular interject flashbacks, it can be hard to follow at first.
Apocalyptic literature can also be confusing. Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic language can obscure the meaning for someone who begins reading the middle of the book. Apocalyptic literature can also change the “when” of the story without providing clues for the reader. We are in middle of the book of Revelation. Now if you are here and are just beginning this journey with us, it may be confusing to follow the flow of the book. Even if you have been here since the beginning of our study, Revelation can seem daunting because our culture is very unfamiliar with apocalyptic literature. We must not only understand the when the book is talking about, but we need to understand the prophetic backstory of the Old Testament. So as in, This is Us, every flashback helps the viewer gain greater insight into the storyline and the character, every prophecy, and allusion to the Old Testament gives the reader clues to the present meaning of this book. The other challenge of Revelation is that there are often various interpretations of the book from godly, intelligent, conservative, sound theologians. Although there may be disagreements, we all can agree that the book is given to help us know and love the one who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb who was slain.
Revelation 6 through 16 tells of the last days. As I taught last week, I believe the first 5 seals are opened and unleashed on the earth after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ began the last days. Seal 6 is the beginning of the end of history. Revelation 7 is an interlude between the 6th and the 7th seal. Although the events of Revelation 7 are written after Revelation 6, that does not necessarily mean that they happen after the opening of the seals. Remember that in apocalyptic literature chronology is not used in the same way as in prose. Revelation 7:1-3,
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that the wind could not continue to blow on the land or on the sea or on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east holding the seal of the living God. And he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage the land and the seas, saying, “Do no damage the land or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the slaves of our God on their foreheads.”
John provides details of what he sees. He saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. Remember this is apocalyptic literature so John does not mean that the earth is flat and there are only four corners. It is a symbolic description that is referring to the whole world. The four winds that are sent on the earth is used through the Bible as a picture of God sending judgment on the earth. Remember in chapter 6, God is unleashing judgment, war, famine, disease, and death upon the earth. There is great devastation coming on the earth. If you are a 1st century Christian hearing Revelation for the first time, a natural thought would be what about us? How will we endure this judgment?
God knows our thoughts and our hearts and provides an answer to their questions before it is asked. He does not say the judgment will not happen, but that before the judgment comes, the people of God will be sealed unto the Lord God. The seal of God is a form of protection. In Ezekiel, God places a seal on the foreheads of his people who are grieved with the abominations and sins of the people of God. They were marked unto the Lord because they did not compromise their faith. Ezekiel 9:3-4, “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.” Before God sent his judgment, he protected his people from his wrath. This is the background of Revelation 7.
Now we know that the seal does not mean that Christians will not experience physical harm for God has promised that there will be future martyrs. The full number of those who will be slain on account of the Word still has to come in. The protection through the seal that God is providing here is protection from God’s wrath. Saints will still face the wrath of the beast. They may lose their physical bodies, but they will not lose their souls. They will be protected from God’s wrath because they have his seal. Martyrdom in Revelation is a victory. The martyrs are clothed in white robes in Revelation 6 and those who are standing around in Revelation 7 have white robes. White robes are a sign of victory.
Before the full wrath comes upon the earth, the people of God are reminded that there is nothing that can snatch them from the Father’s hand. They are sealed. They are protected. They belong to God. How encouraging would this have been for the saints facing intense persecution from the Roman empire? How much comfort would it have been to the church to know that God is with them?
Are you sealed? Have you trusted in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Have you turned from your sins? J.C. Ryle says, “The heart that has really tasted the grace of Christ will instinctively hate sin.” Have you tasted Christ? Ephesians 1:13-14, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” When you believe in Christ, you are sealed until the day of redemption. There is nothing that can ultimately harm you. Are you sealed?
But who are the sealed 144,000 in Revelation 7? I believe that the sealed 144,000 is a symbolic number that includes all the saints of the church of Jesus Christ throughout history. Before I give my reasons, there are other solid pastor/theologians who believe this is referring to ethnic Israel. I do believe there will be a large movement of God among ethnic Israel during the close of history (as I see that in Romans 11), but I do not believe John has ethnic Israel in mind here in Revelation 7. I believe the number is symbolic because of how John uses numbers through the Book. The number seven is used a picture of completeness and wholeness (7 horns of the lamb, 7 eyes, 7 spirits sent through the earth, 7 seals, 7 churches etc.). There are twelve tribes of Israel and there are the twelve apostles. John writes of both in the New Jerusalem so here we don’t just have 12 but 12 squared. 144 then multiplies 1,000 to give 144,000. It is a great number that shows whole and complete multitude. Here are my reasons that seven reasons why I believe the 144,000 are referring to the church of Jesus Christ.
First, the book is written to the seven churches in Asia. John is trying to comfort the church in the rise of persecution. It makes sense that he would remind them that they are sealed by God and should know that they will conquer to the end.
Second, if the number is symbolic, then the most natural reading is all the people of God. Jesus broke down the wall of hostility and united the two, Jews and Gentiles, into one people of God. The church is referred to as the new Israel in the New Testament. The people of God are the people of the lamb. There are ethnic Jews and Gentiles in the church. Both make up the church. Peter addresses the church as the elect exiles of the dispersion. James writes his letter to the church as the twelve tribes of Israel.
Third, John has already differentiated ethnic Jews from spiritual Jews in this letter. Revelation 2:9 and Revelation 3:9, both share how unbelieving ethnic Jews are not true Jews. Revelation 1:7 and Revelation 5:10 calls the church a kingdom of priests (along with 1 Peter 2) a promise that was first given to Israel in Exodus 19. The church is a kingdom of priests. The sealed in Ezekiel 9 refers to those ethnic Jews who did not compromise and follow the world but the remnant who remained faithful to God. John is most likely not referring to ethnic Israel but those the remnant who have remained faithful to God by trusting in the promised Messianic Lamb who was come to take away the sins of the world.
Fourth, Revelation 14:1-3, makes another reference to 144,000. It seems clear from that passage that the 144,000 is a reference to the whole church. Revelation14:1-3,
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. (emphasis added)
Those who have the name of the God and the lamb on their foreheads (a reference to the church at Pergamum and Philadelphia) as well all who had been redeemed from the earth. It seems like both referenced in Revelation 14 is speaking of the church which makes it more likely that when the same number is revelation 7 is referring to the same the church as well.
Fifth, the listing of the twelve tribes is unique to all the renderings of the twelves tribes in the Old Testament. This is a clue that it should be read symbolically. Judah is mentioned first because Jesus was the lion of the tribe of Judah. This list is a people of the lamb. The tribe of Dan is not mentioned here. Many believed that the Anti-Christ would come from Dan because the serpent is referenced in Genesis 49:17, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls back.” Dan was also one of the centers of idolatry. Excluding Dan from the list points to the purity of the church.
It is also important to note that 10 of the 12 tribes have been lost. The northern ten tribes of Israel intermarried with the Gentiles when they were judged for their idolatry, they were lost from the pages of history. One could say that some of each tribe left the northern kingdom for the southern kingdom of Judah, but those ten tribes are lost.
Sixth, and finally, John uses a literary technique to show are two things are the same. He heard of the Lion of the tribe of Judah and he saw the lamb. The Lion and the lamb are one in the same. In Revelation 7, he heard the number 144,000 (Revelation 7:4) and then he saw a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the lamb. It seems that the 144,000 that he heard of was the same as the multitude that he saw.
I think there is a good reason to believe that the 144,000 are the church, but as always you should be good Bereans and study to show yourself approved and test what is said from the pulpit. We can get bogged down in trying to understand the specifics of the 144,000 but remember the context. Hear the words of those who dwell on the earth who do not know the Lamb at end of Revelation 6 again, as they called 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, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:17). Who can stand before the wrath of the lamb? Revelation 7 gives the answer. Those who have been sealed. Those who are in the Lamb.
Those who are standing before the Lord is not limited to ethnic Israel but to all who trust in the Lamb who was slain. Revelation 7:9-14,
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, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Who can stand before the throne? Those who have been clothed in white robes after washing them in the blood of the lamb.
Salvation belongs to God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb. Do you have this salvation? We are sinners and deserve God’s wrath for our sin. I was talking with a non-Christian awhile back and the topic of fear came up. I asked them what they were afraid of and in a moment of honesty said, “I am afraid to die.” Why is there a fear of death? Is simply because of the unknown? Or is it because of deep down in all of our hearts, we know what we deserve? We know we need to be saved from our sin! And salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb. This means that the only salvation that is possible is given by God through the blood of the lamb. God sent his Son to the Lord to save us. Jesus died on the cross. As a lamb that was led to the slaughter, he opened not his mouth. We have turned to our own way and the Lord in his immense kindness has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. And after Jesus died, he rose again. No one took his life, but he laid it down.
The blood of the lamb has brought salvation for all who would trust in Him. Salvation does not belong to the obedient or the wise or compassionate, but salvation belongs to God. God gives salvation through faith in the lamb. Who can stand before the lamb? Only those who know him. Do you know the lamb? Have you gone to God to deal with your sins? Have you washed your robes in the blood of the lamb? Salvation is open to all; all who come to the lamb.
Beloved, how comforting is it to know that we are sealed until the day of the Lord? Nothing can take us from the hand of God. The good work he began he will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus. We will face persecution. We will face trials. Rejection. Abandonment. Scorn. Hate. Through many trials and tribulations, we will enter the kingdom of God, but we will not be lost. God will not lose one of his blood-bought servants. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-30) You will not be lost. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, no things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, no anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
Are you weary today? Do you feel like your faith will fail? Does life seem too overwhelming to bear? Know this, those who know the Good Shepherd will be lead out of great tribulation by the Good Shepherd so that they can stand before the throne of God and serve him day and night. Revelation 7:15–17
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Our confidence is not in our faith but in the object of our faith. The Good Shepherd will lead us to the promise land. He has gone to prepare a place for us. A place where they shall be no more hunger or thirst. There shall be no more disasters or death. The Lamb will shepherd us and guide us to the springs of living water and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Beloved, we will have trials. This life is full of pain, but God has promised his presence in paradise. We can endure. We can press on. We can fight the good fight of faith. We can because we belong to the Lamb and salvation belongs to the Lamb. We will be spared from his wrath and given his grace. For we are not destined for wrath but to obtain salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord who died for us. He will keep us.
Beloved, we will stand before the Lord, not on our merit, but on the blood of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. He knows his own and his own know him. Friends, take joy today that God was our Shepherd, is our Shepherd and will always be our Shepherd.