Wednesday, 12 April 2017
The Sealed Number (Rev. 7:1-8)
In chapter 7 of Revelation we have a break or an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals. The significance of the six seals is detailed in chapter 6 and the seventh seal is mentioned in 8:1. We know that a purpose of a break or an interlude is to pause and think about an important matter connected to what is being described. As we have seen, the seals describe the history of the period between the enthronement of Jesus and his return. At his enthronement, he was given the scroll with the seals, and when he opened each of the seals something happened in history connected to divine judgement, closing with the sixth seal and it refers to the final judgement.
What information would John have wanted as he considered the seals and the scroll? One obvious answer to that question would concern the existence of the Christian church and how it would fare during that period. The fifth seal had referred to the persecution experienced by the church. Yet one would expect John to desire more details about the cause of which he was the last of the apostles still living. Whether he wished that or not cannot be known, but we can see that he was given two visions to think about, and each of them refers to the church.
It is not difficult for Christians to work out that the vision of the great crowd in the second part of the chapter refers to the church (although some who conclude so would be surprised to discover that many Bible interpreters called dispensationalists think the vision is of another group called tribulation saints). Yet while they conclude that the great crowd is the church, they wonder who is referred to by the 144,000.
Remember who is in control
The interlude commences with a reference to heavenly control of the elements, depicted in the activities of the four angels, under the authority of another angel. We perhaps do not see the significance of this, but John’s readers would have. In the ancient world, the elements were regarded by pagans as being ruled by different false gods. John here says the elements are under the control of the only God and his agents, the angels.
The four angels are depicted as being ready to unleash storms on the earth, which is similar to what happened with the seals. It is very likely that the four angels function in a similar way to the four horsemen of chapter 6. Before they begin to destroy, another angel appears and commands them not to do so until the servants of God have been sealed. Then we are told that the number to be sealed was 144,000, made up of 12,000 from each tribe of Israel.
Who are the 144,000? I will mention some views that I think are wrong, before mentioning who I think they are. To begin with though, we should observe that they are called the servants of God.
First, we may have encountered Jehovah Witnesses who say that the 144,000 are the special believers who will inhabit heaven in eternity, whereas the great crowd mentioned later in the chapter are those who will live on the earth in eternity. Needless to say, we don’t believe that suggestion because there is no hint in the Bible that there are different classes of saved sinners. Of course, the Jehovah Witnesses have many other errors, particularly their denial that Jesus is fully divine. In any case, the JWs cannot be classified as the servants of God.
Second, we may have come across an interpretation that is very popular among evangelicals today. It is certainly presented on TV satellite programmes and in literature such as the Left Behind series of novels which has sold several million copies in recent years. Of course, the view has serious scholarly support as well among those who believe that Jesus will reign on the earth for one thousand years. Further, many well-known preachers would endorse this interpretation, which is basically this.
Chapters 4–19 of the Book of Revelation described the last seven years before Christ returns, a period that they call ‘the great tribulation’ (they get the seven years from the last week of the seventy weeks mentioned in Daniel 9:27). By this time, the church has been raptured away to heaven. Nevertheless, the gospel will be preached by converted Jews (that is the 144,000) and there will be a great number of converts (the great crowd who come out of the great tribulation).
Obviously, this idea cannot be dismissed in the short time we have tonight. I would make one obvious criticism: similar to the Jehovah Witnesses, they divide the people of God into more than one group. This again is a failure to see that Revelation 7 should not be interpreted literally.
A third interpretation of the passage is that the 144,000 refers to converted Israelites and the great crowd to converted Gentiles. If this is correct, it would mean that nobody was converted from the tribe of Dan, because it is missing from the list. Further it would suggest that there will be equal number of converts from each tribe. But the main problem is that this view also divides the people of God into different groups.
Who are the 144,000?
Personally, I think both visions are referring to the same people, but looked at from different viewpoints. The first group, the 144,000, describes God’s people during the time of God’s judgments on those who rebel against him and the second group, the great crowd, describes them after the time of judgment is over. The point of the vision of the 144,000 is to show that the people of God are safe despite what is happening throughout history.
We read in Revelation 14 about the other occasion the 144,000 are mentioned. The difference between them is that in Revelation 7 they are not yet in heaven whereas in Revelation 14 they have arrived in heaven, which is a reminder that they reached heaven safely. Moreover, in Revelation 14, the 144,000 are described as those who have been redeemed from the earth, which is another way of saying that they are Christians, and which fits in with them being also the servants of God.
We are told that each of the 144,00 is sealed. John tells us that the sealing process took place before the troubles commenced (7:3). The seal was the mark of ownership, whereby God intimated that the sealed people were his. Believers belong to God in a variety of ways: by creation, by eternal choice and by salvation. They were sealed in order that they would not be harmed by God’s judgements, although some of them would be harmed by human opposition.
The Bible normally interprets the seal given to believers as the Holy Spirit who comes to indwell them when they believe in Jesus. As the seal, he uses his power to protect them, to give them strength to face the troubles of life, and to give them foretastes of the heavenly world. His presence in their hearts is the guarantee that should they die they will be resurrected from the dead: ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you’ (Rom. 8:11).
Yet we should ask why they are described as 144,000. First, it is obviously a large number, and it is obviously a large number that is precise. Later on in the chapter, the large crowd is said to be such that no human could count. But we cannot deduce from that description that God does not know who his people are. God knows the exact number of his people.
The significance of 144,000 is that God knows the exact figure of all who are his and that none will be overlooked during the time of trouble. Whatever will be their lot, every one of them will reach the harbour in the end. Not one of them will be missing. Wherever they are and whenever they live, they will be kept through everything and each of them will reach the heavenly city.
Second, the use of the tribes of Israel to describe the people of God points to the fact that physical Israel is no longer the people of God. This is clear if we consider the ways they are referred to in the book of Revelation. We saw twice, when studying the seven churches, that a person is not a true Jew because of their race. Jesus describes two synagogues as synagogues of Satan.
To Israel had been given great privileges: ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen’ (Rom. 9:4-5). Nevertheless, they were no longer the people of God because they had refused to believe that Jesus was the crucified Messiah. Because of their refusal, they had been judged.
This does not mean that Jews will not be converted in the future; indeed, the time is coming when they will be converted as a race (as Paul teaches in Romans 11). But when that great time arrives, they will join the church of Jesus Christ and not be independent of it. Yet it is a fact that names once given to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament are given to believers in the New Testament, and among those names is the name Israel itself.
Third, it is important to note that the 144,000 are numbered as an army. This list of twelve tribes of Israel obviously has an Old Testament allusion and those readers who were familiar with the Old Testament would see the point. During the history of Old Testament Israel, it was common for each tribe to provide soldiers for a military campaign. John here is reminding his readers that they are involved in a battle against God’s enemies. To each of them came their call-up papers, which is the gospel invitation asking them to leave the army of the enemy and come and join the army of the king. They serve under a Commander who knows how to win the war, who has provided most of the victory already, and who will make each of them more than conquerors. They will receive a great reward for serving in his army.
Fourth, is there any significance in that the tribe of Dan is not mentioned? While there are a variety of listings of the tribes in the Old Testament, it is well known that the problem with the tribe of Dan throughout the history of Israel was one of idolatry. So it could be the case that the list of the tribes is highlighting the danger of giving worship to someone or something other than God. Or it could be saying that the true Israel, that is Christians, do not engage in idolatry.
‘Who will stand at the end of the day?’ was the question asked at the close of the sixth seal. Who will share in the victory parade? Those who have enlisted in the heavenly army and attained immortal glory by serving the heavenly Commander throughout the campaign that lasted throughout human history. And we will see next time what they will be like when they reach the eternal world.