Saturday, 15 July 2017

With the Lamb on Mount Zion (Revelation 14:1-5)

In chapter 13, John had described the activities of the two beasts which represented the political and religious powers ranged against the church of Christ. This combination shows itself in different ways. In the days of John, the political authority was Rome and the religious activities that were engaged in supported the authority in Caesar. Indeed, it was common for the authorities to require people to say that Caesar is Lord and the refusal of Christians to do so led to martyrdoms and other problems.

Chapter 13 also stated that the devil was behind the beasts who were attempting to destroy the church, and he still uses the same tactics today, as he has done throughout history. There are many places today where the combination of the political and the religious brings trouble for the church of Jesus.

The next activity of Jesus, from whom this vision came to John, was to give to his suffering church a picture of heaven. No doubt, this vision was sent to encourage believers as they faced troubles and trials. They were given a foretaste of the end to encourage them in the present. More details are going to be given about the activities of the beasts, but before they are given Jesus draws attention to the victory that his people will experience.

This brief vision is like the other interludes in the Book of Revelation in which readers were given a respite from reading the horrific descriptions of what was happening in the world. It is good for us to take such interludes often because we are engaged in spiritual conflict. How much thought have we given to heaven this week? After all, Jesus in John 14 before he told his disciples that they would have trouble in the world informed them about what he would be doing for them in the many rooms of the Father’s house, a wonderful picture of heaven.

We know that idea of the sealed 144,000 has been used already in this book. The difference between the previous reference in chapter 7 and this latest reference is that in chapter 7 they are viewed before the troubles and persecution whereas in chapter 14 they are described as after the period of trouble is over. In chapter 7, they were sealed before the troubles with divine names on their foreheads, a sign that God would protect his servants. Now they have arrived in Mount Zion, indicating to John’s readers that God will keep his people.

The place
The location where the 144,000 are gathered is Mount Zion. In the Old Testament, Mount Zion was the place of power where David had established his throne. It is not difficult for us to see here a reminder that the Son of David, whom David had sung about in Psalm 89, was in charge, seated on the throne of God. Although looking by sight does not discover this fact, looking by faith will. Christians recognise that the real place of power is not located in the machinations of the first beast, but in Jesus who has received all power in heaven and on earth.

Of course, Mount Zion was also the place of worship in Jerusalem in Israel. There, under the authority of the high priest, the religious system of Israel functioned. All this was a picture of what Jesus would do as the true High Priest who leads and enables the worship taking place in heaven. There are many aspects to his priestly activity that have been revealed to us for our encouragement.

So we can see that the place reveals to us the wonder of the person of Jesus. He is unique as the One who is both king and priest. As king he has all power in heaven and in earth and as priest he represents his people permanently in heaven.

Here in the vision he is described as the Lamb and is depicted as standing. Being called the Lamb is a reminder of his character and his sacrifice. Our minds go to the biblical requirements necessary for a lamb to be offered as a sacrifice in the Old Testament ritual. It had to be without blot or blemish. In other words, it depicted perfection, a reminder that what was needed was a sinless substitute. And we know that Jesus was sinless. He never had a wrong thought, he never spoke a wrong word, and he never committed a wrong action.

On the cross, the sinless Saviour offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. He endured the wrath of God and paid the penalty for their sins. Unlike all other sacrifices, he returned to life three days later. This is how he can be in this place of prominence. After his resurrection, he ascended to heaven a few weeks later. John is reminded by Jesus that in the centre of the world of glory is Jesus, and he wants us to remember that as well.

Jesus is described as standing, which is probably a contrast to the devil who is also described as standing (12:17). A difference between them is what they are standing on – the devil stands on unstable sands whereas Jesus stands on a solid mountain.

Why is Jesus standing? Is he singing to the 144,000? After all, John says that the voice he hears is like the sound of rushing waters, which is how the voice of Jesus is described in Revelation 1:15. He says in this chapter that the only ones who can learn this song are his people, the redeemed. Do we have here a fulfilment of the Saviour’s promise described in Psalm 22:22 and quoted in Hebrews 2:12? If that is the case, it will be wonderful to hear.

The people
John describes believers as being a specific number who were sealed with a special branding on their foreheads. Back in chapter 7, God had sealed 144,000 before the period of troubles that John described in chapter 6. The period of troubles was that between the two comings of Jesus. In chapter 7, he had also described the outcome of the period of troubles, which would be the salvation of a number that no one can count. I suppose one could ask if all the 144,000 survived to become part of the final number. Here, John is told that each of the 144,000 will be saved, a reminder that Jesus will lose none who trust in him for mercy.

Each of the people of God share the blessing of a joint-relationship with the Saviour and with the heavenly Father. This relationship began on earth, and the idea of sealing reminds us that God’s people are both God’s possession and God’s servants. We can describe this as our exaltation and our responsibility. God delights to have them in his family, but he wants them to serve him wholeheartedly. Sadly, in this life, their enjoyment of their privileges and the commitment to their responsibility is marred by their sins. In this life, they are grateful for God’s restoring grace. And we have a reminder here that in the eternal state God’s people will enjoy fully their privileges and give themselves wholeheartedly to his service.

The praise
John then describes what he heard from Mount Zion – he heard a loud song. Its loudness could only be compared to three expressions of striking noise: many waters, thunder and music. The impression that is given is that the song drowned out other noises, even noises that may sometimes be heard on Mount Zion. One commentator describes it as follows: ‘The sound is grand and gentle, lofty and lovely.’

John mentions the audience of this heavenly choir – the elders and the cherubim. These angels have a place of special privilege in heaven. The elders are depicted as sitting on thrones and the cherubim are described as the guardians of the divine throne. They are heavenly authorities and one of their roles would be to ensure that nothing unsuitable would be found in the divine presence. Instead of preventing the saints from drawing near, they are delighted to allow them to stand there.

Then we are told the qualification for participating in this song and that is the experience of redemption. The implication is that the redeemed are about to learn to sing it. As we know, redemption is a prominent theme in the Bible. The basic point of it involves purchase. Sinners were purchased by Jesus when he paid the penalty for their sins. One of the ways in which redemption was used in Israel was through the practice of a kinsman redeemer who would rescue his relations and recover their lost inheritance. Here the redeemed are with their Redeemer and they can see that he is indeed their kinsman because he is also human as well as divine.

The question can be asked, ‘What about their inheritance?’ Two answers can be given, depending on what one has in mind as the inheritance. One answer is that the inheritance is the creation and in that sense the redeemed here are still waiting for it, although it is not far away from the moment when Jesus will make all things new. The other answer is that the inheritance is the presence of God, the presence that Adam lost in the garden of Eden by his fall into sin. Jesus through his death has recovered for his people permanent access to the divine presence.

What else are we told about the redeemed when they learn the song? They will be united as they sing. As we know, unity has been hard to find in Christ’s church on earth. But when the day of glory comes, unity will be expressed fully and gladly. Jesus had prayed for this reality in John 17. Of course, the song they will sing is described as new. The newness could be connected to its difference from the old songs of the angels, although that is unlikely. Perhaps the newness is a reference to the increased depth of understanding that the singers have of the salvation themes mentioned in their new song.

We are also told about them that Jesus will be standing before them as they sing and celebrate. Given that the qualification for participating is redemption, they will sing to Jesus with gratitude for paying the price of their rescue. Or given that they have all been redeemed, perhaps they will be singing with Jesus as he leads the praise of heaven.

The purity
The 144,000 are next contrasted with the type of people who thronged pagan temples. To us who have never seen such behaviour the contrast might seem unusual. But it would be an obvious one at that time. Pagan temples were well-known for their immoral practices. Obviously, such behaviour was offensive to God. Several times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, God’s professing people were rebuked for getting involved in such rituals. It was a temptation to them in the first century because so much of everyday life was connected to what went on in those temples and Jesus had rebuked two of the seven churches – Pergamum and Thyatira – for tolerating wrong practices. The obvious factor in such behaviour was that it involved compromise with the world.

In contrast, the proper response is wholehearted commitment. From one of point of view, the life of heaven is a continuation of what believers do on earth, which is to follow the Lamb. This will be the future experience of the 144,000 throughout eternity. But it was also their determination when they were on earth because that is what a true disciple does.

The prospect
John has already said that the redeemed will follow the Lamb wherever he goes. In Revelation 7, in the passage following the description of the 144,000, the large crowd of the redeemed is led by the heavenly Shepherd to the fountains of the waters of life. He knows the best places to take them to.

They are further described as ‘firstfruits for God and the Lamb’. Firstfruits was a sample of the harvest that was offered to God. It was a pledge that more was to come. If that is what is meant here, then John could be indicating that believers are the guarantee that the rest of creation will be restored by God, which is how James uses the idea in James 1:18: ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’

Alternatively, the idea of firstfruits could mean that they are consecrated to God, which is what a worshipper did when he offered his sample of the harvest to God. The idea of consecration would be strengthened by the statement that their speech and character is now faultless. Heaven is a place of wonders and two of them will be the pure speech and faultless characters of those who once were sinners.

We should thank God for giving to us this interlude during which we can look ahead into the eternal world and see some of its glories. It is an encouragement for us to do so when life gets tough. And it is an encouragement also to realise that we are a lot closer to it than were the believers who first received this vision of heaven.

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