Posted by: stpowen | June 26, 2012

Revelation, Part 4. The 144,000 and the Great Crowd

2 Tim 2:19.  Nevertheless, the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal:  “The Lord knows those who are His.”’

Malachi 4:1-2.  ‘”For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.  And the day which is coming shall burn them up,” says the LORD of hosts, “That will leave them neither root nor branch.  But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow like stall-fed calves.”’ 

We ended Chapter Six with the opening of the sixth seal which brought about the day of Judgement upon the wicked with the return of Christ.  The chapter closed (v17) with the question, ‘Who is able to stand?’  Chapter Seven answers that question.  Most commentators see it as a sort of parenthesis before the opening of the seventh seal showing the other side of God’s grand scheme (1). Having shown God’s judgements upon the wicked and impenitent, the Holy Spirit now reveals His plan for His elect.

The chapter opens with four angels holding back the four winds of the earth (that is, all the winds, North, South, East and West).  These winds are not gentle breezes, but tempests or hurricanes that sweep all before them and spread ruin in their path.  They represent the apocalyptic destructions of 6:12-17 (cf. Jer 49:36).  The angels are depicted as poised to bring down these judgements upon the world.

Then (v2), a fifth angel comes from the east- the source of light and life- whence the Sun of Righteousness arises with healing in His wings (Mal 4:1-2).  He carries with him, ‘the seal of the living God.’  God’s awful work of judgement will not start until His elect, His true people, are sealed.  This seal is obviously something different from the seals on the scroll which we looked at in Chapter six.  The angel fixes this seal on the foreheads of the servants of God.  So what is it?  What does it represent?  Well it certainly is not circumcision or baptism, neither of which is ever described as a seal of God’s people (2).  Without doubt the seal is the Holy Spirit.  A seal is something that signifies authenticity.  You can buy jars of jam or pickles marked with the inscription, ‘None genuine without this seal.’  It is only when the Queen places the Royal seal upon a bill passed by parliament that it becomes the law of the land.  In Him [Christ] you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, when you believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise……And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.’ (Eph 1:13; 4:40.  cf.  2 Cor 1:22).  It is worth noting that the seal is placed on the foreheads of God’s people.  The fact that we are Christians should be plain for all to see.  If it is not, then we should make certain that our foreheads are not bearing an altogether different mark (13:16-18).

This sealing has a parallel in the Passover (Exod 12) when every Israelite house bore a seal of blood which protected them from the judgement meted out to the Egyptians.  Another parallel is found in Ezekiel 8 and 9.  Here Ezekiel is shown in a vision the various abominations being committed against God by the men of Jerusalem.  Then (Ezek 9:2) he sees six men poised to deliver judgement upon the city, but also another man dressed in linen with a pen and inkwell at his side.  This man was to go through the city and mark with a sign the foreheads of ‘those who sigh and cry over the abominations that are done within [Jerusalem]’ (v4).   Those without the mark are to be slain without pity.   We can see therefore that the seal of Rev 7 is the invisible mark that God places on His saints to signify that they are members of His family and, like Noah, are protected from His judgements on the ungodly.   ‘Nevertheless, the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His”’  (2 Tim 2:19).  Though the mark is invisible, it should be possible for others to read it (2 Cor 2:15-16).

John does not immediately see these people who have been sealed; it is important to remember this.  Rather, he hears their number- 144,000, ‘From all the tribes of the children of Israel’.  When he looks, he sees a vast crowd that no man can number (v9).  I take it therefore that the 144,000 and the great crowd represent the same people.  All numbers in Revelation are symbolic, and this one is no different.  A thousand, in the Bible, means ‘all that there are’ (cf. Psalm 50:10; 90:4; Deut 7:9; 2 Peter 3:8).   Twelve is the number of the covenant:  the twelve patriarchs times the twelve Apostles times all that there are equals the whole number of the elect from both old and new testaments.  These people are ‘All the tribes of the children of Israel.’  ‘Israel’ here does not refer to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; rather it signifies the whole people of God, believers in Christ Jesus, for,  ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.  There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus; and if you are Christ’s you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise’’ (Gal 3:28-29.  cf. Eph 2:14-16).  

Then (vs 5-8) we have a list of the twelve tribes of Israel, but there are several unusual features about it.  First of all, Judah heads the list instead of Reuben who was the eldest of Jacob’s sons (Exod 1:2 etc.).  Doubtless this is because the Lord Jesus Christ was of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10; Heb 7:14) which therefore takes pre-eminence.  Also, the priestly tribe of Levi was given no inheritance in Israel and was not numbered with the others (Num 1:47-50), so Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph were made separate tribes to keep the covenant number of twelve (Num 1:32-34).   In this list, however, both Levi  (3) and Joseph are included and Ephraim and Dan left out.  Why is that?  It is because those two tribes were given over to idolatry, as described in 1 Kings 12:28-29:  ‘Therefore the king [Jeroboam] asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.  Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  And he set one up in Bethel [in Ephraim] and the other he put in Dan’ (cf. 2 Kings 10:29).  All this is to illustrate two seemingly conflicting facts; firstly that, ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel’ (Rom 9:6):  not physical Israel but the true Israelites (John 1:47; Rom 2:28-29) are the genuine people of God; and secondly that, ‘And so all Israel will be saved’ (Rom 11:26).  Twelve tribes are still there; not one of God’s elect will fail to arrive in heaven.   Something similar can be seen in John 6:37:-

‘All that the Father gives Me will come to Me………’

The Father gave the Son a people to redeem, and He has done so by the shedding of His blood upon the cross.  Not one of those for whom He died will ever perish.

‘………..And the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.’

Yet there is no exclusion to salvation.  No one who trusts in Christ will ever be told, “I’m sorry, there’s no heaven for you- you’re no one of the elect.  ‘Let him who thirsts come.  Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely’ (Rev 22:17).  But when they come so freely, it is because God the Father has set His love on them from all eternity; God the Son has redeemed them at measureless cost, and God the Holy Spirit has drawn them  with lovingkindness to Christ and sealed them until the day of redemption (cf. Eph 1:3-14)..

So when John has heard the number of the elect, he looks, ‘And behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues’ (v9).  This is what the 12 tribes of the true Israel look like:  ‘For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh’ (Phil 3:3).  This is not ‘Replacement Theology,’ it’s Inclusion Theology!  ‘For He himself is our peace, who has made both [Jew and Gentile] one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation…….so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, this making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity’ (Eph 2:14-16).  The grouping of nations, tribes, peoples and tongues’ occurs seven times in  Revelation, signifying total comprehensiveness.  Nation is a geographical entity; tribe signifies physical and family ties; people speaks of ethnic groups, and tongues (or languages) covers linguistic groups.  In heaven we shall see the ultimate in diversity, yet all shall be one in Christ Jesus.

This vast crowd is ‘clothed in white robes,’ they are saints, holy ones- clothed with the spotless righteousness of Christ (cf. 6:11; Zech 3; Isaiah 61:10).  In their hands they hold palm branches, a sign of victory and rejoicing (Lev 23:40; John 12:13).  They all sing the same song (v10) for their tongues are now all the same.  The curse of Babel is removed, and the minor differences that kept God’s people apart on earth will disappear in heaven (1 Cor 13:12).  In their acclamation, salvation is ascribed to God, for it is all of Him and nothing of us.

The saints have started the praise, and now (vs 11-12), with the angels standing around the throne, the elders and the living creatures bow down and they all worship together.  Seven attributes are ascribed to God; He is perfect in all His ways.  Notice how closely the attributes resemble those ascribed to the Lamb in 5:12).

Vs 13-14.  ‘Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are those arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?”  And I said to him, “Sir, you know”’ (compare Ezek 37:3).

This question and answer serve to draw attention to the reply of verse 14.  John should have known the answer as he had already observed the opening of the fifth seal and seen the martyrs receiving their white robes.

V 14b.  ‘So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”’

The NKJV translates the tenses correctly, unlike the NIV.  The saints ‘come’ or, perhaps even better, ‘are coming, ’ out of tribulation.  They are coming throughout the age, but they previously ‘washed [past tense] their robes,’ that is they repented and trusted in Christ. The Great Tribulation, in my opinion, is life.   Every Christian will experience to some extent the opposition, hatred or contempt of the unbelieving world, along with the temptation to join it or compromise with it.  ‘In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33).  We will all pass through tribulation, some more, some less than others, and all of us will come out of it, ‘Before the throne of God,’ into His very presence, never to leave His side.  ‘And God will wipe every tear from their eyes’ (v 17). This is the action of a parent to a child- God Himself stooping down to wipe the tears from the faces of His children.  Tears of sorrow, tears of guilt, tears of regret; God will wipe them all away forever.

In 8:1, the seventh seal is opened, and ‘There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.’  Interpretations of this vary.  Some commentators suggest that this is the peace and tranquillity of the eternal state, but I take a different view.  The seventh seal is the White Throne judgement of 20:11ff.  There will be bliss for God’s saints, damnation for His enemies.  The Cosmos looks on in awed silence.  ‘But the LORD is in His holy temple.  Let all the earth keep silence before Him’ (Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13).

Notes

(1) There is a similar parenthesis between the sounding of the sixth and seventh trumpets (10:1-11:15).

(2) Circumcision was a seal, not of the faith of Abraham, but of the righteousness of that faith (Rom 4:11).  It is never described as the seal of anything else nad baptism is never described as a seal of anything at all.

(3) Perhaps to show that Christians are a nation of priests.

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