Pastor Scott Andrews | September 25, 2022
I’m sure many of you know the Bible was written over a period of some 1500 years by 40 different authors – kings, priests, prophets, fishermen, a tax collector, a doctor. The 66 books that make up the Bible are different compositions – some history, some prophecy, some books of praise or lament, some wise sayings, some gospels telling the life of Christ, some letters. At some point, they were compiled into what has become our Bible. Who decided what books made it in the canon of Scripture and which books were excluded? God did. He’s the ultimate author and superintended the books we have – preserved them in such a way that they can be read and fully trusted – the very Word of God.
So, the Bible has been read, studied, memorized and proclaimed for thousands of years. For ease of reading, studying, memorizing and preaching, at some point chapters and verses were added. I don’t mean additional chapters and verses – I mean the chapter and verse divisions – so I can say turn to Revelation chapter 7, and you know where we are. Those divisions were added separately over a few hundred years:
- Stephen Langton added the chapter divisions around 1227 AD.
- Rabbi Nathan added the verse divisions to the OT around 1448 AD.
- Robert Estienne added the verse divisions to the NT around 1551 AD.
- The Geneva Bible in the 16th Century was the first English Bible to contain all chapter and verse divisions.
All that resulted in 1,189 chapters in the Bible, with 31,173 verses. I might just add, with no contradictions, regardless of what you might have heard. Now, why do I say all that this morning? Because as helpful as chapter and verse divisions are, they are somewhat arbitrary. Again, they were not included by the original authors, and are therefore not inspired. They are helpful, and most of the time, appropriate divisions. But sometimes, the chapter divisions obscure the meaning or clarity of the text. Such is the case today in our continuing study of the book of Revelation.
As I mentioned earlier, we are about to begin chapter 7. But, let’s remember for a moment what comes before. You see, there is a beautiful flow to these chapters. Back in chapter 4, John was transported to heaven where he received a vision of the throne room – with God the Creator sitting on His throne. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders continually praise this One who was, who is, and who is to come – for He created all things, and because of His will they existed, and were created.
In chapter 5, John looks a little closer and sees a book sealed with seven seals in the right hand of the One sitting on the throne. A careful search is made throughout the heavens and the earth – even the dead under the earth – and no one was found worthy to take the book and open its seals. So John wept much, somehow understanding the importance of the book to bring God’s creative order to its fitting conclusion – to include the redemption of His children.
But, one of the elders told John, stop weeping, because the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David had overcome so as to take the book and break its seals. John turned to see the One worthy, but what greeted His eyes was not a Lion, but a Lamb standing as it had been slain. From there, the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders and myriads of angels surrounding the throne praised the Lamb – for He had been slain and resurrected, and thereby purchased for God people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. God the Creator was praised in chapter 4, God the Redeemer was praised in chapter 5.
Which brought us to chapter 6, where we saw the Lamb – that is, Jesus – take the book and begin breaking its seals. The first four were the so-called four horsemen of the apocalypse – a white horse and rider, a red horse and rider, a black horse and rider, and an ashen or pale horse and rider. We were told they corresponded to war and conquest, civil strife, famine, and death. In fact, the fourth rider who is called death and followed by Hades, the place of the dead, was given power over one-fourth of the world’s population, to kill them.
The rest of the chapter contained two more seals – the fifth and the sixth seal. We won’t see the seventh seal, which contains the seven trumpet judgments, until chapter 8. The fifth seal revealed the souls of the martyrs under the altar of heaven, asking when God would avenge their blood on those who had taken their lives. They were given white robes and told to rest a little while longer, until the number of their brothers to be killed would be killed.
Which led to the ominous sixth seal. Some suggest that the sixth seal is in answer to the prayers of the martyred saints of the fifth seal. Well, there, we saw a list of cataclysmic, cosmic disturbances that will fall upon the earth:
- A great earthquake
- The sun became black as sackcloth made of goat’s hair
- The moon became like blood
- The stars of the sky fell to the earth, like unripe figs when shaken by the wind
- The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up
- Every mountain and island were removed from their places
This is standard apocalyptic language – we read it in several places through Scripture speaking of the last day – the Day of the Lord – the end of time. Somehow, the earth dwellers – the unbelievers on the earth – know that it is the wrath of God and the Lamb that is being poured out on them in cataclysmic, creation-shaking fashion. Do they repent, and bow the knee to God? No. Instead, they hide themselves in caves and rocks. They said to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” End of chapter.
That’s the way the chapter ended – with this question, who is able to stand? The sixth chapter and the sixth seal ends. But, chapter 7 is the answer to the question. There are those who will stand, meaning, they will stand in the face of the wrath of God and the Lamb. Look at chapter 7, verse 9:
9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes…
The question for you this morning is will you hide, or will you stand? But now this is important – it does not mean they will be protected from persecution, maybe even martyrdom. There are two things happening in the book of Revelation. First, God is pouring out His wrath on unbelievers – the ones who have rejected His Son and have persecuted and killed His followers.
So God’s wrath has come – but it will not come against His own. They will stand, they will be marked, they will be sealed. And yet, persecution from earth dwellers – led by the one they worship – the beast, the dragon, Satan himself – that persecution will continue. But what is the end of each – that is, followers of Jesus, and followers of the beast?
That is what this book is about. Encouraging believers in two ways: first, you will not face God’s wrath; and second, the end of the book, the end to which we are headed is the new heaven and the new earth, where we will stand before God, live with God forever.
So again, chapter 7 answers the question posed at the end of chapter 6 – who is able to stand, or withstand God’s wrath? So read the text with me today, Revelation 7:1-8.
This is one of those passages that, as you read it in your Bible reading, it can seem rather confusing at first glance. One of those passages upon which people are quite divided – my commentaries are about equally divided on its interpretation. But when studied in its context, as we are seeking to do, it makes a bit more sense – even though we may not agree on certain details of the text. Regardless of who the 144,000 are, the result is the same – believers are sealed and protected from the wrath of God. You’ll see that as we dive in.
Most call this whole chapter an interlude – one that appears after the sixth and before the seventh seal. We’ll see the same thing in the next series of judgments – that is, after the sixth and before the seventh trumpet. It gives us, the readers, an opportunity to breathe. Through chapter 6 and the first six seals, it’s been a rapid pace of mayhem and destruction. And at this point, you’re overwhelmed. War and conquest, civil strife, famine, death, martyrs in heaven crying out for God to avenge their deaths, cosmic, cataclysmic disturbances at a worldwide – indeed, even a creation-wide scale. Take a breath.
Chapter 7. What does all this mean for the believer? Now, depending on your position on the tribulation period, the 70th Week of Daniel, you may or may not be disturbed at what you read. Many teach, with some biblical warrant, that Christians will not be here when the seals are opened – or the trumpets and bowls for that matter. Why? Because some believe we will be raptured right before this happens. That Jesus will come back to the sky in a secret coming, and all believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and taken to heaven before all these cataclysmic judgments are unleashed. There is in that sense protection from the wrath of God.
Again, there may be good reason to believe that, but we have not encountered that in the book of Revelation thus far. In fact, chapter 7 seems to say otherwise – at least we see believers in Jesus who are here. If you’re simply reading the book without the system of interpretation that says, don’t worry, you won’t be here, there’s no reason to assume you won’t be here. In fact, a normal reading of the text indicates that the church – believers – will be here. As I have suggested, it is my belief that we will be here – and it is therefore my responsibility as a pastor to prepare you, God’s people, for the coming chaos. To be clear – not for divine wrath that will be poured out on the earth – but for the persecution that will undoubtedly increase because of God’s wrath. If you hold that we will be raptured and not be present – that’s fine – lots of good and faithful biblical scholars suggest such. But we have not seen that clearly in our study so far.
To be fair, in the letter to Philadelphia, Jesus did say in 3:10, “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” To test the earth dwellers, the unbelievers. True enough, but many suggest the idea could be Jesus will keep His faithful followers through the hour of testing that is coming on the earth – as we will see in chapter 7.
So, this is a challenging chapter, but let’s make our way through these first 8 verses with the following outline:
- The Sealing of God’s Servants (1-3)
- The Number (and Identity) of Those Sealed (4-8)
In verse 1, John says, after this – that is, after the opening of the sixth seal and the question, “who is able to stand?” This is not a chronological statement – that after the sixth seal, this happened. Rather, this is, after this vision of the first six seals, I saw – and many suggest the first 8 verses actually happened before the seals are opened, and the rest of the chapter we’ll see next week is after the judgments are completed – showing the end of time – the eschaton.
So, after this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any trees. The four corners of the earth does not mean that John or others saw the earth as a flat square – it’s simply an idiomatic way of referring to all the earth – the four corners of the earth. Now, some suggest, following chapter 6, that these four angels holding back to four winds are holding back the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They have been summoned, but before they can dole out their mayhem of war and strife and famine and death, something has to happen first. That’s possible, maybe even likely, but we can’t be dogmatic.
So the four angels are holding back the four winds so that they might not blow over everything – land and sea and trees. Why trees? Even then, people understood trees were needed for life – they represented life, the tree of life. We see further in verse 2 these four winds are granted – divine authority – the power to harm the earth. But not yet.
Verse 2, and I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun – that, from the East. Why the East? Lots of guesses – remember, John is on the Island of Patmos, and the seven letters were written to the seven churches of Asia Minor. To the East would have been Israel – the holy land – the place of God’s people and the Messiah.
And this angel had the seal of the living God. The phrase living God appears several times in this book – He is the true and the living God – to be differentiated from all the so-called gods who are neither true nor living. He alone is the living God. And this angel had His seal. We know what a seal is – a piece of clay or wax impressed with the king or the official’s signet ring. The seal signifies three things: ownership, protection, and authenticity or genuineness.
Verse 3, and the angel said in a loud voice to the angels holding back the destructive power of the winds, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we [we assumes other angels] have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.
Stop right there. This seal of the living God was to be affixed or stamped on the foreheads of His servants. That probably rings a bell with you – wait a minute, aren’t followers of the beast, unbelievers, marked in their foreheads and right hand with the mark of the beast whose number is 666? Yes. But these marked by God are different.
Now, this is quite similar to what happens in Ezekiel 9. The Jews in Jerusalem are facing God’s judgment – His wrath – because of their idolatry. Chapter 8 describes the horrible and idolatrous abominations that existed throughout the city – even among the priests and in the Temple. Ezekiel 8 says:
6 And He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, so that I would be far from My sanctuary? But yet you will see still greater abominations.”
The chapter then goes on to describe the idolatries that were happening everywhere – again, even in the Temple. So, the chapter ends with these words:
18 “Therefore, I indeed will deal in wrath. My eye will have no pity nor will I spare; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, yet I will not listen to them.”
And chapter 9 begins this vision of slaughter – of God’s wrath being poured out, verse 1, “Then He cried out in my hearing with a loud voice saying, ‘Draw near, O executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand.’”
But then we read these words in verses 3 and 4:
3 Then the glory of the God of Israel went up from the cherub on which it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed in linen at whose loins was the writing case.
4 The Lord said to him, “Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst.”
Do you see – mark them in the forehead first, before the executioners go through the city – so they will be protected from My wrath.
The same thing happens in Revelation 7. Mark them with My seal in the forehead before My wrath is poured out. Notice, they aren’t delivered from the earth, but simply from God’s wrath. Remember, a seal signifies authenticity, ownership and protection. These so marked are owned by God, genuine believers, and will be protected by God from His wrath.
This is not the only time this seal is mentioned. We see it:
At the fifth trumpet in 9:4 when the locusts come from the pit to destroy the earth, “They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” We see, again, that those with God’s seal are protected from His wrath.
Very interesting, in 14:1, we see what the seal actually was, “Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of the Father written on their foreheads.”
One more for good measure, 22:1-4, describing the new heaven and new earth, we read:
1 Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb,
2 in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
3 There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him;
4 they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.
This book was written to encourage believers – that they will be protected from the wrath of the Lamb, and their end will be the new heaven and the new earth – with His name written on their foreheads. Symbolism likely, but the point is, you will be authenticated, owned and protected by God forever.
Which leads quickly to the second point – the number and identity of those who receive the seal of God in verses 4-8. We see in verse 4 the number given is one hundred and forty-four thousand from each tribe of the sons of Israel. Now, we’ve seen that numbers in Revelation are symbolic – they may be actual and literal, but they likely refer to something more fully and deeply. The number 144,000 is 12 times 12 times 1000, which is 10 times 10 times 10. Most agree, regardless of your understanding of the identity of this multitude, that the number represents the full number of those sealed. It may be a literal 144,000, or it may be referring to the perfect and full number of those sealed. No reason to lose any sleep over that.
We are told further that there are 12,000 from each of the tribes of the sons of Israel:
Judah – probably named first since the Messiah Jesus came from that tribe
Several things to note about the list. First, the order probably isn’t that important, since when the 12 tribes are listed in the OT, there are 18 variations of the list. What is interesting is that Joseph had two sons – Manasseh and Ephraim – who are usually listed instead of Joseph, making 13 tribes – but Levi is usually excluded, since they were the priestly tribe and did not receive an allotment of land.
But here, we see Levi listed, and Joseph and Manasseh. So Joseph’s name replaces Ephraim, who we know had the right of the firstborn – so that’s not too challenging. But if Levi is listed, and two tribes from Joseph, who is excluded, and why? The tribe of Dan. Why? Most surmise it’s because of their rather early and frequent idolatry. You can read Judges 18ff to see that.
Now, the real question is – who are these 12 tribes? This is where the commentaries are equally divided – frankly, depending on their system of interpretation. Do they refer to Israel or to the church? Some suggest these represent all believers alive at this time – both Jews and Gentiles – that is, the church. Why do they say that? Well, there are lots of NT passages which indicate that the church is the true Israel, that the Christian is the true son or daughter of Abraham. Consider a few verses:
Romans 2:28-29 – For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
Galatians 3:28-29 – now remember, Galatians was written to combat those who were saying that salvation for Gentiles came from believing in Christ and keeping the Law of Moses. But 3:28-29 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”
And so, many suggest that the church is the true Israel of God – the recipients of God’s promises made to Israel. A couple more verses. Philippians 3:3 says, “for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God.” Further, incredibly in I Peter 2:9, Peter applies OT passages concerning Israel to the church, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.”
So, there is biblical warrant to suggest that the church is the true people God – made up of both Jews and Gentiles – and that Abraham’s physical blood flowing through your veins is not the issue – but rather, are you Abraham’s descendants by faith. We note also that in the new Jerusalem, the gates and the foundation have the names of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles – representing one people of God. Perhaps it’s why the number sealed is one hundred and forty-four – 12 times 12.
But, still others suggest that the 144,000, with 12 thousand from each tribe, are literal Jews who have become believers in the Jewish Messiah named Jesus. The numbers and tribes are too specific to refer to the church as a whole. Further, there are promises made to Israel which are to be kept to Israel. And Romans 9-11 indicates that God is not done with Israel as a nation, and that there is coming a day when the Jews will accept Jesus as their Messiah – as a nation – all Israel will be saved as in a day. And they suggest that happens here – in the tribulation.
So, which one is it? I’m not sure – my commentaries are equally divided. I read one and go, yeah, that’s it, then another and go, oh, that’s it. I lean toward these 144,000 being actual Jewish believers sealed in the tribulation, and represent all believers who will be similarly sealed. If that sounds like a copout – that I’m suggesting that it is both Jewish believers representing Jewish and Gentile believers – so be it. My point is, God is not done with Israel, nor have His promises to Israel been set aside, and there is coming a day when Israel will see Jesus as their Messiah – and we see them as such here.
Does that mean the church is not here? I personally don’t think so. Why are there believers here of any sort – Jew or Gentile – in the tribulation? Because they are here to be persecuted, to be martyred, to be protected from God’s wrath, to be witnesses to Christ and His gospel, and to inherit the new heaven and new earth. Regardless of your personal position, the fact is, God seals those who are His during the tribulation, and protects them in the midst of great persecution – and the best is yet to come.
This is the purpose of the book. And in these first 8 verses of this interlude, 144,000 are sealed – either believing Jews or all believers – and protected from God’s wrath. Persecution from unbelievers is still their lot – as the NT promises throughout. But good news – the answer to the question, who can stand? There is coming a day when we will stand before the throne of God and join the throng of worshipers there.