Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)
At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon the enemies of his people. As he comes, his enemies go running for cover, crying out that “the great day of his [Jesus] wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17). They are asking this question because they themselves feel – maybe for the first time – the reality that they cannot hide from or stand before the Lamb of God who is coming now in wrath to judge his enemies and rescue his people.
It is interesting to note the categories of people that are mentioned in verse 15. These are the people who are exposed to the Final Judgment and running from the wrath of the Lamb: “the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man.” These describe people from every category and walk of life, from the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless. Listen, our society might tell you that oppression is the great sin and that those in power are those who oppress and therefore the powerful are the sinners in our society. Of course oppression is evil, and the church should always agree with the testimony of Scripture about it, but the Biblical vision of reality fits what we actually see much better than what is currently being advocated by the gatekeepers of our society. For the Bible reminds us that the mighty and the marginalized are all quite capable of injustice and wickedness. In other words, our society has created very convenient definitions of sin, whereas the Bible is much more broad and realistic.
Moreover, we are told that power means oppression. But how do you correct that? If you remove people from power you are only going to create a brand-new set of power-brokers and therefore oppressors. However, though the Bible does not say that we should ignore injustice when it comes from places of power, at the same time it provides a surer ground for pursuing justice when it reminds us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. We need to hold the powerful to account and we need to hold everyone else to account as well. All men and women, regardless of their place in society, are quite capable of selfish acts and criminal behavior. We see that here in Rev. 6:15. It is not just the rich and the politicians that are running for cover here. Even the slaves are running for cover. Even the marginalized are running for cover and trying to hide from the coming wrath of God.
And at the end of the day, what we are reminded of here is that it won’t matter how much power or money or influence you had in this world. Nor will poverty or being a political outcast put you in a position of favor with God. Our value doesn’t depend upon our status among men, whether measured by wealth or influence. Our value lies in the fact that we are made by God in the image of God. But the problem is that we have defaced this image of God through sin. We have sinned against our neighbor, and above all we have sinned against God. This means that the question of whether or not we can stand is not an automatic yes. In fact, according to the Bible, for many people the answer will be no. What will matter is whether or not you can stand before God. What will matter is whether or not God will look upon you in the Final Judgment with mercy and grace or with anger and wrath.
The question they ask is therefore a question we should all ask ourselves: Who can stand? Who can stand before a holy God?
This is relevant not only on its own merits, but also in light of the seventh chapter of Revelation. For the purpose and function of this chapter is at least partly to answer the question posed in 6:17. The seventh chapter of Revelation tells us who will be able to stand. It gives us the answer. And so that’s what we
want to do this morning: we want to consider the answer to the question, “Who can stand?” by looking at Rev. 7. First of all, we want to consider how the people of God stand – or their stability. Then we want to end on a consideration of who will stand – or their identity.
In what way do God’s people stand? The Stability of the people of God.
Chapter 7 unfolds for us in two parts. In verses 1-8, John hears the number of those who are sealed and kept safe from the four winds which will bring hurt upon the earth, and sea, and trees. In verses 9-17, John sees an innumerable multitude who have come out of tribulation and have entered into rest in the very presence of God. I’m going to argue that these two descriptions really are pointing to the same group of people, namely, the church. In two scenes, the Lord is showing John that he will protect the church from the wrath of God, even though that doesn’t mean they will be protected from the tribulation of men. And then the Lord is showing John that he will provide for the church that he protects.
The chapter begins with John seeing four angels standing on the four corners of the earth (not meant to be taken literally, of course – this is just meant to symbolize the universal nature of their mission), “holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of God in their foreheads” (1-3). The winds are God’s instruments of judgment upon a wicked humanity. This has precedent in the OT prophecies. For example, the prophet Jeremiah prophesied about the nation of Elam: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Behold, I will break the bow of Elam, the chief of their might. And upon Elam will I bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven, and will scatter them toward all those winds; and there shall be no nation whither the outcasts of Elam shall not come” (Jer. 49:35-36). That these winds bring judgment is shown in the fact that they are clearly intended to hurt the earth, sea, and trees. Also, this is precisely what we see happen in the judgments of the trumpets and the bowls later on. But like the plagues of Egypt, the hurt done to the earth will impact the people who are served by them.
But before this can happen, another angel tells them to hold back until God’s servants are sealed. We learn later that this seal upon their foreheads is the name of God the Father and the Lamb (cf. 14:1, ESV). It is a seal of ownership and a seal of protection. Those who belong to God will be protected by him. Though the earth will bow under the judgments of God, his people will be protected. Again, we are made to think of the plagues in Egypt. For the first three plagues, Israel suffered along with Egypt. But from the fourth plague on, there was a difference (Exod. 8:22-23). This also is very similar to a vision which the prophet Ezekiel had, in which God commanded his angels to slay the wicked in Jerusalem. However, before God’s command was executed, “the Lord said unto him [the executioner], Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity” (Ezek. 9:4-5). The servants of God are protected; the wicked are not spared.
What kind of protection is this?
But what kind of protection is proposed here? Is this protection from God’s judgments throughout history, or is the protection from God’s judgments at the end of history before Christ comes to establish his kingdom? I think it is the latter, because the judgments which are anticipated here are the kinds of judgments that we see unfold in the later cycles of the trumpet and bowl judgments. And as I’ve argued before, I think those cycles are meant to point us to the kinds of things that are going to happen to the enemies of God and of his people before our Lord returns. Also, we’ve argued that the sixth seal rings us to the end of history. The question, “Who can stand?” at the end of chapter six is the question being answered here in chapter seven. In other words, the question is, “Who will be able to abide these great judgments upon the wicked when Christ returns?” And the answer is: the servants of God, they will be able to stand.
However, that being said, I don’t think that makes it irrelevant to the first century church or the tenth or the twenty-first century church. Here’s why: the fact that God will protect his people then, means that he will protect his people now. If he will protect his people at the end of history from these severe judgments, we can be sure that he will protect them from less severe judgments.
In fact, I think the point here is that God’s people will never suffer his wrath. These judgments are expressions of God’s wrath upon and against human wickedness. But God is never against his people. We need to constantly remember what the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:32- 34). Right now, if you belong to Jesus, God is not against you and will never be against you. In fact, it is better than that, because he isn’t neutral, either. He is for you! And that has to be the most amazing news in the universe. If God is with us, if he is for us, it doesn’t matter what can happen to me in this world for I know that God will make it right. All things will work for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
I think this is an important distinction to be kept in mind. If I belong to Christ, I can expect tribulation, for the simple reason that he has promised that (cf. John 16:33)! But though we may experience tribulation, if we belong to Christ, we can never experience God’s wrath. Even the trials the Lord leads us through are for our good. They will not cut us off from God’s good purpose for us. They will not separate us from his love, and they will not keep us from heaven.
You see this distinction in this chapter. I will argue in a bit that the two groups of people in Rev. 7 are actually two different descriptions of the same group, namely, the church. The church is heard to be sealed in verses 1-8. Then in verses 9 and following, the church is seen to come out of “the great tribulation” (14). So the sealing is not a sealing from tribulation. But it is a sealing from God’s wrath.
Now I hope you are not so short-sighted that you only care about avoiding earthly tribulation and discomforts and you don’t care about God’s wrath. I hope you are not someone who is more concerned about how to make your life in this world as comfortable as possible with little to no thought about what will happen to you when you die. Listen, it is much better to go through tribulation now and to escape the wrath to come. The tribulations of the present time are temporary. They are “light afflictions which are but for a moment” (2 Cor. 4:17). The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed (Rom. 8:18). But those who are cut off from God’s grace and exposed to his wrath will never in the end think that the comforts of this world were worth it. So I hope you listen to the warning today and take it seriously. I hope you will flee from the wrath to come and run to Jesus Christ.
The protection God gives is the protection of salvation. It is why in verses 10-12 they are praising God for it: “And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.” Who are they praising for salvation? Are they slapping their own backs? Are they congratulating themselves? Do they think they were holier or smarter than those who didn’t escape judgment? No! They praise God, and God alone. Those who make it to heaven will not make it there because they were good enough. They will not make it there because they were better than everyone else. They will make it there because God sealed them, preserved them, enabled them to persevere and overcome. As the hymn puts it:
When I fear my faith will fail
Christ will hold me fast
When the tempter would prevail
He will hold me fast
I could never keep my hold
Through life's fearful path
For my love is often cold
He must hold me fast
God must hold us fast! And he will hold us fast!
What is God’s provision? What has God laid up for them who belong to him? We see it beautifully recorded for us in verses 15-17. Here are people who went through incredible difficulties. “These are they,” as the angel reports to John, “which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (14). But on the other side of that tribulation – how sweet!
The sum of it is that they enjoy access to the immediate presence of God. They are with him “before the throne.” They “serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them” (15). God is the source of all true blessing and happiness. To be in his immediate presence is to be perfectly blessed and happy.
Not only do they enjoy the provision of God’s presence, but they enjoy it forever. They serve God day and night” (15) and “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more” (16), indicating that there will never be a time when that will be true. Not in a negative sort of way, as we might speak of the dead. Someone might argue that the dead don’t hunger or thirst anymore either. But the perspective of this vision is the perspective of heaven, the perspective of eternity. As John will see later in 21:4, “and there shall be no more death.”
The point that is being made in verse 16, in the absence of hunger and thirst and exposure to the sun, is the point that the godly will never be in want again. There will never again be anything to make them anxious. There will never be anything again to make them afraid. Nothing to bring hurt, neither physical or mental or spiritual.
Why is this? Because “the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (17). In heaven, the blessings of the 23rd Psalm will find their perfect fulfillment, as the saints dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Who will stand? The identity of the people of God.
The 144,000 Sealed
In verses 4-8, John hears the number of those who were sealed. “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel” (4). What follows is a list of twelve tribes of Israel. However, there are some anomalies. In fact, this list doesn’t match up with any list of the tribes of Israel in the OT. First of all, there is the fact that Judah, not Reuben, is mentioned first, even though Reuben was the firstborn. Then there is the interesting omission of the tribe of Dan. Finally, alongside the tribe of Joseph is also Manasseh, even though Manasseh was a son of Joseph, so that this tribe ends up being mentioned twice.
What does all this mean? Some folks seem to think that this is a reference to Jewish believers in the last days, who will bear witness to God’s truth after the church has been raptured to heaven. However, there are numerous and serious objections to this. Above all, there is the problem that there is no rapture in the Bible, at least not in the sense that the church is raptured out of the tribulation of the last days. The church comes through the tribulation (see verse 14); it isn’t raptured out of it.
Rather, this is almost certainly a way of describing the church. Physical Israel and the church have traded places. The church is the true Israel. As the apostle Paul will say, “He is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:28-29). Those who believe the gospel become sons and daughters of Abraham (Rom. 4:11-12). In the same way, the list of the tribes of Israel is not meant to communicate that God is going to seal physical Israel in the last days but that he is going to seal and protect his church.
What follows are my arguments for this position.
First, this is parallel to John’s own experience in Rev. 5:5-6, where he hears about the Lion of the tribe of Judah, but then turns and sees the Lamb of God (cf. Schreiner’s commentary on Rev.). The Lion and the Lamb are the same person: Jesus Christ, described in two different ways. In the same way, John hears the number of those sealed, and then sees the innumerable multitude victorious and redeemed, praising God for his salvation. These are just two different ways of describing the same thing.
Second, they are called “the servants of our God” in 7:3, surely a description of all God’s people, no matter what their race is.
Third, in 14:3, where we meet the 144,000 again, they are described as those “which were redeemed from the earth.” This is not a description of Jewish believers, but of all believers. Moreover, in the next verse (14:4), they are called “virgins” who had not defiled themselves with women.” We are not meant to take that literally; the Bible doesn’t teach that the celibate state is more holy than the married one (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1,ff.). Rather, this is meant to function as a picture of holy people who have stood fast against idolatry. We have seen in the Bible that idolatry is often compared and likened to sexual immorality. Hence, when the 144,000 are viewed as celibate, we are meant to understand that they had not bowed the knee to idols of their times. But again, this is a picture of the church in every age.
Finally, the very fact that this list is not matched by any other in the OT is surely meant to alert us to the fact that it is not meant to be taken literally but as another picture of the people of God. This would explain some of the variations we mentioned before. The fact that Judah is mentioned first is probably because our Lord came from Judah. The tribe of the Head of the church goes first, and rightly so. The fact that Dan is omitted is probably due to the fact that in the OT Dan was often linked with idolatry. It was the northernmost tribe and therefore perhaps more exposed to the corrupting influences of the nations. It was one of the two northern tribes where the idolatrous images erected by Jeroboam were set up (1 Kings 12:29-30). There were even later (intertestamental) Jewish rabbinical traditions that linked Dan with the Antichrist. The fact that Revelation is a book that persistently attacks idolatry and the Antichrist would be reason enough for omitting Dan from a list which was meant to depict the church.
But what is the significance of the number 144,000? It is the number of the tribes of Israel (12), squared, and then multiplied by 1000, “a twofold way of indicating completeness” (Mounce, p. 158). I think it is just another way of saying that all the elect, every believer, will be saved, and none shall be lost. God’s people will be preserved and protected and provided for. No one gets left behind. No one falls between the cracks.
The Innumerable Multitude Worshipping
Then in verses 9, and following, the scene changes. John now sees “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands” (9). What John heard he now sees. I think Dennis Johnson is correct when he observes that the real difference between these two groups of people is not their ethnicity or their number but rather their location (Johnson, p. 134). The 144,000 are on earth, sealed against the judgments which come against the earth. The countless multitude is in heaven praising God around his throne. In the first scene we observe the church militant, and in the second scene the church triumphant.
But who are they? Who gets counted in this number? Am I in this number? Are you? How do you know?
First, they are the servants of God (3). In the Ezekiel passage which is similar to what we see in Rev. 7, the ones who are sealed are those who “sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof” (Ezek. 9:4). What God’s people do perfectly and eternally in heaven (“serve him day and night,” 15) they begin do, however imperfectly, on earth. God seals us, the apostle tells us, by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). We should not expect to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and yet remain unholy. Do you serve him? Don’t expect to receive the protection or the provision given to the saints if you are unwilling to lay aside your claims to self-sovereignty in order to surrender your life to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, they are those who have made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (14). This is a strange image, but it points us to the reality that the only way we can become worthy to enter into the presence of God is through the redemption from the stain and guilt and power of sin purchased by the blood of Christ, shed upon the cross. God’s people are holy, but it is not their holiness – which is at best imperfect this side of heaven – that makes them worthy. It is the grace of God given to us in Christ that makes anyone worthy.
At the end of the first century, the church was a tiny outpost of truth and godliness in a world awash in idolatry and immorality. And the world was not going to let the church be; it vigorously and violently and ruthlessly attacked and persecuted it. In that milieu, it is easy to become discouraged. They must have felt very exposed. But Revelation 6-7 reminds us that the present order will not persist. There is coming a day when no longer will the saints be judged by the world but the world will be judged by the wrath of the Lamb. In that day, the wicked will be exposed and the righteous will be sealed. Revelation 7 is a wonderful and beautiful description and promise of God’s protection and provision when his wrath comes against the world.
But the reality is not much different today. We do not and will not inhabit a world that is friendly to the church this side of the Second Coming. If we live out our faith we will inevitably experience persecution. We will experience tribulation. And when we do the temptation will be to ask the question: “Is it worth it to remain faithful to Jesus?” But that is the wrong question. Rather, the correct question to ask is, “Who will be able to stand when Jesus returns and pours out his wrath on those who rejected him?”
My friend, where will you be? If Christ were to show up today, would you be glad or sad? Would you weep or worship? Would you run from Christ or run to him? You should run to him today for he welcomes all who come to him, and he will turn no one away.
And dear Saint, don’t give up. Don’t become discouraged. If you belong to Christ, his name and the name of his Father is on you. He will never give you up. He will protect you now and bring you to heaven when you die. He will give grace and glory.