************ Sermon on Revelation 7:1-8 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 11, 2008
Remember where we are at in the book of Revelation? We have seen John weeping and crying because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll of destiny to reveal its contents and to set those contents into motion. We have seen Jesus – the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb of God – take the scroll from the hand of God because He is worthy. We have seen Jesus open the first four seals – and four apocalyptic horseman have gone out into the earth with judgment. When Jesus opened the fifth seal we have seen the Gospel martyrs under the altar of heaven; they are crying and shouting; they want to know how long it will be before they experience justice. We have seen Jesus open the sixth seal; the universe falls apart under the judgment of God – the sun turns black, the moon turns blood red, stars fall from the sky, mountains quake; people would rather die than face the judgment of God.
At this point we would expect Jesus to open the seventh seal. But Jesus decides to call an intermission or to play an interlude. He takes us behind the scenes to answer the question that ends chapter 6. Chapter 6 ends with the opening of the sixth seal and the awful judgment of God. And the frightened people of earth ask, "who can stand?"
(Rev 6:16-17) They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (17) For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?""Who can stand?" Jesus answers that question for us in Revelation 7.
The opening of the seven seals is a scary and serious thing. The judgment of God upon the earth is nothing to make light of. Even Christians get scared as they hear and read what Jesus says to John. So, Jesus inserts this interlude, this intermission, in order to assure and comfort the Christians of Asia Minor as well as the church of all ages.
"Who can stand?" When the day of God's wrath and judgment comes, who can stand? When the day of God's wrath and judgment comes, who has nothing to fear? Answer: those who have been sealed by God; or, to put it another way, those who have been preserved by God!
I God's Restraint
A In our Bible reading, the first thing John observes is the restraint of God's wrath:
(Rev 7:1) After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.See what the angels are doing? They are "holding back" the four winds of the earth.
You might think, "Big deal. What's so great about holding back the winds?" You need to realize that the wind is one of the powerful forces of nature under the control of God. Think of the destruction caused by a tornado; think of the cyclone that hit Myanmar this past week and caused upwards of 100,000 deaths. Winds are often used in the Bible as destructive instruments of judgment.
John sees angels holding back the four winds. Angels are often seen in charge of the forces of nature. In Revelation 14 we see an angel in charge of fire. In Revelation 16 another angel is in charge of water. And, in Revelation 7, we see four angels in charge of the four winds.
(Rev 7:1) After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.Why does John specify the land, the sea, the tree? The land, sea, and trees are a figure of speech in apocalyptic literature that means the entire earth and every living thing – including people.
The four angels prevent any wind from harming the earth and its peoples.
B After the events of chapter 6 – the first four seals and the four apocalyptic horsemen and their judgments, the decreation of the universe with the sixth seal – you might wonder why there should be any restraint. Isn't everything already destroyed? What is left standing? Who is left standing? So why should there be any restraint?
We need to remember that this is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature makes use of imagery and metaphor. Often, these images are interchangeable. Remember what happens with the images of Jesus in Revelation 5? He is presented as a Lion, as a Root, and then as a Lamb.
John writes, "After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds." In Revelation 6, the four horsemen were sent out into all the earth according to the command of four angels. Now, in Revelation 7, four angels are holding back the four winds. Do you see the change in imagery? What Revelation 6 describes as apocalyptic horsemen, Revelation 7 describes as the winds of the earth. This is not something I am making up. It comes from Zechariah. A couple of months ago, when we first looked at Revelation 6, I told you that the imagery of the four horsemen is borrowed from Zechariah 6. Zechariah tells us that the four chariots are the four winds of heaven, "going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole earth" (Zech 6:5). So, the four horsemen are also the four winds.
Do you see what is being held back? What is being held back is the judgment of the four horsemen. What is being restrained is the judgment John sees in Revelation 6. Follow me here – this is very important – this means that what John sees in chapter 7 must take place before the events of chapter 6. John's intention is not to provide us with a time-line. Rather, he presents to us the visions he has been given.
C We are being given a clue here on how to understand Revelation. John is not giving us a time-line that progresses from chapter to chapter. John is not giving us a series of events that we can plot out on a grid or a map. John is telling us visions he has been given. In chapter 4 John sees the door to heaven and the heavenly throne room. In chapter 5 John sees the Lamb. In chapter 6 John sees the opening of 6 seals. In chapter 7 John says, "After this I saw ..." After seeing the visions of chapters 4,5,6 John now sees the vision of chapter 7.
II The Reason for the Restraint
A The first thing John saw in this vision is four angels holding back the four winds of the earth. The second thing John observes is the reason:
(Rev 7:2-3) Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: (3) "Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God."
John saw an angel coming up from the east. John is on Patmos when he is having this vision. East is the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple. East is the direction of the place of Paradise. The Greek actually says, "from the rising of the sun" – so East is the source of light and life.
The angel calls out, "Do not harm ..." The actual Greek – do not begin to harm the land or the sea or the trees. Don't even let it start. Hold it off and hold it back.
Why? Why the restraint? The angel says, "until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God." God wants the four horsemen and their destruction to be held back, God wants the wind to be restrained from doing its destruction, until something else is done first. No judgment, no destruction, until God's servants are sealed and preserved. The one doing the sealing, presumably, is the angel from the east "having the seal of the living God" (Rev 7:2).
B We can understand this sealing imagery only in light of the Old Testament. I ask you to turn with me to Ezekiel 9 (page 1295 in your pew Bible). In Ezekiel 9, God is about to destroy Jerusalem by the Babylonians because of the detestable idolatry of the people – the worship of idols and images and the sun in the Temple courts. The place reserved for the worship of the one only true God was being used for the worship of false gods. Now listen to what happens:
(Ezek 9:1-6) Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, "Bring the guards of the city here, each with a weapon in his hand." (2) And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar. (3) Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side (4) and said to him, "Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it." (5) As I listened, he said to the others, "Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. (6) Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary." So they began with the elders who were in front of the temple.Some people receive a mark on their foreheads. These people are grieved by the idolatry taking place. They receive a mark of protection before God's judgment against Israel takes place. So, when God's judgment is executed, they are spared.
In John's vision the same thing is happening. God's true people, His servants, His slaves, receive a mark of protection before God's judgments take place. They are exempt from God's wrath.
C Let's make sure we properly understand this. What kind of protection are the sealed ones getting? They are getting protection from God's judgment and wrath. This does not mean they are getting protection from suffering and persecution and trials. Don't forget, John is writing to the church of Asia Minor; this church suffers horribly at the hands of Roman and Jewish oppressors. Don't forget, John is writing in response to the cry of the Gospel martyrs who ask how long before their blood is avenged (Rev 6:10). Don't forget the message of the fifth seal – that God's justice is not fully realized until the complete number of Gospel martyrs is reached. The Bible's message is that the church, the Christian, can expect persecution and suffering. James even tells us to be thankful for this because it strengthens our faith (James 1:2).
Those who are sealed, those who are getting the mark, are being protected from God's judgment. Think of the Passover. At that time, there was also a mark. A mark in the blood of a lamb on the doorposts. Those with that mark were protected from the judgment of God that went throughout the length and breadth of Egypt.
D What is this seal of protection? Think back to the promise Jesus gave to the overcomers, the faithful and true, in the church of Philadelphia:
(Rev 3:12) I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.We see almost the same thing in Revelation 14, but this time the forehead is mentioned:
(Rev 14:1) Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads.The name of God and the name of Jesus is written on the foreheads of those who are to be protected from the coming judgment.
Think of what this means. Ruth and I went to Tahiti (we had a wonderful time). We were on a plane with 300 other passengers and probably 1000 or more pieces of luggage. We all got off at once and we all wanted our luggage at once. Today, all luggage looks about the same. How do I know what belongs to me. We wrote our name on our luggage. This is a form of identification. This is a mark of ownership. Likewise, to be marked with the name of God and Jesus is a mark of identification, a sign of ownership. God is saying, "They belong to me!" Jesus is saying, "This is mine!"
Now, this does not mean an actual, physical mark. It is like real circumcision – which is something done in the heart.
E Those with the seal of God on their foreheads need not fear. They need not fear the coming judgment. They need not fear the four apocalyptic horsemen. They need not fear the four winds of the earth. They need not fear the opening of the sixth seal. Everyone else wants to hide. Everyone else wants the mountains and the rocks to fall on them. Everyone else would rather die than face the wrath of God and the Lamb. But those who are sealed have nothing to fear. Nothing can separate them from the love of God in Jesus.
III The 144,000
A The third thing John see are the ones marked on their forehead with the seal of God. Who are they? We are given two clues in our text. First, they are called "servants of our God." Second, they are described as "144,000 from all the tribes of Israel." If we don't take these two clues together, we are going to misinterpret John's vision.
First, those who are sealed by the angel are called "servants of our God." These are people who are devoted to God, who serve God, who – if we take the Greek literally – are slaves of God. These are the overcomers, the faithful and true, who are willing to become Gospel martyrs.
Did you know that in talking about the people of God, John never uses the word "Christian, believer, disciple"? Rather, he uses the word "servants". In the book of Revelation, the true and authentic people of God are servants. This word is used by John to talk about all Christians regardless of their nation or tribe or people or language. Gentile believers are servants. Jewish believers are servants. Roman believers are servants.
B Second, those who are sealed by the angel are identified as "144,000 from all the tribes of Israel." Don't forget, these still are servants – regardless of nation, tribe, people, or language.
The 144,000 is a source of controversy. You all should know that the Jehovah's Witnesses claim there will be only 144,000 believers in heaven. The problem with this is that even the Jehovah's Witnesses have already surpassed this number.
You should also know that many people believe the 144,000 are the number of Jews who convert to the Christian faith immediately following the rapture of the church before the beginning of a seven year period of time known as the great tribulation. The big problem with this is that nothing in the text suggests any of this. Nothing here suggests the church has been raptured. Nothing here suggests the sealing happens during a seven year period of time known as the great tribulation. "Hold it, pastor," you might say. "Look at Rev 7:14. This verse uses the phrase 'the great tribulation.'" Yes it does. But this is not the first time John has used the Greek word for tribulation. In Revelation 1:9 John declares he is living through the tribulation. In Revelation 2:10 John says tribulation is something the church of Smyrna can expect. Notice what John means by tribulation? The tribulation is not some future time. The tribulation is the time John lives in. The tribulation is the time between the crucified and resurrected Christ in heaven and His return in glory.
We need to take a closer look at John's list of the tribes of Israel. There are some big problems with this list – if you are a Jewish scholar. First problem: Why is Judah listed first when Reuben was the firstborn? Second problem: This list is like none of the lists in the Old Testament. Third problem: If this list is meant to cover the twelve sons of Jacob, how come Manasseh, the son of Joseph, is included but Dan is missing. Fourth problem: If this list is meant to cover the twelve tribes who inherited the land, how come Joseph appears with his son Manasseh but not with his other son Ephraim? Also, why is Levi included – he did not receive a portion of the land because his portion was the Lord. These irregularities tell us John cannot possibly be speaking literally of 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Why does John have the list that he does? Judah is moved from fourth place to first place because the Messiah comes from that tribe. Reuben loses his place at the top of the list because of incest (Gen 49:4). The sons of the concubines are moved from the end of the list to the middle of the list; technically speaking, they are outsiders and they signify the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God. Dan is replaced by Joseph's son Manasseh because the tribe of Dan was notorious in the history of Israel for leading the people in idolatry. Thus, the list of the tribes in Revelation 7 symbolizes the reign of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the incorporation of outcasts, the exclusion of idolaters, and the punishment of sinners. Notice what John is getting at? The list indicates that those who are sealed are from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Finally, we need to look at the number 144,000. I have already mentioned Revelation 14. I ask you to turn there with me (page 1928 in your pew Bible):
(Rev 14:1-5) Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. (2) And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. (3) And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. (4) These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. (5) No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.Notice, the 144,000 are sealed with the name of God and Jesus. They are those who have been redeemed. They kept themselves pure. And, they have been purchased from among men. That last phrase is also used in Revelation 5. The Lamb, we are told, is worthy because He "purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev 5:9).
Do you see how John uses the 144,000? John uses the 144,000 to symbolize the complete people of God, the complete number of God's people. Symbolize. That is the key. The number 144,000 is symbolic. It is easy to see where John gets this number from – 12,000 from 12 tribes, or 12 X 12 X 1000.
Let's start off the with the number twelve. In Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem has 12 foundations – on them were written the names of the twelve apostles. The New Jerusalem also has 12 gates – on them were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve represents the Old Testament people of God – the twelve tribes – and twelve represents the New Testament people of God – the twelve apostles. When it comes to God's people, twelve times twelve represents completeness, fullness.
As for the 1000 – apocalyptic literature represents great quantities, innumerable quantities, with the phrase "thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand" (Rev 5:11; Dan 7:10). John is preparing us for the great multitude of verse 9 that no one could count.
The 144,000 then, represents the full and complete number of all the people of God. These are the ones who are sealed with the name of God. These are the ones who are protected from the wrath and judgment of God. They are the ones who can stand when the great day of wrath has come.
The 144,000 includes us. The 144,000 is about us. This is our story in Revelation 7. This vision is of all Christians of all times and all places. They all, we all, are secure from the wrath of God and preserved by Him.
In chapter 13, the book of Revelation tells us about another mark: the mark of the beast. Notice, Satan often imitates what God does. God marks all His followers. Likewise, Satan marks all his followers. Both mark the full and complete number of their followers.
See what this means? Everyone has a mark. No one does not have a mark. Everyone has either the mark of Jesus or the mark of Satan. Everyone either has the devil's mark and face God's wrath or has God's mark and face Satan's wrath.
Whose mark do you have? Whose wrath do you want?
You know how to get God's mark: It is only when you come to Jesus that you are marked with the seal of God and don't have to fear the coming judgment.
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