144,000 Sealed, 1-8

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.

After this I saw – John is not describing what happened next, but what he saw next. The events of ch 7 would appear to be concurrent with this of ch 6, but seen from a different, and more heavenly, perspective. The four horses and their riders are paralleled by the four angels and the four winds.

‘John saw four angels who were standing at the four corners of the earth (referring to the whole earth, the four points of the compass). The sudden silence and the angels holding back the four winds from blowing upon the earth picture God’s protection from harm; they contrast the peace and security of the believers with the terror of those hiding in the rocks (Rev 6:16). The winds described here picture harmful winds as agents of God bringing destruction (see Daniel 7:2). The four angels hold back the winds so that not a leaf rustled in the trees, and the sea became as smooth as glass. This scene contrasts with the earthquakes and meteor showers that had just occurred (Rev 6:12-13).’

Rev 7:2 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:

Rev 7:3 “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.”

“Until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God” – the mark ‘of divine ownership and protection’ (Wilson).  See Eze 9:1-4; Eph 4:30; 2 Tim 2:19.  We think also of Paul’s reference in Eph 1:13-14 to the sealing of believers with the promised Holy Spirit when we first put our faith in Christ.

This sealing does not render them imune from suffering, and guarantees their ultimate safety.

‘From that moment forward, our ultimate safety was guaranteed. So when the searing winds begin to blow, the servant of God is found to have been sealed already against their power. The horsemen ride out on their career of destruction; but the church has been made indestructible.’ (Wilcock)

Here, according to Bewes, we have a picture of the Church militant. ‘We are out in the arena, exposed and vulnerable – and yet sealed by God.’ This sealing is indicative of ownership, of authenticity, and security. See also Eph 1:13 4:30.

Lenski observes that the two parts of the chapter represent the church as sealed and glorified.

Rev 7:4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

There has, of course, been much debate over the identity of the 144,000. But they have already been identified: they are ‘the servants of God’, v3, and will later be described as those who have been ‘redeemed from the earth’, Rev 14:3. The number, like everything else in the Apocalypse, is symbolic; but even though symbolic, it is still a number, for God is, as it were, carrying out a census of his people, so that each and all should be accounted for. This stylized number represents ‘the company of God’s people across the centuries’. (Bewes) Wilcock calls this number ‘a diagram of the Church’

But why are they referred to as coming from all the tribes of Israel? For some, this indicates that they represent the restored remnant of ethnic Israel.

Vlach, for example: ‘The specific mentioning of each of the 12 tribes of Israel emphasizes the continuing role of the tribes of Israel in the plan of God. This is not a reference to Gentiles or the “church militant” as some assert.18 Immediately after this section, Rev 7:9 states, “After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. John distinguishes Jews (Rev 7:4–8) and Gentiles (Rev 7:9). The group in 7:4–8 is made of ethnic Jews while the group in 7:9 is a multitude from “every nation.” Also, the group in 7:4–8 is finite; it is a group of 144,000, while the group in 7:9 is “a great multitude which no one could count.” These are not the same groups of people.’  (Vlach, Michael. Has the Church Replaced Israel? (p. 198). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

But the most likely answer is not difficult to find once we remember the symbolic nature of this book. Here is Morris’ summary:-

The church can be referred to as “the twelve tribes” (Jas 1:1; cf. Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30), and this is probably the thought when a letter is sent to “the Dispersion,” 1 Pet 1:1, mg. The Christian appears to be the true Jew, Rom 2:29 and the church “the Israel of God,” Gal 6:16. Descriptions of the old Israel are piled up and applied to the church, 1 Pet 2:9-10, cf. Eph 1:11,14. It is the church which is God’s “peculiar people,” Tit 2:14, and Christ’s own who are “Abraham’s seed,” Gal 3:29 and “the circumcision,” Php 3:3. Many hold that “Israel after the flesh,” 1 Cor 10:18 implies an “Israel after the Spirit”.’ Here is Revelation, John in the same way ‘speaks of those “which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan,” Rev 2:9; cf. Rev 3:9. He regards the new Jerusalem as the spiritual home of Christians, Rev 21:2, etc., and it has on its gates the names of the twelve tribes, Rev 21:12.

See Kevin DeYoung’s discussion here.

Rev 7:5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, 6 from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, 7 from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.

The Great Multitude in White Robes, 9-17

Rev 7:9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation – Compare this with v4, which records what John heard God say, and which indicates a kind of census of God’s people, that each was know to God and that all should be accounted for and sealed. The present passage records what John saw, which was that this definite number of people, known to God, is from a human perspective a vast numberless multitude. From God’s point of view, they are ‘Israel’, God’s people; from the human ponit of view, they are drawn from every nature under heaven.

Here in vv 9-17 we have a picture of the Church triumphant. This is the great multitude who have ‘come through the great tribulation’, v14.

‘I believe there will be more in heaven that in hell. If you ask me why I think so, I answer, because Christ in everything is to have the preeminence, Col 1:18, and I cannot conceive how he could have the preeminence if there are to be more in the dominions of Satan than in paradise. Moreover, it is said there is to be a multitude that no man can number in heaven, Rev 7:9. I have never read that there is to be a multitude that no man can number in hell. I rejoice to know that the souls of all infants, as soon as they die, speed their way to paradise. Think what a multitude there is of them! And then there are the just and the redeemed of all nations up till now. And there are better times coming, when the religion of Christ shall be universal. And in the thousand years of the great millenial state there will be enough saved to make up all the deficiencies of the thousands of years that have gone before.’ (Spurgeon at his Best, 95)

Consider the caricature suggested by Robert Burns in Holy Willie’s Prayer:

O thou that in the Heavens does dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best Thysel,
Sends ane to Heaven an’ ten to Hell
A’ for thy glory!

This does not do justice to the proportions of the saved and unsaved, as hinted at in this verse. Moreover, it suggests that God’s takes pleasure in the death of the wicked, which is simply not so, Eze 33:11.

‘Christ’s kingdom, while not incompatible with patriotism, tolerates no narrow nationalisms.  He rules over an international communicaty in which race, nation, rank and sex are no barriers to fellowship.  And when his kingdom is consummated at the end, the countless redeemed company will be seen to be drawn “from every nations, tribe, people and lnaguage, Rev 7:9.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 46)

‘It is of course a fact people like to worship with their own kith and kin, and with their own kind, as experts in church growth remind us; and it may be necessary to asquiesce in different congregations according to language, which is the most formidible barrier of all. But heterogenity is of the essence of the church, since it is the one and only community in the world in which Christ has broken down all dividing walls. The vision we have been given of the church triumphant is of a company drawn from “every nation, tribe, people and language,” who are all singing God’s praises in unison. (Rev 7:9ff) So we must declare that a homogeneous church is a defective church, which must work pertinently and perseveringly towards heterogeneity.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p305)

‘I have always derived much comfort from the statement of Rev 7:9 that the company of the redeemed in heaven will be “a great multitude which no man could number.” I do not profess to know how this can be, since Christians have always seemed to be a rather small minority. But Scripture states it for our comfort. Although no biblical Christian can be a universalist (believing that all mankind will ultimately be saved), since Scripture teaches the awful reality and eternity of hell, yet a biblical Christian can – even must – assert that the redeemed will somehow be an international throng so immense as to be countless. For God’s promise is going to be fulfilled, and Abraham’s seed is going to be as innumerable as the dust of the earth, the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 404)

A gender trajectory?
Megan DeFranza cites this verse as the climax of a scriptural trajectory which she applies especially to gender.  In Genesis 1 and 2, she says, male and female are distinguished, and nothing different, or ‘in-between’, is contemplated.  In Deuteronomy, eunuchs are excluded from the gathered community of God.  In Isaiah, there is a promise that they (along with foreigners) will be included in God’s kingdom.  This is affirmed by Jesus, who speaks (Mt 19) approvingly of three kinds of eunuch (including those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom).  It is affirmed again in Acts 8, when a man who is both a foreigner and a eunuch believes and it baptised.

Genesis, according to DeFranza, gives us God’s first word, but not his last word on the question of gender.  It is the beginning, but not the end, of the story.  As far as the present passage is concerned, it ‘describes human identities that had no place in the garden of Eden. There was no diversity of nations, tribes, peoples, and languages in the garden, yet these differences are preserved at the End. Eunuchs are promised a place in God’s house as they are, not after some kind of restoration to an Edenic pattern (Isa. 56:5).’ (In Understanding Transgender Identities)

We agree with both DeFranza’s premise (that the biblical revelation is progressive in nature), and also with her general conclusion (that ‘as God’s revelation unfolds, more and more outsiders are brought in’).  However, this does not settle the question of whether gender differences are a matter of indifference.  To the extent to which these are unchosen (as might be the case in some intersex conditions) they might be regarded as disabilities amenable to care in this life and wholeness in the life to come.  To extent to which they are chosen (as might be the case in some instances of transgender) they might within moral categories amenable to repentance and faith.

Rev 7:10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

“Salvation belongs to our God” – This means that ‘the praise and honour due for our salvation belongs to God’ (Plummer).

Rev 7:11 All the angels were standing round the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God,

All the angels – cf. Rev 5:11.

The elders – cf. Rev 4:4. These represent God’s people.

The four living creatures – cf. Rev 4:6. These represent God’s world, ‘which could not be hurt until its own final redemption had been assured by that same sealing.’ (Wilcock).

Rev 7:12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

Rev 7:13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes-who are they, and where did they come from?”

Verses 13-17 – This vision ‘refers not only to the glory of the blessed ones in heaven, but to the life of the Christian soul in the world here and now. And who that, in this present pilgrimage, has been granted some glimpse of the “unsearchable riches of Christ” will affirm that the language of the seer is extravagant?’ (Maycock, quoted by Wilcock, who adds, ‘Indeed the whole point of this Scene is that God’s people are safe amidst the troubles of this life.’)

Rev 7:14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

The Lamb in Revelation

  1. Wrath of the Lamb, Rev 6:16
  2. Blood of the Lamb, Rev 7:14
  3. Book of life of the Lamb, Rev 13:8
  4. Song of the Lamb, Rev 15:3
  5. Marriage of the Lamb, Rev 19:7
  6. Supper of the Lamb, Rev 19:9
  7. Throne of the Lamb, Rev 22:1

(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students)

“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation” – They are not just those who have been martyred (or otherwise persecuted) for the faith; nor does this refer to some specific future period of persecution. They are, as outlined above, God’s people in totality. In the present verse, they have two characteristics: they ‘have come out of the great tribulation’, and ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

‘It is doubtful if the Tribulation refers to any one single episode in Christian history. More likely, it embraces the whole period of the church’s existence. We live in ‘the sufferings of this present time’, (Rom 8:18) when ‘all who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution’. (2 Tim 3:12) Yet this persecution did not begin with real intensity immediately after Pentecost. There was a brief breathing-space, during which the church was highly esteemed in Jerusalem (Ac 2:47) and Paul could speak in glowing terms of the imperial power. (Rom 13:1-7) But shortly afterwards, the ‘crushing’ began and there were three terrible centuries for the church. In many ways that has been the pattern ever since. In every age of the church, God’s children, somewhere, have been in that same crucible of persecution. Once it was the turn of Scotland. In our own day it has been the turn of Uganda, Eastern Europe, China, Manchuria and Iran.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)

‘Many identify the “great tribulation” with a final period of persecution shortly before the Second Coming. But tribulations for Christians occur throughout the church age, so that the whole age can also be characterized as a time of tribulation. (2 Thess 1:5,6 2 Tim 3:1,12) The passage was intended to comfort first-century Christians as well as those in the final crisis.’ (New Geneva)

‘He who is numbered among that multitude is the man who has been cleansed from his old life of sin (a past event) and been given an irrepressible new life which no tribulation can quench (a present experience).’ (Wilcock)

Rev 7:15 Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.”

“They are before the throne of God and serve him…” – They are in a place not only of safety, but service.

“He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them” – Cf. Ps 91:1,5,6.  God’s ‘tent’ is his tabernacle, his abiding presence.

Rev 7:16 Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.

Rev 7:17 “For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell? (Rev 7:17)

‘Significantly, this is not a Bible problem; instead, Scripture rules out all thought of it ever becoming anyone’s problem. For it tells us that God the Father (who now pleads with mankind to accept the reconciliation that Christ’s death secured for all) and God the Son (our appointed Judge, who wept over Jerusalem) will in a final judgment express “wrath” and administer justice against rebellious humans. God’s holy righteousness will hereby be revealed; God will be doing the right thing, vindicating himself at last against all who have defied him, and there is no hint that this hurts the Judge more than it hurts the sinner. (Read through Mt 25 Jn 5:22-29 Rom 2:5-16,12:19 2 Thess 1:7-9 Rev 18:1-19:3,20:11-35, and you will see that clearly.) God will judge justly, and all angels, saints, and martyrs will praise him for it. So it seems inescapable that we shall, with them, approve the judgment of persons rebels whom we have known and loved.

That sounds appalling; how can it be? Remember, in heaven our minds, hearts, motives, and feelings will be sanctified, so that we are fully conformed to the character and outlook of Jesus our Lord. This will happen at or before our bodily resurrection. How we shall then think and feel is really beyond our knowing, just as a chrysalis could not know what it feels like to be a butterfly till it becomes one.

But certainly the promise that God will wipe away every tear from believers’ eyes (Rev 7:17) will find its fulfillment as one aspect of this transformation. In heaven, glorifying God and thanking him for everything will always absorb us. All our love for and joy in others who are with us in heaven will spring from their doing the same, and love and pity for hell’s occupants will not enter our hearts. Their hell will not veto our heaven.

Granted, this sounds to us more like hard-heartedness than Christlikeness, yet Christlikeness is precisely what it will be. Our difficulty is that we cannot now conceive the heavenly condition in a full way.

Wrote Richard Baxter: “My knowledge of that life is small, / The eye of faith is dim; / But it’s enough that Christ knows all, / And I shall be with him.”‘

(J.I Packer, Christianity Today, April 22, 2002. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/005/27.84.html)

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes – ‘The figure is a maternal one: the mother wiping away the tears, every last one, with meticulous tenderness. Why the tears? Because the children have been in the Great Tribulation (Revelation 7:14) and it’s almost as if when they get to heaven the tears are still there and God the Father is saying with such tenderness, `It’s all right, it’s all over now!’ Not only are the pain and sorrow over. God Himself comes so close. We feel his touch upon our souls.’ (MacLeod)

‘The Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water’ (Revelation 7:17). Christ, too, is active in heaven. Here He is, entitled to His own Sabbath, His work done, and yet what is He doing? It’s so beautiful! The Authorised Version says that He will feed them. The New International Version captures it more precisely: the Lamb will shepherd them. Technically, He will be their pastor. The flock is to be shepherded by a Lamb! He knows what being a sheep is like. He has taken our nature. He has been in our situation. He has been in the crushing. He has been in the valley of the shadow of death. He has been at the very storm-centre of death itself. He remembers.’ (MacLeod)

‘Who are going to be there? They are pictured for us in Revelation 7:9-17. Three things stand out.

First, they have been in the Great Tribulation. They have been crushed. It seems unavoidable. They have been martyrs for Christ. They’ve been persecuted by the secular and religious powers. They’ve been pursued by Satan and plotted against by the Parliament of Hell. They’ve been in the depths. They’ve sat under juniper trees and prayed to die. They’ve been depressed beyond measure and sometimes despaired of their very lives. Time and again they wrote themselves off as worthless. But now, there they are, standing before the Throne.

Secondly, they’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. How splendid it is! They’ve been in the crucible of pain and in the laver of affliction, but they didn’t wash their robes there. They washed them in the blood of the Lamb. They hungered and thirsted after righteousness and they found it in Christ. Now they see God (Matthew 5:8). Human, and erstwhile sinners, yet they threaten heaven with no defilement. They are as righteous as Christ and as spotless as the Lamb. They are pure as God is pure.

And they are, finally, a multitude too great to number. Burns caricatured grace, `sending ane to heaven and ten to hell, a’ for thy glory’. On the contrary, where sin was abundant grace was even more abundant (Romans 5:20). How many stars are there in the sky? How many grains of sand are there on the shore? Not half as many as the number saved by grace. And the whole of mankind is represented: every language, every nation, every culture, every type of personality and every level of wealth and ability.’ (MacLeod)