This is our sixteenth study in the book of Revelation and I hope that you are being encouraged as each week we take another step in seeking to understand God?s Word. I want us to remember the words of Dr. Bruce Waltke when he said that ?Revelation has at least three applications: for those living in the first century, those who will be alive at the last battle, and those who read it during their own time.?
I was speaking to the leaders of our church on Monday night about our study of Revelation 6 last Sunday. I told them that I think an objective study of Revelation has been greatly hampered because of the Tim LaHaye ?Left Behind? series of books. I believe more Christians in our day have read one of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins books than have read the biblical book of Revelation. The ?Left Behind? books have been hugely popular, they?ve sold over 60 million books, but they are only one viewpoint of Revelation.
The viewpoint that Tim LaHaye subscribes to, and that the ?Left Behind? series portrays, is called ?Dispensationalism.? Dispensationalism first arrived on the scene in the 1830?s when a former Anglican priest named, John Nelson Darby began to share his views about the nature of the Church and the role of the Jews in the end-times. People like C.I. Scofield with the ?Scofield Study Bible? and Hal Lindsey?s book,
?The Late Great Planet Earth,? have greatly popularized the Dispensationalist view of Revelation.
Dispensationalists believe that the Church is ?raptured? from the earth at the end of Revelation 3 and doesn?t appear again in the book of Revelation until Revelation 19. They base this on the fact that the word ?Church? doesn?t appear in Revelation after 3:22. They believe that the absence of the word ?Church? proves that the Body of Christ is not on the earth during the Tribulation. I don?t believe that this is sufficient evidence to prove that the followers of Jesus are not present. The word ?Church? is absent from 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and Jude, but that doesn?t mean that the Church isn?t being addressed or that the Church is not present at the time.
As I mentioned earlier ?Dispensationalism? is one way to interpret Revelation. Dispensationalism would fit in the ?futurist? perspective, but there are at least three other ways that people interpret Revelation: the Idealist, Preterist, and Historicist views are also ways in which folks interpret the book of Revelation. As I mentioned to you last week, my prayer each week is that the Lord will allow me to study Revelation without being influenced by any one of these views so that I might share with you what I have learned. After you hear what I have learned then you should go home and study the book for yourself as you ask the Lord to show you what He wants to teach you. With that said let?s read our Scripture for today found in Revelation 7:1-8.
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. 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: 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.” 4Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. 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. (Revelation 7:1-8 NIV)
Many Bible teachers see Revelation 7 as an interlude between the opening of the first six seals and the opening of the seventh seal which will take place in Revelation 8. Dr. Stephen S. Smalley writes,
The interval in Chapter 7 is not a digression in the narrative action, but an opportunity to build up the suspense before the scroll is finally opened. In the course of this interlude, John presents us with a vision of the nature of the Christian community on earth and in heaven, and the divine activity of assurance and salvation within it. Such an understanding would have provided the Johannine circle itself, surrounded in the first century AD by persecution, opposition and division, with the encouragement it needed to believe and behave rightly, and the strength required of its members to withstand evil and triumph over it. (Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation To John, pg. 177-178.)
Dr. Smalley has made the wise choice of examining Revelation first of all from the perspective of those first hearers of this book, those seated in the pews of Smyrna, Laodicea, Thyatira, and the other churches of Revelation 2-3.
Revelation 7 is actually composed of two parts. In the first section, Revelation 7:1-8, we see the Church on earth. The second part of Revelation 7, found in verses 9-17, is a glorious vision of heaven and the gathered people of God, whose members are too numerous to count, in worship around the throne. This week we will take a look at the first section of Revelation 7. Let?s get started.
John sees four angels restraining the four winds in verse 1. In verses 2-3 another angel appears having the ?seal of the living God,? and says,
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.” (Revelation 7:3 NIV)
After this John ?hears? 144,000 being sealed. The 144,000 are from the 12 tribes of Israel. John doesn?t ?see? the process of these folks being sealed, but he hears it taking place. This reminds us of another experience John had earlier in Revelation. If you will remember back in Revelation 5 there was a search for someone who was worthy to ?take the scroll and open it.? When the search found not a single solitary soul who was worthy, John began to weep. In Revelation 5:5 we read,
5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:5 NIV)
What John saw when he looked was something different than what was announced. In Revelation 5:6 John looks and sees a Lamb. Read along with me.
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Revelation 5:6 NIV)
John has a very similar experience in Revelation 7. He ?hears? 144,000 being ?sealed,? but when he looks in verse 9 he sees ?a great multitude that no one could count.? Read along with me.
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. (Revelation 7:9 NIV)
The reason that I am pointing this out for us is so that we can be reminded that what we are studying is filled with symbolism. Let me explain to you what I mean. Is Jesus a ?Stump?? How about a literal ?Lamb?? Does He roar and have a mane?a Lion maybe? No, of course not. These are symbols that describe Jesus with great power and great significance, but they are not meant to be taken literally.
We live in a world of signs and symbols don?t we? If you and your family decide that you are going to Six Flags one day and you get on the Broadway Extension and head south you will see a sign that says, ?Dallas.? Don?t be fooled, that sign isn?t Dallas, but the excitement will begin to build in the hearts of your kids. They will ask, ?Are we there yet?? Each time you see another sign that reads, ?Dallas? they will ask the same question, ?Are we there yet? How many more miles?? and you will say, ?We?re getting closer.? If you stay the course then you will pull up in the front of the gates that say, ?Six Flags Over Texas? and you will know that you are there. There is a reality behind the signs that you followed. In reality the signs make the reality even more powerful. And so it is with this powerful book of God?s Word that is full of powerful symbolism for us.
The first eight verses of Revelation 7 are full of meaning for us this morning. This vision that was given to John is rooted in Ezekiel 9. Turn there with me and let?s read together beginning in verse 1.
1Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring the guards of the city here, each with a weapon in his hand.” 2And 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. 3Now 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.” 5As 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. 7 Then he said to them, “Defile the temple and fill the courts with the slain. Go!” So they went out and began killing throughout the city. 8 While they were killing and I was left alone, I fell facedown, crying out, “Ah, Sovereign LORD! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?” (Ezekiel 9:1-8 NIV)
The purpose of the sealing of God?s people in Ezekiel 9 was to protect God?s people from the four coming judgments of God, judgments of ?sword, famine, wild beasts, and plagues.? The judgments were carried out by the Babylonians (Ezekiel 14:12-23), but the true followers of God were protected on the day of judgment.
The ?marking of the people of God? has to remind us of what took place in Egypt when the children of Israel were slaves. God brought ten plagues on the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites leave Egypt. The last of the ten plagues was the death of the firstborn throughout the land. God told Moses to have the Israelites take a year old male lamb and kill it. They were to take the blood of the lamb and smear it over the doorframes of their homes. Read along with me from Exodus 12:7-13.
7Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire– head, legs and inner parts. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover. 12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn– both men and animals– and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. (Exodus 12:7-13 NIV)
From Ezekiel and Exodus we can see that God has ?sealed? His people, He has provided protection for His people from the judgments He was bringing upon the land in times past, and in Revelation 7 God is once again acting on the behalf of His suffering people. The people of God were living under the thumb of the ungodly Roman Emperor and an antagonistic society, they were suffering persecution and hardships, but they would be protected from the wrath of the Lamb, the Day of the Lord, that would come upon those who were persecuting God?s people.
John says that ?he heard the number who were sealed.? There were 144,000 who received this mark from the angel, the seal of the ?living God.? John says that there were 12,000 from each of the tribes of Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. We have to ask the question, ?Is the number 144,000 a number that we should take literally, or symbolically?? That is a great question and you can find Bible teachers to agree with you on either side. The Dispensationalists believe that the 144,000 is a literal number of Jews who will be evangelists during the Tribulation. John MacArthur, who interprets Revelation from a Dispensationalist perspective, writes,
These Jewish believers and evangelists are the firstfruits of Israel, which as a nation will be redeemed before Christ returns (Zech. 12:10?13:1, 8?9; Rom. 11:26). The 144,000 are not all Jewish believers at that time, but a unique group selected to proclaim the gospel in that day (cf. 12:17; 14:1?5). (John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11, pg. 219)
Now, you and I both know who the 144,000 people really are right? They are Jehovah Witnesses of course! This is one of the most well known teachings of the Jehovah Witnesses. The Jehovah Witnesses taught for many years that they were the 144,000. That is until their membership exceeded 144,000. When their membership exceeded 144,000 they changed their doctrine and came up with a second set of 144,000 people. They said that there is a ?heavenly 144,000 and an earthly 144,000 who will live on a renovated earth.? Today, the Jehovah Witnesses have more than 288,000 followers so they now have a third designation called, ?the servant band.? If you join the Jehovah’s Witnesses today, I wouldn?t recommend it, you will have to come in as one of the servant members. This is another example of ?eisegesis,? twisting and manipulating the Scriptures so that we make them say what we want them to say.
How do we understand the 144,000? Let me share a couple of important pieces of information with you. First of all, you need to know that the word, ?thousand? appears 19 times in the book of Revelation. In none of those 19 appearances is it ever a literal number. G.K. Beale writes about this section of Scripture in his commentary by saying,
Many commentators rightly understand the number to be figurative, since nearly all other numbers in the book have figurative significance. Here, the group who is sealed represents the complete number of God?s people. (G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, pg. 416)
The number 144,000 should tell us that it is a very large number, the full number of those God intends as His own. This isn?t the only place in God?s Word where ?thousand? isn?t to be taken literally. In Deuteronomy 7:9 we read, (see also Exodus 20:6; Numbers 10:36; 1 Samuel 18:7; Psalm 84:10; Daniel 7:10)
9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 7:9 NIV)
The second piece of information that is important for us to understand is that the list of the 12 tribes differs from other lists of the 12 tribes found in God?s Word. There are some nineteen or twenty different listings of the 12 tribes of Israel found in God?s Word and in none of those listings will you find the order exactly the same. Every list in the Bible contains Simeon, Judah, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin. In addition to those nine tribes, there were Ephraim, Reuben, Joseph, Dan, and Levi. Most Bible teachers would view Ephraim, Dan, and Levi as the additional three to make up the twelve tribes.
Here in Revelation 7, Dan and Ephraim are left out and Levi and Joseph are included in the list. What is most interesting about the list is the tribe that heads the list, the tribe of Judah. Reuben was Jacob?s firstborn son from Leah his wife, but in Genesis 49 Jacob blessed Judah with these words.
8 “Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. 9 You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness– who dares to rouse him? 10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Genesis 49:8-10 NIV)
Jesus is the ?Lion of the Tribe of Judah? and many believe that this is why we find Judah heading the list of the 12 tribes of Israel in Revelation 7. Some Bible teachers today have ?Christianized? the listing of the 12 tribes of Israel and believe that the vision speaks about the Church, what they call the ?true? Israel. Dr. David Darnell writes about the listing of the 12 tribes,
It is better to see John?s vision as including the faithful and courageous people of historical Israel?not one of whom will be missing from God?s blessed future, who will endure the various trials and tribulations of history, made secure by the divine sealing. (Dr. David Darnell, Revelation, pg. 270)
In the first century, those who heard this letter being read were well acquainted with suffering, but they had to have been encouraged when they heard that God would protect them from the judgments that were coming on the Roman Empire, the judgment coming to those who had turned their back on God and oppressed His people. They were reminded that just as God had ?sealed? His own in times past, those faithful Jews who served Him and refused to bow to the gods of their day, so He would be with them as they endured their difficult trials.
They would continue to suffer at the hands of their oppressors, just as those who had gone before them had suffered under the oppression of Pharaoh, the Assyrians, Babylonians, and others. They would continue to battle false teachers, they would continue to be tempted to bow at the shrines of lifeless idols and pagan gods, some would lose their lives to those who were enemies of God, but not one of them would be lost by God, they were sealed and secure in Him regardless of what would come.
What an important lesson this is for the followers of Jesus today. All over the world there are humble, faithful followers of Jesus who are suffering from political and religious oppression, starvation, disease, and the like, but they can know that they are cradled in the Father?s arms. There are prisoners in China who are suffering confinement for sharing the Word of God. There are Christian families in the Sudan who have had their children stolen and enslaved simply because of their faith. There are those in Zimbabwe who are suffering economic hardships solely because of their race. There are those in our own country who have lost their jobs because of injustice. They may take your job, your livelihood, your family members, or even your life, but you are secure in the Father?s arms. For those who have surrendered their lives to the Lamb of God who suffered and yet is victorious, we can trust Him for every hardship of life. Paul wrote to the Romans and said,
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39 NIV)
We do our brothers and sisters a great injustice by leading them to believe that if they give their lives to Jesus that they will move into a big house on the hill, win the lottery, and live happily ever after. That sure wasn?t the story of those who lived in Ephesus, Pergamum, or Smyrna. Maybe that is why they found such hope and security in the Revelation while we see something totally different. Jesus said,
33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)
Some of you are experiencing perilous times in your own life. I don?t you?re your heartache, I don?t know the trial that you are presenting enduring, but I do know that if you have surrendered your life to Jesus then you are sealed and secure. You are going through a tribulation that is keeping you up at night and you need to know that you are sealed and secure. If we went around the room this morning and shared our stories we would learn of the great heartache and sorrow that our brothers and sisters are facing at this time. We all need to know that we are not forgotten by God. We belong to Him. We will continue to face trials, we will endure hardships, we will spend sleepless nights, but we will endure as long as cling to the One who has suffered and emerged victorious! My friend you are sealed and secure in this world of trouble. Keep you eyes on the One who has given His Son so that we might be more than conquerors!
If you have never surrendered your life to Jesus then I would invite you to do so this morning. He is the Victor and He will place His mark upon you as you go through this life so that you might share with Him, not just in eternity, but even now.