Sealed, Suffering, and Safe Forever: Revelation 7:1-17
By Thomas Schreiner–
We are aware at this juncture of our history that the church is a remnant. As Americans we are prone to think of ourselves as the majority, as the mainstream, as the group that even dictates cultural mores and patterns. But Revelation reminds us that we are not the majority but the minority. We have the message that saves the world, but the world is set against our message and against our Christ. We must stand boldly and fearlessly in these days. We must love the world by giving it the gospel and we must not worry if the world does not love us. We should expect opposition and attack.
That brings us today to Revelation 7, and I would like to begin by asking a question: What is the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:1-17? But before I answer that question, let’s back up and look at the first few vv. of Revelation 7. The words “after this” in v. 1 do not mean that all the events of chapter 7 take place after the events of chapter 6. We saw in my last post that the 6th seal means the end of history has arrived. So, the words “after this” simply relate John’s next vision, and do not indicate that John writes here about events after the end of history. Actually, chapters 6-7 are closely related. Chapter 6 ends with the questions, “For the great day of their wrath has come and who can stand?” Chapter 7 will answer those questions.
John’s Use of Symbolic Language
As chapter 7 opens the 4 angels are standing at the 4 corners of the earth. Now this doesn’t mean that the Bible teaches that the world is flat. We must remember that John uses symbolic and apocalyptic language. The 4 angels are holding back the 4 winds of the earth so that they do not blow against the earth, the land, and the sea. The Bible isn’t teaching there are only 4 winds on earth!! The 4 winds signify the judgment of God which the angels are holding back. The judgment of God signified by the 4 winds is just another way of speaking of the final judgment described in chapter 6. But before this judgment comes the angels are going to seal God’s servants on their foreheads. This seal is not a literal seal imprinted on their foreheads. It is not visible. The seal symbolizes God’s protection and ownership. And what does God protect them from? The sealing means that they are protected from God’s wrath (cf. 6:17). The background to what John writes is found in Ezekiel 9. The Lord tells Ezekiel that he is going to judge Jerusalem. But some will be spared. The Lord says in Ezek. 9:4-5, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity.” So, those who are sealed in both Ezekiel and in Revelation are protected from God’s judgment.
But who are those who are sealed in Revelation? John tells us that they are 144,000 “from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” He then specifies that there are 12,000 from each tribe, listing them tribe by tribe. The census of the tribes reminds us of Numbers where Israel is numbered before they go to war. The 144,000 are so to speak God’s army. They are God’s warriors. Before I say more about the identity of the 144,000, we need to think about the number 144,000. There are good reasons to think that the number is symbolic and not literal. We have already seen that Revelation uses numbers symbolically. And the number 12 naturally becomes a symbolic number in the Bible. We think of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles. Furthermore, we don’t just have the number 12 here but 12 squared, 12 x 12. And not only that, the number is also multiplied by 1000. All of this leads me to the conclusion that the number is symbolic of a great number, and not a literal 144,000. But that brings us back to the question: who are the 144,000?
Who are the 144,000?
Many think they are literally Jews, the sons of Israel. That makes good sense since John says they are the sons of Israel, and then pauses to list 12,000 from 12 different tribes. Furthermore, this fits with Romans 11 which I understand to describe a future salvation of ethnic Israel. So, the idea that John speaks here of the salvation of ethnic Israel may be correct, and it certainly fits with other parts of the Bible. But I think John is not thinking of ethnic Jews here, but the church of Jesus Christ. In other words, the 144,000 symbolically refers to the whole church of God, both Jews and Gentiles who are saved. John thinks of the church as the new Israel. There are several reasons why I think this view is correct.
First, what I have said about the 144,000 fits this view. The number is symbolic, and it most naturally refers to the whole people of God—Jew and Gentile that are saved. In other words, all of us as Christians are part of the 144,000. This passage is about me and you.
Second, we have already seen in Revelation that the church is the new Israel instead of ethnic Jews. In Revelation 2:9 John says that unbelieving Jews are not true Jews but are a synagogue of Satan. We read the same thing in Revelation 3:9, “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” What is amazing about this verse is that the OT says that the Gentiles will come and bow down before the Jews. Now John takes this wording from Psalm 86 and Isaiah 49 and says that unbelieving Jews will bow down before Gentile Christians. This is another way of saying that the Gentile Christians are the true Jews, and the Jewish unbelievers are like pagan Gentiles. In addition, in Revelation 5:10 the church is called a kingdom of priests. In Exodus 19 Israel is called a kingdom of priests, but this blessing is now given to the church.
Third, Revelation 14:3 describes the 144,000 as those “who had been redeemed from the earth.” This is most naturally read to describe all those who are saved—all those who are redeemed, so that the redeemed refer to all Christians.
Fourth, the listing of the tribes does not fit with any other listing of the tribes in the OT. They are never listed in this order elsewhere, suggesting that it should be read symbolically.
Fifth, 10 of the 12 tribes have been lost to history. This was true when Revelation was written. The 10 tribes intermarried with Gentiles after the northern kingdom was sent into exile.
Sixth, the literary technique used by John suggests that he speaks symbolically. We see the same technique in chapter 5. There John is told that Jesus as lion would conquer, but when he looked he saw a lamb. The same person, of course, is the lion and the lamb. What John heard and what he saw referred to the same person: Jesus who was both the lion and the lamb. John was told about a lion and saw a lamb. So too here, we read in v. 4 that John hears the number who are sealed. But then in v. 9 when John looks, he sees a great multitude which no one could number. I would argue that we have the same phenomenon that we saw in chapter 5. What John heard and what John saw refer to the same reality. He simply describes it from 2 different perspectives. On the one hand, the redeemed are God’s true people: the true Israel of God. On the other hand, they are an uncountable multitude.
But what is the significance of what is written here? Why does John tell us that the 144,000 are sealed? Let’s remember the end of chapter 6 again. It ends with this question, “For the great day of their (God and the Lamb) wrath has come and who can stand?” Chapter 7 answers that question. Only those who are sealed can stand. Only those who belong to God, only those who stand under his protection.
Are you sealed and protected? I will say more later about how you can know if you are protected. But how should you respond if you know you are protected? You praise God. If a storm sweeps through a city, and you are spared, and you know you didn’t deserve to be spared, you are thankful. If a deadly plague devastates your town, and nearly everyone in the city gets the plague and dies, and you deserved to die, and you were spared, then you are thankful. So, there are good reasons to be thankful if you are sealed. What if someone were to say: But I want practical help about how to be a good mother or father. Or, how do I behave as a Christian in the workplace or in school? And how should I speak to unbelievers? Or, what does it mean to be a good church member? How can I minister to other believers? Now I don’t want to dismiss the importance of these questions. It is good to get specific advice on these matters. But here I want to point out something more fundamental. If you are a thankful person, if your heart is filled with praise and joy for your salvation, you will be a good mom and dad and function well at work and you will be a good church member. For you will touch everyone you meet with your joy. Indeed, most of us know the right thing to do. But when we are filled with joy for our salvation, then that joy radiates to others who are around us. For if we are joyous we will touch others with the joy that comes from God. Whatever we face, we need joy, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. And joy comes from knowing that we are saved, knowing that we have the seal of God on our lives.
Conquering through Suffering
The second truth I see here is that the uncountable multitude are those who have conquered in their suffering. The scene shifts and John sees a multitude of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. And where are they? They are in God’s presence. They are before the throne and in the presence of the Lamb. Did you notice again that the Lamb is on the same level with God since they stand before God’s throne and the Lamb? This is confirmed in the next verse, for salvation is ascribed to God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb. This is very important. Salvation is a gift of God. It comes to us from God and from the Lamb. Recognizing this gives us joy.
One thing we can do to encourage one another in the body is to live in the fresh winds of the gospel, so that we are always reminding one another that salvation is of the Lord. That means that we are a forgiving people. Sometimes people say that those of us who are Reformed are the most critical and negative and faultfinding people that they know. I have heard people use the expression: Nazi Calvinists. Well, sometimes that has been true of us, hasn’t it? Let us be known as those who are full of forgiveness and grace and mercy, because we have received mercy. We will not compromise on sin, but let us ask God to spare us from pride, so that we are large-hearted and gracious and merciful.
The Tribulation and the Blood of the Lamb
When the angels see the greatness of God’s salvation, including the 4 living beings and the 24 elders, they are overcome with joy and glory. They fall down before the throne and worship God. How are lives transformed if we are filled with such worship? In v. 13 one of the elders approaches John to ask him the identity of those who have white robes and are clothed with palm branches. The white robes signify that they are clean before God, and the palm branches come from Leviticus 23 and the feast of booths, where the people wave palm branches because of their joy. They are filled with joy because they have come out of the great tribulation. For the readers the great tribulation had already begun in the persecution inflicted by the Roman Empire. So, I don’t think John is thinking of a 7 year period that is only in the future. He likely thinks of a period of distress that began in his day and would climax with intense suffering at the end.
So, on the one hand, we see in vv. 1-8 that God’s people are sealed by him. They are his and he protects them. On the other hand, they are also suffering. God protects them from his wrath, but does not spare them from suffering. The Lord doesn’t want us to think that being sealed by him means that life will be easy. We will suffer. Being joyous does not mean that we have a false and superficial kind of happiness, where we force out artificial and unreal “Praise the Lords.” There is joy mingled with grief and pain and anguish. But we will triumph over all suffering.
And how do we triumph? We are told in v. 14. They have washed their robes and made them white by the blood of the Lamb. We asked earlier: how does one get sealed? How does one get God’s protection? The answer is by washing one’s robes in the blood of the Lamb. If you want joy unspeakable and full of glory, you must ask God to cleanse your sins by the blood of another—by the blood of Jesus. Then you will have a white robe that can never become defiled. Then you will experience the blessing described in the next point.
Believers Safe Forever
Finally, we see that believers are safe forever in vv. 15-17. What is the location of believers in v. 15? They are in heaven, for they are before the throne of God. And they serve him day and night in his temple. The language of the temple is not literal here, for there is no literal temple in heaven. The physical temple of the OT points to God’s presence. We are told in Rev. 21:22 that there is no temple in heaven. So, the temple is symbolic here, pointing to the greatest blessing of all: God with us. Immanuel. Our God is with us. The temple theme continues with the words that God will “shelter them with his presence.” Literally, it says that God “will tabernacle over them.” His presence will protect us. Nothing can touch us when we are before his throne. John is clearly talking about heaven here. So we see that we are again at the end of history.
What awaits us? All the perfection and beauty that we long for. Hunger and thirst will be no more. No more will we face the intense heat of the sun, or the groaning and crying and anguish of life in this world. And why is this? John tells us. It is because the Lamb in the midst of the throne will shepherd us. Here is another clear indication that Jesus as the Lamb is God, for the OT says, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” But here we are told that the Lamb is our shepherd. What a striking image. Lambs are not shepherds; they are shepherded. But this Lamb is also the good shepherd. And he is our shepherd now and will be our shepherd forever. In Psalm 23 we are told that Good Shepherd leads us beside still waters.
Do you long for these still and peaceful and restful waters forever? Here we are told that the Lamb will guide us to springs of living water. This simply means that every desire and longing we have will be satisfied by him. He will fill up every empty spot in our lives. He will satisfy every longing. And God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Every tear that we have shed because of our own sins will be removed. How I regret some of the things I have done, but every tear of regret will be gone. Every tear that we have shed because we have been hurt by someone else will be removed. There may be hurts that are so deep that we go to them almost without thinking. They are almost branded on our souls, and they make us weep. But the Lord will remove every tear of pain. Every tear that we have shed because we have suffered will be wiped away. God will spread the glory of his presence over us and in us and upon us. And we will rejoice forevermore.
Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.