This post, the 13th in our series through Revelation, is devoted to chapter 7 – the marking and listing of the Lamb’s army. A recording of this will be available on Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel as part of the Revelation Series.
Chapter 6 depicts Christ unfolding the scroll containing God’s redemptive plan for creation. This brought about terrible judgments, so that eventually everyone on earth hid themselves and cried out “Who can stand before the wrath of Him Who sits on the throne and the Lamb?” (6:17). And chapter 7 answers this question.
Hold the wind! (7:1-3) Suddenly four angels were seen to hold back the four winds over the earth (7:1). Holding back the wind implies withholding the destructive forces released over creation by the first six seals (6:1-17; compare Ezekiel 5:12). The reason for the pause in destruction until “we sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (7:3). This protection from wrath by a seal from God alludes to Exodus 12:21-27 (destruction of Egypt, preservation of Israel) and Ezekiel 9:3-8 (destruction of Israel, preservation of the righteous).
The 144’000 (7:4-8). These servants of God are identified as John hears a roll call of Israel’s fighting men, like in Numbers 1 before the conquest of Canaan. The 144’000 are said to be 12’000 from every tribe in Israel. Remember that in the apoplectic language of Revelation, images and numbers are not read literal, but should be read to signify something that comforted and challenged the first readers in their struggle against evil during their tribulation (1:9-11).
This number of 144’000 faithful Israelite have been used – and is still being used – by many cults worldwide who claim their veracity and special election. But 144’000 is clearly a symbolic number (like the 7 horns en 7 eyes of the Lamb in chapter 5). 144’000 is made up of 12x12x1000. Twelve in this literary genre points to God’s covenant people: the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Church. 1000 is a number meaning innumerable, all or fullness. So, John hears “mark God’s people with his seal!” and is told Israel’s faithful, fighting ones are numbered.
In keeping with apocalyptic genre, Israel here should also not be viewed from the genetic line or national citizenship, but rather symbolical for God’s covenant people. Jesus said that “salvation is from the Jews”, not just for the Jews (John 4:22). Paul defined “a true Jew (as) one inwardly” (Romans 2:29), having a “circumcised” or transformed heart faithful to God. This tribal list here in Revelation 7 is a picture of “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:15-16).
But this list of Israel’s tribes is unlike any other found in Jewish scriptures (compare for instance Genesis 35:23-26; 49:1-28; Numbers 1:1-46; and Deuteronomy 33:6-25) – and that is the point of this part of the vision. The discrepancies in this list highlight the truth Jesus wants to show John.
- Judah is mentioned first, not Israels’s (Jacob’s) firstborn Ruben. That is because Jesus is from the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5).
- Dan is omitted. Dan is notorious in Israel because of its idolatry, leading the Northen tribes away from God (Judges 18).
- Manasseh is included. Menasseh is a half-breed grandson of Jacob, born to Joseph by his Egyptian wife.
- Gad, Asher, Naphtali are moved up. These were usually mentioned last in Israel’s tribes, because these are Jacob’s “bastard” sons, born not from his wives Rachel and Leah, but from his concubines. They too were half-breeds, illegitimate in the eyes of their brothers.
What then do we make of this special Christian list of Israel’s tribe? We have a list of God’s covenant people that is distinct in that Christ is honored as firstborn over Israel, who welcomes half-breeds and misfits, but rejects idolaters. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone. Dennis E. Johnson comments on this list:
“this genealogy symbolizes the reign of Jesus, the incorporation of outcasts, and the exclusion of idolaters from the covenant community that God shields from his terrible wrath.”
John hears the roll call of 144’000 covenant people championed by Christ. But what John sees next is something completely different.
The innumerable crowd in white (7:9-17). John’s vision transforms into a vast sea of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” in worship. What the census of 144’000 fighting men of Israel suggested above, this vision affirms. This is a vision of the Lamb’s army who heralds him with singing and palm branches as the inaugurated, homecoming King.
The elder tells John that: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In other words – the ones who endured the troubling times on earth, have trusted in Christ’s vicarious death for their sins, having been washed as white as snow (refer Isaiah 1:18). These elect ones worship God by declaring “Salvation belongs to our God…and to the Lamb!” – God alone can save us from his wrath (7:10; compare Psalms 37:39; 62:7 etc). These saints will enjoy peace and bliss in the Lamb’s presence before the throne for eternity (7:15-17).
What is this seal of God (7:3)? As mentioned above, Ezekiel saw a vision where the Lord commanded an angel to mark (seal) his faithful ones “who groan over the idolatry in Jerusalem” with a seal on the forehead, to protect them from God’s wrath against unfaithful Israel (Ezekiel 9:3-8). This seal also alludes to the marking of the blood on the door posts that protected God’s people from the wrath poured out over Egypt (Exodus 12:21-27).
In the New Testament we read that the Holy Spirit dwelling within the believer is God’s “seal and guarantee of salvation” (2 Corinthians 1:22; also Ephesians 1:13 -14). We also note that this apocalyptic army of God are blood-washed, like the houses in Egypt escaping the wrath of God (7:9).
Who can stand before the wrath of God? (7:9) This description of sealed ones is an answer to the cry “who can stand before the wrath of the One who sits on the thrown and the Lamb?” (6:17) The answer: those who have been sealed by the Spirit, washed in his blood – the Lamb’s army (7:3, 9). These not only “stand before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9), but they are found joyfully worshiping him.
Protected from wrath, not trouble (7:3,14). It must be noted that these sealed ones are protected from God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment (as seen above), but it does not shield them from trouble. Note that these blood-washed ones are “coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14); they are not spared the difficulties that other people endure on earth. In fact, as we have seen in our discussion on the previous chapter these believers endure religious persecution in addition to all other difficulties.
But why does the seal of God not prevent tribulations? Jesus promised “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:32-33). As Christ overcome the tribulations and temptations of this world in his suffering, so these seven churches ought to overcome the tribulations and the temptations to opt for a comfortable life by compromise and disobedience to Christ. Paul encouraged the church in Rome during Nero’s persecution “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37). The church’s victory is not from suffering, but to overcome the temptations in spite of suffering. As we read in chapter 5, our victory is in the way of the Lamb.
Bringing it home
As discussed in the previous post, the judgments of Christ are visible all around us in warfare, disasters, epidemics, poverty and violent persecution. These troubles are meant to wake up the world (and the church) to the reality that God is sovereign and he will judge the world – who can escape his wrath? Revelation 7 beautiful depicts the ones that are sealed from God’s wrath on that Day of Judgment.
The church, “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:15-16) are those who worship Jesus as supreme, who recognize their insufficiency, and renounce every form of idolatry. They are the ones who are washed in the Lamb’s blood of the cross, and sealed with the indwelling Holy Spirit, trusting Christ alone for their salvation before God’s seat of judgment.
Although this seal of God does not protect us from troubles on this earth, these tribulations and temptations in itself are daily reminders of Christ’s final judgment and the establishment of his kingdom – a realm where
“We shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike us,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
Revelation 7:16-17 (pronouns personalised)