[2 And I saw another angel coming up from the east having the seal of the living God, and crying out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was given to them to do harm to the earth and the sea,] 3 saying, “Do not do harm to the earth nor the sea nor the trees until we should seal the bond-servants of our God upon their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand, those sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel. 5 From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand having been sealed; from the tribe of Ruben, twelve thousand; from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand; 6 from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand; from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand; 7 from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand; from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand; from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand; 8 from the tribe of Zebulon, twelve thousand; from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand having been sealed.
We finished last week at the end of verse 2 which is a bit of an awkward place to stop, so I briefly recapped what we discussed to make sure we remember the context (I’ve provided verse 2 in the quotation above for the same reason). In verse 3, the angel from the east tells the four angels to delay doing harm to the earth until the bond-servants of God are sealed on their foreheads. This angel was carrying a seal indicating authority to act, but the “sealing” mentioned here is more than just the receipt of divine authority. In context, it is clearly a sign of God’s protection, like the mark given to Cain in Genesis 4:15 to protect him from would-be attackers. Also, in Ezekiel 9, a mark is put on the foreheads of those who lament over the abominations taking place in Jerusalem to protect them when the idolaters are put to death. But this seal also conveys a sense of ownership, as with the seal on a document (or the seven seals of the scroll we’re in the midst of studying in this chapter!). Looking ahead, Revelation 14:1 and 22:4 say that God’s people have His name on their foreheads, which suggests that’s what the seal is: we are the Lord’s. In a similar way, Revelation 13:16 says that those who serve the Beast have his mark on their foreheads–the infamous number 666 (or 616–we’ll discuss further when we get there!). Whatever that number might mean, it surely parallels the name of the Lord on the foreheads of God’s people, declaring to whom the people belong. So this seal declares to the world that these people are the Lord’s, and as such they have divine privileges, and divine protection. That doesn’t mean they will not suffer physical harm; it does mean they will not succumb to the enemy during times of trial and tribulation. Their salvation is secure in the hands of their Savior.
I think this supports the idea expressed last time that what we’re seeing here is an answer to the question posed by those hiding in the rocks in 6:17, “When the Day of Wrath comes, who is able to stand?” This is who, and this is how. God’s people, those sealed are able to stand, and it is the fact they are sealed that enables them to stand. God is the one who gives them that ability. What we have here is a peek behind the curtain into eternity. Before any of the calamities of the four horsemen (6:1-8) can come to pass, we need to understand that despite the persecution and tribulation they bring, God’s people will not fall; they might die, and they will undoubtedly suffer, but they will remain steadfast in the Lord. We are tempted to place this temporally (e.g., just before the horsemen ride out, just after Christ’s resurrection), but that would be a mistake. Chapter 7 is a glimpse into eternity, where time isn’t relevant. The Lord places it in a context for us: the turmoil and persecution that has been part of the world and the church since Christ rose from the dead. But this context only serve to show us why He seals us–to claim us as His own and protect us from all that will come to pass. If we remember that Revelation is a letter of hope to a suffering church (not just in the first century, but in every century since), it makes sense why He would want us to understand this. (Jesus’s word in John 17:12 are interesting in this context. Speaking of his disciples, he says that while they were with him, he kept them in the Father’s name “which you have given me.” He guarded them so that none would be lost, except for the son of destruction–i.e., Judas. I believe we have a similar kind of “keeping”/”guarding” going on here in Revelation 7:3.)
John could have left his discussion of the sealed there. We understand these are those that the Lord has protected. But John wants us to understand exactly who these people are, and to spell it out in no uncertain terms. First, he numbers them: 144,000. And then he tells us where they’re from: they’re taken from every tribe of the sons of Israel. He then enumerates how many from each of the twelve tribes: 12,000. Unless my math is horribly wrong, 12 x 12,000 = 144,000. How are we to understand these numbers? Are they literal? Are they solely Jewish? Is this saying that only Jewish Christians are sealed, protected and owned by the Lord?
The first thing to note is that 144,000 is a number, and if we’ve learned nothing else about Revelation so far, it’s that numbers always signify something. John doesn’t just give us numbers for the sake of it. The number 7 signifies spiritual completion, or fullness. The number 4 we’ve seen applies to physical completion or fullness (e.g., four corners of the earth = the whole earth). The 24 elders are made up of 12 + 12, representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles–the fullness of the people of God, Jew and Gentile together. So why 144,000?
Let’s consider first the fact these believers are related to the twelve tribes of Israel. Both in Revelation and in the rest of the New Testament, we frequently come across promises and titles that were given to Israel now applied to the church. In Revelation 2:17, the church is given a “new name,” a promise first given to faithful Jews in Isaiah 62:2 and 65:15. The people of God are described in Revelation 5:9 as being from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, who are made into a kingdom of priests forever. This is language straight out of Daniel 7:18 and 22, speaking of Israel. Throughout Romans, Paul argues for the unity of Jew and Gentile in the gospel, and the fact that the promises made to Abraham find their fulfillment in Christ and His church (see, for example, Romans 11). I noted last time Ezekiel 40ff., and how the allotment of land surrounding the “new temple” is according to the twelve tribes. We’ll come back to Ezekiel’s vision further on in Revelation, but if this appears to be another promise to Israel that finds its fulfillment in the church.
One of the most persistent problems faced by the early church had to do with clashes between Jewish and Gentile believers. We see this reflected particularly in Romans and Galatians. Christian leaders were constantly trying to communicate the fact that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile. The Jews are precious because God gave them the promises, but the Gentiles are precious too because they are grafted in and are co-heirs of all those promises. There is no Jewish church and Gentile church, only the church.
It seems to me by numbering the sealed in terms of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Lord through John is drawing attention to the fact that His people are His covenant people. This sealing is not a new thing that started in 30 AD; but its foundation is in the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s plan has always been to choose for Himself a covenant people. That plan began with the Old Testament patriarchs.
But it’s not simply the 12 tribes that are sealed. Remember, it’s 12 x 12–again, we bring in the 12 Apostles, signifying the joining of God’s new covenant people to the old, forming one united church that spans not just decades or centuries, but millennia. Why does he multiply the 12s, not add them? And why is it not simply 12 x 12, but 12 x 12,000? I think this is to indicate magnitude. Certainly, multiplication corresponds to the Abrahamic promise that God will multiply his seed so they will be as numerous as the sand on the shore or the stars in the sky. The number 1,000, however, also carries a similar significance. Consider:
- Psalm 50:10: God owns the cattle on 1,000 hills. Is this literal? Does He not own the cattle on the 1,001st hill? Of course He does! The point is that God owns ALL the cattle on EVERY hill.
- Psalm 84:10: “For a day in your courts is better than 1,000 elsewhere.” But not better than 1,001 elsewhere?
- Psalm 90:4: “For 1,000 years in Your sight are like yesterday”–a passage alluded to in 2 Peter 3:8, speaking of the return of Christ. The idea is not that there is a literal correlation between 1 day and 1,000 years for the Lord. Rather, that time is meaningless to the eternal God. Thousands of years may pass, and to God it’s nothing, like the passing of a day.
- Psalm 91:7: “1,000 may fall at your side, 10,000 at your right hand…”
- Psalm 105:8: “He remembers His covenant forever, the Word which He commanded to 1,000 generations.” But not to 1,001 generations?
There are other passages I could cite (e.g., Hosea 8:12 and Micah 6:7), but I think this gets the point across. Numbers in Revelation always signify something beyond the literal, and there is overwhelming evidence that traditionally, the number 1,000 signifies a large quantity–perhaps even an innumerable quantity. So why is it 144,000 and not just 144? Because the Lord wants us to understand the magnitude of the number of His people. Yes, we are given a number: 144,000. And in his vision, John literally sees 144,000 people. But that number only serves to tell us two things:
These people are made up of Jew and Gentile, and not just according to some new promise, but according to the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There will be a lot of them. A whole lot of them. More than you could possibly imagine.
Revelation is a letter of hope, and what greater sign of God’s faithfulness could John receive than to see the multitude of God’s elect stretching all the way back to the days of the Patriarchs, standing around the throne, clothed in white, washed in the blood of the Lamb? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s coming in verse 9…
We noted the absence of Dan and Ephraim in the list of the tribes. This shouldn’t bother us since, as we’ve just discussed, the list is not representative of literal Israel. It is symbolic of God’s old covenant people, and moreover, the old covenant promise fulfilled in the gospel and the church. But we might also note that these two tribes are often (not always) associated with idolatry (see Judges 18:16-19; 1 Kings 12:28-30; Hosea 4:17, 5:3, 5:9). As I mentioned earlier, the 12,000 from each tribe is a portion of that tribe (for the Greek geeks, John uses the preposition ek, as in ek phulês Iouda), suggesting that only a portion of each tribe was sealed (i.e., were truly believers). It’s possible the intention is to convey a purified people, in which case it makes sense to omit the two tribes most associated with a sin to which the churches in Asia Minor were particularly susceptible (see the seven letters).
We’ll be taking a break from Revelation next week, but we’ll return to it the week after, Lord willing.