Monday, August 30, 2021

32: The Revelation: The Tribulation Saints - The 144,000 Jewish Evangelists (Revelation 7:1-8)


Revelation 7 forms a parenthetical section between the sixth (Rev. 6:12–17) and seventh (Rev. 8:1) seals to answer the question, “The great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17). It introduces two groups who will survive the fury of divine judgment. The first (described in verses 1–8) are the Jewish evangelists who will be preserved on earth. They will survive the divine wrath unleashed by the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments. God will also protect them from the murderous efforts of Antichrist to wipe out believers. Having survived the wars, famines, and unprecedented natural disasters, they will enter the millennial kingdom alive. The second group to escape divine fury (Rev. 7:9–17) constitutes those who will be martyred.

THE 144,000 JEWS

Wrath Restrained

"After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree." (Rev. 7:1)

The use of “after this” here signifies that the vision of the sixth seal has ended and John is about to see a new vision. It may also indicate that this new vision depicts events that come after the sixth seal chronologically. The scene now shifts from judgment on the ungodly to special protection for the godly.

As the vision unfolded, John first saw four angels. These four are given power over the elements of nature (Rev. 14:18; 16:5). They are seen “standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds of the earth.” Unsophisticated skeptics imagine that John’s poetic reference to the four corners of the earth reflects a primitive notion that the earth is flat and square. But the phrase actually refers to the whole earth by designating the four primary points on the compass (north, south, east, and west).

From their key positions on the earth, these powerful angels ensured that no wind would blow on the earth, sea, or any tree. The four winds are often associated in Scripture with God’s judgment (Jeremiah 49:36; Daniel 7:2; Hosea 13:15).

“Holding back” is from a strong word that suggests the winds are struggling to break free from their restraint. The angelic restraining of the wind also symbolizes the withholding of the plagues associated with the upcoming trumpet judgments (Rev. 8:5ff.). So the next phase of God’s wrath is restrained for the moment.

Saints Sealed

"And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” (Rev. 7:2–3)

The reason for the temporary restraining of God’s judgment becomes clear as John sees another angel in addition to the four holding back the winds. Some have identified this angel as Jesus Christ, but that is unlikely because “another” here means another of the same kind as the first four angels.

John saw the angel ascending “from the rising of the sun.” That is a poetic way of saying from the east, the point of the compass in which the sun rises. From John’s perspective on the island of Patmos, the east would be toward the land of Israel, the land where God’s promised salvation came through Jesus.

The angel had with him “the seal of the living God.” This seal (from the Greek sphragis) often referred to a signet ring. Kings or other officials would use such rings to stamp into wax on documents or other items, affirming their authenticity and guaranteeing their security (Genesis 41:42; Esther 3:10; 8:2, 8; Daniel 6:17; Matthew 27:66).

In contrast to the seals of earthly rulers, the seal borne by the angel belonged to “the living God.” The Bible frequently identifies God as the living God to distinguish Him from the dead idols worshiped by unbelievers. The most prominent false deity of the tribulation period, Antichrist, will seal his followers (Rev. 13:16–17; Rev. 14:9–11; Rev. 16:2; Rev. 19:20; Rev. 20:4), and the true and living God will seal His. Revelation 14:1 identifies the mark left by God’s seal as the names of Christ and the Father.

Urgently, the fifth angel cried out with a loud voice to the other four angels, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” The harm that will come to the earth, the sea, and the trees will occur when the four angels suddenly release the judgment they have been restraining. But that judgment had to wait until the angels had sealed the bond-servants of God on their foreheads. That they are referred to as bond-servants indicates they are already redeemed. At this point they are to be protected so they can continue to witness about Christ. After the sealing is complete the judgments can begin. Revelation 14:1–5 describes their morally pure, undefiled character and devotion to Christ. They are also described as having been “purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4). They will be the most effective missionaries the world has ever seen, and will be instrumental in the conversion of both their own countrymen and the nations.

Israelites Identified

"And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed." (Rev. 7:4–8)

The 144,000 are not all Jewish believers at that time, but a unique group selected to proclaim the gospel in that day (Rev. 12:17; Rev. 14:1–5). Despite the plain and unambiguous declaration of the text that the one hundred and forty-four thousand who are to be sealed will come from every tribe of the sons of Israel, many persist in identifying them as the church. But the identification of Israel with the church in those passages is tenuous and disputed. The fact is that “no clear-cut example of the church being called ‘Israel’ exists in the [New Testament] or in ancient church writings until A.D. 160.… This fact is crippling to any attempt to identify Israel as the church in Revelation 7:4.” The term Israel must be interpreted in accordance with its normal biblical usage as a reference to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That there were 12,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel speaks of God’s elective purpose. Mere random human choice would not come up with such an even division. While the tribal records were lost when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70, God knows who belongs to each tribe.

The specific tribal names in this list raise three interesting questions. Why is Judah listed first, even though Reuben was the firstborn? Why is the tribe of Dan omitted, and why is Ephraim omitted in favor of his father, Joseph? Reuben forfeited his birthright as punishment for his sexual misconduct with his father’s concubine (1 Chronicles 5:1). The omission of the tribe of Dan in favor of the priestly tribe of Levi probably is due to the tribe’s reputation for idolatry (Deuteronomy 29:18–21). While Dan will share in the millennial blessings (Ezekiel 48:1–2, 32), the tribe will not be selected for this duty nor protected during the tribulation. Similarly, the name of Ephraim is omitted in favor of his father Joseph because Ephraim defected from the ruling house of Judah (Isaiah 7:17). Like Dan, Ephraim was consumed with idolatry (Hosea 4:17). His brother Manasseh is included because he was the faithful son of Joseph.

This critical passage reinforces the biblical truth that God is not through with the nation of Israel (see Romans 9–11). Though Israel failed in its mission to be a witness nation, that will not be the case in the future. From the Jewish people will come the greatest missionary force the world has ever known.