Revelation 7 and the 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 (Interlude)

Introduction

I will borrow from several parts of Beale’s introduction because I have found it helpful for showing how chapter 6 and 7 tie together:

Revelation 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations (he is referring to the four horsemen) enumerated in chapter 6. The vision of 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere. It amplifies the brief picture of the saints in 6:9-11, who have finally entered into God’s presence, after having successfully completed their course of suffering (see esp. 7:13-15). 7:9-17 also describes the kind of rest that the exalted saint were told to enjoy (6:11)…Saints who suffer in the tribulation are encouraged to persevere as they reflect on the divine protection they have through God’s sealing them and as they recall the promise of their future heavenly reward.

Therefore, the sealing of the saints explains further how Christ will “keep them from the hour of trial” which is “to test the earth-dwellers” who have persecuted them (cf. 6:10). All these connections concern matters that precede the final judgment and reward, so chapter 7 must function as an interlude or parenthesis in its placement after chapter 6. Yet the chapter also has a future aspect, especially toward the end (vv. 15-17). From this perspective the chapter is also an answer to the concluding question of 6:17, “who is able to stand”: before God and not suffer the wrath of the last judgment? This is the definite answer to 6:17 and the main point toward which the visionary narrative of 7:9ff drives.[i]

Hamilton rightly says that, “This chapter is important because we will see later in 9:4 that those who are sealed will not be harmed, and we see in 14:1-5 that this group stands with Jesus, redeemed, on Mount Zion. The fact that God seals his servants also informs the number of the beast in 13:16-18, which seems to be a satanic imitation of God’s sealing of his servants.”[ii]

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

There are obviously no “corners” to the earth – Columbus helped us figure that one out some time ago – and just as obvious is the fact that God knew it all along! But the meaning here is a simple literary device to mean that the reach of the power of the angels was worldwide.

What are they holding back? The “four winds”, which I tend to believe equate with the four horsemen from chapter 6. For in Zechariah 6 they are equated as the same thing:

And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.[iii] (Zechariah 6:5)

Beale explains:

This identification becomes clearer from understanding that the sealing of believers in vv 3-8 explains how they can be protected spiritually from the woes of the four horsemen, which they must endure. Therefore, the identification of the winds with the horsemen means that the sealing of believers in vv 2-8 takes us back even before the time when the four horsemen of 6:1-8 are unleashed.[iv]

7:2-3 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

The Seal and the Passover

The seal of God here is the mark of ownership and of protection that indicates that you are God’s own possession and that your salvation has been secured. A brilliant picture of this occurred prior to the Exodus when God instructed Moses to adorn the lentils of Jewish homes in Goshen with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over those homes in the midst of a devastating night-time slaughter of the first born of all Egypt. That night, thousands of years prior to John’s vision, an entire generation was taken away by the Sovereign of all life.

And it is those plagues – the 10 plagues that wracked Egypt prior to the Exodus – that serve as one of the main OT backdrops of the first four seal judgments (the four horsemen), but especially come to mind in the Trumpet and Bowl judgments in the coming chapters. They are modeled after those plagues, and are meant to serve as a reminder of God’s power and sovereignty, as well as His plan for anti-typical fulfillment of a final exodus from sin, death, and a fallen world; He will lead His people to a new land.

Now, the seal is the opposite of the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is just another way of saying you are a child of the enemy, as opposed to a child of God.

It is a harsh reality that we must come to grips with that all those who are not children of God are, in Biblical terms, categorized as children of Satan, because they are under His control. This reality goes back to Genesis 3:15 where the seed of the Woman was to battle it out with the seed of the Serpent. It didn’t take long before the first battle commenced – Able was the first physical casualty in a war that would stretch for thousands of years. Jesus taught this dichotomy clearly:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, [40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. [41] You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” [42] Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:39-47).

Paul emphasized this as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

It is only through the grace of God that one is saved from the enemy camp. Indeed, Jesus came to make enemies His friends:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:9-10).

And this seal is that which indicates that we have been snatched from the enemy camp, and are in the army of God’s glorious elect. It is also an indication of protection from all the evil plagues I mentioned were about to befall mankind. Not protection from difficulty, or struggles in this life. The Israelites were spared death, but yet they endured many of the plagues the Egyptians endured, and then wandered in the wilderness and had a tough go of it for many years before being granted entrance into the Promised Land. So too are we protected ultimately.

Beale explains this well I think:

The nature of this protection is spiritual. This is apparent from the fact that believers and unbelievers suffer similar physical afflictions. But, whereas these trials purify God’s servants, they harden the ungodly in their response to God (so 9:19-21). The seal is closely related to the salvation of the people who bear it. This is evident from 14:1-4, where the group that has “written on their foreheads” the names of Christ and the Father (vs1) is also said to be redemptively “purchased.”[v]

Now, more poignantly, the seal is especially that which protects us from what Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

The sealing of the elect is the answer to the question posed in 6:17, “who is able to standin the great day of the Lord’s judgment. Well, the answer is that the elect are able to stand because God has sealed them. Tom Schreiner sums up nicely:

Those whose names are written in the book of life are enrolled because the Lamb has been slain on their behalf (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). The 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:1-8) only because they belong to the Lamb. His death is the source of their life. The sing a new song of salvation and have the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads because they have been redeemed by the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5).[vi]

A Reminder of the OT Imagery

In this way we can see the importance once again of knowing our Old Testament. I’ve said again and again in class how these OT images and stories would have been automatically conjured up in the minds of 1st century believers hearing John’s symbolic descriptions. Their minds would work with OT imagery the same way ours works when we hear the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Immediately we think: Star Wars! And all the stories and characters flood to mind in milliseconds. The same is true for the original readers of John’s letter. Therefore, we much be extra studious to understand their minds, and seek to know the OT backdrop which colors the words of this book.

7:4-8 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: [5] 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, [6] 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, [7] 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, [8] 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

There are four general theories[vii] of who makes up this group of 144,000.

  1. The dispensational view, which takes it literally as 144,000 exact people, they see it as Jewish Christians coming out of the great tribulation. “This is based on the presupposition that John’s language is to be understood literally except where he states explicitly otherwise.”[viii] The issue is that hermeneutically their literalization of the number is incorrect – every number in Revelation is figurative, why would this be different? Also, their view that a rapture of Christians will take place prior to a period of tribulation is further error that compounds the mistake.
  2. Some classic pre-mills view this group as figurative, standing for the Jews who are partially hardened but will be come to faith en masse when Christ comes back (Romans 11:24-26). The issue with this is that the Romans 11 passage talks about salvation en masse, whereas this pass in Rev. 7 has in view a remnant of people. They seem to be conveying two different ideas.
  3. Some see the 144,000 as Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century who will emerge from the horrors of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. My issue with this is that it doesn’t seem to accord with the context. If chapter 7 is an explanation of chapter 6:1-8, which I believe is evident, then one would have to say that the four horsemen were only corresponding to that destruction which took place in 70 A.D., with the following 5th seal emphasis on Christian martyrdom. However, I’m not sure that historically this has been the emphasis coming out of 70 AD (not that its not possible I suppose). It would either damage the recapitulation hermeneutic more generally, which we have seen manifold evidence for thus far, else it might suppose that all of the trumpets and bowls are referring to that time in 70AD, something that the global nature of their descriptions seem at odds with.  
  4. Lastly, there is the view that the number is figurative and that the group here is “the complete number of God’s people” (so Beale). I believe this is correct because every other number in Revelation is figurative, and because the context of the passage demands this conclusion.[ix]

I believe there is ample evidence to point to the fact that what is being represented here is not simply a special carve out of ethnic Jews, but a figurative description of the church across all time. While futurists believe that this group of people are Jewish believers coming out of a literal 7-year tribulation period after the rapture, not all premillennial futurists agree. Both Mounce and Ladd disagree, saying that the 144,000 is symbolic for the church in the tribulation.[x] That being said, I just don’t see these ideas as working very well, and believe Schreiner, Beale, and Hendriksen to be on the right track here. This is evidenced by the figurative nature of 144,000.

Beale explains the 144,000 number, and generally Hendriksen and others say the same thing:

144,000 is the result of the square of twelve multiplied by one thousand or the multiple of the squares of ten and twelve multiplied by ten. The use of twelve (and perhaps ten) heightens the figurative idea of completeness. The square of twelve may be merely the number of the tribes of Israel multiplied by itself or, more likely, the twelve tribes multiplied by the twelve apostles. Chapter 21 confirms this suggestion, where the names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles form part of the figurative structure of the heavenly city of God, “the new Jerusalem.”[xi]

Hendriksen picks up on this citation of chapter 21 and says, “Entirely in harmony with this representation we read in Revelation 21 that the holy city Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations. On these twelve gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the twelve foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:9-14). We also ready that the wall is 144 cubits in height (21:17).”[xii]

In other words, the number 144,000 is a number meant to represent something, not specifically count individuals. And that something it represents is “the sealed multitude of…the entire Church militant of the old and new dispensations.”[xiii]

Schreiner helpfully discusses the idea and provides a useful summary snapshot:

Some interpreters, of course, understand the 144,000 as literally referring to Israel. The arguments presented previously (cf. his NT theology chapter 17) suggest that John uses “Israel” symbolically to refer to the new people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel point now to a greater fulfillment: the church of Jesus Christ. The 144,000 is symbolic in that it is twelve squared and multiplied by one thousand. It represents, then, the totality of God’s people and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. It also represents God’s army in that it is comparable to the census of Israel s God’s army in the OT. God’s warriors are those who suffer for other sake of the Lamb. The church of Jesus Christ is, then, the true synagogue of God, the place where his people father together. The church does not cancel out ethnic Israel, for the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:12). But the true Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, finds its fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.[xiv]

Lost Identity

I sometimes feel obliged to spend more time refuting the dispensational viewpoint because of its odd predominance in our culture at this time in history. So I want to give one more angle on this group of 144,000 as food for thought.

One of the main difficulties with the dispensational viewpoint on this number representing Jewish Christians from literal tribes is that those tribes were completely obliterated during the Assyrian exile. Beale notes that there was still a possibility that some tribal identity existed in the first century A.D. (e.g. Acts 26:7), it seems that many Jews even at this time didn’t have a specific tribal identity. And while dispensationalists like Walvoord argue that God still knows who is from what tribe,[xv] even that argument has two issues

  1. Intermarriage: Of course God knows everything, but what is it that object of His knowledge? Are there some people who have somehow accidentally remained of purely Reuben, or Judah, or Benjamin blood? Assuming God knows the blood lineage of all mankind, it is still highly doubtful that given all the intermarriage in the last 2000+ years that there remain on earth now (or in the future) those who are purely of the blood of one or another of these tribes.
  2. Context: Beale says, “Even if it were viable (and my first point were null), it would have to remain speculation until more evidence from Revelation 7 or elsewhere in the book could be adduced to support it. Instead, the immediate and broad contexts point to a transferal of the tribal names to the church.”[xvi] That broader context could include the noted parallel of chapter 7 with 14:1-4. In those verses the 144,000 are said to be those who are “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God” (14:4) – in my mind this draws from NT literature in which we are told the church (James 1:18 perhaps picking up on Jeremiah 2:2-3?) and Christ (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18) are the firstfruits of God (The church due to the nature of its unity with Christ – see Romans 6-8). That they are redeemed from mankind emphasizes again that they are a remnant, and that they are not simply from Israel, but more globally from “mankind.” We will discuss this more when we come to chapter 14.

An Odd List

Now there are some oddities with the tribal list. First, it is missing the tribe of Dan and also missing Ephraim. Futurists like Walvoord say that this is either because the antichrist will come from Dan, or because these tribes were guilty of idolatry.[xvii] But there is no such biblical evidence to support the former, and the latter could be said of all of the tribes!

Hendriksen says, “To say that the symbol ultimately indicates Israel according to the flesh is wrong. The apostle certainly knew that ten of the twelve tribes had disappeared in Assyria, at least to a great extent; while Judah and Benjamin had lost their national existence when Jerusalem fell, in AD 70. Besides, if Israel according to the flesh were meant, why should Ephraim and Dan be omitted? Surely not all the people in the tribe of Dan were lost.”[xviii]

Of course some of this doubles down on what I already mentioned before, but I believe it’s sometimes helpful to hear it from other sources and perspectives.

Another oddity is that Judah is listed first in the list. In my mind there could be some influence here from Genesis 49 where Jacob blessed his sons and predicted that from the tribe of Judah would come a king – that king, as we now know, was Jesus.[xix]

Hamilton sums up some of these oddities, “…in this list that John gives in Revelation 7:5-8, he leaves out Dan, lists Manasseh but not Ephraim, and lists both Joseph and Levi. So john has twelve tribes listed, but this list doesn’t match the way that the Old Testament generally listed the twelve tribes.”[xx]

Hamilton thinks that perhaps Walvoord is right in saying that the omission of Dan and Ephraim (which was the name also equated with the northern kingdom of Israel) might be due to idolatry. But it is hard to say for sure.

7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Some objections are given by the dispensastionalists that these two groups can’t possibly be the same people. One group is described as coming from every tribe and nation and the other is described with a number and as Israelites. But the similarities outweigh the differences. The second group seems to have emerged from the tribulation because they were sealed (which was something mentioned of the first group). It also seems likely that, “on this understanding, just as John heard that Jesus was a Lion in 5:5 and then “saw” Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6, so also John “heard” the number 144,000 in 7:4 and then saw an innumerable multitude in 7:9.”[xxi]

Therefore, John looks and sees something that previously he only heard. If verses 4-8 are representative of the church from across all time, which I believe these are, then verse 9 is the visible representation of what John heard in verses 4-8. And what an amazing thing he saw!

John sees a vast multitude, a very diverse group of people. They seem to be people represented from all the nations of the earth. Their diversity transcends tongue and ethnicity, and their unity is found in that they all have white robes and palm branches in their hands, and they all cry out with a very loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11-12 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The angels, and elders and specifically the four living creatures all agree with the words of the church and say “Amen!”

One of the things that came to mind here was how in Isaiah 6 we are told that “one angel called to another”, that is to say that one of the Seraphim cried out in praise to God to another angel, and as if in agreement they all join together crying “holy, holy, holy” – the trisagion, He is three-times holy. And we see something similar here as well where all of God’s creation is joined together in one mind in praise to God. One group praises God, and the other seeks to echo their praise with praises of their own.

If worship is two parts: one presenting one’s body before the Lord (i.e. Romans 12:1-2), and the second presenting one’s praise before the Lord, then this group has both covered. They “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God” – but it is not an empty worship of body alone. The body is only part of the worship…

Note now the content of what they are saying about God. They acknowledge these things about and to God:

Blessing – He is the origin of all blessing, for “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Therefore it is right to bless God with our tongues for all He has given to us, and for who He is intrinsically, and that is just what they do here.

Glory – Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory we are told (Hebrews 1:1-3), but what is this glory? The glory of God is defined by John Piper as the visible and outward manifestation of His holiness – it is his holiness “gone public.” But what is being said here is that all glory, that is, all praise for goodness, is due to God. He is the only person who deserves “glory” or to be “glorified” in the truest sense of the word.

Wisdom – This is a more complex praise than it might seem at first. Wisdom is by definition a “right use of knowledge”, and we know that Christ was the very embodiment of wisdom, and that God is the keeper of all wisdom. If God was not wise, then all of His knowledge could be used to terribly ineffective or dangerous ends. But He is wise – Paul calls God the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27) in a similar doxological moment. The idea is that the angels and elders acknowledge that to Him alone belongs wisdom. It is like saying, “God only you know all the ends from the beginning, and only you are the right governor of all history and creation, and we would never want it any other way.”

Thanksgiving – Because of these truths we are to be grateful to God for all He has seen fit to do for us. Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Honor – Honor is specifically a word that I think fits rightly with kingship. Honor is not simply thanksgiving, or gratitude, it is rather paying respect to one who is due respect. That respect is not due only for what that person does or did, but for who they are. On earth we have a tendency to somewhat begrudgingly honor our authorities because they are in a place above us; God has put them there, thus we honor them. But in heaven honor is due to God because of His own intrinsic person and His authority over all things.

Power/Might – I will treat these two together. Though Power might be thought of as an intrinsic quality, whereas “might” in the Bible (at least in my studies) brings to mind God’s power in action. It is by His “might” that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and so forth. Often the two ideas are held together – as in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength (power) of his might” (insertion mine). I love this because the idea is that God’s power is always used toward the right ends. It is not man’s power, which is used often toward wrong ends. This power of God is ultimate, and it is used in righteousness.

These are the character qualities, the attributes, if you will, that are on the minds and lips of the angels and servants of God. They end the praise by acknowledging the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God and of His person: “be to our God forever and ever!”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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.

The Explanation of the 144,000

And as if you haven’t figured it out already, the question is asked in verse 13 in a manner that reminds me of a teacher looking to his pupil to make sure they are paying attention. “Who are these people, John? Have you figured it out yet?” John punts, and the explanation is forthcoming, they are the ones who have come out of the “great tribulation.” Furthermore, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note that they are coming out of the “great tribulation”, which is to say that they will persevere through all the plagues of the four horsemen who will tear the earth apart until the final judgment of God comes at the return of His Son.

This phrase “great tribulation” is one which the dispensationalists have taken to mean a literal 7 year period of tremendous strife and horror on the earth.

Jim Hamilton, has several pages of solid points refuting this incorrect idea. Let me now read you some of his best excerpts:

Dispensationalist interpreters understand “the great tribulation” to refer to Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Daniel 9:24-27), the final sever years of human history. I have indicated (in the chapter on Revelation 6-16) that I think Daniel’s seventieth week is the whole period of time between the two comings of Christ. I think this because the New Testament indicates that with the resurrection of Jesus, the last days began.

So the age to come has been inaugurated. The final period of human history, Daniel’s seventieth week, is the whole period between the ascension and the return of Jesus.

This also means that the whole period of time between the ascension and return of Jesus is a period of “tribulation.” Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have “tribulation.” Paul told the churches in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In Revelation 1:9 John told the churches that he was their “brother and partner in the tribulation.” Jesus said to the church in Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation,” then told them in 2:10 that they would have tribulation for ten days.

So it seems that the whole period of church history, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return, is a period of tribulation…Right before the end, it does seem that there will be an intense period of persecution at the very end of history. But I think it is a mistake to expect a literal final seven years.

…I think it more likely that John means this as a description of all believers in Jesus. Thus, what John sees and recounts in Revelation is meant to encourage the churches to whom he writes. They are facing tribulation, and John tells them that God seals his servants to preserve them through the tribulation. God makes it so that though they are killed, they will overcome because they will not stop trusting Jesus.[xxii]

Now, the idea of something becoming white by spilling blood on it is nonsensical to the one who interprets these things literalistically. If we were literalists, we would have to say that this is a great mystery and there must be some kind of magic they are using to make their garments white – what are they using? What kind of blood is this anyway that the Lamb has? You may snicker, but you see the point of my hyperbole, do you not? We must interpret that which is metaphor in such a way as we are informed by the context. In the NT the blood of the lamb is said to cleanse us from our sins.

Elsewhere John writes:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The author of Hebrews alludes to this same truth as well:

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Therefore we must trust that the blood of Christ is that which will cleanse us and shield us from all harm on this earth – it is the blood of His sacrifice which protects our salvation. There seems to be a strong parallel here with 6:9-11. The saints there not only are under the alter (perhaps a symbol of protection from the four horsemen), but they are given white robes (vs. 11) and told to rest a little while longer. So too those here in chapter seven who emerge from the tribulation are given white robes – their garb is the same because they are of the same group, the elect of God.

7:15-17 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This promises mirrors that which we find in the end of the book as well. It is a wonderful promise that for those who are God’s elect, He will shelter them and bring them to their final resting place, which will be in a land flows with “springs of living water.” Therefore for those who are parched, God will give ultimate satisfaction. What Jesus gives spiritually now in “living water” we will receive physically later.

Lastly, we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This perhaps is the most wonderful verse in the entire chapter, because it 1. Acknowledges the tear-inducing struggle we face while we walk upon this earth, and 2. It showcases the tender mercy and love of God for His children.

The all-powerful God of heaven and earth understands your pain and struggle. In fact, He ordained these events in order that as you live through the plagues of the horsemen, you might be refined as gold, a choice stone in the city of God, the New Jerusalem. On that day He will heal your hurt and your scars, and mend all the pain that has caused tears to flow.

The Psalmist knew the truth that for those whose God is the Lord, they are ultimately protected from all the evil on this earth:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. [4] He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. [5] You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, [6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. [8] You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— [10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. [11] For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. [12] On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. [13] You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. [14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. [15] When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. [16] With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91)

Footnotes

[i] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg.’s 404-405.

[ii] Hamilton, Pg. 188. He’s really spot on here. And gives a great introduction, part of which includes a wonderful analysis of the main point of the chapter, which is that, “God is able to seal his servants and protect them from all danger, winning praise from them” (pg. 188).

[iii] There is also a background from Jeremiah 49:36 here. That verse says, “And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.” Beale comments in his footnotes on pg. 407 of his longer commentary, “Standing in the same tradition as Zechariah, and therefore possibly also behind Rev. 7:2-3, is Jer. 49:36, where ‘the four winds’ are divine agents of judgment against a nation.”

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 406.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 409-410.

[vi] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 429.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 416.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] It might be noted that Beale offer’s Bauckham’s view as a 5th alternative, but I don’t see it generally as fitting that way, but rather as an enhanced understanding of point 4. Namely, Bauckham says that the 144,000 represent an army of God’s people. The tribal lists, and the census terminology seems to be taken from the OT, and the parallel with 14:1-4 where the 144,000 is spoken of in militaristic terms, seems to only solidify this impression. Far from a separate view, it is a view that supports the figurative number of 144,000 (something Beale himself sees), but adds a dimension of conquering in the same way that the Lamb conquered (cf . Beale pg. 423) by enduring the suffering of the four horsemen.

[x] Steve Gregg, Pg. 133.

[xi] Ibid. Pg.’s 416-417.

[xii] Hendriksen, Pg. 110-111.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 111.

[xiv] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 751.

[xv] See Beale Pg. 415 and Greg Pg. 133.

[xvi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 419.

[xvii] Steve Gregg’s Commentary, Pg. 133.

[xviii] Hendriksen, Pg. 111.

[xix] Beale rightly remarks, “The priority of Judah here emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down to’ Judah.” Beale also says that Ezekiel 34:23-25 further develops this motif of Judah being the head of the tribes (pg. 417). Hendriksen also talks about the priority of Judah in his commentary (Pg. 111).

[xx] Hamilton, Pg. 190.

[xxi] Ibid., Pg. 192.

[xxii] Hamilton, Pg.’s 194-195. I still omitted many good things he had to say. He also talks about how the phrase “great tribulation” does not exclusively refer to a final period of difficulty and then quote Rev. 2:22 and discusses that a bit more.

Advertisements

Revelation 3:1-6 the Letter to Sardis

Chapter 3

To the Church at Sardis

Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The city was virtually impregnable by nature of its physical location. It stood some 1,500 feet above the Hermus valley as a sort of watchtower, with only one viable approach to the city from the southern side up what would have been a winding road.

The city itself was set atop a plateau, which was guarded on three sides by rocks which jetted up above the cityscape almost perpendicular to the ground. The affect was that the city was unable to be approached from any side save the southern slope, itself a difficult and steeply graded road.

The name “Sardis” is actually a plural noun, indicating not one city but two. That is because after a little while the kingdom had expanded and gotten to the point where more room was necessary. So a second city set off a bit down the southern slop from the northern old city.

The kingdom of Lydia was an ancient kingdom that embodied the great Asian (some term “oriental” – though the term is sort of funny to use today given the expansion of the Asian race into much further eastern regions) kingdoms that were continually arrayed in battle against the great western kingdoms of Greece (and perhaps Macedonia?).

Sardis was eventually embroiled in a battle with one of the greatest figures in ancient history: Cyrus the Great. “The reign of Cyrus the Great lasted between 29 and 31 years. Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire.”[i]

Though the city was virtually impregnable, Cyrus was able to conquer it. For – like the Medes/Persians would do several years later to the Babylonians (see Daniel 5) – it seems that by night they skillfully climbed the protruding rocks on each side of the city, and lowered themselves down, allowing them to take the city almost by surprise. Only in the instance of the former, history has it that Darius’ army actually went under the city by damming up a water culvert and going through the underground waterway.

About the siege of Sardis, William Ramsay says, “The armies of Lydia were being massed to crush the insolent invader, who should be ground between the perpendicular rocks of the acropolis and the gathering Lydian hosts. Such was the calculation of Croesus (the king of Sardis), when he retired one evening to rest: he was wakened to find that the enemy was master of the acropolis and that all was lost…He came up on the great city ‘like a thief in the night.’”[ii]

Indeed the city was full of prideful people, and they had been conquered and would be conquered again around 200 BC. But, as Hendriksen notes, “When the Apocalypse was written, Sardis was facing decay, a slow but sure death. In the year AD 17 the city was partly destroyed by an earthquake. Thus, again and again, the self-satisfied and boastful inhabitants of Sardis had seen destruction coming upon them ‘as a thief in the night’, most suddenly and unexpectedly.”[iii]

Excursis

It occurred to me last night as I was studying and thinking on these letters to the churches, that so many of the Bible’s great themes come to consummation in the book of Revelation, and many of them are central to the letters to the churches. Biblical Theologians have talked for years about if its possible to find the very center theme of the Bible, and if so, what is that theme? There is this underlying assumption that it is Christ Himself, but that there might be more than simply the person of Christ – in other words it might be appropriate to say that there are several big themes to Scripture. Such themes would be: Covenant, Kingdom, the Promise(s) of God, redemption/sacrifice/salvation, and so forth.

When we examine these letters we see these same themes echoed in their words:

  • Christ – the central figure who is described in various ways.
  • Covenant – the effects of the New Covenant and its underlying realities which enable Christ to fairly issue imperatives knowing His people can actually obey them.
  • Kingdom – In chapter one we learn that He has made us a “kingdom” and we are called constantly to “conquer.” In fact kingdom language pervades the book as Jesus is magnified as the great King.
  • Salvation/Redemption – The consummation of the salvation of God’s people is described in vivid detail, and in the letter to the churches specifically His people are called to endure and hold fast to their salvation until He comes again.

The point being that many of the Bible’s greatest story lines come to a confluence here in these letters and this book. This exhibits both the unity and the diversity of Scripture, and of this book specifically. It is not a book on an island alone and secluded from the rest of the Bible. In fact, as we’ll see in our study of Sardis, its unity with the rest of Scripture is plain. Yet, like the rest of Scripture, there is great diversity. There are many divers themes and elements that we must take in as readers.

End Excursis

3:1a “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

Jesus begins his letter to the church at Sardis by describing himself in two ways. First, He is the one who “has the seven spirits of God” and second, He is the one who has “the seven stars.”

Earlier we learned that the seven stars are the seven angels. And in our examination of chapter one we noted that this could mean a number of different things, we hear a lot of commentators say the stars/angels are the ministers of the church. We found that there are some difficulties with this interpretation, however, and G.K. Beale made the point that in the context of the book and the passage – especially in light of John’s use of Daniel – it might make sense that these stars/angels represented the church’s heavenly or spiritual dimension. The church’s earthy dimension was represented by the candles or torches, and the heavenly by the “stars.”

You might recall our interpretation of this was aided by an understanding that Jewish scholars who read Zechariah and Daniel seemed to understand stars and candles as representative of the people of God.

Now, as for the “seven spirits”, we read about these earlier as well. In fact this was one of the first examples we had of how John uses numbers to communicate a truth or idea. In this case, the seven spirits likely represent the fullness, or completeness, or the Holy Spirit of God. That Jesus is said here to have the seven Spirits therefore must mean that He is the bestower of the Spirit. He is the one who sends forth the Spirit. For as we read in John’s gospel, Jesus’ own words about the Spirit are thus:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Therefore, Jesus reminds the church that He is sovereign over the church – remember He holds the stars in His hand – and that He is the creator of the church – for is the Spirit of God who sovereignly brings sheep into our Lord’s fold. It is the Spirit of God who, in His perfect knowledge and according to the Father’s perfect plan, chooses whom He will soften and call to everlasting life, thus creating the church, forming her according to His own sovereign pleasure.

1:1b-2 “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. [2] Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.

The Charge

Christ’s charge here against the church at Sardis is really horrific. I say that because He is calling them out for being fraudulent followers at the very worst, and at minimum that they have been working works in the flesh. Works that make them look great in the sight of the world, but in the eyes of the one whose eyes are a “flame of fire”, they are found to be worthless.

This is why in previous passages Jesus describes his eyes as a flame of fire – because they devour all the falsehoods that we erect around our lives. They consume the dross of our works until all that is left is what has been wrought in the Spirit of God.

There is obviously a warning here for us as well. It is easy to implement programs that help the poor and the weak. Easier still is it to build large churches and draw in thousands of people with fancy music and slick teaching – and forget the gospel altogether. How quickly man is able to erect an edifice to self-help and easy believism – where lives are touched every week, and people are fired up about God’s love for every man…and no one is every saved.

This is what it means to not have your “works complete in the sight of my God.”

When something is not complete, it’s missing something. It’s lacking something – and that something here seems to be a rather big deal, wouldn’t you say?

Enough of a big deal is this missing component, that Jesus calls them out for being “dead.” You have a reputation for being alive, but guys, “you’re dead.” Like I said, at the very worst they are unsaved people preaching a false gospel, and at the very least they’re doing works in their own flesh without giving glory to God, or relying on His wisdom and His power.

Which leads to the following…

1:3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. [4] Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.

Now, I happen to think this message is really a lot more harsh than simply those walking in their own power but truly belonging to Christ. The reason is that here Jesus says that he has a remnant left in this church. “A few names” who have not “soiled their garments” and it is those people who will “walk with (Jesus) in white, for they are worthy.”

Let’s put two and two together here. If we know our NT doctrine, we know that our worthiness comes from Christ and Christ alone. Therefore those who are worthy, those who are going to walk with Jesus in white, are those who have been cleansed by the blood of the lamb – those for whom Jesus died.

John describes this group later in chapter six:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. [10] They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” [11] Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)

And then again in chapter seven:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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. (Revelation 7:13-14)

In chapter 7 this is talking in the immediately context of the 144,000. And its no coincidence that the images are all the same. Because all who walk with Christ in white are His elect – those who have been born again. The 144,000 group is something we’ll study later, but I believe it speaks of the church – or more precisely, all the elect of God throughout all history. Those who have had their garments cleansed by the blood of Jesus and now walk in white.

Beale notes that putting on this white garment probably starts now, “The reward probably begins in this life, because (i) verse 4 pictures the faithful already wearing pure garments; (ii) Christ exhorts the saints in 3:18 to buy white garments; and (iii) 16:15 refers to those who keep their garments in order not to be naked.”[iv]

Putting this altogether now, Jesus is saying there is still a remnant within your church that are actually mine. There is still a small group of true believers. Your organization has been built up in the community as having this great reputation, but I know you, says Jesus, I know you’re really dead.

Then Jesus does what no one seems to want to do today – He calls on them to repent.

In the famous movie Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Faisal tells T.E. Lawrence how much he longs for Damascus and its beauty. The dialogue goes like this:

Feisal: In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village…

Lawrence: Yes, you were great.

Feisal: …nine centuries ago…

Lawrence: Time to be great again, my Lord.

Feisal: …which is why my father made this war upon the Turks. My father, Mr. Lawrence, not the English. Now my father is old. And I, I long for the vanished gardens of Cordova. However, before the gardens must come fighting.

“Before the gardens must come the fighting.” And that is what I’m getting at here. Before inheriting glory, we must repent and obey. We must meet God on His terms, not build religious edifices on our terms. We do not get to dictate how the church will look, for the church is Christ’s bride, and she will be fashioned as He wills – not how we will. For we are the clay. The clay does not successfully and independently build a church apart from the work of the Potter.

3:5-6 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. [6] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Here is perhaps the death knell to all those who say salvation can be lost. To my Nazarene friends listen to the words of Jesus: I will never blot his name out of the book of life.

But – they protest – this is done by conquering! We must conquer. And that means that if one is sinning, or falling prey to the weakness of the flesh, they are not conquering but losing their salvation. Such is the reply from my Arminian friends.

And what is the reply? The Bible gives it three-fold: 1. The Christ is actually strongest in our weakness, therefore He allows sin and trials in order that His power be magnified, 2. (which is closely related to 1) Christ gives us the Holy Spirit in order to have the ability and freedom not to sin. This is only true of believers. And 3. The Bible clearly states that those whose names were written in the book of life have been so from before time began – and it is a doctrine seen throughout the entirety of Scripture.

  1. Christ who is the one with the actual power to conquer. We are simply his instruments. In fact, it is in our greatest weakness that He is strongest, for as Paul says:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. [8] Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9] But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

In other words, the one who conquers does so while leaning on the Lord for His power and His grace.

  1. Furthermore, in an ultimate sense, conquering is also a finished work for those who are in Christ Jesus. Therefore not only has the ultimate battle been won already, the power to conquer sin in this life has been given to us because we have been freed from the chains of sin. Sin is no longer our master – we can conquer now where we didn’t even want to conquer before.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. [6] We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [7] For one who has died has been set free from sin. [8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11)

  1. Lastly, believer’s names have been written in the book of life from before the foundation of the world, and this is the testimony across scripture.

Later in Revelation we read this:

Speaking of the great evil Beast, John writes, “and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8).

And in chapter 17…

The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. (Revelation 17:8)

The foundation for these passages comes from Daniel:

“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. [10] A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9-10)

And…

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. [2] And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. [3] And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:1-3)

Therefore God has chosen whom He will save from before the foundation of the world.

Nor is this a doctrine unique to prophetic or apocalyptic literature. For those whose faith is in God will never be put to shame, they will be with Him for eternity. Consider the following passages:

Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 49:23)

And as he is describing the new covenant people who will be filled with the Spirit, Joel says this:

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. [27] You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:26-27)

Paul then takes these passages and says this:

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. [11] For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [12] For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. [13] For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:10-13 ESV)

And all those who are saved will never be separated from the Lord:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [36] As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:35-36 ESV)

And then – get this!! – he concludes…

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [38] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

Thus it has always been that those who conquer do so in the power of Jesus, because of their mystical union to Jesus, and will be preserved by Jesus to walk with Him in white forevermore.

 

FOOTNOTES

[i] From the Wikipedia Article on Cyrus the Great, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_the_Great, Accessed February 20, 2015.

[ii] Ramsay, Pg.’s 359, 361.

[iii] Hendriksen, Pg. 73. He really leans heavily on Ramsay (as do so many commentators looking at the ancient geographic and cultural landscape), but I quote him here because he does a good job of summing up the thought, whereas Ramsay devotes two lengthy chapters to each city/letter which are somewhat difficult to distill at times.

[iv] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 80.