Before the Throne of God Above
Scripture: Revelation 7:1–17
Before the Throne of God AboveRevelation 7:1-17
Sunday, November 8, 2015
Pastor Randy Smith
Two weeks ago we concluded Revelation chapter 6. By way of review, in chapter 5 we were introduced to the scroll - the record of the final destination of all humans (heaven or hell). In chapter 6 we were introduced to the breaking of six of the seven seals necessary to open the scroll and enact the events leading up to this decisive moment at the end of this age.
The first four seals or the four horsemen, we called "birth pangs." This isn't the pains of heavy labor, but the beginning signs that something significant is about to take place. This also isn't the formal wrath of God, but rather events caused and permitted by Him that put the world into turmoil and unrest. An increase in false teachers, civil unrest, wars, famine and death all set the stage for the antichrist, an evil world leader that promises unity and peace, performs miracles and demands universal worship as if he were God.
This will initiate the period we refer to as "The Great Tribulation" when God's people will be greatly persecuted for their refusal to worship him (the fifth seal). After a short period of time, the sixth seal will be broken bringing forth dramatic cosmic chances known as "The Day of the Lord" that will usher in the Lord and bring great fear on those who do not know Jesus Christ. As 6:16-17 says, "And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?'"
Now before the seventh and final seal is broken in chapter 8, we find ourselves in an interlude in chapter 7. It's not that there is a pause in what is going on here on earth, but rather chapter 7 is to show us things from another perspective. Chapter 7 is to show us what's happening up in heaven during this time. So chapter 6 closes with the question when faced with God's wrath, "Who is able to stand?" (Rev. 6:17). Chapter 7 will now answer that question by looking at two groups of God's people - the first in verses 1-8 and the second in 9-17.
1. Verses 1-8
Let's first look at verses 1-8.
We'll start with verses 1-3. "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 should blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 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.'"
So we have these four unknown angels given control over the entire earth. These angels holding back the "four winds" could be holding back the four horsemen (seals one through four). Yet if we take the events of Revelation in chronological order as many do, most likely these angels are holding back the initial aspects of God's increasing wrath. We also see them sealing "the bond-servants of God." I'm not sure if this is a literal seal, but it's an identification sign of ownership (just as Satan's servants are sealed with 666) that will in some sense protect the people of God from some kind of upcoming harm (cf. Rev. 9:4).
Since I believe these events are happening during or right after the Great Tribulation, the purpose of what this seal protects the people of God from is limited to three options. First, it could be to protect them from denying Christ. Second, it could be to protect them from physical harm from persecutors. And third, which fits the context, it could be to protect them from the judgment of God that is falling on the unbelievers. This would assume these individuals came to faith after the rapture or that the rapture will occur much later than most Christians believe.
So could believers "not destined…for wrath" (1 Thes. 5:9) be here on earth when God pours out His wrath? It could be somewhat akin to the way God protected the Israelites from His wrath when He poured it out on the Egyptians. They weren't removed, but they were protected by the blood they smeared on their doorposts. Likewise, God's people will be protected from His wrath by the blood of Christ which is their identification with Him. We see the same picture portrayed in Ezekiel 9. Those sealed are the ones protected from God's active wrath. It's not removal from, but safety within.
That takes us to the hotly debated content found in verses 4-8.
"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."
Scholars have argued these verses for centuries, so I don't suppose to have a dogmatic conclusion, but let me present you with some observations. It really comes down to answering two questions. One, are these literal Israelites or are they Christians in general. And two, is the 144,000 meant to be taken literally or is it symbolic in nature?
First, a close examination of this list reveals some strange details. Why is Judah listed first when Reuben was the oldest brother? Why was the tribe of Dan omitted? Why is Joseph included when usually he is omitted in favor of his two sons - Manasseh and Ephraim? And why is Manasseh listed and not Ephraim?
Second, should this list (as in the number 144,000) be taken literally? Numbers found in Revelation, since it is apocalyptic literature, are most often taken symbolically. Twelve continually pops us throughout Revelation in this symbolic fashion to show completeness. Wait until we get to the description of the New Jerusalem: "It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are those of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel… And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb… And the twelve gates were twelve pearls… And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit" (Rev. 21:12, 14, 21; 22:2). In this case, 144,000, is 12x12x1000. Could this be way of expressing perfect completeness?
Third, while I am not implying that the church has replaced Israel, there is no doubt that throughout the New Testament the church is referred to as the true Israel (Gal. 6:16). In Romans 2, Paul speaks of the true Jew that is one inwardly with a circumcised heart (Rom. 2:28-29). In Philippians we read, "[Christians] are the true circumcision" (Phil. 3:3). We've seen this already in Revelation (Rev. 2:9; 3:9).
Fourth, however you interpret this group here in chapter 7, you need to be consistent because they reappear in chapter 14. "And I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless" (Rev. 14:1-5). To me that sounds like all believers.
Fifth, it's hard to take this as literal Israel because all the records of their lineage were wiped out when the Romans destroyed the Temple and its surroundings in AD 70. Since then there isn't a Jew that can identify his or her heritage. Also, over the past two thousand years, the bloodline has been completely intermingled not just from Jewish tribe to Jewish tribe, but also significant Gentile influence as well. We know ten of the twelve tribes were lost in the Assyrian invasion in 722 BC. Furthermore, if we take this Jewish lineage literally, should we take literally all of Israel's enemies that are mentioned throughout Revelation to the likes of Sodom, Gog, Magog and Babylon? Soon we'll see in verse 9 that those in heaven are Christians composed of all ethnicities. Let's remember that was a promise given to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 16:10; 22:15-18). Yet in 7:9 we see that fulfilled, as we are taught in Galatians, not in the literal bloodline of Abraham, but in the spiritual descendants of Christ (Gal. 3:16).
Sixth, we note the verses that describe the population in heaven that bookend this section. In chapter 5 (specifically 5:9) on one end and the rest of chapter 7 (specifically 7:9) on the other end, emphasize heaven is inhabited with not just Jewish blood, but people from "every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Rev. 7:9).
So the interpretive options: We can go the Jehovah Witness route and say these 144,000 is to be taken literally and represent the only people that will get to heaven. Better knock on a lot of doors! The rest go to some secondary place. Not a good choice.
Many good theologians still take this literally and believe it refers to a remnant of ethnic Israel that will come to believe in Christ during the Great Tribulation. The seal will either protect them from God's wrath, or as some say, martyrdom so they can boldly witness for Jesus Christ to the nations.
That could be true or we take this number to refer to Christians in general, specifically those martyred. Obviously more than 144, 000 have been martyred already, but again, the number is symbolic of completeness. Remember how the previous chapter ended? The martyred souls in heaven cried for the Lord to avenge His name. To which He said in 6:11, "And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also." Could the 144,000 be a symbolic figure to show the completion of the number of those to be martyred and signal the end of the great tribulation?
Or a final option is that the 144,000 is just another way to look at the same group in heaven that we will soon see in the second half of chapter 7. Just as Jesus is both the Lion and the Lamb, it is argued that this group is the church just seen from two different vantage points. In other words, this is the totality of the redeemed.
Sorry if your head is spinning. Now you know how I've felt mulling these verses over the past two weeks! The second half of Revelation 7 is fairly straightforward. Let's move there now.
2. Verses 9-17
In verse 9 we have another description of Christians. The verse reads, "After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands."
It's without doubt that the population of heaven is multiethnic. There are many places you can turn in the Bible if you wish to prove the sin of racial discrimination, but this verse makes it unmistakable that God's does not judge one's worth based upon a superficial distinction such as skin pigmentation.
God looks at the heart. And He loves and welcomes all people who have a heart to do His will. We live in a world that likes to separate. In God's economy the only separation we see is those with Christ and those without Christ. Ultimately, that is all that matters.
I often pray our church (which should be heaven on earth) will someday reflect the diversity we see in heaven above. Representations of all ethnicities dwelling together in harmony reflects our eternal home and boasts that the cross has broken down all the dividing walls.
In verse 9 we see those in heaven with "white robes" and holding "palm branches" in their hands.
White robes, we've seen this often already in Revelation. White is the symbol of purity. If this speaks of the martyrs, I believe it is a special reward for those who remained pure to Christ when faced with the ultimate choice of denying Christ or facing death. If we are talking about all of those in heaven, it's the victory of their faith clothed symbolically in the righteousness of Christ.
The palm branches were used in antiquity for celebration. How can we not think about Palm Sunday when Jesus rode victoriously into Jerusalem as the crowd waved palm branches (Jn. 12:13). Another symbol of the great rejoicing to be found in heaven is glorious praise for the deliverance found in Christ from the Great Tribulation.
We must remember that Revelation was written to the persecuted church on earth. What incredible encouragement this must have brought to these suffering Christians and the future Christians that will enter the world's darkest hours just prior to our Lord's return. This is a common theme in Scripture that God gives us a taste of future glory just prior to times of suffering for Him. Our Lord's transfiguration is a good example.
In verse 10 we read that this multitude cries out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."
Then from the redeemed humans, the lens widens to show all the created beings around the throne in verses 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, saying, 'Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.'"
What an incredible picture of God-centered, Christ-exalting joyous praise. You know, we might have less control of having a church that is a multiethnic representation of heaven, but we have full control of our hearts that worship God on earth the same way they do in heaven.
Verse 13, John speaking, "And one of the elders answered, saying to me, 'These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and from where have they come?' John gives the perfect response in verse 14. "My lord, you know."" To which the elder says, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
This vision is a future picture of a subsection in heaven. These are the ones who lived up until the end and endured the Great Tribulation. Many claim Christians will all be raptured prior to this time. Clearly this verse teaches that some, if not all the church living at this time will experience this severe time of testing known as the Great Tribulation. Many see this as an allusion to Daniel 12:1. "Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued."
So this picture here show those who were rescued from the Great Tribulation. Some died as martyrs. The rest possibly were raptured. All suffered in some sense because of their faith during these final days of life on earth for the church.
The elder continues in verse 15, "For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne shall spread His tabernacle over them."
Do you see the contrast now between chapters 6 and 7? Chapter 6, the unbeliever in Christ is doing all he can to flee from the presence of God. Now in chapter 7, we see the believer welcomed and protected before the throne of God (His most intimate presence) continually. Sin cannot stand before God. We are all sinners, but Jesus Christ has paid the penalty for our sins on the cross. He took our defilement. He gave us His righteousness. As verse 14 declares, we have been "made…white in the blood of the Lamb." Isaiah 1:18, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool" (cf. Rev. 19:8). And the only way we can receive the necessary cleansing is genuine faith in Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures teach that "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12). Those persecuted, which in effect applies to all believers, are now given their rest in glory. We come out of the evil world when we enter heaven. And instantly when we enter heaven, verse 15 says, God "will spread His tabernacle over them." In other words, in His immediate presence and glory, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, there is a sheltering protection for all of God's people. Those persecuted from the world are at peace. Those who persecuted God by persecuting His people are now in agony.
And as for God's people, verse 16, "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat" (fulfillment of Isaiah 49:10).
That's spoken in a way a believer living in an arid climate would understand. It's relief from their most desperate and daily needs that were often unmet. These words might not mean much to us living in America. However, let me put it in language that might hit closer to home. In my case, my father passed away last week. Earlier this week I pulled a muscle in my lower back that resulted in painful spasms. Then last night I watched our neighbor's house on fire and wondered if it would spread to our house. We too in our own ways look for deliverance from this fallen world.
Verse 17, "For the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to springs of the water of life; and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes." There is Jesus Christ at the center of the throne - a sign of His deity. The role of God in the Old Testament to shepherd His people (Psm. 23:1; Isa. 40:11) belongs here to none other than Jesus Christ. More proof that Jesus Christ is God. Also we observe an interesting mix of metaphors. Jesus Christ is the Lamb and the Lamb will be the shepherd of His people, the lambs (Jn. 10:1-10; 21:15-17). Perfect protection and care for all of eternity. So much it says that every tear will be wiped from their eyes (Rev. 21:4). From tears of sorrow to only tears of delight.
Though there is much debate over the details of chapter 7, I believe the big picture we see here is the contrast between those with Christ and those without Christ. Revelation is clear that in the eyes of God there are only two sides in the cosmic conflict. There are those aligned with Christ in devout loyalty and those opposed to Him who put other things above the priority of a relationship with Him. Christ's people are identified with a seal. Satan's people are identified with a seal. Side with the opposition to Christ and you will be spared Satan's wrath, but experience the wrath of the Lamb. Side with Christ and you will experience the wrath of Satan, but be spared the wrath of the Lamb.
So as we consider tribulation for being a Christian or the pain of living in a fallen world, may this chapter bring us great encouragement as we look beyond this world to the reward that awaits us for all eternity. Deliverance from the suffering that accompanies life in this world to the place where God spreads His tabernacle over, wipes away all our tears and gives us Himself, the ultimate joy in and for the heart of every believer.