Good evening everyone! If you’ve been on your feet, please take a seat, grab your Bibles and turn back to Revelation 7 and as you do, I’m going to pray.
Lord, please would you help us understand your word & show us how to respond to it. In Jesus' name. Amen.
I want to begin tonight by encouraging you to put yourself into John’s place. Just briefly.
There you are, banished on the small Greek island of Patmos. It’s the sabbath and you’re praising God, when all of a sudden you are astonished by the presence of a messenger and unprecedented views into the heavenly realms. It feels as if the very fabric of reality is ripped back and what you see begins to overwhelm you. You tremble in the very throne room of God, wanting so badly to join in with those praising him but there’s so much to take in. Then terrifying vision follows terrifying vision and you watch in horror, helpless as destruction, famine, war, disease and death are allowed to be unleashed on the earth as part of God’s judgement. The sky is rolled up, the earth gives way, everyone is hiding and pleading that they do not come face to face with Jesus. You are witnessing final judgement and you hear the terrified screams “the day of wrath has come…who can stand?”
But then a different vision. It’s the same scene but from a very different angle and the different angle provides an answer to that question. Who can stand? Those who belong to God! It’s a profoundly reassuring message:
Christian, you have nothing to fear!
So let’s look together at this vision John now sees. And as we do, I want to show you three reasons why Christians have nothing to fear. So, Revelation 7.1 begins:
"After this I saw…"
And that’s important, actually (before we go any further!) It doesn’t begin: 'After this event finished, this next event began!' It just begins 'After this, I saw…' i.e. I saw something different. One of the key things we need to remember to help us cut through the seemingly complicated structure of Revelation is that the visions John writes down don’t take place one after the other. Rather it’s more like they take place one on top of the other. In other words, same scene, just different perspective.
Revelation 7.1 again:
"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."
Here are four angels, holding back four winds. The four winds represent the pain and suffering about to be unleashed by the four horsemen in Chapter 6. But that whole manifestation of judgement, that we’ve been looking at over the last couple of weeks, is being held back. Which begs the question 'why, for what purpose?'
"Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, (we’ll come back to that in a moment) and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 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 judgement of God is being restrained until the servants of God have been identified and protected. It’s an incredible picture, and it provides the first reason why Christians have nothing to fear:
1. Be Assured, You're Protected (v.1-3)
And part of the reason this is so reassuring is that this protection in set in place before the winds of pain and suffering are allowed to blow. Which means your protection, Christian, has been planned and assured well before you knew anything about it. Does that mean we are immune to trouble, persecution, hardship, virus, even death in this life?
Of course it doesn’t. The protection in view here is ultimate protection. It is the protection that ensures that come the day of judgement you will be able to stand, confidently.
Our bedroom has two velux windows that face west. Predominantly that is the direction the wind comes from. On a calm day the window is open, no issues. But when the winds begin, all manner of dirt can be blown in from the building site across the fields, the wind can howl through the gaps. But when I seal that window shut (and it’s a very satisfying sound doing it!) the noise abates, I’m protected and I can literally rest assured, in my bed, that those winds can’t now affect me.
Christian, in a similar way, as the winds of judgement howl around us, we have nothing to fear because we have been sealed and our ultimate future is protected.
But secondly, you’ve also got nothing to fear, because you belong! So,
2. Be Assured, You Belong! (v.2-8)
Take a look at verse 2 again. John sees another angel with the seal of the living God. In verse 3 we see that that seal is to be applied to the servants of our God on their foreheads and only then can judgement come.
It sounds odd to us, doesn’t it? Seals marks on foreheads. But I think that’s primarily because we are so unfamiliar with the content of these visions, in a way that first-century Jewish Christians wouldn’t have been. They knew their Scriptures inside out. And the marking out for protection would have no doubt rung a couple of bells. Maybe firstly, their minds would have gone to Exodus 12 and that first Passover, where the blood of a lamb on a doorpost marked out the Israelites for protection from the angel of death as he swept through Egypt. Or maybe their minds went to Ezekiel 9 that we heard read earlier, where the faithful in Jerusalem are to be marked on their foreheads for protection against the imminent executioners.
Both these Old Testament examples are all about the protection of those who belong to God. They belong to me, says God, so you can’t touch them!
And actually, my Velux illustration earlier (while helpful for the wind) would not have been what John nor his readers thought of! (You don’t need me to tell you that!) The seal that would have immediately come to their minds would have been a signet ring. The kind used to authenticate and protect official documents. Just as a letter bearing the seal of a King means its contents are owned by the King and entitled to his protection until the letter arrives at its destination so too are God’s servants, sealed by the King’s mark, owned by him and entitled to his protection until they arrive at the end of their earthly journey.
But, you may ask, who are these ‘servants of God’ sealed on their foreheads? Take a look at verse 4:
"And I heard (remember that, it’s significant) the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:"
And he goes on to list each tribe, with each tribe getting 12,000 each. I remember one of the first times I read the Bible all the way through as a youngster and coming to this passage I was genuinely unsettled. There are only 144,000 sealed? What if that number has already been reached and I’m not one of them?! Are these only Jewish believers? Is it all believers? It just didn’t seem to make sense.
But that was because I wasn’t reading it properly. I didn’t understand the genre. I was reading it literally.
This is one of the biggest problems for so many people who read the bible today. They don’t read it taking into account how all of its 66 books have different genres and styles and contexts and we need to know at least something about these things to have any hope of making sense of any of it. Maybe, that’s you and if it is one of the best things you can do is get hold of a good study bible that provides short introductions to each book and accompanying notes. There are brilliant ones available for both ESV & NIV translations - either physically or electronically as an app for your phone or tablet!
Back to Revelation 7. The key to understanding the 144,000 is to work out the symbolism and not take it literally. Elsewhere in Revelation, the term ‘servants of God’ clearly refers to all Christians. And the numbers here back this up. 12 is clearly significant – 12 tribes (Old Testament) and 12 apostles (New Testament). The number 1,000 is understood to mean a very great number – probably innumerable. Multiplied together and then by a thousand is simply a two-fold symbolic way of emphasising the completeness of God’s chosen people.
And that’s surely the point here, God will ensure that every single one of the great multitude of faithful Christians – past, present and future – who belong to him, will be protected!
And again, John is witnessing the same reality from different angles. It’s happened to him before in chapter 5. There he hears Jesus announced as a Lion (v.5) but then he sees Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6. It’s the same Jesus!
So in chapter 7, he hears 144,000 sons of Israel being numbered (7:4) but then sees a great multitude from every tribe, nation, peoples and language in verse 9. It’s the same group – all those who belong to him – but from a different perspective. It’s the universal church, so often referred to in Scripture as the true Israel (Rom 2, Gal 6, Jam 1, 1 Pet 2).
And they, we, all belong to him!
Christian, be assured – you’re protected and you belong. You have nothing to fear.
But there’s something else hinted at in verses 4 to 8. The lists and numbers would once again have drawn John’s first readers back to the Old Testament. Back to the book of Numbers. Maybe you would like to turn there (Numbers chapter 1, 4th book of the Bible, right near the start).
There Moses is commanded to take a census of all those who are able to go to war. Cast your eyes down that list. You’ll see, for example, that Reuben’s tribe list 46,500 (v.21), Judah’s tribe list 74,600 (v.27) and so on. Do you see the similarity in style, if not exactness?
And it’s just likely that the kind of picture we’ve been looking at in Revelation 7 is intentionally reminiscent of this one in Numbers 1. And if that’s the case something of the context of Numbers 1 can transfer to Revelation 7. What’s that context?
- In Numbers, God’s people had a job to do.
- In Numbers, God’s people were facing danger and fighting lay ahead of them.
- In Numbers, God’s people had been promised future victory and entry into the promised land…
You see where this is going?!
- Today, God’s people have a job to do.
- Today, God’s people face danger and we fight spiritual battles every single day
- Today, God’s people have been promised future victory and entry into heaven…
Christian, you have nothing to fear, because thirdly you have a purpose.
3. Be Assured, You Have a Purpose!
And that purpose is not to fight literally, but spiritually as ‘servants of our God’. Back to Revelation 7, that’s how we’re described in verse 3. What does it look like to be a faithful servant of God? There is actually something of a clue in the list of tribes in verse 4 to 8!
The more eagle-eyed will have noticed that the normal order has been shifted and there is an omission. Judah comes first, even though he wasn’t the first-born, but that is explained by the fact that Judah is the tribe from which Jesus descends. No the significant thing is the omission of the Tribe of Dan. Why no Dan?!
Well they’re probably left out because Dan were the first tribe to become associated with the faithlessness of idolatry – that’s replacing God with other things.
So, our purpose, as faithful servants of God – is to put him first, to love and serve him, not the world, to serve his purposes, and not our own, to fight spiritually, against sin, the world and the devil, not in our own power, but in his!
And Christian, we have nothing to fear because God is in control and certain victory has already been won by Jesus.
We’ve seen that the answer to the question “Who can stand?” (end of chapter 6) is those who are sealed. Only those who belong to God will be protected by him in the final judgement.
Which leaves an obvious question for me to ask you: do you belong to God?
If you do, then go into this week thankful.
- Thankful that you’re protected and thus far you have been preserved.
- Thankful that you belong to the King of Kings.
- Thankful that your eternal future is secure.
It’s amazing what a tonic thankfulness is to so many of life’s struggles.
But if your answer to that question is no, I don’t belong to God. Then, with all the love in the world, please let me warn you.
- Right now, you’re not protected.
- Right now, you’re not secure eternally.
But if you want to be, all you need to do is ask God for help. Ask him to forgive you for living a life that has selfishly ignored him. Trust in the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross was a substitute for your own punishment. And ask him to empower you to live a faithful life for him.
If you do that, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear from you, help you move forward as a Christian and I’d love to pray for you.