The Jewish Believers Sealed before Judgment Falls (vv. 1-8)
The Answer to Heaven’s Troubled Question (6:17)
I take these lines to be a continuation of our Lord’s warning and encouragement to his people in the first century. His promised wrath was about to fall upon the Jewish nation for its centuries of unbelief, rejection of his beloved Son, and now its persecution of his fledgling church. But, the concerned heavenly church, the church triumphant, anxiously asks, what will happen to the faithful when the Lamb’s wrath falls upon Israel? God’s people had never known a non-Jewish, non-tabernacle/temple oriented religion. This change in history is comparable to the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood – and all accompanied by natural disasters, military upheaval, famine and death. Lord, your enemies deserve these things, but how will your people survive? Chapter 7 is the answer to the feverish question at the end of chapter 6: “Who shall be able to stand?” It is one of the interludes or breaks in the action we find throughout John’s Revelation. This one – the sealing of the 144,000 – is our Lord’s pledge to protect his people as his wrath falls upon those who rejected him (Matt. 27:25; Rev. 1:7).
The Angels and Winds Held Back (vv. 1-3)
Our Lord described the coming judgment upon Israel as “great tribulation” (Matt. 24:21) that would have resulted in the overthrow of his elect, had the troubles not been shortened (Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22). He said there would not be another tribulation comparable to that which befell this church immediately at its birth (Matt. 24:22). How jarring these statements are! How will his people survive? The Lord gave John a vision of the “four angels holding the four winds.” This joining of symbols follows Zechariah (Zech. 2:6). The four horsemen are there described as the “four winds” of judgment. The earth is pictured in Jewish thinking as a large, flat plain. From the four points of the compass, judgment will come, but the Lord is holding back the angelic winds of judgment. These are not evil angels but God’s angelic instruments of his judgment. The Lord holds these winds and blows them when and with what ferocity he has determined. Be comforted, child of God, that the Lord “sits as King above the floods,” and that our Savior is with us in the worst conceivable storms of judgment. “It is I; be not afraid” he said to his disciples in their little boat, and he says something similar to the anxiously inquiring church. I am holding these winds. They will not hurt my people, for I will seal them. Not a tree leaf will be blown until I say it is time. No one can pluck my people out of my Father’s hand, or out of mine, for I know my sheep by name (John 10:3, 28-29).
God’s Sign of Ownership and Deliverance (v. 4)
God’s fatherly guardianship, ownership, and protection are symbolized by “seal.” The image is from Ezekiel 9:4. Before the final judgment of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the Lord sent his angel to place a mark on the foreheads of all who wept over their sins and the sins of Jerusalem. Here the seal is the sphragis, the king’s signet ring. It is a mark of ownership and authenticity. It is the antithesis of the “mark of the beast” on the forehead of all who worship the beast. Everyone has a mark. All men on earth are marked out either for preservation from the Lamb’s wrath or marked by the word of man so that his judgment falls upon them. The clarifying New Testament passage on this seal is 2 Timothy 2:19: “Nevertheless the foundation of the Lord stands sure, having this seal: the Lord knows those who are his. And, let everyone that names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” God’s seal is his pledge (king’s signet ring in the background) that he knows us and will let nothing happen to us that is outside his sovereignty, love, and wisdom. A sealed believer must depart from sin. In Revelation, this means not worshipping the beast and having his image on our foreheads. In simple terms, God seals his people by giving them faith to believe his promises, renewing their thoughts to love and live by his word, and empowering them by his sealing Spirit to put sin to death. God’s enemies do not have this seal. They love the world – the words, opinions, and pleasures of man. They do not separate from sin, but given the choice and ability, would plunge themselves continually into their favorite passions and pleasures.
Nothing in Scripture broadly or in Revelation leads us away from identifying these 144,000 as the sealed remnant of Jewish believers in the first century. The number itself is symbolic, not an exact count – 12 tribes, times 12, with the 1,000 multiplier as the number of completion or fullness. The clearest line of Bible evidence supporting that this 144,000 is the Jewish church in the first century is our Lord’s own direction to his people to flee Jerusalem when they see the city surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20). Historically speaking, over one million Jews died in the Roman siege that lasted “1,260” days, or three and one-half years. Not one Christian died. The elect were preserved. It is a remarkable fulfillment of the Lord’s promise and a testimony to the power of his sealing protection of his people (Matt. 24:22; Mark 13:20). The seal does not prevent hardship or persecution. It is a seal that they will be preserved when the wrath of the Lamb falls upon Israel. Christ’s young bride needed divine protection from the great tribulation that befell the first century world. If this is the end of time, why does it matter if the tribulation is shortened and the elect saved? But if the church is to continue after this, fulfilling the great commission, it matters very much that our Savior’s church be preserved during his wrath that fell.
The Listing and Order of the Tribes (vv. 5-8)
The order and names of the twelve tribes of Israel vary in Genesis, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and now here. The tribe of Dan is omitted here, which may have no other significance than that “twelve” be preserved, for twelve seems to be the number of the church. Levi is included in the twelve, perhaps because there is no other priesthood than Christ’s, and Levi has now found redemption in Christ. Judah is listed first, and we know the reason – the lion of the tribe of the Judah leads his faithful remnant. The whole church may be the true “Israel,” but whenever “twelve tribes” is used, it refers to God’s Jewish people (Acts 26:7; Jam. 1:1). It does not refer to the whole church under a Jewish symbol. Revelation makes it clear whenever the Lord is speaking of the whole church, Jew and Gentile together in one body. Here, however, the use of the tribal names, when there were no longer tribal boundaries, is significant. Like Gabriel’s address to Joseph, “son of David,” when David’s fortunes had sunk beyond hope of recovery, it is the same here. The Lord does not forget his ancient people who have believed upon his name. Their parentage, names, and histories are known to him. They are sealed from his wrath that is about to fall upon their city and temple. If it is asked, “Do not all God’s people need sealing, Gentiles as well as Jews?” the Lord will promise to protect the Gentile believers from the Beast later. At present, however, his Jewish people must be protected, for the promised tribulation is about to fall.
The Triumphant Church in Heaven Rejoices (vv. 9-17)
A Vision of the Church’s Glory and Security (v. 9)
The visionary scene changes. The church triumphant in heaven responds to the sealing of the persecuted church militant on earth. The church is one, and the church in heaven knows something of the struggles of her earthly half. The church, pictured here as standing before the throne and before the Lamb, waiving palm branches triumphantly, breaks out into praise. It was a great multitude – all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. The universality is different from the more limited “twelve tribes of Israel.” This is a celebration of God’s historical faithfulness by his heavenly court. The church is clothed in white: victory, righteousness, exaltation. John is thus shown the destiny of the white-clothed who have come out of the great tribulation – the very ones who have been sealed. Thus, while the church on earth needs to be sealed, John is shown the outcome of that sealing – even before the sealing, judgment, and deliverance occur – to encourage his faith and ours, to teach us to temper our historical fears by heavenly realities and future glory. Most of our present-day distress is the result of a failure to envision God’s promised future – his church preserved, victorious, and worshipping him with energetic joy.
Salvation Belongs to the Lord (vv. 10-12)
We cannot appreciate this heavenly hymn unless we appreciate our earthly danger and God’s earthly faithfulness. Sin brings judgment in history. Then as now, the Lord judges his enemies, and our Lord Jesus is no passive King. He does not sit idly by while his church is persecuted. To ascribe salvation to the Father and the Son is to acknowledge that he alone is our Savior and that there “is no other” (Isa. 45:5-6,21). The redeemed cry in gladness and wonder; they shout a cry of security and final victory. Yes, the church passed through fire and flood, but the Lord brought her to his heavenly kingdom. All the angels are crying out and worshipping, the elders and beasts, the white-robed from every nation and tongue – all singing, worshipping, with the inmost members of the court on their faces before the Lord, praising him. Seven more ascriptions of praise – similar to but not identical with the previous: blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might. These are not rushed over quickly, for each one contains a wealth of glory, of historical testimony, of personal praise, all these we ascribe to the Lord. He has saved us from the horror of hell, the blindness of unbelief, and judgment in history. It is our privilege, calling, and highest satisfaction as his redeemed creatures to sing his praises for his great salvation. When the Lord calls us to suffer, let us remember that our destiny is to be at rest in his presence and to join the singing, confessing multitudes in heaven. If we live for ourselves now, we shall not praise him later. And without praise, we shall never have him for our reward or rest in him.
The Blood-Washed from the Great Tribulation (vv. 13-17)
One of the elders turns to John and asks him if he knows the identity of the white-robed worshippers. John responds that the elder knows, which implies that John does not know. These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. This is the tribulation Jesus promised in the first century upon the nation of Israel for its centuries of stubborn rebellion against the Lord and constant persecution of his servants (Matt. 24:21). Here is the answer – who shall stand in the day of the Lamb’s wrath? Only those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb. It is not the martyrs’ blood that atones, but Christ’s alone. Because they held fast to him, they now stand before God’s throne and serve him day and night in his temple. They are part of the white-robed redeemed. They are no longer subject to life in this fallen world – hunger and thirst, heat and cold. They have the Lamb for their Shepherd – what a glorious mixing of symbols! He feeds them and leads them to the living waters. And as for the tears they shed, for sealing did not preserve them from trouble, God himself will wipe them away.
Our Father’s Seal upon His Children Now
Rejoice in God’s Seal!
The sealing of the 144,000 was for a specific historical purpose – to preserve the Jewish church from the Lamb’s wrath upon the apostate nation of Israel. In a similar way, God’s seal is upon us; he knows who are his (2 Tim. 1:19). Whatever happens to us, by the work of the Holy Spirit, we are “sealed for the day of redemption” (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30). No one can ever break God’s seal, his pledge that we are his. We are united to Jesus Christ by the Spirit in his covenant of grace, so that no one can ever pluck us out of his hand (John 10:3,27-28). To snatch a believer away from the purposes and protection of God, one would have to be strong enough to break the Holy Spirit’s arm! This cannot be done! If we would enjoy more personal assurance of being protected in our own times, we must walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Protection from Satan and his thugs is found primarily in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The world knows nothing of him (John 14:17), but we know him. He bears fruit in our lives and teaches us God’s truth. He sanctifies us, body and soul, so that we are able to depart from iniquity and live as God’s own children in this world. The 144,000 are later described as virgins and undefiled, followers of the Lamb, and truth-tellers (Rev. 14:4-6). The sealed of the Spirit live in union with Christ, and therefore draw from him holy, consecrated lives of obedience to him.
Rejoice in the Blood of the Lamb
It is understandable that the world is fearful and unsettled in these times of judgment. Sinners carry a burden of guilt they cannot understand or remove, for unwashed sin demands satisfaction, and conscience feels the weight. We who believe upon the name of Jesus Christ are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. Our consciences are settled because God is satisfied with us through the sacrifice of his Son. The winds of God’s judgment are howling, and sinners are trembling. We feel the winds, but we have peace in the eye of the storm. We keep running to Jesus Christ and know the riches of God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins. This is one reason for our constant joy. We have been delivered from the very sins that are bringing God’s wrath upon multitudes. This is one way we are preserved or sealed during the tribulation of our times – we have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb. We are departing from iniquity. God’s sealing work in the Spirit never created presumption but carefulness. Those who are sealed depart from iniquity (2 Tim 2:19). It was the same in the first century. The sealed did not love their lives in the world, and they would not bow down to the beast or worship his image. God’s sealed today will not bear the mark of sodomy, statism, and secularism. They are not “woke” but worshippers of the Lamb and follow his word, not man’s word. They know that redemption is not found in making satisfaction to the gods of climate, race, and gender, but to the true God who loved the world and gave his only begotten Son to pay the ransom price for redemption from sin.
Rejoice in Our Future!
Why did the Lord give John and the early believers a vision of the white-robed faithful who had come out of the great tribulation as already in heaven, even before they had completed their earthly warfare for Christ? To endure hardship without losing hope, we must have a vision for the future. In order to be patient in hardship, we must have a living hope. The Lord gives this to us by showing the outcome of faithfulness. We will be with Christ forever. He will be our Shepherd. God our Father will wipe away all our tears. We are accustomed to the hard tones of warfare and the somber chords of his sovereign majesty. There are other chords, however, tender notes of his love that are revealed even now to remind us that our lives will not always be difficult and troubled. The din of war will give way to the quiet of peace, of his fellowship without sin, his majesty without the wrath of man, the Lamb leading us beside the still waters where there is no more pain, tears, and trial.
This, I strongly believe, is one of Revelation’s main purposes – to give the struggling church on earth a vivid heavenly vision – of who we are in Christ, of what we shall be in Christ, of the certainty that we shall reach our heavenly home, that sin and Satan shall be defeated, thrown in the lake of fire, and all the human instruments of God’s wrath finally silenced and fully defeated. We must believe this while we are serving Christ, fighting sin, and enduring hardship, or we shall become discouraged. We must give our children a future vision of hope, or they will be deceived by the world’s visions of heaven now – do your own thing, be your own person, pursue your own pleasure – all spiritual narcotics against the pain of sin and guilt, Satan’s discouragements and distractions so that we do not resist him but passively accept his lies. Those who fight him best, fight him to the end, and fight him joyfully are those who believe and live looking at God’s promised future, the reward of faithfulness, the peace of righteousness. We are sealed for these blessings by the Spirit. No one can take them away from us, for we our kept by God’s power (1 Pet. 1:5). Let us set our affections there, on heaven, where Christ is, where the victorious throne is waiving palm branches of victory, urging us upward and heavenward, urging us to faithfulness on earth, not bowing to the beast and accepting his image to survive, but holding fast to our Savior and his word. He is faithful. His glory is worth our labors and faithfulness, even our blood. It is certainly worth our prayers, self-denial, and obedience. He is worthy. He loved and gave himself for us. Let us now in thankfulness and joy give ourselves to him.