Previously on Decoding the Apocalypse
We are discussing Vision Two in the Apocalypse (Rev. 4.1–16.21). Remember, we saw in Vision One a vivid word picture of Jesus followed by the beginning of Vision Two with its picture of Jesus, being presented as the one who could open the annuals of history and reveal the story of the end. And then we saw the preparation to opening the book with the opening of the first six seals.
- First Seal: The gospel working in the world and winning its victories
- Second Seal: War
- Third Seal: Scarcity
- Fourth Seal: Death
- Fifth Seal: Martyrdom
- Sixth Seal: Cosmic catastrophes bring us down to the end and the establishment of the kingdom of God.
The opening of these seals was not the opening of the book, only a preparation to opening the book. The six symbols represented what was going to happen during the course of this present evil age, leading toward the end. They were not, as often presented, the signs of the end of the age, they were and are signs to say that the kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness.
Interlude: The Two Multitudes 7.1-17
An interlude is a play within a play which was developed as an artistry form in the fifteenth century. John used this sort of play-within-a-play concept in his construction of the Revelation.
The seventeen verses of Revelation (Rev. 7.1-17) present the reader with an interlude, having broken the six with only the seventh seal remaining to be opened so the hearer could hear about the story of the end. But instead of breaking the seventh seal, which looks like what should happen, John steps back from the breaking of the seals story to tell another story. John employs this technique several times in his book to interrupt the flow of the story with a story-within-a story.
John, now I believe speaking about the future in a more specific way, sees the church as standing on the threshold of a great time of tribulation and she needs to be reassured that God will safely see her through her terrible ordeal. John has told the churches that already.
With the breaking of the sixth seal, the question is asked about who can stand before the great day of wrath. The interlude answers that question. Even though the church will suffer martyrdom, those who are sealed will be safely preserved by God from the outpouring of wrath.
The 144,000 7.1-8
John begins by telling his reader that there are four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. It is always interesting to me how those who press a literal reading of Scripture skip over dealing with such verses as Revelation 7.1 with its “four corners of the earth.” They treat such sayings that obviously are not scientifically correct as metaphor. Now there’s an idea! These four angels are holding back the wind, that is, the wrath of God.
Who are the two crowds, the 144,000 and the great multitude, of Revelation 7? This interlude contains a picture of two multitudes. The first group is pictured as having twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The second is seen as an innumerable group of peoples.
The Dispensational interpreters believe that the easiest way to understand the 144,000 is to take it literally and understand it as a reference to those who are evangelizing the nation of Israel to bring them to salvation during this great time of tribulation. Their position is that Israel was like branches that were broken off the main tree, but would be restored and grafted back on, all in God’s good time. For support they quote “…all Israel shall be saved” from Romans 9-11.
After John sees the four angels holding the wrath of God from the earth, he sees a fifth angel who has the “seal of the living God.” He appears from the east, that is, from toward Palestine. He calls out to the four angels and admonishes them not to allow the earth to be harmed. The listener does not hear about these four angels again. They appear only here. The message of this passage is that God always protects, here under the picture of a seal, his people who are entering into some form of tribulation. This surely helped the people of the seven churches to understand that God would ultimately protect them from the onslaughts of Domitian. And that message of protection is still the message of the book to its readers today.
The story of the Israelites in Egypt, as captive slaves under the ruthless hand of the Pharaoh, is an echo of what is being told here. God sent his wrath on Egypt, but the children of Israel were protected from them. One might note from this Old Testament story that the children of Israel were not taken out of “harm’s way,” but lived in the middle of it without being touched by it. The final plague of the death of the firstborn of every family in Egypt is a sure echo. The firstborn of Israel were spared because they were sealed by the blood of a lamb sprinkled over their door, a seal, if you please, as God moved over them because they were protected from this wrath.
Sometimes it is easy to miss the echoes of the Old Testament in the stories of the New Testament. Could that be because folks in today’s church do not really know the story of the first three Acts of God’s story? Okay, I know, it’s true, we know some of the better known stories, but do we know the Story and what it means?
We will see this sealing idea show up again in the Revelation.
It was common knowledge, in the churches that John was speaking to, that believers were sealed by the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 1 and 4). So when they heard of the sealing of the saints, they would have recognized what John was talking about.
Who is the 144,000?
Identifying the 144,000 is not an easy task but a doable one. As we earlier noted, the 144,00 is made up of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. What we must first notice is that the twelve tribes listed here in this passage are not listed anywhere else in Scripture.
While there are many interpretations of this passage, it seems that what John is referring to is the church. What helps this interpretation along is that there are irregularities in this list which do not agree with any other known list of the twelve tribes of Israel. Certainly, the Jews within the seven churches would have spotted this irregularity in a moment and would have helped the Gentile followers of Christ in these congregations understand.
It may have been common knowledge within the early church that the church was in fact understood to be the new or true Israel of God. John alludes to such in two earlier places in the Revelation. In the letter to Smyrna he speaks of “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan (see 2.9 and 3.9).
The number 12,000 x 12 is a symbolic way of saying that the full number of God will be protected. Not one will be lost. This number is a large innumerable number. Today, we might express it something like a number to the “inth” degree.
Of course, this all runs contraire to Dispensational Theology, which says that God has two different peoples, Israel and the church, and God has a plan for each of these peoples (Rom. 2.28; Rom. 4.11, 16; Gal. 3.29; Gal. 6.16; Phil. 3.3; Col. 3.3; Titus 2.14; 1 Peter 2.9ff.; Rev. 2.9; Rev. 3.9)
It is fair to say that tribulation was surrounding these early churches and they needed to know that God was going to protect them. They may lose their present physical life, but Domitian and his crew could not touch the eternal life to which they had become heirs.
Churches brought to life by Paul throughout the Mediterranean world had known tribulation. This was not a guarded secret. While these seven churches may not have had all of what Paul taught to other churches, it is reasonable to believe that Paul taught similar things to all his church plants. One of those teachings was the church would see many tribulations. John speaks about it in his own Gospel (John 16.33).
Tribulation means persecution at the hands of those who hate the gospel. In USAmerica, we live in a culture that is almost abnormal because there is no real persecution that threatens our lives. When I was stationed in the Air Force in Japan, I saw a bit of persecution of those that accepted Jesus as their guide in this life. Those who did often lost their family, jobs, and friends. I wonder if it is fair sometimes to ask what it really costs us to follow Jesus, or should it cost us anything?
Remember, the normal course of the church through the age will be tribulation. The tribulation of the end times is nothing but an intensification of what the church is to expect during the course of its history until the coming of Jesus to consummate his kingdom.
The Two Multitudes 7.9-17
The second group is the unnumbered multitude which is also a picture of the church from an entirely different perspective. The first time the group is seen before the tribulation and the second time this group is seen after the tribulation in heaven with God. The same host is seen in chapter fourteen (14.1) and again in 15.2. The complete picture of this interlude suggests that not one of God’s people will be lost due to persecution.
The very next picture in the text at 8.1 is the opening of the seventh seal and, we presume, the opening of the book to reveal the story of the end.
Revelation’s Literary Organization
How John Presents the Story of the End.
Let’s take a moment and talk about two themes that are in Revelation: The establishment of the kingdom of God and the judgment or wrath of God. The heart of the Revelation is the three series of sevens. In chapter six we covered the seven seals, which represent the characteristics of the course of the age that lead up to the end of the age. Each seal was opened moving toward the seventh that would share the end of history. Just before the breaking of the seventh seal is shared, John interrupts the flow of his visions with an interlude about what appears to be two groups of people, the 144,000 and the large multitude, but, in fact, is one group seen two different ways. He gives a picture of the church before and after the tribulation. You’ve seen those advertisements that picture a hefty person who is a bit overweight before she or he goes on a specific diet and then the rather slim flattering picture of the same person after the diet, some even holding up their old big clothes as a second form of proof. This is what is going on here, except it is a word picture. John shows the church before the time of tribulation and then shows the church after the tribulation. He has a point to make. No one in the church will be lost because of tribulation.
Surely, this is a comforting thought to those who were living in a time of tribulation. The message is that not one of God’s children would be lost during this great tribulation period. At this point in the text, John returns to the breaking of the seventh seal, presumably to show the end of world history. There is no woe in the breaking of the seventh seal as there was in the other six seals. Instead, there is silence in anticipation of the end. It is as if heaven is sitting on the edge of its seat waiting to see the end.
After this interlude, chapters 8-9 show judgment poured out on mankind. There are six trumpets that we have not yet covered. The blowing of the sixth trumpet brings us again to the end (11.15). Then, another interlude and, finally, the seventh trumpet is blown. John moves once more to the end, but steps back to give a greater detailed message. Some scholars believe that the seven seals and the seven trumpets are parallel. But a better way of seeing them is that the seven trumpets are the contents of the seventh seal. The sixth seal brought us to the close of the age. The contents of the seventh seal are found in the blowing of the seven trumpets.➨ About DrWinn