In the midst of an economic recession, moral decay and the threat of terrorism both at home and abroad, it’s not surprising that Americans are increasingly losing hope about the future. A December 2009 CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 69% of Americans were hopeful about their future and 51% were hopeful about the future of the world. Those numbers seem pretty good until you compare them to the same poll taken 10 years earlier when 85% were hopeful about the future of the country and 68% hopeful about the future of the world.
A more recent Fox News poll (April 2010) found that 57% of poll respondents believe that life for the next generation of Americans will be worse than life today. That is up significantly from the 39% who held that opinion only 8 years ago.
Last week, as we came to the end of Revelation 6, we saw that same kind of hopelessness expressed in the last verse of the chapter:
… for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Revelation 6:17 (ESV)
This morning, as we come to Revelation 7, we find the first of several interludes that are a common feature of the book. In chapter 6, we see the opening of the first six seals. And that certainly isn’t a very hopeful picture as we observe the events that occur when Jesus’ kingdom presses in on the world – false Christs, conquest, war, famine, pestilence and death. No wonder those in the midst of that chaos ask “Who can stand?”
But in chapter 7, we find hope in the midst of chaos as John records two visions that answer that question by revealing that there will be those who can stand, even in the midst of these horrible events. And, even more importantly for us, he provides us with some practical guidance on how we can have hope in the midst of chaos.
We’ll deal with the first of these visions today and then cover the second next week. Turn in your Bibles to Revelation 7 and follow along as I read the first 8 verses:
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. 2 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.” 4 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.
The identification of the 144,000 is one of the most difficult and one of the most abused topics in the entire book of Revelation and this passage has been used to teach all kinds of perverted theology. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim that this passage proves that only 144,000 people, who they call the “Anointed”, will reign in heaven with God and that the rest of the faithful will live forever on a paradise earth.
We could easily spend weeks, or even months, studying all the possible options regarding the identification of the 144,000, but frankly that would merely be an exercise in futility since our efforts really wouldn’t result in learning anything at all about how to have hope in the midst of chaos, which is really what this passage is all about.
On the other hand, the identification of the 144,000 is not something that we can just ignore altogether. So what I’m going to do this morning is to address that topic briefly, but then focus the majority of our time on practical ways for us to have hope in the midst of chaos.
THE IDENTIFICATION OF THE 144,000
Although, as I mentioned, there are numerous opinions about who the 144,000 are, there are really only two that can be supported in any way by the text.
The first option is that the numbers here are symbolic – both the 12,000 from each tribe and the total of 144,000. If that is the case, then each person is pretty much free to determine what the numbers symbolize. The most common interpretation among those who hold to this view is that the 144,000 represent the church in some manner. Many of these commentators make well reasoned arguments, citing appropriate Scriptures to support their view.
However, the danger in that approach is that it requires us to begin to pick and choose which numbers in Revelation are literal and which are symbolic. It is interesting that many of these same commentators take many of the other numbers in the book - like the 1,260 days in Revelation 11 or the 42 months in Revelation 13 or the 1,000 years in Revelation 20 - as literal numbers that describe literal periods of time.
So I’m going to stick with the same approach that I’ve used consistently throughout our study. Unless there is something in the text to indicate that numbers are to be taken symbolically, we need to take them literally.
In this case, there are a number of things in the text itself that seem to confirm that the numbers here are to be taken literally rather than symbolically.
• “the sons of Israel” – This exact phrase is used 27 times in the ESV version of the Bible and in every one of the other 26 times it is used, it clearly refers to the literal sons of Jacob, who was given the name “Israel” by God.
• The listing of the tribes – Those that hold that the numbers here are symbolic often point out that the list of the tribes here is inconsistent with other lists of the twelve tribes throughout the Bible and that somehow supports the idea that this is all symbolic. It is true that there is no other listing of the twelve tribes anywhere else in the Bible that exactly matches this list. However, there is no such thing as a “standard” list of the tribes in the Bible, with around 20 different variations, depending on the purpose for the list. The very fact that there is a specific listing by tribe seems to actually support the idea that the numbers are to be taken literally rather than symbolically.
• “every tribe” – I’m convinced that these two words are the key to helping us unlock the significance and the identification of the 144,000. You will notice here that all the tribes of the commonwealth of Israel are included.
Let me quickly review why this is so important. After the death of King Solomon, the commonwealth of Israel was divided among two of Solomon’s sons. The two tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the southern kingdom of Judah and the other ten tribes became the northern kingdom of Israel.
The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC and the ten tribes were scattered among the surrounding nations and even until this day they have never returned to their land in any significant numbers. The southern kingdom was conquered by Babylon in 587 BC and many of its people were exiled in Babylon. A significant number of those people later returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and Ezra.
But beginning in Deuteronomy 30 and continuing through most of the Old Testament prophets, God revealed that one day He would reunite the 12 tribes and bring them back into the land that He had promised to them.
The prophecy of the two sticks of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 37 is particularly relevant to the identification of the 144,000:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel…
Ezekiel 37:15-22 (ESV)
I’m convinced that what we see here in Revelation 7 is related to the process of reconciliation between Israel and Judah that is described in this prophecy in Ezekiel. In fact, there may even be some clues in the list of tribes in Revelation 7 that tie that chapter back to this prophecy.
Most of the lists of tribes list the two sons of Joseph – Manasseh and Ephraim as separate tribes. But here in Revelation you will note that the list includes both Manasseh and Joseph, but not Ephraim. But perhaps the reason for that is found here in Ezekiel where the stick of Joseph is also called the stick of Ephraim.
The order of the tribes in Revelation 7 is also interesting. It begins and ends with Judah and Benjamin, the two southern tribes, which bookend the ten northern tribes, which are summarized in a sense by Joseph who is listed as the last of the 10 northern tribes.
Since the same 144,000 are described as “firstfruits” in Revelation 14, it seems that somehow God chooses the 144,000 to initiate that process of reconciliation in some way. We’ll explore that idea more when we get to that chapter.
So how is all this relevant to us? After all, there is not one person here this morning that can stand up and say “I belong to the tribe of Judah” or “I belong to the tribe of Zebulun”, or “I belong to the tribe of Joseph.” But, on the other hand, how do you really know for sure that you don’t belong to one of the twelve tribes? Remember that when the ten northern tribes were attacked by Assyria in 722 BC, they were scattered into the surrounding nations where they intermarried and were assimilated into those foreign cultures. And when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, even the records of the lineage of the southern tribes were destroyed.
So the fact is that today no one can determine definitively whether or not he or she belongs to one of the twelve tribes. But the good news is that God knows. I’m not sure exactly when God is going to call out these 144,000 to serve Him in whatever manner He has determined. But I do know this, when He is ready to do so, He won’t have any problem at all identifying them.
That leads us to our first principle this morning:
We can have hope in the midst of chaos because God knows those who belong to Him
When we look at the world around us, it’s easy to begin to think that everything is out of control. But this passage just confirms again that there is a throne and that the sovereign God of the universe is on that throne and is in control of everything that is going on. There is also a tendency to feel like I am such a small part of all of this that God really isn’t all that concerned about me or that He is so busy running the universe that he probably doesn’t even know who I am.
But if God can pick 144,000 from the tribes of the sons of Israel out of the billions of people on the face of this earth, then I can be assured that He knows that I belong to Him, too. I’m reminded of the words of the Psalmist:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Psalm 139:13-16 (ESV)
Jesus gave that very same kind of assurance to His followers:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father
John 10:14, 15 (ESV)
Who can stand? Those who are God’s children and who are known by Him.
These 144,000 servants of God are sealed on the forehead with the seal of the living God. There are several Old Testament precedents that give us some insight into the nature and purpose of this sealing.
The first instance of sealing is found in Genesis 4 in the account of Cain and Abel. After Cain killed his brother, God sealed him so that no one else would try to seek vengeance for his brother’s blood:
Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.
Genesis 4:15 (ESV)
The next example occurs during the exodus from Egypt. Before God brings the final plague upon Egypt, he has those who are faithful to Him slay a lamb and put some of the blood on the lintels and doorposts of their homes and that becomes a seal which protects them from the plague of the death of the firstborn.
The third, and probably most relevant, example is found in Ezekiel 9. There Ezekiel records a vision in which God is about to bring judgment on Jerusalem. But prior to that a man clothed in linen is instructed to go through and seal those in the city who mourn over the sin that is present there.
And the Lord said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark.
Ezekiel 9:4-6 (ESV)
From these three examples as well as our text in Revelation, we find that God seals those who belong to Him for two purposes. The first is for protection.
Although it is clear that God calls the 144,000 for a specific purpose, we just don’t have enough information in the text to determine the exact nature of that task. As I mentioned earlier, these same 144,000 are identified in chapter 14 as “firstfruits”, so it appears that in some manner they have a role in the process of reconciling Judah and Israel and in Israel coming to faith in Jesus.
But regardless of their exact role, what we do know for sure is that God seals them as a means of protecting them so that they are able to carry out the task that God give to them. In the specific case of the 144,000 the sealing provided both physical and spiritual protection. We know this because we see the same 144,000 later in the presence of Jesus on Mount Zion.
However, as we’ve clearly seen throughout our journey, God does not always provide for the physical protection of His children. That is demonstrated by the souls of the martyrs under the altar we saw at the opening of the fifth seal and confirmed by the words of Jesus in Matthew 24 when he warned His followers that they would face tribulation and that many of them would be put to death.
This leads us to our second principle this morning:
We can have hope in the midst of chaos because God protects those who belong to Him.
Although God does not always protect His children from physical harm, there is a sense in which He does often limit the extent of physical suffering that we must endure. We see evidence of this in Jesus’ description of the last days:
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Matthew 24:21, 22 (ESV)
Jesus knows exactly how much we are able to endure, and He has promised that when things get to that breaking point, the tribulation will be cut short so that we can be preserved through that tribulation.
But much more significantly, God has sealed every follower of Jesus to protect them from spiritual harm. Paul describes that sealing in these three passages from His epistles:
And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
2 Corinthians 1:21, 22 (ESV)
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:13, 14 (ESV)
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30 (ESV)
At the very moment that a person commits his or her life to Jesus, the Holy Spirit immediately comes to dwell in that person as a guarantee that we will receive in full all the spiritual riches that God promises to His children. As He dwells permanently in our lives, the Holy Spirit seals, or protects us from any spiritual harm. That is why Jesus could make this bold claim:
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.
John 10:28, 29 (ESV)
Regardless of what we may experience in life, God has sealed us with His Holy Spirit to protect us from any spiritual harm. And because we can count on God protecting that which matters for eternity, we are able to stand even in the midst of the chaos of the world around us.
Who can stand? Those who are God’s children and who are protected by Him.
The second purpose of the sealing is to equip those who belong to God for the task that He has called them too. Although this isn’t quite as obvious in each of these accounts of sealing, it is there if we look a little deeper.
By being sealed, Cain is able to go on with his life and bear a son name Enoch, a man who walked so closely with God that God just took him to be with Him in heaven before he died.
The sealing of the Hebrews in Egypt equipped them to survive in the wilderness and eventually enter into the Promised Land.
The sealing of the righteous in Jerusalem equipped them to survive God’s judgment and to function as the remnant who would perpetuate the kingdom of God.
And even though we don’t fully know the nature of their task, it is clear that the sealing of the 144,000 equipped them to be able to carry out whatever that task was.
That leads us to our third and final principle this morning:
We can have hope in the midst of chaos because God equips those who belong to Him.
God doesn’t just leave us in the midst of the chaos of the world to fend for ourselves. Because the Holy Spirit makes His permanent home in the life of every believer, He is always available to us. And one of the things that He does for us is to equip us to handle whatever circumstances that we might face.
We obviously don’t have time this morning for a thorough study of all the different ways the Holy Spirit equips us, but these words of Jesus provide a couple of good examples:
When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Matthew 10:19, 20 (ESV)
One way the Holy Spirit equips us is to give us the right words to say when we find ourselves in the midst of tribulation.
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
John 14:26 (ESV)
The Holy Spirit also equips us by teaching us, in particular by bringing to mind the words of Jesus so that we can obey His commands. And it is by following the commands of Jesus that we are best equipped to live life in the midst of chaos.
Who can stand? Those who are God’s children and who are equipped by Him.
The opinions of some in recent polls are probably right. I think it is quite likely indeed that the next generation of Americans will face a more difficult life than this generation. However, for those who have committed their lives to Jesus, the good news is that they will be able to stand, no matter how bad things might get, because God knows them, protects them and equips them, not only for those temporary circumstances, but for eternity.