Revelation 7:1-8

Sermon preached on October 7, 2012 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

Who killed JFK? Was it Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone? Were there other shooters at the grassy knoll? Was the CIA involved? Was the mob involved? Were the Cubans and the Russians involved?

There are lots of theories and very little agreement between them. It's like that with the 144,000 in Revelation 7. Just about everyone has an opinion and there is lots of disagreement among them.

But it's important that we don't lose sight of the forest because of the trees. There are two truths that are very simple and clear from Revelation 7 that you need to take to heart. We can disagree about what the details mean but if you don't apply these two truths to your life, your life is going to be a complete and utter failure. But if you do apply them to your life your life will be a success and you'll be able to be a faithful witness to Jesus.

The two truths are this.

First, God protects His people and will keep them safe and bring them to glory.

The angels hold back the four winds until the people of God are sealed. Some commentators (Beale, Morris, Johnson etc.) believe that the four winds are identical with the four horsemen. If that is the case, this scene occurs before the four horsemen are sent out. They are kept from their destructive mission until God's people are sealed by God.

This text is reminiscent of Ezekiel 9:4 where the guards of the city were told to go out and kill the wicked people of Jerusalem after the glory of the Lord departed from the temple. But they were told to follow after the man clothed in linen, who was told,

"Go throughout the city of Jerusalem
and put a mark on the foreheads
of those who grieve and lament
over all the detestable things
that are done in it."

The righteous were protected. The guards killing the wicked were not allowed to touch the righteous.

Our text is like that. It answers the great question asked at the very end of chapter 6, during the opening of the sixth seal. The wicked cry out, (Revelation 6:16–17)

"to the mountains and the rocks,
Fall on us and hide us
from the face 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 can stand?"

Who is able to stand? Chapter 7 provides the answer. Those in Jesus Christ are safe and will be able to stand. There are two visions in chapter 7. The first one, the 144,000, shows that all of God's people are protected. The second one, the great multitude in heaven, shows that Christ's people are triumphant. Is the midst of all the judgments that come upon the earth—God will protect and save His people. That's the main thing. Keep that in mind.

The second great lesson we learn from Revelation 7 is that

you have to be in Jesus in order to be safe.

Jesus is the One who looses the seals and sends the four horsemen out. He is the One who sends the angel with the seal of the Living God out.

More than anything else you need to be in Jesus. If you're in Jesus, you'll be safe from the judgments that come upon the earth. If you belong to the Lamb, you'll be safe. If you're not sealed, you'll be among those who will be harmed—judged and destroyed.

Those are the main things to learn from our text. Don't miss those lessons. Apply them to your life so that you'll be blessed.

Now let's get to the details.

So first of all, the 144,000.

Who are they? Is this number literal? Some people have taken the number very literally and understood it as referring to the total number of the redeemed.

I remember reading that one of the cults, when they began, took this number literally. They said that it referred to them, to those who were the true believers. But as the years went by and the cult grew, their number approached 144,000 and they were faced with a problem. Would some of their number not be among the 144,000 and not be saved? They couldn't have that so they had to revise their view on this and not take it literally. Their decision not to take it literally was based pragmatism.

Still others have taken the other part literally, saying that it must refer to the Jewish people because it mentions the twelve tribes. But can that be? Does God only seal the Jewish Christians and protect only them from the great judgments that are coming upon the earth?

Should we take it literally? Does it refer to only 144,000 and only to Jewish Christians like it appears to?

There are serious problems with understanding it that way.

In fact, there are indications in the text itself that show us that we should not take it literally.

First of all, there are 12,000 in each tribe.

There's a parallel here to the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. The New Jerusalem is measured and found to be,

"12,000 stadia in length,
and as wide and high as it is long."

The wall was measured and found to be 144 cubits thick.

So the number of the redeemed in Revelation 7 corresponds to the dimensions of the New Jerusalem. These similarities suggest that these numbers are symbolic. One of the ideas that is suggested is that the size of the New Jerusalem is tailor-made for the number of the redeemed.

Why tell us about the thickness of the walls in light of the fact that the gates of the New Jerusalem will never be shut? The walls will be 144 cubits thick. This also suggests that the number 144 is symbolic suggesting that those in the New Jerusalem are completely protected.

There's also a parallel between our text and Revelation 14:3–4. In Revelation 14 the 144,000 are those,

"who had been redeemed from the earth…
They were purchased from among men…"

This suggests that the number is symbolic for the Christians on earth at that time.

Vern Poythress says,

"The balanced numbers suggest that twelve is a symbolic number for the fullness of the people of God."

Twelve, the number of the tribes, is both squared and multiplied by a thousand, (Mounce, Revelation, p. 158)

"which is a two-fold way of emphasizing completeness… That there are 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel) is a symbolic way of stressing that the church is the eschatological people of God who have taken up Israel's inheritance."

There's also a theological problem if you take the 144,000 as referring to the Jewish people.

Ephesians 3 and other New Testament texts tell us that there is one people of God, not two. Ephesians 3:6 says,

"This mystery is that through
the gospel the Gentiles
are heirs together with Israel,
members together of one body,
and sharers together
in the promise in Christ Jesus."

In Romans 2:28-29 the apostle Paul tells us that one who believes in Jesus is a true Israelite. He wrote,

"A man is not a Jew
if he is only one outwardly,
nor is circumcision
merely outward and physical.
No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly;
and circumcision is circumcision
of the heart,
by the Spirit, not by the written code."

And in Galatians 6:16 Paul refers to the church as,

"the Israel of God."

In James 1:1 James address his letter to Christians, as,

"the twelve tribes
scattered among the nations:"

He wasn't writing to the literal twelve tribes. That would have been impossible. The 10 northern tribes were lost after the Assyrians invaded around 721 B.C. and deported them. James obviously refers to Christians as the twelve tribes.

Also in 1 Peter 2:9 the apostle said to Christians,

"But you are a chosen people,
a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
a people belonging to God,
that you may declare the praises
of him who called you out of darkness
into his wonderful light."

As Robert Mounce points out, these phrases are taken from the Old Testament (Isaiah 43:20; Exodus 19:6) and are applied to the New Testament church. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Grant R. Osborne writes, (Revelation, BECNT, p. 311)

"Throughout the book [Revelation], the emphasis is on one group, the faithful overcomers, and they are linked inextricably with the believers in the seven churches of chapters 2–3, composed of Gentile (probably predominant) and Jewish Christians."

All of this suggests that the 144,000 refers to Christians that are alive on the earth. They need to be sealed so that they will be protected.

There's even more.

The list of tribes is itself unusual.

The list of the 12 tribes does not correspond to any listing in the Old Testament. For one thing, the tribe of Dan is omitted. Furthermore, we find both the tribe of Joseph and Manasseh, which is unusual. Manasseh and Ephraim were Joseph's sons. So we would expect to find Joseph listed (along with Dan), or his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. But instead, we have Joseph and only one of his sons. Poythress concludes, (p. 118)

"the oddity of mentioning both Joseph and Manasseh again suggests that the list is symbolic."

Christopher Smith also has an interesting theory about the order of the tribes listed here. He compares it to the list of Jacob's sons in Genesis 35 and notes the following differences. In Genesis 35 the sons of Jacob's wives are listed first. We have first of all the sons of Leah and then the sons of Rachel. After that the sons of the concubines are listed—the Sons of Bilhah and then the sons of Zilpah.

Here in Revelation 7 Judah is listed first instead of fourth. This is because Jesus came from the tribe of Judah. Judah is the tribe of the Messiah. So that's very understandable.

Next comes Reuben, which seems unusual, because in Genesis we read that Reuben slept with his father's concubine and lost his place of leadership as the firstborn. Jacob's words about him was that he would no longer excel. (Genesis 49:4) But here he is listed second. His placement could be emphasizing that there is forgiveness of sins and restoration. Reuben could represent people like Peter, who fell into great sin and yet received forgiveness and was restored to his position of leadership.

But what comes next is even more interesting. The sons of the concubines are listed before the sons of the wives. Dennis E. Johnson sees this as indicating the inclusion of the Gentiles, because these women were outsiders to the covenant family. (The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 132) The tribe of Dan is omitted because it became notorious in Israel for leading the northern kingdom into idolatry. (Judges 18; 1 Kings 12:29-30) Dennis E. Johnson writes,

"Thus the order of the tribes in Revelation 7 symbolizes the reign of Jesus, from the tribe of Judah; the incorporation of outcasts; and the exclusion of idolaters from the covenant community that God shields from his terrible wrath."

Johnston concludes,

"the difference between the 144,000 'Israelites' and the countless multiethnic multitude is not in the ethnic composition of the two groups but in their location. The sealed and numbered army of Israel shows the faithful church on earth, shielded from apostasy and from God's wrath by our union with the lamb (bearing his name, sealed by his Spirit.) The innumerable assembly of nations shows the victorious Church in heaven, emerging triumphant from tribulation not through a painless rapture but through faithful death (Rev. 12:11)."

Vern Poythress views the two visions here in Revelation 7 (the 144,000 and the great multitude) as complementary. He writes, (p. 118)

"These visions picture God's protection of his people, but from two different perspectives. The numbering in 7:1-8 links God's people with their Israelite heritage, and emphasizes that God knows and cares for each one of them. The same group, though numbered by God, is so vast as to be beyond human numbering (v. 9)."

Jesus the Good Shepherd, ensures their safety. Poythress adds, (The Returning King, p. 118)

"According to 7:1-8, the saints are known by God one by one, and none slips by his care…"

God seals each one of His people. They receive His seal on their foreheads. God knows and cares for each of us, we should take great comfort from it. As we read in Isaiah 43:1,

"But now, this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
'Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine."

In John 10:3 Jesus said about His role as the Good Shepherd,

"He calls his own sheep by name
and leads them out."

Jesus knows the number of His people. He knows each one of them. He knows where each of them come from. We are His heritage.

The second thing our passage tells us is that

144,000 are sealed.

In ancient times seals were used to authenticate and protect official documents. Revelation 14:1 tells us that the 144,000 are with the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion. They had,

"his name and his Father's name
written on their foreheads."

They are protected. As we saw earlier, this reminds us of Ezekiel 9 where those who grieved over the sins of Jerusalem were marked and they were protected from the judgment coming upon the city.

There are a number of New Testament passages that speak about the people of God receiving God's seal. 2 Corinthians 1:22 which says that God,

"set his seal of ownership on us,
and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit,
guaranteeing what is to come."

2 Corinthians 5:4-5 says that Christians are eventually going to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Then verse 5 says,

"Now it is God who has made us
for this very purpose and has
given us the Spirit as a deposit,
guaranteeing what is to come."

In Ephesians 1:13 Paul said that the Ephesian Christians, having believed,

"were marked in him with a seal,
the promised Holy Spirit,
who is a deposit guaranteeing
our inheritance until the redemption
of those who are God's possession—
to the praise of his glory."

Grant R. Osborne writes, (Revelation BECNT; p. 302)

"The message of Rev. 7:1–8 reiterates that important truth. Believers have no reason to fear the terrible events of 6:12–17 or the effects of the judgments in chapters 6–16, for they belong to him and are his people. Krodel (1989: 180) notes the deliberate pun on the word 'seal.' As the Lamb opens the 'seals' of judgment upon the unsaved, God places his 'seal' upon the saved. The earth-dwellers are sealed for judgment, and the heaven-dwellers are sealed for salvation."

This does not mean that Christians will escape suffering in the coming troubles.

The fifth seal with the slain martyrs under the altar prove that. Many Christians will be killed. They will die for their faith. Grant R. Osborne writes, (Revelation, BECNT, 302)

"The question arises as to how saints are to be at one and the same time protected and killed. It sounds as if the protection breaks down rather severely. The answer is to realize that the two apply to different aspects of these last days. The saints are protected from the wrath of God but are not protected from the wrath of the beast. They will not suffer from the seals, trumpets, and bowls but will suffer from the persecution of the earth-dwellers."

But Christians don't just suffer at the hands of unbelievers. Christians suffer in war, in famine, during plagues—the judgments that come against unbelievers. Christians are not immune from suffering during such times.

But Christians don't have to worry in such difficult times. They will be safe. Vern Poythress tells us that the focus here is on,

"protection from spiritual harm."

G. K. Beale says that this spiritual protection is protection 'against losing their faith'. (Revelation, p. 404). He sees the sealing as being necessary so that the saints,

"can persevere through the first four tribulations enumerated in ch. 6."

The great lesson you Christians should take from this is that

you are safe.

Horrible judgments are going to come upon the earth. The earth itself is going to be shaken. A great earthquake will come. The stars will fall from the sky. Who will be able to stand on that great day—the redeemed of the Lord. As Psalm 46:1–2 says,

"God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth give way
and the mountains fall
into the heart of the sea…"

Secondly, for Christians,

you should appreciate your Jewish heritage.

We have been grafted in to the original branch. Craig S Keener writes,

"Gentile Christians as well as Jewish Christians should recognize their spiritual heritage in the patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel. This does not mean that God 'replaced' Israel with Gentile Christianity; it means that Gentile Christians have been grafted into the heritage of Israel and can speak of Abraham as 'our father'. They recognize the spiritual heritage in the history of God's people that runs deeper than any ethnic heritage to which we might otherwise claim allegiance."

Lastly, if you're not a Christian, you should understand that

you aren't sealed. You aren't protected.

Terrible judgments are coming. Only Jesus can save you from them. Trust in Him today.