Who are the True People of God? - Part I
One of the more divisive issues in biblical eschatology is the subject of the people of God. What precisely is the relationship between Israel and the Church? Revelation 7, with its portrayal of the 144,000 and the Innumerable Multitude goes a long way in answering that question.
We are concerned with three issues in Revelation 7. First, what is the relationship of chapter seven to the structure of the book? Second, who are the 144,000 and what significance to do they have? And third, who are the innumerable multitude and what is their relation, if any, to the 144,000?
The first question is easier to answer than the other two: “Rev. 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations enumerated in ch. 6. The vision in 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere” (Beale, 404). Chapter seven is thus the answer to the question posed at the close of chapter six. In 6:17 we read: “who is able to stand?” before the great day of the wrath of God and the Lamb. The great multitude, portrayed as “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9), is the answer to that question. The only ones who are able to stand are those who have been sealed by God and preserved from the manifestation of his awesome wrath.
Clearly, then, chapter seven does not describe a new series of events that follow chronologically or historically after the events of chapter six. Rather, the chapter is a parenthetical pause in which John explains the vision of chapter six in more detail and provides a background against which it may be better understood. Thus, when he begins 7:1 with the words, “After this,” he does not mean that the events of chapter seven are chronologically subsequent to those of chapter six, but only that the vision of chapter seven appeared to him after the vision of chapter six. This is confirmed when we observe that the task of the four angels is to prevent any harm being done to “the earth” or “the sea” or “any tree” (7:1), until the servants of God can be sealed. Since the seal judgments of chapter six describe considerable, indeed catastrophic, harm to the earth, sea, and trees, it seems best to understand chapter seven as descriptive of what occurred prior to the events of chapter six, not subsequent to them. Wilcock put it this way:
“It is dangerous to assume that the order in which John writes is the order in which the things he describes will happen; and here we have a notable example of that danger. For chapter 6 describes what is surely a ‘harming of the earth’; yet ‘after this’ we come to a vision in which the earth has not yet been harmed (7:3). Chapter 7 may follow chapter 6 in John’s visions, but it does not seem to follow it in the order of actual events. . . . John does not say ‘After six unsealings of the book comes the sealing of the servants of God, and after that the harming of the earth.’ He says ‘After the six unsealings I saw . . . “ (78).
Reference in 7:1 to the “four corners of the earth” and the “four winds of the earth” points to the cosmic nature of this vision: four being the number in Revelation that consistently symbolizes the entire earth and its inhabitants (see also Ezek. 37:9; Jer. 49:36; Dan. 7:2; 8:8; 11:4; Zech. 2:6; 6:5). It is highly likely that the “four winds of the earth” is simply another way of describing in symbolic language the “four horsemen” or first four seal judgments of 6:1-8. The four horsemen were probably patterned after the horsemen of Zech. 6:1-8 which are also identified as “the four winds of heaven” (Zech. 6:5). If this is the case, the sealing of the bond-servants in 7:2-8 takes us back before the time when the first four seals are broken, i.e., before the time when the four horsemen are released to inflict their judgments on the earth.
The fact that the four winds must be held back or prevented from “harming” the earth indicates they are evil, wicked, rebellious angelic (demonic) agents whom God is using to bring judgment against the world (Jer. 49:36 describes “the four winds” as God agents of judgment against a nation).
In v. 2 John sees “another angel”. Four things are said of him.
First, he “ascends from the rising of the sun,” i.e., he comes from the east. Some have suggested that blessings come from the east (cf. Gen. 2:8; Ezek. 43:2-4). On the other hand, in Revelation evil powers come from the east or from the land of the Euphrates (cf. 9:14ff.; 16:12). Beale asks: “Could there be a hint of parody in that the angel who protects saints mocks the forces of evil threatening the saints by appearing to come from the same hellhole” (408)?
Second, he is portrayed as issuing a command to other angelic beings, perhaps pointing to a hierarchy within the angelic host.
The third thing said of this angel indicates he had a divine and gracious purpose: he comes with the “seal of the living God”. The purpose of this “seal” is to protect God’s people from the “seal” judgments that are imminent (6:1ff.).
The purpose of this “seal” is not to protect believers from physical harm that comes either as a result of the “seal” judgments or persecution, for the fifth “seal” of 6:9-11 describes a multitude of those who have been martyred! Indeed, as far as I can tell, nowhere in the NT are the people of God ever promised protection from physical suffering at the hands of unbelievers or from the ravages of living in a fallen world. Certainly God often does providentially and mercifully protect his people, but there is no guarantee that he will always do so. Some suggest it is a seal of protection against demonic attack, while others contend that this is divine preservation and protection of a spiritual nature: it is God’s gracious provision of persevering faith in the midst of intense persecution and suffering. The seal strengthens their faith so that the trials through which they pass serve not to separate them from God but only to refine and purify their commitment to Him.
The verb “to seal” can also mean to authenticate and to designate ownership of something or someone. This is surely in view insofar as in 14:1 the seal is identified as the Name of the Lamb and the Father (cf. 22:4). Indeed, the “mark” of the beast on the forehead of his followers is identified as “the name of the beast” (14:9-11). It was a common practice in the ancient world for slaves to receive a mark on their forehead to indicate who owned them and to whom they owed service.
It may well be that the entire imagery of the “seal” is simply a reference to the Holy Spirit himself, whose abiding presence in Christians is likened unto “sealing” which marks them out as God’s and protects them from spiritual harm (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30).
The fourth and final thing to note about this angel is the use of the first person plural “we seal” in v. 3. Whom does he have in mind here? Other angels? God? John doesn’t tell us; perhaps he didn’t know.
Note that this experience of John’s is oral in nature, not visual. He only “hears” the number of those who are sealed: he doesn’t see it, far less does he count them. Contrast this with the innumerable multitude in 7:9 which John does see.
Observations on the listing of the 12 tribes:
(1) The OT has about 20 different variations on the listing of the tribes. This one in Rev. 7 corresponds to none of them.
(2) Judah, listed first here, is found in that position in the OT only when the tribes are arranged geographically, moving from south to north (Num. 34:19; Josh. 21:4; Judges 1:2; 1 Chron. 12:24). The only exception to this is Num. 2:3 (followed by 7:12; 10:14). Perhaps Judah’s priority here “emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen. 49:10; 1 Chron. 5:1-2) and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down’ to Judah” (Beale, 417).
(3) The tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted. One tradition believed that the Antichrist was to come from the tribe of Dan (based on a misinterpretation of Jer. 8:16 and first found in Irenaeus, @ 200 a.d.); whereas yet another tradition alleged that the mother of the Messiah would be a Danite. Dan was also closely associated with idol worship (Judg. 18:16-19; 1 Kings 12:28-30). There were other negative things associated with Dan (see Gen. 49:17; Judges 18:30; Jer. 8:16). Ephraim was also associated with idolatry (Hosea 4:17-14:8). In Rev. 7, Joseph and Manasseh substitute for Dan and Ephraim. In the final analysis, there is no clear reason for this. We will probably never know why (unless the proposal by Smith, noted below, is correct).
Who are these 144,000 who receive the seal of the living God? Several things should be noted about them:
First, it would initially appear that those who are sealed are part of a larger group, for the Greek construction (ek plus the genitive) is partitive in nature: literally, “out of all the tribes of Israel . . . out of the tribe of Judah . . . out of the tribe of Reuben . . . etc.” Thus, whoever these people are, 12,000 from each tribe might mean a portion of those who make up the whole tribe. This is confirmed when we realize that this passage is an allusion to Ezek. 9:4 where only some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were marked in order to be preserved from the judgment that followed. The point is that the idea of the remnant may be in view (see Rom. 11:7). On second thought, too much should not be made of this. After all, no one denies that there were more than 12,000 in each tribe. But if there was a theological reason for limiting the vision to only 144,000 of the total (and I believe there was), how else could John have described it except in the way that he did? In other words, I will argue below that the 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes represent all in every tribe.
Second, there are four noticeable differences between the 144,000 in vv. 4-8 and the multitude in vv. 9-17. (1) The most obvious difference is that the first group is specifically numbered (144,000) whereas the second is innumerable. (2) The members of the 144,000 are all taken from but one nation, Israel, whereas those in the innumerable multitude are taken from “every nation and tribe and people and language” (7:9). (3) The 144,000 appear to be on earth, whereas the multitude is in heaven, before the throne of God (7:9). (4) The 144,000 are in imminent peril and thus require divine protection, whereas the multitude are in a condition of absolute peace and joy. Do these differences mean that the two groups are entirely different, or is it the same group viewed from different perspectives, at different stages of their existence and experience?
Third, these in 7:4-8 are surely identical with the 144,000 mentioned in 14:1-5. In both cases it is said that they received the seal of God on their “foreheads” (7:3 and 14:1). In 14:3 they are described as those who had been “purchased from the earth” and again in 14:4 they were “purchased from among men”. This echoes 5:9 where the Lamb is said to have “purchased for God” people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This same phrase is used again in 7:9 to describe the innumerable multitude. This would seem to run counter to point (2) above and thus indicate that the 144,000 = the innumerable multitude = the redeemed of all ages, and not some special remnant of humanity.
Fourth, there is one statement, however, in 14:4 that may support the idea that the 144,000 are less than the total number of the redeemed. There they are described as “first fruits” (aparche) to God and to the Lamb. This word occurs 9x in the NT, seven of which are in Paul. It may refer to new converts who were the first of many more to come (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Thess. 2:13. It also refers to the Holy Spirit as the first evidence of a greater end-time inheritance (Rom. 8:23). It is also used of Christ’s resurrection as the beginning of the subsequent resurrection of all believers (1 Cor. 15:20,23), and of believers as the beginning of the new creation (James 1:18). In Rom. 11:16 it is used to speak of the OT patriarchs as fathers of later faithful descendants. If that is the meaning in Rev. 14:4 the idea would be that the 144,000 were an initial group, perhaps a remnant, of believers whose salvation was a foreshadowing of a yet greater ingathering or harvest of believers in the end time. Beale counters by pointing out that in Jer. 2:2-3, for example, the entire nation of Israel is called the “firstfruits” of God. This seems unlikely to me. More probable is the suggestion that the 144,000 represent the totality of God’s redeemed at that time, and thus “first fruits” of the remainder of all the redeemed who will be gathered in the final harvest at the close of history.
Fifth, these 144,000 are called the “servants” (douloi) of God. Whenever the word “servants” is used in Revelation (2:20; 19:5; 22:3) it refers to the entire community of the redeemed. Also, if Satan puts a seal or mark on all his followers (13:16-17; 14:9-11), it seems reasonable that God would do likewise.
Sixth, another interesting fact is that the numbering (144,000) is probably used to evoke images of the OT census, which was designed to determine the military strength of the nation (see Num. 1:3,18,20; 26:2,4; 1 Chron. 27:23; 2 Sam. 24:1-9). The point is that these in Rev. 7 constitute a Messianic army called upon, like Jesus himself, to conquer the enemy through sacrificial death. In the OT those counted were males of military age (twenty years and over). This explains why the 144,000 in Rev. 14:1ff. are adult males, i.e., those eligible for military service. According to Num. 31:4-6, one thousand soldiers from each of the twelve tribes were sent into battle against Midian. Some have countered that the tribe of Levi is out place in a military census. However, as Bauckham points out, “although the priests and Levites do not fight with weapons, they play an essential part in the conduct of war, conducting prayers before, during and after battle, and blowing the trumpets which both direct the troops and call divine attention to the battle. Without them the war could not be a holy war” (Climax, 222).
Seventh, thus this “military force” in 7:4-8 “conquers its enemy ironically in the same way in which the Lamb has ironically conquered at the cross: by maintaining their faith through suffering, the soldiers overcome the devil . . . . Consequently, they are those who ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes’ (14:4). In particular, 7:4-8 portrays an army ready to fight, and 7:14 interprets the manner of their fighting: they conquer in no other way than that of the Lamb, by persevering in the midst of suffering” (Beale, 423).
Eighth, whereas John uses holy war language in Rev. 7, he transfers its meaning to non-military means of triumph over evil. In other words, the people of God are portrayed as engaging in holy war, but in a spiritual, non-violent way. John’s aim is to show that “the decisive battle in God’s eschatological war against all evil, including the power of Rome, has already been won – by the faithful witness and sacrificial death of Jesus. Christians are called to participate in his war and his victory – but by the same means as he employed: bearing the witness of Jesus to the point of martyrdom” (234). Thus, later on, when the beast puts the martyrs to death, who wins? From an earthly perspective, the beast does (cf. 11:7; 13:7). But from a heavenly perspective, the martyrs are the real victors. They conquer by dying in their faith, committed to the end to Jesus.
Before leaving this subject I want to direct our attention to the study of Christopher Smith in “The Portrayal of the Church as the New Israel in the Names and Order of the Tribes in Revelation 7.5-8,” JSNT 39 (1990):111-118; and again, “The Tribes of Revelation 7 and the Literary Competence of John the Seer,” JETS 38 (1995):213-218.
He believes that the order in which the tribes are listed in Rev. 7 symbolizes the inclusion of Gentiles among the sealed and protected people of God. When the list in Rev. 7 is compared with that in Genesis 35:23-26, the changes are revealing. Judah is moved from fourth to first (perhaps because this is the tribe of Jesus). The sons of the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, are moved, dare we say “promoted”, from last in the list in Genesis to positions three through six in Revelation (above six of the sons of the wives, Leah and Rachel). Dennis Johnson, taking up Smith’s theory, concludes that “the elevation of these descendants of women who were outsiders to the covenant family signifies the inclusion of the Gentiles among ‘the bond-servants of our God’ (Rev. 7:3). . . . 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 [specifically Dan and Ephraim] from the covenant community that God shields from his terrible wrath” (Triumph of the Lamb, 132).