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Who are the True People of God? - Part II

So, who are the 144,000? Are they different from or one and the same with the innumerable multitude?

(1) Most dispensational, pre-tribulational, premillennialists, i.e., most who read the book in a futurist sense, understand the 144,000 to be a Jewish remnant saved immediately after the rapture of the Church. Many then argue that, in the absence of the Church, they serve as evangelists who preach the gospel during the Great Tribulation. In other words, these are literally 144,000 (arithmetically speaking, neither 143,999 nor 144,001) ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The innumerable multitude, some go on to argue, are Gentiles saved in the tribulation through the evangelistic efforts of the 144,000. Be it noted, however, that there is nothing explicitly said in this passage about these people functioning as evangelists or being responsible for the salvation of the multitude.

Some find a problem with the literal interpretation in that “ten of the tribes had lost their national identity in the Assyrian exile, and the same fate befell Benjamin and Judah in 70 a.d. when the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed” (Beale, 419). However, see Acts 26:6-7. But I do have four other problems with this view.

· First, it depends entirely on a futurist interpretation of the book.

· Second, why would God protect only Jewish believers and leave Gentile believers to endure such horrific judgments?

· Third, why would God protect only 144,000 Jewish believers? Why would he not protect all of them?

· Fourth, in 9:4 we read that only those with the seal of God on their foreheads are exempt from the demonic torments that are so horrible and agonizing that men will long to die. Is it feasible or consistent with the character of God that he should protect only a select group from such wrath while afflicting the rest of his blood-bought children with it? The answer is a resounding No. Therefore, those who are sealed on their forehead in 7:4-8 (and 9:4) must be all the redeemed, not a select few.

(2) Robert Gundry, who believes in a post-tribulational rapture, argues that the 144,000 “constitute a Jewish remnant – not members of the Church and therefore not to be raptured – physically preserved through the tribulation, converted immediately after the rapture as they see their Messiah descending onto the earth (Zech. 3:8,9; 12:9-13:1; Mal. 3:1-5; Rom. 11:26-27), and entering the millennium in their natural bodies to form the nucleus of the re-established Davidic kingdom. They would be ‘orthodox’ (though unconverted) Jews who will resist the seductions of the Antichrist. The designation ‘bond-servants’ (7:3), then, anticipates their role in the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom. . . . Thus, the 144,000 will include both men and women who will populate and replenish the millennial kingdom of Israel. If they will resist the Antichrist but remain unbelievers in Christ until the second coming, the reason for their sealing at once becomes apparent: their unconverted state will require special protection from the wrath of God and the persecution of the Antichrist” (82-83). One could hold this view without insisting that only 144,000 are saved. In other words, this view is compatible with taking the number figuratively.

(3) Others contend that the number 144,000 is symbolic (as is the case with virtually every number in Revelation). 12 is both squared (the 12 tribes multiplied by the 12 apostles? cf. 21:12,14) and multiplied by a thousand, a two-fold way of emphasizing completeness. Hence, John has in view all the redeemed, all believers, whether Jew or Gentile . . . i.e., the Church. Thus the 144,000 in 7:3-8 and the innumerable multitude in 7:9-17 refer to the same group of people viewed from differing perspectives. The former is the redeemed standing on the brink of battle, while the latter is the redeemed enjoying their heavenly reward. As Beale points out, “if Gentile believers are clearly identified together with ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’ as part of the new Jerusalem (21:12,14,24; 22:2-5), then it is not odd that John should refer to them together with Jewish Christians in 7:4 as ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’” (417). Let us also not forget that the “seal” of 7:2-3 is equivalent to their receiving a name. And one of the names written on Gentile believers, in addition to the name of God and Jesus, is “the name of the new Jerusalem” (3:12)! Finally, as noted earlier, in Rev. 9:4 the demonic scorpions are told to harm only those “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads,” implying that all Christians (whether Jewish or Gentile) have such a seal.

We have seen on several occasions in Revelation how Christians, i.e., the Church, comprised of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, are described as the true people of God, the true Israel. For example, see the application of Exod. 19:6 to the church in Rev. 1:6 and 5:10; see also Isa. 62:2 and 65:15 applied to the church in Rev. 2:17 and 3:12; and Isa. 43:4; 45:19; 49:23; and 60:14 applied to the church in Rev. 3:9. This is in keeping with other texts in the NT where the new covenant community, the Church, is referred to with designations and titles previously used exclusively of OT Israel – Rom. 2:29 (cf. 9:6); 2 Cor. 1:20-21; Gal. 3:29; 6:16; Eph. 1:11,14; Phil. 3:3-8; Titus 2:14; James 1:1 (where the church is addressed as “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad”); 1 Peter 1:1 (where the church is addressed as “elect exiles of the diaspora”); 2:9.

Vv. 9-10

In light of the evidence given above, I believe the innumerable multitude and the 144,000 constitute one group of people: the redeemed of the Church. In 7:4-8 they are numbered, like unto the census of OT Israel, because they constitute a messianic army called to carry on the battle of the Lion of Judah. They are the true Israel of God, the remnant of believers whose salvation and preservation have been secured by the seal of God. Perhaps also they are numbered to highlight the fact that “God has determined exactly who will receive his redemptive seal, and only he knows the precise number of his true ‘servants’ (so 7:3; 2 Tim. 2:19)” (Beale, 424). In 7:9-17 they are innumerable, at least from a human point of view, because the redeemed are viewed in terms of their actual number.

The “great multitude” that John sees are precisely those in Rev. 5:9 whom Jesus redeemed “from every nation and tribe and people and tongue”. The language John uses, “a great multitude, which no one could count (or, which no one was able to number),” sounds remarkably similar to the promise given to Abraham. That promise consisted primarily of two elements:

First, Abraham was promised that he would have innumerable descendants, described as “the dust of the earth,” “the stars of the sky,” and “the sand of the sea” (Gen. 13:16; 15:5; 22:17-18). In Gen. 16:10 God said to Abraham: “I will greatly multiply your descendants to that they shall be too many to count.” This promise was repeated to Isaac (Gen. 26:4) and to Jacob (Gen. 28:14; 32:12), and is found in numerous other OT texts (Ex. 32:13; Deut. 1:10; 10:22; 28:62; 2 Sam. 17:11; 1 Kings 3:8; 4:20; Neh. 9:23; Isa. 10:22; 48:19; 51:2; Hosea 1:10).

Second, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4-6,16), a promise also repeated to Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 28:14; 32:12; 35:11; 48:19).

In these OT texts it is the physical progeny of Israel who are in view. But amazingly here in Rev. 7:9 it is the Church in whom those promises appear to be fulfilled. Verse 9a points to the fulfillment of the first promise above, while verse 9b points to the fulfillment of the second. It may well be, then, that John views the innumerable multitude of Rev. 7:9 as the consummate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise.

In v. 10 the saints attribute their “salvation” to God and to the Lamb. In Paul’s writings this noun normally refers to deliverance from sin and guilt. In this context, however, something else may be in view. John is describing the preservation and protection of the saints in the midst of suffering. Their “sealing” is designed to safeguard their souls, lest they deny Jesus under the pressures of persecution. The focus of 7:9-17 is the heavenly reward for those who do, in fact, persevere. Therefore, it may be that by “salvation” John refers not so much to the forgiveness of sins but to their preservation in faith in the midst of trials.

Vv. 11-12

These verses are an echo of what we saw in the worship of the Lamb in chapters 4-5. Viewed in terms of concentric circles around the throne, the four living creatures are closest to the Lamb, behind whom are the twenty-four elders, behind whom are the angels.

Only the angels are described as “standing” (no angel in Revelation is described as seated). There was an ancient Jewish tradition, based on Ezek. 1:7 (“and their legs were straight”), that angels always stood because they have no knees!

Vv. 13-14

The words “great tribulation” occur only elsewhere in the NT in Mt. 24:21 where they point to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, an expression of the judgment of God against Israel for its calloused rejection of the Messiah.

· If our earlier suggestion is correct (see my studies on Mt. 24 in the Eschatology section), that the events of 33-70 a.d. are a microcosmic foreshadowing of what happens on a macrocosmic scale throughout the present age, the use of such terminology here is understandable.

· On the other hand, “tribulation” is nothing new or unexpected for Christians in any age. John’s presence on the island of Patmos is described as “tribulation” (1:9). See also 2:9-10,22. Tribulation is the normative experience for all believers, as several texts indicate (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3; 8:35-36; 2 Tim. 3:12). In fact, 21 of Paul’s 23 uses of this term (thlipsis) refer to an on-going, present day experience of the Christian. The tribulation we suffer is “great” because of the intensity of opposition from the world and its god, the Devil.

Either of these views, or perhaps a combination of both, is probably in John’s mind. In any case, nothing requires us to think of the “great tribulation” as a special period of time reserved exclusively for the end of the age through which only the last generation of believers might pass. All Christians in every age face the reality of what John describes.

There is nothing to indicate that only martyrs are in view. If they are the focus of John’s comments, they could also serve to represent all believers who must suffer, whether or not they actually lose their lives. That “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14) would mean that “despite resistance, they have continued believing in and testifying to the Lamb’s death on their behalf, which has taken their sin away and granted them salvation” (Beale, 436). On the other hand, we noted above that the 144,000 (= innumerable multitude) may be a way of portraying the people of God as a messianic army ready to engage in holy war (spiritually speaking, of course). If so, the reference to the “washing” of their clothes may be an allusion to Num. 31:19-20,24 where such was required for ritual purification after the shedding of blood.

There may also be here an allusion to the Exodus event of the OT. More than allusion, it may be John’s way of saying that the Church is the true Israel in whom the OT exodus event finds its typological fulfillment. Note: (1) a great multitude comes out of trial and tribulation (thlipsis is used in the LXX of Ex. 4:31 to describe Israel’s experience); (2) Israel is portrayed as washing their garments (Ex. 19:10,14) and (3) being sprinkled with blood (Ex. 24:8) to (4) prepare them for God’s tabernacling among them, (5) as a result of which they receive food, water, protection, and comfort.

Vv. 15-17

Verse 15 speaks of the saints in God’s heavenly “temple” and of God “spreading his tabernacle over them.” This is a clear allusion to Ezek. 37:26-28, a passage that in its OT context is a prophecy of Israel’s restoration. There God says, “I will establish my sanctuary in the midst of them forever. And my tabernacle will be over them . . . when my sanctuary is in the midst of them forever.” Consider Beale’s comments:

“The link with Ezekiel is confirmed from the parallel in Rev. 21:3, where Ezek. 37:27 is quoted more fully and is immediately followed in 21:4,6b by the same OT allusions found in 7:16-17. Yet again, the innumerable multitudes of redeemed in the church are viewed as the fulfillment of a prophecy concerning Israel’s latter-day restoration. The application of Ezek. 37:27 to the church is striking because Ezekiel emphasizes that when this prophecy takes place the immediate result will be that ‘the nations will recognize that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst’ (37:28). Therefore, Ezekiel 37 was a prophecy uniquely applicable to ethnic or theocratic Israel in contrast to the nations, yet now John understands it as fulfilled in the church” (440).

The comforts and blessings of God’s presence are portrayed in terms drawn from Isa. 49:10, yet another text that refers to the results of Israel’s restoration: “They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them. He who has compassion on them will guide them [i.e., he will be their shepherd] and lead them beside springs of water.” As if that were not enough, another prophetic promise tied to Israel’s restoration is appended to this list of blessings now applied to the church: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:17). There seems to be no escaping the fact that John sees the OT hope of Israel’s restoration and all its attendant blessings fulfilled in the salvation of the Christian multitudes who comprise the church, both believing Jews and Gentiles.