Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This lesson primarily concerns the 7th chapter of Revelation. In Chapters 4 and 5, John has been given a vision of heaven and the Lamb. In Chapter 6, the Lamb opens 6 of the 7 seals on the scroll containing God’s plan for the wrapping up of redemption history. The picture John is shown is grim indeed. Man’s sin brings on him both the implied judgment of God and misery that comes about as the inevitable outworking of human rebellion, and God’s active wrath poured out on rebellious man. Both pagans and the church are suffering (see the 5th seal), and things are so bad that the pagan rulers cry out to the rocks.
Revelation 6:16b “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,
17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Indeed, who can stand? A natural question is “What is the real situation of the church in this period of God’s wrath?” And it seems like (at least in broad terms) Chapter 7 answers that question. It is answer to the question “Who can stand?” Wilcock commenting on this chapter titles it “Yet the church is indestructible.”
We won’t here intentionally promote any particular theology’s version of the meaning of the various images in Chapter 7. Most of the famous questions/issues about this chapter have been argued for nearly 2000 years by well-meaning orthodox people, with no clean resolution, and it seems pointless to leave what is plain and important and speculate over what is not plain.
Revelation 7:1 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.
We’re at an interlude here. The first 6 seals have been opened and before the 7th is opened we have the images of Chapter 7. The “after this” refers to when John was seeing. It doesn’t necessarily say anything about when the content of Chapter 7 takes place. For that matter, it’s not even clear that the order of the seals says much of anything about chronology.
What we have here that is plain, is a picture that says that it is only at God’s command that the destructive forces of nature (specifically great winds) are released on earth. Standing at the 4 points of the compass, mighty messengers of God restrain them until God ordains that they blow. We humans have no ability to control these mighty forces of nature. And they don’t somehow independently do what they wish. They are God’s alone to command.
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.”
God’s wrath is going to come on the earth in the form of natural disaster. But before the wind can even begin to blow, it first must be clear that God’s people are to be protected. The fifth seal in Chapter 6 shows some of God’s saints martyred, so the church is surely not spared difficulty in the world. But the servants of (the “slaves” of, ones completely devoted to) God are here marked with His seal. They are specially identified as His and preserved. Does that mean they are spared living through natural disasters that the 4 winds seem to represent? I don’t know, but it seems unlikely. What’s the chronology here? Is John seeing the time of most intense earthly difficulty that Jesus said in Matt 24 would come at the end times? Or is this simply what has gone on since the beginning of time, and still in it God has “marked”/preserved His own? I don’t think anybody really knows. What is plain is that God is in control, He knows who are His, and in some essential way He preserves them. He preserves them probably as much “through” as “from” the hard stuff. They are marked with His protection. They are marked as belonging to Him.
4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
Exactly who are the 144,000? People have argued exact identity for going on 2000 years. Verse 3 says the servants of God have been sealed. I’m inclined to reject an interpretation that doesn’t encompass both Old Testament and New Testament saints, both Jew and gentile. The 144,000 looks more like an expression of completeness (12 times 12 times 1000) than a statistic, and looks more like “all saints” than some special group at some special point in history. The listing of the tribes that follows is a strange one if we’re supposed to read verse 4 literally. Dan is missing and Joseph is listed along with Manasseh. (There has been speculation that Dan was traditionally associated with idolatry and was thus naturally left out.) And every family gets 12,000 regardless of its size. It just seems more plausible that this is a picture meant to stand for the complete elect of all time.
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.
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
In verse 4 John hears. Now in verse 9 he looks and sees. And I think he sees those he was hearing about, an ocean of the redeemed. The 144,000 he heard about in verse 4 emphasized the completeness of the elect. None were missing. The ocean of believers he sees here emphasizes its vastness and universality. It’s not homogeneous along political/governmental boundaries, nor in terms of race, nor in terms of culture, nor in terms of language. The complete number known to God in verse 4 and described as God’s chosen people Israel in 5-8 is to John a vast sea of the redeemed in verse 9, from all tribes, peoples, and languages.
This multitude of the redeemed (ones whom God has sealed) now stand where the 24 elders stood in Chapter 5, in front of the throne. They are dressed in white robes and hold palm branches. The white is symbolic of both purity and victory (conquering Roman generals wore white robes). The palm branches are symbolic of both victory and general celebration.
10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Babel has been undone, and the great multitude who on earth spoke different languages together sing the same song, the song of praise and thanksgiving for salvation. Again, we see clearly here that God who sits on the throne and the Lamb are two persons, one deity.
This is a wonderful picture of eternity, the redeemed before God’s throne crying out in gratitude for His great grace. People reconciled to their Creator by His mercy alone. Note that unless Jesus truly is Lord of a person’s life, this is not a picture of heaven, but of “hell.” That is, this is not a scene that would be the least bit attractive to someone who thinks they’d like the benefits of “salvation” but wishes to continue to do their own thing. The whole “Can I have Jesus as savior and not Lord?” discussion makes absolutely no sense in light of this great scene. This is where saints are headed. Those without interest in this great picture simply aren’t His.
11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,
12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
As in Chapter 5, recitation of God’s great works prompts a spontaneous chorus of praise and worship not only from redeemed humanity, but from the angels as well. These beings fall on their faces and cry out. And it comes in a “7”: blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power and might, forever and ever! Amen! Apparently, in the Greek, there is a definite article in front of each of these things that belong to God. That is, it’s not blessing or a blessing, but “the” blessing. It’s the blessing above all other blessings. It’s the glory above all other glories. It’s the wisdom above all other wisdoms, the thanksgiving above all others, the honor above all others, the power above all others, the might above all others. In chapter 5, the wave of praise radiates out from the 4 living creatures, to the elders, to the angels to the multitudes. Here it comes reverberating back in, in reverse order.
At the beginning and at the end of what the angels say is “Amen”/so be it. They are in wholehearted agreement with the multitude, though they themselves have never had the firsthand experience of the misery of sin.
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Who are they and where did they come from? This is not asked to gain information, but rather to teach John what is true. John replies that the elder knows, and he says that they’ve come out of the great tribulation. It does say “the” great tribulation (the definite article is there in Greek) and it is standard to then worry about whether these are some special martyrs from an end time tribulation, and if so how that’s all to work out. But it doesn’t seem to me that kind of interpretation is necessary or even very productive. It is sure, for example, that John’s first century Christian readers would have seen themselves among this group, having come through “the” great tribulation of life in a fallen world. Their lives were hard and constantly at risk, and they lived in the constant expectation of Christ’s imminent return. With over 1900 years of perspective, most people would judge that even so, they didn’t experience the “end times” travail that Jesus spoke of in Matt 24. It seems fruitless to then argue about whether they were wrong.
What is vital, though, is the means by which their robes were made white, the source of their purity and victory, namely, the blood of the Lamb, the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. The tense of the verbs indicates that the washing and making white was a once for all thing. It’s a tremendous comfort that these folks really are dressed in white. You and I don’t just get some kind of pass to show up in our filthy rags, but instead are genuinely given the righteousness of Christ. We will stand before the throne not just forgiven, but pure in the eyes of our Creator. We don’t really grasp how wild that is. Naturally weak and sinful creatures though you and I are, we’ll stand there fully justified, because once for all, we were made right through the blood of the Lamb.
The tenses of the verbs in verse 14 are significant. They have washed and they are coming. The washing is a done thing in the past. In light of it, they presently have life in spite of suffering.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
Therefore/for this reason/because they are blood-washed they are before the throne. Indeed. It is only right that those so justified will be truly grateful and serve Him day and night. They are “before the throne” with direct access to the One on it. And the phrase the ESV translates “shelter them” is more literally “spread His tent over them.” It hearkens back to God “tabernacling” with Israel and His Shekinah glory dwelling with them. The picture is one of intimate fellowship and contact.
Mention of the word “temple” prompts comparison between that universal intimacy and the restrictions on who could be where when in the Jerusalem temple (e.g. gentiles being restricted to the very outer court, and one priest being in the Holy of Holies only once per year). God has truly done a “new thing” in Christ.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
You and I in the west have had it pretty easy. Hunger, thirst, scorching heat are all foreign to us. They weren’t so foreign to 1st century Christians, who more often than not were at the very bottom of the social and economic order. This is real comfort for those bearing heavy burdens.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Why is it that they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat? It’s the Lamb. They will not thirst, not because they are somehow sated, but because the Lamb will constantly provide. The Lamb is their shepherd. Jesus is both sacrifice and the one who guards their souls and provides. He is at once, Lamb and Shepherd. God in His mercy reveals that which we would never have discovered on our own.
And God will wipe away every tear. This is the infinite tenderness of the one true and living God. There is the picture here of Him bending down like a loving earthly parent to wipe tears from a little one’s eyes. The final promise here is not for deliverance from the hard things. But those that are sealed will be preserved and comforted.