Revelation 7

Chapter 7

At this point we expect the seventh seal to be opened signifying the completion of history in God's perfect timing and the opening of the scroll detailing the end. But the seal isn't opened until 8v1, and the events bound up with that continue to the end of chapter 11. Chapter 7 therefore seems to outline the security of the redeemed before God's wrath is finally poured out on the earth.
     v1: We're introduced to four angels standing at the four corners of the earth - probably a vision of them at the corners of the horizon. The keeping wind from blowing seems to dramatise a prelude to judgment as another angel asks them to pause bringing harm. It's literally the calm before the storm - a time of peace before a terrible shaking (cf. 6v13). We do not find the angels appear again in what follows. And the only "four" to this point are the horseman of seals 1-4. Zechariah 6v1-8 confirms this must be the reference to the "winds" the angels are holding back, where wind can be translated "spirit" (Zech 6v5). And the focus on the "earth" in seals 1-4 supports this. In being held back the winds are pictured as evil - like dogs on a lead bent on destruction. Listing land, sea and trees denote the entire creation and its fruitfulness being impacted, and may look us to 8v7-8 if we conclude these are concurrent. In seals 1-4 we might think of land and sea as the contexts of war, and the harming of trees a symptom of famine and it's impact on olive oil and wine (6v6).
     The speaking angel comes from the east, the place of the rising sun and of Eden. He therefore brings the hope of salvation and new creation from God. Indeed, he has God's seal which marks the redeemed as belonging to him. "Living" God stresses God's reality and control of life. And so the angel gives the loud and urgent command that nothing is to be harmed until God's servants have God's seal on their foreheads. They are therefore pictured like High Priests who had "holy to the Lord" on theirs. But in Revelation it is the name of the Father and the Lamb that seems to be on the seal (14v1, 22v4). How intimate. The point is that although God's people were not exempt from the hardships of the first four seals, they are protected from ultimate harm. The structure also tells us that what we are about to see might include the souls mentioned with seal 5.
     The 144000 most likely refers either to redeemed Israelites from throughout Israel's history (so including the tribes that at that point no longer existed), or to all the redeemed, picturing Gentiles as included within Israel (cf. Jam 1v1). Later we learn these are those with the name of Father on their foreheads, who have been redeemed from the earth, and who always follow the Lamb (14v1-5). As these are descriptions of believers in general (3v12, 5v9) we must conclude this group therefore comprises all believers. This is confirmed by their description as "servants of our God" (v3) which is a generic description throughout the book for believers (1v1, 22v6). This makes sense contextually too. This number includes those mentioned in 6v11 - persecuted Christians, who are made safe. It is they, not Israelites throughout the ages that are particularly in mind. Moreover John "hears" the number sealed at 144000 but then looks and "sees" the innumerable multitude (v4, 9). They are the same group. So if we are to limit the number, we should limit it to Christians kept eternally safe despite the trials of the church age.
     Because of the genre the 144000 is fairly obviously a figurative number. The 12x12 stresses the complete people of God, with the dualism possibly hinting to Old and New Testament, or more likely Jew and Gentile (as the testaments are not recognised as such distinct categories of history with respect to Israel). The 1000 being 10x10x10 denotes a great number. Putting it together then, we have the "great multitude" from all nations in v9. But the point of saying this is the exact number sealed from every tribe is to stress at this point that none will be lost and so harmed through the tribulations of the seven seals. Their salvation is secure.
     Three things are worth noting about the list of tribes. First, Judah is prominent as the tribe of the Lamb. Second, Dan is missing - most likely because of the tribe's history of idolatry, perhaps also patterning Judas missing from amongst the apostles. The apostles have some sense of rule now Iver the tribes (Matt 19v28). Third, there is some evidence of a correspondence between the order of the list and that of which gates the tribes are assigned in Ezekiel's vision of God's temple (Ezek 48v31-34 cf. 21v12-13). And again, the fact that the gates of the New Jerusalem, which is the church, bear the names of the twelve tribes, shows we are to see Gentile Christians as included within them on chapter 7. We are told. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it (21v26).
     v9: Verses 1-8 take place before the seals are opened and so before many of those sealed are actually born. They reflect God's sovereign purpose as the one who chooses even before the creation of the world. But when does v9 therefore take place and who does it describe? It's possible it refers to a larger group. If the 144000 refer just to Christians, it might refer to all believers throughout history. However the symbolism of the 144000 implies it is the same group, but in heaven - the new Jerusalem. However the stress is now not on its completeness as the people of God but it's vastness in including those from all people groups (see notes on 5v9). Essentially John is saying although we're told a number in v5-8, the reality is that they are innumerable.
     As for when this takes place. Clearly it is before they inhabit the new creation. They are those who "come out of the great tribulation" (v14) and in context the complete people of God. The multitude therefore portray the ultimate and compete number of "the spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Heb 12v23) - the souls of all who have died in Christ, just before Christ returns. You and I are there somewhere too!
     Of course it's a vision, so we shouldn't necessarily assume it portrays the literal events of that moment any more than we should assume souls are literally under an altar (6v9). Rather, it is intended to bring home the truth that although the church can seem weak and even defeated on earth, by God's sealing it is actually glorious and victorious, existing safely with Christ in heaven, awaiting its vindication and eternal rest.

Excursus: The Intermediate State

But can we learn anything here about our literal experience in the intermediate state? The appearances of Samuel, Moses and Elijah after death imply conscience existence (see also Lk 16v22). So just as 6v9 pictures the significance of the persecuted truly in heaven praying for justice, so this 7v9f. may picture the significance of a true praise that takes place there too. We don't know if the experience of time will be the same for us when removed from bodily existence - although one presumes it will be for Christ in his body as he governs space-time history. Nor do we know what else we might do in heaven as we await the activity of the new earth. Angels serve as well as sing. And our experience there is spoken of as "paradise" (Lk 23v43) and with the image of the city of Jerusalem. It could well be, therefore, that we experience heavenly societal life in a sort of paradise or paradise-city within which the things of Revelation are quite literally found, even before we receive our resurrection bodies and that society is established on a renewed earth. Certainly 20v6 portrays those there as exercising a priestly ministry (perhaps of caring for the environment as for God’s temple) and kingly ministry (it seems in sharing in Christ’s reign over history). The fact that unbelievers are pictured experiencing their final state in part, certainly supports the idea that heaven is a foretaste of new creation life (Lk 16v23, 2 Pet 4v9). Whatever the case, what we do know is that we will be there, it will be better by far as we will be with Christ (Phil 1v23), and part (probably the pinnacle) of our activity will be to join the worship of angels not just at the end as in Revelation 7, but throughout the church age (Heb 12v23).

     These people are clothed in "white" - the robes of victory washed in the blood of the Lamb (7v14). It's the language of worshippers being cleansed and made acceptable for God's presence. The palms are the flags of Israel waved in celebration of salvation (Ps 118v27, Jn 12v13), and so their song is fitting. Salvation "belongs" implies both source and sovereignty in salvation lie with these people's God and the Lamb. Again, it exalts Christ to the authority of his Father. It is because they have charge of salvation and have granted it so mercifully to so many (including us) that they are worthy of our praise. It is to them that this multitude owe all they have.
     v11: We read that "all the angels" - presumably the innumerable host (5v11) are now standing around the throne, elders and living creatures. They may have closed in. But the picture is of their worship surrounding them all. It's quite a picture: An innumerable multiple of people before the throne and an innumerable multitude of angels around it! Heavenly creatures stretching as far as the eye can see. This is what God has achieved. This is the moment of ultimate triumph before God's people enter into the eternal state. Again, the angel's song seems to confirm and respond to what is already said (as 5v8-14), giving a primacy to the worship of the redeemed and their representatives - perhaps because their salvation is the focus. And so they say, no doubt with an awesome chorus, a double "Amen" - truly, we agree, affirming between them that God is therefore due all blessing (joy in God), affirmation, wisdom, thanks, honour and power - and forever and ever. By only mentioning God here in responding to v10 they hint to the oneness of the Lamb with God on the throne.
     v13: It is an elder not angel who now addresses John. The significance is probably that he is referring to the redeemed he represents. His question highlights the two important things about the multitude. John's response implies he thinks the elder is a man not an angel. And looks to him for an answer. Every other use of "tribulation" refers to present sufferings believers also have to endure not those at Christ's return they are rescued from (1v9, 2v9-10, 2v22). In context they are those of the 7 seals. The point is that as Christians suffer to death under them, because they are sealed they are not ultimately harmed but join Christ and his people in heaven. And the reason, humanely speaking is that they've washed their robes in the Lamb's blood - they have come to him for atonement through faith and been cleansed so they are acceptable to God. The present "coming out" may suggest the day of Christ hasn't yet been reached, and so the number increases daily. It implies the 7 deals are not located merely to the 1st century but span the church age until the full number of God's people enter heaven. What encouragement as the believer faces execution. Death brings final release from their trials.
     Verses 15-17 point out that the final consummation has yet to come. In moving poetry the blessings of the final state (chs 21-22) are summarised. Because they've washed their robes the redeemed can now dwell before God's throne as pictured in the vision - a symbol of privilege and service of God as king. And their activity as a royal "priesthood" is to serve him day and night "in his temple." Chapter 22 implies the temple is the people of God (the New Jerusalem), and perhaps eventually the entire new creation filled by them. The service is that of our first parents in Eden - to reign over and care for the creation just as the priests were to oversee the activity of the temple (22v5).

     What all that looks like in the intermediate state is uncertain. There is clearly some activity to do. But God makes a promise in return - to shelter and so protect them with his mighty presence. And so they will no longer hunger, thirst or suffer harm from the creation. And the reason is that the Lamb who shares God's rule will mediate his care. "Shepherd" was the common motif got the king protecting his subjects. And here it is by guiding them like sheep to springs of living water. As those who have already received the Spirit this must refer to him bringing them to the final state where the river of God's life-giving presence flows from the throne through the city causing the tree of life to bear its fruit for the healing of the nations (23v2). The sense is that this river may not flow until the people of God inhabit the renewed earth - perhaps because it is only needed when they have their resurrection bodies. Although during the intermediate state the redeemed experience some grief as they long for justice (6v10), then we are told God will wipe away every tear (cf. 21v4) as the heartache of the old order fades. The point is this: Believers can face hardship and persecution knowing that if they endure until death, their struggle and suffering will finally be over for good. They will be safe and joyful forever.