Sealed, Standing, & Comforted
To this point in Revelation, Jesus the Lamb has conquered. He took the scroll from God’s right hand. One by one Jesus opened six of the seven seals. We’ve seen visions of God’s smaller judgments throughout history. Seal number six took us to the end of history. We now expect the Lamb to break the seventh seal. We expect God to appear in judgment. But that doesn’t happen.
With chapter 7, we encounter a pause. After reading the six seals, perhaps you have questions. “Conflict, bloodshed, economic collapse, pestilence, persecution, martyrdom—How are we supposed to endure that? Who am I to stay faithful through days like that? What does this mean for my future? Will rest ever come? Will comfort ever come?” Or, what about the question that ended chapter six: Who can stand?
In chapter 7, God pauses to answer these questions. He pauses to clarify who we belong to, what that means for days ahead, and how we will make it. If you are facing tribulation, wondering how you’re going to make it, how you’re going to persevere, this passage holds out great hope. Let’s read it together…
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. 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.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 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, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 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.” 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. 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. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 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.”
God’s Servants Sealed for Protection
Chapter 7 covers a lot. Let’s take it in four chunks. First, we see God’s servants sealed for protection. In verses 1-3, we get this vision of four angels standing on the four corners of the earth. They have jurisdiction over every part of the world. We find them holding back “the four winds of the earth.” From verse 3 we learn that, by these winds, the angels intend to harm earth, sea, and trees. Sometimes a slight breeze is a blessing. But strong winds can destroy. Prophets like Zechariah and Jeremiah borrow this imagery of winds to illustrate God’s judgment.[i] In this case, John sees inescapable judgment—it comes from every direction. It also falls on earth, sea, and trees. Later, we learn these were basic to commercial trade. To harm them upends society.
But these angels must hold back the four winds. They must delay God’s judgment. Why? So that God can first protect his servants by sealing them. The idea comes from Ezekiel 9. Ezekiel sees six executioners with weapons in their hands. God commissions them to destroy all the idolaters in the city. Just before that happens, though, God commissions another figure “to put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations…” (Ezek 9:4). Picture judgment falling on a city of idolaters, but the faithful bear God’s mark; and God protects them.
Revelation uses that picture to describe what God does for his servants. Many bear the mark of the Beast—which comes later in Revelation—and they will suffer God’s judgments. But God marks his servants to protect them from his judgments. God’s servants will still suffer persecution, martyrdom. But they are not objects of God’s wrath.
Also note where God seals his servants—on the forehead. In 14:1, the seal is the Lamb’s name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. That reaches back to the priest’s turban in Exodus. The priests had the words, “Holy to the Lord” written across the forehead. God’s seal both assures and identifies. It assures that God will protect his people. It also identifies them as God’s holy priesthood.
Now, folks can debate when this sealing occurs. That’s not the point here. The point is to paint a picture that reassures Christians facing tribulation. God will protect you. His judgments will fall, sometimes with great severity. But if you belong to his holy priesthood, if you bear his name, his aim is not to destroy you when the hard times come. His aim is to keep you and preserve you for himself.
How do you know if you have God’s seal? Are we supposed to look for a visible mark? No. This is a spiritual mark. If there’s anything visible to this spiritual mark, it will show when you serve and worship the true and living God. It will show when, instead of giving in to the nations’ idols, you weep over the prevalent idolatry. Are you like the faithful who “sigh and groan over all the abominations” around us? Is it your joy to give yourself wholly to Jesus? Whose seal do you have? If God has marked you as his own, he has committed himself to protect you.
God’s Servants Renewed and Numbered Like Warriors
Look next at the second chunk: God’s servants renewed and numbered like warriors. John hears the number of the sealed: “144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” Who are these 144,000?
Most immediately, verse 3 identifies them as “the servants of God.” Elsewhere in Revelation, “servants” of God can refer to all saints in general.[ii] Also, in 14:3, John identifies the 144,000 as those “who had been purchased from the earth.” The same language appears in 5:9 to say that Christ “purchased people…from every tribe and language and people and nation,” which is the multitude eventually mentioned in 7:9. So the 144,000 share that in common with the great multitude—the Lamb’s redemption.
Something else to consider is the literary structure. Notice, John hears the number of the sealed, 144,000; then he sees a great multitude. We’ve seen this before. In 5:5, John hears about the Lion of Judah; then he sees a Lamb standing. The Lion and the Lamb formed complementary pictures of the same person. The same could be said here. The 144,000 and the great multitude may form complementary pictures of the same people. The vision could be presenting God’s redeemed from two different angles.
The list of tribes is also interesting, isn’t it? Exactly 12,000 from each, whereas the numbers varied widely in Old Testament lists. Reuben was the oldest—commonly listed first—but here Judah gets first place. Might that have anything to do with the Lion of Judah conquering and now leading the way for his people? The tribe of Dan doesn’t make it at all; and it seems like Levi takes his place. Levi didn’t usually make the lists—he had no inheritance, only the priests. But here Levi gets included. Might that have something to do with a new and better priesthood? All that to say, it doesn’t seem like a list that’s meant to be taken so literally. John’s point lies elsewhere.
Also, given Revelation’s symbolic use of numbers, pay attention to where it comes from. 144,000 is the product of 12 times 12 times 1000. In 21:12-14, twelve represents both the twelve tribes of Israel as well as the twelve apostles. When John then measures the New Jerusalem’s width, length, and height, he measures it at 12,000 stadia (12 times 1000). Its wall is also 144 cubits (12 times 12). It’s another way of saying the New Jerusalem will shelter the whole of God’s people. John seems to be using 144,000 in similar fashion, as a number symbolizing the whole of God’s redeemed.
Where does that leave us, then? They are clearly servants of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus. They are whole—we might even say a renewed and reconstituted people. And they are closely tied to the great multitude, if not the same people viewed from complementary angles.[iii] Having said that, why list them like this? Why the repetition: 12,000, 12,000, 12,000?
Think back to Numbers 1-2. What do you find there? A list like this one. God takes a census of Israel’s warriors. God numbers the men from every tribe who can go to war as the people pass through the wilderness. When we come again to the 144,000 in 14:4, we’ll find similar language that would’ve described Israel’s warriors. So, this tells us that we’re on the right track. By listing his servants this way, God depicts his redeemed people as a mighty army prepared for battle in the wilderness.
Repeatedly in Revelation, the tribulation—the time between Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ return—it’s compared to a wilderness. You and I are in this wilderness. Satan prowls like a Dragon in this wilderness. Beastly kingdoms of the earth seek to devour you in this wilderness. The nations and their idols tempt you to forsake your Captain in this wilderness. The weariness of the fight and people falling, are enough to make you want to quit in this wilderness. But John’s vision should encourage you. God has numbered you and made you part of a complete, perfected army. Not one is missing. More than that, a Lion-like King from Judah’s line has already conquered; and he leads the way through this wilderness. By following his lead, we will make it to the Promised Land.
God’s Servants Preserved through Tribulation
That leads us to the third part of this vision: God’s servants preserved through tribulation. John next beholds a great multitude. They are both innumerable and international—“no one could number [them],” verse 9 says; and they are “from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages.” Immediately, the promise of Abraham should leap into our minds. God promised to give Abraham children “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”[iv] Also, all the families of the earth would be blessed in Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:1-3). God’s redeemed community encompass people from all over.
Notice also that they are standing. Last time, we connected this to 6:7, “Who can stand?” The people sealed and redeemed by God—they can stand. “Standing” shows that they are accepted before God. He welcomes them to serve in his presence.
But notice, too, they do not stand by their own merits. They are clothed in white robes. How’d they get those? The angel tells us in verse 14, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” How does blood make something white? In Revelation, white sometimes symbolizes purity, holiness. Combine that with blood, and we’ve got ourselves a connection to the priesthood in Exodus 29:21 and Leviticus 8:30. It’s there we learn that priests could not enter God’s presence unless their robes were first made holy by a sacrifice. Only then could they enter.
John sees the church that way. He sees a countless multitude of priests. God has welcomed them into his presence based on Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus’ blood has cleansed them. Jesus’ blood takes away their sins, the things making them unclean, unholy. Jesus’ blood has readied them for service before God’s throne.
Also, they worship with palm branches. Why palm branches? Again, think Old Testament with me. The Feast of Tabernacles included the use of palm branches. Seven days the people rejoiced before the Lord using palm branches and other leafy trees. Leviticus 23:43 says they did this to remember how God “made the people of Israel dwell in booths when [he] brought them out of the land of Egypt.” It was a time to celebrate God’s protection as they passed through the wilderness.
Now John sees the church in heaven. The angel tells us in verse 14, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” They have passed through the wilderness of tribulation, and now we find them rejoicing in God’s faithfulness. God has kept them through the wilderness. They’ve come out the other side victorious. Not only does he seal his people, but he keeps them through the hard times. They come out the other side praising God for his salvation: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Then all heaven erupts with them in praise.
God’s Servants Comforted in His Presence
One last part. We see God’s servants comforted in his presence. Verse 15 continues the priestly imagery. Remember, the Lamb’s blood readied them as priests. What do priests do? They serve in God’s presence. That’s what Jesus’ blood enables you to do. Notice, “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.” The word behind “shelter” in the ESV has to do with God spreading his tent over you, God tabernacling over you. All the time experiencing his presence. More details about what that’s like comes in chapter 21. Chapter 7 gives us a sneak preview of that final day. God himself becomes our forever shelter. Forever we will serve in his presence.
Verse 16 adds, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.” Again, think back to Exodus. Where did Israel hunger and thirst? Where did they feel the scorching sun? In the wilderness. Later, that became a common way to describe their trials, their tribulation, their suffering.
Isaiah 49, though, promised a day when God would liberate his people from suffering. He promised a day when a special Servant would come, bringing redemption for Israel and the nations. Isaiah 49:10 then pictures part of that Servant’s work: “they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” John is telling us that servant is Jesus the Lamb. Jesus will bring for his people the day of total freedom. Jesus will lead us out of the wilderness and into a kingdom of abundant provision. The wear and tear of this wilderness—the thorns and thistles will be no more.
He will guide us to springs of living water. Living water. Do you know what living water does? Way more than your sprinkler system. Read Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14 and Revelation 22. In the New Jerusalem, living waters flow from the throne of God outward and essentially turn this hurting, desert-land of a world, cursed with sin, into a Garden-like sanctuary that heals all nations. It’s the same water Jesus offered the Samaritan women in John 4, and the same water we taste when he pours out the Holy Spirit in our lives. But on that day, we will drink in full.
Another part of our final comfort in God’s presence will be no more sorrow. Verse 15 says that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” That comes from Isaiah 26—we started the service with that passage. Isaiah 26 pictures God reigning with his people on Mount Zion, the final kingdom. He spreads a feast, he swallows up death, and then comforts us from all our sorrows. Isaiah could’ve just said that God will take away sorrow. But he chooses imagery that makes it far more personal: the Lord wipes the tears of each individual face. The same one who rules with absolute sovereignty—he draws near like a parent to wipe the tears from the face of each child.
From this whole picture, then, God seals us for protection before facing tribulation. God preserves us through tribulation. God will comfort us in his presence after tribulation. That’s a picture we need, isn’t it? We need that kind of assurance and hope while we face this wilderness of tribulation. So let me close by reiterating a few points we’ve seen but directing them more towards us.
First, if you belong to Jesus, recognize that God has enlisted you as a warrior. To belong to the Lamb is to belong to his mighty and complete army. The Lion of Judah is your Captain. In the same God dwelled with his kingdom as they marched through the wilderness, so now God dwells with you too as you march through this wilderness. Eventually we will come to this in chapter 12, but it’s worth qualifying here: the way you conquer in this wilderness is not by military violence. It is by following the Lion in the way he conquered. He conquered by laying down his life like a lamb. Our weapons are truth, love, and self-sacrifice, even when that means dying for our enemies.
From whom are you taking your marching orders? What voices determine how you spend your days? Is it the various media outlets buzzing your phone? Is it your circle of Facebook friends and the latest controversy? Is it your own passions telling you what’s the best course? Beloved, we have one King we listen to above all other voices. He speaks to us in his written word. Make this the chief voice you follow. Be sure that you’re getting your orders from the King and not your gut.
We are in a war. The Christian life is a battle. Ephesians 6:10 tells us to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil…” Paul tells Timothy to “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:3). Sometimes we lose sight of this mindset. We forget the cosmic battle that rages and we grow slack. Chapter 7 tells us who we are. In Christ, God has numbered us like warriors. Is that how you view yourself? The church?
As warriors, we also do not have to fear tribulation. Right now, you are in a wilderness-like tribulation. Perhaps you are facing the onslaught of the Dragon’s temptations. The Accuser whispers his wicked lies to create doubt in you about the truth of Christ’s finished work. Maybe the tribulation has brought great difficulty on your family situation. The trials you bear feel like they’re more than you can handle. Maybe death has taken a loved one, and some days you find their loss unbearable. Perhaps you have labored as faithfully as you know how, but other family members or friends think you’re naïve and foolish for following Jesus. As we continue witnessing a drastic downturn in the moral fabric of society, maybe you worry for your children.
How will you make it through these various obstacles? God has sealed you—that’s how. We need not fear these days, beloved. If you belong to Jesus, God has set his seal on you. God will keep you through the tribulation. He has committed himself to you. Later we learn that when the worst of it comes, God still protects his people. God protects those who belong to the Lamb. If God has sealed you, you don’t have to worry. Rest in his ability to save you. You don’t have what it takes to endure the wilderness. But God does. He will keep you. He knows you. His seal is on you.
Finally, rest assured that God will comfort you in his presence. If you belong to the Lamb, your future is set. Your future isn’t determined by the evils of this age. If you belong to Christ, verses 15-17 describe your future. With the Lamb, you will pour yourself out like a drink offering here. The wilderness will make you weary. But the Lord will bring you through it. He will finally raise you up and comfort you in his presence.
His hand will wipe your tears away. In study this week, I was floored at how many times the Bible talks about tears, weeping, crying, sorrow, mourning, lament. Job said his eye poured out tears to God when his friends scorned him (Job 16:20). Psalm 42:3, “My tears have been my food day and night.” Even when he thinks of good things, they make him cry because they’re nothing but memories. In Psalm 102:9, another saint cries because of the loneliness felt when enemies taunt him. In Psalm 119:136, another sheds streams of tears because people do not keep God’s law. In Phil 3:18, Paul weeps over those who continue walking as enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3:4). The church weeps when they have to say goodbye when sending off missionaries. There is weeping over death (John 11:33), weeping over the downfall of God’s people (Jer 9), weeping over the delay of God’s promises (Hab 1-2). There are even times when something good happens, but saints weep, because that good thing isn’t all it’s supposed to be (Ezra 3). Even the whole creation is groaning, Romans 8 says.
So many tears in the Bible, beloved! God cares about your tears. He knows them and hides them in a bottle, another Psalm tells us. But one day…one day, beloved…because the Lamb has conquered, this wilderness that’s shot through with so many sorrows will end. The final inheritance will be yours. And God will wipe away every tear from your eyes. We will finally know true comfort, true rest. All will be well. All will be holy. All will be right. Remind each other of these words. Remember God’s assurance even now as we come to the Table together.
[i] Jer 49:36; Zech 6:5. Cf. also Dan 7:2; 8:8; 11:4.
[ii] Rev 1:1; 2:20; 10:7; 11:18; 19:2; 22:3, 6.
[iii] Now, some will want to maintain that the 144,000 represent ethnic Jews who now follow Jesus. That’s fine. Just be careful not to divorce your conclusions from the symbolic and literary features of the text. On that side of the debate, the best presentation I’ve seen comes from Joel White, a New Testament guy at Giessen School of Theology in Germany.
[iv] Gen 15:5; 22:17; 32:12; Heb 11:12.
other sermons in this series