Yesterday, we read a message of comfort to those of us who belong to God, but are still caught up in the crossfire of a world under judgement. God has sealed us for protection, just like he protected Noah during the flood, the Israelites from the angel of death, and the faithful ones in Jerusalem during the Babylonian conquest.
But you’d better sign up now, as there are only 144,000 places…Rev 7:4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
Much ink has been spilled over why this verse says there are 144,000 who are sealed – 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. The 144,000 also appear in chapter 14.
Now like all numbers in Revelation it’s symbolic (so it’s OK, places aren’t limited). But symbolic of what we’re not sure. I reckon I’ve read more than 144,000 different opinions on the subject. For what it’s worth, here’s mine.
I think the number 144,000 is not so much about who they are, but what their future will be. This chapter, after all, functions as a dramatic pause in God’s judgement; time for a brief glimpse at the future of those who remain faithful to God. Much of what is said in chapter 7 uses the language of chapters 21 and 22, the vision of the new heaven and the new earth. In particular, in chapter 21 an angel measures the new Jerusalem and finds it to be 12,000 stadia wide (a stadium was around 200m). And the walls of this city are 144 cubits thick.
So whether or not these 144,000 are martyrs who have been killed for the sake of Jesus; whether they are Jewish Christians; or whether they represent all believers – the fact that there are 144,000 of them symbolises that they’re going to heaven. More than that – as a collective people they have the dimensions of heaven stamped into their very being. In God’s gathered people, we already have echoes of heaven. (In some small way God has made heaven a place on earth. So next time Belinda Carlisle asks ‘ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?’ we can now answer, ‘yes – 144,000’.)
We are sealed with God’s protection, and have the dimensions of heaven imprinted upon us. We are heaven-bound. That’s the first way chapter 7 brings comfort to those of us who remain loyal to God.
A glimpse of glory
The second way is found in the second half of the chapter, in the form of a ‘flash-forward’. We now see beyond the present reality of God’s people being sealed for the future, and instead get a glimpse of this future itself:7:9-10 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Here, we’ve flashed-forward. Suddenly, the faithful are in heaven, not just on their way there. They are in the very presence of God. They are no longer from the tribes of Israel, but now come from every nation on earth – showing how the gospel has indeed by this point spread to ‘the ends of the earth’. They wear white robes, which was promised in the letter to Sardis to all those who overcome, who remain faithful to God; white is the colour of victory. And they wave palm branches, reminiscent of Jesus’ victorious ride into Jerusalem on palm Sunday, singing ‘salvation’ or ‘victory belongs to our God’.7:13-17 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes–who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of all the boy bands of the world
Sorry, I think I got hacked.“These are they who have come 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 spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Again, we have an anticipation of the language of chapters 21 and 22 – the language of heaven. God will be with them. He will provide for them. He will wipe away their tears.
This is the message God wants to give to his faithful followers crying out for justice. To us. Yes, I am in control. Yes, I am doing something about the world – I’m judging it as we speak. Yes, you will experience some of the effects of that judgement. But yes, I will spare you from its full measure. This picture of heaven is your glorious future, if you remain faithful just a little longer. Hold on to this picture; remember it when things get tough.
Some commentators have described this chapter as being like the ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus in the gospels. Where he and his closest disciples gets a glimpse of his future glory; a glimpse that seems to harden Jesus’ resolve as he sets out at that point to Jerusalem, to the cross. Except this transfiguration is designed to harden the church’s resolve, to take up its cross and follow Jesus.
It’s like an athlete in training, who holds an image in their mind of the future medal presentation ceremony. Reminding themselves that it will all be worth it. It’s like a woman in labour trying desperately to focus not on the pain now, but on the end result.
Last week, when things were tough, I encouraged you to imagine a throne-scene which portrays God as being in control of that situation. This week, I’d urge you to use your imagination again, and play the movie forward. Think more of the new creation that lies in our future. To contemplate it. To read about it. To wonder what it will be like. To keep the image at the forefront of your mind. (And remember, all the stuff in Revelation is symbolic. I really don’t think eternity is going to be one never-ending church service.)
That is what will help you cope with all the injustices you see in the world. With all of the suffering, both big and small, that you endure. With the pressure to compromise with the world around you. With the temptation to sin.
You are sealed with God’s protection, and are heaven-bound. If only we would remember that more often, we would be far less comfortable with this world. We would be far more faithful to the Lamb, and to the one who sits on the throne.
Pray that God would help you to remember to play the movie forward this week.