Last week, we looked at the mark of the beast – going along with the rest of the empire in worshipping the emperor as a god, in place of the one true God. And we saw how we, too, often go along with our world and its idolatry. This week, we’re looking at how Revelation encourages its readers not to go along with the world, by appealing to the four cardinal virtues of advantage, justice, courage, and self-control. Starting with chapter 14, we’ll first discuss what each paragraph means, and then step back to ask the question: how does this help us resist the mark of the beast?
The 144,000 reappear
Revelation 14:1 Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.
This is another vision of the 144,000 that you may remember from back in chapter 7. There, they were being sealed for protection amidst the chaotic seal judgements of chapter 6. They couldn’t be harmed, because they had the dimensions of the New Jerusalem (12 x 12 x 1000) imprinted upon them. This time they don’t just get a seal on their foreheads, but the name of the Lamb and his Father. This is a sign of ownership – like a schoolkid writing their name on their pencil-case so no-one steals it – because they belong to God and not to the beast. They have resisted worshipping the emperor, so they bear God’s mark, not the emperor’s.
Revelation 14:2-3 And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. 3 And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.
The 144,000 also have a song that only they can learn. So all I’m saying is that if you’re in church complaining that the new song they’re teaching is too difficult for you to sing – maybe you should take a good, hard look at where you stand with God… Or it could symbolise that only those who belong to God are able to worship him. One of the two. Probably the symbolic one, given the next bit:
Revelation 14:4-5 These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. 5 No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
The 144,000 are virgins in a spiritual sense. That is, they haven’t given in to the temptation of emperor worship which – back in chapter 2 and throughout the Old Testament – was described using the metaphor of adultery. They haven’t hooked up with the “whore of Babylon” (Rome – see chapter 17).
There’s probably also overtones of preparation for a holy war. The regulations given in the Old Testament (see Deut 23:9-10; 1 Sam 21:4-5) talk about abstaining from sex the night before a battle, so the warriors would be more… um… focused, I guess. Some football coaches demand the same. It’s symbolic of devotion to a cause rather than a devaluing of sex and/or women (both of which God holds in high regard, having created them).
This idea of purity and devotion is also contained in the idea of their being “blameless” and their identification as “firstfruits”. Firstfruits were the first crop of the harvest offered as a sacrifice (act of thankful devotion), and a sign of the quality of the rest of the crop, much like you’d take a quick snort to sample the merchandise before proceeding with a big drug deal. I think I watch way too many crime shows.
So back to the whole cardinal virtues thing: how does this section encourage us to remain faithful?
Primarily, it’s an appeal to advantage. If we remain faithful, we get something far more rare and valuable than acceptance by society: we get to share in God’s identity (his name) and even have a special song not available to everyone, like the bonus track on a collector’s edition CD for the die-hard fan. (“Hurry, places are limited” is still an effective persuasive tactic in advertising today.) It’s also an appeal to self-control, and the honour that comes from that: blameless, pure, and devoted.
If we remain faithful to God, we will ultimately benefit, being part of God’s family. And we demonstrate our maturity in resisting short-term pleasures for long-term honour.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the next part of chapter 14 (which we glanced briefly at last week), which sets out the fate of those who follow the beast and contrasts it with the fate of those who follow the Lamb.