Revelation commentary 7
As we enter into chapter seven we move from judgement and heavenly security back, to add another ‘colour’ in the overall picture as we see what is going on with Christians during the time of judgement. These believers are representative of all believers across the ages. As shall also be seen, believers were not taken out of the place of difficulty which is often where ministry continues; yet they are protected as is seen in the usage of a seal (‘seal’ is a metaphor for salvation).
A seal refers to the impress of a signet ring or legal stamp by an official who finished his or her transaction by sealing the document. Seals in the form of rings would also be given by those who wanted to delegate their authority to others for a particular task.
In Ephesians chapter one, Paul reminds his fellow-believers that they are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13). In Paul’s day Ephesus was a bustling seaport and important trade centre. When orders were placed on goods arriving in the port, they were checked (to see that the order was complete) and then sealed with a mark denoting a finished transaction. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as a seal because the transaction between Father and Son concerning our salvation is complete from God’s side. Let us underline this point again before continuing.
The Holy Spirit is spoken of as a seal because Jesus has satisfied the just demands of God’s holy Law therefore the transaction is complete. We are sealed in Him. We do not have His seal of ownership on us because we are perfect, but because our standing is now in the perfect work of God’s one and only Son. We have been set apart in Christ (1 Cor 1:2) and are called to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:25) and in doing so begin to reveal what it really means to be made in the image of God.
“A person, says the Bible, is peculiarly fashioned in the image-likeness of God (Gen 1:26-28). A person is not God’s (graven) image; only Christ is God’s spitting image: a person is in God’s image. That means that a person is created structurally unlike all other creatures, that a person peculiarly bears the stamp, ‘Made in Heaven’
‘The Fields of the Lord’, Ed: C. Bartholomew, P 149
Believers are set apart as God’s special possession (Jer 31:33, Eph 2:10) and are set apart from heaven (2 Cor 5:1, Eph 2:6, Col 3:1-2, 1 Pet 1:4), yet not divorced from the world in which we are called to be a light (Mat 5:16, Eph 5:8, 1Pet 2:9) For example, Joseph was a light in Egypt, despite family cruelty, accusations and false imprisonment and Daniel was a light for God in Babylon despite entering as a captive whom Babylon subtly sought to remould in its own image.
In his book, ‘A Wind in the House of Islam,’ David Garrison tells the story of a young Christian called Amal who came into God’s light.
Amal is a 21-year-old college graduate who has been a follower of Christ for nearly two years having come from a strict Muslim background. Speaking of her conversion to Christianity she said, “In the Christian faith, I saw that there was love and peace, but in Islam there was just fear of doing the wrong thing. It was an unhealthy fear of God, fear that God was going to get me for the things I did. I compared how we lived under Islam and how Christianity treated people. I could see that there was truth in Christianity.” Amal had begun her search to find about Christianity through the internet and also managed to get hold of a New Testament. Of that time she said,
“Then I started having visions of Light. I would always see Light. I would sit by myself and pray, ‘God I want to know the Truth. Please give me the truth to come to you. Then God opened up to me and showed me the way of Jesus, the way of peace and truth and love.”
Less than a year after Amal said this her father gave her as a wife to a man from a strong Muslim family. Before the first year of marriage was over the family discovered her faith in Christ and responded in beating her to learn the names of those through whom she had come to faith in Christ. She has not been seen since. (Take from, ‘A Wind in the house of Islam’ by D. Garrison, pages 214-215.)
Proclaiming His glory.
Christians are called to be the “let the light shine through our lives ones.” We are not called to live a ‘status quo’ in the world, or become a protest movement that opposes what is wrong but has no love for the sinner. Neither are we called to praise God just to make ourselves feel good. We are called to proclaim His glory and in doing so acknowledge His greatness before Him no matter the circumstances. This has nothing to do with positive thinking or blindly reciting scripture as some sort of mantra to keep us sane. It is focusing on, yielding to and receiving from the author of life. This, at times, will bring opposition but out of it there can also be unexpected blessing.
On one occasion Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God whilst in prison. An earthquake shook the prison and all prison doors flew open, yet no-one sought to escape. From this we surmise that the prisoners were listening to Paul and Silas singing (Acts 16:25) and did not all rush out and escape because of Paul’s witness as to why it had happened. The result of these events was that a Philippian jailor and his family became born again. They joined those sealed in the Spirit (Eph 4:30) as do all, whatever their religion, background or culture, who turn their lives over to the One who reaches into the most difficult of places in extraordinary ways as the following story reveals.
“In the 1980’ at Olmos Prison (Buenos Aires, Argentina), inmates enlisted in murderous gangs, and the church of Satan held regular services – including animal sacrifices – turning the prison into a cesspool seeping with evil and corruption. This system at Olmos made it intentionally impossible for Christians to find a job there, or for pastors to minister inside its walls. When Juan Zuccarellis, a pastor in a nearby town, requested permission to hold evangelistic meetings, he was unceremoniously rebuffed. But God told him to “infiltrate” the satanic perimeter by applying for a job as a guard. When he did, he was turned down. He persisted and eventually lined up with other candidates – the officer leading application process had an asthma attack and Juan prayed and saw him healed… Juan got the job and soon afterward held the first evangelistic service in the history of the prison, at which hundreds of inmates received the Lord, launching a process that within a few years led to 60 percent of the inmates becoming believers. In the intervening time, the gangs were dismantled and the church of Satan was put out of commission by a combination of dramatic conversions in their ranks of by death as a result of internal fights. What used to be permeated by systematic evil was replaced by righteousness.”
Ed. Silvoso in ‘Transformation’ page 60
Revelation seven begins with four angels at the corners of the earth (speaking of compass points and the totality of creation). The angels hold back the winds of the earth (symbolising judgement from all directions) and an angel appears with the seal of God and with the command not to harm the world until the servants of God are sealed. The simple truth remains. God is in charge of the heavens and the earth.
The 144, 000 who are sealed.
As well as what has already been said about a seal we note that a seal can remind us of the mark of protection on the houses of Israelite slaves in Egypt, at the time of the Passover. This occurred when God came against a nation that continued to exercise a harsh and illegitimate rule over the Israelites as if they owned them.
The one true owner of all life comes on the scene, judgement ensues and Israelite slaves become a priesthood of believers; the ‘receiving and giving out ones’ (a fulfilment of Leviticus 26:11-13). Any person who submitted to God at this time, (whether Israelite or Egyptian), was saved. Any who did not, whether Israelite or Egyptian, was lost because salvation is only through sacrificial blood and not ethnicity or personal ability.
A further picture of sealing and protection amidst judgement is found in Ezek 9:4 where believers grieve over the evil that occurred in Jerusalem had a mark placed on them. The mark was the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, (Taw) representing God’s ownership of the remnant of people who sought Him. We can also link this mark to the daubing of blood on the doorposts during the night of Passover before Israel left Egypt (Ex 12:11).
All believers are sealed by the Spirit (Eph 4:30) and here in Revelation chapter seven we have 144,000 mentioned and also a great multitude. The 144,000 and the great multitude are one and the same group viewed from different angles, so let’s now see how the picture develops.
In Hebrew, the word for ‘thousand’ (‘elef) can refer to a tribe, crowd or regiment; it does not have to refer to a literal thousand. A similar yet different example of this would be believers being spoken of as more numerous than stars (Gen 15:5), with Abraham being spoken of as the father of all believers (Rom 4:16) who are viewed as the ‘body’ of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).
That the number 144,000 is symbolic and not literal can also be picked up in seeing that one of the original tribes of the Patriarchs is missing from the list in Revelation - Dan – with Manasseh (son of Joseph) taking its place, it being, in one sense, one that is ‘unusually born’ (out of Egypt and suffering). The same can be said of the twelve apostles that have Paul in their ranks (1 Cor 15:8).
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
1 Corinthians 12:27
The number 144,000 is therefore symbolic and draws out attention to at least two points.
Firstly it reminds us of the military roll-call of the fighting men of Israel. We pick this up from Numbers 31:5-6 where we read, “So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel. Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signalling.” From this we see that the 144,000 in Revelation, which are one and the same with the great multitude viewed from a different perspective and protected by the seal of God (the living presence of the Spirit), is an army for the Lord, called to fight against evil.
We also note that there are twelve apostles as well as twelve tribes and that twelve times twelve is one hundred and forty four, magnified (multiplied ) by the number one thousand, which in Hebrew can refer to a tribe, crowd and regiment. So what do we now have? The symbolic eternal church of the twenty-four elders is now pictured as the church (called out to as ‘special ones’) that encompasses all believers from all ages. They are an army of believers (hence 144,000) and clothed for battle in His perfection (white robes). This is the great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language who stand before the throne holding palm fronds.
In the Ancient World it used to be said that man depended on the presence of Palm trees which spoke of sustenance and survival in times of drought and hardship. Therefore Palm trees were associated with victory and growth and seen as a sign of victory; when other vegetation died off the Palm tree would still be present. Because the Palm tree thrived in a desert environment it soon became a symbol of hope and blessing to people (Ps 92:12-15). Palm fronds were also a sign of martyrdom and a symbol of victory with the early church using them to express triumph over death through the resurrection. Down through the centuries and in our present age there are many who have been martyred, yet the church continues to move forward in the grace and power of God.
“It is not in ourselves that our strength lies, but in the conviction that with God all things are possible. It is the conviction that the struggle for justice, human dignity and worth and the wholeness of the earth is not ours alone. We might lose a battle, but the conviction that with God all things are possible will survive, rise above defeat, make us brave beyond our weaknesses, strong beyond our fears.”
A. Boesak in, ‘Dare we speak of Hope’ page 131.
"Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10).
The Righteous One.
God is our heavenly Father (Is 64:8, Mt 6:9) and as the One who holds the true blueprint to life (Gen 1:1, PS 102:25, Heb 1:10 Job 38:4) and knows what is best for us (Ps 40:5). He is the master of every situation or circumstance that we could ever possibly imagine and never gets it wrong. His right-mindedness (His righteousness) means that He knows exactly how everything should be, and exactly how to reach us, and exactly how to restore us. From this we see that His righteousness – His right-mindedness – speaks of His salvation-creating activity in the dusty realms of a beautiful world where so much evil and rebellion distorts and destroys. In the world we live in, the world where we get it wrong, or suffer wrong (sometimes through our own doing), God is at work.
Note, for example, the story of Hagar (Gen 16:7) or that of an Israelite girl who, despite being a slave in the household of a Syrian war chief (2 Kings 5:3-4), still trusted the God who was present. Read about Rahab the prostitute (Joshua 2; 6:17), the pagan city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:10; 3:2), and of Jesus reaching out to so many people that others would avoid or not even notice (e.g. Mark 1:41-42, Mat 11:5, Mk 8:23, Luke 4:33-35). In all of this we see something of how God reaches out to you and I through the work of Jesus and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
All around our world today there are countless individuals and organisations reaching out to others in the love of Christ. For example, a recent report by the International Justice Mission speaks of their work in Cebu in the Philippines where they orchestrated the rescue of a young girl. On December 5th, the day before her 6th birthday she and four others had been living in abusive conditions and used for cybersex trafficking. Working with the Philippine authorities IJM was able to free the children. Up until that point customers around the world could abuse the children when going on line and watching images of the children performing sexual acts. The perpetrators of these crimes are now being prosecuted and the children are safe and recapturing their childhood. God’s work continues in many different ways often through the day by day activities of those who will not give up on others. In this and countless other ways of serving others they reveal the love of the heavenly King. All praise, glory and honour belong to God and to the Lamb who came to serve (Mat 20:28, Eph 5:1-2, Phil 2:5-7).
“Both his humility and his superiority derive from service. The commission that he received from God was one of service, and in this vicarious task he was led by way of the path of suffering, to death on the cross. At the cross the sacrifice was consummated, the ransom was paid, and the many were reconciled with God and freed from the tyranny of sin and death. We see in him the one who unites all this in his person, not merely a figure of ideal manhood, but the living Christ as a God-given reality.”
Anders Nygren, Christ and His church, p68
Our true identity is found in Christ.
In Jesus we see just how much we are loved and living from His presence means that we accept who we are in Him (2 Cor 5:17, Col 3:12, 1 Pet 2:9) no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in. We accept that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and, through Christ, adopted into His family (Eph 1:5). We are the ‘twice born ones’ who are and are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30) who is spoken of as a deposit (Eph 1:14) guaranteeing the life to come. We are empowered by His Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, 2 Cor 3:18) in so far as we are open to His guidance. In Christ and Christ alone we are strengthened by His power in our inner being (Eph 3:16-20).
In the book, ‘Philosophers who Believe’ (Ed: Kelly James Clark) Professor Steven Davies writes of his attraction to Christ and says…
“Jesus’ love extended to all sorts of people, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, righteous and sinful, sophisticated and crude. The people with whom Jesus dealt in the New Testament formed a motley crew of outcasts and crackpots and odd-balls and sinners. How strange this seemed to me – you would expect a great religious teacher like Jesus to limit his contacts to religious people. After all, the Pope doesn’t pal around with prostitutes; the clergy don’t befriend terrorists. I remember feeling how wonderfully odd and unexpected it was that the Lord seemed to love and accept all the people he met, even his enemies (Lk 23:34).”
Prof Davies also speaks of how impressed he was at Jesus’ power to change people, saying…
“Almost nobody met Jesus and remained the same as before. Some changed for the better: Peter, an ignorant fisherman, became the courageous leader of the church. Saul, a persecutor of Christianity, met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus and became Paul, the greatest missionary and theologian the church has known. …The set of people who have been changed by Jesus is a set that includes me. I was once on a wrong path that was leading nowhere but to sloth, inertia, self-pity, self-centredness, self-indulgence and destruction. In Christ, I found the right path. I have a strong sense of having been created guided, forgiven and redeemed by God in Christ. This conviction, as I suppose, is much of what makes me a Christian.”
Philosophers Who Believe, page 108, Ed: Kelly James Clark.
Back to those who are sealed
As those sealed in the work of God, we are given authority in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This does not, however, mean that life is always going to be easy or that everyone we witness to will turn to Jesus. This is a point that Jesus clearly wanted His disciples to understand when He gave them authority: Mathew 10:1f (authority is not ours by right; by His righteousness it is bestowed). Jesus clearly showed His disciples that they were not to go out in their strength or power when He said, “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves.” (Mt 10: 16). We, like the disciples and those under Rome, live in a world where sin is justified by the particular persuasion people belong to. For example, Isis justifies its cruelty by not seeing it as such because all is supposedly done in the name of Islam.
Prof Boris Cyrulnik (a Psychiatrist whose parents were killed in Auschwitz) comments on this attempt to justify actions in this way. He writes, “Submission (to a belief) strips away a killer’s sense of responsibility because all he is doing is joining a social system where subservience enables it to work properly.” In other words, people justify what they are doing because they are submitting to the belief of the day. In the Middle East, evil is justified under the name ‘Islam’ whilst in the Second World War prison guards at Auschwitz justified what they were doing by saying they were serving Nazism. We are in a world of wolves and it is not going to be easy – yet we are never alone.
Going back to the passage where Jesus gives His disciples authority, we can understand how, in the mindset of the day, the disciples could have been thinking: “This is it, the Messiah is going to triumph over our oppressors and Israel will be back in pole position.” In the thinking of the day they could also wrongly assume that everything was now going to go OK, because bad things only happen to bad people. Jesus counters this by clearly pointing out that difficulty would arise (Mat 10:17ff). Yet even in difficulty and despite great opposition, His light will continue to shine.
As I write there have been some interesting developments in some of the churches in Iran. The church in Iran is regularly attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Yet look at the words of one Iranian pastor right in the midst of it all:
“We the Christians are suffering and many Muslims are shocked. They had believed that Islam is a good religion – now they see the real Islam and they are deeply shocked. In the past Muslims were afraid even to come into our services. Now they come in to see what is going on. They are getting curious about Christianity.”
We can also note such testimonies as those given in a recent Open Doors Magazine (May 2015). For example this is what some children in a refugee camp in Yola, Nigeria had to say when they were given bibles. Many had been separated from parents during violence after a Boko Haram attack in October last year (2014). Many knew their parents were dead, yet the children continued to shine and this is what they said.
Ibrahim Mshelia, a young boy, said: “This is a day of joy. This Bible will be my everything. I remember one day my father told me that the Bible has the answer to all our needs – physical and spiritual. This gift is so precious to me. In a time like this, the bible is the best companion. I will sleep with it and walk with it until I fully experience God in my life.”
Another young boy called Ibrahim Pogu said, “Wow, I am so happy to receive a copy of the Bible today. I have been asking my father to buy one for me when he was alive, but today I got it. I am happy. I will learn how to trust in God through this Word of God. I am so happy.”
Another boy, Hafsat Barnabas said: “I hope this Bible will help me to forgive the killers of my parents. I found it very difficult to get it out of my mind, but I know that there is an answer in this book.”
A young girl called Jemima said, “I want to be like David, to be very strong, to work for God anywhere I find myself,” and another young girl, Maryam Danjuma said, “I don’t know exactly what to say. But in my heart I am so happy. The Lord will bless those who provided this Bible for me.”
“The presence of the Lord God as he dwells with his people is the guarantee of their complete security, as it is also the attainment of that perfect relationship of personal harmony which binds the Creator to those who are created, and in Christ re-created, in his image.”
P.E. Hughes, ‘The Book of the Revelation, p99
Finally, and as we begin to draw this chapter to a close, we have the words of an ex-Muslim who came to Christ during his travels outside Somalia. When he became a Christian his wife left him and took his child with her when he stopped going to the Mosque. He lost his job and was attacked by another Muslim. Yet this is what he says of his faith; “It is the only place where I have ever had inner peace. Despite all the struggles and having no idea where I belong in this world, despite the isolation and persecution, I am at peace. This is why I hold on to Christ. Going back to Islam is not an option.”
In all of this – through suffering and persecution and difficulty and all manner of hardship we see that God is building an army – an army that knows the power and presence of the Sprit in the most difficult of circumstances - an army that knows how to forgive and how to love and how to grow and how to touch others. In all of this we can be greatly encouraged.
In his book “Revised Thunder” (pages 85-6), Eugene Peterson writes about teaching from Revelation chapter seven when a young woman asked to share her testimony. Years previously she had a nervous breakdown and could not see any meaning in life and felt overwhelmed by evil and guilt. A counsellor helped guide her back to taking a look at each detail of her life that she had put in a large pile and called evil. She went on to say that not one of them became any less horrible but something else started to happen. “She began to discover other items in her life that had been obscured by the great lump of piled-up wrongs: relationships that were delightful, songs that were ravishing, sights that were heart-stopping. She began to experience the wonder of her own body and how much of it was working well, she began to trust the integrity of her own feelings and how valuable they were. She began to realise the preciousness of others’ lives and ways she could appreciate them. Later she came to know God, and the entire world that she now recognised as Revelation 7 came into focus for her. None of the evil was abolished, but it was all in a defined perspective. The nameless evils had names. The numberless wrongs were numbered. She was hardly aware of the point at which the proportions shifted, but now it was the good that seemed endless, and changed; everything in her life was changed. She wondered if something similar may not happen under the influence of John’s guiding imagination.” (Adapted from E. Peterson, ‘Revised Thunder’, p85-6)
History is not just about what goes on in the physical world – in fact seeing only the physical world makes it hard to make sense of history at all and, in many respects, can make life seem little more than a downward spiral. We are more powerful, educated and wealthy than ever before yet suffer more because of our arrogance, insensitivity to fellow man, pride and refusal to turn to God.
In Revelation God lets us see the bigger picture. He displaces us from our blind position as those who try to rule and shows us that we are puppets to our own sinfulness. Yet there is hope and in Him.
“That man or woman is a happy one who does not practice the clever thought habits of godless people, who does not stand around the way sinners do, or sit down with mocking, scoffing company. That man or woman is a happy one whose pastime rather is the torah of the LORD, who ruminates on the torah of the LORD day and night. That person is like a tree transplanted near running waters, a tree which bears its fruit on time and whose leaf does not wither – all that man or woman does is prospered!”
Psalm 1:1-3 (Seerveld translation).
In Revelation so far we have seen the One who sits enthroned and heard Christ’s words of encouragement and challenge as He stands in His church, knowing all that believers are going through. The camera then moved to the throne room of God and work of the Lamb, the only one worthy to open the scroll. Judgements are then sent forth in a language that would communicate clearly with those caught up under Rome. The seventh seal, which is yet to come, will lead us into a deeper, wider view of what has already happened during the first judgements.
During the first six seals we see that the apparent victory over believers who were killed is a hollow one, for they live and are protected (pictured as under the altar) in the presence of God. Time then takes a step back so that we can also see what is happening to believers during this period and indeed any period in history. They are a mighty army (symbolised by both the 144,000 and the great multitude – one and the same group), set a part and marked out as His through the blood of Christ. They are the ones who fight through serving, who live by giving and who will triumph because they, like all believers, are in Him.
Tertullian (Circa 155-240AD) an African leader in the early church and who was acquainted with persecution spoke of this army of believers in the following way.
“It is our care for the helpless, our practice of loving-kindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. Only look, they say, look how they love one another...Look how they are prepared to die for one another.”
Tertullian in Apolog xxxix