Tagged: 144

The first trumpet – Revelation 8:7

Previously: The seventh seal – Revelation 8:1-6

The scripture

Rev. 8:7 – The first [angel] blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled to the earth. So a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up (HCSB).

The four angels standing at the four corners of the earth are prevented from harming “the earth or the sea or the trees” until the 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:2-3). But now, with the sounding of the first and second trumpets, a third of the earth and trees are burned up, and a third of the sea becomes blood. The hiatus is over and massive destruction of the sin-cursed world begins to take place.

Are we to believe that hail, fire and blood are literally mixed and hurled to the earth? What’s the significance of “a third,” a recurring fraction in the first four trumpet judgments? How can “all” the green grass be burned in the first trumpet judgment if the “locusts” that ascend out of the abyss are prevented from harming the grass in the fifth judgment? And do the trumpet judgments follow the seal judgments chronologically or run concurrently with them? Let’s take a closer look.

The first angel blew his trumpet

The trumpet employed by each angel in this series of judgments is the shofar, or ram’s horn, and is translated so in the Complete Jewish Bible. This horn has special significance for Israel. Loud blasts of the shofar accompany the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai and cause the people to tremble (Ex. 20:18). The shofar is incorporated into the Jewish feasts of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, or Atonement. Some Bible commentators believe the coming rapture of the church will be associated with Rosh Hashanah and the trumpets described in 1 Cor. 15:52 and 1 Thess. 4:16. They also believe the trumpets of Yom Kippur will herald national judgment on Israel, leading many Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah during the Tribulation.

David H. Stern writes, “The idea that the Great Judgment of the Last Days is heralded by blasts on the shofar has its roots in the Tanakh [Old Testament]. ‘YHVH [Yahweh; God] will be seen over them, his arrow will go forth like lightning, and Adonai YHVH will sound the shofar and will move in the storm winds of the south…. And YHVH their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people (Zech. 9:14, 16)” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 814).

Additionally, the shofar is to be sounded on the Day of Atonement in the Year of Jubilee, every 50th year, to signal the release of slaves and debt. For Christians, this may be seen as symbolic of Christ’s work on our behalf, redeeming us from the slave market of sin and paying our sin debt with His blood. His finished work on the cross frees us from the debtor’s prison of sin.

Whatever the significance of the shofar in the case of the trumpet judgments, its sounding precedes unprecedented acts of God upon the earth (the first four trumpet judgments) and its wicked people (the last three trumpet judgments).

Hail and fire, mixed with blood

After the angel sounds the first trumpet, John sees hail and fire, mixed with blood, hurled to the earth. R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset and D. Brown note there is a common feature in the first four trumpets; the judgments affect natural objects – the earth, trees, grass, the sea, rivers, fountains, the light of the sun, moon and stars. But the last three trumpet judgments affect men’s lives with pain, death and hell (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 8:7).

Further, the language used to describe these judgments is drawn from the plagues of Egypt, with five or six out of the 10 plagues corresponding to trumpet judgments: hail, fire (Ex. 9:24), water turning to blood (Ex. 7:19), darkness (Ex. 10:21), locusts (Ex. 10:12), and perhaps death (Rev. 9:18).

If we step back a little, we can see a pattern in all three sets of judgments – the seals, trumpets, and bowls. As the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times notes, “In all three series of seven, the first four judgments focus on the earth, while the last three are more cosmic in nature. The seals and trumpets follow a 4+2+1 pattern, while the bowls follow a 4+3 pattern. There is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals and the sixth and seventh trumpets, but no interlude between the sixth and seventh bowls as the pace becomes too intense” (p. 405).

It’s also important to note that some commentators see these three sets of judgments playing out in chronological order – the seals first, followed by the trumpets and, finally, the bowls – while others see them as repeating and overlapping, especially since each series culminates at the end of time with a storm-earthquake. One’s view of the end times (historical, for example, or futurist) no doubt influences a belief in either consecutive or overlapping series of judgments, or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, it is difficult to overlook the similarities between the three sets of judgments.

Grant Osborne, in his book Revelation, identifies seven major themes in the three judgment series:

  1. These judgments are poured out on unbelievers, while believers are protected (Rev. 3:10; 7:1-8; 9:4; 16:2).
  2. These judgments are God’s response to the prayers of the saints for justice and vengeance (5:8; 6:9-11; 8:3-5).
  3. The sovereignty of God is emphasized throughout.
  4. God does not command evil to do His will; He simply allows it to operate.
  5. Unbelievers respond by refusing to repent and by cursing God, thus demonstrating depravity (9:20-21; 16:9, 11).
  6. These judgments are acts of mercy, providing a final opportunity to repent (9:20; 14:6-7; 16:9, 11).
  7. There is a progressive dismantling of creation, preparing for the final consummation.

As for the first trumpet, it no doubt ushers in a terrible storm, but commentators are divided as to what that storm symbolizes. Some argue this is a symbolic storm of heresies; others, a mixture of doctrinal errors such as the Arian heresy that denied the deity of Christ; or a tempest of war falling on the state.  In any case, the hail and fire, mingled with blood, remind us of the seventh plague God sends against Egypt (Ex. 9:18-26). The prophet Joel also promises blood and fire in the last days (Joel 2:30).

Although it’s difficult to picture hail and fire mixed with blood, imagine the apostle John, from his first-century perspective, trying to describe events that are perhaps centuries in the future. If the futurist perspective is correct, for example, how is John to describe 21st century (or later) warfare and weapons? Could the locusts be attack helicopters, and the burning mountain falling into the sea a nuclear warhead? We simply do not know.

As we read these descriptions of hail and fire mixed with blood, strange-looking locusts, and blazing mountains falling from the sky, we are well advised to cling to the clear teachings of each passage and be willing to be proven wrong on our assumptions about apocalyptic details. For example, it is clear that God is bringing judgment to bear upon the earth; that much suffering ensues; that the wicked refuse to repent; that the Lamb is in control; that His people are protected; and that the earth is being prepared for what Jesus called “the regeneration” (Matt. 19:28 KJV) and what Peter referred to as “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13).

Next: A third of the earth was burned up (first trumpet continued): Rev. 8:7

A vast multitude — Revelation 7:9-17

Previously: I heard the number — Revelation 7:1-8

The scripture

Rev. 7:9 – After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! 11All the angels stood around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength, be to our God forever and ever. Amen. 13Then one of the elders asked me, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His sanctuary. The One seated on the throne will shelter them: 16no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat. 17Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (HCSB).

After hearing the roll call of the 144,000, John now sees “a vast multitude” of redeemed people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number” (v. 9). They lift their voices in praise for the salvation belonging to God and to the Lamb. Then the angels, elders and four living creatures fall on their faces before the throne in worship. An elder asks John for the identity of the vast multitude of people, and when John confesses his ignorance, the elder provides the answer: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (v. 14).

Who are these people? To what great tribulation is the elder referring? How does this multitude relate to the 144,000? What do John’s first-century readers make of this passage? And what does it say to us today? Let’s take a closer look.

A vast multitude

John sees a “vast multitude” that “no one could number” from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (v. 9). As in the new song of Rev. 5:9, these are redeemed people of the earth, purchased by the blood of the Lamb and for God the Father. That they are in heaven, before the throne of God and the Lamb, should put to rest the Jehovah’s Witness contention that only 144,000 will enjoy this great honor. The King’s banquet house is full (Matt. 22:10) and the marriage supper of the Lamb is well attended. No doubt many will enjoy eternal fellowship with God in heaven. Yet it is foolish for us to place restrictions on the number who will stand around the throne, or to be universalist in our assumptions by declaring that all people will be saved.

As Jesus is passing through the towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem, someone asks, “Lord, are there few being saved?” (Luke 13:23). This is the perfect opportunity for the Savior to provide an exact number of those who will receive Him by faith. Instead, He directs a warning to His listeners: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and won’t be able …” (Luke 13:24). In parables and other teachings, Jesus makes it clear that the way of salvation is narrow, and some who think they’ve found it are in for a rude awakening on judgment day.

Take note:

  • Many who claim, “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets,” will be told “I don’t know you or where you’re from. Get away from Me, all you workers of unrighteousness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but yourselves thrown out” (Luke 13:26-28).
  • Jesus warns, “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).
  • Jesus declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved …” (John 10:9). “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live” (John 10:25).
  • Jesus continues, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but [only] the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me. ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers’” (Matt. 7:21-22). “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish …” (Luke 13:3).
  • Peter states boldly, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven [except the name of Jesus] given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

We could cite many more passages, but the message is clear: Jesus is the only way of salvation. Apart from faith in Him, no one receives forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Those who seek to find their own way – through religious ritual, aestheticism, heritage, good works, or any number of other pursuits – will find themselves like the man cast out of the wedding for the king’s son because he is not properly dressed. The king has provided all guests proper attire – white robes – but this guest prefers the filthy rags of his own righteousness and thereby is unceremoniously cast into outer darkness for insulting the king and dishonoring his son (Matt. 22:1-14).

Are only a few saved?

This makes it seem as if few will be saved. However, we see through John’s eyes that people from every corner of the earth, every walk of life, and every language – an uncountable throng – stand before the throne of God and of the Lamb, robed in white (the imputed righteousness of Christ) and holding palm branches in their hands (a symbol of victory). Yes, the way is narrow. A relatively small number of the earth’s billions of inhabitants through time will find the way. Yet a vast multitude that Christ redeems by His blood will enter through the heavenly portals and sing the song of the redeemed. We are foolish to speculate how many, and we are in danger of judgment to decide who is worthy and who is not. But we are unfaithful to scripture if we insist that the number of redeemed in heaven are any fewer than the “vast multitude” John sees before the throne.

As for the white clothing, we have addressed this in previous lessons (see, for example, the notes on Rev. 3:1-6); however, it’s good to be reminded of its significance. Candidates for Christian baptism in the ancient church wore white robes as a symbol of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Further, Paul writes in Eph. 5:27 that Jesus gave Himself for the church “to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless.” And in Rev. 19:8 we see the church depicted as a bride, “permitted to wear fine linen, bright and pure. For the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints.” On earth, believers are declared righteous, or justified; in heaven, they are made righteous, or glorified. In either case, their white robes depict the righteousness of Christ.

Concerning the palm branches in the hands of the redeemed, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown share this insight: “The palm branch is the symbol of joy and triumph. It was used at the feast of tabernacles, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when they kept [a] feast to God in thanksgiving for the ingathered fruits. The antitype shall be the completed gathering in of the harvest of the elect redeemed here described. Compare Zec 14:16, whence it appears that the earthly feast of tabernacles will be renewed, in commemoration of Israel’s preservation in her long wilderness-like sojourn among the nations from which she shall now be delivered, just as the original typical feast was to commemorate her dwelling for forty years in booths or tabernacles in the literal wilderness” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. 7:9–10).

Next: They cried out in a loud voice — Rev. 7:9-17

I heard the number: Revelation 7:1-8

Previously: Another angel … from the east — Rev. 7:1-8

The scripture

Rev. 7:1 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel rise up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 512,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 612,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 712,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin. (HCSB)

I heard the number …

Johns hears a roll call of the sealed servants. Perhaps it is the angel from the east who calls the roll, the same angel who tells the four other angels not to harm the earth until the 144,000 receive the seal of God on their foreheads. John learns that the 144,000 are from “every tribe of the sons of Israel,” and then he listens as 12,000 from each of 12 tribes are called out.

R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset and D. Brown provide the following perspective of John’s use of numbers: “Twelve is the number of the tribes, and appropriate to the Church: three by four: three, the divine number, multiplied by four, the number for world-wide extension. Twelve by twelve implies fixity and completeness, which is taken a thousandfold in 144,000. A thousand implies the world perfectly pervaded by the divine; for it is ten, the world number, raised to the power of three, the number of God” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 7:4).

Some key questions come to mind:

  • Why are the tribes of Dan and Ephraim missing? Many commentators believe it’s because Dan and Ephraim are largely responsible for leading the nation of Israel into idolatry. Some conclude that the Antichrist will come from Dan (see Gen. 49:16-17; Jer. 8:16). Just as there is a Judas among the 12 apostles, there is a traitor among the tribes of Israel. Evidently, the priestly tribe of Levi replaces Dan. Ephraim is not mentioned by name, but rather by his father’s name. Joseph is sometimes substituted for Manasseh or Ephraim when referring to either tribe.
  • Are the 144,000 ethnic Jews, or a symbolic representation of some other group? Many scholars believe these are ethnic Jews because the text plainly says so and lists them by tribe; they also argue that the clear references to “tribe” and “Israel” distinguish the 144,000 from the Gentile multitude in the second half of Revelation 7. Some who hold this view contend that the 144,000, who are mentioned as “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4), are the first Jews converted in the early days of the church. Other interpreters argue that the 144,000 are God’s faithful people, both Jew and Gentile. Just as Paul declared that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6), the “true Israel” consists of Jews and Gentiles who have trusted in Christ; therefore the 144,000 symbolize the true church.
  • Is the number 144,000 to be taken literally or symbolically? Commentators are divided on this question. Most futurists read this literally and believe that during the coming Tribulation God will anoint 144,000 Jewish evangelists. Others believe that 144,000 Jewish Christians heed the warnings of Jesus and escape the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But many Bible interpreters insist we must see this number as symbolic. The 144,000 may be seen as 12 x 12 x 1000, which stresses the completeness of the number; this is, after all, apocalyptic language, and reasonable readers should see it as such, they argue.
  • Are the 144,000 in chapter 7 the same 144,000 we encounter in chapter 14? Again, there is no consensus among scholars. Some insist they are the same, since they are sealed by God on their foreheads and are redeemed from the earth. Those who hold this view stress that we see the 144,000 on earth in chapter 7 and in heaven in chapter 14. Other interpreters, however, say that these are two different groups: Jews in chapter 7 and the “redeemed from the human race” in chapter 14 (v. 4).

While these questions leave many of us scratching our heads and wondering whether the “right” answers may ever be known, we should not overlook the clear teachings that believers throughout the church age have embraced:

  • God is not finished with Israel. Whether the 144,000 are ethnic Jews or redeemed of all the earth, Jews are welcome in the kingdom of heaven and have been receiving their King since the Day of Pentecost. Although proponents of “replacement” theology (also known as “completion theology”) contend that the church has taken the place of Israel in this age, no reasonable Christian would deny that ethnic Jews throughout the church age have trusted in Jesus as Messiah as therefore are members of the true church. One other point should be kept in mind: There are many scriptural promises of Israel’s  future glory, including the city of Jerusalem, that are difficult to spiritualize and are better understood in light of a geographic location and ethnic people.
  • God always keeps a faithful remnant. Even though the nation of Israel often has fallen into gross idolatry, the Lord has preserved a number of Jews faithful to Him. And even when Christianity is the particular target of persecutors – whether Roman or Jewish in the early centuries of the church, or communist or radical Muslim today – Christ preserves, strengthens, and expands His church. Clearly, the “forces of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
  • God will judge the world one day in righteousness. The sealed servants in Revelation 7 and 14 are set apart before the Lord brings His particular judgment of the wicked to bear. While there is no doubt that many believers suffer persecution at the hands of the ungodly, God’s final judgment of the earth will target those who shake their fists at the Son of God as He returns in power and great glory. Whatever price believers have paid for their faithfulness on earth will be vindicated by Christ in His coming and compensated in eternity.

Four major views of the 144,000

So, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the 144,000?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the 144,000 is a symbolic number representing Jewish Christians who escaped Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 A.D. Because this group is called “the firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4), and because the church age has witnessed a continuous harvest of souls, the 144,000 must be early Jewish Christians rather than future ones. “God always has had a remnant in Israel who are faithful despite widespread apostasy,” writes Steve Gregg, explaining the preterist view. “This faithful remnant in the first century was the original core of the entity we now call the church; many Gentile converts have been added to their company since that time” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 130).
  • Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the 144,000 as symbolic of the entire church, “the Israel of God.” Some historicists, however, take the 144,000 to be a select number of Jews spared during the destruction of Jerusalem (similar to the preterist view), or symbolic of God’s chosen remnant in the world.
  • Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say the 144,000 constitute a godly remnant of Jewish people who are sealed for protection from later plagues. These are physical Israelites, not to be confused with the church, which is never described by tribal divisions. Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, refers to this group as “144,000Jewish Billy Grahams.”
  • Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – argue that this company represents the church as the true and spiritual Israel. The irregular listing of tribes – with Judah named first as Messiah’s own tribe, and the omission of Dan and Ephraim, argue against a literal interpretation. “In any age, it is the church that is preserved from God’s judgments upon nations, though this does not mean the church does not suffer at the hands of sinners,” writes Gregg, summarizing the idealist view (pp. 132-33).

Next: A vast multitude — Revelation 7:9-17

Another angel … from the east — Revelation 7:1-8

Previously: The sealed of Israel (Rev. 7:1-8)

The scripture

Rev. 7:1 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel rise up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 512,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 612,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 712,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin. (HCSB)

Another angel … from the east

In verse 2 John sees “another angel” rise up from the east. He carries “the seal of the living God” and cries out to the four angels, “Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads” (v. 3). This angel is unique in that he comes to seal God’s slaves, while the four others are sent to restrain the four winds. Angels are messengers of God and serve Him in different capacities. Some, like Gabriel, bring messages. Others, like Michael, stand for Israel. Others bring protection, deliverance or judgment. They do not seem to prefer one task over another; they simply obey God when He sends them to earth, and this particular angel is sent to halt the advance of the other four until God’s special mark is upon His slaves.

This angel comes from the east. The direction is significant. The tabernacle in the wilderness faces east (Num.  3:38). The temple in Jerusalem faces east (2 Chron. 5:11-12). It is at the eastern gate of the temple – “the temple gate called Beautiful,” Acts 3:2 – where Peter and John heal the lame man. Perhaps most important, when Jesus returns, He will come from the east: “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27; see also Ezek. 43:1-7). So this angel comes from the east, the direction of the sunrise, to do a great work on the Lord’s behalf, sealing His slaves.

Sealed on their foreheads

The seal of God is placed upon the foreheads of His chosen servants. There seems to be a parallel between this portion of Revelation and what Jesus describes in Matt. 24:30-31. At the end of Revelation 6, the wicked of the earth seek to hide from the wrath of the Lamb, consistent with what Jesus says in Matt. 24:30, “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

Then, at the start of Revelation 7, angels are sent to restrain the four winds until God’s chosen ones are sealed. This seems to fit with Matt. 24:31, “He [the Son of Man] will send out His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” If Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 and John’s record in Revelation 7 are describing the same events, then God is about to pour out His wrath on the earth. But first He spares the righteous. This could fit a preterist view, in which Jews who heed Jesus’ warnings flee Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 A.D. It could also fit a futurist view, in which a large number of Jewish believers are spared the horrors of the Tribulation. In any case, it appears God delivers a number of His elect before His judgment falls.

Seals in scripture

There are about 60 references to seals in the Bible. Generally speaking, seals are spoken of in two ways. First, a seal is an object – often a small, semiprecious stone with writing cut into its surface, making an impression in clay or wax. Second, a seal signifies the impression itself. In this context, the angel from the east seals the 144,000 – placing God’s mark of ownership on them. At the same time, the 144,000 are sealed, or receive and bear the mark of God.

The seal, John says, is placed on their foreheads. It’s possible the seal is visible, for while John only hears the number of those sealed in Revelation 7, he sees the 144,000 on Mt. Zion in Revelation 14. Also, the Antichrist, the great imposter, requires his followers to receive a mark on their foreheads, perhaps indicating a visible sign. But it may make more sense to see God’s seal as the mark of the Holy Spirit, who seals the believer (Eph. 4:30). If the futurist view is true and the Holy Spirit is removed from the earth at this time, it would take a special act of God to send His Spirit to mark out the 144,000 as His own.

The use of seals in scripture might shed some light on this passage. Harper’s Bible Dictionary points out that seals often render something secure against tampering (Jer. 32:10; Matt. 27:66), to demonstrate authority (1 Kings 21:8; John 6:27), to seal a letter (1 Kings 21:8; 1 Cor. 9:2), to seal a covenant (Neh. 9:38), to delegate authority (Esther 8:8; John 6:27), and to seal documents (Isa. 8:16; Jer. 32:10; Rev. 5:1). The 144,000 are indeed secure from the tampering of the wicked; they are under the authority of the King; they are messengers; they are partakers of the divine covenant, and so on. More important, if this seal is in fact the Holy Spirit, they have the indwelling presence of God and are empowered by Him to carry out His will.

Next: I heard the number … (Rev. 7:1-8)

The sealed of Israel: Revelation 7:1-8

Previously: The great day of Their wrath has come — Rev. 6:12-17

The scripture

Rev. 7:1 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel rise up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 512,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 612,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 712,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin. (HCSB)

The sealed of Israel

Between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals, John witnesses the “sealing” of 144,000 “slaves of our God” from “every tribe of the sons of Israel” (vv. 4-5). He also views a vast multitude from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” standing before the throne of God (v. 9). In this section we’ll focus on the 144,000.

No doubt, numbers are significant in this chapter. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth. These angels are empowered to harm the earth and the sea. But before they do, another angel tells them to wait until 144,000 servants of God are sealed, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.

A lightning rod for controversy

This passage is a lightning rod for controversy. Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that the 144,000 make up a special class, “the spirit-begotten congregation” that will reign in heaven with Christ. Members of the Watchtower also refer to this class as the “little flock” of Luke 12:32; it is the only class of people who go to heaven. The rest of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called the “other sheep” (John 10:16) or the “great crowd” (Rev. 7:9-17) that hopes for future resurrection and life on Paradise earth.

Seventh-day Adventists say the 144,000 pertain to their communion, who are found observing the Jewish Sabbath when the Lord comes again and raptures them into glory. Other sects find similar solace in the belief that these sealed slaves come from their ranks.

More doctrinally sound commentators, who rightfully reject these views, still cannot agree among themselves. Some argue that these are 144,000 Jews converted and protected by God during the future Tribulation. Others contend that these sealed slaves represent the “true Israel” – the church. Others say this number symbolizes believing Israel, or the believing Jewish remnant to which Paul refers in Romans 9-11, or to the first Jews converted to Christianity.

But where are the tribes of Dan and Ephraim? Why have they been replaced? Should we read the 144,000 as a literal representation of some group of people, or as figurative? How did first-century Christians interpret this passage? And what does it mean for us today?

Four angels

The number four dominates the first verse of chapter 7. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth. What is the significance of the number four in this passage? In Old Testament symbolism, the number four refers to the whole earth (see Isa. 11:12; Jer. 49:36; Dan. 7:2; Matt. 24:31).

The writers of BibleStudy.org make the following observations: “Now the number four is made up of three and one (3+1=4), and it denotes, therefore, and marks that which follows the revelation of God in the Trinity, namely, His creative works. He is known by the things that are seen. Hence the written revelation commences with the words, ‘In the beginning God CREATED.’ Creation is therefore the next thing – the fourth thing, and the number four always has reference to all that is created. It is emphatically the number of Creation…. It is the number of things that have a beginning, of things that are made, of material things, and matter itself. It is the number of material completeness….

“The fourth day saw the material creation finished (for on the fifth and sixth days it was only the furnishing and peopling of the earth with living creatures). The sun, moon, and stars completed the work, and they were to give light upon the earth which had been created, and to rule over the day and over the night (Genesis 1:14-19).”

So, the four angels perhaps share some responsibility for the whole earth. Just as there are territorial demons – like the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” in Dan. 10:13 – so, too, there may be angels with assignments to watch over God’s creation, or to bring judgment upon it, for verse 2 tells us the four angels are “empowered to harm the earth and the sea.”

Four corners

These angels stand at the “four corners of the earth.” The word translated “corners” is the Greek gonia, which literally means angles or divisions. It is related to our modern divisions known as quadrants. The Hebrew equivalent is kanaph and is translated a variety of ways but generally means extremity. It is translated “borders” or “corners” in Numbers 15:38. In Ezekiel 7:2 it is translated “corners” and again in Isaiah 11:12.  In Job 37:3 it is “ends” and in 38:13 it is “edges.”

It is doubtful that any religious Jew would misunderstand the true meaning of kanaph. For nearly 2,000 years, religious Jews have faced the city of Jerusalem three times daily and chanted the following prayer:

Sound the great trumpet for our freedom,

Raise the banner for gathering our exiles,

And gather us together from THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH

into our own land.

The Book of Isaiah describes how the Messiah, the Root of Jesse, shall regather his people from the four corners of the earth. They shall come from every extremity to be gathered into Israel (Isa. 11:10-12). So there is little doubt that these angels stand ready to bring down judgment upon the whole earth, perched from the “four corners” where all is in view.

Four winds

But what are the four winds? There are several interpretations. The rabbis viewed the quarterly winds as evil, and even the apostle Paul may have wondered about the malevolence of the “northeaster” (Acts. 27:14). Others liken the winds to the judgments of God (Jer. 49:36). Matthew Henry has an interesting perspective. He writes: “here the spirits of error are compared to the four winds, contrary one to another, but doing much hurt to the church, the garden and vineyard of God, breaking the branches and blasting the fruits of his plantation. The devil is called the prince of the power of the air; he, by a great wind, overthrew the house of Job’s eldest son. Errors are as wind, by which those who are unstable are shaken, and carried to and fro, Eph. 4:14” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 7:1–12).

It’s difficult to tell whether the winds are God’s instrument of divine judgment or evil forces under Satan’s control. The angels are empowered to harm the earth and the sea and yet are restraining the four winds that will bring destruction. At first blush, it seems contradictory. But often it is this way in scripture until we look more deeply.

God is sovereign over His creation. And although Satan is the ruler of this age and is able to exercise some control over the natural elements of the earth, he can do nothing without his Creator’s permission. The evil that Satan desires to do God allows when it aligns with His divine will and good pleasure. So the issue is not so much who is stirring the winds as what God is accomplishing through them. As Henry explains, “the spirit of error cannot go forth till God permits it, and … the angels minister to the good of the church by restraining its enemies.” No doubt the winds will blow, but first the Lord must accomplish something in the calm before the storm: the sealing of His slaves.

Next: Another angel … from the east (Rev. 7:1-8)