We are continuing to work through the Book of Revelation with a focus on four major views of the so-called Apocalypse of John, as well as a firm conviction that in this book are many clear doctrinal truths around which all believers may rally. We still have a long way to go in our study. You can read the commentary to date by clicking here.
Whether you’re a preterist, who sees the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the Christian era, a historicist, who views the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history, a futurist, who sees most of Revelation as yet unfulfilled, or an idealist, who sees Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil, there are important truths the Lord reveals to all of us in this book.
We would do well to approach Revelation with caution — and with great anticipation, knowing God will fulfill all His promises to us. We also should be comforted by the fact that Revelation is the only book in Scripture specifically promising a blessing to those who hear its prophecies and keep them.
With that in mind, and to make it easier to keep our notes together, we have captured the commentary into single Adobe files (pdfs) that you may download, print and share. Click on the links below to capture notes on chapters 6-7. If you missed the link to notes on chapters 1-3 or 4-5, links are provided as well.
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)
All the angels stood around the throne
In verse 11, John sees all the angels standing around the throne, the elders and the four living creatures. Now it is their turn to offer praise. They fall on their faces before the throne and worship God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength, be to our God forever and ever. Amen” (v. 12).
There are three brief observations to share. First, the angels’ position. They stand “around the throne, the elders and the four living creatures,” in close proximity to both their Creator and their fellow servants. The Lord created angels higher in power and intelligence than people, and they stand in His presence, worshipfully reverent and ready to respond immediately to His commands. At the same time, angels do not lord their position over men and women. Twice in the Book of Revelation, John falls at the feet of an angel to worship, and both times he is sternly rebuked. In Rev. 19:10, the angel says, “Don’t do that [worship me]! I am a fellow slave with you and your brothers who have the testimony about Jesus. Worship God.” And in Rev. 22:9, after John tries to worship at the feet of the angel who showed him things to come, the angel says, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow slave with you, your brothers the prophets, and those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”
Even more interesting, angels lack something given exclusively to people: salvation. The holy angels have no need of it, and the rebellious angels are never offered it, but face a certain eternity in hell, which was created for them (Matt. 25:41). Paul, in fact, reminds believers that we will judge angels – presumably evil angels since there is no biblical reference to a judgment day for the holy ones. Last, in 1 Peter 1:12, we are told that just as the prophets of old did not understand how and when the Messianic prophecies would be fulfilled, even angels “desire to look into these things.”
A second observation is the angels’ posture. First, we see them standing before the throne, attentive to God and ready to respond immediately to His commands. But then, they fall on their faces before the throne and worship God. “Behold the most excellent of all the creatures, who never sinned, who are before him continually, not only covering their faces, but falling down on their faces before the Lord! What humility then, and what profound reverence, become us vile frail creatures, when we come into the presence of God! We should fall down before him; there should be both a reverential frame of spirit and a humble behaviour in all our addresses to God” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 7:1-12).
A third observation is the angels’ praise. They begin with the word “Amen!” This is the transliteration of a Hebrew word signifying that something is certain, valid, truthful, or faithful. It often is used at the end of biblical songs, hymns, and prayers, and is repeated at the end of the angels’ praise in verse 12. It is likely that the angels, in beginning their praise with the word “Amen,” are agreeing with the cries of the vast multitude that honors God the Father and the Lamb in verse 10. The angels then acknowledge the glorious attributes of God – His wisdom, power and strength – and declare that for these divine qualities He is to be blessed, glorified, thanked and honored forever and ever. They close their words of praise with, “Amen,” signifying that their testimony is true.
Next: One of the elders asked me
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.
- 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
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