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?
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.”
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.
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)
This week our Sunday school class completed a six-month study of world religions and cults. Members were invited to submit questions for discussion during our final week together. Below, I have posted their questions, along with my responses. To access all the documents we used in our study, click on the World Religions and Cults link to the right of the screen, or click on the link to individual studies such as Islam, Mormonism, etc.
1. What long-term trend does the Bible address regarding the growth or shrinkage of major religions and their current growth rates?
From the beginning, Satan has been a liar (John 8:44), producing false religions and promoting false doctrines through false Messiahs, false prophets, and false teachers. From a New Testament perspective, there will always be false religions, including counterfeit forms of Christianity, vying with true Christianity for the hearts of men and women. In the days before Christ’s return, they will all give way to the one-world religion of the Antichrist. Many Christians believe the church will be raptured, or caught up into heaven, before the Antichrist emerges, thus giving way to this false one-world system. Some speculate this religion will embrace New Age concepts and Eastern philosophies; others believe Islam is poised to become that one-world religion, but the Bible does not specifically say so.
The Bible warns of false prophets and counterfeit Messiahs in the last days – the days between Pentecost and the return of Christ. Some of these “antichrists,” as John calls them, will even perform miracles, leading many astray (see Matt. 7:21-23; 24:4-5, 11-12, 24; 1 John 2:18; 4:1-4). Even Jesus wondered aloud whether He would find faith on the earth when He returns (Luke 18:8). Paul, Peter, John, and Jude exhorted believers to hold fast to the true doctrines of Christianity because they will come under attack. And the book of Revelation describes a one-world religion led by the Antichrist – one opposed to the real Jesus, and one who also happens to stand in His place. At the same time, Jesus assured us that during the dark days prior to His return, the gospel would be preached in all the world (Matt. 24:14).
While there are many false belief systems in the world today, the apostle Paul tells us to watch for three common threads. False teachers will preach another Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:3-4).
2. What are the reasons the Seventh-Day Adventists give for holding Saturday as their Sabbath? What about their dietary restrictions?
First, it’s important to note that Seventh-Day Adventism (SDA) is not a cult as we have defined it (a religious organization whose members claim to be Christian, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of biblical Christianity). SDA’s views on the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, and the inspiration and authority of Scripture are orthodox. Rather, SDA should be seen as a sect – that is, a Christian denomination that embraces distinctive doctrines not in accord with historic Christianity.
The SDA view of the Sabbath is one such teaching. The organization’s official Web site, www.adventist.org, says this about the Sabbath:
The beneficent Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God’s unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God’s kingdom. The Sabbath is God’s perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people. Joyful observance of this holy time from evening to evening, sunset to sunset, is a celebration of God’s creative and redemptive acts. (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11; Luke 4:16; Isa. 56:5, 6; 58:13, 14; Matt. 12:1-12; Ex. 31:13-17; Eze. 20:12, 20; Deut. 5:12-15; Heb. 4:1-11; Lev. 23:32; Mark 1:32.)
In response, we should note two things. First, the early church adopted the practice of worshiping on Sunday (the “Lord’s Day”) in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16:9; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Second, the apostle Paul made it clear that the day one chooses to set aside for worship is a matter of personal conviction, not divine mandate (Rom. 14:5-8). SDA’s insistence that Sunday worship is the “mark of the beast” is in error. As Tal Davis puts it, “Salvation and commitment to Christ are not demonstrated by adherence to external legalities (see Rom. 13:8-10, 14:4-13; 1 Cor. 16:2; Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:13-17)” (“Seventh-Day Adventism,” found on www.4truth.net).
As for dietary restrictions, the SDA Web site says:
Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures. Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them as well. Instead, we are to engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness. (Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 John 2:6; Eph. 5:1-21; Phil. 4:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 3:1-4; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20; 10:31; Lev. 11:1-47; 3 John 2.)
The Web site www.religioustolerance.org adds: “They (SDAs) were once also expected to abstain from caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, cola drinks, etc. The church has since removed this from the baptismal vows, although they still recommend that policy. They have interpreted the Old Testament dietary laws as prohibiting the eating of some foods. The church recommends avoiding red meat. Many SDA members are vegetarians who supplement their diet with eggs and milk.”
A brief response is in order. While a person’s diet may testify to his or her beliefs about the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and while Seventh-Day Adventists may be commended for promoting exercise, rest and healthy eating habits, the Old Testament dietary restrictions for Jews are not to be imposed upon the New Testament church (see Mark 7:15-23; Rom. 14:1-23).
3. What is the most threatening to the basic foundation of Christianity on a short and long-term basis?
The immature Christian. Too many believers remain infants in the faith, feeding on milk rather than on the meat of God’s Word (Heb. 5:11-14). Such people fill the pews of our churches yet are ill equipped to recognize and rebuff false teachings. With “itching ears” they follow eloquent false prophets, and like chaff they are blown about by “every wind of doctrine” (see 2 Tim. 4:3; Eph. 4:14).
Beyond that, the greatest threat to Christianity today is not Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or other world religions that distance themselves from Christianity and attack it from without; it is the counterfeit forms of Christianity that attack it from within. False prophets, whom Jesus called “ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15), are devouring the flock, and we have no excuse for it. Peter wrote a stark warning to the church when he said: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
Christians today should follow the advice of the apostle John, who exhorted us in 1 John 4:1-4 to:
· Not believe every spirit (that is, every person proclaiming a divine gift for service; or “antichrists”);
· Test the spirits to see whether they are of God;
· Know the Spirit of God.