September 20, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 17:35 in the audio file.
Or, Let the Redeemed of the Lord Sing So
Our study through the Apocalypse, which, you’ll remember is a word that means “unveiling,” keeps giving us opportunities to be blessed. Those who read and hear and keep the words of the prophecy will be blessed, so says John at both bookends (Revelation 1:3; 22:7). Our pace, approximately a paragraph at a time, is like a brisk walk but not so fast that we’re skipping over things. This is pastoral strategery.
One principle of Bible reading, study, and preaching, that I don’t say out loud much these days is that for every text there is one interpretation with many possible applications. Some of you are blessed to own that principle as if it was a coating over every page of your Bible; you can’t read otherwise. Some of you perhaps have never heard it before.
The interpretation is what it means. There was an original author, moved by the Divine Author, writing to an original audience. The author intended a meaning for his readers to understand. We can acknowledge that none of us might know the correct meaning; being wrong takes barely any effort. We can also acknowledge that some meanings are debatable, as in, there’s evidence for a variety of meanings. Many of those debates can be had in Christian charity. But humility, toward the text and toward one another, does not mean we give up the conviction that the meaning is there, even if we’re ignorant about it.
A number of the 16th century Reformers gave their lives translating the Bible into the common language so that non-scholars could read the Bible for themselves. I was reminded this past week that even the New Testament was written in the common language, Koine Greek; wherever Paul preached he could be understood. The Greek NT isn’t a unique Holy Ghost mountain-top language that waits for academics to climb up to it. Now that we all have our own copies of God’s Word, what a privilege, and a privilege we’re to steward.
I’m moving us through the book of Revelation and asking everyone to consider the meaning. My “rules” are that I wouldn’t demean anyone by assuming what I’m trying to prove with a comment like “If you just read your Bible.” We’re reading it together, asking questions and making observations. My other rule is that I would hardly use the word “literal.” It’s tiresome, and typically patronizing. And, also, I don’t think that means that all the images mean symbols.
We just finished reading about the unholy trinity of the dragon, the sea-beast, and the earth-beast in chapters 12-13. This is satan, the embodied antichrist, and his false prophet. We had heard the sixth trumpet blow, but before the seventh trumpet blows and the seven judgment bowls are dumped over, John has seen these visions that portray why the sinfulness and depravity and spiritual conflict is so awful. It’s part of a long war, with grudges as petty as they are old.
Revelation 13 showed the final grasps for power by the ancient serpent and his successful, albeit temporary, dominion. He is praised for about as long as Trump has been president, three and a half years. The saints are outnumbered and outcast. But the saints still conquer with the Lamb.
Chapter 14 reminds us of the commitment of those who stand with the Lamb, who endure, who love not their lives to death (as in 12:11). We see some of them in this chapter, though there is application for all of us.
Here is another vision, another “And I saw,” and this is much more encouraging than the previous.
**“Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (verse 1)
Instead of the dragon standing on the sand (12:18), anticipating those who would take on his mark, here is the Lamb standing on a mountain with those sealed for Him.
Mount Zion is the place of God’s temple, the place of His presence and rule, typically referring to the city fo Jerusalem. The Lord laughs at those who try to unseat Him, and anoints His Son in this very place.
> He who sits in the heavens laughs; > the Lord holds them in derision. > Then he will speak to them in his wrath, > and terrify them in his fury, saying, > “As for me, I have set my King > on Zion, my holy hill.” > (Psalm 2:4-6)
Consider this prophetic word from Joel:
> “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. > “For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.” (Joel 2:30–3:3 ESV)
Where is this Mount Zion? There are good reasons that some believe it is the heavenly Mount Zion (think Hebrews 12:22), but there are better reasons to understand it as on earth. The earthly Mount Zion contrasts with the earthly work of the beast. The earthly Mount Zion makes sense of why John hears a “voice from heaven” in the next verse. The earthly Mount Zion fits with the temple and the witnesses in Jerusalem in chapter 11. The earthly Mount Zion fits with these 144k. Here is “the end-time city where God dwells with and provides security for the remnant” (Beale).
With the Lamb are 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. The easiest part to understand about this is the unity of the Father and Son, the Ancient of Days and His Anointed. That’s the easiest.
We first read about the 144k in Revelation 7. There we saw them as the “sealed,” those “from every tribe of the sons of Israel,” 12k from 12 tribes, in contrast with the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation” (verse 9). Another contrast in chapter 7 is that the innumerable group were already standing before the throne and before Lamb, clothed in white robes, while the 144k were sealed on earth.
A lot of Bible readers believe that this group of 144k represents all of the redeemed. But that requires ignoring the distinctions in chapter 7, and it requires messing with the language in the rest of this paragraph. What if this is actually a finite group, a select group who are firstfruits, those who have the same sealing on their foreheads who are Israelite believers during the tribulation? What if these are the “rest of [the woman’s] offspring” (Revelation 12:17).
The name written on their foreheads is for security, not servility as with the mark of the beast. The beast sees his own as expendable, the Lamb sees His own as invaluable, as part of His glory, not a threat to it.
The 144k are key again. They are not the ones singing the song, but they are the ones who learn the song.
”And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, (verse 2)
With John we’ve heard a voice before, and this seems to be a collective voice, since verse 3 has a plural singing. The voice is loud, as the roar of the sea and the loud thunder of the sky. The voice is melodic, emphasized by a thrice cognate usage, as the KJV translates, it sounded like “harpists harping on their harps.”
He sees on Mount Zion, he hears from heaven.
”and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” (verse 3)
A new song is a frequent description, especially in the Psalms, which seems to be related to fresh deliverances by the Lord. The living creatures and elders sang the new song in 5:8-10.
> “Oh sing to the LORD a new song, > for he has done marvelous things! > His right hand and his holy arm > have worked salvation for him. > The LORD has made known his salvation; > he has revealed his righteousness in the sight > of the nations. > He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness > to the house of Israel. > All the ends of the earth have seen > the salvation of our God.” > (Psalm 98:1–3)
The singers here are not the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders any more than they are the throne, nor are the singers the 144k. The singers seem to be those saints already in heaven, those celebrating celestially, as in 7:10. But these 144k are encouraged by the worship service.
It is an interesting statement to say that No one was able to learn the song except the 144k, and those 144k are the ones having been redeemed from the earth. Here is another part of the scene that makes less sense if the 144k represent all the saints; what would be the point about limiting who can learn the lyrics? Instead, it fits to say that there is something these chosen ones are able to understand differently than others. This “new song” is God’s deliverance of them through His sealing in the midst of the dragon and beast’s attack.
Though the 144k are not written out again, they are described with three parallel phrases, “these…these…these..”
”It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.” (verses 4-5)
First, the Select are pure. There is a good deal of debate over the nature of this purity. All those who understand the 144k as symbolic of all the saints must interpret this virginity metaphorically. And there is biblical context for a figurative lack of defilement with idols, sometimes referred to as spiritual adultery and even harlotry. But John’s phrasing here is explicit: with women, not with idols, and called virgins. A question I like to ask is, if John had meant to describe physical purity, how could he have done it more clearly than this?
Yes, marriage is good, instituted by God, and the marriage bed is blessed when it is undefiled. But there seems to be something unique about this group, who did not even get married, which would be a future application of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:26 about a “present distress.” This is not a call for everyone, but for this particular group.
Second, the Select are loyal. They are following the Lamb wherever He goes. Jesus’ call to His disciples was, “Follow me.”
Third, the Select are honest. They are the ones having been redeemed from men to be firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. They were chosen and bought, and selected as a special offering. Perhaps the word “firstfruits” (aparche) is better understood as “contribution” rather than emphasizing the first part. Or it could mean that there are still a number of (Jews) to be saved, and the 144k are witnesses to them. It is hard to imagine why the 144k would be both part and all believers.
But no lie was found in their mouths, which Zephaniah had prophesied (Zephaniah 3:13, see 3:11-17). During this time, society is a lie. The beast lies about his power, the second beast lies about the glory of the first. Men lie to each other about glory, even if they believe the lies they tell. The select won’t abide fake news and false reports. So they are blameless, not as in without sin, but they do the truth. They take their stand with the Lamb, and have no deceit like Him in their suffering (Isaiah 53:9).
In summary, the 144k 1) stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion, 2) have His name on their forehead, 3) learn the new song, 4) are redeemed from earth, 5) are virgins, 6) follow the Lamb, 7) are a special contribution, 8) do not lie, 9) are blameless.
And also, while I believe these describe a future generation of select believers who endured the Great Tribulation and see the Lamb on Mount Zion in His millennial kingdom, they provide a pattern for those of us living now in great tribulation. There is application for us. We are select for now, we are called to obey here, to not stand in the way of sinners but to follow Christ and speak the truth. Some of the most highly blessed have been some of the most severely tested. Don’t despise the heat God uses to increase your capacity for joy.
We are not the 144k, but we are offerings to God, who have been redeemed and sealed by the Spirit and given a song and follow the Lamb with loyalty and must resist the lies of the beast.
As Psalm 107:2, let the redeemed of the Lord sing so.
The benediction for today is well-known. These are the final words before the apocalypse, they are fitting, fortifying. We are given over to the One who has selected us and who has strength to keep us on our feet until we see categorical glory with cosmic joy; misery swallowed up in majesty. Stand with the Lamb, follow Him wherever He goes.
> Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25, ESV)