May 17, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 16:50 in the audio file.
Or, The Number and Nature of the Sealed
It has been 70 days since our last time together in the Apocalypse. Of course, the last 70 days have been their own sort of revelation, and while it shouldn’t be identified as the Great Tribulation, it has included some here-to-fore unseen power-grabbing devastation. Plagues of locusts have nothing on partisan legislators when it comes to devouring the land.
We had just considered the breaking of the sixth seal which caused such turmoil on earth that kings self-quarantined into caves. The rich and the powerful hid themselves, the slaves and the free were panicked.
Usually these sorts of prophetic pictures take some imaginative effort on our part if we want to envision the destruction across earth. But at least for me, the last ten weeks have been stranger, and stronger, than fiction. We have seen a tribulation trailer, and, of course, the trailer isn’t finished playing yet. Between the novel virus and the traditional political manipulation, we have more reasons in real life to wake up from our comfy readings of Left Behind.
At the same time, there is nothing new under the plandemic. Shouldn’t we sympathize a little better with the church in Ephesus with their patient endurance and hatred of evildoers while also remembering not to forget our first love? Can’t we relate a little better to the Smyrnaeans whose neighbors kept slandering them and caused them economic loss, and long to be faithful unto death? How about the faithful in Pergramum where Satan’s throne was, or in Thyratira where they needed to hold fast? Can’t you picture, at least a little more clearly, some of the Christians in the first century saying to each other, “How has the world gotten so crazy?” And doesn’t it challenge us a little more, like a trumpet blast inside our noise-cancelling headphones, to hear Jesus keep saying things like, “To the one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations” (Revelation 2:26)?
We’d gotten past the letters from Jesus to the churches in chapters 2-3, through the worship of Jesus as Lion and Lamb in chapters 4-5, into Jesus opening the seals on the scroll of judgment. Chapter 6 reveals the first six seals. The first four seals are the four horsemen, bringing false peace then taking peace then bringing famine and pestilence and more of the sword to death. The fifth seal showed the martyred souls crying for justice. The sixth seal brought a great earthquake and stars falling and the sky vanishing.
I found a note after that Sunday which questioned my interpretation of those events as actual events. I still think these are not mere representations of bad things, but realities of bad things as retribution on those who will not submit to God. The final question of chapter six is the one all men must deal with, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
There is an answer to that. Those who can stand are those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. In chapter seven, we are introduced to two visions that emphasize God’s effective care for His own.
I am no stranger to the disagreements over the number and nature of those discussed in the first vision, verses 1-8. The second half of the chapter is a little easier to deal with, though some see both visions as talking about the same group in different ways. What seems to be the case is that judgments have paused between the sixth seal at end of chapter 6, and the seventh seal which is opened at beginning of chapter 8. Chapter 7 describes a pause in the action.
Whatever else, these two visions leave no doubt about who will stand. God will preserve His own from judgment and bring them to salvation where there will be no hunger, no thirst, and tears will be wiped away.
The first vision has a lot of numbers and requires some visionary math. It starts with four times three.
After this is the typical movement marker in the book. I get why some think it says nothing about chronology, and yet I also think that’s bogus; there is a series of developments. The seals are numbered, we’re in-between 6 and 7. John sees four angels at four corners holding back four winds, one in every direction. The earth doesn’t have corners per se, as if it were a flat square, but it does have north, east, south, and west on the compass, and those cover all the earth.
Two things stand out. One, these winds would cause destruction of life if let loose. To blow on earth or sea or against any tree would mess with the ecosystem and with human existence, ships and transport, food and shelter. As we’ll see in the next verses, the winds would bring harm, such that an elect group needed to be sealed first.
The second standout is that four angels are in charge of holding back the winds. There were four living creatures in chapters 4 and 5, but these four angels are positioned at different stations; the angels man the wind dams. In Revelation 14:18 there’s a fire angel and in 16:5 one in charge of the water. How does one restrain the wind? Solomon said it was vanity for a man to try. But here we’re told that angels can do it and must keep doing it.
A fifth angel comes, ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud void to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea. The four recognize the fifth’s authority. He came from the east, where the sun rises.
Most importantly the fifth angel has the seal of the living God. This seal is not like the seven seals holding the scroll closed. This is a seal such that a king would use to mark his ownership, an identifying mark. In 2 Timothy 2:19, God’s firm foundation bears this seal, the Lord knows those who are His.
The fifth angel says that the winds must be held back until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. The earth and sea and trees are referenced again because the damage done to man’s environment would cause damage to man. To seal these servants on their foreheads meant that it would be obvious to tell them apart. In Revelation 14:1 the same group have the Lamb’s name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads. This seal, then, is more than the sealing of the Holy Spirit for all believers (Ephesians 1:13), which is true for all believers, but a protective and witnessing seal.
There is a perverted seal or mark (xάραγμα) of the beast that will become important in a later chapter. But that mark is for the men of earth, this seal (σφραγῖδα) is for the servants of God. They are protected from the havoc unleashed by the four winds, hence why the angels were told to hold back.
If the paragraph had ended in verse 3 and moved immediately to verse 9, it would be much more boring; still glorious, but less to argue about. But John hears more discussion about the identify of the servants to be sealed. And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.
There’s math to do. The Greek word for number is ἀριθμὸν (arithmon) from which we get arithmetic. There is a number to be sealed, an elect group of known value.
144k = 12 x 12 x 1000. There were 12 sons of Israel, squared, and then multiplied by a thousand.
Verses 5-8 go on to categorize each 12k by a son’s name. It’s Old Testament style repetition, a micro-genealogy. It also really makes a point and makes another point very difficult.
It would be different if John heard the angel say that 144k of the new Israel would be sealed. But there is no “new,” there is no “spiritual,” there is every tribe of the sons of Israel. Then he names twelve sons: Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zeubulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. But here’s an example taking those words to mean something other than those words.
That there are 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel) is a symbolic way of stressing that the church is the eschatological people of God who have taken up Israel’s inheritance. (Mounce)
Let’s say that Israel means the church, which is a common interpretation of this passage. What would be the typology for naming the sons? Start with Judah, what part of the church does he symbolize? Ages of the church don’t work well between the seals. Locations of the church don’t really make sense unless the twelve sons were divided by four to go along with the winds.
Also note verse 9. After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. It uses the same sort of socio-political designations and includes a count. But in verses 1-8 the count is 144k, in verse 9 it is uncountable. In verses 1-8 there are tribes, but just twelve, and all from the same father, though in verse 9 there are all kinds of nations and tribes. The sealed in verses 1-8 can be part of the larger group, but it is blind exegesis to call them the same group referred to in two ways.
Do the exegetical math. 144k ≠ numberless. “I heard the number” ≠ “no one could number.” Even if 12 x 12 x 1000 is a formula for completeness, it is a formula for a defined set. But we’re supposed to accept that because the number is definite it’s symbolic, but when the number is indefinite it is statistical?
Once the math is done (looking at the actual data) then ask the question about the names. Why is Judah first; he wasn’t the firstborn? It’s likely to emphasize the tribe Christ came from (Genesis 49:10; Revelation 5:5). Why is Dan not mentioned? Perhaps because his tribe did not defeat the Amorites in their assigned lot of land (Judges 1:34) and who turned to outrageous idolatry. And beyond questions about order of the names, how did any Jew at this point know which tribe he was from? Even before AD 70 lists of ten of the tribes had been lost when they were exiled in Assyria, let alone if this sealing happens in the future (which I believe). Imagine how muddled things are in the Israeli census office after generations of intermarrying between the tribes and with Gentiles?
The ESVSB notes, “These are not Jacob’s sons.” But, let’s say, for fun, John wanted to say it was ethnic Israel, how could he have done that? Like, “from every tribe of the sons of Israel”?
And, do we really want to limit God to what we can see and what makes sense to us? Do we really want to question His Word? Do we suppose that He doesn’t know how to give a resurrected body to a cremated Christian? Do we suppose He’s wringing His hands trying to follow the branches on the family tree? Paul kept preaching like the twelve tribes were identifiable.
And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:6–8, ESV)
When the Lord covenants with Israel, and says that He will give them new hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), that is a promise that bolsters our faith, not that our faith must redefine to the exclusion of the original addressees. We can be grateful to be grafted into the blessings of Christ along with the twelve tribes, and also anticipate that He can and will graft a generation from all twelve into the root again (Romans 11:25-26).
I am not saying that this is how it will work, but doesn’t DNA and antibody testing and contact-tracing technology at least push our imaginative limits out a little further? That’s just what men have been able to do, and man hasn’t even figured out which angels to ask for a proper forecast.
Why is this passage even in the Revelation? It is a similar purpose to Romans 9-11. John’s readers knew the Old Testament. John has alluded to the OT, in judgement and deliverance and worship. What the Lord promises and purposes for Israel He will fulfill. It isn’t just for Gentiles.
At least for Paul, the purposes of God led to doxology and then transformation from worldliness as living sacrifices discerning the will of God. May it do the same among us.
The Maker of heaven and earth calls us to pray, to make supplication with thanksgiving. The God of all grace invites us to His throne to seek grace in times of trouble. He asks us to leave our anxiousness at His feet, anxiousness which He already knows about. Remember though, while you’re dropping off your troubles before Him, He does not need your input on how to handle things. He invites your requests to be made known, He does not invite your advice. He will give you all you need, including perseverance in joy, while you watch Him tell His story.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36, ESV)