The action of judgment has been building as the seven seals are opened. The first four seals brought forth four horsemen who symbolized the threats to Caesar’s mythology of control. The fifth seal gave the reader a view of the altar before the throne of God and allowed the reader to hear the cries of the martyred saints for divine redemption and vindication. The sixth seal returned the church’s gaze to earth and brought about the unraveling of the security of the cosmos.
The vision in Revelation chapter seven is one of the famous interludes or breaks in the action that periodically interrupt the flow of the Apocalypse. In the midst of the action of judgment, the reader is interrupted and forced to pause and consider more deeply what is really going on in God’s redemptive plan.
Chapter six ended with a question: “Who can stand?” The answer in this chapter is a great multitude of saints.
As Eugene Boring writes, “Instead of seeing the expected End, what we see is the church. This is literary craftsmanship, but more than that – it is a reflection of the experience of first-century Christianity. They looked for the End and what came was the church, not as a substitute for the act of God but itself a dimension of God’s saving activity. What seems at first to be a postponement or narrative digression turns out to be a skillfully constructed interlude, which pictures the church during the time of persecution and builds suspense before the final seal is broken.”
(7:1-3) After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. They held back the earth’s four winds so that no wind would blow against the earth, the sea, or any tree. I saw another angel coming up from the east, holding the seal of the living God. He cried out with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given the power to damage the earth and sea. He said, “Don’t damage the earth, the sea, or the trees until we have put a seal on the foreheads of those who serve our God.”
John envisions four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, waiting attentively to receive their instructions from the One on the throne. Four is frequently the number given to creation. Earlier there were four living creatures worshiping the One on the throne and the Lamb. In ancient cultures, the world was viewed as flat and so the image is that the four angels stand at the earth’s corners likely with power over the elements of the earth, air, water, and fire. These angels have been granted authority to restrain or set loose the fury of God’s judgment upon the world.
In particular these angels serve as a reminder of the devastation that would befall creation if the four angels were permitted to unleash the wind from every direction.
Seals were used frequently in the ancient world. They were most often used as a sign of ownership and authority. Like the imperial seal showed what belonged to the emperor, so the Christian “seals” of baptism and the Holy Spirit showed what belongs to God (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30, and Romans 4:11). To be sealed with the Spirit of Christ is to be marked as God’s possession.
Like the plagues that have their root in the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Exodus event, so too the image of being marked or sealed by the Lamb also has its roots in that great story. Like those who in Exodus marked their home with the blood of the Passover lamb and thus were spared from not only the death angel but where given safe passage through the Red Sea, so too those in the early church who connected themselves to the Lamb through baptism would be delivered through the chaos of the persecution and turmoil of the empire.
(7:4-8) Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed from every tribe of the Israelites:
- From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed;
- from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand;
- from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.
Similar to the scene around the throne in chapter five, John HEARD that the number of those who had been sealed by the Lamb was 144,000. This number is almost certainly meant to be taken symbolically and not literally. It is most likely a symbolic number that signifies God’s redemption of Israel. The number is the twelve tribes of Israel squared and then fulfilled by a multitude: 12 x 12 x 1000.
The list of the tribes is interesting because it does not include the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan was often viewed with suspicion by early Jewish and Christian sources. So this list may symbolize the purified nation of Israel. Some New Testament scholars argue that this list constitutes the army of Israel being mustered for battle against God’s enemies at the end of the age.
(7:9-12) After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice: “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”
In chapter five as John wept because no one was found worthy to open the seals on the scroll of history. When the elder told him to stop weeping because the Lion of Judah was found worthy to open the seals, John HEARD Lion but then he looked and he SAW the Lamb that was slain. The pattern in this chapter is the same… John HEARD that there were 144,000 that had been sealed by the Lamb, but then he looked and SAW a multitude that no one could count from every tribe, nation, and languages.
This passage uses two different images for the same reality. The 144,000 and the great multitude are the same group. The community of faith encompasses people from many tribes, nations, and languages, yet this same community represents the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the preservation of Israel.
(7:13-17) Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The significance of the vision is again revealed to John through his interaction with the elder. The elder asks John: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” In what amounts to a polite confession of ignorance John replies, “Sir, you know.” The elder then identifies this white-robed army as “the ones coming out of the great tribulation,” those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
It is important to recognize that the promise is not that these dressed in white will be protected from tribulation. Like Israel coming out of Egypt – both physically and spiritually – exodus out of the principalities and powers is not easy. The people of God are not protected from trial in the wilderness, yet their future is held safe and secure by Yahweh. In the same way, the early church was not protected from tribulation, trial, and hardship. Yet, their life was held secure in the future of the Lamb.
In fact, tribulation and trial is not just a set of unfortunate circumstances that the saints have to endure, it is part of the redemptive work of God in creation. Like a woman in childbirth, suffering for doing good is part of the work of the coming new creation of the Lamb. God’s redemptive work is the great ordeal into which the disciple of Jesus participates. To be sealed by this God means to be made a participant in a life that, while not immune from death – for Jesus himself was not immune from suffering and crucifixion – is nevertheless victorious over death, Hades, and their allies in this passing age of the principalities and powers.
God is not only the source of protection, but for the saints he is the source of life, grace, future, and joy. The saints are those live in the midst of struggle but reflect the life of the Lamb.