30 December 2018

The Sealing of God’s Servants (Revelation 7:1–17)

Chapter 7 consists of four sections:  the sealing of God’s servants (7:1-3), the numbering of the sealed (7:4-8), a vision of an innumerable multitude (7:9-12), and the interpretation of all that vision (7:14-17).
     The same group is in view in each case but portrayed with two different images:  the tribes of Israel arrayed for war and an innumerable multitude from every nation. In the end, the fully assembled saints stand before the Lamb and the Throne.
     The questions from the fifth and sixth seals are now addressed:  How long must the martyrs wait for vindication?  Who is able to stand before the wrath of the Lamb?
     The sealing of the saints uses imagery from the Exodus story of Israel. The full number of martyrs is assembled for the coming onslaught and its march to claim the Promised Land. The vision of the innumerable multitude presents overcoming saints “standing” before the Lamb in the Promised Land, having faithfully endured the tribulation.
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding fast the four winds of the earth.” “After this” is the sequence in which John received the vision and not necessarily an indicator of chronological sequence. This vision cannot follow the sixth seal chronologically since that seal produced the day of final wrath.
     John sees four angels holding back “the four winds of the earth,” a clause that alludes to Zechariah 6:1-5, “Behold, four chariots came forward from between two mountains…the first with red horses, second with black horses, the third with white horses, the fourth chariot with spotted horses…These are the four winds of heaven.” The “four winds” are the four riders from the first four seals (6:1-8). The four winds were given to injure the earth and the sea,” the same verb already used for the powers granted to each rider.
     Zechariah’s wording is changed from “four winds of heaven” to “four winds of the earth,” most likely because the four horsemen had authority “over a fourth part of the earth.” It also reflects Daniel 7:2 where four beasts ascended from a sea disturbed by “the four winds of heaven.”
     This “sealing” occurs before the openings of the four seals; malevolent forces would be unleashed against the saints only after they were sealed by God. “Servants of God” elsewhere refers to followers of the Lamb (1:1; 2:20; 19:2; 19:5; 22:3; 22:6).
     The angel with the seal orders the “four winds” to forebear “until we seal the servants of our God,” an allusion to the Exodus story when the homes of Israelites were marked with lamb’s blood to protect them a destroying angel (Exodus 12:13-28). Unlike Israel in Egypt, this sealing does not protect saints from physical death; martyrdom is the church’s highest calling in Revelation (1:9; 6:9; 11:7; 12:11; 12:17; 13:7-10; 20:4). Instead, this “sealing” empowers them to persevere through the tribulation. Since the “four winds” are withheld until God’s servants are sealed, this “seal” is related to the effect of the first four seal openings.
      The text does not state whether John saw this group about to be numbered; only that he heard their number. In the fifth seal, martyrs must remain under the altar until their full number is assembled. That process is portrayed with the numbering of 144,000 men from the tribes of Israel.
     The number 144,000 is based on twelve squared then multiplied by a thousand. The number is figurative; it stresses fullness, the completed congregation of God’s people. Twelve is associated with Israel, the “twelve tribes of Israel,” and symbolizes the Lamb’s people.
     The squaring of twelve is derived by multiplying the twelve tribes of Israel by the names of the twelve “apostles of the Lamb” (21:12-14). New Jerusalem is laid out with square numbers, and its wall is 144 cubits (“The city lies foursquare…its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits” (21:16-17). The square of twelve is multiplied by a thousand. This echoes the army of Israel arrayed for battle by its “thousands” (Numbers 31:14; 31:48; Deuteronomy 1:15; 1 Samuel 8:12).
     When the twelve tribes are listed in the Old Testament the order varies (Genesis 35:23-26; Exodus 1:2-4; Numbers 1:5-15; 1 Chronicle 2:1-2), with Reuben often listed first, Israel’s first-born.  Distinctive here is the placement of Judah first, the place of prominence. Already John heard that the Messiah sprang from Judah (5:5-6). The present list with Judah first echoes this previous verse (“lion out of the tribe of Judah”). John hears the number sealed, out of the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand sealed, out of the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand,” and so on.
     John also “hears” the names of the twelve tribes. In Revelation 5:5 he also heard the “lion out of the tribe of Judah.” When he looked before the heavenly throne he “saw” a slain Lamb; what he saw interpreted what he heard; the Lion portrayed as a Lamb. What John now “hears” likewise will be interpreted by what he “sees.”
     The tribe of Dan is excluded from the list. The picture is of national Israel assembled for battle. Under the old covenant, the tribe of Levi was excluded from the census because that tribe was prohibited from participation in the war. Its priestly duties took priority (Numbers 1:47-53).
     Dan is left out so Levi can be included among the “twelve tribes.” Under the Lamb, all members of God’s people belong to the priestly class (Revelation 1:6; 5:10), but in this vision, the entire company is assembled for war.
     In ancient Israel, only males of military age were numbered for war (Numbers 1:1-3; 1:18-20; 1 Chronicle 27:23; 1 Samuel 24:9). Likewise here only “males” are numbered, the “sons of Israel” (7:4; cp. 14:1-4). This is another indicator that this company is figurative since “females” are excluded.
      John first “hears” the number (arithmos) of the sealed, then “sees” a vast multitude that no one can number (arithmeō). “Number” links what he hears to what he sees. The roaring Lion became a slain Lamb; now a numerically-defined group of Israelite males becomes an innumerable multitude of men and women from every nation.
     The sacrificial Lamb fulfilled the messianic role by redeeming men and women “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). Now John sees a vast multitude of men and women “from every nation, tribe and people and tongue” (7:9), another verbal link between the two visions. Just as the Lamb overcame through the sacrificial death, so the multitude overcame by washing its robes “in the blood of the Lamb.” God’s servants emulate Christ through faithful witness, even unto death (1:5; 2:10; 2:13; 3:14; 3:21).
     In chapter 5 “many angels about the Throne and the Living Creatures and the elders” proclaimed the Lamb worthy “to receive the power, riches, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.” So now, “all the angels standing about the throne and the elders and the four Living Creatures…” ascribe blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power and might to our God.” In both visions, seven honorific qualities are assigned to the one adored. The verbal links are deliberate; chapter 5 pictured the overcoming Lamb, chapter 7 the redeemed multitude that follows him through the tribulation.
     “From every nation and tribe and people and tongue” alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 where the one like a Son of Man was given “dominion, glory and a kingdom that all people, nations, and languages should serve him” (cp. Genesis 49:10, to Judah’s lion will be “the obedience of the peoples”).
     Yahweh’s covenant promises to Abraham included innumerable descendants from Gentile nations. This vision graphically portrays the fulfillment of said promises by the Lamb. Note the following:
(Genesis 13:16) - “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.”
(Genesis 12:2) - “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
(Genesis 15:5) - “And he said, look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be.”
(Genesis 18:18) - “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him.”
The multitude “stands before the throne and before the Lamb,” in contrast to the men from all levels of society in the sixth seal. There they sought concealment under rocks before the wrath of the Lamb, for “Who is able to stand” before his wrath?
     Members of the innumerable multitude are arrayed in “white robes,” the same term used for the martyrs under the altar who were issued “white robes.” This links the two groups; they are of the same kind. “Palm-branches” are reminiscent of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40-43).
      In chapter 5 one of the elders pointed to the Lamb (“one from among the elders says to me”), so now in verse 13 “one from among the elders says” gives John the interpretation.
     The multitude is composed of men and women who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The martyrs under the altar were told to wait until their full number was added and assembled, which is fulfilled in the innumerable multitude.
     “Who is able to stand” is now answered; the multitude “stands” before the throne and the Lamb. Men and women redeemed by the Lamb’s blood are enabled to stand; they experience vindication, not wrath.
     The 144,000 “servants of God” from the twelve tribes of Israel were sealed before the first four seals.  The scene now shifts to the other side of the “great tribulation”; the innumerable multitude from every nation exits the tribulation to stand before the Lamb. They endured “tribulation” but not “wrath.”
     The “great tribulation” alludes to Daniel 12:1, “there shall be such tribulation as has not been from the time that there was a nation on the earth until that time.” It is called “great” but its length is not specified. “Tribulation” occurs five times in Revelation (1:9; 2:9-10; 2:22; 7:14), almost always applied to saints. “Tribulation” is what the Lamb’s followers endure. On the Isle of Patmos, for example, John labeled himself a “fellow-participant in the tribulation,” along with the seven churches of Asia. Though not stated, the implication is that the tribulation was already in progress in John’s day.
     Saints are in the process of “coming” out of the tribulation. This translates a present tense Greek participle, signifying continuous action. This is not a onetime event but an ongoing process. It continues until the full number of witnesses is assembled.
     Washing robes to “make them white” alludes to another passage from Daniel; the tribulation would refine God’s people:  “to purify and to make them white up to the time of the end” (Daniel 11:35; 12:10). Now in Revelation saints coming through the tribulation “wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). In so doing they emulate the Lamb and become “faithful witnesses” (1:5; 3:21; 12:11). This process continues “up to the time of the end.”
     The image of Israel assembled for war is transformed into a gathering of men and women from every nation that stands before the Lamb and the Throne. The covenant community is arrayed for battle but carries it out in a paradoxical way; the numbered assembly from the tribes of Israel and the innumerable multitude from every nation are one and the same.
     The innumerable multitude “renders divine service (latreuō) day and night in his sanctuary” (7:15). The Greek verb latreuō and its noun form, latreia, are commonly used in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament for ritual services performed by priests (cp. Luke 2:37; Acts 7:7; Romans 9:4; 12:1; Hebrews 8:5; 9:1; 9:6; 12:28; 13:10; Revelation 22:3). This usage emphasizes the role of saints as “priests” (1:6; 5:10). Likewise, the “robes” or stole worn by them are the same priestly vestments used by the Levitical priests (Exodus 28:2-4; 29:5; Leviticus 8:30). However, every member of this group regardless of ethnicity is arrayed and functions as a priest.
     This picture reflects new covenant promises from Ezekiel 37:21-28 (quoted more fully in Revelation 21:3-4), “I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land…and I will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
     The final three verses of the interpretation describe how “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” which is derived from Isaiah 25:8. Yahweh promised Israel He would “swallow up death forever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (cp. Revelation 21:4).
     The interpreting angel explains that God “will spread his tent over” His victorious saints; they neither hunger nor thirst ever again, as the Lamb leads them to fountains of waters. This can only refer to the resurrection life in the New Creation. The same language occurs again in the portrait of New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:3-4; Isaiah 49:10-12), “They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will smite them the glowing sand or the glaring sun, for he that has compassion upon them will lead them and to springs of water will he conduct them..”
     In the vision and its interpretation language and imagery originally applied to national Israel is now applied to faithful witnesses from every nation and tribe on the face of the earth. The promise to Abraham of a vast number of descendants from the nations is brought to fruition by the Lamb.
      The Lamb has prepared his priestly kingdom to march in battle array into the Promised Land.  All tribes, sections and members move together; the completed assembly stands at the ready, sealed by God and thus prepared for any eventuality. The Lamb vindicates God’s saints, past, present, and future, but not before all are gathered to stand before the Throne.
     Every man or woman who “washes his priestly robes in the blood of the Lamb” is enabled to stand before the Lamb and the Throne. Saints achieve victory by persevering in tribulation and submitting to martyrdom when called to do so.
     While the imagery changes from scene to scene, the same group is kept in view, a group that includes the seven churches of Asia. As the Lamb promised, the overcoming church will pass through the tribulation to stand before the Throne. The Lamb in their midst will shepherd them to living waters in the greater promised land, the New Creation.
    This image echoes the promises made to the seven churches of Asia, to every saint that “overcomes” by heeding the Spirit. He or she will “eat of the tree of life” (2:7), be “arrayed in white robes” (3:5), become a “pillar in God’s temple” (3:12), and “sit down with him in his throne, just as he overcame and sat down on his Father throne” (3:21).

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