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16 August 2019

Apocalyptic People of God

SynopsisFinal victory is not about national Israel but the redemption of men and women from every nation including Israel. Identification with the Lamb is what determines membership in the People of God.

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash
By Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash
Popular readings of the Book of Revelation often see the nation of Israel or the Jewish race as the focus of the book; supposedly, the “Beast” from the sea unleashes persecution against Israel, not the church (Revelation 13:1-10).

In fact, the covenant community attacked by the “Dragon” and its earthly agents is called, variously, the “saints,” the “seed of the woman,” those who “have the testimony of Jesus” and “keep the faith of Jesus,” a “kingdom of priests,” those “who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb,” and so forth.

When the nationality or ethnicity of this group is revealed, consistently, it is declared to consist of men and women redeemed by the Lamb from “every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.” At no point is this company identified as Israel or the Jewish people. Note, for example, the “innumerable multitude” from Chapter 7:

(Revelation 5:8-10) – “And when he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the four-and-twenty elders fell down before the Lamb…and they sing a new song, saying—Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open the seals thereof; because thou wast slain and didst redeem unto God by thy blood [men] out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nationAnd didst make them, unto our God, a kingdom and priests,—and they reign on the earth.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

The evidence presented in Revelation does not support this popular reading. The book in its entirety is addressed to the “seven churches in Asia,” not to Israel or the Jewish people. Its first vision portrays Jesus arrayed in priestly garb walking among “seven golden lampstands” that represent the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:19-20).

The second and third chapters of the book contain seven letters addressed to the seven churches in which “Jews” are mentioned only twice and, both times, they are associated with the “synagogue of Satan.” The charge stems from their having leveled false charges against the churches before local magistrates, therefore, they are linked by the risen Christ to Satan and charged with “slander” or blasphemia (Revelation 2:93:9).

(Revelation 13:5-7) – “And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and slanders (blasphemia); and it was given unto him to act forty and two months. And he opened his mouth for slander  (blasphemia) against God to slander  (blasphemia) his name and his tent—them who in heaven were tabernacling. And it was given unto him to make war with the saints and to overcome them.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The attacks against the churches of Asia are a microcosm of what the “Dragon” does to the "servants" of the Lamb worldwide through his earthly minions, the “beast from the sea,” the "beast from the earth," and the Great Harlot, "Babylon." 

The name of the earthly city of old Jerusalem is mentioned only once, in the vision of the Two Witnesses; however, it refers to the “city” in which the corpses of the two witnesses are seen, the same city where “the Lord was crucified.” Therefore, this “Jerusalem” is categorized as “the great city called Sodom and Egypt,” not as Zion or the city of David. The presence of dead bodies on its streets stresses its ritual impurity. Its designation, “great city,” links it to “Babylon,” elsewhere identified with this same term. Positive statements about “Jerusalem” are applied to the New Jerusalem that is seen descending from heaven (Revelation 11:3-13, 14:8, 16:19, 21:1-9).

But what about the 12,000 males from the “twelve tribes of Israel” that make up the company of the 144,000 men? There is a close literary connection between the initial vision of the Lamb and that of the 144,000 men from the tribes of Israel. In his vision of the Throne, John “hears” a voice proclaim, “the Lion out of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome.” However, when he looks, what he “sees” is a freshly sacrificed Lamb; that is, what John sees interprets what he first hears. Jesus is the messianic lion but he fulfills that role through his sacrificial death (Revelation 5:5-67:1-8).

Chapter 7 records a single vision received by John that is inserted between the sixth and seventh seal openings. He first sees four angels holding back the four winds of the earth until the “servants of God are sealed on their foreheads.” “Servants” translates the Greek noun doulos that was previously applied to the seven churches of Asia.

John then hears the number of the sealed, “a hundred and forty and four thousand sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel; out of the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand…” Just as in the vision of the Lamb, John first hears a description of this group. Just as the Lamb is “the lion out of the tribe of Judah,” so each group of 12,000 men is “out of the tribe of…,” and, not coincidently, the first tribe mentioned is Judah (Revelation 7:1-8).

Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash
As before, when John looks, what he sees is something different than what he first hears. In this case, he sees a vast innumerable multitude of men and women “out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands.” What he sees interprets what he heard (Revelation 7:9-17).

The 144,000 males from the tribes of Israel and the innumerable multitude from every tribe and nation are one and the same group. This parallels the description of the redeemed from Revelation 5:7-10 when the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sang a “new song” of praise to the Lamb because he, by his blood, “purchased [agorazo] for God men out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.” This understanding is borne out when the company of 144,000 “males” appears with the Lamb on “Zion”. John hears this group singing a “new song” that no one outside can learn, only “them that had been purchased [agorazo] out of the earth.” (Revelation 14:1-5).

The book of Revelation in its entirety is addressed to God’s “servants,” identified as the “seven churches of Asia.” They are members of the “kingdom of priests” loosed from their sins by the blood of Jesus; racial identity has no bearing on their status. This classification appears again when a myriad of voices declare the Lamb - “Worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain and purchased unto God with your blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, and made them for our God a kingdom and priests” (Revelation 1:1-6, 5:8-11).
The language of both passages is borrowed from the Book of Exodus when Israel was given the same calling to become a “kingdom of priests,” although, it failed to fulfill that role. This call has now fallen to the men and women from every nation who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Exodus 19:4-6). 

Satan, symbolized by the “Dragon,” is labeled the accuser of the “brethren.” This group is identified as they who overcame the Dragon, “by the blood of the Lamb, the word] of their testimony; and because they loved not their life even unto death.” Unable to destroy the “woman clothed with the sun,” the Dragon vents his rage by launching a “war” against the “rest of her seed, they who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:8-17).

This “war” plays out on the earth when the “beast from the sea” is granted authority to “make war against the saints and to overcome them.” This passage alludes to Daniel 7:21 where the “little horn” was granted authority to “make war with the saints, and to overcome them,” an image that originally portrayed the persecution of the Jewish nation by Antiochus IV or Epiphanes (Revelation13:7-10).

The “saints” are identified in the next chapter of Revelation as “they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus,” wording virtually identical to the description of the “seed of the woman” persecuted by the “Dragon.” In both cases, it is the group’s identification with the “Lamb” that enrages Satan (Revelation 12:17).

In the vision of “Babylon the Great,” John saw her “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Nothing is said about her persecuting activities against Israel or the Jewish people. Babylon is about to be destroyed because “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all that have been slain upon the earth” (Revelation 17:1-6, 18:23-24).

The beast and the kings of the earth unite as the end approaches to wage a final “war” against the Lamb. However, the final victory of Jesus is in no doubt, for “he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they that are with him, called and chosen and faithful.” Revelation uses language from Ezekiel’s description of an assault against Israel by “Gog and Magog” to portray this last battle (Ezekiel 38-39).

John saw heaven opened and a rider on a white horse on whose thigh was written, “Lord of lords and King of kings.” The beast and his forces are gathered against him, but they have no chance, no ability to defeat him.  Language from Ezekiel is used to set the stage, but the actual battle is not described. The text states simply that the beast and false prophet were cast alive into the lake of fire and that the “rest were killed with the sword of him that sat upon the horse” (Revelation 19:11-21).

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The same battle is described once more in Revelation 20:7-10, again using language from Ezekiel’s attack by “Gog and Magog.” But instead of a regional force that attacks Israel in Palestine, this army consists of the nations from the “four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog,…and they ascended up over the breadth of the earth, and encompassed the camp of the saints.” As before, the actual battle is not described. The text states only that “fire came down out of heaven and devoured them.”

The target of this final assault is the “saints,” a term previously applied to followers of the Lamb and not to national Israel. This scene is followed by the final judgment where “anyone not found in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”

After this final defeat of Satan, John sees New Jerusalem descending to the earth inhabited by the “nations and the kings of the earth.” At its center is the “throne of God and of the Lamb” from which flows a river lined with the “tree of life bearing twelve kinds of fruit for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 21:24-26).

The final victory is not about national Israel but the redemption of men and women from every nation and tribe, including Israel. What determines whether one dwells in the great city, New Jerusalem, is identification with the Lamb.

Interpretations that see the book of Revelation as a vision about national Israel must import that idea into the text. Consistently in Revelation, the people of God are followers of the Lamb from every nation, tribe, people, and linguistic group. Jews are not excluded, but they become members in the same way as Gentiles – through the redeeming blood of the Lamb. Ethnicity has no bearing on membership or whether one’s destiny is New Jerusalem or the Lake of Fire.

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