Revelation 7 interrupts the breaking of the seven seals, which concludes in 8.1–5, in order to focus our attention on the church. The divine judgment portrayed in chapter 6, especially the horrifying disasters of the sixth seal, prompts the question: “And who can stand?” (6.17). Chapter 7 contains the answer: The servants of God can, whether they are angels (7.1) or the church (7.9).
It is important to pause for a moment and reflect on the symbolic character of the language in 7.1–8. John tells us that prior to the great tribulation described in chapter 6, an angel carrying “the seal of the living God” ascended with the dawn and cried out: “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” The number of people so sealed, according to John, amounted to “144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” Two questions arise: What does the seal represent, and who are the 144,000?
The seal, often engraved on a signet ring, is a mark of ownership and authority. Here, the seal stamped on the foreheads of the 144,000 clearly denotes God’s ownership of and authority over them. They are guaranteed to survive the fierce winds of the great tribulation, for God does not judge his own.
Who, then, are the 144,000? In 7.1–8, John describes them as members “from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” In 14.1–5, he adds that they “had his [i.e., the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” Furthermore, “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.” Most commentators take the number, tattooing, sex, and marital status of the 144,000 as symbols. The number represents completeness, for example, and their virginity represents their utter rejection of idolatry, which the Bible sometimes describes as a form of adultery. The main debate centers on whether the ethnicity of the 144,000 is also symbolic or whether it denotes a special group of Jewish Christians.
All things considered, I am inclined to interpret the 144,000 as a symbolic description of the church as a whole, not merely its Jewish contingent. Why? (1) If the number, tattooing, sex, and marital status of the 144,000 are symbolic, I do not see a nonarbitrary reason for thinking that their ethnicity is somehow literal. (2) The New Testament sometimes describes the whole church (Jewish and Gentile) as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6.16; cf. Gal. 3.29; Rom. 2.29; Phil. 3.3; and 1 Pet 2.9, which draws its inspiration from Isa. 43.20, 61.6; and Deut. 28.9). And (3) ten of the twelve tribes had ceased to exist after the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eight century B.C. John’s use of their names, then, is symbolic.
The important point to remember, however, is the point John himself emphasizes. Whatever tribulations wrack the earth, the servants of God are safe from harm. In the words of Paul: Nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord (Rom. 8.38–39).
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