Chapter 6 has revealed that judgments are about to be unleashed. The four horsemen revealed war, famine, and death. The souls of the slain believers are crying out how long until God brings justice and righteousness. They are told to rest a little while longer and that more are going to die before judgment is unleashed. Revelation 6:12-17 showed us that a nation is about to fall. We have not been told specifically what nation is the object of God’s wrath at this point. There have been many clues, but nothing definitive yet. The point thus far is that it will be “lights out” for this nation and the rest of the earth is to see God’s wrath and learn from it. Before these judgments begin there is something that must happen first. This brings our study into Revelation 7.
Restraining The Winds (7:1-3)
Verse 1 reveals four angels restraining the four winds so that no wind might blow on the earth. The imagery is that these judgments we have read about in chapter 6 are being restrained temporarily. The earth, the sea, or any tree is not allowed to be affected yet. The angels are restraining sweeping judgment. The reason the winds are restrained is explained in verses 2-3.
The servants of God must be sealed before these judgments are unleashed. An angel is pictured with the seal of the living God declaring that the earth must not be harmed until the servants of God are sealed on their foreheads. Before we can continue we must examine what it means for the servants of God to be sealed.
Ezekiel 9 reveals similar imagery. Ezekiel 9:1 records that judgment is coming against the city of Jerusalem. “Bring near the executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand” (Ezekiel 9:1). Before this judgment is brought against the city, the people of God are to be sealed first.
And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” 5 And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. 6 Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. (Ezekiel 9:4–6 ESV)
The sealing has many meanings. God sealing his people pictures protection, security, ownership, and preservation. As we return to Revelation 7 we must consider which aspect of God’s sealing is being emphasized. Could the sealing mean that the people of God would not suffer physical harm or death during these judgments? The reason is because of what we learned in Revelation 6:11. The slain saints were told that there were more servants of God that were going to be killed as they had been killed. Also, the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3 also predicted suffering and death for those Christians (Revelation 2:10,13; 3:10). The sealing is not physical protection. However, Revelation 9:4 shows that the sealing is for protection. Those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads are going to be harmed along with earth. Therefore, the nature of God’s protection must be spiritual. This spiritual protection will be further illustrated in Revelation 7:9-17 and will be explored further in that upcoming study.
There is one other aspect of the sealing of God’s people that cannot be overlooked. The other important function of the sealing in Revelation is to identify those who are God’s. The sealing represents authentication and ownership. The sealed are those who are truly the people of God. This will be contrasted later in Revelation 13 where we will read about those who have the mark of the beast (13:16-17). That marking shows that those people belong to the beast. Those who have the seal of the living God are belong to God.
The 144,000 (7:4-8)
Verse 4 declares the number of those who are sealed as 144,000. The 144,000 are sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel. The great question is: who are the 144,000? We have noted throughout our study that we are to take everything as a symbol unless the text demands otherwise. All the numbers throughout Revelation are symbols. The 144,000 is no different. The number 12,000 symbolizes completeness in Revelation 21:16. The new Jerusalem is pictured with a length, width, and height of 12,000 stadia. The city is seen as full and complete. The meaning is the same concerning the 144,000. Notice that 12,000 are taken from each tribe. The complete number from each tribe are sealed. Now we are told who are being sealed. Let’s not forget what we were told in the first three verses of chapter 7. The servants of God are being sealed. Therefore, the complete sealing of God’s people is being pictured in Revelation 7:4-8. Please notice that the whole tribe is not sealed. Notice that it is 12,000 from each tribe that is sealed. The complete number of God’s servants are sealed.
Some have suggested that this is picturing the Jewish Christians being sealed since the twelve tribes are named. There are a number of reasons to reject this interpretation. First, no where in the book of Revelation is there a distinction made between the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. How often the scriptures preach that there is no distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians! Paul’s apostolic work included the important mission of teaching that there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles in Christ. The book of Revelation never makes this distinction and it would be completely out of place to distinguish between them now. Second, if the Jewish Christians are being sealed, then Gentile Christians are not sealed. Since the sealing is to identify the servants of God and pictures their spiritual protection, the message of Revelation 7 would be that the Jewish Christians are the true servants of God but the Gentile Christians are not. This is an unacceptable result of such an interpretation. When we get to Revelation 14:1 we will see the 144,000 pictured in victory. Why would Jewish Christians have the victory but not the Gentile Christians? This would be to make a distinction where God said there was no distinction.
There are a number of reasons to understand the twelve tribes as a figure and not as the literal tribes. One point that jumps off the page is the naming of the tribes. Notice that the tribe of Dan is missing. Also notice that there was not such a thing as a tribe of Joseph. Ladd says of this unusual naming of the tribes, “John intends to say [by the irregular list] that the twelve tribes of Israel are not really literal Israel, but the true, spiritual Israel – the church.” I think he is exactly right. Another reason that this listing cannot refer to the literal tribes of Israel is because ten of the tribes’ identities were lost when Assyria scattered them in 722 BC. To the further the point, once Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jews lost all of their tribal identities. None of the Jews can know which tribe they are from. This cannot be a literal listing of the tribes.
It would be best to see Revelation 7:4-8 as a picture of Paul’s teaching the book of Romans.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6–8 ESV)
I hope we see that picture. Not all Israel is true Israel. The 12,000 are taken from each tribe. To use another word found in the scriptures, this is the picture of the remnant. “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:5). “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay'” (Romans 9:27-28). The book of Revelation is showing the fulfillment of these teachings and prophecies. We are seeing the total number of God’s servants being sealed. None of God’s servants are left out. The picture is the fullness of the church composed of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. All of them are marked for ownership and spiritual protection as the judgments of God are about to be unleashed on the earth. These are the new Israel of God.
We are in this privileged position by grace (Romans 11:5). We are not deserving of being sealed by God. We have not merited this fantastic status of being his children. By being in Christ we are spiritually protected and no one can harm or destroy our salvation.
You can also be part of the remnant. “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29). Being part of the remnant is about changing the heart to follow Jesus, seeking the praise of God and not the world.