This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 6: The Sixth Seal.
As we begin Chapter 7, Jesus has just finished breaking the first six wax seals on Yahweh’s scroll of Divine secrets. A quick sketch of Yahweh’s future plans for the Roman Empire has been revealed and, well, it’s been hard for Jewish John to hear. It turns out that Yahweh isn’t done blessing Rome. He’s planning to help her expand even more, despite her cruelty towards His people and her dark spiritual state.
When someone does something that really hurts you, then you go crawling off in a broken state only to later hear news about them enjoying some season of abundant blessing, it’s hard to take. This letter is being written to Jewish Christians who are feeling very picked on. Yahweh is the national God of Israel—He’s supposed to be defending His people. But instead, He’s announced that He still isn’t satisfied with the number of Jewish Christians who have been martyred. He says that He’s planning to have still more go down. This is all very upsetting.
There is still one more seal to be broken, but Jesus knows how tough the latest revelations are going to be for His Jewish audience to absorb. It’s time to take a short break and remind discouraged Jews that Yahweh is not only on their side, but that He is setting them apart for special favor because of their devotion to Him.
Now this isn’t the first time in Israel’s history that a group of devoted Yahweh followers has felt discouraged and overlooked by God. Way back in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Israel was a cesspool of wickedness and the vast majority of Jews were wallowing in every kind of evil. Back then, Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem was stuffed with demonic idols. The situation was so bad that even Yahweh Himself said there was no one left in the city of Jerusalem who cared about Him. As usual, He was exaggerating. But things really were terrible, and the number of Jews in Jerusalem who did still care about Yahweh was very low. It was to encourage this very frustrated remnant that Yahweh gave His prophet Ezekiel a very interesting vision. A familiarity with that vision is critical to our understanding what Jesus is going to show John here in Revelation 7, so let’s get a quick overview.
Now Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians back in 586 BC—that’s 586 years before the birth of Christ on earth. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah both preached for decades before that great fall, and many of their messages focused on Yahweh explaining why He felt the destruction of Jerusalem was justified. Now God doesn’t feel the slightest need to justify His actions to us, but because He’s so nice, He often gives us several warnings before He does something that He knows will be extremely upsetting to us. Understanding the Divine perspective of activity on earth helps us properly interpret God’s behavior. Everything that God does is good, His judgments are always right, and His punishments are well deserved. When we don’t see things this way, it’s because we’re not understanding the Divine perspective. Here is where God often raises up prophets to help us understand what the Divine point of view is so that we can then stay in alignment with God. God doesn’t want His people getting all snarky and assuming the worst about Him when He does upsetting things, but unfortunately, this is what we tend to do. Some Divine insight up front can steer us away from these wrong attitudes, and Yahweh provided His righteous remnant in Jerusalem with a ton of insights so that they would be motivated to stand faithfully with Him when He finally leveled the city. But still, it’s hard to live in the midst of wickedness, and the loyal Jews in Jerusalem were very depressed about the state their city was in. To encourage this group, Yahweh once gave His prophet Ezekiel a vision in which He showed the prophet six angelic beings who were called in to slaughter the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The angels were armed with clubs, and they had orders to go through the city and bludgeon the life out of all the humans who lived in it. But before letting them loose, Yahweh ordered another angel to go through the city and put a special mark on the foreheads of all those who still cared about Yahweh.
“Pass throughout the city of Jerusalem,” Yahweh said to him, “and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the detestable practices committed in it.” (Eze. 9:4)
This marking angel led the way, with the clubbing angels following behind. The clubbing angels were told not to harm anyone who was marked with Yahweh’s seal.
“Pass through the city after him and start killing; do not show pity or spare them! Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, as well as the older women and little children, but do not go near anyone who has the mark.” (Eze. 9:5-6)
Now how many times have you heard about that infamous “mark of the beast”? Isn’t it true that many leaders and so-called prophets in the Church have used this phrase to try and freak you out about some coming persecution? Well, these leaders are being jerks and they’ll have to answer to God for the way they are leading you astray. As you can see from our Ezekiel passage, this idea of giving someone an identifying mark was first introduced in the Bible by Yahweh, and His mark was an extremely positive thing. To mark or tattoo something in the ancient world was a way of declaring ownership. So God is essentially writing “you’re Mine” on the foreheads of these people in Jerusalem.
Now the key point Yahweh was making back when He gave this vision to Ezekiel was that the devotion of His faithful Jews was not at all going unnoticed by Him. No matter how evil the world gets, God never loses track of the souls who really care about Him. This is a critical point that you really need to get a grip on because the real end times are rapidly approaching. During this period, God is going to do a lot of frightening, destructive miracles—things that will make Him appear to be extremely angry with everyone. When God acts like this, it is very easy for sincere Christians to get the mistaken idea that He is lumping them in with the rest of the rebellious rabble. Well, no, He isn’t. God never loses track of the souls who really care about Him.
The books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel are filled with messages from Yahweh in which He expresses all kinds of outrage, disgust, and hatred towards the defiant Jews in what’s left of Israel. It’s in the middle of all that raging that He stops to give Ezekiel this vision of Him specially marking out every soul who is still faithful to Him. Now did Yahweh really have angels put some strange mark on people’s foreheads? No, this vision isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s symbolism—but it’s very powerful and encouraging symbolism which would have really boosted the spirits of the faithful Jews in Jerusalem.
Okay, so now that we’re familiar with the Ezekiel story, let’s get into Revelation 7. The last seal that Jesus broke resulted in a vision of the whole world getting trashed. Now He shows John a picture of angels who seem to be gearing up to begin that global destruction.
Then I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds so they did not blow on the earth or the sea, or even on any tree. And I saw another angel coming up from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. And he shouted to those four angels, who had been given power to harm land and sea, “Wait! Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have placed the seal of Yahweh on the foreheads of His servants.” (Rev. 7:1-3)
When Jesus’ Jewish audience hears this account, they’re going to flash back to the story of Yahweh marking the foreheads of His faithful people back in a dark period of Jerusalem’s history. Once again, Yahweh is making the very encouraging point that He is personally tracking every soul who is faithful to Him, and He is setting them all aside for special favor.
Now let’s get some perspective. When Jerusalem fell back in 586 BC, a lot of the righteous were mowed down with the wicked. But so what? The righteous who died back then ended up in Heaven—that’s a whole lot better than getting hauled off as a prisoner of war. Here in Revelation, this marking business isn’t about God promising to shield His people from going through tough times. He’s already said that He’s planning to have more of them martyred. The big encouragement here is that our Gods know who Their faithful followers are, and They reward that faithfulness in fabulous ways.
And I heard how many were marked with the seal of Yahweh—144,000 were sealed from all the tribes of Israel:
From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000. (Rev. 7:4-8)
Here it is: the famous 144,000. People have obsessed over this passage for years and have come up with all kinds of ridiculous conclusions about what it means. Now let’s set the record straight. The first thing that ought to jump out at you is that only Jews are being listed here. So what is this—does God have ethnic favorites? Of course He doesn’t. Don’t let the idiocy of the Church lead you astray here. God doesn’t love certain people more than others based on the features of their earthsuits. Skin color, genetics, place of birth—all of these things are utterly irrelevant details. We are spiritual beings, and it is our spiritual response to God that we are judged by.
Be clear on this: the only reason the Church is sucking up to Israel so hard today is because she thinks this is a way to get extra blessings from God. Most of our leaders are brainwashed with this absurd notion that God condones the attitude of ethnic superiority which the Jews are so famous for. They are taught that God has promised to always bless and side with ethnic Jews no matter how abominably they treat Him. In fact, God is so gone on the Jews that He’ll pour blessings on the heads of anyone who is nice to them. Well, no, God isn’t the jerky father who favors one child over the other simply because he likes the mother of one child better than the other. Now is the time to flush this idea that having Jewish bloodlines automatically makes a person a favorite of God, because this is utter rubbish (see More Lies from Paul: God Loves Jews More Than Gentiles). The reason we’re seeing a long list of Jews here in Revelation is because this letter is being written to Jews. If it were written to ancient Chinese people who were obsessed with their bloodlines, then we’d be seeing a long list of Chinese groups being listed. In our discussion of Chapter 6, we learned that the Jews have a raging superiority complex. They think that their ethnicity is the greatest one on the planet. When you’re trying to encourage people with this mindset, you do some accommodating of their foolishness, so here we have Jesus making a special point to say that a bunch of Jews will end up on the right side of eternity. Throughout Revelation, we’ll find side references to other ethnicities also making it into Heaven, but the Jews are in the spotlight because they are Jesus’ target audience. This isn’t a letter to Gentiles. Gentiles wouldn’t understand half of the stuff that’s going on in this letter unless a Jew explained it to them.
Okay, now all of that said, this list of the twelve tribes of Israel is not quite right. Here’s a fun bit of Bible trivia: there are really thirteen tribes of Israel, not twelve. How did this happen? Well, things got confusing way back in Genesis, and then they were made more confusing when the Israelites settled down in the Promised Land. But let’s start at the beginning.
Way back in Genesis, we meet the grandson of Abraham—a man named Jacob. He’s a conniving little brat who doesn’t exactly wow us with his devotion to God. While there was a lot to admire about Abraham, reading about Jacob’s shenanigans is like sucking on a lemon. We’re left with a bad taste in our mouths.
Well, after sleeping with four different women, Jacob eventually ends up with twelve sons. By now Jacob has been given the unflattering name of Israel by Yahweh. Israel means “he who struggles with God”, and indeed, the nation of Israel is going to do nothing but struggle with God for her whole existence.
Okay, so now we’ve got Jacob who is also called Israel sitting around with twelve sons. Those twelve sons are who the twelve tribes of Israel were supposed to be named after, only this isn’t how things worked out. Like his father before him, Jacob caused division in his home by favoring some of his sons over the others. The favoring was based on who the boy’s mother was. Rachel was the favorite wife who died young after only giving birth to two sons: Benjamin and Joseph. That made those two sons the favorites. Now Rachel’s son Joseph went on to become the guy with the coat of many colors who ended up as second in command in Egypt. Joseph had two sons of his own: Ephraim and Manasseh. All of Jacob’s twelve sons went on to have sons of their own, but for some reason, the Jews decided to obsess over these two sons of Joseph. From that point on, we don’t find references to “the tribe of Joseph”, but rather we hear about the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who are named after Joseph’s sons. Well, once you make two tribes out of one of Jacob’s twelve sons, you end up with a total of thirteen tribes.
Speeding forward through time, we go trooping through the desert with Moses for forty years and the whole time there are thirteen tribes being referenced. But when the Promised Land is divided up into tribal allotments, there are only twelve portions assigned. What happened here? Well, by now Yahweh has set the tribe of Levi aside as His special tribe. He specifically instructs that the Levites are not to be given any single chunk of territory in the Promised Land. Instead, each of the other twelve tribes has to assign certain cities and farmland within their tribal territories to belong to the Levites. Since the Levites were supposed to function as judges and priests, it made sense to have them dispersed throughout the land.
So now we’ve got the land of Israel divided into twelve tribal states, with the thirteenth tribe of Levi scattered all throughout it. Well, if this is how things worked out, how come no one ever talks about the thirteen tribes of Israel today? How come people still say there are only twelve tribes? Well, the ancient Jews got hung up on the number 12, and they just didn’t want to let it go. So we never hear about the thirteen tribes. Instead, only twelve are listed. To make these lists work, you either have to ignore the tribe of Levi (which is what happens when people list off the tribal states in the Promised Land), or you have to merge Ephraim and Manasseh into a single “tribe of Joseph.” Either way, we’re just playing silly games. But numerical superstitions abounded in the ancient times, so we find strong themes of twelve surrounding Israel. Notice how in this list of tribes in Revelation, each tribe is associated with the number 12,000. By adding up twelve 12,000s, we come up with 144,000. It’s a big twelve fest, and none of it is meant to be taken literally. In ancient Jewish numerology (which is called gematria), numbers were attributed spiritual significance. The number 12 is associated with totality, wholeness, and the completion of God’s purpose–all the more reason that we can’t afford to admit that there are really 13 tribes, for then what happens to that sense of completion? Do you see how ridiculous this all is? But this is how superstitious these people were and Jesus is accommodating them.
Now what is easy to miss in this list of twelve tribes in Revelation is that the list is messed up. It has two glaring errors. We see the tribe of Joseph listed and the tribe of Manasseh. This is redundant. To say “the tribe of Joseph” is the same as saying “the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim” because Manasseh and Ephraim were the sons of Joseph. By listing Manasseh and Joseph, Manasseh is being listed twice, while Ephraim is being assumed under the name Joseph. Okay, well, if Joseph is being put in, that must mean someone else is missing, otherwise we should have thirteen tribes. Dan is the tribe who has been booted out. That’s not very nice. What happened to that sense of completion? Israel is hardly complete without one of her tribes.
Back in our lesson Applying Revelation 6: The First Five Seals, we talked about how grudge holding was encouraged in the Jewish culture. Eternally holding the past mistakes of someone’s ancestors over their heads was what the Israelites loved to do, but these games weren’t just reserved for outsiders. Certainly it was extra fun to pick on non-Jews, but the various tribes were good at picking on each other as well. By John’s day, the tribe of Dan had been singled out as a kind of scapegoat. The early Christians decided that this tribe symbolized ultimate evil, so naturally we can’t have any of those yucks listed off here in Heaven’s roll sheet. But why pick on Dan? They were no worse than any of the other tribes. Today scholars will point out how the Danites really got into idol worship back in Judges 18. Well, whoopee. Finish reading the book and you’ll come to the part where Benjaminites gang rape a woman to death just because she was new in town. They really wanted to gang rape a man, but he wouldn’t come out of the house. When the other eleven tribal states (including idolatrous Dan) demand that the entire tribe of Benjamin punish the animals in their midst, the Benjaminite men respond by defending what was done. A massive war breaks out with eleven tribes ganging up against one until the tribe of Benjamin is almost annihilated (see Judges 17-21: Anarchy in Israel). Why is everyone sweeping that epic event under the rug while Dan is being persecuted? Because in the world of grudge holding, nothing is fair. The tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh can do no wrong, because they’re all favorites. Judah was David’s tribe, and the tribe of the Messiah. Benjamin and Joseph were the favored sons of Jacob, so naturally no tribe that was associated with them could be scorned. But Dan? Well, somewhere along the line, Dan became expendable. Jesus is reflecting the carnal foolishness of these Christian Jews by coming up with a tribal list which He knows fits their current lame idea of good. Given the extreme immaturity of the people He is talking to, it would only confuse matters for Him to include evil Dan’s name on this list. So He doesn’t. Isn’t it nice of our Gods to be so accommodating?
So now that we’ve taken a look at how foolish this 144,000 business is, what is Jesus’ point? He’s assuring His Jewish audience that not all of their countrymen will be lost. When you’re constantly being picked on by traditional Jews who are pretending to care about Yahweh, it’s hard to not get bummed. The Jews were a fiercely patriotic people, and even when their fellow Jews were being punks, they didn’t want to be separated from them. Ancient Jews really need to believe that the Jewish ethnicity will be well represented in Heaven. Jesus tells them it will. Jesus is lying, of course, because ethnicity is a body thing and we’ll be ditching our bodies at death. But this is another example of how shortsighted these Jews are: they’re viewing souls in Heaven as still having ethnicity. Utterly ridiculous, but there it is. The Jews definitely believed in the concept of body and soul separating at death, but they can’t seem to grasp a Heaven without ethnicity. To accommodate this, we find Heaven being depicted as a place filled with a variety of skin colors and verbal languages. It’s utterly absurd imagery when you really think about it, but clearly this is what Jesus feels John and his fellow Jews need at this time.
After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,
“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)
Notice once again how Yahweh and the Lamb are being recognized as two separate Deities, both of Whom are being credited for granting people salvation. The white robes and palm branches were common symbols of victory and success in ancient times.
And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living beings. And they fell before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped Yahweh. They sang:
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:11-12)
Everyone dropping onto their faces worshiping Yahweh is emphasizing how magnificent He is. Our Gods love to give us visions of Themselves being exalted by created beings.
Then one of the twenty-four elders asked me, “Who are these who are clothed in white? Where did they come from?”
And I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” (Rev. 7:13-14)
In biblical prophecy, we find many accounts in which some supernatural being—usually an angel—asks a trick question like this. It’s a way of guiding the human’s focus and making him ask the questions that God wants to answer.
Then he said to me, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That is why they stand in front of Yahweh’s throne and serve Him day and night in His Temple.” (Rev. 7:14-15)
The great tribulation is a reference to the current brutalizing of Christians by the Romans. It isn’t a reference to some distant day when the modern Church will be pounded on by Satan and his human hordes. As far as John and his Jewish peers were concerned, they were clearly living in the last days and they were undergoing epic persecution.
Now is there really a Temple in Heaven? Not at all. But for ancient Jews, Yahweh’s Temple was where His Presence has always resided. They can’t separate these two concepts: where Yahweh is, there must be a Temple. In the Old Testament, Yahweh always included a Temple in His pictures of an eternal paradise. Here Jesus continues to preserve a Temple element in His picture of Heaven—at least for now.
“The One who sits on the throne will give them shelter. They will never again be hungry or thirsty; they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun.” (Rev. 7:15-16)
Ancient Israelites were very familiar with desert life. When your native homeland includes a lot of wilderness, getting dehydrated and overheated are common concerns. Jesus is intentionally showing John a paradise which includes benefits that can’t be taken for granted in his native land. The more we get into this book, the more we realize how limited its intended audience was.
“For the Lamb in the center near the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And Yahweh will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17)
Water is a recurring theme in this Heaven that is intended to spike the hopes of Jews who are used to very dry conditions. Shepherding was a common occupation in these times, and a top priority for shepherds was locating sources of fresh water for their flocks. Are you an ancient Jew? Are you living in desert conditions? Are you personally acquainted with some shepherds who are doing it the old fashioned way? If not, then this Heaven Jesus is showing John probably won’t seem all that heavenly to you. Certainly we can all get into the idea of not having any more sorrow, but for many of us, these references to palm branches, white robes, and water springs just don’t sound very appealing. Who wants to spend eternity going around in some kind of nightgown? If we were handed palm branches, what would we do with them? If the Revelation Heaven doesn’t excite you, don’t worry about it. The whole thing is fictional anyway. Jesus isn’t being literal with these visions. The real Heaven won’t be anything like what we’re reading about here. Instead of getting hung up on numbers and robes, we need to see how personal all of this is to John and his fellow Jews. Our Gods interact with each of us in such personal ways. They meet us where we are at. They understand how we think and what we like. They talk to us way down on our simple and often silly creature level, even though They are these awesome, universe sustaining Beings. Who needs a literal glimpse into Heaven when we’ve got such amazing Creators taking care of us every moment of our lives? Whatever Heaven is like, we know it will be wonderful—we know that because we know the Character of the Ones who created it.