April 17, 2016 “144k+” – Revelation 7
April 17, 2016 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Last week I filled out an on-line survey for Fred Meyer. They offered me 50 extra fuel points. I gave in and spent 10 minutes answering questions about whether I was “satisfied,” “very satisfied,” or “dissatisfied” with product selection, cashier service and cleanliness of the store. Each answer was, of course, assigned a number, 1 to 5.
Having been on the other end of such evaluations, as both a pastor and a teacher, I picture the store manager anxiously going over the tabulation of these surveys, agonizing why she didn’t get more 5s and worried about the 1s or 2s that showed up. The survey asked me for explanations. Why wasn’t I “very satisfied” with the checkout experience? But I have no explanation for the numbers I might give pleasure or displeasure while shopping.
People have always liked numbers, but our modern world seems fixated on them. Computers are particularly good at crunching numbers and less good at understanding things like feelings. So whenever possible we try to turn a feeling like “satisfaction” into a number that can be run through a computer for analysis.
So when we meet an interesting number in the Bible it grabs our attention and focuses it in a way that may not be healthy. We try to determine exactly what 144,000 quantifies. Who are these people who were “sealed” in verse 4 of Revelation 7?
You may have heard some precise, computer-type answers. Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that precisely 144,000 of the most faithful witnessing Christians will go to heaven to live with Jesus forever, while a larger group of less faithful believers will remain in a kingdom on earth. Or dispensational, “Left Behind,” theology says these are literally, exactly 12,000 biological descendants of each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The problem with crunching these numbers like a computer is that they are not literal. As verse 9 tells us, John is talking about what “no one can count.” Imagining we can calculate it only leads us in the wrong direction, and makes this part of Scripture needlessly complex and, even worse, makes it nothing to do with you and me. But it has everything to do with us and the hope we have in Jesus.
Verse 1 of this chapter is obviously not literal. Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth. This is imagery, poetry, not literal description. The great Christian poet John Donne got this four hundred years ago in a sonnet he began with, “At the round earth’s imagined corners…” Even before the “discovery” that the world is round, Christians like Bede in the 8th century did not picture actual corners of the earth, but heard them as the four kingdoms mentioned in the book of Daniel.
From the outset then, this is not literal, scientific explanation. It’s an image of God’s care for His people. God has the angels holding back evil, holding back all the terror and destruction of the world so that people who trust in him, people who pray like the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd,” or who, like Jesus says in our Gospel for today, hear the voice of their Shepherd, can be sealed and protected.
Jesus says in John 10:28 that for those follow him. “I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” That’s the sealing of the 144,000. That’s the truth behind the picture in verses 3 and 4. People are not getting some sort of stamp on their foreheads. God is guaranteeing through Jesus that people who belong to Him will not be lost no matter what happens on this earth.
Read how verse 4 begins, “I heard the number of those who were sealed, 144,000…” But now, as Eugene Peterson points out, read verse 9, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude…” It’s like chapter 5 last week. John heard that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah was worthy to open the scroll, but when he looked, he saw a lamb. When John hears, it’s an image, a word picture, but when he looks he sees something closer to reality.
The two groups of people here in chapter 7 are the same group. The 144,000 in verse 4 is the great multitude no one can count in verse 9. They are both ways of talking about and seeing ourselves and all Christians in God’s story. That perfect number is just that, a way of saying that God is going to collect and protect everyone who trusts in Him, from every possible direction.
To be clear, the 144,000 cannot be actual descendants of all twelve tribes of Israel because ten of those tribes disappeared nearly 800 years before Jesus. The list of tribes doesn’t even match two other lists we find in Genesis and Ezekiel. It’s a picture. God will complete His people, complete what He started with the 12 sons of Israel. It’s a way to say what Jesus said, no one of His will be lost, no one will snatch them from His hand.
We can safely forget trying to calculate that intriguing number and deciding who is in it and who is not, and see what John saw in the second part of Revelation 7. Our Lord has promised that we are and will be saved out of all the evil the winds of the world can blow our way. We are and will be part of a numberless multitude of believers in Jesus from every nation, tribe, people and language.
Yes, yes, I know that the “Left Behind” folks tell you the 144,000 are Jews who will believe in Jesus during the tribulation that’s mentioned in verse 14, and that the great multitude is all the Gentiles who will hear those Jews tell them about Jesus and get saved during that time. But if that’s what it’s about, then this has nothing really to do with you and me. According to that same supposedly literal interpretation, it’s about the “left behind.” Anyone who is a Christian right now will be long gone.
I’m getting less diplomatic in my old age, so I’ll just say all that “Left Behind” stuff is “horse pucky” and should be just that, left behind. Like Christians did centuries before anyone came up with that rapture-followed-by-seven-years-of-tribulation business, you and I may read our own hope in these verses. This is what Jesus our Savior promised for us.
If you disagree with me, let’s not get stuck there, debating the order of the end times. This text applies to you and me whether you believe the Left Behind theology or not. We wonder who the 144,000 are, but John was asked in verse 13 who the multitude dressed in white robes are. He didn’t know, but the angel told him in verse 14 that they are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Revelation 7 is about all Christians because all of us are forgiven by the grace of Christ and are washed clean by His blood. We receive that salvation and celebrate it in every ordeal we go through, small or great. Tribulation and trouble is part of every Christian life and the hope of salvation carries us through it to a good ending in the presence of our Lord.
Whether you live to see the end times or not, you will see trials. Pastor Bao in the Zhejiang province of China got sentenced in February to fourteen years in prison for opposing the removal of crosses from churches there, over 2,000 in the last couple years. Bao’s wife got a twelve-year sentence. He was the pastor of a supposedly government-sanctioned church, not one of the many illegal house churches.
In one of those house churches in Zheijiang a CBS correspondent asked thirty people there how many of them had been detained or jailed by the police. They all raised their hands. Stories like that come out of the middle-east, out of Bangladesh, out of South America, even out of our own country as being faithful to Jesus costs people trouble and persecution and even their lives.
You might think your troubles are nothing like that, but they still matter. Jesus still wants you to know that He’s not going to let go of you. What kind of people do we need to be in order to be confident of that salvation, to hold onto that hope through our own troubles?
The hymn the multitude sings begins, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” That’s what this chapter is about, the people of Jesus Christ celebrating the Father on the throne and the Lamb who came to save us. The 144,000, the great multitude who came through ordeal washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, are people who learned to worship and sing the praises of their Savior whatever happens.
They sang praise after the ordeal because they sang praise before they got there. They relied on what they sang in verse 10, that salvation is the gift of God and of the Lamb, His Son, Jesus Christ. They knew that God was saving them even when it didn’t feel like it, even when the circumstances and people around them were against them. Like Chinese Christians and Bangladeshi Christians and all those suffering for Jesus today, they were carried through by the salvation that belongs to and comes from God and the Lamb.
144,000 is a good picture because it’s specific. Though the multitude in verse 9 is countless, God knows the number. Jesus knows all the sheep who have heard and answered His voice. He is going to gather them in and the number will be complete. We worship Him now for the salvation that He has already accomplished and for the total completion which He has promised.
When Ethel Hughes was eight years old, her mother died. It was 1902. Her father was left with eight children to raise in dusty Oklahoma. He packed the family into a covered wagon and moved them to Missouri. Ethel grew up helping care for her younger sister. When she was nineteen she married and moved to Kansas. She had a daughter she named Elizabeth. When Elizabeth was two years old, Ethel’s husband traveled west to look for work. He wrote for several weeks. Then the letters stopped coming. One day his empty wallet arrived in the mail. That was the last Ethel heard of him.
Not knowing what to do, Ethel and her daughter got on a train and headed for a tiny mining town in northern Arizona, where her older sister Eva had gone earlier. Getting off the train, she and Elizabeth were met by Eva and her husband Walter. Walter drove them in a buggy, driving the horse so fast up the twisty road that Ethel was sure she would die right then.
As soon as Ethel settled down in Arizona, her little girl caught typhoid fever and was deathly sick for weeks. A nurse named Cecilia Barker took care of her until she was well. Ethel met Cecilia’s brother Mark. He was a widower twenty years older than Ethel and he also had a young daughter, Gwen. Ethel felt sorry for a little girl with no mother. Before long she married Mark just to help him take care of his child. She called him “Mr. Barker” even after they were married. But they learned to love each other.
In 1925 Mark and Ethel had their own baby girl named Margaret. Seven years later came one more baby, another girl. Since he had no son, Mr. Barker named her Mark. The Depression had begun. But God blessed the Barker feed and seed business. They had more than many folks around them. Mark gave credit to anyone who needed it and helped quite a few of his neighbors make it through those bad times. Their girls grew up and went to college and married and had families of their own. The Barkers had many good years of life and saw several grandchildren born before Mark died in the late 1950s.
It’s a pretty ordinary story, and the trials of that family were nothing unusual for the times they lived. I tell it because I am one of the grandchildren. Margaret is my mother. I am here now, and a Christian now, because God brought my grandparents through their struggles. They were Christians. Grandma was a pillar of her church and Grandpa practiced Christian charity. In my own history I see how God carries His people through ordeals. My faith takes on solidity when I remember this story.
I also hear in Revelation 7 that our story is part of something bigger. In Acts 9 today we see another woman, Dorcas, Tabitha whom Jesus brought through even the ordeal of death. He sent Peter to raise her up.
Dorcas, my grandmother, and my mother are part of that big number, that perfect twelve times twelve thousand, a countless multitude who sing praise to Jesus and the Father who brought them through. Every person in that number has a story, a story of their Savior carrying them through ordeals. Why? Because God wants that story to include as many as possible, to bring everyone who will come into that gathering. He is holding back the end, holding it back at every corner until everyone has a chance to know.
I don’t think I ever saw Grandma cry, but I’m sure she did when she lost her mother, or when her first husband disappeared. I did see my mother cry, several times, with the burden of being a single parent. You and I have shed our own tears over whatever ordeals we’ve been through or are still in.
The final word of the last three verses of this chapter is that everyone in the great multitude is through with tears. Every ordeal comes to an end and is healed and blessed by Jesus. When we worship Him we declare that faith. We will be with Him, worshipping Him forever, just like it says in verse 15, “they are before the throne of God and worship day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.”
Like that specific number 144,000, verse 16 talks about specific ordeals: going hungry, being thirsty, suffering the burning heat of the sun. For some Christians around the world those literally are their tribulations. For others it’s sickness or government oppression or poverty. Whatever it is, whatever it is for you, the promise is that it will be no more. There will be no more of that, because verse 17 tells us:
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Last week we heard that the Lamb was and always will be the Lamb who was slain. He brings you through because He came through on the Cross. His blood washes you clean through your trials. But another change appears here, “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” The Lamb is the Shepherd. That’s what Jesus said in John 10. It’s what we said together in Psalm 23. It’s what we heard happened for one of the first Christians in Joppa. We are brought through whatever comes by the One who has been through it all Himself, the Shepherd who is the Lamb.
You may feel like merely a number, whether it’s shopping club card, or a tax ID, or patient number at your doctor’s office. The good news today is that you and all those around you are precious. Your story is included in a number much larger than yourself. Don’t try to count that number, but let what you do count for the Shepherd. Let it count in a way that helps others to be counted there too.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj