Revelation 7 (introduction)
In chapters 4-6 John saw the Ancient of Days seated on His heavenly throne. In His right hand He held a scroll sealed with seven seals which in time He gave to Jesus Christ who then took the scroll and broke off the seals one at a time. As each seal is broken the antichrist is further released to form his empire. Something changes, however, when Jesus breaks the sixth seal. When this seal is opened the wrath of God falls on the earth in an initial but limited burst. It serves to put the human race on notice that God will not allow such evil to continue unopposed. The nations hear that message loud and clear, and judging from the great multitude of martyrs well see here in chapter seven, many repent and believe. Yet, though the disasters contained in the sixth seal were severe they were only an early expression of a wrath which will grow more intense in the trumpets and bowls. At this point in time the seventh seal still remains unbroken. The scroll is closed and Christ has yet to open it and fulfill the prophecies it contains. Before that takes place John watches as another scene of the vision passes before his spiritual eyes.
Verse 1: John sees four angels standing at the four points of a compass: north, south, east and west. They are holding back the winds so they cannot blow on the earth. . . sea. . . or any tree, and since each of these elements is targeted by the first two of the upcoming trumpet blasts (8:7-9), the winds are probably meant as symbols and are not to be taken literally. As symbols they surely represent the winds of Gods judgment just as the flashes of lightening and sounds and peals of thunder being emitted from Gods throne (4:5) picture a coming storm and judgment. By holding back these winds the angels are told to delay the release of more disasters until the number of those who are going to be saved among the Jews (144,000) is complete (vs 3-8).
Revelation 7:2, 3
Verses 2, 3: The symbolism of an angel sealing the bondservants of God on their foreheads is unmistakable. Ezekiel saw the very same action being performed by an angel in Ezekiel 9:1-11. There the prophet was shown an angel marking the righteous on the forehead in order to protect them from the divine judgment that was about to come upon Jerusalem and the Temple. The message contained here is an assurance that though God may bring judgment He carefully sets apart true believers so it will not fall on them (Eze 9:6). With this in mind the meaning of the sealing of the 144,000 becomes clear. God knows His true believers, even those who have not yet been saved, He will even postpone the events of the last days until every single soul has come to Him. It is Gods love and patience which will finally control the timing of these events.
Verses 4-8: Those Ezekiel saw being marked on their foreheads were Jews who grieved over the abominations being committed in their midst (Eze 9:4). The angel who did the marking was told to start at the Temple sanctuary and evaluate the religious leaders one by one. These he was to move out into the city where he was to assess everyone, men and women, young and old. When the destruction came, those marked would be spared. With this in mind verses 4-8 of Johns vision make sense. Just as was being done with Ezekiel, those marked here are Jews, true believers in the family of Israel. However, when compared to Ezekiel, Johns vision is very hopeful. It turned out for Ezekiel that he was the only person marked, meaning there was no one else with true faith (Eze 9:8). But when John looks at the Israel of the last days he sees a very different spiritual climate. Instead of only one person finding Gods approval there will be 144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel (v 4). Then John goes on to say there will be 12,000 from each tribe and lists the tribes one at a time.
Verses 4-8 (continued): The list of tribes John names varies slightly from the 12 sons of Jacob (Ge 49:3-27) and also from Ezekiels list of last days tribes (Eze 48). In particular the tribe of Dan has been dropped and the tribe of Ephraim (Josephs younger son) is given the name Joseph rather than Ephraim. We can only speculate as to why these changes were made. Perhaps Dan was removed for its persistent idolatry (Jdg 18; 1Ki 12:28, 29) (Ryrie Study Bible, NASB 1995 update, footnote to 7:4, p. 2023). And perhaps Ephraim was given Josephs name as a way of honoring Joseph who was simply too great a patriarch to be left off the list. It also would have been considered an honor for Ephraim to hear his fathers name. Verses 4-8 (continued): There has also been much discussion about the number 12,000. Why are exactly the same number of people sealed in each tribe? Some take the statement literally to mean precisely 12,000 Jewish men (sons, v 4) will be saved. But it would be a bizarre miracle indeed if exactly the same number from each tribe came to faith in Christ. In any normal context evangelism just doesnt work out like that. It makes a lot more sense to assume the number is meant to be a symbol.
Verses 4-8 (continued): Other interpreters fail to see the Jewishness of the 144,000 and believe this list of tribes refers to the Gentile church as the new Israel. But if a person simply compares verses 4-8 with verse nine the contrast between these two groups is glaring. One group is made up of the twelve tribes of Israel while the second is composed of an innumerable multitude of Gentiles . . . from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues. . . One has to work hard to avoid seeing Jews and Gentiles. A natural understanding of the passage is that God will withhold additional disasters until a large number of Jews finds Jesus as their Messiah and Savior (Rev 14:1-5). This conclusion is also in keeping with Pauls assertion in his letter to the Romans (Ro 11:25, 26) that a future day would come when the widespread rejection of Jesus by Jews would cease. He expected a future generation when all Israel will be saved (Ro 9:26). In chapter 14 of Revelation John sees this same 144,000 standing beside Jesus on Mt. Zion having the name of the Father written on their foreheads (Rev 14:1).
Verses 4-8 (continued): If we take the number 144,000 to mean a large, complete number of Jews from every tribe of Judaism will turn to Jesus in the last days then we are immediately faced with the question, What will take place to cause such evangelism? The answer is given by John in the upcoming chapters 11 and 12. There he records a remarkable set of events which draws the attention of the whole world to Jerusalem. For three and a half years two witnesses will prophesy and perform miracles in that city. Verse 9: Here Johns vision shifts to a great multitude of Gentiles. He sees an innumerable throng made up of all types of peoples standing before Jesus. They are wearing, white robes which indicates that God has forgiven their sins, and they are holding palm branches just like those who lined the roadside as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Jn 12:12-19). That earlier crowd came with palm branches because they had heard of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 12:17, 18). Full of excitement they went out to welcome Him as their Messiah. As Jesus approached they quoted passages of Scripture that spoke of the coming Messiah, Hosanna. . . blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel (Ps 118:26), and Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your King is coming seated on a donkeys colt. . . (Zec 9:9). Yet their celebration of Jesus died quickly after He was crucified. But now at last in a heavenly Palm Sunday Jesus and the cross are seen for what they are: Gods means of making salvation possible. This multitude in heaven doesnt turn away from Christ because of His sacrifice, but greets the still-scarred Lamb (Rev 5:6) with palm branches.