sealed document

We who are in Jesus have been marked in a such a way that shows every spiritual entity in the universe – whether angels, or demons, or even the devil – that we belong to God. The seal protects us until we arrive at our destination, the New Heavens and New Earth where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. We are also protected from the judgment and wrath of God. He does not evaluate our performance, instead he evaluates the performance of Jesus on our behalf.

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Download Revelation Part 19

Revelation #19.  Revelation 7:1-8

The first major section of Revelation was made up of the seven letters to the churches. The second section is made up of the first six seals, and then the little paragraph that we will look at today: Revelation 7:1-8. I think John deliberately leaves the seals “unfinished.” He does the same thing with the seven trumpets. I think this is meant to indicate that even though we have come to an end of one of the major sections, he is not done describing the things the Holy Spirit wants him to describe. The leaving of these things “unfinished” tells us that there is more to come. There will be some technical detail in this message. I want to encourage you to read it all the way through. If you do that with each message, when you are done you will understand the book of Revelation better than 90% of other Christians. In addition, there is a rich message of grace and joy in this passage.

So this section ends not with the opening of the seventh seal, but instead with a different kind of “sealing.” Verses 1-3 set the stage:

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel, who had the seal of the living God rise up from the east. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” (Rev 7:1-3, HCSB)

The idea here is that something big is about to happen on the earth. God commands the angels to pause in their work of judging the earth until the “slaves of God” are sealed. In other words, God is going to protect his people in some way from the implacable, righteous judgment of the world. God knows who belongs to him. He is not just waving his hand and saying “destroy them all.” Instead, he knows his people, and he takes precautions so that they are not included in the judgments that are about to come. This is demonstrated later on, in chapter nine:

2He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft. 3Then locusts came out of the smoke on to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. (Rev 9:2-4, HCSB)

Now, there are several questions raised by this text: What does it mean to be “sealed?” Who, exactly are the people being sealed? What is the meaning of the number 144,000?

The text says that an angel arises from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. Let’s remember what a seal was for John’s first readers; we are not talking about the animal. In ancient times there were no self-sealing envelopes. Documents were folded, or rolled, and then a large dollop of hot wax (sealing wax) was placed over the line where the edge of the document rested against the rest of it, in order to hold the scroll or letter closed. While the wax was still hot, the sender of the letter (or document) pushed the end of a special metal, wooden, or clay piece into the wax. The piece had a design or logo on the end of it, and this left an impression on the wax. When the wax dried, the impression was hardened into it, and the wax, with impression kept the document sealed.

This special piece of metal, wood or clay with the design on it was called a “seal,” since it was used to seal documents in this way. Here are some examples of what all this looks like:

sealing ring

A modern seal, on the face of a ring.

A sealed letter.

sealed document

Some examples of ancient seals.

seals ancient

Usually, individuals had their own unique seals, and your seal would be one of your most important and closely guarded possessions. Seals were often kept on rings (as you can see above), or on necklaces. So, if I sent you a letter, you could look at the blob of wax that kept it closed, and see my seal upon it, and therefore you would know that the letter came from me. Also, the seal prevented unauthorized people from opening, or tampering with the document. In short, a seal shows who “owns” a document, and protects that document from harm until it arrives where it is supposed to go.

When we apply this to the text, we understand what it means to be sealed: God is putting his own special mark on his people, to identify them as his own, and to protect them. He is saying “these people are mine.” He is also saying, “No one can tamper with my people.” This is so important that he stops his angels who are about do his work in the world until his people are sealed.

Now, this is a symbolic picture: we are not meant to understand that an angel is going to put a dollop of sealing wax on 144,000 foreheads, and then push God’s seal into the wax on each person. So, how exactly is God doing the sealing?

Thankfully, we have other parts of scripture to shed light onto this. Several times in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is described as the “seal” of our salvation.

22He has also sealed us and given us the Spirit as a down payment in our hearts. (2Cor 1: 22, HCSB)

 13When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (Eph 1:13-14, HCSB)

 29No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. 30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:29-30, HCSB)

So God seals people with his Holy Spirit. The Spirit does many things in the life of one who trusts Jesus, and one of those things is to show everything in the universe that we belong to the Father, and to protect us until we arrive in the New Heavens and the New Earth. I do want to say, for the sake of honesty, that not all commentators on Revelation agree that this sealing is the Holy Spirit. Many people think this is some other sort of “sealing,” given only for the end times. However, they all agree that the sealing is some sort of spiritual (not physical) indication that these people belong to God, and I say that the Holy Spirit does that anyway.

Now, who exactly are the people who will be sealed? In the first place, they are “slaves of our God.” The word slaves has a very negative connotation in our culture; we tend to think of the horrible practice of enslaving Africans that is a dark spot on American and British history. In the New Testament however, slavery was not racial: There were slaves of all races and colors in the ancient Roman empire. In addition, most slaves in those days (with the exception of galley [ship] slaves and slaves condemned to hard labor) had a fair degree of personal freedom. In fact, many slaves entered into that condition voluntarily, because a master was bound to provide for and protect the slaves in his household. Most slaves also had the opportunity to purchase their freedom back from their masters. The key concept when we think about being a slave of God is this: We have made God our owner. We live for His interests, not our own. This should be true of anyone who calls him/her self a Christian. So the slaves of God are Christians.

It also says that these sealed people are “144,000 from every tribe of Israel.” The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans seems to say that at some point in the future, many Jews/Israelites will repent and trust in Jesus Christ. Because of that, some people believe that these verses in Revelation describe a great movement of God among people of Jewish descent, with many of them becoming Christians. According to this idea, it is these Jewish Christians who will be sealed for protection against God’s judgment.

The idea that these are Jewish Christians has many problems however. Why would God protect only Jewish Christians from judgment, but not all other Christians? If we accept that this sealing is related to the Holy Spirit, we can’t certainly can’t say that only Israelite Christians have the Holy Spirit. Some people answer this by saying that the other Christians will be “raptured” (that is, taken up to heaven without dying) by this point in the end times. It is the rapture of Gentile believers, (they say) that will cause all these Israelites to come to faith in Jesus. If you have been paying attention, however, you will realize that there has been no mention of a “rapture” yet in Revelation, and in fact, such a thing is never clearly described in Revelation.

There are other problems with taking this text at face value – that is, taking it to mean that only the twelve tribes of Israel will be sealed against God’s judgment. For one thing, most of the tribes appear to have been destroyed. In approximately 721 BC, the Assyrian empire conquered the area held by the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, and Ephraim and Manasseh (ten tribes). These tribes were deported from the land, and they were scattered all around the Assyrian empire. People were brought in from elsewhere to occupy the territory they left. The result was that those tribes eventually lost all of their separate identity as descendants of Israel. Only the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi continued to have an ongoing sense of being Israelites. For all intents and purposes, 9 out of twelve tribes have been “lost.”

In addition, even if the other tribes still existed, John’s list is all wrong. The tribe of Dan is not even mentioned in the Revelation text. The tribe of Manasseh is mentioned, and also the tribe of Joseph, but Manasseh is part of Joseph; in other words, It should have been either “Manasseh and Ephraim” (but not Joseph); or “Joseph” (but neither Manasseh or Ephraim). Never in any other place in the Bible are they described as “Manasseh and Joseph.”

Some people say Dan is not mentioned because the antichrist is supposed to come from Dan. They base this on one obscure verse:

16“The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan; at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes. They come and devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who dwell in it. (Jer 8:16, ESV2011)

In context, the verse is about the invasion of the Babylonians, which came from the north, through the territory historically held by Dan. But even if it was about the antichrist, it would be pretty harsh to exclude an entire tribe because of one individual.

No, a Jew like John should certainly have known better than list the twelve tribes like this. I think he did it to show us that we are not to take “from the Israelites” literally. I think he means us to understand “Israelites” as “all of God’s people,” whether descended from the twelve tribes or not. Remember, Revelation was written in a kind of code language, in case it fell into the wrong hands. Jewish people were less likely to be persecuted for their faith than Christians, so this is a neat trick to sound like it is about the Jewish faith, while, to those who know anything about the twelve tribes, it is obviously not meant to be taken at face value. Remember, also, that John seems to think of Christians as the true spiritual Jews, even if they aren’t physically Israelites:

8“Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: 9I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Rev 2:8-9, HCSB)

 9Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying — note this — I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. (Rev 3:9, HCSB)

So John sees Christians as the true children of Israel, spiritually speaking. He is not alone in this. The New Testament clearly teaches that those who trust Jesus are the ones who inherit the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, since the time of Jesus, it is the followers of Jesus, whether of Jewish descent, or not, who are the “true Israelites.”

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29, NIV)

In the time of the New Testament, “the circumcised,” or, “circumcision” was sort of a slang for “Jewish” or “Israelite.”

15For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Gal 6:15-16, ESV)

In this context the “Israel of God” appears to mean Christians – both Jewish, and non-Jewish Christians. Many Jews took pride in the fact that they were descended from Abraham. But the New Testament says that all who trust Jesus are also spiritually descendants of Abraham:

9Is this blessing only for the circumcised, then? Or is it also for the uncircumcised? For we say, Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness. 10In what way then was it credited — while he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while he was circumcised, but uncircumcised. 11And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while still uncircumcised. This was to make him the father of all who believe but are not circumcised, so that righteousness may be credited to them also. (Rom 4:9-11, HCSB)

 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:27-29, ESV2011)

6Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, 7then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. (Gal 3:6-7, HCSB)

 This is very important to understand,  and not only for this passage. It explains how we should read the Old Testament. Christians are the true spiritual nation of Israel. The promises of God given in the Old Testament are often meant as much, or more, for Christians as they are for ethnic Jews. They are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For example, consider the promised land. The physical land in Israel was not promised to Christians who are not physically descendants of Abraham. But we do have a promised land: the New Heavens and the New Earth which God is preparing for all who trust Jesus. And the promised land in Jesus is eternal: so much better than the mere physical land. So “the twelve tribes” of Israel, here in Revelation 7, means “Christians.”

Now, let’s tackle the number: 144,000. In Revelation, the number 12 represents the people of God. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and there were twelve apostles. If you multiply 12×12, you get 144. The number “one thousand” in revelation represents “all” of something. Imagine someone saying, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” They don’t mean they have actually told you 1,000 times – it just means “a great number of times.” Or “Mine is a thousand times better than yours.” Again, the number 1,000 is not meant to be taken literally. So, in Revelation, 1,000 of something means “Lots and lots,” or, “all of it.” We put this together: we have all of God’s people from Old Testament times (represented by 12,000), and all of God’s people since the time of Jesus (represented by another 12,000) and you multiply them together, and you get 144,000. It just means that God is going to seal every single person who trusts Him.

Now, this “sealing” doesn’t mean that God’s people will never experience hardship. But it does mean that they will not be judged by God based on their own performance. They will be judged based on the performance of Jesus. The people of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, will never have to worry that God will be angry at them for their sins, or cause them to suffer for their failings. Jesus took the judgment upon himself. When God enacts the final and complete judgment of the world, all of the people of God will be protected from that judgment.

These are wonderful truths for us to understand. We who are in Jesus have been marked in a such a way that shows every spiritual entity in the universe – whether angels, or demons, or even the devil – that we belong to God. The seal protects us until we arrive at our destination, the New Heavens and New Earth where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. We are also protected from the judgment and wrath of God. He does not evaluate our performance, instead he evaluates the performance of Jesus on our behalf. In addition, even the promises of the Old Testament for the Israelites are given to us.

Take a moment to allow these things to sink in.

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