This whole section of Revelation is about the underlying spiritual reality that is affecting the events of our physical lives. It is here to remind the first readers, and us, that the things that we experience every day are also part of an underlying spiritual reality that we cannot see, but is nonetheless very real. In that Spiritual Reality, we are already holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:6); already seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); we have already been raised to life with Christ, and our lives are hidden with him (Colossian 3:1-2). We are already singing the song of the redeemed, already walking with the Lamb wherever he goes (our text for today).
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:
To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 30
Revelation #30. Revelation 14:1-5
It is so easy, when reading Revelation to fall into the trap of interpreting things literally. In this passage, one of the things we fixate on is this weird idea:
These are the ones not defiled with women, for they have kept their virginity. (verse 4)
But let’s back up. We don’t think the beast is literally an animal, but rather its description is figurative. We don’t think that 144,000 is a literal number. Instead, the number symbolizes all of God’s redeemed people – whatever the actual number will be. So, before we go crazy on verse four, let’s consider what it might mean if this, too, is a symbolic idea.
There are two very important principles of Bible interpretation that we should apply here. One is the principle that we interpret the Bible in such a way that it does not contradict itself. In other words, if there is a way to harmonize apparently contradictory passages, we choose that over an interpretation that creates a contradiction. That is how we read every other book – we don’t assume the author has contradicted himself if we don’t have to. Also, we interpret obscure passages in the light of what is clear elsewhere. So, what we have today is an obscure passage. Are there clear passages that would help us understand it? Yes, indeed. Let’s look at them.
The Bible has a very well-defined standard for human sexuality. According to the Bible, sex was made by God, and part of the creation that he called “good.” Sex was made for marriage, and for marriage only. Any sexual activity outside of marriage is called “sexual immorality,” and is considered sinful. But sex within marriage is good, and intended by God. It is a wonderful, powerful tool to help married couples build and maintain intimacy. In fact, the Bible even teaches that married couples should have sex regularly, and should not stop doing so except for mutually agreed upon breaks for prayer and fasting:
1 Now in response to the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman.” 2 But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. 3 A husband should fulfill his marital responsibility to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. 4 A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say the following as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all people were just like me. But each has his own gift from God, one person in this way and another in that way. (HCSB 1 Corinthians 7:1-7)
When Paul says “I say this as a concession, not a command,” he is talking about singleness, not sex within marriage. His own gift – the thing that he wishes everyone was like him in – was the gift of being single and celibate. But the teaching is, if you can’t be single and celibate, you should get married, and once you are married, you should not deprive each other without mutual agreement. Sex is complicated, and it requires a lot of clear, honest communicating with each other about. I’m not saying that no partner should ever have the right to say “no.” But the plain sense of this passage is that sex is supposed to be a good and important part of marriage.
Therefore (and the passage above isn’t the only place where this is taught) we cannot take Revelation chapter 14 to mean that all sex defiles a person; intimacy between married people is, in a way, holy. It is certainly not defiling. Early Christian writers like Augustine (and many others) believed that when spouses remained monogamous they were, in a spiritual sense, still “virgins.”
Also, the phrasing “defiled themselves with women,” if we take it literally, means that the 144,000 includes only men. But even the earliest Christians rejected this notion, and taught that both men and women were intended in this passage, and in fact, in all passages of scripture:
And indeed not to men only does the Lord promise the grace of continence, disregarding women; but since woman is a part of man and was taken and formed from him, almost universally in the Scriptures God addresses the first formed because they are two in one flesh, and in the man is signified likewise the woman. (early church father Cyprian, circa 248 AD. ACCS).
Even though some ancient Christians believed that this passage was teaching about a special place in God’s kingdom for literal virgins, I think the language of “defiling” shows that it is unlikely that we are to understand this literally. Instead, it is a figure of speech. If so, however, what does it mean?
I think the best understanding of this is that it refers to “virginity” in spiritual matters. All throughout the Bible, when the Lord talks about idolatry, he uses the metaphor of sexual unfaithfulness to describe the spiritual unfaithfulness inherent in worshipping other things.
10They will eat but not be satisfied; they will be promiscuous but not multiply. For they have abandoned their devotion to the LORD.// 11Promiscuity, wine, and new wine take away one’s understanding.// 12My people consult their wooden idols, and their divining rods inform them.// For a spirit of promiscuity leads them astray; they act promiscuously in disobedience to their God.// 13They sacrifice on the mountaintops, and they burn offerings on the hills, and under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, because their shade is pleasant.// And so your daughters act promiscuously and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. (Hos 4:10-13, HCSB)
This is not literal promiscuity – it is describing idol worship. Here are a few more:
7All her carved images will be smashed to pieces; all her wages will be burned in the fire, and I will destroy all her idols. Since she collected the wages of a prostitute, they will be used again for a prostitute. (Mic 1:7, HCSB)
6In the days of King Josiah the LORD asked me, “Have you seen what unfaithful Israel has done? She has ascended every high hill and gone under every green tree to prostitute herself there. 7I thought: After she has done all these things, she will return to Me. But she didn’t return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8I observed that it was because unfaithful Israel had committed adultery that I had sent her away and had given her a certificate of divorce. Nevertheless, her treacherous sister Judah was not afraid but also went and prostituted herself. 9Indifferent to her prostitution, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10Yet in spite of all this, her treacherous sister Judah didn’t return to Me with all her heart — only in pretense.” This is the LORD’s declaration. (Jer 3:6-10, HCSB)
Once again these verses are talking about the fact that Israel and Judah worshipped other gods, and did not seek the Lord. Therefore, I think in our passage on Revelation, verse 4 is all about remaining spiritually pure. The 144,000 are those who have not worshipped other gods, who have not defiled themselves by allowing anything to displace God as God in their lives. One ancient Christian commentator put it like this:
In this passage we do not understand the “virgins” to be only those who are chaste in the body. Rather, we have especially in mind the whole church that holds to the pure faith, as the apostle says, “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” For she is not corrupted by any adulterous commixture of the heretics, nor to the end of its life is it hindered by the alluring yet deadly desires of this world.
….Truly, dearest brothers, of what profit is it for a man or woman, whether cleric or monk or religious, if bodily virginity is preserved, as long as purity of the heart is violated by evil desires? (Caesarius of Arles , 470-543. ACCS )
The point then, is that the 144,000 are those who put God first in their lives and let nothing take His place. They remain steadfastly faithful to God’s revealed word, which is the Bible.
Now, let’s back up and put this all in context. This is the fifth part of the section I call “The Seven significant signs.” The whole section is about the underlying spiritual reality that is affecting the events of our physical lives. It is here to remind the first readers, and us, that the things that we experience every day are also part of an underlying spiritual reality that we cannot see, but is nonetheless very real.
Up until now, we have seen the negative side of that spiritual reality: we learned that there is spiritual war going on. The devil has already lost to God, and is now, out of spite, trying to destroy those who follow Jesus. But there is more to that spiritual reality than just the negative. Our passage today is showing us that there is also a positive spiritual reality that should impact our lives here and now. And so, we have the picture of the 144,000 worshiping God and being with the lamb wherever he goes. Revelation has given us this message before, but it must be important, since this text reiterates it: the victory is already won.
The text says that these are the “firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” I think John’s first readers would have thought immediately of those who had been put to death for their defiance of the culture in following Jesus. We’ve just come from a very dark section, where it says:
10 If anyone is destined for captivity, into captivity he goes. If anyone is to be killed with a sword, with a sword he will be killed. This demands the perseverance and faith of the saints. (HCSB. Revelation 13:10)
But now we have a picture of what comes after that: after “the sword” you join the firstfruits for God and the Lamb. Their battle is over, they have been delivered. Even as the devil thrashes around here on earth, the great victory celebration has already begun in heaven. This text is here to remind us that the eternal reward for remaining faithful to Jesus is far greater than the cost of discomfort and persecution here on earth. The writer of Hebrews had a similar idea when he wrote:
1Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3, HCSB)
In fact, I would say that this part of John’s vision is a colorful, graphic way of saying the same thing.
So what do we do with all this? First, the faithfulness metaphor. I know for myself that it is easy to lose sight of what is at stake in being faithful to God, and to his Word. The culture to which John wrote was not asking Christians to completely deny Jesus; they simply wanted Christians to agree with the rest of the culture about certain things, and to show their allegiance to the culture by just a small act of worship. It would have been easy for those first Christians to think, “Is it really such a big deal?” But the picture here shows that that is like asking, “Is it really such a big deal if I’m unfaithful to my spouse?”
Now I want to make sure and cover all the bases. Maybe, at some point you have compromised, and you haven’t been faithful to God. Maybe you have allowed other things to come in between you and him. Jesus died to make it right between you and God. But you do have to receive that in faith, and if you receive that in faith, it will change you. If trusting in Jesus doesn’t change your behavior, then you aren’t really trusting in him. But when you do truly trust in him, your sins are entirely removed and forgiven, and, in Jesus, it is as if you had never failed. You can remain spiritually pure, because of Jesus. Also, as we follow him, we learn to want to be pure. The Holy Spirit grows that desire in our hearts.
Second, the victory metaphor. I’m going to speculate a little bit here; please don’t take this next piece as if it is written in stone. But sometimes, I like to picture time as a book. Inside the book, the characters move from one page to the next. They can’t turn the pages back; they move through time in a linear fashion. Now imagine, that when the book has been completely read, the characters get to come out of the book and stand outside, where a reader of the book would be. Now, all of the book – past, present, future – is in the book, and the characters are outside of that place. Their lives are in the book, proceeding in a linear fashion from one page to the next. And yet now they also are outside of the book and what is happening to them outside of the book is going on “at the same time,” so to speak, as they go through the book from page to page. So while they are in the book facing trials and struggles, they are, also, “at the same time,” outside of the book celebrating with friends and family.
I wonder sometimes if that is a little bit like the spiritual reality. We live inside time; “inside the book.” But spiritual reality is outside the book. In that spiritual reality we are there, already entirely saved. We are already holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:6); already seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); we have already been raised to life with Christ, and our lives are hidden with him (Colossian 3:1-2). We are already singing the song of the redeemed, already walking with the Lamb wherever he goes (our text for today).
When we truly believe this, it changes everything. Yes, we still have to finish the book, page by page. And yet, the end is already written. This why the Apostle Paul could say:
16 Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (HCSB, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
I want us to learn to say the same thing. Let the Spirit speak to you today!