Chapter 7: The True Israel

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text

The two visions of this chapter (v. 1-8 and v. 9-17) are still part of the Sixth Seal, providing a resolution of the problem of Israel’s fall. Yet they also form an interlude or intermission, a period of delay between the sixth and seventh seals that serves to heighten the sense of waiting complained of by the saints in 6:10, since this section is in part the divine answer to their prayer (cf. the delay between the sixth and seventh trumpets, 10:1-11:14). Before the Fall of Jerusalem, Christianity was still largely identified with Israel, and the futures of the two were interconnected. The Christians were not separatists; they regarded themselves as the true heirs of Abraham and Moses, their religion as the fulfillment of all the promises to the fathers. For the Church to exist completely separate from the Israelite nationality and from the Holy Land was virtually unimaginable. Thus, if God’s wrath were to be unleashed upon Israel with all the undiluted fury portrayed in the Sixth Seal, bringing the decreation of heaven and earth and the annihilation of mankind, what would become of the Church? What about the faithful who find themselves in the midst of a collapsing civilization? Would the believing remnant be destroyed in the coming conflagration along with the enemies of the faith?

The answer given in these visions is that “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9): The Church will be preserved. In terms of the corning judgment on Israel, in fact, the Lord had given explicit instructions about how to escape from the Tribulation (see Matt. 24:15-25; Mark 13:14-23; Luke 21:20-24). The Christians living in Jerusalem obeyed the prophetic warning, and were preserved, as Marcellus Kik pointed out in his study of Matthew 24: “One of the most remarkable things about the siege of Jerusalem was the miraculous escape of the Christians. It has been estimated that over a million Jews lost their lives in that terrible siege, but not one of them was a Christian. This our Lord indicated in verse 13: ‘But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved.’ That the ‘end’ spoken of was not the termination of a Christian’s life but rather the end of Jerusalem is evident from the context. Immediately after this verse Christ goes on to relate the exact time of the end. Christians who would live to the end would be saved from the terrible tribulation. Christ indicates also the time for the Christian to flee from the city so that he could be saved during its destruction. This is verified in a parallel passage (Luke 21:18): ‘But there shall not an hair of your head perish.’ In other words, during the desolation of Jerusalem, Christians would be unharmed, although in the period previous to this some would lose their lives through persecution.” [1]

The 144,000 Sealed (7:1-8)

  1. And after this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the Land, holding back the Four Winds of the earth, so that no wind should blow on the Land or on the sea or on any tree.
  2. And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the Seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud Voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the Land and the sea,
  3. saying: Do not harm the Land or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.
  4. And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
  5. From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
  6. from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
  7. from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
  8. from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.

1-3      St. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the Land, divine messengers to whom it was granted to harm the Land and the sea; yet here they are holding back the Four Winds of the earth, so that no wind should blow on the Land or on the sea or on any tree. While Land and sea are in the genitive case, tree is in the accusative, indicating that St. John wishes to draw special attention to it. Throughout the Bible, trees are images of men (Jud. 9:8-15). In particular, they are symbols for the righteous (Ex. 15:17; Ps. 1:3; 92:12-14; Isa. 61:3; Jer. 17:5-8).[2]

The wind in Scripture is used in connection with the coming of God and the action of His angels in either blessing or curse (cf. Gen. 8:1; 41:27; Ex. 10:13, 19; 14:21; 15:10; Num. 11:31; Ps. 18:10; 104:3-4; 107:25; 135:7; 147:18; 148:8; John 3:8; Acts 2:2). In this case, the angel is speaking of the sirocco, the hot desert blast that scorches vegetation as a figure of God’s burning judgment of the ungodly (cf. 16:9, and contrast 7:16):

Though he flourishes among the reeds,

An east wind shall come,

The wind of the LORD coming up from the wilderness;

And his fountain will become dry,

And his spring will be dried up;

It will plunder his treasury of every precious article.

Samaria will be held guilty,

For she has rebelled against her God.

They will fall by the sword,

Their little ones will be dashed in pieces,

And their pregnant women will be ripped open.

(Hos. 13:15-16)

As we have seen,[3] the association of angels with “nature” is not “mere” imagery. God through His angels really does control weather patterns, and He uses weather as an agency of blessing and judgment. From the very first verse, the Bible is written in terms of what Gary North calls cosmic personalism: “God did not create a self-sustaining universe which is now left to operate in terms of autonomous laws of nature. The universe is not a giant mechanism, like a clock, which God wound up at the beginning of time. Ours is not a mechanistic world, nor is it an autonomous biological entity, growing according to some genetic code of the cosmos. Ours is a world which is actively sustained by God on a full-time basis (Job 38-41). All creation is inescapably personal and theocentric. ‘For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead…’ (Rom. 1:20).

“If the universe is inescapably personal, then there can be no phenomenon or event in the creation which is independent from God. No phenomenon can be said to exist apart from God’s all-inclusive plan for the ages. There is no uninterpreted ‘brute factuality.’ Nothing in the universe is autonomous…. Nothing in the creation generates its own conditions of existence, including the law structure under which something operates or is operated upon. Every fact in the universe, from beginning to end, is exhaustively interpreted by God in terms of His being, plan, and power.”[4]

The four angels are restraining the judgment in obedience to the command of another angel, whom St. John sees ascending from the rising of the sun, whence God’s actions in history traditionally came (cf. Isa. 41:1-4, 25; 46:11; Ezek. 43:1-3). This angel comes as the representative of Christ, the Sunrise from on high who has visited us (Luke 1:78), the Sun of righteousness who has risen with healing in His wings (Mal. 4:2; cf. Eph. 5:14; 2 Pet. 1:19). He possesses the Spirit without measure (John 3:34), the Seal of the living God with which He marks out the people of His own possession, and by His order the judgments on the Land are not fully poured out until we – Christ and His messengers – have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads: The Seal of the Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30) is applied to the righteous before the Seals of wrath are applied to the wicked; Pentecost precedes Holocaust.

The seal in the Biblical world signified a grant of authority and power, a guarantee of protection, and a mark of ownership (cf. 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 2 Tim. 2:19). The primary Old Testament background for St. John’s imagery is Ezekiel 9:1-7, which shows God commissioning executioners to destroy everyone in the city of Jerusalem; the first to be slain are the elders at the Temple. First, however, He commands another angel to “go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are being committed in its midst” (v. 4). The godly are marked for protection, in order that the apostates in Jerusalem may be destroyed.

The mark on the forehead is thus a symbol of man restored to fellowship with God. One striking example of this was the High Priest, whose forehead was marked with gold letters proclaiming that he was HOLY TO THE LORD (Ex. 28:36). Further, in Deuteronomy 6:6-8, all God’s people are sealed in the forehead and the hand with the law of God, just as they are characterized in life by faithful obedience in thought and action to every word of God.

The protective “mark” in Ezekiel 9 is literally tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The ancient Hebrew form of the tav was +, a cross – a fact that was not lost on the early Church, which saw it as “a quasi-prophetic reference to the sign of the cross as used by Christians, and it is possible that the use of that sign in baptism may have originated in this passage.”[5] Tertullian believed that God had given Ezekiel “the very form of the cross, which He predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true Catholic Jerusalem.”[6] Holy Baptism, the Seal of the Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; cf. Rom. 4:11), marks these believers as the covenant-keeping bond-servants of our God, who will be preserved from God’s wrath as the ungodly are destroyed. “The purpose of the sealing was to preserve the true Israel of God as a holy seed. It was not designed to save them from tribulation, but to preserve them in the midst of the great tribulation about to come and to glorify them thereby. Though the old Israel be cast off, a new and holy Israel is to be chosen and sealed with the Spirit of the living God.”[7]

4-8      The number of those who were sealed is read to St. John: one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel, with twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes. The number 144,000 is obviously symbolic: twelve (the number of Israel) squared, then multiplied by 1000 (ten and its multiples symbolizing many; cf. Deut. 1:11; 7:9; Ps. 50:10; 68:17; 84:10; 90:4). St. John pictures for us the ideal Israel, Israel as it was meant to be, in all its perfection, symmetry, and completeness; the holy Army of God, mustered for battle according to her thousands (cf. 1 Chron. 4-7). The “thousand” was the basic military division in the camp of Israel (Num. 10:2-4, 35-36; 31:1-5, 48-54; 2 Sam. 18:1; 1 Chron. 12:20; 13:1; 15:25; 26:26; 27:1; 28:1; 29:6; 2 Chron. 1:2; 17:14-19; Ps. 68:17). This is the significance of Micah’s famous prophecy of the Nativity: Even though Bethlehem is too small to be counted “among the thousands of Judah,” too insignificant to be considered seriously in the nation’s military strategy, yet “from you One will go forth for Me to be Ruler in Israel,” the King who will establish God’s justice and peace to the ends of the earth (Mic. 5:1-15). It is in terms of this Biblical imagery that St. John hears the names of the tribes shouted out: He is listening to the military roll-calI of the Lord’s Hosts. In this case, each of the twelve tribes is able to field twelve full divisions, a numerically perfect army of 144,000 soldiers of the Lord.

St. John’s vision of an Israelite army is thus, in Milton Terry’s words, “an apocalyptic picture of that ‘holy seed’ of which Isaiah speaks in Isaiah 6: 13 – that surviving remnant which was destined to remain like the stump of a fallen oak after cities had been laid waste and the whole land had become a desolation-that ‘remnant of Jacob,’ which was to be preserved from the ‘consumption determined in the midst of all the land’ (Isa. 10:21-23). It is the same ‘remnant according to the election of grace’ of which Paul speaks in Romans 9:27-28; 11:5. God will not destroy Jerusalem and make the once holy places desolate until He first chooses and seals a select number as the beginning of a new Israel. The first Christian Church was formed out of chosen servants of God from ‘the twelve tribes of the dispersion’ (James 1:1), and the end of the Jewish age was not to come until by the ministry of Jewish Christian apostles and prophets the gospel of the kingdom had been preached in the whole world for a testimony unto all the nations (Matt. 24:14).”[8]

St. John comforts his readers: Judgment will assuredly be poured out upon the apostates of the Old Covenant, but the Church herself is not in danger. Indeed, the true Covenant people are safe, whole, and entire. Even though God is about to destroy Jerusalem, annihilating every last vestige of the Old Covenant world-order and system of worship, Israel endures. The Covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not jeopardized in the slightest. In fact, the outpouring of God’s wrath in the destruction of Jerusalem will only serve to reveal the true Israel in greater glory than ever before. Jerusalem is sacked and burned, its inhabitants killed and scattered; but Israel – all of her people, in all of her tribes – is sealed and saved. “Judgment thus is not only the other side of the coin to salvation, but it is also an act of grace and mercy to the people of God. However devastating the fall of Jerusalem was to the faithful remnant, without that fall no remnant would have remained.”[9]

The Order of the Twelve Tribes in Revelation

[I have set this out as a separate section because it will undoubtedly be the most wearying part of the book to read. The reader who tires easily should give it a brief glance and move on. While I have tried to simplify the discussion as much as possible, I fear it still looks exceedingly complex. All this would be much easier if we knew our Bibles as well as the children in the first-century synagogues: If we knew by heart the names of Jacob’s sons and their mothers, and the twenty or so different orders in which they are listed in the Old Testament (and the reasons for each variation), we would almost immediately understand what St. John has done with his list, and why.

Some remarks by Austin Farrer are especially pertinent here: “The purpose of symbols is that they should be immediately understood, the purpose of expounding them is to restore and build up such an understanding. This is a task of some delicacy. The author had not with his conscious mind thought out every sense, every interconnection of his imagery. They had worked in his thinking, they had not themselves been thought. If we endeavor to expose them, we shall appear to over-intellectualize the process of his mind, to represent an imaginative birth as a speculative construction. Such a representation not merely misrepresents, it also destroys belief, for no one can believe in the process when it is thus represented. No mind, we realize, could think with such complexity, without destroying the life of the product of thought. Yet, if we do not thus intellectualize, we cannot expound at all; it is a necessary distortion of method, and must be patiently endured by the reader. Let it be said once for all that the convention of intellectualization is not to be taken literally. We make no pretence of distinguishing between what was discursively thought and what intuitively conceived in a mind which penetrated its images with intelligence and rooted its intellective acts in imagination….

“The reader who perseveres through the analyses which follow may naturally ask, ‘How much of all this did the congregations of the Seven Churches comprehend, when the apocalyptic pastoral of their archbishop was read out to them?’ The answer is, no doubt, that of the schematic analysis to which we resort they understood nothing, because they were listening to the Apocalypse of St. John, and not to the lucubrations of the present writer. They were men of his own generation, they constantly heard the Old Testament in their assemblies, and were trained by the preacher (who might be St. John himself) to interpret it by certain conventions. And so, without intellectual analysis, they would receive the symbols simply for what they were. They would understand what they would understand, and

that would be as much as they had time to digest.”][10]

Scholars have long puzzled over the order of the tribes in St. John’s list. Obviously, Judah is named first because that is the tribe of Jesus Christ; other than that, many have supposed that the list is either haphazard (given the Biblical writers’ – especially St. John’s – extreme attention to detail, this is highly unlikely), or else permanently locked in mystery (this is just sheer arrogance; we should always remember that, if we can’t answer a question, someone probably will come along in the next hundred years or so who will). As usual, however, Austin Farrer’s explanation has the most to offer. Pointing out that the names of the twelve tribes are written on the gates of the four-cornered New Jerusalem (21:12), he proposes that the order of the tribes corresponds to the order in which the gates are listed: east, north, south, west. As we can see in the first diagram (which, like the maps of the ancient world, is oriented toward the east),[11]

St. John begins at the eastern corner with Judah (because the sealing angel comes from the east, v. 2), goes through Reuben and Gad to Asher at the north corner, then down the northwest side with Naphtali and Manasseh; starting over again (we’ll see why in a moment), he lists Simeon and Levi on the southeast side to Issachar at the south, then turns round the corner and goes through Zebulun and Joseph, ending with Benjamin at the western corner.

[image in book]

Why did St. John arrange the list of tribes in this manner? The most likely answer (Farrer’s) is found in Genesis and Ezekiel. The twelve tribes descended from the twelve sons of Jacob, whom he sired through his wives Leah and Rachel, and their respective handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah (legally, the handmaids’ children belonged to Leah and Rachel; see Gen. 29:31-30:24 and 35:16-18). The list of Jacob’s sons is as follows:

LEAH:            Reuben                        Gad (Frim Zilpah)

Simeon                        Asher (from Zilpah)

Levi                               Issachar

Judah                            Zebulun

RACHEL:      Dan (from Bilhah)      Joseph

Naphtali                       Benjamin

[image in book]

At first glance, it does not seem to have much in common with St. John’s; yet once we view them together, they appear very close indeed. Ezekiel’s list is arranged very symmetrically. Ezekiel has divided Leah’s sons into two major groups of three (“senior” and “junior”), balancing each other on north and south. Rachel’s two sons on the east are set across from Zilpah’s two sons on the west; and below each pair is one of Bilhah’s sons. Ezekiel has also brought Judah (the royal tribe) into the top row of three by having him change places with Simeon.

Farrer explains St. John’s revision of Ezekiel: “He makes a genuine three for Rachel, by substituting Manasseh’s name for Dan’s. In fact, the tribe of Joseph had become two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh. Since Ephraim was Joseph’s principal heir, Joseph covers Ephraim; Manasseh is added. A by-product of this improvement is the disappearance from the list of Dan, one of the Twelve. Perhaps it will not have displeased St. John; let Dan be the Judas of the patriarchs. Dan had, in fact, a dubious reputation (Gen. 49:17; Lev. 24:10-11; I Kings 12:28-30; Jer. 4:15 and 8:16). In the end (Rev. 21:12-14), St. John puts the names of the apostles round the city, pairing them with the tribes. We cannot suppose that Iscariot’s name would stand there, any more than Dan’s.

“Then, as to the artificial promotion of Judah: instead of exchanging Judah and Simeon, St. John simply puts Judah up two places. The result is that Levi, not Simeon, is pushed out of the first three. The alteration is presumably deliberate, for in the new dispensation Levi is degraded. The priesthood is united with the kingship in the tribe of Judah, as the writer to the Hebrews so copiously explains; Levi has no special standing (see especially Heb. 7:11-14).”[12]

The Great Multitude (7:9-17)

  1. After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, that no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the Throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;
  2. and they cry out with a loud voice, saying:

Salvation to our God who sits on the Throne, and to the Lamb!

  1. And all the angels were standing around the Throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the Throne and worshiped God,
  2. Saying:

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen!

  1. And one of the elders answered, saying to me, These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and from where have they come?
  2. And I said to him, My lord, you know. And he said to me, These are the ones who come out of the Great Tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
  3. For this reason, they are before the Throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His Temple; and He who sits on the Throne shall spread His Tabernacle over them.
  4. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat;
  5. for the Lamb in the center of the Throne shall be their Shepherd, and shall guide them to the springs of the Water of Life; and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes.

9          We have already noticed a literary device St. John uses to display his images from various angles: hearing, then seeing. For example, in 1:10-13, St. John hears a Voice, then turns to see the Lord; in 5:5-6, he hears of the Lion of Judah, then sees the Lamb; in 6:1-8, he hears a living creature say “Come!” – and then sees the object of the creature’s command. The same pattern occurs here in this chapter: St. John tells us, I heard the number of those who were sealed (v. 4); then, after these things – after hearing the number of the redeemed – I looked, and behold, a great multitude (v. 9). This pattern, and the fact that the blessings ascribed to both groups are blessings that belong to the Church, indicate that these two groups are, to some extent, two different aspects of the one, universal Church. So, from one standpoint, God’s people are definitely numbered; none of the elect are missing, and the Church is perfectly symmetrical and whole. From another standpoint, the Church is innumerable, a great host that no one could count. Seen from one perspective, the Church is the new, the true, Israel of God: the sons of Jacob gathered into all their tribes, full and complete. From another, equally true perspective, the Church is the whole world: a great multitude redeemed from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.

In other words, the 144,000 are the Remnant of Israel; yet the fulfillment of the promises to Israel takes place through the salvation of the world, by bringing the Gentiles in to share the blessings of Abraham (Gal. 3:8). The number of the Remnant is filled by the multitudes of the saved from all nations, just as the New Jerusalem – whose dimensions are measured in twelves and whose gates are inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes – is filled with the glory and honor of the nations of the world (21:12-27). Farrer says: “By the contrast between the numbered tribes and the innumerable host, St. John gives expression to two antithetical themes, both equally traditional. God knows the number of His elect; those who inherit the blessing of Abraham are as numberless as the stars (Gen. 15:5). Yet St. John cannot mean either that the number of Gentile saints is unknown to God, or that the number of righteous Israelites can be counted by men. What he tells us is, that his ear receives a number resulting from an angelic census; and that his eye is presented with a multitude he cannot count, as was Abraham’s when called upon to look at the stars. The vision of the white-robed host, purified by martyrdom, must in any case reflect Daniel 11:35. The theme is continued in Daniel 12:1-3, where the same persons are described as ‘registered in the book’ and as ‘like the stars’; it is easy to conclude ‘numbered, therefore, yet uncountable.'”[13]

In St. John’s vision, therefore, the sealed Remnant of Israel is the holy seed, the “first fruits” (14:4) of the new Church, destined to expand into an innumerable multitude gathered in worship before the Throne in heaven. The nucleus of Israel becomes the Church, redeemed from every nation in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Gen. 15:5; 22:17-18); and thus the Church becomes the whole world. The salvation of Israel alone had never been God’s intention; He sent his Son “that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17). As the Father said to the Son, in planning the Covenant of Redemption:

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make of You a Light to the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
(Isa. 49:6)

The actual number of the saved, far from being limited to mere tens of thousands, is in reality a multitude that no one could count, so vast that it cannot be comprehended. For the fact is that Christ came to save the world. Traditionally – although Calvinists have been technically correct in declaring that the full benefits of the atonement were intended only for the elect – both Calvinists and Arminians have tended to miss the point of John 3:16. That point has been beautifully summarized by Benjamin Warfield: “You must not fancy, then, that God sits helplessly by while the world, which He has created for Himself, hurtles hopelessly to destruction, and He is able only to snatch with difficulty here and there a brand from the universal burning. The world does not govern Him in a single one of its acts: He governs it and leads it steadily onward to the end which, from the beginning, or ever a beam of it had been laid, He had determined for it…. Through all the years one increasing purpose runs, one increasing purpose: the kingdoms of the earth become ever more and more the Kingdom of our God and His Christ. The process may be slow; the progress may appear to our impatient eyes to lag. But it is God who is building: and under His hands the structure rises as steadily as it does slowly, and in due time the capstone shall be set into its place, and to our astonished eyes shall be revealed nothing less than a saved world.”[14]

Unfortunately, many have failed to appreciate fully the implications of this passage. For more than a century, Christianity has been plagued by an altogether unwarranted defeatism: We have believed in the depravity of man more than in the sovereignty of God. We have more faith in an unregenerate creature’s power to resist God’s Word, than in the power of the almighty Creator to turn a man’s heart according to His will. Such an impotent attitude has not always characterized God’s people. Charles Spurgeon encouraged a gathering of missionaries with these words: “I myself believe that King Jesus will reign, and the idols be utterly abolished; but 1 expect the same power which turned the world upside down once will still continue to do it. The Holy Ghost would never suffer the imputation to rest upon His holy name that He was not able to convert the world.”[15]

Because of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, this is the age of the triumph of the Gospel. The plain indications of Scripture are that the tendency of the nations, over time, will be toward conversion. The saved will vastly outnumber the lost. Throughout the Book of Revelation, as in the rest of the Bible, we find Satan continually defeated before the great army of the elect. Even when Satan appears to be dominant, he knows that “he has only a short time” (12:12). The period of Satan’s seeming triumph is counted in days and months (12:6; 13:5), and even then it is nothing more than a mad, futile scramble for fleeting power; in marked contrast, the period of the saints’ dominion is measured in years – a thousand of them – and from first (1:6) to last (20:4-6) they are designated as kings. Jesus is Victor! He has come to save the world, to redeem the nations, and He will not be disappointed: “He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand” (Isa. 53:10).

St. John sees the redeemed world of victorious saints standing before the Throne and before the Lamb in worship. They are clothed in white robes, symbolizing righteousness, with palm branches in their hands, as the well-known symbol of the restoration of God’s people to Paradise. This is also reminiscent of the Feast of Tabernacles, initiated during the Exodus: It is no accident that the word tabernacle occurs in this passage (see on v. 15 below).[16] R. J. Rushdoony shows how extensive the Exodus imagery is in the symbolism of Revelation: “Jesus is both the true Moses (the Song of Moses is cited in Rev. 15:2ff.), and the greater Joshua. He is the deliverer of God’s people. Simeon at the temple declared that his eyes had seen God’s salvation, having seen the infant saviour (Luke 2:30; cf. Isa. 52:10), for he was one of those ‘who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38), i.e., its deliverance from captivity, from spiritual Egypt. Pharaoh’s killing of the infants is paralleled by Herod’s murderous order (Ex. 1:16; 2:15; 4:19; Matt. 2:16). The infant Christ is called the true Israel called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:14f.; cf. Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1). Israel’s 40 years of temptation in the wilderness, and its failure, is matched by Christ’s 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, ending in victory; Jesus resisted by quoting Moses. Jesus sent out 12 disciples, to be the new Israel of God, the new heads of a new nation or people. Jesus also sent out 70 (Luke 10:1ff.), even as Moses gathered 70, to whom God gave the Spirit (Num. 11:16ff.). We are given parallels to the conquest of Canaan, and the destruction of its cities by the fire of

judgment (Matt. 10:15; 11:20ff.; Luke 10:12ff.; Deut. 9:1ff.; Matt. 24). The old Jerusalem now has the role of Canaan and is to be destroyed (Matt. 24). The whole world is the new Canaan, to be judged and conquered: ‘Go ye into all the world….’ Both Exodus and Revelation conclude with the first with the type, the second with the reality.”[17]

There are other parallels here as well. The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) commemorated the cleansing of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus in 164/165 B.C., after its defilement by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, when the Jews rejoiced “with thanksgiving, and branches of palm trees, and with harps, and cymbals, and with viols, and hymns, and songs: because there was destroyed a great enemy out of Israel” (1 Mac. 13:51). Jesus attended this feast (John 10:22), and on Palm Sunday He imitated Judas Maccabaeus’s action by cleansing the Temple of its defilement by the moneychangers (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; cf. John 2:13-16).

In paralleling the cleansing of the Temple, the scene of the redeemed multitude in Revelation also reverses the image; for, unlike the great multitude that greeted Jesus with palm branches (Matt. 21:8), but possessed only leaves and no fruit (Matt. 21:19), the multitude of Revelation 7 is Christ’s new nation, bearing fruit and inheriting the Kingdom (Matt. 21:43). That St. John intends us to see such a parallel is clear from the fact that the word translated palm (phoinix) occurs only two times in the New Testament-here, and in the story of Palm Sunday in the Gospel of John (12:13).

10       Joining in the heavenly liturgy, the innumerable multitude shouts: Salvation (i.e., Hosanna! cf. John 12:13) unto our God who sits on the Throne, and to the Lamb! – ascribing to God and to the Lamb what Rome claimed for the Caesars. Mark Antony said of Julius Caesar that his “only work was to save where anyone needed to be saved”; [18] and now Nero was on the throne, whom Seneca (speaking as “Apollo”) had praised as the divine Savior of the world:

He is like me in much, in form and appearance, in his poetry and singing and playing. And as the red of morning drives away dark night, as neither haze nor mist endure before the sun’s rays, as everything becomes bright when my chariot appears, so it is when Nero ascends the throne. His golden locks, his fair countenance, shine like the sun as it breaks through the clouds. Strife, injustice and envy collapse before him. He restores to the world the golden age.[19]

In direct contradiction to the State-worshiping blasphemies of Rome and Israel, the Church declares that salvation is the province of God and His Son alone. In every age, this has been a basic issue. Who is the Owner and Determiner of reality? Whose word is law? Is the State the provider of salvation? For US, as for the early Church, there is no safe middle ground between faith and apostasy.

11-12 The angels too are seen here in this heavenly worship service, encircling the congregation around the Throne and giving a sevenfold blessing to God in praise – a blessing both preceded and ended with an oath: Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen! As in many other Biblical descriptions of worship, the position of the worshipers is noted here: They fell on their faces before the Throne. Official, public worship in Scripture never shows the participants sitting at prayer; public prayer is always performed in the reverential positions of standing or bowing down. The modern, nominalistic platonist, thinking himself to be more spiritually-minded than Biblical characters (even angels!), would respond that the bodily position is irrelevant, so long as the proper attitude is filling the heart. But this overlooks the fact that Scripture connects the attitude of the heart with the attitude of the body. In public worship, at the very least, our churches should follow the Biblical pattern of physical reverence in prayer.

When rationalistic Protestants abandoned the use of the kneeling rail in worship, they contributed to the outbreaks of individualistic pietism that have brought so much ruin to the Church. Man needs liturgy and symbolism. God created us that way. When the Church denies man this aspect of his God-given nature, he will seek to fulfill it by inadequate or sinful substitutes. A return to Biblically based liturgy is not a cure-all; but it will prove to be a corrective to the shallow, frenetic, and misplaced “spirituality” that has been the legacy of centuries of liturgical poverty.

13-14 One of the elders now challenges St. John to tell him the identity of this great multitude from every nation. St. John confesses his inability, and the elder explains: These are the ones who come out of the Great Tribulation. While this text may and should be used to comfort Christians going through any period of suffering and persecution, its primary reference is to “the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the Land” (3:10), the “Great Tribulation” of which Jesus warned as He spoke to His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24:21; Mark 13:19) – a tribulation that He stated would take place during the then-existing generation (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32); the greatest tribulation that ever was, or ever will be (Matt. 24:21; Mark 13:19).

The point, for the first-century Christians reading it, was that the Tribulation they were about to suffer would not destroy them. In facing persecution they were to see themselves, first, as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), sealed and protected; and second, as an innumerable, victorious multitude. As God saw them, they were not scattered, isolated groups of poor and persecuted individuals accused as criminals by a merciless, demonic power-State; they were, rather, a vast throng of conquerors, who had washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, standing before God’s Throne and robed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. St. John is probably drawing on the ordination-investiture ritual after the rigorous examination for the priesthood. First, the prospective priest was examined as to his genealogy. “If he failed to satisfy the court about his perfect legitimacy, the candidate was dressed and veiled in black, and permanently removed. If he passed that ordeal, inquiry was next made as to any physical defects, of which Maimonides enumerates a hundred and forty that permanently, and twenty-two which temporarily disqualified for the exercise of priestly office…. Those who had stood the twofold test were dressed in white raiment, and their names permanently inscribed.”[20] The white robes of these priests thus correspond to the white robe of their High Priest; and just as His robe is said to be “dipped in blood,” so theirs are washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.

In striking contrast to what some Christian groups in recent years have been taught, the early Church did not expect to be miraculously preserved from all hardship in this life. They knew that they would be called upon to suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12) and tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3; 8:35; Rev. 1:9). The Apostle Peter had already written to prepare the Church for the Great Tribulation: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). In a secondary sense, this is certainly applicable to Christians everywhere who suffer in tribulation. We are not to see salvation as a magic formula for trouble-avoidance. As the white-robed army of Christ, we are more than conquerors. Our calling is to endure and to overcome.

In his influential study of the expansion of the early Church, Adolf Harnack wrote: “The remarkable thing is that although Christians were by no means numerous till after the middle of the second century, they recognized that Christianity formed the central point of humanity as the field of political history as well as its determining factor. Such a self-consciousness is perfectly intelligible in the case of Judaism, for the Jews were really a large nation and had a great history behind them. But it is truly amazing that a tiny set of people should confront the entire strength of the Roman empire, that it should see in the persecution of the Christians the chief role of that empire, and that it should make the world’s history culminate in such a conflict. The only explanation of this lies in the fact that the Church simply took the place of Israel, and consequently felt herself to be a people; this implied that she was also a political factor, and indeed the factor which ranked as decisive alongside of the state and by which in the end the state was to be overcome.”[21]

15-17 The elder continues his explanation: For this reason – because of their redemption and union with the Lamb through His blood, they are before the Throne of God in worship. Imitating the cherubim (4:8), these white-robed priests serve Him day and night in His Temple (cf. 1 Chron. 9:33; 23:30; Ps. 134:1). They thus receive the most characteristic blessing of the Covenant, the Shadow of the Almighty: He who sits on the Throne shall spread His Tabernacle over them. This is referring to shade provided by the Glory-Cloud, which hovered over both the earth at its creation (Gen. 1:2) and Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 32:10-11).[22] Filled with “many thousands of angels” (Ps. 68:17; cf. 2 Kings 6:17), the Cloud provided a winged shelter, “a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat” (Isa. 25:4; cf. Ps. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:1-13; 121:5-6). All this was summarized in a prophecy of the coming New Covenant Church: “When the LORD has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst by the Spirit of judgment and the Spirit of burning, then the LORD will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a Cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy” (Isa. 4:4-5; cf. 51:16).

This Cloud/canopy of God’s presence is also called a covering (2 Sam. 22:12; Ps. 18:11; Lam. 3:44; Ps. 91:4), the same word used to describe the position of the carved cherubim that hovered over the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:20). This term is also the word translated booths or tabernacles in Leviticus 23:33-43, where God commands His people to erect booths of leafy branches to dwell in during the Feast of Tabernacles. As the Restoration prophets saw, this feast was an acted-out prophecy of the conversion of all nations, the filling out of the Covenant people with the entire world. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, God spoke through Haggai: “I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations; and I will fill this House [the Temple] with glory” (Hag. 2:7). Zechariah too prophesied of the meaning of this feast in terms of the conversion of the nations and the sanctification of every area of life (Zech. 14:16-21).

In the Last Days, during the celebration of the same feast, Jesus Christ again set forth its meaning: the outpouring of the Spirit upon the restored believer, so that the Church becomes a means of restoration to the entire world. The promise of the Feast of Tabernacles was about to be fulfilled, after the glorious Ascension of the Son to the Throne: “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).

St. John’s vision of the redeemed world reveals the inescapable outcome of Christ’s Ascension, the consummation of Paradise: They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the Throne shall be their Shepherd, and shall guide them to the springs of the Water of Life; and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. We noted earlier the Father’s words to the Son from Isaiah 49, giving the promise of the salvation of the world as well as Israel. The passage continues:

I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people,
To restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages;
Saying to those who are bound: Go forth!
To those who are in darkness: Show yourselves!
Along the roads they will feed,
And their pasture will be on all bare heights.
They will not hunger or thirst,
Neither will the scorching heat or sun strike them down;
For He who has compassion on them will lead them,
And will guide them to springs of water.
And I will make all My mountains a road,
And My highways will be raised up.
Behold, these shall come from afar,
And lo, these will come from the north and from the west,

And these from the land of Sinim [China].
Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth!
For the LORD has comforted His people,
And will have compassion on His afflicted. (Isa. 49:8-13)

The churches of the first century were on the brink of the greatest Tribulation of all time. Many would lose their lives, their families, their possessions. But St. John writes to tell the churches that the Tribulation is not a death, but a Birth (cf. Matt. 24:8), the prelude to the establishment of the worldwide Kingdom of Christ. He shows them the scene on the other side: the inevitable victory celebration.

In Nero’s Circus Maximus, the scene of his bloody and revolting slaughters of Christians – by wild beasts, by crucifixion, by fire and sword – there stood a great stone obelisk, silent witness to the valiant conduct of those brave saints who endured tribulation and counted all things as loss for the sake of Christ. The bestial Nero and his henchmen have long since passed from the scene to their eternal reward, but the Obelisk still stands, now in the center of the great square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Chiseled on its base are these words, taken from the overcoming martyrs’ hymn of triumph:


– which is, being interpreted: Christ is conquering; Christ is reigning; Christ rules over all.

[1] J. Marcellus Kik. An Eschatology of Victory (Nutley, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971), pp. 96f.

[2] See James B. Jordan’s forthcoming studies, Food and Faith and Trees and Thorns.

[3] See comments on 4:5-8, above.

[4] The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1982), pp. 1-2; cf. pp. 2-11, 425-54; see also Rousas John Rushdoony, The Mythology of Science (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1967).

[5] E. H. Plumptre, The Pulpit Commentary: Ezekiel (London: Funk and Wagnalls Co., n.d.), Vol. I, pp. 162f.

[6] Tertullian, Against Marcion, iii.22, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), Vol. III, pp. 340f. On the legitimacy of the sign of the cross as a symbolic action, see James B. Jordan, The Sociology of the Church: Essays in Reconstruction (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1986), pp. 207ff.

[7] Milton Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ in the Canonical Scriptures (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1898), p. 336.

[8] Ibid., pp. 341f.

[9] Rousas John Rushdoony, Salvation and Godly Rule (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1983), p. 141.

[10] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, [1949] 1970), pp. 20f.

[11] Orient means east; thus, if you are truly “oriented,” you are “easted” already, placed so that you are facing the right direction (which is usually, but not always, east).

[12] Austin Farrer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, p. 108.

[13] Ibid., p. 110.

[14] Benjamin B. Warfield, from a sermon on John 3:16 entitled “God’s Immeasurable Love,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), pp. 518f.

[15] Quoted in lain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), p. 258.

[16] See David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1985), pp. 44-46, 60.

[17] Rousas John Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, [1970] 1978), pp. 149f.

[18] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), p. 52.

[19] Ibid., p. 139. Nero eventually repaid Seneca for a lifetime of servile idolatry by ordering him to commit suicide.

[20] Alfred Edersheim. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 95; d. Rev. 3:5.

[21] Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, James Moffatt, trans. (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, [1908] 1972), pp. 257f.

[22] See Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 13ff.; cf. Chilton, Paradise Restored. pp. 58ff.