Saturday 5 November 2011

Who will be in heaven? (Revelation 7)

Who can stand?

The last verse of Revelation Chapter 6 ends with a question: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:17)

Chapter 7 is the answer to that question.

If you were here last week - and even if you were not, just glance briefly through the events of Chapter 6, where you will see world-wide chaos and conflict, death and destruction - the impression many of us might have been left with is: No one. No one can stand. The kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man - in Chapter 6 verse 15 - they run from God. They call on the rocks and mountains to hide them from his presence, and they say, “Who can stand before such a holy God on the final day of judgement?”

They ask the question but they are not looking for an answer. They think they already know the answer: No one. That’s why they are running from God. Or they think, as many do today, there is no point answering such a question because there is no answer.

“Who can stand?” There is no point. No hope.

But Chapter 7 says there is. This whole passage is here to show us that there is hope. God even interrupts the sequence of events he set in motion in Chapter 6. You see, Chapter 7 should have been about the seventh seal. Last week we saw Jesus break open the first seal, the second, the third, fourth, fifth and the sixth seal. So, when we come to Chapter 7 we ought to read about Jesus breaking seal number 7. Instead, that’s been shelved to next week to Chapter 8. God interrupts the sequence of events to bring us the answer to this one important question, “Who can stand before him?”

We find that answer in Chapter 7, verse 9:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
Revelation 7:9

In a way, the answer is “no one”. John says, “no one” could count this great multitude standing in heaven before God’s throne. The number is so great it is uncountable. There will be people from every nation, tribe, people and language. Take note of that word “every”. God will save people out of every single culture and every single nation - Chinese, Malay, Indian, English, European - but also every single language - Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Pu Tong Hwa.

This is an uncountable number of people gathering before God on that final day of salvation in heaven before his throne in worship of God the Father and Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Having said that, Chapter 7 opens by talking about a specific number: 144,000, to be exact. Someone asked me this week: Does this mean that out of seven billion people on the planet, only 144,000 will be saved? That comes to 0.002 per cent. Statistically speaking, it means that in the whole of Cambridge only 2 people will get to heaven!

Who are the 144,000? We will look at Chapter 7 together under three headings:
1.    Sealed (verses 1 to 8)
2.    Saved (verses 9 to 12)
3.    Served (verses 13 to 17)


After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.
Revelation 7:1

Last we saw how God’s judgement was represented in four different ways by four different horses. The white horse symbolised conquest by deception. The red horse was conflict and war. The black horse was economic strife and famine. The pale horse was Death and Hades.

But Revelation 7 opens with God’s angels holding back the four judgements on the earth. But you say, “Chapter 6 was about four horses. These angels are holding back four winds.” In the Old Testament, these same four horses are described in Zechariah Chapter 6, sent by God into the whole earth, into the north, west and south. And the angel tells Zechariah in verse 5, that these are four spirits or winds (As indicated in the NIV bible footnotes. The Hebrew word ruah can mean either).

So what we have in verse 1 is God actually preventing judgement - or rather, delaying judgement - that he is sending on the earth for one single purpose: to seal the people of God.

Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
Revelation 7:2-3

Just in case of anyone misunderstands me, I thought I had better clarify what this “seal” is. First of all, it’s not the semi-aquatic marine mammal that can balance a ball on its nose and goes “Auuu! Auuu! Auuu!!” It’s not that kind of seal. (I can only imagine how verse 2 would look like if you pictured the “angel coming up from the east, having the seal (Auu! Auu! Auu!) of the living God!”)

But secondly, this seal is different from the six seals we saw last week which were more like padlocks being opened one by one by Jesus. This seal is a sign of ownership much like a badge or a name tag. The angel flies in from the east (literally it reads, “from the rising sun”) and tells the other four angels to hold back on judgement until they have “put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” This seal determines who really belongs to God. And as the next verse explains, this seal determines who is truly a son of Israel.

Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.
Revelation 7:4-8

The Jehovah’s witnesses believe that 144,000 is the exact number of people who will go to heaven, made up of early believers in Jesus’ day and the current membership of Jehovah’s witnesses. This became a problem in the 1930’s as they recruited more members who started to question if there was enough room in heaven for them. So the Jehovah’s witnesses came up with an economy class membership; a lower form of salvation where believers would remain on earth instead of ascending to heaven. Such a view is, to say the least, problematic.

Like all the other numbers in the book of Revelation (the four winds, the seven seals, the seven spirits of God), the 144,000 is symbolic and verse 4 already tells us plainly what it is symbolic of: the tribes of Israel (literally, the “sons of Israel”).

Jacob, who was later named, Israel, had twelve sons, who later became the fathers of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. The number 12 is representative of all of Israel. It was the main reason why Jesus chose for himself twelve students, or apostles, to follow him. He was choosing a representative of the people of God, to whom God had promised blessing, though Abraham, Isaac, then Jacob. But at the same time, Jesus was establishing a new Israel, a new kingdom of priests under a new covenant fulfilling all the promises of God made under the old.

In this vision, John sees the twelve tribes of Israel, and 12,000 out of these twelve tribes are “sealed”. They are chosen by God and protected by God from the judgement to come. Again the number 12,000 is symbolic. It is made up of 12 times 10 times 10 times 10. The number ten denotes fullness, and it is saying the full number of God’s people will be protected and saved. When you add up the 12 tribes, each with 12,000 sealed Israelites, you get the final total of 144,000.

Now to all the lawyers, arts and social science students out there, I know this is the point at which you begin to drift away - what with all the numbers and times tables. But please stay with me! You might even say, “Well, that’s very nice for Israel, but how does this concern me?”

Friends, it does concern you because Revelation 7 is talking about protection from God’s judgement. That was the purpose of the seal. It meant you belong to God and you are protected by God. It is not talking about Israel as a historical nation. This Israel is a spiritual collection of God’s people who receive all the promises of the new and old covenants through Jesus Christ.

What this means is: if you call yourself a Christian, you are an Israelite. “But I’m Chinese!” you might say, “And my favourite dish in the whole world is sweet and sour pork. How can I be an Israelite?” The definition of an Israelite is someone who traces his or her ancestry back to one of the twelve tribes, back to the father of the twelve tribes, Jacob, back to Isaac, and back to Abraham. In Genesis 12, God promised Abraham that he would bless all the nations through him and his sons. So Israel, as a people belonging to God, as children of that promise made to Abraham. They are sons of Abraham.

But again, that was Abraham. That was Israel. How does that concern me, here in a Chinese Church in the middle of Cambridge far away from Israel with no connection by race or blood to Abraham? Well, God promised Abraham in Genesis 22, “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Meaning: you will have so many sons and daughters, you won’t be able to count them. All the nations - every nation - will be blessed through your kids, Abraham.

And you see, the fulfilment of that promise, was never through Israel alone. No, we see the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in verse 9; a fulfilment that comes to us through Jesus Christ, the Lamb on the throne.


After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Revelation 7:9-10

I said at the beginning, Revelation 7 is the answer given to the question posed at the end of Chapter 6: Who can stand before a holy God? The people who ask this question were running away from God. They hid themselves in the rocks and couldn’t even bring themselves to see God’s face.

But the multitude in Revelation 7:9 stand before the throne and before the Lamb. Not because they are stronger. Not because they are sinless. But because they have been sealed. And because, and verse 10 tells us, they have been saved.

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

The sealing of Israel and the salvation of the multitude are two sides of the same coin. The first looks back to the promises of God to bless Abraham and his descendants. The second is the fulfilment of that promise - in Jesus, and through his salvation of a multitude of people and nations and tribes and languages when he died on the cross.

I understand how some Christians see the first part as literally pointing forward to Israel. I know and respect many pastors who read verses 1 to 8 and see there the final salvation of the Jewish people of God. Much of that desire comes from sharing God’s heartbeat for the people he has chosen and shown faithfulness to for thousands of years. Theirs is the covenant of Moses, the tabernacle, the promise of the kingdom, the Sabbath, the very identity of the people of God.

But the true revelation of God’s mercy, love and faithfulness is seen in Jesus Christ. Salvation belongs to our God... and to the Lamb. It doesn’t belong to us nor even to Israel, as privileged as they truly are in God’s dealings with them throughout biblical history. God alone is the source and determiner of salvation. In his wisdom and for his glory, God has ordained that salvation be effected through the work of his Son’s death on the cross. This is true for Jew and non-Jew. Jesus is the Lamb who was slain. His blood shed on the cross makes him worthy to receive worship from every tribe, people, language and nation.

What the vision of the multitude represents is the fulfilment of that first promise made to Abraham thousands of years ago, seen not in the formation of Israel as a political state-nation, but the new Israel comprising every nation on earth redeemed by the cross under Christ. In other words, it is the church.

Furthermore, the phrase in verse 10, “Salvation belongs to our God” is an echo of Jonah’s song in Jonah Chapter 2 where he sings, “Salvation comes from the LORD”. A biblical scholar once said that this single verse summarises the entire Old Testament. What it essentially is, is an answer to an objection. If you remember the story of Jonah, he rebels against God’s plan to save an enemy nation in Nineveh. Jonah couldn’t understand how God could save a foreign country which had oppressed Israel for so long. He wanted God to destroy that nation instead, so he ran from God. If you remember what happened next: God sent the storm, Jonah was thrown overboard into the sea but God sent the whale. And as Jonah reflected on his stubbornness and God’s mercy he sang, “Salvation comes from the LORD.” It was an admission of his guilt and an act of repentance: God saves whom he wills. Israel did not deserve salvation more than the Ninevites. God is free to extend his gift of mercy and grace to whomsoever he chooses.

It is the same situation here. Revelation 7 anticipates the objection, “How can God save from all these nations?” Answer: Salvation belongs to our God. He saves whom he wills. And the picture of the 144,000 is symbolic of God saving all whom he has chosen to save.

I wonder if you’ve ever considered why God should save anyone here in Cambridge - or the Chinese Church, for the matter? Why should God save you? You might say, “Of course, if there’s a God, he must love me. That’s his job.” Or you might think, “I’m so smart and lovable and cute, who wouldn’t want to spend eternity with me in heaven?”

Salvation belongs to God. That means it isn’t based on our merit or qualification or acceptability. It comes to us purely by his grace. It is offered to sinners like us who do not deserve this gift; it is given freely at the great cost of the blood of the Jesus Christ on the cross.

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
Revelation 7:11-12

What do you thank God most for? In your prayers? In our songs of praise?

Is it: For more people to join our fellowship? Godly leaders? Healing for the sick? Guidance in times of crisis? All of these are important needs. We should bring them in prayer before our God and not hold them back. But think about this: what will we praise God for in heaven? No one there will be sick. No one there will be hungry. Everyone who is saved will be in heaven. What could we say to God now that we will praise God for all the way into eternity?

The angels and the elders and the four living creatures remind us that we owe God our praise. He made us. He sustains our very existence. That was the lesson from Revelation Chapter 4. God made this creation and we owe him our thanks and our praise.

But one of the elders is going to give us an even better reason to praise God. God has saved us in Jesus. In fact, through Jesus Christ, God has even served us.


Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Revelation 7:13-14

I wonder if you’ve ever thought what it would be like to get into heaven?

Maybe it will be like a big victory celebration - like if England ever won the Four Nations Rugby League. The whole stadium erupting in praise and disbelief... I mean, joy.

Or maybe it will be like Guy Fawkes Night - fireworks, laughter, friends enjoying one another’s company. Everyone having a great time out on a weekend that never ends.

The angel says to John, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” Tribulation: that means trial, stress, intense difficulty and oppression. But they stayed on course. They washed they robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. That is, the kept holding on to Jesus.

You see, the picture we get here is that of POW’s returning from war. They are tired. Many are wounded. I mean, yes, they’ve won. Yes, they are celebrating a victory, of course. Yet at the same time, the immediate emphasis in not on celebration but on comfort and relief. They look at one another and say, “We made it. We’re finally home. The war is over.” Some of them even have tears in their eyes as they walk into God’s presence.

But that’s OK. Because you see, God himself will wipe away their tears.

Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Revelation 7:15-17
Verse 15 may say that they serve God day and night, but look again at these verses. Don’t you see, it is God who has serves them. He covers them (literally, “tabernacles” over them - meaning: he is always with them). He leads them to springs of living water. God wipes away every single tear from their eyes.

Our God is a God of comfort. He is a God of love. But most of all, our God is a God who is with us in our suffering and pain.

Earlier on, the elder says to John that “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Along and Sarah are back this weekend for reading week, and as they come home, they say, “Hello Mum! Hello Dad! Here’s my washing,” and dump a big bag filled with one month’s worth of smelly laundry for poor old mum to take care off. I doubt Mum will say, “Sure, I’ll just pop down to the butcher’s and get a pint of blood to wash off all those stains!”

These Christians make it to the end - through the great tribulation - because their robes have been washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.

Now white can symbolise purity: The only basis of our purity is Jesus’s death. He took our sin. We receive his righteousness. Our robes have been washed clean and we can stand before God, spotless, pure and fully acceptable in his sight.

But I think that the colour white is more symbolic of victory. These Christians made it. God has kept them standing firm to the end. That’s the real message of Revelation 7, isn’t it? God sets a seal on his own, to shield believers from the coming judgement. And the picture of these Christians washing their robes in Jesus’ blood is indicative of their standing firm in the gospel. They have faced tribulation but they have continued trusting in Christ. Because only his blood can sustain us in our walk with him. If you are a Christian today, the only reason you have abandoned the faith and walked out on God is because the same blood which purchased you for God and freed you from sin, keeps you walking on the straight and narrow path with Jesus.

Peter writes:

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3-5

God’s power in Christ keeps you and it shields you until that final day of salvation. Or as Paul prays in Ephesians 6 for God to help us stand, withstand and to stand firm! Or as Jude writes in Jude 1:24, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy”. Or Paul again in Romans 5, “Therefore since we have been justified,” that is, you’ve been saved, forgiven of your sins, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access into this grace into which we now stand” - we stand by God’s grace! It’s talking about today, now, every day you still call yourself a Christian and know that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour - that is God’s grace is sustaining you and making you stand. By Grace!

Who can stand before a holy God? That was the question we began with.

It’s not talking just about that final day when Jesus returns to judge and to save. It is talking about every day you live in this world broken by sin, and are tempted to say, “I give up.” You cannot stand on your own strength, your own merit, or your own goodness.

But God can make you stand. By his grace. Through the blood of his Son shed on the cross for you. If you stand in Christ alone, by faith alone, through grace alone - if you are able to do that right now; friends, Revelation 7 is saying to you: You will stand on that final day.

In Jesus, God has sealed us - we are protected by his power. In Jesus, God has saved us - we are forgiven through the cross. In Jesus, God has served us - we are recipients of his grace, his comfort and his love.

I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how He could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.

How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful!
Is my Saviour’s love for me!

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