I share here in blog form my original manuscript of this week’s (February 3-9) Sabbath School Adult Teacher’s Edition for people to use or compare with the edited version. The changes were not massive or disruptive in most cases. I share my analysis of the changes in the next blog. These comments were made in response to the standard quarterly written primarily by my friend Ranko Stefanovic.
THE SEALED PEOPLE OF GOD
Part I: Overview
Key Text: Rev. 6:17.
Study Focus: Chapter seven answers the question of 6:17, who will be able to stand at the second coming of Jesus?
Introduction: Chapter seven offers a two-part answer to the question of 6:17. The 144,000 sealed ones and the Great Multitude in white robes both represent the end-time people of God.
Lesson Themes: The lesson and the focus passage introduce the following themes:
1. The Meaning of Seals and Sealing. Documents are sealed to conceal or validate their contents. People are sealed as a sign of ownership or for protection.
2. Eph. 4:30 and the Cosmic Conflict. In context, the grieving of the Spirit is a localized version of the cosmic conflict.
3. Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? The lesson reads the number symbolically, this is supported in Theme 3 below.
4. Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? The lesson is ambiguous regarding the answer to this question. See further discussion of this issue in the Commentary section below.
5. Rom. 3:19-23 and the Meaning of “Without Fault” (Rev. 14:5). The lesson references Rom. 3 to argue against an absolute perfection interpretation of “without fault.” This is further elaborated below.
Life Application. Participants are invited to reflect on God’s restraining of evil in today’s world, and the meaning of both the military imagery in Rev. 7:1-8 and the new song that only the 144,000 can sing (Rev. 14:3).
Part II. Commentary
Chapter seven is inserted parenthetically between the sixth (Rev. 6:12-17) and seventh (8:1) seals. Chapter six closes with the opponents of God calling on the rocks and mountains to hide them from the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb (6:15-16). They then close with the poignant statement, “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Rev. 6:17, NRSV. That question is answered in chapter seven with the appearance of two groups, the 144,000 (Rev. 7:4-8) and the Great Multitude (7:9-14). In order to survive the calamities that accompany the Second Coming, it is necessary to be sealed (7:1-3), saved by God (7:10) and have robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (7:14). The end result is a people who are continually before the throne of God, serving Him in His temple (7:15). The purpose of Rev. 7 within its larger context is to identify what God’s people will be like just before the Second Coming.
Main Themes of Lesson 6 Elaborated:
1. The Meaning of Seals and Sealing. In the ancient world, sealing a book had two main purposes. One sealed a book to conceal its contents from view (Isa. 29:11; Rev. 10:4) or to validate the contents as being authentic or official (1 Kgs. 21:8; Esth. 8:8; Jer. 32:44). Concealment seems to be the basic purpose of sealing the book in Rev. 5. The book was already validated by being in God’s possession. Breaking the seals and opening the book would bring its contents into view.
A more symbolic use of the word sealing had to do with people. Sealing a person could be a sign of ownership (Exod. 21:2-6; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim. 2:19; Rev. 14:1) or a sign of protection (Ezek. 9:4-6). In early Judaism sealing was associated with circumcision. In Second-Century Christianity, sealing was associated with baptism. So the sealing of people by God would be a sign that they belong to God (2 Tim. 2:19; Rev. 9:4), and that God knows the ones who belong to Him. In a spiritual sense, sealing validates where a person stands with God.
But the sealing of Revelation 7 is different. Here the “servants of God” (Rev. 7:3– already sealed in the first sense) are sealed as a protection against the calamities that accompany the End-Time (Rev. 6:15 – 7:3). See first point under Life Application below.
2. Eph. 4:30 and the Cosmic Conflict. In light of the above, it may surprise some that the lesson refers to Eph. 4:30 in the context of this end-time sealing for protection. The context of 4:30 is a list of moral behaviors that grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:25 – 5:2). But there is an apocalyptic element to this list of behaviors. Believers are to give “no opportunity to the devil” (4:27, RSV, ESV). Instead, they are to be imitators of God (5:1). So grieving the Spirit is in the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan. The believer is to imitate the character of God (truth, honesty, graceful and encouraging speech, kindness, tender-heartedness, forgiveness, love, self-sacrifice) rather than the character of Satan (lying, anger, stealing, abusive speech, bitterness, hard-heartedness, slander, hatred). As is the case in the Book of Revelation, the little battles of daily character work are tied to the much bigger conflict in the universe.
3. Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? A symbolic reading of the number is to be preferred. 1) The list of twelve tribes is not found in this form anywhere else, it is not a literal list. Judah is listed first, instead of Reuben. Joseph (father of Ephraim and Manasseh) replaces Manasseh. The tribe of Dan is missing from the list and Levi is included (compare Num. 1:5-15; 13:4-15). They are also not listed in birth order (Gen. 49:3-28).
2) Rev. 1:1 tells us the whole book of Revelation was “signified” (KJV, Greek: esêmanen, often translated “made known”), symbolic language referring to the future. So in Rev. the best way to approach the text is to treat everything as a symbol, unless it is obvious that a literal meaning is intended.
3) Reading the tribes as literal descendants of Jacob flies in the face of the fact that at least ten of those tribes are essentially lost to history. Some Jews can still trace their lineage back to Judah, Benjamin or Levi, but not the rest.
4. Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? A surface reading suggests that the two groups are different. The 144,000 is a specific number of Jews (7:4-8) while the Great Multitude is an innumerable collection of Gentiles (7:9). The 144,000 is called “first fruits” in 14:4, implying there is another group like them. But closer reading militates against those initial impressions.
First, the terms used for God’s end-time people are often interchangeable in Rev. Two examples. 1) God’s people are called “remnant” in 12:17, then 144,000 in 14:1. But 14:1 alludes to Joel 2:32, where the same group is called “remnant.” The two groups are the same. 2) The 144,000 are then called “saints” in 14:12. So remnant, 144,000 and the saints are different ways of describing the same end-time group.
Second, John never sees the 144,000. He hears the number (7:4), but when he looks he sees a group that no one can number (7:9). This is a literary pattern in Rev. John hears one thing (Lion) then sees its opposite (Lamb), but the two are different ways of describing one reality (Rev. 5:5-6, see also Rev. 1:10-12; 17:1, 3).
Third, in Rev. 14 there are two harvests, the wheat and the grapes. The wheat, representing the righteous are the first fruits of that harvest. The 144,000 in Rev. 14 represents the entirety of God’s end-time people.
5. Rom. 3:19-23 and the Meaning of “Without Fault” (Rev. 14:5). The Rom. 3 text makes it clear that nothing a human being can do earns justification before God (3:20). All have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God (3:23). The present tense of “fall short” (Greek: husterountai) means that all our best efforts, now and continually, still fall short of God’s absolute standards. So “without fault” does not mean absolute perfection, it means absolute loyalty, the kind where one would rather die than choose to sin. The 144,000 trust Jesus to keep their robes clean (7:14) and are uncompromising in their loyalty to the one who redeemed them (14:4-5).
Part III: Life Application
1. Reflecting on Rev. 7:1-3, do you think we are living in a time when God is restraining evil forces or a time when they are being let loose? If God is the one restraining, who is the one doing all the damage? When God does act in judgment, why does He do so? Some possible answers:
In many ways today’s turbulent times feel as if everything is falling apart. On the other hand, compared to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, the casualties of terrorism are fairly minor in scope and most neighborhoods are reasonably safe. So one could argue we still live in a time of restraint.
The finger of blame for the evils in the world falls clearly on Satan in the book of Revelation (Rev. 9:11; 12:12). He is the destroyer, not God.
When God acts in judgment, the purpose is not to hurt and destroy. God judges either to discipline His people (as in Rev. 3:20) or to protect them from harm by evil forces (Rev. 7:1-3; 20:7-10). Satan is relentless in his pursuit of destruction. If it were not for the restraining influence of His Spirit, things would be far worse than they are now.
2. Why is there so much military imagery in the Bible? Military imagery is familiar to people today as well, as the news, action movies and spy thrillers keep war activity in the center of people’s consciousness. God meets people where they are, using familiar language to illustrate spiritual truths. In Revelation, careful observation tells us that the most important battles are often a “war of words.” The war in heaven is between Christ and the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10-11). The battle of Armageddon is won by those practicing spiritual watchfulness (Rev. 16:14-16).
3. What is the meaning of the “new song” in Rev. 14:3? Why can no one sing that song except the 144,000? The 144,000 have a unique experience, passing through the character-shaping events of the end-time (Rev. 7:1-3; 14:1-5). The tribulations of the end-time will develop in them a unique appreciation for Christ that would not have happened otherwise. God does not will the troubles of the end-time, but He uses them to enhance the Christ-likeness of His followers. The end-time believers will then be able to play a unique role in eternity (Rev. 7:14-15—see theme 4 in the Commentary above).