Signed, Sealed, and Delivered, pt 1

The first entry in this series can be found here.
The previous entry can be found here.

I love writing. I especially love writing stories. And when it comes to stories, i prefer writing novels to short stories. In a novel, you can get to know the characters better, introduce more characters more seamlessly, and ultimately draw the reader in more.

To better write, one has to read. I wrote the equivalent of one novel this year. I read 44 novels so far this year, currently in number 45.

My pet peeve when i’m reading a book is when everything has been hinting that it’s going one direction, but then it spins a different direction with no warning. Now don’t get me wrong, i love a good twist if it can be traced back and shown to have been possible all along, but when it comes out of nowhere, and there is no justification for it, it triggers me.

John writes as follows in Revelation 7:1-8,

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree.  Then I saw another angel, who had the seal of the living God rise up from the east. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea:  “Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.”  And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the Israelites:  12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 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 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin.

So perhaps you now understand why my introduction read the way it did. Or maybe you’re still confused. “Wait, weren’t you just talking about novels? Why are we in Revelation 7 all of a sudden?”

Allow me to explain. But first, as this post continues (and also next week’s), i went into much greater detail on this topic in the final Excursus of my recent Galatians commentary, Live Free or Die Lawfully (“Seeking the Seed”), so the next two entries will not go as deep as they could. If you are interested in seeing more explanation of why i hold the view i do on this text, check out my commentary. Your support would be much appreciated.

But let me explain what Revelation 7 and poorly-concluded novels have in common.

On their own, they have nothing in common. But when we start discussing typical interpretations of Revelation 7, they have much in common. And this can happen whether we’re looking at Revelation 7 in light of the whole Bible or even just the book of Revelation.

For time’s sake, i’ll stick to Revelation. In Revelation 2:9 and 3:9, we saw that both in the church of Smyrna and the church of Philadelphia, there were people who claimed they were Jews, but Jesus referred to them as liars and “a synagogue of Satan.” And then in Revelation 5:9, we read that God’s people are made up of those from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” And then repeatedly in Revelation 6, we discussed that Revelation is not taking place in some far off future. It is currently happening.

If naturally Jewish people were referred to as non-Jews by Jesus–the all-knowing one–then we need to be careful how we interpret John’s words in Revelation 7. If we aren’t careful, then we will add a twist in the story that ultimately will not satisfy in the end.

John’s first words, “After this,” are not meant in the sense, “After the terrible earthquake I just described.” Instead, John is saying, “After I saw that, I saw this.” The chronology of Revelation–by and large–is from John’s visionary point of view, and it is not a historical/future play-by-play.

John describes God’s caring protection of His people in 7:1-3,

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

The first thing John does is describe five angels. The four angels “at the four corners of the earth” are the same four “who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea.” The other angel tells the four angels what to do. This evidences that there is some sort of hierarchy among the angels, though the Bible never clearly spells it out for us, so it is a waste of time to spend undue effort trying to figure it out.

Why is this important, though? Why does the wind need to be stopped?

God wants His people to know that nothing will prevent them from being sealed. The angel refers to those needing to be sealed as “slaves of our God.” Romans 6:22 refers to Gentile believers as slaves of God. There is nothing uniquely Jewish about the concept “slaves of our God.” All of God’s people are slaves of God.

Nothing will prevent them from being sealed. A freak windstorm won’t knock over a tree and kill a person who was supposed to belong to God before he was able to be sealed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Ephesians 1:13-14). Praise God for this! All who belong to Him will be saved!

Note that it is the fifth angel who is said to be responsible for sealing believers. The Holy Spirit is not the one who seals. According to Ephesians1:13-14, the Holy Spirit is what those who are sealed receive as proof that they will be ultimately saved in the end.

This angel is not alone in his sealing responsibilities. Angels are not omnipresent. If someone believes in Christ in California, and simultaneously someone believes in Christ in Afghanistan, the same angel can’t simultaneously seal both. This angel is representative of the fact that angels do God’s bidding, including the sealing of believers.

John assures us that God’s people is a specific people in 7:4-8,

And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the Israelites:  12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 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 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin.

It matters that God is sovereign over nature so that nothing can snatch an elect person from him before they can be sealed and saved because God has a set number of people He will save. The number presented in Revelation 7:4–as you probably expect by now–is not to be taken literally, but represents the fact that God knows each one of His people to the point that He can put a specific figure on their number. As verse 4 begins, “I heard the number.” When John sees this same group of people in Revelation 7:9, he writes, “After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number.”

The purpose of using Israelite tribal names in this passage is because Israel was the nation originally known as God’s people. “Let My people go!” God had repeatedly commanded Pharaoh in Exodus–referring to the tribes of Israel. John uses these tribes symbolically to refer to the church.

Some people will claim, “No clear-cut example of the church being called ‘Israel’ exists in the NT or in ancient church writings until A.D. 160. . . . This fact is crippling to any attempt to identify Israel as the church in Rev. 7:4.”
(Robert L. Thomas, quoted in John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 [Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1999], 219.)
I would posit that no clear-cut example of national Israel still being part of God’s plan (other than individuals who make up those from “every nation tribe and tongue”) can be found in the New Testament either. You can interpret passages to say that there are, but the fact that this debate exists in the church proves that there are no clear-cut examples. Why would God turn His attention almost exclusively to the world (including evangelists to Israel) and then in the last seven years of church history revert back 100% to the Jews? It makes no sense.
(“Last seven years of church history” refers to the supposed seven years of tribulation.)

An argument could probably be made that it turns a lot of other NT teaching on its head. To say that John is here referring to literal Israelite tribes is a twist that both the overarching narrative of Scripture and the book of Revelation itself cannot support.

So, the encouragement from this passage is that God knows you personally, Christian. You belong to Him. He sealed you. Nothing can happen to you outside of His control. This should encourage you to spread the Gospel and to live boldly for God in an increasingly hostile culture.

To continue attempting to show the error of interpreting this passage as national Israel, to do so is to say both 1) that there is no application of this passage until some future time, and 2) that there is never an application of this text for a Gentile believer. (For more on this topic, check out my commentary here.)

But that can’t be true. God’s Word is timeless! Trust Him! He says He knows you and He’s got you. You are sealed. It’s a guarantee!

But for the nonbeliever, there is no guarantee for you except hell–if you continue in your unbelief. The great thing about Christianity, though, is that no one knows the exact number of people God has sealed and delivered from sin and hell. From our point of view, there’s no cap. There’s space for you still. Turn to Christ today, place your faith in Him, and live for Him from this day on, and you can be sealed by the Holy Spirit as well.

Place your faith in Him today!

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura

Thanks for reading.

The next entry can be found here.

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