In Revelation 6 John described what happened when the Lord Jesus — the Lamb who had been slain — open the first six seals on the scroll which had been in the hand of the Lord God Almighty. And when the first four scrolls were opened, four horsemen appeared and each one was given power and authority to bring all kinds of death and destruction on the earth, all the woes and troubles which happen in the world in these, the last days. And then, after the fifth seal was opened, John saw the souls of the martyrs, who were kept safely under the altar of the Lord. And after the sixth seal was opened, John described the end of the world, and how the people of the world called on mountains and rocks to fall upon them, because they would rather have the mountains fall on them than face the Lord God Almighty and the wrath of the Lamb.
So, John described what happened as each of the six seals was opened. But then there’s a delay before the final seal is opened; and we have to wait until chapter 8 to see what the opening of the seventh seal would bring. And before we get to chapter 8, there’s chapter 7. And really, chapter 7 contains two further visions which John saw. The first one is in verses 1 to 8 which begins with the words: ‘After this’. And the second one is in verses 9 to 17 which begins with the words: ‘After this’. So, there are two different visions. The first is a vision of what theologians call ‘the church militant’, which is the church on earth. The second is a vision of what theologians call ‘the church triumphant’, which is the church in heaven. And we need to understand that when John says ‘after this’, he means:
after this vision which I’ve just described, I saw this new vision.
After the vision of the opening of seals one to six, I received this vision of the church militant. And after the vision of the church militant, I received this vision of the church triumphant. So, what did he see?
Verses 1 to 8
Look at verse 1: he saw four angels standing at the four corners of the world: north, south, east and west. And these four angels were holding back the four winds of the earth in order to prevent the four winds from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.
So, what are these winds and what are these angels? Well, it’s not entirely clear and the commentators make various suggestions. However, it seems to me that all we can say about them with confidence is what we read here in these verses. And so, we read at the end of verse 2 that the four angels have been given power to harm the land and the sea. In other words, they’ve been given power to harm the earth. And presumably they will harm the earth by means of these four winds. We all know the destructive power of wind, don’t we? And so, John sees these four angels who have been given the power to harm the harm by means of these four winds. But at the beginning of John’s vision, the four angels have been told not to harm the earth until something else happens first. And since they’ve been told not to harm the earth until something else happens first, John sees them holding back the winds to prevent them from blowing on the earth and causing destruction to it.
So, what are they waiting for? What has to happen first before they can harm the earth? Well, look at verse 3:
Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.
The Lord is going to mark his people with a seal. Not, we’re not to think of a physical seal or a physical mark which can be seen on their foreheads. The book of Revelation is a book of visions and pictures and symbols which need to be interpreted accordingly. And so, the picture of a seal on the forehead of the Lord’s people is a way of conveying to us how the Lord’s people are placed under the Lord’s protection. That’s the purpose of a seal, isn’t it? A cowboy brands his cattle to make clear who owns them and so that no one will steal them. Parents will put a label inside their children’s clothes to make clear who owns them and so that, if they’re lost, they can be returned. And the Lord seals his people with a seal of ownership in order to protect them from all the woes and troubles which happen in the world.
But in what way does he protect us? Does he protect us from trouble and suffering? Well, in the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, the Lord referred several times to the suffering of his people. And we read in chapter 6 about the souls of the martyrs, those who died because of their faith in Christ. And all though the book of Revelation and all though the New Testament we read about the suffering of the Lord’s people. So, when the Lord seals us, it can’t mean that he protects us from suffering. So, in what way does he protect us? Well, he protects our faith, doesn’t he? He enables us to keep believing and to persevere in the faith despite all the opposition and trouble and suffering we face. He protects us by strengthening our faith so that we will not give up what we believe and turn away from the Saviour.
And so, the four angels who are holding back the four winds are commanded not to harm the earth until the Lord’s people receive this seal of ownership so that their faith will be protected from all the woes and troubles that happen in the world, in these, the last days.
And in verses 4 we’re told that the number of those who are sealed is 144,000: 12,000 from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad and so on. 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. Now, once again we need to remember that the book of Revelation is a book of visions and pictures and symbols which need to be interpreted accordingly. So, how are we to interpret what John saw? Who are the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel? Are these Jews? And are we to take the number 144,000 literally? Well, Revelation 14 helps us here, because in Revelation 14 John mentions this crowd of 144,000 again; and this time he describes them as those who have been redeemed from the earth. In other words, this great crowd represents all of God’s redeemed, the whole church.
One commentator suggests that this way of numbering the church recalls the way a census might have been taken in Old Testament times to count the number of fighting men. And so, John sees a picture of all the redeemed, every believer, who make up the church militant on earth. And it’s called the church militant, because every day we must stand firm against the wicked schemes of the Devil; and every day we must fight against our own sinful desires; and every day we must endure all the sorrow and suffering of this troubled life; and every day we must learn to persevere and to keep going. But the good news is that we have been sealed with the mark of God’s ownership; and we know that we are under his protection; and that we can always trust in him to keep us strong in the faith.
Verses 9 to 17
But let’s move on to John’s next vision. Having seen the church militant on the earth, he now sees the church triumphant in heaven. So, he tells us in verse 9 that he saw a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, and they’re standing before the throne of God and in front of the Lamb.
Do you realise what John is seeing here? He’s seeing the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham. God promised to give Abraham so many descendants that they would be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore, too many to count. And you remember that God’s promise to Abraham was to be fulfilled in two ways: in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way in the nation of Israel; and in a spiritual, greater and eternal way in the church, comprising people from every nation who share Abraham’s faith. And here’s the fulfilment of that great promise, because here’s this great multitude, drawn from every nation, which cannot be counted.
And so, when believers pray for the extension of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world, we’re praying for God to fulfil his promise to Abraham and to do all things necessary to make John’s vision in Revelation 7 a reality. In our prayers, we must ask the Lord to bless the reading and preaching of his word, so that people in every nation will hear and believe so that God’s throne in heaven will be surrounded by a great multitude, which is like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, because it cannot be counted.
And look: the people in this great multitude are wearing white robes. Where did they get these white robes? Well, look down to verse 14 where we’re told they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Remember Exodus 19 and how the Israelites, who had gathered at Mount Sinai, had to wash their clothes before meeting the Lord? Well, the members of the church triumphant are able to wear white robes — signifying righteousness and purity — because the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ purifies us from every sin.
And the multitude are holding palm branches in their hands, as the crowds did when they welcomed the Lord Jesus into Jerusalem. Waving palm branches was a way to celebrate a victory, and the members of the church triumphant are able to celebrate the victory of God over sin and Satan and death. And the church triumphant cried out in a loud voice:
Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
In other words:
We owe our salvation to God and to the Lamb, for they have done all things necessary to save us and to give us everlasting life.
And all the angels fell down on their faces and they 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.
And so they worshipped the Lord for all his perfections.
And then, in the vision, one of the elders — we’ve seen the elders before — one of the elders asked John a question:
Who are the ones in white robes and where did they come from?
How would John know? This is the first time he’s seen this great multitude. But fortunately, the elder himself knows who they are. And look what he says about them in verse 14:
These are they who have come out of the great tribulation….
I’ll pause there; some commentators think he’s referring to a single event, some great tribulation that will happen at the end, before the Lord returns. But, in keeping with what we’ve learned about how Revelation is describing what life is like in these, the last days, it’s more likely that the great tribulation is a way to refer to all the suffering and all the struggles which the church on earth, the church militant, has to face while we wait for the Saviour to come again. Think of all the wicked schemes of the Devil; and every temptation we have to face; and the pressures on us to conform to the world; and all the sorrow and suffering of this troubled life which threaten to crush our faith while we remain on the earth. But the members of the church triumphant have — with the help of the Lord — overcome all these tribulations and trials. And their robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. And so, they’ve been able to come before the throne of God to serve him continually.
And look at the second half of verse 15:
he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
It’s a picture of protection. And verse 16 is a picture of blessedness: no more hunger, no more thirst; shelter from the scorching sun. And, verse 17, the Lamb who was slain is also their Shepherd; and he will lead them to springs of living water; and all who drink from the living water will live for ever and ever. And God himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
That promise resonates with all of us, doesn’t it? And it resonates with all of us, because we all know by experience — and some more than others — but we all know by experience what it means to weep: because of pain; because of sorrow; because of disappointment; because of grief. We all know what it is to weep. But here’s the wonderful promise that after this troubled life is over, the Lord God Almighty will wipe the tears from our eyes. The former things — everything that makes up this life of tribulation — will have passed away; and there will be perfect peace and rest and blessedness for all of God’s people for ever and for ever.
And so, to the church militant, which is the church on earth and which has to face so many struggles, the Lord says:
I have put my seal on you in order to protect you, so that your faith in me will not fail; and one day, one day, you’ll enter my rest and all your sorrow and suffering will finally be over.