Thursday, October 15, 2020

Revelation 7 Explanatory Notes

Douce Apocalypse Manuscript
Bodleian Library, Oxford
7:1 After this, I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth so that wind might not blow upon the land nor upon the sea nor upon any tree.
In the first two sequences of seven in Revelation, there is an intermission of sorts after the sixth in the sequence. Then the seventh reflects the accomplishment of final judgment and salvation. This chapter gives us the first such intermission. After six images of impending judgment, we get our first glimpse at those who will be saved from the final wrath of God.

God reveals himself within the categories of those to whom he speaks and moves them from there. Revelation is "incarnational"--it takes on the flesh of those who receive it. We likely have an example of incarnational revelation in this verse. We know today that the earth is more or less a globe, a sphere. In John's day, they pictured a relatively flat earth. [1] Indeed, if John were to draw the "land," the earth, he apparently would have drawn it with four corners, as something like a square.

We rightly take this statement metaphorically, even though John may have taken it literally. The point is that the whole earth, the whole "land," is involved. The holding back of the winds likely symbolizes the fact that the final judgment will not commence until the redeemed are removed from the earth. The angels hold back the winds of judgment for just a bit more.

2. And I saw another angel descending from the rising of the sun having the seal of the living God and he cried with a mighty voice to the four angels to whom was given to them to harm the earth and the sea, 3. saying, "Do not harm the land nor the sea nor the tree until we should seal the servants of our God on their foreheads."
One key take-away from this chapter is that those who are "sealed" by God will not endure the full wrath of God in judgment. They will undergo hardship and tribulation to be sure, but the consummation of judgment is for those who refuse to repent before the Lord. The imagery requires the old creation to pass away before the new creation fully comes. The land and the sea and the trees will be harmed in the transition between the old and new creation. But the redeemed will not be part of that conflagration.

The seal on the foreheads of the redeemed, of those who truly serve God, is not a literal seal any more than the mark of the beast in Revelation 13 is a literal mark. The point is that God knows who truly belongs to him. Those who truly belong to him will undergo tribulation but they will be saved from the final judgment.

4. And I heard the number of those having been sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand having been sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5. from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand having been 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 Zebulon, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand having been sealed.
It is virtually certain that 144,000 is a symbolic number. One hundred forty-four is a perfect square of twelve, the number of the tribes of Israel. These tribes are all enumerated here. 144,000 is a perfect number, symbolically fitting a perfect, very large amount.

We should also take the distribution of the twelve tribes as symbolic. After all, ten of these tribes were largely destroyed by Assyria in 722BC. Nor does John likely have in mind Israelites prior to Christ, since this is a chapter relating to those who come out of the time of great tribulation (7:14). Here is a warning not to see Revelation as entirely about John's day, for it would take some time to get to 144,000.

It is tempting to see these 144,000 as those ethnic Israelites who believed on Jesus during the tribulation time from the death of Christ to Jesus' second coming. On the basis of chapter 7 alone, it would be easy to see this group as distinct from the group in 7:9 from every people group. This is the "dispensationalist" interpretation that arose in the 1800s. It sees the 144,000 as Israelites who fulfill God's promises to Israel in the Old Testament, while those from 7:9 are Gentiles.

As tempting as this interpretation is, the later mention of the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-7 steers us away from it. In that later passage, the 144,000 would appear to be all of those who are saved from the earth. In that passage, the message is to all the peoples of the earth (14:6).

We thus see John incorporating those Gentiles who become servants of God into Israel. This is not the obliteration of Jew and Gentile into a third race. It is the incorporation of non-Jews into Israel as the people of God. Those who worship God and the Lamb become part of the twelve tribes of Israel.

9. After these things I saw and, behold, a great crowd that no one is able to number from every ethnos and tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb, having been clothed in white robes and with palm branches in their hands.
Salvation is for everyone. No one is eliminated from the possibility of salvation because they speak a certain language, have a certain color or family, or come from a certain place. Everyone is invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. 

I have struggled to translate the word ethnos. We might render it as "nation," but that is bound to lead us to read modern nation-states into the text. A tribe is a group of people of similar ancestry. An ethnos is very similar but on a larger scale, possibly with more diverse elements within it. The word ethnos in the plural can refer to the Gentiles, the "nations" of non-Jews.

Israel had tribes within it, as mentioned in this chapter, but it might be considered one ethnos. We could say the same for the Greeks. Ancient Athens had tribes but the Greeks as a whole were an ethnos. The people groups mentioned in Acts 2:9-11 were ethnoi. "People-groups" is not a bad translation, although "peoples" appears in the verse as well. Perhaps we can think of ethnoi as including some mix of peoples beyond a pure people-group.

There is a principle here that can be difficult for us humans to hear. God is not an American. There is something very strange and not quite right about a US flag on a church platform. God does not favor the "white" American Christian over the brown illegal who snuck across an imaginary line that some secular nation drew there, as if people truly decide the boundaries of God's earth. America is not the new Israel, despite what some Puritans may have wanted to believe.

God's kingdom cuts across all visible human organizations and societies, including the church. Within the visible church are those who truly have the seal of God on their foreheads and those who have the mark of the beast on their right arms. There are Russians and Iranians who are servants of God and there are descendants of the English Pilgrims who are not.

One can go a long time without realizing that your congregation all looks exactly the same as the dominant cultural group of your tribe or ethnos. Once you notice, it can become increasingly uncomfortable that everyone looks the same, especially if there are many others who are different nearby. We might like to think that anyone would be welcome, but is it true?

Sometimes an all white church can be situated right in the middle of a rich cultural diversity of peoples and completely ignore them. In the mid-twentieth century, people in northern white churches moved to the suburbs to get away from increasing diversity in urban spaces because of the "great migration" of African-Americans from the south. These were families fleeing a space controlled by Satanic Jim Crow practices and laws. For a while, people in those urban white churches would drive in for miles past people who would not have felt welcome at the church in their neighborhood. Eventually, they moved the churches to the suburbs as well.

Sometimes when urban white churches actually did outreach, they assumed that those surrounding people were not believers. Many of them had churches of their own to which the upper middle class white church was oblivious. Black Christians did not simply wait to be included in the white churches where they were not welcome after the Civil War. They founded their own churches and denominations.

God knows nothing of these barriers. Martin Luther King Jr. once mused that Sunday morning was the most segregated moment of the week. But there is no race test in the kingdom. There is no status test in the kingdom. You do not have to show God an ID to prove you belong because he has put his seal upon you himself.

Those who belong among the rescued wear white robes. Their hearts are pure and they have lived in obedience to the King. They are servants whose palm branches show that they know who the true Lord is, and it is not Caesar.

The word "standing" is in the perfect tense. It suggests that they remain standing before the throne and the Lamb. They came to stand and they continue to stand. There seems a sense of finality to their destiny. Those who have opposed God will fall, but they stand. The throne refers to God (the Father) in a reverential way by referring to where his presence "sits." And the Lamb of course is Jesus.

10. ... and crying with a mighty voice, saying, "Salvation [belongs] to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb.
These individuals are those who are "saved." This expression has become so common that we talk of "getting saved" when we first become a Christian. There's nothing wrong with that use of the word, but it obscures the fact that the Day of Salvation is most literally the day that we escape the wrath of God in judgment. The Day of Wrath is the Day of Judgment, and thus the Day of Salvation is the day that we do not undergo that judgment. To say we have been "saved" before then is a shorthand for "If I continue in faith, I am guaranteed escape from the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment."

All those who have escaped the judgment, from every people on earth, thus proclaim in the throne room that salvation is a property of God and the Lamb.  It's what they do. This is what Paul primarily means when he speaks of the "righteousness of God" in Romans 1:16--"It is the power of God leading to salvation to everyone who has faith."

11. And all the angels have stood around the throne and the elders and the four beasts, and they fell before the throne on their faces and they worshiped God, 12. saying, "Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength [be] to our God forever and ever."
If those who have just been saved "have stood" before the throne, the angels and beasts possibly representing the creation have been standing for much longer. The perfect tense is used once again, indicating that they remain standing before the throne. God sits. They stand, an indication of God's importance and their service. The elders, again, may represent the wise of humanity throughout history, while the saved are those who have served God since the Lamb was slain.

And they fall on their faces, like Isaiah in Isaiah 6. Salvation is accomplished. All is now going to be right in the cosmos, for the first time since the creation. Everything will bow from now on before God, every knee.

So they worship God (the Father). The "Amen" indicates solemn agreement and finality. The terms of this doxology are honor terms that fit perfectly within the honor-shame world of the ancient Mediterranean. "Blessing" is the favor of one's group, and "glory" is the honor of one's group. Of course the blessing of God and the "glory of God" (cf. Rom. 3:23) are infinitely greater coming from God. But the creation cannot but give what little favor and glory it can to its Creator. "Honor" is the esteem of others, the acknowledgement of value and worth.

Wisdom is an obvious property of God, as is strength and power. God has always possessed them and will always possess them. Wisdom is not only knowledge but the ability to process and use that knowledge in the right way. Strength and power belong to God because God is omnipotent and can do anything.

In the end, "thanks" are clearly in order. God has saved his people from destruction. Not because they deserve salvation but because of God's mercy and their repentance.

13. And answered one of the elders, saying to me, "These having been clothed with white robes--who are they and from whence have they come?" 
The elder obviously knows, and John does not. It is a rhetorical question meant to lead us to the key insight on what is going on in this event. The great crowd is wearing white robes, which indicates their purity and righteousness.

14. And I have said to him, "My lord, you yourself know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and they made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
This is the verse from which the expression, "the Great Tribulation" comes. Many will be acquainted with the concept of a seven year period at the end of time just before the judgment. According to this late nineteenth century idea of "dispensations," an evil figure called "the Antichrist" will arise and take control of the world. Israel will be re-established and the temple will be rebuilt. The figure will be so convincing that even many Christians will believe he is the Christ.

This interpretation and interweaving of biblical passages came from an Irish man named John Darby, who thrived in the mid-1800s in Britain. It is quite an ingenious system. However, it runs roughshod over the differences between the various passages it interweaves. For example, the word "antichrist" is never used in the Bible of a single individual. Darby conflated the term from 1 John with the beast from the sea we meet in Revelation 13 and the "man of lawlessness" from 2 Thessalonians 2.

Similarly, the book of Revelation never speaks of a seven year period. We will find the symbolic use of three and a half years in Revelation 12, but Revelation never compounds this number. Darby conflated this number with the seven year "weeks" of Daniel 9. His hypothesis was that one last week of seven years was missing, to be finalized before the judgment.

But Revelation 7:14 gives no time period for this great tribulation. It seems to refer rather to the difficult times of John himself, the time awaiting the return of Christ in salvation and judgment since he left earth. The word tribulation has already been used more than once of John's own day. In Revelation 1:9, John addresses his churches as individuals who share in the same tribulation he is undergoing. He tells the church at Smyrna that he knows their tribulation (2:9-10).

Accordingly, the time of tribulation, like the time of millennium, is now. We are in the tribulation. It is the period between the effective, saving work of the Lamb and his return in judgment. This picture of the rescued is the same picture of the saved that we will see in later presentations in the book of the same scene from a different symbolic perspective.

15. For this reason they are before the throne of God and they worship him day and night in his temple, and the one sitting upon the throne will spread his tent over them.
In the book of Revelation, we see the same basic scenes, the same basic components of the final days, over and over again from different sets of symbolism. So in these last verses in Revelation 7, we are seeing the scene that is presented at greater length at the end of the book in Revelation 21 and 22. This is the scene of the new Jerusalem.

We know from Revelation 21:22 that there will be no temple in the "eschaton," in the time of eternity, the "last time." To be in God's eternal temple day and night worshiping is to be in the new Jerusalem with God throughout eternity. Revelation seems to come from the time after the earthly temple was destroyed, in AD70. This is a time when it dawned on many Christians that they did not need a temple for atonement. Jesus had provided a final and definitive atonement for all time (cf. Heb. 10:14).

God will "spread his tent over them." God will tabernacle with them forever, just as Jesus tabernacled among us when he first came to earth (cf. John 1:14). But this time the earth will be entirely devoted to God. There will be no dissenters. The image of the tabernacle of course comes from the Old Testament when Israel wandered in the desert and God's presence went with them within the "tabernacle of meeting" (cf. Exod. 33:7).

The image of the new Jerusalem requires no sun because God is their light (21:23). Apparently there will be no need for sleep either, so we will be able to worship God (the Father) day and night. These are of course pictures. We should imagine that the reality to which these images points will be far greater than we could now express in words.

16. They will not hunger still nor will they thirst still, nor will the sun fall on them nor any burning.
No doubt hunger and thirst were a greater reality for the believers to whom John writes than they typically are for Western Christians today. This was perhaps part of their tribulation. They did not have running water. There was no government program for the poor. There were no weekends to get out of the sun.

The righted world will not have such problems. All will have food to eat and safe water to drink. They will not have to work under oppressive conditions in the scorching heat. God will be their light. The bread of life will be in their midst.

17. For the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and will lead them to springs of life of waters, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
The Lamb becomes the shepherd. The image of a river of life is used later in the scroll (chap. 22). The Great Shepherd who provides living water (cf. John 4:10) will make sure there is no thirst in eternity. The tears that go with tribulation will be abolished in salvation. We long for such a day. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

[1] This flatness is probably how every eye can see Jesus when he returns.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Interesting comments on race.