The Remnant of Faithful Jews

by Roger McCay
13 February 2022
Sermon Passage: Revelation 7:1-8
Link to Audio Version

The more and more I delve into the Book of Revelation, communing with the Lord and his Word, the more I’ve come to view Revelation as a song. Its brilliant textual and literary structures are like (and in some case quite literally are) musical structures, harmonizing with the historic past, present, and future heavenly and earthly realities, the notes overlapping, repeating, resonating, with a counterpoint of multiple voices, chimes and bass. And the more I study it, the more I hear it sing. It’s music. But more than that, its vivid imagery makes it operettic in a sense, yet as a composition of a perfect seven movements or acts. And we even find various heavenly choruses woven into the movements, as part of the composition. The music rises and falls, just under the surface, like an accompaniment of the vision, almost audible, but not quite a crispness—like that crackle in the air we experience after heartfelt prayer (something that can almost be grasped; something that resounds in the soul). It’s hard to describe. Maybe you’ve had such experiences in your studies, and you’ve experienced the music of Scripture, and perhaps it has even overwhelmed you, at times, compelling spontaneous worship. And, while all that may sound strange to you, even foreign, or maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about, I suppose (considering the nature of the Word of God and the Spirit of God’s work in us as we commune with him in his Word) such things should not be a surprise. And they certainly are a delight. It’s real. After all, God sings over us (Zeph. 3:17). And it makes sense that his music is woven into the supernatural fabric of his Word, which is living and active (Heb. 4:12).

A couple of weeks ago, we considered the breaking of the sixth seal, in Rev. 6:12-17, which resulted in prophesied events (using familiar OT prophetic language) that would take place just after the great tribulation. The sixth seal, as we saw, symbolically expresses the Lord’s wrath as it crescendos immediately prior to the final fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. And it describes the people at ground zero’s response of terror to the looming wrath of him who sits on the throne (the Father) and the Lamb of God (the Son).

So, the passage rises up to a screaming intensity, to then transition into an interlude, in ch. 7. Yet, rolling into that interlude, the question of Rev. 6:17 still lingers on, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” And while the events in these passages happened long ago, as we’ll see, it’s a question we are wise to consider today. Judgment Day is coming. Who can stand? Is my salvation secure?

Throughout Revelation, happening seven times in critical scenes of tribulation and judgment that flash before us, in the midst of John’s (and likewise the readers and hearers of his message) … in the midst of the “amazement and confusion” such scenes engender, scenes of “triumph and glory” are introduced in the form of contrasts designed to comfort, “compose and cheer,” through various manifestations of the security of the Bridegroom’s grace and love of his Bride. [1]

And that is what is happening here in our passage today. In this pause, the Lord provides a reminder that his wrath is not total. By his grace, he has chosen, redeemed, and securedna remnant of people sealed with his name. These are his people who, by the power of the Lord, can stand, with no need to cower before the wrath of him who sits on the throne and the Lamb.

Verses 1-3:

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

Here, in v. 1, we see a repetition of fours—four angels, four corners, and four winds. The angels are the Lord’s agents correspondingly placed at the four points of the compass, tasked to hold back the four winds. Hearkening to imagery found in Zech. 6:1-5, the four angels are given the power to unleash the forces of the four winds, which are agencies of divine powers at work in the world, particularly in the agency of the four horsemen of the Lamb. And through these forces the angels exercise their God-given power to carry out divine judgment upon the earth and the sea, likewise the trees. With the land and sea the world-sphere upon which the Lord’s judgment is directed is symbolized, existing within the four corners. And like trees are symbolic for people and nations in the OT prophets (e.g. Ezek. 31:14), they represent the inhabitants who will suffer when the forces of the horsemen blow down upon them. Thus, great tribulation, the Lord’s just wrath, is in the wings, ready to come upon the stage.

Yet, before the horsemen are released to bring havoc upon the Land of Israel (and to an extent, the Roman Empire), an angel comes from the east, from the rising of the sun, bearing the seal of the living God and says, “Not yet!” The Lord’s people, the servants of God, must first be sealed. With this command, the four horsemen’s trampling of the land was delayed. Their unleashing, as we’ve studied, would occur circa. AD 66, with the beginning of the Jewish Civil Wars and the Land of Israel’s conquest by Rome.

Now, the question is, was anyone sealed after that time? As we’ll see in a minute, of course they were. Here, God was making a point. His people would be secured. Not a single one of his chosen people would fail to endure to the end.

And it seems probable that this time of sealing stretches back in time, to Pentecost, in Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit descended upon those in the upper room with a sound like a mighty rushing wind, in Acts 2. If so, the delay was commanded just prior to that event, shortly following the Lord Jesus’ ascension into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, circa. AD 30 or 33 (Dan. 7:13-14). From that point in history, the gospel of Jesus Christ spread through Jerusalem then radiated outward through Judea and Samaria and onward to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Further, this time of sealing corresponds with the evangelistic activities Jesus prophesied in the Olivet Discourse, in Matt. 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Context and history shows that the “end” referred to by Jesus, in that verse, was the end of Jerusalem and the Temple, which would be fulfilled in AD 70. And historically, just as Jesus prophesied, Paul testified that the gospel had reached all the earth years before Jerusalem fell, having been proclaimed in all creation under heaven (Rom. 10:18; Col. 1:23).

But what is this seal? To answer that question, we need to think in terms of the rest of chapter seven, which speaks of multitudes of believers from every nation worshipping the Lord in heaven. Every single one of them had been sealed. How do we know this? It’s because every single believer in Jesus Christ is sealed. Eph. 1:13-14 (written to one of the seven churches in Asia of Revelation) tells us this plainly: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” The Holy Spirit indwells every Christian that believes, and that is traced all the way back to … When? Yes, Pentecost. Pentecost was literally when God began sealing his people with the Holy Spirit. And, as Revelation further tells us, to be sealed with the Holy Spirit is to be sealed with the name of the Father and the Son (Rev. 14:1), and it is promised to all who conquer by faith (Rev. 3:12). Indeed, the straight up fact is that the seal is a guarantee that the believer will conquer by faith.

Now, while all Christians are sealed, Rev. 7: 4-8 is particularly referring to a specific people, among the whole number of the elect. Verse 4:

And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

It then goes on numbering 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes that are listed.

The OT background of the picture before us is particularly helpful in our understanding. This sealing on the foreheads of people in Rev. 7:4-8 hearkens to Ezek. 9:4-6, which was read in our OT reading this morning. John, in the Apocalypse, repeatedly uses the imagery and language of the prophets, especially drawing from Ezekiel. This is evidently true here. The sealing of the righteous on their foreheads, in Rev. 7, corresponds to the marking of the righteous on their foreheads, in Jerusalem, in Ezek. 9. And like J. Massyngberde Ford, suggests, John “models his text on Ezekiel probably so that his readers will think of Jerusalem.”[2] Thus, like ground zero of the Lord’s wrath was upon Jerusalem in 586 B.C., ground zero would be upon Jerusalem in AD 70. Also, like it was Jews who were marked in Ezekiel, in Rev. 7:3-8, the people sealed were “from every tribe of the sons of Israel.”

As you read ahead in the chapter, you will also see a contrast. There are the people in Rev. 7:3-8, sealed “from every tribe of the sons of Israel,” with the passage listing each tribe—the 144,000. This sealing also takes place before the great tribulation was unleashed. Then, presented in the rest of the chapter, starting with v. 9, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” who, as v. 14 states, “came out of the great tribulation.” The first group is deliberately distinguished from the second group. And while True Israel is, of course, made up of every believer in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:29), that is not what is represented here. The 144,000 is not a picture of the larger body of Christ made up of both ethnic Jews and Gentiles. The language John uses is deliberately limiting. The multitudes, in Rev. 7:9-17, represent that larger body in its diversity. And the first group, in Rev. 7:3-8, represent a single entity that is singled out of that larger body. And that single entity (based on context and John’s description indicate), this entity was the Jews singled out for salvation who would be at the heart of the tempest of the Lord’s wrath—the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. But in an expanded sense, considering the larger picture given in Rev. 7:1-3, this body would also include Jewish Christians throughout Palestine and, perhaps, (considering the timeframe) throughout the known world.[3] For there was a fluidity of people moving in and out of the city and travelling to and from the land, before the siege of Jerusalem, with conversions taking place all over. But after the siege by Titus and the Roman forces began, there was a zeroing in that occurred (with the people), as the time of the Lord’s wrath closed upon Jerusalem, sweeping from the four corners of the earth. In the midst of this, the 144,000 are the remnant of the faithful ethnic Jews—the Jewish Christians, including the church in Jerusalem and Christians who may have travelled there for the Passover and so-forth.[4]

And this gets to the point of the matter. John is here, in Rev. 7:1-8, answering the question Paul asks in Rom. 11:1, referring to the ethnic Jews, “Has God abandoned his people?” And then he emphatically responds “By no means!” As a reassurance and comfort for not only John, but also the seven churches of Asia and beyond (who would receive this letter from him), this vision shows that God has “by no means” abandoned his people. Rather, like Paul discusses in Romans 9 and 11, God preserves to himself an elect remnant, just as he always has, as the OT demonstrates. Then, in Rev. 7, the question might be couched more specifically, “Is the coming execution of the Lord’s divorce decree against apostate Israel to be carried out against all of ethnic Israel?” The Lord’s answer, in what he shows John here, is once again, “By no means!” God has not abandoned the Jews, nor will he ever abandon the Jews. Hence the gospel of Jesus Christ was to the Jew first, and then the Gentile. The Lord took deliberate action to ensure these elect people were sealed to him. As he had said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). And this is what is represented by the sealed 144,000.

So to be clear, the 144,000, here in Rev. 7, were first-century, ethnically Jewish Christians, centered in Jerusalem. They were the ones who could stand in the midst of the oncoming wrath of the one seated on the throne and the Lamb. And the point is, God has not abandoned the ethnic Jews. He sealed them, and he saved them.

Now, while people like to nail things down, me among them, the exact Jewish Christians in Palestine of the first century included in the 144,000 is debated, even among those of us in the same camp. Were they those who escaped Jerusalem before the siege? Were they the martyrs? Did they escape tribulation? Or did they go through tribulation? Well, reasons are given for each. I think the text is deliberately symbolic and vague enough to leave the exact identity and fate of the individuals involved a mystery until we see them in eternity.

Nevertheless, think about it. Being sealed does not exempt Christians from tribulation, so why would it be any different for these particular Jewish Christians? These people suffered. Surely, we read of the suffering of the Jewish Christians in Acts beginning shortly after Pentecost, including those who were martyred for their faith, going back to Stephen, including James the Apostle, John’s brother. And it seems certain that many Jewish Christians suffered tremendously and died in the midst of the civil war and fall of Jerusalem, from AD 66-70.  And while probably not the whole number, it’s surely part of it. A number of Jewish Christians also escaped Jerusalem, perhaps to Pella (as Eusebius describes,[5] etc.), heeding the Lord’s warning in his Discourse to get out of Jerusalem when they saw certain signs before Jerusalem was finally sieged and fell (Matt. 24:15-22). That group, who escaped, fits the Lord’s discourse quite well, and as I’ve explained, Revelation is John’s Olivet Discourse. Yet, we know some stayed behind in Jerusalem who suffered until death took them, like the two witnesses in Rev. 11. And it seems people with physical limitations and so forth were, by necessity, among the number that stayed. And even though there is no record one way or the other (as the city was destroyed, and so forth), it is not too far a stretch to acknowledge that some may have stayed for reasons known only to God, from financial limitations to a sense of love for their neighbor and a desire to bring as many to Christ before the end came (like the two witnesses). And some may have stayed due to just plain stubbornness (you know the type).

I think later imagery, which we see of the 144,000, in Rev. 14, helps, where they stand on Mt. Zion with the Lamb, his people, his army of true believers, faithful followers of Christ. There, a song is lifted up before the throne that only the 144,000 could learn—“the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the land.” For the 144,000, death was no threat, as they were sealed—protected and preserved in the way which most matters. They were the Lord’s faithful, and my thought is that come the fall of Jerusalem, some escaped and some lived.[6] Like I said, nowhere in Scripture does it say they all escaped death during that time. But the Lord does say, “And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matt. 24:22).

So, with all that said, the main thing, the certain thing, which you and I are to take from this passage is that God preserved his remnant of the ethnic Jews, in the Land of Israel, and the tribulation of the horsemen and so forth did not prevail over them. They conquered. And, in the end, every single one of them stood, in the power of the Lord, having been protected and preserved in the eternal way which most matters, and their voices have joined the multitudes rejoicing in heaven.

So, why 144,000? What’s with the number? This one’s not that hard.  In a nutshell, it’s the number signifying the complete fullness of sealed Jewish Christians in first century Jerusalem (as we’ve discussed), and the dramatic way it’s laid out is an emphasis on the significance of their sealing.

The number is not literal, but rather 144,000 is a symbolic number specific for the 12 tribes of Israel listed, interacting with the symbolic number of 1000. From each tribe, 12 times 1000 people are sealed, and the 12 that is multiplied by 1000 within each tribe is likely a simple doubling of the imagery of God’s chosen 12 tribes, emphasizing the Jewishness of the group. Then the 12,000 from each tribe are multiplied by the 12 tribes, totaling 144,000. Much more can be said on this, particularly concerning the symbolic nature of 1000 in the scriptures. For today, though, just note that 10 is the scriptural number for completeness, and 1000 (10x10x10) is often used in Scripture to signify “complete fullness.” [7]

It may be significant, too, that the form of counting is that of census. In the OT, a census, as one man explains, “is always a counting up of the military strength of the nation” (e.g. Num. 1:1-3).[8] Thus, as Keith Mathison observes, the imagery implies a “messianic army” of Jewish Christians.[9] And this makes sense, as the people of the Lord are soldiers for Christ, making up his army (2 Tim. 2:3-4).

So, in answer to “What’s with the number?” The 144,000 is a particularly Jewish number signifying the complete fullness of the of the first-century Jewish Christians, centered in Jerusalem, who were sealed with the Lord’s seal. Of God’s chosen remnant from the Jewish people, not a single one of them was abandoned. All were accounted for, and God took care of them. He was faithful to his chosen people, his church.

So, why are the tribes listed here different here than what we know from the OT, particularly in Gen. 35:23-36? Well, there are lots of clever answers found in scholarship, all of them speculative even though some suggestions are rather insightful, deserving their own study and contemplation. But of all of these, I would suggest the most important change is Judah, listed in the place of honor as the first, specifically pointing to Jesus, the Son of David, the King and Lord of the Jews.[10]

Now, that’s a lot to digest. I get it. And there is, perhaps, a bit you don’t understand. But understand this. God, in his mercy, did not abandon the ethnic Jews when he brought down his wrath upon the Jews, in the first-century AD. He chose, protected, and preserved a remnant at that time, the Jewish Christians, in Jerusalem, in the Land of Israel. It is they who are symbolized by the 144,000, secure in Jesus Christ—their salvation.

So, my friends, considering this picture, a few applications come to mind, as to our own lives.Two I’ll highlight.

For one, God has not abandoned the Jews. There remains a remnant, as Paul wrote in Rom. 9-11, God has kept a remnant of Jews for himself time and time throughout history, highlighted in the OT, spoken of in the NT, even illustrated dramatically in this passage today. And like Paul pleads in Rom. 10, Christians are called to evangelize the Jewish people: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? … As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” And this is simply part of our duty to obey Jesus’ great commission (Matt 28:19-20). When you are faithful in this, you participate in the efforts Jesus spoke of in Matt. 24:31: “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” This is the ongoing evangelistic efforts of the gospel, and when you participate, you fulfill that place of the Lord’s messenger, that of an angel, in obedience of love to the salvation of souls.

The second flows from the simple truth that as a believer in Jesus Christ, you are sealed against whatever the world and the devil may send against you. You are sealed against the Lord’s own wrath, as he took the wrath of God you and I deserve as sinners. Jesus, the Lamb of God, took that wrath upon the cross, so that we might be saved. Sealed with the Holy Spirit true believers are likewise a remnant, having security in tribulation, and sure and future hope of glory, eternal life, and all the benefits of a child of God. So, whatever may come your way, trust in Jesus. Keep your eyes on him. Follow him. He’s got you in the palm of his hand, and he loves you. Your eternal destiny is secure, and by the power of Holy Spirit, you will be able to stand. Judgment Day is coming. If you are one of the Lord’s sealed, your salvation is secure. Live your lives with the certainty of that truth, in the freedom of Christ. And like one man has said, you are “free to live, free to love, free to die for the gospel because the power of God is greater than death itself.”[11]

So, while none of us are one of the 144,000, are you one of the Lord’s sealed?

Trust in Jesus. True saving faith is evidence you have been sealed by the promised Holy Spirit, confirmed in your life through the Spirit’s work in you, your communion with him, and evidenced by your enduring until the end, following Jesus no matter what might come.

Because only those God protects will be able to stand, come judgment, we must trust in Jesus.

[1] Cf. Milton S. Terry, The Apocalypse of John, 96, for more on this and a compilation of the seven scenes.

[2] J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, vol. 38, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 122.

[3] With travel in and out of the great city and throughout the land, and the timetables involved, limiting this to only people in Jerusalem as being sealed, without leaving open the possibility to a larger group through the Land seems a bit and unnecessarily aggressive, considering the broad symbolism in this vision.

[4] Josephus tells of how the city was packed due to travelers who had come to attend the feasts (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 6.9.3).

[5] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.5.3.

[6] Preaching this, I said, “Some escaped and lived but many died.” But I left it in the manuscript, here, as I originally wrote it. Using “some” for both may be better due to ambiguity of actual numbers, as “many” implies more than some. We know there were Jewish Christians who escaped from Jerusalem to Pella, heeding Jesus’ warning in his Olivet Discourse, per Eusebius (early  4th cent.) and Epiphanius of Salamis (late 4th cent.). We also know the two witnesses died, per Rev. 11:3ff., and while they might only be two people, it seems more likely that they are (at least in part) metaphorical figures for the witness of the Christians in Jerusalem (more than just two; and the metaphor was towards the truth of their testimony—cf. John 8:17; Num. 35:30), and their deaths, during the time (this will be parsed out in detail when we come to Rev. 11). The scene of the martyrs in the 5th seal and the following scene in Rev. 7:9-17 highlight Christians who died. The latter, particularly, are coming out of the great tribulation (per Rev. 7:14), which would include those of the 144,000 who died during that time. I do not agree with those who say the 144,000 were only those who escaped to Pella, much less that “every” Christian escaped and went to Pella. I think that is rather a wooden interpretation. Context points to dead and dying Christians all around Rev. 7:1-8, plus other considerations I mentioned in the sermon. These things, in my mind, seem to push the number who died from “some” to “many,” as I preached. As it is, we do not know how many of the 144,000 lived and died during that time, although we do know they are all with Jesus in heaven now.

[7] Cf. Kenneth L.Gentry, Jr., “Why the Number 144,000,”, pub. 9 Aug. 2019, Both the article and discussion in the comments are helpful.

[8] Keith A. Mathison, From Age to Age (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 669, quoting R. Bauckman, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 217.[8] See also Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 313.

[9] Mathison, 669.

[10] Also, Joseph is listed and Manasseh replaced Dan. Even further, the descendants of the maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah descendants, are raised up in significance just after the firstborn of Israel, Reuben.

[11] James M. Hamilton Jr., Preaching the Word: Revelation—The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 187.