Who can stand on the days when the wrath of God and the Lamb are poured out on empires? That is the question asked when the sixth seal is opened in Revelation 6:12-17. The shaking of the Roman empire, as with all empires, will affect everyone from rich to poor, from free to slave. Who can escape God’s anger as judgment falls upon the empire?
The natural disasters, violence, economic hardship, and war that fall upon empires affects everyone. But this raises the question of what happens to the followers of the Lamb? What will happen to those who bear faithful witness throughout the unleashed chaos that accompanies the opening of the seals in Revelation 6?
Revelation 7 answers that question. Instead of moving to the seventh seal, which the reader eagerly anticipates, the drama pauses to answer the question. The followers of the Lamb are sealed before the seventh seal is opened. This chapter functions as a kind of “interlude” between the sixth and seventh seals in order to illuminate the circumstances of the God’s servants as the seals proceed. Though the empire is undergoing convulsions, the faithful witnesses are “sealed.”
John’s vision identifies two groups of people: (1) the 144,000 in 7:4-8 and (2) the “great multitude” in 7:9-10. Who are theses groups and how are they related to each other? How, then, does this answer the question of Revelation 6:17?
144,000 — The Church Militant
Before the destructive forces of the four winds are released upon the earth, God seals the 144,000. Four angels were “given power to harm the earth and sea,” but they are restrained from releasing the winds until the 144,000 are sealed. We might imagine that the judgment that the seals represent are delayed until arrangements are made for the servants of God. In other words, the opening of the seals and the sealing of the servants are contemporaneous events. As the Lamb opens the seals and judgment begins with the empire, at the same time the servants of God are sealed. God is sovereign over this process.
An angel from the east, an angel with the “rising sun” which bore cultural images of power, comes with a signet ring to seal the servants of God. Animal and slave branding was common in the Roman world, and these are God’s “slaves” (doulous). This seal contrasts with the “mark” that the followers of the beast will receive in Revelation 13:16-17. The nature of the seal might reflect the engraving that was on the headdress of the high priest that functioned “like a seal” which stated “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36-38). Indeed, eschatologically, everything–even the pots and the pans–will be engraved (sealed) with “Holy to the Lord” (cf. Zechariah 14:20-21). The “sealed” belong to the Lord; they are consecrated to God’s purposes. In other words, the seal is a mark of ownership.
They are “sealed” for protection. This does not mean they will not suffer as the empire convulses and dies, but that they are identified as God’s people throughout the suffering. They are “sealed” in the sense that they will not experience divine judgment (cf. Ezekiel 9:3-10) even as they too experience the travail of the empire’s fall. They are protected in that their faithful witness will usher them into the throne room of God. They will not experience the Lamb’s wrath but the Lamb’s loving embrace.
But who are these 144,000 and what do they represent? Some (like Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 216-218) suggest that this is depicted like a military census (cf. Numbers 31:4-6). The servants of God–the “sons (males) of Israel”–are numbered for battle. It is, in the context of this second vision (Revelation 4-16), a small number compared with the 200,000,000 mounted troops that will gather in Revelation 9:16.
Some believe the 144,000 are either a literal or symbolic number of ethnic Jews who have converted to Christianity, and some even think they are 144,000 Jewish-Christian evangelists in the last days. But there are reasons to doubt that this number describes ethnic Jews. Rather, it appears as a symbolic number for the church (whether ethnic Jews or Gentiles) upon the earth. If this is literal Israel, the tribe of Dan is missing. Are we to believe that literally no one from the tribe of Dan would be represented among faithful Israel? The absence of Dan is probably due to Dan’s association with idolatry (Judges 18:30; 1 Kings 12:29; Testament of Daniel 5:6).
The “servants” of God in Revelation are consistently described as Christians, that is, the term describes all believers (cf. Revelation 1:1; 2:20; 6:11; 10:7; 11:18; 19:2, 5, 10; 22:3, 6, 9). The number 144,000 servants are only male (like an ancient army) and their seal is something shared by all believers in Revelation (Revelation 3:12; 22:4). All believers in Revelation are heirs of Israel as the church–God’s new creation–is a kingdom of priests ransomed by the Lamb (Revelation 5:9-10 with Exodus 19:6).
It is the church upon the earth that is sealed, that is, the church militant. The angel from the east delays the four winds that will “harm the earth and sea” until the church is sealed. Consequently, this must be the church on the earth that is numbered as 144,000. The number is symbolic 1,000 x 12 x 12–the whole church is sealed.
Who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb? The sealed servants of God who are the faithful witnesses that live in the empire as it begins to crumble.
An Innumerable Host — The Church Triumphant
Question: Who can stand in the day of the Lamb’s wrath (Revelation 6:17)? Answer: The “great multitude” stands before the throne of God and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).
There is continuity between the 144,000 and the innumerable host. Indeed, there is movement between them. The 144,000 are the sealed servants of God upon the earth who become part of the innumerable host through their faithful witness, that is, through “overcoming” just as the Lamb overcame. When saints die in the Lord as part of the 144,000, they join the innumerable host from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” that stand before the throne of God and before the Lamb. Who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb? Faithful witnesses. They stand before the throne of God rather than hiding in the mountain caves (this is the contrast between the end of Revelation 6 and the status of those before the throne). They are the church triumphant, that is, the church that has overcome through faithful witness rather than through violent revolution.
This seems clear from the question elder asks and the elder’s answer. The innumerable host has come out of the “great tribulation” and they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The “great tribulation” refers to the convulsions which the earth experiences. The word “great” does not mean the biggest or necessarily the climatic tribulation, but a severe one (like Jezebel’s in Revelation 2:22). Tribulation is something which John shares with the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:9) and which the churches have constantly experienced under imperial pressure (Revelation 2:9). In other words, these are those who have shown themselves faithful during their trials and tribulations living in the Roman Empire. They have moved from earth to heaven, from among the “sealed” 144,000 to join the innumerable host.
The innumerable host is described in Revelation 7:9-12. The descriptors are illuminating.
- Size — we have no way of knowing how many Christians populated the Roman Empire at the end of the first century, but this description is surely beyond the imagination of those early believers. They probably saw themselves as small and rather insignificant, but in this vision they see that they participate in a larger and grander assembly than they could have imagined.
- Multi-cultural — different national identities, different languages, different ethnicities. The Roman Empire included such differences, and the kingdom of God expands the borders of the Empire as “every nation” is part of this heavenly assembly. “Every nation” echoes the promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:5).
- Liturgical Robes — the assembly is a worshipping assembly gathered before the throne and the Lamb in white robes (which is the Roman color for temple priests and participants). It is the same robe given to the martyrs at the altar in Revelation 6:11 and given to those who come out of the 144,000 and join the assembly in Revelation 17:13-14. Those who wear these robes have access to the tree of life (Revelation 22:14). These robes belong to all faithful believers.
- White Robes — they are white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. This may refer to the expiatory sacrifice of the Lamb, but it may also allude to the blood of their faithful witness, that is, martyrdom.
- Victory Palms in their Hands — palm branches represent victory and were a regular part of triumphal entries into a city by returning armies and victors. These are those who have “conquered” or “overcome.”
- Worshipping Assembly — “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Their victory (deliverance or rescue) belongs to God and the Lamb; they did not achieve it themselves.
This innumerable assembly is then joined in praise by the angels, twenty-four elders, and four living creatures as they fall prostrate before the throne to worship God. They echo their previous praise in Revelation 4 & 5.
The difference between the scenes in Revelation 4 & 5 and here in Revelation 7 is the presence of the victors, that is, the innumerable host. Though all creation is present in some sense in Revelation 5, the victors are not specifically identified. But here we now know–through the progress of the drama and the unfolding vision–that gathered with the living creatures, twenty-four elders, and myriads of angels are the redeemed of the ages as well. The faithful witnesses, including the martyrs (perhaps especially the martyrs), are present in the throne room of God and they join the heavenly host in worship around the throne.
Where is this innumerable host? They poem beautifully describes their present experience and eschatologically anticipates the full reality of the new heaven and new earth. This is not yet that as here the redeemed serve God in a temple when there is no temple in the new heaven and new earth. The earth is still undergoing conflict so this gathering is not the final one but the present one. Revelation 7:9-17 depicts the present experience of saints who have died in the Lord.
So, where is this?
before the throne of God
serving in the temple
sheltered by the presence of God
This is a liturgical picture. The word “serve” (latreuousin) is the term used to describe the role of the Levites in Israel’s temple. Before the throne of God and in God’s temple, the multi-cultural assembly is gathered to worship. Their worship is covered by God’s tent (tabernacle) which is the dwelling presence of God–the shekhinah glory that led Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-38) and dwelled in Israel’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:12; 7:1). This presence will fill ultimately heaven and earth in the new Jerusalem so there is no need for a temple in the Eschaton.
Those before the throne, however, already experience the future. Already they experience the promises of Isaiah 49:10 and Isaiah 25:8–no more scorching heat and no more tears. But, along with the rest of us, they await the fullness of God’s promises in the new heaven and new earth in the new Jerusalem. They yet await the resurrection of their bodies and the transformation of a groaning creation; they yet await the final victory as even more martyrs are continually added to the innumerable host (cf. Revelation 6:9-11).
Before the throne of God, the Lamb is also present as the shepherd of God’s people who guides and waters the people of God so that they no longer suffer. They no longer experience the thirst and heat of the earth but rather drink the living water of God’s presence. There are no more fears and no more tears though they yet await, like the martyrs at the altar, the fullness of the kingdom of God upon the earth.
So, where are those who die in the Lord? They are before the throne of God, they serve God day and night in God’s temple, and the one who sits on the throne shelters them with his presence.
Where are the dead? They are with the Lord.