The 144 000 Jews, and the Martyred Saints (Part 5)
By the end of chapter 6, the reader of the book of Revelation has been caught up in the intrigue and fascination of the unveiling of the seals one by one. The sixth seal being a series of cataclysmic occurrences, has the individual expectantly looking to what dramatic revelation the seventh seal will hold, but instead the breaking of the seals is interrupted by a parenthesis. Revelation chapter 7 reveals the first of many parentheses that appear throughout the book, they are a number of pauses in the unveiling of events that occur in the seven years of the Tribulation, where a magnifying glass is placed over a particular event. The parentheses of Revelation enable the reader to attain a detailed explanation of particular events that occur in the last seven years, “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). There is more to the book of Revelation than a series of judgements, the parentheses reveal the depth of God’s love, as they show a programme of grace and salvation during a time of accountability.
- The first Parenthesis is a view of the saints of God from the nation of Israel at the beginning of the Tribulation – the 144 000 Jews chosen from the 12 tribes.
- The second Parenthesis is related to the first, and that is why they are grouped together. It is a view into heaven at the end of the Great Tribulation. The multitude of saints before God’s throne, are in a large part the results of the work of the 144 000 Jewish witnesses, who because of their decision to follow Jesus, reject the Antichrist and are martyred for their belief. Those living saints at the end of the Tribulation will go forward to populate the Millennium Kingdom.
144 000 Jewish Witnesses (7:1-3)
“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. 2 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, 3 saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads’”.
Verse 1 starts with “after this,” which many people interpret as being the next in a sequence of events, however, if this was the case John should have continued with the seventh seal, but John is merely being shown the next event that he is to record.
So, chapter 7 starts with John describing four angels standing at “the four corners of the earth,” which is an expression that has survived from the ancient past right up to the present, to mean the four points of the compass. The four angels appear at the start of the Tribulation, a time of deceptive peace brought by the rule of the false messiah, the Antichrist, and the angels hold back the winds of judgement from God, preventing them blowing over the whole earth. There is an example of wind being symbolic of judgement in Hosea 13:15:
“Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind, the wind of the Lord, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing”.
John then sees another angel coming up from the East, as light rises in the East, the work of this angel is connected with the light of God’s Word. The angel is carrying the seal of the living God; in Biblical times a king or land owner used seals, and they indicated ownership and protection, the two meanings are bound together as an owner will protect their possessions. The angel from the East calls out to the four angels, saying that they are to hold back their power to harm the land and the sea, until a seal has been placed on the foreheads of the “servants of our God”. The seal is God’s guarantee that we are His, and that one day we will be with Him in heaven. Those that are sealed by the angel, are those chosen by God to be witnesses to Him throughout the world, they are to carry the light of the Word in a time of unprecedented darkness.
God’s servants are not harmed by His judgements, these 144 000 are to be protected in the same manner as the Jews in Egypt were protected from the 10 plagues. Ezekiel also records that God required a seal to be placed on the righteous before Jerusalem was judged: “The Lord said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it”. Also, Scripture is clear that all believers are sealed by the Holy Spirit at salvation:
“1 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).
“13 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” (Ephesians 1:13).
Note that the seal is an indicator of eternal salvation, when a person repents and is redeemed by the saving grace of our Lord Jesus. God puts His seal upon them and they become His treasured possession, and they fall under His protection. It is also a reason why the Antichrist requires that the mark of the beast is placed in the forehead of all who worship him. Satan is counterfeiting that which is of God, by placing his seal (666) upon the foreheads of those when he claims as his own.
A question that needs to be asked is, if the Church is still on the earth at the start of the Tribulation, why would God need 144 000 Jewish witnesses to do the work that the Church was commissioned to do? The answer must be that it is because the Church is no longer on earth! The rapture has taken place and the Bride is in heaven with the Bridegroom. So, God, in His Grace, does not leave mankind without a witness to the Truth, so the 144 000 step forward to replace the Church.
A second question that should be contemplated by all Christians, is how do 144 000 Jews become witnesses for God in the Tribulation, if the Church has been raptured? Some postulate that they all have a Paul-like experience, where Jesus will manifest to them all, one by one. I disagree, there are roughly 350 000 Messianic Jews worldwide, if these Jews who believe in Jesus tell their relatives about the rapture, when the rapture happens there will be more than 144 000 Jews who understand what has happen to their missing relative/s, and why there is a pile of clothes on the lounge floor where their loved one was standing. This understanding, should be a motivation for believers to tell their hard-hearted friends and family, who reject the offer of salvation, about the rapture. The rapture – your disappearance – will be undeniable evidence for those left behind, of the truth that Jesus is their Lord.
The vital importance of Christians believing in a pre-Tribulation rapture is that if they speak to relatives, friends, work colleagues, etcetera about their future translation to heaven, when the rapture occurs, there will be an amazing realisation by those left behind of what has happened and of the truth of the warning they had received. A Messianic Jewish friend of mine expresses the concern of many Christians regarding the rapture when she says “May it be soon, but not yet.” She is looking forward to the return of the Lord, but she is concerned about loved ones who are not saved. If she spoke to them about a pre-Tribulation rapture and the prophetic events to come, she could have the peace of mind that she had provided them with the knowledge they would need for salvation during the Tribulation. Salvation for the Church has been through the grace of God, through faith. Faith is described by the author of Hebrews as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”. Those living during the Tribulation will see prophecy fulfilled before their eyes. At no other time in history will so much prophecy be fulfilled in one time period, and the rapture will announce the start of it all. People during the time of Tribulation will be coming to salvation through knowledge, not faith. There will be a measure of faith in their decision, as “by grace you are saved through faith.” (Eph. 2:8). However, it will not be the faith defined in Heb. 11:1, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” which is required for the Church.
The people living during the Tribulation period will be given a last opportunity to make a decision to accept Jesus. That decision will be a decision based on the knowledge of the vast fulfilment of prophecy occurring around them. However, their choice to accept the Lord will require them to face the persecution of the Antichrist, and will require a full commitment to the Lord by them.
144 000 From Every Tribe (7:4)
“4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel”.
Those that follow the doctrine of Replacement Theology, believe that God has finished with the nation of Israel, and that the Church has replaced them in the will of God. These individuals will therefore deny that in Revelation 7, God is using the Jews as a “light to the Gentiles,” (Isaiah 49:6) and they will say that the number 144 000 is symbolic. This is not the case for the following reasons:
- Numbers in the book of Revelation are not symbolic, as John continually gives the timing of events. For example, the time period of 3½ years is continually repeated in both Daniel and Revelation, being represented as times time and half a time, 42 months and 1260 days. These are literal time periods, not symbolic.
- Symbolism does not do mathematics! The 144 000 number is reached from 12 000 Jews being chosen from each of the 12 tribes: 12 X 12 000 = 144 000.
- For the number 144 000 to be considered symbolic three questions must be asked: 3.1. Does it possess a degree of absurdity when taken literally? The answer is clearly no! 3.2. Does it possess a degree of clarity when taken symbolically? Again, the answer is no, there is no link between a symbolic meaning for 144 000 and the events unfolding. 3.3. Does it fall into an established category of symbolism? The answer again is no! Because figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification or anthropomorphism are legitimate departures from normal language, they are limited in number and can be defined in accordance with known examples. Isaiah 55:12 is an example of this in scripture where the prophet records trees clapping their hands, which is therefore personification.
So, there are four points that indicate that the number 144 000 is to be taken literally:
- The numbers in the Book of Revelation are literal.
- Symbolism does not do mathematics.
- It is not absurd to take the 144 000 Jewish witnesses literally.
- The scripture does not fall into any category of symbolic language.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that there will be 144 000 literal Jewish witnesses.
What happened to Dan and Ephraim? (7:5-8)
“12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 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 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed”.
Note that the list of 12 tribes does not include Dan and Ephraim, and that the two tribes are replaced by one, the tribe of Joseph, and yet there are still twelve tribes!
To fully understand the list of 12 tribes given by chapter 7, there is a need to review two important points regarding the tribes of Israel. The first point is always a bit of a surprise to many, as there were 13 tribes of Israel not 12. Joseph, being recognised as the favoured son by Jacob received a double portion of land. One portion went to Manasseh and the other to Ephraim, the two sons of Joseph, resulting in 13 tribes.
A second point that is required to understand the list of the tribes of Israel, is what happened when the Nation of Israel was divided into two, i.e. the Northern Kingdom and the Kingdom of Judah. Following Solomon’s death, Solomon’s son Rehoboam became king and foolishly threatened to make life more difficult for the people of the land (1 Kings 12:14). This led to a rebellion against Rehoboam, and the ten northern tribes crowned Jeroboam as their king (1 Kings 12:20). Jeroboam, the elected king of the new kingdom, was concerned that people would want to continue worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem, so he decided to make two golden calves, and to implement a “substitute” Feast Day for Israel. There were two substitute places of worship, one located in the South at Bethel, in the tribe of Ephraim, and the second in the far North, at the city of Dan. These places of worship would counterfeit the one ordained by Yahweh – except for the day of the Feast, its location and idolatry. The addition of the two golden calves at the two locations identified the entire substitution as idolatry.
Jeroboam then devised a day “of his own heart,” and called for the Feast to be celebrated on the eighth month instead of the Yahweh-ordained seventh month, as described in Leviticus 23:34 and Numbers 29:12. So, with a few small changes King Jeroboam introduced idolatry to Israel, and the entire nation became deceived through syncretism. The two tribes at the centre of this syncretic idolatry were Dan and Ephraim, and that is the reason they are not included in the Revelation 7 list.
The sore thumb in the list is the tribe of Joseph, it should not be there, as there was no tribe of Joseph. Joseph is already represented by Manasseh, and so if Joseph then just represents Ephraim, why not just call the tribe Ephraim? The most likely explanation is that the tribe of Joseph once more represents two tribes, both Ephraim and Dan, so the punishment for their idolatry is that Ephraim and Dan lose titleship and are halved in their number of representatives.
A Great Multitude from Every Nation (7:9-10)
“9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Verse 9 once more begins with “after this,” as John is shown the next scene, this time he sees a great multitude in heaven consisting of people from every culture, every nation and every language. To recognise that the multitude consists of different people groups, does imply that our features in heaven will be influenced by our earthly culture, and that although we will have perfected bodies, we will still be recognisable as ourselves.
Verse 9 is a look into the Great Tribulation persecution of the saints, and links to the fifth seal of the saints under the alter in Rev. 6:9-11. The 144 000 Jews will witness to the whole world, which is a repeated theme in Revelation – the Lamb died to redeem people “out of all nations, and kindreds and people, and tongues” (Rev. 5:9).
These Tribulation saints are depicted holding palm branches in their hands, which are emblems of victory, the victory of martyrs, who chose loyalty to their faith over life, and gained eternity in heaven. Note, they are not wearing crowns, which are rewards for the Church alone, and is a clear distinction between the two groups. This distinction is important, as those who support a post-Tribulation rapture claim that this group is the Church, and this is therefore evidence the Church will go through the Tribulation – this is clearly not the case. Other factors to consider is that the multitude are also standing, which again separates them in identity from the seated elders, who are representatives of the Church. These Tribulation saints celebrate their salvation by crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7: 10).
The Throne of God takes Centre Place (7:11-12)
“11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen’”.
The Throne of God once more is depicted as taking centre stage in the unfolding events of the Tribulation period. Firstly, the scene reveals the great multitude from every tribe and every tongue, and then we are taken back to the scene before the throne of God in chapter 5, where the billions of angels, the 24 elder and the 4 cherubim are shown to still be before the throne, worshipping God. For the Lord is indeed worthy of our thanksgiving; because of His Grace, this multitude of people who had initially rejected Jesus before the rapture, had the second opportunity to accept Him as their Lord and Saviour during the Tribulation. The consequence of their delayed decision, is that many will be martyred during the Great Tribulation purge of believers.
The Identity of the Martyrs (7:13-14)
“13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
John is transfixed by the enormity and magnificence of the worship of God taking place before him, so one of the elders moves John’s thoughts forward, prompting him by asking a question, “Who is that multitude standing before the throne of God, dressed in white and waving palm fronds?”. Now, John should have recognised them, as he was shown these martyrs under the alter of God when the fifth seal was opened. Overwhelmed by the all that he is seeing, and the grandeur of it all, John is reluctant to answer the elder’s question. He understands that the elder is asking the question as a means of focusing on the event, and to providing clarity to what is happening before him, so he asks the elder to provide the answer. The answer given is very revealing, it is not the Church, but rather those saints that were martyred during the Great Tribulation, they are those that had rejected Jesus prior to the rapture. This reveals important information, as these martyrs are from every cultural group on earth, the following may be deduced:
- The whole world has attained the Gospel of the Kingdom, fulfilling the prophecy by Jesus: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matthew 24:14).
- The prophetic scene reveals that the 144 000 will be effective in their ministry, not only reaching all people groups, but most likely the Jewish evangelists will be able to lay claim to converting a large portion of the great multitude.
- The Antichrist has world dominance, which allows him to enforce the persecution of believers in all nations.
John is able to empathise with these martyrs, as he was transported up to heaven from the penal colony island of Patmos, during a time of great persecution of the fledgling Church by Emperor Domitian. John understands that no despotic ruler is able to claim victory over the martyrdom of a saint of God, as the victory goes to the Lamb of God, who gives them eternal life, as His blood washes and cleanses their robes to be as white as snow:
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
Servants of the Most High (7:15-17)
“15 Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”.
Heaven is not only a place of rest from the trials and tribulations of life on earth, but also a place where it will be a privilege to serve before the Throne of God. I cannot help but wonder what service that will be. God has managed just fine with His billions of angels serving Him for eons, what chores have been left undone for all this time that now suddenly need to be done? Revelation 5 reveals that the Church will be represented by elders before the throne of God, managing the prayers of the saints, and worshipping God along side of the angels. As for what the rest of the billions of the Bride of Christ will be doing there is no clue given, except adding our voices to the angel’s worship of God. The only possible service that the Tribulation saints are able to perform in heaven, that the other groups cannot do, is to be examples before the throne of the extent of God’s Grace, even in times of severe judgement upon mankind. They are the embodiment of a Loving God, that even when He is focused on fulfilling His plans for the destruction of mankind’s rebellious rule on earth, He will make a way for people to have one last opportunity for salvation. The martyred saints’ worship will consist of yet another aspect of the Love of God and His mercy.
This group of Tribulation believers will have to live through the evilest time in the history of the world, with the henchmen of the Antichrist hunting them down. Only the Nazi’s relentless search for Jews hiding away in occupied territories during WWII, will come close to the horrors of the Great Tribulation persecution. Nazi Germany’s persecution covered almost the whole of Europe, the Antichrist’s reign of terror will reach across every continent, and into every city, town, village and refugee camp. Verse 16 then goes on to underline the fact that these saints have come out of the Great Tribulation, as revealed by their relief from hunger, thirst and scorching heat which are all indicators of conditions on earth in the last 3½ years.
This multitude of Tribulation saints reveal a valuable piece of information to all believers, they will have a tormented life during the reign of the Antichrist as god, but they will be welcomed into heaven, and be given a joyful eternity, with the privilege of serving God before His throne. The hardship and torment will be over for this multitude, redeemed from the Great Tribulation, their pain and suffering will be at an end, and God will comfort them, wiping away every tear. All believers who are persecuted, or suffer in any way for the Gospel of Christ, will have this assurance, that it is only for a short while, then they will attain eternity in heaven and receive ample reward for their self-sacrifice.
There are those who wonder what emotions we will have in heaven, and whether we will have feelings of regret for lost opportunities because of a selfish life, or sorrow for those loved ones whose stubborn refusal to hear the Gospel has resulted in an eternity in the Lake of Fire? I believe the answer lies in the saturation of the presence of God in heaven. Heaven will be the total opposite of Sheol/hell, for example God is love and peace, so heaven will be saturated by the love and peace of God, there will be no love or peace in hell. Those in hell will have rejected God, so they therefore are separated from the attributes of God. When a saint in heaven has thoughts that could cause feelings of sadness or regret, the presence of God will be there to comfort them, and reassure them, they will be filled with the power of His love and attain a peace that will wipe tears from their eyes. For those that believe there will be no “negative” emotions, emotions people do not associate with a life in “paradise,” such as regret and sorrow, they are forgetting that scripture informs us that God experienced these emotions, plus others such as jealousy and anger:
- “The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:6).
- “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Exodus 20:5-6).
- “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him” (Proverbs 6:16).
- “God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath” (Revelation 16:19b).
All the above emotions of God are related to His righteousness and the existence of fallen mankind on earth, but nevertheless they are real emotions experienced by God who dwells in heaven. Life in heaven will not disconnect us from our emotions, but the presence of the Holy Spirit within us will give us a comprehension and understanding of how all things in our lives were under the righteousness, and goodness of God.
For example, I do not see how anyone present at the Bema (rewards) Judgement, will not experience regret when their life’s work for God, when tested by fire, ends up to be a pile of ash. Those who serve based on pride and the desire to receive the praises of men, will have received their rewards on earth, they will get nothing in heaven. However, an understanding of the righteousness of God and the grace that these flawed servants receive will temper their regret; the joy of being in the presence of the Lord will ultimately trump all “negative” emotions.