Getting the message out
In my company we frequently talk about communication. We have a single company language (English), we have dedicated communication specialists, we have every available resource: e-mail, telephone, videoconference and telepresence (a sort of super video conference), and yet in spite of this we seem to fail to communicate effectively time and time again. The gospel is the most important message that this world will ever hear and it makes us wonder how God will make the message heard? Revelation 7 gives us some insight. The message will be delivered amidst the difficult days of God’s judgements and the great struggle against the forces of evil.
- Preparation of the servants
We have seen that Revelation is good for us. The message of this book will do us good if we listen to it and take heed of it. It helps to answer many questions we may have about how things will turn out for this world and for us as individuals. Much of the book is given over to impending judgement. Jesus said (in Luke 18) that “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man.” Disaster was about to strike in Noah’s day, and as people got on with their lives there was a message of warning from none other than Noah himself: a ‘preacher of righteousness’. In spite of the impending devastating flood, a warning was sounded. Sadly the warning was largely ignored, but a warning was given nonetheless. It would be surprising if no opportunity for preparation was afforded this world as the Day of the Lord judgement starts to take place.
Communicating the gospel is an important theme in the New Testament. You may recall how Jesus sent out the disciples (see Luke 9) to preach the gospel of the kingdom to Israel and to heal the sick. Shortly after this he sent 72 in groups of two to do the same thing. The environment in which this was done was hostile: they would be ‘lambs among wolves’, but God would protect.
At the end of Matthew, Jesus commissioned the disciples to make disciples of all nations and also states that the gospel of the kingdom “will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14). It’s a reasonable question to ask when and how will this be accomplished: the task requires not only communication skills but protection from a fierce enemy opposed to truth and the gospel.
The context of the warning to the inhabitants of this world is God’s judgement on the one hand and a ferocious attempt on the part of the evil one to resist God on the other. In verses one to four we see some preparations for a group of messengers or servants. Four angels are involved, they take up positions at the ‘four corners of the earth’ and hold back the wind from blowing on the land and the sea. A fifth angel is described who has the seal of the living God. This fifth angel instructs the other angels not to cause any harm to the land or sea or trees until ‘we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of God’.
There is a dreadful event recorded in Israel’s ancient history. The people had become utterly wicked. They had ignored the truth about God and had given the temple of God over to the worship of idols. God’s judgement was about to fall, six men appeared with deadly weapons but there was a seventh man armed not with a deadly sword but with a writing kit! The man with the writing kit was instructed to go through the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those ‘who grieve and lament over all the detestable things’ that were done in the temple. The Hebrew character used to describe this written mark is sphragis which interestingly resembles a cross. Those with the mark were protected from the judgement. Likewise these servants of Revelation 7 were prepared by marking them with a seal which apart from indicating their alignment with God’s purpose also conferred on them protection from God’s judgement and presumably other sources of harm.
- The servants
The servants are described in verses 4 to 8. There were no less than 144,000. Apparently the Greek construction describes them in groups of two: just like the 72 who were sent out by Jesus. These 144,000 were comprised of 12,000 from each of 12 tribes of Israel. The association with Israel is unmistakable and certainly reminds us of the commission given to the disciples.
The task of bringing the gospel to the whole world and to every nation, tribe, people and language is almost beyond imagining. In the country of India alone there are 1500 languages spoken. We have followed with great interest the work of some missionaries in Papua New Guinea. It is believed that there are almost 1000 languages spoken in that country alone. The task of learning these languages and bringing the gospel to them seems beyond all normal human capability – even with 144,000 servants bearing God’s seal!
The task of brining the gospel to this world was begun by Peter and the disciples as recorded in Acts 2. It was the day of Pentecost. A day when God did something entirely new: ordinary men and women were indwelt by the Holy Spirit in the most dramatic fashion. It was public and it was observed by many Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. One of the key features that day was that those directly involved, spoke in foreign languages without the need to learn. All this needed an explanation and Peter stood up to give just that. What he said was of some interest: this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Peter without doubt, associates the events of Pentecost with the Day of the Lord which is the very period we are studying in Revelation. It certainly seems to me that this gift of languages was given at least in part to facilitate the spread of the gospel and one is tempted to think that these 144,000 servants would be enabled with the same capability.
- The result of the work of the servants
John now looks to see a huge mass of people – too many to count. They came from every nation, tribe, people and language and they stood before the throne of God. If we refer back to the statement in Matthew 24 that the gospel will be preached in the whole world and then the end would come, it seems that these 144,000 will be involved in that very task. These people from all nations, tribes, people and language have something to say: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the lamb’. The overall sequence of events thus far is firstly that the church is caught up to be with the Lord, then the seals are opened and at some stage during this period the 144,000 will bring the message of the gospel to all: many will both hear and respond. This begs a rather important question. If you are sitting on the fence , having heard the gospel (that tells us that we are part of a fallen race and that God has provided a remedy to save us from his judgement), then why not wait until this particular time and take your chances with the 144,000? I think there are two important responses to such thinking. First, if you refuse the gift that is offered in the here and now, when conditions are entirely favourable, it seems highly probable that you will be more likely to refuse in the future. In any case having heard the message now, I suspect that you will not be afforded a second chance later. Secondly, the conditions on earth once the seals start to be opened will be utterly awful, and will be compounded by Satan’s man who will deceive people into believing a lie rather than truth. Some for sure will respond to the gospel but the general trend is that men and women will hide from God rather than seek his help – now is indeed the day of salvation, do not delay.
The innumerable group of people have spoken and next it is the turn of the angels, the elders and the four living creatures (it’s getting pretty crowded around the throne!). They offer praise to God with a note of joy: ‘Amen, Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.’ As John observes this scene one of the elders asks John who the people in the white robes are – it seems that this was one of those questions asked by someone who knew the answer! For John replies: ‘Sir you know.’ The answer is given with great clarity: ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.’ These people have endured the ‘great tribulation’ which seems to be the final 7 years of God’s dealings with Israel. They have really been through it: the elder states that now they will not know hunger, they will not know thirst, they will not endure scorching heat. In chapter 20 we hear of those who stayed true during these years of tribulation, they are described as those that ‘had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands’. They have for sure ‘come out of the great tribulation’ (v 14) and now stand in victory before God’s throne. Their terrible experience is replaced with access to ‘springs of living water’ and one who will wipe away every tear from their eyes.