Opening prayer: Father, it's hard to believe that I am a special person in Your eyes. Open my heart and mind to understand the strength and comfort that You offer to those of us who believe in Your Son, the Messiah of Israel.
This is a continuation of our series on the Revelation of Jesus the Messiah. If you haven't done so already, I encourage you to study our previous lessons in this series:
- Revelation 1: The Revelation of Jesus,
- Revelation 2-3: I Know You!
- Revelation 4-5: Preview of Heaven
- Revelation Study: Prophecies of Daniel
- Revelation Study: Raptures and Resurrections, and
- Revelation 6: Overview of the Tribulation.
The Lord has an amazing long-term plan for our lives. God is moving toward establishing that wonderful period of peace and harmony that we've only read about, where the Prince of Peace rules the world. That's the Good News of the Gospel.
Unfortunately (from our short-term perspective), we can't jump directly to that page. Between now and the rule of Messiah will come a seven-year period of Tribulation when God will deal with the rebellious folk who won't submit to Him and to His Son, Jesus. Fortunately, as we saw in the Revelation Study on Raptures and Resurrections, God will extract Christians who are awake and alive just before the Tribulation period begins and bring us to heaven to be with Him. There we will enjoy the riches of His special plan for our lives.
This lesson will focus on two groups of people who will NOT be lifted out of the world before the Tribulation begins. These are people who did NOT come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, the Messiah, in time to participate in the first Rapture. Nevertheless, God has a special plan for their lives too.
We will start in Revelation 7, verses 1-8:And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
2 And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, 3 Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
4 And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. 5 Of the tribe of Judah [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad [were] sealed twelve thousand. 6 Of the tribe of Asher [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Napthali [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasseh [were] sealed twelve thousand. 7 Of the tribe of Simeon [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar [were] sealed twelve thousand. 8 Of the tribe of Zebulon [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph [were] sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin [were] sealed twelve thousand.
So? Who are these guys? What makes THEM special?
We don't know their names, but we can learn a few things from the passage:
- The four angels being restrained must be incredibly powerful, since God will use them to inflict unprecedented damage upon the earth.
- The 144,000 must be very important to God. He won't permit the angels to begin their work of the Tribulation until the 144,000 are sealed.
- They are marked with "the seal of the living God." I've never seen one of these, and I bet you haven't either. But the term "sealed" is used in some very helpful contexts in other New Testament Scriptures:
- In 2 Corinthians 2:21-22 we read, "Now He Who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge."
- In Ephesians 1:13-14 we read, "In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, have also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, Who is given as a pledge of our inheritance..."
- In Ephesians 4:30 we read, "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see (as a general principle) that you and I are somehow sealed by the Holy Spirit of God. This seal is given to all those who have listened to the message of truth and come to a saving faith in Jesus, the Messiah. Looking forward, we see that God intends to put a special seal of the Holy Spirit on this special group of individuals. This seal will be His pledge of their inheritance, if they hold fast in their faith until the end.
- Those sealed are from the lineage of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They are NOT from "every kindred, tongue and tribe..." like some folks we'll see later.
- The 144,000 include the three tribes (Judah, Benjamin and Levi) that can accurately be called Jews. They also include representatives of the tribes (Rueben, Simeon, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun and the descendants of Joseph: Manasseh and Ephraim) that were part of the Northern Kingdom, which broke away after the death of King Solomon. However, after the breakup, devout believers from EVERY tribe migrated to the kingdom of Judah so they could participate in worship of the living God. They chose to be identified with the southern kingdom (and can be called Jews), but God remembers "the rock from which you were hewn" (Isaiah 51:1). For His own purposes, He chooses to put His seal on certain heirs of promise -- heirs so far removed (in time) that only God can be sure of their lineage. That should give you a feeling for how faithfully God remembers and keeps His promises to those who love Him.
- The list does NOT include the tribes of Dan or Ephraim, although Ephraim is implied in the reference to the tribe of Joseph. We'll explore possible reasons for the omissions in a few minutes.
Now let's read a peculiar passage in Revelation chapter 12 verses 1-6:And a great sign was seen in heaven: a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; 2 and she was with child; and she crieth out, travailing in birth, and in pain to be delivered. 3 And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads seven diadems. 4 And his tail draweth the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon standeth before the woman that is about to be delivered, that when she is delivered he may devour her child. 5 And she was delivered of a son, a man child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and unto his throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that there they may nourish her a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
Interpreting symbolism can be tricky, but there are several things we can say with confidence:
- The woman is consistent with other Scriptural pictures of the nation Israel. So the symbolism apparently points to the nation being ready to give birth to a person or group of persons. Then the woman is hidden in the wilderness -- as we know the nation Israel will be hidden during the last 3.5 years of the Tribulation period.
- The dragon is easy -- that's Satan. And he is poised to destroy the newborn child as soon as it is delivered.
- The identity of the man child is less clear, but we have many clues:
- The child is destined to rule all nations with a rod of iron. This causes most Bible scholars to assume that the child is Jesus. However, Jesus promised the church at Thyatira that those believers who held fast until the end would rule the nations with a rod of iron. So the man child could also be a picture of Israelites (born from the nation Israel) who come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, their Messiah, during the first 3.5 years of the Tribulation. Note: You'd be hard pressed to find that many native-born, adult, Messianic Jewish men in Israel today. Something VERY miraculous must take place in order for this group to come into existence.
- The child is caught up to heaven right away (or at least right away in symbolic time). The passage does NOT say that the child was killed by the dragon. The passage does NOT say that the child went to Egypt (as Jesus, Mary and Joseph did) to avoid the dragon. The passage does NOT say that the child was resurrected up to heaven.
- The child's mother flees to the wilderness, not to Egypt. This links the woman to last-days events, rather than to events surrounding Jesus' first appearance on earth.
- The child's mother flees to the wilderness after the child is caught up to heaven. Other passages tell us that Israelites will flee to the wilderness after the last-days dictator breaks his treaty with them, at the midpoint of the 7-year period. Therefore the 144,000 must be caught up to heaven at approximately the 3.5-year point.
- If we can find another picture of a group of Messianic Israelites caught up to heaven, we could make a case for that group being the man child.
We find such a group in Revelation 14, verses 1-5:And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the Mount Zion, and with Him an hundred forty and four thousand, having His Father's name written in their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: 3 And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. 4 These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. 5 And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.
Our brave band of Messianic Israelites has arrived in heaven -- all 144,000 of them. Not one is missing. Not one of them is complaining (a miracle!) about how difficult their journey was or how poor the service was. They are all singing and praising God.
But why does God treat these people differently and what do they do between the time they're sealed and the time they pop up singing in heaven?
The "why" part is easy. God always teaches in pictures, and always uses the nation Israel as His canvas. When God established the Festivals (feast days) of Israel, He decreed a Feast of First Fruits. On this day, the first Sunday after Passover, His people were to bring in the "first fruits" of their field -- to include a little sheaf of immature grain from the early growth. When Jesus arose from His grave, on the first Sunday after Passover, He Himself became the first fruits from the field of mankind. A handful of other people also resurrected that day and appeared to their friends and family in Jerusalem; this handful was the little sheaf.
With that background, we can infer that the 144,000 represent the little sheaf from the nation Israel during the 70th week of Daniel. The full harvest of the nation Israel will come at the end of the 70th week. The 144,000 will probably have the veil removed from their eyes at the very beginning of the 7-year period, and will have a special anointing on their lives and ministry. Please note that I said "we can infer" and not "we can conclude." We can only interpret this Scripture in light of other Scriptures, and there isn't much to go on.
In reality, this group is of absolutely no concern to you or me. Their entire ministry will happen after we're gone to heaven. Chances are, we've never met any of them -- unless some of them are presently working as tour guides in Israel. There's only one reason to talk about them: because of what this story tells us about our Lord. God is NOT distant and impersonal. He knows you better than you know yourself. He loves you, believe it or not, whether you deserve it or not (Hint: you don't, and neither do I). This story tells us that God has His hand on a select group of Israelis who are NOT following His Son Jesus -- at least not today. He loves them now. They will (soon!) learn to love Him.
So why are Dan and Ephraim NOT included in the list of tribes?
Bible commentators will give you a thousand different explanations, but the most common are:
- The Danites were the most flagrant idolators during the period of the judges.
- The tribe of Dan was a no-show during much of the kingdom periods, preferring to "go down to the sea in ships."
- The tribe of Ephraim led the 10 northern tribes in breaking away from the kingdom led by Solomon's son.
After these three, you get a host of theories with one vote each.
OK, teacher: What do YOU say is the reason?
The short answer is that I don't know for sure.
The long answer is a study you should perform on your own: how God arranges the names of the tribes to tell stories and point to Jesus.
I'll give you a very brief introduction to the subject and you can do further research later. The key concept is that the names of the 12 sons of Jacob have meanings. In addition, the two sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Manassah) were adopted by Jacob as his sons. This gives us 14 names, each with its own meaning, that the Lord can arrange in any particular order to convey a particular meaning in sentence format. Furthermore, He can create lists of 12 tribes containing any combination of these 14 names. Many times the message is context-sensitive, with a special significance unique to that context.
Here are the names of Jacob's sons, in the first complete list of the twelve, in Genesis 35:
Reuben See, a son Simeon Hear, or hearing Levi Attached, united Judah Praise Issachar He will bring a reward, wages Zebulun Will honor Joseph Let him add, let him continue to Benjamin Son of my right hand Dan Judged, vindicated Naphtali Wrestling, my wrestling Gad How fortunate Asher How happy
The two sons of Joseph, adopted by Jacob as sons for inheritance purposes, were:
Manassah Making to forget Ephraim Fruitful
Next time you read the Bible cover-to-cover (this year?), make a note of each time God gives you a listing of the tribes. You'll find at least a dozen listings, and only a couple of them are identical. They vary in sequence and content, so each gives a slightly different message.
Now let's take another look at the listing of tribes to be included in the 144,000:
Judah Praise Reuben See, a son Gad How Fortunate Asher How happy Naphtali Wrestling, my wrestling Manassah Making to forget Simeon Hear, hearing Levi Attached, united Issachar He will bring reward, wages Zebulon Will honor Joseph Let him add. let him continue Benjamin Son of my right hand
Now try to squint your eyes and build up a couple of sentences from the tribal names. You'll see that it begins with praise and a son, how happy and fortunate, making to forget my wrestling. In the middle are rewards and honor. It ends with the Son of my right hand.
I still don't get it.
Neither do I, for sure. But the absence of Dan (judgment) hints that judgment (on the nation Israel) is not in view here. The absence of Ephraim (fruitful) hints that fruitfulness in childbearing is also not an issue -- the 144,000 are depicted as virgins.
- The 144,000 is a unique group of Israelites that will emerge early in Daniel's 70th week and be raptured to heaven at approximately the midpoint of the week.
- They will receive a special seal of the Holy Spirit on their foreheads, which will qualify them for special protection and treatment.
- If the seal (or mark) is visible (as some conjecture), it will be in stark contrast to the Mark of the Beast (to be studied in a later lesson).
- A special five-month-long torment (Revelation 9:1-6) will befall those people who do NOT have the seal of the living God on their foreheads. The 144,000 will escape this torment. Key clarification: So will any believer in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, whether that believer is part of the 144,000 or not.
- The 144,000 might be the same as the man child described in Revelation 12.
Beyond these key points, the identity and careers of the 144,000 remain a mystery.
Our second group of Special People is found in Revelation 7, verses 9-17:After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; 10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and [about] the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, 12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, [be] unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
13 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? 14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple: and He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. 17 For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
So who are these guys?
These people (guys and gals) are relatively easy to identify. The passage tells us quite a bit about them:
- They are an IMMENSELY LARGE group of people, called "the numberless multitude" among Bible commentators.
- They come in all shapes, colors and sizes. They come from all nations, families, races and languages.
- They wear white robes, which tells us something important: they are believers in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. White robes were given to wedding guests by their host, typically the father of the groom. Robes weren't earned by the guests' performance; the robes were given to the guests BECAUSE THEY ANSWERED THE INVITATION. Likewise you and I won't earn heaven by our own merits, but because we answered the call to follow Jesus.
- This group has the same response as every OTHER group we've seen arrive in heaven: they burst into song, praising God the Father and the Lord Jesus.
- The elder identifies these people as believers who "came out of great tribulation." In the Greek text, the wording is very specific: these people came "OUT FROM THE MIDST OF" great tribulation.
- This group was not raptured from the earth until some point during the second 3.5 years of Daniel's 70th week. The passage does NOT tell us whether they experienced 3 years or 3 minutes of the Great Tribulation. My personal opinion is that the elapsed time was probably just a few hours or days -- just long enough to warn a few of their unbelieving relatives and friends.
- The passage does NOT tell us whether or not these believers were martyrs. And the passage does NOT tell us about any conflict between these believers and the last-days dictator.
- The Lord Jesus Himself will be their Shepherd, "feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters."
- And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
How do you know this group isn't the Church -- you and me? Many good people believe that we won't get raptured until some time during the last 3.5 years of the 7-year period.
Actually, there is a possibility that this group might be the Church. After all, they do come from every nationality and racial group, and they're definitely Christian. But there are a couple of reasons why I think they're latecomers:
- The seven-year period, the 70th week of Daniel, primarily concerns the nation Israel. Gentiles will continue to be saved, but God is primarily concerned with His chosen people during these times. The very existence of the "Gentile" Church (especially a 2,000-year existence) was a mystery hidden from the Old Testament prophets. You and I are just fortunate to have the opportunity to be grafted in.
- Jesus told the disciples to pray that they be "counted worthy to escape all these things" (all the events of the Great Tribulation). If this is the first group to be raptured, it implies that absolutely nobody on earth was alive and awake enough to be raptured at the beginning of the seven-year period.
- John does not recognize this group of believers. However, he does seem to readily identify the 24 elders; at least he never asked their identity. This hints that he recognizes the elders as representing all the Old Testament and New Testament believers.
- The 24 elders are already in heaven and apparently in possession of their resurrection bodies before the start of the Tribulation events, singing the song of the redeemed:For Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; 10 And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
These elders are not angels. Angels don't get redeemed. Angels won't reign on the earth with Jesus. The elders represent the Church and the Old Testament saints.
- At the opening of the fifth seal, John saw the souls of those who had been martyred but not yet resurrected. This implies they are in a different category (converted and martyred AFTER the first Rapture) than the 24 elders (converted BEFORE the first Rapture).
Hey, teacher! I'm not sure I agree with any of your explanations and conclusions.
Good! Please don't be satisfied with ANYBODY's explanation, especially mine. My goal is to spur you on to do further study on your own. In fact, nothing would make me happier than to hear that you were so outraged by my lessons that you spent days studying these Scriptures trying to prove me wrong.
All I ask is one thing: Spend your time studying the Bible. Don't waste your time reading books ABOUT the Bible, except for fun. (Hint: You will save yourself a lot of grief (and money) if you avoid commentaries.) Instead, pray for the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind. Then make up your own lists and charts based on your own personal study of the Bible.
A few study helps are worth purchasing. Look up key words and phrases in your Strong's Concordance and in your Vines' Dictionary of New Testament Words. Get the Greek/English Interlinear text by George Ricker Berry, so you can get a flavor for the word-by-word literal translation of the Greek. Spend the majority of your time studying in the New King James translation, which is generally the most accurate version. (Note: Although the paraphrase versions (Living Bible, NIV) are very readable for the Old Testament and helpful for devotional studies, they are less accurate in the New Testament.) Follow up on the margin notes in your Bible, looking for related passages and concepts. Take everybody's explanation (including mine) with a grain of salt.
The most important thing you can do is to prepare your heart for the return of the Lord. If you do, you will be the recipient of some amazing promises, as explained in our lesson on Raptures and Resurrections.
If you aren't sure if you're ready, please click the "mail-to" link below to send us an e-mail. Explain your concerns and we'll respond as quickly as we can.
Closing Prayer: Lord, I don't pretend to understand the complexity and precision of your Scriptures. But I put my trust in You and Your Son, Jesus, to keep me safe through the hard times to come. Amen.