(Happy Back to the Future II day. Yes, October 21, 2015 is the date that Marty set the Delorian for back in 1985. Still waiting for my hoverboard.)
This week we’ve been looking at Revelation 6. And all this talk of judgement has been pretty scary! We started out asking about injustice in the world. If God was indeed in control, what’s he doing about it? And we got back the answer: he’s already in the process of judging the world. Of giving humanity a taste of what a Godless eternity would be like, in the desperate hope that they would choose another way.
But what about us, right now? For most of us reading this, we’ve already chosen to align ourselves with God. We’re not perfect… yet… but we’ve defected in our allegiance from a sinful world and have enlisted with God. The blood of the Lamb (Rev 5) has purchased us for God. We are now his people. His children. What about us? Has God heard of the concept of collateral damage? Of friendly fire? Are we going to get caught up in this judgement?
While we still live in this sinful world, we’re still going to experience the measure of God’s judgement that is being poured out on this world we live in. (Not to mention the persecution from that world because we’ve aligned ourselves with God!) So the book of Revelation was written with this primary aim: to give God’s people hope and comfort while they endure this world and all its imperfection for a little longer. And again, he does this by playing the movie forward.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? If God is sending this measure of judgement upon the world to give them a taste of what eternity without him will be like… it stands to reason that he’d do the opposite for his people. That he’d want to give us a taste of eternity with him. If he wants his rebellious world to see the terrible consequences if they continue down their rebellious path – doesn’t he also want his faithful followers to see the glorious consequences of remaining loyal to him? A picture of the closing scene in the movie, if we stick to our script. Chapter 7 gives us that picture. Let’s take a look at it now.
Sealed for protection
Chapter 7 starts with a dramatic pause in the action, between the sixth and seventh seals. Another wave of God’s judgement is all set to be unleashed. And yet we stop for a moment, as the focus shifts to God’s people in the middle of all this fury.
7:1-3 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. (2) Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: (3) “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
Just as chapter 6 continued the Old Testament pattern of how God executes his judgement in the world, chapter 7 continues the pattern of how he protects his people in the midst of it all.
This becomes quite clear when we realise that John is making allusions to some of the Jewish writings of his day. Now these writings weren’t in the Bible – but they were kind of equivalent to today’s Christian paperbacks. The Max Lucados, the Philip Yanceys, the John Pipers of the last few centuries BC. And John here is borrowing their terminology, their images. For example:
In the book of 1 Enoch, the story of Noah & the flood is re-told. In this version, there are angels preparing to bring punishment to the earth, in the form of a flood. But God tells the angels to hold the waters in check, to give Noah time to build the ark to save himself and his family.
In the book of 2 Baruch, a Jewish apocalypse, Baruch has a vision in which the spirit lifts him above Jerusalem. (Similar to how the spirit lifted John up into heaven.) There Baruch sees four angels at each corner of Jerusalem, holding a flaming torch ready to set it on fire. At that point there’s also a dramatic pause, as another angel orders them to wait: first, the vessels in the temple – the holy objects, dedicated to God – must be safely hidden away.
And in the Old Testament itself, we see this pattern:
In Exodus 12, God sends his angel of death as judgement upon Egypt. But before the angel comes, God’s people are instructed to put his mark, his seal on their doorframe, so that the angel will pass over them.
In Ezekiel, God tells one of his angels:
9:4 ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.’
He then tells the other angels:
9:5-6 ‘Follow him through the city & kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter old men, young men & maidens, women & children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark.’
Do you see what’s going on in Revelation, then? Exactly the same thing. God is marking those who are faithful with his seal, for protection. Because we live in this rebellious world, we’re in the firing line of God’s judgment. Just like the faithful in Old Testament times. But God has marked us out with his seal as one of his own. The seal of his protection.
Now let’s be clear: this isn’t about protecting us from every bit of collateral damage. Those who were faithful to God in Ezekiel’s day still had to endure the impact of the Babylonian army destroying their city and carrying them off into exile. Things won’t be pleasant as a measure God’s judgement is carried out around us. We’re not immune from all of that. But unlike the rest of the world, unlike those who are opposed to God – we are kept eternally safe from the full measure of his wrath.
As we read in another Jewish writing from a few decades earlier:
Ps Sol 15:6-9 ‘For God’s mark is on the righteous for their salvation…’ [But] ‘those who act lawlessly shall not escape the Lord’s judgement… for on their forehead is the mark of destruction.’
Although we endure God’s present judgement – along with the rest of the world – we’ll escape the full measure of God’s judgement in the age to come. Like Noah, we’ll be kept safe from destruction. Like the holy objects in the temple, we’ve been dedicated to God and our lives are hidden safely away in Christ. Like the Israelites in Egypt, the blood of the Lamb is on our doorframe. Like the faithful in Ezekiel’s day, we’re sealed with God’s eternal protection. A seal that guarantees a far different eternity from the rest of the world.
But why were there only 144,000 sealed (verse 4)? We’ll look at that tomorrow.