Salvation to Our God!
A sermon on Revelation 7 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 5/8/2005
What is special about your mother? Why are you thankful for her?
Whether your mother is present this morning or not, imagine that now you turned to her and said, “Mom, I really like the food you cook. I really like the birthday presents you give me. Mom, I really like the sports activities you drive me to. These things are all so great, that I’m going to spend Mothers Day eating food, playing with that video game you gave me, and playing soccer. Thanks so much!”
What would she think about that? Would that be an appropriate way to honor her on Mothers Day?
Revelation 7 presents us with pictures of the benefits that God provides to His people. And these benefits are wonderful. But this chapter also gives us a picture of how to respond to those benefits. And the proper response is not to delight in the benefits, but to delight in the benefactor; not to delight in the gifts, but in the giver.
The son who, on Mothers Day, delights more in his mother’s gifts than in his mother is not much of a son.
What would you say about a church member who delights more in God’s gifts than in God Himself?
Remember where we are in the book of Revelation. The author of the book, the Apostle John, introduces himself in 1:9 as “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.” He himself is enduring tribulation, in exile on the island of Patmos. There he sees a vision of the glorified Jesus, whom He clearly identifies as God Himself. Jesus then dictates letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. These churches also face problems: false teachers, the temptation to give up, the temptation to succeed in the eyes of the world. They also, like John himself, face tribulation: persecution from religious people, those who “say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). In each case, Jesus makes extraordinary promises to those who overcome or conquer these trials:
Following these letters, in chapters four and five John sees a vision of the throne room of God. God is at the center, worshipped by four living creatures - representing everything that has breath – and by 24 elders - representing all of redeemed humanity from all time. John sees a scroll in the right of hand of God. He knows that this scroll must be opened if justice is to be done, if God is to show mercy to His people. But no one is worthy to open it. No one is without sin. John weeps in consequence.
But an elder says to Him, “Don’t weep. There is One who is worthy: The Lion of the tribe of Judah!”
John hears this statement, and then looks. But he sees not a Lion, but Lamb – a Lamb that was slain. This Lamb takes the scroll, and the elders and the living creatures cry out, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, for He has ransomed people for God by His blood – He has made them priests to God!”
Thousands of angels and indeed all creation then join in praise of God the Father and the Lamb.
In Chapter 6, the Lamb begins to open the seals. The first four seals unleash evil forces that bring death, war, and destruction to the earth. We saw last week that these verses include strong allusions to several Old Testament texts. In these texts, God’s people are in the city or nation which He is judging. The same destruction that serves as judgment on evildoers serves to refine and purify – and thus work to the good of – His people. They do suffer – but their suffering redemptive, not judgmental.
When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, John sees these suffering saints below the altar. They ask God how long it will be before He will right every wrong, before He will bring justice to the earth. He tells them to wait a little while, until the suffering of God’s people is complete.
Then the Lamb opens the sixth seal. Stars fall, the sky vanishes, every mountain and island is removed. This clearly is the end of the world as we know it. Even in the midst of this final destruction, God’s enemies are unrepentant. They seek solace in death, but they won’t find it there.
Today’s text, Chapter 7, is an interlude. The Lamb opens the seventh seal in 8:1. In Chapter 6, we had to infer from Old Testament allusions that God’s people are protected. This chapter makes that explicit. Here John’s vision shifts in focus from the world undergoing destruction to God’s plan for God’s people.
Recall from our first sermon on Revelation that the sequence of John’s visions is not necessarily the same as the sequence of the fulfillment of those visions. Indeed, in that sermon we used the end of chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 7 as one case where the sequence of visions can not be fulfilled in the same order. At the end of chapter 6, the world as we know it is destroyed, yet in 7:3, the angel says, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads."
Furthermore, in 7:1 four angels are holding back the four winds, which clearly are aiming to work destruction on the earth. In Zechariah chapter 6 – one of Old Testament sources for the four horses of Revelation 6 – the horses are referred to as the “four winds” (Zechariah 6:5; this is a possible translation for the Hebrew text and the clear meaning of the Greek translation). Thus, chapter 7 of Revelation seems to be a flashback, to take place before chapter 6, or, possibly, to take place in a completely different time dimension than chapter 6.
With this in mind, we’ll look at the rest of the chapter under three headings:
We’ll conclude with two lessons for us today.
In verse 3, the angels must put God’s seal on God’s servants or slaves prior to the judgment of the earth. Why? What is a seal?
When you buy Motrin at the CVS and open the lid, what do you find? The opening to the container is covered. You have to break this cover or seal in order to get to the pills. Why is this cover there? For two reasons: to protect the product from adulteration, ensuring that no one tampers with it, and to ensure that the medicine in genuine.
Just so here: God’s seal serves as God’s stamp, saying “This one is genuine! This one is My child!” And God’s seal guarantees that the marked person cannot be harmed ultimately. God will bring him safely to Himself.
Paul uses the language of sealing in Ephesians 1:13-14
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, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Thus, the Holy Spirit seals us, showing that we are genuine, and serving as a guarantee that we will receive that inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). This sealing of the Holy Spirit is accomplished for every believer.
This sealing in Revelation also alludes to Ezekiel 9. In that chapter, God has just shown Ezekiel how the people of Judah - even the leaders, even the elders – are defiling the temple by worshiping idols. So God says to some of His angels:
"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." 5 And to the others he said in my hearing, "Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. 6 Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark.” Ezekiel 9:4-6
That is done. Judgment is accomplished. The sealed, God’s people, are in the midst of this destruction. But God’s people are not ultimately harmed.
Ezekiel 9 is first and foremost a prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. But it’s also a picture of the way God always works. God seals His people not to take them out of trouble – those who hated the abominations taking place were still in Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city. But God sealed them; He protected them. He covered them. They were not punished.
Just so with us. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit. We are covered by the blood of Jesus. Whatever trials and troubles we face are not punishment, but redemptive; all such tribulation is for the glory of God and for our good.
We are first introduced to those who are sealed in 7:3, when they are called “slaves” or “servants of our God”. Who are the slaves of God? This is a common New Testament expression. Paul writes:
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God (Romans 6:22)
For Paul, all those who have been set free from sin, all believers in Christ, are slaves of God.
Peter also uses the term:
Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as slaves of God. (1 Peter 2:16)
Again, Peter is addressing all of God’s people, all believers. We all are slaves of God.
There are some cases in the New Testament where the context limits the phrase to particular subgroup of believers or person. Revelation 15:3 is an example, where Moses is called “the slave of God”. But in Revelation 7:3 there is no limitation on the phrase. And since we know that all believers are sealed (Ephesians 1:13), it makes most sense to understand this phrase as referring to all believers.
So John, hearing this expression, must expect that those sealed would be all of God’s people. But then in verse 4 he hears “the number of the sealed.” Note that John does not see anything, he only hears the number: “144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” Note: every tribe. He then breaks down that 144,000 into 12,000 from each of twelve tribes – but these twelve do not include every tribe of Israel! The list leaves out Dan. It also leaves out Ephraim while including Joseph, Ephraim’s father, and Manasseh, Joseph’s brother.
In the first sermon on Revelation we noted that numbers in this book frequently are symbolic. Perhaps here the numbers and the entire picture are symbolic. Indeed, it is impossible to interpret 7:4-8 literally, for verse 4 contradicts verses 5 to 8; if the 144,000 are from every tribe, there must be some from Dan, but verses 5 to 8 list all 144,000 without including any from Dan.
That this entire picture is symbolic is confirmed by what happens next. Consider the sequence of events: John hears, “Don’t harm the earth until we have sealed the slaves of God.” He then hears the number of those sealed, 144,000, 12,000 from this strange list of 12 tribes; then he sees something quite different.
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!" Revelation 7:9-10
Do you remember an earlier case where John heard one thing, then saw something quite different – yet the two were identical? We referred to that earlier: in Chapter 5, he is told the “Lion of tribe of Judah” is worthy to take scroll and open its seals, but then he looks and sees not a Lion but a Lamb. Remember, in the sermon on that passage we indicated that both pictures are vitally important; both communicate important aspects of Jesus’ character.
Just so here: John hears, “slaves of God”; he hears “144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel”; and he sees all the redeemed, an unnumbered multitude dressed in the righteousness of Christ. Our first impression of the phrase “slaves of God” and the action of sealing was right: All believers are slaves of God, all are sealed – and John sees them all here.
Why then are they pictured as 144,000 from this strange list of twelve tribes of Israel? Perhaps because 144,000 = 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. As we have seen before, all God’s people from all time can be represented as coming from the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles. Ten can be used as a number for completeness in the Bible, and so can three. So perhaps 12 tribes x 12 apostles x 10 raised to the third power is the perfect numerical representation for all God’s people for all time.
To some, it may sound strange to call all the redeemed by the name “Israel”. But as we’ve seen earlier in Revelation, pictures and promises made to Abraham and to Israel are seen as fulfilled through all of God’s redeemed people. For example, John calls his saved readers “priests to our God” in 1:6. Jesus says the one in Philadelphia who overcomes will become a pillar in the temple of God (3:12). The priests were only Israelites; the temple belonged to Israel, but these Gentiles are in part the fulfillment of those images.
We see similar instances of Old Testament imagery here in Revelation 7: These redeemed are said to “serve Him day and night in temple” – that is, they are all pictured as priests, as in 1:6 (and just as Peter calls the Gentile church “a royal priesthood” in 1 Peter 2:9.
Furthermore, these redeemed are “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). This echoes 5:9, where the elders and the living creatures praise the Lamb for redeeming to God those from every “tribe and language and people and nation.” But both of these Revelation passages allude to promise made to Abraham and the prophets. In Genesis 12:3, God says to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Then in Genesis 17:4 He says, “You shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” Again and again the prophets and psalmists make clear that God will use Israel to call all the nations to Himself; Isaiah 49:6 is the only verse we’ll cite. Here, God is speaking to the coming Messiah, saying:
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
This is fulfilled in Revelation 7:9-17. Here are all the nations blessed through Jesus, all standing before the throne, all acting as priests, all serving Him in the temple.
Verse 9 contains yet another Old Testament image of Israel, now used to refer to all the redeemed, including Gentile believers. This uncountable multitude is said to have palm branches in their hands. This is a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, for as Leviticus 23:40 says, at that feast the celebrants were to take:
branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
Remember, at this feast the Israelites lived in booths or tabernacles for a week, as a reminder of God’s deliverance from Egypt. This was a great time of rejoicing in God’s salvation, and a picture of the eternal state.
Just so in Revelation. This chapter pictures the fulfillment of the festival of tabernacles. Indeed, verse 15 says literally, “He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them.” God has spread His tent over His people. They are completely protected; they have perfect intimacy with Him.
Do you see? All these wonderful Old Testament images of God’s people are picked up by John and fulfilled through all of the redeemed. So it is not strange for Him to label as “Israel” all those who are redeemed from every tribe and tongue. They all are fulfilling the feast of tabernacles! They are true Israel, made up of Jew and Gentile, made up of all the nations. God’s plan to bless all the nations through the seed of Abraham is fulfilled. God is a missionary God – and here we see the missionary task complete.
Let me draw out three more characteristics of these redeemed.
First, in verse 14, an elder says, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” What tribulation? Most likely, the tribulation just referred to in chapter 6. This may well correspond with the expression, “the tribulation that is in Jesus” that John uses in 1:9, as well as the various types of tribulation referred to in the letters of chapters 2 and 3 (such as 2:9, “I know your tribulation”). Indeed, it is the author of Revelation, the Apostle John, who records Jesus as saying,
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world!” John 16:33
Thus, I understand “coming out of the great tribulation” as referring to the tribulation that all believers face in this world. The point is that God has protected them from harm, He has used these trials to accomplish His good purposes. So His people need not fear any tribulation, no matter how great. He is in charge.
Second, note another expression in verse 14: “They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Hmm. Who does the washing? Who makes the robes white? As we have seen, white garments picture the righteousness of Christ. So have these believers somehow earned or merited Christ’s righteousness?
The expressions “washed their robes” and “made them white” are the equivalent of “overcome” or “conquer” in the letters in chapters 2 and 3. Yes, true believers must overcome. They must conquer temptation and false teachers. But they conquer not in their own strength, not by their own efforts, but by the grace of God, by the Holy Spirit who seals them.
Thus these expressions parallel Philippians 2:12-13:
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you
The point is this: All believers face trials and difficulties that we must overcome. All believers face temptations. True believers will in the end persevere. This requires an active dependence on God – we must turn to God in prayer, we must make use of the means of grace that He gives us. But though we must be active, God is the One who works. He is the One who accomplishes our redemption. It is the Lamb who redeems us to God by His blood.
Third and finally, look at Revelation 7:17:
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."
This is a lovely, intimate picture of God’s watch care over His people. It echoes Psalm 23 in picturing the Lamb as our shepherd. It also echoes Jeremiah 2, in which God’s disobedient people are said to have turned away from Him, the spring of living water. But the closest Old Testament parallel to this verse is again in Isaiah 49. As we saw earlier, that chapter promises that all the nations will come to the Messiah. Let’s read Isaiah 49:9, 10, 13:
Say to the prisoners, 'Come out,' to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.' They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; 10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. . . . 13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! for the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.
These too are coming out of affliction and tribulation. God promises them, “Even in sorrow, even in tribulation, I am with you. I watch over you. And I will comfort you, wiping away every tear.” God and the Lamb are thus pictured as the perfect guardians who protect, sustain, and comfort God’s people. God’s people face difficulties and tribulation – there are tears! – but God Himself wipes those tears away.
What do the redeemed say? How do they speak to God? Verse 10: They cry out,
"Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
Note that the verb “belongs” is an interpretation, not a translation; in the Greek, the cry begins, “Salvation to our God.” This is similar to the conclusion of Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the great fish: “Salvation to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).
Leaving out the verb helps us to see that the cry of the redeemed is parallel to the cry of the angels in verse 12. Again, there is no verb in this cry either. The angels are responding to and elaborating on what redeemed say. The redeemed say: “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” The angels respond: “Amen! That’s true! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might to our God forever and ever! Amen!”
Thus “salvation” or “deliverance” is parallel with “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might.” But in what sense? At first glance, these look very different from each other.
Remember our discussion of the doxologies in chapter 4. There, the elders say that God is worthy “to receive glory and honor and power.” We noted that He already has all power! So how can He receive any more? We said that the elders are acknowledging that to whatever degree they have glory and honor and power, ultimately these all come from God. God is the source. So He is the only One who is worthy of all praise .
Just so here. “Salvation to our God!” The saints here rejoice that they did not accomplish their own deliverance, but that God accomplished it. The angels elaborate on this, saying that in the salvation of the saints He displayed with great magnificence His wisdom, might, power, honor, and glory.
Thus, this chapter encourages us – those of us still facing tribulation – to look for our deliverance from the same source, so that God’s power and glory might be magnified through us, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:19-23). For apart from God, there is no savior (Isaiah 43:11).
But there is more. The uncountable multitude of the redeemed rejoice not in salvation per se, but in God Himself! They are not saying, “Oh boy, my tears are wiped away! I’m not in danger! And look, my friends are out of danger too! My body is renewed! No more pain! Oh, isn’t this great!” No. Their focus is not on their salvation. They don’t say, “Salvation! Deliverance!” Instead, they say, “Salvation to our God! Salvation to the Lamb! I am saved for a purpose – to glorify Him! He is the one worthy of praise.”
These thoughts lead to our two lessons:
Yes, the four horsemen are out there, summarized as Death, with Hades after him. Yes, they are evil. Yes, they are powerful.
But take heart! Chapter 7 shows us a deeper reality than the power of the horsemen - God is in control! Anyone you face who threatens you cannot prick your little finger apart from God’s permission. He spreads His tabernacle over you. He leads you to springs of living water. So don’t fear physical dangers or threats. Don’t even fear spiritual dangers or threats. You have tribulation – perhaps great tribulation – but He has conquered the world! As God speaks though the prophet Isaiah:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
If you belong to Christ, if He is your Savior and Lord, if He above all else is your treasure, then you are sealed: No harm can strike you. You are sealed: You are genuinely His. Whatever temporary pain you may experience, God will wipe away.
So be bold! Take risks! Step out in faith!
Finally: What is salvation in this chapter?
Earlier today we saw how silly it would be to rejoice today in what your mother has done for you rather than in your mother herself. The redeemed in chapter 7 don’t make that mistake. They cry out, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” They do rejoice in the Giver, not ultimately in His gifts.
Furthermore, consider: what is the best gift you can receive? Or think of it this way: What is the best gift a mother can give her children?
Do you see the point? Salvation not only belongs to our God – Salvation is our God! Jesus says,
“This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3
As we sang earlier:
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.
Salvation is our God. He is eternal life.
So will you rejoice in God?
Will you see the Lamb Himself as your greatest treasure?
Will you say: “All I want is you! Take all else – but give me Yourself!”
If He is your Savior, your Lord, your treasure: then you are sealed. You are among the 144,000. You are part of that uncountable multitude. He will spread His tabernacle over you. And He will wipe every tear from your eyes. Amen.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 5/8/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful, as was Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, (InterVarsity Press, 1975). The lines quoted at the end are from “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” by Henry Lyte (1825). See the excellent new tune for this hymn at www.igracemusic.com.
Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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