Studies in Revelation, Lesson 14
by Reta Halteman Finger
“After this I saw…” (Rev. 7:1).
If we dispense with chapter divisions, which are not part of the original text, we can see that the first eight verses of Revelation 7 are a continuation of the drama of the sixth seal (Lesson 13). With the opening of that seal (Revelation 6:12-17), the entire cosmos seems to fall apart, and any who still survive believe it is the judgment of God (or the gods) and the end of the world. Listeners familiar with scripture would recognize this as the horrific prophecy described in Ezekiel 7. John even repeats Ezekiel’s term, “the four corners of the land” (Rev 7:1; Ezek 7:2). (The terms “earth” and “land” are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek languages.)
But John’s vision reverses course. At each of the four corners of the earth, an angel holds back impending destruction as another angel rises from the east to say, “Wait! Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal upon their foreheads” (Rev. 7:3). The same signet ring seal with which God sealed up the scroll of human history is now stamped on the foreheads of God’s followers. The purpose here is to protect them, in life or death, from “the great ordeal” (7:14) which is to come. Here John draws from Ezekiel 9:4, where those who had lamented the evil around them are sealed to protect them from judgment.
In his commentary on Revelation, Eugene Boring admires John’s literary craftsmanship in this text. John demonstrates in symbols what was happening in his world at that time. “They looked for the End,” he says, “and what came was the church.” The events of Revelation 7:1-8 may seem “at first to be a postponement or narrative digression” but instead “turn out to be a skillfully constructed interlude, which pictures the church during the time of persecution and builds suspense before the final seventh seal is broken” (p. 127).
Sealed and counted—for what purpose?
What was that seal on the forehead? Malina and Pilch say it was originally the mark of the Hebrew letter Tau, written as our X, that was branded on the forehead. J. Nelson Kraybill mentions 2 Corinthians 1:22, where the apostle Paul says that God has put his seal on us and given us God’s Spirit. In Ephesians 1:13-14 and 4:30, the seal is the Holy Spirit in the life of the believers. Both Kraybill and Eugene Boring refer to baptism as a sealing, a statement of allegiance to Christ and not to Rome.
How many are sealed? John hears that the total number is 144,000. Twelve is a complete number, since it symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel and perhaps the twelve named disciples. David Barr notes that multiples of numbers—in this case, 12 x 12 x 10—intensifies the meaning of the numbers. Today, a worldwide total of 144,000 Christian believers sounds limiting. But if we imagine ourselves in 90 CE in a small house church in Smyrna or Philadelphia, this number would amaze and comfort us.
Though many of us are Gentile, we are part of God’s people through the symbolism of the twelve tribes of Israel. But we also know that ten of those tribes were conquered by the Assyrians 800 years earlier and never politically reconstituted. Over time, lower-class Israelites who remained in the land intermarried with non-Israelites who were settled there. By calling and naming 12 disciples (e.g., Mark 3:13-19), Jesus was announcing the restoration of all 12 tribes, regardless of their mixed-race ethnicity. And now, through his blood, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles is broken down (Ephesians 2:13-14). All of the people of God are now spiritually part of ancient Israel.
The number 144,000 also demonstrates rigid military structure. The tribes are arranged in battle formation, row upon row, section after section. They are preparing for the coming war against evil.
A critique of ethnicity, class, and gender
We already noted in Lesson 9 that John is more conservative and protective of Jewish law than is Paul—especially in view of Paul’s declaration of oneness in Christ with no distinction based on ethnicity, class status, or gender (Galatians 3:28). In Revelation 7:1-8 John supports the sealing of believers from any ethnic group, but he still explains this inclusion through ancient Israelite tribal structures. Though spiritually equal, non-Israelites are incorporated into Israel, and not vice versa.
Regarding social class—slave versus free—John does the opposite: the “free” are reclassified as slaves—albeit as a special category of slaves. Though the NRSV and NIV call believers “the servants of our God” in 7:3, they are actually “slaves” (doulos) in the original Greek. The Lamb’s seal placed on the forehead of his slaves echoes the ancient practice of branding slaves as property of their owners (e.g., Exodus 21:5-6). That our English translations obscure slave language testifies to our belated legal abolition of slavery in the modern age.
John seems least aware of the third category: gender. Hebrew tradition, like every other culture of his day, is relentlessly patriarchal. If Jacob’s four wives produced any daughters other than Dinah (see Genesis 34) among their 12 sons, we know nothing about them, nor were women included in Hebrew genealogies. John’s major criticism of a church member is directed toward a woman he names Jezebel (Rev 2:20-23). In addition, John counts and arranges the 144,000 into battle formation, visualizing an army of soldiers that would never have included women.
To be fair, John is limited by his culture. He has portrayed the conquering Lion of Judah as a slaughtered Lamb, so the army of Revelation 7:5-8 must be seen through that radical, nonviolent perspective. Nonviolent resistance to evil naturally invites women who, as a gender, have had more experience with nonviolent resistance to oppression than have men.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Explain in your own words why Revelation 7 is not a digression from the Seven Seals series.
- How would you answer Jehovah’s Witnesses, who insist the number 144,000 must be taken literally?
- Is it fair to evaluate John’s writing by current ideals of equality in relation to social class and gender?
Barr, David L. “The Dawn of a New Day: The Apocalypse of John.” New Testament Story: An Introduction. 4th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009. Pp. 441-442.
Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox, 1989.
Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010. Pp. 109-112.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch. Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000. P. 116.