Saviour's Day - Revelation 7
A couple of months ago I was at a conference. We'd sat down for the evening
meal. I was chatting to the young guy sitting next to me when a friend of mine,
one of the leaders of the conference, sat down opposite. He joined in the conversation.
It wasn't long at all before he was asking, How long have you been a Christian?
A couple of years. It's hard isn't it?
Two things about that snippet of conversation strike me. One is that for my friend being a Christian is everything, and nothing else really matters by comparison. The second is how realistic he is about the Christian life. All revealed in that little comment: It's hard, isn't it? Because the Christian life is hard. Anybody here find it easy? If so, you're probably not living it properly! Yes it is joyful and wonderful and the best life there is, but it's hard. It's hard because of the struggles we have within ourselves, to do what pleases God. It's hard because of the pressure from outside to do anything other than trust Jesus and go his way.
John, who wrote Revelation, would have agreed with my friend's assessment, on both counts. It's hard being a Christian. Remember, he's writing to Christians who are in danger of losing their lives just for being Christians. They don't need any reminder that the Christian life's hard. But being a Christian is also the best and most important thing in life. John reassures them and us with a series of visions which God has given him.
We have a double vision in chapter 7, two fresh camera angles, two new pieces of film to view. If you remember from last Sunday, we were left with a question at the end of chapter 6, a chapter showing us judgement as God sees it. We saw the world under God's judgement now. We saw the church longing for God's final judgement to come. Then we saw the end and that final day of judgement. And we heard the cry of those falling under the wrath of God in the judgement: 4v16-17.... That's the question, who can stand? Chapter 7 answers it by giving us two visions. Not two answers. Because each vision shows us the same group, but two reassurances that this group will be safe, they will stand in the judgement. They are absolutely secure.
It's as if God, through John, says: You're finding the Christian life hard?
You're wondering if it's all worthwhile? Anxious that you might not make it to heaven after all? Let me show you something. And so he shows us what's already happened and then what will happen one day, both showing Christians that they are absolutely secure.
Vision 1: Sealed at the beginning (v1-8) Although this vision comes after the judgements of chapter 6, it tells us what happens before them. It begins After this I saw... It is the next vision John sees, but not the next thing that happens. It turns out to be a flashback. We see here the angels holding back God's judgement on the world so that something else can happen first. What is that? What must judgement wait for? Verse 3.... Before the earth can be harmed in any way, God's servants must be sealed. That includes the judgements of God within the history of our world. Before any of them can fall, God's people must be secured. We were made safe before history began.
This seal is a mark of ownership. God is saying, These people are mine. They belong to me. If you're a Christian you're precious to God. You may already have discovered that we clergy here might not remember your name - God remembers. At times, you may feel like a nobody, as if you matter to no one - you matter to God. Elsewhere, we're told that our names are written in his book. Here we're told that his mark is on our foreheads. And God's ownership means God's protection. He's saying: Watch what you do with these people. They're mine - hands off. We write names on our children's school clothes. We have the car registration number etched on the windscreen. You might even have your valuables marked with your postcode. It's all saying: Hands off! This belongs to me. As far as God's concerned, we're safe: we're his and no-one and nothing can ultimately touch us.
We then hear an interpretation of the vision which would seem to spoil everything: verse 4.... What's this all about? Don't forget that it's a vision. A vision may well sacrifice accuracy at one point in order to make another point more clearly. Don't lose the wood for the trees. So often in the book of Revelation, people spend their time arguing whether a particular tree is an Ash or a Beech or whatever, examining the leaves and the bark in great detail, that they forget they're looking a t a wood full of trees. Two Christians were once discussing Revelation. One said to the other: It's all terribly confusing: the seals, the trumpets, the bowls, the elders, the four living creatures, robes washed in blood. What am I to make of it all? His friend replied: Oh, it's easy. The point is simple: we win. And he's right. The details do matter. But don't lose the big picture while you're looking at the details. The big picture is that we win. Or, to put it slightly more carefully: God is victorious, because Christ the Lamb won the victory at the cross and so, we Christians, share in that victory. We win.
Now to the 144,000. The point of this is that God's people will be complete. None will be lost. Each one will be safe and secure, sealed by God. This number is clearly a symbol, not a statistic - as if someone has been standing there with a clicker. It cannot be a literal description of 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. 10 of the 12 tribes perished in Assyria never to be seen again. The other 2 could not be identified after AD70. So, if it is meant literally, it isn't very reassuring.
Why then refer to the servants of God as the tribes of Israel? Because God's servants are his people and Israel is his people. The Christian church is the new Israel, grafted into the old. It is a way of saying that God's Israel, his people, will be complete. His plan will be completed. His people will be complete.
There are some strange things in this list of the twelve tribes. Judah comes first, not Reuben the eldest. But Judah is the tribe of Jesus, the Lion of Judah. And Dan is omitted altogether, his place taken by Manasseh.
But then Dan was guilty of the most appalling idolatry at the end of the book of Judges. Despite the oddities, though, the point is clear. God's servants have been sealed.
Before the four horsemen of the apocalypse are allowed to ride forth and do their terrible work, leaving in their wake that litany of conquest, bloodshed, deprivation and death in their wake, God's servants are sealed. Not hermetically-sealed, not vacuum-packed or wrapped in cotton wool, so that nothing nasty can even happen to us. It does happen. We're not likely to lose our lives for being Christians in this country, or even our jobs or houses. But we'll face misunderstanding and mockery. Some will say they want to have nothing to do with Jesus 2000. When I was out the other night, I say a man, probably a little younger than me showing his friends one of the Jesus 2000 leaflets, clearly having a good laugh at our expense. It's a small thing, but it hurts. Friends, if you're a Christian, we've been marked, sealed as God's own. so that nothing can separate us from him. In fact, all creation has been called in to serve us. The angels and the four winds are brought in by God to ensure our salvation. God has held back history until he's sure his people are secured. That's how much we matter to him.
Vision 2: Saved at the end (v9-17) The second vision takes us beyond the end of history and into heaven itself. It shows us that those who were sealed at the beginning will be saved at the end. And what a salvation it turns out to be! At first sight, though, you might think you were looking at a completely different group of people. The first vision showed us an exactly numbered crowd of 144,000. This one is of a great multitude that no-one could count. The first is from all the tribes of Israel, while the second has people from every nation, tribe, people and language. How can they be the same group? Remember, these are visions, different views of the same people. Each vision shows us a group of ordinary Christians: the servants of our God,.... standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
The first vision shows us that God's people will be complete, none will be lost. The second shows us that they will be beyond number, just as he promised Abraham. God took him outside one night and said: See the stars?
See if you can count them. That's how many descendants I'll give you. Ever tried counting the stars? Very hard. Very hard to count all God's people in heaven. Later, Jacob, Abraham's grandson, is told to think about the sand by the sea . God tells him it cannot be counted. Have you ever tried it at the beach? It's hard enough getting the family off the beach, but you try getting the beach off the family. It stays with you for weeks. There's just so much of it. Very hard to count the sand. Very hard to count God's people in heaven. Here they are: a great multitude that no-one could count. God's plan of salvation has worked. He's won, against all odds. He's kept his promise. And he promised Abraham a land, a home for his descendants to live in and to be very happy. In this vision, he's kept his promise in bringing them into a great salvation. If you're a Christian, I hope you know the right answer to this question: Are you saved? The answer's Yes and No. Not because we're not sure, but because we have some of it now, but not yet all of it. Yes I have been saved. And No I'm still waiting. There's a fullness of salvation described in this vision which none of us yet knows in our experience. Follow through from verse 15 with me.
One day, we'll be serving God in his presence... they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple. We'll be sheltered by God himself and know the glory of his presence..... he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. We'll be thoroughly satisfied by God, because we're in his presence... Never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. We'll be safe from all danger.... The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. We'll be supplied in our every need and beyond by the Lamb, Jesus Christ, himself.... the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. We'll know no more sadness in our lives.... God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
It's a vision of the future to keep us going through the present. It's a vision of a glorious future to keep us going through the hardship of the present. Soldiers in the misery of their trenches were kept by a vision of the country and a way of life they were fighting to save. A vision of holding the trophy aloft at the end of the season keeps the sportsman going through injury, pain and the trial of training. A vision of security and prosperity at the end of the road has kept many a student at their studies over the years.
If those visions can keep those people going, won't this vision of real, unfading and eternal glory keep us going? Here is something which will last forever and not be taken away. Here is something which will be truly satisfying - and not only sustain us until the next high comes along. Everything else can be taken from us, but not our salvation, our relationship with God. We can lose our most prized possessions: money, house, car, job. We can lose those qualities which have counted for so much: good looks, intelligence, health. We can even lost those dearest to us: parents, spouse, children. But nothing can separate us form God and his love for us in Christ. Nothing can and nothing will.
I've been reading a book about the English, partly because I am English and wanted to know what it means to be English - it's so hard to explain. One thing that came across is our sense of individuality. We don't like central government and being told what to do. We do like our own homes and don't enjoy the sort of cafe culture that many European countries do. So we create homes as a place of security, safety, peach and tranquility, where we can take refuge from the hustle and bustle of the outside and often hostile world. That desire for home is a godly one. God made us to find a home. If these verses aren't a picture of a people at home, I don't know what they are. But what is ungodly is to find that home apart from God and apart form heaven - to try and find security, shelter, satisfaction without God. The place where we're meant to find our home on earth as we wait for our home in heaven is not in our houses, but in our churches. Not in the buildings - it's not terribly homely here really, is it? But with God's people. The very strangeness of that idea to our ears shows how far we still are from realising it.
But I've left something out. Two little words which tells us who these people are who are safe for all eternity. One is in verse 17: For.... This heavenly home is for those shepherded by the Lamb. Those for whom Jesus died (he's their Lamb) and for whom Jesus is now Lord (he's their shepherd). The second little word comes earlier, at the start of verse 15.
We go back to verse 13 to pick it up: verse 13-14.... In one sense, there'll be every kind of person in heaven - people from every nation, tribe, people and language. But in another sense, there'll be only one kind of person in heaven - the person who has put his/her confidence in Jesus, who died for our sins on the cross. There'll be no other kind of person in heaven. We'll all be wearing the same clothes: white robes. And as we go around and ask each other, where did you get yours from? The answer will always be the same: from the Lamb, washed and made white in his blood. There won't be anyone who can say anything different: It was handed down to me by my parents. I made it myself. I was born with it. I bought it. I borrowed it from a friend. Mr Buddha gave it to me. Mr Mohammed said I could have it. These clothes are only available from one outlet.
It's a picture of conquest. White is the colour of conquest in Revelation.
Palm branches are waved in the victory parade. Christians will overcome, says God through John. It often doesn't seem like it. The Church of England is losing members all the time. We're probably the biggest church in Hull and we have only 2% of our parish attending. It doesn't always feel like victory. We need to have this vision of John's. We need to be reminded that we are on the winning side. God wins. the Lamb wins. We win. Sealed at the beginning. Saved at the end.
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose He will not, he will not, desert to its foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake, He'll never, no never, no never, forsake.
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