This week, we are continuing our series in the Book of Revelation, called “The Eye of the Storm.” The Book of Revelation is a book about “the end times.” When it comes this, the two most heated debate topics are “the rapture of the church,” and “the Great Tribulation.” The words, “Great Tribulation” refer to a time, just before the end, when there is tremendous suffering at the hands of a world dictator, called the Antichrist. The “rapture” refers to the moment when Jesus returns to rescue and resurrect His church in the clouds of heaven.
For the first 1800 years of church history, 100% of the church believed that the end-times church would go through the Great Tribulation, and that the “rapture” occurred at the end of the age, and that it was synonymous with the “Second Coming of Christ.” But in the year 1830, a man named John Nelson Darby came up with a brand-new idea. Darby taught that before the very public “Second Coming of Christ” at the end of the age, there was a “secret return” of Jesus that would occur before the Great Tribulation. He said Jesus would rapture His church into heaven, rescuing us from the Great Tribulation, so that while the world suffered terribly for seven years, the church would sup with Jesus in heaven. At the end of this Great Tribulation, there would effectively be a third coming of Jesus to consummate the age.
If you were taught that this was the only real option for understanding “the end times,” and you wondered why it seemed hard to find any mention in the Scripture of two separate returns of Jesus, I’d like you to know that zero people believed it prior to 1830.
I recognize that might throw you for a loop. I will rarely if ever be dogmatic about these things, and I reserve the right to change my opinion “on the way up.” At the same time, I’ll be honest: I feel far more secure standing on the universal teaching of the church for 1800 years, than on a newly-conceived doctrine. Thus, I will teach from the historic position of the church, which is: the end-times church will endure the Great Tribulation, at the end of which, Jesus will return to publicly (not secretly) rapture His church, resurrect our bodies, and make all things new.
All of this naturally raises the question, “How will God care for His people if we have to endure the Great Tribulation?” This is essentially the same question asked in the opening of the sixth seal, which we read last week. There, we saw the wrath of God about to fall on the earth, and the people cried out, “in the day of God’s wrath, who can stand?” Chapter 7 answers them. It shows precisely how God will care for His people throughout the Great Tribulation. Let’s read:
1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed. 9 After this I looked, and behold, 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!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 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.”
I’m going to answer two questions today. First, what does it mean to be sealed? Second, whom does God seal? Now, let’s start with the first question: what does this even mean?
Every interpreter agrees that it means two things: First: ownership. The seal of God’s servants stands in contrast to “the mark of the Beast,” which is a designation of the Antichrist. The point is that both Christ and the Antichrist mark their own. It’s a seal of ownership.
Second, it’s a seal of protection. In verse 3, the angel says, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God…” Then, in chapter 8, God pours out plagues on the earth, sea, and trees. The sealing makes us plague-proof!
One thing I want you to notice is the language God uses to describe His protection. He uses the language of “sealing,” not “removal.” When I went to the beach recently, I sealed my iPhone in a protective case, so that it didn’t get harmed by water or sand. My phone was not “removed” from me at the beach, but it was protected by the seal. God uses the same language here. God doesn’t remove His people from the earth; He seals them. We are protected, not ejected.
Now, I can imagine someone might say, “Michael, how can you say that we’ll be protected through the Great Tribulation, when God’s people will be martyred during that time?” We have to be clear on what we’re protected from and what we’re not. We are protected from God’s wrath, not Satan’s wrath. And there’s very good reason for that, which I’ll now unpack.
First, let’s talk about God’s wrath. When God turns the sea into blood or pours down fire and brimstone, beginning in chapter 8—these are expressions of God’s wrath. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says that we are not destined for wrath, but for salvation. God’s people are miraculously protected in the eye of the storm, just like Israel was during the plagues of Exodus.
Satan’s wrath is a different story, though. In Revelation 12:17, we’re told that Satan is released for the Great Tribulation, that he has “wrath” because he knows his time is short, and that he “makes war” on God’s people during this time. In chapter 13, verse 7, we learn how Satan wages war: through a Satanically-empowered dictator who will “conquer them.” God’s people WILL go through the Great Tribulation, and from a worldly perspective, we will be conquered. The Antichrist will appear to have eliminated Christianity from the earth. During the Tribulation, it will look like Satan has won, because for a time, we won’t be protected from the Antichrist.
But the message of Revelation is that even when it looks like Satan won, God wins. There’s a reason God allows Satan some extra leash at the end of time. And this brings us to our second question: who is sealed? Who is sealed?
On the surface, it seems obvious that all of God’s people are sealed because in verse 3, we’re told that He will mark all of His servants. But verses 4-8 introduce complication. There, it seems that only 144,000 Jews are sealed. Prophecy teachers who believe in a secret hidden rapture before the Great Tribulation say that these are Jewish evangelists who are converted immediately after the rapture. But this becomes strained when you realize how out-of-character it is for God to protect Jews from His plagues, and not Gentile believers. Then it becomes even more strained when you get to Revelation 14, and you realize it’s not just 144,000 Jewish people, but Jewish males who are sealed. Are we really to believe that God will only protect a few Jewish adult males during the Great Tribulation?
What we’re touching on is the danger of interpreting Apocalyptic literature in an overly literalistic manner. Something more profound is taking place here. And to understand what that is, we have to understand the grander narrative, which goes back to chapter 5.
Perhaps you’ll remember that in Revelation 5, John “heard” the name of “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah”—this was a reference to a conquering military Messiah, which was Israel’s expectation. But do you remember what happened when John turned and saw Jesus? Rather than seeing Jesus as a Lion, He sees Jesus standing, as a Lamb who had been slain. John heard the Lion; He saw the Lamb. These are completely different images! And yet they’re the same. Why? God was re-interpreting the Jewish understanding of Jesus. They expected a Military Messiah, and they got a crucified one. He conquers, like a Lion! But He does so by laying down His life, like a sacrificial Lamb. Jesus conquers by being conquered, and then rising again.
Now, fast forward to chapter 7, and the same thing plays out—not just for Jesus, but for His people. Just as John heard the Lion and saw the Lamb …. Now he hears the numbered tribes of Israel and sees an innumerable multitude from every tribe. Just like the Lion IS the slain Lamb, the numbered Jewish army IS the innumerable multitude of slain martyrs from every tribe. Once again, God is re-interpreting Israel’s expectation. Israel expected to muster an end-times army that would one day conquer the unbelieving nations. This is the reason for the numbering of the tribes in Revelation 7—it’s how Israel numbered their fighting men. But while Israel expected a conquering end-time army of Jews, God re-interprets both the nature of that army, and their victory. The army will consist not only of ethnic Jews, but of people from every tongue, tribe and nation. And rather than conquering the nations with weapons, they’ll conquer like Jesus—by winning their hearts with sacrificial love. So now, to answer our question: who is sealed? All of God’s church. We are God’s end-times army, an innumerable multitude from every tongue, tribe, and nation.
I have a friend who understands those prophecies of an end-times army literally, and he told me once, “I believe that when Jesus comes back, He’ll give us oozies to kill unbelievers at the battle of Armageddon.” Not only do I say, “No thanks,” but also, it misses the point. God is going to conquer evil through His church in the same way He conquered evil through His Son. Not by violent overthrow, but by absorbing the world’s violence and then rising above it. Satan is given a longer leash in the end-times, but it only gives him more rope to hang himself with.
Now, I can imagine someone who believes in a Pre-tribulational Rapture might say, “Michael, this is just not encouraging to me. I thought I was going to be in heaven during the Great Tribulation, and now you’re telling me that I might have to live through it.”
I think what we need is a reminder of what Christianity even is. Christianity is not a nice piece of furniture in your home, to make life more comfortable and give you inner peace. It’s a bid to take up your Cross and die. It’s a call to join God’s end-time army of faithful servants who are not afraid of death, and who conquer the nations with sacrificial love.
On April 28, 1958, a 26-year-old Korean graduate student by the name of In-Ho Oh was walking home in Philadelphia when he was beaten to death by eleven homeless teenagers. In-Ho Oh was a Christian, and he came from a devout family. This beating occurred during the Jim Crow era, and the eleven homeless kids happened to all be black. This stoked racial tensions to an all-time high, as the racist community sought the strongest possible sentence.
But that’s not what In-Ho Oh’s parents sought. When the day of sentencing arrived, having sat through the entire murder trial, they stunned the courtroom by begging the judge to release their son’s murderers so they could give them a home and offer them the care they never had. They explained that they were Christians, and they wanted to express a small token of the grace they had received from Jesus Christ. The judge was known to have been hard-hearted and unemotional. But even his heart melted when he saw their love and courage. The judge teared up as he explained to the parents, “This is not the way our justice system works.”
That may not be the way our justice system works, but it’s the way God’s end-time army conquers the nations. Not by returning hate for hate or violence for violence, but by melting even the hardest hearts and breaks town the tallest barriers. This is how God demonstrates, once and for all, that the answer to evil is not more evil, but sacrificial love.