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“The Remnant”

Revelation 7:1-8
Bob DeGray
May 16, 2010

Key Sentence

Israel will again be God’s servant during the end times.


I. A Faithful God Loves His People, Israel
II. The Sealed Servants (Revelation 7:1-3)
III. The 144,000 from the Twelve Tribes (Revelation 7:4-8)
IV The Future of the Israel (Romans 9-11)
V. The Promises to be Fulfilled


I. A Faithful God Loves His People, Israel

A faithful God loves his people Israel. No matter how casually or seriously you read the Bible I think this is a truth that would jump right out and kiss you on the nose. God’s love for Israel is plastered all over the pages of Scripture. One of the earliest and warmest expressions is found in Deuteronomy 7:

Deuteronomy 7:6-9 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”

He chose them to be his people, his treasured possession. That’s a great phrase, a term of endearment He uses. Just as we call our wives or children by special nick-names, so God talks to Israel with names of love. So he set his affection on them; he redeemed them from slavery and from Pharaoh because he loved them. And in verse 9 all of this is said to show that he is a faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations.

God loves the people of Israel, and is faithful to his promises to them. He speaks of them as “My beloved, My inheritance, my chosen, my servant.” One of my favorites is ‘apple of my eye:’ “For the Lord's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. 10In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye.” I researched that phrase and found that in Old English it refers to the pupil of the eye, as if the colored part of your eye was an apple. But in Hebrew and in Latin it literally means ‘the little man of the eye’ – the reflection you see when you look into someone’s eye. If you look into God’s eye to see what he loves and focuses on, it’s Israel.

At one point he says “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him." God’s attitude of love to Israel is married to his faithfulness. His promised love will not change.

God is faithful. He introduces himself to Moses as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” The Psalmist exults over this: “I will sing of the Lord's great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” We don’t have time to grasp the depth of God’s faithfulness revealed in Scripture, especially his covenant faithfulness to Abraham’s descendants. A faithful God loves his people Israel.

But at this point we have to ask the classic preacher’s question: so what? If God loves Israel and is faithful to Israel, great, but why is it important today; how does it affect our lives? What does it mean to me? The answer is simple, and important, and I want you to notice how we do this, because it can be done with so many Scriptural truths: if God loves and is faithful to Israel, keeps his promises to Israel, then God will also love and be faithful to you and to me, keep his promises to us. God deals with different people different ways, but they all reflect the absolute reliability of his character.

Our text in Revelation is one that reinforces the truth that God loves and faithfully keeps his promises to Israel. At least that’s how I understand it; many others, looking at Revelation have not seen Israel in this text. They don’t see Israel involved in any way in the end times: they only see the church. But if God made many clear promises to Israel over the centuries, and if they are never going to come plainly true, then God is not loving and faithful to Israel. And one of our best assurance of his love and care for us would be removed.

So my contention this morning is that in his faithfulness to Israel God shows his faithfulness to all the promises of his Word. As we look at our text we’ll see that in the end times Israel will once again be God’s servant, that in the book of Revelation he is working out his promises to Israel, and that he has not abandoned his love for Israel or his faithfulness to her in all he has promised.

II. The Sealed Servants (Revelation 7:1-3)

Revelation 7 is a pause or parentheses between the opening of the sixth seal on the scroll of future judgment, and the opening of the seventh seal. This chapter has two major scenes – we’ll look at one this week and one next week. The first scene begins when, during a pause in the action, God’s servants are sealed for his service. Revelation 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. 2Then 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.

Four angels are standing in the four quarters of the earth, holding back the winds of judgment. In Daniel 7:2 the four winds of heaven churn up the great sea, and four great beasts come forth on their mission of destruction. In Jeremiah 49 the four winds carry out the fierce anger of Yahweh upon Elam. But in our text these winds are held in check by the four angels: they are not to blow upon the earth or sea or against any tree.

In verses 2 and 3 another angel enters the vision, coming up from the east, the direction of the sunrise and the direction the tabernacle and temple faced. He tells the four restraining angels to hold back the destructive winds until he can imprint the foreheads of the servants of God. We learn in Revelation 14 that this seal bears the name of the Lamb and His Father. Later in Revelation those who follow the evil beast also recieve a mark: the beast’s name or the number of his name. In those days one’s fate will be determined by whose mark one wears. It’s an image you and I can profit from today: are we identified with Jesus or with the world?

This sealing of God’s servants is also seen in Ezekiel 9, where God instructs a man with an inkhorn to place an ‘X’ on the forehead of those deeply troubled by the sins of Jerusalem. to protect them from the judgment coming on the city. God’s seal implies ownership and protection. 2 Timothy 2:19 says that we are sealed with this inscription: “the Lord knows those who are his.”

One of the key things to notice here is that those who are sealed are “the servants of our God.” The title servant, as I’ve often said, is one most exalted titles God gives to those who follow him. The Bible uses it of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. God says “remember the law of my servant Moses.” He talks often about “my servant David.” And he calls the nation of Israel his servant: Isaiah 41:8-10 “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, 'You are my servant'; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 10So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

God is faithful to his servant Israel whom he loves. So what? He will also be faithful to his servants today, whom he loves. That’s us. Jesus said “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." He said “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”

The New Testament writers all take this title: “Paul, a servant;” “James, a servant;” “Peter, a servant;” “Jude, a servant.” This book of Revelation that we’re studying was given to God’s servants. Revelation 1:1 “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”

And God will be faithful to his servants. It’s important to remember that while we don’t have the same promises God gave to Israel, we have the same faithful God, and he’s made us promises as well, through Jesus. Promises like: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Promises like: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Promises like: “you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Israel has promises, we have promises, and a faithful God who loves us will keep those promises

III. The 144,000 from the Twelve Tribes (Revelation 7:4-8)

But if God were not faithful to his promises to Israel, we would have less reason to believe his promises to us. That’s why our understanding of the rest of this short text is very important. In this interlude God chooses Israel again to be his servant. Revelation 7:4-8 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. 5From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, 6from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, 7from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, 8from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.

It is obvious on first reading that this text is talking about the sealing of 144,000 servants from all the tribes of Israel. And yet only rarely in the history of the church and the studies of scholars has that obvious understanding been held. I think it should have been. So notice what’s happening here: the four winds have been held back; the angel has come with the seal of the living God to write His name on 144,000 of His servants, 12,000 from each tribe.

By this seal these servants will be protected from much of what happens during the tribulation period. We know this because we meet them again at the other end, in Revelation 14. “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. 2And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. 3And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders.

No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. 5No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.” These sealed saints have gone through the tribulation and have not given in to its temptations.

But who are these people? The most dominant idea through the centuries has been that they’re a subset or symbolic representation of the church. One commentator I otherwise usually agree with says “The number is obviously symbolic. Twelve (the number of tribes) is both squared and multiplied by a 1000, a twofold way of emphasizing completeness. It refers to the generation of faithful believers about to enter the final tribulation period. That there are 12,000 from each tribe is a symbolic way of stressing that the church is the eschatological people of God who have taken up Israel’s inheritance.” I’m sorry, but the text doesn’t say that. We all bring pre-suppositions to a text, but I don’t think these pre-suppositions have much support at all in the text.

The problem is that for centuries people have taught that God’s promises to Israel are spiritualized and handed to the church: the church replaces Israel. If you hold that position you won’t find the old Israel Revelation even when it’s as plain as the nose on your face. Some even read this list of the twelve tribes and say the differences in ordering and inclusion are proof it’s symbolic rather than literal, even though almost every list of the twelve tribes in Scripture also has variations in order or which tribes are named.

Many try to equate the church and Israel based on a few New Testament verses that at do describe the real identity between us because we are all now God’s people. So Paul does say a believer in Christ is a true Jew. He refers to the church as “the Israel of God.” He says Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. James does address his letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” writing to Christians scattered across the Roman world. Peter speaks to believers as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” taking phrases directly from the Old Testament. The church in this age is identified with the people of God of all ages, and the principles and lessons of the Old Testament are applied to the church and to individual believers. If someone who is ethnically Jewish is saved today they become part of the universal church, not part of national Israel.

IV The Future of the Israel (Romans 9-11)

But that doesn’t mean the church is Israel, or that the identity between Israel and the church is continuous. I believe that’s where these commentators miss the boat. They neglect the Scriptures that show that another change is coming.

Probably the best text that shows this is Romans 9-11, where Paul elaborately describes the relationship between the church and Israel and God’s plan for Israel. He starts out by reflecting in his own life God’s love for Israel: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.” He says “Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.”

But, they rejected the message of Christ. That was true for most Jews in Paul’s day, though not all. Paul explains: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don't you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah--how he appealed to God against Israel: 3"Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me"? 4And what was God's answer to him? "I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” I believe the 144,000 of Revelation 7 are the last generation of that remnant. Rather than being raptured with the church they are sealed on earth, as God turns the focus back to the Jews as His servants to win many to Christ during this tribulation period.

Paul anticipates such a revival in Romans 11: “Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!”

God has a plan for the Jews, a plan based on his love for them and his faithfulness. Romans 11: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins." 28As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.”

These important verses are overlooked by those who think God’s plan for Israel is all finished. Paul says “All Israel will be saved!” He’s not talking about each individual Jewish person being saved, but the full number of Jews and national Israel being saved by Jesus. He will take away their sins.

During the church age, the Jewish people as a group opposed the spread of the Gospel – especially in Paul’s time. If he’d been writing some centuries later he’d probably have put more blame on the church for not reaching the Jews. But he says, as far as being chosen by God is concerned the people of Israel are still loved, loved by God, on account of the patriarchs: the promises God made, his gifts and his calling are irrevocable. God keeps his promises.

This text rules out the theory that the church entirely replaces Israel. And if we think about the promises of the Old Testament we’ll see that in order to be fulfilled in any plain way God has to place Israel back in the land under the Messiah. Jesus has to return and reign; and that’s what Revelation reveals.

V. The Promises to be Fulfilled

Let me close with a few examples of the promises God will fulfill for Israel. In Jeremiah, when Israel was taken to exile, God made the famous promise of a New Covenant: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

That wonderful promise can be applied to us, and is in the book of Hebrews. But it was given to the Jews as a promise for their land and their nation. Listen to the next verses in Jeremiah 31: “This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar-- the Lord Almighty is his name: 36"Only if these decrees vanish from my sight," declares the Lord, "will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me." 37This is what the Lord says: "Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done," declares the Lord. He’s saying ‘no matter what you do I will not stop loving you and I will keep my promises.’ And only if that’s true for Israel in his promises to her can we be confident of the literal truth of his promises to us.

Listen to this promise in Isaiah – a promise explicitly aimed at a time after the first return from exile in Babylon: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. 11In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. 12He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.”

One more example, this one from a prophet during the exile, but making promises that cannot have come to pass yet. Ezekiel 37:25-28 “They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.'"

So what am I saying? A faithful God loves his people Israel. He’ keep his promises to Israel as a nation. The promises which have not yet been fully fulfilled will be kept during the period pictured in Revelation, especially Revelation 20 which reveals the thousand year reign of Christ on earth. In keeping with all of that I understand today’s text to show, though the protection of these Jewish believers, that Israel will again be God’s servant during these times.

So it’s important theology, but like all good theology, it does make a difference. Because if God makes plain promises to Israel, and then never plainly keeps them, he is not the loving faithful God revealed in Scripture. But if he does keep them, and I believe these passages show that he does, then he is also a loving faithful God who will keep his promises to you, his servants, today. His promises of His presence, His promises of His Spirit, His promises of His peace, His promises of sanctification and fruit – you can trust those promises and all his other promises, partially because Scripture reveals that a loving faithful God is keeping his promises to Israel.