Last week, we started the first interlude in John’s second vision. In verses 1-3, we saw that God does not pour out His wrath until all of His chosen people are sealed, which happens at the moment of individual conversion to Christ as a result of His resurrection. God must know who will be sealed, else He could not be patient in His wrath with respect to their conversions. Who are the sealed of God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.
There are many who interpret these numbers as literal, which is odd because John has been symbolic up to this point. A strange hermeneutic leads one to interpret Revelation as literal only when he or she desires. The dispensational interpretation, though, classifies those being sealed as the Israelites from each tribe being saved during the great, future, seven-year tribulation. In order to get that interpretation, a narrative must be invented that recovers all the lost tribes of Israel and in which God has a different plan of salvation for national Israel than He does for His people among the nations. There really must be much adding to Scripture in order to defend such an interpretation.
Numbers in apocalyptic literature are always symbolic unless the author clarifies that they are to be taken literally. In this case, John denotes the symbolic numbers of people he sees. Our simple task is to discern what John wishes to communicate through the symbolic numbers, 144,000 and 12,000.
144,000 reduced to numbers with specific apocalyptic meanings is easily identifiable: 12x12x10x10x10. 12 is a number that represents the complete people of God; There are 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles. 10 is a nice round number that represents fullness. 120, then, refers to the complete and full people of God. 144, 12×12, represents the completed complete people of God or twice the complete people of God. John is depicting the people of God in the tribes and in the apostles—true Israelites and true Christians together. 1,000, 10x10x10, is a number that means far beyond fullness—far beyond the limits of the twelve tribes and twelve apostles. 144,000, then, is the completed, complete people of God; God’s kingdom people from among the nations whose population reaches beyond imagination—as if God’s promise to Abraham is accomplished (cf. Genesis 12; 15; 17). Contrary to some interpretations, then, the 144,000 are a people who cannot be numbered. If they are the completed, complete people of God, then they come out of all redemptive history.
John describes each Israelite tribe. Ten of these tribes were lost during the exiles in Assyria and Babylon. By the time Cyrus signed a decree enabling Judah to return to her land, Israel, the northern kingdom, had intermarried and been dispersed throughout the world. John is not unaware of his nation’s history. If we want to interpret this passage literally, we must invent a narrative that recovers all of the tribes purely and sees them come to Christ at some point in the future. Such an unfounded interpretation is certainly not John’s intention. 12, again, represents the complete people of God. 1,000 means far beyond fullness. Each historic tribe of the nation, from John’s perspective, then is overflowing with the fruit of those who are being converted, or sealed. Consider John’s description of Christ’s people later in Revelation:
It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel (Revelation 21:12).
The historic tribes of Israel are the gates through which all of God’s elect enter the kingdom of heaven. Consider Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman:
You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22).
John’s theology is not such that only those within the twelve tribes will one day be sealed. Instead, those being sealed from each tribe means that the salvific fruit coming from each historic tribe is being sealed. This work is being accomplished whether or not some of the twelve tribes still exist and whether or not Israel exists as a nation. Israel’s persistence as a state is not necessary with respect to the eschaton. This particular passage cannot be misconstrued to claim that there must be a great conversion of Jews to Christ. Such a claim might be argued from elsewhere in Scripture, but not here. All of God’s people form all time are being sealed.
The sons of Israel, then, are the eschatological descendants of Israel—not biological sons of Israel. John is following a very basic teaching of the Old Testament. Isaiah declared the word of the Lord, “In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance’” (Isaiah 19:24-25). The prophet foretold that Israel would not be the only national people of God on the earth because of the coming of the Messiah. The nations who find refuge in God’s Messiah, the final and everlasting King of kings, will all equally be God’s people—His inheritance that He prepared for Himself. After He was coronated with the crown of thorns on the anniversary of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, laid to rest, and raised to life again, Jesus proclaimed from the mount, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). He sent His disciples out to conquer the earth, instructing them to conquer the earth not by violence but by making disciples of all nations, fulfilling the prophet Isaiah. That is why the apostle, Paul, who was born a Jew and became a Pharisee concerning his doctrine, wrote, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:12). God no longer distinguishes between Jew and Gentile. There is one church, one kingdom. There is only one people of God—the eschatological descendants of Israel. Why would God ever change His mind about what He planned to do according to His prophets? Why begin distinguishing between Jew and Gentile again after accomplishing that part of His plan? Any worldview that distinguishes between Jew and Gentile now by claiming that Jews are saved differently or separately from Gentiles is inconsistent with the biblical narrative in both the Old and New Testaments.
Once we recognize this biblical truth, there are many claims in popular religion that are immediately exposed as fundamentally flawed including the ideas that all of biological Israel will be saved and that God has a special place in the eschaton for one particular nation over another. Israel does indeed have a special place in God’s redemptive plan, but God’s people from among all the nations are equally God’s people. National Israel was the type; Eschatological Israel is the reality. Those who are sealed, eschatological Israel, are the elect from every nation, tongue, and generation.
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