This part of Revelation has intrigued many people, and a variety of different interpretations have been constructed to fit in with different systematic views of the book. We will look at the text as it stands. Let us remind ourselves that the vision was given to John by Jesus Christ, who, in Revelation 5:6, is seen as a Lamb standing in the middle of the throne in heaven. The Lamb is breaking open the seals of a scroll, and the vision dramatizes the writing under each seal. As the Lamb breaks six seals, a picture emerges of God commanding a series of judgements on the earth. At the end of the sixth drama, the worldly rich and powerful are terrified by the awesome might of God's wrath and ask, "Who can stand?" (Revelation 6:17).
Chapter 7 is a part-answer to that question. Before the seventh seal is broken and God's judgements are released on the earth (Revelation 8:1-5), God will protect or place a seal of ownership on the foreheads of two groups of people. The first are the 144,000 (Revelation 7:1-8) and the second are the suffering or persecuted church (Revelation 7:9-17). The question remains, 'Who are the 144,000?' Although some have interpreted that group as an infinite number of God's people, or some have said it is a limited number of God's elect, the text is clear that this refers to Israel. Wherever the twelve tribes are referred to in the Bible, they always mean Israel. The number is limited, compared to the countless number of the persecuted church (Revelation 7:9), and suggests that God will raise up a remnant of His ancient people who will trust in Jesus (Romans 11:5).
Although the tribal identity of Israel has been lost over many centuries of diaspora, the Lord knows the identity of all who belong to Him. The list of tribes is interesting. There were twelve children of Israel (Jacob), but from Jacob, two tribes arose through his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, making thirteen tribes. When land was apportioned, the tribe of Levi, who were the priests, had no tribal territory but lived among the other tribes – reducing the thirteen tribes to twelve. But in the list from verses 5-8 there is a tribe of Joseph and Manasseh but not Ephraim or Dan. It may be that was because they lapsed into idolatry early in Israel's history of the Promised Land (Judges 17:1-3; 18:1-30). Israel's story, like that of the disciples, carried a traitor.
2 Peter 2:9 says, "…the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment." Great trouble awaits the world for its rebellion and God's people will be caught up in it. However the Lord will safeguard His people, marking them out to be His very own and forbidding Hell to touch them. If He can put a mark on faithless Cain to protect him (Genesis 4:13-16), He surely will protect those upon whom He has set His name. This chapter is to encourage His people that He will not allow them to be destroyed and savaged by the judgements that will come upon the world. The Shepherd who has carefully gathered His flock will not abandon them, ever.
© Dr Paul Adams