Visions of the Church
Revelation 6 and 7 are connected by question and answer. Who can stand in this world of evil? The Christian can stand. The chapters are connected in another way, by the word seal. In Revelation 6 the seals are opened by Christ, and the unsealings show the contents of history. The contents are frightful, exceeding the private experience of any single person. In Revelation 7, the unsealings are more than matched by sealings that protect persons of faith from the eternal consequences of historical evil. For no evil was permitted until ‘we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads’ (Rev. 7:3). The sealing is inclusive; every person from every tribe.
John gives us parallel visions in Revelation 7, the 144,000 (Rev. 7:4-8) and the ‘multitude which no man can number’ (Rev. 7:9). They are the same people. Rhymed repetition is a favorite device among poets to achieve emphasis. The art of rhyme is to nearly but not quite duplicate sound. The near-identity of sound provides emphasis; the slight difference in sound heightens awareness of meaning. The rhyming of sounds is a commonplace in poetry.
Hebrew poets (who are the ones John grew up with) rhymed not sounds but meanings. They put ‘alongside one another not attention-getting sounds but awareness-evoking meanings’. The sentence in Psalm 34:3 is typical: ‘O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!’ There are three rhymed meanings: exalt/magnify, the Lord/his name, with me/together.
John does this too, but he rhymes visions, as, for instance, in Revelation 7. Eugene Peterson notes that John gives us “two parallel pictures, like enough to provide emphasis by repetition, different enough to tease the mind into active participation. He is providing us a picture of what happens to persons who live by faith in a world noisy with evil.”
Peterson beautifully summarizes what John hears and then sees:
“John hears the number of the sealed as 144,000. When he looks he sees a multitude that no man can number. Sound is ‘rhymed’ with sight. People who live by faith in Jesus Christ are protectively sealed against evil by the Spirit. John hears God’s declaration of the total number – absolutely complete, not a single one missing, the all-inclusive 144,000 (12 squared, then multiplied). When he himself looks, he sees that this definite total known to God is a numberless multitude beyond calculation from any human point of view. Similarly, these people are all Israel, that is, God’s people from his standpoint; from our standpoint, they come from ‘every nation under heaven’.”
Peterson notes one more detail: “in any enumeration of a series, the first and last numbers are most important. In the seven seals which, as a whole, show the evil that is experienced in history, the first seal is a revelation of Christ triumphant over evil, and the seventh is a revelation of the attentive silence in heaven in which the prayers of every believer are carefully heard and answered (Rev. 8:1-4). All evil takes place between that beginning and ending. Evil is contained.”
Evil is not minimized, but it is put in its place, bracketed between Christ and prayer. There is a detailed listing of evil and a courageous facing of evil, but no explanation of it. Evil is not explained but surrounded. The Revelation summarizes the context: admit evil and do not fear it – for ‘he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4); endure evil, for you are already triumphant over it – ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18). By putting evil in its place and enumerating it accurately in the part of the story where it belongs, it is seen as finite episode and not a total triumph.
John provides life-giving hope to his readers in the book of Revelation. Won’t you join us this Lord’s Day as we talk about the visions of the church? Come along with us and learn who is sealed and what is the sealing of God’s people as well as who does the sealing. Are you a part of the multitude that can not be counted? These are the questions and thoughts we will wrestle with this Sunday.
Bring someone along with you, pray for the service and join us to hear a message of hope. Then stay with us as we break bread together with a fellowship meal.
Grace upon Grace,