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Politics & Prophecy: A Lawyer's View of the End Times
Rev. 7:1-8 (summary) - Four angels are standing at the four corners of the earth (presumably representing north, south, east and west) holding back the four winds of the earth that are about to blow. Another angel comes from the rising of the sun, having the seal of God, and calls to the first angel, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads." Then John heard the number of those to be sealed - 144,000 "from every tribe of the sons of Israel." Then, each tribe is listed, with 12,000 coming from each tribe.
Rev. 14:1-5 (summary) - Jesus is standing on Mount Zion, and with him are the 144,000 "who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads." John hears a voice from heaven, sounding like the roar of waters, loud thunder, and harpists playing harps singing a new song before God, the four living creatures and the elders. "No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth." The 144,000 are described as virgins ("not defiled with women"), they follow the Lamb wherever he goes, they have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God, and no lie was found in their mouth "for they are blameless."
We have seen in this Part 3 how God will restore Israel, regather the Jews, usher in a Golden Age and in all probability provide for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple which will, at some point, be desecrated. Now we will get a glimpse of how God is going to begin the process of turning the hearts of the Jews towards Him during the Tribulation.
We have in Rev. 7 and 14 the account of 144,000 bond-servants of God who will follow the Lamb wherever He goes, selected evenly from the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. These two texts refer to the same group of people: in each instance, there are 144,000 people sealed by God on their foreheads and acting as His bond-servants. These cannot be different groups of people.
The difference between the two texts, and the reason they are separated by several chapters, is that we have a before and after picture of the 144,000. In Rev. 7, we see the 144,000 when they are called by God and first set apart during the Tribulation. In Rev. 14, we see the 144,000 triumphantly standing with Jesus after the Tribulation. What happens in between is more implied than overtly stated, but they are all probably going to die.
Why Are They Sealed?
The scripture doesn't say what the 144,000 will do, or what their function is, except to say that they are firstfruits to God and the Lamb. Rev. 14:4. Since all of the 144,000 are Jewish, this strongly suggests that the 144,000 will be the first among the Jews to turn their hearts to Christ, and this will happen during the Tribulation itself. This is what I view as the first phase of the restoration of Israel.
Logically, it implies that the rest of Israel will not turn their hearts to God at this time, but will follow after the Tribulation. I mean, the firstfruits have to be first. This correlates with what we have already indicated about the spiritual renewal of the Jews during the Messianic Era (a/k/a the Golden Age, i.e., the Millennium).
The concept of firstfruits is a common one in scripture. The concept applies to the first reaping of the harvest, the first produce collected each season (oil, wine, honey, etc.), and the first born son of every family. In each case, God regards the firstfruits as the strongest and the best, and He regards it as due to Himself (as an offering). It may not seem important in our culture, but it is important to God.
Two quick examples: 1) Cain and Abel - Abel brought the first born of his flock and the fat portions; Cain only brought "fruit of the ground," no firstfruits, no choice portions. God accepted Abel's offering, but not Cain's. Gen. 4:3-5. 2) The tenth plague - when God struck down the first born of Egypt, He took away their firstfruits. Ps. 78:51; 105:36.
There are also spiritual firstfruits. Paul referred to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as the firstfruits of the Spirit. Rom. 8:23. Jesus is referred to as the firstfruits of those who will rise from the dead (because He was the first to do so). 1Co. 15:20, 23. The early Christians were called the firstfruits of those who believe (because they were first). 2Th. 2:13; Jam. 1:18. And so we have here the firstfruits of Israel - the first to turn their hearts to Christ.
Popular culture and some commentators assume the 144,000 are evangelists, but this is not stated anywhere in the text, nor is it to be implied. There are a couple of factors mitigating against it. I have already mentioned that scripture elsewhere indicates the Jews in general will not turn their hearts to Christ until the Messianic Era. In addition, it would be strange for God to pick 144,000 Jews to evangelize the Gentiles - it doesn't make any sense.
So if the 144,000 aren't going to evangelize the Gentiles and the Jews aren't going to convert, as it were, they probably won't evangelize anyone. Although, it is possible they could share the gospel with the Jews and no one will believe as a result. It wouldn't be the first time in history such a thing has happened.
What I expect will happen is that the 144,000 - whether they openly evangelize or not - will be well known in the world. They will be visibly marked by God, their presence will be public and most likely spread around the world, and will probably cause a stir in Jewish circles as a result. So even if no one converts at the time, there will be a strong collective memory of the 144,000 when the unbelieving survivors of the Tribulation enter the Millennium.
When Jesus returns, the Jews will draw upon this collective memory, and put it together with a recognition that Messiah has come. This will cause the Jews to then turn their hearts to Christ en masse shortly thereafter - phase two of the restoration of Israel.
The fact that God seals the 144,000 with His name on their foreheads suggests a protective measure. Protection against what? Certainly, the judgments God inflicts on the earth during the Tribulation. In other words, God will not harm these people while He is punishing others around them. Rev. 7 clearly indicates the 144,000 are sealed in order to be protected from the four winds of the earth that are about to blow destruction. The four winds that are under the control of God and sent by Him.
Apparently this includes protection of the 144,000 from the torture of the locusts of the 5th trumpet, which are only allowed to torture those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. Rev. 9:4. Since scripture makes no reference to any group other than the 144,000 of Israel as having the seal of God on their foreheads, Rev. 9:4 probably refers to them. We can also infer that if the locusts can torture anyone other than the 144,000, there may not be any other Christians alive at this time. So the 144,000 may become sealed by God near the end of the Tribulation.
We don't know how long the 144,000 will remain on the earth, but we can fairly imply God is not going to immediately take them up into heaven. They would not need to be protected from God's judgments if they are going to immediately leave. No, they are sealed because they are going to stick around at least for a short while and need protection during that time. It is simply their job to pave the way for the regathering of the Jews.
But the implication seems to be that the 144,000 will nevertheless not live securely or in safety. Notice the text never says how long the 144,000 will be on the earth. Their time may be very brief.
The question is whether the 144,000 will also be protected from being killed or tormented by the Antichrist and forces aligned with him. Some commentators take the fact that the 144,000 will stand with Christ on Mount Zion as evidence they will survive the Tribulation unharmed. Since the sealing of God is a protective device - designed, apparently, to be an obvious counter-sign to the mark of the beast - this is a possibility.
But the immediate impact of having the seal of God on their foreheads - a very visible sign they won't be able to hide - will be to mark them as anti-Antichrist. It will be equivalent to having a target painted on their backs. The followers of the Antichrist will know exactly who these 144,000 are, and target them for elimination.
By referring to the 144,000 as being purchased or redeemed from the earth, Rev. 14:3-4 confirms this possibility. That is, they will pay a blood sacrifice by their own deaths at the hands of others in the same sense that Jesus purchased our salvation, i.e., martyrdom. This is also implied by the fact that Rev. 7:9-17, which speaks of the martyrs for God coming out of the Tribulation in general, immediately follows the verses about the sealing of the 144,000.
If this is true, then when the 144,000 stand on Mount Zion with Christ, it most likely refers to a post-first resurrection event. But the text is simply not clear on this point. The one thing we do know is that the 144,000 signify God isn't done with Israel as a nation yet, even in the Tribulation. That's why the 144,000 are not part of the Church or any Protestant sect - these are truly Jews for Jesus.
Who Are They Really?
Most of the conflict in interpretation of these texts centers on who these people really are. Are they Jehovah's Witnesses? Are the 12,000 from each tribe of Israel literal or figurative? I see no reason to avoid the obvious - I go with literal. This is not an instance of the use of symbolic language.
This is what we are told about the 144,000: 1) they are each among the sons of Israel; 2) each of the twelve tribes of Israel will be equally represented in the group; 3) each of them is a virgin ("who have not defiled themselves with women"); and 4) no lie was found in their mouths "for they are blameless."
From this we can safely conclude each of the 144,000 will be: 1) a biological Jew (not necessarily a religious Jew, an Israeli citizen, or someone who thinks of himself as Jewish); 2) male; 3) probably, but not necessarily, of legal age (at least 20 years old); and 4) unusually virtuous.
Given the current cultural decline of the world, the fact that God will be able to find 144,000 celibate men who do not lie, who will all turn their hearts towards Christ in very adverse times of severe persecution, is nothing less than remarkable. This is not going to be achieved by any human effort. This can only be the miraculous work of God.
We already know that because the 144,000 are firstfruits among the Jews, they will be chosen for a special purpose. The fact that they are blameless and referred to as virgins further suggests they will be consecrated for a holy purpose unto God, and probable martyrdom, for they are unusually pure. I don't know why God should be concerned with whether these men are virgins or not, but it calls to mind the ceremonial uncleanness observed under the Mosaic law when a man had sexual relations. Lev. 15:16-18; Deu. 23:10.
Now let's consider the fact that each of the 144,000 will be a biological Jew. People tend to think some of the tribes of Israel have been lost - this is a myth. The tribes have been dispersed and are to a large extent untraceable today, but they still exist in a dispersed state. Just because they aren't organized or all living in their ancestral tribal areas doesn't mean they have vanished from the earth.
Some think it is humanly impossible to trace the tribal lineage of all physical (genealogical) Jews, therefore, the scripture cannot be taken literally. But human possibilities do not limit God. We have to remember that God doesn't keep records like we do. He knows the biological ancestry of every person ever born.
Others think the 144,000 refers to "spiritual Jews," i.e., the Church. This view is promoted by post-millennialists, amillennialists, and Jehovah's Witnesses - most of whom take not only Israel figuratively, but also take the number 144,000 figuratively (non-literally) as well. Sorry, folks, none of these are right.
And then there is the matter of determining Jewishness. There is a longstanding tradition (via the Halakha) that Jewishness is determined not by one's father, but by one's mother. Although, there is a minority report, as it were, which is even older, that Jewishness is determined by one's father. Both sides have citations from the O.T. scriptures and rabbinic writings to back up their claims.
What people fail to take into account is that God has His own way of doing things. He has His own rules for determining Jewishness and He keeps His own records. All throughout the O.T., God defined the nation of Israel as the sons of Israel, and every major counting (census) event only included the males. See Num 1:2-3, Ex 19:3-6, ad infinitum. All of the genealogies of the Bible trace the male line alone. Even the genealogies of Jesus are this way, although I know that won't factor in as to how Jews identify themselves. But these texts in Revelation are not about Jewish self-identity - we want to know how God operates.
Whereas biology follows the law of genetics (a child inherits equally from both parents), for legal purposes - meaning inheritance and ethnic identity - under the Mosaic law (and the law of nature) a child takes solely from the father, and nothing from the mother. As proof I offer the five daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 27:1-10). The sisters had no brother, so no one could inherit their father's estate, and they came to Moses for a legal ruling (not wanting to be disinherited). The matter was solved by requiring each daughter to marry a man from their father's tribe so the inheritance would effectively go to their husbands.
What else does this text stand for, if not that the sons inherit everything, and the daughters nothing? Zelophehad's estate did not go to the daughters, but to their husbands. Therefore all women under Mosaic law have nothing to pass on to their children. And what is ethnicity, if not an inherited nationality? Thus, ethnicity is determined by the male line alone. And you would think that if anyone would determine their ethnicity according to the Mosaic law, it would be the Jews.
Utilizing this biblical law of inheritance, Christians are adopted as sons of God, not sons and daughters. It may not be politically correct in our culture, but the fact that God will choose only males and no females is perfectly consistent with His program. This is the way God operates. Plus, the Bible says, right there in Rev. 7:4, that the 144,000 will all be from among the sons of Israel. All of the 144,000 of Israel will be male, and their Jewishness determined by the male line.
I say the 144,000 will probably all be at least 20 years old because all of the censuses taken in ancient Israel (except for one) only numbered males of that age. See Num. 1:2-4 and Exo. 30:14. The reason given is that these are the men who comprised the national army - all those "who are able to go to war." Num. 26:2.
The one exception was in Num. 3:39-43, when the Levites (who were excluded from the general census) numbered all males from one month old and upward in exchange for the first born of Israel at that time (who were also numbered from one month old and upward). This census was not a counting of the army, but the firstfruits of the nation who had been redeemed from the tenth plague of Egypt.
Because of the close connection of the 144,000 and the firstfruits of Israel, it is entirely possible the 20 year age threshold will not apply. However, it's hard to see how the sealing of an infant or a child will accomplish the purposes for setting apart the 144,000 (as those who have turned their hearts to Christ), especially since it will immediately put them all at great personal risk.
The only other thing I will mention here is that the names of the twelve tribes of Israel in Rev. 7:5-8 are not all the same as the sons born to Jacob (Israel) in the book of Genesis. Eleven of the names are the same, but in the place of Dan, Joseph's son Manasseh is named instead. I don't know why, and I'm not sure anyone does. There are speculations, of course, that the tribe of Dan committed an offense against God He will not forget. But this is mere speculation. The text simply does not explain why.
What we can conclude is that God knows who these true descendants of Israel really are. And even if I am wrong in my assessment of the rules of ethnicity, given the current competing strategies for determining Jewishness among the Jews themselves, it is safe to say that a lot of people who think they are Jewish (genealogically) really aren't because they have mis-traced their lineages. And, correspondingly, a lot of people who don't think of themselves as Jewish really are.
Both systems for determining Jewishness cannot be equally right in the sight of God. So when the 144,000 of Israel are selected and sealed, a lot of people are going to be surprised.