Introduction: In Revelation 6, we have the foundational vision in the unfolding of the Great Tribulation. There is a scroll with seven seals, and as each seal is broken a new disaster is unleashed on earth. The first seal signifies the rising of the antichrist. Then comes war (the second seal), famine (the third seal), and death (the fourth seal). Then comes persecution and martyrdom (the fifth seal). And finally, we have terrifying cataclysms hitting the natural world (the sixth seal). Now we come to chapter 7, and here we have a break in the action, a parenthesis or interlude, so that we can understand something more about the fifth seal. After all, if all the saints of all the ages have been raptured and resurrected (as indicated by Revelation 4:1), who is left to be persecuted? Where the martyrs are coming from? Who is left to die for their faith in Christ? That’s the subject of Revelation 7.
Verse 1: There are four angels at the four points of the compass – North, South, East, and West – waiting to unleash some of the cataclysms referred to in the previous chapter. But they are told to wait for a while because something must take place first.
Verse 2: Prior to the outbreak of judgment, an angel appeared as if coming out of the sun and carrying a sealing device. If you go to British Museum in London, you can see ancient seals dating back to biblical times. Some of these are in the form of a signet ring; some are in the form of a cylinder. A seal is any device that makes an impression for legal purposes. In Matthew 27, the tomb of Jesus Christ was sealed by the Romans (Matthew 27:66). Well this angel had the seal of heaven, the seal of the living God.
Verse 3: This angel had come to “seal” a core group of new converts who would become great world evangelists. A total of 144,000 Jewish evangelists were to be saved and sealed. Perhaps this occurs during the first three-and-a-half years of the Tribulation. Being sealed is common New Testament language. The moment that we receive Jesus Christ as our Savior, we are sealed (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30). So here in Revelation 7, we have a group of Jewish people who are gloriously saved at the beginning of the Great Tribulation and they are sealed. What is this seal? Is it the Holy Spirit or is it some visible mark or sign? I don’t know. It’s said to be a seal on their foreheads, but we aren’t given any details. I like what W.A. Criswell suggests in his sermons on Revelation. “If you were to meet one of those men who had been sealed of God, how would he appear? I think he would be much like Moses, when the Israelites saw him coming down from the mount after he had communed with God for forty days and forty nights. There was a glory about him, there was an unction about him, and his face shone like the sun…. I would say he would be like Stephen….” This seal may also extend divine protection to these 144,000 as they circle the globe on their evangelistic enterprises.
Verses 4-8: The ones who are saved and sealed number 144,000 – 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Twelve is the number for Israel throughout the Bible. This raises an interesting question, because we don’t know what has happened to those twelve tribes. After the Assyrian Invasion in 720 BC, the northern ten tribes disappeared. There have been many theories about these ten tribes. Some say they are the Kurds. Some say they are the Japanese. One theory is that the Irish (the insular Celts) are the descendants of the Ten Tribes. Several explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries earnestly believed that the Native Americans were the displaced descendants of the Ten Tribes. But after 720 BC, only the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin could be identified. And then after Judah fell to Babylon in 587 BC and then intimately to Rome in AD 70, the records of the lineage disappeared and the Jews were dispersed. These genealogical records were presumably destroyed when the temple and the city of Jerusalem were burned. But God has kept track of the genetic line. He has kept track of the Jewish bloodline. He knows who possesses the DNA and the bloodline of the biblical Jews. Out of the millions of Jews on earth, 144,000 will be saved and sealed and commissioned as evangelists on the Tribulation Earth. Someone said it will be like having 144,000 Apostle Paul’s fanning across the globe. Another writer called them “a missionary corps of redeemed Jews who are instrumental in the salvation of many Jews and Gentiles during the Tribulation.” These are the firstfruits of the Jews. We’re told in Zechariah 12:10 and 13:1 that the Jewish people will be converted in mass to the Lord Jesus at the moment of His Second Coming (also see Romans 11:25-26). These 144,000 are the forerunners, the vanguard, the firstfruits. And so people are going to be saved during the Tribulation. In fact, it may well be the greatest awakening and revival in the history of the world. But the antichrist and his forces will be hunting down these new converts. Millions of people will die from violent persecution and martyrdom (the martyrs of the fifth seal).
Verse 9: Now the scene switches back to heaven and we see the action round the throne as these who are converted under the ministry of the 144,000 are martyred and welcomed into heaven during the Great Tribulation. White robes were a symbol of righteousness and palm branches symbolized celebration.
Verse 10: These new arrivals in heaven (the ones converted by the 144,000) are singing about their salvation. They were saved from their sins. They were saved from the antichrist and from eternal hell. They recognized this salvation was nothing they could have merited or earned on their own. They were saved as we are, by grace alone. Salvation belongs to God who ordained it and to the Lamb who provided it. So they are worshipping God by singing about the joy of their newfound salvation.
Verses 11-12: And now all the choirs of heaven join in. This is antiphonal. The first phrase was sung by these new and martyred converts and the second stanza was sang by every voice in heaven.
Verse 13: So we have two groups of Christians in heaven: (1) Those who have been raptured and resurrected at the end of the church age, and who therefore have their glorified bodies; and (2) those who have been saved and slain after the rapture of the church and whose souls are in heaven but whose bodies are still on earth. So now we have a most unusual verse. John is perplexed. He sees a new group of souls in heaven, but he doesn’t recognizing any of them. One of the elders, seeing his perplexity, asks a question. Who are these new souls that are showing up here in heaven? In other words, “Who are these new people? If all the people of God were raptured and reunited with their resurrection bodies, who are these new people who have showed up still needing their resurrection bodies?”
Verse 14: John said, in effect, “Search me! I don’t have a clue; but perhaps you know….” And the elder did know. “These are they who have come out of the Great Tribulation. They have been saved from the very teeth of the antichrist. These have been saved out of the distress that is engulfing the world.”
Verses 15-17: And now this elder burst into song, into a solo—or at least his language become poetic and rhythmatic, and we have another of the great hymns of heaven. This is a wonderful description of what we call the intermediate state. These are the souls of those who were killed during the Tribulation but their bodies had not yet been resurrected. Soon they will be resurrected (in Revelation 20:4-6).