7 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, /12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, /12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, /and serve him day and night in his temple; / and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. /16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; /the sun shall not strike them, /nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 
Some students read Revelation as if it is a chronological story of future history moving from point A to point Z in its plotline. But John writes and thinks like a Jew, in a non-linear, spiral style. Revelation doesn’t present a straight-line story of end times; it presents an overlapping series of visions of present history from a heavenly perspective. So, John’s vision in chapter 7 is a break in the action from Christ opening the seals of God’s covenant of judgment and salvation. It’s a break because God is explaining two things John has seen of the fifth and sixth seals in chapter 6.
When the fifth seal opened, God explained he had a fixed number of witnesses to redeem (6:11). Chapter 7:1-8 shows God accomplishing the fulfillment of his saving purposes on earth. When the sixth seal was opened, and God’s judgment was poured out, the earth-dwellers asked, “who can stand” in the great day of God’s wrath (6:17). Chapter 7:9-17 answers that question. The full number of witnesses on earth is represented as 144,000. Those who can and will stand in the great day of God’s wrath are only those clothed in Messiah’s righteousness, and they are a vast number no one can count.
It’s very easy to miss the forest for the trees when you dig through this letter to suffering saints in a sin-cursed world. We can become so wrapped up arguing about the brush strokes, we fail to appreciate the beauty of the masterpiece. And these pictures of what salvation looks like on earth and what it looks like in completed form in heaven convey the most beautiful and encouraging work of art ever known or ever to be known. It shows God saving and keeping his people throughout all history. He is keeping and transforming them into righteous ones as he judges the earth-dwellers for their idolatry.
SECURED ON EARTH
Chapter 7 circles back to the breaking of the first four seals of chapter 6 where God is judging the earth-dwellers by turning them over to all their sinful desires and idols even as he advances his inbreaking Kingdom on earth. In verses 1-3, we see as in the first four seals that God is holding back the total destruction of the earth. Just as war and murder and famine are not total in the first four seals, natural disasters are restrained in these three verses from destroying the planet.
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 
John begins this vision with the words, “After this….” It’s important to remember what he’s been seeing since passing through the open door of heaven. Jesus has cracked open 6 of the seven seals. He will break the last seal beginning in chapter 8. But before the final seal is broken on the scroll, there’s a “break” in the action. John catches sight of a detail he hadn’t noticed until now, something that will help him understand what the opening of the seals truly means.
The four winds present another picture of judgment through uncontrollable disaster – storms, tornados, hurricanes, hail, floods. The complete judgment of God we saw in the sixth seal cannot come upon the earth and the earth-dwellers until God has called his full number of witnesses into trust and sealed them with the abiding presence and protection of the Holy Spirit. God orders the destructive forces to restrain themselves. There are echoes here of Zechariah chapter 6 and Daniel 7 (see also: Isa. 11:12; Ezek. 7:2 KJV).
John has seen the four horsemen ride out in judgment. He has seen the great and terrible day of the Lord when the final judgment comes upon the earth-dwellers and all their idols, including the caves and high places and heavenly bodies. John is asking himself as he sees the sixth seal broken in final judgment, “What is going to happen to God’s witnesses on earth?”
So, the first part of John’s vision in chapter 7 is God’s answer to John’s question. God places his protecting seal on his earthy church even as he turns the earth-dwellers over to their sin and the natural forces of the earth to bring destruction. But, notice that he restrains both the earth-dwellers and the natural forces because they are all under the sovereign control of God. They may no move further than God permits them.
God is still on the throne securing his own people for himself. The Church on earth will stand even though all the forces of hell are unleashed against her. These verses are Ephesians 1:13-14 in picture form:
13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. 
John sees the pilgrim Church of Jesus, not yet home but absolutely secure. Again, he is painting with the colors of the OT prophets. These colors come from Ezekiel 9:4 where God commands an angel to seal the foreheads of all those who lament over Jerusalem’s idol worship. Only those marked with God’s seal would escape God’s judgment on the idol-worshippers.
John hears the number of those sealed on earth: 144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel. We know that numbers in apocalyptic literature are symbolic. We also know this prophecy makes specific references to OT history. This great number is meant to remind us of Numbers chapter 1 when a census is taken so the Israelites could be organized for battle against the earth-dwellers. John isn’t writing about a literal number of ethnic Jews only.
Remember, he has described the entirety of God’s people (Jew and Gentile) in 1:6 in the same language God described OT Israel, “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Ex. 19:6). Paul told us in Galatians 3:29, “…if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The Church doesn’t replace Israel, the Church is grafted into Christ (the True Vine) along with all those ethnic Jews past and present who have trusted into the Promised Seed. John is seeing a picture according to his knowledge of OT scripture. He’s seeing the fulfillment of those OT types and shadows in Christ. And he sees all those trusting into Christ as perfectly complete already in this world.
The whole Church in this world (theologians call it the “Church Militant”) is numbered and arrayed for a mighty spiritual battle – not with swords and spears and political maneuvering, but with spiritual weapons of worship, witness, and prayer. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5:
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ….
God’s people overcome IN their suffering at the hands of the earth-dwellers. They overcome by worshipping the One True God while all around them the earth-dwells trust their idols of power and wealth and fame and anything else they can taste and see and touch. Believers overcome because they are sealed with the Holy Spirit, what Paul calls “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Peter (1 Pt. 1:3-5) describes what John is seeing here:
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…
You might say, “I’m glad I have an inheritance kept in heaven. But what about the here and now? Are you going to keep ME right now?” John sees in pictures of saints being sealed what Peter described in 1 Pt. 1;5: “… 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” How does God preserve his children in this world? He seals them with the Holy Spirit and guards their trust into Christ. Believers on earth are immortal until God’s purposes for their earthly lives are complete.
Isaiah 54:16-17 says:
16 Behold, I have created the smith /who blows the fire of coals /and produces a weapon for its purpose. /I have also created the ravager to destroy; / 17 no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, /and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. /This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord /and their vindication from me, declares the Lord. 
We are immortal until God’s purposes for us on earth are done. What the world sees as a tragic Christian martyr’s death is the transition of God’s children from trials and tribulations among the earth-dwellers into the presence of the Father and the Lion-Lamb. Don’t let the brushstrokes of this picture confuse you; step back and see this glorious whole: God secures his people; He gives them trust into Christ; He preserves that trust through all the storms of life and brings his people into his glorious presence to fulfill his promise that He is our God, we are his people, and he will dwell with us. The glorified saints in heaven are happier than we, but they are NOT more secure.
If you are trusting into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the freshly-slaughtered-but-living Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, you are sealed; you are kept; you are citizens of an eternal land. “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the one who is beloved of the Lord. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain.”
In 5:5, John heard there was a Lion worthy to open the scroll of God’s great plan of salvation. But he saw a freshly-slaughtered Lamb, not a lion. In 7:4-8, John heard the number of the sealed on earth. But when he looked, expecting to see 144,000, he saw “…a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….”
What sounded like and impressive-but-still-limited number of saints sealed on earth is actually a vast multitude of saints who have run their earthly course and now worship before God and the Lamb in heaven. John hears of those sealed on earth, but he sees the vast Church Triumphant. They’re singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This scene is the fulfillment of the OT Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in which Israel celebrated entering the Promised Land and receiving their first harvest. The feast was celebrated with palm branches.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the fickle people waved palm branches to celebrate their idea of an earthly king. But here, he receives the true honor given by the vast multitude of redeemed from throughout all history. John heard about the sealed arranged for battle like the tribes of Israel. But he sees people from all tribes, all nations, all languages, all colors harvested from among the earth-dwellers. See this: your kinfolk are not just your skinfolk! Remember Gal. 3:28-29:
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 
This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer for his people in John 17 – that they would be kept by God, united, and glorified with Christ. These worshippers are those who caught earthly glimpses of Jesus while seeing through a glass darkly; but now they see him face-to-face and that is our truest, deepest joy — perfect worship of God with perfect voices in perfect righteous dress in perfect and eternal peace because they have been washed in the perfect blood of the Lamb. John is told by an elder:
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. 
In God’s upside-down Kingdom, the Lamb is the shepherd bringing living water. At the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests would carry water from the Pool of Silom to the temple’s altar where daily drink offerings were poured out. Along the procession, the people waved palm branches. It was at this time Jesus cried out:
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ”
Jesus is the fulfillment of all Scripture. He brings the age of fulfillment in which you and I live now. Even in the midst of your trials and sufferings, this heavenly scene is yours now if you are trusting into the person and work of the Lion-Lamb. Don’t let the brush strokes distract you from this beautiful picture. You are seeing what is unseen! This is what Paul meant in 2 Cor. 4:16-18 when he wrote:
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 
This heavenly picture IS your present reality – that’s the point of the sealing on earth. If you are in Christ this morning, you have all benefits of Christ now! His will IS being done on earth as it is in heaven. And one day he will bring you into that vast company with those who drink of the living water in the land of no more tears. If you don’t know Christ, we bid you come place your trust into him. Leave the shadowlands and enter into his heavenly reality.
17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. 
 Phillips, 240.
 Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 246.
 Sinclair Ferguson, Apocalypse Now: Before the 7th Seal; Revelation 7. https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-090207pm
 Phillips, quoting Spurgeon, 243.