Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3 and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
6 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7 And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
8 Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.”
9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.
13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”[i]
Chapter 14 opens with a stark contrast to the previous 2 chapters, which primarily focus upon the unholy trinity of the dragon, the sea beast, and the earth beast who make war with God’s people. John’s vision shifts from the imperfect trinity of 666 to the Lamb standing upon the heavenly Mt Zion with his army of holy warriors. The army is no longer fighting on earth with the weapons of faithful worship and prayer. Now, they are singing a new and exclusive song so sacred that John does not quote it. The picture is enough.
The imagery of chapter 14 is itself one of stark contrast between eternal joy in the presence of Christ and the utter destruction of everything into which the earth-dwellers trust for their security and happiness. The message of this apocalyptic letter is that Jesus wins because what looked like defeat on Mt. Calvary was THE great victory of all time and space and creation.
In Revelation 12-14, John introduces us to the main characters in the great drama of redemption. John shows us the woman–the Israel of God–and her arch-enemy, the dragon, who is Satan. The dragon seeks to consume the woman and her child (the Messiah) but fails, since Messiah is protected by God and is taken up into heaven. Using apocalyptic symbolism, the successful mission of the Messiah–his birth, death, resurrection and ascension–is depicted by John as war in heaven in which Satan suffers a humiliating and ultimately fatal defeat. The dragon is now disbarred from the heavenly courtroom where he can no longer prosecute. He returns to earth where he awaits his final destruction while persecuting the saints and lobbying humans to continue their idolatry.
But, in the language of the Exodus, God hides his church in the wilderness even as the devil tries to destroy her with a flood of false doctrines and deceptions. God preserves his people by feeding her the hidden manna of Christ, further frustrating the dragon. So, the dragon turns to using the earthly powers (the sea beast) and worldly culture (the earth beast) to persecute God’s people. This picture explains to John’s readers why they are enduring persecution from the Roman Empire and its local worshippers.
ARMY OF THE REDEEMED
John begins this vision, “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”[ii] The name Mt Zion occurs nineteen times in the OT, at least nine of which allude to a faithful remnant being saved out of unbelieving ethnic Jews. It is connected with either God’s name or God’s sovereign rule, sometimes both (2 Kgs. 19:31; Isa. 4:2–3; 10:12, 20; 37:30–32; Joel 2:32; Obad. 17, 21; Mic. 4:5–8; Pss. 48:2, 10–11; 74:2, 7) [iii] We been seeing how Psalm 2 is related to these passages in Revelation. Here it is again. This is a picture of Messiah installed on God’s holy hill of Zion ruling the nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:6-12).
Standing with the Lion-Lamb are the same 144,000 we first saw sealed into Christ on earth, numbered and arrayed for holy war as the true Israel of God in chapter 7:1-8. These are all the saints of the Old and New Covenant, all those who looked to Christ, the Promised Seed (Gen. 3:15) as their only hope of right standing with God. The number was not literal in chapter 7 any more than it is here. As in chapter 7, it is the representation of the full number of the elect. Not one has been lost through the tribulation. All are present and accounted for.
This is both a vision of their present spiritual reality and their future glory. So certain is the future of God’s people, John can see them already standing with the Lion-Lamb in Zion. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.[iv]
The whole scene is one of contrasts. The name of God and of Christ is written on their foreheads is meant to demonstrate contrast to the mark of the beast. If 144,000 is a number symbolizing fullness (the 12 tribes of Israel x the 12 apostles, x 1000), representing the entire church upon the earth in Revelation chapter 7, here in Revelation 14, the number 144,000 is now the absolute opposite to the number 666 which shows the incompleteness and counterfeit nature of the dragon’s kingdom.[v] The permanence of Mt Zion and Christ’s eternal rule is contrasted with the devil’s beastly government and idolatrous society, Babylon the great (v. 8) which falls and whose citizens are led away to the torment of fiery judgment.
John hears loud and melodious music sung by the 144,000. They sing a new song only the redeemed can learn (v. 3). Earth-dwellers bearing the baptism of idolatry cannot sing this song. Angels cannot sing of their redemption because Messiah did not suffer and die for rebellious angels; only for sinful humans who bear the baptism of Christ as their seal can sing the song of the redeemed. The idea of the “new song” is another Old Testament color in John’s painting. “In the OT the ‘new song’ was always an expression of praise for God’s victory over the enemy, which sometimes included thanksgiving for his work of creation (cf. Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10).”[vi]
The 144,000 are justified sinners given a 3-fold description. “4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.” [vii] So, is this an army of celibates? NO. This is more language from the OT prophets. The prophets repeatedly tie the word virgin to the nation of Israel to speak of her purity from idol worship (2 Kgs. 19:21; Isa. 37:22; Jer. 14:17; 18:13; 31:4, 13, 21; Lam. 1:15; 2:13; Amos 5:2). When Israelites gave themselves over to idolatry, God described them as prostitutes (see: Hosea). This picture of spiritually virgin worshippers appears in Jeremiah near the section of his prophecy where he preaches that all men must and shall drink from the bitter cup of the wine of the wrath of God.
In Jeremiah, the context is that Israel has made a political alliance with Egypt to protect them from the Babylonians. Jeremiah speaks of seeking political protection from pagans as Israel’s prostitution. That’s why Rev. 14:9 says the earth-dwellers will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger. When Jeremiah prophesied of the New Covenant, the people were again addressed as virgin Israel in expectation of their new covenant hearts (Jer. 31). Whose mark you bear determines who you worship. Who you worship determines your purity before God.
The redeemed are seen by God as pure. They are also seen as being as valuable as the firstfruits of the harvest. They are purchased out of the mass of humanity, which pictures Christ’s definite atonement of God’s sealed people rather than the entire mass of fallen humanity. The Lamb redeems all for whom he died. Not one is lost. Not one is kicked out of a final judgment for not having enough passion or not performing enough works. Their status as citizens of Mt Zion is completely objective because Jesus’ blood was truly shed for them. Their robes have been made white by his blood – NOT by their feelings or their works (Rev. 7:14; 1 Pt. 1:19).
REPENTENCE OR DESTRUCTION
The first set of characters in this vision were the Lion-Lamb and his 144,000 holy warriors. Now we see a new set of characters: 3 angelic heralds. While the focus in verses 1-5 has been upon the redeemed, reminding them that the Lamb is victorious in the end, in verse 6, the vision shifts back to the earth-dwellers, making clear the contrast between the fate of the two groups. The first angel proclaims an eternal gospel that all may hear in their own language and culture. “7 And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” [viii]
Even as the beast wages war upon the saints, God ensures his gospel goes forth through his messengers (angels). We saw this same point made in the vision of the two witnesses in chapter 11. God never leaves the earth-dwellers without witnesses to proclaim law and gospel, judgment and blessing. The first angel’s reference to the four regions (the heavens, the earth, the seas, and the fresh waters) are the same regions that experienced judgments in the seal and trumpet visions. They represent all parts of the earth. Jesus told his disciples in Matt. 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” [ix]
But while the gospel will be preached to the whole world, there is no evidence of the conversion of the world, like a minority of teachers claim, in which all nations supposedly embrace the gospel and the world is effectively Christianized and placed under Mosaic civil laws that once governed Israel. Although the number of the elect is not tiny –the multitude in heaven is so vast that no man can count them–the angels announce the gospel to the unbelieving world as a form of judgment upon those who worship and serve the beast. The Lamb graciously redeems his people, who dwell with him in Zion.
But the earth’s inhabitants remain passionately dedicated to worshipping their idols of self and self-generated happiness. They are, as Paul noted at the beginning of Romans, entirely given over to the worship of their idols as their judgment. Preaching law and gospel to the earth-dwellers is the basis for their eternal judgment. They reject the law of God written on their heats. They reject his witness in creation. They reject the salvation of Messiah preached by his angel messengers.
The second angel announces the fall of Babylon, reminding the persecuted 1st-century church that the city of man, with all its Roman military, economic and cultural grandeur, will one day fall under the judgment of God. Everything the earth-dwellers trust will vanish. The vision reminds Christians throughout this present evil age, that the city of man will seek to seduce us, draw us away from Christ, and entice us to commit spiritual adultery with the demonic idols of personal happiness. But the great Babylonian whore will receive the sentence of death when the seventh trumpet sounds. The inhabitants of the world have been warned, while the persecuted church should be confident that God will vindicate his cause and grant them victory over their enemies.
In verse 9, the third angel announces judgment upon the earth-dwellers. “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” [x]
Note that that earth-dwellers will NOT cease to exist at the final judgment. This is not “annihilationism.” God is eternal. His wrath against sin is eternal. His love for his people is eternal. There will be no rest, or sleep for those who reject the redemption offered them by the Lamb. Neither is hell eternal separation from God. According to John, hell is the eternal presence of God without the cross. God is eternally present in hell in all his wrath and with none of his grace. He will eternally vindicate his holiness and execute eternal vengeance on their behalf.
This vision is one of contrasts between 666 and 144,000, between those sealed into the Lion-Lamb and those sealed into the devil and his beasts, between Zion and the city of man. No contrast is greater than the eternal suffering of the earth-dwellers and the eternal joy of the redeemed. In verse 12, John writes, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” [xi]
On this side of glory, the complete extent of Messiah’s victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil can only be seen through the eyes of faith. In the meantime, earth-dwellers – who trust into only what they can see and taste and feel – will scoff until that day when all that they trust and all that they worship is taken away before their eyes. You who trust into Messiah Jesus must stand in patient endurance and fight the holy war through word and sacrament, worship, prayer, and fellowship with Christ in his Word by his Spirit and with his people.
But in a glorious word of benediction to a suffering church, John hears yet one more word of contrast from heaven in verse 13. “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” [xii]
Because Jesus Christ has taken his place in the heavenly Zion (the city of God), having conquered death and the grave, his absolute triumph over all his foes secures the blessing granted to all those who die trusting into him. Indeed, all those who die in Christ are blessed. Not only do they take their place among the great multitude who surround the glassy sea and add their perfect voices to the heavenly choir, they will be given rest from their labor. In the heavenly city, there are no more tears, no more pain, no more injustice, no more suffering; only glorious, blessed and eternal rest.
Recall that during his messianic ministry, Jesus gave his followers the following invitation in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [xiii]
Our Lord extends that same invitation to us this morning. His bride the church invites you. His Spirit calls to you. You who have ears to hear, come and trust into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the Lion-Lamb who rose from the grave and stands upon God’s holy mountain, who climbed Mt Calvary to carry you up Mt. Zion.
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. [xiv]
[iii] Beale, 731–732.
[v] Beale, 733.
[vi] Beale, 736.