Let’s back up to the beginning of chapter 7 of Revelation. Immediately I saw Four Angels standing at the four corners of earth, standing steady with a firm grip on the four winds so no wind would blow on earth or sea, not even rustle a tree. Then I saw another Angel rising from where the sun rose, carrying the seal of the Living God. He thundered to the Four Angels assigned the task of hurting earth and sea, “Don’t hurt the earth! Don’t hurt the sea! Don’t so much as hurt a tree until I’ve sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads!” I heard the count of those who were sealed: 144,000! They were sealed out of every Tribe of Israel. MSG
Following this description is the list of all 12 tribes, each of which had 12,000 men marked with a seal. There are many notions from all corners of the faithful about this gross of men. Looking at the comments of the Early Fathers, they too were all over the map of ideas.
How do we make sense of the image, and it is an image in the sense of poetry. We need to decipher the meaning of the individual parts of the image.
The ‘tribes of Israel’ is the clearest of all; the men chosen are Jews. The 12,000 is a little more symbolic; 12 is a perfect number as is any multiple of 12. 12,000 is a large number (duh, I know), but we should not take it too literally beyond that. Nor should we be too enticed with the gross of 12’s. The perfect 12 times the perfect 12,000 is a perfect 144,000. What it means is that when God acts, His action is perfect.
Many Christians dislike the idea that Jews would be chosen, but mostly for bigoted reasons. That whole “Jews killed Christ” argument has been around since the Second Century. It is found in the comments of the Early Church Fathers I quote from and in comments by preachers today. It is still bigotry.
If we follow the 144,000 through Revelation with an eye toward the Heavenly Wedding, we will realize that they are the groomsmen. In ancient times, the men chosen to stand up with the groom had to be upstanding and unmarried. They were each given tasks to take care of on behalf of the groom. Thus, they had to be “sealed” as his representatives.
I repeat. None of these men are Gentiles. I have no chance of being in the group.
Unlike today, the groomsmen took care of the wedding plans, not the bride. All she had to do was open the door when the groom knocked. Incidentally, they are not called groomsmen in the Bible, that is a modern word. They were called numphios, bridegrooms. There is no word in the Bible for bridesmaids because there was no need for them. The bride had only to wait. She had her friends with her, but they had no duties or titles.
That is a good image to remember when we think of Jesus as the Groom. All I can do is answer when he calls—If I’m chosen to be a bride.
One more detail. Don’t so much as hurt a tree until I’ve sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads! MSG The Greek has many words for servants and slaves. Most of them are used interchangeably, like doulos. It comes from deo, meaning to bind and is most commonly used of slaves. If you were hoping to be one of this elite group, you might want to rethink.
The job of the 144,000 is to serve The Lamb of God.
Moving into today’s reading, we see at verse 13, Just then one of the Elders addressed me: “Who are these dressed in white robes, and where did they come from?” Taken aback, I said, “O Sir, I have no idea—but you must know.” MSG John is no longer talking about the 144,000. Those in white robes make up a different group. Unlike the 144,000, these men and women come from everywhere on the earth. They may be Jews or Gentiles, but they are all believers.
They all came through persecution. We can only guess what that means; the text gives no clues. Persecutions are so common it is no wonder there are more than we can count.
We can tell from where they are standing that they are not the Bride of Christ. They were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb. MSG They are the guests, those who always wore white to weddings. We moderns have the color backwards. The Bride will be at the throne, not in front of it.
The Lamb on the Throne will shepherd them, will lead them to spring waters of Life. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes. MSG If the persecuted get this treatment, what will the Bride receive?
Read my earlier comments on this theme here.
My comments on Revelation are based on the three-volume series Lost In Translation, by John Klein and Adam Spears.
Be righteous and do good.