144000 are sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel (Rev 7:4-8)

  • SUMMARY

  • In Rev 7:1-3, an angel comes down from heaven with “the seal of the living God.” He commands four other angels to hold back the four winds of destruction “until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev 7:1-3). Then John heard that 144000 were “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4).

THE NUMBER 144000 IS NOT LITERAL.
IT SYMBOLIZES FAITHFULNESS.

For the following reasons, the 144000 Israelites cannot be interpreted literally:

    • Ten of the twelve tribes have disappeared long ago.
    • This is not a valid list of tribes.
    • 144000 is too exact to be literal.
    • Literally interpreted, they are all men and without sin.

Rather, the number 144000 is symbolic. Revelation is a symbolic book and all numbers in Revelation are symbols. Revelation frequently uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols and the number 144000 is Old Testament military language converted into a symbol.

As indicated by the following, the number 144000 symbolizes that they will remain faithful until death:

    • As argued. the sealing of “the bond-servants of our God” (Rev 7:3) is equivalent to the ‘completion’ of “their fellow servants” in the fifth seal (6:11) and that is qualitative completion.
    • Revelation 14 describes the 144000 as spiritually mature.

REVELATION MERGES THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL.

Israel in exileFurthermore, as discussed under Rev 4:4, Revelation merges the church into Israel. For example:

    • The seven churches are promised the things that previously belonged to Israel.
    • The woman of Revelation 12 represents both Israel and the Church.
    • “Those who had been victorious over the beast … sang the song” of both Moses and the Lamb; the main characters in the Old and New Testaments.
    • The New Jerusalem” symbolizes God’s people and has the names of the 12 apostles on its foundations but the names of the 12 tribes its gates.
    • John hears about the 144000 Jews but then sees the innumerable multitude from all nations. Such hear-see combinations, in Revelation, actually are different perspectives OF THE SAME THING.
    • In the seven letters, there are people “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” In this context, to claim to be a Jew is a claim to be a true Christian.

THE ENTIRE NEW TESTAMENT MERGES THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL.

The entire New Testament merges the church into Israel. This is a huge study by itself. The following are a few examples:

    • In Romans 11, Gentiles are grafted into Israel’s olive tree.
    • The study of Romans 9 and 11 concluded that God elected a remnant from Israel to inherit Israel’s promises and covenants, but included believing Gentiles into this chosen remnant.
    • If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).
    • By choosing twelve disciples and not eleven or thirteen, Jesus signaled His intention to re-shape Israel.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

1. THE 144000 ARE NOT LITERAL.

This first section shows that a literal interpretation of the 144000 Jews is not appropriate.

TEN OF THE TRIBES HAVE DISAPPEARED.

Firstly, the twelve tribes of ancient Israel no longer exist in any literal sense. There are Jews today who can trace their descent back to Judah, Benjamin, and Levi but the ten northern tribes have disappeared. These ten tribes broke away from the rest after the death of Solomon and formed the independent kingdom of Israel, with Jeroboam as the first king. In 723-722 BC, they were later taken into captivity by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:5-23), were assimilated into the peoples of the Middle East (2 Kings 17:34), and essentially disappeared from history.

Furthermore, a substantial portion of the Jews in the world today do not come from the 12 tribes but descended from converts over the centuries. Therefore, it would not be possible to define 12000 people from the twelve tribes in any literal sense.

THIS IS NOT A VALID LIST OF TRIBES.

THE TRIBES IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

old testament prophetsThe “sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4), in the original sense, were the twelve sons of Jacob. After his wrestling with the angel, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “prince with God” (Gen 32:27-28).

The original list of the twelve tribes, based on the sons of Jacob, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his twelve sons, but after he had already given special attention to the two sons of Joseph; Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:8-22). So, Joseph’s two sons also become ancestors of recognized tribes, taking the place of Joseph. Therefore, right from the beginning, the tribes actually numbered 13; not 12.

The number returned to 12 after Levi was withdrawn for the priesthood, and given no distinct territorial inheritance (Joshua 13:14; 14:3-4; 18:7; Num 18:20-24). Consequently, in Numbers and Joshua, the tribes were listed consistently as Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. (Both Joseph and Levi were left out).

THE TRIBES IN REVELATION 7

The list of tribes in Revelation 7:5-8 is Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. This list excludes Dan and Ephraim; probably because of their sin:

      • Dan was the first tribe to fall into idolatry. Jeroboam placed one of his two golden calves in Dan (1 Kings 12:29-30). These calves served as substitutes for the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem (cf. Gen 49:17; Judges 18:27-31).
      • Ephraim is joined to idols; Let him alone” (Hosea 4:17; cf. 8:11).

To restore the number 12, the list in Revelation 7 adds Joseph and Levi. In doing so, it includes both Joseph and his son Manasseh; which is effectively a double count. And, by including Levi, it deviates from the Old Testament lists.

The order in which the tribes were listed in the Old Testament was never fixed. The order of the tribes in Revelation, with Judah first and Reuben second, is not unusual. Judah was Jacob’s fourth son (Gen 29:35). In Revelation 7, he is in the pre-eminent (first) place here because he is the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who is “from the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5).  For that reason, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, is no longer listed as first.

CONCLUSION

The list in Revelation 7 is not a valid list. It excludes two tribes that were connected to idol worship. To retain the number 12 (tribes), it has to double count Joseph and Manassah and add Levi, who was not counted as a tribe in the Old Testament. Furthermore, it puts Judah first because Jesus descended from that tribe.

144000 is TOO EXACT TO LITERAL

The number 12,000 is too exact to be taken literally. To say that God will select exactly 12,000 from each of 12 physical tribes simply does not make any Biblical sense and is inconsistent with the freedom in God’s kingdom.

LITERALLY, THE 144000 ARE ALL MEN AND NEVER COMMITTED A SIN.

If the 144000 Israelites are interpreted literally, then their description in Revelation 14 must also be literal. There it says they have not been defiled with women, which would imply that all of them are men.  It also says they have never “no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:5). But we know that all people are sinners (Rom 3:23) and that God’s people consist of both men and women.

2. THE 144000 ARE SYMBOLIC.

This section provides evidence to show that the 144,000 Jews must be interpreted symbolically.

REVELATION IS A SYMBOLIC BOOK.

Firstly, Rev 1:1 tells us that Jesus Christ received this revelation from God and He “signified” (Literal Standard Version) it and handed it on to John to write down for the churches. Strong defines the word “signified” (sémainó) as “to give a sign.” This means that the overall context of the book is symbolic. A study of this book will confirm that symbols are pervasive.

While the normal way to read any work is to assume straightforward language unless it becomes evident that a symbol is intended, in Revelation you take everything as symbolic unless it is compelling that the author intended something to be taken literally.

For a further discussion, see Is a consistently literal interpretation of Revelation appropriate?

144000 SYMBOLIZES ISRAEL’S ARMY.

Secondly, the number 144000 converts Old Testament military language into a symbol. The number 144000 is modeled after Israel’s army. Numbers 31 describes the preparation for the invasion of the promised land as follows:

3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian … 4 A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.’

5 So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. (Num 31:3-5)

The thousands of Israel” in verse 5 describe Israel’s army. Each tribe had an army of between 30,000 and 75,000 (Num 1:17-43).

A “thousand” was a military unit; equivalent to what we today may call a regiment or a platoon. The Hebrew word for “thousand” (eleph) can also mean a military unit. Out of the “thousands of Israel,” Moses chose “a thousand from each tribe” (a military unit from each tribe) to fight the Midianites (Num 31:5). Therefore, the “twelve thousand” in verse 5 can be understood as twelve thousands or 12 military units.

APPLICATION TO REVELATION 7

This is the background to the 144000 in Revelation 7. The tribes of Israel were divided into clans or families. For example:

      • Gideon said, “my family is the least in Manasseh” (Judges 6:15)
      • Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2).

The 144000 is equal to 12 x 12 x 1000. It means 12 military units (12 thousands) from each of the 12 tribes; in total 144 military units. Just as Revelation 7 divides the number 144000 into exactly 12 tribes, it symbolically divides each tribe is into exactly 12 clans. So, the core symbolism of the 144000 is the totality of Israel’s army.

REVELATION FREQUENTLY USES OLD TESTAMENT THINGS AS SYMBOLS.

Revelation very frequently uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols. Above it was already shown that the 144000 convert literal military language into a symbol and that Jerusalem becomes “the New Jerusalem.” Further examples are:

    • The fifth seal converts an Old Testament sacrificial ritual, in which the blood of animals was “poured out” at the base of the altar, into a symbol of God’s slain people, screaming for revenge.
    • Babylon was the main enemy of God’s people in the Old Testament. In Revelation, Babylon becomes a symbol for the enemies of God’s New Testament people (Rev 17:5).
    • The Euphrates was the river that flowed through ancient Babylon. In Revelation, it becomes a symbol for “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (Rev 17:15).

ALL NUMBERS ARE SYMBOLS

Thirdly, all numbers in Revelation are symbols:

TWO

Two is the number of the gospel (e.g., Rev 12:17; 14:12 or the two witnesses). Most often, it appears in a hidden form, for example, “the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2). It is based on the Old Testament principle that at least two witnesses are required to confirm evidence (e.g., 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19).

FOUR

Four signifies “the whole earth” or ‘worldwide’ (e.g., Rev 7:1). The number four is also often hidden in phrases such as “You must prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings” (Rev 10:11; cf. 7:9; 11:9; 14:6; 17:15).

SEVEN

Seven is the number most often found in Revelation (seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.).

The number seven is derived from the seven days of the week. Similar to the days of the week, many of the sevens in Revelation imply a chronological sequence, namely, the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh being the last or the end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10, and 12.

The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as completion or perfection of time—the full period. For example, God has seven Spirits (Rev 4:5; 5:6), but God does not literally have seven Spirits. It should be understood symbolically, namely that His Spirit will ALWAYS be with us.

TWELVE

The number twelve, which is the foundation of the number 144000, appears more than a hundred times in Scripture and consistently represents the people of God. For example:

Israel consisted of twelve tribes (Gen 35:22; 49:28) for Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs (Acts 7:8). The lists of the tribes in the Old Testament differ, but there are always 12 in the list. The number 12, therefore, was regarded as important. Consequently, there were:

      • Twelve spies of Israel (Deut 1:23),
      • Twelve stones of the Jordan River (Josh 4:2-9),
      • Twelve cities of the Levites (Josh 21:40),
      • Twelve governors for Solomon (1 Kings 4:7),
      • Twelve bronze oxen that held up the bronze sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:44; 2 Chr 4:2-4; Jer 52:20),
      • Twelve lions in front of Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Chr 9:17-19),
      • Elijah’s twelve stones (1 Kings 18:31), and the
      • Twenty-four courses of priests, each with twelve trained musicians (1 Chr 25:1-31).

Similarly, Jesus chose exactly 12 disciples; not 11 or 13. Judas fell away, but still, Revelation refers to “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14). Again, the principle is that the number 12 is connected to the people of God.

TWELVE IN REVELATION

The pure woman, who first gave birth to Christ (Rev 12:5) but afterward had other “children” (Rev 12:17), has a crown of “twelve stars” (Rev 12:1).

The New Jerusalem, where “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” will live (Rev 21:9-10), has 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (Rev 21:12). It also has 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles written on them (Rev 21:14).

The wall of the New Jerusalem “was 144 cubits thick” (Rev 21:17; NIV). Therefore, both the wall and the 144000 sealed Jews:

    • Are military concepts. The 144000 represents Israel’s army and the walls symbolize the New Jerusalem’s protection against invading armies.
    • Include the number 144, which divides the 12 tribes into 12 military clans.

There are 24 elders in Revelation 4 and 24 is equal to 12 + 12. The number 24 could be drawn from the fact that the Old Testament priests were organized into 24 divisions.

3. REVELATION MERGES
THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL

This is the third part of this article. The first two parts showed that (1) the 144000 cannot be interpreted literally and (2) must be interpreted symbolically.  This third part shows that the Book of Revelation merges the church into Israel.  The following are specific indications that the references to the things of Israel must be interpreted as references to the church:

SEVEN CHURCHES

Firstly, the entire book of Revelation was written to the seven churches (Rev 22:16). These seven churches, therefore, represent the Church. Revelation uses one of the elements of the Jewish temple—the seven-fold lampstands, to symbolize the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Furthermore, the seven churches are promised the things that previously belonged to Israel, such as the:

      • Tree of Life (Rev 2:7),
      • Manna (Rev 2:17),
      • Book of Life (Rev 3:5),
      • Temple (Rev 3:11) and
      • Jerusalem (Rev 3:12).

THE WOMAN OF REVELATION 12

Secondly, as discussed in the articles on Revelation 12, the woman in that chapter represents Israel when she expects the Christ, but after Christ ascended to heaven, she remains on earth and represents the Church (cf. Rev 12:5, 17). In other words, Revelation uses the same symbol for both Israel and the Church. She has a crown of 12 stars (Rev 12:1). In her Old Testament existence, this represents the 12 tribes. After Christ, the 12 stars represent the 12 apostles. As discussed below, Jesus declared the 12 apostles to be the new leaders of the 12 tribes (Matt 19:28).

THE SONG OF MOSES AND OF THE LAMB

Thirdly, “those who had been victorious over the beast … sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Rev 15:2-3). This combines the main characters in the Old and New Testaments into a single song.

THE NEW JERUSALEM

The bride, the wife of the Lamb” is associated with “the holy city, Jerusalem” (Rev 21:9-10), also called “the New Jerusalem” (Rev 3:12). Just as the first Israel had its capital in ancient Jerusalem, so God’s people in Revelation have the New Jerusalem as their capital (Rev 21:12-14).

As already stated, on the foundations of the New Jerusalem are written the names of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14). This implies that it is built on the gospel as preached by the 12 apostles.

But, on its gates are written: “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (Rev 21:12). In other words, only Israelites are allowed into the New Jerusalem. This, by itself, is sufficient proof that Revelation regards Israel and the Church to be a single entity.

He measured its wall, an hundred forty-four cubits” (Rev 21:17; Young’s Literal Translation). So the imagery of 12 x 12 is solidly established in the book of Revelation.

THE INNUMERABLE MULTITUDE

While the 144000 in the first part of Revelation 7 are on earth, only from Israel, and precisely numbered, the multitude in the second part of Revelation 7 is before God’s throne in heaven, from every nation, and innumerable (Rev 7:9). Read literally, these two groups are opposite but it does NOT mean that they are two completely different groups. In a number of instances, John hears about one thing, but when he looks, he sees something completely different, but the two things are different perspectives of the same thing. For example:

    • In Rev 5:5, John hears of a Lion that overcame, but when he looks, he sees a Lamb as if slain (Rev 5:6).  The lion and the lamb are opposites in the animal kingdom but both are symbols for Jesus—representing two different aspects of His work.  He was a lamb when He was slaughtered, but as the “Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev 5:5) “to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen 49:10). “He will rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev 19:15).
    • In Rev 17:1, John hears about a woman sitting on many waters but when he looks, he sees her sitting on a seven-headed beast (Rev 17:3).  The water is explained as the peoples of the world (Rev 17:15). The beast with its heads and horns represents those same people organized into the kingdoms of the world (Rev 17:9-12 – see the article on The Seven-Headed Beasts of Revelation).
    • Later, an angel says to John that He will show him the other woman in Revelation—the bride of the Lamb (Rev 21:9) but then John sees a city—the New Jerusalem—descending from heaven (Rev 21:10).  A city is a collection of people; not just a collection of buildings. The New Jerusalem is the collection of God’s people, just like Babylon is also both a city and a woman (Rev 17:18), representing the enemy of God’s people.

Similarly, in Revelation 7, John does not see the 144000—he only hears their number, but when he looks, he sees the innumerable multitude from every nation (Rev 7:9-12). Literally read, the two groups are opposites, but the hear/see combination implies that the 144000 and the multitude are two perspectives on God’s people. The 144000 represents God’s people on earth living during the end-time conflict.  The next article will identify the innumerable multitude.

SAY THEY ARE JEWS

In the seven letters, we read of people “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9). A claim to be a literal Jew does not make any sense. In the context of a Christian church at the end of the first century, after Jerusalem has been destroyed in 70 AD, what benefit would a person derive from claiming to be a literal Jew? But, to claim to be a Jew, in the context of Paul writing that “he is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom 2:29) does make sense. It would mean to be a true believer.

In conclusion, Revelation is a Christian book. The many references in the book to Jewish things must be understood in a Christ-centered spiritual sense as referring to God’s end-time followers of Jesus.

4. THE NEW TESTAMENT MERGES
THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL

This is a huge study by itself. This section will only make a few key observations to show that the New Testament previously already merged the church into Israel:

OLIVE TREE

One passage that immediately comes to mind to Romans 11, where Israel is described as an “olive tree” from which branches were broken off (the unbelieving Jews). Gentiles are “a wild olive.” Branches from the wild olive were grafted in Israel’s olive tree. Paul warns the Gentiles not to be arrogant: “Remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you” (Rom 11:16-24). The root refers to the covenants, the Law, the temple service, the promises, and the fathers (Rom 9:4-5).

ROMANS 9/11

The article – Israel in Prophecy – is a study of Romans 9 and 11, but the purpose was specifically to determine who Israel in the Book of Revelation is. This article concludes that:

    • In Paul’s day, God elected a remnant from Israel but included believing Gentiles into this chosen remnant. This is the definition of “Israel” which we should take with us to the book of Revelation, for the interpretation of the Jewish symbols in that book.
    • God did not annul His word. Israel’s promises and covenants remain but now belong to this chosen remnant. Believing Gentiles, therefore, now also share Israel’s promises and covenants (cf. Gal 3:29).
    • The NT did not replace the OT but is built on the foundation of the OT. Everything in the OT remains valid, except to the extent that the NT announces specific changes. The chosen remnant is a continuation of the chosen nation of the Old Testament; not a new entity with new founding principles.

SPECIFIC NEW TESTAMENT VERSES

In the New Testament, the things of Israel are applied to the church, the faithful followers of Jesus. Many texts from the New Testament can be quoted, for example:

      • He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” (Rom 2:28-29)
      • They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; … it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants” (Rom 9:6-8).
      • If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).
      • Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (Gal 6:15-16)
      • We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3)

In the following text, James describes the church as the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

      • James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings” (James 1:1, NIV).

JESUS SELECTED 12

Just as Israel (Jacob) had twelve sons, so Jesus chose twelve disciples (Matt 10:1-5, Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13, John 6:70-71, etc.). They became the twelve apostles—the first church fathers. It is not an accident that Jesus chose twelve and not eleven or thirteen. He was deliberately signaling His intention of re-shaping Israel. This is clear from what He said to them:

I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28, NIV).

In other words, Jesus appointed the twelve apostles as the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. So, since the first leaders of the Church were all Jews and the Church leaders will judge Israel, it is not feasible to distinguish between Israel and the Church. The true followers of Jesus have become a new Israel.

5. MATURE CHRISTIANS

The previous article concluded that the seal in Revelation 7 is something special that only end-time believers will receive to safeguard them during the final catastrophic events before Christ returns. The seal is not a mere identification of the servants of God. Rather, it symbolizes that God will make more of His grace and power available to the last-day church because she must accomplish more than the church of any age has yet accomplished.

Consequently, the number 144000 is a symbolic way of saying that these people will be mature Christians who will not withdraw under persecution. This number 144000 should be understood qualitatively; rather than quantitatively. This is supported by the following:

QUALITATIVE COMPLETION IN THE FIFTH SEAL

The previous article concluded that the sealing of “the bond-servants of our God” (Rev 7:3) is equivalent to the ‘completion’ of their “fellow servants” in the fifth seal. That ‘completion’ has been interpreted as qualitative completion, rather than quantitative (See Fifth Seal). This implies that the sealing of the 144000 must also be interpreted qualitatively and not as a specific number.

SINLESS MEN (REVELATION 14)

Revelation 14 describes the 144000. They have “His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1). This indicates how they think. They “have not been defiled with women” (Rev 14:4). That means their religion is pure (Rev 17:5). “No lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:5). We know that all people are sinners. This should, rather, be understood as a description of the nature of the seal: It refers to purity of mind and willingness to follow Jesus wherever He leads (Rev 14:4-5).

To be sealed, therefore, means to be spiritually mature—to love God with your whole heart, your neighbor like yourself, and even to love your enemies.  The extraordinary description of the sealed saints set them apart from their brethren in all earlier ages.

CONCLUSION

So, the text of Revelation 7:4-8 should not be taken literally. The twelve tribes and their twelve subdivisions are grounded in literal realities of Old Testament Israel, but the number itself, the twelve specific tribes, and their subdivisions are not to be taken literally. The 144000 is a figurative description of the totality of God’s army—the people of God—preparing for war in the very final period of earth’s history.

In Old Testament times, God made a covenant with Israel as the literal descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, located in a strip of land at the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel was understood in both ethnic and geographic terms.

In the New Testament, the meaning of Israel shifted. The covenant was no longer with a literal people located in a specific place; it is between God and Israel’s Messiah (Gal 3:16). So, in the New Testament, the meaning of Israel was expanded from literal Jews to everyone who is in a relationship with Jesus (Gal 3:14).

END-TIME CONTEXT

This passage is best understood within the larger picture of the book of Revelation:

While God’s faithful people proclaim the final message of God to the world (Rev 14:6-12), they and the entire world are under the special protection of God (the four angels hold back the four winds), so that the final work of the gospel can go forth.

At the same time, a counterfeit gospel also goes forth to the world (Rev 16:13-14).

As a result of these two gospels, all people are more and more conformed to the image of the one that they choose to worship. These decisions are confirmed by the seal of God, on the one hand, and the mark of the beast, on the other (Rev 7:1-3; 14:1-3; 13:16-17).

When all have been settled into their respective beliefs and characters (when all people are marked), the four winds (the seven last plagues) are released on the whole world. God permits ‘all hell to break loose’. God’s people are not exempt from that hour of trial (Rev 3:10; 16:15), but they are under the special protection of the Holy Spirit and are brought safely through it.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

In Revelation, numbers are symbolic:

    • Four signifies “the whole earth” or ‘worldwide’.
    • Seven should be understood as completion or perfection of time.
    • Twelve – the basis of the number 144000 – appears more than a hundred times in Scripture and consistently represents the people of God.
    • The number 144000 is a symbolic way of saying that these people will be mature Christians who will maintain their witness until death.

Revelation and the entire New Testament merges the church into Israel.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

OTHER ARTICLES

Revelation 4:1-8 – a visual description of God’s throne room.

SUMMARY

JESUS CALLS JOHN UP TO HEAVEN.

John hears a voice “like the sound of a trumpet” calling him up to heaven (Rev 4:1). This is Jesus’ voice (Rev 1:10; 1:13). His voice also sounds like “many waters” (Rev 1:15). These are two descriptions of the same voice. Jesus is not mentioned in Revelation 4 but it is Him who leads John in vision.

LampstandIn the first three chapters of Revelation, John saw Jesus standing between “seven golden lampstands,” symbolizing “the seven churches” (Rev 1:12, 1:20). This is followed by Jesus dictating letters to the churches (cf. Rev 1:19). The focus, therefore, of these chapters, was on earth. But in chapter four, since John is called up to heaven, the focus shifts to heaven.

The purpose of inviting John up to heaven is to reveal to him what will happen in the future (Rev 4:1).

After hearing Jesus speaking, John was immediately “in the Spirit” (Rev 4:2). In other words, John did not literally enter heaven and he did not see a real place. He only saw a symbolic representation of the invisible reality through a vision of his mind.

THE THRONE

The first thing that John saw was God’s throne (Rev 4:2). “Throne” is the main word in chapter 4. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne.

The person who sits on a throne has the legal authority to rule. Revelation 4 is a vision of the governing center of the universe. Therefore, the throne symbolizes God’s authority over all things. That authority is grounded in creation (Rev 4:11). God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things.

John saw the throne “was standing” (Rev 4:2). He did not see the throne being put in place like in Daniel 7:9. The throne “was standing” BEFORE John saw it. This implies that John did not view one specific event but received a timeless description of God’s throne room.

ONE SITTING ON THE THRONE

John saw “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2). This Person is not named but Revelation distinguishes between “Him who sits on the throne” and Jesus Christ (e.g., Rev 5:13; Rev 6:16). The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has ultimate authority.

John describes the Father rather vaguely (Rev 4:3). Other throne visions describe God in human terms (e.g., Ezek 1:26-27), but these could have been descriptions of the unique Son of God for, before He became a human being, He “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6).

God’s appearance is vague because He cannot be seen (John 1:18). He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). He has created all things that can be seen but He Himself exists outside space, time, and matter. Therefore, the substance of His Being can never be defined in terms of physical things. He may appear in a theophany (an appearance of God), but a theophany is only a faint reflection of His real full Being.

THE ELDERS ARE PEOPLE

Next, John saw 24 elders sitting on 24 thrones around God’s throne. In human meetings, the audience normally sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne. The following identifies them as people:

    • Their number (24), which is a doubling 12 (cf. Rev 12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).
    • The title “elder,”
    • Their “white garments” (cf. Rev 3:4-5; 3:18; 6:11; 7:9; 7:14)
    • Their “golden (stephanos) crowns” (cf. Rev 2:10; 3:11),
    • That they sit on thrones (cf. Rev 3:21; 20:4).

Angels are never described as having such things. For a further discussion, see – The 24 elders.

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. As prime examples of God’s people, they love their fellow human beings like themselves. It is wonderful to think that such human beings represent humanity in the control room of the universe.

THE ELDERS ARE FROM ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH.

The 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ. In other words, from both Israel and the church. This is firstly indicated by the number 24, which equals 12 + 12. This is secondly indicated by the fact that Revelation merges God’s people from Israel and the church. For example:

      • The “seven lampstands” in the Jewish temple become a symbol for the church (Rev 1:20).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 first symbolizes Israel but then also the Church.
      • The people who overcome the beast sing the song of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3).
      • Jerusalem becomes the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).
      • The names of BOTH “the twelve tribes … of Israel” and “of the twelve apostles” are written on the New Jerusalem—the eternal city of God’s people (Rev 21:12; 21:14).

For a further discussion, see – Revelation merges the church into Israel.

SEVEN SPIRITS OF GOD

John saw “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God” (Rev 4:5). This recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were always burning (Exo 25:37).

God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven has to do with time and should be understood as completion or perfection of time—the full period. For this reason, and due to the connection to the lamps in the temple that was ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present. 

The seven Spirits of God” is here located before the throne of God; apparently subordinate to the “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2).

FOUR LIVING CREATURES

John also saw “four living creatures” “in the center and around the throne” (Rev 4:6). They represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom. Since they are always near the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), it could also mean that they are between the circle of elders and the throne. They seem to be intermediaries between God and humanity, represented by the 24 elders.

They were “full of eyes in front and behind” (Rev 4:6), symbolizing knowledge of everything. Since the number four represents ‘the whole earth’ (cf. Rev 7:1; 14:6), the four living creatures know everything that happens on earth.

Their faces were like the faces of a lion, a calf, a man, and a flying eagle (Rev 4:7). These features indicate endurance, perseverance, strength, and speed. Relative to the animals, the “face like a man” implies intelligence.

The throne vision of Ezekiel 1 also has four living creatures with faces like a lion, ox, man, and eagle/vulture, and that are full of eyes (Ezek 1:5; 1:10; 1:18; cf. Rev 4:6-7). And each of the seraphim of Isaiah 6 also had six wings (Isa 6:2) and constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). The description of the four living creatures, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah 6.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


REVELATION 4:1

After these things

This phrase often introduces a new vision (e.g., Rev 7:1, 9).

Here, “these things” refer to the seven letters to the seven churches, as contained in chapters two and three (cf. Rev 1:19). 

… I looked and behold

John did not look with his literal eyes, but in a vision.

… a door standing open in heaven

In his mind, John is no longer on Patmos, but at the gates of heaven.

… and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me

This is Jesus’ voice which John previously as a loud voice; “like the sound of a trumpet” (Rev 1:10). When John turned to see who was speaking, he saw a vision of the Son of man among the seven candlesticks (Rev 1:12-18).

Jesus’ voice sounds both like a trumpet and like many waters (Rev 1:15). These are two descriptions of the same voice.

It is, therefore, Jesus who speaks in Revelation 4:1. Jesus is absent from chapter four of Revelation but it is still He who leads John in vision.

… said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things

This is the second time that the phrase “after these things” appears in this verse. “These things” refer to chapters two and three, reflecting John’s time. “What must take place after these things” are events that are largely in his future.

The words, “come up here” invites John into heaven. In the first three chapters, John met Jesus ON EARTH, for Jesus was standing between the candlesticks symbolizing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). The seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 were also addressed to seven churches ON EARTH. But in chapter four, the scene changes from earth to heaven.

REVELATION 4:2

Immediately I was in the Spirit

John does not enter heaven physically; he is carried in vision by the Spirit into the heavenly places.

In Revelation, John four times goes “in the Spirit.” The first was in Revelation 1:10, where he encountered the glorified Jesus. The second is here. The third and fourth are in Revelation 17:3 and 21:10. Of the four, the current one is the only one that calls John into heaven. The others call him to different places ON EARTH where something special happens.

… and behold, a throne was standing in heaven

The main word in chapter 4 is “throne.” This word appears fourteen times in the eleven verses of the chapter. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne. In addition to God who sits “on” the throne (Rev 4:2, 4, 6, 9, 10), we read about things:

        • In the midst of the throne (Rev 4:6),
        • Before the throne (Rev 4:5, 6, 10),
        • All around the throne (Rev 4:3, 4, 6), and
        • Coming out from the throne (Rev 4:5),

The term “throne” is drawn from the governmental language of the time. The person who sits on a throne has the legal authority to rule over some territory or a nation. Revelation 4 depicts the governing center of the universe, and the throne is the symbol of God’s authority to rule the universe.

That authority is grounded in creation (Rev 4:11). God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things.

There are four major throne scenes in the Old Testament. Revelation 4 strongly alludes to the throne scene of Ezekiel 1. But the description of the four living creatures (Rev 4:6-7) and the “holy, holy, holy” (Rev 4:8) refer to the throne vision in Isaiah 6. We find another major throne scene in Daniel 7.

The throne “was standing” in heaven. It means that the throne “was standing” BEFORE John saw it. This confirms that John is not viewing one specific event. It may be contrasted with Daniel 7:9, where the throne was placed for a special event.

… and One sitting on the throne

The One sitting on the throne is not named but Revelation distinguishes “Him who sits on the throne” from Jesus Christ (cf. Rev 5:5-7, 5:9, 5:13; 6:16). The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is God the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has the ultimate authority.

REVELATION 4:3

And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance

Revelation 1 describes Jesus in much detail (Rev 1:13-18) but there is a vagueness in this description of God. Other throne visions are more specific:

        • In Ezekiel 1:26-27, the one sitting on the throne has a human appearance. From the waist up, He looks like glowing metal and, from the waist down, like fire.
        • Daniel 7:9 describes “the Ancient of Days” (God). “His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool.”
        • Revelation 5:1 refers to God’s “right hand.”

These visions describe God in human terms but God cannot be seen (John 1:18). He “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1Tim 6:16). He has created everything that can be seen and cannot be described in terms of things that can be seen.  God does not exist somewhere in the universe.  The universe exists somewhere within God. He exists outside space, time, and matter. He may appear in a theophany, which is an appearance of God, but a theophany is only a faint reflection of His real full Being. Since space, time, and matter exist somewhere within God, the substance of His Being can never be defined in terms of physical things.

… and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance.

It is not clear whether the rainbow was horizontally around the throne or a half-circle vertically arched above the throne, as rainbows are on earth.

While a rainbow normally exhibits multiple colors from purple to red, the primary color of this rainbow is green; the color of an emerald.

In the flood story of Genesis, the rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen 9:12-17), an assurance that He is faithful in keeping his promises.

REVELATION 4:4

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones;
and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting,
clothed in white garments,
and golden crowns on their heads.

Like the rainbow in the previous verse, the 24 elders are “around the throne,” which should be taken in a horizontal sense. If the rainbow is like a halo horizontally around the area, the 24 elders could be understood as sitting in or under it.

In human meetings, the audience normally sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne. 

THE ELDERS ARE PEOPLE.

The article on the 24 elders identifies them as human representatives of God’s people on earth. This is based on the following:

1) “Elders” is a familiar Biblical title for humans but angels are never called elders.

2) They sit on thrones and Revelation promises that the overcomes will sit on thrones (Rev 3:21; 20:4). Angels are never described as sitting on thrones.

3) They are “clothed in white garments” (Rev 4:4) and Revelation promises white robes to God’s people (Rev 3:4-5; cf. Rev 3:18; 6:11; 7:9, 14).

4) The 24 elders have victory crowns (stephanos) which is the reward for the overcomes (Rev 2:10; 3:11) and symbolizes eternal life (Rev 2:10; cf. 2 Tim 4:8).

5) The number 24 is a doubling of the number 12 and Revelation associates the number 12 with God’s people (Rev 12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. It is wonderful to think that human beings, that love their fellow human beings like themselves, represent humanity in the control room of the universe.

FROM BOTH ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH

The article on the 24 elders also shows that the 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ. In other words, from both Israel and the church. The 24 elders are one example of how Revelation merges God’s people from Israel and the church. The following are further examples:

      • The names of BOTH “the twelve tribes … of Israel” and “of the twelve apostles” are written on the New Jerusalem—the city of God’s people in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:12; 21:14).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 represents both Israel and the church. (See, Who are the woman, the dragon, the child, and what is the war in heaven?)
      • The “seven lampstands” in the Jewish temple become a symbol for the church (Rev 1:20).
      • The people who overcome the beast sing the song of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3) – the key figures of the Old and New Testaments.
      • Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, becomes the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).

REVELATION 4:5

Out from the throne come flashes of lightning
and sounds and peals of thunder.

This language builds on Old Testament ‘theophanies’:

        • The original theophany was on Mount Sinai (Exo 19:16-20).
        • In the first chapter of Ezekiel, the appearance of God also included lightning and loud noises (Ezek 1:13, 24).  

This series of words (lightning – sounds – thunder) is repeated three more times in Revelation:

        • The next two instances add “earthquake” to the previous three (Rev 8:5; 16:18).
        • The last instance adds both “earthquake” and “great hail” (Rev 11:19)

Since the “lightning and sounds and peals of thunder” are things that happen in the air in a thunderstorm, and since they come out of the throne, they probably represent God’s utterances. The “earthquake” and “great hail,” on the other hand, are things that happen on earth and, therefore, probably represent the earthly consequences of God’s decisions.

And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;

The Greek words translated “lamps” in this verse, symbolizing the Spirit of God, are different from the word translated “lampstands” in Revelation 1:12-13, representing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Nevertheless, the concept of “seven lamps of fire” in this verse still recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were CONSTANTLY burning (Exo 25:37).

The seven Spirits of God” is here located before the throne of God; apparently subordinate to the “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2).

God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven must be interpreted symbolically. It is mentioned many (56) times in Revelation and is based on the seven days of the week. The number seven in Revelation is different from the other numbers in Revelation in the sense that the seven stands in chronological sequence to each other—the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh as the last or end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10, and 12. The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time—the full period.

For this reason, and due to the connection to the lamps in the temple that was ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present.

REVELATION 4:6

and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal;

It is not a real sea of glass; it is “something like a sea of glass.”  John is doing his best to describe heavenly things in human terms.

Glass and glass-blowing were known to the ancients but the ancient glass was often coarse and semi-opaque. In contrast, the reference to crystal emphasizes the transparent clarity of this sea of glass.

The “sea of glass” appears again in Revelation, but then it is mingled with fire (Rev 15:2).

and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.

It is a bit difficult to understand what “in the center and around the throne” means:

It could mean that the four living creatures move around (cf. Rev 6:1-8; 15:7).

Since they are always near the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), it could also mean that they are in the center of the circle of elders; between the circle of elders and the throne. They seem to be intermediaries between God and the human race, represented by the 24 elders.

THE FOUR LIVING CREATURES OF EZEKIEL 1

There are also four living creatures in the throne vision of Ezekiel 1. There are multiple similarities. Both Revelation 4 and Ezekiel 1 have:

      • Four living creatures (Ezek 1:5; Rev 4:6);
      • With faces like a lion, ox, man, and eagle/vulture (Ezek 1:10; Rev 4:7);
      • Full of eyes (Ezek 1:18; Rev 4:6); and
      • A rainbow surrounding the throne (Ezek 1:28; Rev 4:3).

In both, the four living creatures are especially close to God. In Ezekiel, they are the bearers of God’s throne chariot. There are also some interesting differences. For example:

EZEKIEL 1 REVELATION 4
Each of the four living creatures has FOUR faces, one each of man, lion, ox, and eagle (Ezek 1:10). Each living creature had a face like only one of the four beings (Rev 4:7).
Each of the four living creatures has four wings (Ezek 1:11). Each has six wings (Rev 4:8).
The WHEELS are full of eyes all around (Ezek 1:16-18). The living creatures themselves are covered with eyes front and back (Rev 4:6).
The four living creatures are under the throne (Ezek 1:26) and are the means by which the throne moves (Ezek 1:12, 1:15-21). The throne seems stationary (Rev 4:2).

The prophets did not physically see God’s throne room. These were visions in the minds of the prophets. What detail God gave them may be different from time to time, depending on the purpose of the revelation.

LIVING CREATURES IN OTHER SOURCES

1 Enoch 40:2 (Ethiopic Enoch) – a Jewish book known in New Testament times – mentions four archangels named Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. If they are the same as the four living creatures, they are the leaders of the angels. In that case, in Revelation, the first circle around the throne consists of angels, and the second circle consists of human beings; represented by the 24 elders.

Ezekiel 10:20 refers to four living beings as cherubim. This term occurs over 90 times in the Hebrew Bible but only once in the New Testament (Heb 9:5), where they are “above” the ark of the covenant (Heb 9:4-5).

Similar to the four living creatures of Revelation, the seraphim in Isaiah 6 also have six wings and constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:2-3; Rev 4:8). Revelation 4, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah 6.

INTERPRETATION OF THE FOUR LIVING CREATURES

The King James Version describes the four living creatures as “beasts,” but that is not a good translation. The word for beast represents the animal kingdom and is reserved for the forces of evil in Revelation (Rev 6:7; 11:7; 13:1; 13:11, etc.). “Living creature,” on the other hand, is a broader term that can represent also angels, birds, and humans.

The four living creatures are full of eyes in front and back. This is not to be taken literally. Their eyes probably represent the omniscience of God, who knows everything that can be known. The number four represents ‘the whole earth’ (cf. Rev 7:1; 14:6). The four living creatures, therefore, know everything that happens on earth.

In conclusion, the four living creatures are the primary connection between God and creation. They might correspond to the four archangels of Jewish tradition; the leaders of the angels. As such, the four living creatures represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom, while the twenty-four elders represent the human race before God.

REVELATION 4:7

The first creature was like a lion,
and the second creature like a calf,
and the third creature had a face like that of a man,
and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle.

These features indicate endurance, perseverance, strength, and speed. Relative to the animals, the “face like a man” implies intelligence.

REVELATION 4:8

And the four living creatures,
each one of them having six wings

Since the living creature of Ezekiel 1 had four wings each, the six wings recall the six-winged cherubim of Isaiah 6; two wings were used to cover their faces, two wings to cover their feet and two were used to fly (Isaiah 6:2).

are full of eyes around and within

In verse 6, four living creatures were “full of eyes in front and behind.” In the current verse, the eyes are “around and within,” which is difficult to visualize. Nevertheless, the meaning is that the vision of the living creatures is not impeded in any way. They were created by God with the highest possible alertness, perception, and knowledge.


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