saints

Sinner or Saint?

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 1:1 ESV

1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints – 1 Corinthians 1:1-2 ESV

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi… – Philippians 1:1 ESV

If you’re like me, you probably have a difficult time considering yourself a saint. In our day and age, that word has taken on a certain connotation that virtually eliminates any hope of it applying to us. After all, just look at the dictionary.com definition:

any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, especially by canonization

Exceptional holiness of life. That phrase makes it sound like a saint is a member of some kind of elitist segment of Christianity. By definition, it’s a relatively small group, made up of over-achieving, super-spiritual individuals who have earned the title by virtue of their exceptionally holy lifestyles.

But the only problem with that definition is that it is not biblical. Nowhere in the Bible do we see the word “saint” used as a label for the spiritually elite. In fact, the vast majority of times it appears in the New Testament, the word “saint” is used to refer to any and all members of the body of Christ. In almost all of the letters Paul wrote to the various churches he helped to start, he addressed his readers as “saints.” 

Even when writing to the church in Corinth, Paul reminded them that they were “called to be saints…” – in spite of the fact that they were displaying anything but saint-like characteristics. This was a church in turmoil. It was marked by disunity and dissension. They were willingly tolerating immorality in their midst.

To make matters worse, they were using the gifts given to them by the Spirit to claim spiritual superiority over one another.  And yet, Paul reminded them that they were all called to be saints.

But what does Paul mean when he refers to them as saints? To understand Paul’s meaning, we have to look at the Greek word Paul used when writing his letters. It is hagios, and it is most often translated as “holy” or “saint.” It literally means “most holy thing” (Outline of Biblical Usage).

The words saint, sanctify, and sanctification all share the same Greek root word. 

saint = hagios

sanctify = hagiasmos

sanctification = hagiazo

In the opening salutation of his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul used two of these words in addressing the congregation there.

…to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints… – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV

The word sanctified has to do with consecration. In the Greek, it was used to refer to something that had been set apart as holy. In the early church, it took on a very specific meaning: “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” That was clearly Paul’s meaning when addressing the believers in Corinth, Ephesus, and Philippi. These people had been set apart or sanctified by God for His use. They belonged to Him. And Paul expected them to live their lives in keeping with their new standing as God’s possession.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NLT

It’s obvious from the content of Paul’s letter that the believers in Philippi were guilty of committing sins. They were a divided church, arguing over such things as whose baptism was more significant based on who performed the baptism. They were fighting over bragging rights as to who had the more flamboyant and spectacular spiritual gift. And while Paul clearly recognized their many sins, he addressed them as saints.

He wanted to remind them that their status as God’s children had nothing to do with the nature of their spiritual gift, the pedigree of the one who baptized them, or the impressiveness of their religious resume. No, he told them:

…because of him [God} you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

There were saints because they had been set apart by God. Their status was not based on their accomplishments. They had not earned their way into God’s good graces. Which is why Paul told them there was no reason for them to boast. Their standing before Him had all been His doing, and it had all been made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Paul wanted them to see themselves as saints. Yet, they suffered from the same spiritual schizophrenia we do. There wasn’t a day that went by without a reminder of their own sinfulness. And Paul knew there were two ways they could address this problem. One was to ignore their sin altogether by discounting or dismissing it as unimportant or even non-existent. The apostle John addresses this fallacy.

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. – 1 John 1:8 NLT

If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:10 NLT

Paul was well aware of their sins and was not afraid to address them about it. He wanted them to acknowledge their sins, but he didn’t want them to view themselves as sinners. They were saints. They had been set apart by God for His use. As the apostle Peter put it: “you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT). And Peter went on to say, “As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:10 NLT).

Now, there are those who would argue that we still need to view ourselves as sinners. You may have even heard someone refer to themselves as “a sinner saved by grace.” While there is truth to that statement, it often carries an unhealthy emphasis that does more damage than good. We already have a natural tendency to dwell on our faults and failures. We live with an achievement-based mindset that makes every sin we commit seem like a step backward in our spiritual journey.

Paul would have us focus on the positive side of the ledger. We are saints. We have been set apart by God. He sees us as holy and righteous because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul was always “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13 NLT).  He refused to dwell on the past. And he wanted the Corinthian believers to understand that their sins were a byproduct of their past nature, not their new life in Christ. So, he reminded them:

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:9-10 NLT

People who live like this aren’t heirs of the Kingdom of God. They aren’t saints. And while this news probably left a few of the Corinthians wondering about their future status, Paul immediately reminded them:

Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 1:11 NLT

Something had happened to them. They had been sanctified by God. They had been set apart as His own possessions and were now considered as saints, not sinners. They had been cleansed, made holy, and restored to a right relationship with God. Now, they were to live like who they were: saints.

But some might say that Paul referred to himself as a sinner. In fact, he called himself the chief of all sinners. And they would use his letter to Timothy as proof.

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” — and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16 NLT

Paul wasn’t wallowing in his sinfulness. He was simply suggesting that his past sin was an example of God’s incredible mercy and grace. Nobody had a worse pedigree when it came to sin. After all, Paul persecuted the church of Jesus Christ, actually putting Christians to death in his zeal to eradicate this radical sect called The Way. But God had mercy on him. God set Paul apart as His possession and dedicated him to His service. Paul never forgot his past, but he refused to let it identify him. He was no longer a sinner. He was a saint.

Paul told the Corinthians, “such were some of you.” At one time they had been sinners outside the fold of God. They had been enemies of God. But that was in their past. Now, they were saints, and they were to live like it. Paul was not calling them to live lives of perfection, but to recognize that they had already been perfected by God. They had been cleansed, made holy, and declared righteous by God.

In 1701, Isaac Watts penned the following words and put them to music.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was Isaac Watts wallowing in his “wormness”? Was he suggesting that he was still a sinner? The answer lies in the rest of the lyrics to this great old hymn.

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
’Tis all that I can do.

Like Paul, Isaac Watts was describing his past condition. He had been a helpless, hopeless sinner, guilty of crimes against a holy God and sentenced to death. But then, God showed him grace and showered him with His love in the form of Jesus Christ. And, as a result, Isaac Watts was able to say, “the burden of my heart rolled away.” 

He had become a saint. The burden of sin was lifted. The debt had been paid. The guilt was removed and replaced with the joy of having a right standing with God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Great and Amazing.

1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.

2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,
    O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
    O King of the nations!
4 Who will not fear, O Lord,
    and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
    All nations will come
    and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished. – Revelation 15:1-8 ESV

When reading the book of Revelation, one can begin to feel as if the onslaught of judgments coming on earth and its inhabitants will never come to an end. It seems as if each new chapter brings with it yet more devastating news of unbelievable and unbearable trials that will befall mankind. But in these chapters, Even in this chapter, John is given yet another sign in heaven, one he describes as “great and amazing,” that will involves seven plagues. These are the seven bowl judgments. But John is informed that these will be “the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished” (Revelation 15:1 ESV). There is a certain finality to this vision. He is being provided with a much-needed reminder that there is an end coming to all of God’s judgments upon the earth. There will be a climax to all that John has seen and that will be the second coming of Jesus Christ. The seven seals, the seven trumpets and the seven bowl judgments are nothing more than a preface, preparing the way for return of the Son of God. And He will bring with Him the final phase of God’s judgments, completing that portion of the divine plan for the redemption and restoration of the world. Christ will return immediately after the seventh bowl has been poured out.

John is being given a much-needed reminder that this seemingly endless wave of judgments has not only an end, but a purpose. None of what he has witnessed has been indiscriminate or arbitrary in nature. These are not the actions of a petty and impetuous deity who simply enjoys taking out His anger on the weak and defenseless. These are the acts of a holy, righteous and sovereign God who is obligated by His very nature to deal with the insurrection raised against His rightful rule and reign. We have seen over and over again the unrepentant nature of those who find themselves suffering under His righteous anger. He brings well-deserved judgments upon them, but they refuse to repent and acknowledge Him as God. They stubbornly cling to their false god, willingly worshiping the Antichrist, giving to him the glory only God deserves. John has been shown the gracious and merciful nature of God as He provides 144,000 Jewish converts to Christ who spend their entire lives during the tribulation, spreading the good news regarding Jesus Christ and God’s offer of salvation made possible through Him. But the vast majority of the people of earth will refuse this offer. They will turn up their noses at God’s gracious gift, choosing to remain in open rebellion against Him, rather than humbly turn to Him in humble repentance and submission. So, the seven bowls will be poured out and the final judgments of God will be meted out. But His judgments, like His patience, have an end. As we have seen repeatedly, the number seven is the number of perfection or completion. Just as there were seven seals and seven trumpets, there are seven bowls containing seven plagues. They represent God’s perfect and complete judgment against mankind. This is not a case of overkill on God’s part. Everything He has done and will do is perfectly righteous, without fault and in keeping with His blameless character.

John sees a sea of glass, like the one he saw in chapter four, but this one is mixed with fire. The sea of glass, that extends before the throne of God, is meant to reflect the glory. of God. But here, John sees God’s glory mixed with fire, a symbol of judgment. The seven plagues are “are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.” You cannot separate God’s glory from His wrath and judgment. A holy and righteous God cannot and will not tolerate insurrection and insubordination on the part of those He has created. He is obligated by His very nature to deal with the blatant rebellion of mankind to His sovereign will. 

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
    evil may not dwell with you.
5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
    you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. – Psalm 5:4-6 ESV

God does not view man’s sin as simply an alternative lifestyle or a decision to take a different path than the one He prescribes. He knows that sin is not only rebellion against His will, but an act of self-destruction, leading to death, not life. And sin, like a communicable disease, is contagious and deadly. It spreads like a cancer, infecting everyone with whom it comes in contact. It damages and destroys, and there is no end to its destructive influence. So, God must act. He must eliminate sin once and for all, and John is being reminded that this is exactly what God is going to do.

John sees, standing beside the sea of glass, a crowd of individuals who most likely represent all those who will come to faith in Christ during the days of the tribulation and suffer martyr’s deaths as a result. They are described as having “conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name” (Revelation 15:2 ESV). Having refused to take the mark of the beast and worship the Antichrist, they were executed. But now, John sees them, holding harps in their hands and singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. These are most likely two different songs, but both containing praise for God’s salvation and redemption. In Deuteronomy 32, we have recorded one of the songs of Moses which speaks of God’s power and deliverance of His people.

For the Lord will vindicate his people
    and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
    and there is none remaining, bond or free. – Deuteronomy 32:36 ESV

“‘See now that I, even I, am he,
    and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
    I wound and I heal;
    and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.’” – Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV

One of the things recorded in the song of Moses found in Deuteronomy 32 is the reminder that God is righteous and just.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He always does what is right. He never acts unjustly or reacts to His people undeservedly. And that is exactly the message John hears in the song being sung by the martyred saints.

“Great and amazing are your deeds,
    O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
    O King of the nations.” – Revelation 15:3 ESV

These saints vindicate the actions of God, proclaiming His righteousness and ascribing to Him holiness. They sing, “your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:4 ESV), an unapologetic defense of all that God has done and will do. All the world will ultimately come to fear and worship Him for who He is, because He alone is holy.

And then John sees the seven angels carrying the seven plagues, coming out of the sanctuary of God. This is yet another, not-so-subtle-reminder, that these judgments are coming from the very throne room of God in heaven. They are divinely ordained and ordered. And one of the four creatures, who stand around the throne of God, give each of the seven angels a golden bowl containing the “full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 15:7 ESV). It is a bit confusing that the angels are described as carrying the seven plagues, but are then given the seven bowls. And the bowls are described as holding the wrath of anger of God. As we will see in the very next chapter, the seven bowls will be means by which the plagues are poured out on the earth. So perhaps, what John is being shown is that the angels walked out of the sanctuary of God, holding the form of God’s judgment – the plagues – but were then given the means by which those judgments would come – by His anger. The plagues would flow forth, mixed with the anger or divine wrath of God. Again, the song of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 32, speaks of this wrath of God coming upon all those who stand opposed to Him.

“Rejoice with him, O heavens;
    bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
    and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him
    and cleanses his people's land.” – Deuteronomy 32:43 ESV

God’s righteous anger will be “poured out” in the form of seven very real and very devastating plagues. The wrath of God will take concrete and recognizable form. And like the people of Egypt, who suffered from the plagues that God poured out on them, the people of the earth will know that God alone is God. They will unmistakably recognize the power of God Almighty as He makes His anger both felt and known. And John ends this chapter with the statement that “the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished” (Revelation 15:8 ESV). Access to God is completely cut off until the full extent of His judgment on earth is complete. This is a vivid and sobering reminder of God’s holiness. He is not to be trifled with. He is not to be treated flippantly or contemptuously. The sanctuary in heaven will be off limits to all until the full extent of God’s wrath is poured out and the final portion of His judgments are meted out.

And in the very next chapter, John will see each of those seven bowls poured out on the earth and its inhabitants. The focus will turn from heaven back to earth. The final days of God’s judgment have come and the return of His Son is closer than ever before.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Victory Over Death.

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.” – Revelation 7:9-17 ESV

John now sees another group of individuals made up of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). This is obviously a different group than the 144,000 mentioned in the first eight verses. John describes as innumerable and comprised of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. In other words, these are non-Jews or Gentiles. And while the 144,000 were located on earth, this group is in heaven “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” So, this begs the question: Who are these people? Do they represent the church, as some have speculated? They described as wearing white robes, waving palm branches, and crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They sound like they could be Christians, and they most likely are. But the real question is whether they comprise the church that was raptured before the tribulation began. John is at a loss as to who these people are, which is made clear when he is asked by one of the 24 elders to tell him their identity. John seems to know intuitively that the elder has the answer to his own question and so he responds, “Sir, you know.” And the elder clears up any confusion as to who this vast crowd may be.

“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.” – Revelation 7:14 ESV

While the 144,000 Jews are on earth, these individuals are in heaven, and it would seem that they are there as a result of their martyrdom. They are described as wearing white robes, a sign of their righteousness. And their righteousness is a result of the blood of the Lamb. They have been washed clean, purified by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Which indicates that they had come to faith some time during the tribulation and were put to death because of their belief in Jesus. This appears to be the same group John saw back in chapter six.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. – Revelation 6:9 ESV

They are shown holding and waving palm branches, a symbol of victory and joy. They are celebrating and worshiping their salvation. But they are also crying out for vengeance. They want to know when God will avenge their persecution and deaths at the hands of of the Antichrist.

“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” – Revelation 6:10 ESV

They are grateful for their presence in God’s Kingdom, but they want to know when He is going to deal with those on earth who persecuted them for their faith and murdered them for the decision to follow Christ. This makes it clear that there will be many who become Christians during the tribulation, and it is likely the 144,000 witnesses who will bring this about. These Jewish converts to Christianity will become God’s ambassadors, witnessing to the Gentile nations regarding the salvation made possible through faith in Jesus Christ, their Messiah.

But John hears what appears to be bad news. These martyrs are told that they must be patient. God will deal with all those on earth who oppose Him and who persecute His chosen ones. But the time has not yet come. The exact moment for His Son’s return to earth has not arrived. So, in the meantime, there will be additional converts to the faith and, sadly, even more martyrs, “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11 ESV).

Back in chapter seven, John sees these very same individuals are enjoying the protection provided by God as they stand in His presence. They serve Him day and night in His holy temple in heaven. And though, when they were on earth, they suffered greatly for their faith, they now enjoy complete safety and freedom from pain and suffering of any kind. John is told:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
    the sun shall not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat. – Revelation 7:16 ESV

Later on in this very same book, John will reveal the marvelous reality that, for those who have a relationship with Jesus Christ, eternity will be a time of great peace. There will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow of any kind.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. – Revelation 21:4 ESV

John echoes this sentiment in chapter seven as he views this scene of rejoicing taking place in the heavenly temple.

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. – Revelation 7:17 ESV

When the elder disclosed to John the identity of these people, he described them as having come out of the “great tribulation.” This the very phrase Jesus used in His Olivet Discourse when referring to the second half of the seven year tribulation.

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

According to the book of Daniel and the words of Jesus in His Olivet discourse, the first half of the seven years of tribulation will be marked by relative peace. The Antichrist will appear as a global political leader who brokers a peace treaty with Israel. But at the midway point or three-and-a-half years into the seven year period, he will break his covenant with Israel, unleashing a devastating persecution against the people of God. Daniel alludes to this very time in his prophecy.

“And he [Antichrist] shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:27 ESV

All of this will be revealed in greater detail as the book of Revelation unfolds. But in this vision, John is seeing the results of Antichrist’s work in the second half of the tribulation period. He will put to death countless individuals who have placed their faith in Christ. And he will persecute the Jews without mercy, all in an attempt to wipe them from face of the earth. Which raises the question: Why? What would cause the Antichrist to spend so much time and energy attempting to destroy the Jewish people? He seems to know that they are a key element behind the Lord’s eventual return. If he can eliminate them, there is no reason for Christ to come back. If there are no people to redeem and restore, there will be no purpose behind the Lord’s return. But the Antichrist is mistaken. He operates under the power and influence of Satan, but even Satan has no clue as to how all this is going to turn out. At one time, he believed he had defeated Jesus by having Him crucified. But that seeming victory was turned to defeat when God raised Jesus back to life. And there is the day coming when Satan will yet again attempt to thwart God’s plans and put an end to Christ’s return. But he will fail.

The very fact that John sees 144,000 Jews protected by God from the assault of the Antichrist shows us that God is in control of all that is going on during these days. And that John sees these martyred believers standing in the very presence of God reminds us that death is not a dead end for those who place their faith in Jesus. As Paul told the believers in Rome:

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39 ESV

Which is why the martyred saints can stand before God and shout with unabandoned joy and thankfulness:

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” – Revelation 7:12 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The 144,000.

1After 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,
7 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. Revelation 7:1-8 ESV

Chapter six ended with a statement and question: “…the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:17 ESV). Those experiencing the wrath of God as revealed through the first six seals, will attempt to hide from Him, but wish for death.  They realize that their suffering is from the hand of God, but there is no sign of repentance on their part. And death appears to be their only option and means of escaping the increasing intensity of God’s anger against them. But chapter seven opens with the answer to their question. There will be those who can and will stand. God’s wrath and judgment will be balanced by His grace and mercy. Chapter seven acts as a brief interlude between the sixth and seventh seal, providing us with a wonderful insight into God’s plan for the people of Israel and for the nations of the earth during the tribulation.

John opens up chapter seven with the Greek words, meta touto, which is typically translated as “after this.” John used this same phrase in chapter four, verse 1, to indicate a change in vision. He is seeing something new. This is not a part of the sixth seal, but a different scene altogether which reveals an aspect of the tribulation to which John was unaware. In the midst of all the death and destruction, God was going to do something significant. In spite of the wickedness of mankind and the ongoing rebellion of His own people, Israel, God was going to extend His undeserved grace and mercy.

It begins with John seeing “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth” (Revelation 7:1 ESV). The wind is a reference to God’s judgment. There angels had been “given power to harm earth and sea” (Revelation 7:2 ESV), but at the present time they were holding back the full brunt of God’s judgment. There is going to be a time during the tribulation when the earth and sea, and every living creature on the planet will suffer the full impact of God’s righteous wrath. But first, God will redeem a remnant from among the Jews and the nations of the earth. Out of the east, another angel appears, calling to the other four angels to hold off judgment “until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3 ESV). A seal is a sign of ownership and authenticity. During the tribulation there are going to be some whom God declares to be His own, sealing their future and securing their eternal state by marking them as His possession. The sealing speaks of their God-ordained selection and protection. This does not mean these people will experience no suffering during the days of the tribulation, but that they will not suffer for their unrighteousness. They will belong to God.

And John is not left to guess who these people will be. He is immediately told that they will be made up of 144,000 Jews from every tribe of the nations of Israel. They will be equally represented by each of the 12 tribes, with 12,000 coming from every tribe. It is significant that John is given a very detailed description of who these people are. It is not left up to his imagination. And it is clear that he is not being given a glimpse of the church or “spiritual Israel.” These will be Jews. The church will not be around when the tribulation takes place. Jesus will have already returned for the church, removing it from the planet and preserving it from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10; Romans 5:9).

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ… – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV

The apostle Paul makes it quite clear that God has plans for His people Israel. As the apostle to the Gentiles, he knew that God had made the gospel available to them because of the hardening of the hearts of the people of Israel. They had refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. But their hardening will be partial and temporary.

25 …a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
    he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
27 “and this will be my covenant with them
    when I take away their sins.”

28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! – Romans 11:25-33 ESV

These people are clearly Jews and, more specifically, in Revelation 14 they are described as “the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” (Revelation 14:3-4 ESV). And John will be given further insight into their role during the dark days of the tribulation.

It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. – Revelation 14:4-5 ESV

These ethnic Jews will form a remnant whom God will use for His divine purposes during the tribulation. They will become witnesses to the rest of the world and, as we will see, their testimony will result in people from every tribe, nation and tongue coming to faith in Christ, even during the darkest days of God’s judgment. 

One of the things we must understand is that Israel, the chosen people of God, have had their hearts hardened by God. While some Jews have accepted Jesus as their Messiah, the vast majority remain incapable of doing so. Paul points out their dilemma.

7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.” – Romans 11:7-8 ESV

But why would God do this? Why would He prevent His own chosen people from seeing and hearing so that they might respond to the truth of the gospel and the good news regarding their Messiah? It all goes back to the covenants God made with Israel. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised them a land, a seed, and a blessing. This covenant was non-conditional. In other words, God placed no requirements on them. It was a unilateral covenant, binding only Himself to keep the commitments He had made. They would be blessed by God regardless of their actions or attitudes. And God did eventually give them the land as He had promised. He also gave Abraham a seed or many descendants. But God also gave him “a seed” – which Paul explains to be Jesus Himself.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NASB

And God went on to promise Abraham that “in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 NASB) – another reference to Jesus. But there is another covenant that played an important role in God’s dealings with the people of Israel. At Mount Sinai, in the wilderness, God had given them the Mosaic Covenant. This was a bi-lateral covenant, that was conditional in nature. God promised to bless the people of Israel, but they were required to live in obedience to His law. If they refused to obey, they would suffer curses, brought on them as judgment from the hand of God. But God had clearly told His people:

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” – Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV

God knew they would disobey. And their disobedience would bring His judgment upon them. Which is why He could not allow them to accept Jesus as their Messiah. He was obligated by His own righteous nature to follow through with His promise to punish them for their sin and rebellion. And the coming days of tribulation will be the final stages of God’s punishment upon the people of Israel. And notice, what God says in the passage above. He tells them that if they and all their children return to Him and obey Him with all their heart and soul, He will restore them. The prophet Ezekiel gives us a glimpse of what God is going to do on behalf of His people Israel. He will do for them what they could never have done on their own. He will extend grace to those who do not deserve it.

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV

God is not done with Israel. He must punish them for their breaking of the Mosaic Covenant. But He will keep the promises He to them as part of the Abrahamic Covenant. He will restore a remnant. He will give them the capacity to seek and serve Him. They will “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4 ESV). And they will prove to be His witnesses to the nations, even to those suffering the wrath of His divine and well-deserved judgment during the dark days of tribulation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Our Righteous King.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. [The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.] The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. – Psalm 145:13-17 ESV

Psalm 145

When a king reigns, he does so over everyone in his kingdom. Even over those who reject him as their king. A good king provides protection for all. He is to enforce the laws of the kingdom over all, regardless of their status or economic standing. As a king, David knew these things well. He realized that his role as king, while accompanied by wonderful benefits, also came with formidable responsibilities. He couldn't help but compare his own reign with that of God; and when he did, he realized that God's Kingdom was far greater in scope and size. His responsibilities were far more extensive. David's kingdom was tiny and insignificant in comparison. And yet, God was faithful in all His words and king in all His works. Everyone looked to Him to provide their food and fulfill their desires, whether they acknowledged Him as King or not. David recognized that it was God who opened His hand and satisfied the desires of every living thing. Speaking of His own heavenly Father, Jesus said, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 ESV). God is gracious and merciful to all. His grace is the favor He shows to those who don't deserve it, which would include ALL mankind. His mercy is the incredible patience He shows to those who deserve His wrath. In spite of the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Roman 3:23 ESV), God has shown mercy. He has patiently put up with the sins of men over the centuries and even sacrificed His own Son in order to provide a way for men to be restored to a right relationship with Himself.

The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His works. Unlike human kings, God always does what is right. He always keeps His word. He doesn't lie, deceive, renege on a promise, or act unjustly. We may not always understand His actions, but we can never question His integrity. He is righteous in all His ways. Sometimes is appears otherwise. Based on what we see happening around us, we can easily conclude that God is either indifferent or incapable of doing what needs to be done. It can appear as if the wicked are winning. The psalmist felt that way and cried out, “Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve! O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:2-3 ESV). Ethan the Ezrahite wrote, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man!” (Psalm 89:46-47 ESV). There are times when it feels like God is either out of control or out of ear shot. It seems as if He is not listening to our pleas for help or seeing the gravity of our situation. But God is a righteous King. He is in complete control of the circumstances – all the time. Yes, it may appear as if the wicked are prospering and the unrighteous are getting all the breaks, but God knows exactly what He is doing. He is not fooled or duped by the ways of men. He knows men's hearts. He knows that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). No one deserves the benefits of rain or crops. No one has earned God's favor through their acts of righteousness. The fact that any of us exist at all is a testimony to the enduring patience of God.

Paul makes a compelling argument concerning God's righteous rule and gracious dealings with mankind. “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:20-24 ESV). Who are we to question God? What right do we have to doubt the actions of the Creator of the universe? The very fact that God allows the wicked to continue to exist is a reminder of His patience and remarkable love. The fact is, God has shown all of us mercy – He has not given us what we so richly deserve – condemnation and eternal separation from Him. Instead, He has graciously allowed some to enjoy the wonders of His grace and the benefits of His Son's sacrificial death on the cross. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT).

Our King is a righteous, loving, gracious and merciful King. His ways are always just and right. His actions are unquestionably good and His decision are always proper and appropriate. We may not understand what He is doing. We may not even like what He is doing, but we can rest assured that it is always for the best. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.