Finding Comfort in Eschatalogical Texts?

Brian J. Lee
Monday, July 16th 2007
Jan/Feb 1999

Does your eschatology provide you with Christian comfort? One of the tragic effects of dispen-sationalism on American Christianity has been a speculative spirit with regard to the last things. While the New Testament authors recognized that they were living in the last days and that the consummation of history had already begun in the cross of Christ, dispen-sationalism has sought that consummation else-where. It has looked almost completely to the future and away from the cross. The Apostles saw themselves in the midst of a present eschatological drama, but dispen-sationalism has sought apocalyptic drama outside the text of the New Testament, ever around the next historical corner. The clarity and comfort of New Testament eschatology has been transformed into confusion and fear by a speculative hermeneutic which insists on reading the text in our context, instead of its own.

The net result is a Christian story of "Armageddon" as pagan as last summer's big screen hit, with the impending return of Christ about as comforting and meaningful as a meteorite hurtling toward earth. Indeed, the terror of the panicked crowds in that film recall my terror as a youth, watching a Christian film dramatizing the "rapture." Would I make it or not? Even if I did, what about my family and friends?

There is however an alternative. From Genesis to Revelation eschatology is portrayed as the consummate fulfillment of God's promises in history, with the New Testament emphasizing that the central promise has already been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, eschatology is not distinct from, but thoroughly involved with God's Gospel promise to save. The "Good News" is eschatological news: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). There can be no Gospel without eschatology, and there can be no eschatology without Gospel.

When these central truths are understood, the manner in which the Church reads and preaches the explicitly eschatological texts of the New Testament is radically transformed. We no longer allow ourselves to be confused by the questions these texts raise. (1) Rather, we are comforted by the certainties they hold forth. This transformation can be illustrated by the following reading of Revelation 7. It will show that the Apostle John, rather than providing a road map for future speculation, is comforting the people of God by portraying the certain, present reality enjoyed by the Church, both on earth and in heaven.

The Divine Presence Revealed

Revelation 7 serves as an interlude, of sorts. In chapters 4 and 5, John is brought up into the divine council-chamber, where he describes its chief and central glory: the slain Lamb. Because the Lamb was slain, he alone is worthy to break the seals on the scroll, which in chapter 6 unleashes the consummation of his glory. There we see that the rider of the white horse has gone out "conquering, and to conquer" (6:2), and the other horsemen have likewise gone forth bringing war, famine, pestilence, and death. Between seals six and seven is the vision of Revelation 7, comprising both the sealing of the 144,000 and the image of the great multitude before the throne.

The immediate backdrop of this interlude is the sixth seal, which unleashes the cataclysmic overturning of the natural order, usually associated in Scripture with the Day of the Lord: "…and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood … and every mountain and island were moved out of their place" (Rev. 6:12-14; cf. Is. 13:10, 50:3; Zech. 14:3-8). This is no mere natural disaster. This is the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, as even the unbelieving kings of the earth discern. "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb" (6:16). The theophanic glory of the throne room reality in chapters 4 and 5 begins to intrude on the created order below. Judgment and wrath, long delayed, are now poured out.

It is understandable how an eschatology of fear could arise from such a text! The Day of the Lord rightly holds nothing but terror for many. But we err greatly if we fail to understand that those terrified are unbelievers. Further, the text clearly states that even they know the source of their terror-the divine presence and the Lamb's wrath. The following interlude directly addresses how the Church is comforted-not terrified!-by the appearance of the living God. It answers the rhetorical question, "And who is able to stand?" The Church's comfort has always been secured by the turning away of the Lamb's wrath; her blessing has always been expressed by the dwelling of the divine presence in her midst; and her hope has always been the final judgment of her enemies (Rom. 5:9, Ex. 33:15-16, Psalms 2 and 7).

No Wrath for the 144,000

The first image in chapter 7 shows four angels holding back the four winds so that nothing on the earth can be harmed. A fifth angel rising from the east has the seal of the living God, and cries out to the other four, "Do not harm the earth … until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads." This angel proceeds to number the 144,000 sealed bond-servants: twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Enter speculation. One popular reading of this text is that the 144,000 refers to a literal group of ethnic Jews, distinct from the Church and distinct from the "great multitude" that follows in verses 9-17. (2) This surely seems to be warranted by their description as "sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel," not to mention the clear listing of each and every tribe by name. But, since scriptural authors often describe the Church using Old Testament language for Israel (Rom. 9:24-26; 11:5, I Pet. 2:9-10, Rev. 1:6), it is not enough simply to point to the word "Israel" in the text. One must understand in what sense "Israel" is used.

This task becomes somewhat easier because we meet up with 144,000 bond-servants once again in chapter 14. This time they are standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion and have "His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads" (14:1). Unless John is seeking to confuse us, it is not likely that this is a different 144,000! On the contrary, the link is intentional. John includes details to remind us of their prior appearance, in order to expand information about them. In this chapter we learn that the 144,000 alone are able to sing the new song before the throne, because they have been purchased from the earth.

This information alone should convince us that the 144,000 are not a group of ethnic Jews distinct from the Church. They are linked universally and exclusively to the atonement. Moreover, chapter 14 further connects the 144,000 with at least three different descriptions of the Church in Revelation: 1) Rev. 5:9 where we are told the Lamb purchasedpeople "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation"; 2) The great multitude in 7:9-17 which is likewise drawn "from every nation and tribe and people and tongue" and is worshiping before the throne of God and the Lamb; and 3) Rev. 22:3 where "His bond-servants" (indisputably the universal Church in glory) worship before the throne of God and the Lamb, having his name on their foreheads. Given the relevant data, it is clear that the Apostle is describing the Church itself as the New Israel, the fulfillment of Old Testament typology. This is literally what John tells us!

Why does John employ this particular image here? The image is one of census-taking, reminiscent of the numbering of Israel in the wilderness. In Numbers 1, the Lord commands Moses to take a census of "all the congregation of the sons of Israel," counting every male from twenty years old and upward who is able to go out to war in Israel. The tribes were then numbered "by their armies," and in chapter 2 we are told where each numbered army camped under their own standard: north, south, east, and west, "around the tent of meeting at a distance." Revelation 7 thus presents a picture of the whole congregation of the Lord, arrayed in military style and prepared for battle.

Central to the account in Numbers 1-2 is the role of the Levites, who are not counted among the Lord's armies, but who rather are appointed "over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it" (Num. 1:50). (3) As such, they are not a part of the Army of the Lord, but their ministry serves another, more important, function. "But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel" (Num. 1:53). Israel was not to fear the divine presence in their midst, or the wrath of God, as long as the Levites interposed the blood of goats and bulls on their behalf.

Thus, in Revelation 7 John is not informing his readers of some future Jewish converts- note the indeterminate, speculative, and future referent this implies. Rather, he is describing the Church itself, his very audience. He is comforting them in the midst of present and coming judgment. Not only is the New Israel protected from the wrath of God by the blood of the Eschatological Lamb (5:9), they themselves have become a means of carrying out judgment as a holy army. Just as the armies of Israel carried out God's judgment on apostate Canaan of old, so the final judgment will be wrought through the faithful testimony and martyrdom of the Church militant. The faithful have nothing to fear; rather it is their ministry of Word and Sacrament that strikes fear in the hearts of unbelievers. (4)

The Great Multitude

Next John sees a "great multitude from every nation and tribe and people and tongue." But palm branches and white robes have replaced the military array of verses 1-8. The angels and servants of the Lord are no longer carrying out the Lord's military will on the earth, but are worshiping before the heavenly throne. Indeed, an elder tells John distinctly that those in the white robes have been transported out of the conflagration below:

These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne shall spread His tabernacle over them (7:14-15).

This multitude is an image of the universal Church in glory, representing the same people who were purchased by the blood of the Lamb "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." Also, the content of the worship around the throne bears many of the same elements of that in chapters 4 and 5, as well as parallels in many other places in Revelation. (5)

If we conclude that both the 144,000 and the great multitude represent the Church, we must explain John's many stark contrasts: the numbered 144,000 vs. the innu-merable multitude; the twelve tribes vs. all tribes; and a terrestrial vs. a heavenly setting. The answer lies in the common origin of the imagery in the whole chapter: Israel's histor-ical exodus from Egypt, wilderness wandering, and ultimate conquest of the Promised Land. For John, Israel's history foreshadows the Church's eschatological reality. The Church's experience now can be explained and understood as the fulfillment of Israel's sacred history.

Thus, the great multitude are those who have "come out of the great tribulation," which is the same language used by the Greek Old Testament to describe Israel in Exodus 3:17. Also, the garment washing (7:14) reminds us of the Lord's command that Israel wash their robes before meeting him at Sinai (Ex. 19:10-14). The wilderness tabernacle has now become the temple. Instead of camping around the tent of meeting, he who sits on the throne spreads his tabernacle over them all (7:15)! The blessings of the redeemed are described in the same language that Isaiah (49:10) used to describe the wilderness provision of the Lord: "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to springs of the water of life" (Rev. 7:17).

Thus, as 7:1-8 depicts the army of the Lord marching through the wilderness to enter the Promised Land, 7:9-17 portrays the Exodus fulfillment of the entry into the eternal rest of the Promised Land inheritance (Heb. 4). The divine presence (literally, "face"), from which the kings of the earth hide, has become the eternal blessed vision of the children of God, "And they shall see His face" (Rev. 22:4). Throughout, the Lamb is the focus of this account of the Church in glory. It is him whom they worship, it is his blood which has washed their robes clean, and he is the Shepherd who guides them to springs of living water. His blood is for them; his wrath is not. Therefore, his coming brings them no terror, only great joy.

Church Militant, Church Triumphant

Does your eschatology provide you with Christian comfort? If it does not, then it is not the eschatology of the New Testament. For in the New Testament we find ourselves in the text, sealed unto eternal life by the blood of the Lamb. We are the Army of the Lord, the New Israel, protected from the blasts of all tribulation by the power of the living God. Though we may suffer as martyrs, the first death holds no terror, only added glory. We do not fear the present revelation of the righteous judgment of God, rather we recognize its revelation in our midst through Word and Sacrament, and eagerly anticipate its consummation. This is the blessed comfort of the Church Militant, the saints on earth awaiting the return of their Lord and Savior, when they will finally be vindicated for all the world to see.

Even the vision of the Church Triumphant, gathered about the throne in worship, is not a foreign reality to us. For though the last enemy has not yet been abolished, Paul tells us that we are already seated in the heavenlies with Christ (Eph. 2:6). Because we already have been washed with the blood of the Lamb, we know that we will soon be before the throne of God, as those who have gone before us presently are. Indeed, the first-fruits of this blessing have appeared in the risen Christ. We have a foretaste of the bounty of the marriage feast of the Lamb every time we receive communion. Even our future blessings are a present comfort!

Revelation 7 is typical of New Testament eschatology, basing our future comfort squarely upon the completed work of the slain Lamb. "Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him" (Rom. 5:9). With the Psalmist and with our confessions, we eagerly await the final judgment of God: "Arise, O Lord, in Thine anger. Lift up Thyself against the rage of my adversaries, and arouse Thyself for me; Thou has appointed judgment" (Psalm 7:2).

Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world (Belgic Confession, Article XXXVII)
1 [ Back ] Though these texts (and Revelation in particular) do present their share of exegetical challenges, this is primarily the result of their heavy dependence on Old Testament prophecy, and our relative ignorance of the same.
2 [ Back ] The Open Bible suggests this reading by way of its editorial heading over 7:1-8: "144,000 Jews," versus "Great Multitude of Gentiles," over 7:9-17. A brief survey of commentaries evidences the popularity of this view.
3 [ Back ] The fact that the Levites are numbered in Revelation 7:1-8 is one of many differences in this listing of the tribes from the many Old Testament counterparts. The literature on this question often notes that the tribe of Judah has been given priority, likely to represent its preeminence as the provenance of the Messiah (see "The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again," Richard Baukham, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 42, 99). In light of the emphasis given to the non-numbering of the Levites in Numbers 1-2, their inclusion is likely also of significance. In the New Israel, the Blood of the Eschatological Lamb has rendered Levitical tabernacle ministry obsolete (Rev. 5:9, Heb. 9), allowing them to take up arms with their brethren.
4 [ Back ] It is important to note one possible objection. This reading suggests that John thought the church in his day was going to see with their own eyes the consummation of all history, and this clearly did not occur. Many conclude that John did believe this, but that he and the rest of the New Testament erred with regard to the timing of these events. Evangelicals soften this error with the New Testament teaching that neither the day nor the hour is known.
However, there is more than timing at stake here. John clearly claimed that he was living in the "last hour" (I John 2:18). Though this is not a prediction of Christ's return, it is an explicit depiction of his church as the eschatological church, which has already seen in her midst the rising of many antichrists. When we say that the New Testament authors were in error regarding the proximity of Christ's return, we are denying the eschatological character of the church, which has remained the same for the last two thousand years
A possible solution is to conclude that the war, famine, death, and persecution of John's own day was a part of the consummate judgment of the Lamb's wrath-as is the war, famine, death, and persecution of our day. God has already begun his consummate judgment of this evil age. This is not to reduce what appears to be supernatural judgment in Revelation to the merely natural rumblings of the globe, nor to deny the coming of a universally witnessed overthrow of the natural order. Rather, it affirms God's providential directing of history toward its appointed goal, as well as emphasizing the radical disjunct in human history wrought by the first coming of Christ. With the work of the cross, the consummation has begun. Unlike our Old Testament Fathers in the faith, there is nothing standing between the Apostles (or us) and the summing up of all things. It is the last hour.
5 [ Back ] Rev. 14:1-5; 15:1-8; 19:1-6; 22:1-5. In particular, the only other appearance of "great multitude" in Revelation (19:1 and 19:6) has so many details in common with 7:9-17 that it can only be construed as a direct parallel. In 19:5, the "great multitude" is also called "all you His bond servants," further evidence that the 144,000 and the "great multitude" represent the same reality of the church, considered from different perspectives.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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