Seeing ourselves in Revelation 14

There is no denying that, for any modern reader, the Book of Revelation is a strange text; we will not learn from it by pretending that it does not present challenges. It does reveal things (as the name suggests), but that can simply make life more complicated and confusing. Many of us feel the same when we lift the bonnet of our car; in theory, it is supposed to help us understand if there is a problem, but most of us would rather simply close the bonnet—or take it somewhere where the expert can sort it out for us and tell us the answers!

And yet when we do engage with the text, it is full of insights; reading can give us the feeling of oil prospectors striking oil, and we are overwhelmed with insights. The short description of Rev 14.1–5 gives us a wealth of insight into who we are as the people of God.

Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among the human race and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.  No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless. 

One of my regular habits is to watch Pointless on BBC1 at 5.15, and when greeting the contestants, Alexander Armstrong always asks three sets of questions: Who are you? Where do you live? and What do you do? Rev 14 offers us answers to these three ‘Pointless’ questions.

Who are we?

The question of identity appears to be central in contemporary culture. Socially, we are in the era of ‘identity politics’, and it is easy to cause great offence by failing to acknowledge aspects of the identity of those we are talking with. Biologically and medically, we know more about our physical identity than ever before, and the possibility of genome mapping will tell us everything we want to know about ourselves—as well as a good deal we might not want to know. Personally, the interest in genealogy seems unabated. I am always fascinated that the programme about the genealogical past is not called ‘Who do you think you were?’ but ‘Who do you think you are?’; understanding our identity through the past changes our understanding of ourselves in the present. Danny Dyer, the Eastenders actor, discovered that he was descended from Edward III, and his discovery of a new identity has led to a whole TV series of its own, as his East End Cockney self tries to wear his new identity clothes of royalty.

To understand who Revelation 14 says we are, we need to ‘do the math’. John does his theology through maths and numbers, which will make some hearts sink—but others rejoice! It is clear from chapter 7 that the 144,000 are neither a special group of martyrs, nor an elite group of end-times Jewish evangelists (as some have argued) but the whole people of God. And the number 144,000 has two parts to it, being the product of 12 x 12 with 10 x 10 x 10.

The ’12 x 12′ signifies that we are in continuity with the Old Testament people of God. Just as Jesus chose 12 new patriarchs (the disciples) to begin his Jewish renewal movement, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel, so we stand in the place of God’s Jewish people whom he called out of slavery in Egypt to travel through the wilderness that they might enter the land of promise. We too have been invited to enjoy his rest, which is ours in Jesus (Heb 4.1–10); we too enter into both the blessings and the obligations of living in the presence of our holy God. Throughout his letters to mixed Jewish-Gentile communities, the apostle Paul assumes that followers of the Jewish Jesus will read the Old Testament as their own story, regardless of their ethnic identity. As he says in Romans 11.24, we Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree that is the Jewish people of God.

But, secondly, the ’10 x 10 x 10′ is a number we call a cube, since any space with those measurements has the shape of a cube. This is the distinctive shape of the Holy of Holies, which sat at the centre of the temple, itself the centre of a series of courts in the temple precincts, itself at the centre of Jerusalem, which was the political and theological ‘centre’ of the nation. Here is the place of God’s holy presence; here is the point of connection between heaven and earth. When shown the physical temple, Jesus described his own body as the new temple (John 2.19); Paul talks of Christians as the ‘body of Christ’, and being incorporated into him we too are part of that temple. So Paul talks of our bodies as ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6.19) and Peter talks of us being ‘living stones, being built into his spiritual temple’ (1 Peter 2.15). Revelation 14 is telling us just the same thing.

Now, if you don’t find that surprising, then just look at the people sitting next to you: they, too, are holy places, the dwelling of the holy God, and the meeting point of heaven and earth—and they are looking at you with equal surprise! But this is what God has done for us—not because we have deserved it, but because he has ‘loved us, and purchased us with his blood’ (Rev 1.4, 5.9).

Where are we?

Alexander Armstrong’s second Pointless question asks people where they are from, where they live. I travel quite a lot, mostly by train, and it is always fascinating to ask the people who serve me coffee where they come from—and they seem genuinely pleased that someone is interested in them, and not just in the chocolate sprinkles on their cappuccino.

Revelation 14 tells us who we are, but it also immediately tells us where we live, and offers us two answers. First, if we are God’s temple, where would you expect to find us? If you asked anyone in ancient Israel, they would not hesitate to answer you: in the holy city, on Mount Zion. The centre of Israel has a spine of hill country, running between the coastal plain on the West and the Jordan Valley to the East, and so you would always literally have to ‘go up’ to Jerusalem. But this was not just a physical ascent; it was also a spiritual ascent, culminating in the praises of God (singing the ‘Psalms of Ascent’) as you climbed the final steps up into the temple precinct. And in the prophets, this because a hope for the whole world—that Mount Zion would become a great high mountain to which all the nations would be drawn to the presence of God (Is 2.2, 60.3). As the new temple of God, we are the fulfilment of that hope, as Jesus describes us as a ‘city built on a hill’ whose light can be seen by all (Matt 5.14).

But, paradoxically, we are not only located on Mount Zion in the presence of God; we are also living in Babylon, under a regime opposed to everything that God requires. In the previous chapter, John describes God’s people as ‘those who dwell in heaven’ but who are also blasphemed and trample by ‘the beast’, the political and social system opposed to God’s purposes. We live in two worlds, and though there are pressures to conform to one way of living, our true allegiance is to another set of values, another reality, and a different king.

Have you ever seen someone experiencing virtual reality? They put on their headset, perhaps they pick up a handset or a tool, and they begin to act as though they live in another world. For a moment, the other reality becomes more important to them—but viewed from this reality, what they do doesn’t make any sense, because we cannot see what they can see. The same is true for us as God’s people—we are living according to a different reality, and sometimes we do look odd, because what we do does not make sense to those who cannot see what we can see. The difference is that what we see is the true reality, the vision of that which endures. The things around us which look so tangible—material security, reputation amongst our peers, career success, popularity—these in fact are the illusion, and will pass away.

It doesn’t make much sense to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and sing songs with a group of people you wouldn’t otherwise know, rather than have a lie in or go and relax somewhere. It certainly makes no sense to kneel on a beach in Egypt and cry ‘Jesus is Lord!’ as your throat is cut by a terrorist dressed in black, as the Coptic martyrs did four years ago. But all these actions testify to a reality that others cannot see, but which we know is real.

We might gather in the reality of Mount Zion on a Sunday, but we then need to live out our lives in ‘Babylon’ from Monday to Saturday. We are reminded that, in all this we ‘stand before the lamb’; his view of us is the only one that matters!

What do we do?

Alexander Armstrong’s third Pointless question is to then ask each contestant ‘What do you do?’, both in their employment or occupation, and in their spare time. And Revelation 14 gives a very clear answer for us: we sing!

You might or might not like actual singing—some do, some don’t, and some churches are experimenting with doing less singing, or having singing from the front that the congregation mostly listens to rather than joins in with. But singing makes a difference. Gareth Malone has shown the transformative power of community choirs, as people come together to sing. Singing can make a real difference to people suffering from depression and anxiety; singing lifts our souls. One leader of the black churches during Apartheid talks of a time when a cathedral was under siege by troops from the South African Army, and the congregation came out singing—the soldiers did not know what to do. In the rugby match last week between England and Wales, the singing was so loud by the Welsh spectators that John Inverdale had to stop his commentary and just turn and listen—what a song they had to sing! And the singing had a huge impact on the result of the game.

We have a song—and what a song we have to sing! We, who were lost in our woundedness and our sin and our pride—we have been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven! We who were far off have been brought near! We who had no hope in the world have had the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and filled with hope! What a song we have to sing!

And as we sing this song (literally or metaphorically) something remarkable happens. The sound of our singing actually becomes the voice of God speaking to others—that is the meaning of the phrase ‘the rushing of waters and the peal of thunder’. God’s presence is made real as we sing this song together; God is ‘enthroned on the praiseas of Israel’ (Ps 22.3). As we ‘declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2.9) others here the invitation to join the song. But it is a song that can only be sung by those who know this experience for themselves.

And it is a song which is sung not just with our lips, but with our lives. John offers a seven-fold description of God’s people, in three groups, in which there is an intertwining of God’s gracious invitation with a whole-hearted response of committed and disciplined lives, lived to please him and to testify to others the transforming power of God:

These are those who 1. did not defile themselves with women, 2. for they remained virgins.

They 3. follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were 4. purchased from among the human race and 5. offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.

6. No lie was found in their mouths; 7. they are blameless.

So it turns out that our three Pointless questions are anything but pointless! Revelation 14 tells us who we are, where we live, and what we are to do. Today, let us receive his gift of a new identity. Let us rest in his grace. And let us commit once more to live the life he is calling us to.

(Preached last Sunday at St Mary’s, Wollaton).


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6 thoughts on “Seeing ourselves in Revelation 14”

  1. Lovely reflection. Thank you Ian.

    The context of Revelation also seems interesting to me: it feels like an unveiling and exposing of empire, worldly empire.

    The other context I think is worth reflecting on is that it’s written in a genre or eschatological end-times tradition that was clearly not exclusive to this book. (You only have to look at some US fundamentalist groups grasp that concept to recognise its power. When we feel at odds with culture around us, or oppressed by it, it’s easy to yearn for the end-times for vindication.)And one therefore questions whether some elements of Revelation draw on that tradition and its mind-set. It’s sort of communicating through a type and genre the audience may have been familiar with, and may have warmed to in an Imperial setting, from what was doing the rounds. So the whole end days tradition may be a platform, a means of communicating and connecting, even though those end days may not actually occur for another million years.

    Yet our fragile lives are so short, and so we inhabit our own end days, and the message and exhortation is urgent and compelling.

    I admit I’ve never watched ‘Pointless’!

  2. Ian, quick question – would John’s readers/hearers have understood his numbers, eg the 144,000 as you understand them, rather than literal or some other meaning?

    Peter

    • I think probably yes and no. The first century world appears to have had less trouble with theological and symbolic reading that we, in our post-Enlightenment/rationalistic context appear to have.

      The appointed of twelve apostles does not appear to have been lost on Jesus’ followers.

      And the text of Revelation is so replete with careful detail that it is hard to think John would not imagine people looking at it very carefully.

      So overall, the answer is ‘yes’—for those prepared to read carefully.

  3. Thank you for this Ian. It has the contemporaneous life, vitality, application, of the sermon that it is. It is, of itself, worship, leading us to praise with thankful responsive worship.

    As an aside, it is largely in the present tense, and has an immediacy, which is something (Dr) Gary Millar and Phil Campbell advocate in their commended short book on preaching, “Saving Eutychus.”

  4. What a revelation! I wasn’t too far in before thinking “This is a sermon!” – how refreshingly easy to assimilate. I had thought of dropping in to St Nics to see if you distill truth in the same way as you blog; but now I can save myself a journey. Often I have to reread a blog to get it but not here.

    Two questions: do you think you could write the critique of Jane Williams as digestible as this; and, are those of us who are teachers under a trust to always convey truth in a form which all, and not just academics, can grasp?

    I use this passage with JW’s who take the 144000 literally and ask why there are no married people in that number. Immediately they have a problem interpreting the number literally but the virgins metaphorically in the same context!

    • Thanks for the comment Peter. Sermons are preached in a different register from other material, and in fact in writing this sermon up I had to adapt quite a bit. (This wasn’t preached at St Nic’s.)

      I have checked out whether most readers would like more accessible and less dense content—and the firm answer has been ‘no’. Writing in this way offers less content, though with more application. I think many people wanting my perspective e.g. on biblical passages will do further processing themselves.

      However, if I do start offering some (video) podcasts they would achieve that, and offer something complementary to the current content.

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