Understanding who we are from 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 in 2015. 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 on TV a couple of years ago 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.

(Based on a sermon preached at St Mary’s, Wollaton, Nottingham in February 2019. For more detailed analysis of Revelation 14, see this article.)


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26 thoughts on “Understanding who we are from Revelation 14”

  1. Magnificent Ian ! A Holy moment to start the day.
    This is a great benefit, and so thankful that He
    “daily loads us with benefits”

    Reply
  2. This article feels like it should contain the comment from the more detailed one linked at the close, namely that what John sees in Revelation 14 should be interpreted in relation to what he has previously heard, as this is a repeated in the letter.

    Your published commentary and the more exegetical articles on the blog make this much more explicit, and my personal experience of teaching on Revelation (albeit significantly more limited that yours) is that understanding the way John uses this hearing-seeing pattern is the key tool in helping people understand what the text is doing here and the starting point in unpacking the passage; the numbers are more interesting and dominant theologically, sure, but it just feels like the other bit is missing.

    Maybe that’s just me?

    Otherwise, always a good read.

    Reply
  3. Doesn’t the Greek of 1 Corinthians 6:19 mean that Paul is referring to the collective church as the temple – not that each individual person is a temple.

    Reply
    • Ian P.
      But not by invitation, in a Kingdom Hall!
      It is doubted such an invitation would be extended.
      To me, the piece benefits from being sermon based.

      Reply
    • “The corporate nature of Paul’s language is evident and provides a good antidote to the rampant individualistic readings of Paul that dominate much of the landscape of Pauline interpretation, both within the academy and the church.”
      —Ben Witherington III and Jason Myers commenting on James Dunn’s understanding of Paul.

      I think it is difficult to overestimate the depth and breadth of this misunderstanding of Paul that this creates in theology today.

      Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers, Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly Trends (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2020), 135.

      Reply
      • “In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul makes a remarkable transfer of this imagery from the church to the individual believer. Thus God not only dwells in the midst of his people by the Spirit, but has likewise taken up residence in the lives of his people individually by the same life-givinh Spirit.
        “The significance of this transfer of images should mot be missed. The context has yo do with sexual immorality. Paul’s concern is with the sanctification of the believer……
        “In this final moment of argument with them,Paul appeals to the presence of the Spirit in their lives in the context of the saving eork of Christ.
        “In ‘purchasing’ for God’s glory, Christ also purchased their bodies, as evidenced by the Holy Spirit , whose temple they are because God now dwells not in temples made by human hands, but by temples constructed by his own hands.
        “Thus they are not their own, to do with their bodies as they please.
        “They beling to the God who purchased them through Christ’s sacrifice and noe indwells them by his Spirit.”
        Gordon Fee: “PAUL, the SPIRIT and the PEOPLE of GOD” Hodder+Stoughton 1997
        ( a distillation of his tome, God’s Empowering Presence – with over 700 pages of exegesis)

        Reply
        • Hi Geoff,

          Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21)

          How many temples are there? As Witherington and Myers comment, “individualistic readings of Paul dominate … within the academy and the church.”

          Reply
          • Fee’s is far an individualistic reading in context of Corinthian which I quoted, which I hope is plain, clear, notwithstanding my phone typos. (A point which you don’t address, but move on to cite Jesus as being the temple. That I and Ian Paul full agree with, but it certainly does not contradict, the indwelling Presence of God, where 2 or 3 are collectively gathered in Christ’s name, nor individual believers, to follow Jesus by, through, and in his Holy Spirit, in holiness ( even as living stones!).
            Doesn’t the Holy Spirit, indwell you? As a reality, not a mere intellectual concept?
            At present I’m not at home, so don’t have Fee’s book at hand to quote more extensively, if it were necessary.

          • Geoff,

            The issue I was addressing is that many believers think that their bodies are temples. I am not disputing that the holy spirit is in individual believers – in some way!

    • The context in 1 Cor 16 strongly suggests to me that the reference in v19 is to the actual body of an individual:

      15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (ESV)

      Corporately [sic], Christians are ‘members’, i.e. parts, of the Body of Christ. Thus, the church is not our body, but his body. Our bodies are to be treated as set apart for holy use, because they are part of His body.

      However, I do agree with you that much theology, particularly evangelical theology, is too individualistic. It is just that in this case, it is about individuals and what they do with their own bodies.

      Reply
      • Hi David,

        Thanks for this comment. We are now moving away from the subject of this blog but briefly I would suggest even 1 Cor 6:15 is corporate. You will notice that Paul employs the same verse, the Genesis 2:24 covenantal affinity union, in Ephesians 5:31-32 to describe our union with Christ (no sexual dimension). I suggest he employs the same concept to say that members of the Corinthian church (not body parts) should not apostatise —’make a covenant’ to go back to the world —the ‘prostitute’.

        Hamer, Colin. “Genesis 2:24 and the New Covenant: A Profound Mystery.” Unio Cum Christo Vol. 4 No. 2 (2018): 63‒80.

        Reply
        • 1 Corinthians 6:15-16:

          “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh’ [Genesis 2:24 ‘one flesh’ = one family]. But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

          See how the specific contrast Paul is making is not being sexually chaste but being ‘one spirit with the Lord’. Paul cites sexual sins as an example of how you demonstrate you are not ‘one spirit with the Lord’ —which is achieved via the Genesis 2:24 union where we become one family with Christ.

          Reply
          • To C H and D W Some words from CK Barrett are appropriate here : “There is no inconsistency between the two ways of using the metaphor; both are correct, and each is used in an appropriate context.” However, with reference to Colin’s comment that we are moving away from the subject of this blog: there is so much more of the original content that needs to be unpacked; particularly in relation to the contents of two previous posts: Psephizo [16 -5 -21] and [18 – 8 – 21].

  4. The 144,000 are first mentioned in Chapter 7 i.e. all from the 12 tribes of Israel.
    these are “redeemed from the earth” — withdrawn from it, bought away by the heavenly promises and the Divine grace to live above it, independent of it. They are quite severed from the world in heart and life.
    “They are virgins,” in that they have lived chaste lives, both as to their faithfulness to God in their religion, and as to their pureness from all bodily lewdness.
    A further quality is their truthfulness. “In their mouth was not found what is false.” These people were truthful in speech, had also a higher truthfulness. They have the true faith; they hold to it with a true heart; they exemplify it by a true manner of life. They are the children of truth in the midst of a world of untruth.
    Taking the last particular first, they stand approved, justified, and accepted before God. “They are blameless.” To stand before God approved and blameless from the midst of a condemned world — a world given over to the powers of perdition by reason of its unbelief and sins, is an achievement of grace and faithfulness in which there may well be mighty exultation.

    2. In the next place, they have a song which is peculiarly and exclusively their own. Though not connected with the throne, as the Living Ones, nor crowned and seated as the Elders, they have a ground and subject of joy and praise which neither the Living Ones nor the Elders have; nor is any one able to enter into that song except the 144,000. None others ever fulfil just such a mission, as none others are ever sealed with the seal of the living God in the same way in which they were sealed. They have a distinction and glory, a joy and blessedness, after all, in which none but themselves can ever share.

    3. They stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion. To be “with the Lamb,” as over against being with the Beast, is a perfection of blessing which no language can describe. It is redemption. It is victory. It is eternal security and glory. To be with the Lamb “on Mount Zion” {Note – Along with the rest of the redeemed ,see on in Ch.7} is a more special position and relation. Glorious things are spoken of Jerusalem which have never yet been fulfilled. On His holy hill of Zion God hath said that He will set up His King, even His Son, who shall rule all the nations (Psalm 2.). The Lamb is yet to take possession of the city where He was crucified, there to fulfil what was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin over His head when He died. And when that once comes to pass, these 144,000 are with Him, His near and particular associates in that particular relation and administration.

    4. They are “a firstfruits to God and to the Lamb,” not the firstfruits of all the saved, for the Living Ones and the Elders are in heavenly place and glory above and before them; but a first fruit of another and particular harvest; the first fruit from the Jewish field, in that new beginning with the Israelitish people for their fathers’ sakes, which is to follow the ending of the present “times of the Gentiles.” They are brought to the confession of Christ, and sealed in their foreheads with the name of both the Father and the Son, during the time that the rest of their blood-kin are covenanting with and honouring the Antichrist as Messiah. [From a sermon by J. A. Seiss, D. D.
    @/biblehub.com/sermons/auth/seiss/the_144000.htm]
    This might well be one of G.K.Chestertons “paradoxes”
    that the life of Christ and subsequently of the saints is a life of tribulation and heart sorrow it is yet a life of rejoicing and great blessing, and that they and Jesus have endured a similar history that others in heaven have not.

    Reply
  5. The Coptic Christians were murdered in Libya, not Egypt.
    They died at the hands of the Islamic State who became active in the chaos in Libya after the Nato attacks which caused the death of Gaddafi. The attacks were coordinated by David Cameron and Sarkozy.
    Gaddafi’s overthrow meant Libya became the embarkation point for sub-Saharan Africans headed for Europe. Well done, Lord Cameron,

    Reply
  6. Singing, yes indeed. I agree with Schopenhauer that music is the greatest art form because it bypasses the intellect. It fools equally high-church Christians with their soaring choirs, and charismatic Christians with their ecstatic worship songs, into thinking they are in the presence of the divine when they are merely responding deeply to the music. (But Christians can be equally moved by secular music, and teenagers and pagans respond equally to their own preferred music.) I doubt that in heaven we shall be performing plays, painting or viewing pictures, or reading novels that praise Jesus Christ even in his presence; but we shall indeed be singing. Imagine what that will be like!

    Reply

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