It is an astounding vision of heaven, not one, perhaps, to which we are accustomed.¹ This vision is found in Revelation 7 through Revelation 9.
All destruction on earth has stopped in the vision John is allowed to see in the book of Revelation. He stands at an open door, and sees something that is overwhelming.
You get the sense, as he writes, that even he doesn’t know how to describe what he sees.
The sixth seal has been broken from the scroll by the Lamb. Yet before the seventh seal is broken, John gets a powerful reminder of what is reserved for those who overcome.
The overcomers will be marked and protected.
Yes. John gets to see the hope before the terror – because it will get worse, before it gets better.
John wrote that he witnessed 144,000, from the twelve tribes of Israel, marked for protection. 144,000. Compared to the billions of people who claim to believe in Jesus, across the scope of time and space on planet Earth, 144,000 seems like a number too small. Maybe some discernment is helpful.
The total number – 144,000 – is the product of the number 12, which is squared and then multiplied by 1,000. 144,000 is meant, here, to be symbolic of completeness. I don’t believe it’s meant to be a literal amount.
Moreover, since the church, consistently, in the New Testament, has taken the title of the new Israel (especially in 1 Peter 2:9), these thousands are also symbolic of the believing church alive – and protected – when the seventh seal is broken.
After John witnessed this marking, he then saw what one commentator calls the “bliss of the redeemed in heaven.” There is an innumerable (innumerable … more than the counted 144,000!) multitude of people, from all ethnicities, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, holding palm leaves in their hands. They are those whose lives had ended, and had ascended to the very presence of God.
They were people who had also overcome.
This innumerable multitude would never experience uncertainty ever again, because God has wiped away every tear from their eyes.
John needed to see these scenes of hope, of those alive, who believe in God and who will be explicitly protected. He also needed to see those who died and had received the completeness of the very souls in the presence of God. He needed to see them in particular, because what he saw next is, quite simply, terrifying. The imagery that follows is hard to imagine – graphic and unnatural and grotesque.
Did you catch that? God includes the prayers of his saints in this dramatic unfolding of the end of time.
We know that, because the trumpets, and the destruction that follows God’s hearing of these prayers, can only be seen as an answer to them.
The answer to those prayers, then, comes from God in the form of fire. Lots and lots and lots of fire.
- Fire, from the fire of the alter, was hurled to earth, and with it thunder, lightning, and an earthquake.
- Fire, along with hail, mingled with blood, burned the vegetation on earth.
- A burning mountain was thrown into the sea, which turned the sea to blood.
- A star, which fell as a torch from heaven, tainted the drinking water of humanity. Darkness followed, and the light of the sun, moon, and stars was hidden. Of course darkness would follow, if a star – a star that reminded John of a “torch of heaven” – fell from the sky.
Fire. The answer to those prayers came in the vehicle of fire.
These answers sound like plagues, don’t they?
They are meant to sound like plagues. They are meant to remind us of another time, in history, when God sent plagues in response to prayers and cries for deliverance.
The Egyptians had once enslaved the Israelites. And the Egyptians faced the full attack of God when they refused to free the Israelites.
So again, we find the very same plagues, sent to the oppressive forces who have attempted to enslave the people of God.
And, as if these plagues – these answers to prayers – weren’t enough, the abyss is opened, and smoke arose from the abyss “like the smoke of a gigantic furnace.”
Now, the opening of the abyss is seen as an answer to the prayers of God’s people.
Locusts also came from the abyss (again, one of the ten plagues against the Egyptians) and are released, but are told to not kill any human. The locusts should only torment the humans, and make them afraid (which, of course, is nothing like those protected in the presence of God, in the vision John saw before the horrors began).
At last, at the sound of the sixth trumpet, from the sixth angel, four other angels are summoned – four angels “kept ready” for this very moment. We must see, too, that these four angels, and their specific preparation, are tied to the answer of the prayers from the altar seated before God.
These four angels were sent to kill a third of humanity.
Notice, again, that in the unfolding moments of history, God allows our requests and prayers to be an active ingredient in these amazing moments.
Please, whatever you do, don’t miss that.
And our reading ends, today, with these terrors not being enough to convince humanity to repent of their idolatry. Really. Think of all the horrible images in these visions, and then read this verse:
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20, 21; ESV)
And this is the cliff-hanger of our reading through these entire ninety days. There is much, much more John sees in this vision.³
I’ll only say this about the many different ways to interpret this vision. I’m not sure we are supposed to figure out which beast is which person in history. The point of this vision isn’t to make us try to decipher every character. Moreover, to try to decipher these visions can only mean that we don’t trust the God on the throne, protecting us from whatever violence and judgment is delivered upon our oppressors.
If God is on the throne, isn’t that enough?
But for today, know this. Your words, to God, are special. They are, perhaps, besides his Son at his side, his most prized possession in the array of this throne room. They are kept close to him, closer than any elder or any angel. And when he chooses to grant his saints the reprieve they desperately want, his rescue is both valiant and terrifying.
Yes, dear believer, our prayers are reserved for the end of our world. And their answers are mixed with the fire of cleansing upon those who stand in opposition to God.
These things are incredibly scary. Even so, God has marked you for protection. He will deliver you to his throne room, to be protected and delivered from every fear.
So, whatever comes next in this vision, do not be afraid!
¹Today is day 86.
²Our reading today, by the way, is Revelation 7 through Revelation 9. I began this journey eighty-six days ago, which was a challenge to read through the New Testament in 90 days, and blogging every day of that day’s particular reading. To say that I have waited all summer to read Revelation is an obvious understatement.
³John knew it was a vision, which, obviously, he interpreted according to this own life experiences. His admission of such is found in Revelation 9:17. Read it carefully, where he says this, “And this is how I saw the horses in my vision …”