The Eternal Outcomes of the Eternal Gospel (Revelation Sermon 26 of 49)
November 19, 2017 | Andy Davis
I love the stories of church history, of heroes of the faith, men and women who have courageously stood for Christ through 20 centuries, willing to lay down their lives for the advance of the Gospel. The early Christians during the Roman era, for example, were willing to have their blood mingled with the sands of the Colosseum, to stand firm for Christ and not yield to burn that pinch of incense to Caesar. That trail of blood and courage and love and glory has unfolded in every generation since Christ. Most of the greatest stories of the past have yet to be told, but when all is said and done, some of the greatest, most courageous stories of Christian witness have yet to happen.
Revelation provides a glimpse of the future. God gave us the book to tell us what must soon take place to help us understand that terrible times are coming. Revelation 12-13 unfolds the drama behind the scene of then-current events of politics and government. Revelation 12 depicts a dragon, Satan, turning the knobs and pulling the levers and flipping the switches of human history. He has been running the world all along, because he is the prince of this world. In some sense he owns the world and can give it to anyone he wants to. The terrifying end of that chapter makes it plain that he hates the children of God, the followers of Jesus. He is filled with rage against them and he will persecute them.
Revelation 13, one of the most sobering chapters in the book, reveals his weapon of choice, the Beast from the Sea, at the end of the world to enact his hatred for the people of God. He summons the beast, which is a world empire, from the undulating waves of humanity. The wicked empire is ultimately represented by one head of the beast, a single man, who the Antichrist, the one-world ruler. All tribes and languages and peoples and nations will submit to his authority. When he supposedly receives a mortal wound and is in some deceptive way raised from apparent death, he gains the awe and wonder of the world, adding a religious element of worship to his regime.
A second beast, the Beast from the Earth, the false prophet, is brought forth. He points to the Beast from the Sea, the Antichrist, and compels everyone all over the world to bow down and worship him as God. There is no separation of church and state; the most powerful military police state the world has ever seen will perpetrate the worst governmental compulsion there ever has been, forcing individuals to worship the beast. At the end of the chapter the false prophet compels people to receive a mark of allegiance to the beast on the forehead or on the hand; without it they cannot buy or sell. Verse 18 says, “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
How does Revelation 14 fit into the flow of these events? It is set in the context of understanding the coming beast and outcomes beyond that. Will the beast finally win? Will he drag everyone to hell? Or will there be a company of redeemed who will stand firm with courage and faithful endurance to make it to the other side? The answer to that last question is absolutely, there will be those who endure to the end. The first half of this chapter is a response to the terror of the reign of Antichrist and the greater power of the Gospel to rescue people from it. The image of the proclamation of the Gospel should be forefront in our thinking.
The Lamb and the 144,000 Standing on Mount Zion
Verse 1 begins with two interpretive challenges. Revelation 14:1 says, “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.” Where is this Mount Zion, and who are the 144,000?
Mount Zion in the Bible is sometimes physical and earthly and sometimes heavenly and spiritual. Is this a heavenly scene of Mount Zion spoken of in Hebrews 12, “not … a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire” but a heavenly place where the spirits of departed saints go to worship and wait for the resurrection? Or is it an earthly scene of the physical Jerusalem? There are arguments for each.
The angel said in Acts 1 to the disciples who stood watching as Jesus ascended, expecting him to come back immediately, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (In the meantime, Jesus gave them work to do.) Zechariah 14:3-4 implies that Jesus will return right there to the same spot on the Mount of Olives, lending support to those who say Revelation 14:1 refers to literal, earthly Jerusalem: “Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as He fights on a day of battle [Battle of Armageddon]. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem…”
Whether a heavenly or earthly Mount Zion, they are with Jesus, indicating that they are beyond the finish line, praise God. They are either in Heaven eternally or on earth after the Second Coming and they have seen the victory described in Revelation 19. The first five verses are a celebration that God’s people will survive the reign of the Antichrist. Hallelujah!
Who Are They?
As for the 144,000, there are two possibilities among evangelical commentators. Some say they represent all of the redeemed in Christ, that verse 1 is spiritually true of all believers. Others say they represent a subset of believers who are tagged as special and unique.
The first time the number 144,000 is mentioned is in Revelation 7:3-4. Revelation 7:3 says, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God. Then I heard the number of those who are sealed, 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” There, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel are sealed as God’s servants.
The word “tribe” is interesting. A few verses later, Revelation 7:7-9 uses it in a broader sense to mean all the redeemed: “After this, I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” A brother or sister in another country would be from a specific people group, or tribe, to which missionaries have been sent. The word “tribe” means something.
Let us stick with hermeneutics and say they are tribes of Israel — Jews — or else this does not mean anything. Romans 11 teaches at the end of redemptive history, right before the Second Coming of Christ, all Israel will be saved. God will take the hardness and blindness away from the minds of the Jews so they will see at last what so many Gentiles could see so clearly. The Law and the prophets clearly point to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the Son of David, the Savior of the world. They will repent and believe in Him. Many prophecies talk about this. It makes sense in Revelation 14 that this is the same group of 144,000. They are sealed at the end of time before the Second Coming of Christ from the Jewish tribes and they are unique; they do not represent everyone.
There are other indications in Revelation 14 that these are not all believers. Verse 4 says “These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure.” That is the NIV 84 translation. A more literal translation reads, “They did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins.” If this were referring to all believers, which includes men and women, it would not make sense to note that they do not defile themselves with women. This is most likely an unmarried group of Jewish men who are chaste, celibate, never having partaken in sexual interaction. They are not immoral — they do not defile themselves sexually; and they choose not to be married.
Verse 1 says the “144,000 … had [the Lamb’s] name and his Father's name written on their foreheads.” They are marked with Jesus’ name, and with the name of the Father, they are believers, this is a direct contrast to the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast identifies those who worship the beast as God, and this seal identifies these 144,000 as those who worship Jesus as God. It is a clear contrast. It seems to be a sense of ownership, like on their foreheads. They think about the Lamb all the time. Their thoughts are dominated with the Lamb, with the glory of God.
Verses 2-3 present a picture of heavenly worship: “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.” John hears a powerful sound flowing from Heaven, which he likens to a waterfall and a thunder clap, two of the loudest natural sounds on earth. Unlike typical harp music, it is loud; unlike thunder, it is a beautiful melodic sound, like the sound of a harp. (The harp and trumpet are the only two instruments mentioned in the book of Revelation.)
This is reminiscent of Revelation 4, the heavenly scene in which John, invited to go through the door into the heavenly realms where he sees Almighty God seated on His throne, joins the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders encircling the throne in worship. It is refreshing after the horror of Revelation 13 — the Antichrist, the mark of the beast and all the terror and idolatry and wickedness, to know that the “heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.” We yearn to hear that song in place of the dissonance and discordant sounds of our tortured earth.
The phrase “new song” is provocative. It suggests a new arrangement of the synapses or receptors of our soul for a pattern of music no one has ever heard before, but when we hear it, it will move us as never before. It will be a heavenly song which will melt us and satisfy us and delight us.
Verse 3 says, “No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” This gives us an idea that the 144,000 are a subset of the larger group of the redeemed. They receive an honor. We get to listen to it. John has heard it. But these 144,000 alone have the honor of learning and singing this song. They paid for it with their suffering and courage.
John Piper said in Let the Nations Be Glad, his book about missions, that missions exist where worship does not. The purpose of missions is to create worship for the true living God. Before the Gospel comes and takes hold, there is idolatry — worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator. When missionaries come to town, idolatry is replaced with genuine worship. Piper says, “There will come a day that missions and evangelism will be done, it will be fulfilled, but worship will go on forever.”
The 144,000 are pure. “These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. … No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.” Revelation 14:9-11 describes the sobering reality of eternal conscious torment, and it merits a special focused study. It is wise to link struggle that we may have with sexual sin with the threat of Hell. Jesus did that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” There is an ongoing epidemic of secret sexual sin. It is right for us to fear Hell in light of that. These 144,000 did not defile themselves sexually.
The second part says they were virgins, so it seems they abstained from marriage. I believe the Roman Catholic Church has got it wrong on clerical celibacy, which they have required for centuries. Paul calls forbidding or disparaging marriage as unclean “the doctrine of demons.” Hebrews 13 says, “The marriage bed is undefiled.” Ephesians 5 likens a relationship between Jesus and His church to the complete relationship, including sexual, between the husband and wife. There is nothing impure about marriage; it is a good gift from God, the first human institution He established.
If that is the case, why do these 144,000 redeemed from the Jews not get married? It seems to be a conscious choice for the sake of the mission and in light of what is going on at that time. Jesus says in Matthew 19:12, “... there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Eunuch in that context means they renounced marriage, willingly. They are not commanded to do it by ecclesiastical authority. It is not the doctrine of demons but it is their choice to be single.
Paul extols the practical spiritual value of singleness. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 he says, “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided.” These 144,000 did not have divided interests. In 1 Corinthians 7:26 Paul, speaking to single people, goes beyond that: “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are.” I do not know what present crisis was going on, but it had to do with a spiritual crisis of persecution and difficulty in the world.
He continues in verse 29-31: What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” How much more true will those words be a couple of years before Jesus returns, during the reign of the Antichrist? If the time was short when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 7, it will be much shorter then. Perhaps the 144,000 renounced marriage so they could be totally focused on the will of Christ.
It will be very difficult for a married man in those days. Jesus said how difficult it would be for pregnant women and nursing mothers. What about loving husbands and fathers? If there is that level of persecution, your job would be to protect and provide for your family. Water and food will be scarce, the mark of the beast is there, they are hunting down people who will not bow down, and your job would be to take care of your wife and your kids.
Extreme Devotion, a book about the persecuted church over 20 centuries, provides testimonies throughout church history of people who have suffered for the Gospel. Richard Wurmbrand, a missionary to Romania, tells the story from the communist era about Pastor Florescu, who was arrested for being a Christian leader. He was tortured savagely to coerce him to give up the names of his fellow worshipers. He would not yield; he would rather die than give up their names, until they brought in his 14-year-old son, Alexander. They whipped and beat him to get the information from his father. It was more than Pastor Florescu could endure. “…he cried to his son, ‘Alexander, I must say what they want! I can’t bear your beating anymore!’ The son answered, ‘Father, don’t do me the injustice of having a traitor as a parent. Withstand! If they kill me, I will die with the words of Jesus [on my lips]….’ The Communists, enraged, fell upon the child and beat him to death, with blood spattered over the walls of the cell. He died praising God.”
It is understandable how earthly connections would be a weakness; the urge to protect one’s family in a situation like that would divide one’s interests. This is not a denigration of marriage but a choice given the circumstances.
Total Dedication to Christ
They are totally dedicated. Verse 4 says, “They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” They are willing to die for Jesus. Where does the Lamb go? He goes to seek and save the lost, and He will be doing that right to the final moment. He will send these men (and angels) to preach the Gospel to people. Though they are the hardest, most wicked generation there ever has been, He is still trying to reach them, still sending people to proclaim the eternal Gospel. These 144,000 are like SEAL Team Six: focused, dedicated, cannot be shut up, willing to die for Jesus in that final few years of human history. Is that not a measurement of His love for wicked rebels who are cursing Him and bowing down to an idol? God loves these men.
Jesus said [Mark 8:34, Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23], “If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me, for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake and for the Gospel will find it.” He says in John 12:24-26, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself a single seed, but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me. And where I am, there my servant will be also. My father will honor the one who serves me.” These are 144,000 honorable men who are willing to lay down their lives for Jesus.
Revelation 14:4 continues, “They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.” The word “firstfruits” implies that they will be the first offering from among a massive harvest to follow. We cannot say how many will be converted in those final days, but the word implies that these men will be effective witnesses to bring many to Christ.
After the 144,000, three angels appear in midair. They bring pronouncements of warning and judgment: fear the God who made the earth and everything in it, and flee to the only refuge there is, the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ; the evil world system called Babylon the Great, set up under the Antichrist, has fallen and the judgement of God is on it, so flee from its allurements and its poisonous drink of sexual immorality; and the consequences of worshipping the Antichrist and receiving his mark and bowing down to the idol will be eternal conscious torment.
These three warnings are given by grace from a loving God who is perfectly just. Wrath is most certainly coming, so be warned and flee while there is time. Those who take the warnings seriously will flee to Christ and find a Savior. I believe God will literally send these three angels, but He is not obligated to give any warnings. We have their message already recorded in Scripture, which is sufficient warning.
The First Angel
Verses 6-7 provide the first angel’s message: “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth-- to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” The worldwide proclamation of the Gospel and the faith that comes from it are the point of redemptive history, so we should be thinking about proclamation of the Gospel with the 144,000.
The angel is a mysterious supplement to the witness of the believers at that point. The word “angel” means “messenger”. This is definitely an angel, not a human messenger. He was given the Gospel to preach. It is tempting to ask the Lord to send angels to preach. There would be no need for missions offerings, missionaries, passports, visas, or TSA. They are relentlessly determined, completely obedient, fearless; they cannot be killed, hurt or arrested; they cannot be stopped.
This is not to say that angels do not participate in the strategy of the spread of the Gospel. The Bible gives many instances of their involvement. Mary was told by an angel that she would bear the Son of God. The day Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels announced His birth, calling him Son of David, Savior of the world. At the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection, an angel rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning; he told the disciples, “He is not here, He is risen.” In the book of Acts, an angel told Cornelius to send messengers to bring Peter to preach. An angel told Philip to go south to the desert road where he preached to the Ethiopian eunuch.
However, the ministry of reconciliation has mostly been entrusted to humans. We cannot be lazy and lean back on angelic intervention for unreached people groups. We have no biblical right to assume that God will send an angel to those people. We are called to reach out to those who have never heard the Gospel.
Imagine the problem if angels were sent exclusively. When the Roman soldiers saw the angel with an appearance like lightning, they shook with fear and became like dead men. If he had revived them to share the Gospel, they would have been ready to listen. But the supernatural display would remove a lot of the faith needed to believe in a human Savior.
Instead, God sends unimpressive, average, regular people who are easy to despise. Jesus was like that. Isaiah 53:2 says, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” The Apostle Paul was contemptible in appearance. His letters are weighty, but his speaking did not move the needle much. He himself said, “I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling.” That is who God sends to the world, people like you and me — weak, sinful, frail servants. We are told to go preach the Gospel. We cannot rest on the angels.
This angel has the eternal Gospel to preach, meaning God had all this worked out before He said, “Let there be light.” The message of Christ and Him crucified is that all humans have violated God’s laws repeatedly, and those who repent of their sins and trust in the one Savior available for the whole human race rather than in their own works will be forgiven and made new. That Savior is the Son of God, Jesus, who was born of a virgin and lived a sinless life and who died on a cross for the sins of the world.
This angel will proclaim “the eternal Gospel … to those who live on the earth — to every nation, tribe, language and people.” He will preach, but it does not mean they will believe the message. Things will be very difficult by then. The seven trumpet judgments have happened. The ecology of the earth has been ravaged. The one-world ruler is in place. Many have received the mark of the beast already.
He gives a warning to those who refused to believe. Verse 7 says, “He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. [Then he points to creation.] Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, so fear the God who has done all of this to the earth.
The Second Angel
The second angel proclaims judgment on Babylon and strengthens the message of the first angel. Verse 8 says, “A second angel followed and said, ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.’” Babylon is code for the worldwide organized human system of wickedness set up by Satan that feeds into our desire for the things that trap us. 1 John 2:15-16 cautions, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life comes not from the Father but from the world.” The spirit of Babylon is present now but in the end it will be ramped up, like a dimmer switch turned up. “Babylon the Great” will be on display at that time for the whole world to participate in.
This angel warns that the whole system of Babylon the Great has fallen. In an instant, it will be thrown down by the Second Coming of Christ in His glory. See it before it happens. This system you love, all of the worldly stuff you chase after, the things that allure your heart, are fallen things. The maddening wine, this intoxicating brew of her adulteries is wickedness and it will destroy your soul
The Third Angel
The third angel was the most dreadful. Verses 9-11, some of the most fearsome verses in the entire Bible, say,“A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.’” The word “too” indicates that although generations of people did not receive the mark of the beast because they did not live in that time, all those throughout history who have rejected God will be tormented in the same way.
Endurance in Obedience
Test of True Salvation
The section ends with a call for endurance and obedience, even to the point of death. Verse 12 says, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” The 144,000 are a select subset but they still are an example to the rest of us. We are called to be like them in some ways, to imitate their courage and faithful obedience to God’s commands.
It calls for patient endurance on the part of the saint to obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus. That will be the final test of salvation, Jesus said in Matthew 10:22, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” You would think you are too weak to face it. Of course you are! How can you face Satan incarnate with all of his power and be courageous?
Jesus gave us comfort. He said in Matthew 10:19-20, “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” You do not have to write your final words. Some of the greatest statements in church history have been made by dying men and women. Felicitas did not prepare in advance, but the Holy Spirit spoke through her: “While I live, I shall defeat you and if you kill me, I shall defeat you even more.” Jan Hus proclaimed, “What I taught with my life, I now seal with my lips.” Not only will the Spirit tell you what to say, He will give you the courage to stand firm even to the end. You will not fall away if you are a genuine believer in Christ. To God be the glory.
All who remain faithful to the end in the testimony of Jesus and obey His commandments, verse 13, come into their reward. “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit [in agreement with what He inspires. Write the Scripture and the Spirit will testify], ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’” John wrote it for us Get your strength and your courage and faith from the Scripture. The time of toil and suffering will end. It will be a time of eternal Sabbath rest forever in Heaven and your deeds will follow you in a good way. The Lord will look at your deeds and reward you for whatever was done for His glory, in obedience to His Word, by faith in Jesus, with a loving demeanor.
The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom
I have already preached the Gospel. I have begged any of you who are unconverted, while there is time, flee to Christ. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Read these words and realize this is the God we are talking about. You might die this evening; if so, although the end time things will not have happened yet, but your end will have come. Flee to Christ while there is time.
We Are Christ’s Ambassadors
Second, we are not the 144,000, but we can be inspired by them and other heroes and role models. Ask God for the chance to say and do something for His Gospel this week. As you gather with family for Thanksgiving, seek the opportunity to speak boldly to one or more who may be unconverted. Look for opportunity on campus or in the workplace to ask, “Who do you give thanks to on Thanksgiving?” If you receive an answer and the question in return, you have a chance to be a courageous witness for Jesus.
Be Warned About the Dangers of Babylon
Third, be warned about the dangers of Babylon the Great. I urge any who are drawn into secret sexual sin, male or female, flee the coming wrath. Flee to Christ. God has the power to deliver you, to set you free from habits that corrupt your nature. “‘Come out…and be separate,’ says the Lord.” [2 Corinthians 6:17]
Look Ahead to the Terror of Hell
Next week, we will talk about the eternality of Hell. Pray that God would give me the right words to say. I would not choose to preach on it as a topic, but because I exposit verse by verse, skipping over nothing, I am delivered from the choice to ignore it. We should not assume that everyone who assembles here knows the things in this text or believes they are true. We need to ask the Lord to teach us the truth.
Look Ahead to the Certainty of Reward
Finally, look ahead to the joys of Heaven. I do not know what that new song will sound like but I look forward to hearing it.
Father, thank you for the time we have had to be in your Word today. Thank you for the things that we have learned. Father, please strengthen each of us to be courageous witnesses for Christ, to do the work that you have for us to do. Father, I pray that you give us compassion on those who are still on the outside looking in. Help us to love them, to cherish their souls, and to be willing to speak the truth to them even though it is painful. Thank you for the truth you have spoken to us this morning. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.