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Blessed Are the Dead

May 26th, 2015

Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”

Revelation 14:13

Throughout the Word of God there are verses that contain such depth of meaning and relevance for every life and every situation of life that they leap out at us and take on a life of their own. We are not always abusing them or misinterpreting them to remove them from the context and let them stand on their own, because they are given to us to strengthen us in our faith. Here is a case in point. In the final days of the Great Tribulation the Lord sends a message of hope to those believers who are living through, and dying during, the darkest times of world history. In these days death seems to come as a relief. The promises of God to oversee and watchfully care for the believer’s life on earth are replaced with the promise of life beyond this world.

There in heaven we rest from our labors, and we can be assured that the Lord knows those who are His. In 2 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul, by the inspiration of the Spirit, explained that in the afterlife we believers will receive the new body, that he called “incorruptible” (1 Cor 15:42).

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. for in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with out habitation which is from heaven … For we who are in this tent groan being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4

In whatever age of earth’s history a believer dies, it is a blessed event. We exchange this ragged “tent” we call a body, for a beautiful “building” constructed by God. “Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-7).

He remembers our works of mercy, our sharing of the gospel, our encouragement to others. “Their works follow them,” should not make us frightened – these words should remind us that we must each appear before the Judgement Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:9-11), “that we may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” And there is an element of this that is intended to call us to responsibility, even to the point where Paul said, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” But ultimately we are confident of the love of God. This judgement is not to determine our salvation, but to assign us rewards in heaven.

The only things of this world that follows us into eternity are our works of mercy and witness for Christ, our character etched upon our souls by the Spirit and the Word, and the results of our conduct here on earth. Our money, our land, our toys, our investments – all of these we leave here. God will take note that we handled our material possessions faithfully – tithing to Him and supporting our families – and He rewards compassion and responsibility. But we leave this world, this economy, behind utterly. A new life and a new economy awaits us.

The Exegesis of Revelation Chapter 14:1-13

14:1-5: The Lamb of God and the 144,000: My interpretation of this section was explained yesterday. In summary it is the Jewish believing remnant who were martyred during the Tribulation, now assembled with Christ and ready to come with Him in His Victorious Return.

14:6-13: The Proclamations of Three Angels: John meets many angels through the Revelation, and there is not always a necessity to try and identify which angel says what or does what. They are spirit beings sent to minister the will of God. This is the beginning of the End of the Great Tribulation and comprises the final few weeks of the Antichrist’s reign.

  • The first angel (14:6-7) bears witness to the inhabitants of the earth to believe in Christ. He preaches the “everlasting gospel” to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. “Nation” indicates ethnic identities. “Tribe” means a sub-group of a certain ethnic group, and is generally used for Israelite tribes. “Tongue” means different languages, and is used for the Gentiles. “People” completes the idea that everyone on earth shall hear the gospel. His message calls people to worship God who made the earth and who stands above it. Some suggest that the absence of the article for “gospel” or “good news” – he proclaims “good news” not “the good news” – means that the message was not the gospel of Christ. However, it is still called “good news” and also “eternal” or “everlasting” so an essential part of this message must be the good news of Jesus Christ, as well as the impending doom of the cruel system of worldwide government of the Antichrist.
  • The second angel (14:8) proclaims the fall of Babylon the Great, or the earthly center of the Antichrist’s worldly government. What city is this? Historical interpreters – which most of the Reformers were – tend to lean toward it being Rome. Dispensationalists tend to lean toward Jerusalem. But her character is described as having an intoxicating effect, “made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” The idea of temptation is often symbolized by intoxication by alcoholic drink (Eph. 4:18). But the wine here is used symbolically and her temptations involved more than just alcoholic drinks, and encompassed a worldly, godless view of life. Her ideas prove to be bankrupt.
  • The third angel (14:9-11) gives a warning and a judgment against those on earth who have worshiped the beast and his image and have received his mark on their foreheads or on his hand. I have heard of many Christians who refused to receive any mark on their hand or their forehead because of these verses – assuming that any mark was wrong. I believe whatever may be understood from these verses the sin of worshiping the beast is one that rejects God and Christ, that works with the devil to destroy God’s work and to persecute God’s people. The signifiying mark of the beast is also a mark of exclusion, meaning that one may not participate in the economy without renouncing Christianity and Christ. The mark on the head symbolizes thought and idea. The mark on the hand symbolizes actions. So the idea is someone whose mind and whose actions are given over to the rule of the Antichrist and the rejection of Christ and of biblical faith.

One of the most difficult passages to deal with is verse 10 about those who receive this mark of the beast, “he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” The most common complaint is that this seems completely contrary to the central character of God the Son, as though He would take delight in seeing unbelievers suffer for eternity. But that interpretation misunderstands the meaning of the text.

“Drink of the wine of the wrath of God” means that the message of the Antichrist was deceptive, and the one who participated in the activities that were contrary to the will of God also bought into the deception. There was, in other words, a way out of the temptation that they should have known. So the punishment of the innocent is not proclaimed here, rather the punishment of the guilty.

“Tormented with fire and brimstone” means to be distressed with an unquenchable fire. “Tormented” is a broad term in Greek meaning distressed or tortured, depending on the context. In Luke 10:14 Christ said, “It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you,” referring to the unbelief of Capernaum and the judgment in the Old Testament against Tyre and Sidon. But Christ gave the principle of relative punishment – “more bearable” – and we trust the biblical proclamation of the justice and fairness of God. Punishment will fit the crime. “Fire and Brimstone” or “sulphur” were those elements known in the First Century that created a lasting fire.

“In the presence of the holy angles and in the presence of the Lamb” means that the judgment shall be done by the One who above all is fair and gracious. But in the end of the matter the opportunity of eternity with God is lost by unbelief.

In verse 11 we read, “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever,” indicating the judgment is final, probably building on the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah (Gen. 19:28). It does not mean that the intensity of their suffering continues, but that the matter of their torment and their separation from God is settled, and the destruction of the godless religion of the Antichrist is total. “They have no rest day or night” refers to the eternal nature of the condemnation.

The passage does not teach that God or Christ or the angels take delight in seeing people in eternal misery, rather it teaches the finality of a rejection of the grace of God, that the matter is settled by the One who is fair and just and loving. So we cannot take this matter lightly – the decisions we make here regarding the gospel and sin and salvation are of eternal significance. But this passage is particularly descriptive of those who literally “sell their souls” to the Antichrist and to His antichrist program and his anti-Christian persecution, contrary to the witness of the Spirit and of the good side of human nature. One also is led to believe that the program of the Antichrist will also ridicule the gospel of Christ, so these people will have also heard of the gospel and will have rejected it.

  • Reaping the Earth’s Harvest, both good and bad (14:14-20). We will examine this section tomorrow.

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The 144,000

May 25th, 2015

Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads … These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no deceit, for they are without fault before the throne of God.

Revelation 14:1-5

We have come to a beautiful promise and some sticky interpretations when we arrive in chapter 14. First, we should emphasize the spiritual benefit to our souls of this passage. As in many places in Revelation, the victory of Christ and the protection of His people are assured. The visions of the beasts rising from the sea and the earth, and the way in which they persecute the believing community, can be discouraging. But their end is near and their judgment is sure. In the worst of times God protects His people. When He does not deliver them from death, He swiftly takes them to Him in heaven and promises ultimate victory.

“I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps” (14:2). The voice is described in similar words to the voice of the resurrected Christ – authoritative, powerful, impressive, yet also soothing – like the breaking waves on a seashore or the roar of a waterfall (Ezekiel 43:2). This is one of the few references to music in heaven and of playing of harps (Rev. 15:2). Harps were chosen because they were the most beautiful and serene instruments of music in John’s day.

“They sang as it were a new song before the throne … no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth” (Rev. 14:3). The “father’s name written on their forehead” (14:1) describes their ownership by God. We who have trusted in Christ belong to God, and He claims His ownership and will not relinquish it. As some might know, I take the interpretation of Ephesians 1:11 as a true passive voice and not a middle voice, and it reads therefore, “In Him also we are [His} inheritance,” and then the giving of the Spirit as a deposit for our redemption is not done to assure us, but to mark us as God’s possession. He makes the down payment to claim that which is His – namely those who have trusted in Christ.

The song that only the 144,000 knew indicates the unique work of the Spirit, as we read in 1 Corinthians 2:12, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given us by God.” Their song was a combination of joy and praise and insight and thanksgiving all rolled into one. Only the redeemed of the Lord know what their redemption truly means. Someone may study theology and even master all of the different interpretations, but still not believe Himself. He would know much book knowledge but would not know the personal knowledge of the relationship with Christ.

“These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins” (14:4). Sexual purity and responsibility is commanded of all believers in Christ (1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13; Gal 5:19; Col. 5:3). The Gentile world of John was a world filled with temple prostitution and public brothels. Sexual promiscuity was not taken seriously at all, but the Christian faith demanded otherwise, and still this is the requirement of God. The word in Greek translated “virgin” was the masculine form, parthenos, and does not require that these had never had sexual relations, for remember that Peter was married, but that they abstained from temple prostitution and moral pollution. We grace being always the means of our salvation, we need not presume that they had never had sexual relations, even in an unholy manner, but that that part of their life was in their past, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Pure in all their ways as they worshiped and followed Christ. “They are without fault brfore the throne of God” (14:5) and this can only be achieved by the grace of God, not by human attainment or devotion.

“These were redeemed among men being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” (14:4b). These are not angels, but redeemed humanity, and they are called the “firstfruits.” 1 Corinthians 15:23 called Christ “the firstfruits,” but both uses refer to an Old Testament command to offer to God the first part of a harvest (Lev. 2:14-16, Num. 18:12 and Deut 18:4). It was an act of faith and worship on the part of the worshiper, that the Lord would bring more. In Deuteronomy 26:1-11 the “firstfruits” were brought in a basket to the sanctuary for presentation to the Lord testifying to the deliverance and redemption of God from Egyptian slavery.

Throughout the scripture this image of “firstfruits” was used in different ways to implant hope and instill the vision of God for redemption. Israel was called God’s “firstfruits” (Jer. 2:3), and the Holy Spirit is said to be a “firstfruits” of our redemption (Rom. 8:23), and early believers are also described as “a kind of firstfruits” (James 1:18), indicating the future coming to Christ of many, many more (see also Rom. 16:5 and 1 Cor. 16:15). Whatever the 144,000 here symbolize, it is about more just them only. The word “firstfruits” means that more redemption is coming and implants hope in our hearts.

Who are the 144,000 here in Revelation 14?

The 144,000 are interpreted two main ways by Bible interpreters – one sees the number as symbolic and therefore indicating completeness and the other interpretation sees the number as specific and indicating exactly 144,000 believers. The debate is also fueled by the absence of the word “the” in Greek before mentioning 144,000. Is this the same group as mentioned in Chapter 7? By not saying “the 144,000” many have concluded that this is a separate group from the first, which certainly is a valid interpretation.

An important key to understand who these 144,000 are is that the Lamb is here described as “standing on Mount Zion” (Rev. 14:1). Zechariah 14:1-9 describes on the day of the LORD, a great battle taking place against Jerusalem with the nations gathered against it. “Then the LORD will go forth and first against those nations … And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east.” Mount Zion is not the same place as the Mount of Olives, and was generally used in scripture to describe the Temple Mount or the seat of Israelite government in the main walled city of Jerusalem. But the two are located on different sides of the Kidron Valley, and it is not too much to make a connection between the two.

In Revelation 16:17-21 and 18:2 the destruction of Babylon is foretold, and numerous other scriptures point to a climax of battle in Jerusalem. I see these 144,000 as being the same as in chapter 7, and it is a precursor to the ultimate coming of Christ. These martyred souls are not with Him and they are the firstfruits of all believers who will come with Him in His return, the word “firstfruits” being important. Salvation is “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Chapters 14-19 describe the end of the world’s rebellion and come in quick succession. So the most reasonable interpretation to me is to see these as the Jewish believing remnant that was martyred during the Tribulation and who are now poised to return with Christ. They represent the first mustering of the redeemed, and as firstfruits remind us that all believers will come with Him, as the scripture plainly teaches, “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).

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