Chapter 14 completes the lengthy interlude between the sounding of the seventh trumpet and the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath. In this interlude we have so far witnessed the battle in heaven and on earth between the dragon, Satan, and the woman, the church of God. We have been introduced to Satan’s two principal agents, the two beasts, one from the sea and one from land, who deceive the world and make war upon the saints. Now, in chapter 14, we are given again to look forward, to see how everything turns out; we are provided, in other words, the contrast between the future of the saints and that of sinners. [Osborne, 523] In the first five verses we are given to see the saints in heaven and in the remainder of the chapter the judgment of the unbelieving world. The first vision, in verses 1-5, recapitulates the vision we were given in 7:9-17 of the saints who came through the great tribulation to stand in triumph before the Lord and the angels of God. In Revelation, as in the rest of the Bible, the present can only be rightly evaluated according to the future and the ultimate destiny of human beings. The difficulties that face Christians in a world in thrall to the Devil and in which the great beasts of chapter 13 are at work to discredit and undermine their faith are answered by glimpses of the glory that awaits the faithful follower of Jesus Christ. “John moves quickly beyond the storm that is about to break to the bright morning of eternity when the Lamb and his followers stand [on Mount Zion] with the anthem of redemption everywhere resounding like the roar of a mighty waterfall and [like a peal of thunder].” [Mounts, 266]
- The “seal of God” placed on the foreheads of which we read in chapters 7 and 9, the seal that distinguishes them from the people of the world, took the form of the names of the Father and the Son (cf. 3:12). God will protect those who bear his name. This name stands in contrast to the seal the beast required to be placed on the hand or forehead of his followers in the immediately preceding verses. Once again, as throughout the Bible, there are two and only two communities in this world. One belongs either to the kingdom of this world or of Satan, for they amount to the same thing, or to the kingdom of God. One wears one seal or the other.
The 144,000, another of Revelation’s numeric symbols, we first encountered in chapter 7. There it was made up of 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. There as here it represents the full number of the redeemed. These are they whom the Lamb purchased from every tongue and language and people and nation to make them a kingdom and priests to serve God, as we read in 5:9 and 7:9 and as we will read again here in v. 4. In chapters 7 and 9 the 144,000 were those sealed against the woes that lay ahead. To see the same number now in heaven is the equivalent of saying that not one of the Lord’s people was lost. [Mounts, 268] These are those against whom the two beasts did their worst, numbered among them are the martyrs who suffered death for their loyalty to Jesus, but the beasts could not overcome them. God protected them from ultimate harm as he promised he would. Put another way, the elect of God always numbers 144,000. The number of saints in heaven and on earth is always 144,000 no matter how many millions are added to that number. It is the number of the church of Jesus Christ. [Hoeksema, Behold He Cometh, 485]
Here, in his vision, John sees the Lamb, who in chapter 5 was found worthy to open the seals of the scroll of history, standing victorious with his followers. Mount Zion, was, as you know, at first the highest point in what became the city of Jerusalem, the place where the temple of Solomon was built. It became by metonymy an image of the kingdom of God, the city of God, and eventually of heaven itself.
- The mighty sound, likened to the largest sounds known in the ancient world – the waterfall or waves pounding the shore and thunder (both used elsewhere in Revelation to describe loud sounds; e.g. 1:15; 6;1) – is that of a great orchestra and chorus performing a great anthem. It was a song of triumph – perhaps the same song as that of 5:9 – that could be sung only by those who had experienced both the trial of faith and deliverance by the power of God.
- The redeemed are described by their moral attributes. They are sexually pure. The text literally says that they are virgins and this has, as you might expect, prompted a great deal of debate. Is this early and apostolic evidence that celibacy was regarded as a higher life than that of marriage? The problem with that interpretation is that in the context the alternative is not that married Christians live a good but not as great life as unmarried Christians but that sexual relationships, even marital ones, are defiling – only virginity is a pure way of life – a conclusion the Bible categorically denies. What is more, if the 144,000 are the entire elect of God, as we have argued, then no true Christian was ever married, which would be disappointing, at least for Peter, John, Florence and me! It is better to take John as simply saying that Christians lived lives of purity. Virginity is elsewhere in the Bible a figure for sexual purity and, indeed, moral purity in general just as fornication or adultery is a symbol of spiritual infidelity. Israel, her married and unmarried citizens alike, was to be a virgin before the Lord and when she lapsed into idolatry she was described as having played the harlot. This figure is carried over into the NT. Paul says in 2 Cor. 11:2 that his goal was to present his converts in Corinth – married and unmarried alike – as a “pure virgin” to Christ. Later in this same chapter John refers to the sinful world’s idolatry as “adultery.” [14:8] Summing up, the purity of the 144,000 is not only sexual purity but the refusal to pollute themselves with the idolatrous worship of the beast.
Additionally, John says that Christians are those who follow the Lord Jesus in everything: that is they live lives of “uncomplaining discipleship” [Ladd, 191]. 70 times in the Gospels the nature of discipleship is described as a following of Jesus. Further, their lives were offered in sacrifice to God, they did not lie and they were blameless.
To be blameless, in the idiom of the Bible, certainly does not mean to be sinless. It means to be a faithful Christian whose life reflects the holiness of God – not perfectly, but really – and who lives in the reality both of the forgiveness God has granted him or her through Jesus Christ and of the righteous life to which he or she has been called as a follower of the Lord.
Now the general gist of this paragraph is clear enough. It is another anticipation of the heavenly glory of the saints which, in the context, is meant to nerve and steel them to bear the trials that those faithful to Jesus will inevitably suffer in Satan’s world. We have read such anticipations of heavenly reward already on a number of occasions. Each of the seven letters to the churches ended with such an anticipation: “To him who overcomes I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, or a white stone with a new name on it, or authority over the nations, or the right to sit with me on my throne. And we were given a similar vision of the saints rejoicing in heaven in chapter 7.
Modern Western Christians in particular need to face the implications of this. We are being told that the real reward for faithfulness to Christ is not going to be obtained in this world. There are many blessings that come to Christians in this world, to be sure. It is far better to be a Christian in this life for many different reasons. But loyalty to Christ can make life very difficult at the same time. It is even possible that a faithful Christian life in this world will be short and brutally hard and that there will be relatively little worldly happiness. There are plenty of Christians in our world for which this has been the case. Following Christ meant hardship, loss, and an early death. In light of this reality, the reason to remain faithful cannot be because God will certainly make your life here easy and happy; he may not. The reason to remain faithful to Jesus is because, if you do, God will bring you at last to the heavenly country.
Many Christians in today’s Western world, I suspect, find that motivation unimpressive. They want their reward here and now. And there are a great many preachers who are telling them that they needn’t wait; God will give them what they want right now. Follow Christ and have a happy marriage, healthy children, a new house and car, and a long life of good health. That may be; but Revelation provides little encouragement to expect that. The quintessential Christian in Revelation is the martyr, who loses his life and so loses as well his marriage, his children, and his home because he refuses to deny the lordship of Christ. Perpetual martyrdom is Revelation’s theory of the Christian life. And so over and over again our attention is thrown forward, to the more distant future and we are reminded that any amount of suffering here, in this life, is not worthy to be compared to the joy that will be ours when we are at last in heaven with the Lord. Given that Christian faith may well bring more difficulty than ease, more hardship than pleasure, this future reward is the only honest and absolutely certain motivation for Christian living.
Samuel Rutherford was summing up Revelation when he wrote of the Christian life:
It were a well-spent journey though seven deaths lay between.
No matter how hard life becomes for a Christian because he or she is a Christian, heaven will prove the suffering was all worthwhile. We will have more to say about this when we get to John’s much more elaborate description of heaven and heavenly life at the end of the book.
But there is something more here in this short vision of the Lamb and his people on Mount Zion reveling in the glorious sounds of that triumphant anthem of praise to God. What John draws our attention to is the moral quality of the 144,000, of the saints who make up that mighty chorus. They are there, he tells us, because on the earth they were pure, they willingly followed the Lord, and they were honest. Heaven, in other words, is theirs as a reward for their righteousness! This is a recurring theme in Revelation and, of course, is taught in many places in the Bible. The Lord Jesus himself said (John 5:28-29):
“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
Now, there can be no thought of a person’s having earned the life of heaven by his good works. We are reminded here in Rev. 14:3-4 that these people who lived righteous lives were the very ones whom Christ redeemed. That is he bought their freedom from sin and death with his own life given up on the cross. These righteous people were purchased, so we read here, and offered to God. They are who and what they are because of what the Lamb, Jesus Christ, did for them and made of them. That is always clear in the Bible.
If we may speak of heaven as a reward, and we may surely speak so, for the Bible does – indeed, in Revelation heaven is said on several occasions to be the saints’ reward – nevertheless it is a reward of God’s grace. God is, in Augustine’s famous phrase, “crowning his own gifts” when he rewards the saints who, by his transforming grace and daily help, have proved themselves faithful to him.
Still it is to their faithfulness and its reward that John draws our attention here as he did in each of the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. There too it was the faithful, the obedient, the persevering to whom were promised the blessings of the heavenly city. We must not slide by this. It is an emphasis in Revelation. This great book is a summons to faithfulness in the teeth of opposition and persecution; it is a summons to the faithful enduring of the trials that must come to those who worship the true God in the Devil’s world; it is a summons to a determined unwillingness to break faith with Jesus Christ no matter the cost, and all through the book promises of future glory are made to those and only to those who remain steadfast in their loyalty to the Lord Christ. And here we have Revelation’s central message once again. It is the faithful, the steadfast, and the obedient who will eventually enter the everlasting joy of the Lord.
And it is interesting and important that standing for that life of fidelity to Christ are three distinct pieces of Christian righteousness: sexual purity, submission, and honesty. It is a striking demonstration of the Bible’s timelessness that then as now those parts of righteousness should be chosen to stand for the whole. Then as now those specific behaviors dramatically demonstrate the difference that loyalty to Jesus Christ makes in a person’s life. Today as in the later first century, sexual purity, submission to God’s will for one’s life, and honesty make for a bright line separating the kingdom of God from the kingdom of this world.
Some of you may have seen the recent New York Times Magazine piece on a large and popular Seattle church. The church got the writer’s attention because it is successful in attracting people in a largely secular, non-church-going environment, because its theology is conservative and Calvinistic, and because the subject of sex is made the subject of sermons and is treated far more explicitly than perhaps it has ever been in the history of Christian preaching. The writer makes the point in her opening sentence that the pastor’s sermons are too racy to get by the filters on GodTube, the evangelical Christian ‘family friendly’ video-posting Web site. [Molly Worthen, “Who Would Jesus Smack Down,” January 11, 2009] I have no idea myself how often sex is a theme of the preaching in that Seattle church, but I have heard enough comment to gather that it comes up a lot. As a preacher I know very well the temptation to add sex to a sermon. It arrests attention. Just as a dirty joke takes less work – it is easier to be funny by being profane – so it is easier to preach an interesting sermon if it is about sex. Sex is perpetually interesting. I’m sure that is one of the reasons this church and this pastor came to the attention of the writer of the article. Everyone is interested in sex. I know if I preach on that subject I will have everyone’s attention from beginning to end. Preachers have to watch against the temptation to make too much of sex in sermons because, of course, there is much more in the Bible about other things than sex.
But, in defense of the Seattle preacher, the subject of sex does come up a lot in the Bible. And in the Bible there is a very specific and very strict sexual ethic. A particular sexual ethic and behavior is, according to the Bible, the mark of Christian identification as it is here in Rev. 14:4. In the first century biblical sexual ethics represented as fundamental a repudiation of the Greco-Roman lifestyle as did any other part of biblical ethics and it is the same again in our day. It is very possible in our world too to see the great divide that separates the life of Christians from the life of the world as a sexual divide. Requiring no sex before marriage, sex only in marriage, forbidding homosexual sex altogether, condemning pornography as a form of promiscuity and adultery that cripples the souls of both the people who are its objects and the people who are its subjects, all of this nowadays is spitting into the wind as surely it was in the age of the emperor Domitian. But the Bible does not apologize for that. It is the will of God that his people be sexually pure.
Sexual desires are so powerful and distracting and, when misdirected, can be so destructive to the life of human beings that Satan has always made great use them. And because of that, the sexual life and sexual temptation has always been a field of testing and battle for Christian men and women. Christians, and even more Christian men, have long known the power of sexual temptation, have long known that particularly nasty temptations gather here, and that if they are not faithful to Jesus here, in the sexual dimension of their lives, they are not faithful. There is a reason why the term immorality, which by itself should refer to any and every kind of disobedience to God, refers almost universally to sexual misconduct. The one stands for all the rest. Dorothy Sayers recollected a young man saying to her “with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.’” [In Coomes, 89] For all of us sexual sin stands for all sin.
But sexual purity is not the only mark of Christian fidelity mentioned here. There is also submission. These 144,000 were rewarded with heaven because “they followed the Lamb wherever he went.” The Lamb, of course, often goes where we would not; where, if the truth be told, we have no interest in going. But follow him they did nonetheless. They followed him to death in many cases and into trial and trouble in many more. It is this willingness to let God order one’s life, to accept ill from him as well as good, cheerfully to submit to his purposes as Lord and God, no matter the trouble that that may cause, that has always marked the life of the saints. Sinners saved by grace know they have no right to complain if God has difficult things for them to do or bear. Children of the heavenly Father know they can have no doubt that his will intends them good even if it brings them difficulties or sorrows. One of you sometime ago gave me the poem of the French mystic Madame Guyon, a Catholic who firmly believed in both the sovereignty of divine grace and salvation by grace and not by works.
A little bird I am,
Shut from the fields of air;
And in my cage I sit and sing
To him who placed me there;
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because, my God, it pleases thee.
Naught have I else to do;
I sing the whole day long;
And he whom most I love to please
Doth listen to my song;
He caught and bound my wandering wing,
But still he bends to hear me sing.
My cage confines me round;
Abroad I cannot fly;
But though my wing is closely bound,
My heart’s at liberty.
My prison walls cannot control
The flight, the freedom, of the soul.
O, it is good to soar
These bolts and bars above,
To him whose purpose I adore,
Whose providence I love;
And in thy mighty will to find
The joy, the freedom, of the mind.
Do you have any idea how utterly foreign such thoughts are to most of the people in our culture? That God orders our steps for our good and his glory? That life has a much higher purpose than can be summed up in our own earthly pleasures and satisfactions. That in following Christ one can fulfill the great purpose of one’s life even if one’s hopes for peace and prosperity are shattered. And that even the worst of troubles cannot threaten the connection between Christ and the soul. People who live with such convictions live very different lives. No wonder this submission of one’s life to the will of Christ looms so large here in the distinction between believing and unbelieving life.
And then, finally, there is honesty. “No lie was found in their mouths.” We live in a world of lies because this is the Devil’s world and he is the father of lies. He lied to Adam and Eve and has been lying ever since and teaches his followers to lie as he does. We have just finished the political season in the United States, a season of lying, lies so constant and so brazen that no one any longer notices the untruth or cares. And now we are in the throes of an economic crisis that has its roots in the naked dishonesty of so many different people and institutions. Everyone tells lies, many more than he or she even realizes. The story is told of Frederick the Great, the 18th century King of Prussia, that he once inspected the prison in Berlin. The prisoners all fell at his feet protesting their innocence of whatever crime had landed them there. One man alone remained silent and held back. The king called to him, “You there. Why are you here?” “Armed robbery, Your Majesty.” “And are you guilty?” “Yes, indeed, Your Majesty. I entirely deserve my punishment.” Frederick summoned the warden of the prison and told him, “Release this guilty wretch at once. I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it.” How rare the honest man is the point of that story! Every culture and every period of history tells such a story. The Greeks told the story of Diogenes who searched the streets of Athens looking for one honest man. We know how rare true honesty is.
We know the truth when we hear it. It stands out precisely because we also know, everyone knows, how much pretense, dishonesty, and disregard for the truth otherwise fills our speech and our lives, both public and private. People lie to themselves and to others. They pass themselves off as one thing when they know full well that they are another.
But Christians are to be people of the truth, because God is truth and they are his servants; because Jesus Christ is the truth and they are his followers, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth and they are those who walk with the Spirit. You children here this morning; listen to me. Parson or Pastor Weems may have invented the story about George Washington having admitted to his father that he had cut down the cherry tree with his new hatchet. George Washington probably never said to his father, “Father, I cannot tell a lie! I cut down the cherry tree.” But such an honest admission, even when it meant possible punishment, is precisely what is to be expected of Christian children. That’s why Pastor Weems invented the story and why he put the honest words in the mouth of everyone’s hero, George Washington. He wanted children to grow up thinking that it was a noble thing to tell the truth, that they were always to tell the truth, and that they were to tell it even, perhaps especially, when it hurts. And Christian adults are to do the same. They are to be scrupulously honest. And if they are, they will not only distinguish themselves from the people of this world, but they will have their reward in due time, such a reward as will make any trouble that came to them because of their truthfulness seem a minuscule price to pay to be in such a place, living such a life, in such company forever.
Remember now. Revelation was written first to the Christian congregations of Asia Minor. The standing temptations of their lives, as we know from those seven letters we read in chapters 2 and 3, were sexual immorality, a desire for some other situation than that the Lord had ordered for them, and the pressure to lie about their loyalty to Christ so as to avoid persecution and trouble. Purity, submission, and integrity were the very attributes most costly for Christians to preserve in those days. I suspect they are the most costly parts of Christian holiness today as well.
But that is what they were summoned to be: pure, submissive, and honest, as their Savior was before them. And if they were such people they were promised that heaven would be their reward. That is the sense of the sentence later in this same chapter, in v. 14: “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” The Lord will keep a record of their purity, their submission to his will, and their honesty and integrity. And they will have their reward!
Let’s clear our heads once more, brothers and sisters. We are to live lives of purity, submission, and honesty. Come wind, come weather, that is how we are to live. We are to exult in those virtues; rejoice in them; find our great satisfaction in living in those ways. In just those ways we are to be very different, unashamedly so. But fear not: for living such lives we will someday open our eyes and find ourselves in the heavenly country and see sights and hear sounds that will take our breath away. And we will think then that whatever difficulty purity, submission, and honesty required of us when we were in the world, it was far, far too small a price to pay for this!