The Shake-up of the Physical Universe
The black signal changes, and reveals that the train is approaching. Smoke from the locomotive is seen in the distance. The shrill yell of the whistle is presently heard. And you are certain that the train is coming. These last signs are inevitable manifestations, the unavoidable signs of the coming train.
Thus it is also with respect to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and the signs that are connected with this coming. These signs are not arbitrary,—not signs that might just as well have been omitted. But they are signs that are inevitably connected with the final coming of the Lord itself. Jesus is coming. That is the message of the Book of Revelation in brief. It reveals the coming of the Lord. He is coming into a sinful and miserable world, into a world that has fallen into the power of sin and death and that is subjected to the dominion of Satan. Man and beast and all creation is subject to this bondage. The Lord, however, is coming to redeem that entire world, with His elect people in the center, from the dominion of sin and death and hell, and to establish the reign of righteousness and everlasting perfection in glory, to subject that entire world again to His God. He is coming,—coming throughout this dispensation, coming all through the present history of the world. And therefore, all through this dispensation the signs and signals of that coming, signs that are inevitably connected with that coming, are plainly visible. When He comes on the white horse! He appears in the spiritual world, and you can see His sighs in repentance and faith and confession and obedience and a walk in newness of life. When He comes on the red horse, you can sec Him in war and in nation rising against nation, as a sign of His coming for judgment in the end. When you see the black horse you see the signs of His coming in the social world and in all the struggles of that world. And when the power of death mows away thousands upon thousands at the proper time and place you see the signs of His coming in the physical world of man. So it is also with the blood of the martyrs. And thus it is also with the signs in the physical universe. You see Him come in the earthquakes and volcanic outbursts, in storms and floods, in the signs that appear in the heavens throughout the history of this present time. For also the physical universe is in the power of sin and death, in the bondage of corruption. And therefore you must not be surprised that the coming of Jesus also in this physical world causes strange signs. They are signs that our redemption, and also the redemption of the universe, is nigh. But the redemption of that physical universe is last of all. And therefore, the full reality of these signs will be seen only toward the last of the present dispensation. They are, the changing of the black signals, the rising of the smoke from the engine in the distance, the blowing of the whistle. When these signs shall occur,—and they surely shall occur, as the Scriptures everywhere testify,—then lift up your head: for then your redemption draweth nigh. The Lord cometh, and all the universe will be affected by His coming. Hence, all the universe will also reveal the signs of that coming.
The effect of these signs upon the world is most terrible. To be sure, it will also have its effect upon the people of God that these signs shall appear in the heavens and upon the earth. From a mere natural point of view these signs will also be terrible and alarming for them. I cannot understand how expositors of Holy Writ, particularly on prophecy, can deny that during these days the church, at least part of the church of God, will still be on earth. I fail to understand how they can deny that they shall experience at least the great tribulation in full. For Scripture testifies of this very plainly and emphatically. Whenever the Lord speaks of these things, He speaks of them as signs of His coming, as signs of comfort to His people in the midst of the world, and especially in the midst of the great tribulation of the last times. He speaks to them of the fact that they shall be in great, tribulation especially when the fifth seal shall be fully realized. And He also declares that after this great tribulation the signs that are pictured in this sixth seal shall reach their fulfillment. And in connection with this, He tells His disciples and all His people: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” Luke 21:28. And I stands to reason that also for the people of God the beginning of these signs shall be dreadful from a mere natural point of view. But it does not fill them with fear and consternation. This will be impossible. They have suffered persecution. They have been in awfullest tribulation. Such is undoubtedly the course of events in the future, shortly before the coming of the Lord. The fear of the people of God, their suffering, their anxiety, their persecution has been terrible, most terrible indeed. Thousands of them have been killed and tortured because of the Word of God and the testimony which they held. And the spiritual result of all this was, naturally, that they longed for the coming of Christ and for their final redemption. Now these signs appear. And though these signs will also fill them with horror from a natural point of view, yet they fill them at the same time with a great hope. They begin to see in them that Jesus draweth nigh when these things begin to come to pass. Thus the Lord had told them: “Then lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.” Now He is still tarrying but, only for a little while. Already they see His signs. Already they hear Him come, for whom their soul longeth. And lifting up their heads in expectation, they look for the sign of the Son of Man in the heavens.
But of this we must speak in a later connection. Our text speaks now of the effect of these natural phenomena, or rather, of these super-natural phenomena, upon the wicked world. And what is that effect? Of this we are told in the last part of the passage we are now discussing, 6:15-17: “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” Notice here, in the first place, that all classes of men are included, but that the strong and mighty and rich are emphatically mentioned first, and are predominating to a large degree. They are predominating not necessarily, in number, for that is probably not the case, but because it is exactly in their capacity as strong and rich according to the standard of the world that here they reveal their consternation. All classes, from kings and princes to bondmen and servants, are included in this crowd struck with fear. What they have all in common is that they hated the Lord Jesus Christ. They certainly have never loved Him, as is evident in their fear. For according to the apostle John, love driveth out fear. They hated Him. They have persecuted Him and His flock. And as such they were the kings and the mighty ones of the world, those that were rich in money, that dominated the social world, the strong in physical power and strong in authority, that dominated the political world. They are the ones that used to win victories in battle in the earth. They are also the strong in wisdom and learning, that denied the Christ in their worldly philosophy, and that in their imagined strength have always laughed at the folly of the people of the Lord, that believed the gospel. These all,—the mighty and the wise and the rich according to the measure of this world,—are now filled with terror. They are filled with a terror so strong that they seek death. They are filled with consternation. They know not what they are doing. They flee to the caves; but of course, there is no help and no protection there. They flee to the mountains and to the rocks; but behold, they find no refuge in them. Wherever they flee they see the signs of the Lord that is coming. And these signs do not cause them to repent. There is no forgiveness for them any more. The measure of their iniquity is full. They call to the rocks and to the mountains, “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” The day of wrath and judgment has come, and they realize it. And because they have not kissed the Son, but continued in their wild rebellion, they are now struck with terror, and they seek death, but find not. Terrible in that day is the position of the ungodly. Terrible indeed is the day of the Lord for them that have not feared His name.
How is to be explained, you ask perhaps, that now they are so completely struck with consternation and. fear? The answer is: because the stability of the material universe was the presupposition of the kingdom of the world which they intended to establish. They were to build up an imitation kingdom, a kingdom of bliss and righteousness and justice and peace and of material blessedness. That was their purpose, and that was their strife. And all this they attempted to accomplish without Christ Jesus. They never believed that Christ was King. They never knew that He had the principle of His spiritual kingdom already realized in the world and in the hearts of His people. They laughed at the idea that this world was principally wicked, and that heaven and earth would pass away. And therefore they supposed eternal stability of the material universe was the basis of their hope. This hope was now frustrated completely, and in a moment. The whole universe seems to pass away. The heavens and the earth are shaking. They cannot account for it. Human wisdom is too small, and human science cannot explain the shake-up of the physical universe. It is beyond their comprehension. Human strength now availeth nothing. They have been able to do great things. They ruled over the elements, and they were in power over the sea and the land and the air. But all these things are beyond them now. Nothing can avail. They are overcome. And therefore, two facts are now powerfully impressed upon their unbelieving minds namely, that the very basis of their imitation kingdom is going to destruction, and secondly, that the kingdom of Christ shall prevail. And therefore; they realize that their bitterest enemy, the King of heaven and earth, He Whom they have pierced, is about to have the complete victory. Therefore they fear. In their folly and impotence they pray to the rocks and mountains, and the Word of God is literally fulfilled: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will bring to naught the discernment of the discerner.”
Blessed are they who in that day belong to the Lord and are in Zion. For Joel, after he has finished his description of that day says: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall there be those that escape, as the Lord hath said, and among the remnant whom the Lord shall call.” It is in full harmony with this that the Lord our Savior has foretold us: “When these things begin to come to pass, lift up your head, for your redemption draweth nigh. In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The Sealing of the One Hundred Forty-four Thousand
1. And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
2. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea.
3. Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
4. And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
5. Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
6. Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nepthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
7. Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
8. Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.
At this stage of our discussion of the Book of Revelation it seems necessary to remind you of the plan of the second part of is book, from chapter 4, verse 1, on. That plan is, as you will remember, dominated entirely by the number seven, The number of the completion of the kingdom of God. There are seven seals to be opened; and these seven seals cover the whole of the Book of Revelation. When the last part of the seventh seal shall have been realized, the kingdom shall have come, and the works of the devil and of the antichrist shall have been completely destroyed. The seventh seal, however, when it is opened, reveals itself as seven trumpets. And the seventh trumpet is presented as seven vials of the wrath of God. Undoubtedly this implies that as time goes on the judgments of the Lord upon the wicked world will increase; His activity to bring the kingdom of God will become more pronounced and emphatic. Of course; it also implies that the seventh seal is revealed to the church more in detail than any of the preceding six seals.
Six of these seven seals we have thus far discussed. These, as we have noticed, formed two main groups, the first four belonging together and the last two also being closely allied. In the first four seals we noticed the powers that were let loose upon the world of men in general in this dispensation. There is, first of all, the power of the spiritual kingdom, symbolized in the white horse. Secondly, there is the power of war, symbolized in the red horse. Thirdly, there is the power of social strife, in the black horse. And finally, there is the power of death, in the pale horse. As to the second group, seals five and six, we found that the first of these concerned the saints; and pictured to us the people of God that have been slain for the Word of God and the testimony which they had. And we found that the blood of these saints becomes one awful testimony against the world that hates and rejects the Christ, and rises in rebellion against His holiness and truth: This means also that the fifth seal furnishes the spiritual, ethical basis for the destruction of the world in the day of judgment. And thus, finally, the sixth seal affects the physical world. All creation belongs to the kingdom of Christ. And therefore, as the Messiah begins to establish His world kingdom and reconquers it from the usurpation of the devil and his host, it is no wonder at all that also the physical world shows the signs of the kingdom of our Lord. This shake-up of the physical world, however, has the effect upon the world of evil that they begin to realize the coming of the great Judge, begin to realize that their imitation kingdom is after all vanity. However, they do not come to true repentance. On the other hand, we also remarked that according to the words of Jesus our Savior, it is exactly these signs that may cause the people of God to lift up their heads in hopeful expectation that their suffering and tribulation will soon have an end, and that the Lord will come to redeem them completely.
We might perhaps expect that presently the book would continue to reveal to us the contents of the seventh seal. Evidently, however, this is not the case. The opening of the seventh seal is not recorded before we come to the eighth chapter of this book. On the other hand, however, it is also evident that this seventh chapter does no more belong to the sixth seal. For, in the first place, that sixth seal is very plainly completely revealed in chapter six, vss. 12-17. That portion is complete by itself, as is plain from the entire form of this section. And, in the second place, the manner in which this seventh chapter is introduced also shows plainly that here we have something new. For John tells us clearly: “After this I saw . . . .” And therefore, this seventh chapter is neither the opening of the seventh seal, nor is it the continuation of the sixth. It is something in between. It forms an episode. Before the opening of the seventh seal is revealed, the Lord deems it necessary to come to His people with a message of a different nature. Terrible things have already been revealed in connection with the six seals that have thus far been opened. And the question that is asked by the world of unbelief when the sixth seal was opened has undoubtedly by this time also arisen in the midst of the people of God, the question, namely: “Who shall be able to stand?” Still more awful occurrences will be revealed when the opening of the seventh seal is realized. And therefore, the Lord, before He proceeds to reveal the opening of this seal, answers the question that might so easily escape the worried souls of the faithful, “Who shall stand?” It is the answer to this question which we find in this chapter. It contains two parts, the first part consisting of verses 1 to 8, the second of verses 9 to 17. And the passage we are now discussing speaks of the sealing of the one hundred forty-four, thousand.
The first question that naturally arises in our minds when we read these words is: who are these one hundred forty-four thousand of which the text informs us that they are sealed? Judging by the numerous interpretations that have been offered, it would seem as if it were indeed an impossibility to come to a satisfactory conclusion. The explanations that have been given may, in the main, be divided into two classes. In the first place, there are those authors who take it that Israel means the people of the Jews in the literal sense of the word, and that the names of the twelve tribes actually point to the people that used to be the people of God as a nation in the days of the old dispensation. These, therefore take this indication of the sealed ones in the literal sense of the word. They inform us that here we have the record of the sealing of the people of Israel. But among them there are different shades of interpretation. First of all, there are those who believe that the nation as such, the nation of the Jews, shall be saved and occupy a special place in the economy of redemption in the future. Israel as a nation shall in the future accept their Redeemer, whom they have first rejected; and in our text we have the indication of the fact that the greatest destruction of the world may not be initiated before this has been realized. Secondly, there are also those that believe that in the future a time will come in which every individual Israelite will believe in Christ. Not only the nation as a whole, but every individual Jew that exists at that period will call on the name of the Lord. And the sealing of the one hundred forty-four thousand foreshadows this glorious event: In the third place, there are those that do not believe in the restoration of the nation of Israel in any manner, but who see in these sealed ones the salvation of the remnant of the elect of the Jews, that will be and must be grafted in into their own olive tree, from which they are cut out. Thus, the one hundred forty-four thousand indicate the elect from among the Jews of all ages and countries, into which they have been scattered. And finally, there are also those who take it that these one hundred forty-four thousand must be referred to the elect Jews, but not of all ages, but only of the period of the great tribulation. That, in general, is the interpretation of the first class we have mentioned. The second class consists of those that explain these one hundred forty-four thousand sealed ones as referring to true, spiritual Israel of the new dispensation. Israel, even in this portion of the book, must not be taken in the literal sense, but in the symbolic, or typical, sense of the word. And therefore, these sealed ones simply refer to God’s own people of all ages. But then there is a difference of opinion even among these. There are, in the first place, those who think that we have here a reference to a special class of people of God, who have either escaped from or experienced the great tribulation; and, in the second place, those who simply take it that these one hundred forty-four thousand refer to all the people of God at any time.
I must confess that for some time I was rather inclined to cast my lot with the first class of interpreters, and to explain that these one hundred forty-four thousand sealed ones had reference to Israel in the literal sense of the word. I did not believe that we have any reference here to the Jewish nation as such, so that the text would mean that there would be a restoration of the Israelitish nation. Nor did I ever think that there would be a special kind of salvation for the Jews. Nevertheless, I thought that these one hundred forty-four thousand symbolized the remnant according to the election of grace, all the elect of Israel that are to be saved in Christ Jesus. And therefore, if ever I was inclined to find a reference in Revelation literally to Israel as such, it was in this passage.
However, reflection and further study of this particular portion changed my mind. I am now firmly convinced not only that this section does not speak of Israel as a nation nor of the Jews only, but that Scripture in general absolutely teaches that there is no more a national Israel with special spiritual privileges and with a special way of salvation. And since the subject of Israel as a nation is very frequently discussed, especially in our day, and since the error is often made of maintaining that the Jews as a nation still have special privileges, and still will have a great future as such, I must dwell for just a moment on the teaching of Scripture in this respect.
The portion of Scripture to which I naturally must call your attention for light on this subject is that which we find in the epistle to the Romans, chapters 9 to 11. There Paul begins in chapter 9 by expressing his heartfelt grief over his brethren according to the flesh because of the pitiful condition in which they are found at this time, after they have rejected their own Messiah But he continues to argue that if anyone would think that the promises of God had failed, and that He had rejected His people, and that the promises of a great seed, as the sand on the seashore and as the stars of heaven, would not now be realized, since Israel as a nation was evidently rejected, he would be sorely mistaken. On the contrary, that promise never was fulfilled as it now is, in the days of the New Testament, if only we make the true distinction between Israel and Israel. “They are not all Israel that are of Israel,” says the apostle. Not the fact that they are children of Abraham made them true Israelites. For Ishmael and the children of Keturah also were children of Abraham in the same sense. And yet Isaac was the only child of the covenant. The same was true of Esau. If Israel according to the flesh had been the true Israel, then surely Esau was a child of Abraham as well as Jacob. Yet Esau was rejected according to the election of grace. But what made anyone a true Israelite was the fact of election.