When All Around My Soul Gives Way

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It’s so good to see you all. And if you’re not already there, go ahead and turn to Revelation 7. We’re covering a big section today, so if you didn’t come with a Bible, go ahead and grab one from a seat near you. And if you need an outline raise your hand, and we’ll get you one. It makes it a little easier to follow along. Revelation 7 is on page 1031; 1031 in the seat Bibles.

In April 1956, C.S. Lewis married Joy Davidman. Lewis was a former atheist, then Christian. Formerly had taught at Oxford, then was teaching at Cambridge. They were married for four years, and then tragically Joy died of cancer. They were four extremely happy years. But when Joy died, Lewis was inconsolable. He wrote his book, “A Grief Observed,” to describe the sorrow, rage, doubt, and hope. He questioned everything. He questioned, where was God when he needed him most? Listen to what he writes.

“When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seems so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our times of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”

What Lewis goes on to question is not so much just God’s absence but his malevolence. Is he evil? Are his intentions evil? And if so, no wonder he won’t respond. But then as he continues to muse, he begins to wonder, well maybe the reason he’s not responding the way I want him to respond is not because he’s evil but because he is good. And he begins to wonder if, in a tragic sort of way, his goodness and kindness keeps him from stopping doing what he intends for good even though it is painful. He writes it this way:

“The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed — might grow tired of his vile sport — might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you were up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious He is, the more inexorably He will go on cutting. If He yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.”

Lewis was considering the possibility that God’s intentions were good. He gradually came to the place where he felt like the door was not locked or bolted. But then he began to consider several illustrations as to why he did not get the response he wanted. He talked about crying, craving, drowning.

Crying. He said,

“You can’t see anything properly when your eyes are blurred with tears.”

So, he’s wondering, maybe the reason he couldn’t see his struggle clearly, or God clearly for that matter, is because his eyes are so blurred with tears.

Craving. He considers the fact that there are times where the more we crave for something, the less chance we’re going to get it. Try this tonight. Go to one of your family members and say to them, “We must have a good talk tonight.” Pretty much guarantees you’re not going to have a good talk. I mean, you can dump, but you’re not going to have a good talk. Or, “I must have a good sleep tonight,” guarantees wakefulness. Or, as he says with regards to drink,

“Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst.”

You can be so thirsty you can’t appreciate a delicious drink.

The third illustration was drowning. He says,

“Perhaps my flailing in my drowning was preventing the lifeguard from rescuing me.”

Lewis is wondering if the intensity of his longing is minimizing the chances of its being heard and satisfied. Is it possible to be too sad to even see clearly, too hungry to receive food, too tired? Do you have, parents, little babies like that? Too tired to sleep? Too desperate to be saved? So, what happens in a situation like that? I believe Revelation 7 offers some huge encouragement.

Let’s pray as we dive in. Father, you have given this chapter to those who most need you yet may least sense your presence. You’re talking about a horribly difficult time; a time of great tribulation. And you’ve given it to your church, your people, for a reason. That when all other help is vain, where do we turn? Where do we turn when we can’t turn? How do we make it when we can’t even get ourselves to a place of receiving the help we desperately need? So, we pray that you would speak to us today. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Revelation 7:1 begins

“After this,” he’s talking about after this vision, “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.”

Four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. These are the kind of passing statements that skeptics love to use to prove that the Bible taught a flat earth. The difficulty there is the entire language here is symbolic. This is … obviously apocalyptic literature, is using symbol to communicate truth. Furthermore, if you look at passages like Isaiah 40:22, you would have to also say that the Bible teaches that the earth is round, because there are statements like “God sits above the circle of the earth.” And in both cases, we’re missing the point of poetry.

In Zechariah 6:5, which is the passage that this Revelation 6 prophecy seems to flow out of, you see that the four horsemen that are described last week in chapter 6 are preceded by four winds. So that seems to be why verses 1 and 2 begin with the four angels at the four corners holding back the four winds. In other words, what John is doing here, what the vision is doing is, he has just described six horrific calamities, judgments that are coming upon the earth. There is a pause, “after this,” another vision that takes us back and is a parenthesis before you get to the seventh seal in chapter 8. This parenthesis is communicating the fact that before any judgment can fall, something else has to happen. What is that?

And that’s what we see in chapter 7. Chapter 7 is the answer to the question at the end of chapter 6. When calamity comes, when judgment falls, when the wrath of the lamb comes upon us, who can stand? Who can stand? And chapter 7 is the answer. We could say it in a little more personal way, and that is this: When all around my soul gives way … When all around my soul gives way, when the worst happens, when your worst fears are realized, whereas Lewis said “when all other help is vain,” when my feelings are screaming “there is no use; there is no hope,” Revelation 7 gives us three promises. And these promises are very specifically applied to what is called the “Great Tribulation,” but very clearly applied to Christians all throughout church history.

Number 1, he seals. He seals. Look at verse 2.

“Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’ And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.”

Now some of you know that we are in extremely controversial territory. There are several different interpretations, so I’ll just give you two. One, many of you are probably very familiar with and have been taught, and then the second is the one that I would hold. A little awkward.

So, who are the ones being sealed here? Two options. First one, that he is referring to 144,000 ethnic Israelites. These are actual Israelites who will be protected during the great tribulation. Let me give you a few reasons from the words of those who hold this position. John Walvoord, for example, says,

“The name ‘Israel’ always refers to the Jewish people.”

Number 2, listing twelve tribes, in his words, Walvoord’s view, “would be rather ridiculous” if they represent the church.

Number 3, even though most modern Israelites have lost their tribal genealogies (referring to the twelve tribes in verses 5-8), God knows them. As MacArthur has written,

“While the tribal records were lost when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70, God knows who belongs to each tribe.”

So, MacArthur and Walvoord believe that there will be other Jews saved during the tribulation, but they will die as martyrs. There will be 144,000 who will be protected. That’s option number 1.

Option number 2 is that this is referring to the people of God; that throughout the last days and culminating in the Great Tribulation, these are God’s covenant people. Let me give you a few reasons. One, the ones who are sealed are described as “servants” in chapter 3:7, and without exception this term refers to all believers or prophets throughout the book of Revelation. If you look at 1:1, 2:20, 6:11, 10:7, 11:18, on and on and on, it always refers to this.

Secondly, the number 144,000 is a symbol of completion. That is all God’s covenant people. 12 x 12 x 1000 — 12 tribes, 12 apostles. If you look at Revelation 21, it refers to that. This symbol in apocalyptic literature points to, the symbol points to, a literal reality. He’s literally talking about God’s covenant people.

Number 3, the listing of the tribes is unlike other Old Testament listings. A few examples: Judah, verse 5, is listed first. Levi is included, normally not. Dan is left out. Manasseh and Joseph are in. Ephraim is out. And we can talk about a lot of different reasons — judgment, idolatry, other reasons — but it just seems like if his purpose was to literally list the 12 tribes, he would have stuck with a list that was more common.

Number 4, John “heard,” 7:4, and then “looked,” 7:9. Now this is a literary device that John uses throughout the book to link two seemingly different entities together. Let me show you another example back in chapter 5:5, one of the elders said to John, “weep no more; behold, the Lion.” So, John heard about a Lion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah we were just singing about. But then in verse 6, between the throne and the four living creatures among the elders, John turned and “saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain with seven horns and seven eyes.” John heard about a Lion; John saw a Lamb.

This literary device captures our imagination so that we could begin to imagine something that would normally not exist. Lions, known for their ferocity — they’re hunters, they’re royalty — typically are not conflated with lambs known as the hunted — their meekness, their vulnerability. And John is saying, “Imagine with me Jesus, who is Lion, who is Lamb.”

This is what led Jonathan Edwards, in my favorite favorite Edwards sermon, to describe this as “the admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” You would describe it that way to, right? Most of us would. The admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies — beautiful things that normally don’t go together come together in Jesus Christ. And John is stirring our imaginations so that we could begin to see our Savior is unlike anyone else we know. He heard about a Lion; he saw a Lamb. Something like that may be happening here in chapter 7. The point in chapter 5 is not that Jesus has a mane or that he’s opening the seals with his hooves or that he has literally seven horns. If you believe that you’re literally missing the point. What is happening in chapter 7:4, John “heard” about 144,000 who were sealed, these tribes of Israel. He “looked” in verse 9,

“and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

Two entities that would normally not be together — Jew, Gentile, ethnic Israelites, nations — like Lion and Lamb, are made one in Jesus. And this is the point. We see all throughout the New Testament. For example, Ephesians 2, he is our, Jesus is our, peace who has made two, one.

Now there’s another argument embedded in here. What does that mean for the future of ethnic Israel? I don’t believe this is necessarily negating that. That’s a Romans 11 discussion we can have at another time. But the point here is, there are two different ways, two different plans. There is one tree, this history of redemption. People are grafted in, broken off, but there is one plan.

Number 5, in Revelation 14:3, the 144,000 represent those who had been redeemed from the earth and from mankind. It sounds more general.

And then finally, number 6, all believers are sealed. So, in verse 3 the angel is arguing. And this is what we must get when we’re moving from chapter 6 to chapter 7. The angel is arguing, is communicating, that there can be no judgment until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. And that word seals, “sphragis” in Greek, is referring to possession and protection. It is used of branding cattle or tattooing soldiers. It is used in Ezekiel 9:4-5, which is probably the passage that Revelation 7 is based on,

“And the Lord said to him, [the Angel] ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark, [which in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament is the same word that is used in Revelation 7] put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’ And to the others he said in my hearing, ‘Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity.’”

So, like the children of Israel during the Passover, those who had the blood on the doors were passed over in judgment, there’s something like that happening here. Those who have the seal, no matter what else happens, are protected and possessed by God. Judgment is coming. Mark those who will be spared. Revelation 7:1-8 seems to be describing the church militant on earth. And the reason the tribes are listed is very similar to what is happening in Numbers 1. Before Israel went to battle, there was a census taken. The tribes were listed. The army was prepared. The people of God are being prepared for battle, but the battle they’re going to fight is not fought with weapons made by humans, as we’ll see.

This preparation is similar to what Jesus was doing with the people in Smyrna. The Church of Smyrna, Revelation 2:9-10,

“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

And his point here is not simply to give them a day timer. “Oh yeah, tribulation will begin here and end here. Ten days.” No, his point is, your tribulation is within the sovereign plan of God. Be faithful. Do not fear, God’s got you. He’s got you. And in a much bigger way Revelation is saying that.

In a more general way, we can say that all believers have that seal. Let me give you a few examples. 2 Corinthians 1:20-22,

“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has put his [there’s that same word] seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”

Ephesians 1:13-14,

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 4:30,

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

2 Timothy 2:19,

“But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’”

The point is, feelings come and go, sealings come and stay. When you are sealed, you are sealed for good. And even though all of us — some of you are in the middle of it right now, some of you have experienced this in the past, some of us will experience it in the future — will go through deep, deep times like Lewis was describing, when it feels like you’re not going to make it or God has abandoned me or there is no hope. And Revelation 7 is saying, the people of God can count on the seal of God. He seals us. So, imagine yourself in that deep, dark place, like Lewis was in, or under intense pressure to blend in, or experiencing fading mental capacity like Alzheimer’s or dementia. You begin to wonder, “Lord, I don’t even know if I will know what is going on.” And God is saying, “I have sealed you. I have my mark on you.” When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. He seals.

Secondly, he saves. In verse 9,

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation.”

This is a fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 17:4,

“you will be a father of many nations.”

Revelation 7:9

“from every nation, from all tribes [including the ones just listed] and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”

So, an innumerable multitude of people — Jews, Gentiles, people from every nation and tribe — standing before the throne. Why are they standing? If you look a few verses later in verses 11 and 12, the angels, elders, and living creatures will fall, but here they are standing. In answer to the question in chapter 6:17, “who can stand?” We can stand because we are sealed and because he saves. Notice their song. Verse 10,

“crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

So, think about it. That second point many of us, if you’ve grown up in church, you think, “well He saves. Yeah, He saves. He saves.” HE saves! He saves. “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.” He is the one who saves. “When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace. On Christ the solid Rock I stand.” Who can stand? We can stand. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

This choir could be titled the “I-can’t-believe-I’m-here” choir. That’s what they’re saying. Salvation belongs to God. And it’s really subtitled the “I-can’t-believe-you’re-here” choir as well. Can you imagine that? We’re going to get there and we’re going to look around, “Really, God? That salvation belongs to you. There is no way she would’ve made it. There is no way he would have made it. There’s no way I would’ve made it.” There’s no one that’s going to think they should be there. There’s no one that can tabulate. “Oh, I can explain why I’m smart enough, good enough, strong enough, held on, sincere enough. I prayed exactly the right words in the right language.” No! Salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb. He starts it. He keeps us. He finishes. When I say, “he saves,” I’m talking about a group of people who wonder, “Can we make it to the end?” And this passage is answering, “Yes!” There’s no sense of entitlement. But God has done what we could not do.

This past Tuesday — once a month we get ministry reports in staff meeting, and I was sitting in the back of our little conference room and Allan Sherer was giving us a missions update. He just returned from one of his world tours and was sharing what God was doing as we get to give and go and serve and be a part of what God is doing around the world. But it was so fun to sit there (that’s what it’s like for you people in the back) and just look at our staff. And many of our staff — taking care of the facility or finances or leading 100 different ministries, and pastors. No matter what we do it all comes down to this. It all leads to this, verses 9 and 10. This massive multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” standing before the throne and before the Lamb, pure and clean. Celebrating with palm branches in their hands “and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God!” That’s why we do what we do. That’s why you do what you do. It all leads to the end of the story, the culmination, where we get to give praise to the One who, against all odds, saves us. He seals. He saves.

Then finally, he shelters. In verses 13-17,

“One of the elders addressed me [John — so this is happening in the vision] saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, [I have no clue. You know. I love the way he answers.] ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.’ [The ones who had been sealed. The ones he had saved.] ‘They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”

Try that sometime. Wash your whites in blood. Again, He does what we could not do. He used the greatest injustice, the crucifixion of the righteous Man, to bring about the purity and transformation of the unrighteous.

“Therefore, [verse 15] “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.”

That word “shelter” is rich. It literally means to spread his tent over them. It’s the word tabernacle. To “tabernacle” over them. Anyone with an understanding of the Old Testament or Jewish history would see that he’s referring to God’s shekinah glory being placed over his people in order to protect and provide for them so that, verse 16, they will be free from hunger and thirst and sunstroke, “nor any scorching heat.” Verse 17,

“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

So, imagine a time when you’re too hungry to eat, too thirsty to drink, crying too much to see. Jesus is promising to give such attention to the details of our cravings and longings that he is saying, “All those unfulfilled yearnings, one day I will give attention to those and make sure everyone is met — every yearning, every longing.”

There is a stunning role reversal here. The one who is the Lion, who is the Lamb, who comes forth as a conquering ram with the horns, is also the Shepherd of the sheep. And next week we’re going to pause in Revelation just for Labor Day to take a look at Psalm 23 and just kind of work through what that shepherding is like. But don’t miss the heart of God here to shelter his people. Now this promise is given to a people who have experienced intense tribulation. So, he is not … just like Jesus said when he was here in this world, you’re going to have tribulation. He promises it. You can’t follow Jesus and always have a good time. It’s not healthy for us as well.

But what he is communicating here is his intention to meet us at a time when we think all hope is gone. He seals, saves, and will shelter. He will shelter us. And for people who feel, imagine the first readers of this letter. They felt so outnumbered, so overwhelmed by the power of political forces and idolatry all around them. To hear these words, “I am promising, I have sealed you. I will save you. I will not stop until you’re safe. And I will shelter you. I will provide because I have put my seal upon you.”

A couple ways we can respond to this word. And you notice, I am purposely trying not to get lost in the controversy, because for some of us the only way we think about and talk about the book of Revelation is the controversy. But embedded in all that controversy are unimaginable promises and a message God wants all of us to hear. And some of you have not trusted Jesus, and you’re winging it and you’re just hoping one day to get around to it. I beg you today, hear his Word, believe in his Son. He has given his Son for you.

And others of you are walking through deep times and facing real challenges and fears — I prayed with many of you this week — where you wonder, “How am I going to make it?” This is a huge encouragement to you. I want you to imagine for a moment God putting his seal on you. You are mine. Nobody can touch you. I have not given them permission. Nobody can take away what I give. No one can snatch you out of my hand. You are sealed. And when I begin a work, I finish it. You will be saved. And the promises that I have for you under my glory are unimaginable for you today. So, can we revel in that? And even as so much is happening in our country, and if you talk to many Christians, there’s just at times such a fear. And we need to be locked into his promises so that we are not simply reactive. We are confident in God’s good work because he has called us on an amazing journey that ends really well. Let’s pray.

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