Summary: This article was written and published in January, 2016. It is always important to distinguish in your understanding what God distinguishes in His. It is always good and proper for the believer to come into agreement with what God says and thinks. Our only knowledge of what God thinks and says is in Scripture. And every true Christian has received the Spirit of God by which he may know the things of God (1 Cor. 2:11-12). For example, in order to acquire a general understanding of the Bible one must learn the importance of distinguishing as separate groups the nation of Israel and the body of Christ (the assembly). As the sovereign God who chooses as He pleases, God maintains this distinction and separation throughout Scripture. And our teachings should follow suit. In the past there was a period of time when God strictly dealt with the Jews as His chosen and special people (Deut. 7:6-8) — this was the Jewish dispensation. The moral end of this time period was when the Jews became guilty of crucifying Jesus, their own Messiah King. The physical end of this time was when God allowed the Romans to destroy the temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD (Dan. 9:26, Luke 21:20-24, Matt. 24:1-2). God has begun the new work of building His assembly, the body of Christ (Matt. 16:18). This present period of time in which God is strictly dealing with His calling of the church and His relationship with her is known as the Christian dispensation.
In the seventh chapter of the Revelation we find three distinct groups of people. We do well to keep these three groups separate from each other because God keeps them separate. The passage points to what God’s arrangements will be in a future time known as the millennium, which will be the final dispensation of time. (For a comprehensive explanation of dispensationalism, please acquire a copy of my book, How to Better Understand the Bible – Dispensationalism Made Simple or go to the books page of this website and read it there) This article is about distinguishing those three groups for this final period of time (millennium).
The book of Revelation is a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3). Although it is found in the New Testament, it is not like the four gospels, nor like any of the epistles. The gospels tell of the life of Christ; the epistles are letters written from the Father and Son through the Comforter to the church. But God isn’t displayed in the Revelation as the Father of the Christian believer, the Spirit isn’t seen as the Comforter, and Jesus isn’t ever shown as Head of the body or High Priest for us. God is seen as the Lord God Almighty, sitting on His throne of government and judgment (Rev. 4:2, 8). The Spirit is seven Spirits before the throne – the direct agent of God in providential action in His government of the earth (Rev. 4:5). Jesus is seen as the ruler over the kings of the earth – the One who was born as destined to rule all nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 1:5, 12:5). All these features being the distinctive character of the subject of prophecy – it is about the earth, Israel, and God’s government of the earth.
There are three distinct groups of people found in Revelation seven (Rev. 7). Correctly identifying each group is important for properly understanding the book. The first group is 144,000 of the children of Israel (Rev. 7:1-8), twelve thousand chosen and sealed by God from each of the twelve tribes. This is the end-time Jewish remnant, spoken of by Jesus as His elect in His prophecies in the gospels (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31, Luke 18:7). Israel’s calling is earthly – they are destined to inherit the promised land. God’s sealing of this group, in the future tribulation, matches their calling – it is earthy in its nature (Rev. 7:3). This remnant will form the nucleus of the restored nation of Israel. Their nation, and the city of Jerusalem, will be the center of God’s government in the millennial earth.
The second group is the innumerable multitude of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues (Rev. 7:9). These are described by the special phrase “before the throne” – these Gentiles have a fixed moral relationship with God who is on the throne, but their location is on the earth, not in heaven. These were saved by God during the tribulation, and will populate the millennial earth (Rev. 7:14).
The third group is represented by the twenty-four elders in heaven (Rev. 7:11). We saw these same elders earlier in the book sitting on twenty-four endowed thrones around the governmental throne of God (Rev. 4:4). They represent the raptured church in heaven, with possibly the Old Testament saints with them – the heavenly saints all together. Revelation 1:19 gives us the three divisions of the book – “the things which you have seen” is the vision of Christ in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks in chapter one (Rev. 1:10-20); “the things which are” is God’s judgment of the ongoing history of Christendom found in Revelation two and three (Rev. 2 and Rev. 3); “the things which will take place after this” are properly the prophetic things, the future things, and begin with chapter four and continue to the start of the ending salutation of the book (Rev. 22:6-21). The scene of the first two divisions and their visions, is the earth. To start the third part of the book, John is taken up to heaven (Rev. 4:1). This is when/where we see the twenty-four elders for the first time in the book – around the throne in heaven, and after God has finished declaring the judgment of Christendom on the earth. With this judgment set to take place, and God has finished His dealings with Christendom, there being no time or room for corporate repentance, then He removes the true church from the earth. Now, in chapter four, we see the elders in heaven.
One interesting characteristic of the church is how they are marked by intelligent reasonable worship – they give reason and motives in explanation. They worship Him who sits on the throne, he who has title over all creation, by whom and for whom all things were created, by declaring, “And by Your will they exist and were created.” (Rev. 4:11). In chapter five, the elders declare their intelligent perception of the mind of God by answering why the Lamb is worthy to open the seals. They sing, “For You were slain, and You have redeemed us to God by your blood…and have made us kings and priests to our God, and we shall reign over the earth.” The angels are never seen giving reasons for their worship; only the church does this. And the elders are the ones who give answers (Rev. 5:5, 7:13-17). The heavenly elders have intelligence of the counsels and ways of God (John 15:15) – this is the believer’s intelligent service (Rom. 12:1).
You might ask, why didn’t John have the answers and knowledge of these things, seeing that he was the last living apostle of the church? But the position John really stands in for the entire book is one related to prophecy; in this sense, it is not a position related to the church, the mystery of God hidden from prophecy and the prophets; John stands, more so, as an Old Testament prophet, who must search and inquire as to the things he is prophesying of (I Pet. 1:10-11). But the church has received the Spirit of God (this is even different from the Old Testament saints and prophets who did not), and has the mind of Christ, so that we might know the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory (I Cor. 2:7-16).
The whole point of this article is to show that the three groups seen in Revelation seven (7) are separate and distinct from each other. It is an error to think and teach that any of the groups are the same people, and can be interpreted as the same. The Spirit separates them for a reason – they are distinct groups of people, each saved by God, each having a different place and privilege in their relationship with God.
The bigger mistake that is often seen in those who teach this book is that, when they get to this chapter, they miss-identify the three groups of people. But in our efforts to identify them, if we are mindful of certain biblical principles, we shouldn’t have much of a problem doing this. Israel is a nation whose people are natural descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob – this is straight-forward and separates the Jews from all other nations on the earth. The church is an entirely different principle. She is gathered by the Holy Spirit out of all nations, and she is the new creation of God according to these parameters:
Gal. 3:26-28 (NKJV)
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The church is Christ, the body of Christ, and she is all one in Christ. Putting on Christ is giving up being a Jew or Gentile. In the true church there are no longer Jewish Christians or English Christians or American Christians. In Christ, and therefore in the true church, there are only Christians. Believers give up nationalities, genders, status and position, in order to be born of God, a new creation in Christ, and member of His body, the church. The elements of the world are only suited to man in the flesh, adapted to man as part of this world (Rom. 8:8-9). The relationships of the first creation are for man in Adam. But the believer is not part of this world and is the new creation of God in Jesus Christ, the second Adam (John 17:14, II Cor. 5:16-18). The true church belongs to heaven, and none of these worldly elements and relationships are found there.
The twenty-four elders are in heaven, and represent the church and its heavenly calling. The other two groups of the chapter are earthly, and maintain in the millennial earth their worldly elements and earthly relationships as part of the world and the first creation. The 144,000 are the saved and preserved Jewish remnant of the last days. The innumerable multitude will form the saved Gentile nations of the millennial earth.