After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, saying, ‘Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.’
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:
From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.
‘Why on earth did I choose this passage’? I’ve kept asking myself this as I’ve struggled with what to write. A short passage from an often overlooked book; a passage that is basically a list of numbers that took me back to learning my times-table.
In some ways we may consider the figures small – the total number of people sealed from all Israel just one hundred and forty-four thousand. But we need to think of these numbers in terms of Biblical usage. Where we think the figures are small, limiting, and exclusive, in Biblical terms they are large – a multitude.
For John, these numbers refer to the Church and present a picture that is big but also complete, fulfilled. From the twelve tribes of Israel to the twelve apostles, not only is the number complete but it represents the whole People of God. Think about it, if we had such numbers in our churches today we would be cock-a-hoop!
This passage though causes a break with events and interrupts the opening of the seals. We are given a picture of the church facing persecution – many churches then would have been small, on the margins of society, looked at with suspicion, yet in the opening paragraph of this passage we are told how they are held safely by the four angels holding back the winds.
We too may feel we are small, on the margins and looked at with suspicion. Yet nationally there are about 33 million who claim to be Christians, and internationally 2.5 billion. But whatever the figures we could say this 144,000 is about us and is us, all Christians of all times and all places, held secure and preserved by God just as the Churches in Asia were.
Lord, wherever we meet and however many there are of us, help us to remember that we are part of a bigger family. From one to hundred, and forty-four to one hundred thousand you are there for each and every one of us; keeping us close and holding back the winds that would threaten to overwhelm us. Amen
The Reverend Branwen Rees, East Wales Regional Minister