Here at Bridgeway we love to sing the song, King of My Heart. The way in which it declares that God is good is both biblical and reassuring. But there is a line in the chorus that often times sticks in the throat of some believers. It goes something like this: “You’re never gonna’ let, never gonna’ let me down.” Some struggle to sing this because deep down inside they don’t really believe it. They think there have been times in their life when God really did let them down, and they are afraid there may well be more instances in the future when he’ll do it again.
When people have asked me about this line in the song and what it means I always direct their attention to Romans 8:28 where we are assured that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” In other words, God never lets us down because he takes even the worst of tragedies and setbacks and turns them for good in our lives. He mysteriously and mercifully uses them to change us more and more into the image of Jesus.
There is yet another sense in which God never lets us down. He never fails to fulfill his promises. But the problem with this is that we all too often think God has promised to do something for us that in point of fact is nowhere stated in Scripture.
Perhaps the best and most common example of this is physical suffering and persecution from our enemies. When we endure pain and suffering and opposition and unjust treatment at the hands of the world, we immediately jump to the conclusion that God has quite obviously “let us down” by not protecting us from such attacks. But God never in Scripture promises that his children will be insulated against or protected from the devastating consequences of physical harm or persecution or natural calamities. Never.
To suggest, then, that when you are fired from your job for no reason that God has let you down is to misunderstand what he does and does not promise us in the Bible. When you suffer financial hardship because of the immoral behavior of someone else, or when you lose your house and possessions in a tornado or when you are slandered at work or are thrown in jail simply for being a Christian, this is no indication that God has failed you or has let you down or has not come through on a promise he made to you in the Bible.
This is critically important for us to understand if we are going to make sense of what we read in Revelation 7 and 14. Here in these two chapters we read of 144,000 individuals being “sealed” by God. Who are these people and what does it mean that they are “sealed”? Is this a promise that God will make certain they never suffer at the hands of the non-Christian world or from the attacks of Satan? If not, what does it mean and how does it apply to you and me? I’ll address the identity of the 144,000 in a later article, but for now we are concerned with what it means to say they are “sealed” by God.
The purpose of this “seal” is not to protect believers from physical harm that comes either as a result of the “seal/trumpet/bowl” judgments or persecution or from the attacks of Satan. Let’s never forget that John described himself as our “partner in . . . tribulation” (Rev. 1:9). And Jesus told the Christians in the church in Smyrna to “be faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10) given the fact that they were about to “suffer” because “the devil is about to thrown some” of them “into prison” (Rev. 2:10). You will also recall that in Revelation 6:9-11 many had already been martyred for their faith and many more would follow. As far as I can tell, nowhere in the NT are the people of God ever promised protection from physical suffering at the hands of unbelievers or from the ravages of living in a fallen world. Certainly God often does providentially and mercifully protect his people, but there is no guarantee that he will always do so.
God nowhere says we are invulnerable to Satan’s attack, but he does promise us that nothing Satan or anyone else might do can ever separate us from the love he has for us in Jesus (Rom. 8:37-39). What we are reading about here is divine preservation and protection of a spiritual nature. It is God’s gracious provision of persevering faith in the midst of intense persecution and suffering. The seal strengthens our faith so that the trials through which we pass serve not to separate us from God but only to refine and purify our commitment to him.
In other words, persecution and pain and suffering have the tendency to weaken an individual’s resistance. What safeguard or assurance do we have that when faced with this we won’t crater under pressure and deny Jesus? The safeguard is the seal of God imposed on the foreheads of God’s people. The verb “to seal” can also mean to authenticate and to designate ownership of something or someone. This is surely in view insofar as in 14:1 the seal is identified as the Name of the Lamb and the Father (cf. 22:4). Indeed, the “mark” of the beast on the forehead of his followers is identified as “the name of the beast” (14:9-11).
I am persuaded that the entire imagery of the “seal” is simply a reference to the Holy Spirit himself, whose abiding presence in Christians is likened unto “sealing” which marks them out as God’s and protects them from spiritual harm:
“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:21-22).
“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” (Eph. 1:13-14; cf. 4:30).
Thus, when we read in Revelation that God has “sealed” his people and put his name on their foreheads we should immediately think of the gift of the Holy Spirit and his work in our hearts to mark us out as belonging to God and protected and preserved in faith no matter how much tribulation or suffering we face. It’s God’s way of saying: “You’re mine! I will never let you go! I will sustain and preserve and uphold you in faith no matter what the enemy may attempt to do.”
By the way, this is the clearest indication that the so-called “mark of the Beast” is not a literal, physical mark on the bodies of unbelievers, either on their forehead or their right hand. All through Revelation we see Satan making every effort to copy whatever God does. So, for example, the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, find their evil counterpart in Satan, the Beast, and the False Prophet. Just as Jesus died and rose again from the dead, the Beast is portrayed as dying and rising to life again.
My point is simply that the so-called “mark” of the Beast that unbelievers receive on their forehead or their right hand is a demonic rip-off, a depraved parody, a counterfeit imitation of the “mark” that believers receive on their foreheads. Look at the texts where the people of God are “sealed” on their foreheads:
“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev. 7:3).
“They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev. 9:4).
“Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion, stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1).
“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).
No one that I know of believes that all Christians throughout the world will literally/physically have the name of Jesus and the name of the Father tattooed on their foreheads. This is simply a way of describing the fact that those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ belong to him and to his Father and are preserved in faith by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
So we later read that the False Prophet causes everyone who isn’t a Christian to have the mark of the Beast written on his/her forehead as a sign that they belong to the Beast and are loyal to him. This “mark” on their foreheads or on their right hand is simply Satan’s way of mimicking the seal of God that is on the foreheads of God’s people. If you have the name of Jesus and God the Father written on your forehead it simply means they own you, you belong to them, you are loyal to the Lord God Almighty. But if you have “the name of the beast” (Rev. 13:17) written on your forehead it signifies that he owns you, you belong to him, you are loyal to the Antichrist. My point is that if you don’t argue that the name of Jesus and God the Father is literally tattooed on the foreheads of Christians you have no reason to argue that the name of the Antichrist (or his number, 666) is literally tattooed on the foreheads of non-Christians.
Thus it seems quite clear that the “mark” of the beast on his followers is the demonic counterpart and parody of the “seal” that is placed on the foreheads of the people of God (see 7:3-8; 14:1; 22:4). “Just as the seal and the divine name on believers connote God’s ownership and spiritual protection of them, so the mark and Satanic name signify those who belong to the devil and will undergo perdition” (Beale, 716). Since the seal or name on the believer is obviously invisible, being symbolic of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, it seems certain that the mark of the beast is likewise a symbolic way of describing the loyalty of his followers and his ownership of them. If you’re wondering why the seal on God’s people and the mark on the non-Christian is placed on the forehead of each, it may be that the forehead points to one’s ideological commitment and the hand to the practical outworking or manifestation of that commitment.
To sum up simply, I believe Revelation 7:1-8 and 14:1-5 are John’s symbolic portrayal of the truth of Romans 8:35-39. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [Or perhaps even Satan himself or the Beast or the False Prophet?] . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And the way we conquer and persevere and endure is through the Holy Spirit whom Christ has sent to us, who seals us as God’s own, in whose strong and loving arms we live securely in the face of all evil.