Heaven Ain’t Full

In a recent telephone conversation, a young man asked me about the 144,000 people that will be saved. He had a few conversations with a friend who identified himself with the Jehovah’s Witness religion. His friend believed that only 144,000 people would go to heaven and the rest of the righteous people would inherit a newly renovated earth. This zealous teen sought the answer to his friend’s limited doctrine.

While on the phone we read Revelation 7:4, “And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” John, the apostle responsible for penning Revelation, has entered God’s throne room in a vision. While in the vision he hears the angels calling to one another that the servants of God must be sealed or marked. Those marked will be spared destruction on the day of Judgment�they’ll be saved. Then John hears the exact number of sealed people, 144,000.

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses correct in saying heaven will be filled with 144,000 souls? Or is there another explanation? We searched for the answer together.

The Question

To properly understand Revelation 7:4, we must be mindful of the context. Revelation 7 answers the question posed in the previous chapter, “For the great day of their wrath is come, and who can stand?” (6:17). Yet, understanding this question and why it was asked takes us back to another query in verse 10, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (6:10).

In Revelation 6:10, the souls of Christian martyrs ask how long their blood would go unavenged. They don’t want their sacrifices to be empty. They long to see justice on those who persecuted and killed Christians. God tells them to be patient and rest for a little while (6:11).

Then God assures them that justice would be served on the infidels. With the opening of the sixth seal in verse twelve, judgment begins. In this horrific scene of judgment, the wicked seek an outlet of safety from the wrath of “him who is seated on the throne” and “the Lamb” (6:16). In their terror the condemned ones ask, “Who can stand?” That is, who will be able to stand on the judgment day�the day of heavenly wrath unleashed?

So far so good; the caller and I understood these questions. Like a lot of people he began guessing their answers, “The saved? Christians? Angels?” Then I told him to look at chapter seven, the divine answer to the inquiry.

The Answer: Part 1

The angels answer the question in two parts. The first part of the answer comes in Revelation 7:1-8. The destruction of Judgment halts while the faithful servants of God under the Jewish system are marked or sealed. They declare the name of each tribe and separate twelve thousand saved souls in each one. Twelve thousand out of twelve tribes equals 144,000 souls. The first part of the answer is faithful Jews.
The voice on the other end of the phone spoke with enlightenment, “So the Jews will be saved.” I affirmed his answer. Then he asked why only 144,000 Jews would be saved. I explained how the number was not intended to be an exact count of saved Jews, but to signify a definite multitude. He understood, so we continued.

The Answer: Part 2

We looked further into chapter seven. After the 144,000 Jews are identified, John sees another group of people (7:9). This group contains people from every tribe, nation and language who wear white robes indicative of salvation.

Who are these people? They own Yahweh as their God (7:10). They worship God sitting on his throne (7:11). They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb (Jesus) (7:14).These serve God daily in his temple the church (7:15) and Jesus guides them (7:16). Who are these people? Christians.

So the full answer to the question in 6:17 is faithful Jews under the Mosaic system and faithful Christians under Christ’s system. He grasped the meaning, but still had a question about why the Jews had a definite number and the Christians did not.

The Confusion

A fair question. Why did the Jews get limited to 144,000, while the Christians were “a great multitude that no one could number?” I had to do some more checking and reading. After some thought it came to me. The Jews were described by a definite number because the Jewish system of salvation had stopped. Judaism had already saved all it ever would save. If we could go to the hadean realm and have all those in paradise who lived and died under the Jewish economy raise their hands, we could count them. If we did it again tomorrow, we would get the same number (given we didn’t make a counting error).

On the other hand, the Christian scheme of redemption continues today. People are still being saved daily by the blood of the Lamb. If we counted the number of Christian souls in the hadean realm today, that number would be different tomorrow. That number continues to grow because that system continues as God’s current salvation system. Therefore, as John said, it is a multitude that no one could number.

After I stopped preaching, he answered in excitement, “So the Jews had a number because there wouldn’t be any more people saved by the Jewish law; and the Christians didn’t have a number because there are still people being saved by Christ’s law?” Exactly.

People living today aren’t part of the 144,000 because that number only applied to the number of saved Jews under a system that was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). Today we take heart in the knowledge that God has room in heaven for all Christians�no matter how “great” the multitude gets.

Thank God heaven ain’t full!

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What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

In order to understand what it means to be saved, we need to understand that from which we need to be saved. The Bible teaches that because all men have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). It is these sins that separate us from God (Isaiah 59:2) putting us into a state of needing to be reconciled with God. Moreover, since God is a completely holy and righteous God, those who die in sins must be punished for the evil that they have done. What kind of punishment does one receive for offending an infinite God? The Bible teaches that those who die in a state of sin will receive eternal separation from God in hell (Matthew 25:46). Sinful man is doomed to condemnation. This is that from which men need salvation. What is man to do? As Paul asks, “Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver (i.e. save) me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

Fortunately for man, God wants man to be saved from such an awful fate. That is the salvation that God offers; reconciliation with him through Jesus Christ (Romans 7:25, 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Salvation is the opportunity to not have to be punished for the sins that we have committed. God has offered us an alternative. If we will believe that Jesus is God’s Son, that Jesus came to the earth to provide something for man that man could not provide for himself, namely, salvation from sin, then God will allow Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross to be our vicarious punishment for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When we become saved by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17), believing it (Hebrews 11:6), repenting of sin (Acts 17:30), confessing Jesus as Christ (Matthew 10:32) and being baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16), then we are born again into the family of God (John 3:3,5) and we become children of God (1 John 3:1) and heirs according to God’s promise (Galatians 3:29). This entails that we can then call upon God as our Father and he considers us as His children (Galatians 4:6).

Now, while this is the basic story of salvation, the scriptures reveal to us that there are several perspectives of salvation. There is salvation at the moment of baptism. In this perspective, we gain a right relationship with God and we become his child (see Galatians 3:27-29). Here we have forgiveness of our past sins and we are able to worship God acceptably. In this perspective of salvation, we have come out of a detrimental relationship with God and entered into a constructive relationship with God. God begins, at this point, to mold us into the kind of person He wants us to be through our obedience to His word and our growth as a child of God. 1 Peter 2:2ASV states, “As newborn babes, long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that ye may grow thereby unto salvation.” While the newborn babe in Christ is saved in that he is in a right relationship with God, he still needs to continue to grow unto salvation in order to remain saved and inherit eternal life.

There is also salvation from sin committed after baptism. In this perspective we see salvation from sin as ongoing. Once we become a Christian, the blood of Christ covers the sins that we commit and confess (1 John 1:7-10) and we remain in a state of God’s grace as we continue to serve and love Him. It doesn’t mean that God excuses our sins. It means that when we sin and turn to God with a broken heart in penitence for our sins, then God continues to forgive our sins based upon our having been cleansed by the blood (Acts 8:22).

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t abandon God and lose our inheritance (2 John 1:8). We can, like the prodigal son, rebel against our father and wander off into a strange land (Luke 15:11-32). If we die in such a state, then we will lose our inheritance and will not be part of the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10). Jesus himself even warned us that there would be some who call him Lord, but would not enter into eternal life (Matthew 7:21). So God’s promise of forgiveness to His children is conditional upon the grounds that we remain faithful to God and His will (Revelation 2:10). God’s relationship to us is Father to child, but if the child rejects and abandons the Father, then there is no more sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:26). We are children of God, but we must walk as God’s children (1 John 3:10, Ephesians 5:8-11). If we stop walking as God’s children we will be disinherited.

Consider also 2 Corinthians 7:9, 10 which says, “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Notice that godly sorrow works repentance to salvation. What kind of salvation is that? Didn’t these Christians already have salvation? Why would they need to repent to salvation if they already had it? This passage indicates that even those who were once saved, can so sin as to need to repent to salvation again.

Finally, there is another sense of the word “salvation” that refers to being saved out of this life and into the next. Consider 2 Timothy 2:10. Paul is speaking to those who are saved, yet he says, “Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” If they already had it, then why would they need to “obtain” it? He must be referring to salvation in the next life in heaven with God and Christ. Notice also 1 Peter 1:4, 5 “To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Again, this “salvation” is that which has not yet been “revealed” until, that is, the last time. That’s heaven itself. So while a man may be saved in that he is currently in a right relationship with God, and also that he has ongoing forgiveness of sins, it is also the case that he has not yet obtained final salvation in heaven. That blessing is reserved for those who endure to the end (2 Timothy 4:8).

What does it mean to be saved? It means that the Christian has been taken out of darkness and into light, forgiven of his past sins, and become a child of God. It means that the Christian may now call upon God as Father and ask for ongoing forgiveness of sins committed after baptism, but it doesn’t mean that the Christian can’t abandon that relationship and return to darkness. And finally, it means that the Christian has God’s promise that one day he will be saved from the sorrows, pains, and temptations of this life into a place where no evil shall dwell and Father and child may be together throughout eternity. Now, don’t you want to be saved?

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What is Grace? (Or Salvation, Grace, and Obedience)

Many years ago, someone gave me this illustration of God’s grace and I haven’t forgotten it since. Suppose you went down to the local car dealership and walked into the front door and someone walked up to you, but instead of saying, “Can I help you,” they said, “Today is your day! Today you are our 100,000th customer and we have a great surprise for you. Here is the key to a brand new car with all the bells and whistles. All you have to do is take these keys and drive the car off the lot and the car is yours. We’ll take care of the rest.” Now, as you stood there, you would probably be thinking, “Ok, what’s the catch,” right? But suppose there was no “catch.” Suppose that this new car was simply “yours for the taking.”

Could you say that in taking that car that you earned it? Or would you rather say that the car was a gift? Would you say that you deserve that car? Or would you rather say that the car was given by the favor of the owner? Can you say that through the actions of taking the key and driving off the lot that you merited the car? Or would you say that the car was unearned? The answers here should be obvious. No way could we say that we earned the car or that we merited the car or even that we deserved the car. The car was given by the favor of the owner; that favor was unmerited on our part; we did nothing to earn it; we really don’t deserve it, but because we met the conditions of the owner, we got it. Does taking the key and driving the car off the lot mean that we deserve, have merited, or have earned the car? No, obviously not. How do we know that? Because we recognize the inequity of the value of our actions in accepting the car in relationship to the car’s value. That is, our actions in taking the keys and driving the car off the lot (if such actions have any value at all), in no way begin to compare in value to the car itself. So it is with unmerited favor that the owner of the car dealership has given us the car.

You may not know it, but we’ve just illustrated God’s grace. God’s grace is unmerited favor. And receiving something by God’s grace is obtaining something by gift that we don’t deserve, haven’t merited, and didn’t earn. Now, the Bible says that we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), and that salvation is a gift from God (Romans 6:23). It also says that we don’t deserve salvation, can’t merit it and don’t earn it (Ephesians 2:9, 2 Timothy 1:9). So how can we say that human activity must be involved in order to receive God’s grace? Let’s continue thinking about our illustration and see if we can answer that question.

When we think about our illustration in relationship to God’s gift, of how much more value is the gift of God’s Son (the manifestation of God’s grace) than a new car? It is, of course, infinitely (incomparably) more valuable. And of how much less value are our actions in comparison to what God has done? The inequity is infinite and truly incomparable. How can we then say that any act of obedience that man does as part of the conditions that God has set forth for salvation, in any way merits God’s grace? We cannot. Just as taking the keys and driving off the lot cannot be considered to be meriting, earning, or deserving that new car, so also, when we hear the gospel, believe it with all our heart, repent of sins, confess Jesus as Christ and are baptized for the remission of our sins, neither can we say that we merited, earned, or deserved the salvation that has been purchased by the blood of Jesus and given to us through the grace of God. We receive it because God gave it and we met God’s conditions for receiving it; but not because we earned or merited it. In comparison to the infinite value of salvation, the value of our obedience is zero. But that doesn’t mean we have the luxury to be disobedient.

Take Naaman (2 Kings 5) for an example. Here was a man who had leprosy. There was nothing that he could do to earn, merit, or deserve freedom from that disease. Yet he was told that he could do something, namely, dip in the Jordan seven times. There was no value in dipping in the Jordan seven times to heal one from the disease of leprosy. Yet, that was the condition that God gave Naaman in order to be healed of that disease. Naaman’s actions of dipping himself seven times in the Jordan were obedient, but they were valueless in comparison to the gift that God gave him, namely, Naaman’s health. God gave Naaman health by His grace; but Naaman, through his obedience, in no way earned that health. We might say that the value of his obedience in relationship to God’s gift of health was zero. But that didn’t mean that Naaman had the luxury of being disobedient.

So wherein lies the misunderstanding? Many today have redefined God’s grace to mean unmerited and unconditional favor. But that’s not God’s grace. God’s grace is unmerited favor, but just because grace is unmerited doesn’t necessarily mean that it is unconditional. “Unmerited” means that something can’t be earned. “Unconditional” means that something can’t be refused. For example, life is an unconditional gift from our parents (and from God) to us; once conception has occurred, there’s nothing we can do to refuse it. Life is also unmerited because we can’t do anything to earn it. On the other hand, food, clothing, and shelter are unmerited gifts from parents to children, but the children must themselves eat, wear their clothes, and come in the house when it rains. So while these gifts are unmerited, they are conditional. There is a difference between a gift that is unconditional and one that is unmerited. A gift that is unconditional is unmerited, but one which is unmerited is not necessarily unconditional.

Now, just because God’s grace is unmerited does not mean it is unconditional. Some get these two concepts confused and want to say that if God’s grace is unmerited, then that means that it is unconditional. What makes something unconditional is the inability to refuse it. What makes something unmerited is the inability to earn it. Once we understand that salvation can be refused (by disbelief; Mark 16:16) then it is clear that salvation is NOT unconditional. However, the fact that we can refuse salvation doesn’t mean that when we meet the conditions God has set for salvation that we necessarily earn it and that is true because our obedience in relationship to God’s gift of salvation has no purchasing value. It simply doesn’t follow that because salvation is conditional that it must be merited. No, not at all. Salvation can be both conditional and unmerited.

God’s gift of salvation is by His grace. That means it is unmerited. It is unmerited because none of the actions that we can do can ever prove to be of value in relationship to God’s cost for providing salvation. However, that doesn’t mean that salvation is unconditional. Just because our obedience doesn’t merit salvation doesn’t imply that God has no conditions for salvation. It simply means that when we meet God’s conditions through obedience, that God favors us with salvation, without our having deserved it.

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