With its obscure symbolism and vivid details, we Christians tend to approach the book of Revelation the same way we encounter a traffic accident. There may be a piece of us that wants to understand, but more often than not we are enticed to look by the sheer horror of it all. There is something clearly traumatic about the Revelation of John, something that draws us to look—even if we don’t really understand.
And about that understanding…… I think another part of the allure is that we have been taught that Revelation contains secret knowledge, which can only be understood when we are taught its keys. This way of teaching Revelation is remarkably similar to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which was denounced repeatedly by the historic church as being contrary to the teachings and mission of Jesus.
I suspect that a mentor of mine may be very correct when he says that the reason we don’t find Revelation hopeful is that we don’t really know what it means to suffer.
And knowing what it means to suffer is pretty important if you’re going to understand what John is trying to describe in these particular verses from Revelation 7.
Starting with v.9, John’s vision takes a remarkably swift turn. To appreciate that, we have to back up to the previous verses—a vision of 144,000 Jewish servants of God—which assures the hearers that God does not renege on promises.
God began this “salvation” work with the Jews through Abraham in Genesis 12. It is through this work, God promises Abraham, that “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This “phase 1” of God’s plan is reaffirmed by Jesus in John 4:22, where he says “God’s salvation is coming through the Jews.” As the early church finds its ministry expanding among non-Jews, they emphasize that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first but also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
In those verses immediately before our reading, John’s vision affirms this ancient dynamic, indicating how some Jews do in fact experience God’s salvation. And this is of vital importance to John’s hearers, even though they are not Jews. They need to hear it because it reminds them that God does not renege on promises.
So then comes v.9. Immediately after this vision of those saved from among Israel, in a blink John sees another group of people—a group that far outnumbers the “mere” 144,000 of the previous verses. Here is an innumerable multitude—from every nation, people, clan, and language—praising God in a scene reminiscent of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. Just as on that day, there are waving palm branches, loud shouts of praise, and the declaration that salvation (deliverance) rests in the hands of God.
As Old Testament scholar Christopher Hays has said: “The inclusion of the whole earth in the promise of salvation was only the latest surprise in the long history of a God who makes unlikely choices and does new things” (Feasting on the Word, 221). This multitude is the fulfillment of the promise God began speaking in Isaiah 43:19, where God says “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”
This multitude is the group that John’s hearers will identify with. These churches in Asia Minor to which he writes—they are not made up of predominantly Jewish Christians. But to them, these verses provide the enduring hope that “there is no limit to the number who may be saved” (Hays, Feasting, 221). These words assure them that God’s promise of salvation is available to them, too—and that those like them will even outnumber those to whom God’s salvation was first extended.
And what God has promised—as to the Israelites of old—God will fulfill.
Scripture talk through…
It’s at this point (v.13) that the chapter takes another turn, this time aimed at understanding who this multitude truly is. One of the 24 elders introduced in chapter 4 asks John if he knows who these people are. John, seemingly taken aback by the question, responds as did Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37): “Lord, you know.”
These, the elder explains, are the ones who have survived the “mega suffering,” the “great ordeal,” the “big squeeze.” “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14b).
As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “they were not transported there on stretchers; they have come out on their own two feet. They have furthermore washed their own robes, making them white in the blood of the Lamb. While no one but God gets to do the math of who is there and who is not, those present have been active partners in their own salvation.”
As a result of their partnership with God throughout bloody persecution, they experience God’s eternal presence. Each promise in this list corresponds to a particular means of torture that was used against Christians in John’s time.
Some Christians succumbed to tortures involving the scorching heat or blazing sun, so God promises them they will be shielded from these.
Some were deprived of food or water, so God promises a time without hunger and thirsting.
Some were subjected to the dangers of wild beasts, so God promises to shelter them.
In the end, we read that “the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17).
It is a word of hope—but not because God promises escape from troubles and suffering. Quite the opposite!
It is a word of hope because it reminds us that God will see us through.
It is a word of hope because we see that those who oppose God (and us) will not get the last word.
It is a word of hope in that it reminds us of the eternal repercussions of our perseverance and pursuit of God.
So there it is, right? But what do we do with that?
Well, as I pointed out at the beginning, one of our biggest problems in correctly reading and applying the book of Revelation is that we do not really know what it means to suffer. And I’m not belittling the troubles and trials in your life. It’s just that the woes most of us experience are very different than being torn limb from limb by wild animals, or being burned to death, or even just living in fear that someone may discover you are a Christian and your life will literally be over.
In the midst of those kinds of troubles, these words are incredibly hopeful.
And I do believe they can be incredibly hopeful for us too. And here’s how:
A help is found in Philippians 1:6. If your bibles are still handy, take a second and turn there. This is one of the most important and hopeful verses in the whole of the New Testament.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
You see, this is the promise and this is the hope that John’s hearers are hanging on. It’s the reason why those 144,000 are so important. God began something with the descendants of Abraham, something that God will bring to completion.
If God isn’t going to finish what God started in them, then there would be no hope for any of us. Because just as God started doing a “new thing” with Jesus Christ, God could abandon this new thing in favor of some other new thing.
But we have the assurance of God in scrptures that even when God begins a new thing, God will still follow through on the things God has been working on. Even when God introduces Jesus into the mix, God still brings his promises to the Jews to fulfillment.
You know: New is tough. Change is hard. Christians (and churches) are not immune from any of that. But we have the hope of God’s promise, secure as it is backed by God’s own faithfulness, that God will not abandon what God has started in us. God will see it—and us—through.
But just like with the multitude in John’s vision, there’s work that we must ourselves do as we persevere and adapt to the changing world in which God’s mission is playing out.
We can take comfort that God will indeed triumph over evil—that the world will one day be conformed to God’s desires from the beginning of creation.
But let us also continue to be encouraged to “be about our Father’s work,” just as was our savior Jesus the Christ, whose death and resurrection pave the way for our own abundant and eternal life in God.
Continue in hope, sisters and brothers, for the God “who began a good work in you will [indeed] bring it to completion.”
Praise be to God, “For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 117:2).