What kind of church does the world need us to be?

The two big questions that a lot of people have been asking in the time of the pandemic are: What does this mean for society, and what will the ‘new normal ‘ look like? and What does this mean for the church—how can we rethink what we do? But I think there is a bigger question which I am not sure people are asking so much: what kind of church does the world in this situation need us to be?

Revelation 7 actually offers us some resources to think about this. It is often thought that Revelation is either stuck in the past, or is located in some inaccessible world of bizarre symbolism that we cannot unlock, or sets out a hideous future apocalyptic timetable when a vengeful God vents his wrath on the world. But it is in fact none of those things. It is, instead, a pastoral, prophetic letter, written in apocalyptic imagery, to strengthen, equip and encourage people who lived in a world much like ours.

Chapter seven begins with four angels holding back the ‘four winds of earth’; but the idea of ‘four winds’, comes from Zechariah 4, where they are also described as four horses of different colours. So this chapter is set in the context of the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ that we just read about in chapter 6—bringing conquest and war, famine and disease, sickness and death. This is not some special time unknown to us, but (as someone recently said to me) just another typical day in the tragic history of humanity. The current pandemic reminds us that death and disease are writ large across human experience, and we are in strange times if we have forgotten that.

Such crises bring judgement, in that they test our assumptions about life, and reveal whether they justify the weight we put on them. Interestingly, the Book of Revelation is ambivalent about the extent to which these judgements come from God; although he is on the throne, and ultimately exercises all authority, the horsemen are not called by God directly, but are released as the seals are broken on the scroll, that is, as God’s will for the world is gradually revealed, and they are called forth by one of the living creatures around the throne.

But in the face of judgement, the servants of God are sealed for protection, just as in Ezekiel 9 the faithful remnant in Jerusalem are sealed to protect them from the city’s destruction when the people are taken into exile. And the following sections give us a threefold vision of what it means to be God’s people in this kind of world.

1. A disciplined army of priests

In Rev 7.4, John hears the number of those who are sealed being counted out. The number, 144,000, is a square times a cube, 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. This is highly significant as a symbol, since in the OT the altars of Israel were to be square, in contrast to the round or rectangular altars of the other nations, and the holy of holies was a perfect cube (1 Kings 6.20). So this people represents God’s holy presence in this world under judgement.

John hears them counted out, in other words, there is a census being taken, analogous to the census taken in Numbers 1 (and also in 2 Sam 24). In Numbers, the reason that Moses needs to know the strength of his fighting force is that, although they have been set free from slavery in Egypt, and know where they are heading for in the Promised Land, there is a long journey ahead of them through the wilderness, when their faith in God will be tested and when they will meet enemies from without and within. This is going to be a spiritual battle—and John’s vision suggests that we are on a similar journey.

But it is not merely about our instinct for survival. The listing of the tribes doesn’t match any of the 18 various lists in the Old Testament. It excludes Dan, the tribe with a reputation for compromise and deceit, and includes Levi—in other words, this is a list reflecting Israel before the incident with the Golden Calf in Ex 32, when the vision was for the whole people (and not just one tribe) to be God’s priestly people. This vision is expressed in Exodus 19.6 ‘a kingdom of priests’, and John cites this at the beginning of his apocalyptic-prophetic letter to summarise what Jesus has done for us (Rev 1.6).

We need to be disciplined in our devotion, to be the holy place of God’s dwelling on earth, because we are called to be a priestly people—praying for our world, our friends, neighbours and family before the throne of God, but also representing God to them. This is what our world needs of us!

2. A multi-national people of suffering

Throughout Revelation, John hears something, then turns and sees something else—but what he hears and sees interpret one another. So, in chapter 1, he hears a voice like a trumpet, which in OT terms symbolises the voice of God, but then he turns and sees ‘one like a Son of Man’, the terminology for Jesus drawn from Daniel 7. He hears mention of the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ in chapter 5, but he turns and sees a lamb looking as though it has been slaughtered—and so on. (In fact, though we think of Revelation as a description of John’s visions, 43% of the text describes things he hears.)

John hears the Israel of God being counted out as the Twelve Tribes—and turns and sees that this is ‘a great multitude that no-one can count’! This is the fulfilment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, that his offspring will be uncountable, like the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky. And, where Israel was called ‘out of every nation’, in the sense of being separated from the other nations, now this new Israel of God is ‘out of every nation’ in the sense of being drawn from those very nations! The grace of God in Jesus cannot be contained by ethnic, national or cultural boundaries, but reaches into all the world.

But when one of the elders poses the rhetorical question to John ‘Who are these?’, to which John has no answer, the elder explains ‘These are the ones who have come through the great tribulation’. This is not a reference to some apocalyptic ‘end times’ calamity in the future—but to the apocalyptic end times reality that is the inheritance of all followers of Jesus in every time and place. Jesus tells us that people will ‘persecute you for righteousness’ sake’ (Matt 5.10), and that along with the blessings of the kingdom we will receive ‘persecutions’ (Mark 10.30). Paul’s dramatically effective gospel preaching is summarised by Luke as this: ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22). And John himself has begun his letter with declaring his fellowship (koinonia) with those to whom he writes in the ‘tribulation, kingdom, and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’ (Rev 1.9)

Although the sealing of the servants of God protects them from ultimate judgement, and brings them into relationship with him, there is no sense in which they are exempt from the realities of the world about them—they are not excluded from the suffering that is part of this fallen world. As followers of the lamb who was slain, we not only suffer in the world, we also suffer with the world, walking as fellow human beings with them, and offer a model of grace and hope under pressure.

3. The saints caught up in hopeful praise

Praise is one of the hallmarks of the Book of Revelation, so much so that some scholars have speculated it was written for liturgical performance! And this passage is not exception; the exchange between John and the elder is sandwiched between expressions of praise and celebration.

There are two things striking about the praise here. First, it is almost always set right next to challenging images of suffering and judgement. This is significant, because throughout scripture, praise transforms our vision of the world, and in particular our understanding of our own situation. In the psalms, the writer often begins be describing the terrible situation he is in, how his enemies are triumphing, and God appears to be inactive. And yet, when the psalmist turns to praise, his perception and understanding is changed.

When David faced Goliath, where the rest of the army saw an invincible foe, David saw an arrogant upstart who was nothing next to the God of Israel in whose name he came.

But the second thing about the praise in Revelation is that, whilst it does talk of what God has done, in creation and in the resurrection of Jesus, and of the present power of God in the world, its primary focus is future. We see this especially in Rev 7.15 onwards. Those who have come through tribulation serve God and shelter in his presence, knowing that they will hunger and thirst no more, that God will shepherd them and protect them, and that God will wipe away every tear from their eye.

When my wife puts a casserole in the slow cooker, then as the day wears on, the whole kitchen fills with the great smell of the meal to come. And if the casserole needs tasting (just to check all is well!) then I know what a wonderful meal we have in store. That is what the Christian life is like: we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, in the life of Jesus made real to us by the Spirit. And so we are hopeful in our praise through suffering, since we know the best is yet to be.

(You can buy my commentary on the Book of Revelation in the Tyndale series here.)

Here is the sermon of which this is the summary, recorded for Moorlands College near Bournemouth earlier this week.

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14 thoughts on “What kind of church does the world need us to be?”

  1. “…………….but also representing God to them. This is what our world needs of us!”
    Yes indeed. But here is the disagreement: should that representation include the terrible warnings, not least from Christ’s own lips, of eternal retribution from God on the unsaved on the Day of Judgment as well as the wonderful, sincere invitation to all from God to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection and be saved eternally?
    Phil Almond

    • Small but interesting details regarding the white stola robes they were wearing, that would have been obvious to everyone until the last couple of centuries – everyone knows blood stains are dreadful to get out so bleaching using is is completely counter intuitive, but it had sort of passed me by there is no such colour as white in the dyeing world anyway. Chemical bleaches are a relatively recent invention.

      Until then in order to get white cloth the most common method is to soak the woven fabric in stale urine then to hang it out in summer sunlight, in fields set aside for the purpose, on lines of tall stakes with tenterhooks on them. It could take months for the cloth to be ready. Fulling wool’s the worst as it has to be trodden for hours in these vats of urine to felt the fibres to make them more dense, but even linen takes a lot. There could be zero mass production, unlike dyeing which doesn’t require the trampling and so the garments can be baptized using long poles as seen in the final scene in the film Ever After where Anjelica Huston as the step mother, along with the two ugly sisters of course, are seen working in the laundry rooms under the castle.

      The end result is extremely expensive and not at all practical for keeping clean. Large lengths of cloth, not sewn together sections, are a sign of wealth and status too because they’re not that practical for doing anything in, even walking in dusty streets. Bleached cloth is also more expensive as it has less wear in it. The sun is very destructive of the fibres (as I found out to my cost having closed curtains instead of shutters against the Southern European summer sun one year – the fabric is quite bleached and went slightly crumbly)

      There is a scene in the historically accurate Falco novels by Lindsey Davis set in the Rome of around this time where a clue is hidden in his washer-woman neighbour’s receptacle of urine to which people coming and going in the house are required to contribute. (It shows how poor the lodgings were as it would have made the place stink. I’ve been in Huyton near Liverpool when the wind’s the wrong way where they still use urine in a nearby factory.) There are lots of tips for house servants what to do in case of stains, all of which require the additional application of large amounts of elbow grease.

      I think the uncountable crowd in white scene would have been narrated not shown as it would have been so costly to do the costumes lol

    • Sorry, Phil, I put my fabric details comment in the wrong place.

      However I did want to ask you a question. I was wondering why you raise the terrible warnings of eternal retribution issue again when we’re discussing a passage that is clearly about comfort and reassurance. Perhaps in this particular case of warnings of worldwide disaster and suffering the carrot is a better incentive than the stick?

      • Hi Liz
        I was prompted to raise it again by Ian’s overall title “What kind of church does the world need us to be?” and by his subsection title “A disciplined army of priests” and by his “…but also representing God to them. This is what our world needs of us!”

        What the world needs above all (though of course it does not realise its need) is to be told the truth – the truth from God about the condition of us all. My conviction is that this truth has two essential parts: a terrible warning and a wonderful invitation and promise to those who repent and submit to Christ. I keep going on about this because, as I see it (I can’t prove it and would be humbled but glad to be proved wrong) the majority of Anglican Ministers do not believe and preach that terrible warning. On other threads I have said “………many of us will have people whom we dearly love and long to be converted. As Warfield wrote, ‘….it is not the Law but the Gospel, not the revelation of wrath but that of love, which saves the world. Wrath may prepare for love; but wrath never did and never will save a soul” (Warfield on Elijah’s experience in the cave). But ‘wrath may prepare for love’. And I am desperate to see that wrath as well as that love generally proclaimed. Because that is what Christ himself did.

        Phil Almond

        • Thank you for your reply, Phil. I’ve given a lot of thought to your comment, as I have done to your mentions of the topic in the past, particularly as it seems to me to come up in some unlikely contexts. This incredibly encouraging and reassuring passage being one. It must be a subject that concerns you a lot and I was wondering why.

          “the majority of Anglican Ministers do not believe and preach that terrible warning.”

          I’m not qualified to comment on this in the present. I know that when I was younger the doctrine of heaven and hell as it has been portrayed since the middle ages was still very strong. Even more recently there was a chapter in the Alpha course Questions of Life.

          My beloved Lincoln Cathedral has a lurid frieze on the great West Front (that I walked by on my way to school every day for some years). I can even see why, within a certain prophetic remit, the Reform movement on the European Continent and The Revivalists in the New World needed to bring repentance and balance to a complacent hedonistic hypocritical or manipulative church. I can even appreciate that it was very necessary to contradict the faith destructive so called liberalism (which so sadly got associated with the social side of the gospel meaning babies went gurgling down drains with the bathwater)

          But with insufficient balance of love, grace, mercy, compassion teaching we built a self destruct into our social core. Both sides of my family were negatively impacted by this aspect of fundamentalism – one side non conformist, the other Anglican.

          I feel there was a much needed back swing against the negative excesses that there had been in those presentations of the gospel historically. Wrath has come to be a dirty word, not because of it being wrong in and of itself but because how we’d abused it, using the wonderful double edged sword as a blunt instrument to hit each other over the head with.

          Maybe it’s time to rebalance the rebalancing within the church. You’d know better than I. However, I would hope it will be preached with a new caution and thoughtfulness and have less brutal side effects on the general population.

  2. ‘Interestingly, the Book of Revelation is ambivalent about the extent to which these judgements come from God’

    – really? I would have thought if it is Jesus, the Lamb who releases the seals and a heavenly being who calls forth the 4 horsemen that it’s pretty clear who is instigating the judgments. And given your view that these horsemen do not represent future events but rather the world as it was then and now, then logically God is the instigator of the ‘wars, famine and disease, sickness and death’ that mankind experienced then and continues to experience today.

    This whole chapter 6, and others, is all about GOD’s judgments on humanity. As confirmation of that, you only have to read the last two verses where the people understand it is the ‘WRATH OF THE LAMB’ that they are experiencing. Im not sure how clearer it can be.

    • My observation is that, throughout, although these things *ultimately* come from God, else he would not actually be on the throne, they do not *proximately* come from God. God does not empower the soldier to wield his sword as he kills another.

      Later in the book God *is* proximately the issuer of actions—but these are actions of the destruction of evil, the comfort of the sufferer, and the free offer to drink of the water of life.

      (It would be clearer in your direction if the text said ‘God struck them down’ or some such—as in fact it does in a number of OT narratives.)

      • Ian
        As I see it your response to PC1 is part of your overall view of wrath, condemnation, retribution, penal substitution, propitiation. As I have said I would welcome the opportunity at your Festival to attempt to show that the Anglican Historic Formularies, including the Homilies (endorsed by Article 35) support my case rather than yours.
        Philip Almond

      • And yet, as I said, these experiences constitute the ‘wrath of the Lamb’. Not satan’s wrath, or human wrath.

        It seems to me Revelation is clear who is the author. Soldiers etc are mere instruments to carry out God’s will. We don’t need the text to be even more explicit to appreciate that. Perhaps you have a certain image of Jesus which does not allow you to entertain such a notion?

        Sorry but I dont find your understanding supportable.

  3. It is with trepidation that anyone not a theological expert would disagree with Ian Paul over the Book of Revelation… but I challenge anyone to read the OT and think “Ah, yes, Dan were the bad tribe.” (And certainly before the Golden Calf incident!) The list in Rev 7 includes Levi… but also includes both Joseph and Manasseh Joseph’s son rather than brother, and excludes Dan, no reason being given. I continue to believe that this is the Biblical equivalent of a typo, and rather endearing.

    • Well done for braving the waters of dissent!

      This is just a 30 minute sermon. In my commentary, I offer a more detailed exploration:

      ‘There are 18 different listings of the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament – and this list matches none of them! Perhaps most surprising is that this list does not match the list in Ezekiel 48, which is an eschatological rather than an historical listing. The four main differences are:

      1. The inclusion of Levi when he is usually omitted as the priestly tribe who inherits no land;
      2. The inclusion of both Joseph and Manasseh but the omission of Ephraim, where in most lists Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim are included instead of Joseph in order to make up the list to 12 with the omission of Levi.
      3. The omission of Dan from the list.
      4. The placing of Judah at the head and Benjamin at the end, the two southern tribes.

      Some commentators argue that these details are unimportant since the focus is on the enumeration rather than on the specific names. But it is worth noting the significance of these changes and how they relate to other issues in Revelation.

      The inclusion of Levi suggests that the list looks back to the time before the incident of the Golden Calf (Exod. 32) following which the priestly function of the people was delegated to the Levites, and all other tribes had to redeem their firstborn from priestly service. So the list is of all the tribes being a kingdom of priests (1:6; 5:10). The inclusion of Joseph rather than Ephraim might simply be part of this looking back to the ideal nation; Joseph and Ephraim are closely identified together in Num. 1:32 and Ezek. 37:16 and 19.

      Dan was the tribe in the far north and so furthest from Jerusalem. The tribe was viewed negatively, starting with Jacob’s ‘blessing’ of his sons: ‘Dan will be a snake by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels’ (Gen. 49:17), a saying that associated Dan with Satan and with temptation. And in Judges 18:30 and 1 Kings 12:29 they set up an idol and then a high place for the worship of Baal, and so led people astray from the true worship of Israel’s God.
      The placing of the two southern tribes at the beginning and end of the list emphasizes their importance, along with the inclusion of the verb were sealed in both places (a symmetry that is not evident in most English translations) and connects back to the description of the lamb as the ‘lion of the tribe of Judah’. These tribes are where the Messiah was expected to arise.

      The lists therefore portrays God’s people as a community of the Messiah who have kept themselves pure in worship and thus stayed true to their calling as a priestly nation equipped for the holy war that they are to face.’

      In saying all this, I am drawing on a range of more detailed commentaries on the text.

      • So would learning the twelve tribes by heart be something every Jewish child would do so getting them “wrong” would be another big clue to anyone reading the messages in Revelation? Not exactly psychedelic, more of a dutch angle.


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