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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