“Is this heaven?” isn’t just a question an Iowa farmer poses in the movie, Field of Dreams. Readers, preachers and teachers of Revelation 7:9-17 might ask the same question of it. Does its John describe the heavenly realm as God currently configures it? Or is he describing the new earth and heaven that Jesus will inaugurate at the end of measured time? Or, perhaps, is John saying something about the affects of Jesus’ reign on earth on this as well as every Sunday?
Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday want to be sensitive to perspectives on this issue. Revelation 7’s preachers and teachers likely have their own preferred answer to it. Yet a careful consideration of Revelation’s nature may prompt its preachers and teachers to look for ways to answer questions about its focus with an, “All three!” After all, the existent heavenly realm that will find its most complete iteration in the new creation affects creation and its creatures already today.
Revelation 7’s literary context is very important. It follows, after all, a Revelation 6 that the Spirit inspires John to fill with horrific images. Those reading or hearing Revelation 7 for the first time might, in fact, expect John to fill it with even more grim news. After all, Revelation 8 at least partly returns to vivid descriptions of suffering and misery.
Yet Revelation 7 actually contains what Barbara Rossing calls a “salvation interlude” that assures God’s beloved children that God is in charge. It answers 6:17’s “Who can stand the horrors already described?” with “Those whom God has chosen for and gathered to himself.” The Spirit uses this chapter to refresh God’s people on what is our sometimes-difficult way not just through life but also through Revelation with images of the current glory of the heavenly realm and the coming glory of the new creation.
Yet Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson stands in stark contrast with what at least some Christians experience right now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” The Multiracial Congregations Project found that little has changed since King expressed that outrage, noting that only 8% of all Christian congregations “are racially mixed to a significant degree.”
Yet it isn’t just churches that remain stubbornly segregated. Experts tell us that American schools and neighbors remain both racially and socio-economically segregated. At least some of us who proclaim Revelation 7 don’t have many friendships or close relationships that cross racial and socio-economic lines.
That’s one reason why Revelation 7 offers such a radically counter-cultural and, this, needed vision. When, after all, God shows John what God is doing both in the heavenly and earthly realms, the witnesses to that work include a marvelously integrated “multitude” (9). The Message paraphrases verses 9 and following as “I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there – all nations and tribes, all races and languages.”
Yet while it’s a startlingly diverse crowd, several things unite it. Its members all wear white robes and clutch palm branches in their hands. The whiteness of this multitude’s “uniform” appears to symbolize God’s gifts to God’s children of both victory and purity. Yet it also, as Walter Taylor points out, signifies its wearer’s status. When, after all, his father gave the prodigal son a new robe, it showed everyone his restored place in his family (Luke 15:22). The palm branches people hold and perhaps wave further emphasize the victory God has won in Christ on their behalf.
Other things, however, also unite members of this diverse “congregation.” God has brought each of them through immense suffering and into God’s eternal presence. The shockingly diverse people who stand in the heavenly realm have, by God’s grace, survived the worst sin, Satan and death could do to them and come out on the other side that is the heavenly realm.
On earth the integrated congregation of people that stands before God’s throne kept believing, hoping, praying and witnessing, even when it was incredibly difficult. Verses 16 and following at least suggest that they endured hunger, thirst, hardship and grief. We can imagine that some of them gave up everything, including their very lives, for their faith.
But now this shockingly diverse group of saints can finally and fully rest. Because they’re united more than anything by the Lamb who sits on the throne that’s right in front of them. Jesus that Lamb rescued them not first of all from their misery, but from their rebellion against God and God’s good purposes. This Lamb gave them their “salvation” (10).
Yet these diverse people don’t just celebrate what God has already done to rescue them from their sin and misery. They also eagerly anticipate what God will yet do (vv. 16ff.). God will, an elder promises John, take away all hunger and thirst. God will no longer let any part of the creation harm or even simply threaten God’s adopted sons and daughters. In fact, Revelation 7 ends with what perhaps the most majestic and stirring of all of its promises: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It’s no wonder this integrated multitude bursts into two more boisterous songs. “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” they jubilantly sing in verse 10. Those who proclaim Revelation 7 might invite those who hear us to try imagine just what that song sounds like. Might it sound like the roar that bursts from an enormous crowd when its team scores a goal or basket?
Then, as if to echo the thunderous roar of the diverse multitude, all those elders, angels and animals that join it around the throne join in the celebration. “Amen!” they roar back in verse 12. “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.” It’s as if they sing about how, as N.T. Wright notes, everything that’s good, noble, powerful and wise comes from God himself.
Revelation 7:9-17 is among my favorite passages in all of the Scriptures. That’s partly because of the vision it gives God’s people of the kinds of things that are going on in the heavenly realm right now. This text the RCL appoints for this Sunday also gives us a grand vision of what God has planned for when Jesus the Lamb returns not only to judge the living and the dead, but also to establish the new earth and heaven.
However, I also love Revelation 7 because it helps shape the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters on this side of heaven’s curtain. Those who proclaim this text may want to look for examples of that shaping. We may even want to use personal examples, making sure, as always to avoid drawing the spotlight that belongs on the Lamb away from ourselves.
My friend Harold and I could hardly have been more different. While he stood no more than 5’6” tall, I hover somewhere around 6’ tall. Harold spent most of the painful last few years of his life bed-ridden after doctors had to amputate both of his legs.
Harold was a progressive Baptist. I am a member of the Christian Reformed Church. Harold lived in an urban home that was lovingly tended but old and run-down. I live in a beautiful suburban parsonage. Harold was African-American. I am Dutch-American. Our political perspectives differed.
But after Harold and I conducted a funeral together, he graciously invited me into his home and life. Several times a year we’d visit together, sharing a great deal about our faith, the people we love and ourselves. We even watched President Obama’s inauguration on television together, with Harold shouting, “Thank you, Jesus!” as the tears streamed down his cheeks.
Who on earth could have imagined or created such a friendship whose bonds only Harold’s untimely death could sever? Only the Spirit of Jesus the Lamb who allowed people to slay him in order that he might unite people from every nation, tribe, race and language in worshiping and serving him.
Revelation 7’s preachers and teachers will want to explore with and perhaps even invite our hearers to imagine with us how its stirring vision might impact our lives before God and each other here and now. If, for example, God will someday eliminate all hunger and thirst, how can God’s beloved people live in anticipation of that day? What does it mean to serve our neighbors whose tears God promises to some day wipe away?
Louise Penny is one of the 21st century’s writers most imaginative and descriptive authors. While she writes fiction, she communicates truths that many non-fiction authors would do well to emulate.
In her book, The Nature of the Beast, Penny says Clara, whose husband died very suddenly, “knew that grief took a terrible toll. It was paid at every birthday, every holiday, every Christmas. It was paid when glimpsing the familiar handwriting, or a hat, or a balled-up sock. Or hearing a creak that could have, should have been a footstep. Grief took its toll each morning, each evening, every noon hour as those who were left behind struggled forward.”
It is such grief that, by God’s amazing grace, Revelation 7 insists has no place now in the heavenly realm and will have no place soon in the new creation.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 12, 2019
Revelation 7:9-17 Commentary