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Reflecting on the text

Revelation often catches us by surprise.

Sometimes John surprises us by the shocking, explosive nature of his imagery. Other times he surprises us in more subtle ways.

For example, what should we expect at the end of chapter six?

I don’t know about you, but it sounds like everything is about to come crashing to one final end. I’m thinking that after 6.12-17 (which cannot be taken literal, mind you—there would be no “then” after verse 14) everything is over.

We expect more destruction, but we get…protection. We expect visions of wrath and judgment, but we get…a vision of the future bliss that awaits those who remain faithful to Jesus.

Chapter six ended with a question: Who can stand in the face of the great “wrath of the Lamb”?

Let me say a few things about this idea of the “wrath of the Lamb”:

  • This is the only time the phrase occurs in the book (even though “Lamb” is John’s favorite way to talk about Jesus).
  • Notice who said it. It wasn’t John, it wasn’t an angel, it was those who decided to make themselves enemies of Jesus.
  • Remember what we learned yesterday—wrath is often a way of talking about the natural consequences of rejecting God.

All of this aside, “the wrath of the Lamb” is really scary when it’s coming your way. I’m reminded of Hebrews 10.31: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.”

In other words, you don’t what to make yourself an enemy of Jesus. Which is why they ask this question: who can escape the wrath of the Lamb?

And here is John’s answer in Revelation 7: those who have beeb faithful to Jesus. That’s what it means to be sealed or to have his seal on our foreheads. It means we belong to him, for we have chosen to make his commandments ultimate in our lives (see Deuteronomy 6.4-9, especially verse 8).

So we are the ones who escape the ultimate wrath of the Lamb. Every single one of us.

That’s the message of the 144,000. Noah will be there. Abraham will be there. Moses and David and Isaiah will be there. You and me will be there. Everyone who walks with God, who follows Jesus, will be there.

This is not some literal number of Jews, as the following section makes clear (not least verse 9 itself). This is all the people of God throughout history. The numbers 10 and 12 symbolized fullness, so the 144,000 symbolize the utmost completeness: 12 x 12 x 1000 (which itself is 10 x 10 x 10) from every one of the Twelve tribes of Israel (who were fulfilled in the Twelve apostles of the church).

Living what we learn

Of all the many things we could say about John’s breathtaking vision of the future, I want to focus on one important detail.

I want to focus on the ethnic diversity of the people of God. This is an international, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic community.

There are lots of different types of people there. There are many people groups joining in service and song.

Unfortunately, many of our churches do not reflect this reality. It was many decades ago that Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically pointed out that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times of our week. I bet he wishes we would have changed this by now.

We are perhaps making progress, but we can’t think that the job is done. Let me back up a bit and help us understand this biblical theme from cover to cover.

Recall Genesis 11.1-9. This is a story about the devastating effects of human pride. Because people set their minds on becoming like God instead of worshiping him, he scattered us all over the globe and disabled us from meaningful communication.

Now remember Acts 2. According to Luke (who wrote Acts), because of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and sending of the Holy Spirit, the alienation of humanity has been overcome. Now, in God’s renewed humanity, those with significant differences can not only understand one another, they hang out in each other’s homes, celebrating and eating together.

Now reread Revelation 7. What we see here, as in Acts 2, is the overcoming of alienation. And now we are back to where we started, only everything has been made right.

We can now all speak the same language again, and it is the language of worship.

We can participate in the same dance, and it is the dance of priestly service in the presence of God.

It is our invitation and task to help make this dream a reality, as a present preview of our ultimate future.

I don’t want to trivialize the importance of this task by offering small suggestions about how we might make this happen. What we need is for each of our communities to think and pray with boldness and creativity about how we can continually overcome our differences in each of our specific contexts.

We probably ought to begin on our knees, to be sure. We should spend time in prayer about our own attitudes toward people different from us. What patterns of thinking or behaving do we need to get rid of?

Then we should think and, most importantly, act. What steps can we take, big or small, to move toward John’s vision, to slowly invite our ultimate future into our messy present?