by Daniel Harrell
We launched into our own study around Revelation last month, with a plan to be in it until spring, most likely. One reason it could take so long is because Revelation is long. But don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. There will be station breaks, like last week’s inspired look at the Beatitudes by our Guelich Lecturer for the year, Kyle Roberts.
Most think Revelation was written toward the close of the first century AD as Christians suffered cultural and political persecution. For the early believers who first heard it, Revelation’s apocalyptic assurances provided courage with which to endure. And not only them. Ever since, Revelation’s promises have inspired hope of redemption from the direst of evil endured still by Christians all over the world. In time, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever.
We need this hope. The Middle East and parts of central Africa are losing entire Christian communities that have lived in peace for centuries. Boko Haram kidnapped and killed hundreds of Nigerian Christians this year. Half a million Christian Arabs have been driven out of Syria during the three-plus years of civil war there. The beheadings, crucifixions, tortures, rapes and slaughter of Christians and others by ISIS has proved so appalling in its savagery that even Al Qaeda disapproved. Theirs is but the latest in a long history of senseless sadism for sadism’s sake. As columnist Roger Cohen reminds, there is no answer to “why” for the heart of darkness.
There is, however, the question “how long?” In Revelation 6, Christians killed for their faithfulness huddle in heaven and complain. Saved by grace; they want justice. They demand to know how long before the Sovereign Lord does justice and avenges their blood. The horrors humans commit and endure constitute a moral emergency. Yet theologically speaking, the moral emergency is not that evil persists and God does nothing. The real moral emergency is that God has been involved all along, and not in the ways we’d expect. In chapter 6, four misery-making horsemen unleashed to wreak havoc on earth, synonymous with the four disastrous winds here in chapter 7, are unleashed by the same Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We are disturbed by any culpability on God’s part—whether actively or passively—for evil and death in the world. In New York last week, some of the smartest theologians and philosophers and scientists the church has to offer strived to understand why. But there is no reasonable why in the heart of God either because evil is no problem. Through it all the Lord remains firmly enthroned and the Lamb remains slain for the sins of the world. Therefore “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” As Kyle reminded last Sunday, only Jesus gets justice.
As for perpetrators who persist in their evil, the Lamb opened a dreaded sixth seal letting loose as justice an inundation of familiar portents of doom. Earthquake and eclipse. Stars falling to earth. The skies rolled back like a scroll. Everyone dives for cover and pleads for the mountains to bury them, anything to hide from the face of God and from the ironic wrath of the Lamb. Chapter 6 concluded with an ominous tone: “The great day of wrath has come. Who can stand?”
The answer in chapter 7 is those who bear the Lord’s proof of purchase seal. The image derives from Ezekiel 9 where a mark is marked on the foreheads of those who felt genuine remorse for the pending Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. There’s a Passover echo too: Just as the angel of death in Exodus passed over in Egypt those doorposts marked with lamb’s blood, so in Ezekiel’s Jerusalem, those marked with the mark of God likewise were passed over when judgment arrived. Here in Revelation, salvation comes to those sealed and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.
Back in chapter 5, the Lord had produced a scroll which presumably contained the list of the redeemed. The ones who made the cut and got the mark. What’s surprising here is that they number only 144,000. That doesn’t even cover the Christians in Minneapolis this morning.
Many years ago, before I had dental insurance, I went to one of those mall dentists to get a cavity filled. This dentist was especially chatty, trying to relax me I guess. Out of nowhere, he asked whether I went to church—not exactly the sort of question you expect from a dentist. I know I should have said right then and there that I was a minister, but I smelled some evangelism coming on. I was curious to see how this played out. What was his technique for scoring converts for the kingdom? I figured his success rate had to be pretty high. He did strap people to a chair and take tools to their teeth.
I didn’t technically lie. I said: “I only go to church when they pay me.” He asked whether I had ever heard of the Boston Church of Christ. As this was the late 1980s, of course I’d heard of the Boston Church of Christ. One in a long line of aberrant, pseudo-Christian sects that preyed on lonely young college students, the BCC was getting kicked off local campuses all over Boston back then due to their coercive tactics.
Not yet connecting the dots, I replied, “Sure, I’ve heard of the Boston Church of Christ. They’re a cult.”
This is not the thing you want to say to a man with a drill in his hand about his church. Thankfully, he decided not to take it personally (or to take it out on me personally). Instead, he invited me to join him for Bible study. I came clean and told him I was a minister, to which he replied, “that doesn’t make you a true Christian,” which I guess I deserved. But then he added, “You know, if you’re not part of the Boston Church, then you’re not part of the 144,000.” The Boston Church of Christ aren’t the only ones who consider themselves to be this privileged minority. Jehovah’s Witnesses do too–explaining in part why their building across the street is so small. You don’t need a lot of room for so few.
Of course this being Revelation, the number is symbolic. Scroll down a few verses and witness “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” In the Bible, twelve, like seven, represents fulfillment or completion: 12 patriarchs from Seth to Noah and his family, and 12 from Shem to Jacob. 12 judges. 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles, 12 + 12 elders surrounding the throne. 12 X 12 gives you the 144, time which is mostly just a big number like we might say a “gazillion” to signal immensity. 144,000 gives you both symbolic completion and immensity—which is what John see in the multitudinous white-robed worldwide throng waving their pompoms and praising the Lord. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb,” they shout, acknowledging how they’ve done nothing to earn it. While the specific roster of the saved recorded here is specifically Jewish, the numbered ones are called out of their respective Jewish tribes. Salvation is not a birthright but a free gift. In Christ there is no longer Gentile and Jew, no longer us and them.
If there is a distinction, it exists between those who endure and those who don’t. Asked ““Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” The answer is that they are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal, or the great tribulation. Back in chapter 5 they’re called “servants of God,” but the noun is better translated bondservant; they’ve been bought by the blood of Jesus, the seals on their heads the proof of purchase. Christians are bound to Christ, and bound to Christ we’re bound to suffer. A reiteration of Daniel 12, this “great tribulation” refers to a period of suffering before the end of the age. Whether the reference is to a specific period depends on your theology, but given additional details derived from Daniel 12 and Jesus’ own words in Matthew 24, it’s likely that the great tribulation is more the great amalgamation of grief suffered by all Christians throughout history and time. Rather than some grand last stand of faith, the white-robed throng were those whose everyday obedience got them in trouble. Christian martyrs don’t go looking for ways to die. They simply choose to follow the Lord wherever he leads—loving enemies, refusing to chase after money, telling the truth, confronting injustice, helping the poor, forgiving their debtors—the outcomes are out of their hands.
That faith and pain go together would seem to disincentivize belief: why become a Christian if you only get hurt? The same thing gets said about love. Call us crazy (and a lot of people do), but chances are good that if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel—loving enemies, refusing to chase after money, telling the truth, confronting injustice, helping the poor, forgiving their debtors—then you’ve experienced a power, a spiritual juice, a joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even further.
Though this obedience takes different shapes. I heard major university scientist describe last week the difficulties she faces going public in the academy with her Christian convictions. You’d think that her success as a researcher would be a splendid platform for Jesus, but religion and science don’t play well together. Though a full professor with tenure and no risk of losing her job, she still has grad students to feed and big experiments to fund and competitive grants that fund university research go only to the best and the brightest. Confessing you genuinely believe some ancient rabbi rose from the dead isn’t exactly reassuring to certain reviewers looking to bankroll modern science research—especially reviewers like the Washington University biologist making waves in the news this week about how science has totally debunked God. When you have to have research funding, you sometimes have to keep your faith quiet.
Some might criticize her reticence as being ashamed of the gospel. However one of the seminary presidents in attendance told her not to feel bad. Verbally proclaiming the gospel may be noble and needed, but so is her ground-breaking work in chemistry. She’s among the few people in the world doing what she does.
The gospel’s best work is often done covertly. The Wall Street Journal reports how Hong Kong churches play a hushed but critical role in the democracy demonstrations currently filling the streets there. At least three founders of the main protest groups are Christians, including the popular 17-year-old leader of the student group and two of the three heads of Occupy Central. Economic development has not brought more religious tolerance to China; recent years have seen persecution strengthened. Last Sunday authorities detained 100 Christians including children at a house church just north and west of Hong Kong. Christians fight this injustice with a determination to protest politely, orderly and without violence. Each day demonstrators clean the streets they occupy and go home to shower before returning to march. They want to give no reason for government retaliation aside from the justice they advocate.
Not that this has kept violence at bay. In the world we will have tribulation. Yesterday, protesters were attacked from unidentified pro-Communist men cheered on by crowds of others. The Chinese government has ordered demonstrations to disperse by tomorrow. This morning the crowds increased to their largest yet. This being China, the outlook is decidedly uncertain.
Not so in Revelation. Here a multitudinous throng joyfully march to the throne of God proclaiming blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might! As Jesus promised earlier in the gospels, “whoever endures to end will be saved. I have overcome the world.” Skeptics dismiss Christian hope as so much “pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by.” But it is: really-good-pie. We read “we will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not beat us down, nor any scorching heat; because the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd, and he will guide us to springs of living water, and will wipe every tear from our eyes.”