I have been reading Eric Mason’s book Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice. It’s not the book I was expecting it to be. It’s an honest, heartfelt attempt, written from within the black community, to connect modern imperatives of racial justice with a more or less traditional exposition of the gospel. I have no problem with that, and in many ways the doing is far more important than the talking about. Get on with it.
Still, the “intellectual” basis for what we do as church, how we engage with the world, is not unimportant. I think that our witness in the modern world is seriously skewed by the incoherence and fragility of the standard theological account.
In the final chapter of the book Mason argues, rightly in my view, that the church needs to bring an eschatological vision to the work of social transformation. That vision is expressed in rather conventional terms. Things may get worse before they get better, Mason says, but Jesus is coming back. The future is bright, we are moving towards unity. “We may think anger, and picketing, and legislation, and hashtags change things. But there’s a real revolution coming. He will set all things in order” (168).
A final vision of racial reconciliation is found in the description of a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” in Revelation 7:9-17 (167). This is the fruit of the faithful witness of the church throughout the ages —“every single nationality of people that has ever existed, even the extinct ones” (169). So if that’s where things end, surely it must be part of the church’s task to bring about racial reconciliation in the present. The eschatological vision is “empowerment for the now” (175). “Why not fight for reconciliation now? Why not fight to make sure that our interpersonal relationships as well as our churches mirror the reality that we’ll experience in eternity?”
But here’s the problem. The sort of popular theology that underpins Mason’s argument works with a very basic narrative: God created the heavens and the earth, sin and death entered the world because Adam sinned; Jesus came from heaven to die for the sins of all humanity; he returned to heaven but will come again at the end of time to put all things right.
Given that story, there’s only one place to put John’s vision of the nations in heaven worshipping God. It must go right at the end.
I think that’s a mistake on two counts. What John describes in chapter seven happens in chapter seven, not at the end; and the great multitude standing before the throne of God is only there temporarily. Let me explain what I mean.
The seven seals on the scroll
John has been in heaven since the beginning of chapter 4. He sees a door open in heaven, and a voice invites him to come up.
In the Spirit he finds himself in the throne room of the God of Israel. The twenty-four elders are a multiple of the twelve tribes (Rev. 4:4). The four living creatures are a reference to Ezekiel’s chariot vision. The prophet is with the exiles by the Chebar canal, he sees the heavens opened, he sees visions of God; four living creatures attend the chariot throne; and a voice from the throne sends him to the rebellious house of Israel (Ezek. 1:1-2:7). John is having a similar vision concerning the fate of Israel.
In chapter 5 the Lamb who was slain, who is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” is found worthy to open the scroll of judgment because he has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” making of them a royal priesthood that will reign on earth, when they get the chance.
The Lamb then proceeds to open the seven seals on the scroll of God’s wrath against Israel (cf. Is. 29:11 LXX; Ezek. 2:9-10; Dan. 12:4), one by one, putting in place the conditions for the coming judgment. The first four seals release the four riders, who will bring conquest, warfare, destitution, and death to the land (Rev. 6:1-8). When the fifth seal is opened, we hear the souls of the murdered prophets cry out for vengeance (cf. Matt. 23:34-36). With the opening of the sixth seal come great portents, in the heavens and on the earth, revealing the shocking scale of God’s judgment against Jerusalem.1 For the great day of the wrath not only of God but also of the Lamb has come (Rev. 6:16-17).
Before the Lamb opens the last of the seals, however, there is an interlude. John sees four angels holding back the winds—the forces, presumably, that will bring chaos, destruction, and dispersion to Israel. Before any harm is done, the servants of God must be sealed with the seal of the living God (Rev. 7:1-8). These are the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel. The background in Ezekiel 9:3-4 (cf. 5:11-12) suggests—to me, at least—that these are righteous Jews who have not participated in the sins of the current wicked and adulterous generation.
So in the unfolding drama of this apocalyptic but deeply scriptural vision we are about to witness the opening of the last seal and the initiation of a judgment against Jerusalem that will avenge or vindicate the deaths of the murdered prophets and of Jesus himself.
This dovetails precisely with Jesus’ own denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:29-24:2). Upon this wicked generation of Israel will come the blood of the murdered prophets. They will not escape the “judgment of Gehenna,” which is not hell but the devastation of the city and the slaughter of its inhabitants. Not one stone will be left standing on another.
But what about the “great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” which John sees at this moment standing before the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 7:9)? Who are they? Where are they?
The great multitude
I think that the clue is in an odd detail in verse 9. They are holding palm branches in their hands. If this is essentially a heavenly crowd—dead people, gone to be with God—why are they holding palm branches? Where did they get them from?
My argument in The Coming of the Son of Man is that although John sees these people in the throne room of heaven, their real existence is on earth.
They have come from the “great tribulation,” which is undoubtedly the same “great tribulation” that Jesus said would precede the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Matt. 24:21). They may have suffered, but it is not said that they are martyrs.
They have been redeemed by the death of Jesus (Rev. 7:14), which makes them part of the people ransomed for God “from every tribe and language and people and nation,” who have been made “a kingdom and priests to our God” to reign on earth (Rev. 5:9-10). For this reason they appear in John’s vision in heaven, declaring that “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”, waving the palm branches that they brought with them in celebration (Rev. 7:10).
But a priesthood functions in a temple on earth, even if it is only a symbolic one, as the elder explains (Rev. 7:15). This is why they need the one who sits on the throne to “shelter them with his presence”—a reference, perhaps, to Ezekiel 37:27 LXX:
And my encamping shall be among them, and I will be a god for them, and they shall be my people. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them when my holy things are in their midst forever. (Ezek. 37:27-28)
On account of their priestly service the nations will come to know that the living God is in the midst of them.
The elder also cites Isaiah 49:10, which is a statement not about some final, perfect, heavenly condition but about YHWH’s protection of the returning exiles, his servant Jacob:
they shall not hunger or thirst, neither shall burning heat nor sun strike them down, but he who has mercy on them will comfort them and through springs of water will lead them. (Is. 49:10)
So too the Lamb will shepherd them and “guide them to springs of living water”; and God will bring to an end the misery of the great tribulation (Rev. 7:17).
The great multi-ethnic multitude, therefore, would not normally be found in heaven. They are a priestly people, drawn from the nations of the Greek-Roman world, to which the good news of God’s intervention to judge and restore his people, was being proclaimed. They would reign on earth in a transformed oikoumenē. They would suffer hardship during the long period of the wrath of God, but in the age to come, after the fall of Babylon the great, they would serve the living God in his temple, and he would watch over them.
Maybe it’s better this way
Does this historical recontextualisation of the multi-ethnic multitude damage Mason’s programme? Of course not.
It must be said, I think, that John’s vision has much more to do with the internationalisation of Israel’s God than with racial justice. Our post-Christendom, post-colonial perspective on these things is very different.
But by bringing the vision down to earth, so to speak, we perhaps have even stronger reason to address the turbulent realities of our own time. The world has changed, circumstances have changed, empires have come and gone, but the church is still a priestly people drawn from all nations, qualified by the death of Jesus, called to serve the interests of a just and impartial God.
- 1. For the details of the interpretation see my book The Coming of the Son of Man, 187-96.