Tag Archives: heavenly worship

Revelation 19 Celebration and Conflict

Henry John Stock, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1910)

Revelation 19: 1-10 Heavenly Jubilation

1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2 for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

3 Once more they said,

“Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”

4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,

“Amen. Hallelujah!”

5 And from the throne came a voice saying,

“Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great.”

 6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,

“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;
8 to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” –
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

 9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

In the previous chapter we had three groups of mourners: the kings of the earth who made alliances with the great city, the merchants who brought the fine things of the nations to the great city, and the seafarers, sailors, shipmasters and those who trade upon the sea. This group of three mourners for the desolation of Babylon (Rome) and now matched by three groups who are lifting up praise and admiration for the Lord’s action against the city and for the saints of God: the great multitude in heaven, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures and finally all of God’s servants. These passages of worship, praise and joy are often overlooked and overshadowed in Revelation by the focus many people place upon the dynamic images and the devastating pictures of judgment and yet they are central to the message of the book. For the initial hearers of Revelation, the central reminder was that God was in control and they are invited to hear the distant song of the multitude celebrating the coming triumph of God. Those who have trusted in the powers and promises of the empire will soon weep because its power will fail. Its prosperity has been built on the exploitation of the nations, its peace has been built upon violence, and it has the blood of the saints upon its hands; with all these things God’s action cannot be long in coming from Revelation’s perspective.

The first word uttered by the great multitude gives us a key to hear this section: Hallelujah. Hallelujah is a transliterated Hebrew word meaning ‘praise God’ but it is also used prominently throughout the Psalms, both at the beginning and end. The Psalms are powerful because they, like much great music, are willing to deal with the spectrum of emotions. They give incredible freedom of expression to emotions of joy and anger, anguish and triumph, they allow a space for desires of revenge to be spoken and reconciliation to be hoped for. The bible frequently allows very human desires to be voiced before God and the trust is that God will hear these desires and act upon them in God’s own way.

The multitude in heaven begins the praise in a triumphal refrain of victory. Praise is due to God who has acted justly, who has avenged the suffering of God’s people upon the great whore (metaphorically referring to the great city-Babylon/Rome for more on this metaphor see Revelation 17). After the suffering they endured there is a desire for vengeance, and yet the refrain and the second answer about smoke going up forever are fairly short. The transition moves quickly from focusing upon God’s vengeance to focusing on God’s power and the upcoming marriage celebration which metaphorically points to the final two chapters of Revelation and the hope they bring.

Marriage as a metaphor for the relationship of God’s people with God is used in several places throughout scripture. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea could use the image of God as husband to Israel as a way of highlighting the depth of their unfaithfulness (see for example Jeremiah 2 and 3, Jeremiah 31: 32, Ezekiel 16) but also an image of hope for the future (Isaiah 54 and Isaiah 62). The parables of Jesus portray him as the bridegroom (Mark 2: 19-20 and parallels) and Paul could metaphorically talk about his ministry in Corinth as preparing them to be presented as a bride to Christ (2 Corinthians 11: 2). Finally, a wedding feast could be used to talk about as a time for salvation and the arrival of God’s kingdom (Matthew 22: 1-14 and its parallel in Luke 14: 15-24). The angel’s exclamation that, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” in addition to the use of the language of the metaphor of the ‘marriage of the Lamb’ picks up these threads and now points the hearer to the image of coming closeness of God to God’s people.

Yet, the wedding feast will be delayed in the narrative since there are still forces arrayed in opposition to God’s kingdom. The remainder of chapter nineteen and twenty will form an interlude between the invitation to the wedding and the actual celebration of being invited into the home of God. The Lamb and the followers of the Lamb are called away to a final conflict with the gathered forces of the beast and its allies. The story that began in Revelation twelve when the dragon and his angels were cast out of heaven will end in this and the following chapter with the beast and its prophet and ultimately the dragon itself dealt with.

The final thing to highlight in this section is the mistake of John in worshiping a fellow servant of God and the correction he receives. John is caught up in things that are at the edge of his ability to grasp and the revealed power of even the angels of God has been incredible. John mistakes the messenger for the one the message refers to, he is overwhelmed and he, like those who will become ensnared by the power of the beast or the harlot, places his worship in the wrong place. Yet, the angel knows its place and is willing to correct John in a way that is both direct and gentle. The angel, unlike the beast, acknowledges that it is only a servant and that its role, like John’s, is to direct worship to God.

Gerhard Fugel, Bilder zur Apokalypse

Revelation 19: 11-21 The Defeat of the Beast

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders — flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

Until this point there has been a level of divine restraint that left space for repentance but now the time for testimony is over, those who remain with the beast and its allies have aligned themselves against God and the end is swift. The description of the rider on the white horse has some parallels to the rider in the first seal as I discuss in Revelation 6, but it is the differences that highlight that this rider is another image for Christ. The lion of Judah in Revelation 5 was reveled to be the Lamb of God, who had been sacrificed, but here the Lamb is revealed to be the final conqueror who will shepherd (the word behind rule) the nations with an iron rod and has a sharp sword which comes from his mouth. The judgment is quick, almost anticlimactic, showing the vast difference in power between the beast and its allies and the rider called Faithful and True.

The description of the white horse and the rider is the place where John spends a lot of time and the details communicate many overlapping messages. In warfare it is unwise for leaders to draw attention to themselves in a way that makes them easily distinguishable upon the battlefield and a white horse would do that, even though the armies of heaven are all riding white horses. A white horse was typically used in processions or other events where the person riding it is safe and does not need to worry about being targeted. None of the riders of heaven are wearing armor or noted as carrying any weapons, instead they are wearing white linen (which is suited for worship or a wedding feast but not the muddy and bloody work of war). Christ is wearing a robe dipped in blood, presumably his own blood since it is not the blood of those he is riding towards. He is pictured wearing many small crowns which indicates his rule over the nations. The image of the rider on the white horse is blended with the image of the shepherd king and the vintner treading the wine press from Revelation 14. Names also figure prominently in the description, some which are descriptors (like Faithful and True), some which are titles (like Word of God, King of kings and Lord of lords) and one which is unknown. Names are important in ancient literature and there is a reason for the commandment not to use the Lord’s name in vain. Many ancient people believed that knowing the true name of a person or a deity gave a person some power over that individual. There is an unknown name of God or unknown name for Jesus that is only seen but not spoken here and no one has power over him.

Many Christians struggle with the militaristic images here and the death that is a part of this scene. Additionally, many may struggle with the broader image of God as a warrior. I’ve wrestled with this several places and there are limits to this and every metaphor, however for the early Christians and their Jewish ancestors the image of a God who would fight on their behalf was an image of great hope. Ultimately there will be forces that refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and one of the powerful pieces of the image that Revelation presents to us is that the armies of heaven are not the ones who will fight alongside Christ. Ultimately vengeance belongs to God and only God can put an end to the resistance of the forces that ally themselves with the beast. There are people from the powerless to the mighty who have chosen to gather with the beast to oppose God’s oncoming reign and to make war against the rider. The beast and the false prophet (Rome and the Emperor cult) are quickly captured and taken alive into the lake of fire in this description. The closest precedent to this is the story of Korah and his followers who rebel against Moses and are swallowed by the earth in Numbers 16. The lake of fire will ultimately become the final place of judgment for devil as well in the next chapter.

The images in Revelation 19: 17-21 are difficult. The invitation for the birds to come and feed upon the fallen opponents of the rider on the white horse reflects the reality of a conflict where many lives are lost, and the bodies are left upon the field. It would be an image familiar to those who had seen the devastation of warfare in any time. Revelations images are meant to shock us and to cause us to choose a side. From the perspective of Revelation to choose to ally oneself with the forces of Rome is to ally oneself with the beast (and by extension the devil). Even some among John’s initial readers would have struggled with this portrayal. Here I find Christopher Rowland’s words helpful:

But it (Revelation) is a vision, not a prescription. It is more a warning of what to avoid than a manual of what to do. It shocks and disconcerts us so that we might begin to assess reality afresh. (NIB XII, 701)

John, the author of Revelation, does not dwell on this judgment in great detail. More attention is paid to describing the rider of the white horse than the aftermath of devastation. More time is spent in worship than in warfare. Instead John, in writing, falls in line with the correction he receives from the angel. He is told not to focus on the destructive power that the angel wields but instead to worship God. I am reminded of the ending of Psalm 46 where the Psalmist writes:

Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
(Psalm 46: 8-10)

For the Psalmist and for John they believed that God is their refuge and their strength, that God would help them in their trouble. God’s power was not safe and those who opposed God would ultimately be overthrown. For their hearers they wanted them to learn to trust in God’s power and strength and to know that the forces arrayed against God’s kingdom will not endure.

Revelation 11 Pausing for Hope, Witness and Worship

Matthias Gerung from the Ottheinrich Bible (1530-1532)

Revelation 11:1-2 Measuring the Temple

1 Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, 2 but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.

John is not merely an observer in the receiving of Revelation, but actively is called to participate in symbolic actions that help provide meaning. This measurement of the temple has a close correlation to Ezekiel 40 where the LORD has Ezekiel observe the measurement of the temple to demonstrate that the exile that Ezekiel and his fellow Judeans were a part of would last only for a time. In addition, the period articulated matches the period at the end of Daniel for the duration until the end of the wonders (and persecution) of the people who receive Daniel’s message (which most scholars date late in the time of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanies IV in the time of the revolt of the Maccabees, roughly 166 BCE). Here is where Daniel asks how long this will last:

Then I, Daniel, looked, and two others appeared, one standing on this bank of the stream and one on the other. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. (Daniel 12: 5-7)

A time, two times, and a half a time is three and a half and when the unit of time is years the forty-two months is three and a half years. This is also the one thousand two hundred and sixty days below (based on a thirty-day month). This extended quotation from Daniel also resonates with the figure of the angel in Revelation 10 who stands on the land and the sea and lifts his hand to the heavens. By combining resonant images of Daniel and Ezekiel, both images of hope during persecution, the act of measuring the temple and the time set aside point to the limited duration of the suffering of the churches hearing this message. Ultimately the God who unveils to John these images will bring an end to the trampling of the holy people of God.

Philip Medhurst, Revelation 11: 7-12 The Beast Shall Fight Against Them

Revelation 11: 3-14 The Witnesses

3 And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.”4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6 They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.

7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10 and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.

11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 13 At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

14 The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon.

Revelation continues to portray a God who desires for the people to place their trust in God instead of the forces that are opposed to God. Revelation continues its long pause to make a space for witness to the world so that the nations may give glory to God. During this one thousand two hundred sixty-day period we are introduced to the two witnesses that are two olive trees and two lampstands whose mission is to prophesy and proclaim God’s power, might and desires against the forces of the beast and Satan who is behind the beast. These verses foreshadow the larger narrative that will unfold in Revelation 12-13 which symbolically portray the devil and Rome as a dragon and beast respectively.

The identity of the witnesses has been debated and different interpreters have come to different answers about these witnesses. Some interpreters believe that the two witnesses are two concrete individuals who are given this task and specific powers which enable them to carry out this task. These two individuals would have the powers demonstrated by Elijah and Moses previously in scripture. Some have taken the two witnesses to be Elijah and Moses returned, other Elijah and Enoch (since both were bodily brought up into heaven) and others take these two witnesses to stand for the church or a portion of the church. Regardless of who one takes as the witnesses in one’s interpretation the message of the witnesses is clear and like prophets of all times and places they are viewed as a hindrance to the powers that claim to be in control. Eventually the beast (who we will see shortly is a way of representing Rome) acts to eliminate the pesky witnesses and many people rejoice that they have been silenced. Yet, God stands on the side of the witnesses and death is not the final word. The beast and those with the beast can persecute the witnesses of God but the God of Revelation is a God of resurrection. They may know humiliation and even death for a time, two times and a half a time but God will invite them to take their places at God’s kingdom.

The city, unnamed but indicated by what it is prophetically called as well as its location as where the Lord is crucified points to Jerusalem. Like all things in this vision there is a plasticity that has allowed interpreters to point to multiple interpretations but as I lay out my reading I start with the plain sense reading of the place where the witnesses begin their work being in Jerusalem. For me this scene deals with the mission of the whole church, since it is the work of the whole church to witness and to call for all the peoples, language, nations and tribes to turn to God. Are there unique witnesses within the whole? Certainly, but all are called to the vocation of witnesses. There are times where the church’s ability to speak and respond seems dead or powerless but ultimately this is a narrative of God’s power and control, God can resurrect a dead witness or a dead church. For me an interesting part of this narrative is the earthquake and its response: in the earthquake the damage is reduced from previous calamities (from one fourth in the seals, one third in the trumpets but here one tenth) and response is to give glory to God. Again, taking the city as Jerusalem I take this as a suggestive nod towards an acknowledgement by the people of Jerusalem (and by extension Israel) of the sovereignty of God. Even though the church symbolically assumes many of the roles of Israel throughout Revelation I view this portion in line with Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 about the irrevocable call of God to Israel.

The Seventh Angel of the Apocalypse Proclaiming the Reign of the Lord, Unknown Spanish Miniaturist around 1180

Revelation 11: 15-19 The Final Trumpet

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

16 Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

The preceding section warns us that the third woe is coming soon and upon the final trumpet blast we are prepared for that final woe to come, and yet we instead see a different perspective on reality. We expect to focus on the earth and the chaos and struggle on the earth but instead we find ourselves focused on heaven and the order and worship and praise going on as the world is declared the kingdom of God. This is a pivotal scene in Revelation because the coming chapters we will see how in multiple symbolic ways the agents who have been at work destroying God’s order and creation are first unmasked and then overthrown. Satan will be banished from heaven; Rome and its heralds will be shown as beasts serving Satan and then later as a prostitute but both Rome and Satan’s power will come to an end. Here we have the announcement that God is now moving towards the earth. The desire of God to be a part of the creation and to dwell among God’s people will no longer wait. God’s time of patient waiting to give space and time for repentance are coming to an end. God’s power is being revealed, God’s covenant with God’s people is being renewed and in heaven there is worship.

Revelation continues to remind its reader that even though chaos may appear to reign on earth that God’s will indeed be done on earth as it is in heaven. The nations may rage but God’s judgment will decide the final victory, those servants who have been oppressed, misused and who have felt powerless will be rewarded. It is a time where the powerful will be brought low and the meek will be lifted up. For the faithful this is a time of celebration and joy while for those who have aligned themselves against God it is an announcement of God’s coming in strength and power.

Revelation 7 Restraint and Praise

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Angels Restraining the Four Winds (woodcut)

Revelation 7

1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: 5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The previous chapter ends with the mighty of the earth brought low in their fear of the face of the one seated on the throne and the wrath of the lamb and we are left expecting the vengeance of God to be unveiled. What follows in this chapter is another great reversal of expectations: where wrath is expected we find restraint, where the mighty wonder who is able to stand we see a countless multitude standing before the throne, where seals have been broken and the mighty brought low now a lost people is sealed and lifted up. In a pattern that Revelation will repeat, we pause before the last unveiling and we are reoriented to the worship that is ongoing in heaven. We will see the contrast between earth and heaven, but Revelation’s trajectory is that what happens on earth will be the same as what happens in heaven.

Our scene opens with four angels restraining the four winds at the four corners of the earth. After the great earthquake and the signs in the heavens which even the nations can see and respond to we pause. The earth is not to be damaged at this point, although the upcoming series of trumpets will direct much of the damage towards the earth. But here, while the 144,000 are sealed the earth gets a reprieve. As St. Paul can say in Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;” (Romans 8:19) Creation and humanity’s destiny are tied together throughout the Bible beginning with the creation narrative when, after eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is creation that bears the curse that is originally to fall on Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3: 17) Now there is restraint as the servants (literally slaves) of God are to be sealed. The vocation which they have had before was unseen in the world but now they are being marked as servants of the living God. This sealing marks them as honored in this narrative and the slaves of God are higher than the generals and kings of the earth. The mighty are brought down and the humble and humiliated are here lifted up.

The one hundred forty-four thousand from the nation of Israel brings the people of God back into Revelation. As I’ve mentioned multiple times John, the author of Revelation, uses the language of Israel’s vocation in relation to the church but here the tribes of Israel are reassembled and marked for their own vocation. Numbers are symbolically important to Revelation and this twelve groups of twelve thousand symbolically points to a census where the total number of God’s people are sealed. John’s visionary approach may not lead to the type of declaration that Paul would make in his wrestling about the place of Israel in Romans 9-11 where he declares that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) but the azimuth of this vision points in the same direction. God has not forgotten Israel and has sealed them as God’s own.

The close reader will notice that the listing of the tribes has two peculiarities: Ephraim and Dan are not named. The two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are typically listed as half tribes. While Manasseh is named in the list Ephraim is not. Yet, there is a tribe of Joseph which would include Ephraim, but it is peculiar that Manasseh receives note and Ephraim (which becomes a way of talking about the northern tribes in general in some of the prophets) is not. Dan is missing from the list. We do not know the reason for Dan’s omission. Medieval interpreters favored an explanation that the Antichrist was to come from Dan, but these traditions all post-date Revelation by centuries. Yet, symbolically there are twelve tribes even if the names do not line up perfectly with the designation of the tribes elsewhere in scripture.

There has always been a temptation for Christian groups, from the Franciscans of the thirteenth century to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth and twentieth century to see the 144,000 as a special group that needed to be gathered to bring about the end age. Other Christians have seen this group as representing the church which may include Jewish Christians, but they read this in line with other parts of Revelation where the church assumes the vocation of Israel. As pointed out above, I view this as talking about the Jewish people and including them in a place of honor among the multitude among the nations which are gathered around the throne.

The seal of the living God has its opposite in the mark of the beast in Revelation 13. In the vision of Revelation there is no middle group, one either is marked by God or by the forces opposed to God. To be sealed by the 144,000 will provide them with protection, for example the demonic locusts in Revelation 9 will be able to torment those who do not have the seal of God on their forehead. Like in the plagues on Egypt in Exodus the people of God will not be targeted by all the destructive forces that are unleashed in later cycles. However, they will also be a target for those opposed to God and aligned with the forces of the devil. I am reminded of Luther’s advice to parents and churches baptizing young children:

Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. (Luther, 1978, p. 68)

Those who have been sealed by God are now in opposition to those whose power is opposed to God in the world. Like in Exodus, those whom God has chosen may seem like the lowest of slaves before the kings and generals of the world, but they are those who are able to stand before the face of the one on the throne and the wrath of the lamb.

Douce Apocalypse Bodlein MS180 (1265-70)

Yet, this salvation is not only for Israel. It is inclusive and broad and encompasses a multitude beyond counting of all nations, languages, tribes and peoples. This multitude joins the elders in wearing white. They have come out of the great ordeal and they hold palm branches celebrating the victory of the Lamb and the salvation that God and the Lamb have brought. Revelation operates in the space between Satan’s expulsion from heaven and the time of the Messiah’s return to earth to bring the peace that occupies heaven to earth. The time of the great ordeal is most likely not a reference to a time of future woe and tragedies but rather, like most of Revelation, an understanding that the current brokenness and suffering of the world is due to the influence of Satan and other forces opposed to God’s reign in the world.

The countless multitude cry out that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb. The language of salvation was frequently used in Roman declarations as the role of Caesar, but here the singing multitude attribute it to its proper place, to the Lord and to Jesus. The angels and elders join in with a seven-fold praise of God as symbolically the voices of heaven and earth join in praising God. God and Christ in this vision remain at the center of not only the praise of the people and angels and creatures, but also in the center of reality. Revelation enables John to show us a world that is struggling with the forces opposed to the creating God who desires to dwell among God’s world and people and yet God still reigns and is in control of the things that seem beyond control.

This vision also foreshadows the hope of Revelation which will come to fruition in Revelation 21 and 22 while it also pulls from a rich storehouse of prophetic images of hope. The great multitude are sheltered and then in language resonant of Isaiah 49:10:

They shall not hunger or thirst, neither shall scorching wind strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by the springs of water will guide them.

In another image reversal it is the Lamb at the center of the throne who shepherds the multitude. Instead of a shepherd watching a flock of sheep now the Lamb is the shepherd of the people. As many Christians may recognize the familiar imagery of Psalm 23 in this image, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ but may miss the image of Ezekiel 34 where in protest to the unfaithfulness of the existing shepherd/rulers the LORD sets up a new shepherd:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. Ezekiel 34: 23-24

And in an allusion to the great banquet that the LORD promises in Isaiah 25 we hear what is for me one of the most powerful images that appears here and in Revelation 21:4. As Isaiah 25: 8 states:

he will swallow up death forever.
Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.

In combining language from several places in the prophets we have a beautiful and peaceful image of God’s consolation and care for those who have undergone suffering in the world. Many people focus only on the images of destruction in Revelation but miss these significant pauses and moments of restraint which point to the reality that amid the suffering God remains the one who has glory and power and honor and might. The Lamb is the place where salvation will come from instead of the kings, generals and the mighty of the world. And that, even with the death and terror in the world, heaven is centered on praising God. Revelation is leading us on a journey to a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.