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Revelation 7:9-17

Believe it or not, the book of Revelation is in the canon. (Please note that the title is not plural “Revelations.” There is only one Revelation.) Maybe it’s not in our functional canon, but it’s there nonetheless. One great lamentations of North American Christianity through the 20th century was the misappropriation or sheer avoidance of this rich text. Our sisters and brothers in underdeveloped or oppressive nations haven’t ignored this great text, and it’s high time we in North America reclaim this great text.

Isn’t it interesting that the only book of the Bible that says explicitly not to mess with it (Revelation 22:18-19) is the one most messed with?! And chapter 7 is not exempt from dispensationalist meddling. To understand verses 9-17 we must consider verses 1-8. And to understand 7 we must consider chapters 6 and 8 (not to mention the whole text).

Chapter 7 serves as an important interlude. In chapter 5 John receives a scroll that no one can open. This scroll contains the revelation, but it is bound by seven seals. The first six of the seven seals carry with them incredible imagery and various calamities. Conquest, slaughter, economic injustice, death, martyrdom, and environmental collapse accompany the first 6 seals, respectively. The question for the readers becomes, then, where is the hope? This is heavy stuff, isn’t Revelation supposed to be hopeful for the church?

In The Princess Bride, when Princess Buttercup flees her captors by jumping into the shrieking eel infested waters outside Florin and all looks lost, The Grandfather interrupts the story and tells The Grandson, “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time. ...The eel doesn't get her. I'm explaining to you because you look nervous.” To which The Grandson replies, “I wasn't nervous. Maybe I was a little bit concerned, but that's not the same thing.”

The readers/hearers of Revelation have justification for “concern” or even legitimate nerves, based on the first 6 seals, but John, like The Grandfather, assures the hearers that this impending doom isn’t all that there is. There is victory for the faithful. All is not lost.

Before the opening of the seal, before the revelation, there is this word of hope. Unfortunately in Revelation studies we have to undo as much bad theology as we do promote good theology. And to understand 7:9-14, we have to undo some bad theology associated with 1-8.

The multitude of 9-14 are associated with the 144,000; these two groups are one and the same. Dispensationalist theology, a la Hal Lindsey, Jerry Jenkins, and Tim LaHaye, has interpreted this 144,000 in a typical, yet inappropriate, literal fashion. Folk religion rapture theology discusses these 144,000 as a literal group of Jews who will convert people to Christianity during the tribulation. An essay like this doesn’t have time to assess all of the theological issues associated, but it’s important to remember that John writes in symbolic language. Revelation has been associated with the genre of political cartoon, but instead of drawing hyperbolic pictures to prove a point, John writes in hyperbolic language, drawing grandiose pictures to make a theological statement.

The 144,000, then, represent the overwhelming fullness of the people of God. 144,000 = 12(12X1000). Throughout Revelation the number twelve is associated with God’s people and multiples of 1,000 indicate a great host. These 144,000 comes from the 12 tribes of Israel . . . kind of. One of the original twelve, Dan, has been replaced by Manasseh, one of the son’s of Joseph. This is likely an intentional move. Dan had a history of idolatry and unfaithfulness. Manasseh replaces Dan out of faithfulness

In typical fashion, John writes using sensory language. While some don’t associate the 144,000 with the great multitude, I would contend that following John’s own patterns, these two groups must be different descriptions of the same reality. In chapter 1 John hears a voice like a trumpet then he turns to see one like the Son of Man. In chapter 5 John hears the lion of the tribe of Judah then turns to see a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. Throughout Revelation John hears the identity of something only to have the reality of that thing revelaed to him fully when he looks. So it is in chapter 7; John hears that there are 144,000 then sees something different; a great multitude that couldn’t be counted.

The 144,000 are important because they tell us that they represent the fullness of the people of God; those who have been faithful. Then what John sees isn’t a mere (or literal) 144,000 Jews. The faithful couldn’t be counted. This isn’t a limited reality; the people of God are ever expanding. Nor are they bound by ethnic or geographical boundaries. People “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This isn’t an excluded group. The people of God, then, are an inclusive community.

They find themselves at the throne of the Lamb, robed in white waving palm branches. The imagery here is associated with victory. White was the color of a victor and palm branches were waved for the victorious.

The cry of the faithful and the song of the angels, elders, and creatures, indicate that in the midst of tribulation, not in avoidance of tribulation, victory belongs to God. “Salvation” in Greek also indicates “deliverance.” “Faithful Christians are preserved (saved, delivered) through (not from!) the great persecution that is about to be unleashed upon them.”

In apocalyptic fashion a heavenly messenger helps interpret this heavenly reality for the mortal. The imagery is paradoxical, though. How do those who bathe in blood end up white? Again, Revelation isn’t literal! This is a theological statement. Many associate those who have been washed their robes in blood as martyrs; their blood has mingled with the Lamb’s. This is an appropriate interpretation, but this author would contend that, given the inclusive imagery of verse 9, those who have dipped their robes in the blood are all of the faithful. While many, like the original hearers of the Revelation, face actual persecution and actual martyrdom, all who bear the name of Christ are to live according to the ethic of the Lamb standing as if he had been slaughtered.