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Revelation 7:9-17

The first reading for All Saint’s Day begins in the middle of a potent scene from the Book of Revelation. Our reading’s first image is actually the second part of a two-part image. In Revelation 7:4-8, John hears a census of 144,000 people from Israel’s twelve tribes being sealed for protection from the cataclysmic judgments of the seals cycle (spanning Rev 6:1-8:5). When John turns to look, instead of this group of 144,000 Israelites he sees an uncountable multitude from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). This difference between what is heard and what is seen is only one of many fascinating things in this multivalent scene John reports.

The contrast and tension between what is heard and what is seen in the Apocalypse is a common motif. In Revelation 5:5-6 John hears one of the elders around the divine throne report the presence of the Lion of Judah, but when he turns to look he sees a Lamb standing as if slain. In Revelation 1:12, John turns to see a voice (an audible not visible phenomenon). The strangeness of these contrasts between image and sound are part of the Apocalypse’s communication strategy—things aren’t always as they seem: the most powerful and wealthy empire in the world is on a course to defeat and destitution, the one who was crucified is alive and victorious, and costly witness-bearing to the Lamb’s way is the surest way to salvation.

The Multitude

The uncountable multitude from every nation is a commentary on the image of the 144,000 as the restoration of the people of Israel. The restored people of God will include Israel and innumerable people from every nation. The Kingdom of God recognizes no ethnicity’s supremacy and entertains no form of nationalism. The promise to Abraham that his descendants will be a blessing to all nations has been realized in this vision (Gen 12:1-3; 22:15-18), and through the work of the Lamb everybody can get in on this blessing.

The word for multitude in Greek (ochlos) is the same that is used to describe the crowds that follow Jesus throughout the gospels and especially at the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (cf. the palm branches). The crowds follow Jesus because he is providing them with renewed life, food, healing, and divine hospitality. Here, the uncountable crowd follows the Lamb to the springs of the water of life and a respite from tears and hardship. In the Gospel of John the Pharisees complain that “the world has gone after him” (John 12:19).[1] Here that worry has become a reality, the only difference being that the crowds in Revelation do not abandon Jesus on his way to the cross, but “follow him wherever he goes” by “wash[ing] their robes and ma[king] them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 14:4; 7:14).

Finally, it is important not the miss the subtle, yet powerful, critique of Roman Imperial political religion in the image and actions of the multitude. The Roman imperial cult—the sacrificial system of worship, politics, and commerce—imagined Rome as the powerful center of the cosmos, holding all things together by subjugating and dominating the masses from all the other nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. Conquest was how Rome maintained their “peaceful” world order. And this world order was called salvation, indeed Caesar’s existence and military conquest was hailed as the salvation of the world and the beginning of all things—new creation.[2]

Here in John’s vision we are shown a mass of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (all the conquered ones of Rome) declaring that salvation does not come through Roman imperial conquest but belongs solely to God and the Lamb who was slain by the very instrument of Roman domination—the cross (Rev 7:10). When the angels, living creatures, and elders around the throne respond by ascribing “honor and power and might” to God forever, it is made clear that the world has come under new management and the way of Caesar is a losing prospect.

The Great Ordeal

Once John has taken in this great spectacle, one of the elders around God’s throne asks John for the identity of the crowd. John replies that he doesn’t know. The elder then tells him that they are those who have gone through the “great ordeal” (7:13-14). In the kind of comic book eschatology that is somehow, despite repeated embarrassing attempts at prediction, still popular, the great ordeal is the “great tribulation.” Usually the image of the great tribulation is usually employed to plot a timeline and ask questions concerning when the tribulation will start, how disruptive (or “great”) it will be, who will have to undergo it, and what it will entail. John’s Apocalypse is mostly unconcerned with these questions.

First, “great” as a modifier doesn’t necessarily set this out as some big event on the cosmic calendar so much as it paints the ordeal on a grand scale. John wants to blow this up to 100 pt. font not because it is a singular event on the timeline but because he doesn’t want his churches to miss the significance of the times in which they already live. The Book of Revelation is like the state of Texas, everything is bigger in it. “Great” here is used for emphasis, to grab the attention. It is used somewhere around 46 times throughout the Apocalypse in the same manner.

The “great ordeal” is not some singular event that can be counted down to or plotted on a timeline. In truth, it is all time under Caesar’s empire, filled with pressurized moments of opportunity for witness. To make the “great ordeal” into a “great tribulation” that you can pin down in time is to operate on the level of the literal rather than the level of the symbolic. The Book of Revelation operates on the level of the symbolic, and the symbolic does not serve the literal, as if it can be decoded. Rather, the symbolic in the Apocalypse serves the ethical, the symbolic fills the present moment with so much significance that one is compelled to think and act in a certain way. Decoding the timeline of the great tribulation to reckon whether or not one is in it misses the point. The point is, on this side of the new creation, one is always under the great-ordeal-pressure of the decision to bear costly witness to the Lamb or not. As Joseph Mangina puts it:

No one escapes the great tribulation. The real question for contemporary Western Christians is whether we view martyrdom as an exotic relic from an age long past, or whether we stand in solidarity with the martyrs who are even now offering up their costly witness.[3]

Those who have passed through the great ordeal are on the other side of the end of time, where God has put everything right (7:15-17). Knowing where those who have passed through the great ordeal have ended up helps those who are in the midst of the great ordeal—which is the pressure to follow Caesar rather than the slaughtered Lamb—patiently endure in their witness, even when it costs them dearly.

Preaching This Text on All Saints’ Day

I have written a book and numerous articles on the Book of Revelation and yet I still find it difficult to preach. I am thankful that numerous friends and colleagues in ministry have succeeded in making Revelation come alive for their congregations. The challenging thing about the book is that working on Revelation’s level of symbol takes time. If one is not simply making one-to-one connections between symbols and literal representation (and one should generally not do this), then working with symbols takes time so that everyone’s imagination can begin to be saturated and live within the symbolic language of the book.

Thankfully, the symbols speak powerfully and evocatively in this passage and converge well with the church’s liturgy as it remembers and gives thanks for the gifts of the saints. When preaching this text, one may focus on the way that the church as a body of saints is uncompromisingly international. The multitude in Revelation and the crowd of the church’s saints both challenge the artificial boundaries nation states love to draw and the walls they love to build. The multitude crosses over every border and draws from every corner of the world. Indeed, church’s love to count because it defines what belongs to them. The multitude is uncountable. Perhaps this has something to say to the church and where its focus should be: mission and witness rather than calculation.

Additionally, the saints are saints because they bore patient and faithful witness to Jesus, often at great cost. The image of the great ordeal, which is the great pressure that calls for decision: will we or will we not bear costly witness to the Lamb and his way, is such a potent image for All Saints’ Day. Remembering the saints’ past can help us live in the present so that we can participate in the future of those who have come through the great ordeal into the other side of the end of time, shepherded all the way by the conquering Lamb.

[1] Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), 621.

[2] Images such as the Ara Pacis, the breastplate relief on the Prima Porta statue, inscriptions on Roman coins, visually tell the story of Roman imperial salvation. [3] Joseph L. Mangina, Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), 115.