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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 wo