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Multitude: Part One

Our reflections on the story we find ourselves in now takes us to the last book in Scripture, Revelation. Revelation is a much-quoted and much-misunderstood book that really needn’t be that complicated. Yes, it was written by John in a sort of code. Early Christians are in a life-and-death struggle with Rome, with the power of imperial Rome. They are up against this great empire. And the whole book of Revelation is essentially identifying that struggle and the choice it calls for—between the Lamb who dies for us and the empire that intends ruthlessly to exploit us or kill us. And John is saying: The Lamb wins! Stand firm. Be faithful even to the point of death. And you will see the deliverance. And wisely, I think, the book is written in code, in a kind of literature we call apocalyptic which simply means that in this kind of writing spiritual struggle is often described in terms of cosmic catastrophe—with the sun turning black, the moon turning to blood, and the stars crashing to earth.

Our reflections now center on Revelation 7:9-17, but we must begin back with chapter 6. John is writing about a world cracking at the seams: with the earthquakes that rocked the empire in the early 60s, the Roman army defeated on the eastern frontier by the Parthians in AD 62, Nero’s fire of Rome in AD 64, the year of civil war and marching armies in AD 68-69, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and the great famines of AD 92. So now in Revelation 6 the scroll with the Seven Seals is opened— God’s Last Will and Testament for the Roman Empire. It’s opened seal by seal. It’s a vision, John’s vision. The legendary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse thunder onto the stage. There is a man on a white horse with a bow, the dreaded Parthian archer, the stuff of little children’s bad dreams, the only warriors Rome truly feared. There is a man on a red horse given power to make men slay each other. There is a rider on a black horse pantomiming drought and famine. And there is a rider on a pale horse. His name is Death, and Hades—the realm of the dead—follows behind, mopping up.

Now remember, John’s readers know all this has already begun. And that is, in fact, John’s point—that all these things, the earthquakes, the Parthian invasions, the civil war, the eruption of Vesuvius, prove that God is in control. This is what happens to an empire, based on raw power, and particularly to an empire that cannot recognize sons and daughters of God and, in fact, persecutes them. Then in 6:12 the sixth seal is opened. And there is a great earthquake that shakes mountains and islands loose. And the sky blackens and the moon turns blood red. And stars crash to earth. And the sky is rolled up like a scroll. John is drawing on the most extravagant images of cosmic catastrophe to say that the trouble is only beginning. It’s Rome’s worst nightmare. People call on the mountains to fall on them, to hide them from the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb. And the question in 6:17 becomes, “And who can stand?

Chapter 7 is the answer to that question, “Who can stand?” The Christians in the Roman province of Asia Minor (to whom John is writing Revelation) must have thought: Not many! We tend to picture John writing to seven churches— like, maybe, a church of 700 in Ephesus, a couple hundred in Sardis, maybe only a few in Philadelphia, but 300 plus in Laodicea. After all, in 200 years, these people, these Christians, swept the empire. But in AD 95 it would be more accurate to picture small struggling groups, loosely organized, meeting secretly in houses. They’re up against the power of Rome—the helpless victims of famine, earthquakes, marching armies, and now boycott, confiscation of their property and the threat of death. Even today you only have to walk around the ruins of Ephesus, colossal and impressive 2000 years later, to know how small these Christians must have felt. A typical church gathering could have met between two pillars of the Temple of Diana. So who can stand?

In chapter 7, as John’s vision continues, he sees four angels at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds that can destroy the earth. Picture apocalyptic hurricanes. And another angel comes up from the east having the seal of the living God. And he restrains the four angels until the seal is put upon the foreheads of the servants of the Lord. The idea of sealing or marking God’s people goes back to Ezekiel 9:1-11. But it also goes back to the terrifying night of the Passover in Exodus 12 when the Hebrew slaves were spared by the death angel because of the blood on their doorposts. In passing, I note that John draws on Exodus imagery often in Revelation. Christians are being called to a new coming out, a New Exodus. But then John hears the number of those who were sealed: 144,000, 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. Who are they? Jehovah’s Witnesses in one of their eccentric interpretations take this to be a literal 144,000. In Revelation 14:1-5 this same 144,000 are described as male virgins. So are they Jewish? Virginal? Or precisely 144,000 in number? Which brings us to the significance of numbers in Revelation. Numbers in Revelation do have meaning, symbolic meaning— especially the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, 12, all of which in various ways signify completion. So 144,000 which is 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x10, 12 squared and 10 cubed, is as big a number as Revelation is capable of suggesting, likely bigger even than the 200 million in Revelation 9:16. It’s 12 x 10 x 10 x 10 from the tribe of Judah, and 12 x 10 x 10 x 10 from the tribe of Reuben, and 12 x 10 x 10 x 10 from the tribe of Gad, and Asher, and Naphtali, and Manasseh, and on and on. They don’t fit inside the walls of our imagination. This is like Abraham’s seed, as numerous as the dust of the earth, or the stars of the sky, or the sand on the seashore. A huge number!

And now when I see what John is saying here, I remember that Jesus didn’t get crucified for being too exclusive. Now, he does call us to the highest standards imaginable. But he wasn’t crucified for being too exclusive. He was hated and crucified for opening up God’s kingdom way too broadly, to tax collectors and sinners, to prostitutes and Samaritans, even to Roman centurions. And so we are called by John here and by Scripture in general to re-examine what could be called “minority complexes,” notions that God only saves a few people and they tend to look, oh, a lot like me. This idea does have a kind of hypnotic appeal: a fascinating paranoia, a perverse pride, the thrill of elitism, of being the few, the true, the good. It just goes against the flow of Scripture and certainly against this text in Revelation 7:9-17.

— Dale Pauls

Stay tuned next week.

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