The Communion of Saints as the Goal of History
Revelation 7:9-17, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, November 5, 2017
We might think of multiculturalism and diversity as buzzwords for liberals, but the book of Revelation makes clear that they are God’s plan for the church. This is what heaven is going to be. This is where history is headed. John’s vision of what happens after a time of suffering and oppression which is sanctified by the blood of the martyrs joining with Jesus’ blood is this: “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”—worshiping God and Christ with great joy.
We should remember that the suffering these believers have been through has been at the hands of the empire. Revelation is written to encourage those who are under the thumb of the Roman empire, and it is a song of defiance like the pop song “I Will Survive.” The dragon in this story stands for Rome, and the evil empire of Babylon is just a code word for Rome. Those who survive and become part of this throng in heaven are those who refused to say “Caesar is Lord” but insisted that “Christ is Lord,” that it is Jesus the Messiah who is reigning over all.
Craig Keener is one of the leading evangelical scholars of the New Testament. I’ve used several of his commentaries, including one on Revelation. He is a white man who married a refugee from Congo and was ordained in an African-American denomination, which may give him a better lens through which to read this text. Here is what Keener said about the contrast with Caesar-worship [NIV Application Commentary: Revelation, Zondervan, 2000, p. 245]:
These people refused to deify the enthroned emperor;
now they are before God’s throne/
They resisted the temple of Caesar and other false gods;
now they serve constantly in God’s temple.
They suffered economic privation for refusing to serve the world system;
now they are freed from suffering and sorrow, and all their needs are provided.
Earlier in Revelation we have been startled by the appearance of Jesus on the throne as the bloodied Lamb, looking as if he had been butchered, but he is the triumphant one—triumphing through love and faithfulness and sacrifice rather than war. And those who triumph with Jesus are the ones who choose to be followers of the Lamb—us readers, to the extent we are believers—who like Jesus pass through times of suffering and opposition with loyalty to God’s kingdom and thus have our robes washed in the Lamb’s blood, made pure by the suffering we have shared with him.
But the most striking thing to us is what this massive congregation looks like. In the end, when the victory is complete, we will gather with all those who love Jesus around the throne of God. It is that time of joy we sing about when we ask “Shall We Gather at the River” and look forward to “When We All Get to Heaven.” But I have to say that when I sang those songs as a kid in Southern Baptist churches it never occurred to me that the crowd singing around the throne would not be white. This was not an image I had presented to me very often, even if today it is a key text in the missionary movement to reach unreached people groups. Somehow in my imagination this choir looked more like the gigantic “mass choir” in the football stadium behind Cliff Barrows at a Billy Graham crusade—white church people in white shirts.
For the first readers of Revelation, the default image of the people of God would have been Jewish. That’s what comes in the verses just before the ones we read: the image of a crowd with the perfect number of 144,000—12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. That number gets used in bizarre ways by apocalyptic writers today, and it’s made to represent a very small selective number. For John’s readers, the idea that there would even be 144,000 Christians someday would have been amazing, and an encouragement.
But what the elder John does here is to move our vision from the focus on Jewish believers to seeing the crowd so big no one could possibly count it, and that is the crowd made up of people from all over the world. If we are Gentile readers, it means that we are included, but to all readers it means that our hearts are to be opened up to all these people with whom we will share delight in God’s presence. They are from all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues.
Let me say more about the meaning of those four terms. The first word “nation” is in Greek ethnos, from which we get ethnicity. It means nation not in the modern political sense but any group of people of common affinity and way of life. It’s a more general term than the other three terms that follow it. We could use the term ethnos to describe Boston Irish or Appalachian whites or native Block Islanders.
The second word, phule, translated “tribes”—in the King James it’s “kindreds”—is the one that has genetics in mind. A tribe, in this sense, means people who share a common ancestry. It is a clan or a family group. The third word translated “peoples” is laos, from which we get “laity.” But in John’s time the word was almost a synonym for ethnos but with more political connotations. It was a people group joined together by a government or covenant. The fourth term is glossa, tongues, is a people in a linguistic sense, as in Spanish speakers or those from Francophone countries.
So you have in this crowd in heaven around God’s throne all these kinds of diversity: ethnic, tribal, genetic, political, linguistic. These are people of different colors and customs and languages. Did you notice that the diversity is not done away with? John looks and he can still see people who are identifiably Egyptian or English or Indian. He sees that God’s dream for humanity is not homogenized. God intends that variety and will preserve it.
When I was in high school, one of the assignments in speech class was to do dramatic readings, which you had to memorize. The teacher had a set of a dozen pieces we could choose from. One that struck me even then as very old-fashioned and odd was a story, as I remember it, about a little black lamb who was a stand-in for a little black girl. In my rough and rather horrified memory of it, the gist of the story was that this very good little black girl died and when she got to heaven she was just as white as anyone else. Someone thought that was a compassionate and enlightened view, that we are all equal in God’s sight, but it held onto this foolish notion that we are all white in God’s sight. I don’t think so! I hate to break it to you, but God is not white. Jesus is not white. And when we get to heaven the choir we sing in will look more like the passengers we ride with in a New York City subway than the people we sit in church with.
For many years I participated in the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association. This was a group of churches in the tristate area which were, strangely enough, started by Southern Baptists—a group that was founded in order to preserve the rights of slaveholders. But by God’s grace the Southern white missionaries who worked to start new churches in that area had a very multicultural perspective and from the first had strong partners who were Hispanic and West Indian and Haitian. Later they found partners among Chinese and African-Americans and Liberians and Brazilians and Ukrainians. After first encountering that group as a college student, I wound up decades later being elected as the moderator of that association. There were 200 member churches, and only 40 of them were white, English-speaking churches like my own. Communication and cooperation weren’t always perfect, but I used to say after coming home from one of those association meetings that it was as close to heaven as I expect to experience in this life. Nowhere before or since had I been in a group that was genuinely multicultural—not with one group in the majority accepting others into its club—which was a little like this crowd described in Revelation as coming from every ethnic group, tribe, state, and tongue.
I don’t expect that we will ever be multicultural on Block Island—although we have a growing presence of Guatemalans and others who speak Spanish as their first language. But we can be people who share the dream of being part of God’s people—God’s people who are not dominated by any ethnic or national identity, but who celebrate the diversity that God intended. Do you think that ethnic and genetic differences happened by accident or primarily by human choice? They had to be God’s doing. Don’t you think languages are a kind of miracle? I don’t think the story of the tower of Babel means that God wanted there to be only one language; perhaps humans did. Some people want English to be not only our national language but our world language. But God apparently values the differences, and preserves them even in the kingdom of heaven rather than making us all the same, with cultural differences erased.
It is natural for us to be most comfortable with our own kind in our own language. But staying in your comfort zone is a form of moral laziness. God’s intention is for us to encounter and enjoy saints who are different from us, and someday we will, like it or not. If you don’t like diversity, you’re not going to like heaven. I think it’s natural in our imagination to think that when God makes all people one in Christ he is going to make all people like us, so that they will be easier for us to understand and love. But I don’t think that’s God’s plan. I think God’s plan is to grow our ability to love and understand.
On the Sunday following All Saints’ Day, many churches focus on the communion of saints—our fellowship with other Christians across both time and geography. We enjoy fellowship with believers who have gone before, from the apostles and martyrs and heroes of the faith right down to our grandparents and all those we love who have gone to be with Christ. But we also enjoy fellowship with believers from every ethnicity, from every nationality, and from every language group. All of us gather around the same table. We all partake of the same food. We are all made one by the same Spirit. Let us share the Lord’s Supper today remembering that we share it with them.