Theology by numbers: A sermon on Revelation 7

[This is the seventh in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—May 13, 2012—Revelation 7:1-17

The book of Revelation is full of numbers. If you pick it up and start to read it, you may feel like it is a kind of impenetrable code. Journalist Jonathan Kirsch, in his book A History of the End of the World, writes that “the book of Revelation is regarded by secular readers—and even by progressive Christians—as a biblical oddity at best and, at worst, a kind of petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity.”

The numbers certainly play into this dangerous religious eccentricity. I want to focus on one number in particular this morning. But first, I’d like for us to think about as many numbers as we can remember from the book. What are the numbers in Revelation? And what do they mean?

Two types of symbols

Clearly, the numbers have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two general categories: specific symbols and general symbols. With specific symbols, one particular meaning is meant by the symbol. Like with the American flag—the thirteen stripes symbolize the original thirteen colonies and the fifty stars symbolize the current fifty states.

With general symbols, the meanings are much broader, more dynamic and subjective. Think again of the American flag—what does the flag itself symbolize? Tons of things. Probably significantly different things for different ones of us even in our small group here today. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.

Right after September 11, 2001, a friend of mine who teaches at a Mennonite college put a picture of the American flag on his office door. You can imagine that this led to some controversy (to say the least). The meaning of that symbol for my friend changed just within weeks and he soon took the picture down—from a statement of solidarity with victims and relief workers, the flag came soon to symbolize revenge and a new war of aggression against Afghanistan.

I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Let me read from chapter 7, which gives us several numbers. Think about what these numbers may symbolize—and think of other numbers in Revelation. We’ll talk about these when I’m done reading.

I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

And I heard the number of those who were sealed, 144,000, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: From the tribes of Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin 12,000 each.

After this, I looked, and there was 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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (7:1-17)

So what are some of the numbers in Revelation? What do you think they mean?

Without explaining why I think so right now, I suggest that 666 and 7 are two examples of general symbols—7 having to do with wholeness in a broad sense, applied in different ways in different settings; and 666 having to do with a general sense of humanity resisting the wholeness of God’s shalom (the “6” meaning just short of the “7”, intensified by beingrepeated three times). So, 666 is not referring to a specific person. Now, I used to think it referred to Ronald Wilson Reagan, three names, six letters each. But no, 666 is more general than that.

The 144,000 as a specific symbol

On the other hand, I believe that 144,000 is a specific symbol. It has one particular meaning. And it is one of Revelation’s most important numbers. In fact, the way one interprets the 144,000 will say a lot about one’s reading of the book as a whole.

But there are lots of different views, that’s for sure. Some who believe Revelation is giving us a blueprint of predictions about the future think that the 144,000 here is a group of Jewish converts to Christianity during the 7-year Great Tribulation that will follow after the Rapture—these new converts will evangelize those “left behind.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses in their early years about 100 years ago thought that once they gained 144,000 members the End of the world would come. As the group got bigger and the End failed to materialize, they have had to revise their theology. Now the 144,000 are faithful believers who will be resurrected as spirit beings to provide leadership for the rest of those who make it to heaven.There’s one New Age group that teaches that a spiritual master from Venus brought 144,000 souls with him to earth to bring spiritual transformation to those enlightened enough to respond.

The tendency, then, is to see the 144,000 as a limited number, a form of scarcity. Only a few, the proud and brave are chosen for this small group of the faithful. But the symbolism here in Revelation 7 is actually about abundance. The symbolism a kind of open invitation—a celebration, even, of God’s generosity. Let me explain why.

Symbolizing God’s generosity

To understand Revelation rightly, we must read it as a narrative, beginning at the beginning, and keeping what has come before in mind as we work through the book. So, when we get to chapter seven, we have an important precedent to help us understand what is being pictured here.

Revelation five, the book’s most important chapter, makes a brilliant rhetorical move. We read of a terrible crisis—the one on the throne has a scroll that, when read, will bring ultimate healing and salvation to creation. But no one can be found to open the scroll. John weeps bitterly. But then he is comforted; someone has been found. And then, John hears about this great victor—the promised great warrior king, messiah, conqueror, a Lion. But what John actually sees is a resurrected slain Lamb.

The Lamb is the conqueror. What John heard was accurate. But he conquers through self-giving, persevering love—not by domination and violence. It is as the incarnation of love that the Lamb then is celebrated by “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” He is declared worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:11-12). The true meaning of the symbolism in chapter five is found in combining both what John hears and what John sees—but the decisive meaning is found in what he sees—a Lionb who is actually a Lamb—conquering, but through love.

There is a direct connection between that vision of the Lamb in chapter five and the 144,000 in chapter seven. John uses the same rhetorical technique. What he hears here is the 144,000. What he heard in chapter 5 was the hoped-for Jewish Messiah who would establish God’s kingdom. What he hears in chapter 7 is the hoped-for restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel as a kingdom.

What John saw in chapter 5 was a vision of the identity of this Messiah—and its God-blessed method of conquering. What John sees in chapter seven is another amazing vision: “a great multitude that no one could count, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white” (7:9).

That is, the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel as a kingdom looks exactly like what Abraham and Sarah had been promised way back at the very beginning—their descendants would bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). The 144,000 and the great multitude are the same thing (just as the Lion of Judah and the slain Lamb are the same thing). The multitude is the restored kingdom, but not a limited group of those specially elected to the exclusion of most other people—rather, the restored kingdom is made up of everyone who wants to be there, from all peoples.

And, just as vision of the slain Lamb leads to extraordinary worship, so too does the vision of the countless multitude, echoing the same words of praise: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” (7:12). The symbol of 144,000 then is anything but a symbol of scarcity. It is a symbol of abundance that leads to celebration. It is to be understood in terms of the countless multitude. Which actually makes sense when we think about it.

The number 144,000 breaks down into a number of abundance. We start with the 12 tribes, named here in chapter 7. But then we multiply that by another 12 (which we should understand to symbolize the twelve apostles, based on a later vision from the New Jerusalem). These two sets of 12 are inclusive of all believers in both Testaments. Then we multiply again by 1,000—a number in the ancient world that was much, much bigger than it is today. In fact, the number 1,000 in general symbolizes a huge, huge amount, really beyond measure.

So, it’s easy to see how the 144,000 could equal “countless multitude.” Still, John’s vision anchors this celebration of the salvation of the multitude in the story of Israel. God called this particular people to know God and to share God’s mercy with the rest of the world—and this mission is precisely what is celebrated here.

What does Revelation 7 mean in the book of Revelation?

But what does this all mean in the book of Revelation? More directly, what does this vision of abundant salvation and celebration mean here in chapter seven? Because, we must not forget, this vision occurs in the midst of the terrible plague visions that begin in chapter six with the breaking of the seals of the great scroll.

Here we come to another of the important forks in the road of how we interpret Revelation—and, really, how we interpret the Bible—and, really, how we interpret God and life in our world. We read of the first six plagues: wars, famine, pestilence, and cries for vengeance. And then we have this interlude before getting back to the breaking of the seventh seal in chapter eight—which actually turns out to be a direct link to seven more plagues connected with the sounding of trumpets that then lead to another plague series linked with the pouring out of “bowls of wrath.”

This is the fork in the road. Remember Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. That’s what we must do here, too. This is the issue: do we read the worship vision as a side point in the context of the fundamental reality of plagues? Or do we read the plague vision as a side point in the context of the fundamental reality of worship and celebration? Which actually best defines the message of Revelation—and which actually best defines our understanding of reality? Plague or celebration? Scarcity or abundance? Do we laugh to keep from crying—or do we laugh out of genuine joy?

Here is why I think Revelation is about celebration. The book is a revelation of Jesus Christ, it says in the first verse—not a revelation of plagues. It starts with a present-tense statement about Jesus: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us, has freed us from our sins, and made us a kingdom. This Jesus, later in chapter one and in the messages of chapters two and three, is present among the churches.

Then in chapter five, the key vision of the Lamb’s witness and the present-tense celebration of all creation. The book continues with plagues, to be sure, but always there are visions of worship and strong statements like this in chapter 11: “We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign” (11:17). These worship visions reach their culmination in the vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of the book where healing comes—even to God’s human enemies, the kings of the earth. Revelation contains not a hint of doubt—the Lamb that was slain stands, and those who would follow him (countless multitudes from all nations) celebrate in the present tense.

And in this present reality, the celebration of the Lamb’s way of conquering reflects what is most real. The plagues are also real, but they are but a passing phenomenon. Don’t live in fear of them. Don’t become fatalistic—don’t think they portray the way things most fundamentally are and the way things must be. Celebrate the Lamb, now—and, now, follow him wherever he goes.

This call to celebrate, to worship as if the way of the Lamb is the fundamental reality—this is what might be the most difficult part of Revelation’s message for us to embrace.

An example of celebration amidst “plagues”

There was a secular Jewish philosopher named Phillip Hallie who helps us understand this challenge. Hallie was a soldier in the American army that fought the Germans in western Europe during World War II. He believed that was necessary and remained proud of his service. But he always felt uneasy about the incredible violence and destruction of that war—and its legacy of only accelerating the spiral of violence leading to more violence.

As a philosopher, he became intrigued with human cruelty—or we could say, he had a horrible fascination with human cruelty. So he studied it as a philosophical inquiry—focusing on the terrors of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany and surrounding areas. And he became increasingly calloused, it seemed. It’s as if he wanted to assure himself of the necessity of his own warring—and found himself increasingly burdened by despair. Cruelty leads to ever more cruelty. Then he ran across a strange story that made him weep. He tried to pooh pooh his reaction, until he realized he couldn’t get the story out of his mind.

So he sought to learn more about a small group of people in LeChambon, a rural mountain village in southern France. They risked their lives to save thousands of Jewish refugees who found their way to this remote area. Hallie ultimately wrote a book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, about this case of goodness—in the terms of Revelation, this case of people of faith following the Lamb wherever he goes in the midst of the terrible plagues of war.

Hallie, you wonder if almost in spite of himself, Hallie I think challenges his readers to think—what was the more fundamental reality here: the reality of the fog of war, the kill or be killed dynamic of such a conflict, the husbanding of extraordinary resources of violence to defeat evil-doers; or the reality of these weaponless villagers, taking huge, life-threatening risks, to offer refuge to strangers, refuge to people who could not possible hope to repay their rescuers? Which was more real?

Again, returning to Revelation’s images—what kind of action will be most at home in the New Jerusalem? What kind of action best reflects the way that the Lamb works as ruler of the kings of the earth? What kind of action most clearly corresponds to the way things truly are?

So in the end, Phillip Hallie reminds us, in his story of the villagers of LeChambon of the biggest lesson. The lesson is this: even in the midst of the worst the Beast can do, genuine worship of the one on the throne and the Lamb happens and reflects true reality—embodied worship that remains extraordinarily powerful on behalf of life.

Index for Revelation sermons

Chapter seven commentary

Index for Revelation commentary

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