Learn as we Lead: Victims of Empire and The Great Multitude in Revelation 7

Learn as We Lead: The Great Multitude – Revelation 7

I was asked to share a little during the season of “Learn as We Lead,” for the Freedom Church of the Poor on the abuses and misuses of the Book of the Revelation.  On Sunday I shared a little on Chapter 7 of Revelation (link to a live video of the worship service), drawing on some of the ideas from my book Resisting Empire, I spoke on how the idea of the “elect” has been abused and the importance of the multitude. See the text below.

Revelation Chapter 7:1-8

Rev. 7:1   After this 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. 2 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 who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servantsa of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

Rev. 7:4   And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:
Rev. 7:5    From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.

When Adam Barnes messaged me about the idea for a teaching on dispelling some of the destructive myths of Revelation I struggled with choosing what text.

How do you select a text from a book of the Bible that has been so abused over time?

Since the time of John Nelson Darby and C.I. Scofield and the publication of the Scofield’s Bible in 1909: Revelation has been one of the most abused text in all of the Bible. Ideas of rapture, end-times, and dispensationalism rooted largely in their interpretations of the book have not only permeated Christian culture, it has bled out into American popular culture as well and made some people very rich in the process.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins I’m looking at you for starters.

But it was these abuses that actually brought me back to Revelation a few years ago.

For years, I pretended like the NT was only 26 books rather than 27. My cannon was a little shorter then others.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I became curious about Revelation. I had been pastoring a Quaker community in the Pacific Northwest that was filled mostly poor and middle-class folks, who were themselves suspicious of the abuses of texts like Revelation, and had recently participated in a conference that Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Kairos Center coordinated that changed my approach in studying the Bible. These two communities played a huge part in my asking starting to ask questions of the text.

  • Why has this book been used and abused so much?
  • What makes it so easy to misunderstand?
  • Are there liberatory ways of reading the text?

What I learned in the process is that the book of Revelation doesn’t have anything to do with predicting the end times. Its focus is far more pastoral and prophetic, as in speaking truth to empire.

Revelation is a letter that was circulated among the early Christian Church, likely during the time of Domition, who made the Emperor Nero, known for burning Christians at the stake for crimes they didn’t commit, look like a friendly playground monitor.

During this time period after the fall of the temple in 70 CE – The Roman Empire and its imperial religion are even more out of control, violent, and deeply threatened by early Christians who refuse to go along with the empire’s systems of exploitation and subjugation.

The first hearers of Revelation were not just persecuted, they were primarily poor and living on the margins of empire economically, politically, and religiously.

The letter (we call “Revelation”) is part unmasking the evils of empire, so as to dissuade its hearers from becoming tempted to assimilate and go along with empire; and part pastoral, here is how we are going to resist, here is what Jesus – signified by the lamb did – and what it means for us to have our imaginations shaped by nonviolence and love.

Instead of this text being used and abused against the poor, the marginalized, and those who the religion of empire at any given point deems a threat to itself, it is very much the reverse: Revelation is a handbook of resistance for the early Church.

The 144,000

If you’re familiar at all with Revelation, you’ll likely have heard the first part of chapter 7 with the 144,000 lifted up as the elect.

Here, the interpretation goes, we have an image that some are elected to be favored by God. If there is an elect that means there is also all those who are the not-elect. It could be a 144,000 who are elected, or it could just be a symbolic number that shows there is a limit to who get’s to be the people of God.

Have you heard something like this before?

This one of the abuses of the text.

There are other ways that chapter 7 has been abused:

I’ve heard later parts of this passage used in justifying and glorifying Christian violence, robes made white in the blood of the lamb. For some, God’s wrath justifies any human violence done in the name of God. Another is this image of worship – where people may be forced to bow and see God’s glory, or will be forced into humiliation seeing as how they are not a part of it.

I bet you have heard other ways this text has been used against you or others.

First, I want to say something about the 144,000; the four winds are mentioned here come from the Hebrew Bible and apocalyptic literature elsewhere, as destructive forces of God’s judgment. That part is true.

But let’s be clear, just like in the Hebrew Bible, God’s judgement in Revelation is always directed towards empire, a system of cruelty and exploitation. God’s fiercest anger is reserved for Babylon the great…who the kinds of the math have committed fornication with and grown rich from the power of her luxury (as it says in Chapter 18).

The four winds of judgement are coming upon the Roman Empire as well, but first God’s protection are for those sealed, those being faithful to the lamb that was slain (by empire) in the face of great evil. Elisabeth Shcussler Fiorenza says,

The sealing action with its many possible meanings and its complexities of allusion evokes a rich imagery of symbols. The symbolic action of sealing could allude either to the name of the 12 tribes engraved on the breast plate of the Jewish high priest, to the Jewish custom of wearing phylacteries, to the branding of a slave with a mark, to Christian baptism, to the protective mark of Ezekiel 9, to the blood mark of the exodus lamb, to the oriental custom of marking one’s belongings with the seal of one’s ring, or to all of the above. Revelation 9:4 supports the interpretation of the sealing as a sign of protection during the cataclysmic events of the cosmic plagues

Fiorenza – Revelation: Vision of a Just World (66)

Knowing the ongoing critique of empire throughout Revelation, the exodus allusion is most attractive. That God’s favor, coming in the form of protection, survival, and blessing, comes to those who are seeking to resist empire nonviolently as the lamb who was slain did.

The poor people escaping Egypt in Exodus were protected even though they still suffered and faced profound pain they were not abandoned.

As Jesus said:

  • Blessed are the poor.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers.

But what is even more fascinating about this text is easily missed:

The 144,000 described in specific ethnic terms is put in contrast to the great and uncountable, multinational, multilingual, multicultural multitude that appears after the first part of this vision (Howard-Brook and Gwyther, 210).

Here’s a clue – in Revelation John often hears something first, and then sees something radically different or more expansive.

In Revelation: The hearing is the old way, the assumed tradition, what he expects to find. The seeing is the radical new vision.

“For those who have eyes to see…”

– Jesus

For instance: This happens in Revelation Chapter 5:

“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4 And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Revelation 5:6   Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

Revelation 5:2-6

Bible scholar Wes Howard-Brook writes “what John hears is often described differently from what he sees” (5:5-6, 11-13;9:1, 13, 16-17, etc).

The Vision of The Multitude

Rev. 7:9   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. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 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, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

What John sees in Chapter 7 is 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…”

The vision is an expansive, inclusive vision of who the people of God are. Who this new fusion coalition is made up of – a great and uncountable people.

Now let’s turn to the “multitude.”

In greek it is ochlos is very close to oxlew (to cause trouble by harassment, trouble, disturb) – is this at play here? Maybe a kind of good trouble?

The meaning of ochlos is:

a) a relatively large number of gathered people
b) that shares some characteristic or status
c) A large number of people of relatively low status – the common people, the populace in contrast to the rulers (Mat 14:5, etc) Danker, 745

We see a similar image of with the language multitude throughout Jesus’ ministry and in Ezek. 37:10:

“I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The dry bones of Israel who were themselves enslaved and had lost hope in the face of their oppressors.

The Multitude Centers The Victims of Empire

Following this, there’s one last layer I want to peel back before we finish.

Not only is the multitude a beautiful remix of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom resisting the Roman Empire, there is something even more potent here. See what is happening and who is represented at the center of the multitude.

First, you have the lamb slain but resurrected in the center, this is the one who was a victim of empire, and yet, whose resurrection resisted empire’s final grasp at control over life.

Then, next to the lamb, are other victims and the scapegoats of empire.

It says in Chapter 7:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 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.

The multitude names and lifts up the victims of empire and centers their stories, amplifies their voices, and works to discern the ways in which we can be in solidarity with those who are innocent victims like the lamb.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says in his book Where Do We Go From Here, that freedom is participation in power: I think that’s what we’re seeing here.

But what do we make about this “being washed in the blood of the lamb.”

We have generally heard Christians use this phrase as a means of saying you have to be saved in order to not experience the wrath of a violent God. Or used in ways that overly spiritualize salvation.

A different way of reading this that lines up more closely to how we are trying to understand these things might go like this:

To be washed in the blood of victims is to work to identify and empathize with those who are crushed by empire. If I were to say that we should be washed in the blood of those lynched and brutalized in our own country, it would be a way of saying something like – be continually reminded of those who have paid the ultimate price under this regime, do not forget them, and let your hearts, minds, and souls be shaped by the kind of nonviolent resistance that can change this world so that there are not more victims of empire.

The multitude is not just a nice, inclusive gathering, it is a gathering of people who have chosen to resist empire and who center the victims of empire as the leaders of their movement.

The multitude is a vast movement of angelical troublemakers as Bayard Rustin might call them.

I will close with the last portion of this passage, and what what Fiorenza calls an picture of, “total well-being,” in contrast to a salvation that is only concerned with the salvation of should:

Chapter 7 again:

15 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.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 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.”

Revelation is concerned with total well-being of the poor, the victims who are crushed and brutalized by empire. I think that’s good news.