First Reading: Revelations 7:2-4, 9-14
The Saints Gather
We've all sensed a place or time was holy. Have you ever sensed a group of people were holy? Who were they?
2 Then, I saw another angel who came from the east with the rising of the sun. He had the royal seal of the Living God. He shouted to the four angels who had the power to harm the earth and the sea, 3 "Don't hurt the earth, the sea, or the trees, until we can mark the servants of our God on their foreheads." 4 I heard the number of those who were marked was one hundred and forty four thousand. These people came from every tribe of Israel.
9 After this, I saw a huge crowd. It was so large no one could count all the people in it. They came from every nation and people and tribe. They spoke different languages. They stood before God's throne and the Lamb. They were dressed in white robes and waved palm branches in their hands. 10 They shouted, "The God who sits on his throne and his Lamb saved us!"
11 All the angels stood around God's throne, the elders, and the four living ones. They lay face down and worshiped God. 12 "Amen. Praise, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might belong to our God forever! Amen,"
13 One of the elders spoke to me. "Hey, do you see these people who are dressed in white robes? Who are they and where do they come from?"
14 "Sir," I said. "You know better than I do."
"Yes," he said. "They are the people who survived the great Test. They have washed their robes and bleached them in the Blood of the Lamb."
2 I saw another angel coming from the east with the sun, possessing the seal of the Living God, and he shouted in a great voice to the four angels to whom it was given to them to do harm (with the great winds) to the earth and the sea, 3 saying, "Do not harm the earth or the seas or the trees (with the winds), until we can seal the servants of our God on their foreheads." 4 I heard the number of the (ones) having been sealed, one hundred and forty four thousand, having been sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.
7:2 "the seal of the Living God" A royal seal marked an official document of a kingdom. It was used in cases of national laws and royal announcements to the realm at large. The use of the seal made the law or announcement authentic, hence was the final word on the matter. The seal of the Living God would be placed upon living beings (7:3).
"to do harm (with the great winds)" See 7:1 for the angels with the winds of the four corners of the earth.
7:4 "144,000" The number of the saved has created much controversy over the past two millennium. The number is 12 x 12,000. For the ancient Jews, the number twelve and any of its multiples were symbolic; the number meant "completion, totality." Obviously, the number "12 x 12" would represent an overflowing of these attributes. Since ancient people thought of the number "1000" as a nearly uncountable sum, the combination of twelve and a thousand mixed the two notions together; "12,000" represented an nearly uncountable totality. The idea of "12 x 12,000" spoke to a superabundance of completion.
We Westerners who live in a scientific culture take numbers literally. Ancient people saw numbers in a different light. Numerology was part of their culture; number combinations had meaning. For these people, the number "144,000" meant an uncountable gathering of those who have been made whole. For John the Elder, this was the true meaning of salvation at the end of time.
9 After these (matters), I saw, Look!, a great crowd, which no one is able to number, from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, having stood before the throne and before the LAMB, having dressed themselves in white robes and (having) palm (branches) in their hands, 10 and they shouted in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation (is) from our God the (One) sitting on the throne and from the LAMB."
11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living ones, and (they) fell on their faces and worshiped God, 12 saying,
"Amen. Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might to our God unto ages of the ages. Amen."
13 One of the elders answered, saying to me, "These, the ones having dressed themselves in white robes, who are (they) and where do they come from?" 14 I said to him, "My lord, you know (the answer)?" He said to me, "These are the (ones) coming through the great Tribulation and they washed their robes and bleached them in the blood of the LAMB."
7:9 "every nation, tribe, people, and tongue" This term described the whole of the known world.
"having dressed themselves in white robes " The white robe was baptismal clothing that represented the purity of the new birth in Christ. (Also see 7:14b)
"(having) palm (branches) in their hands" This was a reference to the feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:33-36) which was to be celebrated with palm branches and booths in a spirit of rejoicing. Zech. 14:16-19 placed the celebration in the context of the Messianic era. The booths were absent because the throne of God was their tabernacle. It held the presence of God.
7:10 "Salvation (is) from our God the (One) sitting on the throne and from the LAMB." The sentence has no verb; the verb "to be" is understood. The preposition "from" can also be translated "to or towards." In this context, the sentence could be translated: "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on his throne, and to the Lamb." The difference in preposition translation causes a problem. Does the statement recognize salvation as a realized gift from God ("Salvation is from God")? Or, is the statement an expression of a creed that recognized that salvation was found in God at the end of time ("Salvation belongs to God")?
Another problem occurs with the context of the shout. Is this an acclamation of praise to God and the Lamb? Or, is it creedal recognition of the crowd to itself?
The context of the passage (the crowd around the throne) argued for a liturgical setting; the crowd is worshiping God seated on his throne. So the statement was an acclamation to God and the Lamb. The context of Revelation itself argued for a realized sense of the end times; John the Elder witnessed these events as if they occurred in real time, not as a vision of the future. So, salvation would have been realized as well. Hence, "salvation is from our God..."
7:11 The angels in this sentence surrounded God's throne, the elders, and the living creatures. It is uncertain if the angels alone fall prostrate and worship God or if the elders and the living creatures join in the worship.
"Four living beings" meaning is uncertain. Possibly, John referred the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1:5-28. In symbols, Ezekiel described the presence of the divine King/Warrior upon his throne/chariot.
What is heaven like? While we might have images of winged angels who sit upon clouds and play harps, early Christians saw the afterlife and the end of time as liturgy. Heaven was eternal worship in the presence of God. These verses from Revelation describe the gathering of the saved before the throne of God.
The scene began in the royal court of heaven. Everyone, the faithful, angels, the elders, and the four creature (in concentric circles beginning with the creatures flowing outward?) stand before God. The faithful, "144,000" in 7:1-4 are the same as the uncountable masses in 7:9. The difference between the two descriptions (144,000 were from the tribes of Israel; the uncountable masses were from every nation and race) was symbolic only. Christianity introduced a new wrinkle to the notion of the saved; since the Savior of Israel extended his mission to all people, the saved remnant would also extend to all people. Through the universal mission of the Church, the notion of "Israel" no longer just applied to a particular nation or race and not be particular plot of land. All peoples would even celebrate the holidays of the Chose People; the image of the palm branches in 7:9b evoked the feast of Tabernacles, a joyous celebration of the harvest and the presence of God with his people in the Exodus.
The marks of the saved were the seal on their foreheads and the white robes. The seal represented the royal imprimatur, a sign of an official document. The seal of the Living God was to be placed on living beings; the seal of faith (a baptismal anointing?) signified those who would live out their lives as followers of the Nazorene. They were to be "martyrs" in the fullest sense of the word, living "documents" of the Living God; they would proclaim God's message by their lives.
The white robes (7:9, 14) were baptismal garments symbolizing a life born again in purity. Washing the robes in the blood of the Lamb (7:14) showed the intimate connection between baptism and Eucharist; the life of the Lamb (symbolized by the Blood) that was given to the saved washed them clean.
The statements of the saved and the angels spoke to the two types of language used in worship: prayer and creed. The saved proclaim their salvation from God and the Lamb (7:10); the angels (and the saved? in 7:10) praise God with superlative attributes. Prayer has always helped to form faith statements; creedal statements have been reasons for praise and worship.
The first point made in the passage is the last one to be mentioned. The saved suffered through the "Great Tribulation." Take away the reference to the End Times and the saints still stand out for their perseverance in times of public or personal tragedy. Holiness is meant to be tested and proven in life. Holy people are as much survivors as they are believers. The mark of a saint is not necessarily the quality of their certainty, but of their faithfulness. The faith of the saints is not to be found simply in adherence to doctrine, but making that doctrine come alive through their life's commitment.
Reflect on the saints in your life. How can you emulate these saints? How can you join with the saints in worship and in commitment?