7. Theology by numbers (Revelation 7:1-17)
[This is the seventh in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
Two types of symbols
The book of Revelation is full of numbers. Clearly, they have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two 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. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.
I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Without explaining why 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 being repeated three times). 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.
Symbolizing God’s generosity
Revelation five, the book’s most important chapter, makes a brilliant rhetorical move. We read of a crisis—the one on the throne has a scroll that, when read, will bring healing creation. But no one can be found to open the scroll. John weeps bitterly. But then he is comforted; someone has been found. 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.
There is a direct connection between that vision in chapter five and the 144,000 in chapter 7. John uses the same rhetorical technique. 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).
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—but 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. 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. 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.”
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? 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. This Jesus, later in chapter one and in the messages of chapters two and three, is present among the churches.
In chapter five we have 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. 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”
A philosopher named Phillip Hallie helps us understand this challenge. He studied human cruelty—focusing on the terrors of the 1930s and 1940s. He ran across a strange story that made him weep. So he sought to learn more about a small group of people in LeChambon, a village in southern France. They risked their lives to save thousands of Jewish refugees. Hallie 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 challenges his readers to think—what was the more fundamental reality here: the reality of war or the reality of these weaponless villagers in their of offer refuge to strangers? 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?
Phillip Hallie reminds us of the biggest lesson: 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.