Chapter 7 of the Apocalypse presents us with a divinely orchestrated interruption of the sequence of the seven seals that slows down the inevitable action of judgement. In this moment of calm, we are reminded that, in the center of tribulation, God is with His people. John sees a double vision, in which the people of God are actually sealed, or protected from harm. Then, sheltered by the very presence of God, he pictures them in bliss, as a foretaste of the New Jerusalem to come. Here is the chapter:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, even to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “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, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It is helpful for us to notice that in the book of Revelation, not every picture that we see is meant to be taken in sequence with the preceding one, nor is it always separate from it. This is common in Hebrew and Christian writing. In the Psalter, we often get two pictures of one reality, in which the second picture amplifies the first. Consider the first lines of Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners.” The Psalmist is describing a single man, the godly man who stands against evil, not two separate things. This kind of parallelism is used in English writing, too, but was very congenial to the Hebrew mind. Here, John sees two parallel vignettes—the sealing of the 144,000; then, the great uncountable multitude sheltered by God. Some have seen these as sequential, or as corresponding to different realities; for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses think that the 144,000 are a separate group from all those who will live on earth, and have a two-tiered system of salvation. Some commentators think that the 144,000 signifies the literal number of Jewish people who come to believe in Jesus, whereas the next picture refers to all of God’s household. However, John frequently sees twinned visions—remember the Lion who was also the Lamb. It seems, then, that it is probably better to understand the two crowds as referring to the same group, to God’s completed people. The Venerable Bede, for example, considers the symbolism of the number 144,000:
By this finite number is signified the innumerable multitude of the whole church, which is begotten from the patriarchs either by way of the offspring of flesh or by the imitation of faith. For it says, “If you are of Christ, you are the seed of Abraham…. And for this reason rather often the Church is symbolized by the number twelve…And, finally, twelve apostles were elected that they might preach the same faith to the world, signifying by way of the number the mystery of their work. (EXPLANATION OF THE APOCALYPSE 7.4).
Understood in this way, the 144,000 sealed from the so-called twelve tribes is a way of noting the particularity of God’s call, how each one, no matter their background, is of importance to him. Biblical lists of the 12 tribes differ, with Jacob’s blessing of the tribes taking the boys in chronological order, but Moses’ blessing taking the names of the tribes according to their “belovedness,” beginning with Benjamin. It is interesting that the Apocalypse’s Christian rendition of this list begins with Judah—for Jesus is the Lion of Judah, and omits the tribe of Dan, probably because there was a tradition that it was from that tribe that the AntiChrist would arise. Again, the Venerable Bede says of John’s vision that it “does not intend to give the order of earthly generations but to expound the virtues of the Church” (EXPLANATION OF THE APOCALYPSE 7.5). The point is that these are the “servants of God” who are protected, or sealed, and kept safe by God during the time of judgment. And the sealing, of course, refers to our common baptism. This protection, though, does not mean that evil will never befall them. We must remember Jesus’ words regarding the quality of God’s protection. In describing the time of trial, Jesus Himself spoke of cataclysmic and political events, and about the treachery that would affect the faithful:
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and … famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven….You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:10-19)
Jesus details great sorrow and trouble for believers. Some readers fasten upon the promise “not a hair of your head will perish,” without also noticing that Jesus says, “some of you they will put to death.” Clearly, the sealing, or promise of protection does not mean that God’s people will not suffer—or even die! It does mean, however, that they are kept by God and preserved with their true selves intact, even against great odds. So it is in this vision of John. The 144,000 are sealed and so because of this sealing, they emerge as a great innumerable crowd, able to worship and celebrate. What began as a single people of 12 tribes becomes, before our eyes, a host from many nations and tribes and languages, all sons and daughters of Abraham, for they have followed the Lamb even unto death. They have come out of the great tribulation, beyond it, and they dwell in the presence and protection of God—but, of course, His presence and protection was with them before, during the tribulation, for the Lamb has been where they were. Salvation belongs to this Lamb, who is both in their midst, and on the throne. As the wise one explains to John, these are those who have both washed their garments by their witness, and who have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. Their reward is to serve and worship forever, seeing the face of the One who has been with them even in times of darkness.
John asks us, in his vision, to look beyond the obvious. We are invited to look behind martyrdom to its fundamental meaning of faithfulness to God, beyond immediate circumstances to the One who has promised never to leave us, beyond death to the life that comes from the One who has conquered death by death. And we are asked to look beyond the feeble church that we see, and think we can number, to the great multitude that He is calling to Himself.
For the past few years I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this multitude, about this host of witnesses, and how they are with us even when we don’t consciously think about them. What has come of my musing is a book for children, children aged about 8 through 13, called, Beyond the White Fence. I am convinced, as was C. S. Lewis, that sometimes a fairy-story can say best what is to be said. And so, in this modern fairy-tale, children go beyond so that they can see how large God’s world is, and how full it is of all different kinds of witnesses to His love and truth. They see, in their travels beyond the fence, the struggles and joys of their name-saints and are drawn to love them and honor them. I’d like to treat you, in advance of the book’s release at the end of September, to a climactic scene where they glimpse the saints in glory, going beyond the boundaries of what we normally experience. In the adventure, St. Katherine is just about to be martyred, before the children’s horrified eyes. But 10-year old Katie finds another spectacle unfolding!
Katie was mesmerized. The sloped rows of empty seats were hidden by a brilliant, glowing cloud. Behind and over the head of the emperor stood a glorious figure. It was the Theotokos herself, holy Mary, with arms extended in prayer.
“Look!” Katie cried to the others, and pointed in astonishment. With their eyes, they followed her trembling finger and saw Mother Mary praying for those who were about to be martyred. For at that very moment Saint Katherine was being marched across to the wheel of torture, which stood to the far left of the arena floor. The children did not know how they would torture Katherine on the wheel, nor did they want to find out. On the right side the guards began to herd together the other brave new Christians, those philosophers who had knelt, won over by her preaching. Apparently they were to be beheaded with the sword. That the children could imagine, and they shuddered. The bloodlust and noise of the crowd were overpowering. There, right in front of everyone’s eyes, behind the back of their emperor, glorious things were happening. But the crowd was captivated with the dark things going on below. Only before the children’s raised eyes, heaven itself was opened.
The Theotokos was joined by a huge host of shining figures, glittering with the colors of a million jewels and welcoming Saint Katherine, with her courageous brothers and sisters. In the luminous scene the children saw brave mother Solomonia, the protomartyrs Stephen and James, Saint Mary Magdalene, the Apostle Peter, Thecla the companion of Paul, the righteous Rachel, and Naomi, with Ruth. Even Saint Edith of Wilton was there, standing joyfully beside her brother, King Edward the Martyr. On each of their heads sat a glorious crown, with light rays streaming from them in all directions. The children easily recognized the saints they had met beyond the white fence but wondered how they so easily knew the others.
As Naomi said later, “I always have to read the names on icons to figure out who they are. And then the writing is sometimes in Greek . . .”
“Or Russian,” Rachael laughed.
But this was different. They believed that when they looked at icons in their churches, those saints and righteous ones were with them. This scene, though, didn’t cause them to remember or to think about something. The sights came to each of them directly, and they understood. All of them stood stock-still, taking in the wonder. It was so good to be there. Katie had, for just a moment, forgotten about the dark deeds and the impending fate of her beloved patron saint.
Suddenly, all six children were startled. Two of them jumped. Another looked around. Another gasped. One of them exclaimed “Oh!” Katie opened her mouth in awe, and shut it again. For from the midst of the shining host, a Voice like they had never heard before thundered, “Well done, My good and faithful servants!”
The Speaker remained unseen, but the light of those figures whom the children could see became brighter than anything they could imagine. They could not take their eyes off the light, though to look hurt, like trying to gaze at the sun. At the sound of the Speaker’s voice, the figures shifted beautifully in shape and hue while remaining steady in intensity. It reminded Katie of a video she had seen of the Northern Lights high up in the Canadian sky. But the colors didn’t flicker. They remained steady and firm, shone far more brilliantly, and touched directly into the children’s own world.
And there was something else! As soon as the Voice spoke, a great Light came from beyond, above, and beneath them. They realized that it was making the lesser lights glow, as though they were wonderfully colored but translucent glass. Katie stood transfixed. That great Light came to her eyes through the reflection of the lesser lights; and yet the smaller lights were themselves shining from within, crowned with glory.
How could light come both from beyond them and from inside of them? It was impossible to explain, but one thing was clear: the Light from beyond was the same as the unseen Speaker. When Katie looked at the shining figures, a deep longing filled her heart to see the Speaker Himself. It seemed to Katie that the Light and the lights were now surrounding them, shining not only from in front, but from all around. The warmth welcomed and embraced them all—her courageous saint, the others who would suffer, and even the children themselves. In Katie’s heart bubbled up a passage she had learned during homeschooling:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight . . . and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility . . . lest you become weary and discouraged.
It had never occurred to her when she had laboriously learned this from the Book of Hebrews that she would someday be in a place where it really made sense!
As if in response, the heavenly host began a song of celebration—a song that suited the grandness of this moment:
Let all of us who love to honor the martyrs
Form a great choir in praise of the most wise Katherine,
For she preached Christ and trampled the serpent,
Despising the knowledge of the philosophers!
The children were spared the sight of Katherine being stretched at the wheel and then beheaded when the wheel did not kill her. The vision and heavenly hymn dominated their senses. And then, out of the corner of her eye and off to the right, Katie noticed something else that was full of color. Joining the heavenly sound of the choir was an awkward and familiar call. There stood their old friend the peacock, just within the archway of the gate where they had entered. He cried out and spread his tail, clearly summoning them.
And so the children are summoned home to their own challenges. But they have seen wise Katherine who trampled the serpent, and who was sealed and protected by the Lord, along with all the other righteous and saints. There are moments in our daily lives that sometimes afford us the opportunity to “see beyond” their terror or their monotony, and to be assured of God’s presence. Certainly the book of Revelation, with its God-given visions and pictures, offers such assurances. Other more ordinary pictures and words can do this in their own more humble way, as I am sure many of you have discovered. And so I pray that my musing on the saints, and my sharing of this in this new children’s book, will play a modest role in pointing out to friends this larger reality beyond where we usually gaze. Those of you within kicking distance of Pittsburgh are invited to join me with other friends on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 3:00 p.m., for a Book Launch and Party hosted at St. Nicholas (McKees Rocks) parish.