A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 25, 2010.
Perhaps few people would suggest looking to the last book of the Bible to gain a sense of what the good life involves. Revelation is not the easiest book to read. It is full of imagery. The editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible summed things up well with this statement:
“The book of Revelation is a book of extremes, ranging from soaring heights of hymnody … to the gruesome language of plagues, warfare, and bloodshed… With its symbolic numbers and colors, animals, and angelic and demonic beings, and replete with echoes and images drawn from the literature of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, Greece, and Rome, the book of Revelation is so notoriously complex that the church father Jerome was led to remark that it contains as many mysteries as it does words.”
Yet, in another sense, the last book of the Bible provides some powerful, vivid, and understandable statements about what the good life involves. One such statement appears at Revelation 7:9-17 where John beholds “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.” That vision suggests some things about what the good life means that followers of Jesus Christ should bear in mind.
And it is important when reading Revelation to remember that it was written to encourage followers of Jesus as they faced tremendous challenges. This is a thoroughly Christ-centered book for people with a Christ-centered notion about living.
Revelation takes a post-resurrection perspective about what it means to follow Jesus Christ. The Jesus we read about in Revelation is not the healing and teaching rabbi from Galilee. We do not read about Mary and Joseph in Revelation, or mangers and magi. Those are features of the pre-resurrection Jesus. No, the gospel of Jesus Christ that we find in Revelation has a different kind of “good news” that is presented in a very different way.
The good life is based on an inclusive Vision of God and Jesus Christ. The religious community that John was inspired to see in Revelation was an inclusive community of people from all over the world, every nationality, ethnic group, and language. They were wonderfully diverse, yet united by the fact that they worshipped God and Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain and raised again. Sectarianism and denominationalism does not dominate this multitude. Instead, their kinship to each other and the rest of creation is based on their vision of God and Christ.
We should notice what John’s vision does not emphasize about that multitude. We read nothing about how much money they earned, or what things they possessed. The good life is not a function of what we possess, but turns on our ultimate relationships—meaning the relationships that define who we are, how we live, and how we relate to other persons and the rest of creation. In the vision, the diverse multitude that John saw was defined by their relationship to God and Jesus Christ. That sense of relationship to God through Christ defined their living more than any other thing or relationship.
At no point in Revelation do we get a vision of God without also being directed to the risen Christ. The uncountable multitude in John’s vision is related by their devotion—worship—of God and Christ. That devotion also made the multitude one people out of their wonderful diversity. They were one multitude of countless people from every nationality, racial and ethnic group, language, and clan. Kinship to God in Christ makes us kin to each other, no matter who we are, where we come from, and what language we speak. That kinship—that sense of relatedness to other people is the most enduring spiritual and moral force in the world.
In the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shown that divine love is not limited to my tribe or your tribe, my nation or yours, my language or yours, or my denomination or yours. Divine grace and truth—what God has liberally provided the world in Jesus Christ—emphasizes that we are one community. Our wonderful diversity does not prevent us from being related to each other, and in Jesus Christ, we sense our common relationship to God and one another. Without that vision of kinship, we never live well, no matter what we possess, where we live, or what religion we profess.
Good living requires Valor. After seeing the uncountable multitude in his vision, John is asked to identify them. “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.” The multitude of people from every nation, tribe, and language are people who have followed Jesus Christ in brave living. They are in white robes, symbolizing righteousness, and they carry palm branches, symbolizing victory. They are valiant followers of the Victorious Christ and His God.
The call to follow Jesus Christ is not merely a call to believe. It is a call to live. We are called to loyal living for God. We are called to faithful living for God. We are called to loving living in obedience to God’s love and in obedience to the perfect example of Jesus Christ. And we are called to valiant living—brave and courageous living—despite the forces and factors that reject the rule of God, truth of God, and love of God. Following Jesus is more than believing something. It involves living for God.
Some evangelical preachers insist that the “great ordeal”—also called “great tribulation”—spoken of at Revelation 7:14—refers to a time of intense persecution to be experienced by people who become followers of Christ after the “rapture of the believers.” That dispensational approach to understanding Revelations is popular, and has been captured in popular literature by the Left Behind series of books. However, the dispensational approach to interpreting the Bible is seen in the Scofield Reference Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, and is emphasized by a number of neo-fundamentalist evangelical seminaries in the United States. It is not, by any means, the most acceptable or even the most widely accepted view held by Christian theologians.
Many theologians question the dispensationalist approach to interpreting Scripture. God is always moving among us, and the Bible reveals that God has always been moving in Jewish and non-Jewish lives. The great tribulation is seen by many of us as the ongoing struggle that people have to live for God and in obedience to the call of divine love and truth. That struggle has existed in every age, in every nation, and within every tribe of humanity. Wherever people have struggled to live in obedience to the rule and love of God, they have struggled to do so against tremendous forces and powers. During the time that Revelation was written, followers of Jesus were confronted by the Roman Empire and entrenched religious powers. Whenever people live as brothers and sisters under God who define their relationships and conduct with each other by God’s love, they defy conventional wisdom, authority, and notions of power.
What are you saying, Preacher? I am saying that to follow Jesus Christ is to experience the great tribulation of life, and requires valiant, brave, and courageous living. To love people because they are children of God requires courage. To live as if God is able to provide enough for all of us so that none of us is justified in trying to hoard energy, food, money, education, or anything else from others requires courage. To live as if God’s love does not discriminate among people based on their skin color, nationality, language, sexual orientation, or other incidents of being requires courage. To live as if we are truly brothers and sisters before God requires courage.
This is the great ordeal. This is the great struggle. This is the living that is opposed in every generation, because in every generation and nation the dominant idea is that good living is for me and my kind. Jesus Christ came to show us that good living is not defined by being part of the privileged. In Christ, we see that God loves the disfavored, the outcast, the unaccepted, and the downtrodden. In Christ, God shows us that good living is loving, not grabbing. In Christ, God shows us that good living is peace-making, not war-mongering. In Christ, God shows us that good living is righteous relationships, not mere profit-taking. And the great ordeal—the great tribulation if you will—involves the struggle to live in obedience to God’s love as demonstrated by Jesus Christ rather than in keeping with the imperial and prideful spirit of self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and self-importance.
Good living is Victorious in Jesus Christ. The victory is symbolized by the palm branches held by the uncountable multitude. They offer a seven-fold (seven being a number of completion) word of praise to God and to Jesus Christ—“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” That uncountable number is joined by all the hosts of heaven in a song of victory—“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen”
The multitude sings heaven’s song of victory. God’s love and truth deserve our trust. God’s love and truth deserve our living. Devotion to God’s love and truth will involve “great tribulation.” But in Jesus Christ, the Lamb at the center of the throne of God who is our shepherd, we have already won the victory. In the resurrection, we have already seen the outcome of the great struggle. In the resurrection, the battle has already been fought, the victory has already been won, and the promise of eternal life has already been delivered to us. When we live in the spirit of that victory, we live in courage. We live by faith. We live in love. We live in hope. We live with joy. We live the victory of the resurrected Christ. Hallelujah!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.