One way to approach the book of Revelation is to see it primarily as a prediction of future events. Often this approach leads to an attempt to "decode" the symbols of Revelation matching them up with certain current day events so that we can figure out who the beast is or when the end will come. The focus of such an approach to this week's sermon text, Revelation 7:9-14, would be to ask when "the great tribulation" of v.14 will be so that we can be prepared for it.
I think it is a much more faithful approach to Scripture to consider how John's original audience might have heard and understood his words. After all, Revelation is a letter specifically addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor. Certainly, it is a book for us as well since it is Scripture and we continue to look for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it. However, I believe we will hear the Spirit's voice in this text most clearly if we consider how its first hearers might have understood its many symbols and images.
Consider what it might have been like to be part of one of these seven churches. These were probably gatherings small enough to meet in someone's home. They joined together in fellowship around a common meal, the study of Scripture, and serving others as Jesus did. It is unlikely that they would have had very much contact or even knowledge of other Christian gatherings since most of them would have been of the lowest economic class and would not have had the resources to communicate or travel outside of their own city. In other words, these Christians are the minority of all minorities. They are small in number, small in resources, small in influence and status.
At first, being a part of these gatherings had not been too costly. Perhaps some of your friends found it a little odd. If you were one of the wealthier Christians who allowed these meetings to take place in your home then your peers certainly would have wondered why you chose to lower your own status by associating with those who were of a lower class than you. But for the most part your gatherings were tolerated even if frowned upon by your neighbors or thought of as somewhat backwards.
But now things were changing. One member of your group who had been a part of the local construction guild (the 1st century equivalent of a union) his entire career could no longer find work. This was because, as in any other guild of the day, the guild members had to participate in a sacrifice to the guild's patron god or goddess, something the members of your gathering had sworn they would not do because of their allegiance to Christ. Others in your gathering had noticed that long time friends were beginning to become distant out of fear that their family's reputation or well being might be compromised if they were associated with these Christians. There were even rumors that the local government was considering some type of official action against your group because of the complaints they were hearing about your lack of support for the empire and its gods. It seemed that the hostility toward your gathering with your fellow Christians was steadily rising and that soon it could become very costly to continue meeting with this little group.
John's vision contrasts the earthly reality these Christians see on a daily basis with what he wants them to know is true reality. Where they see a small, powerless group of ten or fifteen people, John says that he saw "a great multitude whom no one could count from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." Where they see only great tribulation ahead, John sees those who serve as priests before God's throne day and night because they have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. Where they see a world that offers them only rejection, John sees a world where they will neither hunger or thirst, where God himself will shepherd them and wipe away every tear from their eye. But most importantly, where these first Christians see a world where it seems that Rome is in complete control and all are at the mercy of this mighty empire, John sees that it is God who sits on the throne of the universe and it is God's kingdom which will ultimately prevail.
In what ways do we need our vision renewed so that we might see our present reality as God sees it?