On Revelation 7:9 and the Mission of the Church

“After this [the sealing of the 144,000] 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, and to the Lamb!'” Revelation 7:9-10.

It has become fashionable lately in the Reformed world to cite these verses to argue for ecclesial pursuit of multiculturalism, or as the terminus for the church’s mission in such a way as to define its strategies.

Here’s what these verses are doing,

  1.  Affirming that God is redeeming people from all cultural groups, not just the Jews.
  2. Showing that all people redeemed by God, in both old and new dispensations, are present in the new creation.
  3. Depicting the church triumphant before the throne of God.
  4. Characterizing the worship of God as multicultural, in the sense that none of the redeemed are excluded from worshiping God. By implication, to prevent people from joining in worship on the basis of their cultural heritage is a violation of God’s redemptive purposes.
  5. Reveling in the success of the apostolic commission to make disciples of all nations.
  6. Comforting those who face persecution and the miseries of this life by showing that our God is faithful (cf. Revelation 7:13-14).

Here’s what these verses are not doing,

  1. Stating that every congregation of the church is required to be multicultural in its practices in order to be faithful. While it is true that congregations often have practices that are more culturally bound than scripturally informed, it cannot be demonstrated from this passage that congregations need to alter their practices in order to accommodate differing cultural preferences. First, these verses describe a multinational throng praising God, not a variety of cultural practices. Second, these verses picture the gathering of all the dispersed worshipers of God into one assembly, not the dispersion of this one assembly’s uniform multiculturalism back into individual congregations.
  2. Telling individual congregations that they need to look a certain way (ethnic, linguistic, national) in order to reflect God’s redemptive purposes. This is a picture of God’s throne room filled with all the elect from all times and all places. The throne room of God is a gathering of all worshipers into one congregation, not a template for all current congregations.
  3. Instructing individual congregations to look like the demographic makeup (ethnic, linguistic, economic, etc.) of their geographic communities. There may be issues in a congregation lacking members from their surrounding neighborhoods, but these verses in Revelation are not an exegetical foundation for that argument. The multitude represents the makeup of all the differing congregations throughout history. It is not a mandate for the differing congregations throughout history to individually look like the eschatological multitude.
  4. Setting out a roadmap for achieving the great commission. The church’s mission is not to become multicultural, but to disciple its people irrespective of their cultural background. The implication of this mission is to preach the gospel to non-Christians, but does not necessitate local congregations becoming multicultural. The picture of Revelation 7:9 is of the scope of the church’s discipleship effort, not a description of how and to whom the local church is to target its discipleship efforts.

The church has a mandate to make disciples of all peoples, which prohibits racial or economic discrimination, and requires evangelism. That mandate also requires the church to examine whether its discipleship methods and doxological practices are actually informed by scripture, or instead informed by cultural conventions that can act as barriers to people from different backgrounds. But no doxological practice is culturally neutral, which means that a congregation has to determine, based on the light of scripture and wisdom, which enculturated practices to embrace. Revelation 7:9 does not serve as a guide to that effort, but as a witness to the church’s eschatological success.