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, and to the Lamb!”
I have had numerous encounters with well-meaning proponents of multi-ethnic churches as they condemn ethnic-specific ministries. I hear that a ministry that is focused on a particular ethnicity is “unbiblical” or even “disobedient.”
Another passage that these well-meaning folks usually cite is Revelation 7, specifically the great multitude that no one could count. In this post, I will make the case that this passage is improperly used to claim that multi-ethnic ministries are somehow superior to ethnic-specific ministries.
At the onset, the big picture message of Revelation is that God is victorious, and we have to decide whose side we will be on. However, with varying views on interpreting the details of Revelation, it is difficult to make solid conclusions that inform our ecclesiology. Assuming that we can even venture to apply principles from John’s visions, my conclusion is that we cannot use this particular passage to point to a mandate that all ministries must be multi-ethnic.
Here are three reasons:
1. There is too much that the passage does not tell us.
We simply do not have enough information that will help us determine how to apply this passage to the makeup of a local church. It is not referring to a single ministry or local body. We do not know if the people in the multitude were all intermingled. We do know that John was able to distinguish different peoples and languages, making it possible that they were “grouped” together into homogenous, distinct but not separate sections. There is nowhere in the passage that gives us a command that we should do likewise, or that a local church body should look like this. We have plenty of mandates for the church that are clearly laid out in Scripture. This is not one of them. We do not have enough information for us to make the leap into identifying this as some kind of command for the local church.
2. The identity of this multitude.
This one primarily applies within the framework of a pre-millennial, pre-tribulation return of Christ. John records that these people “are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (v.14). This tells us that they became believers after the church age, and they were not believers at the time of the rapture. It was during the time of great trial and suffering that this multi-ethnic crowd came to place their trust in Christ. At this point, the church at large has already been taken away with the first return of Christ. It really is a stretch to apply this passage to the church or to a ministry during the church age when it takes place after the church is gone.
3. Consistency of Application.
Yes, the passage does say “all peoples.” But if we were to apply this to a local church or a single ministry and say that it should be multi-ethnic, we need to be consistent. We would need to also apply “every nation”. After all, a group of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans is still made up of Americans. Furthermore, we’d have to apply “all languages.” Skin color can look different, but if the ministry is only run in one language, doesn’t that make it unbiblical and disobedient according to this passage? Let’s be consistent.
For that matter, what makes this crowd a picture of a local body the way God intends? The passage just preceding this one describes 144,000 faithful that were Jews. (Now, there are some who say that this group of 144,000 is not referring Jews exclusively, but that the nation of Israel really represents all people who follow God, from other nations. But the identification of the multitude in verse 9-10 as a group from every nation implies that these 144,000 are not from every nation. For good measure, If there was any doubt, it’s erased by the fact that each tribe of Israel is mentioned. 12,000 from this tribe, 12,000 from this tribe, and so on.) Why is the uncountable multitude in vv. 9-10 taken as a prescription of the church, but somehow the ethnic-specific group of verse 4-8 not a prescription for the church? There seems to be a double standard in here. Again, let’s be consistent.
I’m so grateful for Revelation 7:9-10. It is a beautiful picture of worship and how the offer of salvation is available to everyone, regardless of race, nationality, and language. This will even be true after a possible rapture.
How about you? How have you heard Revelation 7:9-10 taught? What are your thoughts about application for this passage?