Formations 11.24.2019: The Other Side of Sorrow

Cloisters Apocalypse, c. 1330

Revelation 7:9-17

How could we not conclude a unit on life after death with a vision of heavenly bliss? In Revelation 7, John describes a great multitude gathered around God’s throne. They have completed their long, hard journey. The troubles of this life are past. God guides them to “springs of the water of life” and wipes “every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).

Today’s passage is often read at funerals, and it’s easy to understand why. It sounds a note of joy and wonder that have encouraged many in their time of grief.

These images of comfort can be…well, comforting—in the right situation. But first you have to be sensitive to the emotional state of the person you’re trying to encourage. Are they ready to hear these words, or are they still busy working through the most tender phases of their grief? In the wrong hands, these biblical images can be nothing but meaningless platitudes. Spouting them at the wrong time is one of the things they warn you against in seminary.

That doesn’t mean the things John describes aren’t true, just that they should be expressed from a place of deep empathy. It’s not that the grieving person shouldn’t be sad—even devastated—because of their loss. Rather, the point is that there is comfort and hope available on the other side of sorrow.

Discussion

• What comfort do you find in these words from Revelation 7?
• How does this passage reflect traditional conceptions of heaven? How does it differ from these conceptions?
• How does that hope shape our life in the here and now?

Reference Shelf

Images of Heaven

For Christians heaven represents the transformed reality promised by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are four dominant images or symbols through which the meaning of heaven has been communicated in Christian tradition. The first is the ecstasy of worship. There is no need to have a temple in heaven because the worship of the almighty God explodes spontaneously from all creation (Rev 21:22). Living creatures never cease to sing, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and the twenty-four elders cast their crowns before the throne of grace intoning, “worthy art thou our Lord and God” (Rev 4).

The desire to experience ecstasy has led to a second significant image of heaven, the beatific vision of the Godhead known as the visio dei….

The third image of heaven is one of rural community: Paradise. The NT word comes from an old Persian term meaning “park” or “garden” and, when understood as heaven, depicts plants, animals, and spiritual beings existing together in natural harmony….

The fourth is the image of urban community: the new Jerusalem, which is a variant on the theme of the kingdom of God. The “heavenly city” derives from a vision of God’s intention to establish an eschatological body politic….

Ted Peters, “Heaven,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 361.

A Multitude from Every Nation

The setting of the second vision of chapter 7 shifts from earth to heaven, specifically to the heavenly throne room described in chapters 4 and 5. The vision in 7:9-17 is a proleptic vision. John sees the redeemed in heaven not at the present time, but in the future when God has brought the divine plan to completion and all the redeemed stand united as the people of God. “After this I looked” (v. 9) indicates that a new vision is being introduced. This time, instead of seeing 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, John sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This vision is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise in Genesis, in which God told Abraham that he would become a great nation and through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3). Abraham’s offspring would eventually become as numerous as the stars in the sky, the dust of the ground, and the sand on the seashore (Gen 13:16; 15:5; 22:17; 26:4; 28:14). In the spiritual descendants of faithful Abraham, that promise has now been fulfilled, for they constitute a throng that is beyond counting. This innumerable crowd is inclusive, encompassing people from every racial, ethnic, political, and linguistic background.

Right from the start, this is a scene of joyous celebration. John does not envision a small gathering of a select few. God has thrown a party, and the attendees are packed wall to wall! This is in stark contrast to the view expressed in another apocalyptic writing that was likely penned within five to ten years of the writing of Revelation. In 2 Esdras, the writer expressed the view that the number of the saved will be very small. God has “made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of only a few” (8:1). Because they are few, they are more precious to God, just as precious metals are more valuable because they are less abundant (7:52-58). John’s vision of a God who welcomes a massive crowd of faithful servants is reminiscent of Jesus’ joy-filled parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son (Luke 15).

Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 147–49.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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