Looking across the finish line

What does the Holy Spirit want to say to us through the words of Revelation 7:9?

Missions: The heart of God

Commentary on Revelation 7

"There before me was a great multitude no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" -- Revelation 7:9

In a sermon preached while the Olympics Games were going one summer, Lutheran pastor David Rockhoff told his Kenosha, WI, congregation that Revelation 7 gives us a "look across the finish line." In verse 9 of that look-across-the-finish-line, John described people from all over the world at the throne of God giving praise to King Jesus.

That heavenly image of a huge crowd of born-again believers from around the globe should not surprise anyone familiar with Scripture. Indeed, when what John the Revelator described comes to pass, it will fulfill statements about world evangelism that were said to people like Abraham, Isaiah, and the Apostles. God's messages to them included such things as:

  1. Genesis 12:3, 22:18 -- A promise that through Abraham and his descendants (spiritual as well as biological), "all nations on earth" will be blessed.
  2. Isaiah 49:6 -- A message that God's people would be "a light for the Gentiles that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."
  3. Matthew 24:14 -- Jesus' answer to a question about when the End Times would begin: "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."
  4. Acts 1:8 -- The promise of the Holy Spirit with the result that "you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth."

Those four passages all speak of world evangelism and all four of them will be brought to completion by what John described in Revelation 7:9. Presbyterian minister William Long was right when he wrote that our spirits should soar at the imagery of a "great multitude" from "every nation, tribe, people and language" giving praise. For those believers who have prayed, given, and even gone for the cause of world evangelism, the sight will be joyous.

In the Genesis 11 Tower of Babel story, language differences divided and scattered humanity. What John saw in Revelation 7:9 will reverse that scattering. This look ahead to the finished product of the world missions enterprise should excite all but the most xenophobic among us -- xenophobic being a big word signifying unreasonable fear of foreigners or strangers.

As God reached out to His rebellious and lost creation, He made some promises to Abraham and others. The vision John recorded in Revelation 7:9 is about those promises coming true. Thus, the promise of a blessing for all peoples on earth made to Abraham at the beginning of the Old Testament can be thought of as one "bookend" of salvation history. At the end of the New Testament, John's "look across the finish line" is the other bookend of that wonderful story in which we are called to actively participate.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

Discussion questions

  1. How does the image of the "great multitude" in Revelation 7:9 connect with the promises made to Abraham, Isaiah, and the Apostles about world evangelism?
  2. Is it valid to say that the scattering of people at the Tower of Babel will be reversed in what John described in Revelation 7:9? Why or why not?
  3. Why is the image of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language giving praise to God significant for believers who have prayed, given, and gone for the cause of world evangelism?
  4. How might the promise of blessing for all peoples made to Abraham at the beginning of the Old Testament connect with John's "look across the finish line" in Revelation 7:9 at the end of the New Testament?
  5. What is our role as believers in actively participating in the story of salvation history that has its "bookends" in the promises made to Abraham and the image of the "great multitude" in Revelation 7:9?

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