Last week I lamented the unfortunate conclusions Grant Osborne came to in his otherwise excellent commentary on Revelation. Like many other commentators, he reads Israel out of Revelation. Israel shows up in Revelation in four places: chapters 7, 11, 12, and 14. In all of them, Osborne decides these images are about the Church (even to the point of saying that the Church in Revelation 12 gives birth to the Messiah!).
As I said then, we should see Revelation as taking God’s Messianic promises to Israel and expanding them to include John’s non-Jewish audience. It is sad that many read Revelation as replacing God’s Messianic promises to Israel with new promises to the Church that undo the old ones.
Having said all that, I’d like to argue that Revelation 7 is a wonderful retelling of the story of the canonical narrative (the Bible’s over-arching story of God’s revelation and redemption through Israel to the nations).
Consider a few pieces of background. Anyone steeped in the theology of the Hebrew Bible would recognize a few themes in Revelation 7:
–God will save a remnant of Israel and work through that remnant to spread his redemption (see Appendix A below, “The Remnant Theme in the Hebrew Bible”).
–God has always planned to bring the nations into his redemptive plan and his Messianic promises (see Appendix B below, “Gentiles in the Messianic Promises”).
And Revelation 7 is a colorful and somewhat enigmatic telling of a story about these themes:
–Rev. 7:1-8, God seals 12,000 from every tribe in Israel (except Dan) of men who are sexually pure (see Rev. 14 for these details). The purpose of this remnant of Israel is not spelled out in Revelation, but can be imagined from the larger theme of the remnant of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.
–Rev. 7:9-17, A multitude from every nation comes in festal robes of purity with palm branches in hand, recalling the Messianic promise of Zechariah 14, especially vss. 16-17. This is the nations being included in the Messianic promise and found worshipping at the Temple for the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles). Palm branches were used to celebrate at festivals (somewhat comparable to people waving souvenirs and sporting events) and especially at Tabernacles (God commanded the use of palm branches at Sukkot, see Leviticus 23:39-43).
We see right here in Revelation 7 the story of Israel and the nations coming together in God’s plan to redeem and complete the perfection of the world to come. It is an affirmation that Christian faith is the continuation, not the replacement, for God’s institution of a people of God. That people of God is now bilateral (see Romans 11 and the Olive Tree parable). Israel and the Church both come to their rightful place in the long-awaited Messianic promises. It will be a glorious age when these things are realized.
Appendix A: The Remnant Theme in the Hebrew Bible
The following is simply a brief introduction to a theme that especially finds development in the second half of Isaiah. There are numerous texts about only a remnant surviving beyond the judgments and from which God will build his covenant community:
–Gen. 45:7, Joseph’s purpose was to preserve a remnant (through which God built the elect people, Israel).
–1 Kgs 19:18, 7,000 left as a faithful remnant (God preserves a remnant even in times of apostasy).
–Micah 4:6-7, God will make the lame and blind a remnant (God will use the forgotten and left behind to build his community).
–Jer. 31:7-9, God will gather his remnant and save Israel (the remnant issue involves bringing Israel into the Land).
Appendix B: Gentiles in the Messianic Promises
God never intended his election of Israel to be just about Israel. Israel is the priestly people through whom God mediates himself to the whole world. To put it in a simple way Christians can easily grasp: God gave the scriptures and the Messiah through Israel and when Messiah returns, it will be to Israel and the Jewish people. The following are some texts about this Gentile inclusion:
David recognized God’s plan for Israel’s worship to spread to the nations: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to Adonai; all the clans of the nations will worship in your presence. For the kingdom belongs to Adonai, and he rules the nations.” (Psa. 22:27-28).
Israel recognized that the nations would be drawn to God through them: “Let the nations be glad and shout for joy, for you will judge the peoples fairly and guide the nations on earth. Let the peoples give thanks to you, God; let the peoples give thanks to you, all of them. The earth has yielded its harvest; may God, our God, bless us. May God continue to bless us, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.” (Psa. 67:4-7).
Various prayers for all the nations to know God: “May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (Psa. 72:17).
Non-Jews are received as Non-Jews, and not expected to convert: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name.” (Amos 9:12).
The nations will come up to Jerusalem to learn the Torah and to worship God: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of Adonai shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Adonai, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” (Isa. 2:2-3).
Messiah comes for the nations: “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isa. 42:6-7). “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6).
Israel’s restoration will draw nations to God: “Nations will go toward your light and kings toward your shining splendor.” (Isa. 60:3).
Some from the nations will serve as Levites and Priests in God’s Temple: “They shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to Adonai, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says Adonai, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of Adonai. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says Adonai.” (Isa. 66:19-21).
The nations who attack Israel will be cursed: “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.” (Joel 3:2).
Many from the nations will attach themselves to Israel to find God: “When that time comes, ten men will take hold – speaking all the languages of the nations – will grab hold of the cloak of a Jew and say, “We want to go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.”‘” (Zech. 8:23).
The nations will worship God at the Temple with Israel at the Feasts: “Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, Adonai of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths.” (Zech. 16:16).
More in The World to Come
Much of what I spoke of here, and all of appendix 2, comes from my book, The World to Come, 2008, Lederer. You can see it here at amazon.