One of my favorite passages in the Bible is the worship scene in Revelation 7:9-17. It’s a big party and everyone is there. Lots of humans. God’s chosen from the Hebrews, Jews, and everybody else. Representative leaders from the great God episodes of all time (the 24 elders, possibly to be taken as representing the twelve tribes of the Israelites plus the twelve disciples). And the solemnly freakish and powerful heavenly beings? Those four creatures showed up early and were jamming with the band since before creation.
And now everyone is there getting their praise on. I think of what’s shouted in verse ten as less like a pious and precise choir and more like a reverent guitarist windmilling a chord while jumping off an amp. Sound and sight, scope and scale, the scene had to be overwhelming, even in vision-form. I can’t wait to see Jesus.
But what strikes me as odd about the whole picture is that John, the elderly apostle experiencing the vision, while describing a very Jesus-centered scene in heaven, bothers to notice details that at first seem secondary. Why not just note the “great multitude”? How can he tell that they are from every nation, clan, people, and language? John must have been able to see or hear the differences. The various orangey-tone skins of humanity. The different vowels and consonants of languages known and unknown to him. That, or we’re dealing with a kind of “dream knowledge,” that situation in which a dream’s own strangeness is simply accepted because it makes sense within the logic of the dream. It just is. But however John comes to recognize the diversity of the multitude, why bother to include that detail? It almost seems incidental.
Almost, but not in context of God’s promises strung through the Bible.
Early in the book of Genesis, we hear God’s repeated will that human beings “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28, 9:1, 9:7), which is part of the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 26:4, for example), and eventually how God blesses the Israelites (Ex. 1:7, Lev. 26:9). Such multiplication also includes a component of diversity. After certain failures to be fruitful in God-intended ways, we see that maybe it’s finally getting going in Genesis 10’s “table of nations,” which is described as people are in fact being fruitful and multiplying and spreading out (10:32), per God’s command and blessing.
Then we come to the Babel episode. There are various problems involved with the tower-building debacle, but one of them is that these people are resisting being spread out over the whole earth (11:4), and their pride is backed up by the strength that lack of linguistic diversity appears to give them (11:6). God takes care of His business, though, and one major result is diversity of language and nations, which is something God had always intended as one way His creation would develop.
That development of diversity was meant to serve the greater glory of God as Creator and Sustainer. A little context: In the ancient world, each nation tended to have its own gods, and it was believed that the deities were bound to their physical locations. If one moved to a new place, it would have been wise and proper to figure out which divine being to appease. But if all the nations are revering one god, that deity must be considered the supreme one. Against that background comes Israel’s mission to draw all peoples to the worship of the One and Only, by whom they’ve been chosen. This idea shows up among the kings when, at Solomon’s dedication of the temple, he prays that all peoples would revere God as the Israelites do (1 Kings 8:41-43). And the prophets make the goal of gathering the nations to the Lord very clear (Isaiah 2:1-5, 42:6, 49:6, the well-known 60:1-3; Micah 4:1-5, Zechariah 8:22, Malachi 1:11).
By New Testament times, that theme is picked up by early Christians. Luke 2:25-35 tells of an old man waiting for the Messiah who finds the satisfaction of decades in holding the baby Jesus, who will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles (nations).” Pentecost can’t be missed. There’s no necessary communication reason for using many languages since all the people there would have understood Greek anyway, so telling the wonders of God in home languages was superfluous, except that it wasn’t if diversity had value in God’s eyes and God’s plan. A few short years later, early missionaries had bought in to God’s global calling, Acts 13:46-48. The book of Ephesians. And, eventually, way at the end of the Bible, we try to grasp John’s vision of where the story is headed: all nations before the throne of Jesus. That heavenly scene is a fulfillment of God’s deep, historical, consistent, and original purposes.
So the diversity celebrated in Revelation 7 is not incidental at all. And therefore diversity is not meant to be incidental to the church in the present time, either.
Biblical multi-ethnic churches are not a fad. They are not a capitulation to a culture of insipid tolerance. They are not a defensive response to modern scholarship’s rightful critique of how Christianity and colonial empires became entangled, much to the horrific destruction of the nations. They are not a mistaken path misguided along the lines of American identity politics. They are neither the expedient solution of churches trying to survive amidst shifted demographics, nor the convenient backwash of the global missionary movement of the 1800s, nor joining the band-wagon behind the latest Christian leader who claims to be returning to the supposedly-purer Christianity of the first century. Biblical multi-ethnic churches are those who respond to the revealed will of God through His Word and who recognize that their calling is one step closer to the world God has always wanted and is in fact re-creating in Christ.
What John saw in a vision was the completion of what God promised in covenant to Abraham, “all tribes (or clans) will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). The blessing happens when the tribes are gathered to the Blessed One, the descendant of Abraham, who sits on the throne of heaven. Biblical diversity in the church serves the greater glory of God.