“…there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the lamb.”
These words, the theme of Revive 2018 - Co-Mission's annual Bible Festival, come from a wonderfully inspiring description of heaven - in an amazing vision given to the Apostle John.
GOD IS GATHERING A HEAVENLY COMMUNITY FROM EVERY NATION
The book of Revelation is glorious - full of striking symbolism that can be interpreted sensibly when read in the light of the Old Testament. It begins by describing what is happening now:
In chapter 1 we see Jesus in dazzling glory - ruling, rescuing and ready to return.
In chapters 2-3 he dictates a letter to his churches with warnings for the loveless and lukewarm, encouragements for those who remain faithful through persecution, and condemnation for those who tolerate false teaching.
In chapters 4-5 God opens up his heavenly throne room, from where he governs the universe, to reveal his King: the powerful lion who is a sacrificial lamb, namely Jesus.
In chapters 6-16 he explains that he has released the first drops of the gathering storm of his judgement - in allowing the evil tyranny, chaos, persecution and destruction that we hear about daily in our media.
And then in chapters 17-22 he reveals the future he has planned: the total destruction of Babylon (evil), the return of his king (Jesus) and the renewal of his creation (a sparkling garden-city paradise) for God to dwell among his people to bless them forever.
Our verses from chapter 7 may feel completely at odds with the Christian life today where we are in the midst of the tyranny from which Christians are suffering around the world - most extremely in places like North Korea, Pakistan and Yemen - but also in the ideological bullying we increasingly experience in Britain today. Yet here in chapter 7:9-10, even while his people are being persecuted, God gives us a snapshot of the glorious international community he is gathering in heaven – the happy festival crowd which all who follow Jesus will join when we die. This beautiful scene displays marvellous ancient promises fulfilled by God.
The “great multitude that no-one can count” fulfils God’s gospel promise to Abraham of descendants who share his faith as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore - for in following Jesus we have not joined a small and diminishing sect soon to become extinct like the Incas or Aztecs! We have joined the vast and growing global community of the future.
This phrase, “from every nation, tribe, people and language”, was repeatedly used by the prophet Daniel – initially to describe the empire of the pagan King of Babylon but eventually of the eternal kingdom promised by “the Ancient of Days” (God) to “one like a son of man” (Jesus) – for this international community will replace and dwarf all human empires.
And these spectacular three words, “from every nation” signify God keeping multiple promises: to Abraham of a multicultural people, “through your offspring [Jesus] all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22), and in the psalms of a joyful people, “…may all the peoples praise you, may the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psalm 67) and in his prophets of a grateful people, “then all nations will call you blessed” (Malachi 3). But supremely, this future signals the completion of the world mission launched by our risen Lord Jesus Christ in his Great Commission, from which our network gets its name: "go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28).
Make no mistake - it will be fantastic to be there at this multicultural festival, making even our famous Notting Hill Carnival seem dull by comparison. For all God’s people, believers from all nations who believe this gospel as amplified in Jesus Christ our Lord, will be there.
And we will be spectacularly privileged:
“standing before the throne and before the lamb” – welcome in the presence of God (governing from “the throne”) to see the face, hear the voice, and witness the heart-stopping glory of Jesus (our sacrificial “lamb”) – to sing along with this vast crowd.
“wearing white robes” – symbolic of victorious purity, because, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb“ (7:14) – illustrating the marvellous truth that all who trust in the death of Jesus for our sins (as our “lamb”) have the guilt of our moral filth washed away and replaced with the pure Christian life of Jesus counted to us.
“holding palm branches” – a tradition from the Feast of Tabernacles when Israel celebrated God’s grace in bringing his pilgrim people through the wilderness to the promised land – symbolising the festival atmosphere in heaven among Christians who have been strengthened to endure through their hardships to inherit in heaven.
A few months ago, my wife and I enjoyed an amazing evening at a Coldplay concert in Cardiff. Front man Chris Martin was captivating, the light show was mesmerising and singing along with a crowd of 70,000 such iconic songs as Clocks and Paradise was fantastic. But compared with this celebration in heaven, that was merely childs-play! If it is exciting now to be in a stadium to watch a band or a cup final, imagine how unbelievably exciting it will be when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords walks on stage – and in the intervals, how exciting it will be to hear the stories of those around us from every nation, tribe, people and language, of how they’ve been saved and blessed by Jesus!
This passage is marvellous news for all of us attending Co-Mission churches, for what God has commanded his people to do (“make disciples of all nations”) is what we are trying to do by planting and strengthening sixty diverse churches here in London by 2025! Far from wasting our time and resources, we are committed to what God has committed himself here to accomplish in the world. If our prayerful efforts remain focussed upon this international gathering, our prayers will be answered and our efforts rewarded! Because God is continually calling people from all nations to this future through his gospel.
God’s multinational community is the direction of history - indeed it is the reason God sacrificed his only beloved son on a cross and now delays the end of the world!
God is busy among us gathering people from all nations into heaven through his gospel to be united with his Son to enjoy his glory forever! This is why Co-Mission exists!
WE HAVE A WONDERFUL OPPORTUNITY TO REACH PEOPLE FROM ALL NATIONS IN LONDON AND FROM LONDON
London is an exciting, cosmopolitan city with great influence in our nation and the world. Ever since the 2012 Olympics the Mori Global Power City Index has consistently ranked London as the number one City in the World, leaving New York, Tokyo and Paris trailing in its wake. It’s a political, economic and cultural powerhouse. And it is home to 8.8 million people from a rich diversity of backgrounds. The nations have come to London for education, business and a better life. Less than half its population are white British: 600,000 people state their ethnicity as Indian, 400,000 are French, there are 230,000 each from Pakistan and Bangladesh, indeterminate hundreds of thousands from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria and 80,000 Somalis. And the city is constantly churning with a net annual growth of about 100K. London is an exciting multicultural city and I love it. But the 2011 National Census reveals that 90% of Londoners claim no saving faith in Christ, and so are hurtling towards eternal misery. Only 5.4% of the population attend Bible-teaching churches. And the major world religions are here: 1.3 million Muslims, 460,000 Hindus, and numerous Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews. An older generation of Londoners may visit church at Christmas and want their grandchildren “christened”. But the prevailing ideology of younger generations, vigorously promoted by our popular media across most ethnic and socio-economic boundaries, is an individualistic, libertine hedonism - haunted by a little superstitious mysticism. To generalise, our city is no longer a lapsed Christian city in need of revival but a pagan pre-Christian city that needs to be re-evangelised. In London we live on the mission-field, among a commonwealth of communities without God, without hope and desperately in need of the gospel of Christ!
WE MUST TRY TO REMOVE BARRIERS TO OUR CO-OPERATION IN GOD’S WORK OF GATHERING PEOPLE FROM EVERY NATION
Racial and cultural prejudice are delicate but powerful issues. I recall an amusing conversation with some Dutch Christians in Jerusalem recounting how some American and Spanish visitors had confessed their cultural suspicions to each other. The Americans agreed, “We were shocked at how much alcohol you Spanish Christians drink”. To which the Spanish replied with some amusement, “Well we were shocked at how much makeup you Americans wear!” I was just quietly struggling with being hugged and kissed by so many Palestinian men! Sadly, the tensions are much more serious than that.
I am aware that in saying something about this, however careful and loving I try to be, I am bound to disappoint somebody. But we must try to engage in this topic biblically, with forgiving patience and love, if we are ever to plant a diversity of churches in London in obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations and not
just our own.
We rejoice that we are, “All one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and one chief privilege of being a Christian pastor has been to travel and discover that Christians in completely different cultures like Chile, Belarus, Kenya and South Korea all love the same Lord Jesus and live by the same Bible as we do. But in the nitty-gritty of congregational life in a church-planting network committed to social and ethnic diversity in a multicultural city like London, bruising cultural assumptions and painful blind-spots will emerge that need to be addressed. It is a powerful testimony to the cross-cultural saving grace of God that he has brought us together in Christ in our churches from so many different backgrounds – in ways that would be impossible without the patient love that only God’s Holy Spirit can create in Christians. This diversity is something to enjoy and celebrate – but in reality we can all find it hard.
All of us will struggle to some degree with how people from different backgrounds within our church families do life. This can feel harder when our churches try to cooperate in gospel ministry and when we get together, such as at Revive (especially when the majority culture of the bigger Co-Mission churches is not ours or if English is not our first language). This calls for a willingness to listen and learn from others who are struggling; and for patience, sensitivity and a willingness for things to be done differently for the sake of others, especially those who have felt excluded by the way things have been done in the past.
Within our churches, we must learn to consider the needs of others before our own. As one of our young black pastors, Felix Aremo, helpfully writes: “the effect of racial prejudice significantly impacts black people’s lives here in London: education, employment, housing, health care, criminal justice etc. Christians need their pastors to help them deal with these traumas and challenges so they can respond in godly ways. But very few know how.”
We have so much to learn. None of us can pretend that our sinful hearts have yet been purified of the racial and socio-economic arrogance or hatred that festers in human hearts. If we belong to the dominant culture in our church we may be unaware of how strange (and optional) our way of doing church life will seem to those from another culture, and of how painful it can be for them trying to get involved e.g. someone pointed out recently that if we pepper visitors with well-intentioned questions about where they are from and how long they have lived in London, we may have meant to be friendly but actually have sounded like an intrusive Home Office interrogation! With every enquiry we may be unwittingly telling someone from another country, who was longing to find a church family far from home, “You don’t really belong here”!
However hard it may continue to be, we cannot settle for division, nor despair of ever breaking down our cultural barriers. For Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ who have the Spirit of God applying to our hearts the spiritual unity that we already all have in Christ. We can all learn to listen better and talk less; we can all ask for help from those who understand cultural obstacles better than we do; we can all confess and repent of the arrogant assumptions and fearful suspicions we nurture deep in our hearts; we can all begin to open our homes to offer simple hospitality and laugh at ourselves when we get things wrong; we can all learn to grieve with more sympathy and protest with more godly outrage at a tragedy like Grenfell Tower, which has demonstrated so much of the social and economic injustice of our city; and many of us can try to help those who struggle to navigate the complexities of our immigration, legal, benefits and healthcare systems.
Cross-cultural evangelism is hard. Indeed, it is often harder to cross our socio-economic “class” boundaries than ethnic boundaries. It is often even harder for those of us from less privileged backgrounds to love those from more privileged backgrounds (especially if we feel patronised or pitied) and vice-versa. But we have to learn how to do this better because Christ has commanded us all, “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28) and in London, most of us can build relationships with people from many nations in which gospel conversations can take place, without having to leave our own neighbourhood!
Paul wrote, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible...I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9). We have all made mistakes in the past. We will all make mistakes again in the future. But let us not surrender to cynicism that seeks to justify limiting our evangelism and church-planting only to those of our own culture, avoiding the challenge and discomfort of cross-cultural mission, because people from all nations need Christ.
Christ has commanded us, “make disciples of all nations”, and has encouraged us with this vision of a wonderful future that he is creating, when “people from every nation” will sing together, “Salvation belongs to our God”.