The vision of the great multitude in Revelation 7.9-12 is one of the most vivid images in all of Scripture. It is also commonly used as an argument for the inherent praiseworthiness of diversity. Well-meaning preachers use this text as a battering-ram to argue that if your church is not diverse enough, then it is less than it should be.
There are several problems with using Revelation 7.9-12 to make this argument. First, Revelation 7 is not the only place we find such a diverse group in this book. There are several other places in the book where we find such a group and in these instances, it is not a positive. This demonstrates the mere appearance of a diverse group says nothing about diversity’s inherent worth. Second, Revelation 7 isn’t primarily about diversity. It’s about Jesus. It’s about God. We must remember that.
If we turn this passage into a statement about diversity we miss the point. We make this passage about us instead of God. It is as if we've entered the throne room of God and built an altar to ourselves. Focusing on the diversity of the human crowd shifts the focus, and praise, from the glory of God to the supposed glory of mankind. It is idolatry. Idolatry in the very presence of God.
If we desire to understand the point of this vision, then we need to understand it in both its immediate context and the context of the entire book. Revelation 7.9-12 reads (emphasis added):
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
It is true that the great multitude found here is very diverse, but this is not the point. This group tells us the point of this vision—Salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb. It is this truth, not a praise of diversity, which leads to the triumphant exalting of God we find in Revelation. It shouldn't surprise us the main idea of this passage is the greatness of God, not the greatness of human diversity. God is inherently good and praiseworthy. The same cannot be said about diversity.
What makes this great multitude special? The passage tells us that as well. The answer isn't diversity. It is not the demographics of the group that makes them special. It is not as if God is trying to meet some modern quota system. If that is how God saves, then who we are contributes to salvation. At least some would be saved because of their own merits. Such thinking is nonsense.
What makes this group special is what they have in common—the blood of the Lamb, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7.14b). The stress is not on mankind at all. It is all about the wondrous work of Christ. The greatness of the multitude is found in the greatness of their savior.
The main point of Revelation 7 is clear—God saves a people through the death of Christ. If we approach this passage in an attempt to show the praiseworthiness of the modern conception of diversity, then we end up doing violence to this text and to the glory of God. Revelation 7 reveals the glory of God. Not the glory of mankind. Not the glory of diversity.
Yet this group from every nation does say something about who God is. It reveals something important about his character.
Why We Misunderstand Revelation 7
One reason we misread Revelation 7 is we have assumed diversity is inherently a moral good. To be clear, diversity can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing. Whether it is good or bad has nothing to do with it being diverse. To put it another way, diversity is morally neutral on its own.
For example, there are churches today who have left the faith, but who are diverse by our standards (the same can also be said of some churches which lack diversity). The fact one is diverse, or not, is not necessarily a moral good or evil. The diversity, or lack thereof, is beside the point. What matters is if we have been saved through the blood of the Lamb. A church being diverse will not save it. A church lacking diversity will not save it.
“But Levi,” you may ask, “The redeemed people of Revelation are diverse, doesn’t that mean God loves diversity?” This is a necessary question. The answer is, "No." That is not at all what Revelation is getting at. If the mere appearance of a diverse group in Heaven means God loves diversity, then we run into major problems in the rest of the book as we encounter another equally diverse group who is following the Beast.
Revelation 7 isn't the only place in the book where we find such diversity in a group. There is an equally diverse group in Revelation who are opposed to God, under the influence of Satan, and whom God judges. It is striking because John uses almost identical language to describe the diversity of this group as he does in Revelation 7. This is obviously intentional as it demonstrates the composition of a group has nothing to do with why they are saved or not.
Revelation 13.7-8 says of the beast, “Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”
The language here echoes the language used to describe the saints found in Revelation 7. The difference is this diverse group is following the Beast This group experiences the horrific judgments of God found in Revelation. If we interpret the diversity found Revelation 7 to mean God loves diversity then we must conclude Satan loves it as well because of Revelation 13. But this would again miss the point. It’s not the people which are the dividing line, but the Lamb who was slain.
It doesn’t get any better such interpretation in Revelation 17.15 as we follow this group, “And the angel said to me, ‘The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.’” The prostitute thrives on diversity as well. As go throughout the book it is this diverse group which Jesus destroys at the final battle (Rev. 19.19-21; 20.8-10).
If Revelation 7 means God loves diversity, then it would follow Revelation 19-20 means God hates diversity. If Revelation 7 means diversity is always morally good, then Revelation 13, 17, 19, and 20 would mean that it is morally evil. Revelation isn't being contradictory. Revelation isn't the problem. Our interpretation that is problematic.
Far too many of us approach these texts with an agenda and in the process, we pervert their clear meaning. While it is true Heaven is a diverse place, so is Hell. Perhaps these passages aren't really about the value of diversity at all.
Diversity has nothing to with why these two groups exist and are separated. The distinction is theological. God sees all of mankind in one of two fundamental groups. The first group are those under the old Adam (Rom. 5.12-14). This group is diverse as we would count it, but they are uniform in how God sees them—sinners and rebels. The second group are those under the new Adam, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5.15-21). This group is also diverse. But this group has been saved by grace through faith in Christ. They are not saved to show the goodness of diversity. Rather their salvation displays the glory of the Lamb who was slain. One of these groups is outside of Christ and one is found in him. The dividing line is Christ crucified, not diversity. The glory belongs to Christ, not diversity.
So What Does this Diversity Tell us About God?
Primarily, these two groups reveal something about the character of God. When we see people from every tribe, nation, and tongue both redeemed and damned it displays that salvation belongs to God. He saves whom he wills to save. Salvation is all about grace. It has nothing to do with who we are, but it has everything to do with who God is. These passages reveal the character of God. They reveal the biblical truth that God is impartial in both salvation and in judgment.
God does not save according to who someone is. He saves by his impartial grace. He judges according to his impartial justice. The impartiality of God is affirmed throughout Scripture (Deut. 10.17, Rom. 2.11, Col. 3.25, Jas. 2.1, Jas. 3.17). God administers grace and judgment impartially, with no respect for who the individual is. Salvation belongs to him alone.
When we read Revelation 7 what we see is a picture of the impartial God who owns salvation and who has the right to judge. What we see is a group of people who God impartially chooses from every tribe and nation. If we go to this passage and make the heart of it about modern diversity, then we not only miss the point, but we actually end up saying the exact opposite of what the passage, Revelation, and the rest of Scripture says about God and salvation.
Revelation displays the glory of the all-powerful God who both judges and saves impartially. He does not save us because we are white or black. Rich or poor. Male or female. He saves us because of who he is. God’s justice is not about who we are, rather he administers justice impartiality according to his universal standards. This why we have diverse groups in Revelation being both saved and damned. It has nothing to do with the value of diversity. Rather, Revelation shows the glory of God in his impartiality. Salvation belongs to him alone, judgment belongs to him alone, and he alone is worthy to accomplish such things.
This reality should free us from the worship of modern diversity. Diversity is neither good by itself, nor bad by itself. But impartiality in judgment and in grace are wonderful because they reflect the character of Almighty God. We should be thankful for this. For if there were some standard about who we are which causes God to save us, then we would all be damned. Praise be to God because salvation belongs to the Father and to the Lamb. In him, people all around the world are saved because of who he is, not because of who we are. Revelation 7 praises the glory of God in salvation alone, not the supposed glory of modern diversity.