Who Are These People? (On Seeing the Saints and Revelation 7:9-17)

Today is All Saints Day. One of the scripture readings assigned for the day is Revelation 7:9-17. At this point in the story of Revelation, John sees a vision of worship around God’s throne. There are angels, elders, creatures, and a great throng of people surrounding and singing praise to God. One of the elders turns to John and asks, “Who are these people?”

John responds, “You know.” I take that to be John’s way of saying, “I have no idea. That’s the very thing I was wondering, ‘who are these people?'”

John has already told us a few things about these people. He describes them as a great crowd. They come from everywhere and speak every language. They are dressed in white robes and stand before the throne singing a song of praise to God.

But why these people? Why are they here at God’s throne singing praise? Why are they dressed in white robes? What makes them so special?

The elder then answeres his own question, “These are people who have come out of the great hardship (or ordeal, or tribulation; depending on which translation you are reading.)” The word variously translated as ordeal, hardship, tribulation, etc., is the same word that John uses to describe his own condition in chapter 1 of Revelation.

You may remember that as the book opens up, John is in exile on the island of Patmos. Despite what he describes as his persecution, John is worshipping when the visions that he writes about are given to him.

Being persecuted for his faith by undergoing exile to a remote island, I imagine it was easy for John to feel like he was alone, cut off from the community of faith, and one of a very small faithful group of people willing to be persecuted for remaining faithful during  a time of hardship. I imagine this because, when I feel my relationship with Christ causes me to take an unpopular stand or make a statement that others may find offensive, it is easy for me to think, “Why are all the other “so-called” Christians giving in? Why am I the only one willing to stand up for the faith? How come the church is not filled with fully committed, dedicated people?”

I also know I am not the only person tempted to think this way when remaining faithful becomes difficult. When God finds Elijah alone at Mount Horeb (I Kings 19), God asks him, “What are you doing here?” Elijah says, “I am the only faithful one left.”  As God sends Elijah back to continue his work as a prophet, God says there 7,000 left in Israel who have remained faithful.

John tells us he sees a crowd so large that they cannot be numbered, people from every country and tribe. He sees a crowd so diverse that he describes them as speaking every language. John sees what we often call the church universal, the church spread across the earth and throughout time. John is given a reminder that we are never alone, that there are often more faithful than we recognize and acknowledge, especially when we are at worship.

I wonder as I go throughout this All Saints Day if there are saints that I might be missing, saints that I do not see or recognize?