Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fire Communion

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Driving down Morgan Ave. in Evansville, IN I passed by this Unitarian Universalist Church and noticed that their sign said, "Fire Communion". Perplexed by this I had to pull into the parking lot to think about what this could possibly mean and, of course, snap a quick photograph. Perhaps this is a common thing among the UU's; I must admit that I was hitherto unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism and it's beliefs (which it sort of denies having...), and it was the first time I had been exposed to that particular phrase. All sorts of strange visions began dancing through my head, most of them requiring the use of flame retardant vestments and copious amounts of burn cream.
My exotic visions were quickly dispersed, however, when I did some quick research on the internet. According to the church's (term used extremely loosely) website, the Fire Communion service is a ritual used to usher in the new year:
Come help us celebrate the New Year with our Fire Ceremony. In this service, congregants burn pieces of paper containing brief descriptions of something they most wish to leave behind and light a candle for a new hope for the coming year (Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville, 2013).

So, people get together and burn up slips of paper with their failings and annoyances written on them in a symbolic, and I suspect ultimately fruitless, gesture of self-improvement. And with what, finally are you communing? Each other? I suppose, being Unitarian Universalists, that is left up to you:
Ours is a religion with deep roots in the Christian tradition, going back to the Reformation and beyond, to early Christianity. Over the last two centuries our sources have broadened to include a spectrum ranging from Eastern religions to Western scientific humanism. Unitarian Universalists (UUs) identify with and draw inspiration from Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Earth-Centered Traditions, Hinduism, Islam, and more. Many UUs have grown up in these traditions—some have grown up with no religion at all. UUs may hold one or more of those traditions’ beliefs and practice its rituals. In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart (Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 2013).

Not exactly what you would call orthodox Christianity. They could have saved me some time by calling this gathering what it is to begin with - a service of New Year's resolutions.
The problem is, this kind of "service" doesn't do anything to help anyone. All of those things we write on the piece of paper, that we want to leave behind in the old year - the anger, the hate, the gluttony, the laziness, the whatever-bothers-you - that is what God calls sin. And even though we'd like to think that we are able to cure our sin by an assertion of our will and the performance of some work, we all, deep down, know differently. We can't do it. Someone has to take care of these things for us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
That is the beauty of Christmas. At Christmas the one who would graciously redeem us from sin came into the world. Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became also true man. He did this for the expressed purpose of dying on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of mankind. This is what Christianity is all about. He resolved to do this, in obedience to the will of the Father, before all eternity, and before man could do anything to earn God's favor. While we were enemies, scripture says, Christ died for the ungodly:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
In the Sacrament of the Altar, also called Holy Communion, Jesus gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink in a way we cannot understand, in, with, and under the visible elements of bread and wine. It is truly a communion, not only between those who gather to hear his word and receive his sacrament, but between those believers and Christ himself. He gives us the forgiveness of sins he won for us by his death and resurrection. The bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, connected with the promise, "Given and shed for the forgiveness of sins," are a pledge of that forgiveness and eternal life we already have in Christ by faith. Communion is spiritual food which nourishes our faith and assures us that, by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus, our sins are forgiven, and we have been declared righteous before God for Christ's sake.
Just about every year I make a resolution to eat more healthfully, to exercise more, to be nicer, blah, blah, blah. There's nothing wrong with resolutions, necessarily, it's just that, more often than not, I've practically broken them before they've been resolved. And furthermore, simply learning how to eat better, or less, or how to control our tempers better, or even to do more volunteer hours will not cure the disease of sin from which we are ailing. Only Christ can take away our sin.
He has taken it away. Once you repent and believe in him you stand declared righteous before God. After he has made you into a new creation in Christ, God's Law, which previously condemned us by showing us our sinfulness, will now also serve as a guide to our behavior. As we grow in Christ, he will assist us in conforming how we do act with how we "should" act, and Fire Communion ceremonies will seem to us as ridiculous and unnecessary as they are. 

God will indeed deal with mankind's sin using fire. This will happen on the Last Day, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, when every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Christ is Lord:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells....Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire (2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 20:11-15).
Praise be to God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment we deserved on the cross of Calvary, so that our sins would be washed away by his blood, and our names would be written in the Book of Life.
O Lord, our God, in the name of whose only-begotten Son we have been called to be Christians and have been blest with Baptism for the remission of sins, make us, we pray, ready to receive the most holy body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins and to give thanks with grateful hearts to you, O Father, to your Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (Lutheran Worship, 1982)

Works Cited

"Are My Beliefs Welcome?" Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.

"Fire Communion." Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.

Lutheran Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1982. Print.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents - Gustave Dore
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:13-18).
The murder of the children of Bethlehem by Herod is, to be certain, a despicable and sinful act. It is usually depicted as taking place on the scale of a genocide, and we tend to get the impression that a lot more babies were murdered than probably actually were.
Don't misunderstand me, I am in no way going soft on infanticide. One baby-murder is too many. Liberal Bible scholars, as well as those outside of the faith who seek to diminish the credibility of Christianity, often use this story as one of their arguments. "If the madman Herod murdered all of the toddlers and babies in and around Bethlehem," they argue, "would there not be contemporary accounts of the massacre?" One would assume so, if the event happened as we often imagine it to have. And, actually, there is a reliable, contemporary account the murders - the Gospel of Matthew. Archeology has always proven itself the friend of the New Testament, and has shown it to be historically reliable, much to the annoyance of the few liberal scholars who are willing to acknowledge the evidence. That, however, is a debate to be saved for another day.
Herod the Great, or Herod I, has been described as a madman and a murderer, even apart from the Slaughter of the Innocents. He murdered his own family and was "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition" (Herod the Great, 2013). He was hated and mistrusted by the Jews over whom he ruled, and he hated and mistrusted them right back. Not only was he viewed by his subjects as a collaborator with the hated Romans, from whom he received his kingdom, he was also not a "real" Jew. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau (Herod, 2013). He did all kinds of terrible things to insure his grip on power. If he thought that the rightful Jewish King of the Jews had been born sometime in the last two years near Bethlehem, and that he had to murder all the babies in that place to keep his throne, there is little doubt that he would do so (France, 2007).

The fact that a mad and murderous king committed murder was still sad, but not as shocking as it maybe should have been. It certainly wouldn't have been front-page news. This situation is akin to murders in modern American cities such as Detroit or Chicago. They are committed with chilling regularity and in such a frequency that, to cover them with the attention they deserve would be to dominate every column of every magazine and newspaper in the city every day. This is in contrast with how a murder would be treated if it happened in some affluent suburban enclave where such things rarely occur. Today a murder in Chicago, unless it was particularly gruesome or involved some high-profile person, scarcely gets more than a one-minute mention on the evening news.
But Bethlehem wasn't Chicago or Detroit. It was small. So small, in fact, that it was considered insignificant by worldly standards, as the writings of the prophets suggest:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).
Traditional Bible scholars believe that, given population density in that area during that time (all estimated, of course), no more than twenty babies and young children were made Herod's unfortunate victims (Hagner, 1993).
But why are they called innocents? Certainly they are not innocent, at least not in the biblical sense. They are sinful human beings, just like everyone else, with a sinful human nature, and they are subject to sin and death. I suppose that they are innocent in the sense that they received a punishment they did not deserve. The death they suffered was intended for the Christ child. In this way they could be considered martyrs as their deaths testify to the Christ, and foreshadow his own suffering and death.
The Holy Innocents teach us that there is no such thing as innocence before God, since the Fall of Man. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one is righteous, not even one, all of us having been conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity. No thing or person has escaped the corruption that entered the world through the sin of Adam. Herod demonstrates the depth of this corruption by his depraved sinful desires, his willingness to act on those sinful desires, the horrific act itself, and its intended end - the murder of God's Anointed One; the death of the Holy Innocents demonstrates that all - even "innocent" babies - are subject to sin and death, and are in desperate need of a savior. As members of the nation of Israel through circumcision, we trust God that the babies murdered by Herod were forgiven sinners because of God's promise, just as we who have been adopted into God's family through baptism are.
Almighty God, whose praise was proclaimed this day by the wicked death of innocent children, giving us thereby a picture of the death of your beloved Son, mortify and destroy in us all that is in conflict with you that we who have been called in faith to be your children may in life and death bear witness to your salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (CPH, 1983).

France, R. T. "The Gospel of Matthew (Google EBook)." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod (king of Judaea)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod the Great." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
Lutheran Worship. St. Louis (3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis 63118): Concordia Pub. House, 1983. Print.
"Massacre of the Innocents." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The True Light

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:9-13).

At the risk of stating the obvious, I'm going to go on record and say that the invention of the electric incandescent light bulb was a big deal. To be certain, mankind had means of creating light before electric lighting, but we weren't truly illuminated until Edison invented the light bulb. For all of human history mankind's productivity was governed by the natural rhythms of day and night. But, with the coming of electricity and the light bulb, man's day was expanded and, as author Mark Steyn puts it, night was abolished. Life post-light bulb would never be the same as it had been.

St. John writes that "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world," and that is the man about whom John the Baptist testifies. From Adam's Fall through Malachi it's been all spiritual candles and gas lamps, but now, prepare yourself world, the true light is about to be revealed. In Christ Jesus man is given the spiritual equivalent of Edison's electric light bulb. Just as Edison's light had the power to "abolish night" and help to usher in a new age of productivity and human innovation and invention, so Jesus, God in human flesh, has the power to "enlighten all men," and cut through the hitherto impenetrable darkness of sin and death in which mankind was mired.

God promised that he would give this light to man all the way back when our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned and chose darkness, and were expelled from paradise. Through Adam sin and darkness entered and corrupted all of God's perfect creation. Through Christ, however, came life which, St. John writes, was the light of men. Adam and Eve, along with all the faithful from that time until the coming of Jesus in the flesh, would live by the lamplight of faith in God's promise of a savior and redeemer. With the birth of Jesus, God fulfilled his promise to rescue mankind and to crush the serpent's head in a historical context.

Sadly, though Christ came for everyone, not everyone trusts in him. Jesus came to his own people, St. John writes, and they would not receive him as the savior promised to them and described in prophetic scripture. The world which was created by him did not know him, such is the state of rebellion in which the creation stands against it's creator. Yet Jesus, born to a virgin and laid in a manger, heralded by angels and worshiped by shepherds, would go on to atone for the sins of mankind on the cross, and open the kingdom of heaven to all those who believe in him.

Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world which no darkness can overcome, let your light scatter the darkness of sin, death, and the power of Satan by the means of your holy word, and illumine and expand your church.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Winter Solstice from the Christkindlemarkt!

So, we went to the Christkindlemarkt in Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago this afternoon after church. I was terribly disappointed, as there were so many people crammed into the plaza that no one could move. We couldn't even press our way through the crowd to get a mug of Gl├╝hwein. I was ticked off about this, and then I came across an interesting display on the east side of the plaza, near the nativity scene

It's a big wire-framed "A" lit with red "holiday" lights (calling them Christmas lights seems somewhat inappropriate). It says "Happy Winter Solstice". It says that Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) is the reason for the season. The display brightened my day, even though about half of the lights were dark, and I had to take a picture of my kids in front of it.

The display was placed by the atheists of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You can read a short news article about the "A" here. They make a big deal saying that there can be no freedom of religion until government is completely separated from religion and it's influences. I agree. Sadly, as those on the political left often do, this group attempts to equate the public expression of religion and public displays of religious symbols with the government sanction and/or establishment of religion. We Christians often try to duck this argument, opting to go along to get along. If we allow what the Establishment Clause means to be redefined, however, we will wind up without the freedom of religion or the right to express our religious beliefs publicly.

Much is made of the fact that there is a “separation of church and state” built into the U.S. Constitution. This is not exactly true, at least not in the way those on the left purport it to be. The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. The term is an offshoot of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state," as written by Thomas Jefferson in a now famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The original text of President Jefferson’s letter reads, in part:

"... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Jefferson of their concerns regarding the lack of explicit protection of religious liberty in their own state constitution, and against a government establishment of religion. As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might establish a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities. Jefferson assured them that the U.S. Constitution would in no way permit such an establishment, and that “…religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…” This separation of church and state, as understood by Thomas Jefferson at least, had nothing whatsoever to do with public expressions of religion. To Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, separation of church and state had everything to do with the establishment of a national/state religious body, and avoiding the national/state oppression of religious minorities.

It wasn't until 1947 that the Supreme Court, albeit nebulously, defined just how the “wall of separation” was to be built. As a result of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), Neither state or local government can: 1) set up a church, 2) pass laws that aid one religion, all religions, or favor one religion over another, 3) force a person to attend or stay away from church, or believe in any religion, 4) punish a person for holding or professing religious beliefs, 5) levy a tax, in any amount, to support any religious activities or institutions, 6) openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organization, or vice-versa.

A second important test established by the Court, known as The Lemon Test, is taken from the case Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The test consists of three parts: 1) whether the law or conduct has a secular purpose, 2) whether the law or conduct has as its primary or principle effect advancing or inhibiting religion, and 3) whether it fosters an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

To the chagrin of the New Atheist movement, The Court has ruled that public displays of religious symbols, such as the Christian nativity scene or the Jewish menorah, do not constitute a breach of the Establishment Clause when they are all displayed together, and along with secular holiday symbols, in celebration of the national holiday of Christmas (yes, it is a national holiday, believe it or not).

The Christkindlemarkt (Christ child market) which is set up in Daley Plaza every year in Chicago is clearly a Christian event, complete with nativity scene. Alongside the nativity scene during Hanukkah each year is a large Jewish menorah. Any citizen or group who wishes to exercise their freedom of religious expression in this public space may do so (as the atheist group has demonstrated by the presence of their display) and the event is not in breach of the Establishment Clause. Should any religious or secular group be prohibited by government from exercising that freedom of expression at the Christkindlemarkt, however, it would then violate the Establishment Clause.

To say that there is no place in American society for public displays of religion or religious symbols, strictly because they are by nature religious (the so-called freedom "from" religion), is simply not justified by the U.S. Constitution, or by case law.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissenting opinion to the McCreary County, Kentucky, ET. Al. Petitioners v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky ET.Al. case, observed that the same week Congress submitted the Establishment Clause as part of the Bill of Rights for ratification by the States, it enacted legislation providing for paid chaplains in the House and Senate. Justice Scalia goes on to remind his fellow justices that, “The same Congress also reenacted the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, 1 Stat. 50, Article II of which provided: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’” And, it should not be overlooked that the First Amendment itself accords religion – and no other manner of belief – special constitutional protection. I am sure that the atheist activists at the Freedom From Religion Foundation would not agree that these early actions of Congress are equally valid today, since those on the Left generally consider the U.S. Constitution to be a “living, breathing document”, meaning that its interpretation changes as American society changes, and that moral values simply evolve along with society and culture and are therefore not absolute.

The views of American citizens, however, have not changed significantly where this issue of public expression of religion is concerned. Justice Scalia rightly points out that our Presidents continue to conclude their oath of office with the words, “So help me God.” The Congress opens each session with a prayer; those prayers are lead by official congressional chaplains. The Supreme Court opens its sessions with the prayer “God save the United States and this Honorable Court”. We have the phrase “In God We Trust” on our currency. When we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States we corporately acknowledge that we are one nation, under God. Justice Scalia finishes his thought with these words:

“As one of our Supreme Court opinions rightly observed, ‘We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’ Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952), repeated with approval in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 675 (1984); Marsh, 463 U.S., at 792; Abington Township, supra, at 213.”

I have no problem with the atheists, secular humanists, and free-thinkers exercising their right to free expression. I tolerate their "A". Whether they like it or not, the atheists have to tolerate my public nativity scene. It establishes Christianity as a national religion about as much as their half-hearted display establishes Sol Invictus as America's supreme being.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 7

Sealing of the 144,000 from the Ottheinrich Bible.
The 144,000 of Israel Sealed

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads." And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

A Great Multitude from Every Nation

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." Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:1-14).

The four angels prepare to harm the land, sea, trees but are told to wait by the angel from the east. This angel was bearing the seal of the Living God. His order to restrain the other angels should give Christians comfort. Nothing will take place without God sealing his servants. This doesn't mean that Christians will necessarily avoid the coming tribulations, but it does mean that, no matter what terrible things take place, we who believe have been sealed and identified as belonging to God. No one can remove us from his hand.

144,000 are sealed - 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. This doesn't mean that only 144,000 people will enter paradise as some non-Christian cults teach. It does, at first reading seem to suggest some limit on those to be saved. That is, however, until you read the next section.

John describes "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language" standing, dressed in white, before Jesus' throne. Rather than showing that God limits salvation, the figure of the 144,000 assures us that all of those who are God's Elect, whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life, will be saved and not one person will be lost or forgotten.

1000 is a number that reflects completeness, or sufficiency (10x10x10 - 10, the number of completeness multiplied by three, the representative of the Trinity). 12 calls to mind the human Church - both God's Old Testament people (the 12 tribes of Israel) and God's New Testament people (the 12 apostles). God is showing John that, even through the terrible tribulations that will precede the end of all things, all those people to whom God has granted repentance and faith will assuredly receive the gift of eternal life they have been promised, and will be gathered together with Christ and live and reign with him forever.