And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for you were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
My aim this morning is to move from the experience of the sixties to the work of Christ recorded in the word of God to Bethlehem Baptist Church in order to stir you up care about racial diversity and racial harmony in our church. I pray that God will awaken your desire for us to be more racially diverse, rooted in biblical truth and Christlike love in order to display the surpassing value of Christ and his suffering.
History in Black and White
We begin in Birmingham, Alabama, April 11, 1963 (I was seventeen years old in Greenville, South Carolina). At the Gaston Motel, Room 30, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and Fred Shuttlesworth decided to lead a peaceful, non-violent demonstration the next day, Good Friday, against the racial injustices of the city. As in most southern cities in those days (including the one I was growing up in 350 miles away) bus-seating was segregated; schools, parks, lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains — they were almost all segregated. Some called it the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name, “Bombingham” — the “Johannesburg of the South.”
“The cost of diversity was the blood and life of the Son of God.”
There was one catch. The sheriff had served Martin Luther King with a state-court injunction, which prohibited him and other movement leaders from conducting demonstrations. With a wife and four children back home in Atlanta, King decided to violate the injunction, pursue a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration, and willingly go to jail. On Good Friday, King led his fifty volunteers downtown, up to the police line, came face-to-face with Bull Connor, and knelt down with Ralph Abernathy in prayer. He and all the demonstrators were thrown into paddy wagons and put in jail.
On Tuesday, April 16, King was shown a copy of The Birmingham News, which contained a letter from eight Christian and Jewish clergyman of Alabama (all white), criticizing King for his demonstration. In response, King wrote what has come to be called “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and which one biographer described as “the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written” (Stephen Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: the Life of Martin Luther King Jr., 222).
What It Was Like
We need to hear the power and insight with which King spoke to my generation in the sixties — enraging thousands and inspiring thousands. The white clergy had all said he should be more patient, wait, don’t demonstrate. He wrote:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she’s told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “Nigger,” your middle name becomes “Boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (M.L. King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, with an introduction by Paul Chaim Schenck, 8–9.)
To the charge that he was an extremist he responded like this:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”? Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll to down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus”? Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God”? And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “Thus this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? (Letter, 14)
Powerful Call to the Church
And finally he delivered a powerful call to the church, which rings as true today as it did 38 years ago: There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century. (Letter, 17)
That is Martin Luther King’s prophetic voice ringing out of the Birmingham Jail in 1963. Now we turn to the work of Christ recorded in the word of God. Let’s turn to Revelation 5:9.
“God intends to have a people from all ethnic groups.”
It is amazing and sad that great biblical truths that are full of practical, life-changing power can be obscured and blunted by controversy. For example, for many it is very controversial to say that Christ not only died for everyone in such a way that “whosoever believes on him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), but that he died also with a definite aim of obtaining a particular people for himself — a particular bride (Ephesians 5:25-32) — whom God had chosen from before the foundation of the world. What he purchased was not only the bona fide offer of salvation to all (on the basis of an all-sufficient sacrifice), but also a new heart of faith and obedience for those whom the Father gives to him (John 6:37; 10:29; 17:2, 6, 9, 11).
But if you believe this — if you see it, for example in this text — the implications for racial diversity and harmony are huge. Every major doctrine in the Bible has something important to say about racial harmony, especially the doctrine of the atonement — the death of Jesus for sinners.
God’s Intention: People from Every Tribe and Tongue and People and Nation
Consider Revelation 5:9. This is a glimpse into the purposes of God in the death of his Son, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you [referring to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead] to take the book [that is, the book of history in the last days] and to break its seals; for you were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men [people] from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.’”
Now notice. It does not say that Christ purchased all individuals in every tribe and tongue and people and nation in the same way. Christ purchased people “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” In fact, there is no direct object for the verb “purchased” and so the emphasis falls very hard on the “every tribe.” It’s as though I said, “I paid a huge sum to purchase from every booth in the market,” and only then tell you what I bought.
I know it is possible to interpret this text loosely, as though the purchase of people from every tribe were not designed by God — that it just happened that way because people in all the tribes simply chose to believe. And so the make-up of God’s people is by human chance and not a certain divine design. And I wish I had time to point to all the texts in the writings of John’s other writings, his Gospel and epistles, to show you why I don’t think he means it that way (for example, John 6:44, 65; 6:37; 10:16; 11:51-52). But all I have time to do today is appeal to the fact that when you purchase something, you generally purchase something particular. You choose it and you buy it.
So when it says in verse 9 that Christ was slain, and by his blood purchased people “from every tribe,” it is not likely that it is a coincidence or merely by chance that those he bought come from every tribe. It is more likely that this is Christ’s design. This is his aim. In dying, he meant to gather a people, a bride, a church, a kingdom, a priesthood, from every tribe.
Purchased at Infinite Cost
Now, if you agree with me on that — that this purchase of a people from every tribe is intentional, purposeful, designed — then you will see what I mean by the title of this message, “God’s Pursuit of Racial Diversity at Infinite Cost.” If the purchase of a people — a bride, a church, a kingdom, a priesthood — (from every tribe) is intentional, designed, purposeful, and not a coincidence, not by human chance, then the implications for racial diversity and racial harmony in the church are huge.
1. God intends to have a people not just from white or black or red or yellow ethnic groups but from all ethnic groups. All shades and all shapes. This is underlined by the four words, “people, tribe, language and nation [ethnos].” This covers the whole range of ethnic diversity in the world. God designed, aimed, purposed to have a people that is very diverse.
2. God intends for these people to be in profound, God-centered harmony. You can see this in the words of verse 10: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” All of them will be priests, and all of them will reign. Now this would be utter chaos and religious anarchy if the single priesthood and the reign of all were not profoundly unified. You can’t have priests who hate each other and refuse to serve together in one temple, or live together in one neighborhood, or hang out together after hours.
If all those who are purchased from every tribe are priests to God and fellow rulers with God, who worship God and reign with God, then they must have a deep unity in the truth and in love. The kind of divisions and hostilities and prejudice and mistreatment and ridicule and suspicion that has existed in the church among races is unthinkable in view of what Christ is pursuing in this text.
“Blood-bought racial diversity and harmony is for the glory of God through Christ.”
3. The third implication is that this aim of ethnic diversity and harmony in the people of God (the single priesthood and kingdom) was pursued by God at infinite cost. The cost of diversity was the blood and life of the Son of God. This is not an overstatement. Consider the wording of verse 9 very closely: “you purchased for God with your blood men [that is, people] from every tribe.” God paid the infinite price of his own Son’s life to obtain a priesthood of believers — a kingdom of fellow rulers — from every race. Think on it. The issue of racial-ethnic diversity in the church is not small, because the price of racial diversity and harmony was infinite.
4. The final implication from the text is that this infinite price was paid, and this racial diversity and harmony was pursued by Christ, “for God.” Don’t miss those little words in verse 9: “You were slain, and purchased for God with your blood people from every tribe. . . .” Racial diversity and racial harmony in the blood-bought church of God is “for God.” What do we see this people from every race and tribe doing in verses 13b–14? “They were saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne [God, the Father], and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.’ And the four living creatures kept saying, ‘Amen.’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.” Blood-bought racial diversity and harmony is for the glory of God through Christ. It is all aiming at the all-satisfying, everlasting, God-centered, Christ-exalting experience of many-colored worship.
Here at Bethlehem
Which brings us now in closing to Bethlehem.
Very simply, racial diversity and racial harmony are very, very important. To buy it cost God the Father his Son’s suffering and death. And to pay for it cost Jesus his life. Therefore it is very, very important.
And if it cost the Father and the Son such a price, should we expect that it will cost us nothing? That it will be easy? That the devil, who hates the glory of God and despises the aims of the cross, will relent without a battle? No. To join God in pursuing racial diversity and racial harmony will be costly. So costly, that many simply try for a while and then give up and walk away from the effort to easier things.
But if you love God — if you live to spread a passion for his supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples — trust him, seek his help, and pursue with your life what cost Jesus his, take the insert from the worship folder and do one or more of the suggestions on it. Go to the racial harmony table and talk to the team of people who carry the torch at Bethlehem. Pray for God to forgive you for sins of the past and attitudes of the present. Buy a book. Make a friend.
Can anything good come out of Birmingham? Yes. Not only the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but now the most recent book on racial reconciliation comes from Timothy George (white) and Robert Smith (black) who both live and teach in Birmingham. The book is called A Mighty Long Journey. The title is from an old African-American prayer chant:
It’s a mighty long journey,
But I’m on my way;
It’s a mighty long journey,
But I’m on my way.
That’s where we are at Bethlehem — on a journey toward the perfect experience of Revelation 5:9 in the kingdom of God. And we want as much of it now as we can. So the world will see the glory of God and the worth of Christ.