Tuesday, August 31, 2021

33. The Revelation: The Tribulation Saints: The Believers (Revelation 7:9-17)




"After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues … clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;" (Rev. 7:9a, c)

Revelation 7:9–17 describes that vast multitude of people from all the nations of the world who will be saved during the coming tribulation. This could include those of Israel who are saved during the preaching of the 144,000. There is nothing in the terminology of the passage that excludes Jews. Rather, the phrase “every nation” could include them.

As it does throughout Revelation, the phrase “after these things” introduces a new vision, distinct from the one in Rev. 7:1–8. The exclamation “behold” reveals this vision to be a shocking, startling one to John. The aged apostle, the last survivor of the Twelve, must have felt isolated and alone in his exile on the isle of Patmos. He had seen Gentiles come to Christ through his own ministry in Asia Minor and the ministries of Paul, Timothy, Titus, and others. Gentile churches had been founded, yet they were for the most part small, beleaguered, and persecuted. This vision must surely have renewed his joy and hope, as he realized that the church would survive and, in the end, people from the nations would be saved in great numbers.

That the group introduced in this passage is distinct from the 144,000 (Rev. 7:1–8) is evident from several considerations. First, the phrase “after these things” introduces a new vision. Second, this group is described as “a great multitude which no one could count.” No specific number is mentioned. Third, the 144,000 came from the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4–8), while this group came from every nation, tribe, people, and language. Finally, the 144,000 are beyond the reach of persecutors because they are sealed for protection from persecution on earth (7:3). Yet this second group is beyond the reach of any persecutors because it is already in heaven. Verse 14 describes and identifies them: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

The redeemed were “clothed in white robes.” “Robes” is from a Greek word that depicts a long, full-length robe and are the same ones worn by the martyrs in Rev. 6:9–11. That fact suggests that the group in view here is part of that earlier group of martyred believers. As the tribulation wears on, the number of martyrs will increase, as will the number of believers who die naturally or violently, eventually accumulating into the vast, uncountable multitude in this passage. The white robes are symbolic rather than literal, since the saints do not yet have their resurrected bodies (Rev. 6:9; Rev. 20:4). Such white robes, also symbolic of holiness, are reserved for Christ (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:3), His angels (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5), and the glorified church (Rev. 19:8, 14).

The saints also held “palm branches … in their hands.” Palm branches are associated in Scripture with celebration, deliverance, and joy. They were especially prominent during the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40), being employed in the construction of the booths the people lived in during that feast (Nehemiah 8:15–17). During Jesus’ triumphal entry the joyous crowd waved palm branches as they welcomed Him into Jerusalem, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” (John 12:13). The palm branches in the hands of these redeemed saints are a fitting celebrative symbol of Christ’s salvation.


"...standing before the throne and before the Lamb..." (Rev. 7:9b)

John saw this vast crowd of victorious, joyous saints standing before the throne of God in heaven. They were also in the presence of the Lamb, whom John saw in his earlier vision standing near the throne (Rev. 5:6). Many had suffered death at the hands of Antichrist (cf. Rev. 20:4) for refusing to take his mark or worship him. They are no longer seen under the altar praying for divine vengeance (Rev. 6:9–11), which has already begun, but standing triumphantly before the throne of God.


"...and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:10)

The redeemed martyrs constantly cry out with a loud voice in joyous, exuberant worship. The Lord desires loud praise (Psalm 66:1; Psalm 100:1). Their prayers of intercession have ceased and they are glorifying and praising God. Salvation is the theme of their worship, as it is throughout Revelation. In Rev. 12:10 John “heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.’ ” The occupation of those in heaven is continual, eternal praise of the Almighty God and the Lamb. They identify God as “our God,” claiming God as their own.


"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.” (Rev. 7:11–12)

The innumerable believers before God’s throne were not alone in their loud worship. An uncountable number of angels (first reported in the earlier vision of Rev. 5:11) joined them. The angels ringing God’s glorious, magnificent throne (Rev. 4:1–6, Rev. 5:1, 6) also surrounded the other two groups involved in worshiping God, the elders and the four living creatures. In Rev. 5:8–10, the twenty-four elders sang the song of redemption, while here they are seen praising the God of redemption. The four living creatures are cherubim, an exalted order of angels and often appear together with these elders (Rev. 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 14:3; 19:4).

Overwhelmed by God’s glory, all present fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God. Then, recognizing God’s sovereignty and holiness, the worshipers utter a benediction bracketed front and back with the affirmation “Amen,” meaning, “so let it be.” Their prayer is that “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be attributed to our God forever and ever” (Rev. 4:11; 5:12).

The phrase “forever and ever” indicates, as did the doxology of 5:13ff., that this praise is not temporary or momentary, but will continue eternally. What is described here is worship that will never cease through all of endless eternity.


"Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:13–14)

John then became an active participant in the vision when one of the twenty-four elders questioned him. The elder was not asking for information because he did not know the answer, but to emphasize his point. The elder’s question specifies and emphasizes the truth that people will be saved during the tribulation.

Some argue that the redeemed tribulation martyrs and others seen in heaven will be people who never lived during the church age. That cannot be true, however, since the tribulation lasts seven years (Daniel 9:27) and the great tribulation half of that (Revelation 11:2–3; 12:6; 13:5). They would all have to be younger than seven years of age. Others hold that these are people who never heard the gospel during their lifetimes and received the opportunity to repent after death. That interpretation is also impossible, “inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). People have the opportunity only during their lifetimes. These are people whose lifetimes will extend past the rapture into the tribulation.

John’s reply to the elder is emphatic: “My lord, you know.” It includes both a confession of ignorance and a request for further revelation. John’s calling the elder “lord” did not ascribe deity to him. He was using the Greek equivalent of “sir” as a title of great respect (Rev. 19:10; 22:8–9). The heavenly elder’s reply confirmed the identity of these believers as “the ones who come out of the great tribulation.” They lived into it, were redeemed during it, and have now come out of it through death. The Greek phrase translated “the ones who come out” depicts a prolonged process. This group will keep growing as people keep dying during the tribulation. Therefore the rapture of the church is not in view here, since it is an instantaneous event (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). The description of these believers clearly distinguishes them from any other group of redeemed people in history.

The elder further described how the tribulation believers gained the privilege of being in the presence of God and His angels. It is because they are clothed in the white robes, which they have washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb. Here their white robes indicate holiness, and purity. “Soiled garments” in Scripture symbolize the defilement of sin (Isaiah 64:6; Zechariah 3:3), and salvation is often pictured as a washing (Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18; Titus 3:5; Revelation 22:14). That anything could be cleansed by washing it in blood seems strange to consider, but not to those familiar with the Old Testament. Such a washing was required for spiritual cleansing (Hebrews 10:4). Christ’s substitutionary death atoned for the tribulation believers’ sins, and by repentant faith they were justified and reconciled to God (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18–21).


"For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; (Rev 7:15a)

The reason these tribulation believers were allowed to stand before the throne of God is that they were purified and cleansed from their sins by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on their behalf. They were thus fitted for the presence of God that they might serve Him day and night. “Serve” is from a word often used to describe priestly service (Luke 2:37; Hebrews 8:5; 13:10). “Day and night” is an idiomatic way to indicate their continuous occupation. There is no actual night and day in God’s eternal heaven (22:3–5). The location of that service is in His temple. There is currently a temple in heaven, and there will be one on earth during the millennial kingdom of Christ on earth (Ezekiel 40–48). In the eternal state, however, there will no longer be a need for a temple, “for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). The heavenly temple currently is the holy domain where God’s presence dwells outside the fallen universe, but that will be unnecessary in the new heavens and new earth where sin has been forever done away with. There will no longer be a temple building, because God will occupy all places, and all believers everywhere throughout the eternal state will continue to worship and serve Him forever.


"...and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them." (Rev. 7:15b)

In a wonderful, comforting picture, God, described as He who sits on the throne (cf. Rev. 4:1–3; 5:1, 13; 7:10), promises to spread the tabernacle, or tent (cf. 21:3), of His shekinah presence over these persecuted believers. “Tabernacle” is a word John likes to use (cf. 13:6; 15:5; 21:3; the related verb translated “dwelt” appears in John 1:14), which reflects the sheltering presence of the Lord. It corresponds to the Old Testament promises of God’s protective presence (cf. Leviticus 26:11–12; Ezekiel 37:27; Zechariah 2:10–11; 8:3, 8). These believers will have witnessed unspeakable suffering and indescribable horrors as God’s judgments were poured out on the world. They will have suffered terrible persecution at the hands of Antichrist and his followers. But when they enter God’s presence, they will come to a heavenly sanctuary, the most secure place. There they will receive shelter from the terrors of the fallen world that are to come as God continues to unleash His devastating and destructive judgments.


"They will hunger no more, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes." (Rev. 7:16–17)

This comforting promise of further provision is drawn from and almost identical to the words of Isaiah 49:10. As they experienced the horrors of the tribulation, these sufferers had endured hunger, thirst, and scorching heat as the sun beat down on them, a phenomenon which will occur in the tribulation (Revelation 16:9). Yet now they will enjoy eternal satisfaction, for the Lamb in the center of the throne (5:6) will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life. The picture of God as the Shepherd of His people is one of the most beloved and common in the Old Testament, and Jesus is depicted as the Shepherd of His people.3 Interestingly, the other three uses of shepherd in Revelation (2:27; 12:5; 19:15) reveal Christ crushing sinners with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:9). The Great Shepherd will guide His flock to springs of the water of life and wipe every tear from their eyes. In heaven there will be no pain or sorrow.

In this age when Christianity is under siege on all sides, it is comforting to be reassured of the ultimate triumph of God’s saving grace. God will redeem His people. That thought should bring all believers great comfort, and motivate us to praise God for the greatness of His plan.