Revelation 7:9–17 (NRSV)
The Multitude from Every Nation
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Of all the words of scripture, the most chilling and confusing are found in the last pages. The pages that were revealed to the last of the apostles, the one who was blessed to see the fulfillment of all things. Because of the great confusion surrounding these words there has probably not been a book more studied and researched than that of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. And since it has been researched to such degree it has also been the most twisted and most misinterpreted.
I am not a scholar of this book. I read it as nearly everyone else. I read it and listen to the word with the same cloud of unknowing as a multitude. I want to know, I want to understand, but it seems that just as I gain a bit of knowledge something else seems to cloud it once again. It is meant to be cloudy, it is meant to be vague and chilling. It was written in such a way to bring confusion and disorder. Why would a book inspired by God bring these things? Because it is a book of prophecy.
Prophecy is also a misunderstood concept. Often we believe that words of prophecy deal primarily with the things that will be, but we fail to realize that most often prophecy deals with the things that are. Like wisps of smoke truth drifts in and out, and if we are aware we might gain some understanding of a situation and what should be. But prophecy is given for those who have ears to hear to hear.
There is something about this book that draws us in, even through the confusion. There is something that grabs the very essence of our souls. It places a desire in our hearts, and also leaves us seeking for more. It is as if this book tempts us to explore. There is a reason for this, because this book shows us that there are things going on around us that are just outside our ability to sense. And for the one that witnessed the unfolding words could not fully express.
But this book was written to give us hope. It was written to the seven churches of Asia. It was written to give these people the strength to continue to walk the pathways that they had begun to tread. It was written and given to people of the Empire, gentiles that were living as exile in their own nation, as encouragement to continue on in faith just as their Jewish brothers and sisters had for centuries before.
Over the past few weeks I have listened to the words being read several times. I listened because in the third verse of the opening chapter it says: “Blessed is the one that reads aloud the words of the prophesy, and blessed are those that hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” So I listened, because I need to hear. I listened once and again I listen. I heard about the churches, I heard about the spirits, I heard about the seals and the fantastical proceedings accompanied with them. But there is something that was repeated over and over. Praises to the one sitting on the throne.
In the passage that I have just read, John, the last of the apostles, the one that would close out the era of church history known as the apostolic age, saw a vision of a great multitude of people. A multitude that was too large for anyone to count, a multitude consisting of every language, every tribe, and every nation. A vast group of people with every possible division known to man united before the throne and before the lamb. I want us to just consider that image for a moment. A multitude of people so vast that no one could count it. A multitude with every possible label used to describe and divide humanity: Race, nationality, gender, melanin configuration, every language, every political ideology, every philosophical leaning. Mixed together with every theological concept and sacramental persuasion. Every possible issue or concept that we as humans would use to divide people groups is standing there in this vast multitude before the throne and before the lamb. Pale and dark skinned, Chinese and Arab, teachers and students, environmentalists and industrialists all standing before the throne.
Does that image do anything for you? The diversity to people standing before the throne shakes me. It causes me to realize that maybe what I understand as truth might not be the whole picture, that maybe I might only be like a blind man describing to the world an elephant by only touching its trunk. All these cultures, languages, races, and practices united not divided before the throne.
They are all standing there, a vast sea of people clothed in white. Again I want to stop and let that work its way through our minds. Books of prophecy are filled with word images, carefully constructed phrases that build pictures in our minds. These pictures and images are used to express concepts that are beyond our vocabulary and should not always be seen as literal. So we have a vast sea of people clothed in white standing before the throne. Imagine white. Some of you might be seeing a flower, some a blank sheet of paper or a canvas ready to be painted. Maybe you are seeing a house, a white house, which if you are seeing “The white house” I would like you to know that that is actually a light shade of gray not white. But for most of us we are seeing something simple and pure. Something that is filled with potential. We see hope, innocence, and cleanliness. This huge crowd of people standing before the throne is each robed in white.
In each of their hands is a palm branch. A palm branch is a symbol of victory, of hope, of prosperity. The branch of the palm was waved before the victorious conquerors of ancient days to celebrate the triumph of their heroes. The palm was waved before our Lord to proclaim Him king the Sunday prior to his passion. This vast multitude clothed in innocence and hope is waving a celebratory branch of victory. This celebration is right in the middle of a book filled with doom, pain, terror and bloodshed.
I mentioned as I listened to the words of this book over the past weeks that there was a theme that was repeated throughout. The theme of praise. The interesting thing about this is that the portions of this book that are devoted to praise are far clearer than the ones that are devoted to the other themes. If you were to listen to the book from the first verse to the last, you would hear praise, disappointment, judgement, calling for repentance, rejection, sorrow and then praise. Even in this prophetic work there is a cycle that goes back to this central theme. “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and Glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen!” These are the words that this great crowd is singing to the throne in praise.
And as John views this crowd and as he hears these praises one of the elders among the crowd comes to him and asks him to bear witness to who these people are. If we were to listen to the words and chapters prior to this passage we would have heard that there were twenty-four elders before the throne that were surrounded by this multitude of people. And if we were to listen to the words we would hear that the elders are of the Tribes of Israel and of the Apostles. The Elder here is speaking to John, who is also one of the elders participating in this celebration of the lamb. But John says, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” In essence what John is saying at this time of praise is that part of the joy, part of the praise and celebration is to allow each of us to bear witness to the hope that we have. John is saying to this elder, who is a friend of his, you tell me the story. And the elder says, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…”
They are the ones that have come through the ordeal. Friends, this is the gospel, the truth and good news of the Revelation. We must remember that this book was written to a people nearly two thousand years ago, that were about to face the greatest challenge they had ever known. They were about to participate in the clash of the empires of mankind and the Kingdom of God. It is difficult for us to truly grasp the concept because our world has changed so much over the centuries. But we do understand empires of mankind. We are currently in clash between the powers of man as we draw closer to another election. Campaigns are being waged and battles are being fought to gain support among the masses of people. In the midst of this battle, across the ocean and on the far side of our planet wars are being fought between ideologies. We mention the name ISIS and we all shutter, we mention Syria and we all cringe. These are the empires of man battling for power and influence over others.
Then we have the witness of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” When he says this he means that the Kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdoms of Man. The struggle is over something different. Kingdoms of mankind seek to gain control, where God came to serve. He came to heal, clothe, feed, and refresh. He came to save not to dominate. Jesus came to give us new life, a new lifestyle that is focused on Worship, Prayer and service to others. A lifestyle built of relationships between God and humanity, and among all peoples.
The people surrounding the throne are those that have gone through the great ordeal. The people that faced the conflict and the conversion from the empire of man to the kingdom of God. They are the ones that stood before the kings and judges of men and said I do not and will not conform to your ways but will stand firm on the life and lifestyle of Jesus. They are the ones that walked through the valley of the shadow of death and feared no evil because they knew that no matter what happened God was there and would advance his Kingdom on Earth as it was in heaven.
Who are these people gathered before the throne? They are people from every nation, every language, every culture, and any other type of classification. They are people that have said I will follow pathways of Jesus, I will live for others instead of myself. I will serve instead of demand, I will love instead of hate, I will hope instead of despair. They are the ones that face every trial and will say through it all “my hope is in the Lord.”
The elder goes on to tell John, that they will hunger no more, they will thirst no more, they will be sheltered from the sun, and will be guided to the springs of living water, and every tear will be wiped away. This book was written, to give us hope through the ordeals that we face. It was given to them and to us to prove that no matter what the empires of this world throw at us if we stay centered on Christ and continue to truly walk in his ways, we will be victorious.
As we enter into this time of open worship consider your lives, consider the things you find as being most important, the things that are demanding your time, and energy. Consider them, and your own personal ordeals. These are the things that we wrap around us they are our robes, is your robe washed in the blood of the lamb? Have you allow Christ to take our sweat stained dingy robe and wash it pure? Or are we still hanging on to it ourselves and fighting a battle that Christ has already won? Go through the ordeal with Christ let him give you hope and purity of spirit so you can stand there in that multitude clothed in white, waving the palms of victory with all the saints.