The crowd’s future (Rev. 7:15-17)

John is informed that the great crowd will be worshipping God for ever in his temple. Where or what is that temple? It is the heavens and new earth in which righteousness will dwell. The redeemed will be priests in the worldwide temple, leading the praise of the restored universe. They will be the nearest to the throne, lifting their voices in the everlasting song that will reverberate throughout the new heavens and new earth for ever.

Moreover, the Lord, who sits on the throne, guarantees their permanent safety and satisfaction. In this life they had known times of deprivation; often life had seemed as if they were travelling through a desert, at least in the spiritual sense. But in heaven it will all be different. Instead of hunger and thirst, there will be satisfying provision; instead of sunburned deserts, there will be heavenly springs.

There is also a sense of continuation between what Jesus had done for them as the good shepherd in this life and what he will do for them as the eternal shepherd. In this life, he had given them times of spiritual refreshment, as described in Psalm 23. He made them lie down in green pastures beside the waters of rest, a picture of occasions when he fed their souls, by various means, on his wonderful acts and promises. But they had to get up and continue their journey through the valley of the shadow of death. The Jesus who fed them on earth will feed them in heaven, with the big difference that it will be a constant supply of heavenly provision.

The third detail to observe is that each of the great crowd will receive personal consolation from God: ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ Why will they have tears on this great occasion? Who can say? A more important question is, Who can take these tears away? The gentle, tender touch of the heavenly Father will wipe away every tear. This suggests that God will take the time to deal with every tear that his people have had or will have on that day. Samuel Rutherford once commented that ‘It is the sweeter, that no napkin, but his own immediate hand, shall wipe my sinful face.’  None of the Lord’s people there can deal with my tears, any more than I would be able to deal with theirs. We don’t know how he will take them away. But he will.

 

The attire and the song of the crowd (Rev. 7:13-14)

John saw that the great crowd are all dressed in the same attire and all are holding the same emblems: they are clothed with white robes, and have palm branches in their hands. If it were only white robes that were mentioned, then the reference would be to holiness and purity. But the inclusion of palm branches tells us that a prominent emphasis in the vision is that of victory.

Standing with palm branches was a common way for crowds to celebrate an important triumph (they would also wear white robes on such occasions). To get the point, we must recall that throughout history these people have been on the receiving end, with many of them martyred for their faith. Often the church has seemed to be on the verge of destruction by its enemies. But here is the church triumphant, sharing Christ’s victory.

The angel explains to John that each person in the great crowd has washed his or her robes in the blood of Christ. It is a common biblical image to use clothing to depict a person’s behaviour.  Also, it is clear that John is referring to Jesus’ death on the cross of Calvary when he took his perfect life and offered it up to God in the place of sinners. He was their substitute as there he paid the penalty of sin by enduring the wrath of God against it. But notice, each person in the crowd took their robes and washed them in the blood of Christ. Each one responded individually to the message of the cross.

John also describes the song of the crowd: they ‘cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.’ They sing with meaning, because they knew what it was to be unconverted. But Lord in his mercy saved them and brought them to heaven. And they sing with wonder, as they consider the place to where they have been brought. It is a song to God, about his wonderful grace.

So their song is a message to us. It is a reminder that the day is coming when the redeemed shall stand before the throne. It is being sung to us to cause us to prepare to join the song.

 

The Great Crowd (Rev. 7:9-12)

The Bible often refers to the Book of Life, but never tells us how may names are in it. Even here, when the complete number gather together in the presence of God, we are not told how many will be there. But we are invited to look at them, and marvel.

We see in this crowd the fulfilment of the promise that God gave to Abraham which declared that his spiritual seed would number as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. No one can count the number of the stars or the grains of sand. Yet it is obvious that if we tried, we would run out of numbers. It will be the same with those who make up the people of God.

Moreover, we can see that there are converts from every people group. Ultimately, there will be one family of God and the members will come everywhere. Real disciples will have come from every nation. This vision of the size of the great crowd is a great encouragement for spreading the gospel.

John tells us that the crowd stands before the throne of God, and before the Lamb. Obviously this is a place of honour, highly exalted. Although they are in such an august presence, the crowd is marked by confidence because they all know that they are accepted in Christ, and will rejoice in that reality for ever.  As they stand there, they will express thankfulness to the Father for sending his Son to be their Saviour.

Jesus, in John 17:24, on the evening before his death, had prayed about the gathering together of this crowd. His request was, ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ Now it has been answered and his desire is taking place. We can imagine the gladness of Jesus as well as the gladness of his people.

We also can read here about the response of the angelic host as they see those for whom their Master died gathered together with him. Often, many of those angels would have helped the heirs of salvation as they travelled to heaven. Now they and their protectors are together in the presence of God.

The 144,000 (Rev. 7:1-8)

The vision of the 144,000 opens with a reference to heavenly control of the elements. We perhaps do not see the significance of this, but John’s readers would have. In the ancient world, the elements were regarded by pagans as being ruled by different false gods. John here says the elements are under the control of the only God.

The four angels are depicted as being ready to unleash storms on the earth, which is similar to what happened with the seals. It is very likely that the four angels function in a similar way to the four horsemen of chapter 6. Before they do begin to destroy, another angel appears and commands them not to do so until the servants of God have been sealed. Then we are told that the number to be sealed was 144,000, made up of 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel.

Who are the 144,000? Personally, I think the vision refers to the same people as in the next vision, the great crowd, but looked at from different viewpoints. The first vision, the 144,000, describes God’s people during the time of God’s judgments on those who rebel against him and the second vision, the great crowd, describes them after the time of judgment is over. The point of the vision of the 144,000 is to show that the people of God are safe despite what is happening throughout history. The 144,000 are mentioned again in Revelation 14.  In Revelation 14 they have arrived in heaven, which is another reminder that they reached heaven safely. 

John tells us that the sealing process of the 144,000 began before the troubles commenced (7:3). The seal was the mark of ownership, whereby God intimated that the sealed people were his. Believers belong to God in a variety of ways: by creation, by choice and by salvation. They were sealed in order that they would not be harmed by God’s judgements, although some of them would be harmed by human opposition.

It is important to note that they are numbered as an army. This list of twelve tribes of Israel obviously has an Old Testament allusion and those readers who were familiar with the Old Testament would see the point. During the history of Old Testament Israel it was common for each tribe to provide soldiers for a military campaign. John here is reminding his readers that they are involved in a battle against God’s enemies. To each of them came their call-up papers, which is the gospel invitation asking them to leave the army of the enemy and come and join the army of the King. They serve under a Commander who knows how to win the war, who has provided most of the victory already, and who will make each of them more than conquerors. They will receive a great reward for serving in his army.

Day of Judgement (Rev. 6:12-17)

The previous seals of the scroll that Jesus received describe the period between his ascension and his second coming. The sixth seal is more focussed on a particular period and depicts cosmic turmoil and human despair linked to the appearance of Christ as the Judge (6:12-17). 

The terror of the Lord makes all people equal. Both the rich and the poor and the free and the slave are petrified at the prospect of appearing before Jesus as the Judge. In verse 15 we are given a list of those who will be afraid when Jesus returns. Political power, economic power and military power cannot provide a way of escape. They sense that there is no escape and would endure being buried alive rather than face the awful wrath of a rejected Lord.

What a description of the kind God and gracious Saviour! Jesus, the tender-hearted Saviour, will be angry on this awful day. He will come with vengeance in his heart. Think of these words of Paul: ‘And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thess. 1:7-8).

The lost in this vision ask an important question, but they ask it too late. It is strange how often important issues are left till the last minute. But in this case, it is later than that – too late. The question is, ‘Who will be able to stand?’ The answer is given in the next chapter, when we see a great multitude standing around the throne. They found the answer in time – they believed in Jesus.

But where are the Christians throughout this period? The answer is given in the next chapter.

What say the martyrs? (Rev. 6:9-11)

The fifth seal of the scroll received by Jesus is different from the others because it moves the readers from the experience of earth (as depicted in the previous four seals) to the response of heaven. Like the four seals, it describes details that picture what goes on in the period when Jesus is opening the seals.

In this seal, we are given a snapshot of heaven and are shown a picture of the church in heaven. No doubt, many Christians would have died because of the causes mentioned in the previous seals. Like them, this seal also ends in death, although for unique reasons. 

John’s attention is drawn to those who have suffered martyrdom because of their loyalty to Jesus. At the time of receiving this vision, about sixty years had passed since the ascension of Jesus. During those decades, many believers had been slain for their witness to Jesus. This seal informs readers that those believers are conscious in heaven, that they are not in some kind of inertia. They can recall the past and anticipate the future, and they have conversations with Jesus.

What is the concern of the believers who have reached heaven? Perhaps surprisingly, for us at first, they cry for God to bring justice to the world. This is not because they are vindictive, for heaven rejoices in mercy being displayed. Instead they long for God to act on all the horrors of history, to take on his role as avenger of the weak and needy.

The temporary answer to their concern is to experience what is signified by the white robes: participation in the victory of Christ and purity of heart in the perfect world. They are also encouraged to rest, to refresh themselves with the beauty of heaven.

They are also informed that the church on earth will continue to suffer, and many others will join their number. This was to be the norm. Yet their suffering will not be in vain. As was noted long ago, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ Many Christians become more devoted disciples when they hear accounts of dedication unto death and many opponents are won as they see the love and loyalty of the believers.

One value for us of receiving the details connected to the fifth seal is that they explain troubles that Christians faith. Nothing is chaotic or out of control; rather it is under the control of Jesus. 

The Four Horsemen (Rev. 6:1-8)

In chapters 4 and 5 we have a description of the enthronement of Jesus, which occurred at his ascension to heaven. At his enthronement he was given a scroll sealed with seven seals. The scroll cannot be opened until the seven seals are removed.

In chapter 6, Jesus takes the seals of the book. As he opens each one, he releases a power that will help bring about the opening of the book of life. What are these powers that are in the hand of Jesus the king that he will use to accomplish his own purposes?

The first four seals concern the well-known four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first seal describes a king on a white horse riding out to battle (6:1-2). Some people think this refers to Christ riding forth with the gospel, because he is described in this way in 19:11. However, I think the list in chapter 6 is made up of sources of trouble for Christ’s people. I would suggest that this rider depicts tyrants or oppressive rulers. The second seal is a red horse, and it is evident that he represents those who make war (6:3-4). The third seal is a black horse, and he depicts famine (6:5-6). The fourth seal is a pale horse, and he represents death in all its forms (6:7-8).

As we think of this description of human history, we see it is a very accurate picture, for even today, with all our advances, we still have tyranny, war, famines and death. We only have to watch the news programmes to see that they occur.

What are we to make of this description of human history? First, we must get rid of the idea that Jesus only does comforting things and the devil does all the bad things. History is not about a battle between two equal forces. Also we have to move from focussing on secondary causes and see that there is only one primary cause for all events.  Jesus either initiates an action for a specific purpose or directs an action to overrule it for a specific purpose.

This chapter tells us that these distressing situations are brought about because Jesus is determined to open the scroll that he has been given, which is to gather his people to himself. So why does Jesus send these judgments?

One answer is that they are samples of divine judgement before the time of the final judgement, as well as samples of the variety of divine judgements within time. They tell us that Jesus does something about our sinful behaviour. In his providential control of human actions, Jesus brings foretastes of judgment into our lives. They are sent to urge us to prepare for eternity.

They are also sent to give opportunities for his church to act as agents of mercy. Through them, the Lord enables his people to give both practical and spiritual help to those in need. So, in many cases the trouble they went through becomes a means of spiritual good. These judgements are limited to some in order that the many will listen. We cannot say that those who suffer because of wars and famines are worse sinners than others. The point is that the Lord Jesus is the judge of all.