Text: Rev 7:9-17
Parallel Text: Phil 3:8-11
Featured Verse: Rev 7:14b "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."
Main Idea: Just as John "layered" images of the royal lion and the slain lamb (5:5-6), he also pictures the followers of Jesus as a marching army and an international multitude of martyrs. The church will "conquer" the same way Jesus conquered - through steadfast endurance and costly sacrifice.
The connection between this vision and the prior vision (144,000 sealed) opens up one of the more interesting features of the book of Revelation. In chapter 5, John "layered" images of Jesus to show his true identity. In the vision, he heard "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah", then he turned and saw "a lamb standing as though slain." What he heard and what he saw are the same person, but portrayed very differently. Both things are true of Jesus. He is the conquering lion. The conclusion of this book will show him returning in power and majesty to defeat his enemies and to establish his church. But his first arrival was characterized by humility and sacrifice. It was through his atoning death that he "ransomed people for God, from every tribe and language and people and nation, and made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth." (5:9-10)
When we take the two visions of chapter seven together, we see a similar picture of the church. On one hand, John hears of the tribes of Israel marching in their battle formation.* They are 144,000 strong, ancient Israel in its ideal form, and sealed by God for protection in their spiritual conflict. But when he actually sees the people of God, they look very different.
"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,... 'These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.'" (7:9-14)
Notice four important connections:
- First, they are the international people whom Jesus ransomed as the slain lamb. (v.5:9-10)
- Second, they are the same victorious army previously depicted as being the sealed tribes of Israel.
- Third, they have "come out of the tribulation**." Like Jesus - the lamb slain - they are steadfast in the face of persecution, even when facing death. Also like Jesus, they are victorious over death and join him in the heavenly throne room.
- Fourth, they receive the same comfort that will one day be extended to the entire church in the New Jerusalem. (21:1-7)
Conclusion and Application
The Christian life doesn't always feel very glamorous. Living faithfully for Jesus in a fallen world sometimes involves moments of brave defiance. But it also has lots of moments of drudgery. Sometimes we see the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. And sometimes we feel like we are dying daily. Slow, small daily deaths. Often, living for Jesus means carrying a cross and joining him in a cruciform life. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said that he shared in the sufferings of Jesus. (Phil 3:11) But looks can be deceiving. The exact moment in which the church looks most like a slain lamb is the moment when they are most victorious. The moment in which they cling to Christ and forsake the world is the moment when they conquer. The moment in which they are marked by the trials of the lamb of God, they are also sharing in his victory as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
* In his book, Climax of Prophecy, Richard Bauckham showed that the numbering of the twelve tribes is related to the OT practice of taking a census as the army prepared for battle. (See Numbers 1:21, a numbering of "all who were able to go to war.") With this OT practice in the background we see that God's people are here portrayed as a conquering army, moving in perfect assembly. It is, in a sense, like a military parade - showing the power of the conquerors. Here we see God's people with the image of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We know from the parallel vision that their victory will not be one of military conquest, but from steadfast obedience in the face of opposition. They will conquer in the footsteps of the lamb who was slain.
** What or when is the "tribulation? References to "the tribulation" often make people think of a great period of testing just before Jesus returns. It seems likely that there will be an intensification of persecution in the future, but the dominant use of the term "tribulation" in the Bible refers to the present difficulties that are faced by the church. For example, John understood his own experience in exile as being something that made him "partner in the tribulation" which is characteristic of all who are in Christ. (Rev 1:9) Jesus also warned his disciples that the common experience of those who follow him is that they would have "tribulation" in the world. (John 16:33) When we read the description of the great multitude as those who have "come out of the tribulation" we understand that to be a reference to all Christians who have suffered throughout the age of the church. Which is all Christians, because we all suffer. We may not all become martyrs, but it is characteristic of every follower of Jesus that they would pick up their cross. In his book, Let's Study Revelation, Derek Thomas writes, "What John seems to depict here is the story of the church, emerging throughout history from one tribulation after another. It has always been so, and it very will be until Jesus Christ brings it to a close by his coming."