Rev. 7:9 – After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! 11All the angels stood around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength, be to our God forever and ever. Amen. 13Then one of the elders asked me, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His sanctuary. The One seated on the throne will shelter them: 16no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat. 17Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (HCSB).
One of the elders asked me
One of the 24 elders asks John, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” (v. 13). John replies, “Sir, you know.” John readily admits he does not know the answer and seeks insight from the elder. As Matthew Henry puts it, “Those who would gain knowledge must not be ashamed to own their ignorance, nor to desire instruction from any that are able to give it” (Rev. 7:13-17).
The elder replies, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). But to which tribulation is the elder referring? The Greek puts it, He thilipsis – he megale; that is, “the tribulation – the great.” This gives strength to the futurist position, which holds that this is the post-rapture tribulation, not tribulation in general, which believers have experienced throughout the church age. W.A. Criswell points to the distinction between the vast multitude and the 24 elders, who represent the church. “This great multitude has no thrones,” he writes, contrasting them to the elders, who do have thrones. “They have no crowns; they have palm branches. They have come after the resurrection and after the rapture and after the church has been taken up into glory” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 151).
Criswell goes on, “These are they whom God has saved and is saving in that great and final trial that shall come upon the earth. Is that not astounding? No wonder John did not know who they were. No man would ever have known or guessed such a thing had it not been by the grace of the revelation of God Himself.”
Tribulation and wrath
While there is strong support for the view that this great tribulation matches a futurist world view, other commentators argue convincingly for other points of view. Perhaps this tribulation is a first-century phenomenon, with Jews and Romans persecuting Christians; certainly, believers in John’s day are experiencing first-hand the universal attacks on the body of Christ. Others contend that these saints around the throne in heaven are the product of various Roman campaigns against those who will not bow to Caesar. Still others argue that this great tribulation describes martyrs – the millions of faithful believers throughout the church age who do not “love their lives in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).
In any case, it is clear that these are saints in heaven prior to the return of Christ, and the “great tribulation” is the persecution of believers at the hands of non-believers. Two Greek words often are translated “tribulation” or “persecution” in the New Testament. Diwgmos appears 10 times in the New Testament and always refers to the persecution of believers at the hands of unbelievers. Thilipsis appears 45 times and is translated “tribulation(s),” “affliction(s),” “anguish,” “distress,” “persecution,” or “trouble.” Nearly every time it, too, refers to violence against believers at the hands of unbelievers.
This must not be confused with God’s wrath against the wicked. Two Greek words are used to describe the suffering of non-believers at the hand of God. The first word is thumos. It occurs in 18 verses in the New Testament and is translated “angry tempers,” “fierce,” “indignation,” “outbursts of anger,” “passion,” “rage,” and “wrath.” In nine of these 18 verses, the term specifically refers to the anger and judgment of God against the unrighteous (the other nine refer to the anger of people against each other). The second word is orgay, which occurs in 34 verses in the New Testament and is translated “anger” or “wrath.” Twenty-eight of those verses refer to the wrath of God the Father or Jesus against the unrighteous; one refers to the persecution of believers; and five refer to the anger of people against each other. “Therefore, whereas tribulation almost always refers to the persecution of believers, wrath almost always refers to the anger of God against the unrighteous that results in punishment” (Will Christians Go Through the Great Tribulation by Rich Deem, www.godandscience.org).
Saints before the throne
As we read on, it is clear why these saints stand before the throne in heaven: “They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). It is not merely that they died for a just cause, although that in itself is no mere thing; great men and women throughout history have died for families, nations, freedom and many other God-ordained gifts and institutions. The martyrs John sees around the throne, however, stand there for one reason: Christ has purchased them with His blood. They do not claim any merit. They do not boast of any personal rights. No doubt on earth they refused the offers of life, possessions and freedom in exchange for recanting their faith. But they held fast. They joined the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).
Yet whatever fleeting and temporal things they have forfeited for the cause of Christ are now repaid with eternal rewards. The angel explains to John: “The One seated on the throne will shelter them [or spread His tent over them]: no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat …” (vv. 15b-16). Missionaries that Fidel Castro imprisoned after seizing power in Cuba often were taken from their cells in the morning and made to stand in the blistering sun all day before being returned to their cold and dank dungeons at sunset. There is no doubt their skin festered and peeled and their throats became parched as they were punished for nothing more than being faithful to the One seated on the throne. But now, as John sees them stand before the throne, they are safe beneath their Savior’s protective wings.
The angel continues: “Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17). Jesus is the good shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep, and who knows them and is known by them (John 10:11, 14). This is a claim to deity, since Yahweh is described in similar terms in the Old Testament (Ps. 23:1, 80:1; Isa. 40:10-11). But even more, this divine shepherd became a sheep, a “lamb led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
“A shepherd, in order to know his sheep and care for them, has to live among them,” writes Carl Haak. “He has to be close to them. Jesus not only came from heaven to earth to be near His sheep, He actually became like them. The Shepherd became a sheep, took on our nature, and lived our entire life (except without sin). This is why He is the good Shepherd, perfectly qualified to know us and to care for us. He is like us in our flesh. There is no shepherd like this Jesus” (“I Am the Good Shepherd,” www.reformedwitnesshour.org, Oct. 5, 1997, No. 2857).
Springs of living water
As a good shepherd leads his sheep to water, the Good Shepherd guides His saints to springs of living water. In John 7, on the last and most important day of the feast of Tabernacles – a day in which water plays a significant role – Jesus stands up and cries, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture hath said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him” (vv. 37b-38). The observant Jew could not miss the significance of this claim.
On each day of the feast, priests draw water from the pool of Siloam and return to the temple, circling the altar while the choir chants Psalms 113-118. The water is then poured out as a libation at the morning sacrifice. This is a time of great joy associated with Isa. 12:3: “You will joyfully draw water from the springs of salvation.” On the seventh day of the festival, the priests carry the water around the altar not once, but seven times. It is at this high point of the festival that Jesus stands and makes His dramatic cry to the people. He repeats the offer of the Father, “Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1), and offers fulfillment of the very things they were celebrating. Indeed, he is fulfilling the role of God, “their compassionate One [who] will lead them to springs of water” (Isa. 49:10). This is more than a prophet pointing to God’s grace; it is God Himself extending His grace.
Note these insights from Biblegateway.com: “In Jewish writings water is a very rich symbol. God himself can be called ‘the spring of living water’ (Jer 2:13; 17:13). Other texts that use water imagery speak of Wisdom (Baruch 3:12; Sirach 15:3; 24:21, 25-27, 30-31), the law (Sifre on Deuteronomy 48) and, as here in John 7:39, the Holy Spirit (Genesis Rabbah 70:8; Targum of Isaiah 44:3). Jesus, in offering the Spirit (v. 39), is claiming to be able to satisfy people’s thirst for God. The cries of the psalmists are answered. David prayed, ‘O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (Ps 63:1). The sons of Korah sang, ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?’ (Ps 42:1-2)…. When Jesus cries out at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles on this particular day, the worshipers meet God in his sanctuary – in the person of his Son. The longing for God is met with God’s invitation to come and be satisfied. In Jesus, God’s own desire for man is expressed and the desire of man for God is met. All that the temple represented is now found in Jesus” (“Jesus, the Source of Living Water, Extends an Invitation to All Who Thirst,” www.biblegateway.com).
There is one final image that bears mention as the angel says, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” a promise repeated in Rev. 21:4. The sinful and fallen world in which we live produces oceans of tears. Babies die in their mothers’ wombs. Natural disasters destroy in a moment what has taken a lifetime to build. War ravages lives, steals dreams, erases borders, violates treaties, brings a sudden end to enduring peace, eliminates security, and hastens the loss of innocence. Gossip ruins reputations. Angry words divide families. Ungodly leaders speed the demise of nations. Rancor in the church undermines unity in the Spirit. Even the most humble servants of Christ get sick, grow old and die. On top of all this, these martyrs around the throne have suffered additional hardship at the hands of those who hate Jesus and thus hate His sheep.
But there is an end to it all. And the day is coming when Christ will hold our faces in His nail-scarred hands and wipe the tears from our eyes with a gentle sweep of His thumbs. This is good to remember when we attend funerals, lose our jobs, suffer the slights of the wicked, and endure the pains of sickness, disease, and aging. All the more reason to look up as our redemption draws near.
Four major views of the vast multitude
Finally, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the vast multitude?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the vast multitude represents the Gentiles who are saved as a result of God disowning His rebellious wife and children and seeking a new family (Hos. 1:10; 2:23; and their applications in Rom. 9:24ff and 1 Peter 2:9). These are coming out of the great tribulation in the sense that their entrance into the kingdom of heaven results from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the end of formal Judaism. Some preterists, however, see these as Christian martyrs slain by Roman emperors after the fall of Jerusalem. Still other say these could be Jews converted at Pentecost, one of three Jewish feasts requiring all faithful Jewish males to come to the temple, thereby resulting in the salvation of Jews from every nation.
- Some historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the multitude as the same group identified in verses 4-8. In the first vision, John sees them sealed for preservation on earth. In the second vision, he sees them glorified in heaven. This would be a great encouragement to the early church, which suffers widespread and brutal persecution. Other historicists see these as Gentile believers, who will make up a far greater number in heaven than their Jewish brothers and sisters.
- Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say these are Gentile believers brought into the kingdom during the Tribulation. The 144,000 Jews and this vast multitude of Gentiles, while saved, are not part of the church, which was raptured prior to the Tribulation. Other futurists, however, understand this palm-bearing crowd to be the church after the tribulation is over.
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – tend to see this innumerable host as symbolic of the church finally glorified in heaven. The 144,000 represent “spiritual Israel,” or the church on earth, while the multitude depicts the “church triumphant” in heaven. The palm branches and white robes symbolize victory and purity. These believers are coming out of the great tribulation – the afflictions through which all saints pass on their way to glory.
Next: The seventh seal — Revelation 8:1-6