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).
After hearing the roll call of the 144,000, John now sees “a vast multitude” of redeemed people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number” (v. 9). They lift their voices in praise for the salvation belonging to God and to the Lamb. Then the angels, elders and four living creatures fall on their faces before the throne in worship. An elder asks John for the identity of the vast multitude of people, and when John confesses his ignorance, the elder provides the answer: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (v. 14).
Who are these people? To what great tribulation is the elder referring? How does this multitude relate to the 144,000? What do John’s first-century readers make of this passage? And what does it say to us today? Let’s take a closer look.
A vast multitude
John sees a “vast multitude” that “no one could number” from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (v. 9). As in the new song of Rev. 5:9, these are redeemed people of the earth, purchased by the blood of the Lamb and for God the Father. That they are in heaven, before the throne of God and the Lamb, should put to rest the Jehovah’s Witness contention that only 144,000 will enjoy this great honor. The King’s banquet house is full (Matt. 22:10) and the marriage supper of the Lamb is well attended. No doubt many will enjoy eternal fellowship with God in heaven. Yet it is foolish for us to place restrictions on the number who will stand around the throne, or to be universalist in our assumptions by declaring that all people will be saved.
As Jesus is passing through the towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem, someone asks, “Lord, are there few being saved?” (Luke 13:23). This is the perfect opportunity for the Savior to provide an exact number of those who will receive Him by faith. Instead, He directs a warning to His listeners: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and won’t be able …” (Luke 13:24). In parables and other teachings, Jesus makes it clear that the way of salvation is narrow, and some who think they’ve found it are in for a rude awakening on judgment day.
- Many who claim, “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets,” will be told “I don’t know you or where you’re from. Get away from Me, all you workers of unrighteousness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but yourselves thrown out” (Luke 13:26-28).
- Jesus warns, “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).
- Jesus declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved …” (John 10:9). “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live” (John 10:25).
- Jesus continues, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but [only] the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me. ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers’” (Matt. 7:21-22). “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish …” (Luke 13:3).
- Peter states boldly, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven [except the name of Jesus] given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
We could cite many more passages, but the message is clear: Jesus is the only way of salvation. Apart from faith in Him, no one receives forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Those who seek to find their own way – through religious ritual, aestheticism, heritage, good works, or any number of other pursuits – will find themselves like the man cast out of the wedding for the king’s son because he is not properly dressed. The king has provided all guests proper attire – white robes – but this guest prefers the filthy rags of his own righteousness and thereby is unceremoniously cast into outer darkness for insulting the king and dishonoring his son (Matt. 22:1-14).
Are only a few saved?
This makes it seem as if few will be saved. However, we see through John’s eyes that people from every corner of the earth, every walk of life, and every language – an uncountable throng – stand before the throne of God and of the Lamb, robed in white (the imputed righteousness of Christ) and holding palm branches in their hands (a symbol of victory). Yes, the way is narrow. A relatively small number of the earth’s billions of inhabitants through time will find the way. Yet a vast multitude that Christ redeems by His blood will enter through the heavenly portals and sing the song of the redeemed. We are foolish to speculate how many, and we are in danger of judgment to decide who is worthy and who is not. But we are unfaithful to scripture if we insist that the number of redeemed in heaven are any fewer than the “vast multitude” John sees before the throne.
As for the white clothing, we have addressed this in previous lessons (see, for example, the notes on Rev. 3:1-6); however, it’s good to be reminded of its significance. Candidates for Christian baptism in the ancient church wore white robes as a symbol of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Further, Paul writes in Eph. 5:27 that Jesus gave Himself for the church “to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless.” And in Rev. 19:8 we see the church depicted as a bride, “permitted to wear fine linen, bright and pure. For the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints.” On earth, believers are declared righteous, or justified; in heaven, they are made righteous, or glorified. In either case, their white robes depict the righteousness of Christ.
Concerning the palm branches in the hands of the redeemed, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown share this insight: “The palm branch is the symbol of joy and triumph. It was used at the feast of tabernacles, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when they kept [a] feast to God in thanksgiving for the ingathered fruits. The antitype shall be the completed gathering in of the harvest of the elect redeemed here described. Compare Zec 14:16, whence it appears that the earthly feast of tabernacles will be renewed, in commemoration of Israel’s preservation in her long wilderness-like sojourn among the nations from which she shall now be delivered, just as the original typical feast was to commemorate her dwelling for forty years in booths or tabernacles in the literal wilderness” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. 7:9–10).
Next: They cried out in a loud voice — Rev. 7:9-17
Second in a series of short answers to questions about the New Testament
Who are Jesus’ people? These words from an angel, announcing Mary’s conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, must have brought to Joseph’s mind the promises of God to provide salvation through the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37). “His people” in this context must mean Jews, of course, but it certainly can’t mean all Jews since not all Jews have trusted in Jesus as Messiah. Nor does it deny salvation to Gentiles, who receive eternal life just as the Jews — by God’s grace through faith (Gal. 3:6-9; see also John 5:24; Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9).