9 After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice:
“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. 15 This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (CEB)
Win… By Losing
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parishioner tell me that the Book of Revelation scares them. I’ve heard those words in every church I’ve served as a pastor. And, I understand why Revelation is a scary book. The first reason is probably that the style of writing is unfamiliar to us. It’s part of a genre of literature called apocalyptic, which includes Daniel 7-12 and many, many other writings. In fact, I have a book on my office shelves that contains more than twenty other writings in the apocalyptic genre.
Another reason Revelation scares us is because there are a lot of wacky interpretations out there, like the Left Behind series of books and movies. While this stuff is popular, it’s just plain wrong. It’s actually bad Biblical interpretation. And these incorrect interpretations scares some people because we don’t want to get left behind when the rapture happens and have to live through the tribulation with the antichrist in charge of the world. I mean, life is tough enough. We face enough difficulty as it is every day. So, we want out of here before even more difficult times come! We don’t want to live through suffering.
Yet, suffering is and has always been a part of the Christian story. If there is one serious misconception of the Christian Faith that John the Seer highlights in this text of Revelation, I’d say it’s the misconception that one of God’s main responsibilities—the thing that God owes to us—is to keep us and those we love safe from harm. And, if or when God “fails” to keep us or our loved ones safe from harm, then our faith can start to fall apart. We can question and accuse God for not doing the job God was supposed to do, for not meeting our most basic expectations. We ask ourselves questions, like, if God is all-powerful, then why wouldn’t God heal my uncle’s cancer? Was my uncle not good enough? Were his wife and children not good enough? Why did they all have to suffer through his illness and death?
Those are questions that grief asks, and I think they’re okay to ask them. I even think it’s okay for us to be angry at God at times, because I also believe that God takes our anger and grief and lives in it with us. Maybe God even asks those same questions of God’s self as we’re wrapped in God’s love and held tight.
Yet, questions remains for us to consider: why would we who follow a tortured and crucified savior expect that God should keep us from harm when Christ, himself, didn’t escape it?
Why should we expect to be kept from harm when all of the apostles but John was killed for confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord?
Paul was beheaded in Rome.
Uncounted Christians were martyred: Stephen, James, Ignatius, Perpetua, Felicity, Polycarp, Blandina – they were all killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Christians have experienced hardship in every chapter of the church’s existence. What part about the Christian Faith makes us think that we should be immune to suffering: that God’s job is to prevent suffering in our lives?
John’s vision in Revelation 7 is of a multitude that no one can count, and they’ve all come out of great hardship. They’re in need of shelter. They have experienced hunger. They have experienced thirst. They have experienced scorching heat. And they have tears in their eyes. This gathered throng of people is not made up of people who are feeling all right, who’ve never been touched by hardship or harm. They have suffered.
Suffering is expected as a part of the Christian experience. That’s why Peter wrote, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13 CEB).
“These are not strange happenings,” yet, it seems that even in Peter’s day Christian people were raising objections to their suffering. We do the same thing, which tells us that it’s a normal part of the human experience to reject suffering as something that we—or anyone—deserves.
But that’s true, too, isn’t it? We don’t deserve to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. It’s wrong when human beings or human institutions cause other human beings to suffer. So, we reject the very idea that suffering is an acceptable lot for anyone—but especially us. I mean, we might not be able to personally vouch for those others—those refugees fleeing violence their homelands for instance, but we know that we’re good people. What we know for certain is that undeserved suffering is unjust, and I think (I hope!) that all of us would say that any suffering is unjust.
But, because of sin and how it gets a hold of each person and each institution we build, the world is not a fair place in which to live. Suffering is a part of the Christian experience because it’s part of the human experience of sin.
But thank God suffering not the only part of the Christian experience. While we should expect to experience suffering, God’s promise is to be with us through our trouble: to be present with us right in the midst of it—and to save us by raising us up to new life. And in that new life, God will care for us in all the ways we might need. In that new life, we’ll no longer live under the rule of sin, so all suffering will be a thing of the past.
This is only one part of what John’s vision teaches us. Revelation is one of my favorite books. As wild as some of the imagery and symbolism is, it’s really not scary. Let me highlight some parts of John’s vision in chapter 7. I’m going to include the first eight verses, too, because they’re part of this section as a whole.
The beginning of chapter 7 is where we’re introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed: 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Dan, if you’ve never noticed). In apocalyptic writings, numbers are symbolic. This number, 144,000, is a multiple of 12x12x10x10x10. The number 12 symbolizes fullness or completeness with obvious overtones of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The number 10 symbolizes the completion of a cycle of perfect order. So, the 144,000 is symbolic of the whole, complete number of God’s people: all of God’s people who are gathered together and who have finished their course.
John hears the number of those who are sealed as God’s servants (c.f. Rev. 7:4). But, when John looks in verse 9, he sees, “a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9 CEB). The image begins with the tribes of Israel, but what John sees clarifies that this group of worshippers includes all kinds of people, from all kinds of places, who speak all kinds of languages, and there are so many of them that they can’t possibly be numbered.
This uncountable throng of people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language should remind us that God’s dominion is more inclusive than our little tribes tend to be, and it should challenge us to strive to love and serve those whom we and our dominant culture would undoubtedly consider the other.
This uncountable, multi-cultural multitude are dressed in white. Colors have symbolic meaning in apocalyptic literature, too, and white means victory. In Revelation, white does not mean purity, as it often does in our cultural context. These people are dressed as victors. And, they have palm branches in their hands. The date palm was a symbol of the Judean kings, which was why the people waved palm branches when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as their king and Messiah (and probably making the Roman soldiers nervous about the possibility of an uprising).
The multitude of people in Revelation 7 cry out in a loud voice, “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10 CEB). But the word translated as victory here is σωτηρία (soteria), and it means salvation. This is actually a cry that runs counter to the official claims of the Roman Empire that salvation—in the sense of prosperity, peace, safety, and security—comes from the Emperor and the Roman State. One of the titles of the Roman Caesars was Soter, which is Savior.
So, this act of worship by those in white robes who hold palm branches is sedition against the Roman State. But that’s the thing we might not realize about worship. Worship is dangerous. Worship is a declaration of loyalty. When we worship God, we are making a statement that no other claimant for our loyalty has it. If you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you might recall that the beast also received worship. When we worship here, we are declaring that God alone has our loyalty over and above every other government, institution, party, and individual.
Worship is quite a statement, don’t you think?
Then, in a conversation between John and one of the elders, we find out that the gathered worshippers have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. When John first heard of this Lamb, he was described as “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5 CEB). But, when John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah, what he sees is, “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6 CEB). That says something about the power dynamics at play in God’s dominion. The mighty, powerful lion appears as a slaughtered lamb, and it’s the Lamb that has emerged victorious.
The robes of the worshippers are washed in the blood of the Lamb and made white. It’s a powerful image and a powerful statement. Remember that, in apocalyptic literature, white means victory. The blood of Jesus that was spilled in his sacrificial death for us is what has won the victory for us.
And it’s important for us to note that every robe needs washing.
The Lamb at the center of God’s throne will shepherd the people. The Lamb will care for those who have come out of suffering and hardship. The Lamb will guide them to fresh water that pours from the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
This is beautiful, not scary.
John the Seer of Revelation reminds us that, if we are God’s people—as we claim to be by our very act of worship—then we can and should proclaim with boldness that salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb. Our witness on behalf of the crucified and risen Savior can and often does bring us into direct conflict with the powers of this world. Yet, no other allegiance matters because victory only comes from the blood of Jesus. New life only comes by dying. Victory is only won… by losing.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay