Note: This article is part of a series.
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10, NKJ)
We’ve been looking at the various pictures of the church given to us in the book of Revelation. Revelation communicates God’s truth by means of pictures that draw their imagery from the Old Testament. The first part of chapter 7 presents the church on earth as 144,000 OT Israelites arrayed in battle formation and yet singing as a great choir. This often misinterpreted picture reminds us that the church is always at war while on the earth and that it is a great and mighty army, who advances through its worship and service to King Jesus, the conquering Lamb of the vision.
In Revelation 7:9 there is a fascinating shift. John looks again and the vast army of 144,000 Hebrews has been transformed into a “great multitude which no one could number.” This confirms what we said in a previous post regarding the symbolic nature of the numbers used in Revelation. 144,000 is symbolic of the full number of God’s people (the church) in all ages. This is why this same group can be described as a great multitude that cannot be counted and which includes representatives of all “nations, tribes, people, and tongues.”
There are important truths about the church communicated in this picture. One is that the true church of God includes a vast number of people and not just a relatively small, select group. This is encouraging! The New Testament Church began with just a handful of people around 2000 years ago and has grown into a body of hundreds of millions and it is still not done growing. Another important insight from this passage is the reminder that the church is truly diverse. Christ did not come to save a particular ethnic group or culture but to save and redeem sinners from all parts of the world. The church is going to grow and the church is going to include all the nations of the world. This is a great reminder that all notions of priority for this or that ethnic or racial group go out the window in Christ. As Paul writes, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11, NKJ).
In addition to shifting from the image of an army to the image of a great, multi-ethnic throng, Revelation 7 shifts from a vision of the church on earth to the church in heaven. Verse 10 tells us that the multitude is standing before the throne and before the Lamb. This is the scene of heavenly worship depicted in chapters 4 and 5. Revelation 6:17, when speaking of the coming judgment of Christ, asks the question, “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Here is the answer! The church of Jesus Christ, translated to glory is able to stand before the Lamb. Why? Because they are dressed in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness as they lay their palm branches before Him in worship, praising Him for His salvation (v. 10). Here we have a beautiful depiction of what theologians call, “the church triumphant.” Commentator Louis Brighton says of this picture, “This is the most beautiful picture in the entire Bible of the saints of God in heaven: the church triumphant.”
What a glorious reminder for us. On earth we are perpetually in combat as the church militant but our certain future is to be translated to the church made perfect, glorious and victorious in heaven with our Savior. This begs the question, “How do we pass from the church militant into the church triumphant?” Or, as John recounts in his vision, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?” (7:13, NKJ). A common approach to this passage today argues that it is about the rapture of the church before the time of the great tribulation. This is most certainly not what this passage is saying. We should not teach people to hope in a secret Rapture of believers.
Rather, this passages teaches us to expect to enter glory through tribulation. As John writes in v. 14, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (ESV, emphasis added). The "great tribulation" is one of the ways that Revelation describes the entire period of time between the two advents of Christ. In other words, this is the context of the Christian life. As Jesus said to His disciples in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (NKJ, emphasis added). So, how do we join the church triumphant? We do it by living and dying in faith as those whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and made white (v. 14). As commentator Dennis Johnson says, “The innumerable assembly of nations shows the victorious church in heaven, emerging triumphant from tribulation not through a painless rapture but through a faithful death…”
Further confirmation that we are seeing here the church in heaven is found in the concluding verses of the chapter which use the language of heaven to describe the situation of the multitude of saints. They are before the throne of God, they serve Him day and night, God dwells in their midst, they suffer no hunger or thirst or heat, they are led and accompanied by the Lamb and all their tears are wiped away (v. 15-17). These beautiful images are drawn from OT prophetic passages ultimately about the new heavens and new earth (see Isaiah 25, 49 and Ezekiel 34, 37).
We are all living through a time of great uncertainty. A new disease is ravaging our planet and the nations of the world seem ill-equipped to deal with it. Politicians and medical professionals attempt to play the role of savior while we watch helplessly, hoping that someone in charge knows what he or she is doing. How comforting to us – in this present crisis or any other one that comes along – to know that we are sealed in Christ and washed in His blood so that we can fight faithfully as long as we live on this earth. We fight in the sure knowledge that as soon as we have finished our work, we will join the great assembly in heaven. We will bask in the glory and presence of our Savior. We will praise Him with hearts unfettered by sin. We will celebrate His victory as part of the church triumphant. That is the destiny of every one of His children. Ask Jesus to help you see this picture of the church in all of its significance and glory.