Click play to listen to the audio version of this sermon.
This is now the third stop on our tour through the book of Revelation during this Easter season.
Last week we stopped at chapter 5. There we saw the Son of God looking like a Lamb who was slain. He took the scroll that was in God the Father's right hand and that was sealed with seven seals. What we said was that the destiny of the whole human race and all of God's creation was written down on that scroll. And that by opening it, it would all be administered just as it is written, and that only the Lamb, who is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is worthy to open the scroll and to read it and administer the course of human history because only He "was slain and by His blood, He ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and made them a kingdom and priests to our God." (Rev.5:9-10).
And then what we said was that the rest of the book of Revelation, chapter 6 through 22, was the revealing of what is written on that scroll as it's opened one seal at a time. So, we left off at chapter 5 and today we come to chapter 7. By the time we arrive at chapter seven, six of the seven seals on this scroll have been opened in chapter 6. If you want to follow this in your bible as I try to summarize things, you'll find this in Revelation, chapter 6. (Page 1031 in your pew bible).
I. The Six Seals Opened
As the first four seals are opened, each reveals a horse of a different color and its rider. Each rider is sent into the world and creates a certain hardship or calamity on the earth. A white horse and its rider are sent to create war. A red horse and rider are sent to cause civil unrest. A black horse and rider work are sent into the world to create economic hardship. And then there's the pale horse and its rider. The rider's name is Death and Hades follows right behind him. Whatever trouble and hardship the first three create, this one finishes it off by bringing death.
These are the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Even though the seals are opened one at a time, they're all roaming around simultaneously. This sounds like the world we live in doesn't it? That's because it is the world we live in. It's the course of human history during the last days, the end times and that's now. And it's happening just as its written in that scroll.
The first four seals reveal the social, political and economic conditions of life in the last days. The next two seals reveal how people live under these conditions. The 5th seal reveals people who survive in the midst of this troubling time by calling on the name of the Lord. Even though they suffer and die because of their faith in Christ, their souls are safely hidden under the altar.
The 6th seal reveals people who try to hide from the Lord and run from Him. They come from every socio-economic category from the highest to the lowest. They sense that God will judge them in the end, but rather than call upon Him for mercy, they flee from Him.
And that brings us to the end of chapter 6. So, as chapter 7 opens, we expect to see the 7th seal opened. But that doesn't come until chapter 8. Before the 7th and final seal is opened, something very important must first happen. All of the servants of God must be sealed with a mark.
II. The Interlude before the 7th Seal.
Vss.1-8. "After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads." And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel…" And there the tribes are listed.
Before the 7th seal is opened, the "servants of God" must be sealed with a mark on their forehead.
This "seal" that marks the servants of God, those who are under the altar, is the same word that is used for the seal that seals the scroll. "Sphragis." It's the word for the brand that shepherds put on their sheep to show who they belong to. It's the word for the mark that Roman soldiers would receive when they enlisted in the army to show whose command they were under.
The mark identifies who owns and has authority over the one who is marked. Later in the book of Revelation, we read that some are marked with the sign of the anti-Christ, the number 666. But here, these are marked with the sign of God that identifies them as belonging to God and under His authority.
Although we're not told what that mark looks like or if it's visible or invisible the church has historically pictured that mark as the cross of Jesus Christ. Very early in the church's history, it this marking of the 'servants of God,' was incorporated into the rite of Holy Baptism. In the In Holy Baptism, we are made children of God, 'servants of God,' we belong to Him as children belong to their Father. He has authority over us as the Lord has authority over His servants. And so we receive the "sphragis" of the cross, both upon our forehead and upon our heart to mark us as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. And Christ, our Good Shepherd says, "no one will snatch them our of my hand."
A Great Multitude
Now finally we come to the assigned text for today.
Vss.9-12. Description of the Congregation
"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages."
Here are the ones who have been marked. It's such a large congregation that the ushers can't count the attendance. Which means that the number 144,000 is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
In Genesis 15, we read that God told Abraham, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. (Which of course he couldn't.) So shall your offspring be." Later, God compares the number of Abraham's offspring to the grains of sand on the shore. Stars in the sky, grains of sand on the shore, both uncountable numbers, and here they are all gathered together around the throne and the Lamb.
And the diversity of the congregation is so remarkable that it stands out to John. The Lamb was slain and His blood ransomed people "from every tribe and language and people and nation."
On the day of Pentecost, we read that there were "devout men from every nation under heaven dwelling in Jerusalem." The apostles preached in the native language of each foreigner who was there. Peter's sermon planted God's Word into their ears. And those who were present took that Word home and shared it with others, and the word did, what the Word does. Some fell on good soil and produced a crop, not 100 or 50 or 20 fold. But a crop too abundant to count.
They were "standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
The congregation of marked ones who had been LYING under the altar are now STANDING before the throne. They're waiving palm branches reminiscent of Palm Sunday. They're wearing "white robes." All of their filthy rags have been stripped from them. But not one was left naked and ashamed. They were covered with white robes.
Jesus told a parable about guests who were invited to a wedding feast and one guest was kicked out because he was wearing the wrong clothes. The entire multitude of this heavenly congregation is properly attired in the only attire that is fitting in heaven – the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
And the whole congregation was "crying with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'" To which the angels and living creatures can only add, "Amen." There comes a certain point in the Church's worship and praise of God that all it can do is say "Amen." "This is most certainly true."
Vss. 13-14. Who Are These?
This is a lot to take in, I know. It was a lot of John to take it too. Maybe it was the confused look on his face that prompted one of the elders to ask him, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and where do they come from?" John confesses that he doesn't know and he's not willing to guess.
"These are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation."
The book of Daniel talks about a certain time in human history right before the 2nd coming of Christ that will be such a terrible time for Christians that it's called "the great tribulation." Jesus refers to this in Matthew 25 and says that if that time were not cut short, even the elect would fall away.
Now, whether this is that "great tribulation" or not is hard to say. We do notice that Elder doesn't say that these are they who WILL come out of the great tribulation. He says, "These are those who ARE COMING OUT of the great tribulation." It's all very present tense.
As long as the four horsemen are at work in the world causing the trouble that they have been sent to do, there will be tribulation. Jesus promises it. "In this world you will have tribulation." (John 16:33). Every tribulation that we face is GREAT for the one who faces it. Whether it be warfare, economic hardship, violence in your school, in our communities, in our homes, the absence of peace in our marriages, in our family; sickness, disease, death, you name it. The four horsemen touch every one of us with their trouble and destruction. And for everyone who is so touched, that is our great tribulation.
But these have come out, safely. They have arrived at the goal. And not because they were sinless, but because "they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." It was certainly not that they just drifted along where ever the wind might blow them and they just happened to end up in heaven. They fought and struggled and resisted. They called upon the Lord to give them the strength to do the hard thing, the painful thing. They didn't take the easy road, they took the narrow road and entered through the narrow door, even at the cost of their life, their pride, their selfishness. And all of their failures and doubts and sins were not acceptable to them and they didn't cover them up with excuses or blame. They washed their robes. They weren't passive. John doesn't say that their robes were washed for them. They were active in resisting the evil and fighting against the temptation and striving to do the good. "They washed their robes."
But their robes are white, sinless, pure and holy, and they are victorious, not because of their heroism and noble virtues, but by the virtue of Another's blood. It was not their blood that made them clean. It was the blood of the Lamb who was slain. Even the foulest and most stained life is made clean and white and pure and holy by His blood.
And then, like the priests of God that they are and that we shall be, "they serve Him day and night in His temple." And in this temple, all of the tribulation that is in the world is gone, over, done. No more hunger or thirst, no more tears or sorrow. His presence will their shelter and their food and their drink and both physically and spiritually, they shall be satisfied.
Jesus said, "I have said these things to you, that IN ME you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) This is the victory of Easter that we celebrate.
"For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and will guide them to springs of living water."