The text for our consideration is the Epistle reading from Revelation 7 which we hear every year on All Saints Sunday and also every third year on Good Shepherd Sunday in which we are given one of those peaks behind the curtain into heaven.
Just think about the fetus in his mother’s womb who thinks that this small world in which they live and have gotten quite comfortable is all that there is. And yet, as science shown us, there is a point when the fetus in the womb is able to hear voices coming from somewhere outside the womb. And soon they even begin to recognize those voices. There is something outside of this small world in which they are getting more and more cramped for space. But what is it and what’s it like? And what would it be like to actually leave this ‘small’ world and enter into ‘that’ world?
These are the thoughts that flow from Luther, who is quoted as saying, “we know no more about eternal life than children in the womb of their mother know about the world they are about to enter.”
But we have an imagination. And based on our imagination we picture heaven in certain ways. Ask an avid golfer what heaven is like and he’ll describe a beautiful golf course where every shot goes straight and every put goes right into the hole. Those who have lived all their lives with a physical handicap imagine eternal life in heaven as being set free from those handicaps. If I asked you what heaven is like, how would you describe it?
Or am I assuming too much with this question? There are, no doubt, lots of people who don’t believe that there is such a thing called ‘heaven.’ They say, there is no world beyond this world, no life beyond this life. You’re born, you die, and that’s all there is. There is nothing on the other side of the curtain but death. Okay. So if I asked you what death is like, how would you describe it?
The Christians in Corinth had the idea that life in this world is all there is. Faith in Jesus Christ might actually help a person make life in this world better than it would be without faith in Jesus Christ. To which Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope IN THIS LIFE ONLY, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:19). How pitiable is the person who lives this life as though this is all that there is?
On the other hand, there are those who claim to have had the experience of dying and being taken behind the curtain to see what’s there only to come back to this side of the curtain again and reported on what they have seen. And typically there are vague recollections of bright lights and a warm feelings and friendly voices.
And to put the best construction on it, I suppose what they want is for us to believe that there really is another world and another life on the other side of this one. And who’s to say if they’re stories are true or not.
My point however is, who needs these stories when we have the Holy Scriptures which are completely confident are completely true. In the Holy Scriptures we are taken behind the curtain and are given to see heaven, in extraordinary clarity of detail.
“A great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Reading the Holy Scriptures is like taking your eyes out of your head and giving them the prophet or the apostle and saying, ‘here, take these behind the curtain so I can see what’s on the other side.’
So when we hear John say, “and then I looked…” he is seeing FOR US. And through him, we are seeing into heaven itself. We are seeing heaven in such high definition that even if all those other stories that sell lots of books are true, they’re boring and who needs them.
Seeing heaven through the apostle’s eyes, we are even personally engaged in a conversation with those who are there. It’s really our question that the “elder” knows that we are burning to ask when he asks, “who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
“Who are these…?” It’s not the angels we’re pointing to but the ones “clothed in white robes…?” “Who are these…? And from where have they come?” Is this an alien planet where everyone wears white robes and carry palm branches in their hands and worship a Lamb?
And the answer is ‘no, these are not from another galaxy or another world at all.’ They’re from this world. This world where we live and move and have our being. “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”
“The great tribulation” is the perfect description for life on this side of the curtain. That word ‘tribulation’ has to do with being ‘pressed’ and living under ‘pressure’ and with ‘oppression’ and ‘distress’ and ‘pain’ and ‘suffering.’
Jesus points to our life on this side of the curtain when He says, “in THIS WORLD you will have tribulation.” But then He immediately adds, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
What is this “tribulation” that the elder actually calls “the great tribulation”? We ought NOT think of this as some particular time in world history where Christians are especially persecuted for confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord and living by faith. If “tribulation” is living under ‘pressure’ and ‘oppression’ with its accompanying ‘distress’ and ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ BECAUSE you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and strive to live by faith, then the “great tribulation” is the cumulative grand total of every one of these pressures.
“Tribulation” comes from outside of us. Outside forces PRESSURE us to conform to what they want us do, or think or believe. And when these outside forces want us to do what is CONTRARY to the life of faith, we feel the ‘pressure’ and experience ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ in so many more ways than just ‘physical.’
But “tribulation” also comes from inside us. Our mind tells us that God always knows best and God’s Word is always the right way to go. But our heart tells us that we know better and “the good that I will to do I don’t and the evil that I hate that I do.” (Rom. 7)
This is the ‘great tribulation’ that every single one of us experiences as long as we strive to live by faith in Christ our Lord for as long as we are in this world. If you want to escape this “tribulation” while you’re still in this world, the best thing you can do is to quit the faith and renounce Christ and do whatever your sinful, corrupted, broken heart tells you to do. It’s easy. And it will all work out just fine in the end, UNLESS there really is something on the other side of the curtain; UNLESS there really is a resurrection from the dead to either heaven or hell.
Better to listen to the ‘elder.’ “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” These are they who a part of the Good Shepherd’s flock and who listened to the Shepherd’s voice and followed Him. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
What John is seeing here is the day after THE LAST DAY. There is a day that is coming that will be the Last Day. It will be an ETERNAL DAY. On the LAST DAY, Christ will come again. And no one will have to give their eyes to the prophet or apostle. For every eye will see Him.
And on that Day, the curtain will be torn open even as the curtain in the temple was rent asunder when Christ breathed His last on the cross. And for the holy flock of the Good Shepherd, who listened to His voice and followed Him all through the GREAT TRIBULATION, it will be heaven forever.
“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This is the Christian hope. This is the Christian hope for the future that allows us and frees us to live faithfully and confidently in the present. Knowing that in our baptism, we were washed in the blood of the Lamb and are already in that great multitude in heaven, we are bold to faithfully live in the present, carrying out the various vocations that our Lord has entrusted to us – mothers being faithful mothers, fathers being faithful fathers, husbands and wives being faithful spouses, children honoring their mother and fathers, listening to the voice of our Good Shepherd, until the LAST DAY comes when we will wake up on the other side of the curtain.