God always has His Israel, His priestly people. Jesus is the certainty of that.
John first heard before He saw. That’s how it is with God’s mysteries – you must hear them before you see them. He heard heard a number: 144,000. And he heard the roll call: 12,000 from every tribe of Israel. Judah is first; the Lion of Judah now reigns. Dan is missing – the anti-messiah was supposed to come from Dan. Dan is out. Joseph, the savior of his brothers, takes his place. 12 times 12 times 1000 in glorious perfection. An Israel like there never was before and never will be on this earth. God’s Israel, His chosen people, holy nation, royal priesthood. His baptized believers who bear the mark of their God upon their foreheads.
Having heard the perfect number, John then looks with his eyes, and he sees a great multitude no one could count in all their diversity – from every nation, every tribe, every people, every language. Their Babel divisions are finally ended. They are finally one people under one God. They wear white robes, the baptismal sign of their priestly purity. “As many of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.” They are covered with the seamless robe of Jesus’ righteousness. Behold a host arrayed in white.
They’re waving palm branches, the way the Israelites did every year at the feast of Tabernacles when they marched around the temple grounds waving palm branches to signify God’s victory and their homecoming. A perpetual Palm Sunday.
They worship the slain Lamb who lives. People ask, “What is heaven going to be like? What will we be doing for all eternity? The answer from the Revelation is this: Worship. What else is there to do when your labors are ended? You might say that church is kind of preview, a foretaste of the feast to come, when our work is over and all there will be is worship. And for those who don’t have time or interest to bow before the Lamb and worship Him, you have to ask: What then are you preparing for,?
John heard their liturgy. Not coincidentally, it sounds a bit like ours, at least the words do, because our liturgy borrows from theirs. They praise Christ and His Father for saving them: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” There is salvation in no other than this Jesus whom the Father sent to die and rise. His is the only Name by which we are saved. He alone is the Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep.
Salvation is both inclusive and exclusive. Jesus inclusively died for all, for every last sinner and every last sin. Once for all people, once for all time. Lifted up from the earth, He drew all to Himself. There is no one who has not been died for, no one whose sins are not covered by His death. And this, exclusively. There is only one Son of the Father, one only-begotten. Only one Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Only one Good Shepherd who leads to eternal life. No other name, no other Savior, no other shepherd than Jesus. He’s all the Savior the world gets, and all it will ever need. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”
The hosts of heaven agree. They fall down on their faces and add a thunderous “Amen!” together with a seven-fold doxology: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever. Amen” This is most certainly true.
The big question, the one pressing on John, is: “Who is this congregation, this crowd of white-robed worshippers, and where do they come from?” The answer may surprise you at first. They are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. Please notice, “they are coming out” in the present tense, not in the past tense, the way we have it in our translations. Believers are not spared tribulation, they go through it together with Jesus, and with Him they come out of it. No “rapture” where true believers escape the troubles of this world. Only one, continuous coming out of this veil of tears” to eternal life. Jesus isn’t a way around the dark valley of the shadow of death, He’s the only way through it.
Freed from the tyranny of chronos, looking through an open door into the kairos of eternity, sees the entire company of believers as it was never seen on earth. He is seeing the triumphant side of the church, of which we see only the militant. On earth the church looks weak, inept, confused, incompetent, irrelevant, divided, mismanaged, hopelessly out of touch. Her glory is hidden behind a cross; her victory a matter of faith, her only hope is one crucified, risen and reigning Lamb. But now this white robed bunch who suffered all, even the loss of their own lives, are face to face with the only thing that matters – the Lamb at the center of the throne who is their shepherd.
We learn the secret of their purity. Their robes are washed in the Lamb’s blood. Only His blood will do. Their blood cannot cleanse from sin. Nor can the sweat of their labors or the tears of their contrition. There is no such thing as sinless saints, only forgiven ones. If you say you have no sin, you’re kidding yourself. Temptations abound. Sin comes all too naturally to the natural born sinner. But the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.
The word “sin” doesn’t’ seem to have the traction it once did. Tell someone that something is a “sin,” and they’ll probably laugh at you and call you a “religious fanatic.” Mention that something is bad for their health, and they’ll go into a state of apoplexy. They’ll want laws to protect the children. But “sin”? We worry more about calories and fat grams.
We need to be specific, diagnositc: immorality, greed, lust, envy, murder, gossip, theft, pride, hatred, idolatry. These are the symptoms of the inborn, congenital death of Adam at work in us. Only the blood of Christ, shed for us on the cross, and delivered to us in His Word, in Baptism, and in the Supper of His Body and Blood, can purify us from that. And when we stand before the throne, we stand not on the basis of what we have done, but because of what the Lamb has done – His perfect life, His perfect death. “Jesus thy Blood and Righteousness, my beauty are my glorious dress.”
They tabernacle under the tent of God’s presence forever, as Israel once did in the wilderness. He is their God, they are His people, His Israel. Sun and scorching heat no longer beat down upon them. Their wilderness days are over. God is their shelter, and they are at home. They dine at His table. You get a little taste of that each Sunday – the bread of Jesus’ Body, the wine that is His Blood. No more hunger, no more thirst. They are filled and satisfied. It is finished
John knew his people were going to suffer for the faith. He knew that many would die. He knew that those seven congregations under his oversight did not stand a chance against the forces that would be unleashed against them. But he lived in the confidence that the Lord was with them always. And whether they lived or died, they did so in the confidence that they would dwell in the Lord’s house forever.
That applies to you here today too. That vision of the white robed crowd worshipping Christ the Lamb is a picture of you gathered with all of Jesus’ baptized believers. That’s your future in Jesus, and it’s already your present through faith in Jesus. Already you are gathered in worship with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. And the comfort for today is this: No matter how bad things may get, for you or for the church, no matter how many tears and how much blood is shed, no matter how much we may hunger and thirst, it all comes out good and right in Jesus. There will be tears now, plenty of them. Tears of grief, tears of sorrow, tears of suffering. But in the end those tears will be vindicated by the Lamb who died but lives, and God will wipe away every tear from your eye.
For now you must trust, take the Lamb at His Word. Hear His voice and follow Him through suffering and death to life that has no end.
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever.