an exposition of Revelation 7:9-17
by the Rev. Matthew Brench
at Grace Anglican Church
upon 12 May 2019 (Easter IV)
Today is nicknamed ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. Traditionally the second Sunday after Easter and in modern calendars moved down a week later, this is when we hear, from the Gospel of St. John, some part of one of Jesus’ most beloved teachings about himself: “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” And this is not an isolated metaphor; the Bible is generously sprinkled with shepherd imagery for God’s ministers and for God himself. One of the best-loved Psalms famously begins “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not [be in] want.” This prominent image throughout the Bible gives us a rich, homely, and believable set of ideas that we can latch onto as we seek to understand God.
As a shepherd, specifically a good shepherd, God guides us, feeds us, and protects us. He leadeth me beside still waters, he spreads a table for me, and he does so in the presence of my enemies. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear, his rod comforts us because with it he can beat down the wolves, his staff comforts us because with it he can pull us out of danger if we stray too far away. And Jesus goes so far as to say that, as the good shepherd, he is not only known to his sheep, but he himself loves us: he will lay down his life in order to guide us, feed us, and protect us.
Although we are continuing our exploration through the book of Revelation this morning, this Good Shepherd theme will still be with us. For as we look through the main of chapter 7 today, we find that God indeed guides, feeds, and protects his people.
After this I looked… (v9)
“After this” refers to the first 8 verses in which four angels prevent further judgment being carried out against the earth until the saints of God have been “sealed.” It has become popular in the past century and a half to interpret this as a future event – a literal 144,000 Jewish people will receive a special mark on their foreheads from God to distinguish them from the sinful world around them and protect them from the judgments that God is about to pour out. However, more historic interpretation offers the reminder that all Christians are sealed by Christ in the New Covenant. Holy Baptism is, in particular, where this sealing is described as taking place, but the idea of being sealed for God or sealed by God is larger than just the sacrament itself, but a matter of belonging to God, being a member of the Body of Christ, being a sheep in Christ’s flock.
Behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, 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 upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.” (v9-12)
Like what we heard last week in chapter 5, the heavenly throne room of God is a place of constant worship. The 24 elders and four living creatures are here again, along with all the angels and saints, crying out in worship together. We’ve even sung about this today: “Let saints on earth in concert sing with those whose work is done; for all the servants of our King in heaven and earth are one.” All this is along the same lines as what we heard last time.
What’s new and different about this part of John’s vision, in chapter 7, is the “great multitude which no man could number.” This cloud of witnesses is drawn from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. You look around the room in a local church and you will often see a lot of people from the same country, same region, same ethnicity, and language. There are churches that draw lots of young adults together but are conspicuously absent of elders. There are churches that draw together an immigrant community where they all worship in their mother-tongue. There are churches that are predominantly Hispanic, or black, or white. These are not inherently bad things; most people naturally flock to those who are like themselves; but there are challenges that come with this affinity-based congregations.
What would you do if someone of a different color or ethnicity visited our church? How would we handle someone who doesn’t understand English very well? It can be difficult to remember that in heaven we will be a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic congregation. If we don’t experience diversity on earth, we run the risk of forgetting the diversity in heaven. What’s worse, sometimes people look at their affinity-based congregations and begin to assume that this is the way it’s supposed to be. The church must be segregated by language, by race, by nationality. Once homogeneity is achieved, some might fall into new and terrible temptations: assuming that the expression of Christianity championed by their nationality, their ethnicity, their race, is better than all others. These nationalistic or ethno-centric poisons can come up anywhere, and we can see this running rampant in several corners of American Christianity today, among both conservatives and liberals.
These visions of heaven help correct us of our worldly blinders. Not everyone in heaven will speak the Queen’s English. Not everyone in heaven will look Caucasian. Not everyone in heaven will look your age, or my age. The innumerable saints in heaven will be representative of all the peoples of the earth; and each of them will be clothed in the same white garments – the righteousness of our one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That is the point; whoever we are, we all proclaim Christ.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; 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.” (v13-19)
In classic apocalyptic style, a heavenly figure helps John to understand the vision he’s having. These innumerable saints in heaven are given further explanation. They have gone through “the great tribulation.” Some interpreters suggest that there will be a particular “great tribulation” at the end of history, leading up to the day Jesus returns. A number of modern interpreters have taken this idea even farther, identified it as being seven years long, and lining up all sorts of judgment events throughout that period, arguing over if the Rapture will occur before, during, or after this tribulation. Most of this debate is pure rubbish. The Rapture, as commonly expressed, is the sudden removal of the entire Church from the world such that God can conclude his covenant with the Jews. This is utterly non-biblical, twisting all sorts of key scriptural teachings.
Now, there may well be an especially nasty time of tribulation in the final stretch before Jesus returns, but that is not the clear teaching of the book of Revelation, nor is it the point of this passage. (Indeed, the saints who’ve passed through this “great tribulation” are innumerable… if this was referring to a particular tribulation at the end of time, the numbers would surely be countable, like the 144,000 earlier in this chapter!) It is far more important to recognize that tribulation – both persecution of Christians from worldly powers as well as each of our internal struggles against sin – is continuous throughout history. When St. John wrote down this vision, government-sponsored persecution was just getting started, and would get worse for about a century before things began to improve again. Since then, Christians have struggled against the world, the flesh, and the devil in many different ways and to many different degrees all over the world.
Anyway, the saints in heaven have gone through the tribulation, in whatever form that took, and now wear white robes. Contrary to usual wisdom concerning laundry, these robes are white because they’ve been washed with blood. The bloodstain of Jesus makes us perfectly clean. As we say at the altar, “The Blood of Christ: the cup of salvation.” Therefore, the elder explains to John, are they before the throne of God and serve him day and night within his temple. Salvation leads to worship. And in that place of salvation and worship, we see all sorts of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled: They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. These images, especially from the book of Isaiah, communicate to us the peace and prosperity and perfection that we will enjoy in the risen and glorified life to come.
To summarize, this vision teaches us three things about Christians and Christianity.
- We are Sealed & Glorified in Christ. God promises himself to all who are committed to him, and we receive that as a seal upon our foreheads, something we can believe in and hope upon. As we persevere the tribulations of life, we move ever-closer to the life of eternal glory with God.
- Salvation yields worship. Both saints on earth and in heaven proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus and extoll his greatness. Our knowledge of his great work of atonement points us to share in his eucharistic feast, giving thanks with hearts made clean by his saving blood.
- In heaven we see the final Fulfillment of Prophecy. The peace and prosperity, the health and wealth, that especially the Old Testament Prophets foretold concerning God’s faithful people, do not find their complete realization in this life, but in the life to come. Only with sin washed away, and life’s tribulations ended, with the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, will we see the ever-lasting fruit of redemption.
Until then, and on the way there, we know Jesus as our Good Shepherd. He is guiding us to that heavenly life, feeding us and protecting us every step of the way there. There is always tribulation to undergo, in some form or another. There is always the need for being washed in the blood of the lamb to become white as snow. But we are never alone in this wander through the wilderness of the world: as Moses led the Israelites across the sea and through the desert, so Jesus leads us across the waters of baptism and through this earthly life. He guides us through his under-shepherds or pastors; he feeds us with manna from above in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; he protects us with the two-edged sword of God’s Word. Let us attend to these great provisions and promises of God, let us give thanks to our redeemer, let us hear and follow our Good Shepherd. Amen.