The Multitudes (Part 1)

by Roger McCay
27 February 2022
Sermon Passage: Revelation 7:9-14
Link to Audio Version

There are two kinds of people in the world—those who have a reason to fear death and those who do not. This is according to the Word of God, which makes the distinction simple—Christians and non-Christians. Christ’s people have no reason to fear death and those who are not Christ’s people have every reason to fear. One group goes to heaven with eternity before them, consisting of the purest and greatest satisfactions imaginable, as the very children of God. The other is condemned eternally to suffer, withering, and in utter misery, alone forever, despairing forever without hope. One has every reason to rejoice in death in anticipation of the face of Christ. The other has no such hope. For it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb. 9:27).

Yet, it is human nature to fear death. It a struggle for both Christians and non-Christians, although there are people in both groups who honestly don’t fear death for different reasons. And that fear is rooted in the fact that death is a curse. The human race was not created by God for death, but for life. But in the fall of our first mother and father, that original sin, we all fell with them, thus we all die to the curse of sin. We long for immortality, or to hang on to life as long as possible, but we all die. Yet we are all immortal. In death our spirits enter into either paradise or perdition, awaiting our bodily resurrection and the final judgment. Everyone will be resurrected. Everyone will answer to all they have said, done, or even thought. And God’s justice and his mercy is eternally true. Thus, only those whose punishment for sin was carried out on the cross of Jesus Christ, will live in glory.

In our passage today we continue with the interlude of the breaking of the seals, between the sixth and seventh seal. The seals were on the scroll handed to the Son of God by the Father, which, when opened by the Lamb, would have its judgments carried out. And it serves as a haven of comfort in the midst of the unfolding of the terrible wrath of the Lord.

Last week, we considered the 144,000, who were a remnant of ethnic Jews, specifically the Jewish Christians, in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, during the great tribulation, some of whom escaped and some of whom died during the wars in Palestine and the siege of Jerusalem, which lasted from AD 66-70. Like all Christians, they were sealed with the Holy Spirit, of which no other seal could be greater. And the Lord was faithful to his promise. He did not abandon his people (in this case the ethnic Jews), and he preserved this remnant to himself (chosen, protected, and kept). Thus he made them secure in Jesus Christ (their salvation) in the way that most matters.

Indeed, the 144,000 was the first part of the answer to the cry of the doomed in the sixth seal, “The great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:17). And today’s passage gives the second part of the answer, as to who could stand.

In Rev. 7:9, the focus of John’s observations shifts from his hearing of the sealing of the 144,000 to what he then sees going on in the heavenly throne room. This is a continuation of the scene in the throne room that began in Rev. 4. The Lamb has been breaking the seals. Then the interlude occurs with the sealing of the 144,000. John then shifts his viewpoint as more of those who are around God’s throne are revealed. This is not a vision of something going on at the end of time. It is a continuance of the scene in which the Lamb has been breaking the seals, in anticipation of the breaking of the final seal, before he opens the scroll and unleashes his wrath upon apostate Israel, which culminates with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Now, up to this point, the throne room and its inhabitants have been revealed a little bit at a time. Revealed, in ch. 4, is the One Who Sits on the Throne (the Father), the 24 elders, the seven spirits of God (whom I’ve shown is the Holy Spirit) and the four living creatures (the Seraphim). Then a little bit more is revealed, in ch. 5, with the revelation of the Lamb (the Lord Jesus) and a mighty angel. John then heard (seemingly not seeing them at this point) myriads and myriads of angels singing, to be joined by every creature in creation. A little more was then revealed, in ch. 6, with John seeing the martyrs of the fifth seal, under the altar before the Lord, who were given white robes and told to wait a little while before the Lord brought down his vengeance. Bringing us to ch. 7, where after he heard the numbering of the 144,000, his vision is opened even more, as to who else is surrounding the Lord’s throne. Now, John sees the angels around the throne, in addition to the others, but his view is primarily honed in on the great multitude “before the throne and before the Lamb” who are anticipating the Lamb’s breaking of the 7th seal and what follows while the contents of the scroll are unleashed. So, the same scene that started, in ch. 4, here continues, as John observes more and more of what was going on in the heavenly throne room.

And with what we see in vv. 10-12, John observes heavenly worship, involving all the angels, living creatures, the elders, and the multitude of God’s people who are gathered there in the presence of the Living God. And they are worshipping the Lord with praise!

In v. 10, the multitudes of people are crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” We’ll consider in a moment the identity of these multitudes. But these Christians are rejoicing and praising the Lord, for upon their death, they were brought into the presence of God. This was not due to their merit. It was not due to their good works. But it was due to the love and grace of God. “Salvation belongs to our God!”

It is in the Lord himself that salvation for sin is found. And they are beneficiaries of Jesus’ salvific work on the cross (the work of the Lamb who was slain, obedient to the Father). Born again by the Spirit of God, by grace they were saved through faith, and by faith and in repentance they walked, following after Jesus, faithful unto death. John now bears witness, that though their bodies are dead, they are alive in glory! Their faith in Jesus has been proven true. Thus they rejoice and cry out their praise before the very throne of God!

Then in vv. 11-12:

11 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 worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

I have said that music is literally written into this marvelous book of Revelation, and in such passages, this fact is made plain. After saying “Amen!” to the cry of the multitudes, the angels, elders, and living creatures all sing the chorus we’ve seen before in the book, repeating the themes of Rev. 4:11 (with praise to the one who sits on the throne) and Rev. 5:12-13 (with praise to the Lamb who was slain), yet now adding to that “thanksgiving.”

The Lord is not only due blessing and glory and wisdom and honor and power forever and ever, as he is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Ruler over all, and perfect in all his attributes. But he is also due thanksgiving for his salvific work, forever and ever. And, in this scene, John observes (with the presence of the saints in heaven as they cry out in praise and thanks) … John observes the angels, elders and living creatures weave the praise of the saints into their eternal chorus, to the triune God. So, the scene John witnesses is one of heavenly worship, joyful and jubilant.

In this snapshot of heavenly worship, John observes multitudes of people having a blast, indeed, having a big party in heaven. Singing, worshipping, fellowshipping with the Lord, one another, the angels, and the court of heaven. It’s greater than any concert, greater than any national championship win, greater than any of those sort of things. Those are but shadows. This is the reality of which they reflect. It’s joy cranked to the max. And it’s what we yearn for in those earthly events.

So, let’s take a look at John’s description of the multitudes in attendance. Verse 9: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude.” It’s a great multitude, one that “no one could number.” Have you ever been to a football game with 80,000 people in attendance? If you didn’t know the stadium’s capacity, you’d be looking at a multitude no one could number. Try counting heads at one of those games. You can’t do it. John here is using hyperbolic speech to emphasize the vast amount of people gathered to worship the Lord before his throne. And imagine their roar as they praised the Lord. Waves of sound.

And this multitude is “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This is a key phrase to our understanding their identity as we move on. What we’ve got here is Jews and Gentiles, people from all the nations involved in “the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14), and to whom John is a “partner in the tribulation” (Rev. 1:9). John is saying these Christians are not just Jews, but they are from the entire known world. These are those who have suffered across the Roman Empire, into Africa, Palestine and the surrounding countries. These are people coming out of the tribulation from the whole known world, to which the gospel had spread, in the time in which John was writing, circa. AD 65. Just like Paul could say the gospel had been proclaimed throughout all creation under heaven, in his time (Col. 1:23), John could say these people were from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” to whom the gospel had spread at the time of his visit to heaven and his writing the Apocalypse. It’s hyperbolic language, signifying the diversity of the body of believers that made up the great multitude who had already entered eternity at their death, and so stood in the Lord’s presence. The Lord is not a regional God, he is Lord God over all, and his people reflect that truth.

And this great multitude was “standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” in the heavenly throne room. As the cry of the doomed, at the breaking of the sixth seal, reverberates through Rev. 7 (“Who can stand?”), like with the 144,000, we find the multitude of those who are dead in Christ, who conquered in Christ, to whom Jesus promised, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). They endured to the end, keeping the faith, dying in the faith, enduring to the end and finding their salvation in Jesus Christ. Even in death, they can stand. The wrath of God passed over them, for they were sealed with the Holy Spirit, and washed in the blood of the Lamb. They are the ones who conquered, Rev. chapters 2-3, and they are the ones who received the promise of God. Thus they cried out in wonderous joy and praise and thanks, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” To God be the glory!

John also describes how they are clothed in white robes, garments washed in blood. How so? Verse 14 tells us, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Through the blood of the Lamb (Jesus’ blood shed on the cross), the righteousness of Christ had been imputed to them through the power of the Spirit of God. And now they are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and glorified.

It’s the holiness and glory that shines forth in the spirit of every Christian, although mostly veiled in this sinful world. Yet in heaven the veil is lifted and that holy glory is unleashed. And it is not their blood that made them righteous or glorified them. It was Christ’s blood and his alone. Thus they are God’s righteousness, like all Christians. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Cor. 5:21). Thus they are the holy people of God showing forth his glory from within their very being, symbolized by the white robes of righteousness—the victory of Christ, in his people, who stand before his throne.

John further explains that they had “palm branches in their hands,” a symbol of victory and triumph which will be familiar to you from Jesus’ triumphal entry. Perhaps, also, the symbol of the palm may point to the feast of booths or “tabernacles,” described in Leviticus 23, where palm branches were to be gathered, especially in light of Rev. 7:15, which speaks to the Lord spreading his tabernacle over the multitude. The week-long feast of tabernacles was a reminder and celebration of the Lord’s redemption of the people of Israel, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt. So surely the image of the palm brings to mind the victory of the Lord, who is the Messiah King, in the redemption of his people in the ultimate sense. And this is not just people of one nation, but a people from every nation.

Now, after John’s description of the great multitude before the throne, comes a question and an answer. Verses 13-14:

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Here one of the elders asks a rhetorical question of John, anticipating John’s own wonder at the scene. Who are these people? Where have they come from? And there is a sense of “How did they come about being here?” as we pick up in the answer. We’ve already taken a look at the robes washed in blood—the robes of righteousness. But of particular interest to exactly who these people are is the statement, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”

Now, critical to the entire passage is one phrase, really just one word, in the Greek. The phrase, as the ESV translates it, is “the ones coming,” which I agree is a solid translation of οἱ ἐρχόμενοι. Using straightforward grammatical rules, ἐρχόμενοι is what is called a present participle (a verb), used here as an attributive adjective (i.e. it modifies the subject of the sentence, which is “They”). It has the sense of a continuous present, speaking to an ongoing situation. ἐρχόμενοι is also contemporaneous, meaning the ongoing situation was happening even as John was observing it. Thus it is properly rendered “they are the ones coming,” or perhaps, “they are the ones who are coming.” So, the ESV gives a straightforward translation, using basic grammatical rules, capturing the meaning of the text in a concise way. And it perfectly fits the textual, literary, and historical context we have been observing in our study of Revelation up to this point.[1] And note that I make this point because not all translations reflect this straightforward exegesis.

So, the people John sees are “the ones who are coming” out of the great tribulation. Many had already died during the tribulation, and are those John sees in heaven. Many are continuing to die, each death adding to the numbers in heaven. And many more would die, adding even more. They were the great multitude, and their ranks were swelling with the death of each and every Christian who endured to the end, in this case the end of their life. And as they entered into the presence of the Lord, they joined their voices with the multitude, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

But what was this great tribulation? Over the course of our study of Revelation, we’ve looked at the historical context of the book’s writing. It was written circa. AD 65, by John, who was on the prison island of Patmos, suffering for Christ. Thus he addressed the seven churches of Asia, identifying himself as “a partner in the tribulation,” in Rev. 1:9. So, the recipients of this letter were suffering during the tribulation, some of which he mentions in the letters to the churches in chs. 2 and 3. Tribulation had been ongoing in the church, with persecutions by the Jews being particularly vicious over the years, as we read about in Acts. It goes on from the time of the Sanhedrin’s prosecution against Peter and John in Acts 3, (and yes that’s the same John who wrote Revelation), through Stephen, the first Christian murdered by the Jews, (his martyrdom recorded, in Acts 7). And from that time this vicious persecution against the church had been ongoing directly by and instigated by the Jews, centered in Jerusalem and expanding outwards.

In addition to that, the church had suffered at Roman hands, like Paul and Silas in Philippi. Then in AD 64, a great persecution began, instigated by the Roman Emperor Nero. This was a terrible time of suffering and death for Christians, and it spread throughout the provinces of the Empire. During this time, Peter and Paul were murdered by Nero. John was imprisoned. And, according to the Roman historian, Tacitus (a pagan who hated Christians and Jews alike, by the way) … Tacitus wrote with pity concerning the plight of the Christians, whom he speaks of as “an immense multitude” who were killed. He says:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” And he adds, “Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.[2]

Yet the tribulation included more than just those who suffered for Christ and died martyrs deaths. It included the tribulation that occurred as the horsemen of the Lamb were unleashed, and trampled the Land. Tremendous suffering and death came during the civil war in Palestine, which began in AD 65. And suffering and death was an ongoing reality during the conquest of the Land of Israel by Vespasian and Titus (beginning in AD 67), ultimately leading up to the siege and all the horrors that occurred, in the fall of Jerusalem, in AD 70. Many also suffered and died in the Roman civil war of AD 68-69, after the suicide of Nero. The Empire was rocked to its core during this time, having four emperors in a year, with Vespasian to finally sit on the throne. In all of this Christians were dying. The tribulation was ongoing from just shortly after the Jews instigated the Romans into killing Jesus, in Jerusalem. And the great tribulation was brought to its culmination in Jerusalem’s destruction.

So, during this time, the great multitude continued to swell in number, and it was these faithful followers of Christ, who had died in the faith, that John was observing in Rev. 7:9-14. These would certainly have included the martyrs of the fifth seal and the dead of the 144,000. But it seems likely that any Christian who endured, faithful to the end, was included in the number, even those who died in their sleep during the time of the great tribulation.

The anticipation of the Christian multitude, as they stood praising the Lord, was such that they were awaiting the seventh seal to be broken. For with the breaking of the seal the unrolling of the scroll would occur. The events Jesus prophesied, in Matt. 24:19ff., “Immediately after the tribulation of those days” would take place. He would come in judgment, and he would be vindicated along with his people, as his wrath came down upon his enemies, (the apostate Jews, at ground zero—Jerusalem), with the destruction of the great city and the Temple, and with all the fallout that would occur from there.

The Lord would be vindicated. The saints would be vindicated. And the people of God would move forward in history freed from cultic Judaism, in the New Covenant of our Lord. Thus, the great multitude was rejoicing in what the Lord had done, and in anticipation for the great work of the Lord that would come after the breaking of the seventh seal.

Now, while the great multitude pictured consists of a snapshot of Christians coming out of the great tribulation in the first century, the scene in heaven is also a foreshadowing of events to come. The Lord is coming again, and we anticipate this. All the dead in Christ anticipate this, and they surely sing in heaven joining their voices in joy with the multitude, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

What a tremendous comfort we have in this picture. The promises of salvation were witnessed true. John saw spirits of the Christian dead alive in heaven, worshipping, celebrating, and in joy. The Lord showed John the truth of his salvation, not just the hope, but the reality in heaven. And he wrote it down for our comfort and hope. When times are hard, no matter how hard, think on John’s witness. It is because of the truth to which he testified that we, as God’s people, have no reason to fear death. Paul spoke to this truth in Phil. 1:21-23:

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

What happens after death is nothing to fear for the people of God. Being with Christ is better than anything. This joy is what we know to be our destiny upon death, and to be with Christ is that for which we long, our whole lives!

So, brethren, I encourage you. Live for the gospel of Jesus Christ without fear. Be willing to be bold for Christ in the face of opposition. Be willing to risk it all, even your life. For this life is fleeting. But eternity with Christ is forever. Take advantage of the time you have. If you are in Christ, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by faithfulness. Like the song says, “Don’t fear the reaper.” And since death is no threat to a Christian, we should not let fear hinder our boldness for the gospel.

[1] My analysis of the passage agrees with the ESV. This is contra to the NIV (“they who have come”) and KJV (“they which came out of”), which translate ἐρχόμενοι as past tense. It is also contra to the NASB, which translates ἐρχόμενοι as substantival (“the ones who come”). John is not talking about a past completed event, he is talking about an ongoing event.

[2] Tacitus, Annals XV.44.