A Great Multitude

October 15, 2023

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we ask now You would make us a people of faith who are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not yet see. Give us confidence that we will one day receive this great inheritance and we will see Your beauty, with Your Son interceding for us. Our Great High Priest, we pray. Amen.

Our text this morning is Revelation chapter 7. So many great texts of course throughout the Bible and in this book, and this is one of the great ones, one of the great scenes of triumph and victory and praise. Follow along as I read beginning at verse 9 to the end of the chapter, Revelation 7.

“After this, I looked and behold a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and language, 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 worshiped God say, “Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” And one of the elders addressed me saying, “Who are these clothed in white robes and from where have they come?” 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. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple, and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 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.”

Last week I argued that the 1440,000 in the first half of Revelation 7 are not a Jewish remnant converted after a secret rapture of the church, but rather a symbolic number for all of God’s redeemed people from the old and the new covenant; 12 times 12. Think of 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles of the Lamb. Times that number a thousand, sealed by God’s spirit, identified as God’s chosen people, made secure against the day of judgement. That was that number, 144,000.

We looked at three questions last week. This morning, three more questions, and they all have the word great in the question. Number one, who is the great multitude? Number two, what is the great tribulation? And then bringing it together to some application, number three, what is our great reward? Great multitude, great tribulation, great reward, that’s where we’re going.

Number one: Who is the great multitude? As I said last week, there are a number of good Godly interpreters, and perhaps the view that some of you have or maybe grew up with, believing that the great multitude is a group of Gentiles who were converted by a literal 144,000 Jews. That’s not my understanding of the great multitude. Rather I want to argue here, the great multitude refers to the same group depicted in a different way, and we’ll see the contrast here in just a moment, but the same group as the 144,000. The 144,000 in verses 1-8 are a picture of God’s people sealed and made secure prior to the end of the world. Remember chapter 6 ends with that cliffhanger question, “Who can stand?” Okay, we’re gonna look. One hundred forty-four thousand, they’re the ones who can stand. They are the ones who are sealed, identified, marked out as God’s people prior to the end of the world. Then, in verses 9-17, a picture of God’s people standing victorious praising God after the end has come.

So you can think of the first half of chapter 7 is a flashback. Chapter 6 ends, “Who can stand?” Remember, this is not a chronological biography or a history, but is rather snapshots. And so, pause there, who can stand? All right, let’s flash back. The ones who can stand is this holy army of God’s holy people represented here by 12,000 from the tribes of Israel. They can stand. It’s a flashback.

Then in the second half of chapter 7, we have a flash forward. So think about the 144,000. They’re God’s people showed as numbered, protected, ready for battle. That’s why they’re depicted as an Israelite army. They’re a holy army, numbered just like the Israelites were in the census in Numbers 20, ready to do battle, ready to stand against the enemy, ready to stand on the day of judgement because they have been secured. The great multitude, by contrast, shows God’s people innumerable instead of numbered. You notice that? We count each one, 12,000 in each tribe. Now, they’re innumerable. Instead of sealed, here they‘re singing. Instead of ready for battle, now they have been victorious. So, the 144,000 are depicted as an Israelite army. Here, we have a multi-national worship service.

And it’s interesting too, if you look at verse 4 of chapter 7, “I heard.” So I’ve been saying sort of colloquially, this picture and what he saw, but he didn’t see. He heard the number. He “heard” in verse 4; but now you notice in verse 9, “After this, I looked.” So he heard a number, and now he sees a multitude. So, the second half of chapter 7 is a flash forward. It says, look here is a great multitude of people who did in fact stand their ground. We said, “Who can stand?” They stood their ground in the midst of suffering and persecution and temptation. They worshiped God and the Lamb on earth. They were kept safe, and now they are worshiping God and Lamb in heaven.

So the difference between the two groups is found not in a literal Jewish remnants and then in just a group of innumerable Gentiles, but the difference is in their location. The first half of chapter 7 shows the faithful church on earth. It’s probably the clearest example of what theologians call the church militant and the church triumphant. The first half, church militant, sealed. They’re pictured as a holy army ready to stand, ready to fight against sin, the flesh and the devil, and they will withstand on the day of judgement because they belong to God, the Judge.

Then we have – that’s the picture on earth – second half of chapter 7, a picture in heaven, church militant, church triumphant. God’s people have emerged from the trials on earth not by a painless rapture, but by patiently enduring evil even to the point of death, which we will see several more times in the book of Revelation. The great multitude, in other words, is a host of overcomers. I’ve said before there is one word to summarize what this book is about. It’s that word, nike or nikao. It’s a Greek word for victory or to overcome, conquerors. So these are the ones who have triumphed. They’ve done it. They’re victorious.

Look at verse 16. They faced hunger and thirst and heat and tears. So they did not escape this with a painless rapture, but they endured these sufferings. But, now in heaven, they will face them no more. They did not compromise. They held fast to the word of God, the testimony of Jesus. They, to use the language of Romans 8, proved to be more than conquerors through Him who loved us. That’s the difference, but then ultimately the same identity depicted in two different ways, one on earth as an army, the other in heaven as the church triumphant worshiping. Interestingly, the picture on earth is a kind of unity, and then the picture in heaven this wonderful diversity. And, both are important. The value of diversity is not simply to say, “Look, there’s lots of diversity.” As I said the other week, not meaning at all to be tongue-in-cheek but very seriously, there’s as much diversity in hell as there is in heaven.

So the point of this glorious diversity in heaven is that they’re doing the same thing. They’re gathering around the same throne to provide worship and praise to God and He who sits on the throne and the Lamb. Notice, they’re wearing white robes, a sign of innocence. They have palm branches. This is from the Old Testament and, of course, you think of Palm Sunday, you wave palm branches, a sign of victory. They waved them on Palm Sunday because they believed that the King had come to Jerusalem. So you see how we need both halves of chapter 7. We’re living in the first half of chapter 7. There’s still a battle. There’s still a judgement to come. But we’re assured, if we truly belong to Christ, of the second half of chapter 7, and you need both. You need to know what’s coming so you know how to conduct yourself now.

As a Christian, you are sealed secure from the wrath of God, and therefore, as a Christian we fight and struggle and stand. Not to make shipwreck of our faith. We do not fight as the world fights. This is not with swords but with the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. So these two halves, church militant, church triumphant, are not contradictory but complementary, and one is supposed to aid the other. It’s like that scene in Lord of the Rings. Now, it’s about true that when you get ordained in the PCA, they ask you in front of the Presbytery, could you give two or three illustrations from Lord of the Rings right now. It’s just part of the ordination process.

So, one of my favorite scenes in the books and certainly in the movie, is The Battle of Helm’s Deep. And all the good guys are there. It starts raining and the allegiance, the alliance of men, there’s dwarfs and there’s elves, have come together to fight this great teaming hoard of orcs and trolls and Uruk-hai, and it starts raining and they fight this bloody fight all through the night. And it looks like despite their most valiant efforts that the good guys are going to fall at the hands of the bad guys, except, spoiler alert, but you’ve seen it. You should, if not see one of your elders for a disciplinary proceeding, but Gandalf had said, “Look for me, look for me and I will come at the break of day.” So there he is on the mountaintop, Gandalf and the Rohirrim. And they ride down the side of the mountain. And they don’t show the whole rest of the battle because you know that the victory is secure. There’s still a battle to fight, but once you see the sort of resurrected Gandalf coming, you know that the victory is secure. The assurance of victory did not make them fight less; it made them fight more with renewed courage, renewed valor.

And so it as we have a picture of the church triumphant, it encourages us as the church militant again against sin, flesh and the devil. That’s how we fight. Notice this multitude we see in verse 9, no one could number. Now another reason it doesn’t make sense that the 144,000 are a converted Jewish remnant and then this is an innumerable multitude of Gentiles who’ve been converted by their ministry during this time, where supposedly the Holy Spirit has been withdrawn in some monumental way from the earth for Satan to wreak his havoc, it would seem strange if after 2,000 years of apostolic witness the conversions are rather puny; but now when the church is gone and when Satan is allowed to work on the earth in unprecedented fashion and there’s only 144,000 left now is when we have the great innumerable multitude too big to count. So this is simply a way of saying there is a greater number of souls who are saved and who will be saved than we can imagine.

If you know you Bible, you might be thinking well wait a second didn’t Jesus say that many are called but few are chosen. Didn’t say often that there are many who walk down the broad road that lead to destruction, there’s only few on the narrow road that lead to life. Certainly that’s true. There are always plenty of people who will be outwardly called without inwardly being renewed, and Jesus was certainly speaking to his reality and often to our reality that there’s a narrow path. It’s always easier to go the path that leads to destruction than the path that leads to life. But even at Jesus’ own teaching, He taught us that there would be a great harvest to come.

Think about some of those parables in Matthew 13 and Mark chapter 4, the parables of the kingdom with the mustard seed. It’s the smallest seed and then it grows to be the biggest plant in the garden. Or, the parable of the lazy farmer who just goes to sleep and it just grows up by itself, automate, automatically, and one day he looks and there’s a giant harvest. These are depictions of the kingdom of God, which will start very small seemingly inconsequential and God will bring it to great and unbelievable heights. So there are, have been and will be many, many who are saved. A multitude the no human being could number. What good news.

Now, we will have occasion, just wait, probably more so in the new year, but we will have occasion to come to talk about the various millennial views. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about right now that’s okay, but we’ll get to it. I’m sure we have some differences in this church. We don’t all have to agree. But I’ll just, a little teaser here, one of the reasons I’m not a post-millennialist, if you don’t know these terms yet that’s okay. One of the reasons I’m not a post-millennialist is because I believe, as we’ll see in a moment that tribulation continues all the way through this age and in fact intensifies at the end. So, I don’t believe that word is just going to move seamlessly into a vastly Christianized world.

One reason I’m not a pre-millennialist is because I think that things don’t just get worse and worse until the end, but that we are actually in the age where Satan’s work is so curtailed that we should expect to see, and indeed have seen over 2,000 years, that people from every language, tribe and tongue are coming to Christ. You say if you’re not a post-millennial, you’re not a pre-millennial what’s left, a millennial. So we’ll get to the terms and we can figure it out later. There’s just a preview.

We see in Revelation 7 the final fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. We should have confidence as we give, as we send, as we go that thought certain missionary endeavors may be very slow, and some from our earthly vantage point may even seem to bear little fruit, yet on the whole there will be and has been a great movement of the nations to Christ. “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me” Genesis 22. God’s plan has always been for more than ethnic Israel. His plan has been to make a people for Himself from every peoples on earth. Started with one man, Abraham called out as his idolatry from Ur of the Chaldees come with his barren wife, and through miracle after miracle has spread to thousands of people groups, and will one day come to its culmination on the other side of these 7 seals with a vast array of singing saints more numerous than the sand on the seashore.

I’ll give you this illustration before I think I read in some science journal several years, scientists doing what scientists do and that’s trying to calculate are there more stars in the world, in the universe than sand on the seashore? I don’t know if they had a kind of covenantal science conference that they wanted to do this, but it’s very Abrahamic, and they found some way of you know finding out how many grains of sand are in a cubic meter or something and then multiplying and finding out stars. And, they determined, as best they can, there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand, with all of the billions of galaxies light years away. This is why they will let you name a star after yourself for 60 bucks. Cuz they’re not running out of stars. More stars than grains of sand.

This is the promise that God gave. There will be a great harvest of nations. It’s a staggering vision. Think about, now we’re living here, we can sort of imagine though there’s lots of missionary work to do. There are churches on every continent. But think about when this was written. John, likely the last living apostle, the church is facing persecution, it’s hardly more than a Jewish sect, and yet John sees a vision of the church that will be innumerable. And it’s not just our little ethnic group. It’s not just our people, our tribe, our ethnicity; but it’s something vast, multinational, multilingual, multicultural. Psalm 87, “Among those who know me, I mention Rahab and Babylon, behold Philistia and Tyre, along with Cush. This one was born there, they say. This one and that one were born in Zion the Most High Himself will establish her. The Lord records and registers the peoples. This one was born there.” Already the psalmist is saying, there will be a great day when even the peoples of our enemies, the Syria, Babylon and Egypt and Ethiopia. These people will be recorded that they were born in Zion that they are among God’s chosen people.”

So we share our faith, we send out missionaries, we go as missionaries, not on some fool’s errand but in the sure realization that this heavenly scene is already in part taking place and will one day fully be realized. That is good news.

Question number two; we will go through these a little more quickly. One, what is the great multitude? Two, what is the great tribulation? Look at verse 14. “I said to him, “Sir you know.” And he said, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” So what is that they had come out of. Let’s think about this word translated here “tribulation.” The Greek word is “thlipsis.” It’s fun to say. It occurs over 40 times in the New Testament. From those 40-plus occurrences, it is clear that we are right now in a time of tribulation. Lots of verses; for example John 16:33; Jesus says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, thlipsis. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” Acts 14, “They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and Antioch strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith and saying it through many tribulations, thlipsis, we must enter the kingdom of God.” Or, Revelation 1:9, the first chapter. “I, John, your brother and companion in the tribulation, thlipsis and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.”

So it’s absolutely clear we are in a time of this thlipsis. Christians face hardship, suffering, persecution. We will not be kept safe from tribulation, but the message of Revelation here, and we’ll see in chapters to come, is that the church will be kept safe in tribulation. So not from tribulation, that before the worst comes we get raptured out of here, but rather even when the worst comes the church will be kept secure. They may lose their life, but they will be secure in Christ. So verse 14 says, “These are the one coming out of the great tribulation.”

I believe as many others do, that although we are currently in a period we can rightly call tribulation, this whole age is filled with tribulations, there will still come a time just before Christ’s second coming when the sufferings and afflictions will be intensified and this we can call the great tribulation. Remember that prophecy in the Old and New Testament works in layers. There’s normally a near fulfillment and then farther out fulfillments.

So Daniel 12:1, Daniel predicts there will come a time of trouble such as never been since there was a nation until that time. Daniel says, “There is coming a trial like we’ve never had.” And many of the Jews understood that to be fulfilled with Antiochus’ epiphanies when he defiled the temple, he persecuted the Jews in the 160s BC. Ah, Daniel’s word fulfilled. They also thought, this is maybe a type of some greater, greater tribulation to come. Similarly in Matthew 24, Jesus predicts there will be “a great tribulation, thlipsis megas. You could even translate that now with your Greek. Mega tribulation, unlike anything the world has ever known. And sure enough, the Christians, Jewish Christians understood, well 70 AD the temple is overrun and Titus comes through and Jews are scattered. Surely this is some of what Jesus was talking about. He said the temple would be overthrown. But they also understand that maybe this is a type and there is another layer to come. This was a great tribulation such as we’ve never experienced, and yet maybe it’s pointing to an even greater. That’s how prophecy usually works.

And so this great tribulation belief is an intensification, not different in kind but in degree. Here’s a good summary from a book by Anthony Hoekema called The Bible and the Future. It’s a great exegetical, theological book on end times. He says, “We conclude that the sign of tribulation is not restricted to the end of time, but characterizes the entire age between Christ’s two comings. Because of the continued opposition of the world to the kingdom of God, Christians much expect to suffer tribulation and persecution of one kind or another during this entire age.”

On the basis of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, however, it would appear that there will also be a final climactic tribulation just before Christ returns. This tribulation will not be basically different from earlier tribulations, which God’s people have had to suffer, but will be an intensified form of earlier tribulation.

So here’s where we’re at. The 144,000 represent the redeemed sealed prior to the end, and then the great multitude is a picture of that number, the same redeemed, but seen here in heaven triumphant, victorious. Both groups are the same and they’re meant to answer the same question at the end of chapter 6, who can stand. Who will be able to face the wrath of the Lamb unafraid? Who will be able to face the end of the world? Who will prove to be an overcoming in this fallen world with all of its temptations to compromise? The answer is that God will seal his chosen ones from every nation prior to the end so they will hold fast and they will endure the great tribulation and they will give praise to God forever in heaven. So the great multitude fits with this great tribulation, which brings us to our final question. What is our great reward?

Look at verses 15, 16 and 17. It’s wonderful when a three-fold alliteration is right there; verse 15, God’s protection, verse 16, God’s provision, verse 17, God’s presence. All three blend together; they can’t be separated. Look at verse 15, God’s protection. So these saints served God and then they are sheltered, sheltered with His presence. This is the gift for those who have been saved. You see in verse 10 they shout with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” When it says they serve God day and night, well what do they need to do? God doesn’t need anything. The service here is almost certainly a liturgical service. It is to serve him with their praise and with their worship.

Look up at the previous paragraph, verse 12. This seven-fold doxology, Amen, and now seven descriptions of praise; “blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power and might be to our God forever and ever, Amen,” the seven-fold doxology. That’s what they do, sheltered, protected. Verse 16, so the reward is protection, number two the reward is provision. Never again will they hunger. Never again will they thirst. No more scorching heat. God will give to use, the church triumphant a blessed life with all we need, in fact more than we can ask or imagine. Let this vision set in. No more malnutrition. No more distended stomachs. No more famished children. No more parched throats. No more exposure to the elements. No more waking up with nightmares. No more freezing on a park bench. No bomb shelters. No air raid sirens. No terrorists. No war. No famine. No sickness. No death.

So see in a moment, there will be no more tears because there will be no more suffering. Protected, provided, and in verse 17 best of all, God will be with us. We see in verse 17 they and we will have the joy of God’s presence. We’ve already seen this up in verse 15, “sheltered with His presence.” That word, verse 15, shelter ____ 31:00. It’s a word for tabernacle in the Old Testament. It’s a word used in John 1:14, “The word became flesh and made His dwelling tabernacle among us.” God sets up his tent to live with us. Just as was prefigured in Leviticus, God in the midst. Psalm 91; “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”

Verse 17 is full of such tenderness. This is the only sheep who is also a shepherd. You see that? The Lamb. He’s a Lamb because he was slain for our sins. But, the Lamb, not just some victim, he’s a shepherd and He guides us. Just as Psalm 23 told us, streams of living water. And then we have the promise that we will see one more time in chapter 21, that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, every tear. For God’s people, for every broken heart, for every unfulfilled dream, for every wayward child, for the children who died, the children you prayed for and never came, for car accidents, for cancer, for decades of illness that you suffered quietly, for a lifetime of limitations. For all in your life that was unfair, cruel, ugly, or false, every tear, for all of that and everything else will be wiped off the cheek of God’s people by God Himself just as a loving father and like a tender-hearted mother gather children to themselves and say, Come my beloved one. It’s all right now. It’s all going to be all right.

It’s like that famous exchange between Gandalf and Sam in The Return of the King. “Gandalf,” Sam says. “I thought you were dead, but then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What happened to the world?” “A great shadow has departed,” said Gandalf. Then he laughed and the sound was like music or like water in a parched land. And as he listened, the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment for days upon days without count.

Maybe that describes some of you in the grief and the suffering, the disappointment, disillusionment, the anguish that seems to never leave you, days without count, since you had ears to hear a belly laugh of merriment. But that is coming. And the best news of all is not the provision of food or the absence of pain, but the promise of God’s presence. Now that sounds, that’s very spiritual language, “God’s presence.”

It can sound kind of trite, but think of it like this. You’re a wife and your husband is off on a trip and he says, “Honey, I’ll be back as soon as I can. I have a lot to do. I have a number of places to go. I’m not sure how long I will be away, but I promise you I will come home and I love you.” And while your husband is away, something terrible happens and your house was broken into and you’re made a hostage and the intruder threatens you, barely gives you food and water enough to live. But unbeknownst to the intruder you have a cell phone and you call your husband and you tell him what has happened and you talk to him every night, and he promises you, “I’m coming soon.” And you don’t know just how soon the “soon” will be, but you believe him. He’s coming soon and so you wait. You patiently endure much tribulation. You wait for your husband to return because you believe that he’s brave and he’s strong and he will be true to his promise. And one day, perhaps when you least expect it, all the promises come true and you’re rescued and the intruder is kicked out and the home is secure and you’re given food and water and lavish provision. You no longer cry yourself to sleep each night. But better than all of these good things, what has led to all of these good things is that he is home, and you can be with him and you can look at him and you can see him face to face. Of course, you would never say thank you for driving out the intruder. Thank you for the food and I don’t need to see you. No the best gift of all is he’s finally back. It’s the blessing of his presence and you hold him tight, saying never, never go. All the other good things are there because he is there and without his presence none of the other good things would be truly good.

And that’s what we look forward to when we talk about the blessing of his presence, to spend eternity with God and with the Lamb. Yes, it means no more tears. Yes, it means no more suffering. Yes, it will mean being reunited with loved ones who dies in Christ. But most of all it means that the waiting is over, and the wife (the church) and the groom (Christ) are together again and truly there is a happy ever after ending, and everything sad will come untrue.

I just want you to notice one more thing as we close. Chapter 6 and chapter 7 both end with the Lamb taking center stage. In chapter 6, He’s there to judge. In chapter 7, He’s there to guide His people to springs of living water. And here’s what I want you to notice. Both chapters end by looking at God and the Lamb face to face. It’s very intentional, I think. Because the vision, the gaze, of God and the Lamb face to face, same God, same Lamb different gaze. So in chapter 6, the wicked, the unbelieving they run, they cower because to see God in his unmatched glory and power and the Lamb is to fear and to know terror and dread like this world had never known. And so, in 6:16 the people cry out, “Hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.” That’s 6:16. But look at 7:17, now the people cry no more because the Lamb is in their midst. And the same God and the same Lamb whose visage was what produced such great terror and fleeing, now the same God and the same Lamb with such tenderness and gentleness and love stoop down, and if you can just even use some sanctified imagination to look eye to eye, face to face.

How close do you have to be to someone to wipe away a tear from their eye? You don’t do it with a wand. You know do it out here. You come this close. Same God, same Lamb. Chapter 6, run from him. Chapter 7, he draws near to come right up to your very face to wipe away all the tears to put an end to all the sadness and all the suffering. He will appear at the end of the age. And you will see Him. The question is how you will look upon Him now. Because how you look upon Him now, if it is with disdain, indifference, rebellion, it will be a vision of such fear and dread on that day. But, if you would look at Him with humility and penitence and trust and love, then it will be a sight that no eye has ever seen and no heart can even imagine when He will draw near and say come with me and let me wipe away every tear.

Let’s pray.

Gracious heavenly Father, into the Lamb together with the Holy Spirit we give You praise. Bring the day we ask soon, and prepare us now that we may be ready to see You later in all of Your glory. In Jesus we pray. Amen.