Revelation 7 — THE GREAT TRIBULATION
This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on May 24th, 2009. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click this link – Rev 7.
Chapter 7 answers the question that is left hanging at the end of Ch.6 – ”Who can stand?” In a sense, the vision jumps back to Rev.6:9-11 and spells out what is happening and will happen as God restrains judgment until his servants are marked – until grace has been offered to the uttermost. It is not a passage with a lot of commands, but rather a passage that tells us about what John “saw” and “heard”, and therefore a passage that calls us to see and hear and to believe.
We Have Been Covered by the Blood of Christ the Passover Lamb.
Passover Scene: Notice that the angels who will bring destruction on the earth are told to wait until the servants of God are sealed. This is part of the last scene – at the same time it is clearly not a linear account, but rather another picture of the judgment – with other details.
Clearly this is an echo of the Passover from Exodus. But take note of the tribes of Israel – the 144,000 being marked out. Some have used this picture to limit God’s salvation to a select few (taking the # 144,000 literally), but when one stops and looks at the tribes mentioned and their order, it becomes clear that this list is not about excluding, but about including Gentile believers.
This list of the 12 tribes does not correspond to any of the ways the 12 tribes are reckoned in the OT. They are not the 12 sons of Jacob – Manasseh is Joseph’s Son, and Dan is missing. They are not the 12 tribes who inherit the promised land – Joseph appears w/Manasseh but no Ephraim. Also, Levites, being priests, did not inherit any land. This list is taken from Genesis 35:23-26, and it is changed purposefully. First, Genesis 35 follows the account of the incest of Reuben, sleeping with his Father’s concubine – so he loses his position of honor as first, and that is given to Judah. Second, it makes sense that Judah is now first – a kind of prophetic fulfillment, since the Messiah is the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah”. Third, There is a reversal after these first two – the sons of the concubines (4 of them) are set before the sons of Leah and Rachel. These four sons come from women not descended from Abraham through their mother, but they are grafted in (as it were), half Jewish, through their Father Jacob. Think NT – who is grafted in to the people of God (see Rom.11:17-21)? So this reversal of the “pure bred” sons of Leah and Rachel now coming after the half-breed sons of the concubines, represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. Fourth, Manasseh (Joseph’s first born son) replaces Dan because the tribe of Dan is notorious in Israel’s history for leading the northern kingdom into idolatry and apostasy. In fact, in inter testamental literature (the apocrypha), the tribe of Dan is identified with the Antichrist.
Conclusion: The 144,000 represent the new order – the tribe of Judah is now the tribe of honor – Jesus’ tribe, and he rules over his brothers. They represent the incorporation of outcasts – half-breeds – into the new community of God’s people – a theme which runs throughout Scripture (Rahab, Ruth). They represent the exclusion of idolaters from the covenant community of God’s people.
We Have Been Given A New Identity: Christ the Passover Lamb is covering those who are his with his blood. This washing has made us into the New Israel – His Holy People – the new community.
Think about this: We think of ourselves as the collection of our past experiences and sins and achievements. But the blood of the lamb has been applied to the door frame of your life, and has changed who you are. You are now the Israel that God always intended to have as his holy people. You have the same body and heritage, but the seed of God’s presence – the Holy Spirit – has come to life inside you – remaking and changing you. That life within you is more powerful than your past history, your remembrance of your sins, the opinions of others about you, even your own ideas of who you are. The life of God is growing and spreading through you, making you clean, holy and spiritually alive.
Yes, sin is still in us and part of us, but Scripture emphasizes the fact that we are washed from our sin, and emphasizes this new life – the new creation we have become. We have been called the New Israel by God – who calls things into being. And we need to believe that the blood of the passover lamb has (the life is in the blood) remade us.
Take Up Your New Identity: We have a strong voice in us that tells us, when we are being tempted to resentment or fear or lust, that we have not changed – will never change. We tend to despair because we expect and want complete change now. But if I understand that the seed of God’s life is in me – growing then when I feel my temper flaring, or panic setting in, or lust drawing me, I don’t need to panic and say, “I haven’t changed”. Instead, I can say, “temptation is real – I am still susceptible to sin – but that is not the only truth about me – the life of God is in me – I have a choice to respond to God – I am not now only a sinner.”
We Are Passing Through A Journey of Tribulation.
“ Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “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. ”
Probably, these are the martyrs from every nation who have suffered tribulation and death for the testimony of Jesus – but the Scripture is silent about that. All we know is that they have passed through suffering. From this passage, we can identify two kinds of suffering…
Enemy Suffering: This is the suffering of pressure and rejection and hatred – being made outcasts because of our faith, by people under the influence of the great dragon – Satan (Rev.12). The martyrs are the ultimate expression of this hatred and rejection, but all who suffer the violence and rejection and hatred of those under the influence of the dragon because of Christ, have become part of the Great Tribulation. They have fulfilled the words of Jesus in Matt.5:10-12.
Desert Suffering: The Exodus Journey through the desert caused the Israelites to suffer hunger and scorching heat. These images are picked up in Rev.7:16 and are a picture of the sufferings of illness and pain, want and loneliness and sorrow.
Our Sufferings Can Have Meaning If We Confess Our Faith Through Them: “ 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Notice this image, that those who belong to God and who are now standing before the throne, cry out to the Lamb in their distress – under duress. Their response to suffering tribulation and martyrdom – desert suffering and enemy suffering – was to cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Translation I am suffering, and yet in this suffering I will not cry out, “God has abandoned me”, but I will testify, “God saves”. God is the one I will wait for, hope in. The Martyrs obviously made this confession even to the point of death as they were being tortured and killed. Their suffering, consequently became more than just suffering, it became a powerful witness to the fact that Salvation is from God alone and the Lamb – even though they were killed, their death made their testimony about God greater, more powerful.
And notice the profound effect their crying out in faith has in heaven… “11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: ‘Amen! (or “That’s right – I agree”) Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’” Why this overwhelming response? Because of the recognition that this is a supernatural response – not what people usually do in the face of suffering – but obviously the work and presence of God in these people.
Believe That Your Tribulation is Part of Your Spiritual Journey: In our suffering we become fearful (“God is punishing me”, “God is abandoning me”), or angry (“How could you allow this”, “Why me”), or despairing (“my faith must not be real”). We are thrown out of sorts when suffering comes because we don’t expect Great Tribulation. Like the children of Israel, we expect that we have been delivered so that we can go have a stroll in the garden. But if we will understand that we are journeying through the desert – fighting battles – like the ancient Israelites – and that this is the process of salvation – then we will not see our sufferings as some strange and abnormal happening. We will be able to say, “God is saving me”, “Jesus is delivering me”. We will be able to make this supernatural statement of faith.
We Will Come, at Last, Before the Throne of God.
To Be Honored: “15 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 spread his tent over them. ”
Those who have passed through the tribulation of this world’s sufferings confessing that salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb – will be honored before the throne of God. They will become part of the company of those who surround the throne – they will belong there.
Right now, we have the first fruits of our new identity in Christ – the seed of his life at work in us. But then we will have the fullness of our new identity. Having passed through the Great Tribulation, our personal history will be rewritten only in the light of our new identity so that our lives will be a picture of faithfulness in the face of suffering and trial.
To Find Rest and Safety: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Finally, we will find rest in the presence of God – whose presence we were made for – and whose presence is joyful to our souls and life to our bodies. Notice again that the images of rest have to do with never again being in the scorching heat or thirsting – images of the Exodus desert wanderings – the implication being that their journeying and suffering are over. And the lamb himself will be our shepherd and care for our needs.
Therefore, put your hope in this rest and in the hope of the honor that you will receive. You are passing through a deep spiritual change – and through suffering. These things are difficult, but the motivation is God’s promise of honor and rest. If this seems too distant and unreal to you, confess that to God and ask him to grow these desires in you. This is what God wants for you – it is what you should want for yourself.