Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Great Crowd (Rev. 7:9-17)

We are familiar with large gatherings at New Year time in many of the major cities of the world. Sometimes the crowd seems so large that there is not any space left for any others to participate. Yet an estimate can be made as to the size of the crowd, indeed to all the crowds and get an overall figure. But that kind of estimation cannot be made of this heavenly gathering.

The Bible often refers to the Book of Life, but never tells us how many names are in it. Even here, when the complete number gather together in the presence of God, we are not told how many will be there. But we are invited to look at them, and marvel.

Of course, God knows how many people will be there. One reason why we are given the size of the crowd from a man’s perspective is to create within us a sense of wonder at the greatness of the achievement that Jesus will have accomplished from the throne as he directed the effects of the five seals, mentioned in Revelation 6, before the Day of Judgement. Throughout the darkness and gloom of human history he rescued his people from all the ages and places. He was in charge historically and geographically.

The great crowd (vv. 9-12)

We see in this crowd the fulfilment of the promise that God gave to Abraham which declared that his spiritual seed would number as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. No one can count the number of the stars or the grains of sand. Yet it is obvious that if we tried, we would run out of numbers. It will be the same with those who make up the people of God.

Jesus, in John 17:24, on the evening before his death, had prayed about the gathering together of this crowd. His request was, ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ Now it has been answered and his desire is taking place. We can imagine the gladness of Jesus as well as the gladness of his people as the gathering occurs.  

Moreover, we can see that there are converts from every people group. Ultimately, there will be one family of God and the members will come everywhere. Real disciples will have come from every nation. This vision of the size of the great crowd is a great encouragement for spreading the gospel.

John tells us that the crowd stands before the throne of God, and before the Lamb. Obviously this is a place of honour, highly exalted. Although they are in such an august presence, the crowd is marked by confidence because they all know that they are accepted in Christ, and will rejoice in that reality for ever.  As they stand there, they will express thankfulness to the Father for sending his Son to be their Saviour.

We also can read here about the response of the angelic host as they see those for whom their Master died gathered together with him. Often, many of those angels would have helped the heirs of salvation as they travelled to heaven. Now they and their protectors are together in the presence of God.

The attire and the song of the crowd (vv. 13-14)

John saw that the great crowd are all dressed in the same attire and all are holding the same emblems: they are clothed with white robes, and have palm branches in their hands. If it were only white robes that were mentioned, then the reference would be to holiness and purity. But the inclusion of palm branches tells us that a prominent emphasis in the vision is that of victory.

Standing with palm branches was a common way for crowds to celebrate an important triumph (they would also wear white robes on such occasions). To get the point, we must recall that throughout history these people have been on the receiving end, with many of them martyred for their faith. Often the church has seemed to be on the verge of extinction from the persecution of its enemies. But here is the church triumphant, sharing Christ’s victory.

The angel explains to John that each person in the great crowd has washed his or her robes in the blood of Christ. It is a common biblical image to use clothing to depict a person’s behaviour.  Also, it is clear that John is referring to Jesus’ death on the cross of Calvary when he took his perfect life and offered it up to God in the place of sinners. He was their substitute as there he paid the penalty of sin by enduring the wrath of God against it. But notice, each person in the crowd took their robes and washed them in the blood of Christ. Each one responded individually to the message of the cross. What needed to be washed was the sinful actions before and after conversion as well as the sanctified actions after conversion. How thankful they will be on that day for the atoning and cleansing blood of the Saviour!

John also describes the song of the crowd: they ‘cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.’ They sing with meaning, because they knew what it was to be unconverted. But Lord in his mercy saved them and brought them to heaven. And they sing with wonder, as they consider the place to where they have been brought. It is a song to God, about his wonderful grace.

Of course, there are two choirs here. One is made up of the redeemed, the other is composed of angels. The song of the redeemed is offered to the Father and to Jesus, whereas the song of the angels focuses on the Father. Further, there is a different theme to the two songs. The saints praise God for their experience of salvation and the angels praise God for his great wisdom and power in redeeming sinners. But the angels can only sing about redemption from observation and not from participation. Of course, they are very interested in the success of the gospel and delight in its progress; they rejoice each time a sinner repents of his sins. But no angel has ever tasted the joy of pardon. We have a song that holy angels cannot sing.1

So their song is a message to us. It is a reminder that the day is coming when the redeemed shall stand before the throne. It is being sung to us to cause us to prepare to join the song.

The crowd’s future (vv. 15-17)

John is informed that the great crowd will be worshipping God for ever in his temple. Where or what is that temple? It is the heavens and new earth in which righteousness will dwell. The redeemed will be priests in the worldwide temple, leading the praise of the restored universe. They will be the nearest to the throne, lifting their voices in the everlasting song that will reverberate throughout the new heavens and new earth for ever.

Moreover, the Lord, who sits on the throne, guarantees their permanent safety and satisfaction. In this life they had known times of deprivation; often life had seemed as if they were travelling through a desert, at least in the spiritual sense. But in heaven it will all be different. Instead of hunger and thirst, there will be satisfying provision; instead of sunburned deserts, there will be heavenly springs.

There is also a sense of continuation between what Jesus had done for them as the good shepherd in this life and what he will do for them as the eternal shepherd. In this life, he had given them times of spiritual refreshment, as described in Psalm 23. He made them lie down in green pastures beside the waters of rest, a picture of occasions when he fed their souls, by various means, on his wonderful acts and promises. But they had to get up and continue their journey through the valley of the shadow of death. The Jesus who fed them on earth will feed them in heaven, with the big difference that it will be a constant supply of heavenly provision.

The third detail to observe is that each of the great crowd will receive personal consolation from God: ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ Why will they have tears on this great occasion? Who can say? Spurgeon suggests some causes of tears when the redeemed stand before the throne. First, when they see Jesus there will be tears of regret at having failed him many times; second, when they see the oneness of the great crowd, there will be tears at the disunity that their actions caused in the body of Christ; third, when they see who is not there, there will be tears.

A more important question is, Who can take these tears away? The gentle, tender touch of the heavenly Father will wipe away every tear. This suggests that God will take the time to deal with every tear that his people have had or will have on that day. Samuel Rutherford once commented that ‘It is the sweeter, that no napkin, but his own immediate hand, shall wipe my sinful face.’  None of the Lord’s people there can deal with my tears, any more than I would be able to deal with theirs. We don’t know how he will take them away. But he will.

One of the obvious deductions we can make from this vision of the great crowd is that John saw all of God’s people, including you and me. This is our destiny to see each other there. We should contrast the permanency of that togetherness with the changeableness of what we have now. The reality of the future should affect our interactions with one another in the present.

Usually we have snapshots after we have been to a destination (such as a holiday). Here we can look at the family album before we get to the destination. Adverts on holiday brochures usually have perfect people on the cover, but we know the picture is not real. In contrast the heavenly picture is of people made perfect, all of them.

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