In John’s vision, we don’t find a mere handful of people standing before the throne of God and the Lamb. There is a “great multitude.” This multitude was innumerable, uncountable. Today, there are those whose faith is so exclusive, with such a judgmental God, that there are more outsiders than insiders, while our God of mercy and grace has this great throng before him.
It is a multi-cultural multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v. 9)—all peoples, all colors, Jew and Gentile, all are included. There is no one race that is more important than another. What a message for a nation as deeply divided as ours is over race.
John is asked an interesting question. One of the elders asks him, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” (v. 13). How should John know? I love John’s response, “Sir, you are the one that knows” (v. 14). Then the elder answers his own question.
The elder says that they have “come out of the great ordeal.” We don’t know exactly what that is, but John pictures a suffering church. “From Revelation’s perspective, the church doesn’t escape tribulation and suffering…by being “raptured” to the safe shores of heaven” (Dean Flemming, aplainaccount.org), hardship being the norm for God’s people.
In the first-century, resisting the idolatry and false stories of Rome came at a steep price. Believers could lose their jobs, friends, social status, or even their lives. As different as today’s church may be, we cannot expect to escape trouble. As Professor Dean Flemming noted, “Popular preaching and theology too often promise power without weakness, success without suffering, prosperity without sacrifice, salvation without discipleships, religion without righteousness.” Revelation calls us to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4), even to the cross. After all, he is the slaughtered Lamb (Rev 5:12), leading us to a cruciform life.
Who are these? It is all of us that worship today, that eat the Eucharistic meal, the church on earth and the church in heaven, the church in the parking lot and the church in the sanctuary and the church at home.
These people in Revelation suffered. There’s no doubt about that, but all was not lost. Having come through the great ordeal, God takes, gathers, and leads his people. We are told about all the ways God cares for God’s people, even as we find ourselves in circumstances that are painful physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We may wonder where God is at; while things are happening in the heavenly realm to which we are not privy.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes:
To be onlookers who are truly humble, we must surrender our categories and characterizations of the multitude. Nation, tribe, people and language, all categories applied during the great ordeal are washed away. In Jesus the multitude become a people who are robed in white, worship day and night, receive life, comfort, nourishment, protection and guidance from God.
If we are to imitate the liturgy of heaven we must let those who have walked through [the] great ordeal offer the first words of praise and salvation. We need to let the people of [the] great ordeal teach us about who it is who brings true salvation. (Walter Brueggemann. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction).
We may be in the middle of a great ordeal. We may wonder how it will all turn out. The ordeal could be physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, or a combination thereof. It is a relationship with the living
Lord that carries us through our difficulties. It is the Lord Jesus himself who does the carrying.
How should we respond? We can take our cue from the throng in Revelation “…they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them” (v. 15). Worship comes as a natural response to our relationship with God.
Many of us have done plenty of crying during these months of Coronavirus. The stress has been unimaginable. But after suffering, follows God’s sheltering, feeding, thirst-quenching, protection from the elements, the shepherd’s guidance to springs of the water of life. And my favorite part, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17) and your eyes and my eyes as well. Amen.picture