After so many disturbing images from the breaking of the seals, John was now swept up in a rapturous time of praise and thanksgiving as the mighty multitude, the elders, all the angels, and the four living creatures exalted God, singing,
“Amen—the blessing and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the might (be) to our God into the ages of the ages, amen.”Revelation 7:12
This is a glorious celebration, for the Great Tribulation and the Dread Day of God’s Wrath is behind them, and nevermore will there be hunger and thirst. Every tear will be wiped away, and every terror become a distant memory.
But there are still questions for you and me today. Is there symbolism here that we should be paying attention to, that is telling us more than what first greets our eyes?
Interpreters who approach Revelation as having been fulfilled in history explain this diverse assembly as the same people who were earlier sealed by God for the Lord’s protection. Their presence is fulfillment of God’s promise that they would be preserved.
they are before the throne of God, and they are serving Him day and night in His temple, and the One sitting upon the throne will dwell over them.Revelation 7:15
These are the faithful ones, those who are surrendered fully to the Lord. According to historicists, many in the Church had become alarmed at the seeming spiritual decline after Constantine coopted Christianity as Rome’s official religion. John’s Revelation reassured them there would be many who retained their spiritual purity and fervor.
The multitude’s diversity speaks to the many Gentile believers who had come into the church, as Isaiah had prophesied,
Shout for joy, O barren one who has borne no children;Isaiah 54:1 (NRSV)
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of the one who is married, says the Lord.
Meaning, the people “married” to God, the Hebrew people, would be fewer in number than Gentiles who come to saving faith. That the tribes of Israel were carefully numbered but the white-robed throng could not be numbered speaks to this prophecy.
Their white robes signify justification, holiness, and victory, and the palm branches also speak of victory just as in antiquity a king’s triumphal march would be accompanied by a cheering crowd waving palm fronds.
“They have fought the good fight of faith and finished their course.”Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Revelation 7:10
Scholars who concentrate on the events of 70 C.E. agree that John was first shown Jewish believers who were sealed and protected from Rome’s siege, and then shown the crowd of Gentile believers.
They point to a prophesy made by Hosea as evidence. Rather than recognizing the restoration of Israel, they regard God judging Israel as Hosea’s symbolic rebellious wife. Now, this great company is assembled before God representing all the Gentiles who would come into the Church after God set aside those who had rejected Messiah.
Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered, and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
… and I will sow him for myself in the land.Hosea 1:10, 2:23 (NRSV)
And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah,
and I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,”
and he shall say, “You are my God.”
Preterists also turn to Isaiah and discern the application of these prophecies in Peter’s and Paul’s writings.
Thus says the Lord God:Isaiah 49:22 (NRSV)
I will soon lift up my hand to the nations
and raise my signal to the peoples,
and they shall bring your sons in their bosom,
and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.
Isaiah’s larger passage speaks of God’s wife Israel “bereaved and barren, exiled and put away,” and wondering where all these other children of God have come from. God’s answer through Isaiah is that they are the Gentiles brought into the fold of faith.
- Peter wrote, “including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the gentiles?”
- Paul wrote, “But you [the Gentile believers] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Both apostles confirmed the prophets’ oracles.
Preterists read the elder’s phrase, “These are the ones coming out of the Great Tribulation,” (Revelation 7:14) as meaning Gentiles were brought into the family of God as a result of the God’s judgment against Jerusalem, temple worship came to an end, and the Gospel was made available to all nations.
Some commentators posit these as martyrs who were put to death by Roman emperors shortly after the fall of Jerusalem
Not unlike the historicist view, those who seek a futurist reading of Revelation see the 144,000 as Jewish believers who will be saved, and the myriad multitude as Gentile believers, many of whom will be martyred for their beliefs.
The twenty-four elders symbolize the Church, who have all been translated to heaven through the Rapture and spared the horrors of the Great Tribulation—note the elders are considered a separate group from the unnumbered multitude and the numbered Hebrew tribes.
The Great Tribulation is a key element in understanding Revelation as future prophecy when read with Jesus’s prophetic oracle in Matthew’s Gospel.
For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.Matthew 24:21 (NRSV)
Viewed from this angle, the 144,000 and the throng of Gentiles both have endured the Great Tribulation, having before rejected the Gospel and been left behind in the Rapture, but now have pledged faith in Christ. Some futurists feel this second wave of Christians—the post-Rapture, Tribulation Christians—will also be sort of second-class Christians as well.
Though most futurist interpreters locate this setting in heaven, several believe John’s vision was of the Millennium, and the white-robed worshippers are those who have come to faith during the Great Tribulation and followed Jesus into His millennium reign. Therefore, this display is on earth, and the mention of the temple—“they are serving Him day and night in His temple” (Revelation 7:15)—refers to Ezekiel’s similar vision recorded in Ezekiel 40-44
A few futurist writers do not espouse the idea of a Rapture and instead believe John was seeing the Church after all believers living during that time have braved the full brunt of the Tribulation.
Scholars taking the more spiritual perspective identify the 144,000 as the Church sealed in God’s protection while on earth, and the far larger company as the whole of the Church glorified in heaven. Whereas the Church on earth must be prepared to endure, and needs God’s supernatural aid in protection and preservation, the Church in heaven has experienced God’s deliverance and now stands triumphant before God.
- Robes washed white in blood represent God’s righteousness given to them through faith in Jesus.
- Palm branches speak of exaltation of the conquering king.
- Great Tribulation happens in every age, ordeals and persecution that every Christian faces.
- God will dwell over them can be read as the Lord pitching God’s tent over them, a metaphor for God’s provision and protection. Such imagery conjures up the sense of God’s Presence as a column of smoke and fire, and also of the tabernacle itself, pitched in the wilderness, with God’s Presence over the encampment.
Phrases from the elder’s speech to John are found in Isaiah’s oracles.
Indeed, over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. [Revelation 7:15]
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, [Revelation 7:16]
for he who has pity on them will lead them
and by springs of water will guide them. [Revelation 7:17a]
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. [Revelation 17b]Isaiah 4:5-6, 49:10, 25:8 (NRSV)