What is going on?
The previous visions of suffering and chaos are enough to disturb anyone's faith in the goodness of God. They have placed under our noses the perplexing realities of life in a world where God seems either missing or angry.
What makes things worse is that we know that His purpose is to save the world but so many people seem to have rejected Him. Even the offer of eternal life through Christ seems to leave them unmoved. Has God failed? Is there nothing but judgement left?
One form of this problem which pressed hard on John's generation was the question of God's purpose for the Jews.
On one hand, they had been chosen as His special nation. Their history was the revelation of God. Furthermore, the Messiah had been born to them. Jesus lived and died a Jew and the Twelve Apostles were all Jewish - a deliberate re-founding of the Jewish nation with new patriarchs.
On the other hand, it is a fact of history that many Jews rejected Christ when He was preached among them. Consequently, the judgement which He prophesied fell upon them in the space of one generation. As far as we can tell, even after the fulfilment of that prophecy, only a minority embraced Him by faith and the rabbis soon developed a new anti-christian species of Judaism in response to the witness of Christians.
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit had forced the church to accept into its fold Gentile believers without their becoming Jewish (see Acts chs. 10 & 11). Paul, along with the other New Testament writers, had conclusively taught that Jewish custom and practice were actually irrelevances to the life of the church (e.g. Galatians 6:15).
There is also a strand of teaching in the Gospels, based on some Old Testament sayings, in which Christ speaks of the rejection of the Jewish nation (e.g. Luke 13:28-30,34-35). This does not mean to say that individual Jews are beyond salvation - far from it - but rather that the nation as God's people is redundant now that the gospel is published freely to the whole world. One only enters the Kingdom through the narrow gate, Christ Himself (Luke 13:23-27).
In such circumstances there was an obvious question which needed both to be asked and answered:
Did God Fail With The Jews?
This question had to be asked in the first century. Why did so many Jews reject Christ? Why did the Judgement of God have to fall with such ferocity on that generation which rejected the gospel? The question of Romans 9, "Did God fail with the Jews?" is even more pressing after the horrors of the sixth seal.
1. The first fruits out of Israel
In Rev. 7:1-8, we learn that God did not fail. In fact he held up the storm of judgement until his purpose was complete. The winds of the four quarters (a symbol of judgement - Jeremiah 49:36, Ezekiel 7:2) are restrained until 144,000 Jews are sealed.
God was slow to fulfil the warnings of Christ. It was a full forty years before the storm broke. Just as God waited a generation for faith to be formed in the Israelites while they wandered in the desert (Deuteronomy 8:2) so he held back the flood of destruction in the 1st. century AD.
The period of Israel was not a failure. A complete number of Jews was, in fact, saved and those people are now revealed as having a special standing in heaven.
They are a "perfect number" (12 x 12) by (10 x 10 x 10) and they represent all the chosen Israelites, saved through faith. The list of the twelve tribes reinforces the completeness of God's work in Israel. This elect number of Israelites are the first fruits of God's crop (Rev. 14:4) before the great harvest of the world in the present age of the Gospel.
All the Old Testament prophets knew that the Gentiles would one day share in the blessings of Israel. But their prophecies are couched in Jewish terms - such as the promise in Zechariah 8:20-22 of many nations going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is only in the New Testament revelation that it is revealed that Jews and Gentiles are united by Christ alone to become heirs of God's promises (Ephesians 3:4-6).
Similarly, in Acts 15:13-21, James takes the promise found in Amos 9:11-15 that the Kingdom of Israel would be expanded and restored and interprets it in terms of welcoming Gentiles into the church WITHOUT MAKING THEM JEWS.
Hence in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 John even denies synagogue members the right to be called Jews, since the true Jew is the person who believes in Christ - the Lion of Judah. The synagogue has become a centre of opposition to Christ and so is called the synagogue of Satan, the opposer.
The continuance of an anti-christian body of Jews need not be a stumbling block to us any more than the fact that many people of other racial or religious groups fail to embrace salvation.
It is a disappointing aftermath to the great work of God in Israel that so many people should have failed to believe the Messiah and should have clung instead to man-made tradition and misinterpretations of the Law. John and the ageing Jewish elders of the church must have felt the disappointment most keenly. But Christ assures them and us that he has not failed. The elect number has been gathered in. Israel has been saved in that remnant just as the world will be saved through a portion of every peoples coming to Christ rather than every single individual being redeemed.
2. The main harvest out of all the world
Vs.9-17 introduce us to a much greater scene. There are three important differences between the two scenes in this chapter.
The first difference is to with numbers. The first group is a smallish number - 144,000 (v.4) - which could almost fit into a large football ground whereas the second group is a vast crowd of countless millions (v.9). This tells us that the work of God had only just begun in the Israelite stage of the church. It is now, in the international period of the church, that the vast number of souls will be saved.
Centuries before, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be too many to count (Genesis 16:10). The fulfilment of that promise is found in the uncountable multitude of men and women saved through faith in Christ and who are each "children of Abraham" (Romans 4:16).
The second great difference is in the origins of the two groups. All the first group are Israelites (4-8) whereas the multitude is taken from EVERY ethnic group (v.9).
Now that the temple is abandoned, Judaism has become redundant as a way of coming to God. In fact, it is Christ who has made the old order obsolete. He is the true Sacrifice who makes animal sacrifice irrelevant. He is the true Temple who makes earthly temples pointless. He is the true Priest who makes religious priest-craft a nonsense. In the last days nationality and culture have become side issues. What matters is faith in Christ which works through love. (Galatians 5:6)
The people of God are not to be identified by a religious culture, not even the biblical culture of Judaism. This is why so much of Christendom is hypocritical and anti-christian. Christianity is not a culture or religious lifestyle which nations can adopt; it is a universal faith which speaks to every culture and every nation without being identified with any of them. This is why it is wrong to speak about "Christian civilisation". We won't see the City of God until Christ returns.
It is important that we realise that these people are "out of" every nation. These people are individually saved. No man may number them but God has not only numbered them - He knows them by name (Rev. 3:5) and even the hairs of their heads are numbered. Ultimately, Christianity is not a mass movement - it is the sovereign Christ giving life to men and women and bringing them to His Father out of nation, tribe, people and language. Each one has been given a "white robe" of righteousness by Christ (Rev. 3:4,5).
What an encouragement it must have been to the first hearers of this book to realise that they were but the vanguard of such a huge number of redeemed people! And what an encouragement it is to become an "overcomer" when one imagines oneself as a member of that future congregation.
Another important thing to remember is that there will be many Jews in this crowd. They are from EVERY people on earth - including Israel. God may have abandoned Israel as a vehicle of salvation but He has not abandoned the Jews. The way of faith is open to them as much as to the Gentiles. Indeed the gospel is still "to the Jew first" (Romans 1:16) and there is reason to hope that great numbers will return to the God of their fathers through faith in Christ.
The sight of this great crowd shows us that even though we will have tribulation in this life there is a glorious purpose being worked out in history. God is gathering His church.
We are constantly tempted to grow weary in well-doing. Our faith freezes and our passion for holiness wanes. Sometimes we substitute a churchy conformity for the life of loving faith. The sight of this multitude enjoying God and each other is a wonderful stimulus to us to imitate them.
May we too "wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb". What a wonderful description of the christian life this is! It is active - WE wash our robes - but it is Christ's blood which makes our lives count for anything.
The present purpose of history is the in-gathering of this vast crowd of christians, saved by faith in the blood of Christ (v.14). See the wonderful privilege which will be enjoyed by ALL christians. They STAND in God's presence (contrast v.9 and v.11) and are even closer to the throne than the Cherubim and Elders. This vast throng are the Children of God for whom even the mightiest angels and greatest elders are only assistants and ministers.
The third great difference between the two groups of people in chapter seven is the period of time from which they came. The 144,000 Israelites were sealed and gathered before the time of trouble began. The four angels who harm the earth were held back until the full number of faithful Israelites was marked out.
By contrast, the great multitude belong to the period which follows - during which the angels which harm the earth have free rein.
The great tribulation began with the generation after the cross. It is probably nit-picking to argue whether it began with the death of Stephen (33AD?) or with the fall of Jerusalem (70AD) or at some point between. The point is that the church age is described as "the great tribulation". This prepares us for the central section of the book which describes in symbolic form the troubles which the church will have to go through on earth.
Some christians find it hard to believe that now is the time of the Tribulation. They are often those who are fortunate enough to live in the prosperous Western democracies insulated from the immense pain borne by most of the world. Remember that this book is addressed to christians throughout THE WHOLE WORLD. It was written first to suffering churches and today is undoubtedly a strength to those most in need of its encouragement.
I fear that many armchair students of prophecy concoct their elaborate interpretations as strangers to the struggles and tribulations of their brethren today. Vs. 16 and 17 are promises addressed to those who share in the sorrows of the church.
3. The result of the harvest
In 5:9-10 Christ was acclaimed as worthy because He had purchased this multitude by His blood and "made them to be a Kingdom and priests to serve our God and they shall reign on earth".
Here in chapter seven we see the church exercising its priestly service of praising God in the temple of Heaven (v15). The theme of their praise is thanks-giving and adoration for the great salvation which God in Christ has won for them (v10-12).
As we have seen, they have the highest status of all God's creatures standing close before the Throne of the Almighty. They will share Christ's rule (2:26,27).
Some christian believers wonder anxiously whether they will have the spiritual stamina to enjoy an eternal "time of worship" like this, but we should not imagine that the resurrection life will be an eternal repetition of just this scene. The life to come is represented differently in chapters twenty one and twenty two, for instance, where it is seen as dwelling in a glorious city and in Revelation 19:9 it is promised as a glorious marriage feast.
As one who has endured, rather than enjoyed, some protracted "worship services" I am convinced that to be one of that number will be sheer delight. Boredom belongs to this world not the next.
The great focus of this mighty hymn of praise is Christ and His salvation.
The first element is the cross. Jesus is referred to repeatedly as the Lamb, the sacrifice of the cross, and it is because He is the Lamb that we shall all sing so lustily. He has suffered for us and, no matter what we endure in the Tribulation, we shall know that it is His sufferings and not our own which have redeemed us. If there was no blood there would be no white robes.
The multitude sing in v.10 that salvation BELONGS to God and the Lamb; it is God's to give. No wonder they sing since God's own gift of salvation has been given to each one.
The second element in their salvation is the blessed state in which they find themselves (v16,17).
Negatively, there is the joy which comes from the complete absence of suffering and from the wonderful healing of the emotions and memory which must be implied in God personally wiping away our tears. Some of us are so deeply scarred and we have known such grief that it seems to have become a basic part of us. It will not be so for ever. A time is coming for every child of God when sorrow will be no more.
Positively, there is the joy of the presence of Christ as our shepherd (v17). Here that great Psalm of hope, number twenty three, is finally and completely fulfilled. Jesus Himself will provide the "living waters" of the Holy Spirit for which we thirst now. In the present time Jesus is absent from us and all we have are tokens and promises of His presence but, in the future, He will be a leader present among us. In the same way, all we have now are the "first-fruits", the beginnings of the Holy Spirit's ministry but in the resurrection the living waters will fully satisfy us.
In such a condition, free from sin and in the presence of Christ's glory, praise will be as normal to us as it is to the angels.