I, John, saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea, “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel. After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed: “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14)
In the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that whatever we face in life, we do not face it alone but with one whom we may not see but who is far more real than any circumstance we face:
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner man is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:16-18)
This One we do not see is not only greater than any present circumstance or situation, but Paul also reminds us that He has promised to redeem every single one of those situations, bringing us through victoriously to an “eternal weight of glory”. It is this sure hope that is to give us courage, strength, confidence and even joy even in the most difficult and painful of times.
How do we hold on in confidence to this hope? By looking to Jesus himself. “In this world you will have trouble”, he said, “But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world”. Then he demonstrated it powerfully by facing death itself, our final enemy, and conquering it outright, rising again on the third day. And what he did to death he can and will do for all our enemies and trials:
“Lo I am with you even to the close of the age.”
Paul’s greatest celebration of this reality can be found in the eighth chapter of the book of Romans which ends with an explosion of the confidence which is the birthright of every follower of Jesus:
“What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?…..Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…..No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Romans 8:31-39)
It is this great message that is also at the heart of our passage today, through which we are given a vision of what awaits all those who “who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb”, that is, every faithful Christian. John writes to seven churches in Asia about to undergo severe persecution and, through them, to all of us who in our own day and own way face daily the trials, sorrows, and attacks of this life. He calls them and us to shift our vision away from the difficulties and trials we face, which are temporary, and put them on a reality which may not yet be visible, but is in fact the deepest reality of all so that we might have confidence, courage and steadfast hope for our lives.
John gives us a vision of all the host of heaven, and “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” standing before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands, crying out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from our God who is seated on the throne and the Lamb.”
Notice what they are wearing, what they are holding and where they stand. These are not those who merely survived, or endured, not those who just hung on by the skin of their teeth, but those who conquered everything that life threw at them. Their garments are the white robes of a conqueror and they wave the palm branches of triumphal entry.
And they stand in the presence of God where no harm, and only good, can befall them forever.
The vision is given so that we, too, might envision and hope to find ourselves in that crowd, joining in our own time all those who have gone before and who, as John says elsewhere, “have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and their testimony”. And we are to see ourselves in today’s troubles as those who are conquering and shall conqueror; who, no matter how strong the foe, are able to affirm “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Our end is assured, and the end of every trial as well. What is needed is confidence for today, the confidence that comes when we take our eyes off the temporary difficulty and raise them to the permanent reality:
“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong, Alleluia! Alleluia!
From earths wide bounds, from oceans farthest coast, through gates of pearl stream in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia! Alleluia!
(For All The Saints, vs 5&6)