11 And the angels stood encircling the throne and the elders and the four living creatures and they fell upon their faces before the throne and they worshiped God 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever. Amen!” 13 And one of the elders spoke saying to me, “Those people having been clothed in white robes–who are they and from whence did they come?” 14 And I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “Those are the ones coming from the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and they have whitened them by the blood of the Lamb….”
The throne room is full again–or at least John is now drawing our attention to the fact that the myriads of angels from chapter five are still there. These angels are standing around the throne, elders, and creatures, as they were in chapter 5, only this time John says he saw them (in 5, John says he heard them). John’s emphasis here is on the visual, not just the sound. He sees the majestic gathering of creatures in heaven who are there for one single purpose: to offer praise and worship to the One on the throne and the Lamb. They fall on their faces before the throne and worship the Lord. Bear in mind that this praise and worship is going on in full knowledge of what was described in chapter 6, and what is to come in chapters 8 and following. Even though the Lord is the One who brings judgment and tribulation, He is still worthy of worship.
The chorus sung (or said, but I like to think of them as singing) by the heavenly host is a longer version of the song sung in 5:13. Indeed, here we have seven things mentions: blessing, glory, wisdom, thanks, honor, power, and strength. By now, we should be accustomed to the fact that whenever seven is used in Revelation, it signifies completeness or fullness. Since 5:13 only has four items (blessing, glory, honor, and might), I think it’s safe to say this is a deliberate seven-fold enumeration, conveying the fullness or completeness of the majesty and worthiness ascribed to God. This song starts and ends with an “Amen,” denoting ascent–that is, agreeing with something. In this case, the angels are probably agreeing to the statement in verse 10: Salvation belongs to God.
One of the elders approaches John and asks him who all the white-robed people are, and where they come from. No clue is given as to who this elder is, and that’s probably just as well–what’s important is the question he’s asking. John knows he can’t answer this question, but he’s sure the elder can so he respectfully turns the question back on him. If the elder knows the answer to the question, why ask? Clearly because it’s important. The origin of the people in white robes is, perhaps, something John wouldn’t have given a second thought to, but the elder wants to be sure their identity is known. John needs to know. The churches need to know. We need to know.
The elder answers the who and where questions in two parts:
- They have come out from the great tribulation.
- They have washed (i.e., clean) robes, whitened by the Lamb’s blood.
We need to look at each of these in turn.
First, what is this “great tribulation” from which the multitude have emerged? Is it a cataclysmic event in our future, or something that happened in the past, or a present trial the church is going through, or something else?
Some have suggested that this is a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, an event that affected the Jews deeply, and would have also impacted the church insomuch as Christianity was viewed by many in that pagan society as a Jewish sect. However, as traumatic an event as that was, I don’t see how it would qualify as “the great tribulation” for believers in Asia Minor–i.e., the churches to whom John was writing. It’s likely many of the Christians in John’s audience were Gentiles, and they all live many miles from Jerusalem, so they wouldn’t have felt the impact of this nearly as much as the Jews in Palestine.
A popular view today is to see this “great tribulation” as an event that is yet to happen. Taking a strictly chronological view of the visions, this tribulation is a period of time during which the church is absent from the earth, having been snatched up (“raptured”) and protected from all the calamity that’s happening. However, there will be those who are saved during this tribulation period–I believe the theory goes that these are Jews who come to Christ, hence the 144,000–and those are the ones in white robes. There are several problems with this view, I think. First, those in white robes are more than just a section of God’s people. All of God’s people are dressed in white (e.g., Jesus’s promise to the church in Sardis in 3:5, the believers under the altar in 6:9-11, and the multitude in 7:9). Further, tribulation isn’t something that will come upon the church in the future: it has been a present reality for the church since the Resurrection. I could see this referring to a time of heightened tribulation prior to the end, but for further insight we should take note of two important passages elsewhere in Scripture.
Daniel 12:1-2: This is more than likely the passage the elder is referring to when he speaks of “the great tribulation.” Notice that those “delivered” are those whose name is in the “book of life,” which, according to Revelation, includes all believers. It will also involve “all who sleep in the dust of the earth”–i.e., the dead, so it’s an all-encompassing event that will involve resurrection to eternal life or to eternal condemnation. It’s an event that will bring tribulation to believers and judgment upon the world.
Matthew 24:15-31: Jesus appears to be developing Daniel 12:1-2 here, but notice how this tribulation is followed by cosmic anomalies that sound like the sixth seal, and yet prior to this, there is no indication that the church will be rescued physically from the torment to come. Indeed, Jesus tells his audience to watch and be ready. In verse 9, he warned that his followers will be delivered to tribulation and death, but the one who endures will be saved. In verse 22, he says that the days of tribulation will be cut short “for the sake of the elect”–i.e., for the sake of God’s people. It’s not that God’s people will be pulled out of this tribulation, but that the tribulation will be curtailed for the sake of the elect.
If we survey the New Testament, we see that “tribulation” is primarily to do with attacks upon the faith, and has been part of the church’s experience from the beginning (e.g., John 16:33; Romans 5:3, 8:35-36; Revelation 1:9, 2:9, 3:10, 6:9).
So what is this “great tribulation”? From the Scriptures we looked at, it seems to me that this is a period of judgment for the world, and persecution for God’s people. Tribulation of this nature has been going on since the earliest days of the church, but it appears there will be an escalation of it as we draw closer to the end. Christians shouldn’t look for some kind of physical rescue from the ordeals that are present, or the ordeals to come. Our hope is that we will be among those robed in white before the throne. The promise we have from Christ is that we are sealed to him, and whatever may happen to us, our faith is secure as those who have been purchased by his blood.
Next time, we’ll look at the second part of the elder’s answer: the washed robes whitened by the Lamb’s blood, and hopefully finish the chapter.