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. 15 On account of this they are before the throne of God and they serve Him day and night in His temple, and the One sitting upon the throne will tabernacle with them [or spread a tent over them]. 16 They shall neither hunger nor shall they thirst and the sun shall not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat, 17 for the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall shepherd them and he will guide them to a living fountain of waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Last time we finished up part-way through verse 14, so we recapped very briefly the chapter so far, and then considered what it means for the multitude before the throne to have “washed their robes” and “whitened them by the blood of the Lamb.” We should be familiar with the symbolism of the white robe (righteousness, purity), and the Lamb’s blood (Christ’s death on behalf of his people) from what we’ve seen so far in Revelation. The striking thing here is that the verbs are active, not passive. Previously, Christ has talked about dressing the overcomers in white garments (3:5), and those under the altar are given white robes (6:11)–in other words, this symbol of righteousness is presented in such a way that we understand that righteousness did not originate with God’s people. They are the recipients of a righteousness that is not their own. They didn’t come with white robes; the white robes are given to them. Yet here, they actively wash their robes and whiten them with the Lamb’s blood. Is the elder saying there is something God’s people contribute to their righteousness?
First we need to remind ourselves what it means to have “soiled” robes, that is, robes in need of cleansing. Back in 3:4, Christ points out that there are some in the Sardis church whose garments are not soiled. When we studied this passage, we concluded that this was a reference to the fact that many within the church had chosen to compromise with the culture rather than stay true to the gospel and their profession of Christ. As in Isaiah 64:6 and Zechariah 3:4-5, such sin is likened to having dirty clothing. Since the faithful in Sardis have not soiled their garments, we understand that they have remained true to Christ, and their spotless robes are a symbol of their faithfulness. So the focus of 7:14 is not on how this multitude in white managed to earn their righteousness, but rather on the fact that these are those that remained faithful, even under the most extreme pressure to deny Christ.
The fact that they have whitened their robes by the blood of the Lamb really serves to underscore this point: it’s not their own sacrifice or faithfulness that has earned them the white garments. Rather, it is Christ’s blood shed on their behalf that makes them clean and pure, and enables them to be faithful. Without the regenerating power of the Spirit at work on those for whom Christ died, they would have all fallen away too. But they have professed Christ as their Savior and Lord, and have remained true to him, and this is how they have whitened their robes with the blood of the Lamb. Daniel 12:10 speaks of the faithful actively cleansing their garments, and this passage could be behind the language used by the elder in 7:14.
I also noted in passing that some believe the multitude before the throne are only those who have died by martyrdom. I’m not convinced of this for a couple of reasons. I think we are looking at the final congregation of the elect here. These are God’s people from all places and all points in history gathered to worship the Lord. And while “coming from the great tribulation” sounds like a present tense activity (i.e., they are coming out now and continue to come out), that verb is actually a present participle: “the ones who come out”–i.e., it’s descriptive of the people, not of their activity. So these are those who survived the tribulation, and did so because they are sealed, and have shown this fact through their faithfulness. They are blood-bought, redeemed people of God. Doesn’t this describe every believer? And the nature of these believers, that they are Jew and Gentile, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (144,000–remember?), an innumerable amount from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people, seems to point toward more than just those who survived a particular period of tribulation.
It is “on account of this” (Greek: dia touto), the fact that this white-robed multitude have been washed and cleansed by the Lamb’s blood, and they testify to this by their faithfulness and willingness to overcome for the sake of the gospel, that they are able to be before God’s throne. Nothing else gives them that authority or that access–only the grace of God shown in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on their behalf.
The language of verse 15 is distinctly sacramental. “Serving” is the Greek verb latreuô, which has priestly connotations. The elder is deliberately associating the “night-and-day” ministry of believers here to that of the Jewish temple priest. If we recall in 1:6, believers were referred to as “a kingdom, priests to his [i.e., Jesus’] God,” which was echoed in the form of a promise in 5:10. We can trace this promise back to Exodus 19:6, when the Lord promised Moses (and Israel), “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Clearly, to John and the elder this is fulfilled in the church.
The elder says they will serve in God’s “temple” (Greek, naos). In Ezekiel 37:26-28, God promised that His sanctuary would be in the midst of His people. He then gave Ezekiel a vision of a new temple, set upon land partitioned according to the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 40-48). It’s hard to avoid the fact that this is another vision/prophecy finding its fulfillment in Revelation and the Lord’s promises to the church.
Finally in verse 15, we have this picture of the Lord “setting His tent” or “tabernacling” over His people. This might be another reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, as in verse 9. Certainly, the idea of God pitching His tent with His people is extremely important. This is “Immanuel”–God with us–the idea that God is ever-present with His people. He symbolized this with the Old Testament Tabernacle, then the Temple. He exemplified it in the coming of Jesus at the Incarnation. At the Resurrection and all the way through to the End Times, this idea is fully realized in the church.
Verses 16 and 17 draw from Isaiah 49:8-12 (particularly v. 10), speaking of the restoration of Israel. That restoration will only come when God’s people from every tribe, language, nation, and people, enter into His rest through Christ. Jesus is not only the Lamb of God, but he is the Shepherd of his people, guiding them to fountains (or springs) of living water (a nod to John 4:10?). It’s hard to ignore the fact that Isaiah 49:9 and Psalm 23 both refer to God as the Shepherd of the faithful soul. Here the elder applies that divine role to Jesus in another clear assertion of Christ’s deity.
The psychologist Maslow developed a hierarchy of “human needs” to help explain motivation. At the base of his hierarchy he listed those fundamental needs without which a person cannot survive. The primary of these are air, water, food, clothing, and shelter. In verse 16, we see the promise that these needs will be met for God’s people: they shall not hunger, they shall not thirst, the sun shall not strike them, and they shall not suffer under scorching heat. Indeed, this recalls the situation of man in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, where the Lord supplied all their needs.
This picture of the Lord giving sustenance to His people such that they want for nothing in His presence is brought down to the most intimate level in verse 17: God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Though this is symbolic, it is perhaps the most touching picture of God’s care and compassion for us. If we step back and remember that Revelation is a letter of hope to suffering churches, this vision of believers in their final state (and if there’s doubt that these are believers in their final state, compare these verses with chapter 22), covered by the presence of God, guided by their Shepherd to places of refreshment, wanting nothing, and with no more suffering or heartbreak, is something to cling to. But not only for those in first century Asia Minor, for us too. This is our promise as we go through the trials of life, no matter how big or small. We need this perspective. One day, the frailty of the body, the fragility of this world, the sin we contend with day-to-day, and the evil of fallen men will no longer be of concern to us. The Lord will bring judgment and justice to bear, and those who are in Christ will enter into His rest.
My Sunday School class is taking a break for the summer, but will be back mid-August starting at chapter 8!