Summary: The tribulation saints paid the ultimate cost for their faith, and here they are in heaven worshiping God with all the passion they can find. What if our obedience could lead to greater love for our Lord, which could lead to greater obedience, love, etc.?
Starting today we’ll spend the next four weeks in the last book of the Bible, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Notice there is only one Revelation. Sometimes people say, “Revelations.” Nope, just one. Revelation is classified as apocalyptic scripture. The Greek word “apocalypse” is the same as our English word “revelation.” The meaning of the word “revelation” is found in its root, “reveal.” God pulls back the curtain to reveal the spiritual warfare that will culminate in the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth.
The book of Revelation is sometimes hard to understand. It talks about seven seals, seven trumpets, seven signs, and seven bowls. Like any apocalyptic literature, its numbers carry special meanings and its messages are sometimes veiled in allegory, partly to protect its recipients in case it falls into the wrong hands. The Apostle John probably wrote Revelation during his exile on the Greek Island of Patmos, during a time of heavy persecution of the church. God gave John a vision of the battle between good and evil, God’s grace in saving some and God’s judgment in rejecting many others who reject him.
Most of the book describes the increasingly terrifying time near the end of the age called the “Tribulation.” Christians differ in opinion about whether this period is literally seven years or symbolical for a longer time period; some believe it has already begun. And that brings up different Christian opinions about when the church will be raptured to heaven. The word “rapture” is Latin for “caught up,” as in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where it says we we will be caught up with Christ in heaven. Some believe God will rapture his church before the Tribulation, others believe during, and still others believe after. These various positions are labeled pre-trib, mid-trib, and post-trib. There is one other position, to which I happen to hold, called “pan-trib,” which means it will all pan out in the end!
In today’s passage John describes a vision he had of worshipers gathered around the throne of God. John notices some things about them. First, he says the crowd is so large that no one can count it. Then he notices the diversity of its make-up: every nation, tribe, people, and tongue is represented. This is truly a mixed gathering, unlike most churches where Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. We need to get used to people who are different from us, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time with them in heaven!
John notices one other thing: these people are all wearing white robes and waving palm branches. And this crowd of millions cries out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” The Lamb in Revelation represents Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb, the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Verse 12 quotes the angels joining the people in giving a seven-fold worship to God: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.” The number seven in the Bible represents God’s perfect completion, so this is perfect worship.
So where did this large choir come from? An angel explains to John that these are tribulation saints, people who only became believers during the seven-year tribulation, when the government was trying to get people to renounce their faith to save their lives. So these people believed and died for it, becoming martyrs for their faith. Did you know the word “martyr” simply means “witness?” But the way we use it today, it refers to people who witnessed their faith in Jesus and received death for it.
I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who, during World War II, spoke out against Nazism as an evil among his people, and after much prayer and soul searching, participated in the doomed Valkyrie plot to take Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer was executed just months before the end of the war.
These tribulation saints in Revelation, like Bonhoeffer, have found their salvation in the blood of Jesus alone. Nothing else saves. Only God saves, through his son Jesus. As the great hymn says, “There is power in the blood.” Everyone who got saved in the Old Testament was looking forward to their Messiah. Everyone who gets saved in the New Testament period and all the way up through our time looks back to what Jesus did for us on the cross. Salvation is by Christ alone.
Note this is true even for the largest heroes in God’s kingdom, the tribulation saints. Even they must turn to Jesus and Jesus alone for salvation. Can Billy Graham make it to heaven on his own? No way. One sin is one too many. How about Mother Theresa? Not a chance. Everyone needs Jesus. Everyone.