4th Sunday after Easter – 5/8/2022
The text from Revelation, chapter 7, is a small yet significant portion of Jesus Christ's message to John, the apostle. The Lord speaks only one message through seven visions in the Book of Revelation. It is a message of hope to His suffering church, the Church Militant.
John is himself no stranger to this suffering. In the very first chapter, he identifies himself as a "co-sharer" in the same trials and troubles as those to whom he writes. He relates how he was banished from the rest of the world to the small island of Patmos—his only crime was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of the letter, as Jesus Himself testifies, is to relay to His suffering church what they could expect to take place shortly. Through John, Jesus gives His people hope in the eternal salvation that awaits them, even though, as they receive this vision, all manner of pain and trouble beset them. But Jesus' words of hope transcend all generations. They speak of the future reality that every Christian of every age can expect to see with their own eyes come Jesus' second coming. Jesus gives us a vision of the church militant as she is transformed into the church triumphant!
In receiving such encouragement, we are brought face-to-face with some of the real paradoxes of our Christian hope. By paradox, I mean that which defies or contradicts accepted fact or common sense but is nonetheless absolutely true. Our comfort now, as well as our hope for what lies ahead, are grounded in such paradoxes.
The first paradox that meets us is that those who presently stand knee-deep in sorrow, hardship, and pain are the same ones who will stand before the heavenly throne of God in ease, glory, and victory.
John said he looked, and there before his eyes was a great crowd of people, so large no one could count them. He said there were people in the crowd from every race, language group, nation, and even family grouping or "tribe." They were all standing in glory, in awe, and with great joy before the very throne of God. Each stood clad in brilliantly white clothing, waving palm branches.
The sight is reminiscent of the imagery of the Old Covenant Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the "Feast of Ingathering." This feast was one of the three great gatherings and festivals God instructed Israel to hold yearly. It always marked the harvest season's close and the crops' final ingathering. Utilizing the imagery of this Feast of Ingathering, Jesus showed John the eternal ingathering of God's wheat into His eternal storehouse. Long before, the Old Testament prophet Zechariah prophesied that all nations would worship God during the Messiah's reign during this "feast of ingathering" (14:16–21). John was shown this gathering of believers from every corner of human society.
There are even more parallels between what Jesus showed John and the Old Covenant Feast of Ingathering. Those clad in white robes waved palm branches. Not coincidentally, palm branches were always integral to the Old Covenant feast. They were used to build temporary shelters called "tabernacles" or "booths."
Even the cry of this great multitude resembles the old feast. The last day of the feast was called "Hoshana Rabba," the Great Hosanna." The term "Hosanna" conveys in Hebrew the plea of God's people: "Save now!" This plea finds its fulfillment in the song sung by this great multitude standing before the throne of God: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." The whole scene conveys the image of God's gracious salvation of His people.
It behooves us to be assured of this: What John is relaying to us is not some "dream." This multitude in glory, praising God for His salvation, is not just a hallucination of his fanciful hopes. Rather, it is like a snapshot of what is but is not yet.
Now, you and I take all sorts of snapshots and selfies of important events in our families' lives or memorable occasions on our vacations. You know the type: "This is me lying on the beach in Honolulu. That is my wife and I looking over the Grand Canyon's edge. That is me catching that 25-pound Northern! I am holding up that Boone and Crocket buck I shot last year." Such snapshots capture for us all those wonderful memories. Imagine, now, if you could have snapshots of yourself enjoying all the good times even before you went on vacation!
That is what John is showing us: a true snapshot of our eternity in glory, which in time is not here yet. For you see, the great multitude John saw is the total number of every believer in Christ that has ever lived from the beginning of time until the end. Believers from every tongue, every nation, and every people group stand in glory before Christ.
Do you understand what I am saying? That means Christ showed John a snapshot of you and me, with all the other believers, standing in the victory and glory of heaven! You and I have not seen John, but John has already seen us via this vision! And now, through this epistle, we are also shown a snapshot of ourselves standing in glory. Nothing ever will if that doesn't fill our hearts with assurance and hope!
The skeptic might be inclined to assert: "How can that be? How could John see what has not happened yet? Keep in mind that God is not bound by time. We created beings. His salvation is also timeless. Scripture assures us that Christ was "slain from the foundation of the world." In God's eye, He saw our salvation in Jesus already when Adam sinned. Jesus says to you and me, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My Word and believes in Him Who sent Me has eternal life and does not come into judgment but has passed out of death into life" (Jn 5:24).
The paradox is glaring. After all, we are people of the "Great Tribulation." It is great because it extends throughout the breadth and depth of this world and every generation. It began when the first man and woman were thrust into the pain, heartache, and isolation from God that came upon them because of their sin and will continue until the last sinner dies. This tribulation began with the first person to experience persecution and humiliation for the sake of the LORD and His Word and will continue until the blood of the last martyr for Christ is shed. This tribulation is the misery, hunger for righteousness, and sorrow left in death's wake that plagues us all.
Yet, these people of the tribulation, including you and me, will stand in heavenly glory where there is no more pain, no more tears, no more death, and no more tribulation! Our proof of this wonderful eternal reality—that we will be brought out of this tribulation—is given to us in this snapshot contained in Jesus' vision to John. John saw you. He saw me; we were all standing in the glory of the eternal harvest. This paradox can't help but fill our hearts with hope.
No matter this snapshot's clarity, it is sometimes almost impossible to conceptualize ourselves in all our glory. After all, we know ourselves all too well. We can't imagine how someone like us, polluted with broken commandments, unkept promises to God and others, bitterness, jealousy, and unfaithfulness, can ever stand in glory with Christ, the purest and most perfect person who ever lived. "Surely," we think to ourselves, "God's holiness and purity would consume me if I were in His presence! Given all that I have done wrong, how can it be that I will ever get to heaven?"
The answer is in the second paradox presented in this vision of the multitude in glory. To see it, we see how those who stand in glory are clothed. They are wearing sparkling white robes. Yet their robes are said to have been washed in blood!
How clean and white can you get anything in your blood? Anyone who has washed clothes will tell you that blood stains are some of the toughest to get out of! Conventional wisdom says that you can't get anything white in blood! Any mother worth her salt knows this! Hence the paradox! But wait! This is no ordinary blood! It is the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. This blood was shed on Calvary to atone for all our sins. Not only is it the blood of a man, but it is also the blood of God, who is one with human nature in the person of Jesus.
As such, the blood can not only atone for all sin but also cleanse our sin-stained garments from all guilt and sin. This blood bears the very righteousness of God to clothe us in the robe of Christ's righteousness. There is nothing whiter or purer than this. John writes in His First Epistle that "the blood of Jesus, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin" (I John 1:7).
In the waters of Holy Baptism, we have been washed in this blood. We are sprinkled with this blood whenever we hear the Word of Absolution: "Your sins are forgiven! Go in peace." We drink this cleansing blood in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. We will stand in this multitude in glory despite our lack of good works and sins. We will stand there because the blood that cleanses, the blood of the Lamb of God, has sanctified and washed us to stand with the multitude before God in glory!
Speaking of the Lamb, it is here that we are confronted with the third paradox of the Christian faith. Our text tells us that the one who shepherds people to the living waters of eternal life and removes all the tears of tribulation is the Lamb, the sacrificial lamb of God.
The whole thing is completely beyond the realm of our human minds to grasp. Today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we rejoice in our shepherd. But our shepherd is a lamb—a sacrificial lamb to boot! How can this be? Shouldn't our shepherd be a lion, a mighty warrior, and a mighty conqueror with a sword? Someone with the brute power to defeat all our enemies, not someone whose life ended in bloody defeat? Shouldn't our shepherd be someone who can lead us out of our financial woes? Someone who can lead us to a life free from all diseases, not someone who died a pauper and couldn't even heal Himself? Shouldn't our shepherd be someone who can lead us to worldly happiness, not someone whose own life ended in tears of abandonment and who brings a cross into our lives? Shouldn't our shepherd be someone who espouses love and ignores our sins and failings and not someone who suffers the humiliation of being condemned for our sins?
Now, if your hopes and mine are purely tied to the here and now—to physical comforts and worldly happiness—then we probably won't want a shepherd who is also a lamb. Any wise business counselor or savvy guru will do.
But if our hopes are tethered to the eternal peace and glory of God's home, then the Lamb is the only shepherd to lead wayward sheep like you and me to the green pastures and still waters of eternal life. For this reason, the shepherd has become one of us, leading and carrying us to life. As the appointed sacrificial lamb for sinners, Jesus alone has born our sorrows and carried our griefs. Only He was put to death for our offenses so that we might be set free from God's eternal wrath against sin. Only He could conquer sin's consequences by raising Himself from the dead. He is the only true shepherd!
Our eternal life, present peace, and hope for future things are inexplicably tied together in these stunning paradoxes. Yes, they defy all human sensibility and logic, but without them, we are dead and have no hope. Accordingly, as Scripture proclaims, "Great is the mystery of our faith!" But in these paradoxes, "Great is our hope!" For we have been "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (I Pet. 1:3-5).