9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:9-17 ESV
John now sees another group of individuals made up of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). This is obviously a different group than the 144,000 mentioned in the first eight verses. John describes as innumerable and comprised of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. In other words, these are non-Jews or Gentiles. And while the 144,000 were located on earth, this group is in heaven “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” So, this begs the question: Who are these people? Do they represent the church, as some have speculated? They described as wearing white robes, waving palm branches, and crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They sound like they could be Christians, and they most likely are. But the real question is whether they comprise the church that was raptured before the tribulation began. John is at a loss as to who these people are, which is made clear when he is asked by one of the 24 elders to tell him their identity. John seems to know intuitively that the elder has the answer to his own question and so he responds, “Sir, you know.” And the elder clears up any confusion as to who this vast crowd may be.
“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:14 ESV
While the 144,000 Jews are on earth, these individuals are in heaven, and it would seem that they are there as a result of their martyrdom. They are described as wearing white robes, a sign of their righteousness. And their righteousness is a result of the blood of the Lamb. They have been washed clean, purified by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Which indicates that they had come to faith some time during the tribulation and were put to death because of their belief in Jesus. This appears to be the same group John saw back in chapter six.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. – Revelation 6:9 ESV
They are shown holding and waving palm branches, a symbol of victory and joy. They are celebrating and worshiping their salvation. But they are also crying out for vengeance. They want to know when God will avenge their persecution and deaths at the hands of of the Antichrist.
“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” – Revelation 6:10 ESV
They are grateful for their presence in God’s Kingdom, but they want to know when He is going to deal with those on earth who persecuted them for their faith and murdered them for the decision to follow Christ. This makes it clear that there will be many who become Christians during the tribulation, and it is likely the 144,000 witnesses who will bring this about. These Jewish converts to Christianity will become God’s ambassadors, witnessing to the Gentile nations regarding the salvation made possible through faith in Jesus Christ, their Messiah.
But John hears what appears to be bad news. These martyrs are told that they must be patient. God will deal with all those on earth who oppose Him and who persecute His chosen ones. But the time has not yet come. The exact moment for His Son’s return to earth has not arrived. So, in the meantime, there will be additional converts to the faith and, sadly, even more martyrs, “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11 ESV).
Back in chapter seven, John sees these very same individuals are enjoying the protection provided by God as they stand in His presence. They serve Him day and night in His holy temple in heaven. And though, when they were on earth, they suffered greatly for their faith, they now enjoy complete safety and freedom from pain and suffering of any kind. John is told:
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat. – Revelation 7:16 ESV
Later on in this very same book, John will reveal the marvelous reality that, for those who have a relationship with Jesus Christ, eternity will be a time of great peace. There will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow of any kind.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. – Revelation 21:4 ESV
John echoes this sentiment in chapter seven as he views this scene of rejoicing taking place in the heavenly temple.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. – Revelation 7:17 ESV
When the elder disclosed to John the identity of these people, he described them as having come out of the “great tribulation.” This the very phrase Jesus used in His Olivet Discourse when referring to the second half of the seven year tribulation.
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV
According to the book of Daniel and the words of Jesus in His Olivet discourse, the first half of the seven years of tribulation will be marked by relative peace. The Antichrist will appear as a global political leader who brokers a peace treaty with Israel. But at the midway point or three-and-a-half years into the seven year period, he will break his covenant with Israel, unleashing a devastating persecution against the people of God. Daniel alludes to this very time in his prophecy.
“And he [Antichrist] shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:27 ESV
All of this will be revealed in greater detail as the book of Revelation unfolds. But in this vision, John is seeing the results of Antichrist’s work in the second half of the tribulation period. He will put to death countless individuals who have placed their faith in Christ. And he will persecute the Jews without mercy, all in an attempt to wipe them from face of the earth. Which raises the question: Why? What would cause the Antichrist to spend so much time and energy attempting to destroy the Jewish people? He seems to know that they are a key element behind the Lord’s eventual return. If he can eliminate them, there is no reason for Christ to come back. If there are no people to redeem and restore, there will be no purpose behind the Lord’s return. But the Antichrist is mistaken. He operates under the power and influence of Satan, but even Satan has no clue as to how all this is going to turn out. At one time, he believed he had defeated Jesus by having Him crucified. But that seeming victory was turned to defeat when God raised Jesus back to life. And there is the day coming when Satan will yet again attempt to thwart God’s plans and put an end to Christ’s return. But he will fail.
The very fact that John sees 144,000 Jews protected by God from the assault of the Antichrist shows us that God is in control of all that is going on during these days. And that John sees these martyred believers standing in the very presence of God reminds us that death is not a dead end for those who place their faith in Jesus. As Paul told the believers in Rome:
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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 8:37-39 ESV
Which is why the martyred saints can stand before God and shout with unabandoned joy and thankfulness:
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” – Revelation 7:12 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.