Who Are These, Clothed in White Robes?

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“Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Revelation 7:13).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Who are these? We have the description of this sacred assembly throughout our text, and it’s all good. They are a very diverse group. They are from every tribe, all peoples… all nations—the same word that Jesus used when He said to His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
It’s not a small number, either. It’s a great multitude. Oh, I know, the Church always seems to look like the scattered few near extinction in this world, but God will have His people—too numerous to count! Look at them! They are standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They are clothed in white robes and they are holding palm branches. Waving palm branches only pops up on two occasions in Scripture: Palm Sunday and here, in Revelation 7. On Palm Sunday, the people waved palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem. They shouted: “Hosanna”—“save us now!”, and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Christ the King rode into Jerusalem with purpose, to save. In a few short days, He was raised up on a cross for His throne as He died for the sins of the world.
But here, while the palm branches are the same, everything else is different. It’s fulfilled. Instead of the cross, there’s a real throne. Instead of the Savior preparing to sacrifice, He is present as the Lamb who had been slain, but is now risen. Rather than throwing down their garments in service to Him, this great multitude is wearing white robes that He has given to them. And instead of crying out, “Save us now!” they declare that He has: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” It’s done. The victory is the Lord’s.
Who are these? They’re in pretty special company. They’re standing with angels around the throne. The twenty-four elders are there, too, representing all believers. So are the four living creatures. And this elite choir sings this song: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Who are these, and from where have they come? The elder answers his own question: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” Some will tell you that this great tribulation refers to a special seven-year period just before the end of the world, but that interpretation is not merited by the text. Oh, there’s no denying that things will be worse before the end. The way the Revelation describes it, there will be a huge Church that claims to be Christianity but has actually denied the Gospel, as well as a world that’s wholeheartedly rejected Christ. And neither group will favor those who hold fast to the Gospel.
But, notice “these are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” It is in the present tense, not in the past tense as many translations render it. Life in this world is always a time of great tribulation for the people of God, ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. There is no “rapture” where true believers escape the troubles of this world, rather only one continuous coming out of this vale of tears to eternal life. Jesus isn’t a way around the valley of the shadow of death; He’s the only way through it. Believers are not spared tribulation; they go through it together with Jesus, and with Him they come out of it.   
Who are these? This multitude in heaven is a gathering of all those who are no longer on earth, but stand before the throne of God in heaven. And why are they there? Because they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They are holy and clean before God, their robes white, because Christ has paid for every last one of their sins with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
Where are these? They are “before the throne of God,” but the throne is not empty. They are in the presence of God. It is “He who sits on the throne” and “who will shelter them with His presence.” The verb translated “will shelter” here is an important one. It’s also the word for tent or tabernacle. Back in the Old Testament, the tabernacle was God’s temple in the wilderness as the people of Israel journeyed to the Promised Land. God dwelt with His people in the Holy of Holies, the inner room of the tent. He concealed Himself there because they couldn’t see His glory and live: stained and unholy with sin, they couldn’t be that close to Him—He had to hide for their good.
But that all changed in the incarnation of Christ! In John 1:14, we are told that when the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ, He “tabernacled” or “tented” among God’s people. Now, in Revelation 7, He shelters them with His presence. In other words, they’re inside the tent, inside the Most Holy Place, with Him. That’s what heaven is—life in the glorious presence of God forever. The saints can be in His presence because the Lamb has made them clean with His own blood, because He became flesh and tented among them in order to save them from sin.
The future tense emphasizes the “now, not yet” aspect of this promise. Now, this sheltering is understood and experienced only through the minds and eyes of faith, but after the resurrection, it will be a sensory reality for all believers. We, here on earth, have a foretaste of that day each time in the Divine Service. In fact, this altar where you receive the body and blood of your Savior Jesus Christ is the one place here on earth where you can join with your loved one who has died in the faith. Our liturgy reminds us of that present reality—that together with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify God’s glorious name, praise with our hosannas the one who comes in the name of the Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ.
Those “souls” in heaven, are with the Lord, they are coming out of the great tribulation, but await the consummation where they in their own flesh will see their Redeemer with their own eyes. This multitude is in the presence of God because they’re holy, and only holy things can be in the presence of God. That explains what’s not in the vision: hunger, thirst, pain, or tears.  
So who are these? Who makes up this great multitude from all nations, gathered around God’s throne with the elders and the living creatures? Who has the honor of being that close in white robes, waving palm branches and singing praises to the Lamb? Who are these, delivered from the great tribulation, never to suffer sin, pain, or affliction again? Who are these?
They are the Old Testament saints who trusted in God’s promise of a Savior. They are the New Testament saints who greeted Christ’s arrival with repentant hearts. These are the early church martyrs who bravely faced their own deaths and considered it all joy. These are the reformers who staked life, fortune, families, even their appearance before the judgment seat of Christ for their confession of the Christian faith. These are the modern martyrs all around the world, including the Iraqi Christian being beheaded this very day by member of ISIS for refusing to renounce their Christian faith. These are your loved ones who have died in the faith and who have gone on before you to be in the presence of the Lord.
Who are these? Along with the rest of God’s people, they are you. You are among those whom God has gathered in from all nations. You are cleansed with the blood of Christ. And you wear the white robe of His righteousness, because all who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. What you see in the text is your future. This is not a possibility or one of several endings: this is what Christ has redeemed you for. Christ has redeemed you for eternal life in the presence of God. This is what heaven is like. This is Paradise.
I’ll admit, that sounds a bit abstract, but consider it this way: it’s like life in the Garden of Eden before the fall into sin. There, sinless man could stand in God’s holy presence. Because there was no sin, there were no wages of sin—no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no tears, no tribulation, no death. Sin brought all of this as part of its curse. Christ came and defeated sin, suffering the hunger, the thirst, the pain, the tears and all of God’s judgment for sin. In doing so, He reversed the curse. Because He has won salvation for you, your sins are forgiven. Heaven is yours… and heaven means being in the presence of God, the Giver of all good things, for eternity. That is how God designed things to be in the first place.
In contrast, hell is where God is not—or at least where God is not present with grace and mercy. For those who want nothing to do with God, they will receive exactly what they want—though they will find an existence completely without God to be a terrible thing indeed. But hell is not for you. You’ve been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Your future—your eternity—is life in His presence, with every good thing. That is what God offers to all people through His Son Jesus Christ, so that all who believe in Him might be saved from hell and delivered to heaven.
For now, you’re neither in heaven or hell. You’re in this world, sort of in between, experiencing a little bit of both. There’s a bit of hell here, because you still witness the wages of sin with the sickness, the troubles, the anxiety and everything else that contributes to great tribulation. But this world is not hell, because God is still present in this world. There’s a bit of heaven here, too, for precisely that same reason: God is present with you, as near as His means of grace. He’s clothed you in that white robe of righteousness in your baptism. He keeps speaking you clean with His absolution. And He gives you a foretaste of the feast to come in His Supper—a little bit of heaven here on earth.
Obviously you are not yet in heaven. This is the other side of glory. God is present, but not in His unveiled glory. Here, God conceals Himself in words and water, bread and wine. He must do so because sinners can’t abide His glorious presence and live. So for now, you’re between heaven and hell, enduring in a world that features both hellish tribulation and heavenly grace. Part of a Church that looks weak, inept, confused, incompetent, irrelevant, divided, hopelessly out of touch. Her glory is hidden behind a cross, her victory still a matter of faith, her only hope is one crucified, risen, and reigning Lamb. And that is your hope!
The point of our text is to remind you of your future. This world is not the end or your final destination. Your place in that multitude around God’s throne is already secure because the Lamb has already shed His blood for you and forgiven you for all of your sins. Like an heir of a fortune in the car on the way to the reading of the will, it’s only a matter of when, not if; the inheritance is yours. You just don’t see it yet. The only thing that would keep the heir from the inheritance would be if he jumped out of the car and ran away.
 That’s the only ploy the devil has left for you—to get you to run away from God’s gifts of forgiveness and heaven, and to choose sin—and eventually hell—instead. He’ll try to make sin look attractive, and your sinful flesh will want to cooperate and choose the sin over grace and the Promised Land. He’ll try to make you doubt God’s presence and believe you’re God-forsaken and already in hell; but in truth, this world is still so visited by God that we cannot have a true idea of what hell is really like.
No, you don’t face an imminent martyrdom. Arenas filled with lions, wooden crosses, burning stakes, even prison bars do not appear on the immediate horizon, though they seem much closer than even just a few years ago. But there is still tribulation. You’re still in this world where the evil of the world, the devil, and your own sinful nature battle and batter you constantly.
When this service is over, God sends you back out into the battlefield—the hard realities of daily living. Tests. Performance reviews. Sales quotas. Paying bills. Family frustrations. Dealing with people that dislike or even hate you. You encounter opposition for believing in Jesus. The devil uses your sins to accuse you and threaten you with damnation. Sickness and aging sap you of your health and strength. Death snatches away people you love. Sometimes suddenly when they’re way too young. Other times after lengthy suffering. Always way too soon!
You will have your share of heartache and pain. You will struggle day by day, hanging on when it all seems hopeless, when faith doesn’t come easily. You will struggle to trust in God, to believe, even when many troubles tell you otherwise. Yes, in this fallen world there is still great tribulation.
But Christ is greater, and here’s the proof. All of the tribulation you face is a result of sin and designed to lead you to death. But Christ has already paid for that sin and conquered death. He’s emerged from the tomb, never to die again. And if He’s conquered the greater enemy—death itself, He is certainly greater than any tribulation that afflicts you now.  No matter how bad things may get, for you or for the Church, no matter how many tears and how much blood is shed, no matter how much you may hunger and thirst, it all comes out good and right in Jesus.
So rejoice and glorify the name of the Lord! Eternal life is already yours because you are numbered among the multitude of saints. You’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb. The white robe you wear is Christ’s righteousness exchanged on the cross and given to you in the water and Word. Salvation is yours, because He gives it to you freely and abundantly. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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