Often the Bible makes astounding statements. At times these even seem to be contradictory. Reflect for a moment on what it teaches about the number of “the saved.”
On the one hand we hear that only a few belong to this company. In the days of the flood only Noah and his family were spared. When Abraham was called by God, very few still remembered the one true God. Throughout Israel’s long history, beginning already in the wilderness, it was the “remnant” with which God was pleased. And thinking on how many millions have heard the gospel without responding in true faith, it does seem as if the Lord, as far as quantity is in view, remains always the “loser.”
But that is only one side of the coin. Soon we recollect the promise to Abraham. His seed would be as innumerable as the stars of the heavens and as the sands along the seashore. When the Spirit was poured out on the 120, soon 3,000, then 5,000, and within a few decades throngs throughout the Roman empire from Jerusalem to the capital city had embraced the message of salvation.
Let’s stop playing the arithmetic game. Jesus told that fellow who asked about numbers, “Strive to enter the kingdom...” This calling is also ours, a very personal and pointed one indeed. The Lord God Himself will take care of the numbers. Of this John reminds us in the vision which he now records.
The glory of this multitude, vss. 9, 10
This and the preceding vision are to be dearly distinguished. The 144,000 are here on earth. It is a complete number stated symbolically—12 times 12 times 1,000 to remind the struggling believers that in every period of history the Lord always has a “complete” number of elect known to Him and under His protection. But now the scene has shifted to heaven. a multitude “before the throne and before the Lamb.”
It is an innumerable “multitude.” No one but the Lord can begin to count them. The promise to Abraham is being fulfilled. And it is universal in its composition, “from every nation. tribe, people and language.” What had been so widely scattered also in consequence of sin is being united in glory. The power unleashed on Pentecost is working its divine purpose. What an incentive for churches today to carry out the missionary command of Matthew 28:16–20. “Now is the time of God’s favor; now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6: 2). A healthy church is always a missionary church.
But John tells us far more. Notice the intimate relation which they sustain to the “throne” and to the “Lamb.” They have been fully accepted by One on the throne. Here they “stand” always without any dread. They are beholding Him face to face. God’s love for them in Christ has completely cast out fear. They are dressed in “white,” purged with the precious blood. They hold “palm branches in their hands” indicating joy in the victory obtained. For them the ancient feast of Tabernacles is perfected.
And they engage in testifying. Whether this is in speech or song — neither Hebrew nor Greek make a sharp distinction — is unclear. But this is indeed like a mighty chorus. Faith has attained full glory. All salvation, and the term includes far more than personal entrance into glory, is now perfectly ascribed to the one true God and the Lamb. Its source and strength lies not in man; it is purely the gift of the gracious God.
The accompaniment of the multitude, vss. 11, 12
Saints above always engage in praising their God. But in this activity they are never alone. “Angels” who have continually ministered to them while on earth, immediately join with them. But so do the “elders” and “the four living creatures.” Do not press the details too closely by asking whether or not the “elders,” the patriarchs and apostles, belong to the multitude. In this vision they join with angels to place the seal of approval on the witness of the saved.
The content is very impressive. It almost seems like a responsive litany of adoration and thanksgiving. It begins with “Amen.” The safety of the Lord’s people on earth finds its full fruition in glory. The sevenfold ascription to God for His mighty acts deserves careful notice. Each word is worth its full weight. Here is praise of the purest and highest sort. The immutability of God in all His words and ways comforts the struggling church on earth. Appropriate, then, is also that second “Amen.”
The identity of the multitude, vss. 13–14
John is challenged by one of the elders to identify this multitude. And he responds by tossing the question back to the questioner. A literary device, of course, used lest we overlook the importance of the question.
And while the answer is simple, the explanation given throughout the years has been very diverse. Once again, all depends on our view of God’s plan of salvation as revealed in the Bible. Today many insist that John is speaking of a “rapture” to occur immediately before Christ’s coming to reign 1.000 years on earth. They make the “coming” a single, miraculous act. They stress the preposition “out of” to its breaking point. And with this, the innumerable company is regarded as a very special class of saints which has not yet appeared in history.
But let us, confessing the unity of the Old Testament and New Testament saints in Christ. be of a more sober mind. Indeed, our Lord spoke of the severest kind of “tribulation” just before His return in full glory. But tribulation has been the accompaniment of believers ever since Cain killed Abel. It made life painful and perplexing throughout the history of Israel. And with the spread of the gospel since Pentecost, persecutions of several kinds have troubled the church through the centuries. The seven churches in Asia Minor tasted this too. And for their comfort John assures them that, while the 144,000 as a complete number are safe on earth in any given period, so too at any time there is always a “multitude” in glory raised high above the trials and tumults of earth.
Not for a moment do we deny that towards the end of the present age there will be even greater persecutions. Jesus reminded the disciples of this when asking whether at His return He would still find faith among men. Chapter 11 will describe that period in some detail. But to restrict the host mentioned here to a group still to appear on the scene of world history seems to us entirely illegitimate; it could offer little comfort to John’s first readers or to us now.
The blessedness of the multitude, vss. 15–17
Now the experience of the saints in glory is described in some detail. This is done in a twofold way, both by negation and by affirmation. Much more will be said of this in later chapters; hence our comments can be brief.
Because their “robes” have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand fully before the face of their God. Here God’s purposes with them have been accomplished. They “serve” Him night and day and that in perfect accord. Even more, He “shelters” them with His presence, something for which already the psalmists of old longed earnestly. It is that unbroken personal fellowship which will delight them forever. None of earth's tribulations can in any way touch their lives.
All this is theirs in Christ Jesus who as the “Lamb” who sacrificed Himself for their salvation “will be their shepherd.” As they follow Him ceaselessly, every need is fully met; every desire fully satisfied. Because this scene is "fact" already now, we sing with hope-filled hearts, There is the throne of David; And there, from care released, The song of them that triumph, The shout of them that feast; And they who with their Leader Have conquered in the fight, Forever and forever Are clad in robes of white.
Questions for discussion
1. Why do you think our Lord left the number of the saved unanswered?
2. What does it mean to “make our calling and election sure” and to “work out our salvation” which is God’s free and full gift?
3. How would you connect God’s preservation and our perseverance?
4. Why and how should every believer involve himself in world missions?
5. What benefits do we receive from praising our God in song?
6. How would you connect the “elders” here with the multitude?
7. Discuss each aspect of the sevenfold ascription of thanks to God.
8. Do you ever think of your loved ones now enjoying the experiences mentioned?
9. On what grounds would you reject a special “rapture” here?
10. How does Jesus carry out His “shepherding” work in glory?