Out of the Great Tribulation
Out of the Great Tribulation
by William Klock
Tribulation, perseverance, and kingdom. These are the key themes of Revelation. John, himself living in exile for the sake of the gospel, was given seven messages for the nearby churches of Asia. Those messages rebuke and exhort, they call the churches to repent where they have failed, but most of all, through these letters, Jesus calls his church to persevere. The days were already difficult for them. They struggled to be faithful to Jesus as Christians always have, but they were also facing persecution by the Jews and the Romans and, Jesus warns, it was going to get worse. And so most of all his message to those churches was to persevere—to stand firm on the gospel in faith, to conquer—and he assured them that on the other side of his victory over these dark forces, they would be vindicated and share in his dominion.
And now John’s been swept up to the heavenly courts so that he can be privy to the counsels of the Lord. The divine plans are contained in a scroll and John, longing for the fulfilment of Jesus’ promises, wept when no one could be found worthy to open it and to set God’s plans in motion. But then, in Chapter 5, the Lion of Judah entered the court, the King who is also the lamb who gave his life for the sake of his people, he is worthy, and first the heavenly court, and then all creation thundered out his praises. He is creation’s hope and the hope of his people. He will set the world to rights. We’ll pick up with Chapter 6 and, moving fairly quickly, working through to the end of Chapter 7. John continues:
Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:1-8)
Jesus breaks the first four seals on the scroll and one of the four living creatures, each time, thunders a summons: “Come!” And four horsemen ride forth. Remember that I said last week, everything about the scroll’s description links it with the scrolls described in the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—scrolls concerning the judgement of faithless and apostate Israel. The Day of the Lord is finally coming to Jerusalem. The first, on a white horse, rides out “conquering and to conquer”. He wields a bow and has been given a crown, which mean he represents the empire about to fall on Jerusalem like a ton of bricks. The second rider on a red horse represents the unleashing of war. The third, on a black horse and bearing a scale, announces the economic disruption and famine that accompanies war. His announcement, “a quart of wheat for a denarius,” represents something like 1000% inflation on basic and essential foodstuffs people needed to survive. An entire day’s wage for quart of grain. And with war and famine come death and hades on the fourth horse. Hades, in Greek mythology was the abode of the dead and was borrowed by Greek-speaking Jews to use in place of the Hebrew “sheol”, the grave. A time of great tribulation was about to come on Jerusalem and Judaea: strife and war, famine and disease, and death on a scale never before seen.
The imagery of the horsemen comes from Zechariah, where four similar horsemen ride out in judgement on Israel, but the nature of what they bring is straight from Jeremiah 15 and Ezekiel 5. Ezekiel writes:
A quarter of you shall be dispensed by death, and a quarter of you shall be finished off by famine in your midst, and a quarter of you, to every wind I will scatter them, and a quarter of you shall fall by the sword around you, and a dagger I will unsheathe after them. (Ezekiel 5:12 NETS)
The nation would be defeated and scattered. Ezekiel was told to eat the scroll containing all this, and it was bitter. Jeremiah asks:
Who will have pity on you, O Jerusalem,
or who will grieve for you? (Jeremiah 15:5)
But, more importantly, what John describes here is an obvious fulfilment of Jesus’ prophetic words in the Olivet Discourse recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus describes war, international strife, famine, pestilence, persecution, and expresses the great calamity of it all in the symbolic prophetic language of de-creation: the sun going dark, the moon turning red, the stars falling from heaven. And Jesus was clear that these weren’t events of the far future, but that he was describing the judgement that would come on apostate, unbelieving Israel within the lifetime of the generation then alive.
The Jewish historian Josephus lived through those events and vividly describes them. In his book, The Jewish War, he writes:
“It was then common to see cities filled with dead bodies, still lying unburied, and those of old men, mixed with infants, all dead, and scattered about together; women also lay amongst them…you might then see the whole province full of inexpressible calamities, while dread of still more barbarous practices which were threatened, was everywhere greater than what had been already perpetrated.”
He writes, too, about the severity of the famine:
“As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the insurgents kept pace with it, and every day both these horrors burned more fiercely. For, since nowhere was grain to be seen, men would break into houses, and if they found some they mistreated the occupants for having denied their possession of it; if they found none, they tortured them as if they had concealed it….Many secretly bartered their possessions for a single measure of wheat if they happened to be rich…Then they shut themselves up in the darkest corners of their houses; in the extremity of their hunger some even ate their grain unground….Nowhere was a table laid—the food was snatched half-cooked from the fire and torn to pieces.”
Jesus goes on to open the fifth seal on the scroll and reveals those vindicated by the Lord’s judgement. Look at verses 9-11:
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. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
These martyrs dwell symbolically under the altar, like the blood of the sacrifices that poured out and pooled at its foot in the temple. But who are they? That they are given white robes, whereas others we’ll see in just a bit wash their robes in the blood of the lamb, points to these being martyrs of old covenant Israel. They could not wash their robes in the blood of Jesus, but for their faithfulness they are given robes of white. These are the men and women Jesus speaks about in his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew records it for us this way:
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
These are the Jews who were persecuted and even killed at the hands of sinful, unfaithful, apostate Israel down through the ages—all the way back to Abel, murdered by his brother Cain. They have cried out through all those ages, looking for their vindication by the Lord and knowing that he is faithful to his promises. Now that vindication finally comes as judgement falls on Jerusalem.
Jesus then breaks the sixth seal. Look at verses 12-17:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
This is that symbolic language of de-creation, of cosmic catastrophe used by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus. The idea is that greater than the catastrophe of war and famine and death, is that behind it lies the Lord’s judgement—as if he’s removed his sustaining hands from creation itself and brought it all crashing down on all those who bear his wrath. This is the wrath of God and of the lamb. The specific imagery here echoes the judgement announced by Hosea, Joel, and especially Isaiah on the house of Jacob:
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day…
And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord… (Isaiah 2:17, 19)
It’s important, then, that what so frightens the kings and generals, the rich and powerful, and everyone slave and free, isn’t so much judgement falling on them. They stand in awe of the catastrophe brought down on Israel by the Lord. The people who worship impotent gods of wood and stone see the one, true God not only in action, but fulfilling his promises as he judges his unfaithful people—and they stand both awed and terrified. “Who can stand before the wrath of God and of the lamb,” they ask. They stand as witness to the mighty deeds of the Lord.
And now as we get to Chapter 7, there’s an interlude. “Who can stand?” We’ve seen the catastrophe unleashed on unbelieving Israel, but what of the faithful? The martyrs of the old covenant are safe, symbolically under the altar, but what about the Church in the middle of all this. What about Jesus’ promises that those who overcome will conquer and share in his dominion? Look at 7:1-4.
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel…
John goes on to list 12,000 from every tribe, which I’ll skip since our time is short. In Daniel, the beasts of empire arose from the sea. Something similar is about to happen again, the winds poised to unleash their violence and destruction, but another angel bearing the seal of the living God, holds them back. Ezekiel 9 describes something similar. The Lord sends executioners to destroy the people of Jerusalem, but he first commands a scribe to pass through the city and to place a mark on the foreheads of all “who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed”. With the seal the Lord marks out the faithful who belong to him so that they will be spared in the coming judgement. One old commentator puts it this way, “The purpose of the sealing was to preserve the true Israel of God as a holy seed. It was not designed to save them from tribulation, but to preserve them in the midst of the great tribulation about to come and to glorify them thereby. Though the Old Israel be cast off, a new and holy Israel is to be chosen and sealed with the Spirit of the living God.”
Specifically, here, the angel seals the Jerusalem church, the Jewish believers in Jesus. The number 144,000 is symbolic, but still not necessarily far off the mark. We’re told that at this time there were tens of thousands of believers in Jerusalem. But the point of the symbolism, 12,000 from each tribe, shows an idealized Israel, now manifest in the church and organized for battle. A thousand represented a basic military division and here there’s one from each tribe. The angel seals the Jewish believers and musters them as an army—those appalled by the abominations of their nation, those prepared to stand for Jesus and the gospel.
But once again John hears one thing and sees something different. He heard the lion, but saw the lamb. Here he hears the 144,000, but in verse 9 he turns to see a multitude. He hears the number of those seals from Israel, but he turns to see a multitude from every nation, tribe, and people.
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, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 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, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 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. (Revelation 7:9-14)
Who are these people? What’s their relationship with the 144,000? Again, we go back to the prophets. Remember Daniel’s scroll? He was told to seal it up until a time of “great tribulation”, specifically, “a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (Daniel 12:1). Jesus uses almost exactly the same phrase to describe the coming time of great affliction. And I think this tells us what’s going on here. Daniel writes in Chapter 11 of his book, that the wise amongst the people—amongst Israel—will suffer sword, flame, captivity, and plunder, but that through this persecution they will be “refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end” (Daniel 11:33, 35). But, Daniel says, they will “make many understand”. In 12:3 Daniel writes, “[T]hose who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
I think this is the best explanation for what John sees here in these two groups. Consider that Israel’s calling was always to be a witness to the nations—to bring them to the Lord. And here we have the faithful remnant of Israel who follow Jesus in faith through this time of great tribulation, through this catastrophe of judgement that has fallen on the nation, and through them this great multitude is gathered from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The multitude is made up of those who have been witness to awesome and terrifying judgement unleashed by the Lord, but also his preservation of the faithful—both testimonies of his faithfulness that have brought these gentiles to faith. They aren’t martyrs. There’s too many of them, but, too, history tells us that the Christians of Jerusalem—the symbolic 144,000—heeded Jesus warning and fled the city. They survived the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s important what the elder says to John: These are the ones who have come out—or made it through—the great tribulation. In other words, these are the ones the Lord has preserved from judgement? Why? Because their robes have been washed in the blood of the lamb. They have known the faithfulness of God and the saving power of his Messiah and so they praise him: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And the heavenly court, hearing their praises, follows with their own praises, giving glory to the God who both delivers his people and judges wickedness.
So this is the Church that John sees. But is the church in heaven or on earth? Let’s finally look at the elder’s song in verses 15-17:
“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.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
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.”
The elder’s song draws on a passage from Ezekiel 37, which in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses similar language. The elder says that God will “shelter them” and through Ezekiel the Lord says, “My dwelling place (my place of shelter) shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (37:27). He goes on to say, “Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (37:28). As Ezekiel holds up Israel as the Lord’s temple and witness to the nations, so John now holds up the church—the faithful remnant of Israel plus the multi-national multitude drawn to Jesus by that remnant—John holds up the church as the new temple of God in the midst of the nations—fulfilling what has always been the mission and calling of the people of God.
Verse 16 is a quotation of Isaiah 49:10, which tells how the servant of the Lord will restore Israel and become a light to the nations. Those whom he sets free will neither hunger nor thirst, neither sun nor scorching heat will touch them, for he will guide them like a shepherd by springs of living water. And it’s worth noting that it’s John who, in his gospel, tells us that this living water is the Holy Spirit.
All that tells us that both the 144,00 and the great multitude are not in heaven, but on earth. This is the church shepherded by lamb, filled with God’s own Spirit, who have now become the Lord’s temple. This is his promise to see them through the coming time of tribulation. It’s also his promise that they will, indeed, make it through. They will be the holy nation of priest and kings that he promised to make them. Jesus assures them that tribulation—even though some would die for his sake—that tribulation is not death, but birth. The catastrophic judgement to come would establish the kingdom and Jesus shows his people not only the victory to come, but the celebration that came with that victory.
Brothers and Sisters, what John describes is in our past, but in it we see the faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus and the Church. What God has promised he always accomplishes and you and I stand here in this church today as proof. We face our own time of trial as we enter a post-Christian age. But we are now Daniel’s “wise”, called to shine the light of Jesus into the darkness of the world, and trusting that by our witness the Spirit will turn many to righteousness. It’s now our turn to declare the mighty deeds of the Lord to the nations, that they might stand in awe and fear of the God who both judges and delivers, of the God who loves his enemies so much that he who is the lion become the lamb who gave himself as a sacrifice for their—for our—sins.
In a.d. 37 the Emperor Caligula erected an obelisk in the great circus in Rome. It was dedicated to the Divine Augustus and the Divine Tiberius. Standing at the centre of Nero’s circus, it stood witness to the martyrdom of many men and women who stood uncompromisingly for Jesus and paid for that testimony with their lives. That witness brought an entire empire to submission to Jesus. Today the Nero’s circus is gone, replaced by St. Peter’s, the largest church in the world. The obelisk still stands, now in St. Peter’s Square. But it has been inscribed with the words of the martyrs:
Brothers and Sisters, the Messiah conquers, the Messiah reigns, the Messiah rules over all.
Let’s pray: Almighty Father we praise you for your faithfulness, revealed first through St. John and then through your mighty deeds in history. As you promised, you brought down the wicked and you have delivered and raised up your people. You have redeemed us from sin and death, you have filled us with your Spirit, now give us grace to fulfil the calling you have given, cause our gospel light to shine brightly into the darkness of the world, drawing the nations and ever increasing this great multitude, until the knowledge of your glory fills the earth as the waters cover the sea. Through Jesus our Lord we pray. Amen.
 The Jewish War ii.xviii.2
 Ibid, v.x.2
 Milton Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1898), 336.