The Great Tribulation According to John

You’ve probably heard about the great tribulation. Here we are, standing before the throne of God. As we have been waiting for Jesus to break all seven seals so the document He holds can be opened, we have seen the current condition of the world. In this interlude, we have seen that God waits to pour His final wrath out upon the earth until all those who are converted are converted. Those being converted are being converted through the nation of Israel and are so populous that they cannot be counted. Now, while we still yearn for the book to be opened, we see this great multitude before the throne of God.

Revelation 7:9-17

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation 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 answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

The praise (v. 9-12)

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands…

“After these things,” after John saw the image of the 144,000 being sealed before the wrath of God could be unleashed, he now sees a great multitude from among the nations symbolically standing before the throne and Jesus clothed in white with palm branches in their hands. Remember, when John uses the language, “After these things,” he means that he sees one vision after another, not that one literal event is taking place after another literal event. Revelation is symbolic and achronological. It is a picture, not a puzzle. 

It is natural for us to ask: Who are the multitudinous people? Since John will explicitly answer that question in verse 13, we will wait. We currently see the multitude standing before the Father and Jesus, clothed in white, and holding palm branches.

They are from every nation, tribe, and language. We often talk about unreached people groups. Understand, biblically, God reaches into every single nation, tribe, and language group as He is sealing and delivering a people for Himself. There are people groups that have not been visited by a missionary wielding the Gospel message, but there are no people groups that God has not reached for the purpose of saving His elect within those nations, tribes, or language groups.

They stand before the Father and Jesus. Whatever is happening on the earth, the condition we saw in Chapter 6, serves the purpose of ultimately bringing this multitude from among the nations before the Father and Jesus. The purpose is not to get people to an ethereal land of bliss on the other side. God is glorified and Jesus is exalted. The multitude is brought into God’s presence for His own sake.

The white robes, once again, symbolize the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. The multitude can only stand before the Father and Jesus because Jesus made atonement on their behalf so they could be counted pure.

The palm branches, a symbol we have not yet seen in Revelation, are a symbol of peace. In Isaiah 9:1-6, the Messiah is identified as a child who would be born as a human person and called the eternal father and prince of peace. In John’s Gospel, Jesus claimed to have come into the world not to condemn it but to save it in a general sense (cf. John 3:17). We know He meant it in a general sense because, in the next verse, He revealed that those who do not believe in Him were particularly condemned already (cf. John 3:18). Jesus came into the world as the prince of peace, not as a destroyer. If Jesus is the prince of peace, He will save His world instead of condemning it to destruction and starting over like He did in Noah’s day. He has already done that; He has already proved that starting over doesn’t improve humanity’s chances at getting it right. In His incarnation, He came to save His world. Those who claim that Jesus is, instead, destroying His world to start over have not believed Jesus. Further, when Jesus entered Jerusalem the week before His crucifixion, the Jews lined the street waving palm branches and singing Psalm 118 (cf. John 12:12-13). They believed Jesus was the one who would bring peace to the whole earth. Here, John doubles down on that messianic promise. Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it to destruction. When Jesus said He came to bring a sword, not peace (cf. Matthew 10:34), it was in reference to particular salvation like in John 3:18, not the world in general like John 3:17. If Jesus was correct, we should see progressively higher levels of worldwide peace beginning with the incarnation of Jesus and coming to fruition in the resurrection. This trend can be observed statistically.

The idea that the whole world is, overall, getting worse, digressing, becoming more rebellious against God, becoming a more violent place, or will come to a catastrophic end is not coherent with the biblical worldview. In fact, it is contrary to Scripture and fails to recognize the work Jesus is doing. There will be ebbs and flows and nations will rebel against God, but Jesus accomplishes His purpose despite human depravity. Everyone in the world claims to want peace. Biblical Christianity is the only worldview that offers a substantive promise of peace evidenced by the actual progression of history. People who claim to be Christians do great harm to the perception of the Gospel message when they propose that the world is only going to get worse before it gets better or that God will destroy this earth in order to create a new one. Don’t they know that Jesus is the prince of peace and is working plainly in the world today? Do we not believe that God does not depend on us as He accomplishes His own work?

…and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation 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.”

The multitude praise the Father and Son because the whole world is saved by Them and through Them. The angels, elders, and the four living creatures participate with the multitude, agreeing with them (amen is a word that means “truly”, or “I agree”), and attributing thanksgiving, honor, power, and might to the Father and Jesus as one God forever and ever. Again, God is the one glorified and praised. All of creation centers on Him, not us.

There are some who claim that the elders we witnessed in Chapter 4, verse 4, cannot represent all of the saints because they are depicted here as a group separate from the multitude. We simply remember that Revelation is a picture, not a puzzle. John is pulling together different symbols in his literary mural. We have seen Jesus both standing near the Father and riding a white horse simultaneously. We have seen multiple events, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, concurrently represented in the same symbol. We have seen God’s bow hung on the clouds and wielded by the Christ simultaneously. Simultaneity is normative in John’s Revelation. That’s okay because the Revelation is not a puzzle for us to piece together and figure out some literal future event. It is symbolic. The saints are represented both by the twenty-four elders and by the multitude and by the 144,000 sealed from the tribes of Israel simultaneously.

The great tribulation (v. 13-14)

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

One of the elders asks John who the multitude are. We can’t really extrude the text to mean that John was puzzled about his own image. He simply answers by telling the elder that the elder knows. The elder reveals to us, the readers, who the great multitude are. They are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of Jesus Christ. The identification of the great multitude as those who are sealed affirms our interpretation of the previous passage.

What does it mean that they are coming out of the great tribulation? There are many who place this great tribulation as a future, seven-year event. John already claimed that he was part of the tribulation (cf. 1:9) and nowhere indicates that the great tribulation is future or seven years in duration. Notice the tense of the elder’s answer; The multitude are the ones who come out of the great tribulation. It’s present-tense. The elder did not say that they will come or came out of the great tribulation. In John’s time, they come out of the great tribulation. The great tribulation is at least concurrent with John as he writes Revelation. Indeed, we saw the current condition of the world in the images that corresponded to the breaking of the first six seals. The great tribulation, then, is not God’s explicit wrath being poured out on the world. John revealed that God is holding back His wrath until all those who will be sealed, represented by this great multitude, have been converted. Why does the earth suffer like we saw in Chapter 6? Those conditions are present because of what occurred in Genesis 3:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life; And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:14-19).

Those conditions are humanity’s fault. People always try to blame God for the conditions that came about because of human rebellion against God. “Why does God allow such suffering?” they ask. “Why do we cause it?” is my response. The ground is cursed because of humanity. The great tribulation is, therefore, the consequence of original sin. It is the period in which humanity experiences tribulation because of the effects of original sin. Notice, the multitude is coming out of the great tribulation, which affirms that the multitude consists of those who are in Christ from every generation. It also means that the tribulation is the thing producing saints. It was not until Adam and Eve sinned that God distinguished between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. The tribulation began in Genesis  3 and is the mechanism through which the respective seed of the woman (the elect) and seed of the serpent (the reprobate) are revealed. God sifts the wheat from the weeds through the great tribulation. Only through tribulation are the faithful (the elect) and the unfaithful (reprobate and apostate) revealed.

What does it mean that they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb? Blood isn’t white. It is something we normally wash out of clothes in water and solvent. Remember, Revelation is a picture, not a puzzle. John is using an image to convey a divine truth. Jesus atoned for the sins of His people in order to deliver them from their sin and from the  consequences of their sin. As Jesus, the one on the white horse, conquers the world, the  effects of sin are lessening and will be entirely gone in the resurrection—no more crying death or pain. He is lessening the effects through technological advancements, medicine, and higher degrees of moral reasoning. Even the social justice movement, as much as I loathe the movement, raises awareness about some social injustices. Jesus is working all this together for His purpose of saving the world. In the atonement, Jesus’s blood makes His elect, those being sealed, pure; Through the atonement, Jesus is saving the world rather than condemning it to destruction. 

So many Christians have made the mistake of placing all this in the future. Jesus is working now. If He was not, His people would not experience any sort of sanctification on this earth. If Christ is sanctifying His people, do you not think He is sanctifying the whole earth through the sanctification of His church? You want a better world? Follow Christ. He is the prince of peace who conquers. You want to make a positive difference in this world? You want to help achieve justice? Devote yourself wholly to Christ. He will accomplish the salvation of the whole world in this way. Just a quick look at history shows us that Jesus is succeeding and all of creation has a bright future.

The promise (v. 15-17)

For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

For this reason—because Jesus is conquering sin, ridding the world of the  effects of sin through His atoning sacrifice, and saving His multitude—those for whom Christ has made atonement are before the throne serving God day and night in His temple. When we are converted and recognize the work Jesus is doing, serving Him and the Father becomes our chief expression of praise. We no longer serve ourselves but God. We do so in His temple day and night. What do you think that means? If John is writing in the 90s AD, the Temple in Jerusalem has been demolished. Still, as I write this, the Temple is no more. Some theologians say this verse is one reason the Temple must be rebuilt during some future seven-year tribulation. We recall that Revelation is a picture, not a puzzle. There is no reason to invent a narrative that requires the Temple be rebuilt before Jesus Christ’s return. Consider John’s own view. When he describes the New Jerusalem, the people of God currently coming to fill the whole earth (cf. 3:12), John states that there is no Temple because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (cf. Revelation 21:22). John interprets His own symbol for us, which helps us to understand the next phrase. The Father will spread His tabernacle over the multitude. The tabernacle preceded the Temple and was pitched wherever the Israelite nation would wander in the wilderness. Wherever we go, we are in Christ and the Father symbolically spreads His tabernacle over us. So, we serve God wherever we are placed in this life and the next. John’s view about the Temple reflects Jesus’s explicit teaching:

The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:18-22).

The Temple fulfilled its purpose. All of God’s instructions for the Temple revealed something about Him. Now, He has fully revealed Himself in the person of Christ. Jesus is the new Temple. There is no need for the Temple to be rebuilt because it already has been—in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this earth we serve God day and night in Christ because we have been sealed, or converted and saved from our sin and are being delivered from the  effects of our sin. On the new earth we will not be performing religious ceremonies in some future Temple complex day and night forever. We will be scattered about the earth because that is God’s plan (cf. Genesis 1:28; 11:8). Wherever God places us, we will serve Him in Christ and in various ways forever. Life in the resurrection will not be boring. We will live with purpose rather than existing in some kind of blissful stasis. We will each love the work that we get to do, which will exalt Jesus Christ and glorify the Father.

In many ways, this current earth is a picture of our future existence. If we are in Christ, we will enjoy all the good things of this earth forever. If we are not, we may be subject to all of the negative conditions of this world forever. For those in Christ, we will take joy in our labor without worry because Christ is conquering the world, removing the  effects of our sin. In the resurrection those who are in Christ “will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” What an encouragement for the church! Everything worldly people want, Christ is doing, but only those in Christ really get to enjoy the fruits of His labor now and forevermore. There are many forms of Christianity that are not biblical. They teach something different. In Christ, though, we have great hope. Biblical Christianity offers an optimistic hope and changes the way we see the world and interpret everything happening during our mortal lifetimes. If you are not in Christ, I invite you to taste and see the hope we have in Christ for the earth and her future. Come and see who Christ is and what He is doing by grace alone through faith alone.

1 Samuel is a crucial part of the Jewish and Christian story. In 1 Samuel, God selects the earthly king through whom He established His own throne within His creation. 1 Samuel is a doctrinally rich historical narrative. Join Andrew Paul Cannon as he journeys through 1 Samuel lectio continua, exploring the depths of the […]
  1. God’s Regret
  2. Killing a Nation
  3. When We Focus on the Fight
  4. Derogation Part 2
  5. Derogation Part 1
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