By Jim Vitale
Who can stand?
That is the question John ponders in this reading from Revelation. In the face of God’s perfect justice, who can stand?
The Revelation of John is a very strange book full of strange images. And because of this, it is often misunderstood. Many have considered Revelation to be all about the end of the world, and in some respects, it is about that. But lots have taken this to mean that they can use the book of Revelation to predict the exact moment when Jesus will return and the world will come to an end, and that is a misuse of this strange and beautiful book.
Revelation is a poetic vision whose ultimate purpose is to bring comfort to those who are suffering. The poetic images written down in this book are not meant to be taken literally or used to explain exactly how the world as we know it will come to an end. Rather, the images are meant to give us an idea, a glimpse, a sense of what our eternal future with God will be like. We might say that the meaning behind the symbols in this book is more important than the symbols themselves.
Revelation 7:9-17 throws us into the middle of a strange situation and it might be helpful to provide some context. In the preceding chapter, chapter 6, we hear that the Lion of Judah, the Root of Jesse, the Lamb (which are all different names for Jesus) is starting to break seven seals that bind a closed scroll. In ancient times, scrolls were bound with wax seals, each seal bearing some image representing the one who wrote on the scroll. In modern terms, Jesus is essentially opening a really big envelope; but the envelope has been sealed seven times.
As each seal is opened, some great force of judgement is released. The images are actually quite terrifying, and by the time the sixth seal has been opened, the entire world is trembling in fear and cowering in caves underground. These images are meant to show us just how powerful God is, and just how much trouble we’re in if God comes to judge us as we are.
Chapter six ends with these words: “Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid 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 the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb [who is Jesus]; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’” (Rev. 6:15-17)
John poses this rhetorical question: In the face of God’s just wrath, who is able to stand? And the answer, we assume, is “no one.”
We might expect now that the Lion of Judah, the Root of Jesse, the Lamb will open the dreaded seventh seal. Yet, chapter seven begins not with the opening of the seventh seal, but with the twelve tribes of Israel all receiving pardon from God’s wrath. They are given a mark of protection.
And that’s where our reading today begins. Israel has received its eternal protection, and then John sees a great crowd, too big to count. And in that crowd John sees and hears every tribe and nation and people and tongue. Everyone is included in this multitude: Israelites standing alongside Palestinians; Russians alongside Ukrainians; people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt alongside people from Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and China. And among them stand people from Germany, France, Spain, Norway, and Poland next to people from Peru, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and Brazil. And still more: American immigrants standing next to American natives, Mexicans arm-in-arm with Russians; people speaking English, Swahili, Mandarin, German, Ga, and Spanish.
And this great multitude is adorned in white robes, a baptismal garment representing purity, and waving palm branches, a symbol of victory. And in their various tongues, the crowd offers hymns of praise to God.
And in the midst of all that, what are they doing? They are standing. In chapter six it seems that no one can stand before the face of God, and yet here in chapter seven these people are before the throne of God, standing.
And as John watches this great crowd, someone approaches him and asks, “Do you know who these people are?” and John replies, “No. Don’t you?” And the person responds: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
I said earlier that the book of Revelation is primarily meant to be a comfort to the suffering. Early Christians endured a lot of suffering. In some cases, Christians were persecuted by the government; but the people to whom the book of Revelation is addressed endured something different. Refusing to worship the emperor of Rome, refusing to take part in much of Roman culture, and believing differently than their fellow Jews, early Christians were socially, economically, and culturally ostracized. The price of becoming a Christian, for many, was poverty.
So when the man tells John that these people are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal, he is referring to these Christians who have faced social and economic ruin for their faith. But I think we can expand this idea out to include the sufferings of life in all its various forms: sickness, violence, poverty, abuse, shame, and death.
This uncountable multitude of diverse peoples is the group that has made it out of the great ordeal, the sufferings of life. And how have they done this? They have washed their robes clean in the blood of the lamb. Again, this is strange imagery. We are not meant to picture people literally washing their robes in lamb’s blood. Rather, what the writer is saying, is that this multitude has come out of the great ordeal because they have kept the faith. They have trusted in God, followed the teachings of Jesus, and God has delivered them.
And because of all this, the crowd sings praises to God. And God, we are told, will give them shelter. All the poverty and the trials and the abuse and the pain that the people have suffered, we hear, it all comes to an end because of God and the Lamb. The people have suffered a great ordeal, but God has wiped away every tear from their eyes.
For all its confusing imagery, I think this passage from Revelation is quite beautiful. The writer poses the question, “Who is able to stand?” And just as we begin to despair that none can stand, here we see a vast and uncountable crowd of people standing before God and the Lamb, offering praise to the God who has saved them from the great ordeal of their sufferings and offered them peace and protection forever. Who can stand? With the help of God, we can stand.
Last Sunday was All Saints Sunday, and the holiday in the church when we typically celebrate all those faithful believers who have died in the past year. It’s also the day when we remember that we are all saints because we are all believers. Today we hear the word of promise that one day we will be reunited with our faithful brothers and sisters who have died; and we will stand around the throne of God, offering praise to the one who has saved us.