The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us. This Fourth Sunday the reading is from John’s vision of the slain Lamb standing before God’s throne in heaven . Here is a comment and reflection on Rev 7:14b-17 from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).
One of the elders explains the identity of the countless multitude in white robes before God’s throne. First, these are the people who have survived the time of great distress. John is seeing a vision of the future and the blessed condition of all the faithful on the other side of the great trials of the present age.
Second, they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. The language is paradoxical. Whoever heard of making clothes white by washing them in blood? But according to the law of Moses, the blood of certain sacrifices functions as a kind of ritual “detergent” serving to purify people and things (Lev 8:15; Heb 9:13-14, 22). The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ offering of his life on the cross, symbolized by his blood, fulfills the Old Testament purification rites and truly cleanses human beings from sin (1 John 1:7).
Although salvation is entirely God’s gift, human freedom plays a necessary role. Verse 14 focuses on the action of God’s people: “they have washed their robes and made them white….” How did human beings cleanse their “robes”—symbolizing the people themselves and their conduct—in Christ’s blood? They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb by becoming Christians: by believing in Jesus, repenting of their sins, and being baptized. Those who have “survived the great distress” persevered in faith, repentance, and the grace of their baptism.
At this point the heavenly interpreter’s explanation breaks into what is plainly poetry, sketching the ultimate future of God’s people in phrases drawn from the Old Testament prophets. The picture has three elements: worship in God’s presence, a complete end to suffering, and the tender care of God and the Lamb for the redeemed.
Their adoration is perpetual, unlike the worship in the Jerusalem temple, which ceased between the evening and morning sacrifice. The direct access to God and the worship of the redeemed before God’s throne are priestly privileges for which the Lamb’s sacrifice has qualified them (see 1:6 and 5:10).
God’s protection will shelter them from every kind of physical suffering: no hunger… thirst… the sun or any heat shall afflict them. Although they may have suffered these evils on earth (see Luke 6:21, 1 Cor 4:11; 2 Cor 11:27; and Rev 16:8-9), now they are forever free of them. All of this will come to them because of divine intervention on their behalf: For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them. The divine nature of the Lamb is indicated by his place on the throne. Strikingly, the Lamb is their shepherd, another paradox.
Perhaps the best is saved to last. God, fulfilling a fatherly role, will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Not only will all physical suffering be removed, but every emotional and spiritual wound—above all, the sorrow brought by sin and death—will be healed. The image of “the Lord GOD” wiping away “the tears from all faces” comes from Isa 25:8, part of an ancient prophecy that God “will destroy death forever.”
This vision of the redeemed worshiping at the throne of God and the Lamb after the great trials of the present age shows that all God’s promises of salvation will come to pass as a result of the redemption won for us by Christ on the cross. As St. Paul says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor 1:20, RSV).