After being told the number of those who were “sealed” (144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel), John saw a great multitude of people – more than could be counted. Persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language stood before the throne and the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. In a loud voice, they cried, “Salvation belongs to God!”
Angels surrounded the throne, elders, and four living creatures. They fell to their knees before the throne and worshipped God saying,
“Amen! Praise and glory, wisdom and thanks, honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
One of the elders asked me, “The people in white robes – who are they and where did they come from?”
John answered, “Sir, you know.”
The elder said, “These are the people who have come out of the Great Tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white using the blood of the Lamb.”
The elder continued,
“They serve God night and day and God will shelter them. Never again will they hunger or thirst. The Lamb will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
What the story means to us today
The fate of Christians during the Great Tribulation
The people John identifies as “the great multitude” represent people from all areas of the world. He tells us their robes are white because they “washed their robes… in the blood of the Lamb.” It’s easy to construe the great multitude represent Christians who, through Jesus’ sacrifice, have accepted Christianity and its fundamental tenets as their faith.
The great multitude seem to appear suddenly before the throne, as if they had just arrived. In fact, John tells us they have “come out of” the Great Tribulation. However, we are not told specifically if they arrived at the beginning, end, or sometime during the seven-year Great Tribulation.
Some believe Christian followers will be “raptured” into heaven at the beginning of the Great Tribulation. Others believe Christians will not arrive in heaven until rescued by Jesus at the end of the seven-year trial. Still others believe there will be Christian conversions during the Great Tribulation and anyone that dies after accepting Christ during the period will become martyrs. And others believe all Christians will live during the Great Tribulation, choosing to maintain their faith until death. With no true agreement on the fate of Christians, we should prepare ourselves for the worse.
God will certainly sustain his followers through the worst of times but nobody ever said being a Christian is easy. If Christians are not taken into heaven at the beginning of the seven-year tribulation, they should be prepared to defend their faith at all costs – including during the most trying times ever experienced on earth.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The multitude wearing white robes
It is unclear whether the great multitude and the 144,000 (mentioned in the previous verses) are the same but where the identity of the 144,000 can be debated, the identity of the multitude is clear. They are Christians who came out of the Great Tribulation and were likely martyred for their beliefs. Although it is painful to learn that they were martyred, these verses hint at their reward – the multitude will dwell in heaven for eternity.
The Great Tribulation
The events witnessed during the Great Tribulation (as revealed by John when each seal is removed) will include conquest, warfare, famine, plague, great sadness, and fear. Interpretation of Christian status during this time varies between Christian sects. Some believe Christians will be present during the seven-year tribulation while others believe Christians will be taken to heaven before or even during the event. Regardless, the period will be difficult for non-believers but will allow an opportunity for Christians (new or otherwise) to help non-believers join Christians in their battle against evil. When considering Christian fate during the Great Tribulation, saving others should be our foremost concern.
The symbolism of the white robes
Soiled articles of clothing are used throughout the Bible to represent defection from Christian tenets. Paradoxically, the white robes are white because they have been washed with the blood of Jesus. This metaphorical visual could hint that the multitude wearing white robes were those who died for their beliefs (martyrdom) but more likely portrays the purity that results from following Jesus.
The symbolism of the palm branches
The verses tell us the Great Multitude held palm branches in their hands. Palm branches commonly represent joy and victory in royal or military parades. Thus, the multitude are celebrating the victory of Christ.
Angels praising God
The angels begin and end their song with “Amen”. As in all scripture, “Amen” serves as ratification or acknowledgement and thus, the angels are confirming their agreement and appreciation of God’s judgement on mankind.
Why did the elder ask John who the people in white robes were if he already knew?
The elder asks John if he knows the identity of the multitude wearing white robes. We know from previous verses that the elders likely represent ancient leaders of the church (i.e. disciples) or Christians who have already passed through death. Why would the elder ask a question he obviously knew the answer to?
Interpretation presented as an answer to a question was common in Old Testament prophetic passages. The question does not mean the elder did not know the answer but rather, was a literary method to introduce the interpretation of the white robes.
The fate of those wearing the white robes
In one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, the elder explains the fate of the great multitude.
“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. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The verses show us that all of heaven is considered a “temple” of God and those who have been saved will never hunger nor thirst nor feel any discomfort – and God will wipe the memory of any pain and suffering from their minds.
The science and history behind the story
Palm tree symbolism in ancient east
In Leviticus 23:40, Moses indicated that branches from palm trees should be used to rejoice at the Feast of Tabernacles. Palm branches are mentioned in other verses as symbols of celebration and victory. Jewish coins from 140 BC to 70 AD had pictures of palms with the inscription, “The redemption of Zion”.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 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.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ v
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
–12 I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:
Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!
All who were standing around the Throne—Angels, Elders, Animals—fell on their faces before the Throne and worshiped God, singing:
The blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
The honor and power and strength,
To our God forever and ever and ever!
13–14 Just then one of the Elders addressed me: “Who are these dressed in white robes, and where did they come from?” Taken aback, I said, “O Sir, I have no idea—but you must know.”
14–17 Then he told me, “These are those who come from the great tribulation, and they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb. That’s why they’re standing before God’s Throne. They serve him day and night in his Temple. The One on the Throne will pitch his tent there for them: no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching heat. The Lamb on the Throne will shepherd them, will lead them to spring waters of Life. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
7:9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. 7:10 They were shouting out in a loud voice,
“Salvation belongs to our God,
to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
7:11 And all the angels stood there in a circle around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground before the throne and worshiped God, 7:12 saying,
“Amen! Praise and glory,
and wisdom and thanksgiving,
and honor and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
7:13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes—who are they and where have they come from?” 7:14 So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! 7:15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 7:16 They will never go hungry or be thirsty again, and the sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat, 7:17 because the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; 10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. 11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, 12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. 13 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? 14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; eneither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. 17 For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.