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On the night before He was condemned and crucified, Jesus took part in one last meal with His followers. As they sat around the supper table this last time, Jesus gave them this word of comfort:
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV).
Jesus was talking about the troubles that these disciples would face because they were His followers. But this past week we’ve had many reminders that pain and anguish touch all people who inhabit this sin-broken world.
The bombs that erupted around the finish line of the Boston Marathon ended the lives of three young people. Krystle Cambell was just 29 years old. Lu Lingzi only 23. Martin Richard just 8 years old.
Besides the victims who lost their lives there were scores of others who lost legs or limbs. People who experienced excruciating pain, and now lay in hospital beds pondering how different the rest of their lives will now be.
The Boston bombing is a harsh reminder to us all of how quickly things can change for the worst, how temporary everything really is, and how fragile human life can be swept away in the blink of an eye.
This week we’ve been reminded that one day, sooner or later, we must all exit this world of tribulation, and stand before our Creator. When will our time end? How will our lives be snuffed out? And will we be ready to stand before the Holy God who gave us life in the first place?
Our Scripture reading for today’s meditation comes from the book of Revelation. It is a vision that was given to the apostle John, a vision of people who left this world trusting in Jesus as their Savior from sin. Through faith in Christ, these believers found themselves transported to glory before the very throne of God.
Death is never something to celebrate. But in this vision we see that for those who die in Christ, there is celebration to come.
Revelation 7:9-17 (ESV)
9 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, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 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, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 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.
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 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 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.”
As the vision of this heavenly crowd appeared before the eyes of John, the first thing he noticed was that the crowd was huge. But then he noticed the individuals in the crowd. There were people there from every culture. We are reminded that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was made to take away the sins of the world. It was not merely for the Jews, or for the Germans, or for the Americans. The promise of forgiveness in Christ is offered to all people. And in every nation people have heard this message and received it with joy and faith.
The white robes on these people remind us that all who trust in Christ are given His sinless life to wear over their own sinful lives. They are covered from top to bottom.
In their hands they hold palm branches, symbols of victory and life. With these in hand they worship the source of their victory, God Almighty.
When they praised God for the salvation they have received from His hand, the angels that encircled the throne were overcome with awe. Seeing what God had done for these sinners, the angels fell down in reverent worship to God.
As John stood staring at this overwhelming vision, a figure approached him and told him who these people are. He says,
“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 7:14 ESV).
The image is this. As the followers of Jesus leave this world through the door of death, they enter the presence of the Almighty God to stand with those who died in Christ before them.
The man who speaks to John wants to make sure John understands how these sinful people can stand before the Holy God. It is because they have been washed of their sins by the blood of the Lamb. Because He suffered hell in their place, they now stand holy before God the Father, cleansed and forgiven.
In the presence of God, things are now different for these people. No longer will they feel hunger, or thirst. No longer will they feel the scorching heat of the noonday sun. The gift of heavenly rest and peace has followed the give of forgiveness.
When Adam and Eve first sinned, God put them out of the Garden of Eden so that they would not eat from the Tree of Life and be sealed forever in their sinful state. But now, washed clean of their sins through His blood, the Lamb leads this crowd to the water of life so they will be sealed in perfection. Forever sinless. Forever at peace with God in a perfect communion.
All the sadness of the former world is now banished. Having wiped away every sin from their past, God now wipes every tear from their eyes.
I don’t know how many times this text has been used for a Christian funeral service. But it is certainly fitting for that purpose. In the light of this vision, the death of God’s people does not appear frightful at all. I guess this is why many Christians have taken to calling funerals “victory services” instead.
Like it says in 1 Corinthians 15,
“…’Death is swallowed up in victory.’
55 ‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57 ESV).
But one phrase tugs us away from this vision of ecstasy. “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation”. We are reminded that while these happy individuals have come out of the great tribulation, we still remain in it.
In the Greek, the word for “tribulation” literally means, “a pressing”. It’s like being caught in a vise that has been turned tight and pushes in from all sides.
While we’re in this world we have fear and suffering. Sometimes this fear and suffering grips the masses tightly, like when the Trade Towers fell on September 11. Or when the bombs went off in Boston this week.
At other times the pressure is felt by individuals alone as problems weigh heavily on them in their own personal situations. The loss of a job. The diagnosis of cancer. The loss of a loved one. A bout of depression. Guilt over things done badly. Things said that can’t be unsaid. Responsibilities sadly neglected.
These are the physical manifestations of tribulation in this world.
For followers of Christ there is another set of tribulations that press in on us daily. Daily we struggle against our sinful nature. The apostle Paul writes,
“18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19 ESV).
Along with our own personal temptations we face doubt. Our sinful hearts try to convince us that God doesn’t really care. That He doesn’t really have the power to help us. That He won’t really forgive our sins unless we succeed in overcoming our daily struggle against sin.
It’s often when we’re experiencing outward, physical tribulations that the Devil pounces on the opportunity and lays doubt on our hearts. His purpose is clear. Just as he got Eve to doubt God’s words in the garden, the Devil wants to get us to doubt God in our lives. The Devil wants us to stop bringing our sins to God in repentance. The Devil wants us to stop trusting in God’s promise of forgiveness through Christ.
When we think of “great tribulation” we tend to think of physical problems. Things that cause us pain of body. But the more dangerous pressures in life are the ones that lead us to sin, and to stray away from God’s precious Word of grace.
As we face the never ending problems of this life, we need to keep Jesus’ words firmly in our minds. Jesus said,
28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
30 “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 “So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
32 “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.
33 “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:28-33 ESV).
If we push Christ away from us, than no power in this world can help us for long. No doctor, no counselor, no rich benefactor, no one.
But if we hold tightly to Christ, trusting in His promise of forgiveness and life to come, then no terrorist can really do us lasting harm. Neither can any job loss, cancer diagnosis, or anything else that afflicts us in this world of tribulation.
Like Jesus said,
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV).
And if we need proof of this, we need look no further than the empty tomb. For the Savior who was crucified for our sins, was raised back to life on the third day. That same Savior lives on to this very day, and promises that all who are united to Him by faith in this world, will remain so in the next. On the Last Day, we will experience a resurrection just like His. A resurrection to eternal life. A resurrection to glory at God’s side.
Earlier I posed a number of questions to ponder. When will our time end? How will our lives be snuffed out? And will we be ready to stand before the Holy God who gave us life in the first place? Only God knows the answers to the first two questions, when and how we will exit this world. But as for the last question, “Will we be ready to stand before the Holy God?” that we know the answer to. For all who trust in God’s Son for cleansing and life, are ready to stand before the throne of God. In this world of tribulation, may this ever be the foundation of our hope, and our shelter in times of great tribulation.
If we find ourselves in a crowd of confusion, fear, and suffering, like so many did this past week, lets remember the vision of glory which John saw. For the final crowd we will find ourselves in will not be one of bloody suffering, but one of painless joy and worship. There we will lift up our heads to see the salvation we’ve so longed for, the salvation purchased for us by the blood of the Lamb.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.