Who Are They – Whose Are They?
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 21, 2013
Suppose you are a great sports buff, one who follows every Mariner and Blazer game with the fierce intensity of a true and loyal fan. But imagine that you were to be called out of the country for the week of a final game, tending to business in, say, Thailand, where you couldn’t expect much coverage of American sports in the local newspapers even if you could read the local newspapers. But you are a real fan, so you had set your home TV system to record the upcoming game before you left.
And suppose, on your return, before you had a chance to watch the recorded game, one of your friends saw you in town and said to you, “Welcome home! Say, how about those Blazers!” in such a way that you thought maybe they had won the critical game. Now, as you watched the recorded game unfold, you would have a different level of anxiety after a bad call from a referee or when one of the front line players fouled out of the game, wouldn’t you? You could still get excited about the action, but in the end, you would think you knew who the final winner would be. It would be something like reading a detective novel backwards. Come tribulation and hardship, you would be secure in your knowledge. As they struggled to prevail on the screen, you would know that in reality, your team was already victorious.
That’s something like the purpose for reading Revelation in the church. If we take Revelation 7 seriously, we will know that come this or come that ordeal or setback, victory has already been declared in heaven, God’s salvation is already a fact, and the woes through which we go are the mopping-up operation of a battle that has already been won. So no matter what, from the testimony of John in Revelation we know that the salvation of God is victorious. Set in the middle of the strife that believers knew then, reminding us of the strife we may know today, John’s witness never lets up on the ultimate victory of God, the final security in which believers may rest.
And, like a pre-recorded Blazer game, John records a victory of God which is already accomplished, not just some reality that awaits us in the future. While many television preachers may be preoccupied with some calendar for God’s future intervention in the world, John gives us a vision of God’s triumph that has already broken in upon the human scene. In Revelation, the future is determining and creating the present.
But who are these saved ones in John’s vision? Who are those folks he saw gathered around the throne of God in heaven?
WHO ARE THEY?
One thing is certain. John looked into heaven, and the people he saw surrounding the throne of God outnumbered his personal circle of acquaintance. Who are the people that Jesus – the Lamb – has in mind for his church, as members of his flock, his sheep who will know his voice and follow him? Our friends and neighbors, certainly. But more than that, just as certainly.
In Genesis 15, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as countless as the stars in the heavens. In the new Israel, the Church, John’s vision in Revelation demonstrates that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled. The multitude in the chorus in heaven — from every nation and language – is so large that no one could count them all!
So often, we are preoccupied with questions about who may and who may not be numbered among the elect, who may and who may not be the apple of Jesus’ eye just as much as we are. One of the worst tendencies of many church fellowships is this inclination to presume to know who belongs to the host of heaven. This scene from Revelation should startle us any time we are inclined toward that presumption. Apparently, the way to be numbered among the elect has little to do with knowing who else is saved, and everything to do with knowing the one doing the saving. The main thing is to know the Shepherd; we may never know the name and number of all his other sheep, all his other flocks.
This is hard news for those of us who can only find pleasure in having when others have not, in knowing when others are ignorant, in receiving love when we are certain others are loveless, in triumphing when others are defeated.
John’s admitted ignorance about the “ins and outs” of heaven ought to be a lesson for the community of faith. John, in looking upon the multitudes in heaven, when asked who they were, was struck not by their familiarity but their diversity. The fellowship of the saved is destined to be greater than we expect. Remember the final scene in John’s gospel, when Jesus told Peter that he would be imprisoned for his faith, and Peter saw John walking along behind and asked, “What about him?” Jesus said, “What is that to you? Follow me!”
This reminds me of a wonderful little poem I read once and which has stayed with me through the years:
I dreamt death came the other night,
And heaven’s gate swung wide.
An angel with a halo bright ushered me inside.
And there! to my astonishment
stood folks I’d judged and labeled:
As quite unfit, of little worth, and spiritually disabled.
Indignant words rose to my lips
but never were set free
For every face showed stunned surprise – no one expected me!
Who will we find in heaven? The only way we will know is by following Jesus. The task of the disciple is not to sort the sheep from the goats but to obey and follow the Shepherd...
WHOSE ARE THEY?
...which helps us know that the main issue in determining the population of heaven is not in finding out who they are, but whose they are. To whom do these folks belong?
When the day of the festival of Hanukkah came around and Jesus was in the temple, those who remembered the last big victory they had known – the victory still celebrated at Hanukkah, commemorating the time the Maccabee family drove the Syrians out of their homeland — they looked to Jesus and demanded a final answer from him. “Are you the Messiah?” Are you the one to whom we need to belong for a new victory?
If we’re honest about it, we all struggle with this “Who is Jesus?” question from time to time. Should I throw my lot in with him, or should I wait and get more information? Jesus seldom responds to his questioners just the way we wish, because he may not be just the Messiah for whom we wish. If we want to know who Jesus is, our best opportunity to know is in asking the ones who are following him. They are part of that uncountable multitude who have come out of great ordeals. To follow Jesus is to know him. “Those who stand back, arms folded, waiting to be convinced” will never receive the final proof concerning Jesus’ lordship. “Those who enter the flock are the ones who hear the Shepherd’s voice.” They are the ones over whom the Shepherd will watch eternally.
When we were very little, if we were blessed with a good home, one of our parents — very likely it was our mothers — spent a good deal of time watching over us, literally. As we lay sleeping in our cribs, we were observed 0and cherished. As we took our first steps, said our first words, celebrated our first birthdays, we were watched and treasured. I seldom hold an infant at the time of baptism when I don’t think of the eyes of the congregation as well as the eyes of God watching over, guiding that child. Young children don’t mind it when we watch over them. In fact, they often feel an immediate sense of panic and uncertainty if a familiar face is nowhere to be found in a crowded room.
But that comfort under the watchful gaze of others begins to give way, ultimately, to an adolescent desire for freedom from observation, for privacy. Children make a game of it initially, closing their eyes in an effort to make others disappear. As we mature, we want to control when we will be seen, and who will see us. And we want to hide many things from anyone’s observation. We may have come to believe that no one, not even God, watches over us any more. But it is not true. At the center of the very throne of heaven, the center of life itself is the Lamb, watching over us like a Shepherd, because we are his.
“Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” Some of these saints pictured in John’s vision have sacrificed everything, even their lives, for the sake of the gospel. Now, even acknowledging their sacrifice, they continue to recognize that salvation is a gift of God in every way. No amount of self-sacrificing will bring them their salvation, nor will any failure to measure up take it away. That is because of who we are and whose we are: We are the followers of the Shepherd and our lives mirror the salvation we have found in him. And we are his.
We are they who have come out of great ordeals;
we have washed our robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason we are before the throne of God
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne shelters us.
We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.