Who are they, and where did they come from?
As Christian and Hope draw near to the river of death two shining figures appear. Their raiment shine like gold, their faces as the light. These glorious figures lead the two men as they emerge from the river of death into the Celestial city. They’re not angels. They’re God’s servants shining in the world of darkness and sin. That’s who you and I are to be, according to John Bunyan in his classic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, God’s servants, shining lights, helping wanderers to find their way home.
What a beautiful portrayal of God’s servants we also find in Revelation. “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. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'” (Rev 7:9-10).
“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, saying: ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’
“Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes who are they, and where did they come from?’
“I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’
“And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they ‘ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'”
Notice who God’s servants are: “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 . . .”
Our faith has always been a universal faith. It’s amazing that so many Christians forget this. God’s followers come in every color, speak every language.
Pastor John Ortberg tells a wonderful story about Clarence Jordan, best known for his Cotton Patch Gospels. Clarence led revival services once at a church in the Deep South. This was more than 80 years ago, when segregation was the norm in the South. Clarence got up to preach, and he realized the congregation wasn’t segregated. There were black folks and white folks all together. After the service, he asked the pastor, an old hillbilly preacher: “How did your church get this way?”
The old hillbilly preacher said: “What way?”
Clarence said: “Well, black and white folks all together. Integrated. Is that because of the Supreme Court decision?”
The preacher answered: “Supreme Court! Why would Christians need the Supreme Court to tell us black folks and white folks ought to be all together?
Clarence asked: “Well how did it happen?”
This old preacher said: “Well, there used to be about twenty people in this church …
When the old preacher died, they couldn’t get no one to preach . . . So after about two months, I told the deacons I’d preach. They couldn’t get anybody else, so they said, ‘Yes.’ I got up the next Sunday, opened the Bible, put my finger down on that verse that says: ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 3:11). So, I preached on that. I told them how Jesus makes all kinds of people one. When I finished, the deacons said they wanted to talk to me in the back room. When they got there, they told me they didn’t want to hear that kind of preachin’ no more.”
Clarence asked: “What’d you do?”
The old preacher said: “I fired them deacons! If a man’s not gonna’ ‘deac,’ he oughta be fired!”
Clarence Jordan was amazed. “Why didn’t they fire you?” he asked.
“They didn’t hire me,” said the hillbilly preacher, “so they couldn’t fire me! You know, once I found out what bothered those people, I gave it to them week after week. I put the knife in the same place Sunday after Sunday.”
Clarence was stunned. “And they put up with it?” he asked.
“Not really,” said the old preacher. “I preached that church down to four people. Sometimes revival happens not when people come in, but when people go out. If people were going to stand in the way of the moving of the Spirit of God, it’s better they be gone. After that, we decided that we were going to build the church on people who were serious about following Jesus. And that’s when it started to grow.”
That night Clarence stayed at the home of a church member, a graduate of Yale, a college professor, who had a PhD in English Literature. He drove seventy miles each week to this church. Clarence asked that brilliant young professor: “Why do you go to hear an old hillbilly preach? You have a PhD from Yale. He can’t utter a single grammatical sentence?”
The young man answered: “Sir, I go, because that man preaches the Gospel.” And that’s the Gospel. All people on the earth are represented around the throne of God.
Notice how they’re dressed. “They’re wearing white robes and holding palm branches . . .”
White is symbolic of holiness, purity. These servants were in the presence of a holy God, which meant they must be holy too. How did they get that way? “They’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We don’t talk today about being washed in the blood of the lamb. It’s a little graphic. It’s a symbolic way of saying people are made worthy to inherit what was promised by the Father because of Christ’s death on the cross. In other words, they’re standing around the throne the same way all of us will one day by the grace of God. If getting into heaven was a matter of merit, we’d all be in trouble.
We’d be on the outside looking in. Our admittance is only made on God’s unconditional love for us, God’s amazing grace. Some may say we talk about grace too much. The truth is there are many people who don’t really believe God loves them unconditionally.
Pastor Billy Hornsby in The Attractional Church, shares his experience of Christian faith. Growing up in a strict Christian household, he and his siblings had chores, like preparing their own breakfast and ironing clothes. One morning when Billy was around ten years old, he was ironing his shirt. He could just see the top of the ironing board and was pressing a shirt for school. The iron slipped, and before he could catch it, it burned his chest. He screamed and ran to get some ice from the refrigerator. Writing about it later he said, “Mama calmly looked at me and said, ‘See there, God punished you!'” Reflecting on that experience Billy wrote, “If she said this once, she said it hundreds of times. It was her doctrine of God and forgiveness. She wanted to make sure we knew we were accountable for our actions and the consequences . . . of everything we did. This was my experience,” he writes, “and it was what I had as a basis of faith: Do bad and get punished, but never forgiven.” He said, “I needed and wanted forgiveness.”
He met an atheist once who claimed there was no God. This made him mad. “I knew that there was a God in heaven,” Billy said, “because He had been punishing me all my life, according to Mama.” Strangely enough, this atheist’s statement about there being no God motivated Billy to go into the scripture and to learn for himself who God is and what God expects out of us. And in his research, he discovered the God he always hoped existed, a God of love and acceptance and forgiveness.
There are still far too many religious people who let fear of an angry, unforgiving God play havoc with their lives and let a false guilt punish them for sins which they’re not even aware of. So, it’s important to note all our sins are taken away because of God’s great love for us.
Take note of those who around the throne and how they’re dressed. Notice what they’ve come through. “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Note those words: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.”
It is important to understand God’s promises are to a special group of people, those who follow Jesus. We’re accepted as we are, but once we turn to Christ, He wants us to live just as he lived, love as he loved, forgive as he forgave. Many of us have a mushy kind of faith that says, “Everything’s all right. Jesus loves me, this I know. It doesn’t matter what I do with my life. I can live for myself as if I’m the only one on earth that matters.”
We want God to tell us we’re wonderful, we’re accepted, forgiven, and loved. But don’t tell us our robes are dirty. Don’t tell us there are some changes to make in our lives. Don’t tell us to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. As Max Lucado points out, “God loves us just as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way. He wants us to be like Jesus.”
Who are the servants around the throne of God and where do they come from? Everyone is a candidate. No one is worthy of it, but because of what Christ has done in our behalf, it comes to those who will accept it freely as a gift. Once we receive it, we join the holy company seeking to bring light to a world of darkness through lives that reflect the glory of Christ.
Rev. Charles Eldredge is pastor of Maitland Church of the Brethren, Lewistown, PA where he is currently serving in his 28th year. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA.