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Heaven is going to be filled with people from every nation, tribe, race, and language — shouldn’t we get to know each other now?

What Are All These People Doing In Heaven?
Rev 7:9-17

9After 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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” 11All 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,12saying:
“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14I 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.

15Therefore, “they are before the throne of God 
and serve him day and night in his temple; 
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. 
 16Never again will they hunger; 
never again will they thirst. 
The sun will not beat upon them, 
 nor any scorching heat.

17For 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.”

Heaven is a Big Place

A man arrived at the gates of Heaven.
St. Peter asked, “Religion?”
The man said, “Methodist.”
St. Peter looked down his list and said,” Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”

Another man arrived at the gates of Heaven.
“Religion?”
“Catholic.”
“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”

A third man arrived at the gates.
“Religion?”
“Jewish.”
“Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man said, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?”

St. Peter told him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”  — jokesaboutheaven.com

So, if you think we’re the only ones who are going to be in heaven, both that little joke, and our text from Revelation 7 remind us that we’re not.  As a matter of fact, there are going to be more people in heaven than you can count, and that’s a lot.

Plus, not only are there going to be a lot of people there, but they’re going to be from “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”  That just about covers all the ethnic, social, racial, and linguistic categories you can think of.

In light of these two descriptions of the population of heaven, our question today is, “Who are all these people in heaven and what are they doing there?”

A Little Background

To understand this passage a little better, we need to remember that John’s original audience was Christians in the first century.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that we in the 21st century can’t benefit from what John is saying, but to do so we need a quick history lesson.

The Book of Revelation, in my opinion, is first about the persecution of Christians under the rule of various Roman emperors, beginning with Caligula, through Nero, and ending with Domitian.  Let me give you some examples of the persecution Christians suffered under Rome’s emperors from about 40 AD to about 90 AD:

First, Jesus is crucified under the reign of the emperor Tiberias (14-37 AD);

then, Caligula (37-40 AD) ordered that his statue be erected at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, but as Petronius was enroute to Jerusalem, he halted the army because of the appeals of the Jews.  Caligula died before he could have Petronius killed and the statue erected in the Temple;

Nero (54-68 AD) is famous for setting Rome on fire, and then blaming the Christians;

Vespasian (69-79 AD) orders his son Titus, who will be the next caesar, to lay seige to and destroy the city of Jerusalem.  The Temple is destroyed in 70 AD, and the Jews are scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

Finally, Domitian (81-96 AD) declares himself to be god, and demands that all Roman subjects acknowledge him as Divine or be killed.

You have heard the stories of Christians being killed in the arenas in Rome and other Roman cities.  Of emperors having Christians sewn into animal skins so they could be ripped apart before the blood-thirsty crowds.  Of Christians, while still alive, being used as living human torches to light the gardens for the emperor’s parties. And, the list of atrocities committed against Christians in the first century goes on.

It is under these conditions, and after almost 50 years of constant persecution that John writes the Book of Revelation.  The book is written in the apocalyptic style — “apocalyptic” means an unveiling, or revealing of a hidden message.

John writes in dramatic symbolism because to do otherwise is to risk death. Legend has it that the Roman Empire had attempted to take John’s life, but miraculously he survived and was exiled to the Isle of Patmos, where he received the vision and wrote Revelation.

John sets out in Revelation to show those suffering under an endless series of sadistic emperors that Rome does not have the last word.  Despite all the power and might of Rome, Jesus is triumphant!  Jesus wins!  He wins by defeating not only the Empire, but the evil behind the Empire — Satan and all the minions of hell.

Imagine you’re a first century Christian.  Perhaps your son or daughter has been taken away, tortured, and killed.  You have lost your business because you will not worship the emperor.  You cannot buy and sell in the marketplace, because you do not have the document that says you have fulfilled your annual duty to proclaim, “Caesar is lord!”

In addition to that, if you owned property, the empire has seized it and evicted you from your home.  You are a person without income, neighbors, a home, or hope.

If that’s your life, John wrote Revelation just for you.  And you can understand how it helped those who were suffering to deal with their plight.  If this life is not all there is, if in the end Christ is victorious, then it doesn’t matter what happens to me right now, all of that is in God’s hands.  But one day, one day in eternity, we will all stand before God.

And, on that day, those who have followed Christ will be the ones who celebrate.  Those who have been killed will be the ones who are alive forever more.  Those whose robes were the filthy robes of homeless beggars, will be washed in the blood of the Lamb and be white as snow.  One day ours will be an existence of glorious triumph.

That’s what John is saying.  Of course, John is also speaking to us, and all who have lived and died for Christ between the first and 21st centuries.  The great ordeal, or great tribulation, doesn’t happen just once, or just to one people, or just in one era.  God’s people have always suffered, and will always continue to suffer where their witness is faithful.

So, who are these people and what are they doing in heaven?

They Are From Every Nation, Tribe, People and Language

The people in heaven are not just Baptists, and not just Americans, and not just white, and not just English-speakers.  Imagine more people than you can count, from every nation you’ve ever heard of and then some, speaking in languages you’ve never heard, and of every hue in the racial rainbow — from white to black and every shade in between.

Now, I think John is doing two things here.  First, he is encouraging the first century Christians.  Because of the deadly persecution of the emperors, they have to be thinking, “Nero’s going to wipe us out.”

But John is reminding them that when the dust settles, when the score is in, the kingdom of God will contain more people than anyone can count.  Numberless!  The empire isn’t stamping out Christianity, it’s multiplying.

The famous saying of the first and second centuries was, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Which meant for every drop of martyr’s blood spilled, more believers would spring up to take their place.

Secondly, John is not just talking about numbers and quantity, he’s talking about the scope of the Kingdom.  Jesus had instructed his disciples in what we call The Great Commission —

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  –Matthew 28:19-20NIV

But we sometimes forget that Matthew 28:18 comes before Matthew 28:19-20.  In verse 18, Jesus says —

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Because Jesus has “all authority” the apostles are to go to all nations and make disciples.  In Revelation, heaven is filled with people, not just from every nation, but from every nation, tribe, race, and language.  John wants to make sure that no one misses the point — the Gospel has gone around the world because Jesus has all authority, and because the apostles were obedient.

These People Have Suffered For Jesus

But, don’t miss this point.  The reason these people are in heaven is because they have come through the great tribulation.  As I said, I believe there is more than one tribulation, but there are those who believe there will be one gigantic, horrific tribulation before Christ returns.

It really doesn’t matter which way you see it, because the point is that those who have gone through the tribulation have suffered.  They’ve been tortured, killed, thrown out of their homes, evicted from their businesses, separated from their families, cut off from their friends, deprived of food, shelter, and even water.

But John says, they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and their robes are white now.  Clean, pure, spotless, without blemish.

In addition, they are in the very presence of God, and God has spread his tent over them.  There is no doubt that God is now caring for these faithful and devoted followers.

In addition to shelter in God’s tent, they also have are fed, and given water to quench their thirst.  Then, the image changes and the faithful are now the flock being led by the Lamb who is their shepherd.  He leads them to springs of living water.

Now often we think of those who have suffered for Jesus, suffering because of what they believe.  But most of the time, people suffered because of what they did that reflected their belief.

In the first century, the Christians refused to say “Caesar is lord.”  Instead, with the apostle Paul, they said, “Jesus is Lord!”  In those three words, they performed an act of civil disobedience.  Their statement had not only theological consequences, it had political consequences as well.

We also often think of those who suffer for Jesus as living in some other country.  After all, we have freedom of religion here, and no one is going to kill us or persecute us for being a follower of Jesus.

Except on September 15, 1963, as services were underway at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — lost their lives  in a church.

The night before, four klansmen had planted 22-sticks of dynamite, timed to go off during Sunday morning worship.  Those four young girls died for following Jesus that day, just as surely as all the thousands who had gone before them.

If the klansmen who planted that bomb had read Revelation 7, as we have this morning, they would have known that even if they disrupted the church of God on earth, they could not disrupt it in heaven.

Are We Among Them?

It’s obvious from this passage that God loves these martyrs, these who have suffered and been faithful.  And, it’s obvious that faithfulness is not the sole possession of any one nation, tribe, race, or language of people because one day all races and languages will be represented in the Kingdom of God.

But the question we have to ask ourselves today is, Are we among those who have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb?

If suffering is an indication of faithfulness, have we suffered any for Jesus?  One of the things that Jesus told his disciples to do was to take up their cross and follow him.  To suffer as He suffered, to suffer because his kingdom was not of this world, nor of this world’s values.

If the church is an outpost of the kingdom of God, if Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, then if we live kingdom values we will suffer.

We will be ridiculed for believing that white folks and black folks can love each other.  We will be mocked for thinking that we can live life as peacemakers, rather than as warriors.

We will be urged to join the rest of the world in the mad dash to greed and consumption, and we will be called naive and foolish when we give money to help a poor family keep its lights on, or have something to eat.

All of these pictured in heaven, gathered around the Lamb are there because they were faithful, they suffered, they were true to the One who called them in the face of insurmountable evil.

And, then the second question we have to ask ourselves today is, “If the church is a preview of heaven, who’s not here?”

Is this church an assembly of every nation, tribe, race, and language?  You say, “But we don’t have that much diversity in Pittsylvania County, much less Chatham.”

Well, if we don’t have all the nations of the world represented, in all their cultural and linguistic glory, do we have any of them?  Who’s not here?

I’m not going to belabor this point, because it’s obvious we’re a pretty white,  Anglo congregation.  But, I ask the question because it’s one we need to think about.

If heaven is filled with people from every nation, from every tribe, from every race, from every language; and if we’re going to be with them in God’s presence for eternity, shouldn’t we start getting acquainted now?