As the first four seals in Revelation 6 have been opened, we’ve witnessed the consequences of distorted human empire running unchecked upon the earth — conquest, war, famine and death. Next in the pattern are two more seals. These two seals present two key questions that set the direction for the remainder of the Revelation. The fifth seal depicts God’s people who have been martyred, crushed under the machinery of human empire. They cry out for God’s justice, asking “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Notice how their confidence is in God. They await his justice, which is holy and true. The answer they receive is twofold. They are given white robes, which declare God’s vindication upon their faithful lives and sacrificial deaths. Then they are told to wait longer because more will be martyred. In other words, it will get much worse before it gets better.
The sixth seal opens, revealing God’s judgment falling upon rebellious humanity. As God’s kingdom comes into cataclysmic conflict against human kingdoms (Rome in particular), it is as if all creation shudders. And in the midst of the throes, humanity cries out with the second question, “For the great day of [God’s] wrath has come, and who can stand?”
And like the pattern that will repeat later in the seven trumpets and seven bowls, the seventh and climactic seal is preceded by a two-part interlude. This interlude answers the second question of “Who can stand?” Before God pours out his wrath, he prepares those who will overcome. John hears an angel announcing that God’s people must be receive God’s possessive and protective sealed upon their foreheads. This announcement is followed by a census role-call of Israel, one that was often used as Israel prepared for battle. Twelve tribes of 12,000 form the ultimate expression of God’s people in full and splendorous military array. This army is ready to follow the Lion of Judah into his messianic war. But when John turns to see Israel prepared for battle, he discovers an innumerable multitude gathered from the nations who worship the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb. This multitude stands before the throne and their white robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb, a phrase meaning martyrdom.
John has just used the same literary device he used in Revelation 5. In that chapter, John hears that one has been found worthy to open God’s scroll — the conquering Lion of Judah. But when John turns to see this military hero, he sees one who looks like a sacrificial lamb. Similarly, in this vision, John hears the announcement of God’s conquering army, national Israel ready to follow the messianic Lion of Judah. But when he turns, he discovers a multitude from the pagan nations who are worshipping the Lamb! Just as the vision of the Lion of Judah and the sacrificial lamb are the same, these two visions of military Israel and the worshipping multitude depict the same reality. God’s people are now drawn from all the nations and reconstituted around Jesus.
But what is the seal that marks this multitude as God’s people? It is their worship and the white robes they wear — the same white robes given to the martyrs in the fifth seal. In other words, this multitude belong to God because they follow and emulate the Lamb unto sacrificial death. They are truly his people, imitating his life, character and even death. They overcome not by military power, but by true witness, worship and sacrifice. Those who can stand in the day of wrath are those who are so completely given to God that they are ready to give their lives for him. This is an amazing twist! Those who will stand and overcome are the ones prepared to sacrifice and die on behalf of true witness for the Lamb!
We have already seen that God’s people have been called to overcome. And we have also observed that Jesus has overcome as the sacrificial lamb. Now these two strands are woven together. The army of God that is ready to follow the Lion of Judah into a messianic war is an army of martyrs who will overcome as the Lamb has overcome — by participating through their own deaths in the sacrificial death of the Lamb! These are the people who can stand in the coming conflagration of titanic kingdoms in conflict. As the earth heaves from the confrontation of God’s kingdom coming against human kingdoms and as rebellious humanity attempts in vain to find some sort of refuge from the onslaught, God’s people, who truly follow the Lamb, will stand and shine and overcome!
And like any good story-teller, John leaves us in suspense, waiting until later to reveal how this will happen…