Humanity, in terms of its own resources, stands before death helpless and hopeless. It seems like our loved ones pass into nothingness as we are separated from their presence. But the death and resurrection of Jesus testify to a different reality that God will actualize in the new heaven and new earth–victory over the grave and embodied, resurrected immortality. God provides the help and hope.
And yet as we lower our loved ones into the grave, death stings us with their absence and stirs doubt, curiosity, and anxiety. This separation generates questions. Where did they go? What are they experiencing? Am I still connected with them in some way other than my memories and yearnings?
I imagine the Christians of Asia Minor experienced similar anxieties and questions as they witnessed the martyrdom of friends and family in the late first century. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, at least in part, addresses these anxieties and questions as a way of encouraging the patient endurance of God’s people in the midst of the trial that encompassed them (Rev. 3:10).
The trial entailed the seven-fold unsealing of a scroll, the announcement of a judgment the scroll contained, and the implementation of that judgment through the pouring out of the bowls of wrath (Rev. 4-16). John watches this drama unfold from the divine throne room (Rev. 4:2).
Before judgment is executed, the servants of God upon the earth are “sealed” (marked for protection). Though the earth experiences God’s testing, the people of God upon the earth (the church militant) are hedged by God’s loving care (Rev. 7:1-8).
But there is another group pictured in Revelation 7. This group is not upon the earth but is in the throne room of God. This “great multitude” stands “before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). They are adorned in their white robes (cleansed purity) and hold palm branches (festive joy) in their hands.
Who are they? “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14). These have passed through the trial–those who were martyred for the testimony of Jesus, those who overcame through their faithful obedience to the testimony of Jesus, and those who followed the Lamb. They “died in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). They have moved from earth to the throne room. They came through the trial into the presence of God. They have passed through the doors of death into the heavenly throne room.
They presently experience that throne room. They stand before the one on the throne and serve God day and night. “Never again” will they hunger or thirst or experience trial. The Lamb is their shepherd and provides all they will ever need. God has wiped away all their tears.
This picture encourages readers who still live upon the earth undergoing trials. The vision bears witness to the reality of their passage from earth to heaven. The vision encourages faithfulness and endurance as it assures the people of God of the journey through death (out of the tribulation) into the presence of God.
I believe it provides a glimpse into the experience of those who have died in the Lord. They presently serve God before the heavenly throne. The Lamb is with them before that throne. They share life with the angelic hosts, and they sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” with the heavenly chorus.
This has a pastoral purpose. The text is not explicitly concerned to offer a particular understanding of or theorize about the “intermediate state.” Rather, it has the pastoral function of assuring those upon the earth about the reality of post-death experiences in the presence of God. It promotes endurance and faithfulness. It comforts the people of God as they face death.
In the light of this text (and I know there are quibbles and alternative readings), I often meditate on the experience of my loved ones. I imaginatively and contemplatively join them around the throne of God. I am comforted by their experience, or, better, I am comforted by the divine faithfulness that not only fills me with the Holy Spirit but also shepherds my loved ones in God’s own presence. That presence here and there connects me with them. Divine presence is my link to them, particularly through the communion of the Holy Spirit.
I know who they are. They are my father, my wife, my son. Where are they? They have moved from here to there, from this earthly existence into the throne room of God. And they are swaying their festive palm branches in praise of the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb.
Yes, they are there. But they have not yet experienced all that God has in store for them or us. There is more to come, something even better, in the new heaven and new earth.