The White-Robed Throng!
By Henry Venn
"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 in front of 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!" Revelation 7:9-10
What a different scene, what a different world, separated only by a slight veil from that which we inhabit, is here exhibited to our view — a world into which we may enter by a single step, and in a moment of time! Here we see a busy world, eager in vain pursuits, agitated by mere trifles, contending about objects of no importance, and immersed in things which perish with the using. All is noise, and confusion, and vanity, and sorrow, and evil.
But behold another world near at hand, composed of different beings, governed by different principles . . .
where all things are as momentous — as here they are frivolous;
where all things are as great — as here they are little;
where all things are as durable — as here they are transitory;
where all things are as fixed — as here they are mutable!
That world has also its inhabitants — so numerous, that the population of this world is but as a petty tribe compared to them. It has its employments — but they are of the noblest kind and weightiest import; and compared with them, the whole sum of the concerns of this life is but as a particle of dust. It has its pleasures — but they are pure and spotless, holy and divine. There, perfect happiness, and uninterrupted harmony, and righteousness, and peace — ever prevail.
What a contrast to our present state! And is this blessed scene near us? May we be called into it in a moment? With what anxious solicitude, then, should we endeavor to realize it; and how ardently should we desire to be prepared for an admission into it!
The number of the blessed inhabitants of Heaven is represented as infinite: "I beheld, a great multitude that no one could count!" And if we consider the infinite power and glory of him who created them; the magnificence, and even profusion displayed in the works of his hands; the end and design for which they were created, namely, to manifest his glory — we shall at once feel that their number must be, in the fullest sense of the word, infinite! Let us reflect, that to create a million, or a million of millions of the brightest and most glorious spirits, is as easy to the Almighty, as it was to create our first parents: he has but to will — and it is done.
Let us consider that he rejoices in the multitude of his works; that every part of the universe is filled with beings from the immeasurable systems of worlds, to the atom whose minuteness eludes the keenest sight. Let us reflect, that Heaven is the perfection of his works, the grand scene of his glory, the immediate place of his residence. There he is to be known, and adored, and glorified; there he is to receive the homage so justly due to his majesty. And shall this part of his works only be scantily peopled? Shall those realms alone, which he made for himself, be without inhabitants? Shall Heaven alone be a blank in the creation?
Our Lord, it is true, has said, speaking of the race of man, that "narrow is the way which leads to life, and few there be that enter in thereat;" but this expression relates solely to the earth we inhabit — one world amidst, perhaps, an innumerable multitude. It relates also, principally, to the time in which our Lord lived. Even this world, we trust, will not ultimately be barren — but produce numerous and faithful witnesses to the glory of the Redeemer. He made this earth the scene of his sufferings, and we may expect it to become the scene of his triumphs. Only allow the Gospel of Christ to prevail, as the prophets lead us to hope that in the latter days it will prevail; allow the world to continue, as there is ground to expect it will continue, to a period of which the infancy is scarcely yet past; and we may conclude, that even from this fallen world shall multitudes, as numerous as the drops of the morning dew, crowd into the realms of light, to ascribe glory, and praise, and honor, to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb forever!
In considering the multitudes, beyond the power of calculation, which will people the realms of bliss, we must recollect, that, there, multitudes constitute happiness. On the earth, where a difficulty of existence is often experienced; where there exists a constant collision of interests; where one stands in the way of another; where jealousies and envyings, anger and revenge, pride and vanity, agitate and deform the world — numbers may tend to diffuse wretchedness and to multiply evil. Hence we flee for peace and joy from the crowded haunts of men, and court the sequestered habitation and the retired valley. But in Heaven, where there can be no thwarting interests; where the needs of one are never supplied at the expense of another; where every bosom glows with love, and every heart beats with desire to promote the general happiness — the addition of a fresh individual to the innumerable throng diffuses a wider joy, and heightens the universal felicity.
The multitude assembled there is described as composed of all "nations, and kindred, and people, and tongues." Here, again, we must beware of forming our judgment from the feelings and views of this fallen world. There, it will be no cause of jealousy, or rivalry, or hatred, that one person received his birth on this, and another on that side of a river or sea. A man will not despise his brother on account of the different shade of his complexion; he will not seek his destruction because he spoke in another language; nor renounce communion with him because he praised the same God, with the same spirit of piety, in a house of a different form. All these petty distinctions will have either ceased to exist, or will be completely annihilated in the general spirit of love that will then animate every mind.
One pursuit will occupy every heart — each will strive to glorify God. There will either be no distinctions, or the distinctions be like the beautiful variety we see in the works of God — like flowers enriched with different colors to delight the eye, or with various perfumes to gratify the smell. Why should distinctions offend, or variety disgust? It is the dark and selfish pride of the heart which considers itself as the only standard of right and excellence, and therefore despises and hates every deviation from itself. Let the pride be removed — and the distinction would become a pleasing variety, instead of a source of hatred.
Alas! alas! what petty differences, engendered by pride, and nursed by the worst passions of the human breast — here separate, with unchristian hatred, those who are brethren . . .
the children of the same God,
the members of the same church,
taught by the same book,
partakers of the same hope,
redeemed by the same Savior,
influenced by the same Spirit,
traveling along the same road towards the same blessed country!
Religion! our best, our dearest, holiest guide — is your divine aim to be diverted, to sanction discord, to justify hatred, and to consecrate bigotry? No! Religion acknowledges nothing as her own work — but union and peace. In Heaven, her throne, no odious denominations will parcel out the regenerated church, no frivolous distinctions be allowed to break the unity of the members of Christ; but people of every nation, and kindred, and tribe, and tongue, will unite in one worship, will be animated with one spirit, will be actuated by one principle — and that, the principle of pure and universal love!
The society of that blessed place is composed of angels and saints; of those, that is, who have never sinned against God — and those who, having sinned have been redeemed by the cross of Christ, and have "Washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" — of those who were created, and have continued, in the highest order of bright and glorious spirits — and of those who once were "dead in trespasses and sins," who "walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience," but who have been "quickened together with Christ, and raised up together with him, and made to sit together" with angels, and with the Lord of angels, "in heavenly places."
Yet the angels scorn not such society; they reproach not the children of men with their fall; they refuse not to receive them into their company. On the contrary, they rejoice when any sinner repents; they convey the departed Lazarus into Abraham's bosom; they become "ministering spirits to the heirs of salvation;" they worship with them in the same adorations; they answer in responsive chorus to their praises. What a model for the conduct and worship of the saints below!
The employment of that innumerable company is represented as that of praise to God and to the Lamb, who redeemed them and bought them with his blood. In other parts of the Sacred Writings, where the employments of Heaven are described — worship and praise are represented as the chief occupation. We are not, however, to infer from this, that the exclusive employment is religious adoration; for we know that the angels, being of a still higher order and more spiritual nature, are frequently engaged in active commissions to execute the will of God. What are the precise occupations of the spirits of the just made perfect — we indeed know not; nor could we, perhaps, comprehend them. It is sufficient for us to rest assured that they are occupied in that work for which they are best qualified. It is sufficient for us to know, that, whatever the employments are which their Creator and Redeemer assigns to them — they are such as must tend to produce the greatest happiness, and to excite new and continual praises to God. For, in every description which is given us of the heavenly world — it is the voice of incessant praise and thanksgiving we hear; it is the overflowing of thankfulness for a state of exquisite enjoyment; it is the universal burst of gratitude, extending from one boundary of Heaven to the other. The voice of prayer itself is lost in the exultations of praise; the language of complaint is unknown; the lamentations of sorrow, and the sighs of grief, are never heard. The happiness of that innumerable company is described in the most glowing colors: "They shall hunger no more, nor thirst any more; the sun shall not light on them" (to scorch them), "nor any heat" (molest them). The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne, shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of water; and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes!" Here we see every source of evil, and even of inconvenience, removed — and every good bestowed, by the unrestrained bounty of Heaven.
Descriptions of this kind must be figurative — but the figures are evidently intended to convey to us the highest possible conception of unqualified good, and the total absence of all evil. The remaining part of the description both manifests the nature and the source of the happiness which they enjoy. They are "before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple — and He who sits on the throne shall dwell among them." The happiness which they enjoy is, then, a refined and holy happiness. It is not the sensual happiness of a Mohammedan paradise — but such as is suited to spiritual beings of the highest order and most exalted taste. It is a happiness founded upon religion and devotion, upon near and intimate access to the Lord of life and glory.
And let not this happiness be judged of by those who, far from having enjoyed pleasure arising from such a source, have, on the contrary, experienced from it only pain and restraint. They know not what true piety is, nor are capable of appreciating its nature and excellence. To others, it will be sufficient to state, that piety is but another word for happiness. I do not mean this merely in the sense in which, without guarding them, the words may be understood, namely, that the effect produced by true religion is happiness. I use the words literally; and design to state, that religion itself, the act and exercise of it, is the purest and highest happiness.
It may here be necessary to rectify the general definition of religion. Religion is not merely the worship of God, or the exercise of obedience: it is the union of the soul with God; the conformity of the will with his will; the enjoyment of communion with him; and the transformation of every faculty of the soul to his image and likeness. Religion, here, is but the faint outline of this more sublime image of its nature; the outward expression of what it ought to be, and of what it is above.
Now happiness arises from a frame of mind harmonizing with the objects which surround us. When the soul, therefore, is molded into the perfect frame of religion in its most exalted state; when every affection and every faculty are put in perfect tune, and all are in unison with the divine Source of all good — then there must be happiness, arising from such a constitution, the most pure and perfect which a creature can enjoy. It is the happiness of God himself — of God, the source of all happiness. It is a state of mind in which that necessarily gives pleasure, which gives God pleasure; in which there is a participation of his feelings; in which the soul drinks at the fountain-head of all enjoyment; in which the bliss of the Almighty becomes the bliss of his creatures. Thus religion and happiness are exchangeable terms. They are, in fact, one and the same thing: and it is not more impossible that God should be unhappy — than that his devout servants, dwelling near his throne, and "serving him day and night in his temple," should taste of misery.
To what an exalted height of happiness and glory, is then that innumerable company advanced! With what a glorious society do they hold communion! In what noble employments are they engaged! Of what refined enjoyments do they partake! Blessed spirits! your lot is fixed; your happiness is permanent and eternal. You will no more suffer pain or feel distress; your minds are cleansed from every taint of sin; your hearts are the everlasting abode of purity and joy. All around you is peace; everything is concerted, by almighty wisdom and infinite goodness — to banish the very elements of evil; to dispel the slightest shade of misery; to pour around you, in luxuriant profusion — a profusion, designating the infinitely varied power of the Giver — all the richest stores of good!
How unlike this is our present state! What a different abode is this world below! Here, fear and terror, danger and violence, pain and suffering, sin and remorse, misery and grief, poverty and labor, the curse and the frown of justice — have fixed their abode. But, though these days he evil, give not way to despair.
Let me now present to you this innumerable company under a different aspect. Let me point out to you what was their former state, as well as what is their present state. Once, these were "men of like passions with yourselves; they have come out of great tribulation;" they once sighed and groaned under sufferings and sorrows, as deep and grievous as those by which any of you are afflicted.
What an invaluable and sure source of consolation it is to every pious Christian suffering under the weight of worldly calamities — to direct his contemplation to this glorious host above! Standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and with palms in their hands, methinks they say to him:
"We were once as you are;
we were assaulted by the same temptations,
we were stricken by the same arrows,
we drank deep of the same bitter cup,
we combated with the same enemies,
we felt all the sharpness and bitterness of the Christian warfare.
Often were we ready to faint; often we cried to God in an agony of grief, on the point of being swallowed up in despair. We felt all the weakness of our faith, and trembled under the infirmities of our common nature. Faint not therefore in your course. Behold the cloud of witnesses surrounding you. With one voice they bid you to 'lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the weak knees.' Be strong, fear not; your God will come — he will come with a recompense, and save you."
Let me conjure every weak, and every afflicted soul to contemplate these blessed inhabitants of Heaven. How changed are they from what they once were! Praises incessantly occupy their tongues — which once breathed out only complaints, and told of fears and apprehensions. Not a complaint can you make, which they have not made — not a temptation can you describe, to which they were not exposed. All your weakness, they felt — all your trials, they endured.
Some, like Lazarus, were afflicted with poverty;
some, like Job, were plunged from the height of prosperity to the lowest depth of adversity;
some, like David, were harassed by severe persecutions;
some, like Lot, were vexed by the unrighteousness of those around them;
some, like Eli, were cursed with unrighteous children;
some, like Peter, were shut up in prison;
some, like Manasseh, felt all the anguish of remorse;
some, like the apostles and the noble army of martyrs, were stoned or sawn asunder!
Yet, now, their sufferings have been long forgotten, or are remembered only to bless God, who "counted them worthy to suffer for his name's sake." One moment spent in Heaven — effaces forever the afflictions endured upon earth! Look to them, then, and indulge the delightful hope that one day "God may wipe away all tears from your eyes," and compensate all your sufferings.
For the better confirmation of your faith, let me lastly refer you to the means by which this wonderful change was accomplished in them. "They washed their robes, and made them white with the blood of the Lamb." They bear in their hands the palm — as an emblem of victory in the good fight of faith; and they are clothed with white robes — to denote the purity of their hearts under the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit.
The first point to which our attention is here directed, is that "blood of the Lamb," in which their "robes have been washed and made white." This image is designed to show, that it was to the efficacy of the death of Christ, they trusted as the atonement for their sins. Christ was to them the hope of glory; that is, they founded all their hope of glory upon him. Their robes were formerly defiled and stained by sin; but they were "washed, they were cleansed, they were justified, they were glorified," by Christ. He it was who gave them Heaven, and who gave them the preparation for it. He is the Lord of the world above; he has the "keys of death and Hell." He opens — and no man shuts; he shuts — and no man opens. To him, trusting in his grace and mercy, they applied, as to the Savior of mankind — and he heard their cry, and was gracious and merciful unto them. He delivered them out of the "terrible pit and the mire, and set their feet upon a rock."
Behold then, the secret source of the wonderful change wrought in them — this grand translation from earth to Heaven, from ruin to glory. The Son of God came down from Heaven "to seek and to save those who were lost." They heard of his love; they needed his power; they approached him in faith; they received him as their Lord; and he acknowledged them as his disciples, interceded for them, delivered them out of their distress, and raised them to eternal glory. And is his arm shortened, that it cannot save? Is his ear heavy, that it cannot hear? Has he intermitted his gracious work? Are there no trophies of his power to be suspended in the kingdom of glory? Yes! He is "the same, yesterday, today, and forever." Approach him, then, with true faith and fervent prayer; "fight the good fight of faith," as they did, and you also shall receive the palm of victory! Seek for the sanctifying influence of the Spirit — and you shall receive the robe of righteousness granted to them!
"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 in front of 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!" 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 have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, "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. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For 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." Revelation 7:9-17
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true!" Revelation 21:3-5
Who are these in bright array?
This innumerable throng,
Round the altar, night and day
Tuning their triumphant song?
Worthy is the Lamb once slain,
Blessing, honor, glory, power,
Wisdom, riches, to obtain;
New dominion every hour!
These through fiery trials trod;
These from great affliction came;
Now before the throne of God,
Sealed with his eternal Name!
Clad in clothing pure and white,
Victor palms in every hand.
Through their great Redeemer's might
More than conquerors they stand!
Hunger, thirst, disease unknown,
On immortal fruits they feed;
Then the Lamb amidst the throne
Shall to living fountains lead!
Joy and gladness banish sighs;
Perfect love dispels their fears
And, forever from their eyes
God shall wipe away their tears!