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The Key to Heaven
Revelation 7, (Text verse 14)
Audio Version

(c) Copyright 2007 Dr. Hans Boersma

7     After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben 12,000,
from the tribe of Gad 12,000,

from the tribe of Asher 12,000,
from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000,
from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,

from the tribe of Simeon 12,000,
from the tribe of Levi 12,000,
from the tribe of Issachar 12,000,

from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,
from the tribe of Joseph 12,000,
from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.

The Great Multitude in White Robes

9 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. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

11 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, 12 saying:

Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

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

14 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. 15 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.
16 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.”

The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed., Re 7:1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.

Over the past number of weeks, I’ve kept looking at the art piece we have on the wall here in our church for the period of Lent.  I’ve been thinking and puzzling about the meaning of this piece of art.  It seems to me there are a number of elements.  First, and central to this art work, is the Cross.  But, of course, it’s not just a regular Cross.  The Cross is made from materials that represent a gate of sorts, some kind of a door.  That’s the second element, therefore: we have a gate or a door.  If I’m not mistaken, the Cross is the door.  Somehow, we’re supposed to go through the Cross, to go to heaven.  And, of course, the third element is all these keys.  They are the keys, I think (I hope) that get us from here to there—that bring us from earth to heaven.

Today, we’re going to talk about that key, or those keys.  Pastor Bill asked me to preach on something basic, a basic necessity in life.  The period of Lent is about going back to the basics of life.  Well, in many ways, keys are basic necessities.  We’ve all had the situation.  You need to go somewhere, you have your car in the driveway, but you can’t find the car key.  Then you know, keys are basic necessities.  We’re going to talk today about how we can go to heaven.  What is the key that we need?  What is the key to heaven?  That is the question we’ll focus on this morning.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of keys in this artwork.  Sometimes the keys are a little wobbly, and you think they’re gonna come down, but somehow they get put back in their place, and they’ve all stayed there, throughout the period of Lent so far—all 144 of them. 144—did you notice that?  There are 144 keys, and they’re all the same.  Can’t help but think of the 144,000 that John the Seer mentions in this chapter, Revelation chapter 7.  12 x 12, 144.  12 tribes times 12,000.  All 144,000, the entire Church, they all need the same key to get through the door of the Cross, to get to heaven, to the place of their longing, the place they desire to be.  So, what is this key to heaven?  What does it look like?  How do we get there?  This morning we’re going to at the key from 3 different angles.  We’re going to look at the key as a white robe, as red blood, and as a grey seal. 

1. First, the key to heaven is a white robe.  There’s a lot of talk in this chapter, and also in other places in Revelation about white robes.  People that have gone through the door of death, and that have come out the other side in heaven, are people with white robes.  That’s a fascinating glimpse of heaven that we get—fascinating for all kinds of reasons.  What do white clothes do?  Especially if you’ve washed and bleached them?  They make you stand out, don’t they?  Now, of course, you and I immediately contrast white clothes with coloured clothes.  When you go out on the street there are all kinds of colours: blue, red, green, yellow, etc.  A person with a white suit or a white dress would stick out like a sore thumb.  But that’s not what Revelation has in mind.  You see, in biblical times people didn’t generally wear all kinds of different coloured clothes.  Most people wore something pretty bland, like greyish, brownish, off-whitish.  Take into account that people didn’t have washing machines like you and I do, and you can imagine it was generally kind of a dirty brownish, greyish, bland world in which people lived.  In that world, if somebody showed up in a dazzlingly white garment, that person would stick out.  He would stick out because he was so pure, so clean; not because he didn’t wear any red or blue or green.  White clothes—bright, washed, clean and white clothes—provided a sharp contrast because the first-century world was such bland, brownish, and dirty world.

You see, that contrast between being dirty and being clean is what goes on throughout the book of Revelation.  The world has gotten dirty; the world has become filthy and brown.  In fact, it has become so filthy and dirty, God has decided it’s time for judgement.  It’s time to deal with the world once and for all.  It’s time for eschatological intervention.  And so we’re transported to heaven, to the throne of God and of the Lamb.  And there we see 24 elders, saints who have gone before us, and who now each sit on a throne, with all 24 thrones circling the throne of God and of the Lamb.  We see 7 spirits like 7 blazing lamps.  They are 7 angels, each of whom offers protection to a church down below.  And immediately around God’s throne, we see 4 living creatures, 4 angels that are guarding the throne, and that are leading all those above in true, heavenly worship.  The dazzling white world of heaven is such a sharp contrast to the dirt and the filth down below, that God comes with a scroll that is closed up with 7 seals.  And the Lamb that is with God opens up the one seal after the other.  They’re all judgements.  God is going to put an end to the dirt and the filth, to the idolatry and the moral impurity, that he sees on the earth below.

When we get to chapter 7, we’ve already had 6 seals opened.  We’ve already had 6 judgements.  But the last one, the final judgement that God is going to bring, hasn’t yet taken place.  Now, to be sure, everything’s ready for this last blast of God’s anger.  Each of the 4 corners of the earth already has a divine warrior standing ready to execute judgment.  There is going to be a huge storm.  The storm wind is going to come from all directions: land, sea, trees—everything is going to undergo the force of this greatest hurricane ever.  God’s angelic forces are ready for the final blow.  It is at that point that God himself intervenes, and says, “Hold it!  Not yet!”  There is some people down there that are not dirty brown.  There’s people there with white clothes.  There’s people there who do not engage in idolatry, people who have kept themselves pure!

The question we need to ask this morning is the same one that one of the heavenly saints, one of those 24 elders, asked John the Seer.  The elder asked John, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” (v. 13)  “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”  That’s the big question we have, isn’t it.  If we knew who they were and where they came from, then perhaps we could join them, perhaps we could put on the same robes they wear.

Really, the answer to the elder’s question is not that difficult.  In one sense, at least, it’s fairly straightforward.  The best way to illustrate perhaps is with a story from the Old Testament.  It’s from the period of the Judges.  Now, you and I all know the period of the Judges: In those days there was no king in Israel.  Every man did what was right in his own eyes.  The story is from chapter 17 and18, and it goes like this.  There was a fellow by the name of Micah who robbed his own mother of a whole bunch of money.  When he admitted to his Mom what he had done, she said, You honest fellow, you.  You keep the money, and you use it to make a nice image and a cast idol.  So, Micah went off to the silversmith and got himself a nice looking image and an idol, as well as some other paraphernalia that you need for idol worship.  Guess who comes travelling from Judah some time later.  A Levite; it’s Moses’ very own grandson.  Well, isn’t that a nice coincidence?  Micah says to Moses’ grandson: we could have a really good gig going here; why don’t you stay and be my priest?  We’ll have ourselves a little church down here.  Except that one day Micah and Moses’ grandson find their little church surrounded by 600 soldiers.  They’re all from the tribe of Dan.  The soldiers, in typically military fashion, grab the carved image, the idol, all the other paraphernalia, and they snarl at Moses’ grandson: You come with us.  From now on, you’re gonna be our priest!  We’re on our way, travelling north.  We’ve seen a nice city there; we’re gonna burn it to the ground, rebuild it, and call it Dan.  That’s exactly what they do.  And the story ends with these words: “They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.”

You get the picture?  It’s a horrid story, from a horrendous period just after the conquest of the promised land.  The real tabernacle is in Shiloh.  But Micah doesn’t care.  Moses’ grandson doesn’t care.  The Danites absolutely do not care.  They think the only thing that counts in worship is being true to yourself.  Well, they are.  And so they plunder, and they murder, and they burn.  And in the meantime they keep worshipping yet, too.  Except, of course, that it’s idolatry.  It’s self-invented worship.  It’s not true worship.  The real house of God is not in Dan; it’s in Shiloh.  Notice how there are two elements interwoven throughout this story.  There’s the idolatry, the false worship of idols and images in a place far away from the true worship of God in the tabernacle in Shiloh; and at the same time, there’s the moral depravity, the moral disintegration of society, with the looting, the burning, and the murdering of the Danites.  False worship and moral decay go hand in hand.  They always do.

Why am I telling this story?  Well, let’s go back to Revelation 7.  “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”  Well, it ends up being a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.  Except, when you look at the 144 keys, when you look at the 12 tribes, each with their 12,000 people, there is one tribe missing.  There’s one key that’s not there.  That’s right.  It’s key of Dan that’s missing.  Dan is not in the list that we find in verses 5-8.  You see, the Danites’ clothes were filthy.  They’ve soiled their clothes.  It’s their idolatry and moral impurity that got their clothes all filthy.  It’s white robes that are the key to heaven.

Maybe you think, well, that’s all fine, but it’s not about what I do; it’s about what Christ does.  In one sense, that’s true.  And I’ll get back to that.  But let’s not be too quick here.  Remember that in chapters 2 and 3 you have the letters to the 7 churches?  Well, some of the letters are pretty sharp.  What does the Church in Sardis get to hear?  “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”  You are dead!  And then we read, and this is 3:4—“Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes.  They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.  He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white.”  Remarkable language, isn’t it?  And it’s not the only time we find this kind of talk.  The people of Laodicea, they say (and this is the final section of chapter 3), “Oh, I’m rich.  I’ve got money.  I don’t need a thing.”  The problem is: they don’t even realize they’re poor.  They don’t realize they’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.  So, what they need to do is buy white clothes, so at least can cover their nakedness.  They’re naked, and they need to buy white clothes!

There’s great wonderful comfort and grace in our passage.  And I will get to that.  But it’s not false comfort; it’s not cheap grace.  To get to Easter, we first need to go through Lent.  To get to heaven, we first need to go through death.  And the words of Scripture are very plain.  White robes are the key. 

2. Of course, the world around us doesn’t make it easy on us.  How are we supposed to keep our robes white in a world that’s filthy and dirty?  How can we possibly offer true worship to God and act morally upright in a horribly self-centered capitalist world?  That brings me to the second point.  The key to heaven is not only a white robe; it is also red blood.  Before I go there, one other comment.  When we read this chapter, did you recognize the song that’s there?  “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb.  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever, Amen!”  We all know that song, right?  It’s a beautiful song.  We’ll sing it at the end of the service.

But I want to ask you a question: have you ever thought about who sings that song, and where they sing it?  It’s the people that have gone through the door, the people that are now in heaven, who are singing that song.  It’s the angels in heaven around the throne that are singing that song.  This song is a heavenly song.  It’s a song of victory.  “Salvation belongs to our God.”  Our God has saved us!  He has carried us through the door!  He has given us the key!  We’ve made it.  We’re victorious!  In other words, this is a song that gets sung by all the saints who’ve already made it.  It’s St. Paul up there, singing that song.  It’s St. Ignatius up there, singing that song.  It’s Gregory of Nyssa up there, singing that song.  It’s St. Augustine up there, singing that song.  It’s Francis of Assisi up there, singing that song.  It’s Martin Luther up there, singing that song.  It’s our loved ones up there, singing that song.

          So, when we sing that song in Church, what do we do?  Right, we’re joining all the saints who’ve gone before us; we’re joining all the angels; and we’re making one huge choir.  We’re all singing together in worship.  Now, there’s one caveat, of course.  They, the saints and the angels, they’re on the other side of the door; they’ve already gone to heaven.  We’re still here.  And I’m mentioning that difference for a reason.  Because sometimes I wonder when we sing that song.  Sometimes I wonder if we forget that this song is really a song that belongs in heaven, that it’s really a victory song.

Who are the people that are singing this song in heaven?  These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?  What does it say in verse 14?  “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.”  They have come out of the “great tribulation.”  The “great tribulation”—maybe you’ve heard that term before.  The Bible talks about it a lot.  Jesus talks about it.  Paul talks about it.  “In this world you will have trouble.”  “In this world you will have tribulation,” says Jesus to his disciples just before his suffering and death (John 16:33).  “We must go through many hardships [through many tribulations] to enter the kingdom of God,” Paul and Barnabas tell the new believers in Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 14:22).  And I could go on like this.  Once you start looking for it, it’s amazing how often scripture warns us that it is through tribulation that we go to heaven.

          One of the very first bishops of the early Church was St. Ignatius.  He was the Bishop of Antioch.  He was probably a student of John, the very same person who wrote Revelation.  So Ignatius knew John.  He knew about tribulation, too.  When the Emperor of Rome wanted to force Christians to worship pagan gods, Ignatius spoke out in public.  He warned the people of his Church not to do it.  Well, it wasn’t long before the military were at his doorstep, picked him up and put him on a transport to Rome, to be thrown before the wild beasts.  Now I’m not sure how you would react to that.  I’m not sure how I would react to that.  But Ignatius was not just a Pastor and a Bishop.  He was also a believer.  And while he travelled to Rome, he started writing letters to a number of different churches.  We still have those letters.

In the letters he writes about the tribulation that’s sure to lead to martyrdom.  Amazingly, there is no indication whatsoever, that he is afraid to share in Christ’s suffering.  “I impress on all the churches,” St. Ignatius writes the Christians in Rome, “that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable goodwill towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God.  I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.  Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may not be found troublesome to any one.”

This is astounding.  Ignatius is actually looking forward to being martyred to death.  And he warns the people in Rome not to try and stop it.  But you see, St. Ignatius has reason for this.  A few lines down in his letter, he writes, “All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing.  It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth.  ‘For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?’”

          What John the Seer is talking about in our chapter, and what his disciple, Ignatius of Antioch is talking about in his letter, is that they know that red blood is the key to heaven.  Now, of course, the red blood is first and foremost the blood that Christ shed for you and me on the Cross.  The 144,000 keys all need to be placed in the one door of the Cross that we see here on the wall.  But John and Ignatius both have a word of caution.  They’re both telling us that the song of victory has its real home on the other side of the door; the real place of that song is in heaven.  Now, that doesn’t mean that we cannot sing it here.  There’s nothing more beautiful, in fact, than to sing it already here and now together with all the angels and all the departed saints.  But when we sing we need to remember that this song tells us that to get to Easter, we first need to go through Lent; that to get to heaven, we first need to go through death; that to get to the resurrection, we first need to go through crucifixion.

          There’s a tough message in this verse.  We don’t mind being washed white in the blood of the Lamb.  We don’t even mind Christ’s crucifixion, as long as it means our resurrection.  We don’t mind Christ’s suffering, as long it’s our joy.  We don’t mind Lent for Christ, as long as it’s Easter for us.  But that is not the biblical message.  The reason we sing this heavenly song—“Salvation belongs to our God”—is precisely to give us strength so we can keep going in the face of trouble and hardship.  We sing it precisely because we know that we’re not in heaven but on earth.  We sing it precisely because we feel the attraction of pagan worship.  We sing it because the self-centered materialism of our capitalist world pulls on each and every one of us.  We sing it because the rampant sexual immorality and the horrible violence of our society threatens to overwhelm us, too.  We sing it because we know that the key to heaven is to say ‘no’ to the temptations that come our way.  We sing it because we know our robes will be white only when they’re washed in the blood of Christ.

          I often wonder how well prepared we are, how well prepared I am.  As evangelicals we are a happy-clappy bunch of people.  The problem is: life in Christ is not a happy-clappy kind of life.  It’s one long period of Lent.  We’re strange people, aren’t we?  We think something is out of place when we’re going through a rough spot.  What we perhaps forget is that tribulation is the standard way for Christians to enter heaven.  Tribulation isn’t odd for Christians; it’s the standard package—because it’s how we identify with the sufferings of Christ.

If it’s true that we find tribulation so hard to accept, that we find ourselves so different that way from John the Seer, so different from Ignatius, so different from the saints who are now in heaven, then we must ask ourselves why that is.  And I suspect we all know the answer: it’s the same problem that the Danites had, the same problem that our capitalist society as a whole has—the twofold problem of idolatry and immorality.  In the Old Testament, if a priest wanted to worship in the temple, his clothes had to be bright as could be—washed whiter than snow.  If you and I want to worship in the heavenly temple, our clothes have to be bright as can be—washed whiter than show.  That only happens if we take seriously not just the Easter that will come after our death, but also the period of Lent, the period of suffering, sacrifice, and death, that’s typical for the Christian life this side of the door. 

3. One final point—I realize that all of this may sound like an impossible job.  Who wants to turn his entire life into Lent?  Who is willing to take on a life of suffering and tribulation?  Who could possibly live that way?  What would that mean for my job?  What would that mean for the way I deal with my sexuality?  What would that mean for my entertainment?  What would that mean for the way I spend my money?  This is where the grey seal comes in.  In this final point, I am not going to say that life is going to be easy, after all.  It’s not, actually.  But Lent is nonetheless a period of great encouragement.

Think back for a moment to the time leading up to the Jewish exile.  It was a horrid time—much like ours, really.  When you read in Ezekiel 8 what all went on in the temple—I don’t have time to go through all of that now—but it makes your hair stand up straight.  I mean, the temple was one cesspool of idolatry and immorality.  And so God decides to bring judgment.  He himself—his cloud of glory—is going to leave the temple; God is going to abandon his people!  And just before that’s going to happen, Ezekiel gets this vision.  What he sees is 6 angels armed with deadly weapons, ready to attack God’s own temple and God’s own city.  But then Ezekiel sees a man with a writing kit.  And God calls out to that man, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it” (9:4).  And so, this man goes through the city, and he puts an X on the foreheads of each and every person that has not caved in to the Danite sins of idolatry and immorality.

          He does the same thing for you and me.  If we are to deal with the Lenten tribulation on our own, if we have to take up the Cross by ourselves, we’d be lost, for sure.  And so what God has done, is: he has sent an angel.  And the angel yells ‘Stop!’ to the angelic warriors that are ready to bring disaster to the earth.  ‘Stop!’ he yells.  First I need to put an X on the foreheads of the servants of our God (read 7:3)!  There are still people who need Baptism; there are still people that I need to seal with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  There are still people that I need to include in the 144,000, in the great multitude.  There are still people not quite prepared for the trouble of Lent.

          There’s an old custom in the Church.  We don’t do that anymore in our Church, but it’s still done in the Catholic Church.  On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the priest dips his finger in a bowl with ashes, and rubs the ashes on the forehead of the believer.  It’s a beautiful custom.  You are marked out.  You are marked with a grey seal.  You have the X of Christ’s Cross on your forehead.  God himself promises: I will guide you and will protect you throughout this period of Lent.  I promise that you will be not tempted beyond what you can bear.  When you are tempted, I will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Cor 10:13).

          Maybe we sometimes think that Lent is something of the olden days.  It’s not.  Lent is more necessary today than ever before.  For it’s these 40 days of Lent that remind us, year in year out, that the great tribulation has come, that it is here to stay the entire time until we ourselves go through that door of death, and we will sing again the song of victory: “Salvation belongs to our God.”


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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