The book of Revelation uses a variety of terms and symbols for the church that is under assault, both from within and without. The men and women who are redeemed from the earth form a company that transcends all national, social, and cultural boundaries. Tribulation is not an aberration, but integral to what it means to follow the “Lamb wherever he goes.”
What sets this company apart is its composition of men and women from all nations that have been redeemed by the death of Jesus, and to become the “kingdom of priests” summoned to mediate the light of the gospel in a darkened world.
The redemptive purpose of the church is presented first in the opening paragraph. Jesus is the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” a description that points to his past death, resurrection, and enthronement, the basis of his present sovereignty. The mission assigned long ago to Israel has now fallen to the church – (Exodus 19:4-6, Revelation 1:4-6, 5:10).
In the very first verse, the recipients of Revelation are identified as the “servants” of God, the “seven churches of Asia.” They were “fellow participants” with John in the “tribulation and kingdom and perseverance in Jesus.” John found himself on the isle of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Already in the first century, he and his fellow believers were experiencing “the tribulation” on account of their testimony for Jesus.
Later, John saw a glorious figure seated on the Throne at the center of Cosmos, holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. In all creation, only the sacrificial “Lamb” was found “worthy” to open the scroll, because “he was slain and redeemed for God by his blood men out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation, and made them a kingdom and priests to our God” – (Revelation 5:9-10).
The same category applied to the “churches of Asia” was applied to this great multitude gathered from every nation, the “kingdom of priests.” This vast company was larger than the seven small congregations of Asia, yet it also included them.
In chapter 7, John “heard” the “number” of God’s servants that were “sealed,” twelve thousand males from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, or 144,000 men. However, when he looked, he “saw” a vast multitude that “no one could number out of every nation, and all tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the Throne and the Lamb.” What John “saw” interpreted what he “heard.” The innumerable multitude was identical to 144,000 males from Israel. This, likewise, is the company of men and women from “every nation” redeemed by the “blood of the Lamb” – (Revelation 5:9-10, 7:1-17).
In this way, Revelation has transformed the image of the tribes of Israel assembled to march to the land of Canaan into the vast multitude of men and women redeemed by Jesus from every nation. John saw this company “coming out of the great tribulation” to stand “before the throne of God” in his “sanctuary,” where the “Lamb” was leading them “to life’s fountains of waters,” a picture of life in the “New Jerusalem” (Revelation 7:13-17, 21:1-6).
In chapter 11, the “two witnesses” are called the “two lampstands.” This means they represent churches, at least, if Revelation is consistent in its symbolism. When their ministry is finished, the “beast that is to ascend from the Abyss will wage war with them and overcome and slay them.” The clause borrows language is from Daniel’s vision of the “little horn”:
(Daniel 7:20-21) – “Also concerning the ten horns, which were in his head, and the other which came up, and there fell from among them that were before it three; and this horn which had eyes and a mouth speaking great things, and his look was prouder than his fellows. I continued looking when this horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them.”
(Revelation 11:7) – “And as soon as they have completed their witnessing, the beast that is to come up out of the Abyss WILL MAKE WAR WITH THEM, AND OVERCOME THEM, and slay them.”
The “beast from the abyss” could not kill the “two witnesses” until authorized to do so by a higher authority. But their violent deaths did not mean defeat for the “Lamb.” Their martyrdom produced the “day of the Lord” and the consummation of the Kingdom of God – (Revelation 11:15-19).
In chapter 12, Satan was expelled from heaven and no longer could “accuse our brethren before God.” Enraged, he gathered his forces to “wage war against the seed of the woman, those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.” Again, language from the same passage in Daniel was applied to the Dragon’s assault against the “seed of the woman,” which was identified as those who have the “testimony of Jesus” – (Revelation 12:9-17).
Likewise, the “brethren” overcame the “Dragon” by the “blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony, and because they loved not their life even unto death.” The “brethren” had been tasked with bearing witness, even if doing so meant a martyr’s death – (Revelation 12:11).
Likewise, the “beast that ascends from the sea” made war on “the saints and overcame them,” once again, using the same language from Daniel. This refers to the same reality as the war against the “two witnesses” by the “beast from the Abyss,” and to the “war” by the “Dragon” against the “seed of the Woman” – (Revelation 13:1-10).
When the “beast from the sea” waged war on the “saints,” believers who were destined for captivity, went “into captivity.” Likewise, those who were given over to be slain by sword, were “slain with sword.” This is the “perseverance and the faith of the saints,” who were identified in the following chapter as “they who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” – (Revelation 13:7-10, 14:12).
Next, the “beast from the earth” caused all the “inhabitants of the earth” to render homage to the “beast from the sea,” and to take its “mark.” In contrast, the sealed company of them who were “redeemed from the earth” stood with the “Lamb” on “Zion,” having the name of his Father “written on their foreheads.”
Thus, in Revelation, humanity falls into two groups: men and women redeemed from every nation and sealed by God, who follow the “Lamb wherever he goes,” and the “inhabitants of the earth” that take the “mark of the beast” and render homage to it – (Revelation 13:15-18, 14:1-5).
At the commencement of the “seven bowls of wrath,” the redeemed are described with imagery from the Exodus story. Those who “overcome” the “beast” are “standing on the glassy sea, having harps of God, and they are singing the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb” – (Revelation 15:1-4).
“Overcome” translates the same verb used in the messages to the seven churches for faithful saints who “overcome.” And it is the same verb found when the “brethren overcame Satan by the blood of the Lamb.” Once again, the same company of the redeemed is seen, this time standing on the “glassy sea.”
The “saints” overcome the “beast” by enduring faithfully whatever it may inflict on them, all while maintaining their “testimony.” This is the “perseverance of the saints.” Like the 144,000 singing a “new song” on “Mount Zion,” so, here, the faithful saints stand on the “sea of glass,” all while singing the “song of the Lamb.” The two “songs” link both groups, for they are one and the same.
“Babylon” is judged and destroyed for her egregious sins, among them, her persecution of the saints. John saw her “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” The saints rejoiced over her destruction because it meant their vindication. In the interim, the redeemed “people” of God were exhorted to “come out of her that they may have no fellowship with her sins and of her plagues they may not receive” – (Revelation 17:1-19:10).
Then came the time for the “marriage of the Lamb, for his wife has made herself ready.” She was “arrayed in fine linen,” which represents the “righteous acts of the saints.” Christians who heeded the Spirit and overcame, likewise, were “arrayed in white garments.” So, also, believers who came out of the “great tribulation” were “arrayed in white garments,” having made them white “in the blood of the Lamb” – (Revelation 3:5, 3:18, 7:9-17).
Thus, from start-to-finish, the focus of Revelation is on the church, the people of God, which consists of men and women redeemed by Jesus from every nation. Though different terms and images are used to portray her, the same company of the redeemed is in view in each case. The terms mostly derive from the story of Ancient Israel, but Revelation reapplies them to the followers of the “Lamb” from every nation, tongue, people, and tribe.
The mission of the church is to persevere through whatever the Devil throws at it, bearing faithful witness along the way. She is the royal body that now reigns with Jesus but she does so in her priestly role. The churches are “lampstands” that shine the light of the “Lamb” in the earth. Like John on the isle of Patmos, the saints are summoned to become “fellow participants in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance in Jesus.”