WHAT ARE THESE?
Sermon: Union Chapel, Bethersden
K. W. H. Howard 20 November 1988
“And one of the elders answered, saying unto me. What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?” Revelation 7.13.
Previously I drew your attention to the fact that there are two questions and two answers brought forward by the elder who observed the Apostle John’s amazement at what he saw in heaven. What did John see? Verse nine tells us, “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.” And the elder said, “What are these?… Whence came they?” And John replies, “Sir, thou knowest”, and then the elder answered his own questions.
What are they?
Last time, we considered the second question because it was the first that was answered. The answer to the question, “Whence came this vast multitude in heaven?” is, “These are they which came out of great tribulation”, and those of us who are Christians agree, and draw, I hope, some comfort and some strength from similarities and likenesses between their pilgrim path upon earth and our own. But we cannot stop there, we are not finished. There is yet this other question to be answered, and that is not, Whence came they? but, What are they? What are these which are arrayed in white robes? The answer to that question given by the elder is this; “They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
There are here a number of points which may be equally profitable for our guidance, comfort, and consolation.
1. They were once sinners.
The first thing we may learn from this answer is this: all who are in heaven were once sinners. We are so often reminded by Scripture and by preaching that we are sinners. We are so often reminded by our own evil hearts that we are sinners. Then let us take courage From the fact that all who are in heaven were sinners. They washed their robes; they needed washing. Had their robes been white already there would have been no necessity to cleanse them in the Saviour’s blood. They were sinners then on earth; we are sinners on earth now. All these glorious, these glorified ones who stood before the throne, who sang the praise of the Lamb, who were clothed in white, who had palms in their hands, every one of them, were once sinners like ourselves.
Now, when you look at their spotless purity and at their faultless character, remember what they were and take courage. They were men as we are by nature. They were sinners as we are by nature. They were all shapen in iniquity as you and I were shapen in iniquity. They all lived in the context and circumstances of sin and evil as you and I do. They all lived in an ungodly generation of one kind or another as you and I do, and they all committed actual sin, they all committed actual iniquity, they all soiled their own robes. They all had thoughts of sin as you do; they all spoke words of sin as you do; they all committed evil deeds as you do.
If you were able to go and ask (which, of course, you are not) you would find that not one of that great multitude that no man could number will tell you that he was naturally of a godly disposition. Not one of them will tell you that by self-mortification or by self-denial he won his place in heaven. Not one of them. Do you realise that some of those in that illustrious company were once adulterers, some of those in that illustrious company were once murderers? The Scripture itself makes it perfectly plain that such characters may be forgiven, and such characters may be sanctified, such characters may be glorified. You will recall in 1 Corinthians chapter six, the Apostle Paul gives a most horrendous list of sins, outward sins and inward sins, and when he comes to verse eleven in that chapter, having given that list, he says, with quietness and confidence, “And such were some of you: BUT ye are washed, BUT ye are sanctified, BUT ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God”.
It is well to remember that all those who are in that great multitude that no man can number standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, have a history of personal sin on earth behind them. If their biography were written and published in heaven, it would have to start on earth, and it would have to narrate all those terrible things. You see, we have it in the great words of our Saviour Himself than whom there is no higher authority, Matthew 11:31, ‘All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men”. In other words, with the exception of what is known as the unpardonable sin, there is no sin you can name that has not been committed on earth by those who are now around the throne. Men stained with the worst sins have been forgiven through the precious blood of Christ. Crimson sins, scarlet sins, capital sins have been forgiven, have been washed, and those who were guilty are now in that vast multitude. Isaiah tells us, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool”. Surely that is as you would expect it to be. For pardoned sinners who have attained to heaven, whatever their history behind them, the fact of their presence in heaven, and the fact of the future before them shows that they must have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. If your own sins then, are heinous in your own eyes, if your own sins are enough in your own eyes to keep you for ever out of heaven, take courage; there are those in heaven who were once just like you, BUT they were washed.
Here, I submit, is the first thing we may learn in the answer to the question, ‘What are they, what is this vast multitude?’ They are a vast multitude who have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. All who are in heaven were once sinners, once unforgiven sinners. None are there who were not sinners. Heaven is not the abode of some special category of human beings that have never sinned, because there is no such category. Think of the worst sinner you ever knew; there is forgiveness for such. If there is forgiveness, there is a place among that vast multitude that no man can number. Those who sinned and came short of the glory of God, but who were freely forgiven their sins by God through the blood of a precious Saviour; there are such among that multitude, and if the worst can be washed, you may be washed. What are they? They were once sinners just like you.
2. They all needed the Atonement
The second thing I would have you to learn from this, is this fact that all who are there in heaven needed an atonement for their sins. The atonement they had, and the atonement they relied upon, was exactly the same as that upon which you and I must rely. They washed their robes, they made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Not one of them became white through the tears of his own repentance, so not one of them became white through anything to do with his own character. Not one of them became white through the shedding of the blood of bulls and of goats, or of some other kind of sacrifice. They all needed a vicarious sacrifice, and none was found, except in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. They washed their robes. Where? Nowhere but in the blood of the Lamb, and none of them is there in heaven who did not apply to the bleeding Saviour, the Lamb for sinners slain.
The great message, that comes back from heaven to earth by John’s vision here and John’s conversation with the elder is this; See what a multitude of people the blood of Jesus has already washed, a vast multitude that no man can number. See how well pleased He who sits upon the throne is with the fruit of His Son’s death. See how the Lamb is satisfied with the travail of His soul, and then when you have learned that lesson, remember that the fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins is not exhausted and is not empty, and has lost none of its efficacy and none of its balm.
Then you see this. What an equaliser is the blood of the Lamb. It is the only key to heaven’s door, the blood, the blood of the Lamb! There is no one who had been washed by some other means; it is this atonement or it is no atonement. As it is so for you and for me, so it was for those who now stand in the presence of God. What are they? They needed atonement and they found it. They found the same atonement as you and I must have, that which is supplied in the blood of Jesus Christ.
3. They all washed their robes.
The third thing that I would have us note and learn, is this. What are they? These who stand before the throne of God and the Lamb in their multitude: what are they? All of them realised, all of them received the atonement and the work of the atonement, and the merit of the atonement, in the same way that we must do. How did they get where they are? Well, it had something to do with the relationship between them and the blood of a precious Saviour. What was that relationship? They washed their robes. They made them white. Oh no, says somebody, there is a mistake there; that is not free grace religion. Surely, it was done for them; that is just where you make a very big mistake, my friends. That is just where you “out-Calvin” Calvin and where you “out-Scripture” Scripture. That is where you try to be more jealous for God’s honour than God is Himself, for the record quite plainly and quite unmistakably is, they washed their robes. You see, there are some who have perverted the Gospel a little here. They think that because the blood is supplied, so it will be applied without any effort, without any involvement, without any co-operation, without any collaboration, without any response on my part. It is something that is going to be magical; it is something that is done without me altogether. But it is clearly written, they washed their robes.
Washing here stands for faith in the atonement. They washed their robes; no-one else did it for them, they did their own believing, they did their own trusting, they made their own commitment, they exercised their own faith in the Saviour’s blood, and so must you and I if we are to be clean. There is one thing that God will not do;
He will give faith, but He will not act as proxy and use faith for you and on your behalf. You must use your own faith, you must make your own commitment; they washed their robes. Oh, the blood is supplied; yes, and the faith is supplied, but the point at which that comes into operation is where the faith is brought into operation. These brought nothing to the blood but faith, no merit, no feelings, no self-preparation, no self-qualification. They brought their filthy garments and they believed the unlikely story that black garments could be washed white in red blood. That is to follow it out in the imagery, an unlikely story, just as unlikely as trusting in the blood of Jesus of Nazareth for salvation is to the rational mind of man. But here it is, however unlikely, however irrational, they washed, and they were clean. They did not give anything; they took. They did not impart something to the atoning work, they received something from it. The way they received it was by the acting of their own faith.
This, my friends, is how it stands for us; there is nothing to do, there is nothing to feel, there is nothing to be, except to wash and the filth is gone. This is how the atonement is realised, how it is received. You must wash, you must believe, you must commit yourself unreservedly to the finished work of the blessed Saviour. They all, who stand before the throne, came that way; no one got there by any other way. Indeed, you must not dare to add or you will sin against the all-atoning sacrifice. “Therefore”, says the elder in verse fifteen, for this reason “are they before the throne of God.” Why? Because they washed, they washed their robes. No man washed anybody else’s robes. He washed his own. Other people’s sin is not your concern; it is theirs and it is only their faith that is going to make the atonement effectual to them. Do not concern yourself with other people’s sin; your own is enough, and it is your own faith in the blood of the Lamb that is essential for your salvation. The vast multitude that no man can number, none of them was there because he did not sin, and none of them was there because his long life of Christian service wiped out the sins of his youth. Whether it be prophet or apostle, whether it be the most distinguished servant of God on earth, or whether it be a beggar that crawled in at mercy’s door, unknown, unnoticed, unwanted, unloved among men, all are there because they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Here is the message. What are they, these that are arrayed in white robes? They were all sinners once just like you and me. They all stood in need of an atoning sacrifice for sin, and the atoning sacrifice which availed for them is that which avails for you and me. They all received the atonement by washing in the precious blood of Christ, by faith, and that is the way for you and for me.
What can we conclude from all this? I draw two conclusions. First, I draw conclusion by way of warning. Do not think that because there are some one-time great sinners now in heaven that you can keep your sins and go to heaven. Yes, there are one-time thieves, murderers and adulterers and all the rest in heaven now, but they have not taken those things with them. They have not taken any relish for those things with them. What we have to understand is that those one-time great sinners in heaven repented of their sins;
they were stripped of those sins, they washed before they got to heaven’s gates, and so must you and I. You will remember the great question that came to John Bunyan, “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or wilt thou have thy sins and go to hell?” It is as plain an either/or situation as that. If you love your sins, whether they are secret or open, respectable or otherwise, you delude yourself if you think that all will be well at the last. They washed their robes, and the washing was done on earth, not in heaven. Be warned. Be warned.
The second conclusion I draw is one of encouragement. Maybe there is someone here who has reached the point where he despairs of pardon. Sometimes a sinner under conviction writes his own death-warrant, in this sense that he says, “There is no mercy for me”. He makes his own conclusion on that point. If you have ever entertained such thoughts, if you entertain those thoughts today, I want to ask you a simple question, Who told you so? If you told yourself so, then you have no authority, no right to do so, because you are not the master of your own faith, you are not the captain of your own soul. You are not entitled to tell yourself that. I have another question to ask you if you are in that position and you have told yourself there is no mercy for you. Who has told you that God has set limits to His grace? There are sinners who were as bad as you in heaven. Let me put another question to you. Who has been up to heaven and seen within that seven-sealed book and come back with the message that your name is not written there? You have not. John is the only one who went up to heaven and came back as far as we know in that context, and he has not said so.
Ah, remember, God delights in mercy. The Lamb delights in mercy. When you look at His heart, mercy is all that is written there. In other words, He delights to be enquired of, and however despairing you may be at a given point, it is not too late to inquire of Him. He has made a full atonement, and He has said, “Let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely”. If you say, “But I have this secret sin, and that secret sin, and if you only knew the catalogue of my sins as I know it, you would despair of me as I do of myself”. My friend, I tell you this; God knows the catalogue of your sins better than you do, and God’s list is longer than yours. But what does He say? He says, Bring them all; do not leave any behind, bring all your sins and cast them all into the cleansing flood. Wash, and make you clean. There are hosts above who were once as bad or worse than you, but His blood can wash from all sin, and when you come and wash your filth in the blood of the Lamb, you will find that His blood avails for you.
A great multitude that no man could number stood before the throne. Whence came they? Out of great tribulation – tribulation as great or greater than yours and mine on earth. What are they? They are sinners like you and me. They needed atonement; they found atonement, and they received its merit and its worth, and found entrance into heaven by washing in the blood of the Lamb. What John saw, what John heard in heaven and brought back and reported and recorded by the guidance of the Spirit here in the book of the Revelation, surely is proof demonstrative that the Gospel works. It is proof that sinners are saved and can be saved, and it is proof enough, surely, that those who are saved, ascribe the victory to the Lamb, their conquest to His cross. What are these which are arrayed in white robes? They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Amen.