As in the scene of the Lamb’s presentation in Rev. 5, so here too the meaning of the vision is brought out by a dialogue between John and an elder. The elder asks John: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
In what amounts to a polite confession of ignorance John replies, “Sir, you know.” The elder then identifies this white-robed army as “the ones coming out of the great tribulation,” those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
“Tribulation” (thlipsis) is one of the great themes of the Apocalypse, as we have already seen in the discussion of the seven churches and the seven seals. The present vision invites us to penetrate more deeply into the meaning of this key term.
If, up to this point, the meaning of thlipsis has been centered on suffering or even punishment (cf. 2:9-10), now we see that the distress of God’s people is in fact their passage from death into life. Their suffering is a cleansing, a clothing, perhaps even an investiture in office corresponding to the Lamb’s own.
By virtue of his high-priestly work they themselves have become a kingdom of priests, standing “before the throne of God, and serv[ing] him day and night in his temple” (7:15). The Lamb’s death thus marks the birth pangs of the new creation, so that to be his follower and witness is to participate in the life he brings.
We now step back to examine the two parts of the vision synoptically. This is a vision of the people of God, the saints; but is either of these groups to be identified with the church? We might well doubt it. One of the more curious features of the Apocalypse is the complete absence of the word ekklēsia in the main body of the work, between the close of the letters to the churches (3:22) and the concluding lines (22:16). . . .
As the oracles to the church indicate, the ekklēsia is indeed the audience of Revelation, and in a quite literal sense the congregations are hearing the book read aloud. The prophecy does not, however, simply reproduce their empirical ecclesiality, answering history (the time of the old eon) with more history. The churches are being show a novum, the new thing that is coming, life on the far side of the great tribulation that is coming over all the world.
In this sense we might say that the subject matter of the vision is not the church present and visible, but the eschatological people of God. The vision is not of what the churches are, but of what they are called to become.