"With Palm Branches in Their Hands"
(Delivered Palm Sunday, March 20, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
This morning, you have a palm branch in your hand in celebration of Palm Sunday. That palm branch is yours to keep. I hope that you'll take it home and put it someplace where you'll see it every day this week. Let it remind you over the next few days to prepare yourself for the weekend to come - to prepare yourself to remember the Lord's suffering for us on the Cross on Good Friday, and to celebrate His glorious victory over death on Resurrection Sunday.
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Have you ever considered the significance of the palm branch in the Bible? It had a very important symbolic meaning to Israel of old.
In the Pacific Northwest, we're used to being identified by a particular kind of tree - a Douglas Fir. We have our tree depicted on our official state documents and monuments. We even feature it on some of our license plates. Fir trees are an important part of what we're like as a region; and so we use them as symbols of the region itself.
In the same way, palm trees were an important part of the world of the ancient Jewish people. They were an important and useful resource for building material and for shade and beauty. They even provided food in the form of their delicious dates. They were so much a part of the landscape that the first city that the children of Israel captured in entering the Promised Land was Jerico - also known in the Bible as "the city of palm trees" (Deut. 34:3; 2 Chron. 28:15).
The palm tree became, then, a symbol for the land promised to the children of Israel by God - a symbol of such things as God's blessing on the land, of His provision for the needs of His people through the land, and of the nobility and honor and beauty of the land. If they had license plates in those days, those license plates would - no doubt - have had palm trees on them!
But the branch of the palm tree was also used as an important symbol of the celebration of the victory of God's saving grace toward Israel. The first time we read of this is in Leviticus 23. After God had delivered the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, and while they were on their way to the promised land, God commanded them to celebrate an annual feast. It was called the Feast of Tabernacles; and in it, the people were to celebrate for a seven day period by living in little "booths" or "tabernacles" that they were to make out of palm branches and the boughs of other leafy trees (Lev. 23:40). God said they were to do this, "that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (v. 43).
The importance of the palm branch as a celebration of the victory of salvation is again stressed in Nehemiah 8. The children of Israel had neglected to obey God's command to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles; and they realized this neglect when they read in the Law that they were to "go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths" (Neh. 8:15). They then quickly obeyed the command of God, and remembered together the victory He brought about for them by redeeming them from their bondage to Egypt.
The time when we most remember the palm branch as a symbol of the victory of salvation is on Palm Sunday; when we remember the triumphant entry of our Savior into Jerusalem to die for our sins. Let's read the story of that event together, as it's told to us in Matthew 21:1-11:
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them." All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: "Tell the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.'" So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: "Hosanna to the Son of David! 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' Hosanna in the highest!" And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee" (Matthew 21:1-11).
I love our Palm Sunday celebration, don't you? I love it that we fill the sanctuary with waving palm branches. It reminds us of Jesus' great victory for us on that day long ago. Many at the time didn't realize what they were celebrating. They believed that they were celebrating the coming of a mighty, conquering King who would gain great victory for them by delivering them from their oppressors. They were right in thinking of Him as a great deliverer. But they didn't realize that He was coming to gain the victory over sin; and that He would do this by dying on the cross.
We today have a much greater understanding of what He came into Jerusalem to do. We understand today, more than they did then, what a great victory it was! And we - who have been delivered from our sins by our Savior, Jesus Christ - have the greatest reason of all to wave our palm branches in celebration!
But did you know that the palm branch, as a symbol of the victory of celebration, is found in one additional - and very surprising - place in the Bible? It tells us in this passage just how great a victory it is that He won for us when He entered Jerusalem to die for us. And it tells us just how great a reason we have to celebrate.
This passage is found in Revelation 7:9-17. It contains a vision that God gave to the apostle John - a picture of events that will occur in heaven:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: "Amen! Blessings and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen." Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, "Who are these arrayed in white robes, and were did they come from?" And I said to him, "Sir, you know." So he said to me, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and 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 dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:9-17).
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I love thinking about heaven; don't you? As Christians, I believe that we ought to be daydreaming about our eternal home with the Savior a lot. In fact, I believe that not a single day should not go by that we do not think longingly of heaven. And here, in Revelation 7, we have a picture of people Jesus has saved, apparently just at the time they arrive to their eternal home.
Now; I believe it's wise to speak with caution about the events that the Bible describes in the book of Revelation. And I know that not everyone will agree with my particular interpretation of these events. But I hope that you'll allow me to offer my view of these things, as best I understand them.
I believe that what Revelation 7 is describing is a future event. I believe that what it describes will occur at a time of great distress on the earth - the great tribulation. Our Lord Himself described it as a time "such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be . . ."; a time so severe, that "unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved . . ." (Matthew 24:21-22).
In Revelation 6, the apostle John describes the initiation of a series of cataclysmic events upon earth in the form of the opening of a scroll. This scroll - a "book" in the form of a long roll of parchment - is divided into seven parts; and each part is sealed with a wax seal. The opening of each seal commences a new event in this period called "the great tribulation". Chapter 6 describes the opening of the first six of these seals.
But God's great mercy to human kind is shown in the fact that something happens between the opening of the sixth and the final seal. Before the seventh seal is opened, and the horrible outpouring of God's righteous wrath upon the unbelieving world begins (cf. Rev. 8:1-11:19), John says that the command is given to put a temporary hold on these events until certain 'servants' of God are "sealed . . . on their foreheads" (7:3). John says, "And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed" - that is, twelve thousand from every one of the twelve tribes (vv. 5-8).
It's my conviction that God will, in this future time, raise up and appoint 144,000 mighty preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from every one of the twelve literal tribes of Israel, and send them out into the world on an evangelistic campaign the likes of which the world has never seen. And John says that it was "after these things" that he looked and beheld this great multitude in heaven. I believe these 144,000 Jewish evangelists will be used by God to win a multitude to salvation in Christ - and all just before the dreadful outpouring of His wrath begins! What a gracious God!
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This morning, I'd like to ask that we focus the bulk of our attention not so much on the events that proceed this great throng coming to heaven, but rather on their victory celebration once they arrive. There is a connection between the events in this passage, and what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. It describes a time when the victory of God's great work of salvation - put into motion by Jesus' willingness to ride into Jerusalem to die for us - is fully realized. And in John's description of this heavenly scene, we find only one earthly thing included in it: palm branches!
I want us to just look at the details of this heavenly scene for a while and have our hearts warmed and thrilled by it; and I want us to think about the fact that, out of all the things that could have been included in this scene, we find 'palm branches' in the hands of the glorified saints.
First, let's look at
1. WHO IT IS THAT WILL BE CELEBRATING.
Place yourself in John's position for a moment. Imagine yourself a poor, humble follower of Christ in the first century. You're not a scholar. You're not a man of letters. You weren't trained to write books. All that you were trained to do was to catch fish. But of course, you also had the wonderful privilege of having been with Jesus.
Imagine what it would be like to suddenly be transported, by means of a vision from God, into heaven. Imagine what it would be like to be shown the heavenly glory of the saints that Christ purchased by His blood, and shown the glorious events that would take place there. And imagine being told to write it all down. How would you feel if you were given such a task?
Those who have studied the original language of the Book of Revelation know that it is unusual in the way it is written. It's often hard to translate, and the grammar doesn't always follow the rules. One scholar suggested that Revelation reads as though it had been written by someone who thought in Hebrew, and translated those thoughts into Greek, and did so while in a state of emotional trauma. I'm quite sure that he was in a state of trauma! Wouldn't you be?
I have no doubt that John was utterly overwhelmed by this glorious scene he was shown. And as he was standing in awe of the sight of this great multitude of shining saints in glory, one of the elders around the throne of Jesus caught his attention and asked him, "Who are these arrayed in white robes, and were did they come from?" (v. 13). Obviously, this elder - this heavenly being - wasn't asking in order to get information. You can appreciate John's answer; "Sir, you know" (v. 14a). I think that was a very wise way to answer; don't you? It was a sure thing John didn't know; but he knew that this elder did.
The elder asked two questions; and notice how he himself answers them both. First, he asked, "Who are these arrayed in white robes?" And second, he asks, "And where did they come from? And he answers both of his own question: "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation . . ." (v. 14b).
Think of that! These glorified ones that John was seeing were saints who came from out of the great tribulation. Earlier, John reported the prayers of those who had been put to death during this horrible time because of their commitment to the word of God and because of their testimony. They were in heaven crying out to God with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (6:9-10). And John says, "Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed" (6:11).
I believe that the great throng in heaven, described in our text this morning, is the full completion of that number. And I'll tell you why this passage fascinates me so. It's because I believe that, at the point at which these saints arrive in heaven, the full number of God's redeemed ones have been brought to Him; and all the church of God's elect will have been gathered in heaven before the throne of His Son. I will be there! All of us who have trusted Jesus will be there! All the saints who have ever trusted Jesus will be there! And all who, by God's grace will one day trust Him - and even those who have trusted Him to the point of laying down their lives for Him during the great tribulation - will at last be there! All of His redeemed ones will, at last, be with Him! What a great victory celebration that will be! Will you be there?
And also notice what the elder says about them; that they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They had trusted the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, where He shed His blood for sinners; and by doing so, they had "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (v. 14c). They stood before God holy and pure in sinless glory.
And would you like to know something wonderful? When the elder says that these "come out of the great tribulation", he used a verb in the present tense. That is, they were even then arriving on the scene, 'coming out of the great tribulation' right then. But when he says that they had "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb", he used a verb that indicated a past event. They were even then entering the heavenly scene because they had, prior to that time, washed their robes in the blood of the lamb.
Now I must pause and ask you; on what basis do you hope to stand before the throne of Jesus in heavenly glory? Do you hope to do so on the basis of your own efforts, on the basis of your own good deeds?
The people John is describing to us here weren't standing before God on the basis of their own efforts and good deeds. Their "robes" - which, I believe, symbolizes the expression of their character before the sight of God - had been dirty and needed to be washed! They had been stained with sins. No amount of good deeds could have washed the stains of sin away. They could only stand before God because they had first washed their robes in the blood of Jesus - the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). And because they had washed their robes in the blood of Jesus, their robes were 'white' - the blood of Jesus had cleansed them from all sin (1 John 1:7).
No one can stand before such a holy God with robes made filthy and dirty because of sin. But God gives this invitation in Isaiah 1:18: "Come now, and let us reason together . . . Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are like crimson, they shall be as wool." He is ready to make you clean now - today - before you must stand before the presence of His holiness and give an account. Have you taken His offer? Have you trusted Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for sins and, by doing so, made your robe "white in the blood of the Lamb?"
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Next, I would like you to notice something else about these glorified saints . . .
2. WHAT THEIR CONDITION WILL BE.
The first thing that we see about them is that they were united together in Christ. There were no distinctions between them. John says they consisted of "a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues . . ." (v. 9). It's as if John searches for every possible delineation of groupings to show that every people group was represented, and that all were made one in Christ. Here's a vivid illustration of the truth that God, indeed, did "so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Second, we see that they were confident before Christ. They weren't found 'cowering' before Him or 'shrinking back' from Him. They were found "standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (v. 9).
People who are guilty before God, and whose robes are not washed white in His sight, can't stand in confidence before Him. John says that, on the day of God's wrath, "the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?'" (Rev. 6:15-17).
But these who come out of the great tribulation are not found hiding and cowering. They are presented as "standing" before the Judge of all the earth in complete confidence. Their sins had been forgiven; and they are right before God. They are clothed in white robes; which, again, is an expression of the purity of their character. They have washed them dazzling white in the blood of Jesus. Their confidence was like the confidence that the writer of Hebrews says belongs to those who have trusted Jesus:
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Third, we see that they are actively engaged in the worship of Christ. They are busy offering praises to God for His grace to them. In fact, they're shouting praises to Him with a loud voice (v. 10).
And what's remarkable is that they're at work worshiping Him right away. There's no sense of any kind of "purgatory"; there's no 'slowly advancing up the heavenly ladder' until they prove worthy of serving the Lord in worship. They stand before Him as soon as they are there; and are immediately found to be shouting to Him and praising Him in that wonderful service of worship that will be their privilege throughout eternity.
Fourth, they are a cause for the angels of heaven to glorify Christ. Once the full number of the saints are in glory and safely before the throne of the Lamb, the angelic hosts around the throne of Jesus take one look at it all and fall before Him in adoration and worship. They exclaim, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen" (vv. 11-12). It's as if they stretch to find sufficient words to give expression to their wonder at Him - our Savior - as they behold the great multitude of His redeemed saints that He has saved to such glory!
Fifth, we see that they serve Christ. We sometimes have an unworthy caricature of heaven in our minds. We imagining it to be a place of inactivity and idleness; as if all the saints will leisurely drape themselves upon fluffy clouds, while angels take their orders. But here, we see something quite different. Just as heaven apparently won't be a quiet place but rather a place of loud praise, here we also see that it won't be a place of idleness but rather a place of active service. The saints will, themselves, be before the throne of Christ; and they will "serve Him day and night in His temple" (v. 15a).
The Greek word that is used to describe their service (latreuġ) is one that refers specifically to religious service of worship in the temple. That's the kind of service the redeemed saints will be doing forever before the throne of Jesus. And there will be no imperfections in that service; no personal limitations; no frustrations; no lack of resources - just unhindered, unlimited, ever-joyful, ever-expanding, ever-fruitful vistas of grateful service in worship to Jesus!
Sixth, we see that they are cared for by Christ. John says, ". . . He who sits on the throne will dwell among them [which communicates His unending commitment to be with them and provide for them]. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters" (vv. 15b-17a).
Jesus won't entrust the 'shepherding' of His precious glorified saints to another. He Himself loves them. He Himself is moved with the deepest compassion toward them. They constitute His "Bride"; and He is their "Kinsman Redeemer". He will personally "pastor" His sheep.
And seventh, we see that they are comforted by Christ. "And God," John says, "will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (v. 17b).
What kind of tears are these that He will wipe away? I believe Revelation 21:3-4 tells us, at the time when God creates a new heaven and a new earth:
"Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:3-4).
These tears are tears that were brought about by the death and sorrow and pain of this fallen and sinful world. And remember: these saints arrive from out of "the great tribulation" - a time of particularly great suffering and sorrow. Suffering, sorrow and loss proceeded their glory of heaven.
And for many of us, it's somewhat the same. Our journey to heaven involves painful and difficult circumstances. And along the way - even though we have been saved by God's grace - we become painfully aware of how short we have fallen because of our sinfulness. We see the pains our sins have caused others. We see the disappointments of lost opportunities. We grieve the losses suffered by others; and we sorrow over our loved ones and friends who refuse the offer of salvation. And I have no doubt that, when we finally see our Savior with our own eyes - and we see how great His love for us is and how shallow our own love for Him was - we will feel a deep sense of sorrow and shame.
There must be some 'initial' tears in heaven for our Savior to wipe tears away. But note this: Christ will personally comfort His saints. God will wipe every tear from their eyes with His own tender hand. And then, there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. All the tears will be gone forever.
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This passage has shown us who these are who are celebrating in heaven; and it also shows us what their condition will be when they are there. Finally, let's notice . . .
3. WHY IT IS THAT THEY WILL BE CELEBRATING.
Why will they be celebrating? I wonder if I even have to give the answer to that question! Look at what they shout to the Lamb on the throne: "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (v. 10).
Salvation will be fully completed. All His redeemed ones will be with Him forever - blameless before Him with great joy (Jude 24). His work of redemption will have been fully realized. Every one of His promises to His precious people will have been kept in full. And all of it - every bit of it - will be His doing. He alone will receive the praise. What great victory!
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So then; why will the saints be holding palm branches in heaven? It's because all of this glory is brought about because Jesus made that triumphant journey to Jerusalem, in order to die on the cross as our Passover Lamb. The saints in glory will be in heaven only because of what He did at Calvary; and they will commemorate it just as it was commemorated when He first went to Jerusalem - with the palm branches of celebration in the hands of a great multitude.
That's what I hope you will think about this week as you see that palm branch. Because of the "Palm Sunday" sacrifice of the Lamb of God in Jerusalem, there will be a palm branch' victory celebration before Him in heaven. I hope you to be reminded not only of that glorious 'victory celebration' in heaven on the day when all God's redeemed people will be before their Savior's throne; but also of His own sacrifice on the cross which made it all possible. And that you will say now what the saints in glory will sing then: "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
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