All Saints’ Day (observed) (November 6, 2016)
The Revelation to St. John is a fascinating book, albeit a bizarre one. It has all kinds of weird images, including dragons and angels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, gigantic flaming meteors, a beast with ten horns and seven heads, and so on and so forth. People love to study it. People get freaked out by it. People have come up with all kinds of crazy interpretations about it. Those interpretations usually come from overactive imaginations rather than a careful study of the book and understanding the symbolism within it.
St. John wrote it when he was in exile on the island of Patmos toward the end of his life. It begins with a series of seven letters to existing congregations in Asia Minor. Then follows a series of visions that all portray the same time period – from Christ’s ascension until his second coming – depicted in various ways and with varying imagery. As you read those visions, you have to imagine yourself as a time traveler, going back and forth in time and viewing things over and over again but from a different perspective each time. To quote a famous TV time traveller, the Doctor in Doctor Who, it’s all a bit “wibbly wobbly timey wimey.” All the Doctor Who fans will get that. But if you’ve ever watched any shows or movies about time travel, such as Back to the Future, you’ll understand that. The stories are full of paradoxes and events that are hard to connect. That’s a bit like the Book of Revelation. But everything finally comes together in the end when the end of all things portrayed … the glorious consummation of God’s eternal plan, all centered in the cross of Christ, “the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.”
Throughout the book, in the midst of the visions, there are vignettes … interludes … brief evocative descriptions of something that John sees. Our text today from Revelation 7 is one of those vignettes, one of those snapshots, if you will. It comes toward the end of the first vision, the vision of the Seven Seals. Seven seals are broken to reveal various aspects of the time between Christ’s ascension and his second coming. It describes a fearful display of tribulation in this sin-sick world. The first six seals reveal that the world will face war and bloodshed, famine, plague, natural disasters, death, even martyrdom for those who hold fast to the Word of God and confess the name of Christ, and the coming wrath upon an unbelieving world.
But then, after the sixth seal, comes a break in the action. Here is a welcome rest. Here is the promising vision of the saints in eternity, in heaven, at the resurrection. It is a great multitude, a numberless crowd, gathered from every nation and tribe and people and language. Here you might compare the description of Abraham’s descendants. The Lord told Abraham, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of the heaven and as the sand is that on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). And the Lord has kept that promise, in that all who are justified by faith are children of Abraham, both Jew and Gentile alike (Rom. 416-17) … just like this picture in our text.
This great multitude is clothed in white, a symbol of holiness and glory. Think back to Christ’s transfiguration. There the holy Son of God stood in glory, with his face shining like the sun and his clothes whiter than anyone could ever bleach them (Mark 9:2-3). Think of the angel at Christ’s empty tomb, whose “appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow” (Matt. 28:3). This glory and holiness is applied to those who trusted in Christ in this life. They are forgiven and cleansed. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. Their status with God was not evident on this side of the veil. But standing in glory, they wear white signifying their forgiven, holy status with God.
They also hold palm branches in their hands, a symbol of victory, which should also remind us of Palm Sunday. There, the crowd welcomed Christ as he rode on the back of the donkey. There, they waved palm branches as Christ was on his way to the cross to shed his blood and be our Paschal Lamb, our once for all Passover sacrifice where God’s wrath rests on his Son and passes over us. It sure didn’t look like a victory. But it did three days later when Jesus rose from the dead, proving that his death counted for us and for that great multitude in heaven.
Note, also, how this great gathering gives all glory to God. They don’t take any credit at all for being there. “Salvation belongs to our God,” they loudly cry, “who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the heavenly creation described elsewhere in John’s vision replies, “Amen!” Yes! What you said is just true! “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” It’s all about God! It’s all about the Lamb! It’s all about Jesus! They fall on their faces before the throne and worship God. And here at this feast in this palace, our Lord is enthroned in the bread and wine. We kneel here, we bow, we give him honor and glory, and yes, if we had room, we should fall on our faces as well.
St. John’s snapshot is an image of a family gathering in which you will one day be included! But we don’t quite see our faces there yet. What we will be has not yet appeared (1 John 3:2). This is not how we see the Church today. A multitude? Far from it. The faithful will always appear to be a remnant. We want the church to grow, but sometimes she is small in size. Remember that growth is not always a sign of spiritual health. There were times that even great crowds walked away from Jesus as he stood right in front of them (John 6:66). But one day we will see that great multitude that John saw. We will be a part of that multitude.
We don’t see white robes here. We see filthy rags. But in the waters of Holy Baptism you were washed in the blood of the Lamb. You are forgiven. You were given faith to trust in Christ as your Savior. There will come a day when the verdict of “not guilty” will be publicly declared of you. The white robe of your baptism, the white robe of Christ’s righteousness that you wear, will be visible to all.
The Christian life also does not often feel victorious. Rather than going “from vict’ry unto vict’ry, his army he shall lead” (LSB 660:1), it seems we go from defeat to defeat. But Jesus has already overcome sin, death, and hell for you. Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And later, St. John wrote in 1 John 5, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5). Jesus has overcome. And united to him by faith, you overcome.
In every war, there are often soldiers who refuse to admit defeat even after the generals have surrendered. They hide out and attempt to ambush a convoy. Snipers secretly stash themselves away and pick off soldiers one by one. That’s how it is for the devil and the forces of hell. They are defeated. The cross and the empty tomb was the decisive battle. Yet the devil’s forces refuse to surrender. They continue their subversive operations. But their efforts are the last gasp of a defeated enemy, while the Church moves in the world with the tools she has been given … God’s Word, water, bread and wine … and with those tools, the Holy Spirit calls people to faith and draws them out of darkness into the light of Christ.
God has given his love to you. Christ Jesus lived, died, and rose again for you. You are baptized into his death and resurrection. You are God’s child now. What you will be has not yet appeared, but when he appears you will be like him … risen from the dead, never to die again, without sin, whole and holy, blessed, inheriting the kingdom of God, with nothing keeping you from being in perfect fellowship with the Father forever. You will hunger no more. You will thirst no more. The sun shall not strike you nor any scorching heat … like pilgrims in the wilderness. But the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be your shepherd, and he will guide you to springs of living water … eternally refreshing you and slaking your thirst for righteousness, for holiness, for the love and presence of God … and God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
Yes, there’s plenty to mourn about and cry about now in this present tribulation. But not there. Not in the resurrection. Not in the new heaven and the new earth. Only blessedness. Rejoice and be glad! Rejoice and be glad for the saints who are coming out of the great tribulation. Rejoice and be glad that you will one day sing with all the saints in glory.