“Church Militant, Church Triumphant: All Saints” (Revelation 7:2-17)
Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day on the church-year calendar. This is a day for remembering our departed fellow Christians–those saints of old, as well as those from our own past–who have fallen asleep in Jesus and who now rest from their labors. Today we give thanks to God for keeping them in the faith; we are encouraged by the example of their perseverance amid affliction; and we rejoice and are filled with hope as we look forward to the glory that awaits us all. All Saints’ Day serves all of these purposes.
The glory that awaits us. One of the readings assigned for this day, appropriately enough, gives us a glimpse of that glory. It’s the reading from Revelation 7, a picture of the saints in glory: “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes,” etc. That’s what we just sang about in the hymn: “Behold a host, arrayed in white.”
But notice, our reading today from Revelation 7 actually comes in two parts. The picture of the saints in glory, verses 9-17, is part two, if you will. The first part, verses 2-8, presents a different-looking picture. There we see the 144,000, arranged in twelve tribes of 12,000 each, and they are sealed with the seal of living God before great harm is unleashed on the earth. This is quite a different scene from the one that follows.
And there’s a reason for that. In verses 2-8, St. John is given a picture of the church on earth, as it is now, organized for battle and under the protection of God. This is what we call the church militant, the church still fighting the good fight of the faith. But then in verses 9-17, John is given a picture of the church in heaven, as it will be, no longer fighting, no longer suffering, but at peace and at rest in the presence of the Lord. This is what we call the church triumphant. And I want to tell you today, both pictures give us great comfort and great hope, for now and for what lies ahead. And so our theme this morning: “Church Militant, Church Triumphant: All Saints.”
Let’s start with the church militant. That’s what John sees in verses 2-8. Realize, in Revelation, John has just seen a series of great horrors and catastrophes that will characterize the age that we live in: conquest, war, famine, death, persecution, the martyrdom of Christians, earthquakes, natural disasters–the same kinds of things Jesus had warned about in his end-times discourse. These are things that could really discourage the church, could really discourage us Christians.
And I mean, look at what’s happening in the world now in our day. We’ve seen all of these things take place. Man’s penchant for war and violence has not abated. Christians are still being martyred for the faith. In fact, more Christians are being slaughtered now than perhaps at any time in history. In Africa and the Middle East, in Muslim lands around the world, in places where ISIS is active–the number of Christians being martyred is staggering. Even in our own country, just recently in Oregon, a gunman walked into a college classroom and asked which of the people there were Christians, and those were the ones he killed.
And so these evil things could demoralize us, even cause us to despair. Has God abandoned us? How long, O Lord, how long? But here in Revelation 7, we are given courage and comfort–and even joy–in spite of all the adversities we will face. Because before the end comes, when it will look like all hell has broken loose, here in chapter 7 we are told what things look like from God’s perspective: that God really is watching out for us and that we really do have a hope for our future. That’s the message of this chapter.
So we see an angel arising, a messenger sent from God, sent out with the seal of the living God. And he calls out: “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” You see, God has placed his seal upon us. What does that mean? It means that God has put his claim and his name upon us. We belong to him. He is not going to abandon us or forget us. You were sealed with the seal of the living God in your baptism. You were marked with the cross of Christ–indeed, on your forehead–and God put his name on you, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The fact that you have been sealed should give you great comfort and courage. Know that, whatever may come, no one can snatch you out of God’s hand. You have been sealed, you are protected.
Now about these 144,000. Why that number? Because 144,000 is 12 times 12 times 1000. In other words, the full number of the church on earth, the people of God in the Old Testament, the twelve tribes of Israel, along with the people of God in the New Testament, the church founded on the twelve apostles. And here in Revelation the church is described in terms of the twelve tribes. When Israel was on its way to the Promised Land, when they would camp out on their journey, the tribes were arranged in an orderly fashion, with the tabernacle of God in their midst. Israel had to face many battles on their way to the Promised Land, just as the church does on our journey. Of course, our battles are not fought with military arms, but rather they are spiritual battles that we face, against the devil, the world, and our flesh. But in any case, God is in our midst, and he will guard and guide us on our way.
So that’s what John sees in verse 2-8: the church militant, the church on earth as we journey through this world, sealed by God and under his protection. Now in verses 9-17, John is given a vision of the church triumphant, what is in store for all of us in the glory that awaits us: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
Now we’ve gone from 144,000 to “a great multitude that no one could number,” and they come from every group of people you could imagine. This is the church triumphant. These are the saints at rest, meaning they have been delivered from the fight and are no longer struggling. They are at rest, but that does not mean they are bored or inactive. No, they are alive and energetic, joyful and praising God for the great victory he has won. The Lamb is there, and that of course is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain and who has risen from the dead and now lives and reigns to all eternity. The angels and all the company of heaven join in the praise: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
A great multitude, clothed in white robes. So who are these ones in the white robes? John is told who they are: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Friends, this is our hope and our comfort! The day is coming when we will come out of the tribulation of this life, all the trouble we face. Whether that tribulation is great or small, it still weighs us down. Grief and loss, the loss of loved ones, sorrow and sickness, disease and debt and death–these are troubles we all face in one form or another. Separation and sadness, defeat and depression, broken homes, shattered dreams–so many things we sigh over, and we become morose. And then for many Christians in many lands, the tribulation takes the form of outright terror and persecution. What do we make of all this? If this were all there were, it would be pretty sad and pathetic.
But here in Revelation we are given a glimpse of our future, and it is glorious! Think of your loved ones who have died in the Lord. They are safe and secure with the Lord, and we will join them! Think of your own fleeting mortality. Death is not the end for you. Life eternal awaits! This is our hope! The church militant, the church suffering, will become the church triumphant! And Christ has led the way, by way of his own resurrection.
Christ is the way! He is how we know we will join that white-robed multitude. It’s because of Jesus. Listen, how did those robes get so white? It’s not because of Tide or All or by being thrown in the Biz bag. No, our robes are washed white “in the blood of the Lamb.” “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” And it’s the blood of Jesus that does it. “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”
How we need the blood of our Savior! For our garments are soiled and stained with sin. Our sins convict us. Our conscience condemns us. We know we have sinned against God. But the blood of Jesus cleanses us and removes every stain. Believe this, my friends! It’s true! Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, shed his blood on the cross for you! This is why you are called a saint, a holy one. Not because of any holiness of your own. But because of the holy blood of Jesus, washing you and cleansing you and making you worthy to stand in that white-robed multitude. Jesus is your entrance in. He is your life, your eternal life and your great and only hope. All saints owe their salvation to him.
Dear ones, here is what awaits us in the church triumphant: God will shelter us with his presence. We shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore. And the Lamb in the midst of the throne–that’s Jesus–he will be our shepherd. He will guide us to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
For right now, though, we are still in the church militant. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” Yes, the struggle continues. There are battles still to be fought. But the victory has already been won. Christ has won that victory for us. So now, take courage. You have been sealed with the seal of the living God. You are baptized. God has placed his name upon you. He will see you through the battle and on into the Promised Land.
Church militant, church triumphant–all saints, and that’s the good news for this day.