Revelation 7:9-17: Now and Not Yet, but also with the Saints and Archangels

Lamb of God, Stained Glass (610x352)If you look at the Church with the eyes of your body, the Church can often be a despicable mess. Think of how one hymn describes her: “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” (LSB 644, stanza 3). And that hymn doesn’t even mention the harmful behavior of her pastors and people. For how often do we dishonor our Savior and His Church by how we live our lives and how we bad-mouth others?

And yet, as strange as it may seem, the Church on earth wasn’t that much different when the first century was ending. St. John was the last Apostle still living, the others all now dead, martyred for the Faith. And so John lived long enough to see many attack the Church. From within, false teachers sprouted up like burgeoning weeds, pontificating their ideas as Gospel truth. And if that wasn’t bad enough, from outside the Church, the juggernaut of the Roman Empire tried to crush the New-Covenant Church while still in her infant years.

And now exiled as an old man and prisoner on the island of Patmos, God gives John an invaluable gift, which he shared with us by writing it down. God gave John a vision of the Church as she is in eternity–as God sees her and declares her to be–and will finally reveal her to the entire world.

God has brought a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language into His Church. But those within the Church have gathered in one place: before the Father’s throne and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. They are a pure, brilliant white, singing out: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). They are before God’s throne. And every last one of them cries out that salvation comes to them as a gift from God and the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ.

John then finds out who these white-clad people are: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (Revelation 7:14). “Coming out”: That’s present tense. In the vision that God gave him, John is seeing saints entering heaven, in real time. That means, from a heavenly perspective, the life the saints experienced on earth was “the great tribulation.” Sorrow and anguish had filled the life they had experienced in this fallen world. Our life, right now, is “the great tribulation.”

But those whom John saw entering heaven had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). That’s why they’re in heaven. Who can stand in God’s full and blazing glory? The baptized, those to whom the Holy Spirit has given the robes of Christ’s righteousness. Who can stand? Those who have lived in their baptisms, those who have lived in daily repentance, washing their robes and making them white in the blood of the Lamb.

It’s as the Apostle Paul says in Galatians: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). The seamless robe of Jesus’ righteousness covers them. And so they are the multitude arrayed in white, like a thousand snow-clad mountains bright! They stand before the throne, worshiping day and night in God’s holy temple. And He shelters them. Gone is the hunger, the thirst, the threat from the sun with its scorching heat. Jesus, the Lamb, is their shepherd. He brings them to the living waters that quench their thirst. Tears are no more, for God Himself has wiped them all away from their eyes.

So, do you want to see the real picture of the Church? See with your ears through the eyes of faith the stunning reality that John describes. That’s our real reality. The Church isn’t the disaster or the shame you may see before your eyes. The Church isn’t every blemish and misdeed the news media delight in announcing to the world. Instead, within the Church is that vast and noble assembly, gathered to worship God and Jesus, the Lamb, in the Holy Spirit.

John shares with us the inexpressible joys of heaven, experiences too impressive for human language (that’s why Revelation is full of imagery and metaphor). And that same author wrote in his first epistle: “See what great love the Father has lavished us that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).

Right now, present tense, you are His children. And John says it only gets better. We can’t even imagine how it will be in heaven, what the saints in eternity are experiencing right now. Neither can we imagine how it will be when Christ appears in glory on the Last Day, except for this: we will be like Him!

It’s in that light, the light of what will be, that Jesus spoke His beatitudes to His disciples. That was our Gospel reading for today. That was also the first teaching Jesus gave to His disciples.

In the beatitudes, Jesus was training His disciples to focus on what will be, knowing what God had already given them. In the first beatitude, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). He taught in the final beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). God’s gift to the poor in spirit and the persecuted is to be under the rule and reign of God Himself. The Kingdom of heaven IS theirs, right now, in the present tense.

But between the first and last beatitudes, Jesus changed from speaking about the present to speak about the future. Those who mourn WILL be comforted, the humble WILL inherit the earth, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness WILL be satisfied. The merciful WILL receive mercy, the pure in heart WILL see God, and the peacemakers WILL be called His children (Matthew 5:4-9).

So, Jesus speaks about the present and the future. We are under the rule and reign of God, in His kingdom, right now. But then God’s kingdom is also what awaits us in the future. That’s our Lord’s way of saying that our life with Him is “now and not yet.” Now is the kingdom, now is His gracious presence, now He is reigning in your heart. And yet, it also awaits us.

This now-and-not-yet feature of our lives is most real during worship, in the Divine Service.   Yes, we are still here worshiping as the Church Militant, still running the race of faith in this fallen world. But we are also standing with the Church Triumphant, that vast, heavenly assembly, unseen to our eyes, but still there. We’re singing praises to God with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

But how can that be? How can I sing praises to God with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven? They’re in heaven; I’m not. They’re worshiping God before His throne in heaven; I’m on earth. Yes, that’s what our physical eyes see. But what do we see through the eyes of faith? Hear what the book of Hebrews tells us:

[During worship,] you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in festive gathering, to the Church of the Firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. [Hebrews 12:22-24]

So when we gather for worship, we aren’t the only ones present. The angels of heaven are with us. The spirits of the righteous made perfect are also with us (they’re the saints of heaven, still awaiting their bodies on the Last Day). But most of all, when we worship, Jesus is here. He is here with His body and blood, giving to us His new covenant of forgiveness.

St. Paul described the Christian life this way: “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Our life now is full of suffering, even as you are, right now, in God’s kingdom. But through it all, Jesus upholds you. Through it all, Jesus trains you to focus on what is to come, even as He did so. “For the joy set before [Jesus], he endured the cross, ignoring its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

As it is with the Head of the Church, so it is for those whom the Holy Spirit has brought into the Church. What does that mean? It means the future breaks into the present, even shaping how we live our lives now. Don’t focus on the hardship, grief, and the heart-breaking sorrows. Don’t fixate on how you have failed to live as God’s people or your repeated falling and crawling back to His grace. No; instead, focus through them on where and how it ends.

The book of Philippians tells us: “Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead, [you] press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). “Our citizenship is in heaven. We eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our lowly bodies into the likeness of his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). You, even in your weak and straying heart, “will be like him because [you] will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

So, today is All-Saints Sunday. It’s the day we learn to see the future and to press on toward it by the power of God’s Spirit as Christ’s people. It’s not the mess of the Church as she appears in this world. It’s not your weakness in living the Christian life. No; All-Saints is all about Christ’s saving work coming to you in all its fullness, which will take place when He appears again on the Last Day, which is also yours, right now.

And so on this All-Saints Day, we have God’s answer for our life–and death. See your future reality now by faith. Love it, ache for it, and live toward it. For that blessedness, which is now yours, but still hidden from your eyes, will be yours and visible on that glorious Day. That’s the reality that we have for our lives lived in the here and now: We will see God as He is, in His full and shining glory, and we will be like Him. Amen.