Who Are These? (Revelation 7:9-17)

All Saints’ Day (November 7, 2021)

I trust last Sunday you all made it through another “Halloween” safe and sound. You’re here this morning so clearly you were not frightened to death by the goblins and ghosts, nor eaten alive by the werewolves, nor tortured too badly by trick-or-treaters. On my part I thank God another one of these secular celebrations of all things evil has passed. Just like the real faces of children and adults hidden behind masks and makeup, so Halloween has done a fine job obscuring and hiding away from public site the true and holy import of October 31st, Reformation Day; that is, the restoration of the saving Gospel: Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.

Even predating the historical significance of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, October 31st had been for quite some time a special holy day in the life of the Western Church. It was known as “All Hallows Eve.” It was designed to serve as a day of repentance and preparation before the long held sacred day of November 1, All Saints’ Day. In other words, All Hallows Eve was set aside as a time to prepare oneself, make yourself holy in the sense of being spiritually cleansed, so that you might rightly honor and venerate all those Christians of renown that had gone from this life to eternal glory.

Today, however, we observe All Saints’ Day not to venerate people, whether dead or alive, or to pray to them as if they had some divine status far above the rest of us Christians. No, in all actually, we observe this day to pull the mask off, so to speak, of what is considered sainthood; that is, to allow God’s Word to teach us who His true saints are and how they are made His holy ones.

One place in Holy Scripture that arguably presents the clearest picture of true saints is our First Reading today from Revelation chapter 7. It is the vision that Jesus gives the apostle John of the eternal throne room of God in heavenly glory. Allow me to share it with you once again. John writes: “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!’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” 

Due to the faulty teaching of the church of the 15th and 16th century that individuals became saints by living a virtuous and pure life, one of the early abuses of All Hallows Eve was to use the day to act like little devils and satisfy all your lusts so that on All Saints’ Day you could repent and behave like little angels in church. But it is clear from this vision given John that the huge, white-robed, mass of individuals standing before the throne of God were no angels, physically or metaphorically. Angels are completely different creatures and are clearly shown as a whole other group in heaven praising God. In fact, the angels join with the 24 elders and the four living creatures and prostate themselves before the throne, while the white-robed crowd stands waving palm branches giving praise to God and the Lamb.

Who else can these white robed individuals be representative of than God’s saints? Keep in mind that the word saints is simply the Old English translation of the Greek term hagiois, literally, “holy ones.” 

Now, even though in this text these white robed individuals are not referred to as holy ones, the very fact that this reading has been one of the appointed readings for the observance of All Saints’ Day, demonstrates that the general consensus in the Christian Church down through the centuries is that these white-robed individuals are meant to give us a picture of God’s holy ones, His holy people; i.e. His saints.

But just what makes one a saint, or holy, is certainly a bone of contention among many Christians. The conventional wisdom and teaching of some church bodies, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox communion of churches, is that saints are a certain group of Christians who are above others in nobility, character, and moral virtue. In other words, they are a cut above the rest of us riff-raff. These church bodies have even established a rather elaborate set of criteria by which true saints can be recognized and acknowledged as such. Such a list includes being without sin, or having overcome sin in their lives, exhibiting almost a supernatural level of moral character, and even having done or having been clearly associated with miracles. Who born of woman could truly meet such standards, save Jesus?

Even our society seems to have its own definition of saints. Many will look at the high moral character of a certain individual and they will say, “So and so is certainly a saint!” Conversely, society is also quick to judge those whose moral character leaves much to be desired by saying, “That man, that woman, is no saint!” they will insist.

But how does the Holy Bible use the term saint, or more properly, holy one? Throughout the Old Testament, as well as in several places in the New Testament, God calls His people, those who believe in Him, His holy procession, Holy priesthood, even His holy ones. Throughout his epistles the Lord’s apostle Paul addresses those to whom he writes in the various places such as Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, or even Rome, as saints, holy ones. 

Now, surely Paul was not writing to some elite group, especially ones already in heaven! Was there a first century heavenly postal service?

If saints are not confined to heaven, could that person sitting next to you this morning be a saint? Look close. What do you think? Or how about you? Are you a saint? Racing through all of our minds right now are all those unsaintly thoughts we have ever had, deeds we have done, and words we have spoken. Could we actually be saints? In fact, how many times have we admitted to others, “I know I’m definitely no saint?” 

The whole tenor of our text this morning is encouraging us to not be so hasty in our judgment. In fact, it is clearly revealing who the real holy ones of God are. And I’m convinced that through this text you will be completely encouraged and comforted by whom the LORD calls His saints. 

So, who are they? We stand in good company to ask that question. One of the 24 elders in heaven posits that very question to John. “Who are these, clothed in white robes?he asks and further questions, “…and from where have they come?”

At John’s prompting, the elder answers his own questions. But before we look at his response, there are some things we can learn about the identity of these individuals simply by observing their description. First, we learn that they are not some elite group. In fact, they are the most diverse mass of humanity ever assembled. John says they are of an uncountable number and come from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” These holy ones before the throne of God are not merely from one of the 13 tribes of Israel. They are not simply white Americans. They don’t all speak Hebrew, or Greek, or English. They are not only prophets, priests, or pastors. They are not only from one period of human civilization. Every gender, ethnicity and social class is represented in this crowd. Nowhere on earth can you see such a diverse group, but only here in this beatific vision.

Secondly, much can be learned about their identity from their present location in this scene from heaven. They do not stand off in some far corner of heaven. Neither do they stand merely as a “doorkeeper in the house of the LORD.” (Ps. 84:10) Instead, they stand “before the throne of God and before the Lamb of God.” No one stands before the King unless he has been extended an invitation by the King and is in the King’s favor. These holy ones are, then, highly favored by the King of heaven and earth, who has called them to His presence.

Third, we can observe that these in white robes are not some impoverished, downtrodden, mass of the oppressed. On the contrary, they are jubilant victors. They wave palm branches just as the ancients would do to greet their victorious king from battle. With one voice they sing their victory song, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Who, then, are these? The elder answers, “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.”

It is quite instructive that the elder speaks of this great crowd almost as if it is still growing. He says in the present tense, “they are coming out of the great tribulation.” All of these people before God are not from one time period. Neither do they come through one particular battle… one unique time of testing or horrible turmoil… or out of one great and final battle with evil. Everyone in this crowd, no matter when they lived or where they lived on the earth, are being brought to stand before the throne of the Great King through tribulation. The elder refers to this tribulation, this time of trial and suffering, as “great” because it encompasses the whole breadth and depth of human existence. 

This all comports exactly with the exhortation of the apostle Paul, “…that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Jesus, also, assures us, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). 

This is why Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount actually casts His holy ones in a different light than we are shown in this vision of the saints victoriously standing before God’s throne in glory. In this portion of His sermon, we often refer to as The Beatitudes, which is our Gospel reading today, Jesus highlights this rather unpleasant side of the saints’ lives. Jesus indeed calls them blessed but acknowledges that also in this life they suffer just like He did. They all indeed stand glorious and victorious before the throne of God, but are the very same ones who experience being poor in spirit and meek, who mourn and hunger and thirst for righteousness. On top of this, Jesus says, even though the kingdom of heaven is theirs, they are persecuted for righteousness sake.

No wonder, these white-clad wave the palms of victory! They have indeed been brought through much turmoil and trouble. Yet, and here is the real hope of this vision, no matter what they have been through or when and where they lived in this world, they stand before God enjoying the same victory, singing the same song of praise to their same Victors, God and the Lamb!

The kind of victory, or salvation, they enjoy is evidenced by their white robes. These white robes are a true and eternal paradox. They are made white in blood… blood of the Lamb! Now, I’m not much of a launderer, but I have had enough experience washing clothes to know that blood is one of worst stains to get out. Blood hardly makes anything white! Yet, this blood, the blood of the Lamb, is a super cleansing agent! Likewise, it is this blood that redeems this vast crowd out of their tribulation.

The Lamb, of course, as we know from the context here, other visions in Revelation, and, in fact, from other places in Holy Scripture, is Jesus Christ, God’s own Son in human flesh. He is the One given by God’s grace to redeem sinners from the punishment of their sins, as well as from the temptations and assaults of the wicked world and the devil. As the Baptizer pointed out to Israel, Jesus from Nazareth is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (John 1:36). It is His blood and His blood alone that truly cleanses and makes garments stained by guilt and sin become white, pure, holy. 

It is those who are baptized into Christ and have been brought to faith in Him as their Savior and King who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus’ sacrificed blood is the cleaning agent and rescuing agent. The Word of Christ’s promise and the water of the Sacrament bring that cleansing and redeeming blood to the individual sinner. Faith then is the washing machine of sorts, wherein the cleansing of our soiled garments happens. The apostle of the Lord writes in Galatians 3:27: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” He likewise writes to Titus: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7). 

The blood of Jesus, therefore, not only washes the polluted garments of sinners spotlessly clean, it also rescues them out of the eternal consequences of their sins, the assaults and accusations of the ancient accuser, the devil, and the seductive temptations of the world and our own sinful flesh. All who have been baptized into Christ and brought to faith in Him, are being brought out of the great tribulation and being made to stand before God holy and justified in His sight. Christ’s righteousness covers them. Even Hell has no power over them.

And what blessedness is theirs, these white-clad saints! It is wonderfully described in 10 poetic statements. First, the blessings of their new location, second, their freedom from all earthly consequences of their sins, and, third, what they will eternally enjoy from the Lamb’s reign. We read: “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 shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

So, who are these? They are you and your fellow baptized believers in Jesus Christ, all washed clean and fully redeemed before your God and Savior. This is your Beatific Vision! Happy All Saints’ Day!

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