Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day when we remember all those who have gone before us in the faith. Although today we call special attention to them, really though, we remember them each Sunday, because our prayers rise up and join with theirs before the Lord and because we follow in the footsteps of the Church since Christ’s ascension. We stand here today with our ancestors in the faith behind us and with our descendants yet before us in the future. The Church is not only the collection of God’s people across geography, but also across time. We are part of a much larger communion of saints who were, are, and yet to be.
For this reason, I want to focus on today’s lectionary reading from the book of Revelation (Revelation 7:9-17), because in this book we see the Church spread across geography and time.
Now, the book of Revelation is probably the most misunderstood and misappropriated book of the Bible. Most of the modern focus on the book tends to be on the End Times, or eschatology. However, this emphasis tends to miss the bigger point of what the book of Revelation is all about.
First, the entire book is one revelation; it is a single, coherent revelation, not “revelations.” And who’s revelation is this? Well, the title of the book is usually given as “The Revelation of John,” but it’s not John’s revelation that he is giving, rather it is the revelation that John received and which he wrote down for us. The book opens in verse 1 with: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.”
So, this is the revelation of God through Jesus Christ to the apostle John. It is a single consistent message consisting of, as the risen Christ told John in chapter 1 verse 19, “… the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” The book of Revelation reveals to us what was, what is, and what is yet to be. So, John receives this revelation of Jesus Christ and is told to write what he sees – John is to bear witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ. So, the book of Revelation is Christ’s closing message to his Church until his return.
But, how to interpret this message? Many people try to map out history using what is revealed in Revelation. People like to try to figure out what the symbology means and speculate about what historical figures or nations they might relate to, and they look for the signs of the end times. Some people even want to affix a date to the Last Day when Christ returns.
So, in trying to determine the date for the end, people look for things like wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and plagues and famines. But, Christ himself told us that these things will take place, but the end is not yet. The disciples had asked him how to tell the sign of the end, and Jesus responded:
“See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, I am he! and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:5-13).
That’s quite a message, and it doesn’t sound very cheery. In this world we will have war, famines, and disasters, and Christians will be hated and delivered over to death. That doesn’t sound like a very positive or prosperous message. It has, is, and will happen, though, until Christ returns, because this is a fallen world that rejects Christ and his people.
Now, imagine being one of the first disciples. You have followed Jesus Christ for about three years, and then he is arrested and crucified. Your first thought is to fear for your own life, but then you see the risen Jesus Christ and so you are strengthened in your faith. However, later the Jewish and Roman authorities start to crack down on the Church and it seems impossible for the Church to stand against such power. In the face of all of this opposition where it seemed like the Church will be overcome and crushed – either by force or heresies – wouldn’t you look for a Word from the Lord that everything is going to be ok and that his Church will endure to the end?
Well, the Lord has given the Church this Word. He has given us his Revelation through John. John actually received this revelation near the end of the First Century during the particularly brutal campaign of persecution carried out by the Roman Emperor Domitian. John himself was exiled on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea and many Christians were being executed. The Church needed, and still needs, a word of hope, and the Book of Revelation is the Lord’s closing word of hope to us until he returns. It is the bookend of the Scriptures. It is the last book of the Bible, and it ends essentially where everything began.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, opens with God creating the heavens and the earth and filling them with His creatures. He creates people and dwells in their midst within His perfect creation. And after His people fall into sin and cause creation to be marred by sin and death, the Lord gives His people His promise of salvation and the accompanying restoration of creation to perfection.
The Lord forms His Church to carry on His promise, and this promise is carried throughout the Old Testament as the Church waits for the coming of Christ, the promised Savior. And then Christ comes to fulfill the promise of salvation. The New Testament tells of his coming; he died for our sins and rose for our justification. But, the end is not yet, because creation has not yet been restored to perfection. For this, Christ said that he would come again and points our eyes towards the horizon to look for his return.
But, in between his ascension and his coming again is the time of the New Testament Church; this is the “thousand year” reign of the saints of God that Revelation speaks about. This is the period where you, as saints of God, believers in what He has done through Christ, rule as conquerers over sin, death, and the devil; for Christ has already defeated these enemies on your behalf; you are conquerers through him. These enemies are still around, but they are on the losing team. And so during this time, the Church is charged with bearing witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ. But, this is not yet the end, because although sin, death, and the devil have been defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection, he has not yet returned to gather up the saints of God from their graves to be with the Lord for eternity in the new, restored, perfect creation of God.
So, the Church is now in this era between Christ’s ascension and his return. But, how is the Church to keep hope and faith alive until Christ returns for us? How is the Church to endure through wars, famines, and disasters? How are we to endure as we are hated and turned over to death for the sake of Christ? We need a word from the Lord to keep our hope and faith alive.
Well, the Lord gives this Word of hope to us in Revelation. Revelation recounts what was, what is, and what is yet to be. This Revelation unfolds in a series of three visions given to John, with each vision consisting of seven parts. Each vision recounts the same time period from Christ’s ascension to his return, from three different vantage points; so, each vision is showing the same events from a different angle. And the seventh part of the first vision leads into the first part of the second vision; the seventh part of the second vision leads into the first part of the third vision; and, finally, the seventh part of the third vision concludes everything by showing the new heaven and the new earth, God’s restored creation, and His raising up of His people to dwell in it with Him. So, Revelation essentially ends where Genesis began – the Lord again dwelling in the midst of His perfect creation with His people, with no sin, death, or the devil to get in the way.
And in these visions, we see that in this world, in this life – until Christ returns for us – there will continue to be wars, famines, and disasters. We see that there will be death and suffering. We see that Christians will be hated and handed over to death.
But, we also see something else in Revelation – we see the end and the Church triumphant. We see that Christ says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).
Christ is the first, he was there in the beginning. He is the Word of God by whom God spoke everything into existence. He is the Word made flesh who came in person to effect our salvation.
And just as he is the first, Christ is also the last. He is returning to raise up all flesh for the judgement, and to bring His people to Himself. He is coming to gather together the children of God to be with the Lord for eternity. He will gather you, those who have gone before you in the faith, and those who are yet to be, into one, united, holy perfect communion of all saints, a communion we have in part now and which will be perfected at Christ’s return.
And so, the book of Revelation is a book of hope, a message of hope to the Church. Although Christ died, he is alive forevermore and he has the keys of Death and Hades. You are the children of God through faith, made so by the will of God through Christ. God created all things through Christ, the Word of God – He has recreated you as His children through the Word and water in Baptism – and He will bring you to Him when Christ returns – you have His Word on this. And so when Christ returns, he will unlock death and raise you up to be with him forever. And Christ will also cast Satan and his demons into Hades, and they will be no more.
So, Revelation is meant to show us that although in this life we may be hated and handed over to death, the Church will endure to the end. The world cannot extinguish the fire of the Church, it cannot eradicate us. The world may win its battles here and there against the Church: believers may be persecuted, hated, and killed; death and the grave may take its victims. But, in the end, the Church will still be here, while its enemies will pass away. And we will inherit a new heaven and a new earth, God’s new creation, restored to perfection, with no sin, death, or evil, but only the Lord and His people.
So, on this day, we remember all those who have gone before us in the faith, like the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostles of the New, and the believers of all times and places. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who have lived and died, who are living now, and who are yet to be born. They may speak languages we do not know, and look different than we look, and come from far away nations, yet we are all united in Christ. And some day our children, and our children’s children will remember us on this day as they look back to the Church that has been and look forward to the Church that will be, even as we all anticipate our future reunification at Christ’s return.
We are all one in the Church – although separated by geography and time – precisely because we are centered around the crucified and risen Christ. You are part of that triumphant strain that John saw in Revelation, “… 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!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
(Image of “For All Thy Saints” by William Walsham How. From “Sarum Hymnal,” 1868 – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31362823)