All Saints’ Day • Revelation 7:2–17 • November 4, 2012
By Joel Biermann
Opportunities to preach on the Apocalypse are rare enough, but when presented with a text as powerful and beautiful as this, one should not pass it up. Not only is the imagery rich and vivid, but the gospel impact of the text is overwhelming.
Deftly employing potent rhetorical tools, the narrative of the text intentionally pulls the reader along until at last he arrives at one of the most exquisite gospel declarations in the canon. Two rhetorical moves particularly assert themselves: the laborious accounting of the sealing process in verses 5–8 seems at first blush to be some tedious Johannine “Hebraism”; a careful oral reading, though, reveals the force of absolute completion. “Twelve thousand…twelve thousand…twelve thousand”: twelve thousand times twelve—144,000. None are missed. None are left out. The full number is sealed. And then to sharpen the tension before the breathtaking revelation, the odd seemingly inappropriate question—the heavenly resident queries the overwhelmed seer, only to answer his own question. Who are these in the white robes? The elder knows. The angels know. The Lord knows. And even John must know, but wants to be told to be sure. (Is that not how the gospel’s delivery always must work?) Those in white are the saints…they are you and me.
The description of these blessed saints—the full number of all those once sealed at the font, and now glorified at the eschaton is particularly rich in details, some altogether strange and surprising to the unsuspecting. Robes tattered, torn, and horribly defiled by life in the tribulation are plunged into the bloodbath of the Lamb’s blood and removed dazzling white. And that same lamb now living and exalted serves as shepherd for the gathered saints who drink from the springs of the water of life and find complete nourishment and protection in God’s tabernacle. The Davidic utopia from the psalm we number “23” finds its perfect consummation. Blood that cleanses, a lamb that shepherds, and finally a God who is as tender as a doting parent: surprising indeed is the reality experienced by these saints.
There are two more points worth noting. First, in spite of all the joy and grandeur of this picture of the eschatological fulfillment, there is a great tribulation. After the baptismal sealing, and before the Judgment Day raising (in both instances, it is wonderful to consider God’s monergism taking hold of his lifeless creature and delivering grace!), is a life in the tribulation—not the least of which is experienced in the internal battle between old and new man. Life in the tribulation is not easy. It hurts. Tears result. The struggle, the agony of life in the tribulation, must not be minimized. Next, notice (and relish!) the move from the endless, uncountable crowd to the tender individual attention of every tear being gently wiped away from every saint’s eye by God himself. The Christian life begins and ends personally and individually with God’s call (into faith and out of the grave). And it is to you, the single Christian, that God comes to wipe from your eye the last tear—the final remnant of life in the tribulation: glorious gospel, indeed. Yet, you never live in isolation. By God’s work, you are part of the grand crowd that cannot be numbered, singing and celebrating in an unimaginably spectacular and delightfully deafening chorus. Universal and sweepingly complete, yet individual and intimately particular: that is the way it is in God’s kingdom.
“Part of the Crowd”
Introduction: Parents warn children not to “go along with the crowd.”
- The world’s crowd
- We must resist this crowd—this is “living in the tribulation”
- The challenge is also internal—we fight the old man
- We are fouled and defiled
- by the filth of the surrounding environment
- by our own falling and failing
- God’s crowd
- God calls you in (baptism) and keeps you in
- God brings you to the final fulfillment described by John
- This is your future—don’t let the present reality of tribulation diminish the fact
Conclusion: Tribulation is only for a while; life with the Lamb is forever. The last tear will be wiped away.