Behold a Host, Arrayed in White

“Adoration of the Lamb” from Ghent Altarpiece by Van Eyck

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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.

“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” (Revelation 7:9-17).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

This is one of my favorite days in the Church Year—The Feast of All Saints, the most comprehensive of the days of commemoration, encompassing the entire scope of that great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded (Hebrews 12:1). It holds before the eyes of faith that great multitude which no man can number: all the saints of God in Christ—from every nation, race, culture, and language—who have come “out of the great tribulation… who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10).

All Saints shares with Easter a celebration of the resurrection, since all those who have died with Christ Jesus have also been raised with Him (Romans 6:3-8). It shares with Pentecost a celebration of the ingathering of the entire Church—in heaven and on earth, in all times and places—in the one Body of Christ.

And the feast shares with the final Sundays of the Church Year a focus on the life everlasting and a confession that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). In all these emphases, the purpose is to fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, that we might not grow weary or fainthearted (Hebrews 12:2-3).

The hymns for today are among my favorites. Each presents the joy and glory of heaven. In Behold a Host, Arrayed in White, Lutheran pastor Hans Adolph Brorson (1694-1764), translates us to a vision of Christians participating in the marriage feast of the Lamb. At the resurrection, our bodies will be changed to conform to Christ’s glorious body, and consequently the hymn possesses both sacramental and eschatological dimensions as it demonstrates the contrast between life now in the Church Militant and eternal life in the Church Triumphant.

This “priestly band” (stanza 2) consists of martyrs, who suffered in this life because of, and then died in, their Christian faith. These saints “wept through bitter years” (stanza 2) and the “great afflictions” (stanza 1) of this life. Their willingness to toil faithfully and sow God’s Word on the “steep and narrow path” (stanza 3) of this world caused them much heartache: they were “despised and scorned” (stanza 2) by those who rejected Christ and His Church. But they endured to the end.

The hymn writer demonstrates how the Holy Spirit transforms Christians. Through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit sustains us in our journey through this life. These Means of Grace distribute “the flood of Jesus’ blood” (stanza 1), which cleanses us from our “guilt and shame” (stanza 1) and simultaneously grants us the gift of eternal life as our possession in this present world and the world to come.

Brorson balances an awareness of the individual Christian’s suffering in this life with the recognition that Christ’s atoning work translates the Christian to the hope and promise of heaven. The use of the word “now” highlights the point that our present misery finds complete relief in heaven—“they now serve God both day and night” (stanza 1); “but now, how glorious they appear” (stanza 2); they now enjoy the Sabbath rest” (stanza 2). Christ’s atoning work provides comfort to Christians in the present and a foretaste of the feast to come, a glimpse of eternity, where their Savior has “transformed their strife to heavenly life” (stanza 2).

For these Christians, heaven is the fulfillment of the sacramental life they lived on earth. In the bright array of their white baptismal garments, they appear glorious, like a “thousand snow-clad mountains bright” (stanza 1). Now safely home in the “endless day” (stanza 3) of heaven, the blessed saints participate in the eternal “heavenly banquet of the blest” (stanza 2).

In this picture of heaven, the Church Triumphant experiences the fulfillment of the promise that we, the Church Militant, only glimpse in the Divine Service. These saints “enjoy the Sabbath rest” and gather around the heavenly altar to partake of the “festive board,” where Christ is both “host and guest” (stanza 2).

The hymn concludes with an invitation to those participating in the Divine Service to join with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven and “rejoice in our Redeemer’s song” (stanza 3). With its encouraging text full of hope, Brorson’s hymn reminds us of the blessings that await those who die in the Lord.

If you look at the bottom left-hand page of hymn #676, you’ll notice that it is primarily based on our text, Revelation 7:9-17. I’d like to review it to expand upon what we’ve learned from the hymn. It’s wonderful how much they overlap.

The crowd John sees before the throne of God is countless. This reminds us of the promise made to Abraham that his descendants would be beyond counting—as numerous as the sand of the seashore and as the stars in the heavens. This crowd standing before God’s throne is from every people group on earth. Certainly, this demonstrates that the true Israel of God, is all those who have the same faith as Abraham, both Jews and Gentiles—faith in Jesus Christ alone (Romans 3:21-31).

The great crowd is arrayed in white robes. The elder explains the symbolism of the white robes: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). Forgiveness is a single loving action that the Bible describes in two ways. In the same instant that God cleanses our filthy rags, He credits Jesus’ perfection to us as a white robe of righteousness.

The heavenly crowd is also carrying palm branches. Biblical and Jewish sources associate palm branches with victory and celebration. In the Old Testament palm branches are associated with the Feast of Booths (Leviticus 23:40). In Jewish celebrations, as when Simon Maccabaeus delivered Jerusalem from the pagan enemy, palm branches were used in the victory celebration. In Maccabees 10:5-8, palm branches were carried at the celebration of the purification of the temple.

John would have been aware of this tradition. As he reflected on the sight of the palm branches, he may have thought of the crowd that went out to meet Jesus as the King rode triumphantly into Jerusalem (John 12:12-13). Whatever their thoughts or motivation, this crowd was consciously taking part in a celebration. With the palm branches they were receiving the promised King, the Son of David, who would cleanse the temple. John sees palm branches in the hands of the saints. This time the crowd is much larger, with people from every nation in heaven before God. The palm branches in their hands allude to the triumph of Christ. John hears them shouting a hymn of praise in which God’s people attribute their salvation to God and to the Lamb (Revelation 7:10). No greater praise can be given to God than that His creatures attribute their salvation to Him and to His Christ.

One of the twenty-four elders asks John, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Revelation 7:13). When John doesn’t reply, the elder answers his own question, “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” (Revelation 7:14).

The fact that the tribulation here in Revelation 7:14 is called “great” seems to indicate that it is the worst of the common tribulations that all Christians, in general, experience throughout history. The “great tribulation” is the time toward the end of the “thousand years,” which is the New Testament Church age, when Satan will be let loose for a short time (Revelation 20:7). However, the elder’s words in Revelation 7:14 (especially the present participle “coming” in the phrase “those who are coming out of the great tribulation) also suggest that the picture here is of a condition out of which all the saints are being delivered, not only through the “great tribulation” just before the End, but also through tribulations throughout the whole time period covered by the prophetic message of Revelation.

The picture of eternal glory of Revelation 7:14 is for the comfort of all Christians of all times as we experience whatever tribulations sorely test our faith and patience. Some tribulations and sufferings will be so piercing and poignant that the very faith and foundation of our hope will be severely tried, almost to the point of despair and defeat.

The people in the great crowd which John sees before the throne of God in heaven have already experienced the “great tribulation” and have come out of it. The present participle in the phrase “those who are coming out” (Revelation 7:14) suggests that Christians are continually emerging from this tribulation, adding to the crowd in heaven. John is looking at the whole people of God entering and becoming the Church Triumphant. The crowd that John sees represents the whole Church as if it were already complete, as it will be at that resurrection at the End.

The crowd of saints comes out of the great tribulation victorious because they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). Because of the redeeming death of Jesus Christ and because He now as the victorious Lamb presents them to the heavenly Father, the crowd of people stands pure and holy in the presence of God. With sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, and covered now with the righteousness of the Lamb, they share in the victory of the Lamb before the heavenly Father.

Revelation provides many wonderful glimpses of heaven. None is more beautiful than the description of the saints in Revelation 7:15-17:

“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.”

Appropriately, the bliss of heaven is first defined by the presence of the saints before the throne of God. God and the Lamb are the reason the saints are in heaven. Though Revelation 7:16 describes the blessed state of existence as the absence of physical traumas, it touches the very core of natural human life and needs. The words of Revelation 7:16 call to mind the promise God gave through Isaiah (49:8-19). God said to His people that in the day of His salvation He would help them and restore them to their land. When that happened, they would no longer hunger or thirst, nor would the heat of the desert or the sun smite them.

As John reflected on what he had heard in Revelation 7:16 and related it to such words and deeds of the Lord, he must have been comforted with this thought: God always keeps His promises. Now in their existence as “souls” (Revelation 6:9) in heaven before God and the Lamb, and in his vision of the future final fulfillment after the resurrection of the body in the new heaven and new earth, John sees God’s people at rest, never again to be pained by the harshness of life as they formerly experienced. In their new life with God—now before His heavenly throne and then in the new heaven and earth—the Lamb “will be their Shepherd and He will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:16; cf. 21:6).

A final truth describes the rest and the peace of the crowd of saints before God’s throne in heaven: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Tears and laments are part of the experience and character of the faithful people of God while on this earth. Tears are shed over one’s sins and the sins of others (Isaiah 22:4; Psalm 6:6; 39:12; Luke 7:37-38), over the ruin and sufferings experienced by others (Jeremiah 9:1,18; 13:1,7), over one’s own afflictions (Job 16:16; 30:31), when confronted with God’s anger (Psalm 80:5), when alone and in sorrow (Psalm 102:9), at death (2 Samuel 18:33-19:4; Jeremiah 31:15; cf. Matthew 2:16-18) and at other times of sadness (Acts 20:18-19, 37-38; 2 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Timothy 1:4). Jesus warned His disciples and followers that they would weep and mourn while the world would rejoice (John 16:20).

In this life, the shedding of tears is as much—at times even more—the experience of Christians as are joy and laughter. While it is of the nature of the people of God to weep and lament, it is the gift of God’s grace to turn the weeping and sorrow into joy (Psalm 126:5; John 16:20), for He has promised a day when “the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). John now sees the complete and final fulfillment of this promise of God. The final word describing the peace and joy of the saints before God in heaven says it all: “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (in Revelation 7:17).

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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