Text: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
“Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended, who through death have unto God ascended! They have arisen from the cares which keep us in prison. We are still in a dungeon living, still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving; our undertakings are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.” These are the first two stanzas of the hymn “Oh, How Blest Are They,” #679 in our hymnal. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. This day was set aside by the Church many centuries ago to commemorate those who have preceded us in the faith. We do so not by invoking them, but by giving thanks God for the faith that He gave to them and to us and for the grace that we have all received in Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for their great example in the faith and the forgiveness they received, but we would be remiss if we ignored one major thing.
One thing we can’t ignore today is that all the saints that have gone before us have done exactly that – they’ve all died. Though they were forgiven their sins and covered in the robes of Christ’s righteousness, they still died as a consequence of the sinful condition which we’ve all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. But now they have been freed from all that. As the elder says in St. John’s vision of the throne room, they have come out of the great tribulation. Those who have passed from death to life stand before the throne where there is no hunger or thirst, no death, for the Lamb of God is in their midst and wipes every tear from their eyes. But what about us? We live amidst a culture of death; what about us? When will we get what the saints now enjoy? The answer to that is now, actually. At Holy Baptism God signed and sealed you as His, and He continues to keep you until, by His grace alone, He delivers you into His eternal kingdom.
We have in our text a vision of the heavenly throne room. We’re in an interlude in the outpouring of God’s wrath, as if to see how the saints are doing while the world is in tribulation. The period described in the text relates to us now. The 144,000 in the first part of the text are those who are coming out of the tribulation of the times, but are still in it. Those in the throne room are those who now rest from their labors. They are in the presence of Christ continually as they await His second coming and the resurrection of their bodies. The camera pans and we see four angels with the authority to pour out God’s wrath on the earth and sea. Then we see another angel, who says to the first four, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
This is where we fit into the text. The 144,000 put before St. John and us is not a literal number of the elect, but a signifier of the completeness of the Church that will enter into eternal life. In Scripture the number 12 signifies wholeness or perfection. You multiple that by twelve and you get a number of completeness. Then multiply that by 1,000 – and you get the picture. Those who are sealed upon their foreheads are those marked as redeemed by Christ the crucified. Though they are now in the midst of trial and tribulation, they have received upon their forehead and heart the mark Christ, which signifies them as inheritors of eternal life.
The Church has long understood this passage, this sealing of the elect, as a reference to Baptism. The word for seal in the Greek is σφραγίζω (sphragizo), and it means to mark as a means of identification or to certify something for delivery. This is our connection to Baptism. In the ancient Church, at Baptism the pastor would take some olive oil, the sphragis, and make the sign of the cross upon your forehead and heart. This would be a sign to you and others that you have been claimed by Christ. In the same way we might put a seal on the back of an envelope, certifying that what’s inside comes from us. We carry on this practice today, though usually without the oil. When you were baptized the pastor made the sign of the cross on your head and heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ.
It doesn’t always feel like it, though, does it? In Holy Baptism you are marked by the blood of Christ. You were given the gift of faith and the forgiveness of sins. You received eternal life and salvation in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And yet it doesn’t look like it. All around us we see death. We see the death of loved ones. We see long, protracted, painful illnesses. We live through the loss of jobs and closing of businesses, even the closing of churches. It says right here in Scripture the saints of God are before His throne and neither hunger or thirst, nor cry or suffer pain. When do we get that?
The painful reality we live in is that, because of the Fall, we who are baptized into Christ are not only marked on our forehead and heart for redemption, but also with a target on our back. This is what St. Paul preached to the Christians at Iconium and Antioch. He taught them to continue steadfast in the faith, for, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” You see, the devil hates you. This is why we suffer so many things. Ills of body and mind, broken relationships and lives, persecutions of various kinds – especially when we confess the pure Gospel of Christ against all false doctrine – these are all the result of the Fall into sin and the instigation of the devil.
Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation. But, “take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world.” When we look at our text from Revelation, and see those saints and the rest they’ve entered, where there is no suffering of any kind, and then we look at our lives, it’s easy to feel short-changed. We look at the pagans and atheists who prosper and cry out to God, when we will have what they (seemingly) have. When will we have eternal life and rest from our labors, when will we be free from the effects of sin? When we will come out of the great tribulation? Now. St. John wrote, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
By God’s grace alone, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and now share in the inheritance of the saints in heaven. One of the meanings that I shared with you for the word seal is to certify something for delivery. In Baptism you were marked as Christ’s, and by that mark He promises to you that you will enter eternal life. He promises that He will guard and keep you until the time when we all feast together in the new creation. How does He do that? Through the preaching of His Word and in His Sacraments. In Baptism He washes you and makes you clean, and daily you rise before Him in righteousness and purity. Through the preaching of the Word He reminds you of your sinfulness, but also comforts you with the fact that He died for you. In the supper of His own body and blood, He gives, again, the forgiveness of your sins and the faith and love to serve Him and each other. Through these things He guards and protects you as His own redeemed and inheritors of eternal life until we become the saints who’ve gone before.
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate not because they were better than us or more perfect examples of the faith. We celebrate because of the grace and forgiveness that they received, as we do, through faith in Jesus Christ. They have passed from death to life and rest from their labors. Some from among us are there now, too. May Christ keep us ever steadfast in the one true faith, and may He always remind us that we are marked by His blood for the redemption of our souls until these words are said of us:
“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.”
 “Oh, How Blest Are They,” Lutheran Service Book, 679.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 7:3.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 14:22.
 Jn. 16:33.
 1 Jn 5:4–5.
 Rev. 7:15-17