Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
Before and After
v.4 and 9 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144, 000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel…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…
Dear friends in Christ, this section of the Revelation to St. John that serves as our text takes place during the vision of the opening of the seven seals. John has witnessed horrifying scenes introduced by the first six seals—scenes of destruction that would have melted John's heart like wax with awe and terror. Before the opening of the seventh seal, however, he is given this vision to uplift and strengthen him. For here he sees the church of Christ in two ways: the church militant, which struggles while on earth—and the church triumphant, which glories before God's throne in heaven. This serves to give us a kind of "before and after" picture of the church of Christ—to comfort the church amidst its trials and tribulations—to comfort you and me.
Let's begin by examining the first image. After witnessing the vision of the four horsemen of the apocalypse who are charged by God with bringing destruction upon the earth, an angel comes and commands them, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the tree, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads." Then John hears the number of the sealed, 144000, from the twelve tribes of Israel. These 144000 represent the church on earth—the church militant—drawn up in battle order as they make their way through the world.
They are sealed by God, which means that even though God's people will suffer as they fulfill the mission of their Lord—proclaiming the risen Christ to all people—yet He will protect them in their faith. They are marked—identified and signed with God's own signature as belonging to Him—they are His personal property and are under His authority, care and protection. Though they may suffer—yet they will be preserved by their loving Savior.
You and I, beloved, have been sealed unto the Lord our God—marked on our foreheads in Holy Baptism with the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit. We know that we belong to God and that He has promised to protect us in our faith in the midst of all the tribulations we endure. We have been prepared by the Spirit to meet the onslaughts of the world as we carry out Christ's mission on earth. By God's grace, we advance in battle against the spiritual forces of this world, a complete and perfect army, fully equipped and ready to do God's work—having been prepared by the Lord's own Word and Sacraments for the task ahead of bringing the Word of Christ to a hostile world, bent on our destruction.
Of course, you and I know that to the human eye the church looks anything but perfectly ordered. The church is torn asunder by schisms, tribulations, scandals, and persecutions. One not need look very far to see much evidence of this as the church faces violence at the hands of hateful men around the world. We see it in the abuse scandals that have become so regular and dominant in the church across all denominations. We see it as congregations fight amongst each other over false doctrine and poor practice. And we could go on and on.
But in God's eyes, the church on earth is in perfect position for the purpose of the mission of Christ—to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them into His holy name and teaching them His blessed Word. For the church on earth—the church militant—the church that struggles here and now—is also the church ordered under the kingdom of God's grace—upheld and sanctified by His Word and Sacraments that give us the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ. You, beloved, have been redeemed by Jesus' blood—and by faith have received His righteousness. You are at peace with God—and so no matter what you are called to endure in this life—yet you are confident in God's love and mercy for you—on account of Christ's death and resurrection.
This leads us to the second part of John's vision in this text, which describes the church triumphant. As the elder points out to John, "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." Note that this host that John actually sees is beyond number. Rather than being arrayed in battle formation, as was the church militant, these saints of God appear to be at rest and peace around the throne of God, celebrating the results of the mission of the church on earth. All they are waiting for now is the final act of God's judgement and the resurrection on the Last Day. They will never again experience tribulation and persecution on earth.
What a beautiful picture this is for us to meditate upon. People "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…" surround the throne of God and the Lamb, singing praises to the heavenly Father, worshiping Him with the Word that Salvation belongs to Him alone—for He has won our salvation through the blood of the Lamb—the Lord Jesus Christ—who poured out His life's blood on the cross of Calvary to pay for all sin.
This picture of the church triumphant—this declaration that the saints in heaven are sheltered by the presence of God—no longer affected by hunger or thirst or scorching heat—for the Lamb of God is their Shepherd, guiding them to the springs of living water that flow from His spear pierced side—that He wipes every tear from their eyes, meaning they no longer experience hardship or toil or pain or suffering or sorrow of any kind—this is a picture of YOUR future, dear friends in Christ. This is the promise of God to you who, though you endure much suffering of all kinds on earth—yet in heaven this will all be removed. Your loved ones who have died in the faith already enjoy this perfect peace with God and all the heavenly host—and your place with them is assured—by the blood of Jesus shed for you.
The church militant will be the church victorious. We will all be clothed in the white robes of Christ's righteousness, washed in His blood; we will wave palm branches of victory in our hands—for the Lord Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the devil—for us! He has conquered them with His own suffering and death—and has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us by His side.
Though now you feebly struggle, yet you will in glory shine. For the victory is yours through faith in Christ Jesus. His Word has absolved you of all your sin—His body and blood has nourished and strengthened your faith—and His Baptism has washed you clean of all guilt and shame. You belong to Jesus Christ. You have been sealed with the Holy Triune Name of God at your Baptism. What can the world do to you? What can the devil do to you? What can your own sinful flesh hope to accomplish? You have been set apart by Christ—and He has declared you to be His own. So do not fear, whatever may come, for your final hope and reward is secure in Christ Jesus. And He has promised to wipe away every tear from your eyes. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus. Amen.