November 1, 2015
The Solemnity of All Saints
First Reading: Rev 7:2-4, 9-14
After life is all said and done, what will Heaven really look like? A lot of people envision clouds, harps, cherubs, robes, music, and maybe even an endless church service. But what will it really be like? The Bible never gives us a straight answer on exactly how Heaven works or what our experience will be like if and when we go there. However, it does give us a few sneak-peeks into the life of the saints in Heaven. Since this Sunday is All Saints Day, we get a reading from the Book of Revelation that offers one of these peeks. It’s brief, but we do get a glimpse of what the saints’ life is like and what it would be like for us to join them in Heaven.
How to Read Revelation
Before we dive into the text itself, it is worth pausing to ask how we are supposed to read the Book of Revelation. Revelation is tough. It falls in the category of what we call “apocalyptic literature,” which is a subset of ancient Jewish literature. We find a bit of this in Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah in addition to some non-biblical texts. Apocalyptic is a symbolic kind of writing that utilizes a cosmic perspective, visions, calamities, and divine judgments. Often, apocalyptic literature uses this expansive, even bombastic, style to explain present realities in terms of God’s divine plan. Revelation uses vast images and terrifying visions to convey certain truths about God’s relationship with his people. In some ways, it is about the past—speaking to the hidden divine reality behind the early persecution of Christians—and in other ways it is about the future, showing us how God will bring history to a close in justice and mercy.
Our first reading pauses us in the midst of a bigger vision. Back in Rev 5:1, our author-visionary John, introduced us to a scroll in Heaven that has seven seals on it. During chapter 6, the Lamb, who represents Jesus, opens the seals on the scroll one-by-one. Each time he opens a seal, one of God’s judgments is released upon the earth. This is where we get the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: the white horse, the red horse, the black horse, and the pale horse (6:1-8). After six of the seals are opened, John interrupts the sequence before the seventh seal. The interruption depicts an angel with a different seal, not one of the seven on the scroll. (Seals were used in the ancient world to authenticate documents and certify packages.) He has been sent to mark 144,000 people from the tribes of Israel with this special seal of God so that they will be preserved from the judgment to be unleashed by the seventh scroll-seal. John emphasizes the 144,000 by listing out 12,000 for each of the twelve tribes. Unfortunately, sometimes people over-interpret this number literalistically. The number is symbolic of wholeness, twelve twelves, a complete package, none of the redeemed will be left out. The “Israel” we are talking about here is the saved, the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). All of these people are sealed with God’s seal, the antithesis of the “mark of the beast” (Rev 13:16). The seal is similar to the saving blood on the doorposts of the Israelites at the original Passover (Exod 12:13).
The vision of the 144,000 gives way to a bigger vision of “a great multitude which no man could number” (Rev 7:9 RSV). It is probably best to view this second vision as an expansion of the first rather than as a completely separate experience. This multitude is not only vast, but international, from every nation and tongue. These are the saints in Heaven! They are wearing white robes and holding palm branches. The white robes symbolize martyrdom and the palm branches should remind us of the restoration of the Temple and the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:40; Neh 8:15; 1 Macc 13:51). They are also reminiscent of the Jews welcoming Jesus into the Temple on Palm Sunday (John 12:13). The true worshippers of God carry palm branches in their hands as they worship—so thus are the saints in Heaven depicted as they sing to God.
Songs of the Saints
As the saints stand before God, John shows them singing two songs to him:
First: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10 RSV)
Second: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:12 RSV)
In between the two songs, we see the elders, the angels and the “four living creatures,” all of whom we first met in Revelation 4, come and bow before God’s throne. In fact, the first song is sung by the saints, and we could view the second song, sung by the other characters, as a response to the first. The songs themselves sound like the Psalms. They celebrate who God is in all his majesty and they honor him for the salvation he has won for us in Christ. There is a certain heavenly finality to these songs of worship that give them lasting weight. You might notice that a lot of worship songs are based on these texts (YouTube evidence here).
Who are the Saints?
During this astounding vision of heaven, one of the elders bowing before God’s throne asks John, “Who are these guys?” What might seem like an improbable question is a rhetorical device for John to explain their identity. The elder himself identifies the white-robed people as “they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14 RSV). Some Bible commentators will latch on to the phrase “great tribulation” and make grand predictions, but the central point is that the saints have survived the persecutions of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They have made it past the gauntlet of temptation and have entered into the life of God in Heaven. Yet they did not earn their way into heaven, but have washed their robes, which had been dirty with sin, in the blood of the Lamb. In an impossible-to-imagine scenario, the crimson blood of the Lamb makes the saints’ robes pure white. The saints are not those who “earned it,” but those who repented. Jesus washed them of their sins in Baptism and so they now have the right to stand before God in worship in Heaven.
This vision comes in the middle of surrounding judgment passages to console the reader with God’s triumph in the face of his terrifying judgment. While it might not disabuse us of our notions about robes and singing in Heaven, it can show us a bit more about what it might be like to join the ranks of the saints. I hope you’ll have a spare palm branch for me in case I’m late!