Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 2, 2015

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17


  1. Their number is great and growing
  2. Their clothes are white and clean
  3. Their future is perfect and permanent

 Text: Revelation 7:9-17


What does it mean to be a “saint”? In common language, I suppose it refers to a really nice person, or perhaps a kind loved one who has died. In Roman Catholic theology, it means a person who has done so many good things in this life that their good works more than balances out their sin. In American sports, it means a football team in New Orleans. In the language of the New Testament, it literally means “holy ones”—in fact, in the NIV’s 2011 updated translation, the English word “saint” no longer appears, but the original word is usually translated something like, “God’s holy people.”

The Christian church has thought highly enough of its saints of the past to set aside a day to remember their examples of faith and to thank God for them since 835 A.D. But what does it mean to be a saint? And do I need to be a part of that group to be right with God? And if so, how do I become a part of that group? Those are natural questions to ask today, and the Second Lesson for today will help us to direct our discussion on this All Saints’ Day. What can we say about the saints? Saint John’s words in the Second Lesson give us three things we can say about the saints: [1] Their number is great and growing; [2] Their clothes are white and clean; [3] Their future is perfect and permanent.


Our readings comes from Revelation chapter seven. In the verses just before today’s reading, St. John saw a picture of God’s people on earth receiving a seal or mark from God that declared them to be his. If you have ever had a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness about those verses, they will tell you that the 144,000 people who are sealed in that account reveals exactly how many people will be in heaven—144,000. But that number is a symbolic number; it symbolizes the entire church on earth. There were 12 tribes that belonged to God’s Old Testament people, the Jews; and there were 12 apostles that Jesus appointed in his New Testament church. Multiple 12 times 12 and you get 144. Then multiply that times 1,000—a number that stands for “completeness” in Revelation—and you have a symbolic number that stands for the entire church on earth.

But notice what happens to that symbolic number once the scene changes from earth to heaven in our reading. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” The same group that numbered 144,000 is now so great that it cannot be counted. They come from every corner of the world to fill the scene in heaven with saints who now stand before the throne of God in worship. 

As John sees this vision of the saints in heaven, there is someone who is serving as his “heavenly tour guide,” someone called an elder. And the elder asks him a question that John himself was probably wondering. “Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.’” A slightly clearer translation would be, “These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation.” That slight clarification shows us that this enormously great number of saints in heaven is also growing. Every time a believer in Jesus dies, they are brought out of “the great tribulation,” that is the problem-filled existence that we experience in this sinful world. And every time a believer is brought out of this world to heaven, the great number of saints in heaven grows further.

NewBackWallWithMissionStatementOne of the new features in our church following the “refresh project” is that the back wall of our church now shows our mission statement. The third part of that statement is, “Go with the gospel.” When we think about that part of our mission and put it alongside this reading from Revelation, we see that there is no cap, no excluded nation, no one for whom Christ did not die. But the message of the gospel must be preached and proclaimed to be received and believed!

On the one hand, God will gather his elect into heaven—whether through us, or in spite of us. On the other hand, God calls on us to be his witnesses and instruments so that his saints continue to grow in number and continue to become the great multitude that no one can count.


Think for a moment of some of the significant saints and heroes of faith in the Bible. You might think about great King David from the Old Testament, or significant apostles like Peter and Paul in the New Testament. These are men who deserve the name “saint,” right? Think of their accomplishments! Think of their important roles in God’s church!

But remember whom we’re talking about. King David—the polygamist adulterer who vainly attempted to hide his sin with a military murder plot. The apostle Peter—the man who spared no expense to depict foot-in-mouth disease! The apostle Paul—the man who authored nearly half of the New Testament’s books nearly exterminated the church by his previous plots to persecute the church and kill its leaders. Pick your saint from Scripture, but the story will likely be the same: The saints of the past hardly have a spotless record.

But now look at the description of the saints in heaven: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count. … They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” Throughout Revelation, white is a symbol of purity and holiness. But we just remembered that these “heroes of faith” were far from pure and holy. Palm branches were an ancient symbol of victory, but these “heroes of faith” were hardly victorious over sin and its influence in their lives. How could people with such muddy track records find themselves in this scene and in this condition?

New Testament Illustrations 078John’s heavenly tour guide gives us the answer: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” None of the countless saints before God’s heavenly throne were pure and holy by their own accomplishments. They were pure and holy because, as John wrote in another New Testament book, “The blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). They were pure and holy because the Lamb of God who was sacrificed on the cross shed his holy and precious blood to wash away the sins of the world.

Blood doesn’t make a good stain cleaner. Blood is usually something that you need to wash out of your clothes, not something that you use to wash and clean your clothes. But listen to John describe the saints in heaven, because he’s also describing a future and present reality for you: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Blood stains, but Jesus’ holy and precious blood purifies. The adultery of David and the empty words of Peter and the murderous past of Paul and the embarrassing guilt of your past and the pet sins of your present and everything else that would otherwise disqualify you from this heavenly scene has been washed away because “the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin.” The saints in heaven and the saints here on earth, including all of us gathered in God’s house this morning, have one thing in common: knowledge, faith, and trust in Jesus’ shed blood as the cleaning agent that not only removes sin’s stain but that washes you and makes you white and clean before God. And one day, when it’s your turn to come out of this great tribulation, you too will stand before God in a gleaming white robe that has been cleansed in the blood of Jesus Christ. That is what makes you his saint forever in heaven and that is what makes you his saint even now here on earth.


So who are you rooting for in the World Series: The Royals or the Mets? Or does it not matter because your team was knocked out? Or does it not matter because Major League Baseball is not your thing? Regardless, someone is going to come out of this best-of-seven series as the champion with a victory and a trophy. But that championship status only lasts a year. Unless this year’s winner repeats, someone else will take that title away from them in a year.

The heavenly victory that believers in Jesus have, however, is not a one-year title, but a perfect and permanent blessing from our gracious God. At the end of the Second Lesson, John’s heavenly tour guide describes the saints in heaven with ten phrases. Even the number of phrases is symbolic, since ten is a number that symbolizes “completeness” in Revelation. But notice some of these key phrases: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.” In heaven, even mundane inconveniences like feeling hungry or thirsty will never affect us again, because heaven’s existence is permanent. “The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. … And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Put your SPF 40 sunscreen away and leave your Kleenex boxes on earth, because in the heavenly existence God is preparing for you, you won’t need anything to cope with problems when sin and all its problems are permanently a thing of the past, and perfection will be reality forever!

The death of a loved one is never an easy event to deal with. We are facing two funerals this week of people who were dearly loved among our membership. It is sad to lose a loved one—but it is not sad for our loved ones who die in faith. And we may feel afraid as we face dying, but at the same time we need not fear death. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave has opened up heaven to all believers, including you. So when we confess in a few moments that “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” we aren’t just repeating some oft-spoken Christian phrases. Those words represent the Christian hope we have when we lose a loved one, because we know they are saints before the throne of God! Those words express the reason we need not fear our own death, because Jesus’ blood has cleansed us to make us saints in God’s eyes, and Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we will rise to join the saints in God’s perfect and permanent presence.


It’s no secret that yesterday was Halloween, but the only reason yesterday was All Hallows Eve is because today has been All Saints Day for the better part of the Christian era. This day to commemorate the saints of the past and to thank God for their godly examples and influence was around long before silly costumes and sugar-laden candy became a part of our modern traditions. And in all honesty, it is good for us to give thanks to God for all the examples of faith who have come before us—whether they were loved ones in our families or the heroes of faith in the Scriptures. And it’s also good for us to understand that what makes them, or us, or anyone a saint in the eyes of God is not some superabundant goodness they have achieved, but the superabundant grace of God they have received through faith in Jesus Christ and his work for us. You are a saint in the eyes of God. Your future is already secure through the blood of Jesus. As God’s saints, go in peace and live your life in the present with the joy that comes from knowing what God will make your life to be eternally in the future. Amen.



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