The Festival of All Saints–7 November 2021
2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.
9 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, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 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. 15 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. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 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.” (ESV)
Who are the 144,000 and what is the seal on their foreheads? And who are the four angels who have been given power to harm earth and sea? To answer these questions, we have to step back and look at the whole panorama of the Book of Revelation. First of all, in Revelation, everyone bears a mark, a seal. The 144,000 are those on earth who have been sealed with the holy Name of God in Baptism and who are thus God’s slaves. But Satan, the archenemy of God, also marks his minions with the name and number of the beast to indicate that they belong to the evil one (see 13:16-17; 20:4). The people thus marked are thereby enabled to carry on their pursuits of money and worldly honour and power. All the while, though, those who bear the mark of the beast are being used by Satan as slaves for his own evil purpose. That is the way it is until the return of Christ. God’s slaves and Satan’s slaves all have a mark that identifies them as belonging to their respective masters. Every person bears the image of the master in whose name he or she has been marked! There are no “neutral” or independent people who serve no one; every person is a slave, either of God or of Satan.
And then, what about the four angels who have been given power to harm earth and sea? Well, to understand their work, we must include the verse that precedes our text: After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree. The four winds are to be identified with the four horsemen of Revelation 6 as yet another symbol of famine, war, destruction, suffering, and death.
The four winds symbolize the tribulations and sufferings which take place under the permissive will of God. Make no mistake about it! The four angels do indeed unleash the winds of destruction to judge and punish this fallen world. But God, in His mercy, also instructs the four angels to hold back the winds, to restrain from harming the world until the slaves, the servants of God, have been sealed.
The number 144,000 is an amazing number. The number is a multiple of twelve: twelve times twelve thousand. In the Bible, twelve is the number of completion: for example, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The number 144,000 is a numerical picture, not of the nation Israel, but of Christ’s Church on earth. Twelve times twelve thousand from each tribe signifies the total completeness of God’s people on earth in perfect marching order, in perfect step.
The complete number of 144,000 is also a finite number. And so, it does not include the great multitude of saints in heaven, which no one can number. We call the saints in heaven the Church Triumphant, but the number 144,000 refers only to the saints on earth, whom we call the Church Militant. The Church of Jesus Christ on earth, advancing into battle, is a perfect and compete army, fully equipped and ready to do God’s work.
The Church of Jesus Christ on earth is always in perfect marching order as she stands ready to carry out the mission given to her by the Lord. To the human eye, the Church looks anything but perfectly ordered as she is torn asunder by schisms, tribulations, and persecutions. But in God’s eyes she is in perfect pattern and position for the purpose of Christ’s mission. Christ Jesus, God’s Son, came to earth with a mission: to give Himself over to death, that He might sanctify and cleanse the Church with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself as His glorious bride, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish (adapted from Ephesians 5:25-27). And now the mission of Christ’s holy Bride, the Church, is to proclaim [in word and deed] the praises of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
The 144,000 is the complete number who have been sealed on their foreheads as God’s slaves. This image of a seal upon the forehead should remind you of your baptism. Remember the words spoken by the pastor to the one being baptized: Receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. St. Paul clearly tells us what the seal of God is when he writes in 2 Timothy: God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His” (2:19). Do you see? You can be certain that you are included in the 144,000. You can be sure of your salvation and faith because they rests on the firm foundation of God’s Word and on God’s seal within that Word—the seal that the Lord knows those who are His. Thus, it is through His Word that God seals His people and assures them by His Spirit that they belong to Him and that He will protect them in their faith.
In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul writes that God has put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee (1:22). God has put His seal upon us by giving us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of the inheritance God has promised in Christ (see Ephesians 1:13-14). The Holy Spirit, the guarantee of God’s promise, seals the Christian in his or her heart. The seal of God, then, assures believers that they belong to God and are known by God and will be protected by God. The Holy Spirit assures you of your salvation. The Holy Spirit assures you not just once in the baptismal rite but all throughout your life as daily He calls you to return to your baptism in true repentance and also through the Word and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, through all these means of grace, the Holy Spirit is assuring you of your salvation through God’s Word of promise, which has been brought to fulfillment by Jesus Christ, God’s Son, crucified, risen, and glorified—our Saviour!
The 144,000 is the Church Militant, the Church of Jesus Christ on earth, a perfect and compete army, fully equipped and ready to carry out the mission given her by the Lord, the mission of proclaiming [in word and deed] the praises of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). As sealed members of the Church Militant, you and I fulfill our God-given mission in the midst of trials and tribulation. But we endure suffering with joy and peace, for we are confident of two mighty truths.
First, we are certain that the Lord knows those who are His. God put His seal upon us by giving us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of the inheritance God has promised us in Christ. We endure suffering, knowing that we belong to God and are known by God and that God will protect us in our faith.
Second, we are confident that in Christ, our faith will survive the winds of destruction. Throughout history, the four winds and the four horsemen are at times unleashed and at other times restrained. But always, the unleashing and restraining of destruction is done in service to Christ’s Church. The four angels are instructed to hold back the winds until God’s slaves are sealed. Only when God’s slaves have been sealed are the winds and horsemen unleashed to cause their havoc and destruction. In every Christian’s life, in every Christian community and church, there is a season of calm, when God restrains the horrors represented by the four winds and horsemen until each Christian and each church are mature and ready by His Spirit to meet the onslaughts of the world as they carry out Christ’s mission on earth. When, finally, the winds are unleashed, the saints on earth do suffer and are grieved by various trials. And yet, And yet, they have been prepared by the Holy Spirit to stand firm in the midst of their suffering, and they rejoice in knowing that by God’s power they are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (see 1 Peter 1:3-7).
For much of our lives, God has given us a season of calm. But it seems to me the winds of destruction are being restrained less and less. The Lord certainly is preparing us for what is to come. The Lord forgives us and strengthens us in the faith through His Holy Word and Supper. Yes, through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit is constantly sealing you in the salvation that God gives you in Christ Jesus. The days may come in our lifetime when the winds of war, famine, and persecution are unleashed. But do not fear. Rather, let us rejoice over the kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are (1 John 3:1). The seal of God has been placed upon you in Holy Baptism. And thus, God knows you as His own dear servant and child and God will protect you in the faith, no matter how much you may one day suffer.
A few years ago, Nettie invited me to read a short book she had written—a history of her family. She began her story with the tragic tale of a cold winter night near the village of Skala, Poland. The year was 1907. Nettie’s father, Wasyl, was only eight. His father, Nicholas, was away serving in the Cossack army. His mother, Anastasia, had just given birth to a second son. One day, the Bolsheviks swept through the valley, destroying everything in their path. They came upon a lonely, little house in the woods—the home of Nicholas and Anastasia—and quickly set it on fire. Anastasia, who was still weak and bedridden, cradled her newborn son to her breast and with her two older children, Wasyl and Anna, crawled out to the snow-covered ground and settled under the barren trees. They watched and cried as the only home they knew burned to the ground. Wasyl and Anna huddled together for warmth and watched as their mother and baby brother froze to death in the bitterness of the winter night. And then, knowing he must do something to survive the terrors of the night, eight-year-old Wasyl took his sister by the hand and together they set out on a two-day journey across the valley to the home of their uncle and aunt, who took them in as family.
This story really has touched me. I often think of Anastasia. She reminds me that Christians often must endure great suffering in this world. She reminds me that God never promised to protect His children from ever experiencing evil. Rather, God has promised to protect us in the faith. Oh, God certainly does deliver us from evil, but not always by removing the evil but by working through His Word and Sacraments to seal us in the salvation God gives us in Christ Jesus, that we may remain faithful unto death. And when our last hour comes, God will indeed give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven (see Small Catechism, Seventh Petition to Lord’s Prayer). And finally, Anastasia reminds me of our blessed hope of the resurrection of the body to life everlasting. For you see, the girl’s name “Anastasia” and the boy’s name “Anastasius” are derived from the Greek word “an-as’-tas-is”, meaning “resurrection”. Early Christians often gave these names to their boys and girls. They were really calling their children “he or she of the resurrection”. Every one of us is an “Anastasia” or an “Anastasius”—we are people of the resurrection!
The day may come when we will be thrown to the wild beasts, as were many early Christians. Or we may be burnt out of our homes on a cold winter night. Whatever suffering we may have to endure, whatever form our death may take, let us live and let us die in the certainty that the Lord knows those who are His. Yes, may God grant us the grace to remember that we belong to Him and that we are sealed for salvation because Jesus Christ, God’s Son, shed His blood on the cross in order to wash us clean and make us His glorious Bride, the Church.
Today, you and I are members of the Church Militant, called to proclaim [in word and deed] the praises of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). Many of our loved ones have already been transferred to the Church Triumphant. And the day is coming soon when you and I will come out of the great tribulation and will join that great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. And standing before God’s throne and before Jesus the Lamb of God, and clothed in white robes, with palm branches in our hands, we will cry out with a loud and joyful voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (adapted from today’s text). Amen.