Life in Heaven: An All Saints’ Sermon

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday at Faith Anglican Church in Cordova, TN. It’s a sermon for All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ in Autumn

It’s fitting, I think, that All Saints’ Day falls in the middle of autumn. Autumn is that season—at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the celebration originated—when dormancy and death fall over the earth’s vegetation. At this point the harvest has already been gathered, the merciless winter draws nigh, and we look around wondering what’s next. It’s the season when our minds are gently turned towards considering again our own mortality, the fact of our deaths yet-to-come. When many of us remember acutely those who have already gone before us. 

Culturally, we get this—even as All Hallows’ Eve get commodified and twisted, we still recognize, as every culture has, that we can’t escape death, that we’re powerless before some forces still greater than us.We put fake skeletons in the yard, dress up as the ghostly and uncanny. But we keep it at an ironic distance, we sugar it over with candy. 

On All Hallows’ Eve, we ask the question as old as sin—what happens after we die? Or maybe, when we’re a bit less self-focused, we ask the corollary question, the same question we find ourselves asking when we’re especially engrossed by a compelling story: what happens at the end?

On All Saints’ Day, we receive the answer. 

All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day remind us that, though we do not yet see it, the world to come is closer than we imagine. The border between heaven and earth is thin, even porous. And what happens in heaven matters for how we live on earth, and vice versa. 

This is why our passage for this morning is from Revelation—a book which has the same sort of purpose. It’s a vision of heaven, intended to make sense of our own time, place, and experience. Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse of John. And apocalypse means ‘unveiling,’ the taking away of a veil. Something which has been hidden, for reasons best known to God, is being revealed to his people. Apart from God, we live lives bounded by powers and ideologies, bounded by our own habits and small vices. We have lenses through which we understand our lives of making and doing, getting and spending. But these lenses are corrupting, distorting, they’re more like blinders than glasses. Revelation would knock these off and restore our eyes to see “the greater purpose of the world’s transcendent Creator and Lord.” (Bauckham)

Reading Revelation

Now, if you think anything like I do, Revelation intimidates you. Because these visions John witnesses and records are bizarre. It’s heavy on sensational imagery, it’s overflowing with Scriptural references we may or may not catch, it’s now laden with a whole lot of theological and cultural bickering and baggage, and you’re never quite sure what you’re supposed to take literally, or symbolically, or figuratively, or spiritually.

But for all its complexities, we can bring to Revelation a couple simple observations which help us hear it more clearly. Most importantly: Revelation is a book about Jesus Christ. Revelation 1:1 lays it out plainly: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.”

Jesus is the one who has unveiled parts of God’s ultimate plan to his Church. He’s letting us in on the secret. And He Himself is the central part of that plan. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who alone is worthy to break the seals and judge the world and receive the praise of the saints, and He is the protagonist here, the central character.

And a second observation that will help us hear Revelation clearly:  All throughout the visions, Jesus acts towards humanity in two fundamental ways: either Judgment, or Blessing. And it’s the relationship to Jesus that determines which you will receive from him. At times, Revelation seems to be a litany of judgments that Jesus unleashes on the sinful and rebellious world. And indeed God’s wrath towards wickedness will be unleashed in power, and all evil will be eliminated. It is a fearsome thing; more terrifying than the worst horror we’ve seen in life or on a screen. God’s judgment is so terrible and just that at the end of chapter six, those under judgment are begging that mountains and huge rocks would fall on them, just so they could hide for a moment from their terror at God’s holy judgment.

But interspersed between these judgments we get glimpses of the transcendent blessing received by those who know and who serve and who have been saved by that Lamb and his sacrifice. And what form does that blessing take?—the privilege to worship, as the Psalmist says, “to dwell in the house of the Lord… to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” 

And that’s what we’re peering into in our text from Revelation 7. We get a glimpse of life in heaven. 

Salvador Dalí | Heaven Canto 20 (The Divine Comedy) | Available for Sale |  Artsy
Salvador Dali, Paradiso Canto 20, illustration

Hearing & Seeing

Our passage begins, “After this, I looked,” which means to understand what’s going on we have to go back a bit. 

The vision of chapter 7 reiterates a pattern you can find throughout Revelation: John hears a promise of the First Covenant, and then raises his eyes and sees its New Covenant fulfillment.

So for example, in chapter 5, John is weeping because there’s no one to open the scroll. The scroll that is the Father’s plan for the judgment of the Old Order and the redemption and recreation of his New Order. Then an elder tells weeping John that the promised “Lion of the tribe of Judah” has conquered, John raises his eyes and sees not merely a muscular, confident, glimmering King–one like the Apostles we saw back in Acts were expecting when they asked Jesus about the Kingdom of Israel–John sees instead a “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain”. Is this what conquering looks like? Is this victory? To be slain like a lamb?

To we who know Jesus, yes! We know that our Lord Jesus conquers sin and evil and death not with swords and armies, but by becoming sin for us, for paying the debt of death our sin deserves, for rescuing us from our captor Satan and leading us in a final exodus out of bondage and into his kingdom. Jesus subverts our notions of power and victory; He shows us that glory accompanies sacrifice. And we’ll come back to in a minute, that glory accompanies sacrifice. But back to chapter 7.

Remember the pattern: John hears the First Covenant promise and sees its New Covenant fulfillment. By chapter 7, the triumphant Lamb has opened the first six seals, and judgment is prepared to fall on those who live in rebellion against God. But in chapter 7 we pause, and get a sort of parenthetical detail. Before the judgments of chapter 6 are enacted, four angels at the four corners of the earth are holding back the winds of judgment so that another angel can move through the earth, marking on the forehead those who belong to God with the “seal of the living God.” 

And here at the beginning of Chapter 7, John hears (v. 4) “the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” John hears those who are sealed, that is, those who bear the seal of God on their foreheads, those whom God claims as his own, and who will be preserved through God’s imminent judgment. And those whom John hears of are members of the tribes of Israel, those with whom God covenanted, but when he raises his eyes, he sees an innumerable multitude, composed not just of Israelites, but of those from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

Are these different groups? No! They’re the same, just understood in two different ways. Let’s start with the number: 144,000–This is a number of perfect completeness in biblical symbolism–12 tribes x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. Who are the 144,000? They are a completed Israel, the full company of God’s covenant people. 

And I use the word “company” intentionally, because the passage then lists the subgroups, very methodically and specifically, right? “12,000 from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben…” Why does John take the time to list all this? Because this is a census, like we’ve seen in the Old Testament, this is an accounting of the people. And in ancient times, you take a census when you’re about to march into battle. These 144,000 who have been sealed are God’s warriors, meant to go out and wield the gospel of Jesus the Lamb in and against the world. And as that word goes out, people of every tongue and tribe and nation and people join the ranks. So when John looks and see an innumerable multitude, he’s seeing the real dimension of the true Israel.  The New Covenant people of God are the true Israel—and they are from every age and every language and every people. 

Here is a vision of God’s promise to Abraham in its fulfillment. What were the promises to Abraham? “Look toward heaven,” God tells him, “and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” (Gen 15:5). Not only countless descendants, but also that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And John sees it realized—in that vast vision. 

But what are they doing? What does life in heaven look like?

Agnus Dei Painting by Jose Campeche y Jordan
Agnus Dei (Cordero místico), Jose Campeche y Jordan

The Worship of Heaven

Heaven, as it’s revealed by Scripture, is a worship service.  It’s a liturgy. Look at what the multitude are doing (v. 9-10): “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Notice their position: these blessed saints, Christ’s body, the Church—are  standing before the throne of God. Do you remember the Old Covenant? Only the highest priest could enter the holy of holies on one day a year, after a week of washing and offerings and preparation, and even then they tied a rope around his waist because he was as likely as not to die from being in the presence of such a holy God. And yet, in this vision, here is every believer, every person marked with the seal of God, standing, unveiled, seeing God face to face, gazing upon the beauty of the LORD.

Notice their clothing: white robes, which an elder will tell John in verse 14 were  “washed…and made white in the blood of the Lamb.” Do you remember where clothing first appears in Scripture? Do you remember in Genesis, when God sewed animal skins to cover the shame of nakedness that a sinful Adam and Eve brought on themselves? What a long way these robes are from those tunics. These white robes don’t merely cover shame; they proclaim the gospel of forgiveness, they proclaim the glory of purity, of righteousness, that Jesus shares with us when we are united to him by faith.

Notice what they’re holding: palm branches. These recall the palm branches Israel carried and waved at the Feast of Tabernacles, where they celebrated God’s provision of fruitfulness and remembered his protection as they made pilgrimage after the Exodus. And, let’s just notice here–they’re wearing clothes, they’re waving branches–they have bodies. The saints in heaven are not disembodied spirits floating around, they’re not projecting avatars in some metaverse; they, like Jesus, stand before God’s throne in resurrected bodies. 

And notice what they’re doing: crying out, in unison, in a loud voice, the acclaim of their Savior and God. While judgment is soon to fall around them, they declare with joy “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (v. 10). 

Here they proclaim an inverse Hosanna. You probably remember that “Hosanna” means something like, “Save us, we pray! Deliver us!” This Jesus’ admirers shouted as they waved their palm branches, when Jesus entered Jerusalem before the Passover, “Hosanna to the son of David.” But now, since the Jesus the Lamb has been slain and has claimed his victory over sin, death, and the devil, and has and ascended into heaven, the saints now proclaim, “You have saved us! Deliverance belongs to our God!”

You Are a Member of the Communion of Saints - The Bishop's Bulletin


But, wait a second, we’ve described them, but who is it exactly we’re seeing worship in Revelation 7? We’ve said they’re the full multitude of the sealed, but what does that mean? Who is this host? That’s the question one of the elders asks John, and for which he has no answer. 

It’s a crucial question for us, this morning, because if this is the vision of what  life in heaven is, we should want to know who gets to participate. 

Chapter 6 closed with a desperate question: “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord?” Chapter 7 provides the answer. Those who can stand in the presence of a holy God are martyrs, they’re priests, they’re sheep of the Great Shepherd. Let’s consider each of those. 

First, they’re martyrs. Let’s go back to some of the details. After the fifth seal is opened in chapter 6, John sees martyrs come out from under the altar of heaven, and the martyrs cry out, “How long, O Lord, before you judge? How long before you vindicate us?” They’re given white robes and, then, unexpectedly, told to wait. What are they supposed to wait for? They must wait until “the number their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” They have to wait for more martyrs. 

And now, in Revelation 7, here they are. These martyrs also have white robes, cleansed by blood. They have been witnesses on earth, they are the one who have endured what the elder calls a “great tribulation.” Whenever the Gospel of God’s Kingdom goes forth, it converts hearts and it provokes opposition. Those who bear public allegiance to God, over and against the rulers of this world, will face opposition, persecution, perhaps even death. But remember—these martyrs did not and could not possibly face their persecution, their suffering for Jesus’ name’s sake, alone. Remember the beginning of this chapter—these martyrs have been sealed. God has put his name upon them, and He preserves them, keeps them faithful, all the way through their suffering. And now these martyrs worship in glory the One to whom they were faithful.

We notice that martyrs are also priests. That seal on the forehead. Who else in Scripture bore the seal of the living God on their forehead? The high priest! In Exodus 28 we learn Aaron wore a golden plate on his forehead, identifying him, representatively, as “Holy to the Lord.” The elder says in verse 15 that these martyr-priests now come “before the throne of God,” just as the high priest did before the ark of the covenant, and they “serve him day and night in his temple.”

How else do we know these are priests? Look at what they’re doing. They are leading the worship of heaven. They’re leading it! In Revelation 5, it’s the four living creatures and the twenty-four elder archangels who lead the service. “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” And then the angels join in. And then every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea joins in. 

But here, as the martyrs have been gathered in, we notice a change. It’s the human host of heaven now leading the heavenly service. The people declare God’s glory in salvation, to which, now, the elders and living creatures and angels all respond, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Martyrs will lead as priests in the worship of heaven, before the throne of the God who will bestow every heavenly blessing upon them. 

And they do receive every blessing. Every blessing promised to Israel, every blessing promised by Jesus, every blessing for which you long in your moments of deepest need, or sharpest pain, or greatest joy, finds its fulfillment in the presence of God who now tabernacles with his people. 

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.

This is life in heaven. This is the life that will be, when, as we sang, “the saints triumphant rise in bright array.” 

Life in Heaven, Life on Earth?

This is the life of heaven. What does it mean for our life on earth?

For one, we can respond in worship.  Revelation has preached to us the gospel to which we respond in worship. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has triumphed over sin, death, and devil. He has trampled down death by death. Only the Christian can truly say, “Happy Halloween,” Happy All Hallows’ Eve, because only the Christian can face the forces of evil and the fear of death with a goodness and hope surely secured by the conquering Lamb. 

So we should worship, we should join in with the saints triumphant, the martyr-priests already leading the liturgy we will get to join. And we do! We worship with the saints in glory every time we gather before our common Lord to ascribe to him glory and honor and wisdom and power. It’s there, explicitly, in our Eucharistic liturgy, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name: Holy, Holy, Holy.” 

So we can respond by worshiping. We can also respond by receiving comfort. We can rest a while in the unveiled knowledge that one sure day we shall stand before the throne of God and offer him with our whole being, in resurrected bodies, the worship which He is due. We can take comfort and take strength that we, too, have been sealed, in our baptism—you who are baptized have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance in glory. You have been marked as Christ’s own. And if you have not yet been baptized, let me exhort you to speak to Fr. Herb, to myself, to a fellow Christian about being baptized posthaste.

And finally, we respond by living as martyrs. Every Christian—every one of us who has been buried with Christ in baptism and raised into the power of his resurrection life and given the Holy Spirit—is called to martyrdom. Jesus was a martyr, and we do what Jesus does. What does a martyr do? A martyr witnesses and sacrifices. Jesus witnessed to the love of the Father, to the joy of the Kingdom. He sacrificed himself, that we might be forgiven and set free. And so we, too, must witness and sacrifice. Our lives must bear witness to the authority and lordship of the risen Jesus. We must bear witness to the forgiveness of sin that we have received at Jesus’ hands. And this witness we bear may cost us, as it cost the martyrs of Revelation. Perhaps we won’t be called upon to shed our own blood, but you may well be called to forfeit status, comfort, a promotion, a job for the sake of your witness to Jesus. And the reward for  your witness—to rule with God in heaven—far exceeds the light and momentary affliction and tribulation we might face. We shall overcome, the martyrs say later in Revelation, we shall overcome by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of our testimony. 

It that’s an intimidating call, it’s supposed to be. It’s a call to no less than sainthood. But take heart. It’s All Saints’ Day. 

When the strife is fierce, 
the warfare long,
Steals on the ear
The distant triumph song.
And hearts are brave again,
And arms are strong,
Alleluia, alleluia.

Jesus the Lamb has overcome the world, and to him, and to the One who sits on the throne belong salvation. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

Empyrean, Gustav Dore.