November 4, 2018
“Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” The elder answers his own question to John. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” What tribulation is he talking about? He must be talking about one of the great persecutions of the Christian Church, which you might read in history books. Yet, when we look at the description of this multitude, we can’t limit them to a few persecuted groups. St. John says this was a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language.
Rather, St. John describes the entire Christian Church. Everyone, who has washed his robe in the blood of the Lamb is present in this vision. John is having a vision of the future when Christ will gather his entire Church to himself. This means that you too are in this vision, clothed in Christ’s righteousness and standing before your Savior Jesus singing praises to him.
Yet, it might seem strange that the elder says that we will come out the great tribulation. Christians aren’t persecuted in America, are they? That either happened long ago or far way. But tribulation certainly doesn’t describe our situation, does it? Well, if we are to believe Scripture, we would have to believe it does. St. Paul writes, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12) This means that everyone, who washes his robe in the blood of the Lamb will go through tribulation.
Many of you probably don’t know the persecution Lutherans have faced. After Lutherans were able to establish their own territories and protect themselves from the oppression of the Roman Catholic Church, they soon had to contend with persecutions by Reformed princes and kings. Lutheran pastors, who refused to deny the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament were forced out of their parishes by soldiers and their parishioners were forced to attend Reformed services. This is what brought many Lutherans to America, searching freedom to practice their faith.
Today we don’t fear soldiers entering our sanctuary to stop us from practicing an outlawed liturgy, but that does not mean that we do not go through tribulation. Scripture says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) Yes, the tribulation Christians must go through certainly can and have included physical assaults and death. Yet, the powers of darkness don’t need to use physical force to fight against God’s elect.
In nearly every case of physical persecution against Christians in history, Christians could have avoided it if they compromised Christ’s teaching. Emperor Diacletian forbid Christians from assembling to worship and demanded them to destroy their holy books and offer a sacrifice to false gods. If Christians simply gave in on what they believed to be true, then they wouldn’t be persecuted. And many escaped persecution by simply denying Christ and his teachings. It worked the same way under the persecution from Muslims or Communists, deny Christ and you escape persecution.
The Lutherans of previous centuries might not have been pressured to deny Christ outright, but they were pressured to deny certain teachings of Christ. For the purpose of forming a united protestant front in America our Lutheran forefathers were pushed to deny that Christ’s body and blood were present in the Lord’s Supper and that Baptism really washes away sins and regenerates a sinner and that pastors have authority to forgive sins. These teachings were considered embarrassing and too Catholic. So, Lutherans were spurned for holding to them.
Christians go through tribulation when they are taught or pressured to believe false doctrine. The pressure might not threaten violence, but nevertheless, it takes great strength to resist and stand on the truth. Today Christians are pressured to believe many false teachings. Evolution, which says that we are animals, who evolved through mutations over millions of years, is pushed on our children from a very young age. They are told that they are stupid if they question this teaching, which denies that God created the world perfectly through his word. Sure, no one is holding a sword to anyone’s throat, yet it still takes great courage to stand up against such false teaching.
Christians are pressured to believe that you don’t need to repent of your sins. Preaching the law is offensive. People are offended when they hear that their sins offend God or harm their neighbor. They would rather walk away than repent and receive the forgiveness of their sins from a loving God. And Christians, who hold to the teaching of God’s law are maligned, called closed minded or bigoted. Yet, we should remember that St. John the Baptist himself was imprisoned and beheaded for preaching against adultery. And he too died for Christ.
Enduring false teaching is the worst form of tribulation. If persecutors cut off your head, God will give you a new head. But false teaching attacks your very soul, tries to get you to doubt God’s grace, to sin against your Lord, or reject the forgiveness of sins so bitterly won for you on the cross. This is why we are taught to pray in our Small Catechism, “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”
Yet, false teaching is not the only form of tribulation. Sin of all kinds brings tribulation to the Christian, because the Christian has a heightened awareness of sin. The sins of others harm us, not only the mean words people say against us or other loveless actions. Because we are united to God by the Holy Spirit, sins that offend our Father in heaven offend us. St. Peter writes that Lot was “tormenting his righteous soul over the lawless deeds that he saw and heard” as he lived in Sodom and Gomorrah. How much more should our righteous souls be burning within us as we live in a country which has accepted every abominable act, the chief of which is the murder of unborn children. We with better knowledge should be rightly horrified as we see the contents of that which God knit together in the womb torn asunder and counted piece by piece. And this happens thousands of times in America every day. Our righteous souls, washed clean by him who himself spent 9 months in the womb of the Virgin Mary, should be tormented. We cannot be in heaven yet when such things are done in our midst.
Of course, the sins of others don’t torment our souls nearly as much as our own sins. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15, 18-19) This is the cry of the Christian going through the great tribulation. We have been washed in the blood of Christ. We are forgiven. The Holy Spirit dwells in us through faith, and yet we keep on sinning against our God. It makes us want to escape our own bodies, so that we can escape our own sin.
And we go through the great tribulation as we see our loved ones die. And as we too march toward death. We believe that Christ has conquered death. We believe that we too will join him in the resurrection. But as yet, we only see the wages of our own sins.
So yes, each and every one of us is currently going through the great tribulation as we battle false teaching and sin, and bear the burden of living in mortal bodies. We believe that we are forgiven. We believe that we are children of God now. Yet, we don’t see it. And the more we learn about Christ, the more it becomes apparent that we are not in heaven yet.
This is why St. John’s vision in Revelation 7 is so wonderful. He sees a great multitude that no one can number from every tribe, nation, people, and language shining in spotless robes. This is the fulfillment of what God said to Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5) They have come out of the great tribulation. They no longer suffer from attacks against their faith. They don’t sin anymore and no one sins against them. They are enjoying the resurrection of their perfect bodies. They hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, neither does the sun strike them. God has wiped away every tear from their eye.
And best of all, they are in the presence of God. God is with them, sheltering them and guiding them. This is not a complete vision. We still have many questions about what it will be like. But what is important is covered. We will be out of this great tribulation. We will escape all suffering, sin, and sadness. And we must believe that our loved ones who trusted in Christ and have died before us will be there too. And we will be together with God our Savior.
That which causes us to go through the great tribulation also causes us to come out of the great tribulation. We suffer, because we are Christians. To wash your robe and make it white in the blood of the Lamb means that you receive the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ Jesus. It means that you are baptized into Christ. All those, who are God’s children now will suffer. Yet, all God’s children who suffer will be glorified, as Scripture says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs—heirs with God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17)
Suffering is a scary thing, but the Apostle continues, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) Many of you have seen your loved ones suffer much before death finally took them. You can be comforted with these words. Their pain has not only ended, but they are now enjoying the glory of God, which we can’t even imagine. It is as the hymn says, “Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended, who through death have unto God ascended! They have arisen From the cares that keep us still in prison.”
We can’t see this vision of heaven, which John writes about. We can only read what he wrote. But we have faith that this truly is what awaits us. We have certainty that we will join this great host arrayed in white, because we too have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. We believe that the blood of Jesus Christ has cleansed us from all unrighteousness. Our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.
Although the Elder says that they have washed their robes and made them white, we should not interpret this to mean that our salvation depends on our own works. It is the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, which washes away our sins. Christ Jesus has cleansed us, his Church, by the washing of water and the word and has presented us to himself in spender, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we might be holy and without blemish. It is Christ who died for us. He forgives us. He baptized us and washed us. He continues to feed us today. We will enjoy this future vision of heaven by the merits of Christ alone.
Every single person in that mighty throng of saints is there because of what Jesus Christ has done. This brings great comfort to us, who are burdened by sins. This means that no matter how great our sins might be, Christ has washed them away in his blood. Even those great abominations of which I spoke before that occur in our nation, they too are forgiven by Jesus’ blood. There is no sin for which our Lord did not die and no sin that can withstand his cleansing blood.
We remember our loved ones in heaven on All Saints Day and we thank God that their suffering is over. Yet, we celebrate All Saints Day for us too, who are currently in this tribulation. We know what our end is. We can escape this present tribulation at any moment if we were to deny Christ. And we could enjoy the glories of this earth. Yet, then we would give up the glories of heaven. So, to give us strength to pass through this tribulation and come out into the glories of Christ, we continue to wash our robes in the blood of Christ, confessing our sins and hearing his holy word. We are God’s children now. All though we don’t see him, we are in God’s presence now. And he alone will guide us out of the great tribulation into eternal glory. Amen.