St. Matthew 5:1-12 & Revelation 7:2-17
by William Klock
The Feast of All Saints is one of oldest feasts on the Church’s calendar. We have evidence of sermons preached on this occasion as far back as the Third Century. In those early centuries it was sometimes celebrated during Eastertide. The Eastern Church celebrates this feast on the Sunday after Pentecost. The Western Church has celebrated it on November 1 since the Eighth Century—apparently an ancient Irish tradition that gradually made its way from Ireland, to England, to Gaul, and eventually to Rome.
The purpose of All Saints’ Day has evolved since those earliest days. The first Christians to observe it did so with the intent to commemorate the many martyrs of those early centuries—brothers and sisters who gave up their lives, rather than deny their faith in Jesus. As the empire eventually converted and martyrdom became less common, the feast gradually came to encompass all the saints, all our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, not just those who were martyred. But the theme of martyrdom—and of the Christian hope held so tightly by those martyrs—lies at the heart of our lessons today. The faithful are often ground up in the gears of this evil age. The world shouts, “Good riddance.” In the words of our Old Testament lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon, “In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died” and “in the sight of men they were punished”, but the reality is that their hope was not in vain, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will touch them…They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever.” Apocryphal that text may be, but it highlights the truth of God’s kingdom and its conflict with the world. The kingdom of God seems upside-down—but only because the values of fallen humanity were upside-down already.
This is what lies behind our Gospel lesson, the Beatitudes, the first part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. Jesus begins his famous sermon with a list of people who are “blessed”. That’s language straight from the Lord’s covenant with Abraham. Remember, the Lord called him and promised not only that he would bless Abraham, but that through him he would bless the nations. To be
“blessed” isn’t so much about being happy or prosperous, but about being the people God had called his people to be, about being the people who live with God in their midst—it’s about being kingdom people. Israel had mostly failed at this, but there was always a faithful few who really did have a sense of what God had called them to do. We see them in people like John’s father, Zechariah, in Mary and in Joseph, in Simeon and in Anna. But the thing was that none of these people were the sort most people expected to be exemplifying the kingdom of God. Sure, they were faithful in their simple ways, but they weren’t important, they weren’t rich, they weren’t powerful—they were nobodies. They were the people being ground up in the gears turned by the bigshots, whether that was the Romans or the Herodians or the corrupt Sadducees who controlled the temple and the priesthood. And yet it says something that it’s with these people that the Good News begins. And it’s with these people—and the people like them to whom Jesus had been ministering in Galilee—that he begins his most important sermon on the kingdom. Jesus says:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
I think we have a tendency to read this and think that what Jesus is saying is that if we behave a certain way—in this case, if we’re poor in spirit—then we will somehow earn or be worthy of God’s blessing. But that’s not it. Again, think of Abraham. In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham and he says to him, “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great.” The Lord reiterated and renewed this promise to the generations that came after Abraham. This was his promise to Israel, “I will bless you” and this was at the core of Jewish identity. To be blessed was to be part of the covenant people of God. When Jesus talks about people who are blessed, he’s answering the question of who belongs to the people of God. But here’s where he turns things upside-down—at least that’s how it seemed to so many of the people who heard him. Most people just assumed that because they were descendants of Abraham, were circumcised, ate the right food, observed the Sabbath, and stayed away from Gentiles that they were “blessed” because they were God’s people. But here’s the thing: the Lord’s blessing wasn’t blessing for the sake of blessing. There was more to the promise. He said to Abraham, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” A blessing to whom? The Lord says to all the families of the earth. Israel was to be like salt, preserving the earth. Israel was to be a light, shining in the darkness and leading the nations back to the knowledge of God. In fact, after these Beatitudes, that’s the next thing Jesus goes on to preach about: salt and light. If you’re not being salt and light, you’re not blessing and are not blessed—you’re not part of the kingdom.
This is what blessing is about. The people Jesus describes here are the people through whom God makes his kingdom known. They’re the people who already understand and are already living the life of the kingdom. He starts with the poor in spirit. I can’t help but think of Mary. When she finds out that she’s going to be pregnant with the Lord’s Messiah she doesn’t get full of herself. There were plenty of people who would have. No, she bursts out into a song of praise and the first things she sings is, “My soul doth magnify the Lord…for he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.”
Most people expected God to usher in his kingdom by coming to the important people, the wealthy people, the powerful and politically connected people. Most people expected the Messiah to ride into Jerusalem like King David in a chariot with a sword and with an army. Instead he came to a poor young girl. And it was people like Mary, people who were poor in spirit who came flocking to Jesus and in and through them the kingdom of God burst into the world. The humble came to Jesus in faith and he opened their blind eyes, he healed their paralysed legs, he healed their diseases, he cast out their demons, he even raised their children from death. Meanwhile the powerful people, like the Sadducees, fumed that Jesus was offering forgiveness of sins without sending these people to the temple to offer sacrifices. Meanwhile the Pharisees, people who thought of themselves as righteous, were fuming because Jesus was welcoming the unclean and the sinful. But Jesus says that the kingdom won’t be found with the powerful or the self-righteous, but with those humble enough to follow the king born in a stable.
The rest of the Beatitudes go the same way. Jesus says:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:4-9)
Israel was in a sort of exile and the people longed for consolation, but most wanted that consolation to come in the form of a Messiah who would put their enemies to the sword. Jesus says that, no, those who will be comforted, those who will show the kingdom, are those who mourn the sins of Israel and who are ready to repent and turn back to God. Israel wanted to inherit the earth, but Jesus reminds them that their inheritance will come not through those who are full of pride, not through those who think they’re better than everyone else because of their descent from Abraham or their circumcision or their diet, but it will instead come through those who are meek. Israel longed for justice—which is probably a better translation than “righteousness” in this case, but the justice Israel wanted had more to do with vengeance on her enemies and Jesus is saying, again: No. Your hunger for justice will only be satisfied when you are willing to set aside your rights in favour of humility and gentleness. Israel longed for mercy. She longed for deliverance. But Jesus warns that mercy is only for the merciful, not the vengeful. Israel longed to see God, but Jesus warns: You will never see God so long as your outward acts of piety are a cover for oppressing the poor, the widow, and the orphan. The kingdom is manifest by those who aren’t just outwardly pure, but who are pure of heart. And, of course, Israel saw herself as God’s son. The people longed for God to vindicate them by establishing them once again as a nation over their enemies, but Jesus warns: If you want to be God’s sons you need to show the peacemaking character of your Father. You’re out for vengeance, you’re calling for the blood of your enemies, if you had the chance you’d kill them in their beds and then tell the world that you were acting out the justice of God on the enemies of his people. But people like that will never be sons of the God who seeks not vengeance on his enemies, but offers them mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation. The violent will never be sons of the God who seeks to make peace, even offering his own as an atonement for their treason.
Everything Jesus describes here was aimed at Israel’s failure to be God’s people, to be salt and light, as he says in the verses that follow. God had blessed Israel to be a blessing, but they wanted to keep his blessing to themselves, which is why he’d taken it away and sent them into exile. And most still hadn’t learned. But there was this remnant: again, people like Mary and Zechariah and Simeon who were already showing the world what the kingdom was like, people who were already living out the character of God. People whom the world saw as nobodies, but who were in reality already sharing the Lord’s blessing to the world. This is what John the Baptist had been about: calling the people of Israel to repentance, calling them to turn aside from their sin, their folly, from their false views of the kingdom so that they would be prepared for the Messiah.
But, Jesus warns, if you are faithful in being the sorts of people who carry God’s blessing to the word, be prepared for trouble. In verses 10-12 he goes on:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
I expect Jesus was anticipating where his own ministry was headed when he preached these words. He’d already experienced the anger of his own people. When he preached in his hometown of Nazareth the people tried to throw him off a cliff. He knew that most people were not going to receive what he’s saying here and he knew that he was going to be rejected and that he would suffer and be killed. And he knew, too, that the people who chose to follow him would be persecuted and many would die. At the Cross the present evil age was dealt a death blow. In rising from the grave Jesus inaugurated the age to come. The present age is passing away and the age to come is breaking in, but Jesus knew that his people would live in the overlap. God brought salvation and renewal this way for a reason. The people of Jesus’ day wanted it to come all at once, but God chose to bring it slowly. People today have the same sort of expectation. They ask how a good God can allow so much evil in the world. But in asking that question, in asking why God doesn’t come and deal with evil we’re showing the same sort of self-righteous mindset that dominated Israel. We’re forgetting that for God to come and deal with evil means that God will not only have to deal with our enemies and the people who cause us grief, but that he’ll also have to deal with us. We’re all sinners. We’re all responsible for the mess this world is in—some more, some less—but we’ve all contributed to it. And so God sent Jesus to deal with that sin and to inaugurate his kingdom, but he also delays, and in that he gives sinners a chance to repent and turn to him. It also means that those who, in this in-between time, insist on revealing the kingdom, those who insist on confronting the sinful systems of the old age through their poverty of spirit, through their meekness, through their mercy, through their peacemaking will face the same backlash that Jesus faced. As God’s people show the world set to rights, those invested in the way things are will fight back. When God’s people declare that Jesus is the world’s true Lord, the Caesars of this age and their supporters will lash out to silence the challenge.
The martyrs are a testimony to Jesus’ promise. And when you see your brothers and sisters being carted off to die—whether by the Jewish authorities, or the Roman, or radical atheists, Islamists, Hindus, or Buddhist in our age, it’s easy to fear. Are we really blessed when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness? This was the purpose behind St. John’s “revelation”. The church was on the verge of being plunged into violent persecution—a time of trial or tribulation. Would their faith hold? And what about those who died for the sake of faith in Jesus? And so God gave John a vision. Just as Jesus had promised, judgement was coming, first on unbelieving Israel and then on the pagan word of the Greeks and Romans. The scroll of judgement is brought forth—this in the fifth and sixth chapters of Revelation—sealed with seven seals, which only the lamb—now come as the lion of Judah—can open. As the judgement is unleashed on Jerusalem, the saints are reminded that God is in control. The judgement plays out here just as had said it would. And, too, the Lord marks out his own. That’s where our lesson today from Revelation picks up. The winds of judgement are poised to bring destruction to Jerusalem. This is the great day of the wrath of God and of the lamb. But what of the faithful? The opening of the scroll is stopped for their sake. Look at Revelation 7:2-3.
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, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
The imagery here is drawn from Ezekiel. The prophet was shown a vision of Israel’s idolatry and then a vision of a “man clothed in linen” who was directed by the Lord to “put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezekiel 9:3-4). Immediately after, the Lord sent six other men through Jerusalem, beginning at the temple, to slay men and women, young and old, but they were to “touch no one on whom is the mark” (9:2, 5-6). What the Lord did in Ezekiel’s day is about to happen again, but the Lord will spare the faithful. Those who are sealed by the angel are announced in verse 4:
And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.
The text goes on to list specifically twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes. This is the remnant of faithful Israel, much like those marked out in Ezekiel’s vision centuries before. This is the Jewish church of Jerusalem and Judea, those Jews who heard the good news and trusted in Jesus. Those Jews who were appalled by Israel’s abominations. Those who were about to face violent persecution at the hands of their fellow Jews. The Lord will not abandon them, even though they die. He places his mark on them and seals them as his own. And their faithfulness to Jesus the Messiah, is the means by which the nations are brought to the cross. They are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and they know blessing as a result, because it is through their faithfulness to Jesus that they fulfil the Abrahamic covenant’s call to be a blessing to the nations.
John hears the announcement of the sealing of the Jewish church, and then he sees a vision of a multitude that could not be numbered, drawn from the nations:
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, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)
And jumping down to verse 13:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”… 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. (Revelation 7:13-14)
John’s vision now draws on the imagery of the prophet Daniel, who wrote of another time of great distress through which the Lord saw a faithful remnant of his people. The wise amongst them were refined through persecution that they might “shine like the brightness of the sky above” (12:3) so that they would “turn many to righteousness”. Faithful Israel, through her unwavering allegiance to Jesus in this time of trial would serve as the witnesses that will bring the nations to faith in the Lord. The faithfulness of the 144,000, of the Jewish martyrs, their robes soaked in their own blood, brings that multi-ethnic multitude to Jesus that he might wash their robes in his blood and make them part of his people. As Zechariah had prophesied, ten men from the nations, of every tongue, will take hold of the robe of a Jew and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you!” (8:23)
Jeremiah says something very similar. Jeremiah 31:7 cries out for the Lord to save the remnant of Israel and in response, the Lord will bring a great multitude from the farthest parts of the earth. John’s vision here draws on Jeremiah’s imagery. There the Lord will keep Israel “as a shepherd keeps his flock. They shall “come and sing on the height of Zion”. They “shall hunger no more” and God will “turn their mourning into joy”. He will “comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow”. And here John sees this new, multi-ethnic Israel, gathered from the nations, “before the throne of God” where they “serve him day and night in his temple.” He will “shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither third anymore. 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” (Revelation 7:15-17).
Brothers and Sisters, as they remind us of the witness of those Christians who have gone before us, today’s lessons call us to faith and to hope. We’re reminded today of the way in which the faithfulness of the people of God, their faithfulness to Jesus as Lord, their faithfulness to his kingdom, even in the midst of persecution, was the means by which God brought the nations to Jesus. It’s also a witness to the faithfulness of God, who gathers his people to himself. He gives his own Spirit to his people that they—that even we—might face persecution in faith. Today we see him embracing his people and wiping away their tears. Revelation tells us the story of our brothers and sisters who lived in the First Century—of those Jewish believers who faced persecution and martyrdom at the hands of unbelieving Israel and of that multitude drawn because of their witness from the pagan Greco-Roman world. They, too would face persecution at the hands of an empire that would, because of their witness, eventually be brought in submission to the lordship of Jesus. And yet there’s obviously more to the story of Jesus’ people. What we see in John’s vision is intermediate and temporary. The martyrs held close by God as saints on earth and in heaven await the consummation of history, that day when the faithful will follow Jesus in his resurrection, when all things are made new, when heaven and earth are rejoined, and when men and women once again dwell in the presence of the Lord.
Brothers and Sisters, we don’t know what will happen between now and then. We may face our own time of great tribulation one day, but even if we don’t, we continue in the ordinary fight of Christians in every generation against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We face the ordinary troubles of life in an imperfect world and the difficulties of being faithful witnesses of Jesus in a culture that worships its own version of Caesar and Mammon, Mars and Aphrodite. Let us, like the saints who have gone before, stand firm in faith as stewards of the good news of Jesus and his kingdom, knowing that our God is faithful to his promises. Let us be the people blessed to be a blessing, living out the life and values of Jesus’ kingdom, even though it may mean opposition and persecution. Jesus has promised hold us close, even in death, until that day when he makes all things—including us—new.
Let’s pray: Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.