For All the Saints

Former Faith Lutheran pastor, O.D. Brack, was recently laid to rest. (You can read his obituary here.) Although Pastor Brack’s funeral was in the midst of Lent, his funeral service broke one of the cardinal Lenten “rules.”  We sang Alleluias during the service, and I’m glad we did! (Alleluia, which means “praise the Lord,” is usually not sung or spoken during the season of Lent, a time in which Christians focus on repenting of their sins for which Christ suffered on the cross.)

A Christian’s funeral is a celebration of Christ’s Easter victory, no matter the time of year. The funeral is not about the great things the deceased person did, but about the great Savior we have in Jesus. All the more reason to exclaim at the end of the service, “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!”

One of the songs which was included in Pastor Brack’s funeral was William How’s For All the Saints. I love how this song tells the scriptural story of what Christians confess, namely “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (the Apostles’ Creed). Today I’d just like to hear these wonderful words (even though we’re a long way from November 1 or “All Saints Day”) and share a few reflections on how the lyrics reflect the biblical theology of eternal life.

1 For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

To be a “saint” is to be Christ’s baptized & believing son or daughter. The saints faithfully confess Jesus’ saving name during their earthly pilgrimage. Also, you do not have to die or perform miracles to be a saint!  You ARE a saint as a believer in Jesus! Those saints who have died are at rest from their labors (Rev. 14:13). They are sometimes described as those who have fallen asleep, a peaceful picture of death for the Christian (1 These. 4:13).

2 Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might,
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

3 Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold!  Alleluia! Alleluia!

The Psalms and many other passages throughout Scripture picture the Lord as the Rock, the Light, and the Champion on behalf of His saints. Paul tells Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). Christian faith is a struggle, yet it is not a struggle against people but against all the evil, demonic forces that align themselves against Christ (Eph. 6:12). This song prays that we “fight” like those saints who came before us. We do so when we take up the “sword” of God’s Word (Eph. 6:17) and pray at all times for ourselves and our fellow saints (Eph. 6:18). To be a soldier of the Lord is to take up a defensive position, to stand our ground against the devil’s schemes (Eph. 6:11), and to resist all his temptations (1 Peter 5:9 ) that would lure us away from our Savior.

4 Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

5 And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

You are in fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ who already share in Christ’s glory.  What an encouragement for us as we look forward to being in the peace-filled presence of Christ!  The book of Revelation records for us several of the triumph songs that the saints sing before Christ’s throne (Rev. 5:12-13, et al.). In ancient times, armies would sing as they marched into battle. The saints on earth are already in the battle, and we join together in worship to sing the triumph songs of faith, knowing that ultimate victory is ours, thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57).

6 The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

My take on this stanza is that “the golden evening” is the saint’s departure from this earthly life, into the rest that awaits him or her with Jesus. Jesus says to a repentant man dying on a cross next to Him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Verse six also reminds me of a passage in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Two of the characters, Pippin and Gandalf, are trapped inside a city that is surrounded and soon to be overrun by the enemy. They begin talking about death:

Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.

Gandalf:       End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf:       White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.

Gandalf:       No, it isn’t.

From where we’re sitting, death seems dark and grey. Because it IS a curse. It IS the sting of sin. But as saints in Christ, we know that death isn’t the end!  This world will be rolled back, and there we’ll be, before the throne of our gracious God in the sweetness of paradise. “And The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [your] Shepherd, and He will guide [you] to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes” (Rev. 7:17).

7 But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.  Alleluia! Alleluia!

What could be more glorious than being in the arms of Christ?  “The saints triumphant RISE in bright array!” We know that the saints who have departed in death are with Christ (Phil. 1:23), yet both the saints on earth and the saints in heaven are awaiting the return of the King!  When Christ returns in all His power and glory, He will raise the dead (1 Thess. 4:16).  “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Cor. 15:51-53)  Not only will God’s saints be with Jesus forever, but we will experience the life everlasting with restored, immortal, and sinless bodies and souls. 

8 From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Alleluia! Alleluia!

In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we confess our belief in “the life everlasting” and “life in the world to come” after confessing our faith in the resurrection of the dead. I believe that this ordering is intentional. First, Christ returns and raises the dead; then, we experience everlasting life – life as God has intended it to be from the beginning.  Picture language such as “gates of pearl” (Rev. 21:21) is used to describe the indescribable.  I don’t expect literal gates of pearl or streets of gold.  I do, however, expect a restored creation, “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1).

For All the Saints ends with the saints singing their praises to our triune God. Will everlasting life be one big, long, boring worship service? Life in God’s new creation will certainly be worshipful, but it will NOT be boring! The greatest days of your earthly life are only a tiny taste of what it will be like to be part of the diverse host of saints, saved by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ!

After spending an entire chapter teaching on our resurrection hope, St. Paul concludes with these words about what a difference this hope of eternity makes in our lives today:

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58).

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