GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
In any case, that’s the first part of John’s vision. The second part of John’s vision is a contrast, because whereas he could count the number of the remnant of Israel, when he shifts to the second part of the vision, he says:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could remember, from every nation…
In other words, this isn’t just limited to Israel. It’s the Gentiles. So he’s seeing this second group, the innumerable multitude, is:
...from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…
And they have two other marks. So the first group was distinctive because of the mark on the forehead that sealed them as chosen. This group is holding palm branches in their hand and they’re dressed in white robes. So what does that have to do with it?
Well, again, in the Old Testament, palm branches were associated with the feast of Tabernacles. So Tabernacles was a glorious feast celebrated in the fall—roughly around October when the fall harvest came in—and it was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the law of Moses, where you go to the city of Jerusalem, offer sacrifice, and celebrate. And they would set up booths or tabernacles to live in around the city, and it was both a memorial of the exodus, but it was also kind of foretaste of the resurrection, of the new creation when people would recline, and they would relax and they would rejoice and sing psalms of joy. And in the fall harvest, the fruit comes in the harvest, so it was a feast of wine and rejoicing and celebration.
And so John here is taking the imagery of Tabernacles, and he’s kind of using it to describe the glory of heaven, to describe the glory of the resurrection, to describe the glory of salvation. But he says something else that’s interesting about these figures. He says they’re dressed in white robes. Now in the Old Testament, who wore white robes? Well, it was the priests. So the priests would wear white linen vestments when they would go in to offer sacrifice in the temple. That was the standard garment of the priest. So these are a chosen group of priests from every nation.
Now you and I are going to at that point tend to ordained priests, as opposed to lay people. It’s not what John means here, though, because if you read earlier in his book of Revelation—chapter 5, for example—he’s describing all of the saints, all of the blessed. And he says:
...for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God… (Revelation 5:9b-10a)
So the kingdom of priests refers to the entire people of Israel. It isn’t just the ordained elders, but the entire people of Israel have a priestly function to offer praise and worship and sacrifice and glory to God. And so here he’s describing these Gentiles—fascinating enough—as if they were priests who were worshipping God, celebrating in the feast of Tabernacles. So John seems to be puzzled by this. You can see that when one of the elders in Heaven before the throne of God—because that’s where they are, by the way. They’re around the throne of God, so this is the heavenly kingdom. It’s the heavenly throne.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?”
And I love John’s response. He says:
“Sir, you know.”
In other words, you’re in Heaven. Why are you asking me? I’m having the vision. I don’t know. You tell me who they are...is effectively, I mean it’s respectful, but that’s basically what he’s saying. You tell me. And so the heavenly elder here explains the vision, which is frequently what will happen. If you have a seer on Earth have a vision of Heaven, the angel or some heavenly being is going to explain the meaning of it:
And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
So...I wrote my dissertation on the Great Tribulation, so I could go on and on and on and on about this topic of the Great Tribulation. But I’ll spare you...or at least I’ll shorten it. In essence, the Great Tribulation was an ancient Jewish expectation you find in the prophets, that before the age of salvation would come, you would have an age of suffering. You would have a time of tribulation, and that the kingdom of God would not be ushered in without a preliminary period of tribulation and suffering.
And in my dissertation, I wrote about this—which is out of print, by the way, so no emails please about trying to get a copy of it. You can’t get a copy of it. But I’ll tell you about it. So in the Great Tribulation—as I wrote in the dissertation—effectively, Jesus in His passion and death, takes upon Himself the Great Tribulation. He takes the suffering upon Himself, and through His suffering, He brings in the resurrection. He brings in the kingdom. So what happens to Jesus personally in Himself will in a sense happen to the Church and the world at the end of time before the final resurrection of the dead. So salvation always comes through suffering, is the basic point.
And so here, what the elder is describing, is the chosen saints who have passed through suffering to salvation. But he uses this fascinating image of having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. Now if you’ve ever done laundry with a white garment, you’ll know that if you get red on a white garment, it’s not going to come out easily. So if you want to make a white garment clean, you don’t wash it in blood. So there’s a paradox here. They made their robes white by washing them in the blood of the lamb.
So the paradox here actually appears once again to reflect Jewish context, because the priests would go into the temple wearing white linen and then they sacrifice lambs. And what do you think that white linen would look like when they were done sacrificing? It’d be stained with the blood of the lamb. So John is using this image here basically to describe the Church, to describe Christians. And he seems to be emphasizing martyrs, but in effect, he’s also talking about everyone. Because in essence, what happens to us when we are baptized? What happens to Christians when they’re baptized? They’re marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross, but they also (since ancient times) they’ve worn a white garment to symbolize purification from sin through the water of Baptism and the blood of Christ.
So it’s the blood of Christ that washes, cleanses the person from sin and makes them white, ironically, through the blood of the lamb. So in essence here, John is having a vision of the Church, taken from Israel and the Gentile and from all who have been washed and made clean through the blood of Christ—who have been made holy through the blood of Christ, who have been made a kingdom of priests through the water of Baptism and the blood of Jesus.
So the reason the Church chooses this passage for All Saints Day is because it is John’s vision of the plenitude of the saved—the full number of the saved, both Israel and the Gentiles in the kingdom of Heaven. That’s what he’s describing.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Okay, so couple of brief points about this. First, notice John begins by affirming our identity as children of God. And if you look at John’s Gospel—for example, chapter 3—the way a person becomes a child of God is not simply by being created but by being born again or born anew through water and spirit in Baptism. So he’s referring here to the divine Sonship, the adoptive divine Sonship, that we receive through grace in the waters of Baptism. So when he’s saying:
...we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
So the second point here is that John is shifting from the present to the future. He’s talking here about the parousia
, the second coming of Christ. So we don’t have to wait to become children of God to the second coming. We don’t have to wait until the final judgment or the resurrection. We already are
children of God. But when He comes, we can’t even comprehend what we shall be, because when He comes, we shall become like him, because we shall see Him as He is.
Now that is a profound statement that John is making here. In effect, he’s talking about two key expectations—two key hopes of the Christian faith. One is for the second coming of Christ at the end of time, but the second is for what we call the beatific vision—the vision of God where we shall see God face to face. We shall see Christ in His glory, in His resurrected body at the end of time. And this is one of the classic texts on the beatific vision in all of the New Testament, because there’s a lot of passages in the Old Testament. You might recall where God says over and over again:
...man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
Man shall not look upon the face of God. Think here of Exodus 33 and 34 where Moses asked to see God’s face and says, “Sorry, you can’t see my face. I’ll let you see my backside, but you can’t look upon my face and live.” So God will allow some of His glory to pass by Moses, for example, on Mount Sinai. But to see His face is not possible for a human being. And yet, in the new covenant, that’s precisely what Jesus is going to promise to His disciples in the Beatitudes, which is the Gospel for the feast of All Saints:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
And then here in the reading for today from 1 John, it says:
...that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
So notice here, there are two elements that John is describing—likeness and vision. So he’s describing the fact that in the parousia
at the second coming, we will be changed. We will be made like to God. We will be made holy. And precisely, it is through that vision of God that we shall be transformed.
And you can see in that last verse, he’s saying:
...every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
What does that mean? Well, it means that if we are anticipating to see Christ and to become like Him in the resurrection, then we need to prepare now. We need to start living now as if we are children of God who are preparing to see His face in the glory of the resurrection. And that calls for us to cleanse our hearts from sin, as he says he who purifies himself because of the hope he has to one day see the face of God in the beatific vision.
Now, that’s just a brief little overview of what John’s describing here. But I thought it would be interesting to bring this text to bear, because I think it’s one of those passages where I think most people think about going to Heaven. Everybody wants to go to Heaven when they die. Maybe more people might think about the bodily resurrection, although I’ve learned over the years that that isn’t as well understood or well known as one would think from reading the New Testament.
But the vision of God’s face...this is so mysterious. It’s something that you don’t always hear people say, “I can’t wait til that day when I see the face of God. I want to see Him as He is. I want to be like Him. I want to be transformed in Him.” But that’s what John’s describing here. This is the eschatological hope of the Christian in 1 John 3 as he says we can’t fully comprehend it:
...it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Now that last line “as he is” led to a whole host of debates over the centuries about the nature of the beatific vision—like whether we can see God in His essence, which you’ll see this in the western tradition, or we can only see the energies of God. You’ll see this in some of the eastern writers. And there’s a whole debate about that. I don’t want to get into that debate here, but I do want to make clear that it was this text (and others) that led in the 14th century, Pope Benedict XII to exercise the fullest extent of his papal authority in defining the Church’s doctrine of the beatific vision. Because there were some people at the time who were claiming that when the faithful died, they do not immediately get to see the face of God, but that they would have to wait until the resurrection to actually experience the beatific vision.
And so in his apostolic constitution, Benedictus Deus
, which was issued in the year 1336, Pope Benedict XII defined the doctrine of the beatific vision and made clear what we as Catholics believe about this. And so I just want to read it to you, because it’s beautiful. It is a little complex. It’s got lengthy Latin sentences, but let me just read it, and then I’ll unpack it and try to just draw a couple of quick points out of it. And this is a perfect example of how what’s taught in the New Testament then becomes clarified and defined by the apostolic tradition and by the living Magisterium of the Church.
So in the 14th century, this is what Pope Benedict XII had to say about the beatific vision. This is our Catholic faith. This is what we believe:By this Constitution which is to remain in force for ever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following:
According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ- provided they were not in need of any purification when they died, or will not be in need of any when they die in the future, or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death...all these souls, immediately after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature...
For full access subscribe here >