For All the Saints
Text: William Walsham How (1823-1897)
Primary Texts: Hebrews 12:1–3; Revelation 2:10; 14:13; 17:14
(Lutheran Service Book 677)
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
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.
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!
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
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.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
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:
“For All the Saints” is one of the 56 hymns William Walsham How composed. While many of his hymns were written with children in mind (he was called, at times, “the children’s bishop”) five of his hymns are in our hymnal (523, 677, 781, 816, 900) proving he also wrote for grown-ups. He was born near Shrewsbury, England, educated there, and was ordained in 1846. In 1879 he became Bishop of Bedford, which included the slums of East London. Totally lacking in personal ambition, How refused the bishopric of Manchester and later that of Durham, both prestigious and lucrative positions, without even mentioning the offers to his wife. He spent a great deal of his energy seeking to improve the lot of the downtrodden. This is reflected in two of his other nicknames, “the poor man’s bishop” and “the omnibus bishop.” The name “the omnibus bishop” reflects that he lived within the boundaries of his bishopric (many bishops didn’t) and would take public transportation (most bishops had private carriages). My guess is that his best known hymn is “We Give Thee but Thine Own.”
“For All the Saints” is often sung on All Saints’ Day and at funerals. In many ways it captures the best of how we are to remember the saints. I’m not going to print it out here, but review Hebrews 11. This chapter is about some of the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in Hebrews 12:1-3.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Notice how many times the writer of Hebrews uses the phrase “by faith” in chapter 11. The hymn reflects this in the very second line of the hymn, “Who Thee by faith before the world confessed”. Faith in Christ is what all saints have in common.
We are still, of course, enduring “the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1.) It is filled with trials (as we see some examples in Hebrews 11), but we are God’s chosen people The trials of this race were faced by our Lord, in Spades. He “endured the cross” to pay for our sins. We are to keep our eyes fixed on Him (Hebrews 12:2) and His Gospel through which His Holy Spirit brings us to faith and keeps us in faith; this means clinging to our Baptism and treasuring the Lord’s Supper and the Scriptures.
Fixing our “eyes on Jesus” through the Word and Sacraments, is important. We don’t get to make a custom Jesus. Such a “Jesus” would be an idol. There is no substitute for the real Jesus and we find him where he chooses to be found, Word and Sacrament.
As we follow our “Captain” (verse 2) we face “labors” (verse 1), we “fight” (verses 2, 3, 5) and “struggle” (verse 4), just like the saints who have won the victor’s crown of gold (verse 3). Jesus, though, is our leader. To Him we look for help (Hebrews 12:2). So Jesus was “their rock, their fortress, and their might.” He is ours as well.
In Revelation 2:10 Jesus has a word of warning and encouragement to the church in Smyrna.
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
Jesus conquered Satan, sin, and eternal death, but the old enemy is still formidable. But when the “fight is fierce, the warfare long” our hears are brave and arms are strong because we hear the distant triumph song of the saints that Jesus has overcome. So, while we certainly will be tested in various ways, our trials are relatively short when compared to the eternal glory that awaits us (“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”). While it is true that we can’t be perfect in this life (1 John 1:8) we can be faithful—repenting of our sins, knowing we have forgiveness through Christ, and clinging to the Gospel (1 John 1:9). We can be confident of heaven. We, by grace through faith, will join the countless hosts (Revelation 7:9) streaming through the gates of pearl.
In Revelation 14:13 a heavenly spokesman tells John to write, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” Somehow the gift of “our” good works (Ephesians 2:10) is remembered in heaven (“their deeds follow them”). So the saints that have gone before us now “in glory shine” and are in “bright array.” Such admittedly figurative ways of speaking of the saints in glory (and our future state) is probably the best way to speak of those things that are currently beyond our fallen minds.
In this life we are in a war. Paul wrote:
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)
John makes the same point in Revelation 17:14.
They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
Satan and his minions war against our Lord and His followers. Our Lord has won the victory (1 Corinthians 15:57) and as judge He will sentence them to eternal punishment on the Last Day. Notice that it is Christ who gets the credit for the victory. Those who were “called and chosen and faithful” will be there. How many times is this reflected in the hymn? Through God’s grace, we will be in that number as well.