Knowing All the Words

In a recurring dream (or maybe it’s a nightmare?), I find myself back in college during exams week. The registrar’s office has informed me that I am still enrolled in a course I thought I had dropped, and that there’s nothing to be done except take the final exam. The problem is that I don’t know where the exam is being given. I never went to the class, and it was held in a building outside of my discipline, so I don’t even know where the building is. I spend the dream searching the campus, checking the clock tower, and fretting over how I am going to know what to write when presented with the exam, all while everyone around me is focused on their purpose and confident in their accomplishments.

I feel lost and out of control, anxious and even frantic that I am not prepared for something, that I haven’t rehearsed for a performance, that I don’t know what’s expected of me, or even where to stand.

And then I wake up and heave a sigh of relief that those exam days are over and wonder what I am anxious about that triggered the return of this dream.

This level of panic probably reveals something about my personality, but I would guess it’s a common response anyone would have if they found themselves in a situation they are not prepared for. It would be like being selected to participate in a choir performance with no prior knowledge about the music to be sung, the words of the songs, or where to stand.

The Apostle John wrote that I do know the words to a song I will sing at a future performance. Instead of panicking and getting caught up in the fears and discouragements of this life, I should be rehearsing that song—the one we will sing together in heaven. Along with others who are bearing the weight of life’s heavy burdens. In Revelation 14, we read about a heavenly concert, a choir consisting of a remnant, and a song of tribute. And if you are a disciple of Christ, you are a member of that choir and you will sing that song.

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. (Revelation 14:1-3, ESV)

The 144,000 are understood to be the church in her fullness as represented by a specific number which denotes completeness. (Charles Spurgeon assumes the number is representative (No Tears in Heaven), Sam Storms provides a list of thoughts that lean in this direction here, and Kevin DeYoung explains why he comes to the same conclusion in this post.)

The readers of John’s letter were undergoing horrific persecution for their faith. Chaos ruptured their routines, their livelihoods were threatened by Roman decrees that those who refused to bow to Caesar should be stripped of their liberty to buy and sell, and many lost their lives. Here was a demonic disturbance far beyond my own discomforting dreams, and in it the believers were face to face with the same kind of hatred that emanates from the beast that John mentions in Chapter 13. Out of all of this, it was clear who the true followers of Christ were: those whose hearts had been made clean by the washing of the blood of the Lamb, who would not give in to the rulers of the age and who would cast their trust in the God who saves his remnant, who would be comforted by these promises of victory of the Lamb over the lies, deception, and violent attacks of the enemy—victory already won on the Cross and in the resurrection, victory to come at the end of the ages. Maranatha!

John’s vision of the times to come continues in Chapter 14, where the remnant are seen to be gathered on Mount Zion (2 Kings 19:31Micah 4:7), where the redeemed have found a dwelling place, and no harm can reach them because its Protector King is present among them. They lift their voices in song, like their ancestors did who sang of the steadfast love of the Lord (Psalm 33), his merciful deliverance in their times of trouble (Psalm 40), the joy of declaring his greatness (Psalm 96), the call of all creation to worship him (Psalm 98), his triumph over their enemies (Psalm 144), and his glorious exaltation (Psalm 149).

But this is a new song, not one already composed. What makes this “new” song different from the others mentioned in the above psalms, and how will we know what to sing when we join the choir?

“Brethren, we must begin heaven’s song here below or else we shall never sing it above,” writes Spurgeon in No Tears in Heaven. “The choristers of heaven have all had rehearsals upon earth, before they sing in that orchestra.” 

“Heaven is not the place to learn that song,” he expounds in his commentary on Revelation. “it must be learned on the earth. We must learn here the notes of free grace and dying love. And when we have mastered their melody, we will be able to offer to the Lord the tribute of a grateful heart, even in heaven, and blend it with the eternal harmonies.”

Let’s consider these truths about the song, the singers, and the heavenly audience:

1. The redeemed will be the ones singing this song. The redeemed know this song. The text is clear that the 144,000 are redeemed and the conclusion can be made that all who are redeemed make up this choir. If I have no clue what this song is, a) either I am not of the redeemed, or b) I am not paying attention to rehearsal calls. This is a critical opportunity to conduct some serious self-examination. Why don’t I know this song?

2. The choir sings as one voice, the sound rising up to the throne, rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over the listener, but every single voice contributes and every single singer knows the song and knows his or her part—as well as how crucial it is to lift voice into the flow of voices and coalesce into a cohesive body and not merely a collection of individual sounds. It will sound like the roar of waves upon waves of great bodies of water, or the rolling crescendo of loud thunder. The ground will shake, the air will vibrate, the redeemed will sing and the mountains will tremble. There has never been a sound like it, both loud and sweet, powerful and winsome. 

3. It will be a new song. Why? Maybe because this is the first time EVER that the entire body of Christ’s redeemed will be together to sing, Old and New Testament believers alike, all together, and the penultimate worship service begins . . . a new song because this is a new congregation who are looking upon their precious savior with new eyes, new devotion pours from their hearts, new clarity of mind informs their worship. It is new because the old would not do in this place.

4. Those who sing it will be marked as God’s people, with the name of the Lamb and of the Father written on their foreheads, so it rises up with volume and power and confidence—not in their own security but in the security sealed by the name and the identity given to his own. They will sing before the Lamb on his throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, proclaiming God’s covenant faithfulness, who gives his name to the adopted sons and daughters gathered around, all finally complete as a body.

5. That choir in heaven is the invisible church here on earth. If we, the church, are the choir, where here on earth do we find the words? Are they hidden somewhere in our pews, traced into the our hymnals, tucked into the tract rack in the foyer? Perhaps the words are hidden elsewhere, etched onto our hearts, engraved more and more deeply each time we look to Jesus for strength, proclaim his trustworthiness, gaze upon him in love, imitate him in service to one another for His glory and name’s sake.

6. Christ called and appointed us to this choir, designated according to our citizenship in heaven to be holy, capable, and proficient. Human choirmasters might search for loftier qualities when auditioning singers, but for heavenly choir members, we will be raising our voices side by side with outcasts and marginalized and favorite sons and beauty queens, the weakly gifted, the timid—all brothers and sisters in Christ. 

7. Rehearsals began the day we took on the robes of Christ’s righteousness in faith, which has occurred at a different time for each of us, and it means each of us will have a different amount of rehearsal time. For some, we have many years from the day of our conversion until we are called home to sing in the choir. For others, we enter the realms of glory sooner than we expect and perhaps, we think, before we’re ready to sing. But God knows when we’re ready.

8. A choir must have members who deny self. This calls for paying careful attention to the guidance of choir director (the Holy Spirit), careful listening to the other choir members to sing our harmonies in nestled strains, together and needing one another for the beauty. We are nonetheless a motley crew while in rehearsal, out of tune, resistant to learning our lines, envious, show-offs, trying to undermine other singers, forgetful, skipping rehearsals, not practicing at home, and so on. Imagine the frustration, and yet He is patient, leading us in practice, preparing us for the day of our performance on Mount Zion.

“And you who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” (Col 1:22-23, ESV)

9. We exist in the already-not yet, time-space continuum of not knowing the song now and still learning it, and one day being able to sing with full understanding and ability. How can both exist? How do we get from here to there?

We rehearse by being the church. 

I think a case could be made that rehearsing for heaven happens when we fulfill the “one another” commands, and it manifests like fellowship, exhortation, edification, comfort, mercy care, discipline, encouragement, and accountability. Surely the world will know who the choir members are—not by robes or vestments or matching outfits, but by our love for one another. We, the church, the body of Christ, have a supernatural, extra-worldly, transcendent relationship to Him, being found in Him and working out his commands by Him and through Him. 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18–25, ESV)

Eternity beckons our attention, we are here in this realm, already citizens of a heavenly home but not yet there. It may be a waste of time to focus on the vanities of this world, but it is not a waste of time to be about the business of sharing the gospel, loving one another, spreading the words and tune of the song to be sung on that bright new day that dawns on Mount Zion, singing of what God has done in history and what Jesus has done to give us a blessed hope of resurrection.

Rehearsing is a posture of love. We sing of his love and mercy, his protection and direction, and we do it in action when we consider God’s love and then love others that we might give him glory. And when we take up our place in the choir,“We know we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers.” (1 John 3:14, ESV)

If harmony is the goal, if we are to achieve complete comprehension of the words that will be sung before the throne without mangling them, without sounding like a clanging gong or crashing noise, then perfect unity through love to Christ is the only way.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV)

We will wake up to sing the new song whilst a funeral dirge sounds over the mortal life left behind. What glory to share even today the hope of the day to come when the heavenly choral worship will mean a death to all earthly sorrow and pain, injustices and disease, catastrophe and toil, the end of terror, the cessation of the draining presence of sin. 

“The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth!” King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:1)

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” (Philippians 1:21, ESV)

Get yourselves to rehearsal, church. Step up your song knowledge. Ask yourself what verses or choruses you need to work on. Who do you need to invite to choir practice?

Resources:
“They Will Rest from Their Labor” (Kim Riddlebarger on Revelation 14:1-13
The Complete Works of C.H. Spurgeon, Vol. 39
No Tears in Heaven (C.H. Spurgeon)

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