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Words: Reginald Heber (b. Apr. 21, 1783; d. Apr. 3, 1826)
Music: All Saints New, by Henry Stephen Cutler (b. Oct. 13, 1825; d. Dec. 5, 1902)
Note: This great hymn by Bishop Heber was published posthumously in 1827. Henry Cutler was an accomplished church organist and choir director. His tune was composed for the text. The hymn was written for use on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th in the formal church calendar.
A number of times the New Testament speaks of the Christian life involving spiritual warfare against Satan and his hosts.
“Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 6:10-13).
Who will triumph in this great war? It is the one who, in the words of Heber, “patient bears his cross below,” in other words, those who are committed fully to Christ.
“You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (II Tim. 2:3-4).
CH-1) The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain;
His blood red banner streams afar: who follows in His train?
Who best can drink His cup of woe, triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below, he follows in His train.
The hymn writer pictures a great and triumphal procession, with the Lord Jesus Christ at its head. Then comes the church’s first martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). He was privileged to see the glorified Christ in heaven, perhaps rising to welcome him home (vs. 55). And, even “in midst of mortal pain” he prayed for those who “did the wrong” (vs. 60).
CH-2) That martyr first, whose eagle eye could pierce beyond the grave;
Who saw his Master in the sky, and called on Him to save.
Like Him, with pardon on His tongue, in midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong: who follows in his train?
Attention is then turned to the twelve apostles, “a glorious band, the chosen few.” It is likely that each of them eventually was slain as a Christian martyr, with the possible exception of John (who was exiled to Patmos for his faith, Rev. 1:9).
CH-3) A glorious band, the chosen few on whom the Spirit came;
Twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew, and mocked the cross and flame.
They met the tyrant’s brandished steel, the lion’s gory mane;
They bowed their heads the death to feel: who follows in their train?
Twice repeated, we have the penetrating question: “Who follows in their train?” And it is a “noble army” that does so. Multitudes of believers who are now in heaven, and many who continue the battle in our own day. The fact is many more have died for their faith in Christ in the twentieth and young twenty-first centuries than in all the centuries since Pentecost put together.
CH-4) A noble army, men and boys, the matron and the maid,
Around the Saviour’s throne rejoice, in robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of heav’n, through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be giv’n, to follow in their train.
Billy Graham, in writing about this hymn in Crusade Hymn Stories (published in 1966), makes this interesting observation:
“But what kind of an army can this be, following in the train of Jesus Christ? It would seem that they are all casualties of war who have lost their lives in battle. Can this be a victorious group?” (p. 56).
The answer, of course, is yes! Indeed they are victorious and triumphant. Tertullian in AD 197 wrote against the church’s persecutors, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” (This has often been paraphrased as “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.) Out of seeming defeat has come great victory, again and again.
When Saul set out to persecute believers, they were scattered abroad (Acts 8:1-3), but we read, “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (vs. 4). It’s like trying to stamp out a small fire, and finding the sparks fly off and start new fires! Only a short-range view sees the persecution of the saints as a defeat. In eternal terms, it is definitely not (cf. Rev. 7:9-14).
1) How is the oppression and persecution of Christians able, by the grace of God, to cause the church to flourish?
2) Have you read Foxes Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe, published in 1563? What thoughts and feelings did you have when doing so?