If William Walsham How, the author of this hymn, saw it in The Lutheran Hymnal, I think he might not entirely approve. The words in our hymnal are his, but the order is not; and three of the original stanzas have been left out.
In this long hymn, How develops the theme of the Church Militant1 looking to the Church Triumphant2 as an example and encouragement to us in our daily battles, finally culminating in the glorious return of Christ on Judgment Day. That’s a multi-part theme, which How developed in a logical and chronologically progressive manner. Unfortunately, that careful development has been somewhat weakened in our version due to the omission of three verses and a change in the placement of one verse.
Consider the following as the original developmental plan of How’s theme in this hymn. I included the text of the omitted verses. Please refer to The Lutheran Hymnal for the words to the other verses referenced.
Verse 1 The Church Militant blesses the name of Jesus for those who faithfully confessed the name of Christ—those now in the Church Triumphant.
Verse 2 Jesus was their all as they fought the good fight. He was their foundation (Rock), protection (Fortress), strength in battle (Might), leader (Captain), and illumination (Light).
Omitted original Verse 3 The first New Testament element of the Church Triumphant: For the apostles’ glorious company/ Who, bearing forth the cross o’er land and sea,/ Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee.
Omitted original Verse 4 The second New Testament element of the Church Triumphant: For the evangelists, by whose pure word/ Like fourfold stream, the garden of the Lord/ Is fair and fruitful, be Thy name adored.
Omitted original Verse 5 The third New Testament element of the Church Triumphant: For martyrs who with rapture-kindled eye/ Saw the bright crown descending from the sky/ And, dying, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Verse 4 We (the Church Militant) are joined together with the Church Triumphant as part of the one Holy Christian Church; although we still fight the battle even as they enjoy the blessings of glory.
Verse 5 Being thus joined with the Church Triumphant
(v. 4), we now can look to their example (first six verses in the original form) to encourage and strengthen us (And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong) as we fight the good fight of faith.
Verse 8 (this stanza originally appeared as third from the end, which maintained the chronologically logical progression of thought) Sunset, as the daily harbinger of rest and peace, is likened to our recognition that our struggles here will end, and (by the grace of God alone), will issue forth in the eternal blessings of heaven.
Verse 6 We now look ahead to the Day of Judgment, when Christ shall return and all the Church shall be joined together in the Church Triumphant, with the war finally won and over.
Verse 7 All believers of all times and all places will then join together in praise of the Triune God.
The biblical reference for this hymn is Hebrews 12:1, which encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Our running of this race is not meritorious—it is not that which “earns” heaven for us. As Pastor Mark Weis said in his August 14th sermon of this year, “In the race of faith, the objective is not to win the prize; rather, the objective is not to lose the prize which God has already won and has waiting for us—an eternal, imperishable, incorruptible prize that is far more glorious than we can even imagine.”
May God help us, as He did those now in the Church Triumphant, to fight the good fight of faith with endurance unto the end.
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.