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Fifth Seal - Anticipation / Martyrs 6:9-11

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. - Revelation 6:9-11

When he opened the fifth seal the Lord Jesus revealed vital information about the status of the brave believers who will be put to death for their faith during the first half of the seven-year Tribulation period.

At the beginning of Revelation 6 we considered the fact that Jesus, in His great Sermon on the Mount of Olives, predicted that the first half of the Tribulation will be a period of intense persecution and martyrdom of true believers. Here is that passage again:

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. - Matthew 24:9-10

Persecution has been a reality throughout the Church Age. (See the notes on the Church at Smyrna-Vol. 1, Chapter 2, verses 8-12). Estimates of the number of Christians who have been persecuted, and those who have been killed for their faith varies, but there is no doubt that the totals are in the hundreds of millions throughout the years. ( See Wikipedia: Persecution of Christians.) Those who would not deny their faith in Jesus have been tortured and killed in the most gruesome ways. They were crucified, burned at the stake, fed to lions, torn apart, and, of course, beheaded. Many were forced to watch the torture, sexual assault and murder of their loved ones before their own execution.

This oppression is increasing greatly now, during the "Beginning of Birth Pains." In fact, the present wholesale slaughter of Christians, including the explosion of radical Islamic terrorism worldwide, is being called the greatest Christian persecution in history. One recent headline lamented, " One Christian is martyred every five minutes."

Another shocking revelation was this story: " 90,000 Christians Killed for Their Faith in 2016."

Unfortunately, Christian persecution will be intensified during the dreadful Tribulation years. This prediction raises the question, "How will there be so many true Christians during the Tribulation after the Rapture of the Church? At the moment of the Rapture, all true believers in Christ will be taken away from the planet to be with the Lord. At that moment, won't the world be devoid of born-again people? Yes, but just imagine the chaos in all of the families who have suddenly lost their Christian loved ones. Most of them will then realize that what their missing family members had told them about a day when Jesus would return for His own, must-or at least might-be the explanation of their shocking absence. Some of them might harden their hearts even more and believe whatever lie is offered by the godless representatives of the government and the media who have been left behind to "explain" the phenomenon. However, a great number of these bereaved family members and friends will turn to the Bible, Christian books, videos, and, of course, the Internet for information about the Rapture.

The Rapture was discussed in some detail at the beginning of our commentary on Revelation, Chapter 4. (See the notes on Chapter 4, verse 1.)

Therefore, huge numbers of people could accept Christ immediately after the Rapture, and there will probably be a great revival of people seeking the truth (as we will see in Revelation 7:9-10). On the other hand, these new born-again believers will not be welcome in the emerging one-world religious institutions and the growing anti-Christian government being built by the Beast (Antichrist). Their views will be considered dangerous and treasonous. They will become enemies of the state, and will be eliminated or driven underground.

Continuing to relate his vision, John said, "I saw under the altar"... This expression is used in the Bible only here. It shows that these martyrs are in a safe place-a temporary condition of refuge, under the care of their Lord.

Many altars are mentioned in the Bible. The Altar of Sacrifice-a major component of the Tabernacle in Moses' time (Exodus 27)-was prefigured by the Lord's instruction to Adam's immediate family (Genesis 4:2-5), and reinstated after the Flood by Noah (Genesis 8:20). It was a most-conspicuous aspect of Solomon's Temple (2 Chronicles 4:1-6; 7:4-5), and the later rebuilt temples in Jerusalem. Furthermore, there is a heavenly temple where Jesus went after His sacrifice on the cross. He entered the Holy of Holies to atone for sin "once for all by His own blood." (Hebrews 9:1-15).

But, as John MacArthur points out in his commentary on this verse, this altar, where the martyrs are sheltered, is more likely the heavenly version of the other altar that was employed in the Tabernacle and the Temple: The Altar of Incense (Exodus 30). (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Revelation 1-11 [Chicago: Moody, 1999] p. 195) Incense, rising up from the altar is symbolic of the prayers of God's people. This is fitting for the Tribulation Martyrs, because this fifth seal is about their fervent prayer to hasten the Lord's judgment. I

In this vision John could somehow "see" the souls. Humans have a physical, visible body, but like the rest of animal life, they also have an invisible personality: the "soul" (Greek psuchikos-psyche, or personality). Unlike the rest of animal life, we also have a third aspect of our being: our "spirit" (Greek pneumatikos-also meaning wind), that was first given to Adam when God breathed life into him-creating him in God's own image (Genesis 2:7). That is why the Apostle Paul wrote:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." -1 Thessalonians 5:23

(See the discussion of "body, soul and spirit" in the notes on Vol. 1, Chapter 1, verse 17, and Chapter 3, verse 15.)

These tribulation martyrs will not suffer normal deaths. They are called those who had been slain. The Greek word that is employed (sphazo) means to slaughter, or "kill violently."

John explains that these Christians will be killed because of the word of God. The apparent meaning of this expression is that these newly-converted Christians were radically committed to belief and practice of what they learned from God's Word-The Bible. Throughout the wretched history of Christian martyrdom, the unholy forces that wielded the swords of death were haters of the Bible and of the God of the Bible. They often promised their victims that their lives would be spared if they would denounce their belief in Jesus and the Bible. It is hard to imagine the incredible faith and moral strength of these true believers, to accept brutal death rather than deny their faith.

There is another reason why these satanic forces will want to eliminate true Christians. They will fear the holy power of the martyrs' beliefs, and the testimony they had maintained. Their faith will not be a half-hearted acceptance of a quaint ancestral religion, but a vital life-changing relationship with the risen Christ. Thus, their personal story-their testimony (Greek martyrian) is why we call them "martyrs." Such people in any age are a threat to the false beliefs of the Devil's armies.

I have often wondered, reading books like Foxes Book of Martyrs and Martyrs' Mirror, if I could stay true to my Lord to the death. I don't feel that strong. But in recent years, the horrendous escalation of beheadings and mass executions by Islamic radicals has reminded us that the Lord must grant a supernatural power of faith to His beloved saints. When, in our own generation, a long line of orange-clad Egyptian Coptic Christians were lined up on the shore in Libya and given one last chance to deny Jesus and live, how could it be that none of them denied their Savior?

When hateful ISIS soldiers in Syria went door-to-door asking residents if they were Christians, how was it possible that so many of them, knowing it would mean instant death, professed their love for Jesus? The Holy Spirit must have been mightily at work within them, assuring them what He had earlier revealed to the Apostle Paul, that to be absent from the body will result in the privilege of being present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:7-8).

Like the martyrs of earlier ages, these Tribulation saints will be comforted by the Lord in His glorious presence. However, during this short period of future history, they will also be concerned about the ongoing slaughter on earth. Thus, they called out in a loud voice, "How long?...

They will address God as Sovereign Lord (Greek: despotes-an authority figure-"master"-who exercises complete power), and yet is holy and true. They ask the righteous all-powerful Lord, how much longer it will be until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

We remember that Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). Stephen asked the Lord the same thing (Acts 7:60), as did many other martyrs throughout history. Here is the difference: in the past there was a possibility that their enemies could repent and be saved. Not so with these "tribulation terrorists"-whose hearts will, by this time be hardened. They will soon accept the Mark of the Beast, a decision that cannot be reversed (Revelation 13:16-18; 14:8-12). They will indeed be judged, as we will see toward the end of the Revelation. Justice will be done when Jesus Christ returns as King of Kings (Revelation 19:11-21).

Then each of them was given a white robe. Throughout Revelation white robes are symbolic of salvation (Revelation 3:4-5, 18; 4:4; 7:9, 13-14; 9:14) . God's gracious plan of salvation is the major theme of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The Apostle Paul wrote that all mankind "fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23. In the Old Testament, The prophet Isaiah warned that our self-righteousness "is like filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:8), but He had said in the first chapter of his prophecy that God is willing and able to forgive and restore repentant sinners.

"Come now, and let us reason together," Says the Lord, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. - Isaiah 1:18

This takes us back to the introductory words of Revelation. The book is dedicated To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father - Revelation 1:5-6

And they were told to wait a little longer. Nearly half of the dreadful seven-year Tribulation and Great Tribulation will have been fulfilled by the time this encouraging word will be given to these martyrs. Only another three and a half years will remain until the carnage will be over, once and for all.

Thus, these martyrs are told to patiently wait until the number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, will have been killed just as they had been.

God's plan is good, and even though it will allow even more of the faithful to die, it will soon be past and the glories of His wondrous future will be revealed.

Next: Revelation 6:12-17


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