************ Sermon on Revelation 6:9-11 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 16, 2008
"The Voice of the Martyrs"
Last time we watched as the Lamb Who is worthy opened the first four seals on the scroll of destiny – the scroll that contains God's plan of judgment and salvation. We watched as four horsemen – Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, Death/Hades – went galloping to the four corners of the earth with God's judgment.
Someone said to me afterwards, "You scared me." "You scared me." "Why did this scare you?" "Because the judgment of the four horsemen falls on us too." My response: "This is judgment on unbelievers but for Christians this is not judgment."
A Christian and a non-Christian can look at the same event, can experience the same event, and come to entirely different conclusions. Where the world sees Conquest, the Christian sees God working for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28). Where the world sees Slaughter, the Christian sees an opportunity to develop perseverance (James 1:3). Where the world sees Famine, the Christian sees God enabling us to work out our salvation (Phil 2:12). Where the world sees Death/Hades, the Christian sees victory (Phil 1:21). This is the approach that we need to take as we look at the opening of the fifth seal.
Now, as I told you last week, I want you to note that in our Scripture reading the scroll of destiny itself has not yet been opened. Jesus has not yet opened the scroll of judgment and salvation and set its contents into motion. We have in front of us acts of pre-judgment and pre-salvation as the seals are being broken. Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, Death/Hades are only a foretaste of what is to come. It is bad now but it is going to get a whole lot worse. Remember what I indicated – that the judgment of the four horsemen is restrained? For instance, Famine is visited upon the grain but the olives and grapes are left untouched (Rev 6:6). And Death/ Hades are given power over only a fourth of the earth (Rev 6:8).
We need to look at the new life in the same way. When we compare the already to the not yet, we see that in the Spirit we as Christians already have a foretaste of the new age; it is good now but it is going to get a whole lot better.
I want you to also note that at the center of our Bible reading is a question that we humans like to ask over and over again. "How long?" "When?" "When will all of this stuff take place? When will the scroll of destiny be opened? When will the final acts of judgment and salvation take place?" (Rev 6:10).
We see this question when Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple. Just prior to His crucifixion Jesus told His disciples about wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets; using different language, Jesus was telling His disciples about the four apocalyptic horsemen. Remember what the disciples asked? "When will this happen?" "Can you mark it on a calendar for us, Jesus?" "Can you tell us the date?" (Mt 24:3). Remember Jesus' response? "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mt 24:36).
We see this question asked again just before Jesus ascended into heaven. The disciples asked Jesus, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Jesus said to them,
(Acts 1:7-8) "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. (8) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."Do you hear what Jesus is saying? "When" is off limits. "When" is not your concern. "When" is not something you should be asking about. Rather, you need to be concerned about missions and evangelism. Don't worry about the "when." Instead, be busy being my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Some of you have told me that Harold Camping has predicted the date of the second coming. Again. Sometime in 2011. "Harold," says Jesus, "stop your guessing games. Stop your predictions. Stop your date setting and calendar marking. Concentrate, instead, on proclaiming the Gospel."
As we shall see, Jesus follows the same logic when He opens the fifth seal.
I The Gospel Martyrs
A "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" (Rev 6:9).
Let's pause a moment and note some differences with the previous four seals. This time there is no living creature. There is no command to "Come!" There is no apocalyptic horseman. Even the location has changed – we have moved from earth to heaven. The only similarity is the Lamb. He is still worthy. He is the only One worthy to open the seal.
"I saw under the altar." What altar? Where did the altar come from? Do you know what John has done? He has changed rooms. "In my Father's house are many rooms," says Jesus (Jn 14:2). We have already seen the heavenly throne room – in Revelation 4 & 5. Remember the splendor and majesty of the throne, the circles of light and rainbows and angels and crystal? Remember the Lamb in the center of the throne? But John has now changed rooms. He gives us a peek into the heavenly Temple room.
B "I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain ..." (Rev 6:9). Remember, Revelation is a book to be seen – in living color, in 3-D. It is a book to be imagined. Try to imagine this with me. What do you see? What comes to your mind? I looked on the Internet. There are a couple of sites that illustrate the Bible by chapter and verse. I wasn't completely happy with what I saw. John saw souls under the altar. How can you see souls? How can they cry? How can a soul be given a white robe. Under? How do they fit? Where do they fit? Too many questions and not enough answers.
It occurred to me I was missing something. I was taking this too literally. In my mind's eye I had to imagine something else. I found that something else in Leviticus 4. When a bull or a goat or a sheep is offered for a sin offering, some of the blood is sprinkled before the Lord, some of the blood is put on the horns of the altar, and the rest of the blood is poured out at the base of the altar. What do we see at the base of heaven's altar? The souls of the Christian martyrs. Their lives have been poured out in the same way as the blood of a bull or a goat or a sheep has been poured out.
Do you see how God looks at the martyrdom of His people? In the sight of God, Christian martyrs have been offered as a sacrificial offering on the altar of heaven. They have been "slain." That word "slain" points to the Passover lamb. That word "slain" points to Jesus' death on the cross; John tells us He is the Lamb Who was "slain" (cf Rev 5:6,9). That word "slain" means "slaughter, violence, butcher, sacrifice, a deliberate killing." The martyrs, like Jesus, have been slain. It is not a redemptive offering, it is not a saving sacrifice, it is not an atoning sacrifice – only Jesus does that – but it is still a sacrifice like Christ's sacrifice.
What do we see under the altar – the souls of slain martyrs looking like the blood of a bull or goat or lamb.
C Why did they suffer such violence? John tells us: "because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (Rev 6:9). "Word of God and testimony" – this is a popular and technical phrase in the Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:2; 1:9; 6:9; 20:4; cf 12:17, 14:12). This is a phrase that stands for the Gospel; this is a phrase that stands for the Good News that salvation and eternal life is to be found in Jesus alone because of His death and resurrection.
God takes note when His people are faithful to the Gospel. Remember what Jesus wrote to the church in Pergamum?
(Rev 2:13) I know where you live--where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives.Likewise, take note of what Jesus wrote to the church in Philadelphia:
(Rev 3:8) I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.Both Pergamum and Philadelphia remained faithful and true to the Word of God and the testimony.
Below the altar, like so much blood, John sees the souls of Christians who were faithful and true to the Gospel. When confronted, they did not flinch. When persecuted, they did not budge. When facing the sword, they were willing to die.
D By the way, do you know what these Gospel martyrs are called throughout the Revelation? These souls of the dead poured out at the base of heaven's altar are called "overcomers" (Rev 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21). They are dead. They were "slain." In the world's view they are losers. But in heaven they are seen as overcomers. Like Jesus, their triumph has come in dying like a slaughtered lamb.
John sees under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of their faithfulness to the Gospel. That was then – almost 2000 years ago. Since that time the number of souls under the altar has grown by thousands and tens of thousands. Those who know such things claim that in the last 100 years there have been more Christian martyrs than in the previous 1800 years of the church. We know that in Muslim and Hindu lands Christians are cruelly persecuted. Their blood is being poured out as we worship. Their souls are being added daily to the base of heaven's altar.
II The Cry of the Gospel Martyrs
A John not only sees the souls of the martyrs but he also hears their cry. We are told, "They cried out in a loud voice ..." (Rev 6:10). "Cried" is far too tame. The Greek means "to scream, shriek, cry aloud, bawl aloud." "Loud voice" is also far too tame. The Greek means a "great, big, large, imposing noise." It was a passionate sound. It was an unpleasant sound. It was an outcry.
They did not speak quietly and without passion [say very quietly, without passion]: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev 6:10). No, it was loud, it was passionate, it was a shriek, it hurt the ears: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev 6:10).
B We need to ask three questions about this prayer: the who, the what, the why.
Who are the "inhabitants of the earth" that the souls under the altar are shrieking about? One of my commentaries prefers the phrase "earth dwellers" in talking about these people. "Earth dwellers" is a phrase that is used throughout the Revelation of Jesus Christ. But aren't we "earth dwellers" too? In Revelation, "earth dwellers" is a technical term that is used for those people who are at home on this earth; by way of contrast, though we Christians also live on this earth, our real home is in heaven (cf Heb 11:10-16). Earth is the home of the "earth dwellers" and earth is the only home they want. They seek things below rather than things above. They seek first the earth and its riches. Their focus is the here and the now and nothing else is important. These earth dwellers hate God and they hate His church and they martyr His people. They are followers of the beast and of Satan.
What are the souls of the Christian martyrs asking God to do to the "earth dwellers"? They are asking for judgment, for justice. You need to realize that in theology we know this as an imprecatory prayer. This is a prayer calling on God to visit someone in judgment and punishment. I can already hear the objections: Christians don't do that, do they? How can Christians call down God's judgment on someone?
Why are the souls of the martyrs screaming for justice? There are three answers. First, these Gospel martyrs are not asking God to do something new. They are asking God to do what He has long ago said He would do. For them it is not a question of if it will happen but when will it happen. How long must they wait until it happens? Second, these saints are in heaven. In heaven, where they no longer experience sin and the curse of the fall; in heaven, where they cannot sin; in heaven, where they are wearing the white robes of purity and holiness. So their cry for justice is a sinless cry. Third, the martyrs love the righteousness of God. Notice what the martyred saints call God: "Sovereign Lord, holy and true" (Rev 6:10). How can God be "sovereign" if He does not listen to the voice of His martyrs crying for justice? How can God be "holy and true" if He does not make retribution against His enemies? We see that the ultimate concern of the martyrs is not vengeance, not revenge, but the honor and glory of God and His name.
III God's Response to the Gospel Martyrs
A Listen to God's response to the cry for justice: "Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed" (Rev 6:11).
The first response: they were "given a white robe" (Rev 6:11). A victory robe. What looks like loss to the world is victory for the Christian. The martyred Christian is "away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8). For the martyred Christian, death is gain (Phil 1:21). "White robe" is an important expression in the Revelation. It refers to the long robe worn by Christ (Rev 1:13). It refers to the white garments promised to the faithful in Sardis (Rev 3:4-5). It refers to the white garments worn by the twenty-four elders (Rev 4:4). Do you see what God is doing with the Gospel martyrs? God is allowing the Gospel martyrs to share in the glory of Christ and the angels.
B The second response: "they were told to wait a little longer" (Rev 6:11). A literal translation: "they were told to rest a little longer." Is God telling them to be patient? Is God telling them to slow down? Is God telling them to stop their impatience? That is not what God is saying. God is saying, "rest." "Rest" as in "Sabbath rest." Enjoy the fruit of your labors as Gospel martyrs. Rest from what the earth dwellers did to you. Rest in the peace and presence of God. Rest in the heavenly Temple of God. Rest under the altar knowing that the Lamb has also been slain and you now share in His victory.
C The third response: they were told to rest "until the number of their fellow servant and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed" (Rev 6:11). As I said earlier, our earthly preoccupation tends to be on the "when." Even the Gospel martyrs want to know the "when." Notice the answer – not a predetermined time but a predetermined number. The "when" will happen not when a certain time is reached but when a certain number is reached.
We need to realize God has a quota. God has a quota of martyrs. God has a quota of Gospel martyrs. A certain number of Christians need to die for the sake of the Gospel. A certain number of Christians need to die "because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (Rev 5:9). When that certain number has died, then the blood of the martyrs will be avenged.
Again, I can hear objections: "That sounds so gruesome. That sounds so cruel and callous. That sounds shocking." But this is nothing new. I need to refer to Matthew 24 again. Remember, the disciples wanted to know the "when"? So Jesus talks about the signs of the times: wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets, etc. And then He adds this: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Mt 24:14). Again, God has a quota. A certain number of people and places need to hear the Gospel. Then, and only then, will the end come.
Guess who will be preaching the Gospel in the whole world? The Gospel martyrs! We can put it this way: The predetermined end is dependent upon a predetermined accomplishment. When will the end come? When will the judgment happen? How long? The Gospel needs to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The full quota needs to be met of those who do the proclaiming of the Gospel at the cost of their lives. Then the end will come and the blood of the martyrs will be avenged.
Most Sunday evenings I pray for persecuted Christians. I pray for the blood of the martyrs. Why? Do you realize that in many places around the world the preaching of the Gospel happens only at the cost of blood? In Muslim and Hindu lands Christians are cruelly persecuted and killed. But do you see what God is doing? God is meeting His quota. The Gospel is being spread. The blood of the martyrs is being poured at the base of heaven's altar. Every time the Gospel is preached, every time a Gospel martyr is made, do you know what God is doing? He is bringing us closer to the end.
The "when" is not important. Only God knows when the Gospel has been preached to the ends of the earth. Only God know when His quota of Gospel martyrs has been met. What does that say to Harold Camping and most books on the second coming? What does that say to our preoccupation with date setting and calendar marking?
Do you know what is important? What is important is whether we are faithful in proclaiming the Gospel at home and abroad. What is important is whether we are willing to proclaim the Gospel at the price of our blood and our life.
"You scared me." Are you still scared? It looks scary if we don't look at this the way God does. But when we remember God is the Sovereign Lord, holy and true, then we know His purposes are being carried out and His quota is being met. To God be the glory. Amen!
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page