Welcome to A Revelation of Jesus. This video continues the series on the seven seals. We have seen that the opening of each seal involves the judgment of a category of people whose names have been written in the Book of Life. The fifth seal introduces martyrs, a very special category of people.
“When [the Lamb] opened the fifth seal, [John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9). These are the martyrs, people who have been killed because of their faith.
Revelation talks a lot about Martyrs.
In chapter 2 Jesus applauded “Antipas My faithful martyr, who was killed among you” (Revelation 2:13). The two witnesses in chapter 11 will “finish their testimony” and then “The beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will… kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street” (Revelation 11:7,8).
In chapter 13 the beast from the sea “was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to overcome them” (Revelation 13:7). An image of the beast will be created which will “cause as many as will not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Revelation 13:15). The Seven Last Plagues are poured out on those “who have shed the blood of saints and prophets” (Revelation 16:6).
In chapter 17 John saw a “harlot, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Revelation 17:6). In chapter 20 John saw the resurrection of “the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God” (Revelation 20:4).
All this talk about martyrs may be alarming. This is not what we had in mind when we accepted Jesus as our savior. In this video we will see that martyrdom is an extreme option for God, which He only allows when the alternatives would be so much worse.
“[John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9).
The Greek word used for slain is the word used in the old testament to describe the slaughter of sacrificial animals. In the New Testament this word is almost never used except in the Book of Revelation.
Besides the martyrs, it is also used to describe Jesus, “the Lamb as though it was slain” (Revelation 5:6,12). The martyrs follow the example of Jesus, who was killed, not because He did anything wrong, but because He revealed the truth about God, thus provoking the wrath of Satan and his followers.
There is another Greek word, Martus, from which we get the word Martyr. It is usually translated as “witness”, or “testimony” as in this verse, “those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9).
Thus martyrs are people who have a witness or testimony about Jesus, and who refuse to obey those who seek to silence their testimony, even on the pain of death.
Faithful witnesses are willing to risk their lives to share the gospel because they love God with all their hearts, and have adopted His priorities: “[God] is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2Peter 3:9). Consider the context of this verse. Peter tells us that “Scoffers will come in the last days…saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning” (2 Peter 3:3,4).
Even those who believe God’s promises are perplexed as generation after generation pass away and still Jesus does not return.
But God has waited, even though it grieves Him to see multitudes living miserable lives of sin, suffering, and finally death. Why doesn’t He just get it over with? Because when Jesus comes there will be no more chance for the myriads of people who are still on the fence. If only an effective witness would go to them and share the story of Jesus, they might repent of their sins, be saved, and live with God forever.
Many Christians don’t believe that God really needs witnesses. Calvinists believe that God elects people of His choosing for salvation, and He will make sure that they are saved. Others don’t take such an extreme position, but they still insist that God doesn’t need us, that He can speak to people through dreams, nature, providential circumstances, and even angels. This is all true, and the Bible makes it clear that no one will have an excuse that they didn’t know about God.
But it is also true that by far the most effective influence is another human being whose life has been changed by the Lord. For this reason, before Jesus returns and the opportunity to choose has passed, He will make sure that everyone on earth has the best chance possible to make a decision. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Effective witness by believers is so essential that Jesus has waited for 2000 years to return.
Given that witnesses are essential, can’t God make sure that those who sacrifice their time and effort to share the gospel are at least safe?
Again, this is not as easy as it may seem. God really has given people the freedom to choose, including the choice to harm those that they disagree with. And there is more than just human choice involved. Jesus made it clear that Satan is the prince of this world, and he is hell-bent on stopping the progress of the gospel. He inspires his followers with diabolical hatred and intensity to oppose those who threaten his hold on his slaves, and he uses lies, threats, and violence to accomplish his purposes.
This is not to say that Satan can do whatever He wants; God does care for and protect His children. But a number of texts in Revelation make it clear that sometimes God gives Satan permission to do terrible things. We will look at some of these texts and then discuss why God gives Satan so much leeway.
In the last video we saw that the red horse of the second seal symbolizes people who are counterfeit Christians. Their rider is Satan. “And it was granted to the one who sat on [the red horse] to take peace from the earth, that people should kill one another” (Revelation 6:4). The Greek word for granted is edothi. When edothi is applied to Satan and his followers, it means that Satan is given permission by God to do something contrary to God’s will.
For example, in the fourth seal, the rider of the pale horse “was Death, and Hades followed with him” (Revelation 6:8), in other words, Satan. “And power was given (edothi) to them…to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8).
The Seven Trumpets are a series of vicious plagues that Satan and his demonic forces will bring about. In the fifth trumpet “[John] saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given (edothi) the key to the bottomless pit” (Revelation 9:1). Dense smoke billowed out of the bottomless pit “Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given (edothi) power, as the scorpions of the earth have power” (Revelation 9:3). “And they were not given (edothi) authority to kill…but to torment them for five months.” (Revelation 9:5).
In chapter 13 John saw a seven-headed beast rising out of the sea who got his power and authority from Satan, the great red dragon. “And [the beast from the sea] was given (edothi) a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given (edothi) authority to continue for forty-two months…It was granted (edothi) to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him (edothi) over every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Revelation 13:14,15).
John saw another beast coming up out of the earth “And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted (edothi) to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast…He was granted (edothi) power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Revelation 13:14,15).
These texts show that God gives Satan extraordinary permission to carry out his diabolical plans, which may include the killing of God’s followers. But why? Surely God does not want these terrible things to happen.
We can gain insight from the story of Satan’s challenge in the book of Job.
The scenario was “A day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). The Bible does not explicitly say who the sons of God are, but we can get a clue from the genealogy of Jesus in Luke chapter 3. “Jesus…being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat…” continuing clear back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:23-38).
Adam, created without human parents, was the son of God. This implies that the created firstborn of other orders of beings were also sons of God. The meeting where “the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord” (Job 1:6) was likely a group of the firstborn of the created beings from other worlds.
But why was Satan there among them? His description in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 suggests that he was the firstborn of the angels. He originally had an exalted position: “[He was] the anointed cherub who covers” (Ezekiel 28:14). His right to this position was indicated by his activity: “[He] walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones” (Ezekiel 28:14). But when he sinned, he forfeited his position of honor.
Being cast out, Satan no longer had a world to represent in God’s council. But notice what he says when God asks him why he has come. “The sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘from where do you come?’ So Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it” (Job 1:6,7).
Just as his activity of “walking back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones” signified his rightful position as first among the angels, his assertion that he was “walking back and forth on the earth” was a claim of ownership and dominance of the earth.
This was not what God intended for the earth; He created it for humans to rule. Satan stole the dominion from Adam and Eve, but God was not willing to concede that Satan completely rules the earth. God reminded Satan of Job, “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).
We see here that God did not have a problem with Job. He was not seeking to develop his character or teach him lessons. God was answering Satan’s serious challenge. If God were to concede the earth to Satan, the suffering that we now see would be nothing in comparison.
But Satan refused to accept God’s characterization of Job. He accused God of buying Job’s loyalty by blessing and protecting him. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him?… You have blessed the work of his hands and his possessions. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse you to Your face!” (Job 1:11).
Because the stakes were so high, God allowed Satan to destroy Job’s possessions, his family, and his health, not because He wanted Job to suffer, but because He did not want the whole world to suffer even more under the increased power and authority that Satan would gain if his claim of dominion was not challenged.
Before you get worried that you could end up as a pawn in the cosmic controversy, keep in mind that God doesn’t use us unless in some sense we “give Him permission”.
Many Christians have prayed, “Lord, do whatever you want with me, use me in whatever ways you know to be best”. Sometimes God even gives his servants a premonition of what they may face before they decide to embark on a mission of sharing the gospel in a dangerous setting. We see this most clearly in the experience of the apostle Paul.
Paul, then known as Saul, had been very zealous for the traditional Jewish religion, even persecuting Christians who he considered heretics. But after meeting Jesus in a blinding vision on the road to Damascus, he lay in bed waiting for God to show him what was next.
God spoke to Ananias, a faithful disciple, telling him to go anoint Paul and heal his blindness. When Ananias objected that Paul had been persecuting the church, God told him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15,16).
Paul accepted God’s plans for his life, and he did suffer many things. But for him it was worth it to be God’s hands, feet, and voice, winning people who would be his “joy and crown” in the eternal kingdom (Philippians 4:1, 1Thessalonians 2:19). From this example we see that those who become martyrs are willing to sacrifice their lives for God’s kingdom.
Back to the fifth seal, “[John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘how long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9,10).
We should not take too literally this seemingly uncomfortable place under the altar where the dead martyrs have to hang out. This whole section is highly symbolic.
In the Old Testament sanctuary service the altar symbolized Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The priests were instructed to “pour all the blood beside the bottom of the altar” (Exodus 29:12). Since for ritual purposes the life is synonymous with the blood (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11), this verse shows us that in their death the Martyrs “under the altar” are actually with Jesus at the foot of the Cross, as close to His heart as it is possible to be.
Neither should we think that their cry, “How long…until You judge and avenge our blood” is a blood-thirsty demand for punishment of their foes. Martyrs, like Jesus, loved their enemies enough to die for them. Their symbolic cry echoes that of Abel, the first martyr. “What have you done?” God asked of Cain. “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).
God gives an answer of comfort and assurance: “A white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” (Revelation 6:11).
This doesn’t mean that God has a quota of martyrs or needs to reach a certain number before He is satisfied.
The Greek word plihroo does not refer to a specific number, but rather fulfillment or completion. In other passages of scripture this word is used to refer to the fulfillment of an unfortunate but unavoidable requirement in the plan of God.
These requirements are necessary because witnesses are essential to give lost sinners the best chance for salvation, and because of the challenges to God’s character and government that have been made by the enemy.
Because of the great controversy and the vast number of people who still do not know about Jesus, it is necessary for history to continue, and Satan will always make sure that there will be martyrs. These martyrs provide a powerful testimony to the value of Jesus and His kingdom. He is worth dying for.
Those who suffer persecution and face a martyr’s death often feel alone and abandoned, even by God. But the message of the fifth seal teaches that God has a special place of honor in the judgment for those who make the ultimate sacrifice.
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