Fifth Seal: The Martyrs Under the Altar: Part 2 of 3 (series: Lessons on Revelations)
by John Lowe
This earth will be literally hell on earth after the Rapture. Now the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, bridles the passions of the ungodly men; but when the presence of the power of the Holy Ghost is withdrawn, the devil will have full sway in the hearts and lives of the masses left when the true Church is taken out.
The Scriptures always exalt Christ. He is their theme throughout. Thus in the tribulation there will be a continuing testimony to Him. This will provoke the Antichrist and his followers to hatred, to the extent that they will kill those who hold to the Scriptures and to the Christ of whom they testify. “The testimony which they held” is not the testimony that you and I give today in this Age of Grace. We testify to the saving grace of God and to the gift of God—the Lord Jesus Christ. These people will testify to the coming Kingdom. They will preach that Jesus is coming to set up a kingdom on earth, and that testimony will cause unheard-of persecution. When Antichrist and his followers hear these fanatical preachers declare that One is coming to set up a kingdom, they will be furious—and persecution will be meted out as never before on the face of this earth.
Their testimony concerning the coming kingdom, concerning the Christ who will sit on the throne, and concerning the kingdom rights of Christ and His followers (Matthew 24:14) will be trampled underfoot, and the witnesses who declare this message will be cruelly, brutally slain. Please notice the sacrificial word slain that is used here instead of killed, which appears in verse 11. The first group referred to is composed of Jews, the latter group of “their fellow servants and their brethren (v. 11),” both Jews and Gentiles. The word “slain” is used in keeping with the special character of these witnesses, probably all Jews. The second group referred to will be killed under the beast (Revelation 13:7, 11).
But the death of the tribulation believers is not the end of them. Death never is the end of any man. The word “souls” in this passage is not limited to the spiritual part of man in contrast to his body. It is used for the person himself. Jesus used the words “soul” and “himself” interchangeably (Mark 8:36; compare Luke 9:25). In another passage our Lord admitted that one man can kill the body of another, but He denies that one man can kill the soul of another. He said, “And fear them not which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Stephen used the word “soul” to signify a person when he said, “Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, three score and 15 souls” (Acts 7:14). The point to be made in our study is that the martyred saints were both conscious and fully rational. When God created man, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). The soul, then, is what man is, a rational being, and this is what he will be forever. The body is merely the vehicle to house his conscious, rational being and through which he can express himself. Of course, the intermediate state is not a perfect state. The hope of all saints is to be housed in Heaven in their resurrection bodies (2 Corinthians 5:2-3).
The “altar” referred to here is in Heaven, and is, undoubtedly, the “altar” of burnt offering (or, “the alter of sacrifice”) which stood in the court of the tabernacle and the temple; where animals would be sacrificed to atone for sins. This “altar” was made of brass, symbolizing the endurance of divine judgment. There are some very good Bible commentators who believe this is the alter upon which Christ offered his blood for the sins of the world. They take the position that His literal blood is in heaven and that Hebrews 9:23-24 confirms this: “These things are copies of the real things that are in heaven. These copies had to be made clean by animal sacrifices. But the real things in heaven must have much better sacrifices. Christ went into the Most Holy Place. But it was not the man-made one, which is only a copy of the real one. He went into heaven, and he is there now before God to help us.” You will also notice the “altar” of chapter 11:1, chapter 14:18, chapter 16:7. The golden “altar” of intercession comes into view twice in these scenes—chapter 8, the latter part of verse 3, and in verse 9:13. The first “altar” mentioned in verse three and the altar in verse five of chapter eight refers to the brazen “altar.” Brass symbolizes the judgment of Almighty God.
Instead of the animal’s blood at the base of the alter, John saw the souls of martyrs who had died for preaching the Gospel. These martyrs were told that still more would lose their lives for believing in Christ (6:11). In the face of warfare, famine, persecution, and death, Christians need to stand firmly for what they believe. Only those who endure to the end will be rewarded by God (14:12; Mark 13:13). Standing firm to the end is not a way to be saved but the evidence that a person is really committed to Jesus. Persistence is not a means to earn salvation; it is the by-product of a truly devoted life. Times and trial serve to sift true Christians from false or fair-weather Christians. When you are pressured to give up and turn your back on Christ, don’t do it. Remember the benefits of standing firm, and continue to live for Christ.
10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
John saw the souls of those who had been slain, under the altar . . . the altar upon which they had been sacrificed by their persecutors. John heard the cry from the souls of these martyrs, crying allowed for vengeance on their enemies. Do you notice anything unusual here? These martyrs who had sealed their testimony with their life’s blood, did not pray as Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They did not pray as Stephen prayed, “Lord lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). The change of dispensation changes the character of Jehovah’s dealings with ungodly men. Law was the principle on which God dealt with wicked men in the Old Testament era. Grace is the principle on which God deals in this present dispensation. Grace goes the second mile. If one takes your coat, give him your overcoat. These martyrs are crying out in another dispensation. Grace is passed. They are crying in keeping with psalm 94: “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud. Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?” (Psalm 94:1-3). Just as David had written psalms that called for vengeance against his enemies, so these martyrs asked for vengeance and vindication against the people who belong to this world. These words may sound harsh when used in prayer, but the martyrs were calling for God’s justice, and they were leaving the vengeance to God. God promises to help the persecuted and to bring judgment on unrepentant sinners. But is it “Christian” for these martyred saints to pray for vengeance on their murderers? After all, as we mentioned, both Jesus and Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who killed them. I have no doubt that, when they were slain on earth, these martyrs also prayed for their slayers; and this is the right thing to do (Matthew 5:10-12, 43-48). The tribulation saints will be living in the dispensation of judgment; thus they pray according to the ruling principle of that period of time in which they find themselves.
This was not revenge that they wished upon their enemies but an appeal for God to punish His enemies, a plea for God to rule. This is a prayer that longs to see the power in the hands of the One who rightfully controls the universe. Those who had killed these believers had mocked God by harming His witnesses. The martyrs’ cry echoes the words of the imprecatory psalms2. The martyrs were eager for God to bring justice to the earth (see also Romans 12:19).
The judgment of sin on the cross, when Jesus laid down His life willingly, is the foundation on which securely rests our glory in Heaven, our peace with God the Father. The judgment of sin on the ungodly and the wicked that will be on earth after the Rapture, is imperative. It must be, in order to clear the earth of evil and to make it a fit dwelling place for God’s earthly people. “The earth is the Lords and the fullness thereof.” It was created for the meek, and the meek shall inherit the earth in due time. No one can deny the presence of a new Heaven, a new earth, and the Pearly White City. No one can deny the Bride, the New Testament Church, Israel the nation, and the saved nations, Gentiles, that will be on earth after the consummation of all things.