Four seals. Four horsemen. Four events that forever change the landscape of earth.
We have made our way through Revelation 6:1-8, and now we arrive at the breaking of the 5th seal in heaven by Jesus. As this seal is broken, our gaze, and that of John, is shifted from earth to the throne room in heaven.
Let’s observe Revelation 6:9-11 (ESV). As you do, take a gander at the drawing you downloaded in our first session in Revelation 6. If you have not downloaded the drawing, please go here to get it.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.
They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
In case you did not notice, this does NOT constitute one of those sweet and comforting stories we were told in Sunday school as children. These verses are all at once disturbing and encouraging. Disturbing because we are clearly told that there is a set number of believers to be martyred AND that number has not been reached yet. Encouraging because God tells us that He WILL judge and avenge those who harm His kids. There is a judgment day coming!
As we look at verse 9 we see that these souls are that are under the altar in heaven are people who have been killed because of their faith in Christ. Many scholars believe them to be tribulation martyrs, while others hold to the belief that these are martyrs of the faith from down through the millennia. Perhaps Nate Saint is there. Maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Stephen the Apostle. Peter, James, and myriads of others who gave their lives for the cause of Christ. Perhaps you are there. Perhaps I am there.
It is possible that the altar referenced here is the altar of sacrifice, which sat in the outer court of the Old Testament tabernacle. This is where the Israelite would bring his lamb or goat, tie it to the altar and slit its throat as a sacrifice for his sin. When that happened, the blood of the sacrifice was poured beneath the altar. The martyrs mentioned in Revelation 6:9 were sacrificed for the Word of God and their testimony, so it is possible that the altar of sacrifice is what is being referenced here. Some scholars, however, link this altar to the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle in the wilderness because of the prayers these saints are offering up to God. (Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4) This, to me, is the more likely answer because there will not be a need for sacrifices in heaven….Jesus has already made the perfect sacrifice.
These martyrs ask God how long it will be before He goes after the ones responsible for their deaths. This question is not one asked in anger or with the desire for revenge. The apostle Stephen, and our Lord, Jesus, prayed for grace for those who harmed them. This is the era in which you and I live currently. Yet, here in this Revelation 6 passage, we come to a new era….an era of judgment. These martyrs know that God is holy and righteous and just. They also know that He takes very seriously any harm that is done to His children. In effect, these martyrs are saying, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. They long for God to establish justice and righteousness on earth, and for that to happen, evil must be punished.
For those who like to read, I suggest Randy Alcorn’s book entitled Safely Home. It is the fictional story of the final martyr…the last Christ-follower who dies and sets in motion the events that take place in the end. It is a moving story that makes one ponder if that final martyr is alive today.
Now, let’s engage:
- Was there anything in today’s lesson that encouraged or challenged your faith?
- I would love to hear some thoughts on the happenings of the 5th seal. Let’s talk!