What Are You Holding On To?
“One of the repeated emphases of the entire New Testament is that it is the very nature of the church to be a martyr people. When Jesus taught that a man to be his disciple must deny himself and take up his cross (Matt 10:38; 16:24), he was not speaking of self-denial or the bearing of heavy burdens; he was speaking of willingness to suffer martyrdom. The cross is nothing else than an instrument of death. Every disciple of Jesus is in essence a martyr; and John has in view all believers who have so suffered.” [Akin, Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Jesus in Revelation, 146].
“On December 2, 2014, the Christian Post carried a story titled, ‘Vicar of Baghdad: Four Iraqi Christian Kids Beheaded After Refusing to Convert to Islam, Telling ISIS Militants ‘No, We Love Jesus.’’ That story contained the following:
Four Iraqi Christian children, who were all beheaded by the Islamic State, refused to betray Jesus and graciously died in his name when the ISIS militants gave them one last chance to say the Islamic words of conversion, the Rev. Canon Andrew White revealed in a recent interview. . . . White recounted the recent incident when ISIS militants beheaded four kids, all of who were under the age of 15, when the kids refused to say that they would follow the Prophet Muhammad and told the ISIS fighters that they will always ‘love’ and ‘follow’ Jesus.
“ISIS turned up and they said to the children, ‘You say the words that you will follow Muhammad.’ The children, all under 15, four of them, they said, ‘No, we love Yasua [Jesus]. We have always loved Yasua. We have always followed Yasua. Yasua has always been with us,’” White said. “[The Militants] said, ‘Say the words!’ [The Children] said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ They chopped all their heads off.” (“Beheaded,” Dec. 2, 2014).” [Akin, 146-47]
Earbuds over Relationship
I want to share one of my failures that happened recently
We were traveling to FL for the Pastor and Spouse Summit and Levi was with us
He asked to borrow a set of earbuds, so when we stopped next I got a pair out of my book bag (I always carry two pair with me)
I gave him my older pair to use
When we stopped later, I was getting into my book bag to look for something else and noticed that the newer pair of earbuds were not in their case
So, I asked Levi if he knew where they were
He had taken the newer pair at another stop and started using them
I was upset, because he had switched them and hadn’t asked me to use the newer pair
He returned the newer pair, but a little while later I felt convicted for overreacting and holding on to the newer pair of earbuds too tightly
I apologized to Levi and told him that he could use my newer pair of earbuds, which he did for the rest of the trip
It’s sad that my initial reaction was to value the earbuds over my relationship with Levi, but the Holy Spirit quickly convicted me of that
Valuing Possessions over Relationships
Perhaps we’re all guilty of doing this in some form
We can easily become upset when our children or grandchildren touch something that we highly value (our fear is that they will break it, making it valueless)
It can be our vehicle
It may be some decorative piece in our home
Perhaps it’s an electronic device
It could be a computer or gaming system, a television or sound system
Maybe it’s an heirloom
I want you take a moment to think about that one item that you perhaps value over a relationship
Comfort over Eternal Relationships
We tend to do that when it comes to sharing the Gospel with those in our sphere of influence and especially outside our sphere of influence
Keener expresses it well after he says that Christians should witness boldly because we know that we will be persecuted and that God will vindicate us, “Yet, in the United States, it is often my experience that Christians are complacent, satisfied with their own conversion and personal ‘growth.’ As I witness to members of various cults like Mormons, I often find a greater commitment to spreading their message – though it is a false gospel – than I find among most evangelical churchgoers.” [Keener, The NIV Application Commentary, Revelation, 225]
John sees the souls of martyred believers, and hears that there will be more martyrs coming. If he was here with us today, he would probably ask us the question . . .
BIG QUESTION – Are we willing to sacrifice everything for the Gospel?
GOD (Revelation 6:9-11)
Martyrs (v. 9)
Fifth seal opened
Jesus opens the fifth seal and immediately John sees an altar in heaven with the souls of martyrs under it
For those who hold to a pre-tribulation rapture of the church, there is an effort to explain the scene that John reveals after the opening of the fifth seal
Some scholars suggest that this is an interlude in the judgments, that give us a glimpse of where those who have been martyred, throughout history, have gone
Yet the prayer of supplication from these souls would not apply to the martyrs of past history, because those who persecuted and killed them would have already died and come into judgment before God
So it’s probably not referring to all souls that have been martyred, but rather to the most recent souls that were killed at the hands of the inhabitants of the earth
“Far more probable is that the opening of the fifth seal introduces the fact that even the elect of the tribulation period do not avoid the consequences of the far-reaching impact of the seal judgments.” [Patterson, The New American Commentary, Revelation, 183]
Osborne cites Heil, “He believes the ‘slaughter’ occurred as the result of the ‘slaughter’ of the first four seals (6:4) . . .” [Osborne, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, 283]
Both Patterson and Heil suggest that believers are still here on earth during the opening of the first four seals
They would have been killed when the red horse and its rider removed peace from the earth and made men slaughter each other
Other believers would have died from starvation caused by famine, through illness caused by plague/pestilence, and by wild animals because of their weakened physical state
These martyrs are under an altar
Martyrs under the altar
Added to the throne room scene is now an altar
There is no explanation about this altar, because John is more concerned about what is under the altar
There are two viewpoints about which Old Testament altar is represented by this altar in heaven
Position of the martyrs
We see that the martyrs (souls) are under the altar
This would have recalled for the 1st Century reader the blood that the priests poured out during the sacrifices – it went under the altar of burnt offering
Leviticus 4:7, The priest shall then put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense that is before the Lord in the Tent of Meeting. The rest of the bull’s blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
The same procedure is carried out for all sin offerings and for the ordination of the priests (Lev. 4:18, 25, 34; 5:9; 8:15; 9:9)
“At the ancient tabernacle of the Israelites, the blood of slaughtered animals was drained at the base of the altar, with the blood representing the life (soul) of the animal.” [Easley, Holman New Testament Commentary, Revelation, 109]
Leviticus 17:11, For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
We see a similarity then in the souls of the martyrs who are at the base of the altar in heaven
The other viewpoint is that the altar in heaven, from John’s vision, represents the altar of incense
Prayers of the martyrs
The reasoning behind this viewpoint comes from verse 10 and the fact that the martyrs are lifting up prayers of supplication before the Lord
Those who prefer the altar of incense refer to the other references of an altar in heaven and how it talks about it being an altar of incense (Rev. 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7)
Revelation 8:3, Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.
We also see in Scripture that the prayers of the saints are like incense
Psalm 141:2, May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.
Revelation 5:8, And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are like the prayers of the saints.
Mounce’s viewpoint is mentioned by two other commentators [Akin & Osborne] when he says, “It is probably unnecessary to conjecture whether the altar is the altar of burnt offering or the altar of incense. The theme of sacrifice would suggest the former, but the prayers that rise (v. 10) seem to indicate the latter. There is no reason why in John’s vision the two should not blend together as one.” [Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, 146]
We saw in Leviticus 4:7 that the blood of the animal sacrifice was put on the horns of the altar of incense and the remainder of the blood was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering
Both altars had the life of the animal (soul) used on them
Which altar is represented here is of less importance to me than the reason behind why these souls were martyred
Why they were martyred?
Word of God
For the readers of the 1st Century, the Word of God went hand-in-hand with the teachings/testimony of Jesus Christ that they had heard directly from Jesus or from His apostles
It is not necessarily two different things that are being communicated here, but rather the second being more specific about the first [Mounce, 147]
Testimony they had maintained
Is this the testimony they received from Jesus or the testimony they maintained for Jesus
John was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony he had maintained for Jesus (Rev. 1:9)
It is important for us to maintain our testimony for Jesus, but our testimony comes from who Jesus is and what He did and said on earth
Received from Jesus
“The Greek word martus, which gives us our English word martyr, simply means ‘a witness.’” [Wiersbe, 588]
Revelation 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.
Revelation 17:6, I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
“Those who died, therefore, are those who gave their lives in faithfulness to God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ.” [Mounce, 147]
We see here that these martyrs from the time of the tribulation (opening of the first four seals) gave everything for the Gospel of Jesus Christ
“Some ants build; some ants sow and later reap the crop; and some apes fight and have wars although they are not as cruel as people are. But nothing in nature, except for man, ever tries to think of the meaning of life. Nothing climbs above its natural physical needs. No living creature, except for a man, is able to take a risk, and even the risk of death, for the sake of truth. Thousands of martyrs who have lived are a unique phenomenon in the history of all our solar system.”
Slain Russian Orthodox priest Aleksandr Menn, cited by Larry Woiwode in Books & Culture, Vol. 2, no. 2.
They did not hold on to their own lives too tightly
Are we willing to sacrifice everything for the Gospel?
PRINCIPLE – God may require some of His people to give their lives in service to Him and the Gospel.
Keener shares that some of his students (primarily from the United States) in his Revelation class at Palmer Theological Seminary were getting nervous about the possibility of martyrdom
Emmanuel Itapson, a student and minister from northern Nigeria, “explained that martyrdom looks small when you actually face it.” Keener continues, “If we have proved our faithfulness in most of the tests we face today, we will have practiced for bigger tests if they come.” [Keener, 226]
Hudson Taylor was looking for men and women to establish “culturally sensitive indigenous Chinese churches” and who would put Jesus, China, and souls, above everything else in their lives, including their own lives [Keener, 226]
The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 tested the testimony of the missionaries and Chinese Christians (188 Protestant missionaries and 30,000 Chinese Christians were slaughtered), yet their martyrdom launched a “threefold church growth in the next decade.” [Keener, 226]
As Christians in the United States, who have rarely if ever experienced any kind of persecution for our faith are really unwilling to sacrifice anything for the Gospel, let alone our own lives
Musician, John Fischer, expresses our lack of sacrifice well, “Point a gun at each of the 60 million people who, according to Mr. Gallup’s poll, are born-again Christians. Tell them to renounce Christ or have their heads blown off, and then take a recount. I think George, like Gideon, would find his troops dwindling. Actually, the price probably wouldn’t have to be so extreme. Threatening to confiscate their TV sets might just produce the same results. When faith is cheap, it is easily pawned.” [Keener, 227]
Billy Graham asked the question of himself that applies to every believer: “In my eagerness to give away God’s great gift, have I been honest about the price He paid in His war with evil? And have I adequately explained the price we must pay in our own war against the evil at work in and around our lives?” [Keener, 227]
Here’s the difficult part for many Christians in the United States today, Billy Graham was highly motivated and eager to share the Gospel with everyone he came in contact with and yet questioned his own heart
As followers of Jesus Christ (who are mostly fearful about sharing the Gospel with our closest friends) do we even care about or love those in our communities who will spend all eternity separated from Jesus Christ and God?
We may say we care about and love them, but are we willing to sacrifice everything we have, including our own lives to share the Gospel with them
My Next Step Today Is To: Ask the Lord to help me willingly sacrifice everything for the Gospel.
I’m not asking you to go sell everything you have and move overseas to share the Gospel
If God prompts you to do that, then be obedient to Him
I’m asking you to consider sacrificing one or two things in order to be on mission to Pursue, Grow, and Multiple Disciples for Jesus Christ
I can’t tell you what it is you need to sacrifice, but I encourage you to diligently pray until you hear the voice of God telling you what He wants you to sacrifice
It may be money, possessions, time, fear, or something else
“Throughout the persecution and suffering in the book, the church is presented as a witnessing church. They do not flee for their lives or compromise the gospel in order to avoid persecution but boldly maintain their witness in the desperate situation.” [Osborne, 285-86]
The martyrs under the altar are praying a prayer of supplication
Martyr’s Request (v. 10)
They are calling out in a loud voice, which is again representative of their prayer being clearly heard and understood
They are praying to the Sovereign Lord
The Greek word for “Lord” is despotes and is used for the master of slaves
What is being expressed is that God has absolute power and authority – they are recognizing Him for who He really is, Omnipotent
It is only used here in Revelation
They also use two other attributes of God
Holy – perfect
True – trustworthy
Our prayers to the Lord should also be seasoned with the attributes of God
How long until you judge and avenge our blood?
We see the use of the question, “How long,” in other parts of Scripture
The Psalmist asks the Lord, how long, How long will the wicked, O Lord, how long will the wicked be jubilant? (Psalm 94:3)
The prophet Habakkuk asks the Lord, how long, How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Habakkuk 1:2)
Jesus explains in the parable of the persistent widow that God will bring about justice, And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? (Luke 18:7)
God is not blind, His arms are not short, He is aware of the plight of the martyrs
The martyrs are not pleading for personal revenge or vengeance, but rather for God’s divine justice to be served
They are not questioning whether or not God will judge, but rather inquiring about the timing – when will it happen?
The opening of the sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17) will bring some judgment on those who have slain these martyrs
We will also see that the Lord has heard their prayers as the seventh seal is opened and the golden censer is used
Read Revelation 8:3-5
Inhabitants of the earth
This is talking about the human race that is in rebellion against God
These are not believers that are being referred to here
The martyrs do not have to wait long for the Lord’s answer concerning their prayer of supplication
More Martyrs (v. 11)
God responds in two ways
First, the Lord gives each of the martyrs a white robe
“Was given” is another divine passive, which tells us that this is the sovereign will of God
The white robe in this passage would have been one that reached to the floor
It was a robe of honor and dignity
The color white speaks of purity, holiness, blessedness, and victory
“The white robe assigned each of these martyr-spirits as a pledge of future and final glory (vii. 9) and a consoling proof that no judgment awaited them (xx. 4-6), is a favourite gift in the Jewish heaven (cf. Enoch 1xii. 15 f., and ASC. Isa. Ix. 24 f.).” [Moffatt cited by Patterson, 185]
They were probably given this robe as a reward for their faithfulness to the Lord, even to the point of death
“As we began to pastor our first church, my wife, Lori, and I found we were going to have a third child. Several weeks later, Lori was going through her clothes, which no longer fit. Watching her, our 5-year-old son asked, ‘Mom, now that you're going to have a baby, are you going to have to wear 'eternity' clothes?’”
Rev. Bill McKibben, Woodlake, Cal. "Kids of the Kingdom," Christian Reader.
That’s what I envision when I see the Lord giving these martyrs a white robe – they have received their “eternity clothes”
We see that the Lord responds in a second way
Wait for more martyrs
He tells the martyrs to wait a little longer
The Greek word for “wait” can be translated “stop” or “rest”
Within the context, the martyrs are being asked to stop their plea before God
But it also has the sense that they can rest knowing that God will judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge their blood
They are told to stop or rest, because there are more martyrs who need to join them before God is ready to judge the wicked on earth
PRINCIPLE – God will avenge the death of His saints at the right time.
“The emphasis is on divine sovereignty. God knows each one who is to be martyred and will vindicate them all at the proper time, which will soon come.” [Osborne, 289]
There is nothing to fear in martyrdom, because God is still in control
Those who are martyred for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ are precious to God
Psalm 116:15, Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
We know that the Lord is the One who will defend and avenge us – He has promised that in Scripture
Deuteronomy 32:35a, It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
Romans 12:19, Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
We don’t know if God will require us to give our lives for the Gospel
The question is really, are we willing to sacrifice everything for the Gospel?
Is there something that is holding you back?
Perhaps you need to sacrifice that item(s)
Most of us know, intuitively, what we should sacrifice in order to be on mission for the Lord
Are we willing to take that step
Romans 12:1-2, Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Hope for our eternity
We know that God will judge those who persecute us and avenge the blood of His saints
Paul taught this hope of eternity to the Corinthian believers
2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with Lord.
Do you have that confidence today?
“Mark Batterson tells of a modern day martyr in his book Chase the Lion:
With his hands tied behind his back, missionary J. W. Tucker was beaten and then with sixty of his Christian compatriots he was thrown into the crocodile-infested Bomokande River. It wasn't ISIS or Al-Qaeda who claimed responsibility. The attack took place on November 24, 1964, at the hands of Congolese rebels.
Our natural instinct is to feel sorry for Tucker, whose earthly life was seemingly cut short. But life can't be cut short when it lasts for all eternity. A holy empathy for his wife and children, who survived the terrorist attack, is biblically mandated. But heaven gained a hero, a hero in a long line of heroes who trace their genealogy back to the first Christian martyr, Stephen.
In the grand scheme of God's good, pleasing, and perfect will, eternal gain infinitely offsets earthly pain. God doesn't promise us happily ever after. He promises so much more than that—happily forever after.
It was that eternal perspective that inspired J. W. Tucker to risk his earthly life for the gospel. Tucker didn't fear death because he had already died to self. It wasn't an uncalculated risk that led J. W. Tucker into the Congo during a civil war. He counted the cost with his missionary friend Morris Plotts. Plotts tried to convince his friend not to go. "If you go in," he prophetically pleaded, "you won't come out." To which Tucker responded, "God didn't tell me I had to come out. He only told me I had to go in."
Adapted from Mark Batterson, Chase the Lion (Multnomah, 2016), page 107