Father in heaven, we ask that we would have ears to hear this word. It’s from Your Word, so it’s true and it’s good and it’s helpful, but it’s also hard and sobering. So help us to listen and help us to obey whatever you call us to do in this life and even in death. In Jesus we pray. Amen.
Our text this morning is just one paragraph, Revelation chapter 6. The last book in the Bible. We’ve been going through Revelation for several weeks now. We skipped over some parts that I had done recently and jumped right into the strange bits in chapter 6. As the Lamb of God who was slain is the only one worthy to open the scrolls, the seals on the scroll which contains God’s decree of salvation and judgment for the world. It’s a decree that means ultimately protection and deliverance for the Church, but as we’ll see today and throughout this book, it does not mean that the Church is automatically delivered from suffering in this life. In fact, it often means that the Church is signing up for greater suffering in this life.
So we come to the fifth of these seals in chapter 6, verse 9.
“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 the year A.D. 112, so perhaps just a generation after this was written, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan with a problem. Pliny, who was a judge and a magistrate in Bithynia, today northern Turkey, was a conscientious Roman official and he was wanting to make sure that he was doing the right thing. The issue before him was what to do with the Christians.
Christianity at this time in the Roman Empire was officially a crime, but there wasn’t really a universal pattern in how to treat the Christians. Should we seek them out? Do we punish them? What if they recant? Pliny wondered, “Should we be more lenient? What if they’re old and weak? What if the Christians repent or what if they offer sacrifices? Then what should we do? Should they be exterminated? Should we go after them? Are they just a mere nuisance to be tolerated?”
Pliny explained to Emperor Trajan what his current policy was in northern Turkey. He said when these people are brought before me, I ask if they’re Christians. If they say yes, then I ask them a second a third time and I threaten them with capital punishment – if you don’t recant, then you’ll be put to death. He says if they persist in calling themselves Christians, I sentence them to death for whatever else they’re guilty of, because Pliny wasn’t sure what their great crime was. He says whatever else, they’re certainly guilty of being inflexible and obstinate.
But, he says, if they recant and they worship your image, O great emperor and the statue of the gods and they curse Christ, then I let them go. Am I doing this right?
That was his question. Here was Trajan’s famous reply: “You have taken the right line, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those denounced to you as Christians, for no hard and fast rule can be laid down of universal application. They are not to be sought out. If they are informed against and the charges proved, they are to be punished, and with this reservation – that if anyone denies that he is a Christian and actually proves it by worshiping our gods, he shall be pardoned as a result of his recantation, however suspect he may have been with respect to the past.”
This was the official policy in the Roman Empire in the second century, a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell, but if you’re ratted out then you have to come before, and if you’re going to be a pain about it, well, then you could die. But if you’ll just simply curse Christ and offer a quick sacrifice or say a quick prayer to the Emperor, then we’ll let you go.”
At this point in Roman history, the Christians were thought to be kind of a nuisance and it was officially outlawed, but many of the local magistrates like Pliny, they didn’t have their heart in trying to really exterminate whole Christian communities.
Throughout the first three centuries of the Church, we should not think that persecution was everywhere intense all the time. Roughly speaking, you could think of it in the first century, it was local. It was very sporadic, it was unpredictable. It depended on who was in charge. Then in the second century, here, with Pliny and Trajan, just after the book of Revelation, though it was actually illegal, the persecution was reactive. Don’t go out and try to kill the Christians, but if they’re brought to you and they don’t recant, then something has to be done. The in the third century, persecution became more aggressive, especially the second half of the century, all the way up to the conversion of Constantine in 312. There was empire-wide effort to exterminate Christianity and try to reinstitute and reassert paganism.
Christianity has been and always will be hated by at least some of the people, some of the time. We should not exaggerate and think that we’re all hated because we’re Christians, that may be quite possible in certain situations in your family, in your school, in your workplace, and yet probably many of us, even among Christians, as long as we don’t seem too much of a nuisance, they’re happy for us to do a church thing and try to be good people, and they may not have a great deal of understanding of what we believe or what we’re about. But real, 100%, authentic Christianity has always been opposed.
Paul tells Timothy, 2 Timothy 3:12, “If anyone desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, he will be persecuted.” Lest we think Paul was saying, “If you’re a Christian, somebody’s going to try to kill you,” keep in mind what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus actually has a fairly wide description of persecution. He uses as somewhat synonymous, at least overlapping terms, persecution, slander, if people revile you, if people say false things about you. So under that broad category of persecution, Jesus and then the Apostle Paul says, “Yes, if you are following Jesus to the uttermost, they hated Jesus and some of them will hate you.”
Estimates given by scholars tell us that there’s been roughly 70 million Christian martyrs in the history of the world. To be fair, a percentage of those were Christians fighting Christians, but most of them were not. 45 million of the 70 million were killed in the last century. Almost half of those 45 million were murdered, starved to death, died in prison camps, or gulags in the Soviet Union. Currently scholars estimate over 160,000 Christians, under the broadest definition of Christian, are martyred every year, in some sense related to their faith.
Other scholars estimate that the number has actually been somewhat constant throughout history. Roughly 1 out of 120 professing Christians will lose their life on account of Christ. Now you can do the math in this room and shudder to think how many 10, 12, 15 persons, perhaps in America, we’re less likely to find it to be persecution to the point of death, but it is good to be reminded, yes, in the year 2023, there are men, women, children, who will lose their life on account of the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Our outline’s very simple. I have three questions, one question for each of these three verses. There’s no way around it. This is not a text that lends itself to funny stories about my children or funny mentions of movies. This is a very sobering text, but it’s one that we have to face.
Here’s the first question from verse 9: Are there any hills you’re willing to die on?
Not every hill is worth dying on, you’re familiar with the expression. There’s some hills that you should just give up and then there are some hills that you would say, “No, I will give my very life to defend this hill.” Might it be for your family? Maybe certain causes? Maybe you would have been willing to die for the cause of abolition in a previous century, or abortion in our time. Or be willing to die for freedom and liberty, or for your own country, or for defending rights or fighting injustices.
Would you be willing to die for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus? That’s what we read in verse 9: “Under the altar, the souls of those who had been slain.” Why? “For the Word of God and for the witness that they had borne.”
Revelation 20 verse 4 says “some were beheaded on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Here we have martyrs who were killed because they refused to water down the Word of God, because they gave testimony to Jesus Christ and His Word.
Why were Christians persecuted in the ancient world? I’ve already said a little bit about the Roman policy moving into the second century. Why were they hated? The reasons are not identical to why Christians might be hated today, but you’ll see some overlap. There were several reasons.
One, Christians in the ancient world were, surprisingly enough, charged with atheism. You think, “Really? Atheists?” Well, think about it. They didn’t have gods that you could see. They didn’t go and they didn’t bow down to statues, so they were called atheists. They have invisible gods. But more importantly than being called atheists, the Romans thought your religion doesn’t fit in with us. This is not the way we do things.
Second, to be a Christian was often considered a lack of patriotism, because the Roman system of ever-increasing gods and goddesses was a kind of social cohesion, and to refuse to offer sacrifice, to not pray and honor the Emperor as divine, would be for us like burning the flag. It was an act of defiance.
Third, the Christians were considered to have secret and sinister meetings. In the ancient world, in the ancient Church, usually there would be a preaching part of the service that people could come to, and then there would be a dismissal and the communion part of the service would be only for those members and others were not welcome there.
This led to a fourth charge against the Christians, allegations of immorality. These Christians called each other “brothers and sisters.” Is this some sort of incestuous cult? We almost laugh at it because the language is so familiar to us, but it wasn’t familiar to them. They have these things called love feasts and they drink blood in these secret meetings and they eat flesh. In fact, all sorts of wild stories developed and you can read them from the ancient texts that they were accused of having a baby and rolling it in flour and then sacrificing and drinking its blood. Might that have been baby Jesus?
These were the sort of misconceptions they had.
And ultimately a fifth reason – they were a threat to Roman power and the Roman way of life.
Now some of those reasons would be very different for us. It would not account for why people oppose Christianity. But at their heart, it’s the same reasons that people have always opposed true Christianity, because it’s always going to, even in a Christianized culture, it’s always going to fit in somewhat oddly.
There are always going to be misconceptions. People will think that your beliefs are tantamount to bigotry, for example. They will think what you’re doing in secret is something than what you’re doing, and ultimately it will be perceived as a threat to the way that things are done, because you Christians have an allegiance to something beyond this life and that makes us dangerous.
You have to remember Roman religion was not about what you believed. People did not ask if you had a personal relationship with Zeus or Jupiter, or whether you had invited Hercules into your heart. The religion was a quid pro quo relationship. One of the expressions was “do ut des,” I give so that you give. That is, you offer sacrifice to the gods so that they do things for you. They bless you with rain, with fertility, with conquest, with blessing.
So when the Christians didn’t do this, they were robbing the Roman Empire of the blessings that the gods would give them. They didn’t care, okay, you can believe whatever you want to say in the mental recesses of your mind, but just offer the sacrifice. You can imagine the temptation. Do I just do it? I tell myself I don’t really mean it. Maybe I tell myself that I’m offering it but I’m really offering it to something other than what it looks like. Many temptations to compromise, because Roman religion was about the temple and about the cult, not about doctrine.
Underlying all of this, diametrically opposed view of sex and sexuality. That’s a whole other lecture we don’t have time for today, but it has always been the case that when Christianity comes into a completely non-Christian culture, one of the pressure points is going to be sex. So it happens today as a Christian culture becomes less and less Christian that absolutely one of the pressure points, because sex is too powerful a drive and a thing for there to be many, many ways of going about it.
So the Christian view was considered so crazy, restrictive, that sex in the Roman Empire was considered licit so long as it worked on certain social strata. Basically, if you were a Roman male, a free Roman male, you would do almost anything you wanted, as long as you didn’t commit adultery with a married Roman woman. But if you wanted boys, if you wanted slaves, if you wanted, whatever outlet you need for your sexual desires, if you were a free Roman male, it was okay. Christianity comes along and says the access of right and wrong is not based on social standing, but is based on gender and marriage.
Now the Romans believed in marriage, too, but it really wasn’t considered possible for a virile Roman male to really keep his sexual energies in check. Of course he needed outlets with slaves and with little boys or girls or brothels, and Christianity comes along and says, “No, everything that is licit in sexuality is going to be channeled into this one way – a man and a woman in marriage.” That was the first sexual revolution.
We’re in the midst of another sexual revolution to undermine what took about 300 or 400 years to put in place.
For all of these reasons, Christianity was considered suspect and was often hated. Yet, as we read here in Revelation, Christians stood their ground. Not always, but they held fast the Word of God in word and deed and they bore witness. As you’ve probably heard before, the word “marturia” is the Greek “to testify,” to bear witness. They were called to martyrs because they stood fast. They said, “This is one place we would rather break than bend.” It takes wisdom, because sometimes you bend so you don’t break, but sometimes to be faithful to Christ, you say, “We cannot bend on this issue. We cannot bend on this point of doctrine or practice, so we will have to be broken rather than bend.” So they did.
Now notice where they are. Souls, verse 9, under the altar.
The idea was that there was earthly replica of a heavenly reality. This is all throughout the Old and New Testament. Hebrews 8:5 – they serve at a sanctuary, the old priests, that is a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned that he was about to build a tabernacle. See to it you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.
The Levitical tabernacle and then temple and the altar and the sacrifice, all of that was said to be a copy of some heavenly reality. So God dwells in the temple in heaven and then there’s an earthly temple or tabernacle here below.
So now we’re up in the scene in heaven. Now if you remember, some of you were here for this series on Leviticus, there were two kinds of altars. There was an altar for incense, which was before the holy of holies in the holy place, and then there was the altar in the courtyard before the tabernacle itself, that was for the burnt offerings. Both were a place where offerings would be made before God.
Now why are the souls under the altar? If you think about it, it’s pretty easy to understand. These people, these Christians, have been killed and in the intermediate state, though it’s hard to fathom what this is like, in the intermediate state prior to the resurrection, there are disembodied souls. It’s hard to conceive how do souls exist without a body, we only know embodied existence, but here it is. There are souls, they are awaiting the general final resurrection, and they’re under the altar. They’re immaterial existence. Why? Because they’ve been sacrificed.
Moses was told take some of the bull’s blood, put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, pour out the rest at the base of the altar. Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
These Christians have been sacrificed. Their blood has been poured out as an offering to the Lord. The picture here is martyrdom as an offering in the Lord’s heavenly temple. Now it’s not that God needs to be appeased in His anger by the death of His people, Christ died once for all. So this is not some propitiatory sacrifice to turn away the wrath of God, but it is a necessary sacrifice, as we’ll come to that the end. There is an appointed number of martyrs, and as their blood is poured out at the altar in heaven, just as the blood of the animals would be sprinkled on the altar on earth, so God is pleased, not pleased because His people have died, but pleased because they have borne witness even unto death.
Throughout the history of the Church, God has often done His work through the faithful testimony of His martyrs. October 16, 1555, for example. Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, were being burned as Protestant heretics in Oxford. You can go see. It’s not very well marked. You have to look there on the road to see the mark there for the Oxford martyrs. Famously, Latimer turned to Ridley and said, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man; for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.” They were willing to die on that hill, the hill that testified to the truth of the Gospel and the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Are there any hills that you and I are willing to die on? If there are none, we have to wonder if we truly are Christians. To be a Christian means there are certain things that we value as more precious than our own lives.
A second question, more quickly: Are you willing to face injustice now for justice later? Are you willing to face injustice now for justice later?
I want to be careful here, lest you think that we just take injustice and we don’t speak out against wrongs in the world. Think about the persistent widow who’s held up as an example because she kept pestering the judge for justice. So it’s right to seek justice, it’s right to try to change unjust laws. It’s right to call out when people are mistreating us. Yet there are times when even as we seek out that justice, we know that we might not get it here on earth and we choose to embrace injustice now believing that God will bring justice later.
We’re not good at living with injustice. It’s one of the strongest human emotions, isn’t it? It can be the smallest, like somebody cuts you off on the road. You would have thought you were one of the Oxford martyrs right there. You have to wait in customer service too long. You can’t get internet on the plane. Just little inconveniences, let alone real, truly devastating injustices. People betraying you because of your faith or because of your beliefs or because of your family, your race, or your ethnicity.
You see what the martyrs cry out – O sovereign Lord, verse 10, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?
It’s amazing how many of the commentaries are embarrassed by this. They think it’s a sub-Christian cry. One author says it should be frankly recognized that this is not a Christian prayer.
To be fair, doesn’t verse 10 sound different than say the cry of Stephen as he’s about to be martyred? “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Or Jesus – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That sounds like more a Christian prayer than these souls under the altar saying, “O God, when are You going to come and avenge our blood?”
But not only is it an excusable prayer, it is actually a necessary prayer. We don’t have time, but this sort of language is frequent in the Psalms. The so-called imprecatory psalms, those psalms that call out upon God to execute justice on behalf of His name and His people.
This is a cry for vindication. Remember, this is not for some petty reason, this is not a personal vendetta. This is not some kind of honor/shame culture and you slap me and now I got to slap you twice as hard. This is not Hatfield and McCoys. These are Christian martyrs collectively under the throne, calling out for vindication. It’s a cry in part for their own sake, “How long before you judge and avenge our blood?”
But it’s not just a personal cry for their vindication, but tied up with their vindication is the honor and vindication of Christ Himself, because when they were put to death, in whatever way it happened, those who put them to death probably thought they were doing a great act of heroism. Maybe they even thought they were honoring their own gods or goddesses. They thought that they were squelching this rebellious group of malcontents.
So to avenge their blood is not only to give them justice, but it’s to declare to the whole world that the Christ in whom they believed, the Christ to whom they bore witness, that He is, you see the language, holy and true. Don’t miss that – that’s why they’re crying out. “Lord, it looks to the whole world like we’re the bad guys, and the whole world agrees.”
See, it’s easy from a vantage point of two thousand years. Oh, so heroic, and I’m sure I would have done that and we all would have applauded them. But then you come to our day and you realize just how difficult it is to stand up for your faith when everyone around you thinks, they’re absolutely convinced, that you’re the one with the problem, you’re the one who believes the terrible evil thing, you’re the one that’s wrong with the world, you’re the one that’s producing injustice on the planet.
So for Christ to come and to execute justice is to say not only that these are My people, but I am holy and true and the Christ in whom they believed is holy and true.
It is consistent with God’s character that they would cry out for justice.
So the question is, are we ever willing to face injustice now because we believe, we believe in justice later?
This is what Peter says in his epistles, that we do not revile when reviled. How can you not hate people when they hate you? Well, brothers and sisters, this is very difficult and it requires dying to ourself, because you can get a very big crowd that essentially says, “If they hate you, you have a right to hate them. The way they go at you, you go at them. They come with one fist, you come with two. We’re living in a new day and a new time.”
That’s not the way of the cross. No, this is not a passive acquiescence as if we don’t care about the world of politics or law and justice. Of course we want Christians involved in all of those things and to work for all that we can. At the same time, we do not revile when we’re reviled. Because they hated Jesus, don’t you think they will hate some of the followers of Jesus? You have to return that hatred with a supernatural love for your enemies, believing that the judge of all the earth will do right, that He will avenge, that He will prove to execute justice on the earth.
That thing that’s in each of us as God’s image-bearers that says it’s not fair. You learn that, one of your first sentences as a child, no one needs to tell you to say it, you just know it – it’s not fair. And you want all the world to know what’s right and what’s fair.
God’ll let them know, but it’s not often in our time. It’s in His time, which means we accept injustice now for justice later.
Here’s the final question, from verse 11, and it’s a sobering question: Are you willing, am I willing, should it be called upon, to be in that number?
You see verse 11 – until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete. You know the song “When the saints go marching in, O Lord, I want to be in that number…” Well, yes, I want to be in that number of the saints go marching in. This is not the number that we want to be in. But are we willing?
Verse 11, very strikingly and soberingly, tells us there is a predetermined number of martyrs to be fulfilled before Christ will return.
Jesus famously would not tell the day or the hour, but He gives certain markers. When the Gospel is preached to all peoples from Mark 13, when all the elect are saved, 2 Peter 3:9, and here when the appointed number of martyrs have been killed.
We don’t rush into it. We don’t look for it. Would you be willing to be in that number knowing that each Christian killed for the testimony of Christ is one more of that number completed that must be filled out before Christ returns? There is no way around it, friends, Christianity is a religion about death. You die now so you don’t have to die the second death in hell. You die every day to yourself so that you can truly live. We worship a dying Christ so we don’t have to be afraid of death.
It’s not like some kind of violent jihad. It’s a very different kind of death. This is not calling the Christians to go out and kill, or to enter some sort of suicide pact. This is calling as Christians to love so lavishly and witness so boldly and hold to the truth so tenaciously that if all of that requires us to be in this number, then so be it.
In one sense you could say there are three different kinds of religions in the world. There’s one that says nothing is really a matter of life or death, that’s probably the default religion in most places in the West now. Yeah, believe whatever you want as long as it makes you feel good and you’re a better person, but nothing’s really a matter of life or death.
Then there’s the religion that says, “Are you willing to kill for your beliefs?”
Then there’s the Christian faith that says, “Are you willing to be killed for your beliefs?”
What do we say? Lord, if it is Your plan, I will be in that number.
Now remember what we already read earlier in the service. “Don’t fret yourself, Jesus said very plainly, don’t be anxious.” What would I say? I couldn’t do it. Oh, you know the story. How did Latimer and Ridley? I don’t have a speech like that, “play the man, we shall light a candle.” I mean, how did he come up with that?
You ever wonder why are there so many of these amazing martyr testimonies at the very end? Well, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit will give you what to say. So of course you don’t think sitting here today, “Well, yeah, I could do that.” No, we don’t feel like we could do that.
But will you so purpose, will I so purpose, in our hearts that should we be called upon, we would rely upon the Holy Spirit in that hour, and say, “Christ, through the Spirit, speak through me, because on this matter I’d rather be broken than bent.”
Might it mean that you serve as a missionary among the unreached peoples? You know what’s harder than being a missionary? Sending your kids or your grandkids to be missionaries.
Could it mean going to a hostile family situation? Could it mean at some point in this country it becomes illegal to evangelize, or to preach through parts of the Bible unashamed? A verse that always scares me in Revelation 21 is about those outside the New Jerusalem at the head of the list are the cowardly. Now that doesn’t mean if you don’t share your faith on the plane then you’re not a Christian, but it means in that moment where it’s put up or shut up, it’s stand up for Christ or deny Him, will you be courageous or will we be cowards?
Now most of this sermon is sobering, but it can seem very remote. Maybe somebody somewhere will go be a missionary, but we think for most of us, this is safely in some other realm.
So let me give you one final thought as we close. As hard as these questions have been, especially this last one, “Are you willing to be in that number?” there is another question – Are we willing not only to die on account of the word of Christ should we be called upon in some giant, obvious moment of martyrdom, but are you willing to die every day for the sake of Christ?
See, martyrdom is painful and it can destroy the Church. We should not romanticize martyrdom. But at least you can say this – it puts your life in focus and there’s a nobility to it, even if it’s terrifying. But what if you live to be 90 years old, and some of you are past that? It’s one thing to pay the ultimate sacrifice one day when the choice is before you, live or die, I will die for the sake of Christ. It’s another thing to daily take up your cross and follow Jesus.
It’s significant that these brothers and sisters are described in verse 9 as those who had been slain. Who’s the only other person who has been described as slain in this book? Of course, it’s Christ. The Lamb of God, who was slain. They’re Christians who had been slain just like the Savior they worship and follow. Why should be treated better than our Master? The world hated Him and we are friends with Jesus, it may very well hate us.
But, friends, you may not have people who are actively hating you for Christ. Are you nevertheless willing to lay down your life, day by day, as a kind of holy martyr? Meaning, for the testimony of Jesus Christ, you say “I won’t take that job, I can’t take that promotion, it’s more money but I know what it will ask of me, I can’t go to that movie, I can’t say those words, I can’t leave this marriage, I can’t laugh at that joke, I can’t wear those clothes, I can’t go along with that program, I can’t break that law, I can’t change my priorities, I cannot do a thing to dishonor Jesus Christ and the word of His testimony.”
Hebrews 11. Others suffered mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains and dens and caves of the earth. All of these, though, were commended through their faith though they did not receive what was promised since God had provided something better for us that apart from us should not be made perfect.
Do you believe that God has for you a possession that is a better possession and a more abiding possession?
So the hardest thing that we may have to do is that familiar verse from Romans 12:1 – in view of God’s mercy, yes, we must be willing to be in that number and so die for our faith if called upon, but even now today you know that God is calling you, Christian, in view of His mercy to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, give us strength, give us courage, give us faith. None of us feel adequate for these things. Most of us, preacher included, feel frail and weak and utterly unthinkable that we would stand as courageously as so many have. So remind us of Your promise, that You will give us words on that day, and for any here facing that very real temptation to compromise, to do what they know, they know is contrary to Jesus, to the way of Christ, would You give them that courage to offer their bodes as a living sacrifice, knowing that You have better things for us if we would but trust and obey. In Jesus we pray. Amen.