Revelation 6:9-11 - The Souls Under the Altar
What did you expect? Did you think Christianity would be a life of ease? Did you think it would be a walk in the park? Did you think this vile world would be a friend to grace? Did you think this world would help you on to God?
What did you expect? A “health and wealth” gospel? A “name it and claim it” promise? A “power of positive thinking” outlook on life? A “feel-good” religion? A religion that gives you “warm fuzzy” feelings? A religion that consists of little more than everyone joining hands and singing “Kum-ba-yah”?
What did you expect? A pre-tribulation rapture, sparing you from any form of persecution? A golden-age, sparing you from any form of suffering?
What did you expect of the Christian life? Revelation 6:9-11 sets before us a most sobering and realistic picture, as it answers that question. Do you want to know what you can expect in the Christian life? Read Revelation 6:9-11.
As we make our way through the book of Revelation, we find that the imagery intensifies. The images become more horrific; the scenes more terrifying; the issues more pressing. We have come to expect that. We see it here once again. If you thought the opening of the first four seals was disturbing, wait until you see what the fifth seal shows you! If you thought the riding forth of the four horsemen of the apocalypse was unsettling, wait till you see the unveiling of the fifth seal!
“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 testimony which they held” (6:9). The fifth seal is opened and we see “souls.” The souls are not in possession of their bodies. Their bodies are in the ground, returning to the dust from which they came. We see only souls — these are those who have died.
The Souls of the Martyrs
John tells us as much: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain.” Not only are these the souls of those who have died, these are the souls of those who have been killed; these are the souls of those who have died a violent death; these are the souls of those who have been stoned, who have been beheaded, who have been hanged, and who have been sawn in two. These are the souls of those who have been burned as lamps to illumine the arena, those who have been thrown to the lions, those who have been counted as sheep for the slaughter. These are the souls of those who have been slain.
For what reason have they been slain? For the Word of God and for the testimony which they held.
These are the martyrs: those who have died for the faith, those who have died for the Word of God, who have died for the testimony which they held, who have died because they refused to recant, who have died because they held to the Word of God though it cost them their life, who held to the testimony and sealed it with their blood.
These are the souls of the martyrs. These are the souls of all those who have died for the faith from the time of Christ’s ascension to this very day. One of those souls is the soul of Stephen, the first martyr; his souls is there. The souls of the apostles are also there. History holds that Peter was crucified head down; James was beheaded at Jerusalem; Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross; Nathanael was beheaded; Matthew was killed with a sword; Thomas was run through with a lance; the other James was thrown from a tower, stoned, and then sawn in pieces; Judas, not Judas Iscariot, was shot to death with arrows; Paul was most likely beheaded. These are the traditions of history, and though we cannot prove the accounts, they are by all means likely and probable. The souls of the apostles are there.
The soul of Polycarp, who died a martyr at the age of 86, is there. He was brought into the arena and commanded to say of the Christians, “Away with the Atheists.” He replied by waving his hand toward the spectators in the arena and saying, “Away with the Atheists.” When he was threatened with wild beasts, he said, “Bring them on!” When he was threatened with fire, he said, “You threaten me with fire, the pains of which last for an hour, but the pains of eternal fire await you!” He was burned at the stake. He did not recant. The soul of Polycarp is there.
The soul of Blandina is there. She was tortured with every torture known to man, and would not recant. She was burned upon a hot iron chair, and she would not recant. She was suspended from a stake as food for the wild beasts, and she would not recant, and the beasts did not touch her. She was finally placed in a net and thrown to a wild bull, which finally killed her. She did not recant. The soul of Blandina is there.
The soul of John Huss is there. The soul of William Tyndale is there. The soul of Guido de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession, is there. The souls of the martyrs are there.
The number of those perishing for the faith is being added to daily. The last century was a century of persecution in which more Christians died for their faith than in all the previous centuries combined. In 1915, Turkish authorities killed over 600,000 Armenians, most of them Christians. The souls of those martyrs are there. Lenin said “there can be nothing more abominable than religion,” and he ordered the persecution of the Russian Orthodox church. Stalin extended that persecution to all believers. The souls of those martyrs are there. In 1956 the Auca Indians of Ecuador killed Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCulley, Roger Younderian, and Nate Saint. The souls of those martyrs are there. And what of the ten thousand Cambodian Christians slain in 1975? The souls of those martyrs are there. What of the Christians slain in China? What of the Christians slain in Iran? What of the Christians slain in Indonesia? The souls of those martyrs are there. Such martyrdom continues to the present day.
And where does John see these souls of the martyrs? He sees them “under the altar.” This is not the altar of incense that stood in the Holy Place just before the curtains of the Holy of Holies. This is the altar of sacrifice that stood in the outer court and upon which the animals were sacrificed, their blood being poured out at the base of the altar. Do you see the imagery? Where you would see the blood of the sacrifice on the Old Testament altar, you now see the souls of the martyrs! Their blood has been poured out, as they have sealed their faith in death.
That is the scene set before you in the opening of the fifth seal. In view are the souls of all the martyrs who have died for the faith, from the time of Christ’s ascension to the time of His return on the clouds of glory.
The Cry of the Martyrs
These martyrs cry out in verse 10: “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?”
This is a cry for vengeance! Notice it is the cry of those who have already been slain. It is the cry of the souls in heaven. It is not the cry of the Christian on earth! The soul of Stephen in heaven today cries out “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” That was not his cry in martyrdom. Then he cried, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” In his death, he was conformed to his Savior. You remember the cry of Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
The cry for vengeance comes only from the souls in heaven, not from those who still dwell upon the earth. Even in suffering, even in persecution, yes, even in death, the cry of the martyr is that of the martyr’s Lord: “Father, forgive!”
Why the cry for vengeance from the souls in heaven? Because they stand in glory, and their cry is based on the character of God. They call Him “Lord”, and rightly so, for He has absolute power and authority. They call Him “holy and true”, and in His holiness and truth, He must judge sinners. This He will do. He has said, “It is Mine to avenge; I will repay.” For this judgment the souls under the altar cry out. They are crying out for the vindication of God.
And you see the Lord’s response, verse 11: “Then 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.”
They are given a white robe and commanded to rest. The white robe is the righteousness of Christ. They have been liberated by Christ; they have been consecrated by Christ; they have been crowned by the Lamb in the righteousness of the Lamb. And they rest. Already now they enjoy the eternal Sabbath rest. That is their condition.
Yet justice is delayed. Their blood has not yet been avenged. Final judgment has not yet been poured out upon their enemies, which are also the enemies of Christ. Though they stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and though they already enjoy Sabbath rest, they anxiously await the final judgment.
When shall that judgment come? John tells us:
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.
Do you find that phrase disturbing? Do you find it unsettling? You should! This tells you what you can you expect of the Christian life. There are many yet to be killed as these martyrs were killed. What can you expect, Christian? Persecution, suffering, torture, even death. You are called fellow servants and brothers of these souls under the altar! Do you get the point? Your blood may very well run with theirs!
The Comfort of the Martyrs
As disturbing and unsettling as this passage is, it also hints, in the most tender of terms, at the comfort that is ours: comfort in the midst of persecution, comfort in the midst of suffering, comfort in the midst of torture, comfort in the midst of death.
Note again the place of these souls: they are under the altar. This is the altar by which you enter the presence of God. This is the altar of sacrifice — the altar of the cross. Christ laid down His life on the altar of the cross. And the blood of the Lamb that was sacrificed upon that cross pours down and it covers those souls under the altar. Yes, dear child of God, you are covered in the blood of the Lamb. Let the blood of the Lamb — that blood that covers you — let that blood speak to you of how precious you are in the sight of your God!
So precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints, He has ordained that judgment will not come until the number of the martyrs is complete! God knows the number! He knows the number of the elect! He knows the number of His children! He knows every last one of them, and not a hair can fall from their heads apart from His sovereign will! Notice that! God measures the time until the judgment by the blood of the martyrs! As Dennis Johnson has put it: “The days on God’s calendar are marked off, one by one, in the blood of the martyrs.”
As each martyr dies, the cry of the souls under the altar increases. When Stephen died, as the first martyr, it was a lonely cry. But the cry of the apostles soon joined his cry. And the souls of the early Christians soon joined the cry of the apostles. And the cry of the Reformers soon joined the cry of the early Christians. And the cries of those who died in the last century has joined the cry of the Reformers. Think of it! All the martyrs who have died for the Word of God and for the testimony that they held — from the time of the Ascension of Christ to this very day, and to this very moment — are crying out in heaven: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Do you think that cry falls on deaf ears? Do you think that cry goes unheeded? This is the cry of souls for whom Christ died! This is the cry of souls for whom the Lamb gave His life! This is the cry of those who have been purchased by the blood of the Lamb! This is the cry of those who have been loved by the Lamb with an everlasting love! Do you think their cry falls on deaf ears?!
How foolish the wicked! How foolish those who would persecute Christians! How foolish those who would put to death the followers of Christ! They stoned Stephen and thought that Jesus Christ, the Cornerstone, would remain silent! They threw the Christians to the lions and thought that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah would remain silent! They burned Christians at the stake and thought that He whose eyes are like flames of fire would remain silent! They thrust Christians through with the sword, and thought that He who will strike the nations with the sword of His mouth would remain silent! How foolish the wicked!
Do you think the cry of the souls under the altar falls on deaf ears? Then look at the opening of the sixth seal. There you have the answer. There, in verses 12-17, you have the answer to the cry of the martyrs. The Day of Judgment is the answer to the cry of the souls under the altar. And don’t be fooled, it is only a “little time” until that day.
This, then, is what you can expect. This is the life of the church. This is the life of the Christian. You can expect persecution. You can expect suffering. You can expect torture. You can expect death. It is a most sobering and realistic picture. Not what you expected? Then you had better study church history. Not what you expected? Then you had better read your Bible. You had better read the Word of God.
And you had better hold to the Word of God. There is a distinction here, a distinction between those who hold to the Word of God and the testimony and those who dwell upon the earth. There is a separation between the sheep and the goats. There is a separation between the wheat and the tares. There are those who claim to be Christian and yet do not hold to the Word of God. There are those who claim to be Christian and yet do not hold to the testimony. There are those who claim to be Christian and yet have no regard for the blood of Christ. There are those who claim to be Christian and yet have no regard for the righteousness of Christ. There are those who claim to have faith, but it is not saving faith.
What is true faith? True faith clings to Christ. It clings to Christ in persecution. It clings to Christ in suffering. It clings to Christ in death. And in clinging to Christ it is conformed to Christ. As Christ was accounted as a sheep before the slaughter, and as He was killed, so also the Christian. Paul says, “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter; we are killed all the day long.”
What then is your comfort, Christian, as you face persecution, suffering, even death? Your comfort is this:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Your enemies may bring you tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, or peril. They may bring you the sword and kill you all the day long, but this they cannot do: they cannot separate you from the love of God that is yours in Christ Jesus your Lord!