“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.” Revelation 6:9-11
The fifth seal is a reprieve from the devastation of the last three. This time, the living creatures that make up God’s throne are silent. No horse and rider is sent to the earth. Instead, we see an altar in heaven, just like there was an altar in the Tabernacle and Temple of the Old Testament. Now the altar was where the lifeblood of the sacrifice was poured out, and this was done at the base of the altar.
So here, under the base of the heavenly altar, God recognizes those who have laid down their lives for their faith in Him, the martyred. In John’s vision, God portrays the martyrs’ personal sacrifice as the origin of the earthly sacrificial system. This system foreshadowed the coming savior and taught people to see their need for a savior, but it also foreshadowed the call to daily take up our cross and follow Jesus. Lay it all on the line for our faith. Pour out our lives to the glory and honor of God alone.
However, just like the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin, neither can our own blood wash away our sins. Only Jesus’ blood can take away sin. So we do not seek to be martyred. It is not a requirement for heavenly admission any more than regular church attendance or daily Bible reading. Again, by God’s grace, only our faith–believing on the Lord Jesus Christ–will bring eternal life [Ephesians 2:8-9]. There is nothing we can do in our power, including choosing martyrdom, that can open the gates of heaven to us.
These martyrs recognize God for who He truly is and address Him as such–Sovereign. Lord. Holy. True. They speak to Him about avenging their blood–the injustice created by sin that one should die for faith in the One True God–because vengeance belongs to God alone [Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19]. And God gives them the promised white robes of victors [Revelation 3:5], but He tells them to wait.
Be patient. Jesus is coming soon [Revelation 1:7, 22:7, 12, 20], but with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day [2 Peter 3:8]. My kids put in this perspective for me the other day when they were thinking of insect lifespans. They said, “What if each minute was a year? Then we’d only live 120 minutes–2 hours!” And so earthly time is for God. What feels like years, decades, centuries and millennia to us, are nanoseconds to God.
Jesus is coming soon. Judgment to avenge the blood of the martyrs will also be coming soon.
Do you recognize, as the martyrs do, that God alone is the Sovereign Lord? Do you believe that He is holy and asks us to abstain from the sinfulness of the world, to set our lives apart for Him? Do you believe that He is true and will come again soon, avenging the martyrs, just as He said?