Tagged: martyrs

One of the elders asked me: Revelation 7:9-17

Previously: All the angels stood around the throne — Rev. 7:9-17

The scripture

Rev. 7:9 – After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! 11All the angels stood around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength, be to our God forever and ever. Amen. 13Then one of the elders asked me, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His sanctuary. The One seated on the throne will shelter them: 16no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat. 17Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (HCSB).

One of the elders asked me

One of the 24 elders asks John, “Who are these people robed in white, and where did they come from?” (v. 13). John replies, “Sir, you know.” John readily admits he does not know the answer and seeks insight from the elder. As Matthew Henry puts it, “Those who would gain knowledge must not be ashamed to own their ignorance, nor to desire instruction from any that are able to give it” (Rev. 7:13-17).

The elder replies, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). But to which tribulation is the elder referring? The Greek puts it, He thilipsis – he megale; that is, “the tribulation – the  great.” This gives strength to the futurist position, which holds that this is the post-rapture tribulation, not tribulation in general, which believers have experienced throughout the church age. W.A. Criswell points to the distinction between the vast multitude and the 24 elders, who represent the church. “This great multitude has no thrones,” he writes, contrasting them to the elders, who do have thrones. “They have no crowns; they have palm branches. They have come after the resurrection and after the rapture and after the church has been taken up into glory” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 151).

Criswell goes on, “These are they whom God has saved and is saving in that great and final trial that shall come upon the earth. Is that not astounding? No wonder John did not know who they were. No man would ever have known or guessed such a thing had it not been by the grace of the revelation of God Himself.”

Tribulation and wrath

While there is strong support for the view that this great tribulation matches a futurist world view, other commentators argue convincingly for other points of view. Perhaps this tribulation is a first-century phenomenon, with Jews and Romans persecuting Christians; certainly, believers in John’s day are experiencing first-hand the universal attacks on the body of Christ. Others contend that these saints around the throne in heaven are the product of various Roman campaigns against those who will not bow to Caesar. Still others argue that this great tribulation describes martyrs – the millions of faithful believers throughout the church age who do not “love their lives in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).

In any case, it is clear that these are saints in heaven prior to the return of Christ, and the “great tribulation” is the persecution of believers at the hands of non-believers. Two Greek words often are translated “tribulation” or “persecution” in the New Testament. Diwgmos appears 10 times in the New Testament and always refers to the persecution of believers at the hands of unbelievers. Thilipsis appears 45 times and is translated “tribulation(s),” “affliction(s),” “anguish,” “distress,” “persecution,” or “trouble.” Nearly every time it, too, refers to violence against believers at the hands of unbelievers.

This must not be confused with God’s wrath against the wicked. Two Greek words are used to describe the suffering of non-believers at the hand of God. The first word is thumos. It occurs in 18 verses in the New Testament and is translated “angry tempers,” “fierce,” “indignation,” “outbursts of anger,” “passion,” “rage,” and “wrath.” In nine of these 18 verses, the term specifically refers to the anger and judgment of God against the unrighteous (the other nine refer to the anger of people against each other). The second word is orgay, which occurs in 34 verses in the New Testament and is translated “anger” or “wrath.” Twenty-eight of those verses refer to the wrath of God the Father or Jesus against the unrighteous; one refers to the persecution of believers; and five refer to the anger of people against each other. “Therefore, whereas tribulation almost always refers to the persecution of believers, wrath almost always refers to the anger of God against the unrighteous that results in punishment” (Will Christians Go Through the Great Tribulation by Rich Deem, www.godandscience.org).

Saints before the throne

As we read on, it is clear why these saints stand before the throne in heaven: “They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). It is not merely that they died for a just cause, although that in itself is no mere thing; great men and women throughout history have died for families, nations, freedom and many other God-ordained gifts and institutions. The martyrs John sees around the throne, however, stand there for one reason: Christ has purchased them with His blood. They do not claim any merit. They do not boast of any personal rights. No doubt on earth they refused the offers of life, possessions and freedom in exchange for recanting their faith. But they held fast. They joined the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).

Yet whatever fleeting and temporal things they have forfeited for the cause of Christ are now repaid with eternal rewards. The angel explains to John: “The One seated on the throne will shelter them [or spread His tent over them]: no longer will they hunger; no longer will they thirst; no longer will the sun strike them, or any heat …” (vv. 15b-16). Missionaries that Fidel Castro imprisoned after seizing power in Cuba often were taken from their cells in the morning and made to stand in the blistering sun all day before being returned to their cold and dank dungeons at sunset. There is no doubt their skin festered and peeled and their throats became parched as they were punished for nothing more than being faithful to the One seated on the throne. But now, as John sees them stand before the throne, they are safe beneath their Savior’s protective wings.

The angel continues: “Because the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them; He will guide them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17). Jesus is the good shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep, and who knows them and is known by them (John 10:11, 14). This is a claim to deity, since Yahweh is described in similar terms in the Old Testament (Ps. 23:1, 80:1; Isa. 40:10-11). But even more, this divine shepherd became a sheep, a “lamb led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

“A shepherd, in order to know his sheep and care for them, has to live among them,” writes Carl Haak. “He has to be close to them. Jesus not only came from heaven to earth to be near His sheep, He actually became like them. The Shepherd became a sheep, took on our nature, and lived our entire life (except without sin). This is why He is the good Shepherd, perfectly qualified to know us and to care for us. He is like us in our flesh. There is no shepherd like this Jesus” (“I Am the Good Shepherd,” www.reformedwitnesshour.org, Oct. 5, 1997, No. 2857).

Springs of living water

As a good shepherd leads his sheep to water, the Good Shepherd guides His saints to springs of living water. In John 7, on the last and most important day of the feast of Tabernacles – a day in which water plays a significant role – Jesus stands up and cries, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture hath said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him” (vv. 37b-38). The observant Jew could not miss the significance of this claim.

On each day of the feast, priests draw water from the pool of Siloam and return to the temple, circling the altar while the choir chants Psalms 113-118. The water is then poured out as a libation at the morning sacrifice. This is a time of great joy associated with Isa. 12:3: “You will joyfully draw water from the springs of salvation.” On the seventh day of the festival, the priests carry the water around the altar not once, but seven times. It is at this high point of the festival that Jesus stands and makes His dramatic cry to the people. He repeats the offer of the Father, “Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1), and offers fulfillment of the very things they were celebrating. Indeed, he is fulfilling the role of God, “their compassionate One [who] will lead them to springs of water” (Isa. 49:10). This is more than a prophet pointing to God’s grace; it is God Himself extending His grace.

Note these insights from Biblegateway.com: “In Jewish writings water is a very rich symbol. God himself can be called ‘the spring of living water’ (Jer 2:13; 17:13). Other texts that use water imagery speak of Wisdom (Baruch 3:12; Sirach 15:3; 24:21, 25-27, 30-31), the law (Sifre on Deuteronomy 48) and, as here in John 7:39, the Holy Spirit (Genesis Rabbah 70:8; Targum of Isaiah 44:3). Jesus, in offering the Spirit (v. 39), is claiming to be able to satisfy people’s thirst for God. The cries of the psalmists are answered. David prayed, ‘O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (Ps 63:1). The sons of Korah sang, ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?’ (Ps 42:1-2)…. When Jesus cries out at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles on this particular day, the worshipers meet God in his sanctuary – in the person of his Son. The longing for God is met with God’s invitation to come and be satisfied. In Jesus, God’s own desire for man is expressed and the desire of man for God is met. All that the temple represented is now found in Jesus” (“Jesus, the Source of Living Water, Extends an Invitation to All Who Thirst,” www.biblegateway.com).

There is one final image that bears mention as the angel says, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” a promise repeated in Rev. 21:4. The sinful and fallen world in which we live produces oceans of tears. Babies die in their mothers’ wombs. Natural disasters destroy in a moment what has taken a lifetime to build. War ravages lives, steals dreams, erases borders, violates treaties, brings a sudden end to enduring peace, eliminates security, and hastens the loss of innocence. Gossip ruins reputations. Angry words divide families. Ungodly leaders speed the demise of nations. Rancor in the church undermines unity in the Spirit. Even the most humble servants of Christ get sick, grow old and die. On top of all this, these martyrs around the throne have suffered additional hardship at the hands of those who hate Jesus and thus hate His sheep.

But there is an end to it all. And the day is coming when Christ will hold our faces in His nail-scarred hands and wipe the tears from our eyes with a gentle sweep of His thumbs. This is good to remember when we attend funerals, lose our jobs, suffer the slights of the wicked, and endure the pains of sickness, disease, and aging. All the more reason to look up as our redemption draws near.

Four major views of the vast multitude

Finally, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the vast multitude?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the vast multitude represents the Gentiles who are saved as a result of God disowning His rebellious wife and children and seeking a new family (Hos. 1:10; 2:23; and their applications in Rom. 9:24ff and 1 Peter 2:9). These are coming out of the great tribulation in the sense that their entrance into the kingdom of heaven results from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the end of formal Judaism. Some preterists, however, see these as Christian martyrs slain by Roman emperors after the fall of Jerusalem. Still other say these could be Jews converted at Pentecost, one of three Jewish feasts requiring all faithful Jewish males to come to the temple, thereby resulting in the salvation of Jews from every nation.
  • Some historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the multitude as the same group identified in verses 4-8. In the first vision, John sees them sealed for preservation on earth. In the second vision, he sees them glorified in heaven. This would be a great encouragement to the early church, which suffers widespread and brutal persecution. Other historicists see these as Gentile believers, who will make up a far greater number in heaven than their Jewish brothers and sisters.
  • Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say these are Gentile believers brought into the kingdom during the Tribulation. The 144,000 Jews and this vast multitude of Gentiles, while saved, are not part of the church, which was raptured prior to the Tribulation. Other futurists, however, understand this palm-bearing crowd to be the church after the tribulation is over.
  • Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – tend to see this innumerable host as symbolic of the church finally glorified in heaven. The 144,000 represent “spiritual Israel,” or the church on earth, while the multitude depicts the “church triumphant” in heaven. The palm branches and white robes symbolize victory and purity. These believers are coming out of the great tribulation – the afflictions through which all saints pass on their way to glory.

Next: The seventh seal — Revelation 8:1-6

Until their fellow slaves were killed (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: A white robe was given (Rev. 6:9-11)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed. (HCSB)

Until their fellow slaves were killed

The martyrs are told to rest “until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed” (v. 12). It appears that many more will experience martyrdom before the return of Christ. While we may wonder why God doesn’t put a stop to the killing – some brashly question whether He is able to do so – we may be confident that He is sovereign over human history, causing or allowing all things for reasons we may not fully understand. God has determined that a number of saints will give their lives because of His word and the testimony they have. Only God know when this number – like the measure of sins being filled up by the wicked – will reach capacity.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the total number of Christian martyrs in the 20th century alone reached 45 million. How many millions of others have given their lives from the time of Stephen, the first martyr, until now is impossible to know with certainty. But no doubt there is ample room beneath the altar in heaven for those who have identified with the slaughter of the Lamb.

R.J.D. Utley writes, “One of the major truths of this book is that God is in control of all things, even the death of Christian martyrs! All of history is in His hand. God is not surprised by any events, actions or outcomes. Yet there is still pain, suffering and unfairness in this fallen world. This concept of a completed number of martyrs (cf. I Enoch 47:4) is a symbolic way of referring to God’s knowledge and plan for mankind. This is similar to Paul’s concept of ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ (cf. Rom. 11:12, 25) which refers to God’s knowledge of all the Gentiles who would be saved” (Utley, Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Vol. 12, Study Guide Commentary Series, 63).

Four views

Briefly, here is a summary of the four major views of these verses:

  • Most historicists see the fifth seal fulfilled during the rule of Diocletian, who persecuted the church in the last days of his rule from 284 – 304 A.D.
  • Preterists argue that the souls under the altar are those of first-century Christians slain at the hands of the Jewish persecutors.
  • Futurists contend that these saints are killed during the yet-future Tribulation.
  • And spiritualists say this passage reveals the present state of those who already have died for their faith.

In any case, interpreters agree that Jesus comforts His martyrs, grants them rest and assures them that His judgment, whenever it falls, will be swift and sure.

Next: The sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17)

O Lord … how long? (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: The souls of those slaughtered (Rev. 6:9-11)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).

O Lord … how long?

John hears the martyrs in heaven cry out, “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” (v. 10). A more literal translation asks, “Until when will You exact vengeance for our blood?” Warren Wiersbe raises an interesting question about the verse in his commentary: “But is it ‘Christian’ for these martyred saints to pray for vengeance on their murderers? After all, both Jesus and Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who killed them.”

Wiersbe then offers this insight: “I have no doubt that, when they were slain on earth, these martyrs also prayed for their slayers; and this is the right thing to do (Matt. 5:10–12, 43–48). The great question, however, was not whether their enemies would be judged, but when. ‘How long, O Lord?’ has been the cry of God’s suffering people throughout the ages (see Pss. 74:9–10; 79:5; 94:3–4; also Hab. 1:2). The saints in heaven know that God will eventually judge sin and establish righteousness in the earth, but they do not know God’s exact schedule. It is not personal revenge that they seek, but vindication of God’s holiness and the establishment of God’s justice. Every believer today who sincerely prays, ‘Thy kingdom come!’ is echoing their petition” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 6:9).

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit there are times we seek God’s justice for our own gratification and not for His glory. We tend to want justice for our enemies and mercy for ourselves. It is the old nature emerging in our words and deeds – and even in the words and deeds of those who walk most closely with the Lord. When a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus, for example, James and John are quick to ask, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus quickly rebukes His followers for their fleshly desires in the following verse.

Of course, there is a day coming when the Lord will vanquish His adversaries. Paul writes in 2 Thess. 2:8b, “The Lord Jesus will destroy (“consume” KJV) him [the lawless one] with the breath of His mouth and will bring him to nothing with the brightness of His coming.” And the writer of Hebrews warns that there is a penalty for willful sin, “a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:28).

The martyrs in Revelation 6 are not questioning God’s righteousness; they call Him “holy and true.” Nor are they challenging His patience, for they know He does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). It appears they are simply asking God to reveal His timetable – a request He declines, but not without providing the saints with comfort and assurance.

Next: A white robe was given (Rev. 6:9-11)

The souls of those slaughtered (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10 They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11 So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).

The souls of those slaughtered

John describes the martyrs as having been “slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had” (v. 9). We are told that John has been exiled to Patmos for similar reasons – “because of God’s word and the testimony about Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). But these saints receive a harsher sentence; they are slaughtered. The Greek word used here is sphazo, which describes the slaying, or cutting, of a sacrifice. They are identified with the Lamb in their death since He, too, is “slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6, 9, 12). The Greek word martus, from which we get the English word martyr, means “a witness” (see Rev. 2:13; 17:6). These saints are slaughtered because of their witness to the truth of God and the message of Jesus Christ.

This is not intended to minimize John’s suffering. According to the testimony of Tertullian, John is thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in Rome without suffering injury. Perhaps in exasperation – we cannot be sure – the Emperor Domitian banishes him to Patmos.

Matthew Henry makes the following observations about these martyred saints: “Hence note, [1.] Persecutors can only kill the body, and after that there is no more that they can do; their souls live. [2.] God has provided a good place in the better world for those who are faithful to death and are not allowed a place any longer on earth. [3.] Holy martyrs are very near to Christ in heaven, they have the highest place there. [4.] It is not their own death, but the sacrifice of Christ, that gives them a reception into heaven and a reward there; they do not wash their robes in their own blood, but in the blood of the Lamb” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 6:9–17).

But what “testimony” has enraged the powers that be so they will slaughter the saints? Likely it is a testimony of judgment. Whether one takes a preterist view and places the Book of Revelation in the first century A.D., or a futurist view and projects these mass killings into the future Tribulation, it is the message of man’s sin and God’s judgment that differentiates the true prophet and rankles the wicked.

It has always been this way. Noah’s 120-year message of judgment goes unheaded and no doubt greatly ridiculed. Samuel’s first message from God is one of judgment on the house of Eli because he did not rebuke his sons for their wickedness. Isaiah is sent to Judah to preach a message of pending national humiliation for its sins – a message opposed and unbelieved. Jeremiah predicts the destruction of the armies of Israel and the obliteration of the temple, and for this truth he is placed in chains and finally cast into a pit. Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that He, the Son of Man, is coming one day in power and great glory, and the high priest tears his robes, accuses Jesus of blasphemy and cries for His execution. We should not be surprised that the true prophet of God preaches judgment and is hated for his honest words.

 Next: O Lord … how long? (Rev. 6:9-11)

The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: Authority was given to them (Rev. 6:7-8)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).

When Jesus opens the fifth seal, the scene changes dramatically from earth to heaven. The thundering hoof beats of the four horsemen have been heard on earth as their riders conquer, wage war, bring famine and pestilence, and kill. But now we are taken to heaven, where martyred souls at rest cry out to God for vengeance. They are given white robes and told to rest a while longer. The killing on earth is not over yet; the martyrs are told to rest until the number of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who are going to be killed just as they have been, is completed.

Why the shift to a heavenly scene? Who are these martyrs? And why does God permit the wicked to slaughter even more righteous people before He finally does something about it? How do John’s first-century readers understand this passage? And what does it mean to us today?

The fifth seal

As the Lamb opens the fifth seal, giving way to another portion of the message in the scroll, John sees the souls of martyrs under the altar. But the booming voices of the four living creatures do not attend this vision. Rather, John hears the cries of the deceased saints, petitioning the Lord for vengeance. W.A. Criswell points out that the fifth seal is different from the rest of the seven in that we do not see the action itself, but the result of action: “Heretofore and hereafter, as a seal is broken or a trumpet is blown or a vial is poured out, across the state of human history we shall see the judgment develop … But not here…. John sees under the altar the souls of those who have already been slain. Back of those souls that are slain, we must imagine, though it is undepicted and undescribed, the blood and fury and fire of awful persecution, the blood bath in which they lost their lives” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 102).

The translation of the Hebrew and Greek words for “altar” means “a place of sacrifice,” or in the verb form “to sacrifice.” But it’s important to note that there are two altars in the temple:

  1. The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), also called the bronze altar (Ex. 39:39) and “the Lord’s table” (Mal. 1:7). As described in Ex. 27:1-8, it is a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It is made of wood, overlaid with plates of brass and ornamented with “horns” (Exc. 29:12; Lev. 4:18). This is where animal sacrifices are made, with their blood poured out underneath.
  2. The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), also called the golden altar (Ex. 39:38; Num. 4:11). It stands in the holy place near the curtain that leads into the Holy of Holies. On this altar sweet spices are burned with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. The high priest offers incense on this altar to begin the morning and evening services. The burning of the incense is a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4).

In this passage in Revelation, it appears that John sees the altar of sacrifice. We are told in Hebrews that the earthly tabernacle and all its trappings are patterned after the one in heaven. Therefore, just as the blood of animal sacrifices on earth pools beneath the altar, the souls of the saints gather in heaven at the foot of the One who was sacrificed for them. “For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” Paul writes in 1 Cor. 5:7.

It is clear that this is a heavenly altar, for the “souls of those slaughtered” are gathered there. The soul – essentially the unseen real person consisting of mind, emotion and will – separates from the body at death. The apostle Paul writes confidently that for believers to be “out of the body” (in death) is to “home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). These are real people with real identities and real consciousness. Unlike believers prior to Christ’s crucifixion, whose souls went to a state of rest at Abraham’s side in Sheol, these saints are in the presence of the Lord, meaning that John has a true New Testament vision since the Lamb’s blood already has been shed for them. Some commentators believe that Old Testament saints did not ascend to heaven after death because their sins were only atoned for, or temporarily covered, by the blood of sacrificial animals. But after Jesus died on the cross, fulfilling the sacrificial system and removing believers’ sins once and for all, their souls could pass into His presence in heaven.

But why are these martyrs under the altar? Why not beside it or above it? Perhaps because the Bible depicts faithful Christian service in sacrificial terms. In Rom. 12:1, for example, Paul writes, “I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” In 2 Tim. 4:6, as Paul faces the looming reality of his martyrdom, he says, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close.” Christians who suffer persecution mirror the sacrificial life of Christ, who notes their service and rewards it. Some interpreters believe there is a special reward in heaven, the “crown of life,” for those who are martyred (Rev. 2:10). The souls of the martyrs are under the altar because they became martyrs when their blood was spilled for the cause of Christ.

“As the blood of sacrificial victims slain on the altar was poured at the bottom of the altar, so the souls of those sacrificed for Christ’s testimony are symbolically represented as under the altar, in heaven; for the life or animal soul is in the blood, and blood is often represented as crying for vengeance (Ge 4:10)” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 6:9).

Next: The souls of those slaughtered (Rev. 6:9-11)