The four cherubim have presented their testimonies concerning the current condition of the world in the First Century:
- Jesus is conquering the world.
- Peace has been taken from the earth.
- The earth is given to consumerism.
- People are dying and going to Hell.
As Jesus continues to break the seals on the legal document He has received from the Father, testimony about the current condition of things continues.
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.
The crying souls (v. 9-10)
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
The cherubim presented their testimonies about the current condition of the world in God’s heavenly throne room. Now, after they have presented their testimonies, we continue to see the scene play out in this heavenly courtroom. As Jesus breaks the fifth seal, John sees a heavenly altar under which are souls in Heaven. Remember, this is correlation and not causation. After seeing the four testimonies about the current condition of the world, their question is reasonable. How long will Jesus allow things to continue the way that they are—with wars, worship of money and goods, and people dying and going to Hell? How long will Jesus let people get away with the murder of His people?
There are many people who try to determine the timing of this event. Popularly in our day, we see an interpretation that reefers to these martyrs as coming out of a great seven-year tribulation (which is supposedly sometime in our future even though we live in the Twenty-First Century). Revelation is a picture, not a puzzle. John is writing to First Century Christians in order to encourage them through the tribulation of which he is a partaker (Cf. 1:9). Further, John described the First Century reality of death (Cf. v. 7-8). We cannot, from the text, see a great, future, seven-year tribulation. Every child of God killed prematurely on this earth before Jesus finally restores justice to the earth is represented by these symbolic martyrs under the symbolic heavenly altar.
The souls of the martyrs are symbolically under the heavenly altar, the symbol of prayer (Cf. Exodus 40:5). In Chapter 5, verse 8, the prayers of the saints were symbolized using bowls of incense—the same bowls that will be poured out in Chapter 16; It is important for us to remember that Revelation is a picture, not a puzzle—a symbolic theology, not a literal chronology. God will answer the prayers of the martyrs with the seven bowl judgments. These martyrs were slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They were killed through war, violence, famine, pestilence, and the wild beasts of the earth (Cf. v. 1-8), so this martyrdom isn’t the narrow view we typically take of martyrdom—which is limited to terrorism, murder, or genocide. The whole world was against them because God’s word was their authority and because they testified to the world about Jesus Christ, calling the world to repentance. The Christian message is offensive to worldly people, people who love self rather than God (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:2). John has already described the hardships of the local congregations as Christians face the possibility of death because of Christ’s name (Cf. 2:10, 13). Doubtless Christians in the First Century were all touched by the premature deaths of some brothers and sisters in the faith. John’s goal is to encourage them in the midst of this great tribulation, tribulation in which Christian brothers and sisters are perishing. When the martyrs cry out, they are not merely asking for restitution but for justice against unjust people. They are not merely asking for justice; They already know that God is just. They are asking when God will finally bring justice to the earth and repay each one according to his or her deeds, specifically against God’s elect.
We also see Christians being killed because of God’s word and the Christian testimony today. Don’t we have the same question? God, when will You make things right? When will You bring peace to the earth? When will You finally crush Your enemies and make the earth a just place?
The patient savior (v. 11)
And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.
A white robe, representing the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ through His atoning sacrifice (Cf. 3:4-5; 4:4), was given to the souls who had been slain. In response to their question about justice, Jesus reminds them that He has justified them. They are told that they should rest for a little while longer. They are not to worry about vindication because Jesus is just and the justifier of those who believe (Cf. Romans 3:26). Those who have been slain are to rest until the number of their fellow servants and the number of those who are to be killed as they were have been completed.
When will the number of their fellow servants be completed? Before Jesus will explicitly judge the world and bring justice to the earth, the full number of those who will be saved must be converted. Christ, the rider on the white horse, must deliver all His people—justifying them like He has justified the martyrs in this symbol. When will the number of their fellow martyrs be completed? Likewise, all those Christians who will die because of Christ’s word and their testimony must die. Here, we discover another reason we should not interpret the symbols that parallel the breaking of the seals to be the pouring out of God’s final wrath, especially with regard to some future seven-year great tribulation. While the seals are being broken, Jesus is instructing the martyrs to wait because it is not yet time for His final wrath to be poured out on the earth. The rider on the white horse, Jesus who conquers the world by His word, is not yet finished delivering His people.
Why are the martyrs instructed to rest until that time? Jesus is the just and the justifier of those who believe. Jesus is the just judge. Jesus will set all things right. Once the martyrs finish their work on earth, which was prepared beforehand by Christ (Cf. Ephesians 2:10), they can rest. I think this is part of John’s encouragement to the churches. The current Heaven is a place of rest. Even the martyrs, who remember the injustice against them, are given rest. When a Christian dies, that Christian is clothed in white and released from the labors of this world. He or she enters into a state of rest. It is no accident, here, that John follows the death of those dying and going to Hell with a symbolic description about the death of godly men and women on the earth. He desires to encourage the saints in the tribulation with him. John’s encouragement is much like Paul’s encouragement in 1 Thessalonians:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Paul’s goal was not to teach some kind of pre-tribulation rapture; We can’t quite glean that from the text. It was to encourage the saints. When Christians die, they go to be with the Lord. If Christ returns before we die, we will discover that those brothers and sisters who died before we did got to see the Lord before us. He came with a shout of praise and trumpet call to retrieve them at the moment of their demise; To argue in favor of a future rapture from 1 Thessalonians is to necessitate a sort of soul-sleep only after which the dead in Christ will rise first at some future rapture. Scripture never grants such a possibility. Jesus comes personally to each true Christian at the moment of death and personally escorts him or her to His Heaven with trumpet blasts and thunderous, celebratory shouts! Then, one day after Jesus came to retrieve each one who has died, we will meet with them, and all the saints from every age will forever be together with Jesus Christ. Comfort one another with this hope.
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