Beginning with the fifth seal, the nature of the judgment changes; the last three seals contain neither horse, nor rider, nor the natural forces of judgment. With the fifth seal comes a different kind of activity – a supernatural activity. Here we see God working, bringing about both favorable and ominous results for the world’s people amid the judgments of the four horsemen.

There is a difficult concept embedded in these verses. How is it that the saints who lived and died over a period of centuries and millennia appear in this passage to be together in heaven at one time? The answer to this question is that this passage gives us a glimpse into the difference between time and eternity. We live in time; the events described in this passage take place in eternity. In this world, we are born, live, and die in time. But after we die, we enter a great eternal present called eternity. In the realm of eternity, time doesn’t pass moment by moment. Everything simply is. Everyone who died in the past, who will die in the future, or who is dying at this very moment in time emerges together in the same undivided moment called eternity. There is no past or future there. Those concepts belong to time.

When Jesus broke the first four seals on the scroll given to Him in heaven, they revealed woes that occur on the earth during the church age. Opening the fifth scroll brings our attention back to heaven. Here we see the souls of the believers who died for Christ in these tribulations. This emphasis should not surprise us, since Revelation has all along been preparing its readers for persecution. In the letter to Smyrna, Jesus said, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). Antipas of Pergamum was a faithful witness who had already died (2:13). In the Gospels, Jesus warned that “they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9).

With the fifth seal, John saw “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain (v. 9). Everyone dies sometime, but these souls are special for the cause of their death: they “had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (v. 9). The martyrs died because they would not renounce the biblical revelation about Christ’s divine person and saving work. The “witness” probably emphasizes the gospel testimony they received and then shared boldly with others. This reminds us that the basic meaning of the Greek word martyr is “witness.” They died because of their testimony to Jesus.

If verse 9 highlights the cause of the martyrs, the next verse notes the cry of the martyrs in heaven (v. 10). The martyrs cry out over the continued slaughter of the saints on earth. The martyrs cry to God is not over their own deaths, but over the injustice taking place on earth. The fact that glorified saints are praying this way near God’s presence in heaven should alert us that this must be a biblical prayer.

The first reason that this prayer is worthy of Christians is that the martyrs were not complaining only about their own sufferings but were crying for the injustice inflicted on fellow believers. The saints in heaven want to know how long the church on earth will suffer. Second, there is nothing inherently unchristian about praying against evil and asking God to judge the wicked. Such prayers are found throughout the Psalms. Third, the primary focus of this prayer is the honor of God. The martyrs pray to the Sovereign of history, knowing that His glory requires righteousness to prevail. We too, should pray for God to glorify Himself in the judgment of the wicked, knowing that He certainly will. As chapter 6 goes on, John is shown that the Day of Judgment is God’s answer to this prayer of the martyrs for vengeance (6:12-17).

Verse 11 concludes this brief but remarkable passage by revealing the condition of the martyrs above. First, the martyrs are each dressed in a “white robe.” The white robe signifies righteousness. Together with the righteous standing of the saints above, the white robes also speak of their purity. Whenever a Christian thinks of justification through faith in Christ, he or she should also be reminded of the calling to live in the holiness of sanctification. Moreover, white is “the color of victory. The martyrs appeared to have been defeated by their enemies. Actually they were given the victory by God.” The reality from heaven shows that it is the saints, though weak in the world and despised for their faith, who attains the victory through union with the crucified Christ.

Second, the white-robed martyrs enjoy the satisfaction of rest with God in heaven: they are “told to rest a little longer” (v. 11). The word for rest in Greek also has the idea of being refreshed. They rest in the finished work of Christ, and their joy is enriched by the treasures they stored up in heaven during a life focused not on the world below but on the world above (Matt. 6:19-20).

Although the martyrs are clothed in white and have entered their bliss, they have not yet arrived at the full extent of their desire. For while they rest, they are told to wait “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been (v. 11). The martyrs long to see redemptive history come to completion and all the elect gathered in, as well as God’s answer to their cry for justice.

These three verses provide a great wealth of lessons for us, in large part because of the rare glimpse they offer of believers in heaven after their death and before the final resurrection. Here are four important lessons: First, this passage teaches that the souls of Christians who die go immediately to heaven. This is true not only for those who suffer violent deaths for Jesus but for all those who die having trusted Him for salvation. Christians do not pass into death but pass through death so as to immediately enjoy the blessing of the presence of the Lord.

Second, the condition of the martyrs in heaven shows that the injustice of the world is overturned by God’s righteous judgment. Although the Bible has told us that this life involves tribulation, the experience can fill us with dismay. Yet the world’s persecutors achieved for these Christians exactly the opposite of what they desired. They sought to put an end to their lives, but instead they ushered the believers into glory. They condemned the Christians, but the white robes in heaven overturned their verdict.

Third, verse 11 shows that the number of those saved through Christ has been predetermined by God and all of them are certain to come to faith. God knows “the number of their fellow servants and their brothers” and has appointed a time for their gathering to be complete, just as God has ordained the manner of their lives and of their deaths. This should encourage us in our witness to the gospel, since the elect are sure to be saved and many may come to Christ through our testimony.

Fourth, these verses show the importance of the testimony of the martyrs to God’s redemptive plan for history. You don’t have to die violently for Jesus in order to play a decisive role in God’s redeeming plan. But you do have to be true enough to God’s Word that the world notices your faith. What was the message of all the martyrs, who by faith entered into death with joy in their hearts? Their message told of life eternal in the blissful rest of heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. Each of them knew the truth of Jesus’ words, which now speak to us today: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Revelation 6:9-11 Study Questions:

Who does John see under the altar and what is their cry (vv. 9-10)?

Why are they given white robes and told that they must wait a while longer (v. 11)?

There is a long tradition, going back through the Psalms and the prophets to the children of Israel in Egypt, crying out to their God to do something at last (Exodus 2:23). This cry (“How long, O Lord, how long?”) echoes down through the centuries, and is heard again as the fifth seal is opened. How is this cry echoed in our own day – in our families, churches and the world around us?

If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

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