How Long, O Lord?
Last time we were in Revelation, Jesus began opening seven seals. Remember that John sees in God’s hand a scroll that’s sealed with seven seals. The scroll contains God’s plan to bring history to its climax in the new heavens and new earth. Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll. Only Jesus can enact God’s plan because he alone conquered through the cross.
So, one by one Jesus breaks the seals. We’ve already studied the first four seals. In 6:1-8, four horsemen appeared—one for conquest, another for bloodshed, another for famine, and the last for death. These are God’s judgments against a world at ease in its rebellion. They are not judgments limited to the very end of time; they are part of our present experience between Jesus’ resurrection and his return. I tried sketching it for you like this [screen]. Until Jesus returns for final judgment, he sends smaller judgments to shatter the pride of nations; to expose the folly of finding your security in worldly systems; to reveal that man is powerless in the face of death.
Alongside these judgments is the church on mission. That’s where the fifth seal enters the picture. Alongside these judgments—alongside God’s persistent warnings—Jesus appoints Christians to lay down their lives in spreading the good news about Jesus’ victory. The fifth seal reveals how martyrdom is part of God’s purpose in spreading the gospel to all peoples. That’s one thing we’ll see.
But simultaneously, the fifth seal continues God’s judgments against a world at ease in its rebellion. All the seals are part of the Lamb’s judgments, including the cries of the martyrs. We’re getting one coherent picture of Jesus reigning and working to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own kingdom. Some of that work comes with Jesus commissioning heavenly agents for judgment, and some of that work comes with Jesus answering the cries of his people for justice. The world thinks it’s going to snuff out the church by killing Christians. But it becomes self-defeating. Their deaths only mount up further judgment from the Lamb. Let’s read verses 9-11, make a few observations, and then see how we fit into this picture…
9 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 witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
The Martyr’s Sacrifice
Let’s take this in four parts. First, the martyrs sacrifice. “I saw under the altar,” verse 9 says, “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Another way to translate that last part is, “for the testimony they were holding to.” Over time and facing opposition, they kept holding to Jesus’ testimony. They did not waver from God’s word. Publicly, they identified with Jesus. They kept speaking what Jesus delivered to them; and it cost them their lives. Back in 1:9, John faced exile for the same activity. In 2:10, some in Smyrna were facing imprisonment for the gospel. In 3:8, Christians in Philadelphia faced hardship for keeping Jesus’ word. Then we have the martyrs of the fifth seal.
Jesus said this would happen in Matthew 24:9, “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.” The church doesn’t escape tribulation; the church dies in tribulation to spread the testimony of Jesus. At the same time, John depicts for us what the New Testament indicates elsewhere: for the Christian to depart from this world is to find yourself in the presence of Jesus. These martyrs still wait for glorified bodies at the resurrection. But in the interim, these martyrs find themselves beneath God’s heavenly altar.
Why are they beneath an altar? Throughout Revelation, there’s only one altar in heaven.[i] We see it again in 8:3—an angel stands at this altar with a golden censer and offers incense with the prayers of all the saints. In 9:13, John sees this altar before God’s throne. Standing beneath the altar shows how these martyrs are not forgotten, not abandoned. God has ushered them into his presence, the place where he listens to their cries and stores them up like sweet incense.
But something else to note is the way John describes their death: “those who had been slain/slaughtered.” Same word in the Old Testament for slaughtering sacrifices.[ii] It’s also the same word used to describe Jesus in 5:6—“I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” These Christians have followed in the footsteps of their Savior. Jesus laid down his life like a lamb prepared for slaughter.
Within John’s vision, these martyrs have done the same. In obedience to God’s word, they have offered their lives as sacrifices. Now, their sacrifice doesn’t liberate people from sin—only Jesus’ sacrifice does that (Rev 1:5; 5:9). But when Jesus’ sacrifice liberates from sin, you then live whole-heartedly for the Lord even to the point of death. Like Jesus, they have poured out their blood for the sake of others. To the world, their deaths are a waste. But from heaven’s perspective, their sacrificial deaths rise before the Lord like a pleasing aroma. That’s why John sees them beneath the altar.
This is Revelation’s way of echoing Jesus’ words to take up your cross, to lose your life for his sake and the gospel’s. In 2:10, we learned that Satan was about to throw some Christians into prison; and we can remember Jesus urging them, “Be faithful unto death.” What’s going to help you follow through? What will keep you faithful unto death? One was the picture of Jesus’ glory in chapter 1. But this is another picture that serves your endurance. Your death will not be wasted. Your blood will not be spilled in vain. Your sacrifice fits into God’s story like this: it will rise like a sweet aroma before the Lord. He will bring you into his presence, and he will listen to your cries.
The Martyr’s Cry
That’s where we’re heading next: the martyr’s cry. Verse 10, “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Some might question a prayer like this. It runs contrary to expectations: “Isn’t God supposed to wipe away our tears?” Yes, he will. But we must remember these martyrs are still in the intermediate state.
Others question their cry because it sounds harsh and unforgiving. But as others have pointed out, the martyrs’ cry aligns with Paul’s words in Romans 12:9.[iii] Instead of avenging themselves, these brothers and sisters “leave room for the wrath of God.” They know that God is a better judge. They entrust judgment into the hands of a faithful Judge, and that frees them to love their persecutors.
They know God will not tolerate evil forever. He will complete justice for them because he is holy and true. It is right for God to inflict the appropriate penalty for the wrong done.[iv] That’s what the cross and final judgment teach us. If you repent and trust in Jesus, God punished your sins in Jesus at the cross. If you refuse to repent, God will punish you in the lake of fire. God is a God of justice. He will judge his enemies—and remember, in Revelation, “those who dwell on the earth” aren’t just anybody. These are God’s enemies. Appropriately, then, these martyrs cry, “How long?”
That question, “How long?” is a familiar one in Scripture. It comes often when God’s people witness the wicked prospering. In Zechariah 1:12, when the nations oppressed them in exile, the faithful cried, “How long will you have no mercy?” David cries this way in Psalm 6:3. He’s facing “workers of evil” and cries, “My soul is greatly troubled—How long, O Lord?” We hear it again in Psalm 13:1, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever…How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Then again from Asaph in Psalm 74, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?” Psalm 94:1 is another for the people: “O Lord, God of vengeance…how long shall the wicked exalt?”
When the martyrs cry, “How long?” they echo the cries of God’s people across the centuries. Perhaps they are echoing some of your own cries. Perhaps you have suffered at the hands of godless people and cry, “How long, O Lord?” Perhaps you learn of others suffering for Jesus’ name, like Shamira Nakato in Uganda. On January 5 this year, Shamira’s Muslim husband hung her and their two children after learning that they converted to Christianity. We read stories like this and cry, “How long, O Lord?” You are not alone in these cries. These cries are rooted in a knowledge of God’s holiness and truthfulness. God also hears these cries.
The Martyrs’ Reward and Rest
That brings us to verse 11, the martyrs’ reward and rest. “Then,” it says, “they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete…” I’ll come back to the remainder of verse 11 in a minute. For now, notice how God rewards these martyrs.
He gives them white robes. In Revelation, white can represent purity. But it can also signify honor, such as the honor you’d give to someone who is victorious. The last time we saw it used this way was in 6:1. There, white also stood for victory, but it was the victory of power-hungry rulers who are allowed, for a time, to conquer. But such victories prove to be short-lived. The true conquerors are those who lay down their lives for Jesus’ sake. God himself clothes them in white. He sets his approval on them forever.
In other words, martyrdom isn’t depicted as the church’s defeat in Revelation; it’s depicted as the church’s victory. Even more, the church wins the war against Satan’s kingdom through gospel witness unto death. To see this more fully, we’ll have to wait until chapter 12. But the point God makes there is that the church conquers Satan “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” How does the church win? By laying down their lives in the spread of the gospel. That’s what these white robes are about—the reward is honor for their victory.
The Lord also tells these martyrs to rest. He says, “rest a little longer…” The idea of the saints resting after death appears again in 14:13. There it’s seen as a divine blessing that God gives to those who die in the Lord. Rest is seen as a reward for their labors. By contrast, those who worship the Beast never have any rest after death, only torment. Sometimes people think death “lays people to rest.” But Revelation says that only followers of the Lamb experience true rest. It’s rest in God’s presence.
A unique feature about the rest in 6:11 is that it seems anticipatory of an even greater rest to come—“rest a little longer,” God says. Nevertheless, there is a rest they experience. Having labored well in the Lord’s work, these martyrs rest before God.
The Martyr’s Mission Continuing through Us
Now, this phrase “a little longer” is what I wanted to circle back to. This is where we see our last point: the martyr’s mission continuing through us. They’re told to rest a little longer. That seems to be the answer to their question, “How long?” “A little longer,” which in Revelation means for the duration of the present age. We’ll see this more clearly with the three and a half years in chapter 12. But then he explains why there will be a delay: “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
The first thing we should note is God’s sovereignty. God is not less in control when his saints die than when he keeps them alive. Built into his plan is that many will shed their blood in bringing the gospel to others. That’s what he means by “to be killed as they themselves had been.” Why were these Christians killed? Verse 9, they were killed “for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” That’s the other thing we should note: others will follow these martyrs in sharing the gospel even to the point of death by their persecutors. Only when that work is finished will God bring the end.
Similar remarks come from Jesus in Matthew 24:14. Right after telling the disciples that they’d be hated by all nations for his name’s sake, he adds this: “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Put it together: before the end comes, God’s will for the church is that we finish the work of world-wide witness, and that means others will join these martyrs. Others will spill their blood to get the gospel out.
This is how we fit into the picture. We’re part of this ongoing work of witness. If you follow the Lamb wherever he goes, you belong to completing this work of world-wide-witness, some of which will lead to martyrdom.
So, what does that mean? What should you take away from John’s vision of the fifth seal? These first is that you and I need to count the cost of discipleship. Christian martyrdom brings us face-to-face with the cost of discipleship. Martyrdom reminds us that following Jesus requires we lay down everything. It reminds us that by coming to Jesus, we surrender ourselves wholly to his will.
When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him—included in that call is a willingness to accept betrayal and suffering and persecution and death, wherever obedience requires it. The cross isn’t an irritating neighbor or a stressful job; the cross is a place you go to die in the path of loving obedience. That is the cost of discipleship.
Are you ready to follow the Lamb this way? When you look at these martyrs, have you considered what discipleship truly costs? Or is the cross more so an escape from judgment while you live how you would’ve lived anyway without Jesus? Reflecting on this passage, Craig Keener writes, “God will vindicate [Christian witnesses]; therefore we witness boldly. Yet in the United States, it is often my experience that Christians are complacent, satisfied with their own conversion and personal ‘growth.’”[v]
A passage like this unsettles our complacency, doesn’t it? To follow the Lamb means bearing witness even when others would take our lives for it. Perhaps you weren’t asked to consider the cost of discipleship before baptism. Perhaps you weren’t discipled to know what following Jesus entailed—that he really did mean losing your life to find it, that he really does expect us to renounce all that we have to follow him. If that’s you, consider the faithful testimony of these martyrs. Consider the pattern of their lives. See in their deaths that Jesus really is worthy of all your allegiance, all your life.
Next, present yourself to God as a living sacrifice. That’s how John sees the martyrs under the altar. The sacrifice they bring isn’t something that atones for their sins. Atonement comes only through the blood of Jesus. Only Jesus freed us from our sins by his blood. If the ultimate sacrifice has been made, what is the sacrifice we bring? To use Paul’s words in Romans 12:1, it is the presentation of our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Is this how you view Christian worship? True worship begins every day with a posture of willing acceptance that I, too, am set apart for sacrifice. Worship begins with the surrendering of our bodies for the Lord’s purpose, wholly giving our bodies for the Lord’s use in getting the gospel to others. Not for all, but for some that will mean spilling your blood to help others know the good news of Jesus.
Some of you may have heard of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in the second century. Between AD 156 and 163, violent persecution arose against the church. Polycarp was 86 years old, and he was burned at the stake during those days. Beforehand, the authorities promised to release Polycarp if he would just curse Christ’s name. Polycarp answered, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” But when the second-century author records Polycarp’s final prayer at the stake, listen to how he describes himself: “…May I be received today as a rich and acceptable sacrifice among those who are in Thy presence as Thou hast prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who are faithful and true.”[vi]
Is this where you are today? Do you have a posture of willing acceptance that you, too, may be slaughtered for your testimony about Jesus? Are you at a place where you would be ready to lay down your life for the word of God? I think for a lot of us, our answer would be mixed: Yes-no-maybe-I-want-to-be. How can we get there?
We start by treasuring Christ more today. We start by walking intimately with the Lord now. Something that gripped me this week—when reading the stories of various martyrs throughout church history—repeatedly you hear that their ability to suffer torture stemmed from “communion with Christ,” from “conversing with God in the heart.”[vii]
We grow towards becoming a willing sacrifice by learning to love the Lamb who laid down his life for us. We start by asking the Lord to make us more like his Son, by learning how to trust his gracious provision in smaller acts of obedience, that we may then count on his gracious provision in more costly acts of obedience. That’s where we start, learning daily to say, “I am yours. I am at your disposal, Lord, in whatever comes.”
Speaking of more costly acts, expect persecution when spreading the gospel to others. From my vantage point, the church in America is ill-prepared for persecution. Some of that is due to the expectations set by our more affluent context, where being comfortable is the norm. Some of that is due to decades of complacency in churches that tolerate nominal Christianity. Some of that is due to living in a country whose founding principles, at some points, overlap with Christian morality. Not only do we get used to that, but some act surprised when anything disturbs it.
But persecution shouldn’t surprise us. Throughout the New Testament, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom are normal for Christians. Our cultural moment is the exception. Never should we intentionally provoke persecution or pursue it as some romanticized way of life—historically, the church has gone wrong on that side of things too. It’s also not wrong to pray for those in high positions, that we might lead a peaceful and quiet life. But persecution is to be expected in a world that hates Jesus.
You need to know that, so you don’t throw in the towel at the first whiff of hardships. Anyone wanting to be baptized—at some point we have them turn to Matthew 10:16, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Becoming a Christian means becoming a sheep in the midst of wolves. That’s lesson one, basic Christianity. The steady call throughout Revelation is for the endurance of the saints through great tribulation. We will not reach the Muslim and Hindu peoples without persecution and, in some cases, martyrdom. Expect it, and prepare yourself for it.
Finally, trust the Lord for final vindication. In the fifth seal we see the Lord rewarding his people with white robes and rest. Look to this reward to sustain you through suffering. Losing your stuff, suffering bodily, facing death—all these things will tempt us to forsake Jesus. But again and again in Revelation, God points us to the heavenly reward and vindication. This stands in contrast to those who dwell on earth. We’ll look at this more next time, but the sixth seal answers the martyr’s cry for vengeance. Those who oppress God’s people think they’re safe. But God will come in wrath and leave them trembling. Not so for those who follow the Lamb. They will find themselves vindicated and safe in God’s presence.
There is no need to vindicate yourself in this life, brothers and sisters. God will vindicate you. There is no need to lash out and avenge yourself and take down your enemies. A far better Judge will act. Like these martyrs, we too must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. As 1 Peter 2:23 tells us, “When Jesus was reviled, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” That’s how we go, trusting the Lord (and not ourselves) for final vindication. We go trusting that our cry, “How long?” is not a cry that goes unheard. It is a cry that God answers and will answer.
He answers first by explaining why he delays—that others may hear the gospel just as we have. But also he will answer your cry, “How long?” When the mission is finished, God will bring an end to all evil. He will judge the wicked. Every tear that fell with your cries, “How long”—he will wipe them all away. You will have no more crying or pain anymore. Remember this when others mistreat you. Remember this when others reject your acts of kindness. Remember this when the path of love leads you to care for very hardened, difficult people. Remember this when others try to ruin you for holding fast to Jesus’ testimony. God sees you. Your Father hears you. Jesus will vindicate you and give you rest in his presence. This is our hope as we stake our lives on the word of God and hold fast to the testimony of Jesus.
[i] It seems to be the same altar Isaiah witnessed in chapter 6 of his prophecy.
[ii] E.g., Exod 29:11; Lev 1:5.
[iii] Hoskins, Revelation, 142.
[v] Keener, Revelation, 225.
[vi] Josef Ton, Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven (Wheaton: Romanian Missionary Society, 2000), 331-32.
[vii] Ton, Suffering, 340-41.
other sermons in this series