Revelation 6.9-11 - THE SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR

Revelation 6.9-11 - THE SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR

In this lesson we discover part of God's plan for His chosen people during the Tribulation.


One of the thorniest theological-and practical-problems the apostle Paul had to deal with in the Early Church was Israel. If they were God's chosen people, why weren't they being saved? Part of the answer to that question is found in the events of the Great Tribulation.

I. The Context of Their Martyrdom

II. The Cause of Their Martyrdom

III. The Consequences of Their Martyrdom

IV. The Cry of Their Martyrdom

V. The Comfort of Their Martyrdom

   A. They Are Given a Refuge

   B. They Are Given a Rest

   C. They Are Given a Robe

VI. The Conclusion of Their Martyrdom

   A. God Has a Plan That Includes Each Detail

   B. God Has a Purpose That Explains Each Delay

   C. God Has a Program That Extends to Each Dispensation



   The ancient church father Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." From the earliest pages of the Old Testament to the book of Revelation, Satan has attacked the people of God. Pharaoh in Egypt Haman in Persia, Antiochus in second-century B.C. Palestine, Herod in Jesus' day, Jewish leaders in Stephen's day, a different Herod in James' day. And on and on throughout Church history, especially in the days

of the Roman Empire, as we have already studied in earlier lessons.

   And what about God's chosen people, the Jews? Satan's fury was unleashed against them in full force through Hitler in Germany so that six million perished. It is estimated that by the end of World War II the number of Jews remaining worldwide was less than the number coming out of Egypt in the Exodus.

   The fifth seal opened by Christ in heaven is a seal which shows the result of intense persecution of those who stand for the Word of God during the Tribulation. Since all believers were raptured at the beginning of the Tribulation, these souls represent those who are slain "for the word of God and for the testimony which they held" (6:9). We do not see the persecution itself in the fifth seal-only the results of it. As John looks under the altar in heaven he sees the souls who have been martyred for Christ's sake.



   Primary in our study is the identification of the martyrs of verse 9. Who are they? When and by who were they killed?

   As we have already noted, these are saints who became believers during the Tribulation. The Church has been raptured already, and these are part of the unsaved population left on earth. But their persecutors apparently are still alive since they call upon the Lord for vengeance on those who killed them (verse 10). Therefore, they

must have been killed during the Tribulation by non-believers still alive on earth.

   We must note at this point in our developing understanding of the Tribulation period that God will deal intensely with Israel during those days. The apostle Paul has indicated in Romans 11:25-26that a partial spiritual blindness has afflicted Israel and will remain in place until "the fullness of the Gentiles has come in." When is that? When the Rapture occurs-when God's salvation from the nations is complete. But after that (i.e., during the Tribulation) God will turn His attention to His chosen people, the Jews. Many Jews will turn to God and reject the Antichrist; and as a result many will be martyred for their faith. Because of God's turning His attention to His people during the Tribulation, we can assume that the martyred souls under the altar are Jewish Christians.

   How do they become Christians during the Tribulation? Revelation 11 teaches us that God sends two witnesses to earth to preach the Gospel, and Revelation 7 mentions 144,000 Jews who will be "sealed" for God's service during this period. In addition, there will be millions of copies of the Bible, books, tracts, and other

literature left behind on earth after the Rapture. Through various means, God will provide a witness for the Gospel to those who are left behind after the Rapture. But those who do place their faith in Christ will pay a heavy price for doing so (Zechariah 13:8-9; Matthew 24:8-10; Revelation 12:11).



   Those martyred during the Tribulation are killed for exactly the same reason the apostle John was exiled to Patmos: for their testimony and faithfulness to the Word of God (6:9). Remember the Holy Spirit has been removed from the world at this time (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7), and so the carnal and evil desires of unsaved mankind will run free. Persecution will be as common in that day as it is uncommon in our own. The absence of the Holy Spirit restraining evil is the difference.

   Revelation 19:19-21 warns that all who refuse to receive the mark of the Beast (666) will suffer the wrath of the Antichrist. And their testimony refers to the word of judgment they will preach after becoming believers.

When they read the Bible and other books about the End Times and realize that God's final judgment is coming upon the earth, new believers will preach to everyone on earth to repent in light of God's coming judgment of all mankind. For that testimony, they will be killed by the Antichrist-- but their souls will be saved by God. The Jewish believers saved during that period will be like the prophets of  old declaring God's Word to their own people. Thousands of  Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, Jonahs, Ezekiels, and Pauls will be running to and fro over the earth warning their people of judgment.



  As do many pictures in the book of Revelation, verse 9 has its roots in the Old Testament. Leviticus 4:7 says that the blood of a sacrificial bull was to be poured out" at the base of the altar." And here we find the souls of those martyred for Jesus in the Tribulation under the altar in heaven. Dr. Barnhouse points out that, "We are

not to think that John had a vision of an altar with souls peeping out from underneath. The whole teaching of the Old Testament is that the altar was the place of the sacrifice of blood. To be 'under the altar' is to be covered in the sight of God by that merit which Jesus Christ provided in dying on the cross. It is a figure that speaks

of justification ... These martyred witnesses are covered by the work of the Lord Jesus ChriSt."1 So they are saved, under the blood, and protected in heaven.



   It is important to note the difference between the cry of these martyrs (verse 10) and the cry of the Church's first martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:60). Stephen, following the lead of the Lord Jesus, asked God not to hold his persecutors' sins against them. But these Tribulation martyrs want justice-they call out to God for vengeance! We are told in the Church age never to seek vengeance but to leave such matters to the Lord (Romans 12:19). But the Church age ends the age of grace-the Tribulation is the period of the judgment of God. Therefore, the martyred saints are justified in calling out for justice upon those who have murdered the saints of God.

   It's amazing that when they address God, the martyrs don't call Him by the normal word for Lord. Instead they call God Despotes, the word from which we get despot, a ruler with absolute power. These martyrs call out to the one with absolute and sovereign power to avenge their deaths.

   Surely, even in this age of grace, every believer has wanted to cry out to the Despotes of this universe and ask "How long?" before all the suffering and sin and pain and abortion and AIDS and crime and drugs and all the rest are done away with. All creation groans with the desire to be set free from that which only God has the

sovereign authority to avenge.



   The Lord's answer to their cry for vengeance is to give them a white robe of righteousness and a word of comfort (verse 11). They are to rest for a while longer as He will set the balances right all at one time. "The cup of iniquity on earth is not quite full," says the Lord. "There are more of your brethren yet to join you whom I will avenge along with you."

   God's heart of compassion is evident toward these martyrs in three ways.


   They Are Given a Refuge

   We have seen that they are under the altar, meaning they are covered by the blood of God's sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Shielded by the blood of Christ is the safest place anyone can be. The Lord is a

strong tower in whom the righteous are safe (Proverbs 18:10).


   They Are Given a Rest

   The rest which the Lord assigns to the martyrs is echoed later in Revelation: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord ... that they may rest from their labors" (Revelation 14:13). How sweet the invitation to rest would be to those brought out of the Tribulation.


   They Are Given a Robe

   The Lord went around and gave a white robe "to each of them." The impression is that they were personally given their robe. We have to ask what kind of robes souls wear. The martyrs are not there in their resurrected bodies; rather, they are there as souls. Tribulation saints will not be resurrected until the end of the Tribulation

(Revelation 20:5). Dr. John Walvoord's opinion here is helpful-that the Tribulation saints are accorded some type of temporary body in heaven for the short time between their death and the possession of their resurrected bodies. On this temporary body they are able to wear their white robes.



   We can draw three applications from these three brief verses about martyred Jewish believers during the Tribulation (verses 9-11).


  God Has a Plan That Includes Each Detail

   From this passage we take great comfort in thinking about our Own physical death should we die before the Lord returns. Some people suggest a doctrine called "soul sleep," meaning the soul of a person is not animated

between the time of death and the beginning of eternal heaven. But that certainly was not the case with the martyred Tribulation saints. They were alive and well, under the blood, conversing with the Lord in heaven! Two things are taught clearly regarding the death of believers and the return of the Lord. When the Lord

returns the saints rise from the grave (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16) and they return with Him (1 Thessalonians 3:13b). The only way this can happen is for the body and soul to be separate after death. So the body "sleeps" in

the grave, but the soul is alive and returns with the Lord to be reunited with a resurrected body. Tobe "absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8). God has covered every detail of our future.


   God Has a Purpose That Explains Each Delay

   What appears to us to be delays in God's deliverance is always explained by His greater purposes which are at work. The martyrs who cried out for vengeance against their persecutors discovered that God had a purpose in His delay. We think God is uncaring or unconcerned or unjust or unable when He doesn't respond to our need right away. But He is none of those things. Rather, He is a God who is working out His purposes on His timetable. In the case of the martyrs, justice would be carried out but at the perfect

time. Another group of Jewish martyrs would be received by heaven later in the Tribulation. His plan covers every detail and explains every delay.


   God Has a Program That Extends to Each Dispensation

   I hear people say, regarding the last days, "The day of salvation is just about over." But it isn't. God's grace extends to every period of man's presence on earth-even the Great Tribulation. I remember being taught in seminary how God's grace is at work in every period of God's economy with man on earth. God is always seeking and calling and extending the offer of salvation. And in the Tribulation there will be untold thousands who will receive His offer of grace and be saved.

   The period of God's working with Israel as a nation doesn't officially begin until the Tribulation-though many Jews are being drawn to Christ in our present day. (Remember: Israel's blindness is only partial; see Romans 11:25.)But the day will come when He will pour out His grace upon His chosen people, and many will see their Messiah Jesus. What a joy to know that God has a program which ensures that His grace extends to every age.

   In anticipation of the outpouring of grace which will come to Israel in the Tribulation, "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" today (Psalm 122:6).

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