The Fifth Seal
Then, when he opened the fifth seal, I beheld beneath the altar the souls of the ones having been slain because of the word of God and because of the testimony they were holding.
And they cried out in a great voice, saying, “Until how long, Lord, the Holy and Trustworthy, True One, are you not judging and avenging our blood out of the ones living upon the earth?”
And it was given to them each a long white robe, and it was said to them that they are to have a rest yet a small while, until it would be fulfilled them, also their fellow servants and their brothers and sisters who are going to be put to death just as they.Revelation 6:9-11
I left the translation somewhat wooden and awkward to show there can be a number of ways to read this fifth seal.
Understanding the Seal
After the four horsemen had been summoned and sent, the scene shifted, and now an altar was visible in the throne room of God. John seems to have taken this in stride, for without comment, he beheld beneath this altar, somehow, all those who had so far been martyred for their faith.
This would have been of intense interest to those assemblies who had already prayed with and lost beloved brothers and sisters.
- John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas
- Deacon Stephen was stoned to death with the approval of the Sanhedrin
- Apostle James, brother of John, was put to the sword by King Herod
- Faithful Antipas, from the assembly in Pergamos, was killed for his beliefs
Probably the Apostles Paul and Peter had already been martyred in Rome by the time of Revelation’s writing, and their deaths would have rumbled like a shock wave through the Christian assemblies.
In the midst of their pain, the martyrs cry out for judgment and justice.
Which means that so far the Lord was not judging the ones who had martyred them. The Lord was leaving the way open for all who repented to come under God’s forgiveness and restoration. Peter had already explained, in an earlier letter,
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.2 Peter 3:8-9 (NRSV)
Instead, the martyrs were each given a fresh robe, long and white, clean and new, to cover them entirely. And they were invited to refresh themselves during this intermission between their deaths and the coming of the end of time, when all will be judged and justice will be brought forth.
Two reasons were given to the martyrs.
First, God had already determined the time of fulfillment, but that time was not yet.
Second, there would be many more brothers and sisters who would be joining those beneath the altar before the time of fulfillment would be reached.
Scholars searching for an historical connection view the reigns of Diocletian, Maximian, and Galerius (c. 270-304), just preceding Constantine’s conversion and conquering of Rome, as most likely. Called the Great Persecution, this was perhaps the most brutal and severe of all Christian affliction in history.
Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (263-339 CE), records much of what happened during this time in his History of the Martyrs in Palestine. Edicts were issued nullifying the legal rights of Christians, and compelling Christians to return to the religions sanctioned by Rome. All occupants within the Roman Empire were compelled to make sacrifices to Rome’s gods in a resurgence of Roman patriotism and a revivalist fervor to restore traditional Roman religion.
Such edicts immediately “outted” faithful Christians. Rome’s armies were purged, and Christian soldiers lost their careers, pensions, and personal savings, all confiscated by the state. Churches were razed to the ground, sacred writings burned, and church accounts emptied into the national treasury. Christians were denied permission to congregate and could not petition the court. It became illegal to have a Bible, or any sacred writings.
Those who refused to comply were burned alive.
All Christian clergy were arrested. Reportedly, there were so many Christian leaders, ordinary criminals had to be released to make room. Every man, woman, and child in the empire was to make public sacrifice to the gods under the watchful eye of Rome’s officials. Those who did not were executed.
Scholars focused on Revelation’s significance to the destruction of Jerusalem note the slain souls of martyrs are, as it were, poured out under the altar just as slain temple sacrifices.
The priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense that is in the tent of meeting before the Lord, and the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering, which is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.Leviticus 4:7 (NRSV)
The life of something was considered to be in its blood,
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar, for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.Leviticus 17:11 (NRSV)
And it is this blood that cries out to God, just as Abel’s did.
Preterist interpreters point to Jerusalem chiefly on the words of Jesus.
Upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.
Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.Jesus, Matthew 23:33-36 (NRSV)
Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.Jesus, Luke 18:7-8 (NRSV)
Unless you repent you will all perish as they did.Luke 13:3 (NRSV)
God’s Warning to the People
You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.Numbers 35:33 (NRSV)
Most readers who look to future fulfillment see these martyrs as having died during a future time of tribulation, the havoc brought about by the preceding four horsemen. Some consider the martyrs to be believers who will have died throughout the seven-year period of Tribulation.
Dispensionalists see these as new believers, for the church, in their view, will have already been translated to Christ in the Rapture. However, because there is some debate as to when the Rapture will take place, whether before, during. or immediately following the Tribulation, it is unclear whether there will also be seasoned faithful along with fresh converts.
Commentators with this perspective understand the martyrs as all those who have died for their faith throughout the two thousand years of the church age (so far). John sees them beneath the altar because they sacrificed their lives for Jesus, and in this way entered into the sacrifice of Jesus’s own life.
They know—and we know—God will one day vindicate them just as God vindicated Christ. On the Day of the Lord, when all shall be judged, when all wrongs will be made right, when both mercy and justice will be satisfied, the blood of the martyrs will be fulfilled.
In the meantime, they are finding rest and refreshment with God in the heavenlies. Their white robes confirm they have been purified, made sacred unto God, and nothing can ever again touch them.
Blessed are the dead who in the Lord are from here on dying. “Even so,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.”Revelation 14:13
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg