So far in the book of Revelation, chapter 6 has been the first place where John’s visions have really started to turn foreboding. Last time we looked at the first four seal judgments (the infamous “four horsemen of the apocalypse”). Now, in Rev 6:9-11, we get another intense scene. The Lamb opens the fifth seal, and John sees a vision of the souls of martyred Christians in heaven — and they’re crying out for justice:
“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. 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?’ 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” (ESV).
At the time Revelation was written, there had already been sporadic instances of persecution intense enough to result in martyred Christians — the first being Stephen the deacon (see Acts 7); as well as John’s own brother, the disciple James (Acts 12:1-5). Under the reign of Emperor Nero, Roman Christians were briefly but intensely persecuted within the capital city in 64-68 AD, and strong early tradition has it that this was when the apostles Peter and Paul were martyred. When John writes Revelation (likely during the reign of Emperor Domitian, 81-96 AD), there seems to have been pockets of on-again, off-again local hostility toward Christians by their non-believing neighbors. Revelation even mentions one martyr by the name of Antipas, killed in Pergamum (Rev 2:12-13).
But on a deeper level, the earliest Christians (who saw themselves as the continuation of and, indeed, the fulfilment of God’s elect people, Israel) understood all the faithful saints and prophets of the Old Testament to have been part of the victorious “church” in heaven (see Hebrews 11:32-12:2). What’s more, since John’s vision is apocalyptic/prophetic, it also includes all the numerous believers who would be put to death between his own day and the time of Christ’s return. Since John is being shown “what will take place after” his own day (Rev 4:1), it is no wonder that generations of Revelation’s readers have taken this vision to be a foretelling of a time of great persecution of God’s people at the end of history, immediately before Christ’s return.
As George Eldon Ladd helpfully summarizes,
“Here John appears to have in mind all Christian martyrs of every age, perhaps those of the end time in particular. One of the repeated emphases of the entire New Testament is that it is the very nature of the church to be a martyr people. When Jesus taught that a man to be his disciple must deny himself and take up his cross (Matt. 10:38; 16:24), he was not speaking of self-denial or the bearing of heavy burdens; he was speaking of willingness to suffer martyrdom. The cross is nothing else than an instrument of death. Every disciple of Jesus is in essence a martyr; and John has in view all believers who have so suffered” (A Commentary on the Revelation of John [Eerdmans: 1972], 104).
This is a challenging thought, but it’s crucial to the main point the book of Revelation is trying to make: Christians need to be faithful to the end, because Jesus is worth it. We must all be willing to take up our own crosses, should it come to that.
Another important truth this text reveals is that God will judge the world in part because of the prayers of the saints for vindication.
God takes it seriously that his people are persecuted by nonbelievers. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:18). This scene echoes the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms, where God’s people prayed for God’s righteous intervention and for justice to be served on the wicked (see esp. Psalm 94, for example).
The passage also raises an important question for us to wrestle with: Is it vindictive for the saints to be praying for vengeance? Doesn’t that go against Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for them?
Several principles help us to see why this isn’t an ungodly action:
1) There is an important difference between people seeking to avenge themselves and people leaving vengeance to God. When we try to avenge ourselves, it typically only destroys us. Only God has enough knowledge of all the facts to appropriately judge others; only God has enough power to accomplish justice thoroughly; and only God is perfectly loving enough to decide when enough time for repentance has been given.
2) Love itself wouldn’t be love if it never got angry at evil. At some point even love must say, “Enough is enough.” We can safely reason that those in heaven have a bigger perspective than us and know when the limit has been reached.
3) This passage teaches us that justice is important — and it should be important to us. At some point evil must be answered with God’s judgment, or else God isn’t truly just. When we truly acknowledge the depths of evil perpetrated in this world, it should prompt us to seek God’s intervention. When we consider the horrible things people do to each other (like child slavery, sex trafficking, Communist torture camps, etc.), it would be heartless not to long for God to step in and judge evildoers and avenge the innocent. Yes, we should desire and pray for the perpetrators to repent, but at some point enough is enough. Not everyone is going to repent.
We should long for the day when Jesus returns and removes all corrupt human power. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). And this passage comforts us by saying, in essence, Be patient; God will indeed step in and right these wrongs one day. But it will be in his timing (see also 2 Peter 3:8-9).
That’s the focus here in Rev 6, and when we get to Rev 8-11, we will also see that even God’s most “wrathful” end-times judgments are intended to prompt people to repent. They are a wake-up call, not a divine temper-tantrum.
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).