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. 12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When we first began our journey through Revelation in February of this year, I made to you all a number of promises. I would like to review those promises again now. They are:
- I will preach what Revelation says, not what any system of prophecy says.
- I will not forget the original audience who received this book.
- I will not engage in forced efforts of identifying prophesied events, people, or entities today, though I will point out where our culture seems to be evidencing what was prophesied.
- I will not overly-stress the differences between prophetic systems, though I will mention them for context.
- I will refuse to miss the forest for the trees.
I would like to restate my commitment to these promises. That being said, I will take a brief moment and address a question that I believe is utterly unavoidable in our context and that I think you deserve to know.
A Tale of Two Systems.
The question regards systems of prophecies. In promise #1 I promised to preach what the book of Revelation says, not what any system of prophecy says. There are numerous systems of prophecies. They can be helpful and they can be unhelpful. I would caution all of us against slavishly adhering to any system. If you do so, you will allow the system to drive your interpretation. That being said, most interpreters tend to fall roughly within or at least within the orbit of one of these systems.
While there are a half-dozen major systems, I would like to take just a moment and consider two of these. I am going to comment on this just enough to give a sense of where I am on this but not enough to make anybody really happy. And that is on purpose. Why? Because the system is not the point. The scriptures are the point. Jesus is the point. I am not going to spend my time in Revelation defending a system. To do that is to miss the point of the book.
Even so, among many or perhaps most conservative readers of scriptures, the majority likely adhere to one of these two positions (as illustrated here by Andrew Perriman):
You will notice that these two positions have a number of things in common. Both post-tribulational premillennialists and pre-tribulational premillennialists:
- believe that Jesus will return before a 1,000 year millennial reign (thus, Premillennial).
- believe there will be a tribulation;
- believe there will be a second coming (i.e., Jesus will return visibly to the earth);
- and, though the chart does not show this clearly, both believe in a rapture.
The main (but not only) difference between the two is that post-tribulationalists believe the rapture (a) will happen after (post) the tribulation and (b) will be one event with the coming of Christ (i.e., we will be caught in the air to meet Jesus, as Paul writes at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4, and then we will return to earth immediately with Him.). Pre-tribulationalists believe that the second coming will come in two stages: (a) Christ will come first for His church in a rapture before (pre) the tribulation and then He will come with His church after the tribulation.
Books and seminars and sermons have all been devoted to this particular question: when is the rapture? I am not devoting an entire sermon to it, though we will touch on it here and there as we go. For our purposes, let me just say this: while I do not adhere slavishly to either or any system, and while I think both proposals have strengths and weakness, I find the pre-tribulational position to be more problematic and find post-tribulationalism to fit better with scripture. In other words, I believe the church will be present through the tribulation but will be protected in the midst of it and that the church will be caught up to meet Christ in the air and then come back down with him when He comes at the end of the tribulation. Very quickly, here are some of the reasons why:
- The post-tribulational view seems to be the oldest and most widely held view of the earliest church. The pre-tribulational view and the idea that the church will disappear in the rapture before the tribulation has a rather dubious history and was arguably unknown by the earliest church. In fact, the post-tribulational view is usually called “Historic Premillenialism.”
- Post-tribulationalism seems to make the best sense of the New Testament’s and the book of Revelation’s consistent calls for endurance as well as making sense of the reality that tribulation and suffering has been the lot of many Christians the world over for the better part of the last two thousand years. The idea that Jesus would not let His church go through tribulation would be a very curious idea to countless Christian martyrs both today and throughout Christian history.
- Pre-tribulationism does not really solve anything since both sides agree that there will be people who come to know Christ in the tribulation. (Meaning, both sides actually believe there will be Christians in the tribulation.)
- Pre-tribulationsim makes certain assumptions about 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”) that are not warranted, mainly that we meet Christ in the air and Jesus makes a u-turn back up to heaven with His church, when (a) the text never says that and (b) our meeting Him in the air and then coming back to the earth with Him fits the imagery from the ancient world that Paul is likely drawing on in this verse of a king approaching a city and receiving a delegation from the city who comes out, meets him, and then re-enters the city with him.
Now, do I think that pre-tribulationism is without certain strengths? No, I do not think that. It certainly does try to take scripture seriously as God’s word. Do I think post-tribulationism is full-proof? No, it has its own challenges. But as we move forward through the book it will become evident that I believe the church will likely go through the tribulation. And I felt that it needed to be stated plainly here, especially as it likely departs from the viewpoint of most people in this room.
That being said, let me add:
- What matters most is that we all believe that Jesus is returning visibly to the earth, not the timing of the rapture.
- We should hold our positions on disputed issues humbly and without anger or defensive. If you want to talk about the timing of the rapture, great. If you want to argue about the timing of the rapture, you will have to find somebody else.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. Christians have disagreed with one another on these detail questions for many years while agreeing on the main thing: Christ is coming again and this fact should (a) help us to not lose hope and (b) stir us on to faithfulness and great mission.
How Long?! The Martyr’s Cry for Vindication
As we return to Revelation 6 we see in the remainder of the chapter the opening of the fifth and sixth seals. Let us remember: there are seven seals that seal the scroll and only the Lamb can break them. As we saw last week, many believe the seals to be either partially are wholly preparatory for the specific events of the tribulation that we will see in the trumpets and bowls. Others see these events as part of the tribulation, either in whole or part. They may be a bit of a mixture as the first four seals seem to be a diagnosis of the condition of the world throughout time since the fall of man, with its wars and violence and suffering, though future events will certainly contain an intensification of these very things.
When the fifth seal is opened, we are shown a most startling image:
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.
Under the altar we see and hear the souls of the martyrs, “those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Here is a picture of the suffering and persecuted and slain church.
The fact that these martyrs’ souls are “under the altar” takes us back to the Old Testament sacrificial system, as George Eldon Ladd points out:
The fact that John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar has nothing to do with the state of the dead or their situation in the intermediate state; it is merely a vivid way of picturing the fact that they had been martyred in the name of their God. In the Old Testament ritual blood of sacrificial victims was poured out at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7). The souls of martyrs are seen under the altar as though they had been sacrificed upon the altar and their blood poured out at its base.
Paul will use this image of suffering for Jesus being an offering in 2 Timothy 4.
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.
This helps us understand the nature of suffering for Jesus. It is an offering. It is a sacrifice. It is a sacred gift.
And the martyrs cry out for vindication and for hope: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” It is important that we not see the cry for vindication from the martyr’s as being a bloodthirsty cry for revenge and for pain to be inflicted on those who killed them, though there is certainly a note of justice in these words. I agree with the great early interpreter of scripture known as “The Venerable Bede” who said of this verse:
They do not pray for these things out of hatred of their enemies for whom they intercede in this world. Rather, they pray out of love of equity. For in concord with the judge in whose presence they are placed, they pray for the day of judgment when the kingdom of sin is destroyed and the resurrection of their dead bodies comes. For even at the present time, when commanded to pray for our enemies, we nevertheless pray to the Lord, “May your kingdom come!”
This last point is particularly powerful: Jesus us told us to pray (a) for our enemies and (b) for the coming of the Kingdom which will necessarily involve judgement of the enemies of God. This is a paradox, and one that must be held in its full force. We weep for the lost and cry out for their salvation, even as we call for the justice that only Christ can bring.
God hears their cries. He gives them a white robe. He tells them to rest. He says, “Just a little longer!” He gives them, in a word, hope! This comforts us. We do not need to fear death. We must not! Christ is with His suffering people. We are promised justice and equity. God is still on His throne and He will come again.
In John Stott’s book, The Radical Disciple, he wrote of Josif Ton, a Baptist pastor who suffered for his faith in Romania.
…Josif Ton, a follower of Jesus Christ, who has shown by his life and teaching that suffering—and even death—is an indispensable ingredient of Christian discipleship. Josif Ton is a Romanian Christian leader, born in 1934, who became pastor of the Baptist Church in Oradea, which today is a world-famous Baptist center. After four years of his faithful pastoring, the curiosity of the authorities was around and he was arrested and interrogated. He was then given the opportunity to leave the country and settle in the United States, where he pursued doctoral studies and was awarded a doctorate by the Evangelical Faculty of Belgium. His research topic was “Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven,” which was later published as a book.
During the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu, Josif Ton in one of his published sermons told how the authorities threatened to kill him. He responded: “Sir, your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.”
Indeed! Indeed it is! The devil cannot kill those who have already died, who have already been buried with and risen with Christ! The devil cannot frighten God’s children with the threat of the tomb, for we follow the Lamb who walked out of His tomb.
The Sixth Seal: Vindication Promised
As if in response to the question of the martyred souls, the sixth seal opens onto a scene of ultimate vindication.
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Here we find a picture of coming cosmic calamity, a picture of judgment. Those who kill the followers of the Lamb will beg for death when the wrath of the Lamb falls upon them. The wrath of God seems to manifest itself in nature. We see:
- a great earthquake;
- the sun becoming black;
- the moon becoming like blood;
- the starts of the sky falling;
- the sky vanishing;
- the mountains removed;
- the islands removed.
Jesus paints a similar picture in Matthew 24.
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Just as the glory of God can be celebrated in nature (“the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” Isaiah 55:12), so can the wrath of God, apparently! Craig Keener quotes one survivor of the Bay area earthquake of 1989 as saying about the devastating quake: “God just clapped his hands.”
And not just nature. The wrath of God reveals itself in and against the wicked of the earth, those who kill God’s children.
15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Great and terrible will be the wrath of the Lamb! We weep for this. We tremble for this. Even as we rejoice at the perfect strength, power, glory, righteousness, and equity of the Lamb! The Lamb will not long remain silent.
And so we take heart. We do not fear. We do not give up. We do not despair.
A few weeks ago I got up early one morning and took a walk through Boston Common. I was actually unaware that our hotel was right beside the Common and I was thrilled at the discovery. I had wanted to see it for many, many years, and the reason I wanted to see it was because of something that happened there over three-hundred years ago. There is not a monument to this event, though Boston is filled with monuments. It is, in my opinion, a serious omission.
In 1651, a Baptist preacher named Obadiah Holmes was found guilty of disturbing the peace with preaching what the Puritans called heresy and of unlicensed preaching. The Puritans of Boston took great issue with Obadiah’s preaching, though Obadiah contended that he was simply preaching the gospel. Obadiah was a faithful and passionate follower and proclaimer of Jesus, but he violated the ecclesiastical laws of the Puritans.
In their article entitled “Obadiah Holmes, The Baptist Martyr the Puritans Should Have Left Alone,” The New England Historical Society describes what ultimately happened.
On Sept. 5, 1651, a crowd gathered around the whipping post in Boston to watch the flogging.
Obadiah Holmes asked to speak, but Magistrate Encrease Nowell refused. Holmes spoke anyway, saying he was about to shed his blood for what he believed. Nowell said it was no time for debate.
“I am to suffer for…the Word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ,” said Obadiah Holmes.
“No, it is for your error and going about to seduce the people,” Nowell said.
The two men continued to debate as the executioner tore off Holmes’ clothes.
Then the executioner tied him to the whipping post and lashed him 30 times with a three-corded whip.
When the whipping ended, a bleeding, panting Obadiah Holmes said,
You have struck me as with roses.
Bleeding. Whipped. Fainting away. Obadiah still had strength to say, “You have struck me as with roses.”
What on earth would cause a man to say such a thing after such an atrocity? “You have struck me as with roses!”
I would suggest that what causes those who suffer for Christ to show such bravery is nothing less than the knowledge that God sees His faithful children, God hears their cries, and God will vindicate His faithful, suffering bride. This knowledge changes fear into joy and changes the lash into roses.
“You have struck me as with roses.”
God sees you. Take heart! Live boldly for Jesus. Do not fear to suffer for Him if need be. He will set all things right. He will not abandon you.
In Christ, suffering feels like roses.
Christ who has suffered will never abandon His church who suffers.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), p.103.
 William C. Weinrich, ed. Latin Commentaries on Revelation. Ancient Christian Texts. Eds. Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), p.130.
 John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.126-127.
 Craig Keener, Revelation. NIV Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p.224.