“When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them.”
Revelation 6:9-11 NLT
The fifth seal was broken and John saw an altar in Heaven. It’s not clear what it looked like in detail, but one thing for sure – it was nothing like the altars we find in our churches and other religious buildings. This one had a special place underneath, and here we find the souls of the Christian martyrs. Men and women killed for nothing more than believing in the Word of God and being faithful, holding onto their beliefs and testimony in spite of threats and mistreatment. Quite rightly, they wanted to see justice, and they called out to God for Him to intervene and punish the people who had abused them. In response, they were each supplied with a white robe, but why was that? Note that this happened before the second coming of Jesus, so at this point the martyrs would not yet have received their new bodies. The martyrs would have been disembodied spirits, but because of their mortal sacrifice, they were fast tracked into Heaven. And the robes were supplied to give them substance and parity with the other Heavenly beings. They were encouraged to rest and be patient, because there were more martyrs to come. Notice that in Heaven, they straight away worshipped God, with “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true”. Their focus was on God, as it had been in their lives on earth.
Christians have been martyred almost continuously to the present day, starting with Stephen. We can read the account of his martyrdom in Acts 6 and 7. Today, with better global communications, we can discover where Christians are being killed for their faith. Open Doors, a UK-based organisation founded by Brother Andrew in 1955, regularly reports on Christian persecution, and on-line videos can be found that detail up to date topics for prayer. They reported that in 2021, 5,898 Christians were murdered because of their faith. And that’s the people they know about.
A passage of Scripture that I find most encouraging is in Acts 4, where the early church prayed for boldness in the face of persecution. We read in verse 29, “And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word…”. This was the early church’s response to persecution, and the boldness they displayed in the face of persecution led to Christianity quickly spreading all over the civilised world at that time.
We pilgrims today must pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters. And together we must stand firm with them, also being a living testimony to our faith. Perhaps one day we will get the opportunity to talk to some of the Heavenly martyrs, finding our more about their sacrifices, but in the meantime we are encouraged by the fact that in our witnessing they are cheering us on, as we know from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now He is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne“.
Dear Heavenly Father, we pray together for our brothers and sisters who are facing persecution in countries like Afghanistan and North Korea, where even having a Bible in their possession can lead to incarceration and murder. Please strengthen their faith, and be with them in their times of trial. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.