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)
One brief side-road observation as we begin this second message in our series on Heaven – it is my belief that since we are closer to the events in this text than we’ve ever been (it’s always later than it’s ever been), I believe we are close enough that perhaps most of us here today will see Scripture fulfilled.
I believe that because this text declares the martyrs under the altar were murdered because of the Word of God and their faithful testimony.
Have you noticed our culture’s anger whenever any Biblical stance is taken? Abortion, Homosexuality, Sexual immorality of any kind…for that matter; any kind of restriction or Biblical imposition of punishment is seen as prudish, Victorian, politically-incorrect or mean-spirited. The Bible itself is seen as antiquated and irrelevant…even by many who claim the title “Christian”.
In short, we are moving, rather quickly to that point where Christian believers who take their faith seriously will not be simply ridiculed; it will move from public humiliation to hate, and from hate to legislation that makes faith in Christ a crime. It will not be long afterwards that such a crime will be punishable by death. I truly believe that is the way wholesale martyrdom will become a reality in the so-called land of the free, and home of the brave.
Now to the main thrust of our text…
Many people ask the question: What is Heaven like today? The question behind the question is really: What is it like for my loved ones who are already in Heaven?
Well, the simple answer would be: It’s better there for them, than here for you! Well, let’s not beg that question with a simple answer; you can get a lot of that out of magazines, the internet and Washington these days.
Let’s consult the only really authoritative source for what happens in life after this life, God’s Word. In the three short verses of our text we can learn so much about what it is like to be a resident of God’s home across Jordan.
Randy Alcorn’s wonderful book “Heaven” has much of what I will reference in this message. These observations about what life is like in Heaven while we wait for the final days, are all in his book, and I recommend it heartily. [ii]
So let’s dig-in and learn: What it’s like for my loved ones over on the other side.
1. They’re still who they were
The souls under the altar are called martyrs and they’re given white robes, symbols of pure character. These are the ones who held firm to their commitment to the Word of God and were faithful in their testimony. Their character in heaven was consistent with who they were on Earth.
2. They’re awake and alert
These believers call out to God with a loud voice; they’re not in soul-sleep as some suggest. Listen to a preacher from the last century, Barnes:
“This is one of the incidental proofs in the Bible that the soul does not cease to exist at death, and also that it does not cease to be conscious, or does not sleep until the resurrection. These souls of the martyrs are represented as still in existence; as remembering what had occurred on the earth; as interested in what was now taking place; as engaged in prayer; and as manifesting earnest desires for the divine interposition to avenge the wrongs which they had suffered.[iii]
3. They’re in unity with other believers
When they “call out to God” it is with a loud voice, not voices. Their faithfulness to God has created a unity with each other that speaks loudly!
4. They are aware of what is happening on Earth
They remember they were victims of murder, and they cry out to God, knowing their murderers on earth have not yet been punished.
This is consistent with other places in the Bible as when King Saul consulted with the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) to call up his deceased prophet Samuel so he could ask him what to do. When Samuel actually shows up he remembers everything that happened prior to, and after he died. He was aware of what was happening on Earth.
5. They communicate with God and each other
There are shouts of praise from the martyrs in other chapters of Revelation, and God talks with them to explain what will happen next.
6. They experience anticipation
God tells them they must wait a little longer, until all is ready for fulfillment of prophecy and justice. Contrary to some popular theories of Heaven, the saints don’t automatically know everything once they hit the pearly gates. So, as in this life, there is still learning.
The martyrs are AWARE, and…
As we’ve already learned, the martyrs are busy communicating with God, asking questions about how their murders will be resolved, and when it will all take place. There is no response recorded once God tells them to wait a little longer. This is evidence of the “rest” that comes with total trust. The martyrs ask the question, but they’re satisfied with God’s answers.
How different that is than the response I used get from the back seat when my kids were young…Are we there yet? No…just a little longer. Oh, Maaannn!
They are also presented with white robes, symbols of forgiveness and purity of soul. This is also evidence of the fact that the rest they enjoy is personal and individual, as well as corporate. They EACH receive a robe and assurance that all will be accounted for; their souls are at rest, enjoying perfect peace with the Prince of Peace.
The martyrs are AWARE, AT REST, and finally…
…how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Revelation 6:10(NLT)
The key to understanding the true meaning of verse 10 is in the words “shouted” and “avenge”. The martyrs aren’t merely hollering over to get the Lord’s attention with their question about justice, they are shouting; this is an impassioned scream for the justice that avenges innocent blood. Listen to what Randy Alcorn wrote in his book Heaven:
Heaven dwellers have a deep concern for justice and retribution (v.10). When we go to Heaven, we won’t adopt a passive disinterest in what happens on the earth. On the contrary, our concerns will be more passionate and our thirst for justice greater. Neither God nor we will be satisfied until his enemies are judged, our bodies raised, sin and Satan defeated, Earth restored, and Christ exalted over all.[iv]
I had a conversation the other day with a pastor who is a Universalist. That’s a term which describes someone who doesn’t believe in divine punishment – that everyone goes to heaven in the end. Aside from the other twelve hundred chapters of the Bible that say differently, and which warn of eternal death being the penalty for sin, this chapter has God telling the martyrs to hold-on because judgment is coming. If God isn’t a Universalist, how can any human being (who knows she’s a sinner) possibly think that way?
The imprecatory Psalms (particularly of David) ask for God to punish evil-doers. Have you ever read Psalm 109? This is imprecatory, calling down fire!
O God, whom I praise, don’t stand silent and aloof while the wicked slander me and tell lies about me. They surround me with hateful words and fight against me for no reason. I love them, but they try to destroy me with accusations even as I am praying for them! They repay evil for good, and hatred for my love. They say, “Get an evil person to turn against him.
Send an accuser to bring him to trial. When his case comes up for judgment, let him be pronounced guilty. Count his prayers as sins. Let his years be few; let someone else take his position. May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow. May his children wander as beggars and be driven from their ruined homes. May creditors seize his entire estate, and strangers take all he has earned. Let no one be kind to him; let no one pity his fatherless children. May all his offspring die. May his family name be blotted out in the next generation. May the Lord never forget the sins of his fathers; may his mother’s sins never be erased from the record. May the Lord always remember these sins, and may his name disappear from human memory. For he refused all kindness to others; he persecuted the poor and needy, and he hounded the brokenhearted to death. He loved to curse others; now you curse him. He never blessed others; now don’t you bless him. Cursing is as natural to him as his clothing, or the water he drinks, or the rich food he eats. Now may his curses return and cling to him like clothing; may they be tied around him like a belt.” Psalm 109:1-19(NLT)
The judgment of God is a fact! And while we are never to take the mantle of retaliation for ourselves, in Heaven God’s saints will join in the imprecatory prayers that bring the bowls of wrath on the heads of those who refuse to repent and accept Christ.
Well known preacher and expositor John MacArthur put it this way:
God is patient to penitent sinners who embrace the gospel, but there will come a time when He will no longer withhold His judgment on those who reject it. He gave the sinful pre-Flood world 120 years to repent (Gen. 6:3), proclaiming the message of salvation to them through Noah. But at the end of that time, the judgment of the Flood came and destroyed them all. Similarly, in the future there will come a day when grace will end and judgment will fall on everyone.[v]
The judgment of God is a fact!
But your loved ones are awaiting more than justice…
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 6:11(NLT)
Brothers and sisters, fellow servants of Jesus; this is who your loved ones are awaiting in Heaven.
Each year in the fall the church worldwide celebrates All Saints Sunday. It is an acknowledgement of the reunion that is coming someday. The church is one church…believers and followers of Jesus Christ.
But we must make the point that it is not the brothers and sisters of earthly families John says the martyrs are awaiting; it is the family of God, those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ for forgiveness of sins.
You may have been born into a family that attended church, but if you have not been born-again, by confessing your sins to God, trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross for your forgiveness, you will not go to a reunion in Heaven, you will be sent away from the throne of God into everlasting punishment.
But that is not what God wants for you. He wants you to be saved, and to spend all eternity with Him in perfect fellowship in His home called Heaven. He wanted that so very passionately He was willing for His only Son to die in your place on the cross.
As we learned last week, there is coming a time when all time will end; and that includes the time to be saved. That’s why the Scripture warns us that NOW…TODAY is the time to be saved.
[i] Title image: Russell Brownworth, Thunder Struck Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway, 2006
[ii] Places in this sermon rely on observations in Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (Carol Stream, Ill, Tyndale House, 2004), Chapter 7
[iii] Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright © 1999, Parsons Technology, Inc
[iv] Alcorn, p.66
[v] MacArthur's New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1-11©1999