The Fifth Seal
When the first four seals were broken, the four living creatures around the throne were empowered to show John things to come. These four living creatures were pictured on the flags of the four leading tribes of Israel that were encamped around the Ark of the Covenant (God’s throne on earth). The seals were broken counterclockwise beginning with the seal on Reuben (Man) on the south side, then moving to Judah (Lion) on the east, Dan (Eagle) on the north, and finally Ephraim (Bull) on the west side.
The Lamb was the only one worthy to take the book and to open the seals. He is a corporate Lamb and not just Jesus Christ Himself. As the Head of the Lamb’s body (arnion), Jesus breaks the seals, but the living creatures do His bidding as the executor of Christ’s will. The body provides His double witness to establish all things.
We then come to the fifth seal, which reveals the souls under the altar. Rev. 6:9 says,
9 And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained.
These are the overcomers who, as we will see later, are called to reign with Christ (Rev. 20:4). They bear witness (“testimony”) of Christ. That is, they are the Amen people who, as a body, are Christ’s double witness in the earth.
The Souls under the Altar
Christ’s witnesses are not described as spirits, but as “souls,” because “the soul [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). The blood of sacrifices was to be poured out under the altar (Lev. 8:15). Hence, we see the “souls” residing in the blood under the altar.
For this reason also Isaiah prophesied of the Suffering Servant who came “as a lamb to the slaughter” in Isaiah 53:7 KJV. In Isaiah 53:12 KJV we read, “He hath poured out His soul unto death,” where the soul is a reference to the blood being poured out under the altar.
From Acts 8:32, 33 we know that Jesus Christ Himself was that Lamb. Paul identifies “God’s elect” in Rom. 8:33, and then he quotes David in Psalm 44:22, showing how God’s elect are also treated as sacrificial lambs. Paul says in Rom. 8:35, 36, 37,
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
So when the fifth seal is opened in Rev. 6:9, we discover that the slaughtered Lamb on some level includes all of the martyrs who bear witness of Christ’s work on the cross. Their souls have been poured out under the altar of sacrifice as well. The world treats them as they treated Jesus, for we read in 1 John 2:6,
6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the manner as He walked.
Paul says that God’s elect “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” How do they conquer? Through the love of Christ. The hatred of the world is designed to test love, and real love emerges from the persecution strong and firm, if not bruised and bloodied. No one, Paul says, can separate us from the love of Christ.
Those who hate God’s elect are like Cain, who killed his brother (1 John 3:12). Such hatred characterizes the world, but not God’s elect, for “He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Of the elect, we read in 1 John 3:16,
16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
Therefore, it is evident that God looks upon all the martyrs as sacrificial lambs, whose blood has been poured out under His altar in the heavenly Temple. These are the arnion of God, and as a body joined to the Head, they too are found worthy to participate in the opening of the book and to break its seals.
In the end, the four living creatures around the throne represent all the tribes of Israel and, indeed, all of creation. Their privilege of breaking the first four seals prophesies of the day when all creation sings in 4-part harmony, bearing witness to the mighty works of God.
The Voice of the Martyrs
Revelation 6:10 continues,
10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging [krino] and avenging [ekdikeo] our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
These martyrs are not crying out for “vengeance” as would those who are carnal. We cannot interpret this with a Greek mindset, but understand it with Hebrew eyes in light of biblical law. Neither should we understand it through the lens of Judaism, for this is one area where the Jewish leaders greatly misunderstood the law.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount showed the contrast between the Jewish understanding of the law and Jesus’ own understanding. He did not put away the law, but showed its proper meaning. In Matt. 5:43-45 Jesus said,
43 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45 in order that you may be sons of your Father…
Leviticus 19:18 says,
18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Judaism limited their love requirement to their fellow Jews, which gave them a license to hate their enemies (i.e., non-Jews). There is a difference between Hebrew thought and Jewish interpretations. Jesus renounced many of their interpretations of the law. In fact, Lev. 19:33, 34 says,
33 When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
The passage continues with the Law of Equal Weights and Measures, which establishes the will of God in treating all men equally in matters of justice. This law is set forth more plainly in Num. 15:16,
16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.
Considering the fact that the martyrs are those who cannot be separated from the love of Christ, it is clear that we must not malign their motives when they cry out for justice in Rev. 6:10. They long for true justice—not the “justice” of men, or even of religious men claiming to know the law of God.
The Avenger of Blood
The souls under the altar are not demanding vengeance for the terrible way in which the world treated them in their life on earth. John shows clearly in his first epistle that if they did not have a heart of love, they would not be overcomers, nor would they be bearing witness of the works of Christ.
The souls under the altar are seen crying out, “How long, O Lord.. wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood…?” The word translated “avenging” is ekdikeo, which means “to vindicate one’s right, to do justice.”
The manner in which one does justice is a different matter. Carnal judges may “avenge” in carnal ways; but those who know the heart of God will “avenge” according to the heart of God. Either way, the parent or guardian of the victim was responsible to intercede and to see to it that his ward was compensated for his loss. The law thus speaks of the “avenger of blood,” (Deut. 19:12), which is a poor translation. The word “avenger” is from the Hebrew word ga’al, which means a REDEEMER.
The Hebrew word dam, “blood,” does not mean bloodshed, but kinship. Hence, he is the Kinsman Redeemer, not the “avenger of blood” as some understand it. This was the term for the legal guardian (or judge) of the extended family who was responsible to maintain law and order and to resolve disputes according to the procedure given in Matt. 18:15-20.
The souls under the altar thus appeal to Christ as their Kinsman Redeemer, asking Him to rectify the wrongs done to them and to redeem their blood. This is not an appeal to destroy those who killed the martyrs, nor even to give the wicked ones what they “deserve.” What they deserve is what Jesus took upon Himself on the cross, for that is the meaning behind all sacrifice in the temple.
Jesus Himself showed the purpose of His sacrifice on the cross, saying in John 12:32, 33,
32 “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” 33 But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.
In other words, if Jesus were “lifted up” on the cross, then it becomes certain that He will become their Kinsman Redeemer and will “draw all men” to Himself. He was using the prophetic metaphor of the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness which, if men looked upon it, they were healed (John 3:14, 15). Under the Old Covenant, their healing depended on their response, but under the New Covenant it depended upon God’s oath. In this case, Jesus was sent to earth to fulfill that oath, and so it was effective for the whole world.
The Hebrew word ga’al, “redeemer,” is spelled with three Hebrew letters: gimel, alef, and lamed. The gimel is literally a camel, but it signifies being “lifted up.” The alef and lamed spell the word El, which is “God.” So ga’al literally means “to lift up God.” Hence, Jesus used this word picture of being lifted up on the cross as a subtle claim to deity as well as to show Himself as the Kinsman Redeemer, who would draw all men to Himself.
We see, then, that the martyrs cry out for the word of Jesus to be fulfilled. They do not cry out for divine “vengeance” upon those who shed their blood. Because they have the mind of Christ, they cry out for Jesus to fulfill His promise that if He was lifted up on the cross, He would draw all men to Himself. This is the true justice and “vengeance” of God. While the law holds every sinner accountable for sin, Jesus came as the Lamb of God to pay the penalty for the sin of the world.
Among these martyrs, no doubt, was Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who, as he was dying, asked the Judge not to charge his executioners with his murder (Acts 7:60). In this, he was following Jesus’ own example, who forgave them as He died on the cross.
Stephen was surely among the “souls under the altar.” Yet I cannot imagine Stephen complaining that God had not yet “avenged” his murder. To do so would seem quite inconsistent with his desire to forgive them.
Overcomers are forgivers, because they live by the principle of the Jubilee. It is not that they refuse to judge sin or to hold sinners accountable, for there are many times when such judgment is necessary to bring repentance and spiritual growth to the sinner. This is why God holds us accountable—and, in fact, if we are not disciplined, we are not His children (Heb. 12:5-8).
Nonetheless, divine judgment, when administered by the mind and heart of God, is designed to correct the heart, not to destroy the person. The overcomers have the heart of God and would never cry out to God to destroy forever those who mistreat them. Their prayer is to bring judgment in order to restore the lawful order and bring all things under the feet of Christ.
The Answer to Prayer
Rev. 6:11 shows God’s answer to their prayer:
11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also.
God’s intent is to judge all sinners as a group at the end of the age when they are raised to stand at the Great White Throne (John 5:28, 29; Rev. 20:12). Each sinner who condemned the martyrs to death will be judged individually; however, they will be judged collectively at the same time. Likewise, the overcomers themselves will be rewarded at the same time as a group. So God tells the martyrs to be patient until the rest of their brethren should be killed.
There are martyrs in every generation, and the body of Christ must be formed of the dust of the ground gradually from the beginning to the end of the age. Yet these martyrs are given a white robe even before the final rewards are dispensed. Partial rewards are like first fruits that promise a greater harvest in the time to come. So also the white robes are a promise of a greater reward yet to come.
Two Garments as Rewards
Some have been taught that when believers die, they receive their eternal reward immediately, entering into the full glory that is due them for their faithfulness. But Jesus says in Rev. 22:12,
12 Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.
No doubt this is what the martyrs were told in Rev. 6:10 as they were given white robes. The white robes, of course, represent “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). They are depicted in types and shadows as the linen garments of the priests in the tabernacle and temple which they were to wear while ministering to God in the Sanctuary (Ezekiel 44:17, 18, 19). But when we study that passage, we see that the priests actually possessed two garments.
The priests were to minister to God in their linens, but they were not allowed to minister to the people while wearing linen. To minister to the people in the outer court they were to “put off their garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers,” and “put on other garments” (Ezekiel 44:19). These “other garments” cause sweat (Ezekiel 44:18). In other words, they are made of wool, not linen.
Garments of wool, then, depict mortal bodies—the result of the curse (Gen. 3:19). The martyrs had been disrobed of their woolen garments when their bodies were killed. In their appeal to the divine court, God then gave them white linen, or spiritual garments. This was a good reward, but it still did not give them access to the “outer court,” which would allow them to minister directly to the people on earth (who live in the “outer court” realm). The final reward (yet withheld) was resurrection, by which all overcomers will be given access to both sets of garments in order to fulfill the requirements of priesthood as seen in Ezekiel 44:17-19.
The two garments are explained by the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 5:1-5. There Paul tells us that we have two garments (or tents, tabernacles). One is being held for us in the heavens, which, when given to us, will clothe us with immortality. The present garment that we wear is the mortal body, in which “we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven” (2 Cor. 5:2).
Of course, the final reward, given at the resurrection of the dead, will not be the same body that we have worn out during our sojourn on the earth during our life time. We are not like the skeptics in Paul’s day who objected, asking, “with what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35). Paul answers this in 1 Cor. 15:42-45,
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.... 45 So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
The “natural” (psukikos, “soulish”) perishes and is replaced by a “spiritual body.” This does not mean that the resurrected one has only one type of body at a time, first natural, and then spiritual. His comparison of the two Adams shows how we will be changed from soulish to spiritual.
Jesus was begotten by God. We were all born of natural parents, having “soulish” bodies. But when we are begotten a second time—this time by the Holy Spirit—that holy seed is a spiritual man having a spiritual body and wearing a spiritual garment. The goal is not to be divested of a physical body and live continuously in a spiritual body. The goal is to have both garments, so that, as priests of God, we may minister to God in heaven and to men on earth. Yet to do this requires the resurrection from the dead, because it is then that we are given direct access to both worlds.
Because the first resurrection is limited to the few (Rev. 20:5), there will still be much work for those overcomers to do as “priests of God and of Christ” (Rev. 20:6). The rest of humanity will need ministry, but it is unlawful to minister to these “outer court” people while dressed in linens, or heavenly garments (Ezekiel 44:19). At the same time, in order to minister to men properly and effectively, their other garments must be like that body in which Jesus Himself was raised. For this reason, even their physical bodies must be changed into something different from that with which we are presently familiar. 1 Cor. 15:51, 52 thus says,
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery [secret]; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed 52 in a moment [atomos, “atomic change”] in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
Therefore, when the martyrs are given white robes after appealing to the divine court for justice, it is plain that they were not receiving their entire reward, but only a partial reward. The white robes allowed them to minister to God in the heavenly Sanctuary, but not directly to the people on earth. There will yet be a greater reward given to them, after they have rested a while.
Rev. 6:11 does not say anything further, but we know from the end of the book that they must await the resurrection of the dead, at which time Christ will give them new earthly garments. They will then have the ability to change clothing at will, so that they may minister to God in the heavenly sanctuary or to men in the outer court.