The other passage comes from a sometimes-difficult book, Revelation, a vision given to John to encourage the church facing the great tribulation “which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1). In Revelation 6, we witness the opening of the seven seals. Christ, the worthy Lamb, exercises His dominion by unsealing the scroll and executing its hidden decrees. Jesus Christ uses all the forces of creation, including even the evil schemes of sinful men, to carry out His purposes of judgment, deliverance, and victory.
Jesus gave warning but also encouragement with respect to the judgment that was to come upon the generation then living (Matt. 23:34–36; 24:34; Rev. 1:1). To the first-century reader of the Revelation, these warnings were becoming all too real. Tribulation was no theoretical matter discussed by theologians. Across the Roman Empire, Christians were beginning to see the onset of months and even years of distress, during which their faith would be tested severely. The righteous were being martyred in great numbers. Many would read Revelation as these events were taking place.
The “fifth seal” speaks precisely to this issue. “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 testimony which they held” (Rev. 6:9). Why were they killed? They “had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” They were believers, and as true believers they spoke uncompromisingly of Christ the King. Conflict for Christians has always been inevitable in this life, because the “world” hates God and His Christ. Many have died and will die—from Abel, the prophets, and John the Baptist to the apostles and those who were killed under the Roman emperors, on through history to the forerunners of the Reformation and the martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In Revelation 6:10 we hear the martyrs’ prayer. “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ ” It is the age-old story: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” A mother cradles her dead child, another victim of a terrorist bomb. Christians in the Sudan are murdered, families are separated, and children starve. A ghetto mother, who really does care, tries against all odds to keep her young sons from the gangs where death and drugs are commonplace. It is still the same question: “How long, O Lord?” We still feel the pain and echo the cry, “How long?”
But the Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps. He knows the need. The Revelation of Jesus Christ given to John was God’s response. The answer to the martyrs’ prayer comes in Revelation 6:11. “Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”