How long must we wait?
How Long, Lord? When the fifth seal was opened in John’s vision in Revelation, he saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. He heard them call out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe. They were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers to be killed as they had been was complete.
Who are these souls? They are the souls of the martyrs who have suffered at the hands of a hostile world for their witness to Jesus Christ. How well do you know their stories? There were many in the early centuries of the church and the number has only increased through every century to today. Here are the stories of some of them.
One of the early leaders of the church in 257-258, was Sixtus II who rose to the position during the unfortunate reign of Emperor Valerian, when the empire was ravaged by plagues, droughts, earthquakes, tornadoes, and tidal waves. Valerian was at first tolerant toward Christianity, but as natural disasters rocked his realm, he superstitiously began to blame the church. Edicts were issued against bishops and priests, and decrees forbade the gathering of Christians for worship. Churches were closed to the living Christians, and cemeteries were closed to the dead ones.
The followers of Christ, however, were undaunted, and within a year Valerian realized his edicts were failing. In July 258, he ordered bishops, priests, and deacons executed. He confiscated church property and denied civil privileges to believers. Members of the royal court who espoused Christianity were made slaves on imperial estates. One prominent church leader was tied to a bull and driven up and down the streets until his brains were dashed out.
Sixtus II had become bishop of Rome just as Valerian was issuing his orders. He created a small chapel in the catacombs, and he met secretly with his faithful flock. One day as he taught the people, imperial soldiers burst in and seized him. He was rushed before a judge, condemned, and taken back to the catacombs where on August 6, 258, he was put to death in his episcopal chair. Several of his deacons also perished.
Three weeks later in North Africa, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage was brought before another imperial judge. When challenged he declared, “I am a Christian bishop. I know no gods but the only true God.”
“Have you made up your mind to that? Asked the Roman.
“A good mind,” replied Cyprian, “cannot alter.” He was soon escorted to a natural amphitheater, where his head was severed. In parts of the empire, the persecution of 258-259 was the bloodiest the church had yet endured.
How long? How long must we wait? A little longer until the full number of martyrs is complete before the end. God did not allow the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites until the sin of the Canaanites had become so perverse that the slaughter would function as a corporate punishment. While Jesus paid the price for the world’s sins, his messengers share in his sufferings in the sense that they bring that message to a hostile world.
Earlier prophets had predicted the witness of God’s people to the nations and their conversion and the suffering of God’s people in the end time.
The vision in Rev. 6:9-11 reveals that the suffering witness of believers is a prerequisite for the fullness of the Gentiles to come in from among the nations, followed by the final turning of Jews to faith in Jesus. All peoples must be evangelized before the end. This is the heart of revelation and the climax of biblical prophecy.
The position of the souls of the martyrs under the altar undoubtedly recalls the place where priests poured the blood of their sacrifices. Jewish tradition recognized that the martyrs could help expiate God’s anger against the people as a whole. Jewish tradition recognized that the martyrs were with God and at peace, and were sacrifices accepted by God. Here in Revelation the sacrifices are not vicarious , but the martyrs do share in Christ’s sacrificial suffering, they are allies of the sacrificial Lamb and will also share his exaltation. They are sacrifices offered to God. In fact, they were slain on earth…but in Christian faith the sacrifice was really made in heaven, where their souls — their lives — were offered at the heavenly altar.
The invitation to be available as sacrifices to God by martyrdom starts with the call to be living sacrifices and leads to their logical conclusion. Although the world persecutes Christ’s witnesses God will vindicate them, therefore witness with all boldness. Yet, more often Christians here in this country are complacent, satisfied with their own conversion and personal growth.
Not so in Uganda. At the stadium in Kabale, death permeated the atmosphere. A silent crowd of about thousand was there to watch. According to Colin Chapman, in The Case for Christianity, Ugandan bishop Festo Kivengere gave a first-hand account of the execution by firing squad of three men of his diocese.
February 10 began as a sad day for us in Kabale. People were commanded to come to the stadium and witness the execution. I had permission from the authorities to speak to the men before they died, and two of my fellow ministers were with me.
They brought the men the in a truck and unloaded them. They were handcuffed, and their feet were chained. The firing squad stood at attention. As we walked into the center of the stadium, I was wondering what to say. How do you give the gospel to doomed men who are seething with rage?
We approached them from behind, and as they turned to look at us, what a sight! Their faces were all alight with an unmistakable glow and radiance. Before we could say anything, one of them burst out:
“Bishop, thank you for coming! I wanted to tell you. The day I was arrested, in my prison cell, I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my heart. He came in and forgave me all my sins! Heaven is now open, and there is nothing between me and my God! Please tell my wife and children that I am going to be with Jesus. Ask them to accept him into their lives as I did.”
The other two men told similar stories, excitedly raising their hands which rattled their handcuffs.
I felt that what I needed to do was talk to the soldiers, not to the condemned. So, I translated what the men had said into a language the soldiers understood. The military men were there with guns cocked and bewilderment on their faces. They were so dumbfounded that they forgot to put the hoods over the men’s faces. The three faced the firing squad standing close together. They looked toward the people and began to wave, handcuffs and all. The people waved back. The shots were fired, and the three were with Jesus.
We stood in front of them, our own hearts throbbing with joy, mingled with tears. It was a day never to be forgotten. Though dead, the men spoke loudly to all of Kigezi District and beyond, so that there was an upsurge of life in Christ, which challenges death and defeats it.
The next Sunday, I was preaching to a huge crowd in the hometown of one of the executed men. Again, the feel of death was over the congregation. But when I gave them the testimony of their man, and how he died, there erupted a great song of praise to Jesus! Many turned to the Lord there.
The good news is, the gospel can be proclaimed to all nations, but sometimes only through Christians who are willing to die for the sake of reaching the unchurched. It appears that mission fields today, as they were in the past, may only be opened by the blood of martyrs. In many nations, such as Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan, the ground has already been receiving the blood of many of our brothers and sisters. Yet with some important individual exceptions, the current generation of North American Christians show little inclination to sacrifice for the gospel, much less die for it.
Is the gospel worth our lives and all we have? Is the cost too great to reach the world for Jesus Christ our Lord?
Rev. Charles Eldredge is pastor of Maitland Church of the Brethren, Lewistown, PA, where he is currently serving in his 27th year. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA.