Summary: The book of Revelation offers great insight for understanding martyrdom and persecution.
“Visiting Down Under”
If only we would read the book of Revelation as a message of comfort rather than a calendar of events, if only we would see Revelation as an opportunity for encouragement rather than a platform for debate, if only we would preach and teach it from a pastoral perspective rather than a prophetic slant we might just come to love not only the book but the precious Savior it presents. This is especially true for the passage we read just a moment ago where we make a brief visit down under. With comfort, encouragement, and pastoral perspective in mind, let’s take a closer look at John’s vision in Revelation 6:9-11.
It begins with showing THE REALITY OF PERSECUTION. “…I saw…the souls of those who had been slain...” John wrote Revelation while he was residing in exile on the island of Patmos – he had been banished there because he refused to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus. Such treatment of the followers of Jesus was not unusual – in fact, it was normal. Christianity was a capital offense, so MARTYRDOM WAS COMMON AMONG GOD’S PEOPLE. It had been that way for years. Listen to Hebrews 11:32-38 (NLT): “How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets. By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death. But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.”
Following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus persecution intensified. As proof positive, consider the lives – or I should say the deaths – of the disciples.
James the son of Zebedee was beheaded in Jerusalem, the first of the apostles to die, during the Easter season in about the year A.D. 44.
Matthew was slain with the sword in a city in Ethiopia.
Mark was dragged through the streets of Alexandria until he expired.
Luke was hanged on an olive tree in Greece.
James the Less was thrown from a pinnacle or wing of the temple.
Philip was hanged up against a pillar in Phrygia.
Bartholomew was flayed alive.
Andrew was scourged then tied to a cross where he preached to the people for two days before dying.
Jude was shot to death with arrows.
Thomas was run through the body with a lance.
Simon Zelotes was crucified.
Peter was crucified upside down.
Matthias was stoned and beheaded.
John was exiled to the penal island of Patmos and later became the only apostle to die a natural death.
In addition, Stephen was stoned to death and Paul was killed.
The reason for their deaths is clear: “…because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” The word for ‘testimony’ is martus from which we get our word martyr. THEY WERE KILLED BECAUSE OF THEIR VOLUNTARY MARTYRDOM OF TESTIFYING FOR JESUS rather than backing down under pressure. Jesus had even predicted this would happen. (Mt. 24:9) “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death…” (Jn. 15:20) “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (Jn. 16:2) “…a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” Paul also predicted it: (2 Tim. 3:12) “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…”
And make no mistake about it. PERSECUTION IS STILL HAPPENING TODAY. On January 20, 1999 Roy Pontoh, age fifteen, was among one hundred fifty members of Bethel Church in Indonesia attending a retreat when a Muslim mob attacked. Roy was asked, “Are you a Christian?” Armed only with his Bible, the teenager proudly replied, “I am a soldier of Christ.” The attacker then cut Roy’s hand with a sword and asked again, “Are you a Christian?” Once again, young Roy bravely replied, “I am a soldier of Christ.” Angrily, the Muslim attacker stabbed Roy in the stomach and killed him.(1) The Gospel for Asia ministry reported that in 2008, following a murder, attacks on Christians in Orissa multiplied at a frightening rate – they, in fact, list 74 instances of persecution, from setting fires and destroying property to severely injuring and beating Christians.(2) A 17-year-old Christian was beheaded by al-Shabab extremists on Sept. 25 of this year as he prepared for school. Al-Shabab, determined to rid Somalia of Christianity and Western influence, had carefully monitored Guled Jama Muktar and his family since their arrival from Kenya in 2008, a source told Compass Direct News. “I personally know this family as Christians who used to have secret Bible meetings in their house,” the source said. The militants arrived at Muktar’s house around 6 a.m. after his parents had left for work. “The neighbors heard screaming coming from the house, and then it immediately stopped,” the source told Compass Direct News. “After a while, they saw a white car leaving the homestead.” When Muktar’s parents heard about their son’s murder, they rushed home, buried his body and fled the area, fearing the militants would kill them as well.(3) And these are not exceptions – it is commonplace. There were more martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the previous nineteen combined. The Global Evangelism Movement reports the average number of people martyred for their faith each year is 160,000. There are currently an estimated one million people in prison for religious reasons. World Evangelical Fellowship shares that more people have died in circumstances related to their faith in the last century than in all the twentieth-century wars combined.(4)