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Author:Rev. A Veldman
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Southern River
 West Kelmscott
Title:The prayer of the souls under the altar - the opening of the fifth seal.
Text:Revelation 6:9-11 (View)
Topic:Spiritual Warfare

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading : Rev. vi 1-8
Text : Rev. vi 9-11
Ps. 46 : 1,2
Ps. 119 : 48
Ps. 71 : 3 (after baptism)
Hy. 34 : 1,3,6
Ps. 74 : 7,11,12,13
Hy. 2 : 2,4,5
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. A Veldman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Sometimes when speaking about the church people use all kind of distinctions. One of these distinctions is that the church is heaven is called the triumphant church and the church on earth the militant or struggling church. As to this specific distinction one cannot deny that there is indeed some truth in it, provided one does not overemphasize it.
The church on earth is indeed involved in a severe battle; the battle against Satan, the world, and the corrupt nature of its members. But at the same time also on earth already the church is entitled to boast, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." Thus though struggling and militant the church on earth knows also about victories. For example, every day when a child of God perseveres in faith is a day of victory.
As to heaven, there the church is triumphant indeed. The saints in heaven no longer have to fight against sin, the devil, and his whole dominion. They live in glory before God's throne. But this glory is yet not complete. The saints in heaven too long for the day on which the final victory can be celebrated, i.e. the day when Christ will return to this earth and make all things new; the day when also the bodies of the saints in heaven will be raised and be made like Christ's glorified body; the day of the complete victory of Christ and the total defeat of Satan. The church in heaven too is looking forward to that great day with a great longing to enjoy to the full the promises of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That's why the saints in heaven also send up their prayers to God that this day may come as soon as possible. One could say in this prayer they join the battle of the church on earth. Speaking about the church in heaven as merely triumphant one could easily loose sight of this element. In fact, the church in heaven is one with the church on earth in its longing for the return of Christ and the completion of His work. This becomes very clear from the opening of the fifth seal, on which we will focus this morning.
I minister the Word of God to you under the following heading,

We will pay attention to
1) those souls
2) what they pray
3) God's response to this prayer

I The opening of the fifth seal, Br. & Sr., must be read in close connection with the opening of the previous seals. When the first four seals were opened four horses with horsemen were sent out over the earth, of which three had destructive power. In two previous sermons we heard about a red horse symbolic of war, a black horse symbolic of the poverty of the poor over against the wealth of the rich, and finally about a pale horse symbolic of death in various forms. Yet a white horse with rider preceded these three horses with destructive power. He went in front conquering and to conquer. In a first sermon on Rev. 6 I pointed out that this white horse with rider is symbolic of the triumph of the gospel. The victory is Christ's. Because of this victory God's children have comfort when the seals of the scroll are opened. Living in a world full of turmoil, a world in which we are also confronted with much hatred against those who bear testimony to Jesus > for God's children there is no need to despair. That was the conclusion after the opening of the first four seals.
But then when the fifth seal is opened we read about martyrdom, about people slain for the word of God and for the testimony they held. The opening of this fifth seal thus confronts us with the power of the sword dripping with the blood of God's faithful children. Reading this one wonders how this is to be reconciled with Christ's triumphant victory. Does martyrdom of God's faithful children not rather point to some kind of defeat from Christ's side?
From an earthly point of view it may indeed look this way. Yet it should be noted that with the opening of the fifth seal the scene changes. When the first four seals were opened our attention was drawn to God's judgments being poured out upon the earth. Yet when the fifth seal is opened we receive a glance at what during that same period is going on in heaven.

John sees an altar, and under this altar he sees the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony, which they held. When explaining these words, Br. & Sr., we must keep in mind that the apostle John sees all this in the spirit, in a vision. As with the opening of the first four seals, also with the opening of the fifth seal we have to do with visionary language, even though what is conveyed to us relates to real things.
Within this visionary language in the Book of Revelation heaven is often portrayed as a temple. Well, in this temple John now sees an altar and under this altar he sees the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony, which they held.
As to this altar most commentaries say that it refers to the OT altar of burnt offering, which had a basin underneath into which the blood of the sacrificial animals was poured. Yet when considering that the sacrifices brought on the altar of burnt offering were symbolic of reconciling the sinner with God, it is difficult to see the altar in Rev. 6 as relating to this specific altar. For the blood of the martyrs has no reconciling effect whatsoever. Moreover in all other instances the Book of Revelation makes reference to an altar it always refers to the altar of incense. In Rev. 8,3, for example, John sees again an altar in heaven. An angel ministers at this altar having a golden censer in his hand. And then it reads there, "he was given much incense that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne." Beloved, would these not be the same prayers of which we also read in our text? Therefore also the altar mentioned in our text must relate to the same altar as the one in Rev. 8, the altar of incense.
As to the altar of incense no blood was offered on it, but incense instead. In the OT this incense was symbolic of the prayers of God's children being sent up to heaven. It's these prayers, which is the point of comparison here. For the blood of those souls slain for the word of God receives an important place in the prayer for vengeance. "Lord, how long until Thou wilt judge and avenge our blood?"

Who are the ones who sent up this prayer? Our text speaks about the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony, which they held. John sees these souls under the altar, which was standing before the throne of God. This means - as I mentioned it also before - with the opening of the fifth seal our attention is drawn to heaven. In our text we read about the heavenly liturgy of those whom God has already relieved from their suffering. Yes, on earth the lives of these souls now under the altar had indeed been full of suffering for Christ's sake. They were slain for the word of God and for the testimony, which they held. They had died a violent death in that never-ending battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, in the conflict between the faithful church of Christ, and a world hostile towards God, often joined by the unfaithful and apostate church. The word 'slain' in our text thus refers to the persecution of the church.

The reason for this persecution is also mentioned in our text. It was because these saints did stand up for the word of God and the testimony, which they held. In other words they were not ashamed to speak of Christ as their Saviour. They had not hid the light of the word of God under a bushel, but instead they had been living witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ in word and deed. They had boldly spoken from the fullness of their heart, from the hope that lived in them. They had done so despite the fact that this testimony brought them in conflict with the world. Speaking about Christ they had incurred displeasure, hatred that finally became so bitter and intolerant that they were killed because of the testimony, which they held. They were killed not only by the world, but often also by an apostate church. That is the church, which in Rev. 17 is pictured as a harlot committing fornication with the kings of the earth and drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

So the souls under the altar are the martyrs of the church who have given their blood for the service of the Lord. Martyrs killed for their faith, from Abel onwards, first throughout the OT history, but the same happened also to the church in the NT period, already at a very early stage. I think here of the time of the apostles, when Stephen and James were slain for the word of God. Some time later there were severe persecutions under emperor Nero and others, during which many a child of the Lord died in the arena fighting with wild beasts. I could also refer to the age of the Great Reformation during which many faithful children of God died on the stake or the scaffold. Yes, how many martyrs have been there throughout the history of the church until today. Going through history from its very dawn to its present time one will count a host of souls innumerable under the altar, slain for the Word of God and the testimony, which they held.

And, Br. & Sr., this will only become worse. The closer the day of Christ's return is drawing near the fiercer this hatred will become. Lawlessness will reign supreme more and more with hatred increasing towards Christ and His church, whereby finally God's enemies under the leadership of the antichrist will no longer shrink from anything. Yet this should not cause us to keep silence. This should not cause us to refrain from bearing testimony to Jesus. God calls us to remain obedient, no matter how dark it might become. Yes, then the time may come that we too will be mocked at, that people will turn us the cold shoulder, we might even become social outcasts, no longer being able to buy or to sell, Rev. 13. And yet, there is no need to despair, for we may know ourselves be carried even by the prayers of those who have already finished fighting the battle, but who - as it reads in Hebr. 11 - apart from us can not be made perfect. Indeed the glory of the saints in heaven is as yet not perfect either. That's why together with us these saints, who have been slain for the Word of God, are longing for that great day on which God will judge and avenge their blood. This brings me to my second thought.

II We spoke about the souls under the altar, about their suffering in this world, the suffering of those who had been slain (literally it reads who had been butchered) for the word of God and for the testimony, which they held. Yet God took them up in glory relieving them from their suffering. However - as we also learned from the first point of the sermon - this glory is as yet not perfect. Full glory they will receive when on the day of Christ's return also their bodies will be raised and reunited with their soul will be made like Christ's glorified body.

Meanwhile they live as souls in heaven without a body. For us this is difficult to visualize: souls without a body, yet it is a reality from which we may draw tremendous comfort. There are those, also among us within the FRCA, who believe, that those who have died in the Lord at present live unconsciously till the day of Christ's return. They believe in some kind of soul sleep. Yet God's Word teaches us differently. For even though what we read in Rev. 6 is written in visionary language it still relates to something very real. These souls under the altar - that's the visionary aspect - refer to conscious life in heaven and that's real without any doubt. What otherwise to think of the prayer of these saints? This would then not be real either.

In vs. 10 we read, "." They cried out with a loud voice. This loud voice testifies to a very emotional prayer. It means these saints pray for something very close to their heart. With great emotion, yes with a great longing, they plead their cause with the Lord. What is this cause? In a word: God's triumph! True, they ask for vengeance. Yet this cry for vengeance is not a sinful cry for personal revenge, as we sometimes can cry for revenge. These saints know vengeance belongs to the Lord, He shall repay. This cry thus is a longing for the final manifestation of the righteousness of God to be revealed in the just retribution of those who persecuted and killed the saints; those saints who on earth were never ashamed to speak of the hope that lived in them, the testimony of Jesus, even though they had to pay for it with their life. Yet they also realize that this bloodshed cannot remain unpunished forever. That's why it sounds through heaven loud and powerful, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until Thou judges and avenges our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

Sometimes we may have the idea that once having entered heaven there is nothing to long for anymore. Having entered heaven we will only sing praises to God. But, beloved, this is a misconception. True, the church is heaven can be called triumphant, but at the same time it also has a militant aspect when in prayer it joins those who are still fighting the battle on earth.
Why this prayer? The answer is: also the saints in heaven long for the final day of victory, for a new heaven and a new earth in which only righteousness shall dwell; a new earth on which God has done away with all who acted wickedly. Thus they pray together with us, "O Lord, remove the wicked from the earth. In Thy righteous judgment dash them to pieces."

One may wonder whether this is a fitting prayer for saints in heaven? Are we allowed to pray for judgment upon the wicked? Should we not rather love our enemies? We meet here the same problem, which many people also have with the OT psalms of curse. Yet since we believe that Scripture is the inspired Word of God it is the Holy Spirit Himself who laid these psalms on the lips of the OT saints. Psalms in which God's children ask for retribution, not for themselves, but in order that God's Name may be glorified. Well, that same request for retribution we also meet in this prayer of the souls under the altar. These saints have suffered martyrdom; the world has rejoiced in their death. But can this go unpunished? Must this be passed in silence forever? Should not one day the justice of God in Christ be revealed? See, beloved, that's the content of this prayer in which these souls under the altar cry out, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until Thou judges and avenges our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" Also the saints in heaven long for the day that God will judge in righteousness, for that day on which it will become perfectly manifest that no one could mock Christ and touch the apple of his eye (his bride, the church) without impunity.
But so one may say: what about Christ own prayer on the cross? Did He not pray in a totally different way when He spoke, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." It should be noted, beloved, that this prayer was sent up to God at a particular moment in redemptive history. Christ asked the Father not to come straight away with His divine judgment upon those who had crucified Him. Why not? In order to allow time for repentance! The gospel was still to be preached, also to those Jews who on Good Friday were mocking Jesus."Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."
But meanwhile the gospel has gone out. There are not many who in this day and age still can plead ignorance. That's why there is ample room for this prayer of the souls under the altar. As time goes on, and hostility towards Christ and His church increases, the longing for a day of vengeance grows stronger and stronger. How long, O Lord?

This prayer of the church in heaven has as its aim to comfort the church on earth. Yes, it's a great comfort indeed to know that also in heaven prayers are sent up for the final day of victory. After all, isn't that what we long for as well, beloved, especially when seeing how in today's society God's commandments are trampled under foot more and more. Lawlessness reigns supreme. People rejoice in immorality. Those who still dare to speak up are laughed at as being old-fashioned. Doesn't this cause also us to pray that Christ may return soon and bring to nought all this frenzied opposition.
Yet at the same time we still have a task here on earth, a task to bear testimony to the truth, so that if it is God's will others too may bow their knees before Christ as Saviour. As long as we live in today's grace there is still time for repentance. I think here also of members of the church who have gone astray. We don't know how many will still turn to the Lord. Let it never be our fault when they refuse to do so.

III The souls under the altar pray, "How long, O Lord?" The text of this morning also informs us about God's answer to this prayer, vs. 11. It's a twofold answer, an answer in deed and word. First the Lord responds in doing something. These martyrs receive a white robe. They had suffered for the cause of Christ. For the testimony they had given they had paid with their life. Innocent blood had been shed which cried for revenge. Meanwhile these saints had moved on to heavenly glory. In heaven they received from the Lord white garments. From now on they may share eternal joy without pain or suffering whatsoever.

They receive a white robe. This robe is first of all symbol of their justification. In the world they had been treated unjustly. They had been killed innocently. Yet in heaven at the very moment of their entrance they are justified, justified in the blood of Christ. Their sins will be remembered no more.
Secondly, this white robe is also symbol of their sanctification. Cleansed from sin they may now live in perfect holiness before God.
Finally, this white robe is also symbol of their glorification, symbol of their victory in the battle of faith.

This white robe reminds us of the robe which during the time of the OT was worn by the priests. For these saints are before the throne of God, serving Him day and night within His temple, Ch. 7,15. They are called to priestly service and are clothed accordingly. This shows the more that these souls are living persons. True, without body, but that is then also the reason why they cry out, "How long, O Lord?" They long for their final glorification, for the day that their soul will be reunited with their body. Yet for this they still have to wait.

This brings us to the second part of God's response to this prayer. I said God's response is twofold. It's a response in deed and word. In deed: these saints receive a white garment. But there also is a response in word: these saints are told "to 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." After the hard battle they had fought on earth the Lord grants these martyrs rest, rest in His heavenly kingdom. For how long? Our text says: only a little while longer until their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters on earth, had also come through suffering to glory.

This little while that the souls under the altar must wait may seem a long time from our point of view. Centuries have gone by since this was written. Still these saints must wait a little while longer. To understand this we must remember that in Scripture the day of the Lord is always pictured as being very near. We live in the last days. In addition in the book of Revelation the Lord Himself assures us that He will come quickly. Therefore, although to us it may seem a long time, the Lord actually comes very quickly. He comes as quickly as possible.
Next it should also be noted that in view of the fact that the souls under the altar are already glorified, and have already received their white robes of justification, sanctification, and glorification, they can afford to wait. That's one aspect.

Yet more must be said here. For this time of waiting is also for reasons that the number of the redeemed must become full. Today there still is postponement of revenge in order that God's grace may fully triumph. The number of God's servants must become full, the number of those who have borne testimony to Jesus. Many of these servants have died; have been killed because of the testimony they bore. Yet God still waits with revenging their blood. Instead He gave other servants who carried on with witnessing the truth. Satan and his allies will not succeed in making the church stop witnessing. The victory belongs to the white horse and its rider. When this rider on the white horse has shot his last arrow to make people bow their knees for Christ, then indeed the day has arrived that God shall avenge the blood of the martyrs. That's the day on which Christ shall make His victory public to each and everyone, where after God's Name will be praised and glorified not only in heaven, but also on all the earth. Heaven and earth will then be united again when God shall be all in all.

Considering all this as church still living on earth we may know ourselves on our way to a tremendous rich future. We do not always think of this. Yet it's worth living for. Therefore, beloved, pray that the Lord may grant you the strength to persevere in faith, which will not be easy especially in view of today's apostate society. Satan is active as well, still trying to obtain the victory, which makes the battle all the more severe. He will do his utmost to lure us away from the Lord and His service. That's why we have to be on guard every day, on guard not to become a traitor in the battle we have to fight. Instead of becoming a traitor let us continue to fight the good fight, even when this may involve being mocked at and ridiculed from the side of the word, from a mate at work or at school. Keep on fighting looking at Christ. He will give the strength we need. Then at present in this world people may scold us, despise us, but in heaven we will be glorified. In the world we might be treated unjustly, trampled under foot, but in heaven God will accept us an clothe us with the garment of victory. Therefore, beloved, in the heat of the battle there is no need to despair. In addition remember,
"What a cloud of witnesses
Encompass us around!
Men once like us with suffrings tried,
But now with glory crowned."

"Let us forgetting things behind,
Press on to God's right hand;
There, with the Saviour and his saints,
Triumphantly to stand."


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. A Veldman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2001, Rev. A Veldman

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