The book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse (the Greek word being used here), is of course one of the more intriguing and often mysterious books found in all of Scripture. It has fascinated and puzzled believers for millennia now.
It is part of a biblical genre known as apocalyptic literature, which would also include other texts such as Daniel 7-12, parts of Zechariah, and so on. This genre is a known hotbed for hermeneutical difficulties, and Christians can and do disagree on many aspects about such literature.
As to Revelation, there are various broad interpretative schools, such as the historicist, the futurist, the preterist, etc. It certainly is not my intention to weigh into all these hard core debates. Entire articles would be needed to even introduce such issues.
But since I do wish to speak to just one verse from this book, I realise of course that one’s view of how we are to understand Revelation as a whole may well impact on how we understand this particular passage. But if all the keen theological types out there will cut me a bit of slack, I hope to be able to proceed without too much conflict!
I want to highlight this one verse, not to get into yet another theological fight, but to make a more general and devotional point. And I do this because of all the daily headlines we find about the ongoing Islamic war against Christians.
The verse is this: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God” (Revelation 20:4).
The connection of course should be immediately obvious. On almost a daily basis we encounter more horror stories of Christians being beheaded by IS, or Boko Haram, or other Islamic jihadist groups. While much of the world is now overlooking this Christian genocide, and so too are many believers in the West, God for one has not at all overlooked their plight.
Much of the book of Revelation can be said to be about vindication. It is about how God will judge his enemies and vindicate his name, and his people. This is divine payback, something all believers should in no way be uncomfortable about, but in fact celebrate and worship God for.
Indeed, one of the great praise and worship sessions recorded in Revelation follows immediately on from God’s just judgment on the wicked (see Rev. 18-19 on this). But I cover this in greater detail elsewhere, eg: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/16/there-is-nothing-wrong-with-payback/
As to Rev. 20:4, one can debate whether this is some future event, a past event, a symbolic event, or just a representative way of looking at all cases of martyrdom, and so on. But let me address it in light of the horrific IS beheadings we now see so often.
These believers did not put their own lives above the cause of Christ. They are like those we read about in Rev. 12:11: “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
Just like the Christians we see being beheaded all over parts of Africa and the Middle East, these brave men and women put allegiance to Christ above all else. Whether or not these specific individuals of today are one and the same with those being referred to in Rev. 20:4, what is said in this passage certainly applies to them as well.
They will rise again. They will be resurrected. They will live with King Jesus and see their enemies judged by the righteous judge. Indeed, they will in some way participate in these divine judicial activities. The thrones of judgment announced in Daniel 7:9-11, 22 for example come into play here.
So too do the cries for vindication as heard in Rev. 6:9-10: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’”
All this is brought together here as the martyred saints reign and rule with Christ. There are differing opinions as to who exactly are “those who had been given authority to judge”. Gregory Beale offers five options, but for my purposes, let us look at this as being representative of all believers who have overcome, who have resisted compromise, who have persevered, etc.
In other words, as Grant Osborne suggests, “the martyrs are the part embodying the whole, namely, all who have remained faithful to Jesus, not only during this final period of history but throughout the ages.” The enemies of God and his people will now be judged by God and his people. Justice and vindication will triumph.
Beale seeks to tie some of these various threads together:
The vindication in Daniel 7 was a necessary condition for the saints to assume kingship together with the Son of man (cf. 7:13-14, 18, 27). The judgment of the evil kingdoms paves the way for the Son of man and his saints to reign (Dan. 7:11-14; 7:18; 7:27). As in Rev. 20:4, so in Dan. 7:22 the “judgment” is followed by the “saints possessing the kingdom.”
He notes that the word for judge here most likely refers to a judicial vindication, and continues, “The clear connection between the martyr portrayals of Rev. 6:9 and 20:4 confirms this meaning, since 6:10 is the first formal call for the saints’ vindication.”
As William Dumbrell comments,
The prayer of these saints (6:9-11) asks for vindication for human suffering but it is not a bitter cry for revenge. God’s justice is at stake. The saints need to be justified before the world to vindicate God’s name. God’s answer to the saints indicates that suffering is all within the execution of God’s plan (6:11), in accordance with the ‘chronology’ of the divine timetable. Earthly saints are suffering, and yet they will overcome the world. And the suffering of earthly saints must continue until the number of those called and chosen is complete. This assurance becomes the motive for perseverance. Moreover, 6:9-11 depicts divine protection for heavenly saints under the altar. But, in addition to this divine protection for heavenly souls, 20:4-6 states that there is a heavenly function for these heavenly saints between their physical death and the coming transformation.
Judgment – that is, a judicial vindication (20:4) – was given for the saints (cf. Daniel 7:22). This vindication fulfils Jesus’ words about a future reign of believers (Luke 22:30 and Matthew 19:28, not just referring to New Testament disciples). Saints are representatively depicted as beginning to reign; their vindication following death was a necessary prerequisite for them to assume kingship with the Son of Man.
Simply put, the martyrdom of a Peter or a Paul or a Tyndale or an Iraqi Christian by the IS is not something which goes unnoticed by God, and the tears being shed are all considered by a just God who will indeed one day vindicate all his people, judge all his enemies, and fully and finally establish his Kingdom rule.
The pleas of “how long” in Rev. 6:10 are answered here in Rev. 20:4. All this was long ago discussed in places such as Daniel, and we see God is working out his purposes and has guaranteed that his people – no matter how much they now suffer – will one day find complete vindication.
That is good news indeed, and that is what must help us all to keep going for Christ. Let me wind up with the words of James Hamilton in his commentary on Rev. 6:
Do you know how to prepare for martyrdom? Soak yourself in the Bible. Cling to its promises. Live in the world the bible describes, not in line with the world that rebellious humans reinvent for themselves. . . . The truth is bloody. It is soaked in the blood of martyrs who have died in the past, who are suffering somewhere right now, and who will one day soon stand courageously and seal the confession with blood. Not long ago three Nigerian pastors were beheaded by Muslims. One of those pastors was commanded to embrace Islam but instead preached Christ to his persecutors. A pastor preaching at one of the funerals told Christians to be ready to die for their Lord. Nigeria is not that far from the U.S.
Nor is it from Australia. Christian persecution is heating up all over the globe. Are you ready to die for your Saviour? Is Christ now your all in all? As Paul Washer once said: “You mark my words, and it won’t be long … when persecution begins in this country and it strips everything from you, and most of the evangelical church goes totally apostate, and little groups are left to be berated, THEN you will see that Christ is enough.”