Wednesday, 25 November 2020
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. Revelation 6:9
The fifth of seven seals is broken and the resulting scene changes. The past four seals have released the four horsemen upon the earth for judgment. This verse now redirects John’s attention to the altar. As it says, “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar.”
The main question here concerns the identification of this altar. There are two possibilities from the Mosaic Covenant that might correspond to this altar – the brazen altar of sacrifice, or the golden altar of incense.
Almost all commentaries associate this with the brazen altar of sacrifice in the tabernacle. The reason for this is the next clause, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain.” The fact that they are slain supposedly signifies a sacrifice, and thus these are martyrs symbolically sacrificed at the brazen altar.
This sounds plausible. Vincent’s Word Studies defines the words “souls” and “slain” to justify this –
Or lives. See on 3 John 1:2. He saw only blood, but blood and life were equivalent terms to the Hebrew.
See on Revelation 5:6. The law commanded that the blood of sacrificed animals should be poured out at the bottom of the altar of burnt-offering (Leviticus 4:7).
Therefore, with such an analysis, it seems a convincing argument. This corresponds with almost all other commentaries as well. However, there is a problem with this. The sacrifices on the brazen altar pictured the coming work of Christ, not the martyrdom of saints. To understand this, the entire book of Leviticus has been preached on by the Superior Word. Be sure to start with Chapter 1 of those sermons and proceed through the entire series. Understanding the typology will bring an understanding of what is seen here in the final book of the Bible. Every sacrifice and every part of each sacrifice pictures Christ – His work and His cross in completion of that work.
Therefore, this is not speaking of the brazen altar that is an offering to God for sin. The altar of sacrifice was used for the transference of sin from a guilty person to an innocent animal (picturing the transfer of sin from fallen man to Christ on the cross). The blood of that animal (picturing Christ) was then poured out at the base of the altar. However, the people mentioned in this verse have already transferred their sins to the Lamb of God, Jesus.
As this is so, this altar pictures the golden altar of incense. There is no altar of sacrifice in this heavenly scene because Jesus has already cleansed His people. He is the fulfillment of the necessary sacrifices for their cleansing, and He is the fulfillment of the typology of the brazen altar.
The altar here is referred to in both Revelation 8 and 9 which describes the golden altar of incense. In the tabernacle, this altar was in the Holy Place, directly before the veil which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place where the Ark was kept. At Jesus’ death, the veil (which was a representation of Christ’s body – Hebrews 10:20) was rent in two (Luke 23:45) signifying full access to God through His accomplished work. In this, access to God was restored. Therefore, the altar of incense mentioned here is directly in the throne room.
These people did not die for sins, but they rather died in Christ. As it says, they were “slain for the word of God.” This is the same expression used by John in Revelation 1:9. As noted then, it signifies receiving punishment because of the proclamation of the word of God.
These martyrs, the faithful disciples of Christ, proclaimed Scripture. It is this “word of God” that is deemed to be contrary to the values of those in power, and they therefore want to have it silenced. John finishes the verse with, “and for the testimony which they held.” Their testimony (in Greek marturia, the basis for our modern word “martyr”), based on the word of God, is the proclamation of Jesus Christ. In their refusal to deny Him, and in their willingness to continue to proclaim Him, they are martyred. John will continue to describe their state in the verses ahead.
Life application: When we get to Revelation 8:3, we will read, “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. 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.” The incense is “the prayers of the saints.” These saints have “been slain for the word of God.” In the psalms, it says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15). The souls under this heavenly altar are eternally safe and their precious prayers are heard by the God who judges their death. He will avenge their shed blood.
Throughout the church age, people have been willing to die rather than deny Jesus. They have openly and boldly proclaimed Him. What are you willing to face for this great Creator and Redeemer who first died for you? Be prepared now to give all for Him. He is worthy of whatever you face. He is JESUS.
Lord, surely many faithful souls have been martyred over the centuries for their witness of Your wonderful work, but surely many more will die when the tribulation period starts, and when complete wickedness has taken over the world. But those who have died for the glorious name of Jesus are secure and will be secure. Their blood will be avenged. Hallelujah to the God who remembers His faithful saints! Amen.