AT THIS POINT WE have read through the warnings Christ gave to the seven churches and applied them to deficiencies we see in the church today. The apostle John gave us an amazingly detailed view of the throne room of heaven, and an explanation of the twenty-four elders, the four living beasts, and the seven Spirits of God. In Part Nine, we spent time discussing in detail the meaning and timing of the Rapture when Christ will scoop up the church of believers in his arms. At that point, the church having been removed from the earth, we learned of the scroll and its seven seals and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This installment reveals what happens as the fifth and sixth seals are opened.
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?'” (Rev. 6:9-10, NRSV ).
At the opening of the fifth seal, John saw “under the altar” individuals who had been “slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they have given” (6:9). These people are described in Revelation 7:9: “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows'” (7:13). The elder said to John, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). These individuals are the firstfruits of all those who will be saved during the tribulation; those who stand strong against the demand of the false prophet to accept a mark or seal and refuse to follow the Antichrist. The elder tells John these individuals “…will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat” (7:16). The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the final reward of the righteous as “the garment of honor in everlasting light”1 which is depicted as white robes in Revelation 6:11.
Today, we share with unbelievers the gospel of the saving grace of God and the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The martyrs identified in Revelation 6 have come to believe in Jesus as Messiah in the period immediately following the Rapture. In many movies depicting the Rapture, those left behind often remark how their loved ones who believed are now with Christ. They say, “I know what this is!” and “Mom was right about the gospel.” They begin to preach of the coming judgment of Jesus Christ and His kingdom. Because of this, they anger the Antichrist; they are subjected to unprecedented persecution and are brutally slain. The word “souls” in this passage is not limited to the spiritual part of man in contrast to his body. It is used to represent the person. The “altar” referred to here is the “altar” of burnt offering (or, “the altar of sacrifice”) which stood in the court of the tabernacle and the temple under the old covenant.
John MacArthur writes, “The fifth seal marks the midpoint of the tribulation, bridging the gap between the beginning of God’s wrath in the first half of the tribulation and its full fury revealed in the second half.”2 MacArthur reminds us that the souls in 6:9 are martyrs killed during the time of the judgments of the tribulation. Persecution of those who come to believe in Christ after the Rapture begins reasonably early in the first half of the tribulation period, and dramatically intensifies when the Antichrist sets himself up to be worshiped. He is referred to as “the beast” in Revelation 13, where it is said that he makes war on the saints to conquer them (13:7).
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth” (Rev. 6:12-13).
This marks the midpoint of the tribulation period. John MacArthur writes, “Three features describe the overwhelming fear associated with the opening of the sixth seal: the reason for fear, the range of fear, and the reaction of fear.”3 The reason for intense fear at this point is that the events will be so universally devastating they can be attributed only to God. As these horrific events unfold, one after another, the range of fear will be without end. Remember, Jesus told the disciples, “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21). Imagine a worldwide earthquake so great that it causes global volcanic activity! Following the earthquake, the sun will become black as sackcloth, the moon will turn to blood, and vast clouds of ash and smoke will fill the atmosphere. John says it will be as if the sky itself was rolled up like a tapestry and put away (see Rev. 6:14).
The reaction to such terrors will not be repentance, but panic. All classes of people will try to escape the great day of God’s wrath. They will panic and foolishly attempt to hide in the caves and among the rocks, saying, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” MacArthur writes, “…in light of the massive earthquake and its continuing aftershocks, the widespread volcanic eruptions, and the other disturbances to the earth’s crust, such hiding places will offer no safety.”4 By now, everyone will have come to a clear understanding that it is God who has caused the events at hand.
John MacArthur says these “day of the Lord” horrors precede the coming of the Lord and even anticipate the worst that is yet to come in the seventh seal. The next installment will focus on the 144,000 identified as “the servants of our God” (Rev. 7:1-8), and the opening of the seventh seal (8:1).
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
I have decided to change the translation I use for devotional reading and teaching. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references herein are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NRSV, completed in 1989, follows a formal-equivalence principle that its translators identify with the words “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.” It is considered the best now available in English, especially for in-depth study (exegesis).
1 Dead Sea Scrolls (lQS 4.8).
2 John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), 132.
3 Ibid., 135.
4 Ibid., 137.