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THE FIFTH SEAL

 

 

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. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should 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. Revelation 6:9–11.

 

The disparaging scenes of the second, third, and fourth seals are behind us. As we see the opening of the fifth seal, we get a sense of hope, but a hope that is not fully realized.

The first thing the Apostle John sees when the fifth seal is opened is souls under the altar. The word altar appears eight times in the Revelation. Two of those times it identifies the golden altar and are found in the 8th chapter under the seventh seal. The other six times the word suggests the brazen altar. Both altars are found in the tabernacle/temple of the Jewish religion and are integral to a right relationship with God. The brazen altar was where sacrifices were routinely made. The golden altar was special as it stood in the Holy Place just outside of the Holy of Holies where the presence of God was found. Incense was routinely sprinkled on this altar and under the seventh seal this altar is tied to the prayers of the saints.

The souls John sees under the altar represent, not actual people, but the fact that people endeavoring to live for God have paid the ultimate price for their faith. The cause of their being under the altar was that they “had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.”

The second, third, and fourth seals reveal the spiritual difficulty faced by people wanting to live for God in an apostatizing church. We learned that Death killed them with the sword, with hunger, and with death. As the darkness increased from seal to seal, fewer and fewer were able to hear and learn of the true gospel of salvation through the atonement in Christ. As the gospel light dimmed, sincere souls looked to the Jesus they heard mentioned or saw in a stained glass window with a longing to be saved from sin—even if they did not intellectually understand that concept.  That was accounted to them as faith just as much as Abraham’s obedience was accounted as faith to him.

Most commentators and even the Church of God teaching on the Revelation hold these souls under the altar to be Christian martyrs. But that would be a literal rendering of the vision, and we must look for a spiritual meaning for their being slain.

 

Slain For The Word Of God

 

What does it mean to be slain for the word of God? The key to this statement is the word “for”, which is the Greek word dee-ah, meaning the channel of an act. In the King James Version it is rendered “by” 241 times and “through” 88 times. In modern English, such as the New King James Version, we tend to think in the context of our text that the word “for” means “because of”; they were slain because of their stand for the word of God.

In reality, what is said about these souls is that they were slain by the word of God or through what the word of God teaches. You will recall that under the second seal, wheat and barley were rationed, and we considered the wheat to be the gospels and the barley to be the epistles.

Man’s problem is that he is already spiritually dead in trespasses and sins as stated in Ephesians 2:1, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” The death mankind stands in need of is a death TO sin, which is possible only through the gospel. In Mark 1:15 we read the first message Jesus preached when He began His earthly ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Sin is the cause of spiritual death; the Mass, auricular confession to a human priest, and the rosary have no power to take sin out of any persons’ life. The only thing that can take sin out of a life is the blood of Christ. 1 John 1:7 plainly states “the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.” For the blood of Christ to cleanse away sin, the sinner must repent, or give up, his sin. He cannot hold on to sin and be saved from sin. Repentance is the gateway to spiritual life as we see in Acts 11:18, “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.’” The gospel is the only thing that reveals God’s plan of salvation; no church can save anyone: John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” The words of Christ kill sin in the lives of those that repent and place their faith in Christ. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:11 (New American Standard Bible)

The souls under the altar are those that have died to sin. The altar in this fifth seal is nothing more than the atonement in Christ according to Hebrews 13:10, “We have an altar—the cross where Christ was sacrificed.” (The Living Bible)

 

The Protestant Reformation

 

The opening of the fifth seal introduces us to the Protestant Reformation. Historians date the beginning of the Reformation with Luther’s posting his 95 Theses on the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. The charts we have used in the Church of God for decades have 1530 for the beginning of the Reformation because that was the year the Augsburg Confession was adopted by the Lutherans. This is a convenience to the chart as applying 350 years from a time symbol yet to be seen in the Revelation produces the year 1880, the beginning of the Church of God Reformation Movement.

The Theses were merely the end of a beginning for Luther. He was a sincere man who after his conversion earnestly sought to live for God; so much so that he entered the Augustinian Cloister in Erfurt. The famed story of his revelation on the stairs in Rome is recounted in Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton,

 

He was climbing Pilate’s stairs on hands and knees repeating a Pater Noster for each one and kissing each step for good measure in the hope of delivering a soul from purgatory. . . . The stairs were climbed, the Pater Nosters were repeated, the steps were kissed. At the top Luther raised himself and exclaimed, not as legend would have it, “The just shall live by faith!”—he was not yet that far advanced. What he said was, “Who knows whether it is so?”[1]

 

His understanding of justification began to develop when later he taught Bible at the university of Frederick the Wise beginning in 1511. He passed through seasons of spiritual agony as he examined the Bible and compared it to the teachings of the Church. Bainton relates that Luther’s understanding of justification began with a translation error he found in the Latin Bible.

 

Luther had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mistranslation. The Latin for Matt. 4:17 read penitentiam agite, “do penance,” but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original meant simply “be penitent.” The literal sense was “change your mind.” This is what Luther himself called a “glowing” discovery. In this crucial instance a sacrament of the church did not rest on the institution of Scripture.[2]

 

This opened his understanding of individual responsibility: every man must answer to God for himself.

There is much more to Luther’s story than only the just shall live by faith, far too much to mention in a single lecture. Luther did not intend to start a new church; he only advocated for reform within the Church of Rome. While he taught justification by faith, much of his church experience during his life followed the pattern of the Church of Rome; evangelicalism was part of its practice, but yet many of the sacraments were retained.

The Reformation was not the sole effort of Martin Luther. There were other men such as Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and John Calvin of France and French Switzerland, that were instrumental. There were countless other men involved in the Reformation over the next two centuries that we cannot bring to your attention for the sake of time. However, I will mention just one more and that is James Arminius. Arminius was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and professor of theology at Leiden University. He is notable for his rejection of strict Calvinistic predestination and for advocating the concept of free will.  Arminius was a bridge between the first movement of the Reformation and the Wesleyan revival that followed it in the Eighteenth Century.

 

The Souls Under The Altar

 

The souls under the altar signify the host of people that responded to the teachings of the gospel as restored during the Reformation. Most were people that lived in cities where their church accepted the Reformation. They were not saved because they attended those churches; they were saved because they responded to the teaching of the gospel as it was presented to them.

Not all these souls especially left the Church of Rome. There were individuals such as Jeanne Guyon, that were devout and obviously were people that had experienced gospel salvation. She never left the Church of Rome, but her writings had significant influence across Europe during the latter part of the Reformation. She is called a mystic, and she was, but her mysticism tended more to holiness than to the obscure.

We notice that the souls under the altar are crying out to God with a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Commentators tend to consider their prayer a complaint; almost as if God owes them something for what they have endured. The word to avenge certainly means to retaliate against another, but we can sense a righteous burning in what these souls are praying. The visible church-at-large was fallen; it was no longer spiritual but very earthly in its practice of religion. It offered no salvation to anyone and this is the righteous anger that burns in their hearts. Because of what was happening in the Reformation, their zeal was caught up in the judgment that God was pouring out on the Church of Rome and such-like.

God does not rebuke these souls having experienced gospel salvation under the cross of Christ; instead, He gives them a white robe; white being the color of purity. God is consoling them with this robe of purity as for the moment having their sins washed away in the blood of Christ is all the light of the gospel a church that has been blinded by apostasy can handle. God does not tell them that that is all the spirituality they can ever have. He tells them more light on the gospel is coming, “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.” As seen in such persons as Madame Guyon, there was a growing desire among people for a deeper personal experience with God that promises, not just forgiveness of sins, but a truly holy life.

This shows us that in the Protestant Reformation there were two interventions by God concerning the gospel. The first was to bring back to the church the understanding of justification by faith alone. The second move came about 200 years later in the Wesleyan Revivals under the leadership of John Wesley in which the understanding of entire sanctification as a secondness in salvation was brought to light.

The power behind the Church of Rome produced a Church state, the Holy Roman Empire, in which the Church was the legal government over countries and populations. Under the pale horse, it was be a Catholic or die.

With the fifth seal we find the rise of Protestantism. We do not see the power in the scenes of this seal, but we will discover later in the Revelation that the power behind Protestantism resulted in a state Church. As the Reformation spread across Europe, each country had its own church that was protected and funded by the government. For this reason, the church-at-large could only progress so far in the gospel until it reached a point where the ruling spirit stepped in and decreed “So far, and no further.”

It remains for the sixth seal to show us how God again intervened to restore the full understanding of gospel salvation.

 



[1] Bainton, Roland,  Here I Stand,  Abingdon Press: New York, NY,  pg. 51.

[2] Ibid, pg. 88.