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Our culture has embraced the idea of suffering for a cause, but it has cheapened the concept of martyrdom in the process. Terms like social change martyr, digital martyr, work martyr, and political martyr have expanded the meaning of martyr to include any inconvenience resulting from expressing an opinion. But in order to understand just how bad the Tribulation will be, we need to know what words like martyr mean in their biblical context.

What Does It Mean to Be a Martyr?

Revelation 6:9 makes the meaning clear: "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." Slain is a sacrificial term that means "slaughter, butcher, murder." God's people have always experienced persecution in parts of the world, and many have sacrificed their lives for the Gospel throughout the centuries. As the world's end draws near, persecution will rise to unprecedented levels, and many will be martyred—murdered—for their faith.

When the fifth seal is opened, every Christian, whether dead or alive, will have been raptured to heaven at the beginning of the Tribulation. This suggests the martyrs in Revelation chapter 6 will be new converts to Christianity during the Tribulation period. In a world dominated by evil, their faith will lead to a bloody massacre. Jesus described their suffering in His Olivet Discourse: "Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other" (Matthew 24:9–10, NLT).

There will be no room for lukewarm Christians during the Tribulation. For many believers, following Christ will demand the ultimate sacrifice. For every believer, following Christ will require carefully counting the cost. The Tribulation martyrs will weigh their earthly suffering against the greater spiritual suffering of denying Christ, and they will arrive at the same conclusion as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was hanged during World War II:

[Messengers of the Gospel] must not fear men. Men can do them no harm, for the power of men ceases with the death of the body. But they must overcome the fear of death with the fear of God. The danger lies not in the judgement of men, but in the judgement of God, not in the death of the body but in the eternal destruction of body and soul. Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men.1

Why Will Believers Be Martyred?

The apostle John says the Tribulation martyrs will be killed "for the word of God and for the testimony which they held" (Revelation 6:9). Armed with the truth of God's Word, the martyrs will preach repentance and warn of the judgment to come. In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul describes the Christian life as a fragrance that smells like a sweet perfume to God and other Christians. But to "those who are perishing," the aroma smells like decay and death (verses 14–16).

During the Tribulation, there will be few believers around to appreciate the fragrance of righteousness. Most people will have hardened their hearts and will reject the message of salvation. With the Antichrist firmly in control of world politics and religion, society will react violently to any trace of Christianity. Many will be called upon during the Tribulation to love God more than their very lives (Revelation 12:11; see also Psalm 44:22).

Why Won't the World Listen?

A story from the Old Testament helps us understand how humans, who were created in God's image, could hate someone for serving Him. Two kings, Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah, were preparing for war. Jehoshaphat insisted on consulting one of God's prophets. Ahab, who worshiped false gods, summoned four hundred prophets who readily agreed with the kings' battle plan. Jehoshaphat wasn't fooled and again asked for a prophet of the Lord. Ahab finally admitted there was one godly prophet, Micaiah, who could be consulted. Before calling the prophet, Ahab explained his disregard this way: "I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil" (1 Kings 22:8).

Ahab rejected truth because it did not conform to his expectations. He preferred the flattery of pagan prophets to the sincerity of God's prophet. In 2 Timothy 4:3–4, the apostle Paul warned Timothy that a time would come when mankind "will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." Ahab's attitude is typical of what happens in a heart that has turned away from God.

The Digital Age has made it possible for people to select which news they hear and how it is reported. Universities have created safe spaces where students can insulate themselves from unwelcome ideas. Recent court cases have threatened the civil liberties of Christian business owners who try to conduct their businesses according to biblical standards. When Christianity in practice arouses the dormant conscience of a non–Christian, the response is to "kill the messenger." That is why Christians have been persecuted throughout history and will be increasingly persecuted as the Day of the Lord draws near.

How Will God Punish the Martyrs' Persecutors?

The apostle John describes the martyrs as crying out from under an altar contained inside the fifth of seven seals on a scroll (Revelation 6:9–10). Each of these seals represents a separate judgment upon the earth. This means the world will be judged, among other things, for the blood of the martyrs.

Beginning in Revelation 8, John describes seven trumpet judgments that declare the Lord's final intervention on earth. They present a picture of the world ruined by man. The final trumpet blow reveals God's final seven judgments upon the earth, which are the bowl judgments detailed in chapter 16. The trumpet judgments present the world ruled by Satan. The bowl judgments present the world reclaimed by God.

The prayers of the saints crying out for justice become the punishment of the sinners. The third bowl judgment, turning freshwater to blood, declares God's retribution against those who have martyred His people. Here are the words of the angel who pours out this judgment:

You are righteous, O Lord, the One who is and who was and who is to be, because You have judged these things. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. For it is their just due. Revelation 16:5–6

Why Will God Wait to Punish the Persecutors?

In the words of 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord isn't really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent" (NLT).

In Revelation 6, the martyrs' cries for justice were answered with white robes and encouragement 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" (verse 11). As in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, God will delay His judgment until every willing soul is preserved (Genesis 18:32). Now in Revelation 16, the cries are answered with the Lord's vengeance.

Freshwater rivers and lakes will turn into bloody water when the third bowl is poured. Once again, the altar is the focus of this message of retribution because the souls of the slain are held under the altar. The angel declares God's justice in judging His enemies. This bowl pours out the judgment requested by the martyrs.

As terrible as the Tribulation will be, it is only a small taste of what awaits those who reject the Gospel. The days of the Tribulation are limited to seven years, but anyone who does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord will suffer forever.

Some people dismiss the reality of hell by thinking it's where their friends are going so they might as well go there too. Jesus disproved this idea with a story he told in Luke 16 about a godly beggar named Lazarus and an ungodly, unnamed rich man. Lazarus died and was taken to heaven, but the rich man died and was tormented in Hades. The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family—to testify to them about the reality of heaven and hell—because he did not want his brothers to end up in the same awful place.

Abraham refused to send Lazarus to the rich man's family saying, "They have Moses and the prophets" (Luke 16:29). Like the rich man, God has told us everything we need to know about heaven and hell and how our decisions will lead us to one place or the other. He waits patiently today for each person's decision, but one day the verdict will be final. "The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty" (Numbers 14:18).

How Do the Bowl Judgments Affect Christians Today?

If you are a Christian, these judgments will not affect you. You will not be on earth when they occur. But, as with all Scripture, there is an application to be made, for the signs of the coming of the Lord are evident. If the Lord Jesus Christ returned today, the events described in Revelation 15—16 would probably take place no later than seven years from now. Who do you know who is young enough to still be alive seven years from now? Do they know Christ? If the Rapture occurred today, would they be left behind to endure the seven bowl judgments?

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963), 242.

Daily Devotions

Today's Devotion: Things Always Improve

When Hezekiah came to the throne of Israel, the land was traumatized by a reign of terror instituted by his father, King Ahaz. During his reign, he promoted child sacrifice, idolatrous worship, disastrous warfare, and religious persecution. He closed the temple of the Lord and prohibited anyone from worshiping Jehovah. When he died, his 25-year-old son Prince Hezekiah became king, and things changed quickly and dramatically. Hezekiah was a true worshiper of the Lord, and he immediately reopened the temple, mobilized the priests and Levites, reestablished worship, and promoted revival.

God prepared the people for that moment, and the land recovered more quickly than anyone could have imagined. The people rejoiced when the events took place so suddenly.

There’s a verse that says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). It is a faithful reminder that problems are temporary, but our blessings last forever. We persevere by faith and trust during the night, but as the dawn appears on the horizon, the sun rises quickly bringing hope and light. So don’t give up—God is preparing you to rejoice.

The best is yet to be and we can’t lose for winning!
Vance Havner

Complete audio message as heard at Shadow Mountain Community Church

The Martyrs

Complete audio message as heard at Shadow Mountain Community Church

Throughout history there have been many who gave up their lives rather than deny their faith in God. And there will be many more. During the seven-year Tribulation, there will be many who are killed because of their allegiance to Christ, for which they will be eternally rewarded. Covers Revelation 6:9-11.

Though the early church was filled with thousands of zealous followers of Christ, only a dozen were known as the original band of twelve. Jesus chose these men after spending a night in prayer. He designated them "disciples" (learners) and, later, "apostles" (missionaries—those sent out). As disciples, they followed Him, sat at His feet, and learned of His person and work. As apostles, they went out in His power as agents of the Gospel, going to the ends of the earth to profess the risen King. It wasn't an easy life. In the book of Acts, they were threatened, flogged, persecuted, and driven from Jerusalem. According to Origen of Alexandria (ca 185–254), they divided the world among them and fanned out, taking the Gospel east, west, north, and south, willing to suffer and die for their faith.

There are four lists of the twelve given in the Bible—one each in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. In all four lists, Peter is mentioned first, and Judas Iscariot is mentioned last. Between Peter and Judas, we have some variations in the order and even in the names. A handful of stories about Peter, James, and John are recorded in the book of Acts (along with Paul, who wasn't among the original twelve). But despite being called the "Acts of the Apostles," this book bypasses the record of most of the others. The writer, Luke, kept to his agenda of explaining how the Gospel traveled from Jerusalem to Rome, which was the geopolitical center of the world. The stories of the other apostles have come down to us mainly from the church fathers or from early historians like Eusebius of Caesarea.

Some of the apostles left us with better sets of traditions than others. But none of them (except Judas Iscariot, who was replaced by Matthias in Acts 1:23–26) ever denied the faith, questioned the Resurrection of Christ, or backtracked on their commitment to global evangelism. They were agents of the Gospel, professing a risen King, spreading a message that changed the world forever. All of us are their descendants, and we should emulate their example of missionary and evangelistic zeal.

Who were these twelve agents, and what happened to them?

Peter

Visitors to the ruins of the Galilean town of Capernaum can see the foundations of Peter's house. After the Resurrection of Christ, Peter was seldom home. He traveled widely for the sake of the Gospel, taking his wife along (1 Corinthians 9:5). According to Eusebius and others, at the end of his life Peter shouted a message of encouragement to his wife as she was led away to execution, then he himself died in Rome by being crucified upside down.

James

The son of Zebedee and the brother of John, James became the first apostle to die a martyr's death. He was murdered in Jerusalem by King Herod Agrippa I about the year A.D. 44. The account of his death is preserved in Acts 12:1–2: "[Herod] killed James the brother of John with the sword."

John

The brother of James and the author of the fourth Gospel, John was apparently the only apostle who avoided a martyr's death. However, that doesn't mean he escaped persecution. After the fall of Jerusalem, his base of operations was centered in Ephesus. At one point he was exiled to a penal colony on Patmos Island where he received the book of Revelation. He passed away in Ephesus at an advanced age, and visitors to the ruins of Ephesus today can visit his purported gravesite.

Andrew

He was the apostle who was always witnessing. Every time we see him in the Gospels, he was bringing someone to Christ. According to Eusebius, Andrew became a missionary to Scythia, which is an area in modern–day southern Russia around the Black Sea (see Colossians 3:11). Some traditions say he was crucified in A.D. 69 on an X–shaped cross (now called a Saint Andrew's Cross), and that he languished three days before dying.

Philip

He hailed from the town of Bethsaida, but where he subsequently traveled and how he did is not certain. On July 27, 2011, archaeologists in Turkey announced they had unearthed a burial site in Hierapolis (not far from Colossae and Laodicea) bearing ancient inscriptions indicating it was Philip's tomb. This corresponds to early traditions about his ministry and death. We don't know how Philip died, but according to some traditions he was stripped, pierced through the thighs (or ankles), hung upside down (perhaps on a cross), and stoned to death.

Bartholomew

He was from Cana, the scene of our Lord's first miracle (and he was also likely known as Nathanael). Except for references in the fourth Gospel, little is known of Bartholomew's life and ministry. Different traditions have him going various places and dying various deaths, but nothing can be determined with certainty. The best reference is from Eusebius, who gave us a tantalizing tale about an Egyptian missionary who, about the year A.D. 180, went eastward to evangelize regions between modern–day Turkey and India, perhaps centering on Armenia. Arriving at his destination he found that the Gospel of Matthew had gotten there first, delivered, it was said, years before by Bartholomew. To this day, the Armenian Church traces itself back to Bartholomew and maintains a belief that he died by being flayed alive.

Thomas

With him, we may have sounder traditions. William Steuart McBirnie, in his book The Search for the Twelve Apostles, says, "[We] may rather confidently reconstruct the actual missionary journeys of Thomas. In fact, we really know more about St. Thomas than we do about almost any other apostle with the exception of John and Peter."1 As Peter and Paul were going westward into Europe, Thomas was apparently going eastward into India. Modern–day Christians in India claim Thomas as the one who first brought the Gospel to their land. He was reportedly speared to death and buried near the city of Madras. The mountainside where he spent his last days is now a national shrine to his memory, overlooking (perhaps appropriately) the international airport at Madras.

Matthew

He was the writer of the first Gospel, and he carried a deep burden in his heart for Jewish evangelism. His geographical field of evangelism is uncertain, but many traditions point to northeast Africa, between Egypt and Ethiopia, where he especially focused his efforts on reaching the Jews of the Diaspora. It's thought he died somewhere in this region by martyrdom.

James

The son of Alphaeus, (perhaps also known as James the Less) is the apostle of whom we know the least, which is a reason to like this man. Not all of us are famous; not all of us leave a traceable, visible legacy. Yet we're still vital to the plan and purposes of God, known to Him, loved by Him, and used of Him as His disciples. Like James, many of us are apostles of obscurity whose work is recorded in heaven rather than on earth. We do have a hint about his martyrdom, however. According to Josephus, he died by being stoned and clubbed.

Thaddeus

Otherwise known as Jude, Thaddeus apparently worked in cooperation with Bartholomew and Thomas in reaching Armenia and India. He is said to have been martyred near the modern–day city of Tabriz in northern Iran.

Simon

The zealot, Simon's story is a confusing mixture of tales and traditions. While some records speak of his going into Syria and Iran, other traditions speak of his westward ministry into Spain and Britain. One source claims he was crucified by the Romans in Caistor, Lincolnshire, Britain, and buried there on May 10, A.D. 61.

Matthias

He replaced Judas Iscariot and is believed to have evangelized the regions of the east. Various traditions place him in various places, but nearly all of them end with his martyrdom.

We can't be dogmatic about the exact fate of the apostles, but their legacy is unmistakable. They were like the heroes listed in Hebrews 11—men of whom the world was not worthy.

In the future we will have the final generation of faithful witnesses, but between the twelve and the 144,000, we have … well, us. The original twelve teach us there is a cost to following Jesus and to being an agent of the Gospel. It's not easy to serve the risen King or spread the Gospel through the world. We encounter many dangers, toils, and snares, but we're in good company. We're joining the heroes of the ages as we seek to change the world for Christ.

We are today's agents of the Gospel who gladly profess Christ as our risen King.

1 William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, Revised ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1973), chapter 9.

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