Martyrs sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. They die rather than compromise their integrity and convictions. They testify to their faith by refusing to surrender it. The word “martyr” itself comes from a Greek word meaning to testify or be a witness. In the biblical book of Revelation, two people are described as “faithful witness,” Jesus (Rev. 1:5) and Antipas (Rev. 2:13). Both were put to death because of their commitment to doing God’s will. Christian martyrs do not kill themselves; opponents of Christianity kill them because their teachings or their lives threaten the status quo and point the way to vibrant living.
Martyrs call for fire in Revelation chapter 6: “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?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been had been completed” (6:9-11).
Their plaintive prayer for vengeance emerges in the midst of violence and natural catastrophe as the Lamb (Jesus Christ) opens seven seals to a scroll. They cry out for God to punish those who had killed them. The answer: Be patient. Still more will die for Christ before God avenges. Their prayer, despite its plea for revenge, does not request permission to carry out the revenge killings. The martyrs recognize that vengeance belongs to God. In Isaiah chapter 59, God’s armor includes the garments of vengeance. In Ephesians 6, in which Christians don an “armor of God” that reflects several elements of God’s armor in Isaiah, the garments of vengeance are clearly absent. Like God, the Christian feels pain when he or she sees injustice. Like God, the Christian acts to achieve justice. However, the Christian leaves vengeance to God. We may share the martyrs’ desire that God will avenge, but we must, like them, trust that God, who is holy and true, will “judge the inhabitants of the world and avenge [the] blood” of the martyrs.” Like the martyrs under the altar, we too must patiently wait for God to act.
God dramatically answers the prayers of the martyrs later in Revelation. Seven angels pour out bowls of God’s wrath. In the midst of these pourings, the third angel cries out, “You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve” (Rev. 15:5-6)
And then John hears the altar respond: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments” (Rev. 15:7). The altar prays. Really? Now, who had been underneath the altar in Revelation 6? Could it be that the martyrs of Revelation 6 pray again in chapter 15, now affirming the faithfulness and justice of God?
We cringe when we read of churches burning in 1990’s America and 2013’s Egypt as unbelieving or misguided vigilantes attack, when we hear reports of Christian children being attacked because of their faith¸ when we learn of Latin American preachers being killed. We pray the prayer of Revelation’s martyrs, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true?” The answer still comes from God’s word: “Wait a little longer” and “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.”