The word “martyr” gets in the news these days in the context of suicidal Muslim terrorists. It is ironic that such people are called “martyrs”. The word actually means “witness”. What does their actions and their death say about their theology? I hear, “God is full of hate”, “I am full of hate”, and “I will do anything to advance my selfish ambitions for the afterlife.” Not exactly a compelling witness.
Christians have long used the word “martyr” for those who lost their lives because of their faith. They did not commit suicide or even seek death, their lives were taken from them out of hatred for God or his message. Their witness was “The gift of eternal life is better than this life”, and “I am not afraid to die because I trust God”. That is a very different witness.
Martyrdom for Christians is not something isolated to the first century. While the Romans took their share, genuine disciples of Jesus have been killed through the centuries, sometimes even by nominal Christian institutions. Today, Christians are under the greatest threat of death in Muslim and Communist countries.
A strong theme, maybe even the main theme, of the book of Revelation is that martyrdom for the sake of Christ is well worth it. Martyrs get special mention in Revelation 6:9-11, 12:11 and 20:4. What do these passages teach us about this special class of people?
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had be 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 was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11)
This passage is important because it rules out the idea of soul sleep or that we go immediately to Judgment Day at our death. It also lines out one of the criterion for the timing of Judgment Day–there are a preset or pre-known number of martyrs. You might think this a strange and morbid standard, but to be a martyr is a high honor. Those who experience this are chosen for this. Their location “under the altar” brings to mind where the blood of the sacrifices was poured. Only the sacrifice of Christ has merit in saving others. But the death of the martyrs hasn’t historically deterred faith in Christ but it has counter-intuitively advanced it. They are a sacrifice pleasing to God in the sense that they truly trusted him, and their deaths advanced the Gospel.
The gift of a “white robe” is common for all who die in Christ. It is probably not clothing but a reference to a heavenly body that is pure. The desire for judgment may be a surprise. It doesn’t feel like love for your enemy. Such judgment is just, however. It doesn’t preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.
In Revelation 12 the martyrs are honored and their praise is sung. In Revelation 20 it speaks specifically of souls who were beheaded. This is probably synecdoche and actually refers to all martyrs. Here they have the honor of reigning with Christ. What is that? In this context, it would seem that they are part of God’s divine council, which actually participates in making decisions executable on Earth. This honor would make sense since their lifetimes were cut short on Earth.