On the Certainty of Persecution
By Patrick B. Woods
“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were 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, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled” (Rev. 6:9-11). \
Persecution is a Sure Thing for Believers. “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). And as Jesus said, “If they persecuted Me they will persecute you” (Jn. 15:20). But the persecution of believers is not a new thing. Even the prophet Isaiah testified of a time when the “truth faileth and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey” (Isa. 59:15). The waywardness and depravity of the world is clearly seen in that it speaks evil of those who turn from evil and harms those who cry out for justice.
Be not deceived, this warfare and hardship for the children of God is normal and this common participation among saints is encouraging. While the particulars may vary, the experience does not. Desiring godliness means suffering evil. Believers are thus exhorted, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (I Pet. 5:8-9). The saints of God have had a target placed on their back after the devil and his cohorts were plundered in the cross. The devil has been cast down “to make war with the remnant” of the children of God—”which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17). It is because of this relationship to Jesus that Christians are subject to persecution. “If ye were of the world,” Jesus said, “the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (Jn. 15:19) . . . and “all these things they do unto you for My name’s sake, because they know not Him that sent Me” (Jn. 15:21).
The souls under the altar are a vision of them that were slain for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus but there are more to be added to their number (Rev 6:11). There are more to be “counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). There are more to “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1:24). There are more precious souls that must “continue in the faith” for “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And as they continue in the faith they demonstrate that though they are being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, the life also of Jesus is manifest in their mortal flesh (II Cor. 4:11). What a blessed fellowship!? (Php. 3:10).
Temporary Sufferings, Eternal Glory. Persecution is only “here and now.” Glory is “there and then.” Knowing that the ages to come and the exceeding riches of grace are for eternity equips the believer to endure suffering with faith and patience. For, “if we suffer, we shall also reign with Him” (II Tim. 2:12). It is our suffering with Him that qualifies us for our being “glorified together” with Him (Rom. 8:17).
Paul’s desire to know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and to be made conformable unto His death was in view of attaining unto the resurrection of the dead (Php. 3:9-11) where he would obtain his incorruptible reward. Seeing the souls under the altar is confirmation of their acceptance in heaven. Furthermore, as we continue in the revelation we will see that their cries are heard and that vengeance is the Lord’s–He will repay. John’s diligence in recording what he saw and heard provokes great courage in those who hold the testimony of Jesus firm until the end. They know that others have gone on before them and that they will have fellowship with the great cloud of witnesses who with Moses chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25). Will you be among the number of them who through faith “had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment?”
Will you be among the souls that “were stoned . . . sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword . . . wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented . . . wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth?” These are they “of whom the world was not worthy” and “all these” have “obtained a good report through faith” (Heb. 11:36-39). Faith enables men to stand against opposition. Faith looks past the persecution to the glory to be revealed. Faith considers the acceptance of God and not the rejection of men. By faith men suffer for righteousness and inherit the promises.
Strangers in This World. The world opposed the word of God and those who preach it. The souls under the altar confirm this. The world and heaven are in direct conflict. Foolishness is demonstrated by all attempts to feel “at home” here or to be friends with the world. “We are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (I Jn. 5:19). “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). God will not be one of two masters. He will not remain where He has to compete for prominence. “The Spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy” (Jas. 4:5) and will not allow a man to love God and love the world at the same time. No one can be friend of the world and a friend of God.
Those of faith have always considered themselves to be strangers and pilgrims here. They are in search of a better country, that is an heavenly. They readily refuse the things which would hinder them from obtaining that country and all things contradictory to it. For this cause the world has always persecuted them. For, “they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot” and therefore “[speak] evil of you” (I Pet. 4:4). Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael nearly lost their lives because they refused to do what everyone else was doing - and bow to an idol (Dan 3:12-13,15,17-20). Like Jesus (Jn. 7:7), Zechariah testified of the works of the people and was killed for it (II Chr. 24:20-21). Stephen called the Jews to account and was promptly stoned (Acts 7:54,57-58). John the Baptist, the greatest among men born of a woman, was killed by lesser men born of women (Mt 14:1-12). Just as the world hated these brethren because they testified against its works, so all preachers of righteousness will be hated by the world when they testify of it. However, it is these slain saints, depicted as being “under the altar”, that have the last word. Justice will be served and they will be rewarded according to the promise of their King.
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecuted you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).