Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #797 -- May 16, 2020
No man is worth his salt who is not ready
at all times to risk his body, to risk his
well-being, to risk his life, in a great cause.

Theodore Roosevelt {1858-1919}

When the Last Martyr Dies
Divine Promise to a Distressed People

No person in his or her right mind longs for or relishes the thought of being a martyr. Yet, a person who is genuinely devoted to a noble cause greater than his or her own self, and who is willing to suffer and die for that cause, stands head-and-shoulders above the mediocre masses that daily surround him or her. Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), in his work titled "Young India," framed this truth in these words: "Let us all be brave enough to die the death of a martyr, but let no one lust for martyrdom." A personal determination to remain faithful to the Lord even to the point of death, a determination which Jesus commends (Revelation 2:10), is not even remotely the same as a personal desire to die at the hands of those who despise us. Nevertheless, God calls us to lead lives that are beacons of light in the darkness of this world, a darkness that surrounds us and seeks to overwhelm us because of our commitment to that Light. We must never seclude ourselves, however; rather, we are to shine, even though it may prove to be personally costly. In so doing, we stand out from (and above) the multitudes who have given their lives to the evil powers behind this darkness, and by so doing we also invite their hatred and persecution which all too often result in death. Again, no one should seek such suffering, yet if our cause is righteous then neither should we shrink from it. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) stated it well: "The believers who think for themselves will let themselves be burnt alive rather than conform to a creed imposed on them by any power except their own consciences."

Daring to think, daring to stand alone and apart from the crowd, daring to lay all on the line in order to take a stand on the frontline of the battle for good over evil, daring to speak out for Truth over tradition, is not for the faint of heart. It is dangerous, and it can be deadly. Such faith and conviction and determination characterize the martyrs of our Messiah and the righteous movement He leads. The Greek word "martus," from which we derive our word "martyr," simply means "a witness." In time it came to signify those who, because of that witness and testimony, incurred the wrath of those around them, a wrath and hatred that ultimately resulted in their persecution and death. Hebrews 11:36-38 speaks of those followers of God who "experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (those of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground."

In this new dispensation of grace, we find many within the One Body of Jesus Christ (His "called out" ones: His "church") experiencing "fiery ordeals" as a result of their faith. Stephen comes immediately to mind (Acts 7). I would urge a reading of my analysis of this martyrdom in my study titled "Why Was Stephen Stoned? A Study of Seven Factors Leading to a Good Man's Death" (Reflections #61). Following his murder at the hands of a religiously intolerant mob, we discover that after his burial "Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison" (Acts 8:3). A few decades later, Saul (aka: the apostle Paul) would also be martyred, as would many of the apostles and disciples of Christ. The risen Savior, in His message to the saints in Pergamum, spoke of one such martyr: "You hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith, even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you" (Revelation 2:13). For further insight on the nature of this martyr's "witness," I offer my study "The Hieromartyr of Pergamum: Reflecting on Antipas the Faithful Witness" (Reflections #705). Peter, who would also be martyred, cautioned his brethren "not to be surprised at the fiery ordeal" that would descend upon them as a result of their faith and faithful witness to Truth (1 Peter 4:12). Peter could speak from experience: "Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also" (Acts 12:1-3).

Perhaps one of the most curious biblical texts in which we are presented with information about these godly martyrs is Revelation 6:9-11. In these three verses we find the Lamb of God breaking the fifth seal. As most students of the Scriptures know, the book of Revelation is filled with symbols and visions and figurative language. It is apocalyptic Jewish literature throughout, and any attempt to impose a literal interpretation and application on this document will only lead to a confused theology. I have dealt with this fifth seal in quite some detail in my following study titled "Blood Under The Great Altar: Reflections on Revelation 6:9-11" (Reflections #62). In this present study, however, I want to focus in on one of the statements made within this text about the fifth seal. In this account we find the martyrs crying out to the Lord, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (vs. 10). This is a cry to Deity to fulfill the promise made to all faithful ones who pay the ultimate price: "He will avenge the blood of His servants; He will take vengeance on His enemies" (Deuteronomy 32:43). The apostle Paul wrote, "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:19).

In response to this plea from these martyrs we find the following: "Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been" (vs. 11, New International Version). The New Living Translation reads: "And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters - their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred - had joined them." The Contemporary English Version says, "They had to wait until the complete number of the Lord's other servants and followers would be killed." Thus, they were to rest "until the full number of those to be killed, as they had been, was reached" (The New Testament for Everyone). Although the wording varies somewhat with each translation, most of these versions of the text agree that the Lord would indeed avenge their blood, but it would occur later, in His own predetermined time, and that time would not be reached until the full number of those who would die for their faithful testimony had been reached. When that final martyr had breathed his/her last breath, then would come God's judgment upon the wicked; only then would He pour out His vengeance upon those who had taken the lives of His people.

I don't know how many times I had read this passage over the years before this truth jumped out at me one day: God knows the identity of that last martyr. He knows the circumstances of his or her death. He knows this person will remain "faithful unto the point of death," and God has determined (predetermined, actually) that when that martyr dies THEN will come the end: at that precise point in time He will pour forth His wrath upon the wicked of the earth. Think about that for a moment!! Sit back, close your eyes, meditate on this statement and consider the questions that arise from it: When will that long-awaited day of our Lord's return take place? When will His persecuted people finally be avenged? When will evil at last be dealt with decisively? When will "Judgment Day" come? When will the Bridegroom come to claim His bride? When will we finally experience the resurrection and enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of the new heavens and earth? When that final martyr dies. Jesus informs us that not even He knows when that day will be, but the Father knows. And the Father knows not only the day, but also the disciple. Who is that person?, we wonder! Has he or she been born yet? If so, where does this saint live? What are the circumstances of his or her life? Is this dear brother or sister-in-Christ even now experiencing persecution and affliction? The reality is: we don't know, but He does!

For the sake of fairness and full disclosure, some scholars (based on a few Greek manuscripts) believe there is an alternate translation that is just as valid. Perhaps the American Standard Version expresses this idea best: "...they should rest yet for a little time, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, who should be killed even as they were, should have fulfilled their course." This view allows for a group of non-martyrs (their "fellow-servants") to be included, so that not only those murdered for their faith, but also those who faithfully fulfill "their course" (journey through life) are in view here as well. This view is very much in the minority with biblical scholars, however, for it revolves around whether the correct form in the verse is "plerothosin" or "plerososin." The difference would be in whether the aorist subjunctive is passive or not. This was likely a scribal error, in the view of most scholars, with the true meaning of the verse being that God knows the complete number of those who will be martyred, rather than whether or not His people will complete the course of their journey through life and the task to which each had been called. "The passive would mean that the 'number' was complete, while the plain aorist subjunctive reading favors the sense that the fellow servants will complete their course" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 477]. Although the ASV has opted for the translation "should have fulfilled their course," it nevertheless, in a footnote, provided this alternate reading: "should be fulfilled in number" (which is favored by the majority of scholars and translations).

The very context of the fifth seal, which is martyrs and martyrdom, strongly sides with the phrase in question signifying a "complete number" of martyrs. The Expositor's Greek Testament translates the text: "When the number of your fellows is complete," with the word "your" being a reference to those slain for their testimony [vol. 5, p. 393]. Speaking of context, "This seal recognizes the reality of a suffering church set in the midst of the world" [Dr. Earl F. Palmer, The Communicator's Commentary: Revelation, p. 178]. Strange, then, to have the message given to these martyrs be of those yet living who are not to be martyred. The Greek scholar Dr. Marvin R. Vincent concurs, saying that although "some texts read 'shall have fulfilled their course,' yet the term means 'completed in number'" [Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 498]. The Lord sought to comfort the martyrs in this fifth seal by letting them know that "the church's suffering has its limit definitely marked. It is not forever!" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 198]. When will that suffering end? When the number of martyrs, a number determined by God Himself, is complete.

"There were others who would yet be called to suffer as they had done, and they must wait until all that number was completed. Then, it is implied, God would interpose, and vindicate His name" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. That day of vindication for the martyred would not occur "till the number of the martyrs should be completed, according to the intention of Divine Providence" [Dr. Joseph Benson, Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, e-Sword]. Dr. David Guzik opined that the message to the slain under the altar "means that they should wait until all God's appointed martyrs are killed" [The Enduring Word Commentary, e-Sword]. "It is, indeed, a striking point and exceptional in every way, that God delays the final judgment until the world has killed off so many martyrs" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Revelation, p. 239]. "God knows the exact number. It has been fixed from eternity in His decree. Until that number has been realized on earth, the day of final judgment cannot come" [Dr. William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 129]. Matthew Henry sums it up this way: "Observe: (1) There is a number of Christians, known to God, who are appointed as sheep for the slaughter, set apart to be God's witnesses. (2) As the measure of the sin of persecutors is filling up, so is the number of the persecuted martyred servants of Christ. (3) When this number is fulfilled, God will take a just and glorious revenge upon their cruel persecutors; He will recompense tribulation to those who trouble them, and to those that are troubled full and uninterrupted rest" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

There are obviously a good many other factors impacting one's understanding of this vision of the fifth seal. There are some who believe, for example, that the book of Revelation was written in the 60's, and a good many of them regard the avenging of these martyrs to have taken place in 70 A.D. with the judgment against Jerusalem (carried out by the Romans). On the other hand, there are other biblical scholars who would place the writing of Revelation toward the end of the first century (perhaps around 96 A.D.). I am personally of the latter persuasion, thus I do not believe the statement made to the martyrs in Revelation 6:11 has anything to do with the events of 70 A.D. Although there are a good many peripheral issues we could consider, I'm convinced that the real message conveyed to God's people, regardless of the time/place in which they live, is that in this world we will have tribulation, but God is in control and He will ultimately avenge His distressed people. He has promised to pour out His wrath against those who oppose Him and who afflict His children. He has even suggested that this time of ultimate reckoning is preordained with respect to when it will occur: it will follow the death of the last martyr.

As I close, I want to make this very personal, for I truly believe that is what our God would have us each consider. No, we don't know the identity of that person who will be the last to die as a result of faithfulness to his/her Lord and commitment to sharing the Good News. But consider this: What if that final martyr is YOU?! What if you are the one called to be the last person to die at the hands of those who have embraced the evil darkness of this world? What if your testimony about and witness to the Light motivates the Darkness to descend upon you and end your life? Somewhere at some time someone will be that final martyr. If it turns out to be me, what will be my response? Will I be fearful, or will I be faithful? Jesus said that if I am faithful unto death there awaits a crown of life. Do I trust Him? Will I consider it an honor and a privilege to suffer and die for Him who suffered and died for me? Brethren, consider your calling!! And consider also the possibility that by accepting that calling you may also be further called to accept the role of being that final martyr. Dear Lord, if it is me, let me face this calling with the same trust, faith and courage as that host of martyrs who have preceded me!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Wyoming:

Brother Al, Oh, my goodness! I just read Reflections #796 ("Proverb of a Moist Green Tree: Puzzling Prophetic Pronouncement of Jesus to Daughters of Jerusalem Prior to His Crucifixion"). The tremendous amount of time and effort you invested in unveiling the hidden treasure of this topic is astounding! Figuratively speaking, it is a wonderful omelet of composition! Well done, once again!! Further, your insights conveyed in your study titled "Casuistry in Christianity: Reflecting on a Methodology Often Used and Abused in Applied Ethics" (Reflections #795) have certainly been lingering in my thoughts with regard to our present dilemma with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some appear to be running ahead of God, in their response, with a militant faith, while others seem to be passively waiting on God with a steadfast faith: waiting for His enlightenment on how to respond. Blind faith, which denies evidence known and unknown by the medical and scientific experts, or patient faith, that waits upon the Lord for enlightenment in relation to His purposes and glory, are both evident among His people (see: Isaiah 40:29-31). Mixed messages (political and/or otherwise) plant seeds that sprout into doubts, conspiracies, mistrust and division. We have Christians yearning to fellowship in corporate worship in spite of warnings and potential dangers associated with doing so, and on the other side we have Christians who believe such to be unwise; fearing the potential negative impact this may have on those about them. Which of these persons and groups evidences the greater faith?! All this is most certainly something Satan uses in his scheme of things. These questions and doubts bring to my mind the story of Job, as well as the account of our Lord in the wilderness, with respect to the subtle suggestive details of both. Prayer is my friend more than ever during these trying times! Blessings, my friend. Proverbs 3:5-6.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Wow! You are da Man! I really enjoyed reading your article "Proverb of a Moist Green Tree." I doubt even your critics will object!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, I have been thinking again (which will either get me into trouble, or out of it). Here in my country we are entering a "Level 2" alert level next week, which will mean, hopefully, that we can have our Men's Breakfast again, as long as we use "social distancing." We have had 21 people pass away; so, generally, our government has done a masterful job. We have also had a drought, with water restrictions. On another note, I have been looking at 1 Peter 1:3 & 3:21 lately, and as I was thinking about that first statement by Peter I realized he said that it is only because of the mercy of God that we have a right and opportunity to be born again. In both of those verses Peter emphasizes that it is through the resurrection of Jesus that we have grounds for an appeal unto God for a good conscience. Consulting the Greek scholar and author Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009), I found it interesting that he noted the verb form of "eperotema" (which is "eperotao"), and he mentions six places where this occurs in the NT: Matthew 12:10; 17:10; 22:35; 27:11; Romans 10:20; 1 Corinthians 14:35. I have found this quite helpful in further understanding 1 Peter 3:21, as I have the articles which you also have published on the same. Thanks again, brother. God bless.

From an Elder in South Carolina:

Al, I recently had a conversation with ----- on Acts 20:7. He won't answer my thoughts on that text. Does he run from you when he can't answer? Later he came back and said that he won't "waste his time" on me or "Al Maxey." I'm honored that he put us both in the same sentence! Al, both you and your thoughts are a real encouragement to me. Thank you for being there for us all (plural of "y'all").

From a Reader in Canada:

Being consistent consistently is a consistent challenge! We agree that biblical baptism is immersion. The minister ministering in the medical facility (the "Reader from Florida" in the readers' section of your last Reflections) must make the most of a difficult situation. On the other hand, most of those who might be critical of this minister's decision might, at the same time, not consider it inconsistent to partake of the "Supper" in the morning with a snack-size piece of cracker and a sip/taste of fruit juice. Keep well, my brother. And during this pandemic consider: "six feet apart" sounds a whole lot better than "six feet under."

From an Author/Publisher in Nevada:

Your article "Proverb of a Moist Green Tree" is yet another fine study of an oft-misunderstood proverb. You have plainly laid out the meaning: if the people would betray their Messiah, the hope of their nation, during a time of relative peace, what horrors would await them as a nation later on? They are ready to be consumed like a heap of dry wood. Also, those first two letters (in the readers' responses) were powerful, as were your answers to them. These point to real life situations, especially the second one about the nursing home facility. Legalists have NO answer to such situations, except to repeat their unwavering dogma: "Be dunked or be damned." Thanks again for a very nice study.

From a Reader in Canada:

Greetings Al. The very ending of your last Reflections (the one on the proverb about a moist green tree) really hit home with me! Thank you for those motivating words! May all those who read these words you wrote be motivated to listen carefully to all the words Jehovah gave to His Son to give to us! Here again are your words that touched me so much: "Too often, when compared to the holiness of God and the righteousness of His Son, we find ourselves at best little more than dry, barren timbers, fit only for the fire. Yet, by the grace of our God and the willing sacrifice of Jesus (the green, moist, fruitful tree), we find that even barren, dry wood can be transformed by the power of the indwelling Spirit into blossoming, fruit-bearing branches. As Jesus walked that trail of tears to the place where He shed His blood, He nevertheless took a moment to share a powerful truth with a number of weeping women. He gave words of warning, but they were also, if properly perceived and applied, words of hope. I pray that many of those that day who heard Jesus 'got the message.' I pray the same for those who hear Him today!"

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