The Martyr Trail
by Bill Lockwood
That the biblical book Revelation is set in the days of the first century and its symbols refer to contemporary events in John’s day is clearly attested by the book itself. Instead of clamoring for future fulfillment of the apocalyptic images, which requires more of a vivid imagination than sober exegesis, one would do well to heed the testimony of Scripture.
One solid line of evidence demonstrating that the entire message of Revelation was intended for a first century audience is to follow what Jay Adams (The Time is at Hand, Prophecy and the Book of Revelation, 49) called “The Martyr Trail” that runs throughout the Apocalypse. “Breathing threatening and slaughter” against the early church were the Jews (see the book of Acts) and later the Romans. “At bottom the book of Revelation is a message of encouragement and exhortation to the churches of Asia Minor in view of portending persecutions of great magnitude” (45). Consider the following flow of thought.
To the church at Smyrna John encourages: “I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty” (2:9); “Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer” (2:10). In 2:13, Antipas, the faithful witness who was killed for the faith, is mentioned when addressing the church at Pergamum. Chapter 6:9-11 gives a striking portrait of a martyr-band of “souls under the altar” who cry for vengeance upon those who murdered them on the earth. They were instructed that they were to “rest yet for a little time” (not thousands of years later) until their fellow-martyrs in persecution would be killed.
Moving to chapter 7:13-17 John sees a great multitude “that came out of the great tribulation” or persecution. The vengeance for which the martyrs had cried (6:9-11) was now ready to be meted out (10:6,7). “There shall be delay no longer” for the time of judgment has arrived which God had declared by His servants the prophets.
The two witnesses for God (11:3) who worked miracles (v. 6) were finally martyred and their dead bodies lie in the street of Jerusalem (v. 8). Finally, judgment was given in behalf of these saints against those “that destroy [or ‘ruining’] the land” (v. 18).
The promises of Revelation are bestowed upon the ones that overcome that first-century persecution. The “over-comer” is the “martyr.” From 12:11 one reads that “they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life even unto death.” This matches what John had written in 3:21. “He that overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in His throne.”
Martyrs are again mention in 13:7, 10 where saints are “overcome” and “killed with the sword.” John writes so that Christians might have “patience” [endurance] in these dark days (14:12). Some of them would “die in the Lord” for the faith (v. 13). A more dramatic picture cannot be drawn than that of 16:6. “They poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets,” speaking of the persecutors. So also 17:6 is colored bright red with the “blood of the saints” and “the blood of the martyrs” of Jesus. “And in her was found the flood of prophets and of saints and of all that have been slain upon the earth” (18:24).
The significance of the frequent reference to the martyrs in this trail through Revelation dates the predictions for the immediate future in John’s day. After all, John himself had been exiled at Patmos and writes to his “fellow-sufferers” as a “companion in tribulation.” The idea is “absurd” (Adams, 48) that John would write a letter to persons in such circumstances and ignore their difficulties while expounding on events that would not transpire for 20+ centuries.