by Peter Leithart
The world has gone mad. Only yesterday everyone knew that marriage was “Molly and me and baby makes three.” Only yesterday there were only two boxes to tick in the sex category, and everyone knew which bathroom to use. Within the living memory of some Americans, the church was a respected institution and church leaders were trusted. Yesterday Ireland was so reliably Catholic that “Irish Catholic” was a redundancy.
The revolution we’re seeing isn’t as sudden as it seems, but the winds have shifted rapidly. And one of its effects is to put American Christians in the unfamiliar position of having to swim against the cultural current. Let the current carry you, and it will carry you far from anything resembling biblical orthodoxy. What were recently standard, simple, traditional statements of Christian faith and practice are now pilloried as dark, hateful, and bigoted.
Recent events have clarified the duty of martyrdom. The Greek word “martyr” means “witness.” It doesn’t necessarily refer to a believer who suffers for his witness. In this original sense, all Christians everywhere at all times are called to be martyrs. We have now entered a world where witness becomes costly, where one can be fined, lose a job, be marginalized as a hater for speaking and acting on Christian principle. Some already have, and there will be more.
In this context, the book of Revelation becomes directly relevant. It’s not relevant because John was prophesying about our times. He wasn’t. “The time is near” is a refrain at the beginning and end of the Apocalypse. The events John foresaw occurred many centuries ago. Yet the pattern of events in Revelation is repeated again and again in history, and today as in the first century, Revelation gives encouragement to martyrs. It is the Bible’s primary source for a theology of suffering witness.
It begins in Revelation 6. When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, John sees the souls of martyrs under the altar, crying out, like the blood of Abel, for vengeance. Their blood has been poured out, but God has done nothing to avenge or vindicate them. In response to their cries, they are given white robes, a pledge that they will one day join the white-robed hosts of heaven. Then, shockingly, they are told to wait: Instead of promising to avenge their blood immediately, the Lord tells them that more martyrs have to be made, more blood has to be shed. God won’t act until the sin of the Amorites is full.
Soon after (Revelation 7), John sees an angel with the seal of God, sealing the foreheads of 144,000 saints, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. As with Aaron, wearing the name of God on their forehead authorizes them to offer sacrifice. Like Jesus, the sacrifice they offer will be their own body and blood. They are sealed as both priest and sacrifice.
When we see the 144,000 again, they are standing on Mount Zion with the Lamb in their midst (Revelation 14). They are learning the new song of heaven, as they wait to be harvested as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. At the end of that chapter, angels gather them up to take them through the firmament, so they can stand with the heavenly choir playing harps and singing the song of Moses and the Lamb (Revelation 15). The promise of Revelation 6 is fulfilled. God has made good on the pledge of the white robe. He has overthrown the harlot who drank their blood, and has elevated the martyrs. Their blood shed at the base of the altar was the beginning of a sacrificial ascent.
That’s assurance enough: In exchange for a brief period of torture, faithful witnesses will ascend to heaven to stand as priests in the presence of the angels. Not a bad deal.
But the story of the martyrs isn’t finished. They’re central to the millennial vision of Revelation 20. Now they are not simply in heaven; they are not simply vindicated. Now they are enthroned, headless kings who reign with Christ for a thousand years, joined by all those who have a share in what Revelation calls the “first resurrection.”
I believe that the millennium is the present age of the church. It began after the fall of “Babylon,” a coded name for Jerusalem. The martyrs reign now, and we who witness faithfully reign with them as they reign with the Lamb.
Whether or not that’s correct, the point remains: Ultimately, the future doesn’t belong to the persecutors or to the power of the sword. The future (and, I think, the present) belong to the martyrs. Faithful, suffering witness is the path to dominion. Martyrs constitute the ultimate Adamic human race. The thrones of heaven are reserved for those who follow the Lamb wherever He goes, and do not love life even to death.
Whatever the appearances and however long it may take, in the end the world belongs not to the madmen but to the martyrs. That is assurance indeed.