O Sovereign Lord, How Long? (Revelation 6.9–11)

Submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality all require patience: Patience with a corrupt government to reform, with the violent to act peaceably, with the poor to move from dependency to productivity, and with the sick to heal. The last two items are borne with comparative ease. The first two items? Not so much.

It is fascinating to me that after describing the devastation wrought on earth by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8), John turns again to a scene in the throne room of heaven (6:9-11). There, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are martyrs, in other words. (That this altar is a heavenly one rather than an earthly one may be ascertained by comparing 6.9 with 8.3, 5.)

What fascinates me is not the heavenly scene, but the cry of the martyrs: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” Until I read Revelation 6.9–11, I had always thought that those whose souls had entered heaven existed in a state of uninterrupted bliss. This is not the picture John presents. Rather, those souls cry out to God for justice in no uncertain terms. Indeed, the absolute certainty of their cries is unnerving. “Avenge our blood” is not a request uttered in polite company, after all. (Perhaps we would think otherwise if we had been martyred.) Whatever the particular terms used, we understand the martyrs’ request. Is it too much to ask God that right be done on earth?

What I have written above about submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality may have struck you as, well, a bit unjust. Why should we submit to corrupt politicians? Why should we strive to make peace when our enemies are making war? Because, quite frankly, God commands us to. And because we recognize that we live in between Christ’s first and second coming, when God offers grace to sinners like you, me, and our enemies. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise,” Peter writes, “as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9).

That reason is why, I think, the martyrs were “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” The white robe is a symbol of sins forgiven, of being justified by Christ before God. Just as they had been made right through God’s patience with them, so now the martyrs are asked to exercise patience toward others, even if that patience results in the martyrdom of other believers. Until Christ returns, God asks us to be witnesses through our words and with our lives.

Justice and patience. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew both in equal measure, rightly said that while the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. So, as we wait for God to do the right thing at the last, let us do what God is doing now, and patiently extend to sinners his gracious love.

Suffering: The Second Mark of the Ideal Church (Revelation 2:8-11)

The first mark of the church is love. The second is suffering.

Please do not misunderstand me. Christians are not masochists. We do not fetishize suffering or go looking for martyrdom. But if two thousand years of Christian history are a reliable guide, martyrdom may come looking for us.

I freely concede that persecution and martyrdom are far from the minds of most American Christians. For all the religiously conservative complaints about secular humanist domination of the media, the fact is that Americans have near-total freedom to practice, publicize, and proselytize for their respective faiths—or non-faiths, as the case may be. No one, to my knowledge, rots in an American jail because he or she is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or atheist.

The same freedom of religion does not obtain for many Christians around the world. Nina Shea marks the disparity with these words:

Millions of American Christians pray in their churches each week, oblivious to the fact that Christians in many parts of the world suffer brutal torture, arrest, imprisonment, and even death—their homes and communities laid waste—for no other reason than that they are Christians. The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died this century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ. [Think about that!] They have been persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world and a largely silent Christian community. And as their suffering intensifies, our silence becomes more stark.[i]

John’s Apocalypse is not silent about the persecution of believers. Rather, for John, Jesus is a martyred Christ and his followers form a martyr’s church. Revelation 1:5 and 3:14 describe Jesus as “the faithful witness.” (“Witness” translates the Greek word martys, from which we get the English word martyr.) Antipas, the Pergameme martyr mentioned in 2:13 is also a “faithful witness.” We share Christ’s title, it seems, when we share his fate—the cross.

These days, we ask ourselves. “What would Jesus do?” But as John Howard Yoder points out, “there is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament.” He goes on to argue, “There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds…. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus—and only thus—are we bound by New Testament thought to ‘be like Jesus.’”[ii]

Like Jesus, the church at Smyrna faced persecution and death (Rev. 2:8–11). And like Jesus, the Smyrnans were promised “the crown of life” for enduring those horrible realities (verse 10; cf. Heb. 12:1–2). Although they did not seek suffering, they were willing to endure it for Christ’s sake.

Why? Because of love. John thus correlates love and suffering as the church’s first two marks. Indeed, they are inseparable, for as John Stott notes, “A willingness to suffer for Christ proves the genuineness of our love for him.”[iii]


[i] Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den: A Shocking Account of Perseuction and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 1; emphasis added.

[ii] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 130, 131.

[iii] Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 178.

Review of ‘Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians’ by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea

persecuted Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013). $16.99, 368 pages.

Saeed Abedini is a Christian minister currently imprisoned for his faith in Iran. A native of that country, Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity in 2000 and became a leader in Iran’s house-church movement. In 2005, he moved to America with his wife, Naghmeh, and became a naturalized citizen here as well. In the summer of 2012, he returned to Iran to visit his family and to build an orphanage in the city of Rasht. He was arrested and indicted on unspecified national security violations. On January 27, 2013, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for his house-church activities and for evangelizing Muslims. The American Center for Law and Justice represents Naghmeh Abedini and has started the #SaveSaeed campaign to bring attention to his plight and secure his release.

Though not mentioned by the authors of Persecuted, because his case arose while the book was in production, Saeed Abedini is yet another individual example of their thesis: “Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today” (p. 4). Instead of compiling statistics on this problem, the authors of Persecuted document the stories of individuals and communities who, like Saeed Abedini, are suffering because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea are veteran advocates of religious freedom. All are affiliated with the Hudson Institute, and Shea directs that think tank’s Center for Religious Freedom. Each has written extensively on the topics of religious freedom and Christian persecution. Marshall and Shea co-authored Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (2011). Marshall edited Religious Freedom in the World (2007). And in 1997, Marshall and Gilbert published Their Blood Cries Out, while Shea published In the Lion’s Den.

The authors outline four causes of Christian persecution in successive chapters:

  1. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on countries where persecution arises from “the hunger for total political control, exhibited by Communist and post-Communist regimes.”
  2. Chapter 4 focuses on countries where persecution arises from “the desires by some to preserve Hindu or Buddhist privilege, as is evident in South Asia.”
  3. Chapters 5–8 focus on “radical Islam’s urge for religious dominance, which at present is generating an expanding global crisis” (p. 9). Abedini’s case illustrates the tenuous situation of Christians in many Muslim-majority countries. According to the authors, “The most widespread persecution of Christians today takes place in the Muslim world, and it is spreading and intensifying” (p. 123). In some countries, notably Iraq, centuries-old Christian communities are dwindling because of the persecution.
  4. And chapter 9 focuses on “national security states such as Burma and Eritrea” where “the military has sought to preserve its rule by any means necessary” (p. 13).

Chapter 10, “A Call to Action,” outlines a strategy of information, prayer, and political action for religious-freedom advocates.

Though persecution of Christians is the most widespread violation of religious freedom, the authors are careful to note that other religious groups suffer persecution too. Therefore, advocacy for the religious freedom of Christians must be advocacy of religious freedom for all. “Defending persecuted Christians and expanding religious freedom will also help other persecuted religious groups and minorities. Mandaeans and Yezidis in Iraq, Baha’is and Jews in Iran, Ahmadis and Hindus in Pakistan, Falun Gong in China, Buddhists in Vietnam, animists in Sudan, Shiites in Saudi Arabia, and Muslims in Burma all suffer imprisonment, exile, torture, and death at the hands of those who oppress Christians” (p. 291).

Persecuted is a well-documented book on the persecution of Christians worldwide. I highly recommend it to any person interested in promoting the “First Freedom,” that is, religious liberty. Because nations that don’t respect freedom of religion generally don’t respect other human rights or civil liberties either, raising consciousness about this violation has the salutary effect of raising consciousness about those violations too. Religious liberty is the “First Freedom,” but anyone concerned about it will be ineluctably drawn to concern about second, third, and fourth freedoms as well.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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