Be Faithful Unto Death! The One Who is Slaughtered for Their Testimony

Series: Roles in Revelation 

by Todd Chipman January 26, 2024

Some of the roles John sets forth in Revelation lack appeal for modern readers, just as they would have for John’s live audience. As creatures, humans tend to avoid pain, not embrace roles that might lead to suffering. Let alone death. John exhibits pastoral concern in Revelation, compelling him to esteem those taking up the role of being slaughtered for Christ. The general hue of Revelation places believers in the cross-hairs of spiritual war, and in Rev 6:9, 18:24, and 20:4 John lauds those who have embraced the role of suffering for their faith even to the point of death. 

The Slaughtered Ones Heard in Heaven

Revelation can be seen as a protracted answer to the saints’s question John hears when the sixth seal is broken, “Lord, the one who is holy and true, how long until you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10, CSB). John notes that the ones crying out to God for justice are those who had been slaughtered because of God’s word and their testimony of Christ (Rev 6:9). The role of being slaughtered or martyred in Rev 6:9 and in Rev 18:24 expresses the highest degree of faithfulness to Christ. Beale states it clearly: “Since the symbol of identity for all Christians is the slain Lamb, they all also can be referred to by the same metaphor.” 

Two ideas in Rev 6:9 underscore the saints’ devotion to God as they cry out for justice. First, John’s grammatical choice of “those who had been slaughtered” portrays the violent means of the martyrs’ deaths as yet vivid and in full color. Even if their deaths were decades before, the effects and violent frame of those deaths cast a shadow extending to the very moment when they cry out for God to avenge their blood. The slaughter they endured was thus an antecedent action that placed the saints in the resulting state implied by the slaughtering event. To be slaughtered is to die violently with scars and visible effects that forever mark a person as having been slaughtered.

Further, the nearness and proximity of the violent death of the martyrs anticipates John’s description of why the saints were slaughtered. At the conclusion of Rev 6:9, John notes that the saints had been martyred because of their continuous, consistent testimony of Christ. Those who acted faithfully, even to the point of being slaughtered, did so after fulfilling the role of testifying to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The saints were not one-offs or kamikaze-like actors; instead, regularly as believers, they were holding fast in the role of witness.

Second, the slaughtered ones’ testimony was related to the word of God. God’s word and the testimony of the martyrs, in this context, must be understood not only as two sides of one coin but the latter as the expression of the former. The martyrs personally testified God’s word as revealed in Christ and they, not God’s word, shed blood for that testimony. God’s word guided their lives and was worth their lives.  

The Slaughtered Ones Rejected on Earth

John’s description of the fall of Babylon underscores God’s just wrath. In Rev 18:21–23, John employs a series of emphatic negations to note that the very characteristics for which Babylon was attractive would cease at the moment of God’s judgment. Everything earthly in her would be condemned. Why? Babylon is portrayed not only as the city of neon and glitz but blood and gore—of God’s people. “In her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all those slaughtered on the earth” (Rev 18:24). 

Just as in Rev 6:9, here in Rev 18:24 as well, the interpretation of the conjunction “and” plays a formative role in understanding the verse. Does it coordinate three separate groups of humanity or three labels/functional roles for one group of humanity? The flexibility of descriptors like saints, prophets, and slaves, with not only martyrdom but also general suffering in Revelation, portrays a broad spectrum of persecution that the single people of God have endured across the ages (à la Hebrews 11). Thus Rev 18:24 refers to one group, and God’s people, the saints are faithful in their prophetic calling, they fulfill the role of suffering for their testimony, sometimes unto death.

The Behaded Raised to Reign

We noted that in John’s vision of the fifth seal (Rev 6:9–11), the slaughtered ones suffered because of God’s word and their testimony. In Rev 20:4, John writes that the testimony of believers and God’s word are why believers are beheaded: “Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God.” On the spectrum of suffering, slaughter and beheading rank on the high extreme. And in Rev 6:9 and 20:4, those faithful in the role of suffering even unto death are rewarded, in the former with white robes and in the latter with thrones upon which they will rule and reign with Christ.

The Role of Martyr Without the Martyr Complex

Jesus called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). They knew what Jesus meant. Luke notes that when large crowds were traveling with Jesus, he told them that if they wanted to follow him, they would, comparatively speaking, have to hate their closest family members and even their own lives to be his disciples (Luke 14:25–27). Jesus does not call us to look for ways to suffer but to know that we will suffer for him. Disciples have an endurance mindset because of the value of knowing and being known of Jesus. John’s esteem for those who have been slaughtered and those who have been martyred reminds us that our faith is valuable.

¹ This is the fifth entry in a series of FTC blog posts noting how John uses a particular grammatical form, the articular substantival participle, for specific words in Revelation that resemble a playwright’s roles in a script.

² σφάζω in Rev 6:9; 18:24; πελεκίζω in Rev 20:4.

³ G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 28, 392.

Beale, Revelation, 391.

J. Scott Duvall writes, “These Christian martyrs suffered and died specifically because of their witness” (The Heart of Revelation [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016], 109).

Babylon will never be found again (v. 21), the sounds of musicians will never be heard again (v. 22a), craftsman will never be found again (v. 22b), the sound of a mill will never be heard again (v. 22c), lamp light will never be seen again (v. 23a), the voice of bride and bridegroom will never be found again (v. 23b).

Rev 11:18; 12:11; 16:6; 17:6; 19:2.

“Throughout Revelation, God’s people are not simply called to avoid evil and endure suffering, they are pictured as faithful witnesses and called to faithfully bear testimony to Jesus Christ, conquering by being faithful even to the point of death” (Andreas J. Köstenberger and Gregory Goswell, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach [Wheaton: Crossway, 2023], 681).

David E. Aune notes that in the ancient world, beheadings were a public affair signaled by a trumpet so that the crowd could observe the punishment for the crime (Revelation 17–22, vol. 52C of Word Biblical Commentary [Dallas: Word, 1998], 1086-87). 

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