The Fifth SealThe Great Persecution
The Altar and Martyrs
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
A fter the first four Seals, which dealt with the secular condition of the Empire, the visions change and the fifth and sixth seals contain a “religious” aspect. As Rome begins to fall apart a new and important emperor, Diocletian, arises to reorganise the Empire. Diocletian, however, also brought about the last and greatest Imperial Roman persecution against the Christians, who were growing in strength. He and his fellow leaders sought to exterminate Christianity and the Bible once and for all. For ten years the Christians suffered under this attempt.
The Fifth Seal represents the last great persecution against Christianity by Imperial Rome.
Immediately here we are presented with a “spiritual” image – the altar, the word of God, and the testimony of the martyrs. While still dealing with happenings within the Empire, the focus has shifted to the church. The era this seal introduces is historically called “the Era of Martyrs”.
“How long?” This indicates that persecution has been going on for some time (though it was in fact intermittent), but the appearance of this seal at this time suggests a fresh or more severe aggravation. John saw the souls of them that were slain under the altar of sacrifice, and they cried out. Remembering that we are dealing with symbols here, the picture is similar to the statement of the Lord concerning Abel:
And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.
It is the testimony of the saints and their shed blood that “speaks” and “cries” for justice. The sacrificial blood was often poured at the foot of the altar. The vision of the souls represented their life-blood being shed for the Word of God.
Again remembering that we are dealing with a symbolic vision here, the white robes given to the martyrs may indicate some glory and recognition of righteousness actually given to them in history shortly after their era of martyrdom (as well as the later ultimate reward at Christ’s return). Such historical recognition or vindication did occur after the persecution represented here. There is also the indication here that after the time of persecution they were going through there would be yet another distinct era of martyrs in the future (after a “little season” of rest). These two eras of martyrs, this one and the future one, represent the persecutions under pagan Rome and later papal Rome.
The vision of the Fifth Seal is clearly, even on the surface, related to severe persecution of the church.
The emperor who particularly brought the period of civil war and strife to heel was Diocletian. His reign was of great importance. It saw the reorganisation of the Empire.
Gibbon writes: “Like Augustus, Diocletian may be considered as the founder of a new empire.”
He was also responsible for the last and greatest pagan Roman persecution against Christianity, until the revolution under Constantine.
Note the reference to the military anarchy and disastrous phase of the previous seals. Also note the appearance of the “religious” aspect of this seal in Diocletian’s reign.
Diocletian reorganised the empire into four parts, ruled over by two senior Augusti and two junior Caesars (represented in the four coins here, and in the reverse of the coin in the previous slide).
The edicts and the final persecution stood for ten years (AD 303 to AD 313). This period seems to relate well to the “Church of Smyrna” prophetic period of persecution of “ten days” spoken of earlier in Revelation.
8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
One prophetic day representing one year.