Revelation 7:1-17 Part 9


1)    After this I saw four messengers having stood upon the four corners of the earth restraining the four winds of the earth in order that the wind might not blow upon the earth or upon the sea or upon any tree.

2)    And I saw another messenger going up from dayspring having the  Living God’s seal.  And he did cry out in a great voice to the four messengers to whom it was given to injure the earth and the sea, saying

3)    ‘you may not injure the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.

4)    And I did hear the number of the ones who have been sealed, one hundred and forty-four Thousand have been sealed from all the tribes of the sons of Israel:

5)    from the tribe of Judah twelve Thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve Thousand,

6)    from the tribe of Asher twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve Thousand,

7)    from the tribe of Simeon twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve Thousand,

8)    from the tribe of Zebulun twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve Thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve Thousand were sealed.

9)    After this I looked and, Lo!  a great crowd which no one was able to number out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, having stood before the throne and before the Lamb, having been arrayed in white garments and palms in their hands,

10) and crying out with a great voice, saying ‘The Salvation to our God, To Him Who sits on the throne and the Lamb!’

11) And all the messengers had remained steadfast round the throne, and the elders and four living creatures fell on their faces before the throne, and they did worship God,

12) saying ‘The praise and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the might to our God to the ages of ages.  Amen.’

13) And one of the elders uttered, saying to me ‘Who are these who have been arrayed in white garments?  And whence did they come?’

14) And I addressed him: ‘My lord, you have known!’  And he said to me, ‘These are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation.  And they did wash their garments and make them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

15) Because of this are they before the throne of God.  And ‘they do service to Him day and night in His sanctuary’ And ‘the One Who sits on the throne shall tabernacle over them.’

16) ‘They shall no more hunger, nor shall they thirst any more, nor shall the sun fall down upon them, nor any burning heat.’

17) ‘For that Lamb in midst of the throne shall feed them, and He shall lead them upon springs of living water, and God shall wipe away every tear out of their eyes.’


I’m constrained, textually and by implication, to spend (at least) one Lord’s Day in an “overview” of the persecution of Christ’s Church during the immediate period following our Lord’s Parousia.

Hopefully (even with the brevity with which we have to approach it), it will stimulate you to consider it more carefully from time to time.  It is truly an astonishing, fascinating time in the history of the Church.  And hardly anyone ever pays it any attention.

And as I considered how necessary it was to do this and the way I wanted to do it, I was reminded of the music of Modest Moussorgsky, a Russian composer of the mid-nineteenth century.  His “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a piano “cycle” with vivid “tone-pictures” of Russian society and culture, is brilliant.  Your appreciation for music would be enhanced should you listen.

Equally so, should you become aware of “Pictures at a (Biblical) Exhibition”, your Christian life would be further filled.  For the exhibition of “life” in the early Church, i.e. living by God’s Word during the first two hundred and thirty years of Church history, would serve to sanctify your walk with Christ.  And we have “some” pictures (exhibitions), in the literature, of the lives of some of Christ’s people under the caesars of Rome – most of whom hated Christians and Jews, many of whom were “both”!

Much of the history of the time is somewhat shrouded since from time to time (actually most of the time) the Church had to cloak its activities for long periods in order to avoid the persecution.  But we do have these intermittent “pictures” of the triumphant Church of Christ that we’re going to look at (although very briefly).

There is a distinct “disconnect” right now between the “belief system” that many professing Christians hold and how they act.  And in many cases there’s just not much to commend the profession.

But for all the reasons we could come up with, some of which we mentioned last Lord’s Day, there is an abstract disengagement from righteous living, in favor of current trends in culture and society.  People just aren’t living what they profess to believe.  To them the present cultural mores and lifestyle all around them is the “real”; and life in Christ is “abstracted” or unreal, or hypothetical.

But that was not the case for the Church in the Roman empire.  One became a Christian at his own peril!  And “life” in Christ was very authentic!

And we have some “pictures at a (Biblical) exhibition” of life in Christ that, should they be known, would serve to cause (what is thought to be in our time) the “abstract” to become very concrete.

And what I’m talking about, of course, is the pictures, the snapshots, the word paintings of two hundred years of unimaginable persecution of the Christian Church, and the unabashed “exhibition” of Christianity in the midst of it all; and it’s enough to make us blush with shame.  For we have not yet suffered in Christ, with Christ, and for the sake of Christ.

And what we’re about to hear, although not the inspired Word of God, is all relevant to these last verses of our text, as I think you’ll see; so we aren’t going off on a tangent too far, nor too long, from our mission.

The tribes and tongues and peoples of the known world, at the time of the writing of this letter to the Churches, were all under the jurisdiction of Rome’s emperor.  And that would continue for another four hundred years or so – two and a half centuries of which can only be characterized as “extreme” in its treatment of the Church.

Rome’s government of the nations of the world was carried out mostly by local governors and with the support of military personnel, most of whom were locally “conscripted” by Rome.  And as long as the people paid their taxes to the emperor and gave proper honor and worship to him and whatever idols were “acceptable” to Rome, then they were left pretty much alone.

Not so the Church of Jesus Christ.  Although Christians were good “citizens” of the empire, they would not worship the emperor; they would not “hail” him as divine; and they would not sacrifice to him.  And they would not honor and sacrifice to the idols acceptable to Rome.  Most of the emperors were infuriated by that; and the local governors, held to account by Rome, carried out a relentless persecution everywhere in the empire.  It was all demon-infested and pagan.

The Church, initially lead by leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel (rescued before the abomination of desolation), was mostly of Jewish descent (i.e. the elect, lost sheep of the tribes of Israel); but the Church spread quickly, nonetheless, as Holy Spirit moved mightily among the Gentiles through their word. 

And during short periods of time when persecution was somewhat “lighter”, Christians quickly gained prominence in business and in public discourse and local government.  In other words, they powerfully addressed the culture, politics, economy, education… all this in the midst of teaching the Gospel, establishing the Church (however secretly), and receiving many new converts.  And then the intense persecution would begin again.

So, rather than viewing the Church as a blessing, and as a positive impetus to the well-being of these heathen tribes and nations, it was seen as a threat to the sovereignty and divinity of the emperor, and a menace to the well-being of the establishment.

Most of the Roman emperors believed that they were the theophanic representation of the gods on earth, and that they were the mediators between the people and the gods.  So whenever there was some kind of disaster among the people (floods, plagues, earthquakes, droughts – or defeats in battle, etc) they would blame the Christians for upsetting the gods.  And the gods and the emperors would be appeased and pacified once again by the shedding of Jewish/Christian blood.

Now.  Rather than giving you a chronological list of dates and places and events (which are difficult to conceive and hold as information), I’m just going to provide very brief “snapshots” of the Church under pagan emperors and pagan governors.

And please grasp this and remember it… that the peoples and tribes and tongues of the world knew nothing of Jesus Christ before Pentecost 30AD when a “few” newborn Christians went back to their countries and cities with a new heritage in Christ.  All of the peoples of the earth had all been left completely under the influence of Satan and his minions, so everything was hopelessly pagan.

And the Church was established right in the middle of all of that – driving back the gates of hell little by little!  And by 313AD the empire was declared Christian!  And by 470AD the fourth great empire of the earth was effectively dissolved (as prophesied in Daniel), leaving Jesus Christ as the only reigning Monarch of the whole earth.  And every pagan competitor to His worldwide Kingdom since then has been utterly destroyed or markedly limited.

His is the fifth great Kingdom; and He will rule it until every nation, tongue and people and tribe bows the knee to Him – all to the glory of God.  That is the great anticipation of Scripture.  And the lack of that anticipation in the Churches to which John sent this Revelation is the source of much of the contention in the seven letters from Jesus to the Churches in chapters two and three.  Our Lord chastened those Churches for their carelessness and their lack of hope and anticipation in His ultimate victory!

And the same is true right now in most evangelical Churches… for there seems to be no anticipation of the full victory of the Christ!  And that’s very sad, for therein is the present-day absence of the vitality that was, indeed, present in the early Church.

That said, let’s look at a few very brief portrayals, or glimpses, of life in the nations for our Christian forefathers.  These are what I earlier called “pictures at a (Biblical) exhibition”.

The first one (and I’m going to leave that period around-and- after 70AD for later development), the first one has to do with Trajan, emperor of the Roman empire from about 98AD to 117AD.  He was vicious… and no friend of Christianity.

While personally visiting and inspecting certain areas of his empire, in 116AD he came to Antioch, a large city and a major regional headquarters of Roman governance.  We know, from the Acts of the Apostles, that Antioch was the first place in the world where Christ’s people were called Christians.  And it was the location from whence the apostles were first sent into the nations.

Trajan was very aware that Christians were all over his empire, and that they held one God to be sovereign.  And he, like other emperors before him, suspected traitorous activity in their secret meetings.

Having heard about Ignatious, presbyter and pastor of Antioch, and one of the most beloved pastors among all the Christians, Trajan had him located and brought before him.  After hearing Ignatious’ denial that he was subversive and seditious, Trajan had him placed in chains (Ignatious was then seventy or eighty years old) and then sent him to Rome, to be fed to wild animals in the newly built coliseum.  All this to be a warning to all others calling themselves “Christian”.

The word spread through all of Christendom, and Christians all along the way secretly met the Roman guard transporting the beloved pastor, just to see him and pray for him.  And they heard him praising God for allowing him to suffer in the Name of Christ.  And the whole Church in the nations was lifted and stirred and energized because of him.

The “games” in the coliseum were on when Ignatious arrived with his guard.  And he was immediately inserted into the arena (which was attended secretly by a number of Roman Christians).  And their witness was that he stood bravely and undaunted when the animals killed and ate him.

I had to sit down in the ruins of the coliseum and contemplate these things for a little while when Flo and I visited several years ago.  The cages for the starved animals, and their ingenious elevators up to the floor of the arena, are still there.  That arena would have seated maybe fifty thousand people.  It was being built during the time when Titus was laying final siege to Jerusalem in 69 – 70AD.  And just as one can recall a beautiful piece of music in his head, it wasn’t hard to imagine fifty thousand people roaring their approval as a Christian pastor was torn apart by wild animals.

The following twenty years (after emperor Trajan) were just a little bit better for Christians.  But they still had to be secretive as to the existence of the Church, for fear of being discovered.  The regional and local governors were merciless with regard to them, persecuting and killing them for most any contrived reason.

Because Christians didn’t have any idols, and because they didn’t sacrifice animals, they were thought to be “godless”, and that they were thought to be meeting together secretly to do ghastly things, and to plot against the government.

And because they were not always aggressively pursued (and therefore allowed to live when they shouldn’t be), and because they refused to worship the gods (making the gods angry), terrible things were said to have happened in the empire.

But there was a young man from Samaria who was very bright, and who had studied the Greek philosophers all his life.  His name was Justin.  As he was walking on the seashore one day, a well-known wise man in the way of philosophy, a very old man approached him and began speaking to him of “wisdom” (exactly what the term “philosophy” means – the love of wisdom).

He spoke to Justin about the wisdom of God in the Scripture.  The old man told him that it was of no use to search after wisdom in the books of the philosophers, and certainly not in the idols; and he went on to speak of God the Maker of all things, of the prophecies which He had given to men in the time of the older Scripture, and how they had been filled up in the life and death of Jesus the Christ – personification of Wisdom.

Thus Justin was brought to the knowledge of the Gospel; and the more he learned of it, the more he was convinced of its truth, as he came to know how pure and holy its wisdom and its doctrines were; and as he saw the love which Christians bore towards each other, and the patience and firmness with which they endured sufferings and death for their Master's sake.

And that one old man, speaking the Truth from the Scripture to one younger man, was the connection through which Word and Spirit incited and inflamed the Church throughout much of the empire.  (As we mentioned on the radio show Thursday afternoon, “things happen when we speak God’s Word and do what is right and true and good”.)

And then, although he still called himself a philosopher, and wore the long cloak which was the common dress of philosophers, the wisdom which Justin taught was not heathen but Christian wisdom. He lived mostly at Rome, where scholars flocked to him in great numbers. And he wrote books in defense of the Gospel against heathen, judaists, heretics, and false Christians.

Now, the great success which Justin had as a teacher at Rome had raised the envy and malice of the heathen Greek philosophers.  And when caesar Marcus Aurelius came to power in 161AD, renewed fierce antagonism against the Christians began again.  And the philosophers charged that Justin should be carried before a judge for being a Christian.

The judge questioned him as to his belief, and as to the secret meetings of the Christians; to which Justin answered that he believed in one God and in the Saviour Christ, the Son of God; but he refused to say anything to the judge and to his persecutors which could betray his brothers.

The judge then threatened him with scourging and death: but Justin replied that the sufferings of this world were nothing to the glory which Christ had promised to His people. Then he and all the others who had been brought up for trial with him on the same charge were asked whether they would offer sacrifice to the gods.  And since they refused to do it and forsake the faith, they were all beheaded (AD 166). And on account of the death which he thus suffered for the Gospel, Justin has ever since been called Justin "Martyr."

At about that same time, under the dreadful persecution of caesar Marcus Aurelius, there was a much beloved presbyter in Smyrna (a place where we’ve also been)… a very old man named Polycarp.  There was terrible persecution of believers there, and they were all in hiding; and the heathen rose up and demanded the death of this one “Polycarp”, the ninety year old elder of this secretive group that refused to worship caesar and the gods.

Soldiers began looking for him, and he was discovered in his hiding-place, and when he saw the soldiers who were come to seize him, he calmly said, "God's will be done!" He requested that some food should be given to the soldiers, and while they were eating, he spent the time in prayer. He was then set on an ass, and led towards Smyrna; and, when he was near the town, one of the heathen magistrates came by in his chariot, and took him up into it. The magistrate tried to persuade Polycarp to sacrifice to the gods; but finding that he couldn’t do anything with him, he pushed him out of the chariot.  Polycarp was beat up pretty badly and his leg was broken; but he bore the pain without showing how much he was hurt. 

And the soldiers led him into the amphitheatre there in Smyrna where great numbers of people were gathered together in anticipation of his arrival.  And when all these people saw him, they set up loud cries of rage and savage delight. The governor of the region was there, and he urged Polycarp to deny Christ and sacrifice to the gods; and said that, if he would, his life would be spared. But the faithful presbyter of Smyrna answered "fourscore and six years have I served Christ; how can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?”

The governor threatened him viciously as Polycarp still showed no fear; and he said that he would burn Polycarp alive. But the old presbyter said "You threaten me with a fire which lasts but a short time; but you know not of that eternal fire which is prepared for the wicked."

A stake was then set up, and a pile of wood was collected around it. Polycarp walked to the place with a calm and cheerful look, and, as the executioners were fastening him to the stake, he uttered thanksgiving for being allowed to suffer after the pattern of his Lord and Saviour. When his prayer was ended, the wood was set on fire; he was thrust through with a sword and burned.  And many others in Smyrna followed him to their deaths.

At that same time, according to the record, there were hundreds in the south of Gaul (France), suspected of being Christians, who were dragged from their houses and tortured unmercifully and fed to the dogs so their bodies couldn’t be buried.  You see, the pagans had heard that Christians believed in a resurrection.  So they figured that if the dogs ate them… (you can fill in the rest).

The history also includes, about that time, a gathering-up of suspected Christians in Carthage (a city in north Africa – now in Tunisia) who were put on trial and required to deny their religion and sacrifice to the gods.  None would do so, so they were imprisoned until the day of celebration of the birthday of the son of emperor Severus.  At the celebration, all of the men were put into the arena with starved wild beasts.  And after that was over, the women were made to stand in the arena with bulls, which gored them and trampled them… all to the delight of the pagan celebrants.  And those left alive were dispatched by sword.

After emperor Severus, at the end of the second century and the first half of the third, there came the most severe of all the persecutions of the Christian Church after 70AD.  Emperor Maximin and emperor Decius were totally incensed by the very existence of Christianity.

And it was during their brutal and savage reigns over the Roman empire that the Church just “exploded” through all the tribes and tongues and peoples of the world!

And the names of two men who lived through this persecution keep coming up in the history of the time.  Two, neither of which were perfect men by any means, but whose faith and teaching of the Gospel are held in the memory of the Church.  And whose writings (what’s left of them) are referred to in the sermons and writings of later elders and presbyters.  They are, with others of course, named as post-apostolic fathers of the Church.  Their names are Origen and Cyprian.

Origen was reared in the secrecy of the Church of north Africa by his presbyter/father Leonides, who was tortured and killed when Origen was seventeen, and the property owned by his father was confiscated, leaving the wife and seven children without anything.

But the boy had been reared from birth hearing the preaching of his father, and memorizing Scripture.  And he became a famous teacher of the Gospel, traveling to many places at the behest of groups wanting to hear this good news.

Finally ordained to the ministry by a presbyter in Caesarea, he became even more popular than before – teaching in many places and writing books for the Church – and hiding most of the time from terrible persecution under caesar Maximin and caesar Decius.

As I said, the persecution under emperor Decius was by far the worst that had yet been known since Jesus’ Parousia. It was the first which was carried on simultaneously throughout the whole empire, and no regard was paid to mercy or to the old law regarding Roman citizens.  Christians were sought out, and were made to appear in the market-place of every town, where they were required by the magistrates to sacrifice, and if they refused, were sentenced to severe punishment or death. 

The emperor wished most to get at the presbyters and clergy; for he thought that, if the teachers were put out of the way, the people would soon give up this Gospel nonsense, and the empire would be freed from the Christian “scourge”.

 Although many were put to death at this time, the persecutors didn’t so much wish to kill the Christians, as to make them disown their religion and sacrifice to the gods; and many of them were starved and tortured to make them recant.  And numbers of them were sent into banishment in strange places among small, primitive and uncivilized tribes who had never before heard of Christ.  But here the emperor's plans were notably disappointed, for the banished presbyters and clergy then had an opportunity of taking the Gospel to people who it might not have been reached for a very long time if the Church had been left at rest.

Origen, one of the great teachers and preachers of the Gospel during this most severe of the persecutions, was found and imprisoned and tortured so badly that, at about seventy years of age, he died of all his wounds, having never denied the Christ.

But we can now see with some clarity that the intense persecutions of the Church by Roman emperors lit the fires of adoration and steadfastness in our Lord’s Church, purifying it and rousing it out of any carelessness and satisfaction with itself; and those persecutions also sent preachers and teachers of the Gospel into barbarous and untamed areas of the world to establish Christ’s Church among the tongues and tribes of the earth.

Cyprian, who became chief presbyter at Carthage at the age of forty-five, is to be considered one of the early Church’s most revered pastors.  Having been born at the beginning of the third century (AD200), he was a heathen teacher until age forty-five when our Lord found him.  And he quickly became so loved among the Christian community that he became presbyter and pastor at Carthage in 248AD.

But the merciless persecution under emperor Decius drove Cyprian into hiding; and some in his Church then fell into deep sin during those torturous times.  And when the heavy hand of Decius was ended due to his being killed in battle, Cyprian returned to a very troubled Church.

And it was at this time that a very important ecclesiastical issue was addressed and settled (and this is one of the many reasons that Cyprian is so revered as a post-apostolic father).

You see, since Rome was the city of the empire, it was the place where everything was started and ended!  It was the location in all the empire where all major decisions were made.  It was the place in which the “biggest” and the “best” resided.

And there were many Christians in Rome (most in hiding and worshipping in catacombs and other places).  Many were Jews; but there were also numerous pagan Gentile converts by this time.  And the presbyter/pastor of the largest group of believers, one named Steven, was of the opinion that the Church at Rome (the capitol city of the empire) should have the greatest influence over decisions made for the “lesser” Churches.  And he wished to have final say over the troubles in the Church at Carthage.

But Cyprian held out against him, and made him and others understand that the pastor/presbyter of Rome had no right to give laws to other presbyters, or to meddle with the churches of other countries in the empire. He showed that, although St. Peter (from whom Stephen pretended that the bishops of Rome had received power over others) was the first of the Apostles, he was not of a higher class or order than the rest; and, therefore, the other presbyters were the ecclesiastical equals of those in Rome, and had received an equal share in the Christian ministry. So Stephen was not able to get the power which he wished for over all the other churches.

Sadly, that decision did not hold; but it was Cyprian who stood strong against a highly centralized Church in which one “bishop” was of a higher “rank” than all others.

Soon after Cyprian was returned to his Church in Carthage a new emperor rose to power; and he required that all Christian clergy in the empire be killed.  Cyprian was captured, tried and beheaded in 258AD.

But it was far too late for caesar Valerian to stop what the Spirit of Christ had begun.  “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.”

There was one last great persecution, under emperor Diocletian, that required that all Christian buildings were to be destroyed; and that all their “holy books” were to be found and burned; and that all Christian people in the empire were to be required to sacrifice.

And during that ten-year-long, empire-wide persecution, some who would not sacrifice were thrown to wild beasts; some were burned alive, or roasted on hot irons; some had their skins pulled off, or their flesh scraped from their bones; some were crucified; some were tied to branches of trees, which had been bent together, and then they were torn to pieces when the ropes were cut.  All of this is in the history.

Thousands of them perished by one horrible death or another, so that the pagans themselves grew tired and disgusted with inflicting pain or watching them suffer; and at length, instead of putting them to death, they just sent them to work in mines or whatever common labor would benefit the local governors.

As I said, this was the last period of great persecution by the Roman empire.  Then came Constantine… at a time after which the Church had been ignited by the blood of these martyrs, and into a time when the Church had already been thrust into tribes and tongues in every part of the known world.  Constantine, in 313AD, published laws that all Christians were thereafter free to worship God according to their conscience.

And it wasn’t long after (seventeen years) that three hundred and eighteen presbyters from every nation traveled to Nicea to publicly convene a general assembly of the Church of Jesus Christ.

We’ll stop here, and we’ll pick up next Lord’s Day with the remainder of the text of Revelation seven.