One of the most important verses regarding the events of the “end times” is this one below. Much hinges on how it is interpreted. In this present post, I intend to correct a very common misinterpretation of it. Note the phrase in red.
Revelation 20:4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
Just who might these people have been, who were beheaded “for the testimony of Jesus”? The most popular and easy-to-understand answer would point to those who, after the Acts 2 Pentecost, were beheaded for preaching Jesus. Interestingly, the first of the New Testament martyrs is Stephen (Acts 7), but he could not be counted strictly under this verse, for he was stoned, and not beheaded. Continuing through Acts, therefore, we come to James in Acts 12. Even here, however, we are left with some uncertainty, for all we are told of James’ death is that he was killed “with the sword”. It is not certain that it was specifically by beheading. Moving forward, we find no more mentions of martyrs in Acts. Nor do the epistles have any mention of beheading. So while the idea could be a right one—that we’ll find the aforementioned beheaded martyrs in the years from Acts 2 forward, we have not one example of such in the texts.
Now, at this point, we could begin to question this word “beheaded”, to see whether it is reasonable and honest to take the word as a reference to anyone who was killed by hacking, stabbing, cutting, etc. In this case, James could be included, but still not Stephen.
Of course, the reason we’d go looking in the New Testament for these martyrs is that we have a general perception that people started testifying about Jesus when he started calling disciples and apostles—and not before. This idea, however, is bad one. Consider these passages:
John 12:37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.
Here the apostle John tells us that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about Jesus. And in the following passage, Matthew has more than one prophet in mind, having spoken of Jesus ahead of time:
Matthew 2:23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 26:56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
And here it is in Jesus’ own words:
Luke 18:31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.
Luke 24:25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!
And here is explains a great deal of material about himself, not only from the Law of Moses, but also from the writings of the prophets:
Luke 24:27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
In fact, theses were apparently not mere casual mentions of the coming Messiah in the writings of the prophets, for Jesus seems to have held these writings as something of a plan for his time on Earth:
Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
With this, he has opened up to us pretty much the entire list of writers from the entire Old Testament. How many of these were martyred for their roles in testifying about him ahead of time? And how many came to believe in Jesus as a result of this pre-testimony? Look what Philip said:
John 1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
So there’s enough evidence to rattle the idea that the only important “testimony of Jesus” occurred AFTER his bodily appearance on the Earth. But there’s more—and it should be compelling to you. Jesus seems to have had a strong focus—for some reason—on the murders of those who had prophesied before. Consider these passages:
Matthew 23:29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
Matthew 23:31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!
Luke 11:47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. [Note that all this killing is here being associated with the very generation in which the words were being spoken–and upon which the imminent judgment was coming.]
Why were all these martyrs so important to Jesus? Why such a focus on them? And why associate them in some way with that very generation, when most of those martyrdoms were brought about by previous generations?
Well, that brings us back to Revelation 20, doesn’t it? Judgment for those murders was imminent—and those who had been so murdered were about to be raised from the dead in the First Resurrection, along with all the other saints from Adam to Christ.
The fact of the matter is that the “testimony of Christ” had been going on for a very long time. It was not something that began in 30AD or so.