This Week, Monday 4 August 2014, was the commemoration of 37 million casualties! – the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history according to Wikipedia. Intended to be the war to end all wars 21 years on began World War II with estimated casualties of over 60 million, which represented 2,5% of the world population. With many regional wars since World War II the dream of World Peace is still elusive.
I am reminded of George Bush and Tony Blair’s ambition to pursue a ‘New World Order’. It doesn’t seem to have worked out. We have coined terms like 9/11 and 7/7, symbol terms for the beginning of a new era of terror that has come to our world.
More recent we have had the Gulf wars and the Afghanistan war and Libya. As in Borneo with the murder of two British medical students this week, Britain too has its knife crime and gun crimes that bring heartache and pain to the bereaved families and communities affected. But for most people, life must carry on, until the next atrocity against humanity.
We have been shocked by the images from the current Gaza-Israeli war, and what has been happening in Eastern Ukraine. In his speech this week before national leaders in Belgium on the legacy of World War I, Prince William suggested that the Ukraine conflict was not just a localized war, but a threat to the whole of Europe. Said Prince William, “The events in Ukraine testify to the fact that instability continues to stalk our continent.”
We see no respite from the evil our world seems so ready to entertain. What hope is there for our hurting world? And, where do Christians end up in all this? Like everyone else, they suffer from the consequence of conflicts and war. The wars that had the intention of bringing democracy to both Iraq and Afghanistan has left extreme tribal factions fighting each other with Christians having the option of either becoming Moslems, – or be killed.
The removal of a tyrant leader leaves a vacuum to be filled by others even more tyrannical than the original tyrant! The removal of Colonel Gadaffi in Libya has left competing militias who vie for control of their country, tearing their country apart, while Christians are forced to flee the country. The same in Syria and Egypt. Lebanon is now host to the many Christians that have fled the oppressive Middle Eastern countries.
The recent saga over Meriam Ibrahim brought to light what Christians have to cope with in Sudan. Giving birth to her second child in prison while in chains, she was condemned to 100 lashes before death by hanging. For fellow Christians around the world and those agencies working for her release from prison it was a delight to see their hopes, efforts and prayers realized. She and her family are now safe in America.
The Islamic gorilla group, Boco Haram in Nigeria wants to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. The group seems free to go on its pillaging and killing sprees at will. Capturing Christian schoolgirls seems just part of its power game with President Goodluck Jonathan. “Boko Haram, . . . has attacked Nigeria’s police and military, rival clerics, politicians, schools, religious buildings, public institutions, and civilians with increasing regularity since 2009.”
Christians in these lands, who will not submit to Islam and its theology and culture, suffer oppressions of which we in the West have no experience since the Dark Ages. Last month in an emotional address in the House of Lords, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said, there is “an upsurge in religious persecution that threatens to drag humanity ‘back to the dark ages’. He said attempts to wipe out Christianity in parts of the Middle East and the murder of followers across much of Sub-Sahara Africa and Asia amount to the ‘religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.’” But he said these “purges were echoed by recent mob attacks on Jews in France and other parts of Europe, Islamist violence against other Muslims and the persecution of the Bahai in Iran as part of a new tribalism which had taken hold in the wake of the Cold War.”
The question in Revelation 6:9-10 seems so pertinent for a world that has supposedly come of age, ‘How long is this to go on for?’
This question being asked in Revelation 6:9, 10 is particularly about those “who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” The Apostle John records, “When he opened the 5th seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain, because of the Word of God, and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'” (NIV).
How long must such crime and outrage continue? It is nothing new! In the Apostle day Christians were persecuted and killed for being a follower of Jesus Christ. It was so in what we refer to Dark Ages when so many died for their Christian faith. In our world today, Christians face hardship, and even death for their convictions. In his visions, John was not just witness to his own local situation, but to the persecution and evils down through history. And so the cry in verse 10, “How long?” It is a loud cry for vindication. And many people must be making that cry today. How long must evil reign before good will come?
What is not appreciated by many – is the presence of the evil forces in this world as well as the good. Satan and his angels are like al-Qaeda, you can’t see them but they are everywhere! They have been battling with God through humankind all down through history. Two thousand years ago the Great Peace-Maker Himself was cruelly crucified on a cross. And God’s people down through history have been asking, How long will the evil one keep getting away with it?
Verse 10 calls for vengeance, “Avenge our blood,” is the cry of the saints – of all ages. That seems to be an unusual reaction for Christians, doesn’t it? Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” And Jesus practised His own teaching on the cross when He uttered that cry, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” So the idea of “avenge our blood,” seems completely contrary to the spirit of Jesus. But that is not the sense of this passage if we look at it closely.
First of all John does not see literal souls in heaven crying out “How Long?” He does not see literal souls who have been slain confined under a literal altar crying out for vengeance. There is no altar of sacrifice in heaven, just as there are no horses of different colours in heaven (Revelation 6:1-8). We read in Genesis 4:8-10 where Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for an explanation and for judgment. Here in Revelation 6 John is saying that the spilt blood of the ages is crying out to God.
If, as Revelation 6:10 tells us, “God is the Sovereign Lord, Holy and true,” how can He allow the brutal crimes of the ages to continue? It was that what Habakkuk asked God when he foresaw the invasion of the Babylonian armies and what they would do to Jerusalem and its people (Habakkuk 1:2-4). And isn’t it that what is being asked in the many places around the world where evil seems to hold sway? How many more brutal crimes affecting humanity does there have to be before God brings it to a halt?
We read that question “How Long” in Daniel 8:13. “How long” will it be that everything that God stands for will be trodden underfoot? When is God going to make the world accountable for the continuing presence of evil? While we commemorate the centenary of World War I we are still making and selling arms to nations that will use them for aggressive purposes.
One of the perplexities about the existence of God is the co-existence of sin, evil, suffering and death. How can a good God exist alongside evil and suffering? But here is where we find part of the answer, if not all. The cruel death of Jesus on a cross 2000 years ago indicates that if there could have been another way of ridding the world of sin, evil and death, God would have found it! The problem of sin is not something local or parochial, it is a cosmic problem, as the Bible reveals and is the explanation for Jesus’ mission to this earth and his death on a cross.
But Jesus won his victory over sin and death on the cross, and has given that victory to us. We are promised that life is not always to go on this way. Look at verse 17 of Revelation 6: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” The implication is, no one will escape the Judgment bar of God (Hebrews 9:27-28). But if the blood of the saints of all ages is as it were, “crying out to God,” should Christians today not be hearing these voices too?
When we compare our commitment to God with the commitment of those who have died on duty to the Lord down through the ages, would that be how death would catch us? – on duty for the Lord?
That is what I think of Meriam Ibrahim. In her time and place in prison in Sudan, she was on duty for the Lord. The world got to know of her Christian commitment, she would accept the 100 lashes and death by hanging, if that is the way it had to be. In no way would she give up her Christian faith! She made it clear, that despite the death penalty hanging over her she would stay loyal and true to God.
Somehow, the strength of her conviction and the dignity with which she bore all that was thrown at her, along with the care for her young son while being heavily pregnant in prison, captured the world’s respect and admiration for her. What strength of character and Christian conviction she possessed. How many others does she represent that we never hear of, and will never hear of, who have suffered and faced death, and still suffer and face death because of their love and loyalty to Jesus Christ?
The Bible tells us that it is only God who will finally erase such evil from our world when Jesus comes at the Second Advent (John 5:28-29). The question “How Long,” should challenge Chrtistians, shouldn’t it? What John has shared with us here in the Revelation is intended to inspire us and to urge us on to a greater commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to sharing the Good News of salvation through Jesus with others (Matthew 28:18-20; cf. 24:14). The life we live as well as the mission we are part of, should reflect the same message John recorded nearly 2000 years ago. “How long”, will be the instinctive cry of all God’s people as they see the evil and hurt of this world?
We do not want to see continuing what is happening to humankind in famine and war and disaster wherever on our globe. We want to see an end that makes sense of it all. An end, that brings in a new beginning with the Second Coming of Jesus. It’s an end which the Apostle John describes for us in Revelation 21:1-5, which really is about a new beginning:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. For the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Think of those images we are seeing so frequently on our TVs. Those who hate and exploit and cause pain and death will be excluded from God’s new world. No more, neither mourning or crying, or pain. In commemorating World War I and the tragic loss of life then, there is one death we must remember above all others: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”