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B. W. Johnson
Vision of the Ages (1881)



The Fifth Seal Opened.--The Symbolism Changed.--The Horse Seen no More.--The Change of
Symbols Indicates a Change of Theme.--Souls under the Altar.--The Cry of Martyrs.--An
Era of Persecution--The Attempt of Diocletian to Abolish the Christian Name.--The White
Robes.--Appendix on the State of the Church from the Time of Nero to that of Diocletian.


      It is evident, from the entire change of the imagery, that, after the fourth seal, the subject of prophetic vision is entirely changed. The horse now disappears, and is seen no more in connection with the opening of the seals. Along with the horse the armed warriors sweep out of sight. The reader should mark carefully the following language:

      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? [94] 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 fellow servants also and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.--6:9-11.

      Instead of the warlike pictures which direct our thoughts to the changing fortunes of earthly kingdoms, the attention is turned to something passing in the altar court of the apocalyptic temple. This locality, an essential part of the new vision, shows that it refers in some way to the Church, of which the temple was the well-known type. I wish the reader to note distinctly that the subject of the fifth seal must be entirely different from that of the four preceding seals, and that it is conceded by all to find its fulfillment in the Church.

      The scene now depicted in the altar court is one in which the worshipers are not living, but have passed from life. The voice that is raised is not of psalmody or praise, but of suffering. It is heard proceeding from beneath the altar, and comes from "the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus." From those shadowy forms the cry ascended: "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell upon the earth?" There comes the answer that they must wait until the time of the slaying of their fellow servants should [95] be fulfilled. What does all this signify? Our attention is turned from scenes of battle, political convulsions, plagues, famine and general calamity to a suffering Church. It is a time of persecution. The fifth seal is the seal of persecution, and it evidently marks some notable era in the history of the Church, when more fiercely than ever before it felt the intolerant hand of "them who dwelt upon the earth." The fulfillment is to be sought in a war of extermination waged against Christianity. Again we ask if, following the events already described, history records events that fulfill this prophecy?

      The persecution signified would not precede the events of the first four seals. It could not, if our interpretation of these seals is correct, be that of Nero, or Domitian, or Trajan, or Severus. It must be sought after the triumphs of Trajan, the calamities of the civil contest, the period of want, famine and pestilence. It must therefore be found after A. D. 284, when this calamitous period came to an end.

      The ninety-two years of civil turmoil began A. D. 192 with the death of Commodus. They ended in A. D. 284. In that year Diocletian ascended the Roman throne and his reign was distinguished by the most terrible, most prolonged, and most general persecution known in [96] the history of the ancient Church. The Emperor was not by nature a persecutor, but the great men or the empire, especially Galerius, whom he had associated in the duty of Government, were alarmed it the astonishing progress of the new religion, and demanded its extirpation. At last Diocletian yielded, and became a leader in the effort to root out the religion of Christ from the very face of the earth.

      There seemed to be little probability that the empire, almost ruined by the calamities of almost a century, should be in a condition to engage in a persistent and sweeping attempt to blot out of existence a Church that had already become powerful, but at this period it was raised from a state of imminent dissolution to some of its ancient power. "Oppressed and almost destroyed, as it had been," says Gibbon, "under the deplorable reigns of Valerian and Gallienus, it was saved by a series of great princes, Claudius, Aurelius, Probus, Diocletian and his colleagues; who within a period of thirty years, triumphed over the foreign and domestic enemies of the State, and deserved the title of the restorers of the Roman world." During the period of restoration the churches enjoyed quiet, hut in the very year that was completed, the same year that Diocletian celebrated his triumph over all enemies and the [97] pacification of the empire by triumphal entry into Rome, in A. D. 303, the persecution began. Early in that year secret councils were held in Nicomedia, concerning the destruction of Christianity. "Perhaps," says Gibbon, "it was represented to Diocletian, that the glorious work of the deliverance of the empire was left imperfect so long as an independent people (the Christians) were permitted to subsist and multiply in it." On the twenty-third of February, the first blow was struck. An armed force was sent to destroy the great church of Nicomedia, and to burn the sacred books, so carefully preserved in that day when the printing press was unknown. This was the signal for beginning a persecution which was, by the consent of all historians, the longest, the most general, and the fiercest ever waged against the Church. It is a remarkable fact that a chronological era, dating from the time when Diocletian began to reign, instituted not for religious, but astronomical purposes, and used until the Christian era was introduced in the sixth century, has received its name from the persecution, and has been called the era of martyrs.

      Again we are indebted to Gibbon. In his second volume he recounts the gradual origin of the persecution, first foreshadowed by an imperial edict, issued about A. D. 301, [98] prohibiting Christians from attending their religious assemblies. In A. D. 303, the unfaltering purpose of Christians to persevere in the duties of religion, aroused the Emperor to the sternest most extreme measures. The cruel determination of the monarch is recorded in Vol. II., page 69, in the following language:

      The resentment, or the fears of Diocletian, at length transported him beyond the bounds of moderation, which he had hitherto preserved, and he declared, in a series of cruel edicts, his intention of abolishing the Christian name. By the first of these edicts, the governors of the provinces were directed to apprehend all persons of the ecclesiastical order; and the prisons, destined for the vilest criminals, were soon filled with a multitude of bishops, presbyters, deacons, readers and exorcists. By a second edict, the magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity, which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution.

      The terrible persecution thus inaugurated has been described by all church historians. It differed from all others in various respects. They were local, this was general; those were for a little season, this raged ten years; those were only designed to stay the progress of Christianity, the purpose of this was "to abolish the Christian name from the earth." It is impossible for us to determine the number of martyrs who suffered from the imperfect statistics that [99] have reached its, but if the estimate or 700,000 sufferers in Egypt is not an exaggeration, the aggregate slain through the Roman Empire must have numbered millions. Who shall doubt, when such a persecution occurs next in order after the events foreshadowed by the symbols of the preceding seals, that the prophet described this remarkable period of death and tribulation in the history of the Church by the prayers of the martyrs under the fifth seal? Is it strange that this notable era in the history of the Church, when it felt all the force of the iron hand of Rome, when it was engaged in a stern and deadly grapple with the monarch of the world, when the blood of the suffering saints flowed in rivers, when whole congregations were driven into their houses of worship and burned with the buildings dedicated to God, when from the suffering, bleeding, mangled Church throughout the world, arose the cry, "O Lord, how long;" is it strange that so striking a period should be the subject of an apostle's prophetic vision? And, is it not certain that the fifth seal is the seal of persecution?

      There is a feature of the cry of the martyrs, and or the answer, that calls for notice. The martyrs ask for judgment and retribution upon their persecutors. We know that at this period the Church held the belief that a terrible [100] retribution would soon come upon their enemies. In the answer to the martyrs, there are three things that are noteworthy. First, it is said that they must await the great judgment, which would not be until another distinct set of martyrs was slain. These are evidently the martyrs slain, not by pagan Rome, but by anti-Christ. Second, they must wait "a little season." This season is to be measured by God's standard, mid not by ours. Third, there was given unto them white robes. White robes are a symbol of justification and of triumph. "The white robes are to him that overcometh." These souls are not in the inner sanctuary, the type of heaven; but under the altar of the outer or court, the type of the world. The white I to robes. therefore, imply their triumph and justification upon the earth. This came within twenty-five years of their suffering, through the formal acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire.


      It will interest the reader in connection with the terrible outburst of imperial fury under Diocletian, which sought the utter destruction of Christianity, to study its condition under the various seals before that of Persecution. I have made extracts from Eliott which will be given [101] in order. The The first will relate to the treatment of Christianity before the period of the first seal began, under Domitian and Nero.

      1. From the people the outcry against Christianity rose up to the Governors. At first they treated it with indifference, then other results followed. The first Imperial persecution of Christians, that by Nero, was on of singular character and origin, inasmuch as he took advantage of the odium prevalent against the Christian body in Rome, to fix upon them the charge of the incendiarism of the city. Under Domitian, the second Imperial persecutor, the case was different. The numbers had now so increased in the empire, that his jealousy, being awakened by informers against, sundry classes as plotting treason, naturally awakened against Christians among others. Besides the usual charge of atheism, it was said that this aspiring body was seeking a kingdom. So the jealous Emperor slew, in the person of his own uncle Clemens, the Christian of noblest blood and rank; banished the only surviving apostle of the Christian faith to Patmos; and summoned the nearest surviving relatives of him the Christians called their king. But he found the last-mentioned to be poor men, heard that it was a kingdom not of this world, and dismissed them with contempt. Thus far St. John [102] himself had beheld the progress of persecution. Soon after, on Nerva's accession, Christians, among other sufferers from Domitian's tyranny, were set free. Against Christians, as Christians, no direct law as yet existed.

      II. Under the first seal. About this time, however, or soon after, the effect on public habits and feelings had become so striking, and constituted a social phenomenon so entirely new, and on so vast a scale, is necessarily to arouse both the curiosity and anxiety of the ruling powers. The Governor of Bithynia, the younger Pliny, wrote to the Emperor Trajan of the temples being in disrepute and almost deserted in his province, from the influence of the body of men called Christians; and at the same time, of the popular fury being such against them, as to charge them with every crime and violently to call for their punishment, though on examination their morals seemed to him to be singularly virtuous and innocent. This was an æra in the history of the persecution of the Christian Church. In Trajan's rescript, the law was first declared respecting them, thus far mildly, inasmuch as there should be no inquisition for Christians by the public officers; but that, when brought in regular process of law before the Governor, and tried by the test of sacrificing to the [103] gods, the recusants should suffer punishment.

      Now began the apologies of Christians. Quadratus and Aristides were the first to appeal in behalf of the Christian body to Trajan's successor, Hadrian; then afterwards, Justin Martyr to Antoninus Pius. And both Hadrian, in the spirit of equity, issued his rescripts against punishing Christians for anything but political crimes, and the first Antonine, yet more decidedly though not uniformly with success, protected them against violence. But the second Antonine adjudged Christianity to be a direct crime against the State; enjoined inquisition against Christians, the application of torture if they refused sacrificing, and if still obstinate, death. The wild beasts, the cross, the stake--these were the cruel forms of death that met the faithful. Many were now gathered under the altar: among others the souls of Polycarp, of Justin Martyr, and of the faithful confessors of the Church at Lyons.

      III. Under the second seal. As the period of the red horse succeeded, and when, amidst the civil commotions ensuing, they that shed Christian blood had it given them in a measure to drink blood, the Church enjoyed a temporary respite which lasted through the reign of Commodus and to the commencement of that of Sulpitius Severus. But, shortly after, a law of [104] the last-named Emperor, forbidding conversions to Christianity under heavy penalties, at once indicated its increasing progress in the empire; and also, as Christianity could not but be aggressive and proselyting, revived persecution against it. Now Irenæus, Bishop of Lyons, suffered. But the brunt of the persecution fell on the Churches in Africa and Egypt. And Tertullian, the Carthaginian presbyter, rose up as their apologist.

      IV. Under the third seal. Under the third seal, and when again, in God's righteous retribution, the people that had so long instigated the malice and the rapacity of unjust provincial Governors against Christians, had their lot darkened by the letting loose of that very rapacity and injustice on themselves, at that time the same voice in the Imperial Government that called, but ineffectually, for equity in the general administration, called, but as ineffectually, for equity also against Christians. Alexander Severus confessed his admiration of Christian morality, and of Him too who had been its first and divine teacher. On a particular occasion he even recognized the Christians as a lawful corporation, and protected them A Rome against their enemies. But it was protection partial only and transient. Martyrs were still slain. The name of Hippolytus, Bishop of [105] Porto, stands; eminent among them. Moreover, the former antichristian laws remained unrepealed. And, after his death, his successor, Maximin, renewed the imperial persecution against them; the rather as against a body which Alexander had favored. His edict was directed specially against the bishops and leaders of the Church. But in its effects it went further. It animated the heathen priests, magistrates and multitude against Christians of every rank and order. "Smite the shepherds, and the flocks shall be scattered."

      V. Under the fourth seal. Such was at that time the anticipation of Origen; very soon it had its fulfilment. The period of the fourth seal succeeded to that of the third. It was seen by the Emperor Decius that if the State religion were to be preserved, the Christian must be crushed; that the two could not long exist together. Thereupon he determined on crushing Christianity. Like those of the second Antonine, his edicts commanded inquisition of Christians, torture, death. Then was the consternation great. The Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, expressly records it. For the Church had now lost much of its first love. There were some apostasies; there were many faithless:--the libellatici and the acta facientes--professors who neither dared to confess, nor to [106] apostatize, and bribed the magistrates with money to spare them the conflict. But now Death on the pale horse, having received his commission, had entered the empire. The sword of the Goths, one of his appointed instrumental agencies, struck down the persecuting emperor. His successor, Valerian, presently after, animated by the same spirit, renewed the persecution. The bishops and presbyters, those that led on the Christians to the conflict--and the Christian assemblies, that which supplied the means of grace which strengthened them to endure it--against these the imperial edicts were now chiefly leveled. Then was Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, added to the glorious army of martyrs. But God again interposed. Valerian had his reign cut short by the Persian sword. And Gallienus, his son and successor, trembling under God's sore judgments, though still unconverted, sensual, hard-hearted, issued for the first time (A. D. 261) an edict of toleration to Christianity. Their churches and burial-grounds were now restored to Christians; their worship permitted. Though the popular outbreaks against the disciples were by no means altogether discontinued, Christianity was legalized.

      Such, in brief, were the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire prior to that [107] by Diocletian. During the progress of the gradual restoration of the empire which commenced soon after Gallienus' edict of toleration, the toleration continued. But as soon as the restoration was completed, persecution broke out afresh after its slumbering, like a giant refreshed with sleep. It combined in itself the bitterness of all the former persecutions, with the new feature superadded of war against the Holy Scriptures, by the destruction of which, it was now rightly judged, that Christianity might best be destroyed, "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held." [108]

[VOTA 94-108]

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B. W. Johnson
Vision of the Ages (1881)