One of this morning's lead news stories was about the hundreds of Christians who were martyred during this Holy Week, in Kenya. Members of the ISIS branch of the Muslim religion attacked a university campus in that country by going door-to-door and asking the people if they were Christian. If the answer returned was "yes", the people were killed on the spot. They were killed for no offense other than the offense of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since the beginning of Christianity, the gospel has been offensive, a bunch of foolishness, to some hearers. The apostle Paul witnessed this in his day and wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 1:18 - - -
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
In extreme cases this same power of God spoken of by Paul has enabled everyday, ordinary Christians to have the courage to lay down their lives, rather than renounce their faith. That Spirit empowered the early Christians as well as Christian martyrs today.
In Revelation 7:13-17 people who put their faith in Jesus Christ and are now in Heaven with Him are described:
The "me" in these verses is the apostle John who, by the time the book called Revelation was written, was well-advanced in age. As he lived his final months in exile on an island called Patmos, Jesus and various angels appeared to him in a vision to show him "things that must soon take place" (Rev. 1:1). I believe that the whole of remaining human history was shown to John through a series of cryptic signs and wonders; and, he recorded what he saw in that book.
At any rate, the Elder speaking to John in verse 13 is an angelic being of the highest order, as he and his 11 like-beings dwell eternally in the throne room of God, worshipping Him and the Lamb, who now sits at His right hand. The innumerable crowd (Rev. 7:9) that John saw there, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches of victory, was and is those who have "washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb."
Those assembled there are those who have trusted Christ as Savior, having applied His saving, cleansing blood to their lives. It is because of Christ's finished work that they are now "clean", not through their good deeds or even their dying to self through many tribulations. The same word translated "tribulation" in this passage appears many times in the New Testament. Sometimes it is translated "affliction", "anguish" or "persecution". Here are some other places the word appears:
2 Corinthians 1:8, 2:4, 4:17, 8:2
Any who follow Christ can expect some affliction, persecution or anguish, in this earthly life, to varying degrees.
Some scholars ascribe to this particular "innumerable" group whom John saw the experience of being martyred during the last days of earth, during that period often called, "The Great Tribulation". However, I believe this to be too narrow a designation. I believe that John was seeing all believers who died, having put their faith for eternal peace in Jesus Christ.
Elsewhere, in Revelation 6:9-11, we do see martyrs, a subset of this larger group. This smaller group is named specifically as having died (been martyred) for their faith. They have been given white robes to wear too, as have the larger group of their brothers and sisters in the faith.
We can be assured that those brothers and sisters in Christ who were martyred in Kenya this week are among this group in Heaven, even now. God Almighty has not yet decided that the time is right to avenge their spilled blood. It seems as if "the full number" of martyrs for Jesus Christ has not yet been reached. When God does decide that it is time, there will be an unleashing of His wrath on the earth unlike any this world has ever seen. The persecution of Christians began in Jesus' day and will continue to escalate world-wide as the end-of-days approaches. It is even "ramping up" here in the United States. I fully expect to be called on to take an increasingly costly stand for my faith, as my remaining days unfold. I pray that I will be given supernatural grace to stand firm in my testimony, as those days come.
Heavenly Father, thank you for empowering our Kenyan brothers and sisters in Jesus to stand strong for Him in their final hours. Only Your Holy Spirit can produce such a work in the life of the believer. We don't have it in ourselves to live for You, even in the little aspects of our lives. We are totally dependent on Your Holy Spirit to empower us....to abstain from sin, to embrace the work that You have given each of us to do. Whether You call us as individuals to ultimate martyrdom or whether it is in the "dying daily to self" to which You call each one of us Your children....may we be found faithful...to the end. In Jesus' name, amen.