The Voice Beneath the Altar

[from A Faith and Culture Devotional, Zondervan, 2008]

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”( Revelation 6:9-10)

During the first centuries of Christianity, the church was battered within and without. Pseudo-Christians distorted the faith and misled the faithful, while the powerful Roman Empire persecuted Christians with torture and death. When local church members were able to gather the remains of their fellow-believers (often, this was forbidden), they lovingly interred these broken bodies beneath their altars, a reminder that the blessed departed are invisibly present to join us in worship. St. John writes that, in his vision, he heard the voice of the martyrs crying out from under the altar.

The persecutions ended when, by God’s mercy, the Roman Emperor Constantine had a miraculous conversion in 312 AD. However, those who distort the faith were about to launch a new attack. A priest named Arius proposed that, if Christ is the Son of the Father, he can’t be the same age as the Father. Christ must have been created by God, at some point before the universe was made. This would mean that Jesus is not really God, not in the way God the Father is.

That theory may sound familiar to you; throughout the centuries, there have been many who find it more appealing to see Jesus as an exalted man than to recognize him as fully God. The teachings of Arius provoked great controversy, and the Emperor Constantine summoned church leaders from around the known world to come to Nicaea, a suburb of Constantinople, and settle the matter.

The Syrian writer, Marutha of Maiperqat, is credited as author of a description of how the council convened. When the 318 church leaders assembled, it was obvious that many of them had endured persecution. Virtually all of them, Marutha says, “were more or less maimed…Some had the nails of their fingers or toes torn out; some were otherwise mutilated.” Thomas of Marash, he says, had been imprisoned for 22 years, and each year his captors had cut off a finger, put out an eye, or wounded him some other way in an attempt to make him deny Christ.

The Emperor was astounded by the suffering evident in the faces and bodies of these men. Marutha says that he went from one man to the next, bowing his head and humbly kissing “the marks of Christ in their bodies,” the scars that bore witness to their faith. When Constantine came to Thomas of Marash he was overcome. As a peasant would bow to a king, the Emperor bowed to the wrecked body and shining soul of this Christian conqueror. He said, “I honor thee, O martyr of Christ, who art adorned with many crowns!”

For almost 200 years, Roman Emperors had brought persecutions upon Christians; but God knew there would come a time when an Emperor would bow to a martyr of Christ. What does this tell us about the end of time, when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10)?

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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