The series of angels flying overhead is abruptly interrupted by a voice from the same direction. This voice, like the prophetic appeal preceding it, is directed to Christian readers. It is addressed to John first and commands him, Write! with the intention that what he writes will go out to the seven congregations. In both pronouncements (vv. 12, 13), the time frame is no longer the future that John has been scanning in his vision, but the present in which both John and his seven congregations actually live. The reason for saying this is the phrase from now on. In the vision that began at 14:1, the number of the martyrs was complete (at 144,000), but here the number is not yet complete. More will die in the Lord, and they are pronounced blessed. The Spirit in reply defines their blessedness: Yes . . . they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.
The situation recalls the fifth seal (6:11), where the souls of the martyrs were told to "wait" (literally "rest") until their number was complete. In both passages those who die as martyrs are said to be at rest, in contrast to the worshipers of the beast, for whom "there is no rest day or night" forever (14:11). The martyrs' rest is from their labor in the sense of toil and hardship, but the Spirit adds that their deeds will follow them. As H. B. Swete renders it, "They shall rest from their labors—I say not from their works, for their works go with them" (Swete 1908:188). The martyrs' wearisome efforts will be over, but their accomplishments follow them into heaven (contrast Heb 4:10, where Christians do rest from their "work," or "works," just as God did after creation). In the messages to the seven congregations, the risen Jesus knew both the hardships and the lasting accomplishments of his people (2:1). He was able to tell whether or not their good deeds were genuine (2:9, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). In the case of the martyrs there is no question about their deeds, for they die in the Lord, having maintained their faith and obedience to the end.
The time-honored custom of reading this text at funerals suggests that the prophetic announcement could apply not just to martyrs in the strict sense of the word but to all Christian believers. Nothing much is said in the book of Revelation about natural death from sickness, accident or old age. Because there was so much violence in the society in which the book was written, the emphasis is almost entirely on persecution and martyrdom. Yet if any text in the book is applicable to natural death, this one is. The outlook is much the same as that of a roughly contemporary Jewish text that has nothing to do with martyrdom: "Moreover at the time of a man's departure, neither silver nor gold nor precious stones nor pearls go with him, but only the Law and good works" (Pirke Aboth 6.9; Danby 1933:461). Probably John's intent is that the martyrs first, but beyond them all who die in the Lord (that is, as faithful Christians), have the right to claim the promises of this verse.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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