So today we come to the end of our 6 week series called Fight. We have been exploring together questions like:What does the Bible say about warfare and violence? Can a Christian use violence? Go to war? Kill in self-defense? Why does the Old Testament seem to present violence in a positive light while the New Testament seems more negative? Do we kill our enemies (Joshua) or love them (Jesus)?
Now if you’ve been with us throughout this series, you realize that these questions are not easy ones to wrestle with. They are complicated and take a lot of thought, prayer, dialogue, and reading Scripture together. I hope you also realized that the point of this series was to begin to ask the questions, help our community to wrestle with these questions, and look at what Jesus might have to say about these issues. And so maybe at the end of this series you have more questions than answers, that is okay. Keeping searching. Maybe you have really been challenged with the material and you want to continue learning and researching. Some good books that you might want to read include: Fight by Preston Sprinkle, Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, Jesus for President & Irresistible Revolution both by Shane Claiborne, God Behaving Badly by David Lamb, the Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, and read anything by Greg Boyd and Bruxy Cavey as well. Hopefully these resources will help you as you continue to wrestle with God’s call for his people to live Shalom in all areas of life and out in the world. And maybe you aren’t where I am in regards to Biblical non-violence and that is okay. But hopefully we all have been challenged to live more and more like Jesus and more and more living out his call to Shalom.
But today as we end our time together in this series we are going to tackle probably one of the more difficult questions that people who hold to Biblical non-violence get: What about Revelation? How do you get non-violence out of the book of Revelation? After all one theologian says, “Christ himself will engage in actual blood-shedding, life-taking warfare, when he returns to set up his Kingdom. He also instructs his people to engage in that warfare.” Another popular Pastor said this about the Jesus he found in Revelation, “In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand, and a pension to make someone bleed.” This Pastor is no doubt referencing our text for the morning, Revelation 19:11-21 in his words. So we will take a look at this text which from face value looks like it supports what the theologian and Pastor has said about it. We’ll see how it really is actually flipping violence on it’s head when we understand and really look at the text.
So let’s look at Revelation 19:11-21, “ I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.” Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.”
Now just from first glance, as I said, it looks like the text supports the statements from the theologian and pastor. But we need to realize something, Revelation is a genre of literature called Apocalyptic. This genre of literature is a highly symbolic type of literature. If you interpret Revelation as a literal snapshot of what is going to take place the last couple of years of world history, then yes you’ll find a Jesus who appears violent. But because Revelation is apocalyptic in it’s genre, it completely rules out a literal reading as virtually every scholar acknowledges. It is important to note, as NT Wright points out, that the military imagery here is symbolic and not to be taken literally. Some people anticipate a real physical battle with actual military weapons when reading and interpreting this passage. These people take military metaphors and make them literal. The Bible, however, takes military language and makes it metaphorical. This is a depiction of a real defeat, but it is not a description of actual occurrences. Evil will certainly be overthrown. Not, however, with an earthly military campaign. This is a spiritual conflict. It is fought with spiritual weapons. No general would actually lead a battle with a sword hanging out of his mouth. No army would actually go into battle dressed in “fine linen, white and clean” (v. 14). This is clearly symbolic language.
Once we stop reading this type of literature literally, we begin to see that the Jesus of Revelation is actually the same shalom-loving, enemy loving, turn the other check, nonviolent activist that we find in the gospel. In fact what John is doing is actually transforming violent images into images that are anti-violent. Also we need to know that this book was written to those who lived on the underbelly of the greatest empire of the world (at the time) and how that fact forms the central purpose of Revelation. The central purpose of Revelation is to call God’s people who are facing immanent persecution to remain faithful to God’s Lamb-like character despite the appearance that this way of living loses in the face of Babylon.
So with the idea that this isn’t to be taken literal (which to some might sound heretical or “liberal”) and the purpose of the book out of the way, let’s look at the words of John and see what it might say to us living in the midst of the empire that we live in and under.
In Revelation 19:11-12 we read, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.” So here we see Jesus, called Faithful and true, on a white horse, which symbolizes victory. The “battle” has already been won before it was ever really “fought”. We see Jesus judging and waging war with justice. Now what does it mean when it says Jesus wages war. Does this totally contradict what we have been saying during this series? This is not a physical war, it is a war of words, ideas, concepts, worldviews. It is a spiritual battle between evil and good. Between the power of Satan and the power of Jesus. This isn’t Jesus riding into a physical battle with physical weapons. This is Jesus riding into a spiritual battle with spiritual weapons, and we’ll find out in a little bit what the spiritual weapon is that he has.
So then we turn to a very interesting part of the text, and one that again seems to totally go against this non-violent reading of Scripture, but when we take a deeper look at it, we realize that it confirms the non-violent, enemy loving, crucified lamb of God that is throughout the New Testament. Look at verses 13-16 which says, “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords.” Did you notice anything interesting in verse 13? Here he is getting ready to ride into battle but his robe is already dipped in blood. Dipped in blood even before the battle. Which then begs the question, whose blood is Jesus’ robe dipped in? What kind of warrior is soaked in blood before the battle? Well, when we look at the rest of Revelation we see that Jesus is often called the Lamb of God. And here we see that played out. Jesus, the warrior, is the slain-lamb and he is covered in his own blood. He didn’t and doesn’t spill others blood but allows for his own blood to be shed on behalf of his enemies. NT Wright says this, “the staining of clothes of the Messiah is his own blood. We are told again and again that the lamb has conquered through his blood, his sacrificial death, and that his followers are to conquer in the same way.”
And so as he rides into “battle” covered in his own blood, the text says that his name is the Word of God, and that he has a sword coming out of his mouth. These two facts, his name and the sword coming from his mouth are intimately connected. And remember the spiritual weapon that I mentioned before? This is it, the Word of God and the sword, which are both the same thing. Notice, that unlike what the Pastor says, the sword comes from his mouth. By placing the sword in the mouth of the slain lamb, John is reversing its violent meaning. John is saying that the Lamb warrior fights not by shedding blood but by simply speaking the truth of God, the word of God and slaying the lies of the deceiver. Remember the other week when we look at Isaiah 11:4 when it had a rod coming out of his mouth. This is the same idea. And so Jesus wins the war with a word. Jesus speaks and the armies fall over dead. No swords, no hale storms, no plagues. No giant insects. He speaks and it is over. The power of God’s word to confront, challenge, convict, and judge. It is exactly like Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Just as God created the world in the beginning with the power of His Word, God will judge the world at the end with the Word of Truth and Justice.
What does he do with the sword that comes from his mouth? He strikes down nations. Does that mean he strikes them down by killing them? If that is the case then how can he rule over them with an iron scepter? It’s obvious that Jesus didn’t kill anyone with the sword because right after Jesus strikes the nations down he is set up to rule over them with an iron scepter. And later we find the slain nations walking by the light of the lamb.
And right after the ruling, we read these words, “He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.” What does that even mean? NT Wright has this to say, “The symbolism is appropriate because it is taken directly from the passages which speak most powerfully..Isaiah 63, where he (the Messiah) will tread the winepress of the wrath of God. As John’s readers know well by now, the actual weapons which Jesus uses to win the battle are his own blood, his loving self-sacrifice.” Also what is pretty interesting about this passage is that while the ruling of the nation with an iron scepter (or better phrased shepherding) is in the future tense, his treading of the grapes in in the present, matching it with the present tense of his use of the sword which is coming out of his mouth. This means that Christ’s teaching on grapes doesn’t come after he smites the deceived nations with the word of truth, but rather treads on grapes while he slays the deceived nations. Or you could say that “smiting” nations with the truth (sword from his mouth) and treading on the grapes in the winepress are one and the same activity These nations are being slain by the truth.
The rest of the passage relies on what is found on Jesus’ robe and thigh, the tattoo that reads, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” The rest of the passage shows the total defeat of the powers of evil, sin, death, hell and of those who oppose the powers of good and of Jesus. That all of those aligned against Jesus at the end of time will come to defeat. That sin, death, evil, satan, and every thing aligned against Jesus will come to an end. That Jesus, the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords has been victorious, not by living a life of redemptive violence. That Jesus won the battle of sin, death, evil, hell and Satan, not by subjecting them to violence, but by absorbing violence on the cross, and defeating the powers that be by his resurrection from the dead. Again NT Wright puts it this way, “The victory here is a victory over all pagan power, which means a victory over violence itself.” In the end Jesus is victor and he is the last word.
He is calling all of us to live the same lamb-like life. One that doesn’t believe in redemptive violence. One that doesn’t respond in violence but absorbs violence. Jesus is calling each of us, through this text, to the same thing he has called each and every follower of his to, which he says in Luke 9:23, “Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
The final judgment of God will not be a cosmic bloodshed initiated by God. Rather, it is God allowing evil to consume itself and the victory of the Cross in not being like the world. As much as this imagery is depicted in 1st century terms, it is still a message for us today. Though we may not be killed in the streets of America, there are still many ways in which we must sacrifice and die to ourselves in order to live for Christ. And Revelation shows that is the true path to victory.
So let’s spend some time talking through this. Let’s talk about what it means that Jesus is victor not through violence but absorbing violence. Let’s talk about how this text might shape our life in the here and now. And let’s talk about what you have been learning and how you have been growing and wrestling with Fight over the last 6 weeks.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. what does it means that Jesus is victor not through violence but absorbing violence. How does this text might shape our life in the here and now.
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it?n What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
4. As we end our series today, what are some things that you are still thinking about, wrestling with, praying through or something that made a difference in your life during this series?