[This is the eleventh in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 25, 2012—Revelation 14:1-20
Last weekend, Kathleen and I had the privilege of once again attending the massive annual convention of over 10,000 religion scholars in Chicago, the joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. As always, we had a great time and had our thinking quite stimulated.
Several sessions raised a big question for me—in our quest for peace on earth, for the healing of our brokenness—is the Bible our friend or is it mainly a problem? We heard presentations that pointed in each of these directions. A session on the book of Revelation, though, was pretty clear. The presenters, what I would call “cultured despisers of Revelation,” presented the book in its worst possible light. As you can imagine, I wasn’t pleased.
A “jiu jitsu” approach to the Bible
This is what I think, though. In our all-too-violent world, and in our-all-too-violent Christian religion, we can’t afford to squander this amazing resource for peace—the Bible in general and the book of Revelation in particular. We who seek to be peacemakers, instead of a superficial dismissal of unsettling texts, should wrestle with them, wrestle until (like Jacob of old) we get blessings from them. And there are blessings to be had. We should take what I call a “jiu jitsu” approach to biblical interpretation. Jiu jitsu is a form of martial arts. “Jiu” means “gentle, flexible, or yielding.” “Jitsu” means “technique.” So, “jiu jitsu” is a gentle technique of self-defense that uses the opponent’s force against itself rather than confronting it with one’s own force.
So, I suggest we let the difficult, seemingly “pro-violence,” texts of the Bible swing away at us, but step inside the punches and use those very texts as part of our peacemaking repertoire. Today, I want to give an example of how to read Revelation in this way by taking on one of the more troubling passages in the book, chapter 14.
I will focus on one particular metaphor in this chapter, the metaphor of “blood.” This image comes up at the end of the chapter. Think about what blood might symbolize what is used as a metaphor. Let me read a condensed version of the chapter, then we can spend a few moments thinking about the symbol of “blood.”
I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.
Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to every nation and tribe and language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give God glory, for the hour of judgment has come; and worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” Then another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive his mark will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger. They will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and anyone who receives the mark of its name. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven, “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”
Then I looked, and seated on a white cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel called with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.” Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar and called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.
So, do you think “blood” symbolizes, here and elsewhere?
“Blood” as a symbol for retribution
I remember years and years ago, I was leading a Bible study. We finished with one of the gospels and somebody suggested we do a book from the Old Testament next. This one elderly woman protested, “I don’t want anything more to do with that bloody book!” I think for her, “blood” signified violence and punishment, the angry and hurtful Old Testament God. She’d had enough of that. I suspect she’d have said the same thing had someone suggested we study Revelation.
Many of the commentaries on Revelation agree that the blood here at the end of chapter 14 indicates God’s punishing judgment. The blood that flows “from the winepress as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of about two hundred miles” shows just how widespread God’s retribution will be.
I’m impressed with how easy it is for interpreters to assume the worst about this vision—as if this same book does not include the vision of the Lamb’s self-giving love in chapter five and the vision of the healing of the nations in chapters 21 and 22. They seem to find it obvious that “blood” symbolizes death and punishing judgment. They seem to find it obvious that the God of Revelation of course responds to wrongdoing with massive retaliation. They seem to find it obvious that the universe according to Revelation rests on retributive justice all the way down.
Now, some, like the cultured despisers of Revelation at our convention, are horrified by this theology that they see in Revelation and reject it. They think Revelation is bad news. Others, like those involved in the Left Behind books and movies, welcome this kind of bloody theology—they embrace the idea of God as punisher and see Revelation as a key source.
Many years ago, I had a mentor who thought this way. We had many discussions about pacifism. He insisted that though Jesus himself in his life was peaceable, both the Old Testament and Revelation give us pictures of a violent God who may well call upon God’s people to join in the fight and shed blood. That argument is what stimulated me to try to understand Revelation for myself—and led to my discovery that Revelation actually teaches something quite different.
Revelation’s theology of “blood”
And we can see that Revelation is not about violence if we focus on this most troubling of metaphors—the blood flowing from the wine press in chapter 14. This is not the first time blood is used in Revelation. Let’s look at some of the other places that speak of blood.
At the beginning of Revelation, we are told about Jesus. He’s the faithful witness who followed a path of nonviolent love that resisted the powers and led to his execution. He is described as well as the firstborn of the dead—his life was vindicated when God raised him. Because of this witness and vindication, he is also described as the true ruler of the kings of the earth. Then we are told that he loves us and frees us from the power of sin by his blood—by his ministry as faithful witness. He’s a faithful martyr whose life of patient, nonviolent resistance shows the path toward liberation.
This exact same point is made again in chapter five. Jesus, the executed and resurrected Lamb is the true Lion of Judah (that is, the Messiah) who has the power to open the great scroll that tells of the ultimate victory of God. Jesus is worshiped here as God, a powerful image of his divinity, of how his life revealed the character of God. The worship includes these words of praise: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Yet a third time, in chapter seven, the same exact point is made again. Here we have an amazing vision of the 144,000 who are actually a countless multitude who find healing amidst the terrible plagues. They praise God and the Lamb. Who are these multitudes? “These are the ones who come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
And finally, in chapter 12, “blood” is mentioned one more time. John emphasizes again the faithful witness of the Lamb to the point of crucifixion. And in this witness comes the power to break free from the Powers’ death-dealing grip and find wholeness. Those who trust in God’s ways “have conquered [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
So, this is what “blood” signifies: Jesus’ life, and other lives lived in solidarity with his. It’s the willingness to stand against violence and oppression and for compassion and shalom. Such an approach to life leads to some kind of cross, resistance from the powers-that-be, self-sacrifice or, in Gandhi’s term, self-suffering. And, we will learn from what comes later in Revelation, this self-giving love actually is the very force that takes down the Powers and brings in the New Jerusalem.
“Blood,” then, is not retributive violence from God. “Blood,” then, does not signify death. “Blood,” then, is not about God punishing those who are found to be outside the narrowly defined boundaries of doctrinal or ritual “truth.” In fact, “blood” signifies life for the multitudes. Blood signifies the ultimate healing of the nations and even the healing of the kings of the earth. “Blood” signifies the battle that was already won in Jesus’ faithful living—and guarantees that healing is God’s final word.
The battle for the imagination
Chapter 14 follows the terrible vision of the Beast in chapter 13, the Beast that embodies the Domination System of power politics, nationalism, and victory through brute force. The people cry out, “who can stand against the Beast?” We get the answer right away—the Lamb stands along with the 144,000 (that is the great multitude of chapter seven who follow the Lamb). The Lamb wins due to what many translations call “patient endurance” but could just as well be translated “nonviolent resistance”—the path of love and compassion followed consistently in face of the Beast’s terrors.
These who follow the Lamb wherever he goes have no lies in them, which is a coded way to say that they do not bow down to the Beast. And they are freed to be “first fruits for God and the Lamb.” As first fruits, they are the model for nonviolent resistance that plays a sacrificial role. Their sacrifice is self-sacrifice that shows the path to healing and breaks the hold of the Powers on people’s imaginations.
The battle actually is fought on the level of imagination. The Beast only has power given to him by people’s trust. People believe in the Beast’s picture of reality—and the Beast has power. People don’t believe the Beast—and he is powerless.
I’m reading a fascinating book right now by political thinker James C. Scott called Two Cheers for Anarchism. In the early part of the book, Scott emphasizes just how important throughout history simple refusal of consent to the powers-that-be has been in leading to social change. Simply stepping out of the elite’s coerced consensus gums up the works and makes the mechanisms of domination impossible to sustain. This is living as “first fruits”—refusing to give the Beast the worship he demands because such worship leads to death not to life.
An example that comes to my mind is the faithful witness of that tiny handful of pacifists who said no to World War II—and out of this faithful witness rippled many movements for peace: the Civil Rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the service work of Mennonite Central Committee, and many others.
The gospel according to Revelation 14
After seeing the Lamb and the 144,000, John sees “another angel flying in midheaven” (14:6). This angel brings the gospel to “every nation and tribe and language,” a gospel with three parts—first the proclamation of the healing mercy of God, healing that has already been praised in the book and will find its final fruition with the coming down of the New Jerusalem.
But a second element is also required—the fall of Babylon the great. This is the book’s first reference to Babylon. We will learn in the following chapters that this is another image for what is presented in chapter 13 as the great Beast. Babylon, of course, was the empire of the ancient world that conquered Israel and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. The enemy of God and God’s people that demands and receives loyalty and honor and commitment from “all nations.” The historical Babylon was in rubble by now; what we have is a symbol for the spiritual forces behind empire (including, certainly, Rome, but all empires since). This spiritual power must be taken down for the human beings enslaved by it to be freed.
The third element of the gospel focuses on those human idolaters. Those who “worship the beast” suffer terrible consequences. I think we need to read this part of the vision not as an ironclad statement of what will happen for specific people so much as a warning. This says how there are indeed terrible consequences when we give our trust to the Beast. Later, in the New Jerusalem, we learn that at least some who worship the beast are healed. But Psalm 115 reminds us that we take terrible risks when we do give worship to idols. We can’t be sure we’ll be able to turn back. “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes but do not see. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.”
John’s main concern here, though, is not with those outside the churches who trust in the beast. He actually, in turns out, has hope for them once the hold of the beast is broken. He mainly cares about church people who try to go along with the ways of the beast and also maintain a Christian identity. This can’t be done, John insists. He warns these Christians of possible self-inflicted torment should they remain loyal to the Beast. John’s readers are promised, though, that they will be blessed should they stay true to Jesus’ way—even amidst their traumas.
I think the message here is not encouragement for Christians to speculate about what kind of punishments awaits the heathen—it’s rather a challenge to our churches: are you giving loyalty to the American empire that belongs instead to the Lamb?
The two harvests—a call to persevering love
The chapter concludes with two “harvest” visions. The first is a harvest of grain gathered by “one like the Son of Man.” This clearly is Jesus gathering his people for the “wedding supper of the Lamb” that we will see in chapter 19, the celebration that leads to the coming of the New Jerusalem.
The second vision is more complicated; how we understand it will depend on what we think the blood metaphor refers to. In light of how Revelation uses “blood” elsewhere—to speak of Jesus’ life of persevering love and nonviolent resistance—I think what we have here is another image meant to encourage followers of Jesus to faithful witness. The angel here “came out from the altar”—linking back to the image of the martyrs under the altar in chapter 6. The grapes are harvested and thrown into “the great wine press of the wrath of God” that was “trodden outside the city”—a reference to the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. Later, we will read of the Great Harlot (another symbol for Babylon) drunk on the blood of the saints. And it is this “blood” that will lead to Babylon’s downfall.
What all this is telling us is actually pretty simple, even if the images are messy and complicated. Jesus is our model. He lived his life as a faithful witness whose commitment to nonviolent resistance led to his death. This life and death, vindicated by resurrection, are what the symbol “blood” refers to. The picture here in Revelation 14 means to show that this “blood” of Jesus, joined by the “blood” of his followers, is the very means of God to bring about the world’s healing.
We see the same dynamic in the two great martyrs of the twentieth-century: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their nonviolent resistance shows the only way our world can move toward healing.
Now, perhaps the most gruesome aspect of this vision is that the blood “flowed…as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about 200 miles” (14:20). This is too much blood even to imagine, and is a terrible image if we think of it as signifying punitive violence. But it actually signifies something else. Remember back in chapter seven, the 144,000 turns out to be a countless multitude whose robes are made white in the blood of the Lamb. The idea with this bridle-high blood, I think, is that the self-sacrificial love of Jesus and his followers is abundant enough to heal the countless multitudes!
Revelation emphasizes strongly the link between Jesus’ self-sacrificial love and the self-sacrificial love of his followers. John’s main agenda in Revelation is to encourage his readers to follow Jesus’ path. This is the path Jesus spoke of in one of his great parables: the path of giving drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, friendship to the lonely, care for the sick, clothing to the naked, and companionship to the imprisoned—on all occasions, since all people in need are, in a genuine sense, Jesus himself.
Let me finish with a story of a small incident of self-giving love. When I was a kid, just about my favorite thing was playing baseball. I loved our Little League games, especially when we got to travel to other towns. And afterwards, we would get to stop for some fast food treats. I always struggled to scrape together money for those stops, though.
One game I simply was broke. It was kind of shameful, to be there with all my excited friends and to know that I couldn’t afford to get anything. I went ahead and queued up because I didn’t want the others to know I didn’t have any money. I dreaded the moment when that would be apparent.
Somehow, my friend Rod sensed my plight. He quietly slipped me enough change so I could get a milkshake. He didn’t even say anything. Now this was a true gift, because he had little more access to money than I did. But it made a huge difference for me. a small act—but the goodness of it lives on and has inspired more goodness.
Healing through self-giving love. The same thing Revelation—properly understood—teaches.