[Published in the Mennonite, January 16, 2001]
Is the Book of Revelation a constructive resource for Christian peacemakers, or is it one of those parts of the Bible we must either ignore or explain away, since its message apparently stands in tension with our pacifist convictions? When we ignore Revelation, we miss our on powerful words of encouragement for faith—even encouragement for holding fast to our peace convictions.
The crucial moment in interpreting Revelation may well come before we even begin reading the book. What are we looking for when we look at this final book of the Bible? Are we looking for predictions of the future, or are we looking for ethical and spiritual guidance for the present? How we understand what we go on to read will likely be shaped by how we answer this question.
We should approach Revelation similarly to how we approach other books of the Bible. We start by asking what its message would have meant to the one who wrote it and those who first read it or heard it read. Then we look for parallels between the original setting and ours and for relevance the original message may have for us.
Revelation was written in the last first century, approximately 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The author, a pastor named John, wrote the book to offer encouragement to Christians facing a pair of challenges. The messages to seven different churches that make up chapters 2 and 3 of the book provide our main evidence for the author’s central concerns. The first readers of Revelation faced challenges either (1) to place too high a priority on conformity with their culture (see the message to the church as Laodicea or (2) to face harsh persecution from that culture (see the messages to the churches at Philadelphia and Sardis).
John’s basis message in response to both these challenges is to present Jesus of Nazareth (often using the symbol of the Lamb) as the definitive expression of God in human history. Jesus has already won the victory of the ages over the powers of evil with his life, death, and resurrection. Revelation 5 shows the Lamb being given the scroll that tells the outcome of history, and then being worshiped by all creatures as the victor.
The reality of the victory of the Lamb speaks to those tempted with conformity by challenging them to hold fast to the way of Jesus and resist temptation from other notions of human fulfillment. This reality also comforts those facing persecution: Hold fast, you are following the steps of the Lamb,and with the Lamb you will be victors over the powers of death and evil.
After this vision of the victorious Lamb in chapter 5, John tells of a series of visions in chapters 6–18. These visions portray a great deal of upheaval, turmoil, even destruction. Ultimately, however, they reflect John’s deep-seated conviction that the God of the Lamb is not defeated by the powers of sin, death, and evil. God is in fact moving history toward the full consummation of the victory of the Lamb—and the healing of the nations, the human enemies of God (to be portrayed in chapters 21 and 22).
The final vision in these series of plagues, in chapter 18, tells of the fall of the human city (“Babylon”), which has stood in arrogant rebellion against God. After Babylon falls, beginning in chapter, we see the beginnings of a great celebration—the wedding of the Lamb (19:7).
The scene switches in 19:11 to what at first glance seems a vision of a coming battle. Jesus comes onto the scene as God’s warrior-judge. But the war is over, for all intents and purposes, due to Jesus’ victory on the cross. What we actually see in what follows is not a battle but simply the carrying out of God’s judgment. The beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire.
Jesus, dressed in a robe stained with his own blood, it pictured here as the true ruler. He is so powerful that he simply throws his enemies into the lake of fire—without resistance on their part.
The white horse Jesus rides (19:11) symbolizes victory. He comes as one who has conquered sin, death, and evil through his death and resurrection. As the following versesmake clear, he comes to this apparent battle with the forces of evil already the victor. The battle was foreseen in 16:13-14 (“three foul spirits like frogs…go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty”). The outcome of this battle in no way is in question.
The rider is called “faithful and true,” that is, “the faithful and true witness” of 1:5 and 3:14. He is the one who remained faithful and true to God even when it meant a martyr’s death. That is how he gained the white. He wins the “war” by remaining faithful to the way of the cross in the face of temptations to follow other ways.
Revelation 19:13 contains a key image. The rider approaches this battle “clothed in a robe dipped in blood.” The blood has already been shed before the battle begins; Jesus’ death on the cross is the reason no actual battle takes place here. Jesus can already ride the white horse because the actual battle is over. He won the battle on the basis of his faithfulness unto death.
In 19:11-20, John presents a rebirth of images. He uses battle imagery to present a picture of Jesus winning the ultimate battle in the conflict between good and evil. Jesus does this not through a bloodbath in the future but rather in the past historical even of his death and resurrection.
The powers of evil have been defeated already—through the Lamb’s suffering love. Revelation 14:6 speaks of the relevance of this suffering love for our hope and our discipleship. Those who sing a “new song” are those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.