[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
The Final Triumph
(1) What two suppers are contrasted in chapter 19 (see Ezek. 38–39 and Luke 14)?
(2) What does the symbolism of “the marriage supper of the Lamb” convey?
(3) Does 19:8 suggest salvation by works? What is the meaning of 19:10b?
(4) Note the description of Christ in 19:11-16. What is the significance of the various symbols associated with him? How does this description compare with others in the book? What is the mission of the rider on the white horse? Compare with the first seal.
(5) What is the significance of 19:21 as a clue to interpretation?
(6) What is your understanding of the millennium? What other biblical parallels to the 1,000 years of chapter 20 are there?
(7) What disposition is made of the trinity of evil? On whose authority? What becomes of their followers?
(8 ) Only at 20:11 is God’s throne described as “white”. Is the color symbolism important? What is the meaning of 20:11b?
(9) Who is judged and by what standards? Is salvation finally determined by works?
(10) What is the meaning of 20:14?
(11) What is the relation between the martyr, the rest of the dead, and the first resurrection?
(12) What does the great white throne add to the consummation of the judgment of God?
19:1-10—A Roar of Exaltation
Following the account of the destruction of Babylon in chapter 18, John envisions a scene of great celebration. God’s judgments are said to be “true and just,” for God “has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. God has avenged on her the blood of God’s servants” (19:2, NIV).
These true and just judgments lead directly to the wedding of the Lamb in 19:7, which is the real focus of the celebration. The wedding marks the reign of the Lord God Almighty (19:6). The bride, which symbolizes the followers of the Lamb, is said to have made herself ready by putting on the fine linen given to her to wear. The linen “stands for the righteous acts of the saints” (19:8, NIV).
Salvation is being celebrated in this passage. This means that all that has stood in the way of God’s rule has been removed. (See the account in chapters 17 and 18 and the ultimate effect of the plague series, along with the visions in 19:11-21 and chapter 20). It also means the New Jerusalem can now come down.
The affirmation that God’s sentences are “true and just” recalls the altar in 16:7, to the song of Moses and the Lamb in 15:3, and to the announcement of judgment in 11:18. Salvation, glory, and power belong to God. These are political terms and gain significance when seen in the political context of John’s day. The Emperor Augustus had been called “‘savior of the Greeks and of the whole inhabited world,” “savior and benefactor,” “savior and founder,” and “savior and god.” His birthday was called the beginning of “good tidings” (gospel). He was known as the “just and generous lord” whose reign promised peace and happiness (i.e., salvation). The heavenly choir John saw was therefore asserting that not Caesar’s but God’s power and salvation that is revealed in the justice given out to Babylon/Rome and its cohorts.
The real celebration here is for the destruction of Babylon as one element of the coming of God’s reign and the marriage of the Lamb. The references to justice here: (1) tie together God’s justice, the destruction of the evil powers, and ultimate salvation; and (2) emphasize the importance of the Lamb’s followers doing deeds of justice.
19:11-16—The Victor on a White Horse
This is another vision of judgment, telling the story again from a different angle. Jesus is clearly the one who carries out God’s wrath here.
It is important to try to interpret this passage consistently with what we know of Jesus already. He does not suddenly completely change character, coming first as a suffering servant and then as a vicious, all-powerful warrior judge.
The white horse that Jesus is riding (19:11) symbolizes victory. He comes as the one who has conquered sin, death, and evil through his death and resurrection. As the following verses make clear, he comes to this apparent battle with the forces of the antichrist already the victor. This battle was foreseen in 16:13-14 (“three foul spirits that look 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 the 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 horse.
The “war” he wages is the war between good and evil, and it is won by remaining faithful to the way of the cross in the face of temptations to follow other ways.
“On his head are many crowns” (19:12, NIV); perhaps in contrast to the dragon’s seven crowns (12:3), and the beast’s ten (13:1). He is the true King of kings and Lord of lords. The name no one but himself knows is perhaps a reference to the fact that Jesus transcends all human understanding.
Verse 13 contains a key image. The rider approaches this battle “clad in a robe dipped in blood.” The blood has already been shed before the battle begins. This is an allusion to Jesus’ blood shed on the cross and is the reason why no real battle takes place here. He can already ride the white horse because the real battle is over, and he won it one the basis of his shed blood.
The “armies of heaven” (19:14) likely are the saints wearing their bridle linen (19:7-8). They carry no weapons, for they, too, are already victorious.
The only weapon mentioned at all is the sword that comes out of Jesus’ mouth—his word, the gospel (cf. Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17). This is what ultimately brings the nations to their knees.
The “wine press of the fury of the wrath of God” (19:15) could, in the light of the grape harvest in 14:17-20, be a reference to the means by which the wine which brought down Babylon is prepared. Babylon was brought down by the wine of martyrdom—the martyrdom of Jesus and the saints. The suggestion here is that God is causing this wine to take effect.
The “great supper of God” (19:17-18) is the same as the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). It is the time of judgment; for those who belong it is a time of great rejoicing, for those who do not it is a time of condemnation (cf. Jesus’ parable of the super in Matt. 22 where the one without wedding clothes is kicked out).
The birds eating the flesh of all people (19:18) represents an act of judgment. This is in line with the interpretation that the angel in midair preaching the gospel in 14:6 is the same thing as the eagle in midair in 8:13 calling our “Woe!” This judgment reveals the true status of people. Either they are with God or against God. It is clear here that the battle has already been decided.
The beast and the kings and armies are all ready for battle (19:19). They truly are deceived to think that one will occur. The battle is long past. Jesus simply captures the beast and false prophet and throws them into the fiery lake (19:20). There is no battle.
“The rest of them” (19:21, NIV)—those who were deceived by the false prophet—are now judged by the word of Jesus. The birds ate their flesh. With the deceiver gone, maybe they have some hope of seeing the light. Verse 24 of chapter 21 indicates that the kings of the earth bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.
John is convinced that Jesus—in his death and resurrection—won the only battle necessary to defeat evil. Picturing him in another battle would imply that his first victory was not good enough. Christ’s victory in this passage is simply the revelation of the one sufficient victory he has already won.
20:1-3—Satan Bound for the Thousand Years
The focus of 20:1-10 is on the fate of the dragon, Satan. In chapter 19 we saw what happened to the beast and the false prophet. Here we turn to the power behind their power. These verses retell what already happened in chapter 19, but from a different perspective (a common technique in Revelation). Thus, the millennium is not here a future, literal 1,000-year period of time but is rather another symbol for the time between Christ’s first and second comings.
In 20:1-3 a nameless angel is enough to seize the dragon and bind him. Once Satan is cast out of heaven through the work of Jesus Christ (cf. chapter 12), he has no effective power against God at all.
Background to this picture is Jesus’ reference in Luke 11:21 to binding the “strong man,” which illustrated what happened to Satan with Jesus’ first coming. When Jesus cast out evil spirits, he demonstrated that Satan, for all his strength, had been seized and bound.
Satan’s bidning symbolizes his limited ability to act and especially his lack of power to do anything ultimate to the saints. Verse 11 of chapter 12 tells us that the saints have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb. Satan is bound for the same length of time that the faithful witnesses reign with Christ (20:4), symbolizing his impotence against them.
The 1,000 years is a difficult number to interpret. I understand 1,000 to symbolize a large number—one too large for humans to count. (The idea of a literal milenium is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.) Some have thought it significant that one day is like 1,000 years to God (Ps. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8). The 1,000 years may seem like a long time to people, but to God it is only a day and God’s work will be shortly done.
20:4-6—The First Resurrection
Verses 4-6 treat the reward to the faithful witnesses. This is another version of several earlier visions: the multitude in white robes rejoicing in 7:9-17, the rejoicing at the casting out of the dragon from heaven in 12:9-12, the worship of the 144,000 on Mt. Zion with the Lamb in 14:1-5, the promise of the blessedness of those who die in the Lord in 14:13, the victorious ones singing the song of Moses and of the Lamb in 15:2-4, and the time of the wedding supper of the Lamb in 19:9. The point is that here and now God’s people reign as kings and priests, as 1:6 affirms.
The “first resurrection” may refer to what is described elsewhere in the New Testament as a passing from death to life; that is, a person’s rebirth as a Christian (cf. John 5:24; Eph. 2:5; 1 John 5:11-12). These people are all who trust in Christ and follow him alone as Lord. They have no fear of the “second death” (the final judgment).
The point of these verses is that what seems to be defeat, persecution, even literal death, for the sake of Jesus, is really a victory. Those who resist the beast, who oppose its will to power without being corrupted by it, will share in the first resurrection and truly reign with Christ and truly be priests.
This is, again, a very strong word of encouragement to John’s readers to hold fast to the way of Jesus and the way of real power.
These verses retell the vision of 19:11-21 in briefer form, focusing on the dragon. Satan is “released” not so he can actually make war against the saints, but so that he will take himself to his own destruction. His being released is analogous to the intensification of the plagues in the last plague series, the bowls. Evil finally is exposed and destroyed.
The names “Gog and Magog” come from Ezekiel 38 and refer to human nations in rebellion against God. They are essentially the same as Babylon. It is an obscure reference. The point of it is to highlight the reality that the nations are in rebellion and that God’s victory is complete and total.
Verses 8 and 9 say the same thing as 19:17-21. Here: “Their [the rebellious nations] number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur.” In 19:19 the “kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who sits upon the horse and against his army.” But the beast and the false prophet, who had deluded the nations, are captured and thrown into the lake of burning sulfur (19:20). The armies in 19:21 are killed with the rider’s sword and their flesh eaten by birds; in 20:9 they are devoured by fire from above. The imagery is similar. It is judgment imagery, and it reveals the true desires of their hearts.
The fate of the dragon in 20:1-10 is similar to that of the beast earlier. As Satan here is bound, released, and destroyed, so the beast in chapter 13 is killed, then comes back to life, and finally in chapter 19 is destroyed.
20:11-15—The Great White Throne Judgment
There is one more matter to be dealt with before the New Jerusalem comes down: the great white throne judgment.
Note the main points here. First, everyone, great aqndf small, is brought to account for the lives they lives; no one escapes the judgment of God.
Second, people are judged according to what they have done, not just what they believe. This picture supports Jesus’ teaching about the centrality of discipleship. John is saying to his readers, “How you live matters!” The “book of life” records those who have true faith. Faith and works go together. Faith without works is dead, but there are truly no good works without faith.
Third, this judgment is real. It will come. And it comes prior to the New Jerusalem, for there will be nothing unclean found there.
Fourth, Death and Hades are finally thrown into the lake of burning sulfur. They have no more power over people once those who are in the book of life are reunited with God and those who are not, meet their final fate in the lake of burning sulfur. In Paul’s words, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death…[then] God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:26,28).
In 19:1-8 we see a grand picture of worship in heaven. The worship has been inspired by God’s justice that has destroyed evil and brought to pass the wedding supper of the Lamb. Both are necessary for the New Jerusalem to come and God’s promise of salvation to be fulfilled.
In 19:11 Jesus comes onto the scene as God’s warrior-judge. But the war is over, for all intents and purposes, due to his victory in the cross. What we see here 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. “All the rest” (those who were deceived) are judged by the word of Christ (the sword comes out of his mouth).
Jesus, dressed in a robe stained with his own blood, is pictured here as the true ruler. He is so powerful that he simply throws his enemies into the lake of fire—without resistance. This vision powerfully supports John’s continued call to his readers to remain faithful to the way of Jesus and to resist worshiping the dragon and beast and harlot.
In short, 20:1-10 retells chapter 19 with a different focus, centering on the fate of Satan. Verses 1-3 describe his binding, emphasizing the time between Christ’s two comings, and the binding of Satan with his limited ability to act during this time (i.e., he cannot separate God’s people from God’s love). The recurring interlude of God’s people rejoicing (7:9-17; 12:9-12; 14:1-5; 14:13; 15:2-4; 19:9) is taken up again in 20:4-6. They can rejoice because seeming defeat—martyrdom for the sake of Jesus—is really victory in God’s sight.
Satan is released in 20:7-10 so that he can take himself to his own destruction. Like the beast in 19:17-21, the dragon leads the rebellious nations against God but is summarily taken and thrown into the lake of fire with no battle being fought. This again highlights the real battle having occurred with Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
The great white throne judgment (20:11-15) is for everyone on the basis of what they have done. It culminates in the final destruction of Death and Hades. In Paul’s words, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death…[then] God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:26,28).
In chapters 19 and 20, especially 19:11-20, John gives us several “reruns.” He uses battle imagery to present a picture of Jesus Christ winning the ultimate battle in the conflict between good and evil. Jesus does not do this through a bloodbath; rather, it has already been accomplished in the past historical event of his death and resurrection.
John’s view of the last things (eschatology) is totally determined by his view of the decisiveness of Jesus’ past victory over the powers of evil. In 1:5 he speaks of Jesus as the “ruler of the kings on earth” in the present. He has “made us a kingdom” (1:6). John hears Jesus assert “I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18).
The key passage in the whole book is chapter 5. An important point this passage makes is that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.” This Lion, of course, is none other than the slain Lamb, Jesus of Nazareth. The efficacy of this “conquering” is seen in chapter 19. Though the forces of evil are gathered for battle, Jesus and his angels simply capture them without even fighting. The real battle is long past.
The dragon has already been defeated. Thus we can learn from the history of the Lamb how to play our role in effecting this victory. And we can do this in the hope that the ultimate power in the universe is God’s suffering love.
As we have seen in looking at the plagues in Revelation, Jesus’ resurrection did not bring an end to history. His victory is yet to be completed. Revelation looks forward to a last day in which the New Jerusalem comes down and heaven and earth are one. John’s “realized eschatology,” however, see the crucial event as past, meaning that that event determines what future events will look like.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection also determine the shape of our task as his followers. There is a sense in which the Lamb’s war continues in our world and will continue until the last day. It is important that we have hope in that day. But it is equally important that we recognize our present responsibility to live (and fight) in the light of both the past event and the future event.
We learn from the past event how to fight. We learn from the future event why we fight. The how has to do with using the weapons of Ephesians 6: truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, prayer, and perseverance. The why has to do with making our contribution to the coming of the kingdom of God by being its agents in all areas of our lives: the individual, familial, communal, and social.
The biblical perspective knows of no split between the individual and the social (and thus goes counter to much of the ethos of modern-day North America.) All individuals are individuals-in-community. The person of faith is one with responsibility toward others, an individual full of God’s love and compassion for all people. The individual does not stand alone, an isolated lonely entity.
These “social” elements of existence do not override the individuality of the person, rather they define it and nurture it. Our ultimate “yes” or “no” to God—following the Lamb and fighting his war his way—comes from our heart as individuals in contact with God. But we are individuals shaped by the community of which we are a part. We are sent out of these communities and far beyond on God’s behalf.
The individual-in-community remains in a fundamental way an individual, responsible for his or her decisions and obedience to God. As obedient people of God, people of faith have the responsibility of being agents of God’s peace in the world.
One part of this is honestly to face the violence within each of us—not to deny it but to confront it, to overcome it, and to redirect it in positive, creative words of service.
This “internal” peacemaking, which of course cannot happen apart from works of “external” peacemaking, can be seen as the center of a series of concentric circles. The next circle is our family and close friends, those with whom we live in close proximity. This is followed by the circle of our church community, our neighborhood, our town or city. And finally is the circle of the wider world. This image of concentric circles in not the basis for prioritizing our peacemaking efforts but for recognizing the need to care for human life on all levels—to strive for integrity, consistency, and responsibility for living faithfully in the light of God’s loving concern for all of creation.
This challenge to integrity is really part of John’s overall challenge in his book to Christians—to choose the city of God over the city of Satan. The city imagery is important beause it highlights the social nature of human existence. God is at work creating a new social reality through the community of the faithful.
But the city imagery has its drawbacks if it is used to justify withdrawal from life in the world and if we understand fleeing Babylon to mean literally separating ourselves from our non-Christian neighbors. John writes in metaphorical terms about the cities. Both take up the same space. Each exists side by side, even within each other. The citizen of the New Jerusalem, in this time before the last day, lives out that citizenship by being a faithful witness within Babylon.
This is a present-day challenge to us not to “hide our lights,” but actively to seek to make peace however we can, wherever there is conflict. Certainly the church knows plenty of conflict. But so, too, does the wider world. We have a responsibility for the integrity of the church’s witness, which certainly means that we need to deal openly with our internal problems. But if the church only focuses inwardly, then it really has no witness.
The job of identifying the shape of this witness is one that demands discernment—both of our own gifts, abilities, and interests and of the needs around us. However, the difficulty of this discernment process must not deter us from facing the implications of John’s message. Once more we see the challenge in Jesus’ message to the church at Laodicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot.…So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (3:15-16). Our citizenship in God’s city is determined by how we respond to the challenge to minister in Satan’s city.
Jesus’ own response to this challenge serves both as a demand on us and as a promise to us. His way of suffering love is the way for us to follow. It calls into question any of our shortcuts and our attempts to manipulate or disregard other people “for a greater ultimate good.” His victory means that ours is also assured, should we follow in his way.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) What is the significance of the bride making herself ready for the marriage supper of the Lamb? What is the role of the “righteous deeds of the saints” (19:8)? What are these “righteous deeds”? How are you doing with regard to them?
(2) What do you make of the various mentions of the importance of good works (e.g., 14:13; 19:8; 20:12)? How do you relate the necessity of good works to the idea of salvation by God’s grace alone?
(3) Do you see the picture in 19:11-16 as consistent with the Jesus of the Gospels? Should it be?
(4) What do you make of the apparent absence of a real battle where one is expected (19:19-20)? Assuming that this is a way of emphasizing the all-sufficiency of Jesus’ cross and resurrection for defeating the forces of evil, do you think this has any relevance for present-day struggles with evil?
(5) Do you agree with the 1,000 years is a symbol for the time between Christ’s first and second comings? If not, how do you understand it? How important do you think this issue is? Why?
(6) What do you make of the binding of Satan (20:2)? Is it conceivable that Satan is bound now, given the rampant evil in our world?
(7) Do you believe that in the real world what seems to be defeat (i.e., persecution, even literal death, for the sake of Jesus) can really be a victory? If so, how does that belief affect your life?
(8) Is the idea of the great white throne judgment a comfort or a threat to you? Why? How is your attitude toward this related to your view of God and God’s predisposition toward you?