11. How to Read Revelation—Revelation 14:1-20
[This is the eleventh in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
Many of the commentaries on Revelation agree that the blood 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 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. Interpreters seem to find it obvious that “blood” symbolizes death and punishing judgment. Some cultured despisers of Revelation are horrified by this theology that they see in Revelation and reject it. They think Revelation is bad news. Others welcome this kind of bloody theology—they embrace the idea of God as punisher and see Revelation as a key source. However, I have discovered that Revelation actually teaches something quite different.
Revelation’s theology of “blood”
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 introduced to Jesus, the faithful witness who followed a path of nonviolent love that led him to resist the powers to death. 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.
This same point is made in chapter five. Jesus, the executed and resurrected Lamb is the true Lion of Judah (Messiah) who has the power to open the great scroll that tells of the ultimate victory of God. Jesus is worshiped here as 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.”
A third time, in chapter seven, the same exact point is made. Here we have a 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. 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” signifies life, the ultimate healing of the nations and the kings of the earth.
The battle for the imagination
Chapter 14 follows the terrible vision of the Beast in chapter 13. 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 “patient endurance”—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, 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.
The gospel according to Revelation 14
John sees “another angel flying in midheaven” (14:6) bringing the gospel to “every nation and tribe and language,” a gospel with three parts—first the proclamation of the healing mercy of God. But a second element is also required—the fall of Babylon. 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.
The third element of the gospel focuses on those human idolaters. Those who “worship the beast” suffer terrible consequences. John’s main concern here, though, is not with those outside the churches who trust in the beast. He actually turns out to have 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.
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”—Jesus gathering his people for the “wedding supper of the Lamb.”
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—a metaphor for 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 that leads to Babylon’s downfall.
This is the message: Jesus is our model. His life and death as faithful witness, vindicated by resurrection, are what the “blood” refers to. This “blood” of Jesus, joined by the “blood” of his followers, is the very means of God to bring about the world’s healing.
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! Which will be how Revelation ends.