15. The War That’s Not a War—Revelation 19:1-21
[This is the fifteenth 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.]
In Revelation, we are told that the Beast, the Dragon, the city Babylon, these Powers that symbolize the domination system are defeated, that “it is all over.” Yet the powers keep coming back. They go down in chapters 11 and 12, and in chapter 17, and then again in chapter 18. And at the beginning of chapter 19, the great harlot has been judged and smoke goes up from her forever and ever. And yet, in the second half of the chapter the powers of evil are back, gathered for the great battle of Armageddon.
There’s a war going on in Revelation—a war against these Powers. But it’s a strange kind of war. Revelation 19:11-21 pictures a great warrior. Notice that though the warrior is victorious, the Powers come back in chapter 20. That they always come back is a literary technique pushing the narrative ahead. We come to the end but know there is still more of the book to come. Then we circle back and it happens again. It’s a way to hold readers’ interest. But I also think there is a theological message here too—it’s a way of saying that history, what Revelation symbolizes as the 3½ years, the time we live in, is not simply linear. The outcome that matters isn’t only in the future.
That is, that the Powers keep coming back and that the Lamb’s followers keep celebrating tell us that what matters is what we do now. Revelation is not about the future. It’s about the present—the present of John the writer but also the present of all the readers throughout history. The Powers are always present, but so too is the celebration, if we choose to join it.
The war that is not a war
Revelation tells us about an on-going deadly conflict that is deadly and frames the conflict in terms of living a life-enhancing life in the midst of the death-dealing ways of the Roman Empire. And, yet Revelation makes it clear that this war is not to be fought with conventional weapons. It’s not to be a typical war with winners and losers, with death and destruction. The “conquering” that needs to happen comes about through love, not through force. So, there is a war, but it’s not really a war.
Back in chapter 16, at the conclusion of the series of visions where the bowls of God’s wrath are poured out, the Beast and False Prophet gather “the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty…at the place…called Armageddon” (16:14,16). But then come two chapters’ worth of visions of the destruction of Babylon. There is no battle here. This great city commits a kind of suicide as its own death-dealing dynamics turn on the city itself and bring it down. Then there is a celebration, the city is gone, the marriage of the Lamb and the Lamb’s followers is at hand.
But the story does not forget the promised battle. At 19:11, a great warrior rides forth on a mighty white horse joined by “the armies of heaven.” So, it is Armageddon time after all. But read carefully. Keep the vision of the victorious Lamb from chapter 5 in mind. Then, we won’t have much trouble seeing that in fact what happens when the rider on the white horse comes is a creative way to portray a war that is not a war. There is, in the end, no battle. Still, it is not accidental that the Rider is portrayed with battle-like imagery, said to “make war.” He rides a great white horse, wields a powerful sword, and is joined by armies from heaven.
A battle without blood
In waging war in chapter 19, the Lamb actually does not wage war. There is only one mention of “blood” in this entire scene. And it is consistent with the way the rest of Revelation portrays “blood.” Whatever battle there is, it is one without any combatant’s blood being shed. The blood here belongs to the Rider—and it is shed before he rides forth. The Rider “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13). As chapter one tells us, he is “Faithful and True,” with a sword that comes out of his mouth. He is the Lamb that was slain and raised from chapter 5. This blood on his garment is “blood” as nonviolent resistance to the domination ways of the empire.
These armies of heaven that join the Rider—none of them carry weapons. They “wear fine linen, white and pure” (19:14). The “armies” are the Lamb’s followers. They are chapter 7’s multitudes who are given white robes—those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They “conquer the [dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, [they] do not cling to life even in face of death” (12:11). These soldiers wage “war” with self-giving love—they fight without fighting in a war that is not a war.
So we have one bit of blood. It symbolizes Jesus’ love that led to his death and vindication by God. And we have one weapon—the sword from the Rider’s mouth. This sword is Jesus’s word of testimony. What a strange Armageddon this is! No bloodshed. No battle. The Powers of evil are simply captured. The issue is not their irresistible power. The Beast is powerless when people don’t believe in him. “Beast” and “False Prophet” in Revelation are symbols; they are personifications; they are not persons. These are the systems of prejudice, the structures of injustice—human culture insofar as it dehumanizes. The image of the Beast and False Prophet going into the lake of fire is not about revenge against human beings, it’s about destroying the destroyers of the earth for the sake of all humanity.
A gruesome picture of healing
Still, if we expect to find revenge and punishment of human beings in Revelation, we might find some at the end of chapter 19. Because, after the beast and false prophet go into the lake of fire, we do read: “the rest [meaning the kings of the earth and their armies] were killed by the sword of the rider of the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21).
Let’s read this vision in context. The Rider is Jesus, whose blood brought victory through persevering love. The blood of Jesus’ opponents is never shed in Revelation. The sword that “kills” here is the “sword from his mouth”—not words of condemnation but words of welcome and healing. Later in Revelation, the kings of the earth, these very minions of the beast who go to Armageddon and expect to fight against Jesus, end up in the New Jerusalem. They eat healing fruit from the tree of life. So, what we have here in Revelation 19 is a gruesome picture of healing, not a picture of punishment. The kings of the earth are freed from the Powers and everything changes. Then they see the Lamb for who he is.
Throughout Revelation, we read of worship. Praises are sung, human solidarity leads to celebration even in face of civilization’s destructiveness. Revelation’s apocalyptic sensibility actually is hopeful and joyful. Worship in Revelation celebrates life in the here and now. Revelation does not point to the future saying hold on. No. Revelation insists, sing, celebrate, live joyfully right now. The way of the Lamb is the way of life—you may suffer grievously as you embody it, but you will also know joy, you will also know life.
Link to index for “What does Revelation say?” blog posts