War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2019

A high percentage of people who are interested in the book of Revelation believe that it is a book about violence and God’s punitive judgment. They take, for example, the imagery of blood flowing for miles as high as a horse’s bridal (14:20) in some literal sense as a vision of a future total war that will destroy God’s enemies and lead to the coming of New Jerusalem. Some of those who interpret Revelation in this way are horrified by such imagery and believe that its presence is a good reason to dismiss Revelation out of hand. Part of the vehemence of this dismissal follows from the presence of many more interpreters who actually welcome this violent vision as evidence that they will be united with God in eternity and that God’s enemies will be condemned to everlasting torment.

I think this future-prophetic approach is simply wrong. It fails to recognize the symbolic character of the imagery of Revelation. Partly this is due to a failure properly to understand the message of Jesus from the gospels as being a message of peace for this world. These interpretations then add another failure to that failure, which is to fail to recognize that the character of the Lamb in Revelation reveals that this imaginative book itself also brings a message of peace. I am convinced that we read Revelation appropriately as being in full harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus presented in the gospels. When Revelation 1:1 tells us that what follows is a “Revelation of Jesus Christ,” it makes a point that is indeed to be taken literally: the purpose of the account of this “revelation” is to help us better to follow the way of the Jesus of the gospels.

The “harshness” of Revelation

Of course, Revelation does contain some harsh appearing imagery (such as the flowing blood of 14:20, the devastating fall of the “Great Harlot” in chapter 17, the destructive sword of 19:11-21, and numerous others). However, the book makes it clear that its governing image is that of the Lamb, who wins the victory the book celebrates with his self-giving love (see especially 5:5-14 and 12:10-11). If we read the book in light of this governing image, then we will come to a different understanding of the “war” that is portrayed in the book—and of the means to fight that war that the book advocates.

The book does use the image of the “Lamb’s war” (17:14). When we note all the other violent imagery, it is understandable that peaceable people would find it difficult to embrace the war image. Several years ago I gave a paper on Revelation at a conference on “compassionate eschatology” (“Biblical Apocalyptic: What is being revealed?”) making the case for the Lamb’s war being a peaceable image. One audience member argued strongly with me, and I never did convince her. I respect her sense that we need to reject the use of war imagery of Jesus because that imagery is irredeemable in our modern world. At the same time, this is the imagery we have, and I tend to think that by embracing the imagery in Revelation and orienting it in light of how the book actually uses that imagery we may find important resources for actively resisting the domination system we live in the midst of.

Revelation’s main concern

I like the idea that what Revelation is concerned about is what we could call a “war of words.” If we read carefully, we will see that over and over the book presents the conflict in terms of what comes out of the mouths of various characters (both those on God’s side and those who oppose God). We also will note the importance of the book’s critique of the deception of the anti-God Powers—and the importance of the truthfulness of those aligned with God.

This “war of words” becomes even more apparent when we think a bit about the historical setting for the writing of the book. Most scholars place the book near the end of the first century, though a few place it earlier. For my point here, either time works. The point would be that the book was written to challenge the tendency among early Christians to allow themselves to become too comfortable with the Roman Empire, too easily to accept the vision of reality presented by Rome.

So, those in John’s intended audience when he wrote Revelation were indeed engaged in a kind of war of words, a battle of visions of reality. John seeks to challenge his readers to recognize what is at stake in their disposition toward Rome. He wants them to recognize that indeed they are in the midst of a battle—a battle over their loyalties, over their ways of understanding the world they live in and their place in it. I think it is safe to say that John’s agenda has remained a relevant agenda for people of faith ever since, down to the present. Whose words provide our sense of the world we live in—the prophetic, countercultural, peace-centered words of the Lamb or the words of the various human kingdoms, empires, or corporations that center on wealth, power, national security, and domination?

The importance of words

Once we are sensitized to the possibility that Revelation indeed recounts a war of words, we can’t help but begin to notice how many images throughout the book confirm that possibility. I will mention a few key ones here.

John begins the book with the assertion that it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ”—who is then identified as “the faithful witness” (1:5) who is risen and currently rules. The “faithful witness” label is used several times in the book of Jesus, the Lamb, and also of Jesus’s followers. I understand this term to refer all at once to Jesus’s faithful life, to his teaching, and to his execution. This label establishes Jesus’s teaching ministry as a key element of his identity as the emissary of the One on the throne.

Present day readers of Revelation do not always pay enough attention to the emphasis the book makes on discipleship, on actively following Jesus’s way. Revelation is, as much as anything, an ethical exhortation to John’s readers to embody that way. We see this emphasis right away when John writes that those who read, hear, and keep the words of Revelation’s prophetic exhortation will be blessed (1:3).

Later in chapter one, John reiterates the sense of Jesus the prophet proclaiming authoritative words of truth when he reports that as he receives this vision of Jesus Christ he sees Jesus (“one like the Son of Man”) with a sharp, two-edged sword coming from his mouth (1:16). This image of Jesus’s sword is a crucial element of the conflict that Revelation portrays—and Jesus’s (and his followers’) means of engaging the conflict.

The “sword from the mouth” should be linked closely with the “faithful witness.” It is the prophetic proclamation of Jesus (both his actual words and the witness of his life) that confronts the enemies of God (and those who give their loyalties to those enemies). These images, in the context of Revelation’s vision of Jesus as the Lamb whose victory was won through his persevering love that lead to death and resurrection (5:5-6; 12:10-11), combine both the nonviolence of speech and works of love and the reality of confrontation. Jesus challenges those who depart from shalom, so the “sword” does connote judgment. But the judgment comes in words, not in coercive violence.

What’s at stake?

The importance of joining Jesus in confronting and resisting the forces of injustice and oppression is emphasized in the messages to the seven congregations (chapters 2 and 3) that establish the agenda for the book as a whole. The core exhortation that is shared with each one of the seven congregations is the call to listen to what the Spirit says to the churches (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Listen to the words of the Spirit of Jesus and they speak to the shape of faithfulness amidst the Roman Empire in the late first century CE.

The message to the congregation in Pergamum (2:12-16) brings into sharpest focus John’s agenda. Jesus is presented to this congregation as the one with the sharp, two-edged sword—an allusion back to the picture of Jesus in 1:16 with the sword coming out of his mouth. That is, this image reminds those in Pergamum of Jesus’s prophetic life and speech that led to his execution by the representatives of the Roman Empire.

This reminder gains potency in face of problems that John sees in the congregation. “I have this against you—some hold to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans” (2:16). This cryptic reference most likely alludes to those teaching the congregation that collaboration with the Empire is fine for Christians. John’s Jesus disagrees, in part because this is the same Empire that he resisted to the point of death. Revelation as a whole may be read to challenge those in the congregations who were too comfortable within the Empire and, as a consequence, too complicit with the Empire’s injustices and too disregarding toward Jesus’s call to transformative justice.

If this message’s call to repentance (i.e., turn away from giving loyalty to Rome and return to the gospel way of life that Jesus modeled) is ignored, the Jesus of the messages promises to “make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16). I believe that this “making war” is a war of words, confrontation, prophetic critique. The conflict John has in mind here is a sharp, meaningful debate between two sets of loyalties and two ways of life.

We get the picture in the seven messages that the battle that matters is a battle of ideologies, of ways of being in the world, of ways of understanding what deserves our loyalties. John’s Jesus wages war against those in the congregations who teach that the Empire is an agent of their God and is the guarantor of peace and security. This is a war of perceptions, of the truths of Torah and the gospel over against the deceptions and falsehoods of the Empire (which are, John insists with his imagery, the deceptions and falsehoods of Satan himself).

The struggle between the two ways

Several references later in the book underscore that what’s going on is a battle of words. In chapter 9, the forces of the Dragon practice violence and oppression in the form of deadly cavalry horses with “fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths; … the power of the horses is in their mouths and their tails” (9:17-19). I interpret the image here as referring to the words of deception and agitation that come out of the mouths of the leaders of the Empire and its satellites in the areas where the seven congregations of chapters 2 and 3 are located.

Then, in chapter 11 we get a picture of the other side in this struggle. God calls “two witnesses” (a parallel image with the seven congregations in chapters 2 and 3 and the 144,000 that turns out to be a countless multitude in chapter 7—the communities of God’s people) to exercise authority and stand against the Powers. These two witnesses are powerful as “fire pours from their mouths and consumes their foes” (11:5). The key image here is that the weapon “pours from their mouths”—surely an allusion to their words of prophecy and clarity and critique and encouragement that underscore the truthfulness of the message of Jesus, the “faithful witness” who assures the success of these two witnesses.

The imagery of conflict continues in chapter 12, where the Dragon is now explicitly identified as the true power behind the human leaders of the Empire. The comrades of Jesus are victorious in the conflict. They “conquer the Dragon by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11). Jesus’s life, teaching, execution, and resurrection show how to be impervious to the deceptions of the Powers—that is, how to conquer. And the word of testimony from those who seek to follow him is their part in the conquering process.

However, the Dragon never gives up. The struggle for truthfulness continues. The Dragon pours water like a river from his mouth, hoping to “sweep away” the Lamb’s people (12:15-17). The words of deception and idolatry will continue to pour forth from all later iterations of Empire. In chapter 13, we learn of a powerful representative of the Dragon, the Beast (another image for Empire), whose “mouth utters haughty and blasphemous words as it exercises great authority” (13:5-6). Yet another beast, called the False Prophet, joins in and adds to the deceptive dynamics where Empire takes the place of God as the source of “truthfulness” and recipient of loyalty (13:11-18).

Again, though, John reminds his readers of the Lamb’s victory. The countless multitude of chapter 7 is re-envisioned in 14:1-5 as “the 144,000” (note 7:4-9) who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, join him in celebrating his victory on “Mt. Zion,” and—crucially, given the “war of words”—are shown to have no lies found in their mouths (unlike the many lies of the Beast and his representatives).

One more time, John shows the continuing efforts of the Dragon to win their war of words. Three foul spirits like frogs come from the mouths of the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet and perform signs and draw together the kings of the earth for battle with God (16:13-14). These words are deceptive and persuade the “kings” of the falsehood that there actually can be a battle between the Dragon and the Lamb.

The “battle” that is not a battle

The drama reaches its end in chapter 19 when the “battle” that was promised in chapter 16 with the gathering at Armageddon is described—and turns out not to be a battle at all. The rider on the white horse (Jesus) simply captures the three Powers of evil (Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet), throws the latter two into the lake of fire (19:20), and sets the Dragon up for its destruction when it joins them (20:10). A careful reading of the description of this rider reveals crucial theological affirmations and a confirmation that the war in Revelation is a war of words.

The rider “is clothed in a robe” that is “dipped in blood” prior to the encounter with the Powers (19:13). The “blood” here surely is the same as the “blood” of 12:11 that conquered the Dragon—that is, the “blood” of 12:9 (an allusion to Jesus’s execution) that is the basis for the Lamb taking the scroll from the One on the throne and being worshiped as victorious by all of creation (5:9-14). There is no actual battle in chapter 19 because the conquering has already happened through the faithful witness of Jesus as described in the gospels.

Further, the only weapon mentioned in chapter 19 is one we are already familiar with: “from his mouth comes a sharp sword” (19:15). This sharp sword surely stands for the “faithful witness” of Jesus, his prophetic proclamation of words and practices that “conquered” the Dragon, in part by exposing the Dragon’s lies and deceptions about the meaning and purpose of life for what they are. The sharp sword is Jesus’s effective weapon that wins the war of words Revelation reveals.

The final use of the sword image is a bit difficult to understand. After the Beast and False Prophet are thrown into the lake of fire (19:20), we are told, “the rest were killed by the sword of the rider, the sword that came from his mouth” (19:21). Let’s assume that the reiteration of the “came from his mouth” is meant to make it clear that the reference is to Jesus’s words. In what sense would these words “kill” the “kings of the earth with their armies”—i.e., “the rest”? It is doubtful that there is anything literal about this killing since we will read in chapters 21–22 of “the kings of the earth,” healed and bringing the nations’ glory into New Jerusalem.

One possible explanation is that this “killing” is a bit of rhetorical hyperbole that makes the point that those who identify with the Dragon truly are completely defeated by the Lamb. Left unstated is the reality that such a defeat for human beings might well result in their healing, once their loyalty to the Dragon is broken. As we see in the end, the defeat and destruction of the Powers of evil frees their human loyalists (i.e., the “kings of the earth”) from their idolatries and leads to their healing.

War of words

So, Revelation indeed is not telling us about a literal war of coercive firepower vs. coercive firepower. Nor is it predicting some great End Times battle royal without a predetermined outcome. Rather, Revelation describes a struggle over worldviews, over loyalties, over understandings of truth. The struggle happens in the realm of ideas, of speech, of ideologies. John presents as most truthful the message of Jesus that centers on God’s love for creation, on Jesus’s faithful witness to that love, and on the embodiment of that message by those human beings from all tribes and peoples and languages and nations who identify with the Lamb.

The character of the struggle may be understood by contrasting the two ways of “conquering” the book describes—conquering through killing others (the way of the Dragon) versus conquering through testifying to the way of Jesus.

For today’s readers, let me conclude that I believe we who want to affirm the teaching of Revelation face two central challenges. The first challenge is that we realize that our fight is with the Powers (ideologies, traditions, structures, et al—the forces that dehumanize and “Other”) and not with “flesh and blood” (cf. Ephesians 6:12).

The second challenge is to realize that the fight is not one resolved when we hurt and defeat other people in coercive combat, but when we remain committed the path of loving our neighbors (including our enemies) at all times. The method for winning this fight is the blood of the Lamb (the way of Jesus, loving our neighbors without compromise) and our faithful witness (our words of prophetic critique and restorative justice); it is not using the Dragon’s means of violence and domination.

[The “Peaceable Revelation” series of blog posts]

One thought on “War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)

  1. Your two challenges are valid and the resolutions are sound, Ted.

    Yes, we do understand that the nature of our enemy is not horses and chariots, swords, bombs and tanks. The enemy is more than ideology, it is the expression of ideology in institutions, practices, customs, laws and social organisation.

    Yes, we address our enemies not with physical or military killing or power or destruction.

    However, there are some ‘challenges’ in the book that you just don’t seem to address, and that should leave your perceptive readers with an itch to scratch.

    One of the surprising features of your writing is the dearth of acknowledgement of the saturation of the book with Old Testament prophecy and apocalyptic material. At most you relate the book only to the life and teaching of the Lord in his earthly ministry and some vague reference to Torah. The whole Old Testament eschatological narrative and framework is ignored and replaced with a New Testament eschatology that omits its reiteration and development of Old Testament eschatology.

    For example, consider the use of Daniel’s apocalyptic material in the New Testament and in Revelation. The book of Daniel is deeply apocalyptic and it has a narrative and a framework of what was supposed to happen and when. The elements include:
    1. The four empires / beasts as the historical and temporal and political context, as related to the holy city and the holy people
    2. The tribulation of the holy city and the holy people, the rising up of some to shame and everlasting contempt, the complete shattering of the power of the holy people, the desolation of the temple, the war to continue until the end, and in the end come like a flood [of military power].
    3. The rescue of the wise, the rise of the wise to everlasting life, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds, the destruction of the beasts, the destruction of the little horn, the completion of sin, the fulfilment of prophecy, the bringing in of everlasting righteousness, and the saints inherit the kingdom, and ‘the end’ or ‘the end of the days’ or the end of the 70 7s, the 1290 days and the 1335 days.

    The development and application of Daniel in the New Testament — ignoring Revelation for the time being — includes:
    1. The fulfilment of Dan. 2:35, the smashing of the image, and the dispersal of the enemies like chaff, against the Pharisees and the Sadducees immanently (i.e. in the First Century) in Mat. 3:7-12 according to John the Baptist.
    2, The fulfilment of the time of waiting, “the appointed time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand” in Mark 1:14-15 according to the Lord.
    3. The fulfilment of the crushing of the stone of Dan. 2:35 against the wicked tenants, the leaders of Israel, against the chief priests and the Pharisees in Mat. 21:33-45, according to the Lord.
    4. The fulfilment of the tearing up of the weeds at the end of the age harvest of Mat. 13:36-43, in fulfilment of the resurrection of Dan. 12:2-3, would be fulfilled at the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (Mat. 24:3), at the end of the age, at the coming of Christ.
    5. The great tribulation of Dan. 12:1 and the abomination of desolation were to be fulfilled in the period just before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (Mat. 24:15-22)
    6. The coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of Dan. 7:13 to receive the kingdom would take place immediately after the tribulation leading up to the fall of the Jerusalem temple, and Israel’s tribes would see it and mourn (Mat. 24:29-30)
    7. The coming of the kingdom of God would be near as the signs of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple came to pass (Luke 21:31)

    Putting these two sources together, it is unavoidable that the Lord and the gospel writers identified that the Fourth Beast / Fourth Kingdom was present at their time, and that the time for the destruction of the little horn / beasts was arriving and would be consummated in the fall of the Jerusalem temple, when the kingdom of the Pharisees and Chief Priests and Sadducees that was to be destroyed, crushed, uprooted and thrown in the fire at the time that the Son of Man came on the clouds, when the tribes of Israel would mourn for him whom they had pierced.

    However, when you get to Revelation, none of this is acknowledged.

    When Revelation refers to the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds, to judge the tribes of the land for their guilt in piercing the Christ (Rev. 1:7) are we supposed to think this is a different coming, upon a different set of tribes, who pierced a different Christ? When Jesus Christ is revealed, this is something, you are claiming, other than his coming on the clouds to judge and to exercise the power and authority of the kingdom by ordering: ‘But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me’ (Luke 19:27)?

    (Again you are insisting that the Roman authorities killed the Lord, notwithstanding extensive documentation I provided on the last post that the biblical witness puts the actions and responsibility entirely on the Jews. If you want to insist that it is the Roman authorities that are the target of the guilt rhetoric, is it too much to ask you to provide some evidence from the text of the book?)

    When Revelation refers to the ‘appointed time is as hand’ (1:3) this is not the appointed time from Daniel 8:19, the latter end of the indignation … the appointed time of the end’, and Dan. 11:27 ‘the end is yet to be at the appointed time’ and Dan. 11:35, ‘the time of the end, for it still awaits the appointed time.?

    When Revelation refers to not sealing up the book because ‘the appointed time is near’ (22:10), this is not referring to the same appointed time of Daniel 12:4, the appointed time of the resurrection of the just and the unjust, at the ‘time of the end’ which for Daniel was not near?

    When Revelation refers to the time, times and half a time (12:14) this is not the same time, times and half a time of Dan. 12:7, which would result in the complete shattering of the power of the holy people, at the completion of the great tribulation, following the abomination of desolation and the ceasing of the making of offerings in the Jerusalem temple?

    This is just one Old Testament prophetic and apocalyptic book, albeit perhaps the most important one expressing the eschatological narrative of the Old Testament. But it is more than sufficient to carry the point: the framework and elements of the Old Testament and the New Testament eschatological narrative are somehow side-stepped and eliminated from your analysis.

    The following are the most obvious missing elements:
    1. The specific and special time of tribulation, the great tribulation. Revelation repeatedly refers to the tribulation, and to the ‘little while’, speaks of it as a present event, nearly finished, and to be finished within the appointed time of 42 months, and at the finish of this, the enemies would be decisively uprooted. In your interpretation this has become symbolic and timeless.
    2. The desolation of the Jerusalem temple, the ceasing of offerings, the abomination that causes and triggers it.
    3. The end of the age, the end of the days, the last hour, the completion of the last days.
    4. The arrival of the kingdom in glory and power, with the Son of Man arriving on the clouds, as a dramatic, specific and timely event. In your interpretation the Son of Man is coming on the clouds and is still coming on the clouds and continues to come on the clouds, without any visible judgement upon the prostitute / those who destroy the land.

    On this last point, the Lord was particularly clear: the kingdom was, at the time of his ministry, coming invisibly (Luke 17:20f). Yet, the Lord had his Day, when he would be seen visibly: like the sunlight (not lightening), at sun rise, ending the night and bringing the light of day, from the east to the west (Luke 17:24). The day of the Lord would bring the day time (Rom. 13:11-13), the brightness of his coming to destroy the man of lawlessness in the temple (2 Thes. 2:8). The Lord explains what he means by the arrival of the sunrise and the daytime and the brightness of his coming:

    But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:25-37)

    This is referring to the judgement day, upon Jerusalem, when those therein would need to get out of the city in great haste, because the vultures (Roman army) would destroy the corpse (Jerusalem). This event would manifest the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds, and would be the revelation of Jesus Christ and the Day of the Lord.

    Somehow your interpretation of ‘revelation’ omits this ‘revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ’ against the tribes of the land of Israel. Your peace theology doesn’t have room for the Lord who did not come to bring peace to the old system but a sword, turning Jewish men against their brothers, and removing the restrainer, revealing the man of lawlessness, the rebel, whom the Lord would consume with the breath of his mouth at the brightness of his coming.

    The war of words doesn’t do justice to the material we have. The war of words was ongoing, with Moses and the prophets speaking trust and justice and compassion, and the other forces distorting, perverting and opposing it. The Lord also spoke words, he taught, as did his disciples and Apostles, and they were likewise distorted and opposed. But the narrative and the framework we have is that this war of words builds up to a decisive battle, with a decisive victory: the book of Revelation is specifically about the vindication of the words with the reality and near-term victory, manifested visibly, in heaven but also on earth. The gospels explain the context and meaning of this visible manifestation of the victory of Christ over his enemies, and the destruction and condemnation of the ruler of the (old) world — but it’s missing from your interpretation.

    All of this is not to say we (or they) should participate in the war or the slaughter: for us, as for the Lord, it is a tragedy, because the old system and the old City was blind to the coming of her saviour and rejected peace (Luke 19:41-44). Yet, we can and should celebrate the decisive victory over the persecuting power, the Synagogue of Satan, the corruptible and corrupt body, the corpse, the destroyers of the land of Israel. As Moses said:
    Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
    for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
    he will take vengeance on his enemies
    and make atonement for his land and people. (Deut. 32:43)

    Are we not these nations? Are we not with his people? did he not avenge the blood of his servants against that crooked generation? (refer Mat. 23:29-39) did he not make atonement for his land and his people thereby? Can’t you make room for Moses in your interpretation of Revelation?

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