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.