Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse!
Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.
His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.
And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure,
were following him on white horses.
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations,
and he will rule them with a rod of iron;
he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.
On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed,
‘King of kings and Lord of lords’. (Rev. 19:11-16)
There are some pretty terrible passages in the Bible. If I would have read a little further you would have learned about the angel of the Lord inviting the birds of the air to gorge themselves on the corpses of the defeated armies who worshiped the beast in John’s apocalypse. During the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther almost removed the book from our Christian writings. I, for one, am glad that Revelation is included in our Bible, but I haven’t always felt that way.
In our reading today from the 19th chapter of Revelation we hear of the ultimate victory of God against the forces of evil. In John’s day the evil empire was Rome. The beast, who proclaimed himself divine, is a caricature of the emperor of Rome, Caesar. Hollywood, and elements in the church who ignore of the historical setting in which Revelation was written, have done more harm than good. People think of the word apocalypse as the end of the world. The word apocalypse means to uncover, revealing that which was before hidden. It is lifting the veil and peeking behind the curtain. God is showing John what is to come. The message is that the church, who was suffering the terrible persecutions of Rome, would have to suffer for a bit longer. And then after that time of suffering, the church would be vindicated and glorified by the return of the conquering Lord of all creation, Jesus Christ.
The military images and freaky images are hard to understand when we celebrate a God of love, mercy and forgiveness. With fire in his eyes and a sword coming out of his mouth, Jesus slays the armies of the beast. How is this good news? How do we reconcile such a depiction of our beloved Jesus?
I grew up looking at Warner Sallman’s Jesus. His face was kind and tender. His eyes were brown and the holy glow almost gave his hair a blond tint. This was the Jesus of my childhood. Now compare that to the image of Jesus with bronze feet, fire in his eyes, white wool hair and a sword coming out of his mouth! When John first saw him he fainted with fear.
It helps when we consider that John wrote to encourage the persecuted church with a message of hope. “Hang on! Stay faithful! Help is coming. And even if you die you will not die the second death, but share in the glory of the new heaven and new earth that God is bringing.” This is the basic message of the book of Revelation, but you have to wade through a lot of horrific and confusing visions, much of which are borrowed right out of the Old Testament prophets, like Ezekiel, Daniel and Zephaniah. John’s visions were shaped by his knowledge of the prophetic writings.
Let’s unpack the imagery. Fire is used to purify metals. The fire in the Saviors eyes is a refining fire, which burns off impurities in the souls of those who love Him. The sword from His mouth is the word of God. Truth will defeat God’s enemies, not weapons of war. The white robes and white horses are depicting righteousness, purity before God by faithfulness to His cause. Riders on white horses who follow the King of Kings and Lord of Lords into battle against the armies of evil, are like a comic book illustration of the mission of the church. The church follows Jesus in the struggle against forces of evil and injustice that pervert the truth and victimize people, through oppressive systems and unfair practices which favor the rich and ignore the poor.
I think of Revelation as the bookend to a wonderful library. It is the victorious, climactic conclusion to a beautiful and adventurous symphony which began with darkness and ends in glorious light.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:1-4)
God has been separating darkness from light from the beginning. And when God sets in place boundaries that keep darkness at bay, life happens. Life is nurtured and encouraged. Darkness breeds death, disease and disorder. The light of God illuminates the human heart and breathes life into us, giving our nobler affections full reign in the world.
John’s Revelation is only a vivid caricature of the ultimate conclusion to God’s work of creation, through the final subduing of darkness and the forces of chaos and evil. It is the victory celebration of those who have remained faithful to the truth, the word of God. While images of bloody war and monsters fill its pages, Revelation is taking us on a journey to a new creation, which began in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of us who believe and remain true to Jesus are also made new in our hearts. Darkness is driven from us by the refining fire of the love in Jesus’ eyes! No falsehood will stand in our minds against God’s righteous truth. And finally the church will meet Jesus like beautiful bride coming down the aisle to meet her husband.
I leave you with the light. May the light of God’s love and truth strengthen you in every trial.
And the New Jerusalem has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Rev. 21:23)