Thoughts on Religion and Violence

Religion can be a dangerous affair. Not only has it inspired great deeds of compassion but also atrocious acts of violence. Practically all religions contain acts and words of a bellicose nature scattered throughout their history and sacred texts, whether it be the Canaanite genocides of the Hebrew Bible, the crusades and inquisitions of Christianity, the violent jihad of Islam, or the ancient tales of battles in the Buddhist Pali Chronicles and the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, placed a spotlight on the connection between religion and violence in the Western world.

The tragic events of 9/11 also caused a proliferation in the literature available on religion and violence. A couple of recent examples are Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and the Journal of Religion and Violence which had its inaugural issue published in 2013. For a bibliography of literature on religion and violence in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks, see Charles K. Bellinger, “Religion and Violence: A Bibliography”, The Hedgehog Review 6.1 (2004): pp. 111-19. For a more recent survey, see the bibliography in Jeffrey Ian Ross, Religion and Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010).

The “Arab Spring” that began in 2011 inspired a time of optimism about the future of that region of the world , yet that optimism has given way over the past year to the reality of the violent movement known as the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL, which has expanded its territory to include large swathes of Iraq and Syria, capturing not only military bases, but entire cities.  The Islamic State arose from the ashes of the Syrian civil war and a series of predominantly Sunni jihadist insurgent groups that operated in Iraq between 2003 and 2013. It has demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated social media communication and recruitment strategy, which has lead to a number of primarily young people in the USA, UK, and Europe, joining it or being caught attempting to do so. Some of the atrocities perpetrated by members of ISIS include the abduction, rape, slavery, and trafficking of women and children, the religious targeting and mass killings of Yazidis, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.

It needs to be kept in mind, however, that violence should be identified not solely as inflicted physical harm, for there are also other forms of violence, such as structural and social violence (e.g. patriarchy, racism, and sexism), which may also be buttressed by religious texts (including the New Testament). Some authors on the topic of religion and violence note that due to the conventional understanding of violence as being physical in nature, the promotion of peace in New Testament studies has led to the neglect of the parts which promote a social type of violence, e.g., dehumanization produced by the insider-outsider mentality and the construction of identities that justifies the oppression of outsiders. For example, see Michel Desjardins, Peace, Violence and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

Implicating Religion

There are many writers out there who see a very strong link between religious belief and violence, not in a direct causal connection but in the sense that religion is especially inclined to produce violence or is a crucial factor in the exacerbation of violence. Some of these works—such as the works of Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), and Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004)—are primarily polemical diatribes that demonize religious belief as a whole and do not add much to the conversation. Others, however, offer up more learned discussions. For example, there is the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who argues that “[r]eligion seems to be connected with violence virtually everywhere” (Terror in the Mind of God: The Rise of Religious Violence [Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2000], p. xi). He considers religious violence to be increasing due to the threats of modernity and globalism, and that this clash of cultures and identities can be viewed as a cosmic war with religious faith providing an ideal means of stoking this conflict.

Other useful authors on the topic of religion and violence, though at the other end of the spectrum as Juergensmeyer, are William Cavanaugh and Oliver McTernan, neither of whom are convinced that religion plays the decisive role in violent acts. McTernan sees religion as having some responsibility for religious violence but that its cooperation is forced, while Cavanaugh goes so far as to contend that there really is no significant difference between religious violence and secular violence. See Oliver J. McTernan, Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), esp. pp. 20-43; William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing in the Name of God,” in Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz (eds), I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 127–47; idem, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); idem, “The Myth of Religious Violence”, in Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 23-33.

Out of the authors I have read on the issue of religion and violence, Cavanaugh makes the most salient point, which is that the discussion of only religious violence is an attempt to focus attention on only this type of violence, neglecting secular or non-religious violence in the process. An example of secular violence is the willingness to kill for concepts such as freedom, democracy, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and so forth. These non-religious ideologies are no less prone to generating absolutist and divisive mindsets than religion.

The works mentioned above—and many others could be discussed—contain plenty of data on various religious ideologies and the manufacturing of violence. Yet despite there being ample empirical research to show that groups and individuals of various religious faiths produce violence, and that there is no good reason to automatically exempt religious faith from being an important factor in this violence, it is nonetheless erroneous to jump to the conclusion that religion is the primary factor that instigates violence to the exclusion of other factors. I think that much of the violence that occurs in the name of religion has more to do with demographic, political, economic, cultural, and social factors. Even in cases where religion does play a role in the production of violence, those carrying out the violence may have little actual knowledge of the religion in which they enter the conflict. In such cases, it is the religious identity that plays a role in the violence, which itself is borne more out of one’s socio-political context than something inherent to religion itself.

Book Review: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

jesuspoliticspalestineTitle: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

Author: Richard Horsley

Bibliographic info: 212 pp.

Publisher: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon

With thanks to the University of South Carolina Press for the review copy!

I enjoy reading books by Richard Horsley because his work is always provocative, stimulating, and iconoclastic towards traditional historical Jesus research. A key feature in Horsley’s rendition of the historical Jesus is that he was not apolitical. It is not uncommon for Jesus to be understood as a religious figure, with the political ramifications of this being underplayed. Yet this picture is due to our modern partition of religion and politics into two different spheres, while Horsley sees the socio-political world as inseparable from the religious world in Jesus’ day. This, in a nutshell, is what Horsley discusses in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

This book is comprised of seven chapters: Chapter One discusses how the field of historical Jesus studies tends to lack a focus on the politics of Jesus and the emphasis on an individualistic paradigm for viewing Jesus and the Gospels. Chapter Two then examines the political-economic-religious life in Palestine in the first century. Chapter Three provides a look at other messianic/prophetic movements that occurred in the first century. Chapter Four discusses demonic possessions and the link between demons and illnesses. Chapter Five contains Horsley’s understanding of Jesus’ mission for a renewed covenant community. Chapter Six then discusses the relationship between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels. Chapter Seven contains Horsley’s understanding of how Jesus’ crucifixion empowered the fledgling Jesus movement.

Horsley sees historical Jesus research as being misdirected by a form of social individualism, seen in how historical Jesus scholars attempt to find individual sayings of Jesus that can be authenticated by various criteria, in the process divorcing the sayings of Jesus from the narrative of the Gospel account. Horsley says:

Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head”, devoid of life circumstances.

Instead, Horsley sees the Gospels as “represent[ing] Jesus not primarily as a teacher and healer of individuals but rather as a teacher and healer in the context of village communities”, and he offers up an alternative which is to see the sayings of Jesus in light of the entirety of each Gospel in which they are found. When this is done, Horsley finds (among other things) that Jesus vilified the Scribes and Pharisees due to their serving the temple-state whilst mistreating villagers. This criticism that Jesus directed against the Scribes and Pharisees is based on a message of “Mosaic covenantal commandments” that Jesus preached, which was a “discourse of justice rooted in the Mosaic covenant into a program of renewal of local village communities.”

Parts of this book I particularly enjoyed were the author’s discussion on the socio-cultural pressures that Judeans faced in light of the Roman occupation, Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms, and his mission of covenant renewal. For instance, in regards to Jesus’ miracles, Horsley examines them in light of anthropological studies. An intriguing point he makes is that demon possession was a means for villagers to protect themselves to imperialism (seen in the rise of demon possession in Africa during its colonization by Western powers). One aspect of this study that I found particularly problematic is the final chapter on crucifixion. Here he attempts to argue that it was the crucifixion of Jesus which really set in motion the early Christian movement, which seems to make the belief in Christ’s resurrection of no importance for the vigorous rise of the early Christian movement. Even though the death of a notable figure by an oppressive power could spark a movement, is it really appropriate to point to the ignominious death of Jesus being crucified as the impetus for the early Christian movement over the belief that God resurrected him from the dead? Horsley’s position seems counter-intuitive and didn’t convince me.

Overall I quite enjoyed this latest offering from Richard Horsley, though I wish he had of spent more time explaining how he arrives at his position regarding the authenticity of Jesus traditions to be found in the Gospels. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in historical Jesus studies. Horsley is one of the more interesting authors in New Testament and historical Jesus studies and he delivers a thoughtful and provoking study in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

Quick Book Review: Understanding Early Christian Art

earlychristianartTitle: Understanding Early Christian Art

Author: Robin Margaret Jensen

Bibliographic info: xii + 234 pp.

Publisher: Routledge, 2000.

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With thanks to Routledge for the review copy!

The author, Robin Margaret Jensen, is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Andover Newton Theological School.

It wasn’t until early last year that I came to appreciate art. I was one of those people who never really got art. However, I did a bit of study in the history of biblical interpretation through art and was instantly hooked. One aspect of this field I came to appreciate was how art served many purposes in churches: decorative, liturgical, didactic, iconic, symbolic, and so forth.

This small volume aims to further our understanding of the art of the early Christian era. There are sixty-six black and white images in the book, with most coming from sarcophagi and catacombs. The author provides a valuable analysis of the images that helps in comprehending the context and theology of early Christian art, for as Jensen says, early Christian art was “a highly sophisticated, literate, and even eloquent mode of theological expression.”

The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter. In the second chapter, Jensen discusses early non-narrative Christian art, such as in how Christ was depicted in the guise of pagan deities (e.g. the lamb-bearer, Orpheus, Helios) or other forms (the fish, which is either a reference to the “living waters” that Christ provides or to the IXTHYS acrostic – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”). In the third chapter, Jensen turns to art that depicts biblical narratives (predominantly scenes from the Old Testament). The fourth chapter discusses portraits of Christ as the incarnate God. The fifth chapter discusses the depictions of Christ crucified, which, strangely enough, came onto the scene later in Christian art. The sixth and final chapter discusses art that depicts resurrection typologies (e.g. Ezekiel’s dry bones).

Overall, I would say that Jensen’s viewpoint on the art she discusses is more theological than historical-contextual or stylistic. An aspect I would have liked to see in her analysis is the putting together of a whole piece of art, rather than just discussing each element on its own. For example, Jensen discusses the depictions of Christ as Orpheus and the image of Lazarus that occur in the same catacomb room, yet they were not discussed in terms of how they occur together and what this could signify.

All in all, this book will be a helpful read for anyone interested in early Christianity or art history. Jensen has made this an accessible study, so it doesn’t matter even if you have no background in art.

Rev. 19:11-21 and Christ as the Eschatological Divine Warrior (Part VII)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11-21 (continued)

The Great Supper of God

Another image used to elucidate the significance of the warring Christ is the scene of “the great supper of God” (Rev. 19:17-18), which is contrasted to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6-9). The scene of birds eating the flesh of the wicked stems from Ezek. 39:17-20, although Ezekiel describes birds and wild animals eating the flesh and drinking the blood, with the judgment limited to those of the higher socio-economic order, whereas in Revelation it is just birds, they only eat the flesh, and the judgment encompasses all people, the “flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (Rev. 19:18).[1]

Although such an image is quite offensive to modern sensibilities, it would possibly have been less bizarre in the first century considering the sight of carrion birds would have been a familiar sight over the battlefield. Aune astutely notes that dead combatants who are consumed by birds means they have been deprived of burial, “an ancient means for hurting and humiliating an enemy even after death, sometimes accompanied by the mutilation of the corpse.”[2] The significance of this is that this scene is not so much about promoting violence and gore, but is rather using such an ignominious fate to convey the ultimate disgrace the wicked undergo.[3]

The Lake of Fire

One final disturbing image in this pericope is that of the beast and the false prophet being “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Rev. 19:20). The infamous lake of fire is obliquely mentioned earlier in Rev. 2:11 where it is referenced as the “second death”, which John later equates with “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev. 21:8), the sulfur no doubt being a reference to the fact that it is found in its natural state in areas such as the valley of the Dead Sea. The lake of fire is described elsewhere by John as a place where its occupants are “tormented with fire and sulfur … and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:10-11; cf. 20:10). The probably source for this fiery lake is the tradition of Gehenna, a valley known in the Hebrew Bible as the “valley of the Ben-hinnom” and as a place of human sacrifice (2 Kgs 23:10; Jer. 7:31-33; cf. Isa. 66:24; 1 En. 54:1), and which was later used in the New Testament to denote an outcome opposite to that of the kingdom of God (e.g. Mk 9:43-48).

The idea of eternal punishment can be found in the Hebrew Bible. A good example of this is seen in Isa. 34:9-10 where we are told that the land of Edom “shall become burning pitch” and that “night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever … no one shall pass through it forever and ever.” Naturally, this language is symbolic, for the smoke of Edom isn’t rising today, demonstrating that same notion in Revelation isn’t referring to an eternal duration of punishment, but to its finality.[4] This concept is also found in the New Testament where Sodom and Gomorrah are said to “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Thus, the lake of fire in Revelation can thus be understood not as describing an actual place of everlasting conscious punishment in actual flames, but as signifying that its purpose of destroying evil cannot be prevented.[5]


The imagery in Rev. 19:11-21—the sword, the bloodied robe, the wine press, the feast of the birds, and the lake of fire—seemingly depicts a dreadful scene bereft of any consideration for mercy. Yet this study has attempted to show that the violent eschatological scene of the Divine Warrior has been subtly transformed by John in a nonviolent way. While he does utilize this motif of the Divine Warrior being victorious in battle, he uses it in an innovative manner by filling it with new content. When Christ fights against the enemies of God, his sword is the word of God proceeding from his mouth. The blood on his robe is his own (and possibly that of the martyrs), signifying the ultimate expression of Christ’s victory over evil is his self-sacrificial death on the cross. Thus, one can conclude that Revelation portrays Christ in the Divine Warrior role and substitutes militaristic violence as being the path to victory for faithful witness to the point of death, epitomized in the shedding of Christ’s own blood. Faithful witness unto death is the powerful weapon that the Lamb wields in Revelation and it is the weapon that his followers possess as well.

Such an interpretation of Revelation may superficially seem absurd, yet it is not strange for someone who mentions robes being washed and made white in blood, who describes a Lion as a Lamb, and who identifies victory as being slain. John did not discard the Hebrew Scriptures, but he does read them deliberately, with his own distinctive hermeneutic and therein lies a risk that one must be careful of. John’s method of juxtaposing paradoxical images is not a panacea for any and all troubling texts in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, but it does help show that the depiction of Christ in Revelation is, ultimately, much more coherent with the portrayal of Christ in the canonical Gospels than is often thought.


[1] Boring, Revelation, p. 199; Sweet. Revelation, p. 285.

[2] Aune, Revelation, p. 1068; cf. Mounce, Revelation, p. 358.

[3] McDonald, “Lion as Slain Lamb”, p. 43 warns that “the vividness of John’s language may seduce the reader into taking the images more literally than John intends.”

[4] Boring, Revelation, pp. 118, 213.

Rev. 19:11-21 and Christ as the Eschatological Divine Warrior (Part VI)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11-21 (continued)

The Wine Press

Connected to the image of the bloodstained robe is that of Christ “tread[ing] the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15; cf. 14:14-20). This imagery can be found in Isa. 63:1-3, Lam. 1:15, and Joel 3:13, all of which clearly have the scene functioning as metaphors for divine judgment, depicting the Divine Warrior as one who trounces upon the wicked as grapes are crushed to produce wine. But like the sword and bloodied robe, this image is likewise transformed by John, for while Trito-Isaiah portrays the grapes in the wine press as the wicked and as the object of God’s wrath, this is not who the grapes are in John’s appropriation of the image. For John, the focus shifts from the grapes themselves to the wine they produce, for now God’s fury is poured out when the wicked are forced to drink the wine that is produced by the crushed grapes (Rev. 14:10; 16:6; 17:6). So who then is symbolized by the grapes?

In Revelation 14 there are two parallel sections, each beginning with the disjunctive marker, “Then I looked” (Rev. 14:1, 14). Each time this phrase is used to present a scene with Jesus at the center, first as “the Lamb” and then as “one like the Son of Man.” The Lamb is shown surrounded with the 144,000 “first fruits” (Rev. 14:4), while the “one like the Son of Man” carries a sickle to harvest the earth (Rev. 14:14-16). This parallel points to the harvest in Rev. 14:14-20 is the same thing as the first fruits harvest of the 144,000 in Rev. 14:1-5. Note also that John says “the wine press was trodden outside the city” (Rev. 14:20), suggesting not only the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and the shedding of his blood, but also the suffering of Christians with Christ (cf. Heb. 13:11-13).

The grapes are the martyrs, those who maintain their faithful witness to Christ even when it leads to their death death.[1] So when John says that the vine is harvested “for its grapes are ripe” (Rev. 14:18), this ripening should likely be connected back to Rev. 6:9-11 where “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” cried out to God asking, “how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth”, to which they are told “to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete … [of those] who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” This is to say: once the number of faithful witnesses is complete, then the grapes are fully ripe and ready for harvest.

So once again, John has reversed traditional violent imagery, this time from the blood of the wine press being that of God’s enemies to being from those who are faithful witnesses to the Lamb.

The Battle that Christ Wages

Lacking a description of any actual battle, Christ captures the beast and false prophet and throws them into the fiery lake, and kills the rest with the sword (Rev. 10:20-21). This scene of the defeat of evil forces is a defeat that contains no description of an actual battle. This should not be surprising in light of John’s theology, for the key battle has already been won in the death and resurrection of Christ (such as is portrayed in Revelation 12 where the evil powers are said to be defeated not through the force of greater power and violence, but through the blood of the Lamb). Loren Johns notes: “The reason the author nowhere narrates an extended conflict or battle between the lamb and the dragon or beasts is because the only real conflicts envisioned in the Apocalypse are first, the one that has already occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ; and second, the ones in which the saints are already engaged through consistent nonviolent resistance.”[2]

After Jesus strikes down his enemies, it is stated he will “rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15; cf. Ps. 2:9; Isa. 11:4). The hina clause in v. 15a (“… a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations”) is paralleled by the future tense of poimanei in v. 15b (“he will rule them with a rod of iron”), with the parallelism showing that the “sharp sword” is equivalent with the “rod of iron.”[3] Thus, the means by which Christ rules the nations is not through the violent brandishing of an iron rod (as one might expect), but through his powerful word.



[1] Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace, pp. 213–16; Caird, Revelation, pp. 188–95.

[2] Johns, Lamb Christology, p. 185.

[3] Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace, p. 208.

Rev. 19:11-21 and Christ as the Eschatological Divine Warrior (Part V)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11-21 (continued)

The Robe Dipped in Blood

The Divine Warrior wears a robe “dipped in blood” (Rev. 19:13), a clear allusion to Isa. 63:1-3.[1] This has, understandably, lead to some commentators seeing the blood being that of Christ’s enemies who have been slain.[2] Others, however, see the blood as Christ’s own blood,[3] with a related view being that the blood is that of the martyrs (Rev. 6:10; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2).[4]

I see the blood as Christ’s own due and that John is drawing upon the slain Lamb imagery that is found in every other instance where blood is mentioned in relation to Christ (Rev. 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11). Supporting this is the fact the robe is soiled with blood before the battle even begins. It is possible, however, by arguing that the details of the passage do not need to be read in a strict chronological way. One commentator says that in Revelation “chronology is ignored for the sake of rhetorical effect”,[6] and another says that the chronologically misplaced blood only indicates Christ’s “function as executor of divine wrath.”[5] Yet, while it is true that John does not always seem overly concerned with an ordered chronology, I think the fact that he has a penchant for transforming traditional imagery diminishes the need to explain away the bloodied robe as being an instance of chronological irregularity (especially since the passage appears otherwise chronologically consistent).

Another clue to determining whose blood is on the robe is seen in the “armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure and were following him on white horses.” (Rev. 19:14). While early Jewish and Christian literature has a recurring theme of angelic heavenly armies and of angels being present in some capacity at the eschaton,[7] there is also a tradition that has humans accompanying Christ at his return.[8] Who is the army accompanying Christ here in Revelation 19? There is another relevant war scene in Revelation which has bearing on this question. Revelation 17:14 remarks that the opponents “will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” Here those who accompany the Lamb to conquer the forces of evil are clearly humans, pointing towards those accompanying Christ in Rev. 19:14 as also being human.[9]

This is significant because in Rev. 7:14 we find Christians who are “robed in white” and who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Thus, “the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure” in Rev. 19:14 have those white garments because (paradoxically) they have been washed them in the blood of the Lamb.[10] This likely conveys to us something about the blood on the Divine Warrior’s robe. In keeping with this juxtaposition of white linen and blood, it is probably correct to see Jesus’ robe as having been soiled not with the blood of his enemies, but with his own blood (and possibly the martyrs who, as I will discuss in the next part, are the grapes who have been crushed).


[1] Aune, Revelation, p. 1057 provides a helpful list of other instances in early Jewish literature where the imagery of a bloodstained Divine Warrior destroys his enemies.

[2] Beale, Book of Revelation, p. 957; Beasley-Murray, Book of Revelation, p. 280; Mounce, Revelation, p. 353; Osborne, Revelation, p. 683.

[3] Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace, p. 214; McDonald, “Lion as Slain Lamb”, p. 42; Mitchell G. Reddish, “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 33 (1988), pp. 85–95; J.P.M. Sweet. Revelation (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1979), p. 283; Boring, Revelation, p. 196 says that this was the view “championed by the Church Fathers.” A few commentators say that Aune supports the blood being that of the enemies, yet I think this is incorrect and is the result of not reading Aune carefully. He says: “[The blood] is not primarily a metaphor for the atoning death of Christ … but rather a literal reference to the heavenly warrior whose garment is stained with the blood of those he has slain”, but he soon notes that it “was inevitable that this older image … would be understood as a reference to the death of Christ by both the author and his readers when placed in a Christian context” (Aune, Revelation, p. 1057; emphasis mine).

[4] Caird, Revelation, pp. 243–44; Johns, Lamb Christology, p. 184; Boring, Revelation, p. 196 thinks it is the blood of Christ “in union” with the blood of the martyrs.

[5] Beasley-Murray, Book of Revelation, p. 280.

[6] Osborne, Revelation, p. 682. Cf. Mounce, Revelation, p. 354.

[7] E.g., Deut. 33:2-3; Josh. 5:14-15; Zech. 14:5; 1 En. 1:4; Matt. 13:41; 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 2 Thess. 1:7; Jude 14-15; see Aune, Revelation, pp. 1059–60 for a more detailed look at this motif.

[8] For references to humans accompanying Christ at his parousia, see Did. 16:6-7; 1 Thess. 3:13; 2 Thess. 1:10.

[9] Caird, Revelation, p. 244; Mounce, Revelation, pp. 354–55; Witherington, Revelation, p. 243 thinks it could be speaking of both humans and angels; Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, p. 229 describes them as “an army of martyrs who triumph through their martyrdom, because they are followers of the Lamb who participate in his victory by following his path to death.”

[10] Cf. Rev. 3:4-5, 18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13-14.

Rev. 19:11-21 and Christ as the Eschatological Divine Warrior (Part IV)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11-21

An Overview of Rev. 19:11-21

There are two literary units in Rev. 19:11-21: the first is vv. 11-16 which portrays the eschatological arrival of the Divine Warrior to bring justice and destruction upon the wicked, and the second is vv. 17-21 which depicts the end of the beast, the false prophet, and their army. The former literary unit has parallels not only to many Jewish texts where Yahweh is depicted as a warrior but also Roman triumph imagery,[1] while the latter unit draws upon the convention of Zion as the sacrosanct city that will, ultimately, always be protected by God.

The passage begins with John seeing “heaven opened” (Rev. 19:11), indicating that God is about to work in a decisive manner.[2] A rider on a white horse emerges, the color probably signifying victory as it does elsewhere (Rev. 3:4-5; 7:13-14). It is widely agreed by commentators that the rider is Christ,[3] with the picture painted here of him being one of symbolism that focuses on his “description, identity, and tasks.”[4] Christ is described as having eyes “like a flame of fire” (v. 12), a head covered with “many diadems” (v. 12), a robe that is “dipped in blood” (v. 13), and a mouth from which issues forth a “sharp sword” (v. 15). He is identified as “Faithful and True” (v. 11), the “the Word of God” (v. 13), the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16), and as possessing a name “that no one knows but himself” (v. 12). As for tasks, John says that “in righteousness he judges and makes war” (v. 11), that he is to “strike down the nations” and “rule them with a rod of iron” (v. 15), and that he will “tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (v. 15).

Many of these features, including the fiery eyes, the diadems, and the color white, signify that Christ is completely worthy to judge and to execute judgment upon the wicked. Of particular significance in this vignette, and which will each be further examined, are the sword, the robe dipped in blood, the treading of the wine press, as well as the feast of the birds and the lake of fire (vv. 15-21).

The Sword from the Mouth

Fire comes out of the mouths of horses (Rev. 9:17-19) and the two witnesses (Rev. 11:5), a flood issues forth from the dragon’s mouth (Rev. 12:15-16), blasphemy comes out of the mouth of the beast from the sea (Rev. 13:2-6), and frogs leap from the mouths of the dragon, beast, and false prophet (Rev. 16:13). But from Jesus’ mouth a sword is what issues forth (Rev. 2:16; 19:15, 21; cf. 1:16; 2:12). The sword-from-the-mouth motif is drawn from Isa. 11:4 and 49:2, the context of which describes a messianic ruler who operates as Yahweh’s agent of judicial authority.[5] John has appropriated this image as a symbol of Christ’s judicial authority, with his brandishing of the sword no doubt meant in sharp contrast to the authority of the nations, also represented by a sword (Rev. 6:4; 13:10).

The two images of mouth and sword must be kept together in order to understand the symbolism. The sword is a means of conquest and the mouth is the means of speech, together they show the idea of the devastating power of God’s speech and that Jesus conquers by the word of God (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8).[6] By reconfiguring the expected image of Christ carrying a sword in his hand and to instead having it come out of his mouth, John is denying the usual understanding of the sword as being a militaristic weapon and is instead affirming the Divine Warrior’s name as “the Word of God” (Rev. 19:13).[7]


[1] See David E. Aune, Revelation (Word Biblical Commentary 52C; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), pp. 1049–52; Matthew Streett, Here Comes the Judge: Violent Pacifism in the Book of Revelation (Library of New Testament Studies, 462; London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2012), p. 124.

[2] The illustration of the heavens opening is not an infrequent feature in Jewish and Christian literature (e.g. Ezek. 1:1; Mk 1:10; Jn 1:51).

[3] Aune, Revelation, pp. 1046, 1053; G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 948; Eugene M. Boring, Revelation (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), p. 195; Ben Witherington III, Revelation (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 241.

[4] Aune, Revelation, p. 1047. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), pp. 678–86, opts to catalog this pericope into seven qualities and four actions.

[5] The judgment of God is frequently associated with the symbol of a sword in Jewish literature, e.g., Isa. 27:1; 34:5-6; 66:16; Ezek. 21:3-5, 9-17. The comparison of speech with a sword is also frequently found in Jewish and Christian literature, e.g., Wis. 18:15-16; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12.

[6] Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), pp. 184–85; Witherington, Revelation, p. 82; Barr, “Doing Violence”, p. 101 says that “the victory over evil is procured not by physical violence but by verbal power.” Streett, Here Comes the Judge, pp. 49 says that the sword “symbolizes Christ’s judging word.”

[7] G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John (Black’s New Testament Commentary, 19; London: A. & C. Black, 1966; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), p. 245 says that the sword represents the sharp speech of the proclamation of the gospel. Robert H. Mounce, Revelation (New International Commentary on the New Testament; rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 355–56, 359 disagrees saying that while we shouldn’t “envision a literal sword but a death-dealing pronouncement that goes forth like a sharp blade from the lips of Christ … neither is it to be taken as a metaphor for the gospel message.”


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