Revelation and Christ as the 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]

Notes

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

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

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

[4] Aune, Revelation, 1047. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 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), 184–85; Witherington, Revelation, 82; Barr, “Doing Violence”, 101 says that “the victory over evil is procured not by physical violence but by verbal power.” Streett, Here Comes the Judge, 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), 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), 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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