In a class I attended, a Bible teacher once remarked that it would be nice if God struck down sinners in judgment that day. It wasn’t a sigh at God’s apparent absence but a desire to see God obliterate His enemies. The Bible speaks of a future judgment day for the ages of humanity but some seem to crave retribution like a newborn craves his mother’s milk. How we view God’s coming matters, not only for the future but for today.
The rider of the white horse in the Book of Revelation is the divine hero who fights for justice in a fallen world. He comes in triumph, but we too often seek a shallow and primitive hero. When we speak of Jesus as the meek and mild-mannered teacher of love, we may imagine an ancient loafer-wearing Mister Rogers—a sentimental Jesus donning a sweater for a softer touch as he joins happy neighborhoods, appealing to cheery hearts. Seeking victory, some instead emphasize God’s tougher ways, such as Jesus shaking things up in wrath and finally using a strong hand to overturn tables to deal with thieves. What often appears to be most appealing are the scenes of unforgiving slaughter and bloodshed, as vividly described in the popular Left Behind series. Love is just too wimpy for their angry God.
I heard a sermon where a popular preacher proclaimed to his congregation that Jesus does not come from Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. He does not wear a cozy sweater but garments of vengeance. He comes like Rambo, drawing first blood and obliterating His enemies. How we conceive this prophetic Revelation event not only affects our contemporary politics but our image of God. Those who hold a vision of a violent God occasionally evoke biblical heroes like Phinehas, who vented righteous anger on the errant, and Joshua the “son of Nun”, who showed little mercy. They recall David, the mighty warrior who exterminated his enemies, and Sampson, the strong man who slew the pagans. Ancient people thought God was a violent warrior, and like them, many today want such a violent warrior. Some ironically prefer a savior like Barabbas, a zealous “son of abba,” over the crucified Savior, the son of Abba. In popular culture, the Savior has become reimaged in the likeness of mythic heroes that indulge violence. We turn Jesus into the likeness of angry Greco-Roman deities. We fantasize a violent warrior who enacts vengeance, a divine Rambo who prefers retribution over passiveness, a Terminator who executes the Day of Judgment. When sin is rampant, these are the heroes we look for. We want a fearsome warrior dispensing fire, torment, and pain.
Most have heard that though Jesus first came as the slain Lamb to pay for our sin, He will return as a roaring Lion. I am reminded that Satan too is described as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). The promised ruler from Judah is also characterized as a royal lion, a lioness who roars a warning at those who get too close to her cubs. We may hear the lion’s roar, but when we turn toward the “Lion of the tribe of Judah,” we see only the victimized Lamb (Revelation 5:5–6). So, how can we conceive of the Lamb-who-is-the-Lion? He is not a violent person with an ax to grind but a person of selfless love. He roars to make His feelings heard and known, but His deafening roar is veiled in the slain Lamb. His identity includes the fate of being led to slaughter and violently killed. It’s how God defeats His enemies. “When God flexes His omnipotent muscle, it doesn’t look like Rambo or the Terminator—it looks like Calvary!” (Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation, 2009, p. 32).
During the life and ministry of Jesus, a tradition depicted the Messiah as a mighty warrior who would execute the fatal blow to His enemies. This tradition is found in Fourth Ezra, where the Son of Man confronts the nations that oppose Him, a stream of fire coming from His mouth. He destroys and burns them, leaving nothing but dust (4 Ezra 13:10–11). Similarly, in the book of Enoch, He shows His enemies no mercy, only wrath as His sword is drunk with their blood (1 Enoch 62, 63:12–13). How should we understand the divine warrior who is coming? Will God lash out in violence, bashing everybody to quickly and decisively end evil? How does the warrior in Revelation 19 make war?
Revelation 19 has a clear message. The victorious hero comes on a “white horse” of triumph. Noting that other horses have been ridden by war heroes for military conquest, Eugene Peterson argues that “the perennial ruse is to glorify war so that we accept it as a proper means of achieving goals. But it is evil. It is opposed by Christ. Christ does not sit on the red horse [bloody and cruel], ever” (Reversed Thunder, 1988, p. 77). The noble rider here is called “Faithful” and “True.” The Revelation story is not about the triumph of violence. It’s about Christ’s method for making war against evil via truth and His costly love.
The mighty warrior riding the white horse wears garments that have been dipped in blood. Whose blood? It is His own as a victim of violence, not the blood of His enemies. His robe is soaked in the memory of a life poured out for sinners. Judgment is meted through the wounds of His body, as He is the victim of violence. It is His own self-giving, His own unrelenting love.
To emphasize His point, the rider does not fist a sword. His sword is not carried in His hand but in His mouth, suggesting a different way to understand this heroic warrior. What comes from His mouth is not a stream of fire to obliterate the nations but the sword of the word. He wins by truth, not by the savagery of war. His name is the “Word of God,” leaving no doubt that words are His means of battle (John 12:47). He accomplishes judgment, and triumphs over His enemies through the words of justice and truth. Justice emanates from His mouth, laying all sinful motives and pretense before the one who embodies truth. After all, the word of God can hurt and cut, and those positioned in opposition will fall (Hebrews 4:12). Some will say His enemies are crushed like grapes when He treads “the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (Revelation 19:15, NJKV). While crushing grapes to make wine is a violent process, Jesus is victorious not as an agent of agitation, sloshing around as it were in the blood of His enemies, but by His own death (Isaiah 63:3). His weapon is not a sword drunk with blood, but the cross via which He tread the winepress alone (Isaiah 63:3).
The rider “has a name written that no one knows;” it is known only to the victorious rider (Revelation 19:12, ESV). There is a deeper meaning here about God’s character beneath the surface, and we must let Jesus reveal this deeper dimension. Jesus is called the Word of God because He is the “express image” of all that the Father is. He is the revealer of God in word and deed.
The meek version of Jesus does not seem to have a cruel bone in His passive body. Does He ever cause hurt or inflict pain? I am reminded of the angel who wrestled with Jacob, throwing his hip out of joint. Sometimes God looks mean. He may wound us, as He did Jacob. He will wrestle with us, distressing us longer than we think we can endure, but He will not force us. When at his weakest, his thigh disabled by the touch of the mighty warrior, Jacob receives a name and learns who the warrior is. He is revealed as the ultimate Prince who prevails because “He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.” God will prevail. Though He wins in the end, He overcomes evil by God’s means. His thigh is inscribed with a name: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” He bears in His flesh God’s way of overcoming sin. This rider is the slain Lamb, yet within this image of weakness and self-sacrifice, we are reminded that He is the King of Kings, not a “king … like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5).
The rider judges and wages “war in righteousness.” His war is upright. If we are not careful, however, we may ascribe to Him methods that tarnish His righteousness. When justice against offenders is achieved, we never worry whether the conduct of war has morally compromised our heroes. We think that offenders deserve what they get. We must avoid designating God’s response as violent rather than the evil that prompts it. The causes of violence lie within each of us. God need not add anything to evil to make it look worse than it is; it is already devastatingly so. Where is the torment of sin? We often assume that sinners will remain fine until God takes a decisive stand that proves sin is serious. But this approach trivializes sin. Some want God to get violent and address sin now, but He has been taking sin seriously all along. We need to understand the intrinsic nature of evil; otherwise, its destructive nature and the means God uses to bring about it’s destruction will become moot in light of God’s fatal response.
Evil needs not only an answer but a reckoning. Having our sinful motives and violent systems exposed on the cross is an important part of God’s answer. Sin can’t be understood without confronting this reality. It is true that judgment comes at God’s initiative—and that the opposition will be felled as God triumphs over evil—but His victory is not accomplished violently. All that threatens love and peace, will have a final reckoning when God acts fully, but it will be accomplished through the sufferings of Jesus. The answer is revelation, and the reckoning is the price it demands.
It’s time to reclaim Jesus from a traditionalist and fundamentalist Christianity. Victory is not about overcoming evil by lifted sword, so what is it? Victory means overcoming the deceptions of Satan and the influences of a culture that lulls us into becoming ineffective witnesses for Christ. It matters how we view Jesus waging war. The armies of heaven are following Him, for He alone is worthy of their allegiance. The picture is clear. God wins against injustice and unravels evil through truth and unconditional love. His character of sacrificial giving reconstructs our image of the divine hero. It implores us to know Him and to ensure that we are following His ways, lest we misunderstand the victory. It is clear who Jesus is. May He alone become the recurring hero of our lives.
Craig Ashton Jr.