I’ve been reading through the book of Revelation and taking another look at the passages that are often used to depict Jesus as a “Warrior-King” who tramples his enemies, cuts down the nations, and annihilates the followers of Satan.
It’s an image that mirrors the typical Hollywood action flick: a supernatural hero shows up in the nick of time to violently pummel evil into submission and save the world from an apocalyptic blue beam of light in the sky.
I honestly can’t count the number of times I heard this growing up. The Left Behind books alone were enough to cement this image of Jesus in my mind. In one of the last books in the series, Jesus returns again, looks out over the expanse of the battlefield, and opens his mouth to speak – subsequently everyone who isn’t a Christian gets sliced open like a watermelon by an invisible sword.
It’s gruesomely violent. If any other character in any other book or movie did this they would be the villain. They would be Magneto, sitting in his prison cell, killing everyone with the iron in their bloodstream. Or maybe Darth Vader, standing by as his battle station incinerates billions of people in an instant.
But as a kid it was apparent I was supposed to root for Jesus in this story. After all, these people all deserved it. They were on the wrong side of the battlefield, and Jesus was tired of all that cheek-turning. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” and all that.
Since then, I’ve gotten older and taken more time to study the book of Revelation. It’s actually amazing how often John of Patmos (the assumed author of Revelation) flips this narrative of violence on its head. In fact, as you dig into the book, it begins to look like every time Jesus shows up and people expect him to start killing he takes on the persona of a slain lamb instead. This is all set up from the very beginning, when John transitions from the letters to the seven churches into full-on apocalyptic prose (which, by the way, was a common method of writing in post-Exile Judaism).
The Lamb Who is Worthy
In Revelation 5, one of the Elders in heaven announces the coming of a “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” who is “worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.” The “Lion of Judah” and “Root of David” call back to Genesis 49:9 and Isaiah 11:1-5. These are symbols of power and authority. Whoever was reading the letter back then would expect the Lion of Judah to be fearsome in his appearance, especially if they were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures like John was.
But, when John turns to see the One who is worthy, he sees “One like a slaughtered Lamb” instead. And so, the purpose of Revelation as a letter of encouragement to seven churches suffering persecution under Rome becomes clear: Jesus the Messiah will triumph over the imperial powers that oppress you. Not through military might, but through the self-sacrificing, enemy-loving, cheek-turning submission of the Lamb and his church.
You will see this pattern time and time again in Revelation. John intentionally sets up a contrast between 1) the images of power favored by the Roman world and its kings and 2) the image of submission modeled by Jesus, the one true king.
The Rider Called Faithful and True
In Revelation 19, Heaven is opened up and a the one who “judges and makes war in righteousness” enters on a white horse:
He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God. The armies that were in heaven followed Him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. A sharp sword came from His mouth, so that He might strike the nations with it. He will shepherd them with an iron scepter. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. And He has a name written on His robe and on His thigh:
KING OF KINGS
AND LORD OF LORDS.
So, here we have the image of a powerful king riding into battle on his horse, with an army behind him, covered in blood and wielding a sword. THIS is the Warrior-King we were looking forward to, right?
But again, John flips the narrative. This King (who is identified as the same Word from the Gospel of John) has robes stained with blood before he ever reaches the battlefield. This can’t be the blood of his enemies. Luckily, we already know something about the King from earlier in John’s letter. Namely, that the Faithful King and the Slain Lamb are one and the same! Knowing that the King is the One who was slain offers the explanation for the blood on his robes.
Then we take a look at his army. The armies of heaven that trail behind the King are wearing pure white linen, which John just told us “represents the righteous acts of the saints (19:8).”
And then there’s his sword. The King doesn’t hold it in his hand, but it’s emerges from his mouth. The power of the King is in his word, not in his physical might.
Moreover, we know that when the King “strikes the nations” that he is not killing his enemies because right after he “strikes” the nations, he is described as shepherding them “with an iron scepter.”
And so, while a reader of Revelation who is unfamiliar with the context of the letter will be led to believe the King arrives to fulfill the role of a conquering figure, the Lamb doesn’t fight by shedding blood, but by speaking the word of God. He isn’t covered in the blood of his enemies, but in his own. He doesn’t slaughter the nations, he leads them after they are transformed by his word.
The Winepress of God’s Wrath
Moving back to Revelation 14, we will look at one more example of John flipping the narrative. Here, John uses the Old Testament metaphor of a winepress, where sinners are crushed because of their wickedness (See here: Isa. 63:2-3; Lam. 1:15; Joel 3:13).
Swing the sickle
because the harvest is ripe.
Come and trample the grapes
because the winepress is full;
the wine vats overflow
because the wickedness of the nations is great.
Once again, anyone familiar with the OT prophets would immediately recognize the function of the winepress in prophetic literature. However, this time, the winepress isn’t filled because of people’s wickedness, but is filled “because [earth’s] grapes have ripened” and sinners DRINK the wine of wrath (See here: Rev. 14:8-10; 16:6; 17:6).
That’s an M. Night Shyamalan twist! John’s readers expect “sinners” to be trampled. But Rev. 16 and 17 say the wine produced from the winepress is “the blood of the saints.” It also makes the important distinction that the wine from the winepress is a result of the evil actions of men.
Because they poured out
the blood of the saints and the prophets,
You also gave them blood to drink;
they deserve it!
(Rev. 16:6, emphasis mine)
The Followers of the Lamb
And so we see how the Lamb and his followers win.
In Revelation 14, those who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” are those “redeemed from the human race as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” They “are blameless” (14:5), and they are the “vast multitude” who “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).
These followers of the Lamb triumph through their sacrifice. And John won’t let his readers forget that fact:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“The salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of His Messiah
have now come,
because the accuser of our brothers
has been thrown out:
the one who accuses them
before our God day and night.
They conquered him [the Accuser]
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not love their lives
in the face of death.”
(Rev. 12:10:11, emphasis mine)
Taken altogether, Revelation paints the picture of a Lamb who achieves victory through his own sacrifice, and whose followers overcome Satan by also willingly laying down their lives. It presents the Lamb as a Righteous King who causes those who shed the blood of the saints to drink the wine from their own winepress – they are confronted with the byproduct of their own sin, not mercilessly slain by the Lamb.
The Jesus of the Gospels = The Jesus of Revelation
So what does all that mean, practically, for people who follow Jesus?
It means we trust Jesus when he says “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father.”
“That you may be” is a pretty important qualifier in Jesus’ admonition. It means Jesus sees enemy-love as non-negotiable. It’s an essential for following him and being a child of God. In this command Jesus offers no exceptions. We are to love like God, who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45).” That means we love indiscriminately.
So, if we trust Jesus and take him at his word, we see the picture that John paints of Jesus in Revelation as the SAME Jesus in the Gospels.
Jesus doesn’t just show up and start trampling sinners. Instead, he allows sinners to drink the wine produced by our martyrdom. And, as a result of the Lamb’s blood and our own, Satan is overcome. THAT is the scandalous power of the Cross. We win through sacrifice.
So next time someone tells you that Revelation is the story of a violent savior, don’t believe it. You can trust that Jesus is who he says he is.