Violence continues to spread across the world from terrorism. Children are being burned alive in Nigeria at the demonic hands of Boko Haram, the Islamic State continues to bomb and bully the West in hope of striking fear in the hearts of Europeans, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester in a region long held as the heartland of monotheism.
The justice and peace of God seems to be failing at a time when the world, or at least Christians, celebrate the holiest day of the year—Good Friday. If only the “peace dove” that flew onto Bernie Sanders’ podium would manifest concretely and spread with viral force in this chaotic world of ours. A world loved by God, so goes the Christian narrative we believe in and hope for.
So, why doesn’t God, who we are told is sovereign and good, intervene aggressively against the evil we see and experience in our world? Well, He has. But not in the way we would expect, or perhaps, want Him to.
In Revelation 19, we are told that Jesus, the rider on the white horse, will come and wage war (v.11) against “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies” (v.19). “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (v. 15) that stand against God, His people and His good plan for the earth.
When we read this war-like language in Revelation, it’s easy to hope that God will literally come back to pulverize evil people. This hope that Jesus is coming back as a violent warrior is entrenched in our hearts especially when learn that the rider of the white horse, Christ our “wartime King,” will slay and shed the blood of evil and monstrous people—ISIS, Boko Haram, etc—as evidenced by the blood splattered on His robe (v.11-13). When we read this at first sight, our hearts scream out: “Yes, Justice!” But God’s justice doesn’t come by way of war and violence. And nor is Revelation 19 a literal forecast of how God deals with evil and sin.
Apocalyptic language like that we find in Revelation is often symbolic, rather than literal. Thus, God requires us to read it symbolically as His inspired human writers present it. When we do this, we find that the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth symbolizes the Word of God and that the blood on His robe is not of His enemies, but rather, it is His own blood shed on the cross. How do we know this? Well, Scripture tells us plainly.
We learn in the opening prologue of Revelation that what we are reading is “the revelation from Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1) and “the testimony to Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2). In other words, Revelation is from and about Jesus Christ. Therefore, the person and work of Jesus Christ should be our starting point for interpreting what we find in the book of Revelation. And from what we know about Jesus in the Old and New Testaments, He is the God of suffering and merciful love. Not a violent warrior bent on destruction.
Hearing this at first might cause us to lose heart and believe that God isn’t just or that He doesn’t care about how evil destroys our world. But that is far from the truth. So how does God deal with evil people, those nations that are set against Him, His people and His good plan for the earth?
J. Denny Weaver in his book The Nonviolent God explains:
[T]he beast and the kings and their armies are defeated not by violent or military might. [Rather] They are undone—defeated by the Word of God. This passage is another symbolic representation of the victory of the reign of God over the forces of evil that has already occurred with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is by proclamation of the Word, not by armies and military might, that God’s judgment occurs.
God wages war by way of the cross. “It is finished” (John 19:30).