Bible Christ Popular Theology

Rethinking the ‘warrior-God’ of Revelation

Part 4 | Rethinking the ‘warrior-God’ of Revelation

In part 3, we saw how crucial it is to interpret the conquest narratives within the cultural and historical context of the ancient Near East world. By doing so, it quickly becomes apparent that Yahweh is not the genocidal, self-determining, genocidal maniac that proponents of eschatological continuity have created. The book of Revelation should also be interpreted through the lens of its own historical and cultural context – the first century Roman world. John R. Yeatts explains: “Like other biblical books, Revelation was written in a specific historical context. The content reflects the reality that it was written when Jewish Christians were under Rome’s imperial power.” 1

Equally important to understanding the contextual situation in Revelation is determining the hermeneutical lens for reading it. Whereas proponents of eschatological continuity maintain that we should read Revelation literally, the approach taken here is that Revelation should be read through a Jesus-centered lens. This will help us understand how Christ’s redemptive work was significant for Christians facing persecution in the first century Roman world.

Reading Revelation in context

Responsible interpreters of Revelation cannot read its contents without understanding the historical climate faced by the Church when the book was composed. Most scholars place Revelation’s composition towards the end of the first century when Emperor Domitian was in power. First century Christians understood the dangers of living under Rome’s imperial rule. Many remembered or heard stories of Nero’s persecution in the early sixties and expected a coming persecution under Emperor Domitian. According to Yeatts, “it seems most likely from both the content of Revelation itself and the witness of various writers that the expected persecution of Domitian is the probable context for the book.” 2

Reading Revelation through a Jesus-centered lens

We learn in the opening prologue of Revelation that what we are reading is “the revelation from Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1; emphasis added) and “the testimony to Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2; emphasis added). In other words, Revelation is from and about Jesus Christ. Taken together with the historical context in mind, the Person and work of Jesus Christ should be our starting point for interpreting what we find in the book of Revelation. And much of what is said in Revelation is communicated through symbolic language. “Although the message of Revelation is powerful and relevant,” writes Yeatts, “it is often obscured because the language used to communicate it is symbolic.” 3 Proponents of eschatological continuity interpret much of Revelation through a literal and futuristic lens. This has no doubt acted to obscure the Person and work of Jesus Christ, leading many to conclude He is a violent God. Our task in this section is to reveal the opposite.

Revelation 12: Locating the War in History

As noted earlier, the symbolic language in Revelation often refers to the battle between the Church and imperial Rome in the first century. As an example of this, let’s take a look at the apocalyptic scene of the woman and the dragon in Revelation 12:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads (Rev 12: 1-3).

It is apparent that the woman wearing a crown of twelve stars represents the twelve tribes of Israel. She (Israel) gives birth to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. After the resurrection, the Church is born – a movement beginning with the first Jewish followers of Christ. To some readers, the dragon with seven heads seems rather obscure. But according to J. Denny Weaver, it is a “transparent reference to imperial Rome, which according to legend was built on seven hills.” 4 Weaver maintains that the seven crowns correspond to the seven Roman Emperors that rule from the time of Christ’s death to when Revelation was written. These are: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Finally, the ten horns on the dragon include the seven emperors plus the three names of claimants during the Roman interregnum: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. By interpreting Revelation within its proper historical context, we are able to understand its message more clearly. Weaver explains:

Identifying these antecedents of the symbols brings the confrontation down from the cosmos and locates in on earth, in history. The confrontation of woman and dragon becomes the confrontation in first-century human history between Jesus with his church and the Roman Empire. And from the side of the church, that struggle is non-violent. As the church’s ‘weapons’ in the ‘war,’ Revelation 12:11 identifies two: the death and resurrection of Jesus and the testimony of martyrs. 5

Revelation is filled with symbolic language that, when interpreted properly, points us to the nonviolent Christ of suffering love that we find in the New Testament.

Revelation 19:13 – Who’s Blood?

In Revelation 19:11-13, Jesus is depicted as a warrior riding on a white horse whose robe is “dipped in blood.” As noted earlier, proponents of eschatological continuity propose that the blood on Christ’s robe is the blood of His enemies. However, this interpretation raises both theological and textual problems. From a theological standpoint, if Revelation testifies to the Person and work of Jesus Christ (as it says it does in Rev. 1:2), this image of Jesus shedding the blood of his enemies clearly does not line up with the Christology of the New Testament. And from a textual standpoint, “the tense indicates,” says Yeatts, “that the dipping is the permanent result of the one-time event of the cross of Christ.”6

The blood on Jesus’ robe is His own blood — “the military Christ has become the crucified Christ.” 7

Revelation 19:15 – A Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Another passage in Revelation that, when taken literally, portrays Jesus as a violent warrior bent on destruction is Revelation 19:15: “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Rev 19:15). We are told by John that the rider on the white horse “judges and wages war” (Rev 19:11) against “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies” (Rev 19:19). In the end, the rider kills His enemies with the sword coming out of His mouth (Rev 19:21). Taken literally, the sword Jesus uses is nothing short than a weapon of mass destruction. However, when we understand that the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth symbolizes the word of God, we are no longer led to believe that Jesus is a violent God. “[T]he beast and the kings and their armies are defeated not by violent or military might.” 8 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. 9

Thus, the divine warrior motif finds its ultimate expression in God’s triumph over evil through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are God’s chosen weapons for defeating evil. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Revelation 5. Here, the “Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,” is the only one in heaven and earth that is able to open the scroll (Rev 5:5). Yeatts concludes that it “is best to take the scroll to contain the redemptive plan of God, which includes the salvation of God’s people and the judgement of the wicked.” 10 The creatures and the elders in heaven proclaim that the crucified and resurrected Christ is worthy to implement God’s plan of universal restoration because He was slain on the cross. “The most authoritative divine event is not future: it has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” 11

The eschatological continuity/dispensational view – that a literal war will consummate salvation history – does not find support in Revelation. “Essential to a proper understanding of [Revelation’s] rhetoric,” writes Loren Johns, “is the recognition that the lamb has triumphed in his death and resurrection, not that the lamb will triumph in the future […].”12 A dispensational reading of Revelation empties the cross and resurrection of its power to triumph over evil; it elevates worldly weapons of war over heavenly weapons of war. The dispensational view,” says Weaver, “does not understand the resurrection of Jesus as the ultimately decisive event in Revelation […].” 13

In fact, the warrior-God of eschatological continuity stands in sharp contrast to the crucified God of Revelation.

[1] John R. Yeatts, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Revelation, eds. Elmer A. Martens and Willard M. Swartley (Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 2003), 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Yeatts, Revelation, 357.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Weaver, The Nonviolent God, 51.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Yeatts, Revelation, 108.

[11] Weaver, The Nonviolent God, 39.

[12] Loren Johns, “The Origins and Rhetorical Force of the Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John” (PhD) Dissertation., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1998), 199-200.

[13] Weaver, The Nonviolent God, 33.

  1. Pingback: The God of the Bible is bound by one thing: merciful love – Jesus for Humans

  2. Just awesome.

  3. Pingback: 5-part series: Conquering the ‘violent God’ of the Bible – Jesus for Humans

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