With tears he fights, and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are banish cries,
his arrows made of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns cold and need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.
In the previous post of this series we explored the final judgement as a means to Christian non-violence, drawing from Miroslav Volf’s influential book Exclusion and Embrace. In that post we took a broad look at the text, over the next several posts we are going to have a more detailed look.
In this post I intend to look at the name given to the one who is riding the horse who is, of course, Jesus. Here is the text:
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11).
All Christians would agree that Jesus is both faithful and true, but let’s not skip past this title too quickly since it is an important theme in Revelation. A careful reader will notice, for example, that in 1:5 Jesus is called the “faithful witness.” Similarly, in 3:14 He is the “faithful and true witness.” Faithful(ness) and witness are two words that are used frequently in Revelation, but – and this is crucial – the book is not just about the faithfulness of Jesus, but our faithfulness as well. That is why early on in Revelation it is written,
“Do not be afraid of what you about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Revelation 2:10).
Many current scholars (Eugene Boring, Tom Wright, etc.) believe that the prophet John was anticipating a time of persecution for the church – a time when they would be imprisoned or killed. John realized that the relative peace that the church was living in was tentative and so he was asking, ‘how is the church to act if/when it faces persecution?’ His answer was that believers should embrace Jesus (as Lord), embrace His Way, and be prepared to suffer and die as faithful witnesses if need be. It is truly unthinkable that John would tell the church to pick up their weapons and be ready to defend themselves against those who would harm them. And yet, many today – in the US in particular – accuse Christians who don’t own a gun of being “irresponsible” for not being in a position to defend themselves and their families by taking the life of, for example, an invader. I’ve had such accusations leveled at me. I’m sure that some would immediately object that Revelation is talking about ‘spiritual persecution’ and martyrdom and not personal self-defense, but that is to miss the point at two levels. First, it falls into the trap that modern society demands from religious persons. In his book “Foolishness to the Greeks” Lesslie Newbigin wrote about two movements that have happened within modern society. The first is the division “between the public and the private worlds, and [the second]…the dichotomy in thought between what are commonly called ‘facts’ and what are called ‘values.’” He explains, “The public world is a world of facts that are the same for everyone, whatever his values may be; the private world is a world of values where all are free to choose their own values and therefore to pursue such courses of action as will correspond with them.” I believe that Christians have played into this thinking on many levels, not least of which is our views on lethal self-defense. Our discussion on the issues that I have been trying to address need to take place within the “public” world of “fact,” because that is the only world we have. The division between the public and private sphere, and the division between fact and value, are false divisions that have been imposed upon us. As long as Christianity is practiced in the privacy of our church and home it is of no threat – and therefore no use – to a secular culture.* When followers of Jesus suggest that a “Christian response” is only appropriate when it has to do with ‘spiritual things,’ they are, intentionally or not, saying that Christ is only Lord over certain areas of our life. Of course, there are a growing number who would also advocate that we be ready to defend ourselves with a gun if someone where to come in to our church service with ill intent. I simply can’t reconcile these responses with ‘Faithful and True’s’ call for us to be faithful to the point of death. It may be that, like Peter, we will be “to where we do not want to go” (John 21:18). How can one be faithful to Jesus when they are forced to on a road on which we do not wish to travel?
The second part of what we get wrong is believing that we can separate religious and public life in early church like we do in modern western society. Such a division simply was not there (neither for Christians, nor for the Romans). Regarding (particularly Roman) ‘religion’ in the time of Paul, N. T. Wright writes that “with ‘religion’…we are dealing with what today we might call ‘the fabric of society’, the things which held people together and gave shape and meaning to their personal and corporate life,” (emphasis mine) and further that “the word religio penetrated more or less every area of life.” The point of the question “how do we deal with threat?” is important because it reminds us Christians that we are representing Jesus with our whole life. As members of the Kingdom of God we are to display to a violent world what it means to be His follower. The question is, are we faithfully following His ways, or not?
So back to the text, we must ask what does it mean to be “faithful” in Revelation? What we find, as previously mentioned, is that It means to be obedient, “even to the point of death.” If you are familiar with scripture these words may ring a bell. In Philippians we read that Jesus, “being found in the appearance of man…humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!” (2:8). In Hebrews we read that “Son though He was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” While I’ve often said that self-defense is not a (New Testament) theological category, obedient suffering and death are. But, and this is the proverbial ‘big but,’ obedient suffering and death are not to be placed in the category of defeat for Christians, but in the category of victory. To die for the sake of Christ, or to die in a way that is faithful to “the Way” means that we wear the “victor’s crown” (2:10). In the first post we looked at the “slain Lamb” as being the key for understanding the whole book of Revelation. The theme is picked up here in Revelation 19, for Jesus conquers not by killing, but by being killed. While this certainly goes against our instincts, it runs with, not against the grain of the gospel.
It is, therefore, important to see the Rider not as a bloodthirsty God seeking revenge, but rather as the victorious slain (and risen) Lamb coming to bring Justice. It is not quite right, then, to repeat the frequent “Jesus came the first time as Lamb, but He’s coming back as a conquering Lion” slogan since there is no second battle described. The Lamb, by His death and resurrection, is already victorious. This is Paul’s point in Colossians 2:15 when he writes that “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Despite what it looked like, the cross was not a place of defeat where Jesus was on display. On the contrary, our Lord made a public spectacle of “the powers and authorities” by his death and resurrection. The battle has already been won. What the passage is really about is judgement. Jesus is judging, and I don’t suspect that it will be pleasant. But it is important to remember it is the violence of the nations that He is judging. It would tragic, therefore, to use this text to defend our own use of violence. Instead, we must insist on being victorious in a way that is faithful and obedient (even to the point of death) to the One who’s name is Faithful and True.
In the next post in the series we will deal with the symbols (sword and blood) that, as of yet, we have not touched on.
*I do believe that there are many things within culture that must be affirmed by the church as well. However, if we only affirm, we are missing the point.