by William Klock
When I was an undergrad I had the chance to hear a lecture given by a missionary Bible translator. There was a lot about that lecture that was fascinating and encouraging. Up to that point it wasn’t a subject to which I’d given much thought, but when I left, for the first time, I’d started thinking about the possibility of studying biblical languages. It was encouraging to hear about people working to preach the gospel and to provide the Bible in their own languages—even sometimes going to all that effort when only a tiny handful of people speak that language or dialect. What didn’t sit well with me that night was the way this missionary talked about eschatology. Why do we have to hunt down unreached people groups—even tiny groups—to proclaim Jesus to them? Because if we don’t, Jesus can’t come back—and we really, really want Jesus to come back, because the world is an awful place and it’s just getting worse and worse. Revelation 7 describes a multitude of every tribe and tongue, after all. The impression we were left with that night is that all we have to do is make contact with every tribe and tongue on earth and win at least one person to Jesus from each and when someone believes from the last unreached people group it’ll be like flipping a switch. Jesus will come back and we can all finally get out of here! As if what matters is that there be at least one person from every tribe and tongue in heaven, not that what’s really at issue is Jesus’ conquest of the present age through the preaching of the gospel. “That’s pessimistic,” I thought that night. And years later I discovered a term has actually been coined to describe much of contemporary Evangelical eschatology: “pessimillennialism”. The point of John’s bit about every tribe and tongue is summed up well in Isaac Watts’ well-known hymn:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall was and wane no more.
Jesus shall reign wherever the sun shines. Not, Jesus shall win at least a few converts. But that pessimistic view of things has been the norm in a lot of Evangelical eschatology for the last century or so. This idea that sort of says, “Things are just going to get worse and worse, but as soon as at least one person in every tribe and tongue believes the gospel, then Jesus can come, get us out of here, and take us to heaven.” It wasn’t always like that. As Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Historically, Christians have tended to have a much more optimistic view of the future of the people of God and of Jesus’ kingdom and, as we come to Revelation 19, I think we finally see this.
Revelation began with that wonderful vision of Jesus as risen Lord, before he spoke directly to those seven churches in John’s part of Asia Minor. Jesus exhorted and warned them. Tribulation was coming—and in some cases had already come—but he exhorted them to persevere, because his kingdom was come—because he has claimed every square inch of life and of this world as his own. And then John saw God’s judgement fall first on rebellious and unbelieving Jerusalem and then, these last several chapters, on Rome and its empire. These were the two sources of opposition and tribulation and both have fallen—or from John’s perspective, were just about to fall. Now in Revelation 19 God’s people rejoice. You might say that John gives a tale of two women and then a tale of two feasts. Look at 19:1-5.
After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out,
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for his judgments are true and just;
for he has judged the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth with her immorality,
and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
Once more they cried out,
The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.”
And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who was seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!” And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
you who fear him,
small and great.”
We’re back in the heavenly throne room with the elders and the living creatures gathered around the throne, worshipping God. We met them all back in Chapter 5 as they celebrated the entrance of the lamb, the only one who could unseal the scroll of God’s judgement and set everything finally to rights. Now they cry out “Hallelujah!” That’s Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” “Praise the Lord!” It’s interesting that as often as hallelujah is used in the Old Testament, this is the only place it’s used in the New. But maybe that’s fitting, because here we finally see the victory of God in Jesus. “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,” they sing. Why? Because his judgements are true and we’ve just seen his judgement on the great prostitute. Remember the woman John saw in the last chapter, to all appearance, beautiful and regal, but in reality her chalice was full, not of wine, but of unimaginable filth and with the blood of Jesus and the saints. She represented Rome, backed by the power and authority of the devil, and she had enticed the nations to join her in her wickedness—especially in her idolatry. But praise the Lord! He has thrown her down. Again, the heavenly court cries out, “Hellelujah!” Because “the smoke from her goes up forever and ever”. She’s done. Forever. As I said when we looked at Chapter 18, the point is not that the city of Rome or even her empire and the institution of Emperor are gone, but that the power of the beast manifest in her has been broken. The Lord has ordained earthly governments to maintain order and justice—to punish those who do evil and to reward those who do good. It’s not the way it was supposed to be, but it’s what must be as a result of humanity’s rebellion against God. So the wickedness of Rome has been judged and the demonic power behind it broken. We’ll come back to this in a bit, but for now and in short it means that the gospel, the good news about Jesus, can advance. It will conquer Rome and the nations. And in response a voice from the throne calls the heavenly court again to praise: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.”
The whore who personified everything wrong with humanity, backed by the power of the devil, has been cast down. She and her lovers, the pagan nations, were a parody of the marriage to come. So in verses 6-9 the scene shifts—in stark contrast—from the prostitute to the bride.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
Now the voice of a multitude sings out in praise. This is the 144,000 of Chapter 14, those who have been “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” These are they who kept themselves pure and remained faithful to the point of death and in doing so conquered “the beast and its image and the number of its name” (14:4-5, 15:2). In 12:10 John wrote that it was through the faithfulness of their testimony that the “salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come”. The whole Church is the bride of the lamb, but what has made her ready, what has made her marriage to the lamb possible, is the faithful endurance of those men and women who persevered even in the face of persecution and death. The bride stood up to the prostitute and maintained her integrity and her virtue. The Church is pictured as a virgin bride, dressed in white—bright and pure and faithful.
This marriage imagery goes back to the Old Testament to the story of the Lord and Israel. He rescued her from Egypt, wooed her in the wilderness, married her at Mount Sinai. She was repeatedly unfaithful, but the prophets—Isaiah in particular—looked forward to a day when the Lord would woo her again.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:8)
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)
Isaiah looked forward to a day when the Lord would redeem his people and renew his covenant with them. But this time it would be different. Not only would he set fickle and unfaithful Israel to rights, but with her all of creation. And this renewal would be celebrated with a feast. Here’s what’s written in Isaiah 25:6-10:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain,
and Moab shall be trampled down in his place,
as straw is trampled down in a dunghill.
Of course, Jesus drew on this imagery too, looking forward to the day of this great banquet. It’s what Israel had been waiting for ever since her exile to Babylon. It’s what the world had been waiting for when St. Paul wrote about creation groaning in eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Finally, the satan’s power is broken. The shockwave of new creation that went out with Jesus from that empty tomb outside Jerusalem on Easter morning has finally hit Rome and new creation is set to take over the word after its long sad story of rebellion, sin, and death.
This is all so wonderful, John is overcome. Look at verses 10.
Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
Usually it’s “Don’t shoot the messenger,” but in this case the news is so wonderful John has to be told, “Don’t worship the messenger!” It’s an odd thing considering John’s just seen the heavenly courts and the bride herself worshiping God and the lamb, but it serves as a transition to the second half of the chapter. Don’t worship the angel; worship Jesus! And now we see Jesus and we see again why he’s so gloriously worthy of our worship. Look at verses 11-16:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
The prostitute has been overthrown, but the beast remains. The background for this lies back in Chapters 16 and 17 where we saw the assembly, the alliance of the “kings of the whole earth”. The beast and the ten kings allied with him brought down Rome and whether the battle—described with that language about Armageddon—is literal or symbolic, the point is that this alliance stands opposed to the Lord. They will “make war on the lamb,” but they will also be defeated by him “for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). So Rome—her demonically inspired heart, at any rate—was judged and has fallen. That judgement—which first fell on unbelieving Jerusalem, then Rome—now extends to the pagan nations who have stood watching all this happen. That description of Jesus from Chapter 17: Lord of lords, King of kings, called, chosen, and faithful is echoed here as he rides out to battle. He is faithful and true and on his thigh is written his name: King of kings and Lord of lords.
John’s vision also highlights Jesus’ victory over death. He is “faithful”—even as the powers of evil rose to their full height and put him to death on the cross. He was faithful to the end—and because of that what everyone thought was the end turned out to be the beginning! His robe is dipped in blood—the blood he shed in faithfulness at the cross. And the “name written that no one else can learn” links him with the 144,000 on whose foreheads is written the name of the lamb and who sing a new song no one else can learn (14:3). As he charges out to war on his white horse, he’s accompanied by an army “arrayed in fine linen, white and pure” and also mounted on white horses. It’s the same description used to describe the bride clothed in white. The bride rides out to war with the lamb. These are they who conquered—who persevered in the face of tribulation—and have overcome death just as the lamb has.
John’s vision of Jesus also highlights his sovereignty, drawing on the language of Psalm 2—the bit about ruling the nations with a rod of iron. Here’s what we read in Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
With the defeat of Rome, the fulfilment of the psalm begins to unfold. The nations will be brought into submission to Jesus, the powers that have opposed his people will be judged, and the saints themselves will be vindicated. We’ll come back to the sword proceeding from his mouth, but first let’s look at the rest of Chapter 19, beginning at verse 17:
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
It's impossible to miss the violent way Jesus’ victory over the nations is described. The reason for that is that John uses language drawn from the Old Testament prophets to describe all of this and he does that not to say that Jesus and the Church are going to literally go out and slaughter the nations, but to highlight that in this victory, Jesus is fulfilling the promises the Lord made through the prophets. In keeping with those images, we see another feast. As the bride stood in such stark contrast to the great prostitute, the glorious marriage supper of the lamb is now contrasted with this horrific “great supper of God”, in which the corpses of the kings of the earth and all their minions are fed on by the birds. The beast and his false prophet—the spiritual powers that stand behind this opposition to God—they are captured and thrown into “the lake of fire that burns with sulfur”. That’s imagery drawn from Daniel, where a beast symbolic of Rome “was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire” (Daniel 7:11). The beast’s power is no more. But, John writes, the rest were slain by the sword that issues from Jesus’ mouth.
It's that sword that makes sense of everything here. John writes that it’s with this sword that Jesus will strike down the nations. It’s not a sword held in his hand, but rather issuing from his mouth. What John’s getting at with this vivid imagery is the victory of the gospel, the good news of Jesus crucified, risen, and Lord, over the false gods, the false ideologies, and kings of the earth. The imagery of devastation and carnage drawn from the prophets points to the total victory that will be had by Jesus—over every square inch of human life and of creation—but the sword issuing from his mouth tells us that this victory comes not by the literal sword, not by military might, but by the proclamation of the good news by the Church—by that host clothed in white and with the name of Jesus written on their foreheads. B. B. Warfield writes about this text:
“What we have here, in effect, is a picture of the whole period between the first and second advents, seen from the point of view of heaven. It is the period of the advancing victory of the Son of God over the world, emphasizing…the completeness of the victory. It is the eleventh chapter of Romans and the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians in symbolical form: and there is nothing in it that was not already in them—except that, perhaps, the completeness of the triumph of the Gospel is possibly somewhat more emphasized here.”
The sword was Caesar’s means of conquest and it was through the sword that he imposed his false and fragile peace and made his claims of divinity. In contrast, Jesus wins his victory by allowing Caesar to do his worst. Jesus conquers by the cross and his bride, his Church, conquers by the proclamation of that good news and, following in Jesus’ steps, even with its own blood. The poet Robert Southwell wrote:
With tears he fights, and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows made of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns cold and need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.
I think we often need this reminder that Jesus won his victory at the cross and that we win our victory by means of the gospel and even as we may face opposition, persecution, and even death ourselves. Caesar can be our friend—even our brother—as history shows—when he is himself conquered and captured by the gospel. But sometimes we forget that it is by the gospel that the world will be won for Jesus and the gospel’s victory often comes through persecution of the Church as we see in Revelation. Tertullian famously—and rightly—said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. But the day after I wrote this, a friend posted some quotes on Facebook that were excerpted from Nate Wilson’s podcast this week. Wilson made a good point that’s very apropos here. He said, “When empires compost it is really rich soil. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, but the rot of empires is the soil in which those seeds grow.” That was certainly true of Rome and has been true of so many other empires, kingdoms, and countries. Brothers and Sisters, we of all people ought to have an optimistic view of the future. Jesus has won and the truth of his gospel has been advancing ever since. It’s not always linear. As Israel was in the Old Testament, the Church is God’s means of making him known and sometimes we need his discipline. He may, at times, lead us into exile, that we come out the other side restored, purified, and ready to accomplish our task. I think we here in the West are in one of those periods right now. But that the Lord disciplines his people is all the more reason to be optimistic. He does not and has not given up. Jesus has won and he will continue to win. Our mission is not to accomplish some bare minimum of evangelism to trigger deliverance from an ever-worsening world by Jesus. Dear Friends, we are the means of the world’s transformation. Jesus has defeated the powers that stood behind the pagan empires of the past. He has brought them down and created the rich soil in which the gospel grows and we can be sure—we can live in faith and hope—that his Church, proclaiming the gospel and empowered by the Spirit, will accomplish the mission he has given. Not some bare minimum carved out of a wicked people and a wicked age, but every square inch. One day the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. We are sure of this for Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: Grant, O Lord, that the course of this world may be peaceably governed by your providence; and that your Church may joyfully serve you in confidence and serenity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 “The Millennium and the Apocalypse”, Princeton Theological Review, v. 2, 1904, p. 603.
 From “New Heaven, New War”.