The Rider on the White Horse (Rev 19)

Yesterday in our Revelation series, we saw the prophesied end of the great prostitute (Rome) because of its exploitation of the empire and its persecution of God’s people. Today, we move into the next phase of God setting things right – into our future – when Christ returns.

We ended yesterday on a note of triumph – the vindication of God’s people, as the whore of Babylon (Rome) is destroyed. Today, we see a stark contrast with the Bride of Christ (the Church):

Revelation 19:5–8 Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both great and small!” 6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Remember that in chapter 17, Babylon the prostitute wore purple and scarlet (the garb of high-class hookers) and plenty of bling:

Revelation 17:4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.

In chapter 19, the contrasting female image – the bride – has made herself ready in a more appropriate way, with fine, bright (or white) linen. White clothing has a moral significance in Revelation (e.g. 2:18; 4:4; 6:11; 19:14; etc.), made explicit in verse 8. The absence of bling shows the appropriate modesty of the bride in contrast to the attention-seeking prostitute.

Please be clear: this isn’t prescribing a rather boring dress-code for (female?) Christians. The prostitute and bride are both symbols, and they are dressed in symbols. So feel free to purple-and-scarlet it up if they are your colours – and flash some bling if you must. The distinction between the two isn’t what you’re physically wearing. It’s whether you’re indulging in idolatry and exploitation of the vulnerable like the world around us, or “clothing” yourself with the actions that reflect God’s values to the world. Are you “sleeping around” in exchange for what the world has to offer, or remaining pure and faithful to Jesus?

Revelation 19:9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

In the Gospels, Jesus used wedding imagery for himself and his people, and the banquet to celebrate the nuptials turns up a few times in his parables – and the question is all about who’s invited. Here, we’re reminded that the wedding supper is by invitation, highlighting the readers’ privileged position. It’s a reminder that they are the ones who are truly blessed, even though—for the moment, and from their perspective—it looks like Rome and her followers are the ones who are blessed.

Revelation 19:11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 

The rider on the white horse is clearly Christ, since he is described as “faithful and true”—since Jesus describes himself as “the faithful and true witness” back in Rev 3:14.

Revelation 19:12a His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.

His eyes are like blazing fire, seeing everything. He doesn’t just have seven or ten crowns (like the dragon or the ten kings) but “many.”

Revelation 19:12b His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.

A name in the ancient world was thought to represent the essence of a person. Adam’s naming of the animals implies his dominion over them, back in Genesis 2. But no-one can name Jesus.

Revelation 19:13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

His robes still haven’t been through the wash after trampling the winepress of God’s wrath back in chapter 14.

Revelation 19:14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.

Their clothing is more appropriate for a Greek Eurovision entry than for an army…

Revelation 19:15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron sceptre.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

…but that’s OK, because Jesus does all the fighting with his mouth-sword. Just as God’s Word was all that was needed to create his world, so, too, it’s merely the Word of God that destroys his rebellious creatures. Here, he fulfils the promise made to David back in Psalm 2:

Psalm 2:7-9 He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. 8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

And Jesus has a thigh-tatt:

Revelation 19:16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords.

…which if you translate into Aramaic and add up the number-value of the letters (if you remember the number of the beast), it adds up to seven hundred and seventy seven.

Revelation 19:17-18 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in mid-air, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”

While the wedding guests get a nicely catered banquet, the vultures get invited to their own meal – the dead bodies of those opposed to God. Again, a not-too-subtle contrast, encouraging the readers of Revelation to play the long game.

A great battle then takes place:

Revelation 19:19-21 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20 But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. 21 The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.

All those who persist in rebellion against God assemble to fight, but the battle is over very quickly. The beast (the Roman empire) and the false prophet (the second beast, the imperial cult) are thrown alive into the lake of burning sulphur. Note that it’s just the symbols that go into the lake at this point, showing that the powers opposed to God will be defeated and destroyed. Everyone else is killed, and it’s suppertime for the vultures.

That’s a bit gruesome, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. And it can be quite confronting in our culture – something that we’re inclined to airbrush out of the picture, particularly when talking to the rest of the world. Yet it’s in Scripture, and we need to deal with it. So let’s make a few points:

Firstly, this wouldn’t have been as shocking in the ancient world. (Or, indeed, in some parts of our world today.) Invasion and conquest were facts of life, and armies would often do incredibly brutal things to those they conquered. And dishonour their bodies after death as a way of rubbing the defeat in. A lot of the time it was vengeance – for what had been done to their nation last time your nation won. And so it went on in an escalating tit-for-tat battle. In modern warfare, governed by the Geneva convention and a desire to avoid harming non-combatants, this kind of behaviour, while it still can happen, is (rightly) condemned. But Revelation is speaking to a context in which this was normal behaviour for conquering armies.

Secondly, this wasn’t written directly to us. It was written to a marginalised, often persecuted, and sometimes martyred people, talking about how justice would eventually be done to the ones who persisted in marginalising, persecuting, and martyring them. It’s simply sending the message: stay strong and endure, because one day your oppressors will have the tables turned on them!

Thirdly, in case we’d forgotten, these are symbols. The beast and the false prophet are thrown into a fiery lake, symbolising the destruction of evil powers. Even the vulture scene is simply picking up earlier imagery from Ezekiel 39:17 about another great battle. While the images and language are drawn from the realities of warfare in the ancient world, let’s not assume it’s literal anymore than we think that one day we’re going to be living in a city that’s literally a mile-high cube (see the New Jerusalem in chapter 21).

And fourthly, this does talk about judgement and destruction against those who are opposed to God. Let’s not shy away from that. But let’s remember that God has been graciously holding off this judgement since Genesis chapter 3, sending plenty of warnings. Even in Revelation, we’ve seen sets of judgements that caused increasing amounts of destruction (a quarter in the seal judgements, a third in the trumpet judgements, and all in the bowl judgements), along with his witnesses (the church) to interpret the judgements and implore people to repent. But they still didn’t. And what’s more, they killed the witnesses who were bringing the message of hope! So at this point, nothing is left except for God, with heavy heart, to enact that judgement.

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