The Covenantal Kingdom
A TEST CASE: REVELATION 19:11-16
The book of Revelation ends with seven visions, each beginning with the words "and I saw." The first of these visions, recorded in Revelation 19:11-16, is a classic proof text for premillennialism and therefore a good passage with which to test postmillennial exegesis. Can postmillennialism deal faithfully with what seems to many modern readers to be an unequivocally premillennial passage of Scripture?
According to the premillennial commentator John F. Walvoord, "This passage contains one of the most graphic pictures of the second coming of Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture." He further explains:
Either Walvoord has some very strange, though not necessarily unpopular, ideas about the second coming of Christ or he is speaking of Biblical symbols as if they were literal, perhaps for the sake of rhetorical effect. He refers, for example, to stars falling. Revelation 6:13, one of the passages he has in mind, is actually more specific: "the stars of the sky fell to the earth." Walvoord comments on the paragraph that includes this remarkable prophecy, "Students of Revelation have had difficulty interpreting this passage and the tendency has been to regard these judgments as symbolic rather than real. The motive behind this interpretation has been a reluctance to accept a literal interpretation of these judgments at this time . . ." He goes on to argue that there are "a number of reasons for preferring to take this passage in its literal meaning." He even quotes E. W. Bullinger's assertion that, "It is impossible for us to take this as symbolical; or as other than what it literally says. The difficulties of the symbolical interpretation are insuperable, while no difficulties whatever attend the literal interpretation."
Apart from the fact that the Bible never uses the language of stars falling from the sky as literal language -- the most important difficulty for the literal interpretation -- there is the minor problem of John's actual words, "the stars of the sky fell to the earth." Just how many "stars," most of which are larger than the sun, does Walvoord think can fall to the earth without doing more damage than the poor planet can sustain? Interestingly, Walvoord's literal interpretation of this passage does not deal with the difficult phrase "fell to the earth," except in the most general terms like "disturbances in the heavens." Unfortunately for Walvoord's literalism, John's language is clear and unmistakable. John says that "stars" -- no escape can be found in hermeneutical gymnastics with the original Greek -- "fell to the earth" -- again, the Greek is clear and accurately translated.
Returning to Revelation 19, it is all the more remarkable to observe that although for Walvoord the falling of stars to the earth is literal language, Jesus riding on a white horse is a symbol. He says that John is referring to the "symbolism of a rider on a white horse drawn from the custom of conquerors riding on a white horse as a sign of victory in triumph." Why is it more difficult to imagine Jesus riding a white horse from heaven than to imagine a multitude of giant fire-balls, each larger than the sun, falling to planet earth? Why is the "graphic picture" of Christ's second coming couched in figurative language?
Even if Walvoord's literalism could make room for the horse, other elements of this passage cause problems. Some Greek texts do not include the important -- for the literalist interpretation -- word "as" before the description of Jesus' eyes as a "flame of fire." John says that there are "many crowns" on Jesus' head. His robe is dipped in blood. And He has a sharp sword coming out of His mouth. To be brief, a literal interpretation of this passage would be grotesque beyond imagination. In the final analysis the most enthusiastic literalist regards the language here as figurative.
But, the literal interpreter will insist, even if the language is figurative, it is speaking about the literal coming of Christ. This is simply not true. Once again, it is important to consider the actual words of the text. There is no reference to Jesus' coming to the earth or to a "parousia." The idea of the second coming is read into the passage on the basis of the theological presuppositions of the interpreter. What the text actually says is that Jesus will "judge and make war." John speaks of Jesus riding a white horse and leading a heavenly army to subdue the nations and bring them into submission to Him. This is the unmistakable "literal" content of the symbolic language. Whether Jesus conquers the nations by physical violence at the time of His second coming or by the Gospel prior to His second coming is a question that is decided by other passages of Scripture. Neither the premillennialist nor the postmillennialist can find a simple symbolic statement of his eschatology here.
Close attention to the language of the text and its use in other passages of Scripture suggests that John is using common Biblical figures of speech to speak not of the second coming of Christ, but of the conquest of the nations by the Gospel. It is true that because John is speaking of covenantal conquest, the language is similar to the kind of expressions we would expect in a prophecy of the final judgment of the nations at Christ's coming. Indeed, the second coming of Christ is just the climax of a long historical process. Similarity of language, however, does not mean identitical meaning. John is referring to the present period of "discipling the nations" by the Gospel. In particular three important considerations point to the covenantal spread of the Gospel: 1) the New Testament teaching about the conquest of the nations; 2) the figurative use of martial symbolism; 3) a comparison of John's language with the use of the same or similar expressions in other Scriptures.
Every Enemy Subdued
The New Testament teaches in no uncertain terms that Jesus is now, during the present age of the Gospel, subduing every enemy. He has been crowned King of kings and Lord of lords at His ascension to the right hand of God (Acts 2:34ff; 5:31; Eph. 1:18ff.; Heb. 1:3; 10:12; etc.). All authority in heaven and on earth is already His (Mt. 28:18). Furthermore, the clearest passage in the Bible on the time of the second coming of Christ includes the declaration that Jesus, who is now reigning over God's creation (Mt. 28:18), "must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Cor. 15:25). Paul is quoting Psalm 110:1, the Psalm of the Messiah as Melchizedekian King-Priest, frequently quoted in the New Testament. Jesus' reign, including the defeat of all enemies, is the logical application of his cross: "but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; henceforth expecting till his enemies be made the footstool of his feet" (Heb. 10:12-13). It should not be necessary to point out that "enemy" is the vocabulary of martial symbolism.
It may be necessary, however, to remind ourselves that subduing the enemy is the language of covenantal blessing. Beginning with Abraham's defeat of Chedorlaomer (Gn. 14:13ff.; cf. esp. vs. 20), God's defeating of Israel's enemies is a repeated feature of covenantal blessing. After offering up Isaac, Abraham is promised: "thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies" (Gn. 22:17). Rebekah receives the same blessing when she goes to marry Isaac (Gn. 24:60). Judah, whose descendents become the leading tribe of Israel, is given the same blessing, too (Gn. 49:8). In short, the Old Testament promise of covenantal blessing included as an essential aspect the curse on those who cursed Abraham (Gn. 12:3), which is elaborated in many passages as a promise that God will defeat Israel's enemies (cf. Ex. 15:6; 23:22; Lv. 26:7-8; Nm. 10:9, 35; Dt. 20:3-4; 23:14; 28:7; etc.). It is natural, then, that John seeing in a vision the Messiah's covenantal victory should picture it in terms of warfare.
No one disputes the fact that the Abrahamic covenant is the background for the New Testament Gospel (Gal. 3:6ff.). But this means that the martial language of the Abrahamic promise is brought into the New Testament also. Most importantly, it is found frequently associated with the preaching and spread of the Gospel. This will only be a surprise to those who have forgotten the typological meaning of the conquest of Canaan. In the conquest God sent His people to conquer the land of Canaan by an exceptional form of warfare (cf. Dt. 20:1-20, esp. vs. 16-18) as an application of the curse of the Abrahamic covenant -- "I will . . . curse him that curseth thee" (Gn. 12:3b). The land promised to Abraham and conquered by war was a symbol of the world promised to Christ and conquered by the Gospel. Paul alludes to the symbolism of Canaan representing the world when he says that Abraham is the covenantal "heir of the world" (Rom. 4:13). Implied in the original promise that Abraham would be the source of blessing for the world (Gn. 12:3c) was the fuller statement of the promise in Genesis 22:17-18 in which the conquest of enemies and the blessing of the world are inseparably yoked: "in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."
Both the covenantal conquest of Canaan by military forces under Joshua and the covenantal conquest of the world through covenantal preaching under Joshua-Jesus are a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. This leads to the use of martial language to describe the conquest of the world by the Gospel, the fulfillment of the Canaan-conquest typology.
1. Satan and the World
Of the several basic categories of martial symbolism, the most well recognized is that which speaks of Satan as the enemy and views Christians as fighting a spiritual warfare against him. The kingdom parables of Jesus, for example, frequently draw on this symbol (Mt. 13:25, 28, 39). Also, when the seventy returned from their Gospel preaching tour, Jesus said, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you" (Lk. 10:8-9). And Paul tells us that the cross "disarmed" the demonic host so that Jesus gained a public triumph over them (Col. 2:15). These and other passages refer to the idea of warfare against Satan that pervades Scripture from Genesis 3:15 onwards.
Of course, the defeat of the Satanic enemy must include the defeat of his earthly kingdom and forces. This includes false teachers in particular who are enemies of the kingdom of God and servants of the devil that do all within their power to destroy Christ's kingdom (Jn. 8:44; Acts 13:9-10; 2 Cor. 11:13ff.; Phil. 3:18). It also includes, more broadly, all of those who do not believe in the true God, the citizens of Satan's kingdom, for whoever "wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (Jms. 4:4b; cf. Col. 1:13, 21). All of these earthly enemies must be subdued by Christ before He returns (1 Cor. 15:25-26; Acts 2:35; Heb. 1:13; 10:13).
2. Paul's Ministry
Also within the symbolic framework of Canaan-like world conquest, Paul regarded his own preaching ministry as a form of special warfare. He called his ministry a fight and urged young Timothy to fight with him (2 Tim. 4:7; 1 Cor. 9:26; 1 Tim. 6:12). Paul waged war with God-given weapons: "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds)" (2 Cor. 10:3-4). And, though he felt himself overwhelmed by the implications of this truth, he was absolutely certain that victory belonged to the saints of God: "Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor. 2:14-16).
The weapons Paul referred to are seen in his description of the Christian warrior (Eph. 6:11ff.), prominent among which is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph. 6:17). In addition to the sword of the Spirit, Christians are to be armed with "the breastplate of righteousness," "the shield of faith," and "the helmet of salvation" (Eph. 6:14, 16, 17; cf. 1 Thes. 5:8), no doubt the same weapons with which Paul fought.
In the context of Canaan-conquest typology it is also appropriate that both Paul and John emphasize the fact that Christians are "more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37), "For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world -- our faith" (1 Jn. 5:4). Because Christ Himself vanquished the world by His cross (Jn. 16:33), we, too, have the victory over Satan (1 Jn. 2:13, 14; 4:4) and the world (1 Jn. 5:4, 5). We must remember that all true Christians are overcomers when we read that to the overcomer, the victor, is promised the tree of life (Rev. 2:7), freedom from the second death (Rev. 2:11), the hidden manna (Rev. 2:17), power over the nations (Rev. 2:26), and white garments (Rev. 3:5). It is also promised that he will become a pillar in the house of God (Rev. 3:12), sitting down on Jesus' throne with Him (Rev. 3:21) and sharing in the inheritance of all things (Rev. 21:7).
3. The Great Commission
Finally, it should be noted that the Great Commission itself, though not specifically couched in the language of military symbolism, is nevertheless clearly a command to bring the entire world into submission to Christ: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and disciple all nations" (Mt. 28:18-19a). To this command there is a promise attached. It is the same promise that was repeated twice to Israelite soldiers before going into battle:
This same promise was also repeated twice to Joshua in accordance with the Mosaic formula: "as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (Josh. 1:5); "be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest" (Josh. 1:9). Jesus' promise to be with the Church includes a promise taken from what was originally part of the military laws of Israel, because the Church is called to covenantally conquer the world. This is the New Testament background for Revelation 19:11-16. Jesus as the New Covenant Joshua is riding a white horse leading the Church to victory through the preaching of the Gospel.
4. Jesus' Teaching
Even the threats of judgment found in John's vision find their place in the Gospel ministry. For example, Jesus was speaking about the effect of the spread of the Gospel when He said: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Mt. 10:34). He also commanded the evangelists to "shake off the dust" from their feet as a testimony against the cities which did not receive the Gospel; He added, "Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city" (Mk. 6:11; Mt. 10:14; Lk. 9:5). Paul and Barnabas followed Jesus' directive when the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia "expelled them out of their coasts" (Acts 13:50-51). This symbolic act of covenantal judgment, an aspect of the Gospel ministry long forgotten, points to the Gospel as a "savor of death unto death" to those who rebel against it. The call to believe is a command from the living God. Those who refuse will be overthrown by God's providential judgment.
Jesus Himself not only ended His ministry by hurling at Israel the most terrifying curse recorded in Scripture (Mt. 23:1-39) and prophesying the destruction of Israel for her sins (Mt. 24-25), He also specifically instructed the disciples in how to curse. Mark tells us that Jesus approached a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit "for it was not the season of figs" (Mk. 11:13b). We may be sure that Jesus knew the season of figs and that he was not going to find any on the tree. He chose the fig tree, a well-known symbol of Israel, in order to curse it. The tree withered away, surprising the disciples. Jesus then told them, "Have faith in God. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith." (Mk. 11:22b-23). Jesus is obviously not speaking literally of mountains being cast into the sea. He is speaking of imprecatory prayer. His promise is that if the disciples curse kingdoms in sincere faith, God will hear their prayer and destroy them. Jesus adds teaching about forgiving our personal enemies so that no one will mistake prayers for personal vengeance with prayers for judgment on wicked nations (Mk. 11:25-26). Christians are expected to pray for the wrath of the Lamb against those nations that reject the truth and persecute God's people. But the curse is not necessarily final, as we learn from the Psalms:
O my God, make them like a wheel;
as the stubble before the wind.
As the fire burneth a wood,
and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire;
So persecute them with thy tempest,
and make them afraid with thy storm.
Fill their faces with shame;
that they may seek thy name, O LORD. (Ps. 83:13-16)
When we remember how Jesus cursed Israel and how His instructed the disciples to pray imprecatory prayers against the kingdoms that oppose the Gospel, it should not be regarded as unusual that even in this Gospel age we can speak of Him as treading "the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Rev. 19:15b). It is essential to the Gospel message to warn men that nations which reject the Gospel face the wrath of the risen Christ.
Comparing Scripture with Scripture
In addition to the frequent use of martial symbolism for the Gospel ministry, certain details of the language here indicate that John is speaking of a conquest that is not literally military. First, Jesus is called "Faithful and True." This is common language in Revelation. From the beginning John claims his book is a revelation of "Jesus Christ, the faithful witness" (1:5). Jesus identifies Himself to the Church of Laodecia as the Faithful and True Witness (3:14). He is also called the True One who has the key of David (3:7), and Holy and True (6:10). Jesus' faithfulness and verity are emphasized as aspects of His work as a witness to God's Truth. These are His qualities as God's Son through Whom God speaks the new-covenant revelation. Thus, shortly after the vision of Jesus on a white horse, John twice proclaims that the words of God are "faithful and true" (21:5; 22:6). The title John uses here alludes to Jesus' work as the Prophet of God whose witness may not be refused (cf. Dt. 18:15ff.).
John tells us that Jesus "judges and wages war" in righteousness (19:11). The verb John employs is used infrequently in the New Testament -- outside of Revelation only in James 4:2, and in the book of Revelation only in 2:16; 12:7; 13:4; 17:14 and 19:11. Including the passage in James, every one of these passages is best understood as speaking figuratively, beginning with Jesus' threat to judge members of the church of Pergamum: 'Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth" (Rev. 2:16). Michael and the angels in heaven cannot be literally fighting with swords and spears against a literal dragon (12:7). The people who exclaim "Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?" (Rev. 13:4) may be thinking only of literal war, but probably they mean "Who is able to withstand him?" Finally, apart from Revelation 19:11, the only other verse is that in which John speaks of those who will "wage war against the Lamb;" this must be figurative since no one can ascend to heaven to attack Christ. My point is not that the Greek verb used here is a technical word only used in a figurative sense. My point is rather that the language of war can be and is frequently figurative, even in Revelation, significantly including the reference to Jesus' covenantal judgment on the Church (Rev. 2:16).
Again that the warfare in Revelation 19:11-16 should be understood as figurative is indicated by the fact that Jesus' name is called "The Word of God" (Rev. 19:13). Just as the name "Faithful and True" points to Jesus as a witness, so, too, the name "word of God" refers to Jesus as the final and perfect revelation of God. In Revelation John repeatedly speaks of the word of God and associates it with the testimony of Jesus. He identifies himself as one who "who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:2). John was on the island of Patmos "because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (1:9). John saw the souls of those who were slain "because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained" (6:9) and later sees the "souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God" (20:4).
Even the language of a sword coming out of Jesus' mouth cannot be restricted to the second-coming judgment. Revelation begins with a vision of the glory of the resurrected Christ as He stands amidst the lampstands, in other words, as Christ manifests Himself to His people. In this vision, too, Jesus is seen with a "sharp two-edged sword" coming out of His mouth. The symbolism here is not pointing to Jesus as One who "makes war" against the Church. What it means is clearly seen when John later reports Jesus' words to the church in Pergamos: "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (Rev. 2:16). This is a threat of covenantal judgment, not literal war.
Finally, there is the language of ruling the nations "with a rod of iron" (Rev. 19:15). This quotation from Psalm 2 speaks of Jesus' covenantal dominion. This is also part of the Great Commission, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth," and is a theme of the early chapters of Revelation. The glorious Christ of Revelation 1:12-16 appears to the churches in Revelation 2-3. Dominion over the nations is the repeated promise of the Head of the Church:
Putting all of these expressions together in a simple phrase by phrase interpretation of John's vision, we come to something like the following:
All evangelical interpreters agree that the language of Revelation 19:11-16 is figurative. Even the most literal interpreters have not ventured to suggest that Christ will actually appear in heaven riding a white horse and wearing bloody robes, with a sword protruding from his mouth. The question is not whether or not the language is figurative, the question is what do these figures of speech mean. The answer must be found in the Bible itself. Many of the figures of speech used in this passage are used in other places in Revelation, in contexts that refer to Jesus' covenantal presence among His people. And in the New Testament in general, the language of martial conflict, including the spread of the Gospel, is used frequently to refer to the Christian's warfare with Satan and the world. John is using figures of speech that all Christians are familiar with. "Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before" expresses the traditional and Biblical view of the spread of the Gospel in a figure of speech that is typical New Testament language. There is nothing unnatural or forced about the postmillennial interpretation.
By contrast, the premillennial interpreter Robert H. Mounce says of John's language in Revelation 19:11-16, "The imagery used to depict this great event reflects the Jewish tradition of a warrior Messiah more than the NT teaching of the second advent of Christ." The problem is not in John's imagery, but in Mounce's assumption that John is here speaking of the second coming. On one point, however, Mounce is certainly correct: the premillennial doctrine of the second coming resembles the Jewish Messianic hope of the first century. But Jesus and the apostles taught that this was a mistaken hope. The victory of Christ was won by the cross, a doctrine that was foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. But to those who believe, the power of God!
John wrote to encourage the Church. Faced with the power of the Roman Empire and the opposition of the Jews, Christians might think their cause hopeless. The "inhabitants of Canaan" that Christ sent them to conquer no doubt appeared to be giants whose cities were secured by impregnable walls. John, following Moses' instruction to the priests (Dt. 20:1-4), reminds the Church that the battle is Christ's. He will lead us. He will give us the victory.
1. These words are repeated in Revelation 19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11; 21:1.
2. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973), p. 274.
3. Ibid. pp. 275-76. For a superb, book-length discussion of Matthew 24 that demonstrates the superiority of postmillennial exegesis in detail, see: Gary Demar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church (Atlanta: American Vision, Inc., 1994).
4. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 136.
6. Ibid., p. 137.
7. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 276.
8. When Israel breaks the covenant, she will be defeated by her enemies as part of God's curse and discipline for her (Lv. 26:16ff.; Dt. 28:25ff.).
9. The noun form of this Greek verb is often used for literal war (Mt. 24:6; Mk. 13:7; Lk. 14:31; 21:9; 1 Cor. 14:8; Heb. 11:34), but it may be used in a figurative sense also (Jms. 4:1; Rev. 12:7; 12:17; 19:19).
10. The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 343.