Reclaiming the Apocalypse: Some Thoughts on Revelation 19:11-21

Fear is powerful. It can elicit awe, foster motivation, induce panic, create division and frequently cause disruption. Fear is chaotic and disrupts inner shalom. It can be created in various ways, one of which is ignorance. Often, that which is not understood and cannot be controlled is a source of fear.
In response to the disturbing content within the Apocalypse, there are Christians today that express a response of fear when reading or discussing Revelation. Experiences range from neglecting Revelation for reading, study, and preaching, as well as questioning its authentic inclusion in the NT canon. I am not necessarily taking a position one way or another, just pointing out the variety of feelings toward this book.
Juxtaposed to a response of fear, theories have been proposed to explain the imagery in the apocalyptic text. Often, these propositions ignore the genre and view the Apocalypse as speaking only to the future. Up to the present time, every attempt to force the text into a modern framework for predicting or elucidating current and expected events has failed completely.
“Those to whom John originally wrote Revelation may have known how to interpret apocalyptic texts. Most present-day people do not, so the possibility of unqualified readers going astray is even greater than with other parts of the New Testament. Let readers beware.”[1] 
These approaches have wreaked fear into the hearts and minds of those on whom the paradigm has been forced. Unfortunately, this “fleecing good-minded folks”[2] has become all too common and is partially responsible for the disdain many have of Revelation.
When examining the text with consistent hermeneutical methods and in light of its historical and literary context, a clearer vision emerges. Richard Bauckham said it well:
“Revelation itself allows no neutral perception: either one shares Rome’s own ideology, the view of the Empire promoted by Roman propaganda, or one sees it from the perspective of heaven, which unmasks the pretensions of Rome. Revelation portrays the Roman Empire as a system of violent oppression, founded on conquest, maintained by violence and oppression. It is a system both of political tyranny and of economic exploitation.” [3] 
Focusing on the aspects of war and violence as though it were the point of the vision seems to miss the allusions being represented.[4]
An import element to note in this passage is the image of a slaughter. Although universal in language, “flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (19:18 NRS),[5] these are not worshippers of God but those who have refused and rebelled. Here, God is crushing a political system for refusing to acknowledge heaven’s kingship. This system has usurped the divine prerogative for personal greed and oppressed the weak.[6] 
The paradoxical conquering motif is prevalent throughout the Apocalypse. While often accused of being a violent depiction of slaughter and carnage only, Jesus in the Apocalypse – it can be consistently argued – is dripping with his own blood, rather than that of his enemies. The Greek word for “slaughtered,” is always used in the Apocalypse in relation to the violent acts of empire.[7] The only weapon this text describes in Jesus’ arsenal as a conquering Messiah is the sword of his mouth,[8] not in his hand.[9] To suggest this text is denoting acts of violence counteracts the intentional apocalyptic imagery that the book evokes; Jesus, as the slain Messiah, has conquered through self-sacrifice.
The irony regarding the Apocalypse of John is that this message, intended as a declaration of hope to early followers, has turned into fearful dread for some modern readers. The response to Revelation – and this text – should be that of shalom, not terror. God’s people can be a people of peace precisely because the Lamb has conquered through self-sacrifice.
Divine judgment is never for justifying human oriented acts of violence or physical aggression. Interpretations used to justify unethical behavior toward humanity and environment merit reconsideration on these grounds alone. Readers are encouraged to “persist in rendering faithful witness, in imitation of Jesus and his ‘patient endurance’ (1:5, 9).”[10]    

[1] Patricia M. McDonald, God and Violence: Biblical Resources for living in a small world (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 2004), 248.
[2] Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 324.
[3] Richard Bauckham, New Testament Theology Series: The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New York, NY.: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 35.
[4] The Isaianic root of Jesse, the servant of Yahweh (Isa 11:4; 49:2 cf. Rev 19:11) with a mouth like a rod and sharp sword is he who will fairly treat the poor and oppressed. Even faithfulness and righteousness are around his waist.
[5] Cf. 19:19; cf. 6:15; 13:16.
[6] This is also reminiscent of Psalm 2, where the “kings of the earth” (2:2) set themselves against Yahweh and his anointed in rebellion. “Probably also from the psalm is John's use of the phrase 'the kings of the earth' as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1:5; 6:15; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9; 19:19; 21:24; cf. 16:14).” Bauckham, 1993, 69.
[7] Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Bible & Liberation) (Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2005), 140.
[8] Cf. 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21.
[9] See Michael J Goreman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness : Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010), 153-155.
[10] McDonald 2004, 275.

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