The Lamb and the Rider on the White Horse

The slain lamb of Revelation 5:6 is the rider on the white horse of Revelation 19:11 – and they both are Jesus.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. Revelation 5:5-6

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. Revelation 19:11

The lamb is worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because he was slain, and with his blood he purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. He made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).

The lamb is grace. The lamb is mercy. He paid the price for our salvation with his own blood. Self-sacrifice was his weapon, and the cross was his victory. He reigns over a kingdom of prayer. Whom would the lamb ever hurt?

And yet the lamb is also a rider on a white horse. He judges and makes war. His eyes are like a blazing fire. He leads an army. He rules with an iron scepter. He treads the wine press of God’s wrath. A sharp sword comes out of his mouth, and it kills. The vultures feast on the dead he leaves in his wake. Those at the head of the opposing army are thrown into the lake of fire, from which they will never rise. (Revelation 19:11-21).

The rider doesn’t look much like the lamb, but they are one in the same. Those who fight against the lamb have good reason to cry out to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:16-17)

It is true that the rider wields a sword that comes from his mouth. The rider’s sword is no ordinary weapon that tears flesh and breaks bone. His weapon is the Word of God. The rider’s robe is dipped in blood – a reminder that this warrior is also the one who sacrificed his life for others. His army is dressed in the white robes of the martyrs. This, in fact, is a martyr army – an army that wins the same way Jesus won, through love and sacrifice.

In Revelation 19, even the death of the enemy army might not be final. At this point, only the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, the symbol of final and irredeemable destruction. In the next chapter, we read that the dead are raised to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Is it possible that some of those who died as a result of the war with lamb will ultimately find their names written in the book of life?

To make sense of this, we need to understand that John’s concern in Revelation 4-19 is the empire of Rome, about which John has nothing good to say. Rome has done terrible things. It tortured and killed Christians. It indulged itself in luxury at the expense of its subjects.It made idolatrous boasts and seduced the world to share in its idolatry. Rome deserved to die an ignoble death.

John envisions a very real death for the empire, with very real rotting corpses and very real suffering and very real fear and panic. Perhaps it will come through the Parthians, horse-riding warriors from the east. Perhaps it will come another way, but John is certain that it will come. And when it comes, it will not just be an accident of history or the outworking of impersonal social forces. Christian faithfulness in the face of persecution will be the real instrument of Rome’s destruction. The lamb who sits on the throne will be the general at the head of his army. Rome’s coming destruction is the personal judgment of a holy God. Ultimately, all the people of the world will personally and individually face the same judgment themselves.

The violent imagery in the Revelation of John should not cause Christians to hate. It should not lead the church to form armed militias which fight with the weapons of this age. The church fights its battles in the same way that it always has. The cross is not just a sign by which we conquer; it is the pattern for Christian warfare.

The wrath of God, however, cannot be wished away. Destruction awaits those who will not submit themselves to the gracious rule of the God of the universe or his anointed one. Within this age, every institution and power that fights God is doomed to fall. When God judges the dead, only those who will live faithfully and peacefully under the reign of Christ will rise to new life. Others will die the death from which there is no return.

David deSiliva finds both echoes of glee and pity in John’s description of Rome’s destruction. I am content to live with tension. How can we not rejoice in God’s victory over the evil forces that wreak havoc in this world? But how can we not weep when we see waste, death and destruction scattered on the battlefield, and lament for what might have been?