Meal and battle: Revelation 19

Started by Matte Downey, Feb 5, 2018, 7:14 pm

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avatar_Matte Downey
Matte Downey Quebec Regional Leader
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A group of us have been working through the fascinating book of Revelation. It has been enlightening in so many ways. I liken it to walking through an art gallery filled with images which, at first glance, seem bizarre and unrelated, but after spending some dedicated time with the works of art and taking in a guided tour with an art historian, you start to see how the pictures fit together and play off each other. In the visions and images of Revelation, Christ and the world are revealed in both new and yet familiar ways.

Revelation is divided into three sections: God speaks to the churches in the city (chapters 1-3), God judges the Great City (chapters 4-18), and God redeems the Holy City (chapters 19-22). [1] Each of these sections begins with a vision of Christ, a reminder to the hearer/readers that whatever strange and horrible visions may follow, the One who is, who was, and who is to come, the Lamb who was slain, remains on the throne, at the centre of it all. Revelation 19 is the beginning of the final section of Revelation, outlining God's ultimate triumph over injustice. Here, we find what Eugene Peterson identifies as the meal and battle theme. In the first part of the chapter, we read about the marriage supper of the Lamb. Immediately after this festive image, we come upon a battle led by a rider on a white horse. Though we might be tempted to assume the two scenes are unrelated, we must resist such a compartmentalised reading of the text (indeed, of the scriptures in general).

Note the similarities between the two visions: both centre around the figure of Christ, both emanate from heaven (the presence of God), both are in the context of community (great multitude, army of heaven), both feature white clothing (purity, righteous deeds), both include references to faithfulness and truth (covenant, justice). One could even say that wine is a common element, being implied in the wedding feast and also part of the harvest/judgment (tread the winepress of the wrath of God).

Meals and conflicts figure prominently in the life of Jesus. In the gospel of John, Jesus's first miracle was at a wedding feast. His last meeting with his disciples was over breakfast on the beach. Jesus often shared a meal with people of ill repute. He revealed himself as the risen Christ over a meal with two strangers he met on the way to Emmaus. Zaccheus received salvation when Jesus came to eat with him in his house. Jesus and his disciples miraculously fed thousands of hungry listeners who came to hear Jesus teach. Perhaps the meal we most often associate with Jesus is the Passover supper he shared with his disciples, inserting himself into the story as the sacrificial lamb.

Meals are meant to be safe places, eaten in the presence of family and friends, feeding our bodies and our souls. After a meal, we are satiated and comforted by both food and friendship. We rise from the table, strengthened anew for the tasks ahead.

In contrast, battles are unfriendly places, requiring courage and strength in great measure. Immediately after turning water into wine, Jesus cleared the moneychangers out of the temple. His many meals with sinners brought him into repeated conflicts with the religious leaders in the community. The last supper with his disciples was immediately followed by his arrest and torture.

In Revelation 19, we have an epic wedding feast followed by an epic battle; both scenes take what is familiar to us and reshape it. The wedding feast features a lamb as a groom and saints as the bride. Similarly, the war is not an ordinary conflict or power struggle. The apostle Paul writes that we do not do battle against physical, flesh and blood enemies. Our struggle is against the forces of darkness, both within ourselves and in the world (Ephesians 6). Likewise, this battle in Revelation is not a literal, physical battle.

The metaphors in this vision reveal that the writer is turning war imagery on its head, surprising the reader at every step. The robe of the rider, Faithful and True, is dipped in blood, and the reader might assume that it is the blood of his enemies, but it is not. It is his own. Remember, the Lamb that was slain is the central metaphor for Christ in the book of Revelation. Therefore, the conquering rider is the crucified Christ who overcomes not by killing his enemies but by offering himself in loving sacrifice for the sin of the world. Another clue that this is not a literal war is the image of a sword coming out of the rider's mouth (this image is also found in Rev. 1:16). The only weapon in this battle is not a blade of steel wielded by a strong arm, but Christ himself, the Word of God. Therefore it is a who, not a what, a person not a war, that brings an end to injustice and evil.

The rider is said to rule the nations with a rod of iron, but this is an unfortunate translation. The Greek word, poimaino, primarily means "to shepherd" and this sense seems more in keeping with the inverted picture of battle which the writer is presenting to his readers/hearers. In other words, the conquering Christ is not a ruthless warlord slaying his enemies, but a protective shepherd tending to his flock.

One last note on the theme of battle: the name found on the rider's thigh and robe is "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." Contemporary Christian readers automatically link these titles to Christ, but in John's time, they were the preferred forms of address for the Ceasars. For followers of Christ in the first century, every declaration of "Jesus is Lord" was a direct denial of the unqualified allegiance demanded by the Roman empire and its representatives. So why are these names on the rider's thigh? The unusual location tells us something important about this Lord and King.

The thigh signifies both strength and vulnerability. In Genesis 24, Abraham asked his servant to put his hand under Abraham's thigh when taking an oath to find a suitable wife for Isaac (Genesis 24). Awkward, yes, but that simple gesture was packed with meaning. When the servant placed his hand close to his master's reproductive organs, it implicated the legacy and blessing and promise all found in Abraham's seed, Isaac. Similarly, the reference to the thigh also hinted at circumcision, the physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. The inner thigh was also a place where one would hang (and hide) a sword or knife, so placing one's hand under someone's thigh was a gesture of trust between the two parties. Therefore, the superlative titles written on the thigh reveal a King and Lord unlike any Ceasar. Christ's power co-exists with intentional vulnerability, and he rules/shepherds through trust instead of threats.

Meal and battle. In Christ, both of these scenes/actions are redefined. He himself becomes the meal as well as the bridegroom at the wedding feast of the Lamb. In the battle against evil, he conquers not by raising the sword, but by being the living Word of God, Faithful and True, trustworthy and just, the God who conquers his enemies by laying down his life for them. These two elements, the meal and the conflict, are on full display in the passion of Jesus.

"On the night in which he was betrayed, he had a meal with his disciples that initiated our weekly Eucharists. It was succeeded by his arrest, with soldiers pouring into Gethsemane with swords and staves and torches. This meal and this war are the polarities of saving action: the meal is the act in which we are together in friendliness, sharing that which brings us life; the war is the act in which we confront evil with hands trained for war, fingers for battle (Pa. 144), fighting 'the good fight of faith.' The meal is leisured and joyful. The war is strenuous and determined. The meal deals with the ordinary, the war with the extraordinary. If we are going to be with our saving Lord, we must regularly and often sup with him; and we must be ready, at a moment's notice to enter the fight with him." [2]

Some of us are prone to linger at the table, to enjoy the feast, day in and day out. Perhaps Christ is calling us to step away from the table for a bit in order to step into the conflict, to do battle against the darkness in our own hearts and in the world. We must not shy away from the work of justice and righteousness when Christ calls us to it.

Others of us are tireless warriors, unafraid of conflict, quick to run into battle, ready to sacrifice our desires and wants for the sake of others and for the cause of Christ. Perhaps Jesus is calling us to recline at the table and lay our head on his breast for a while. No one can battle indefinitely. We must learn what it means to sit at the feast and feet of Jesus.

Meal and battle. Grace and works. Hospitality and rescue. Vulnerability and strength. Rest and sacrifice. Lamb and shepherd. Christ is present in it all.

"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (Psalm 23).

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[1] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989).
[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder (New York: HarperOne, 1991), 166.
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