11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
The formulaic ‘Then/and I saw’ seems to introduce significant events throughout 12-21 giving a unity to these final visions. These are all events related to the End, to the beginning of the reign of the Lord God Almighty (v6).
The anticipated marriage of Christ and his bride was heralded in the previous verses. However, the wedding cannot take place until the Lamb’s military battles are complete (Deut 24:5) The End has been depicted multiple times in Revelation usually revealing judgement. Here is the climactic End. These verses depict the return of Christ as a conqueror who overthrows his enemies. (Ex 15:3). The Lion of Judah (5:5) has come to make war. In Ch 13 the question was asked ‘Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him? Now the answer is given. The Lion, the Rider on the White Horse will conquer him. The focus is entirely on Christ’s overthrow of his enemies. He is ‘faithful and true – to God and to his bride. His redeemed people accompany him. They are the ‘armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure’ who follow him on white horses (Cf. V8; Zech 14:5; 1 Thess 3:13). They are those who were caught up to meet him in the air and now accompany him to earth (1 Thess 4:16,17).
Like all John’s visions this is largely drawn from OT passages. I find it difficult to discern how literally some OT texts describing eschatological battles should be read (i.e. Zech 12-14). In Revelation, it is clearer. We are reading symbolism. For instance we are not to take literally that Jesus will come from heaven on a white war horse. Nor will he have eyes like flames of fire, be dressed in a robe dipped in the blood of his enemies, or have a sharp sword protruding from his mouth. There will, of course, be no literal winepress and it is doubtful that carrion birds will eat the flesh of his enemies. This is not to detract from the vision. The vision graphically describes in categories familiar to John and his readers an event they (and we) could understand in no other way. It embodies the occasion of Christ’s coming as victor in an extended metaphor that captures its salient features; among them triumph and the crushing of all enemies by his powerful word.
In contrast to the colt the foal of an ass Jeus descends from heaven on a white war horse (parodied in 6:2). It is white signalling his righteousness and victory. His name ‘Faithful and True’ conveys the same message (3:14 cf. Jn 1:17); it is with righteousness he judges and makes war (16:7, 19:2. 2:16; Isa 11:4)
His eyes are all-consumingly holy and penetrating (1:14). His regal ascendancy is conveyed by ‘many diadems’ on his head. However, much we may know about him there remains mystery – he has a name no-one knows but himself (Matt 11:27). His vanquishing off his foes is not in doubt; he is clothed in a robe dipped in blood (of his enemies) anticipating the bloodbath to come. Climactically his name is revealed ‘The Word of God’. He is a divine person who executes God’s plans.
The armies of heaven follows him (Cf. 14:4; Ps 103:20-21). The ‘fine linen, white and pure’ indicate that these are primarily the bride, the church (v8, 17:14, 15:1,2; Zech 14:5). They too are on white horses but seem to require neither weapons nor armour. He who is ‘the word of God’ (Jn 1:1) expressing his deity, has the sharp sword of the word of God protruding from his mouth (clearly a metaphor. Cf. 1:16, 2:12,16; Isa 49:2). This is the one ‘weapon’ needed (Hebs 4:12). It is with a word not a weapon he will strike down the nations (Isa 11:4; 2 Thess 2:8). Victory will belong to Jesus alone; it is swift and decisive. It is he not his army who wars and wins (Jn 5:22). For the third time in Revelation we are told he will rule with a rod of iron (2:27, 12:5; Ps 2:9 ). In this context his rule is his conquering and crushing. The winepress is a familiar metaphor for divine judgement (14:19-20) while the language is chilling ‘the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty’ (Isa 63:3; Joel 3:13). On his thigh, a place of strength where his sword would normally be his name is written ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ (17:14; 1 Tim 6:15; Dan 4:37, 10:17) This is a title often taken by rulers (Cf. Ezek. 26:7). For the first time it is not hubris but is actually true. He is the only truly sovereign. (1 Cor 15:24).
From the awe-inspiring description of Christ the divine warrior there is a shift of focus. We are now observing the enemy and the battlefield. An august angel (loud voice and standing on sun) summons the birds to gather for the ‘great supper of God’. The ‘great supper of God’ is a parody of the ‘marriage supper of the lamb’ (Ezek39:17-20). The latter is an occasion of purity and joy the former of impurity and the macabre. The voice of the Son of God leaves the battlefield strewn with the bodies of all who opposed the rider on the white horse. Carrion birds are invited to gorge upon the flesh of the dead. The dead are drawn from very strata of society – both free and slave, both small and great (6:15) for all kinds of people oppose God*.
The beast and the kings of the earth (16:14) are gathered to make war on Christ and his army (Ps 2) It is possible that this is a reference to the beast’’s intention to destroy God’s people. It may refer to OT end-time scenarios (Zech 14) to be worked out in real battles in the real world. On the other hand it may be a visionary battle of what Paul expresses in plainer language, ‘then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming’. This is the battle of Armageddon (16:12-16)
The beast and false prophet (the beast from the earth) are captured and like Daniel’s friends are thrown alive into the lake of fire. This is a new image. It is an image of perpetual destruction and torment (Cf. Gen 19:24; 20:10). Satan will ultimately join them as will all whose names are not registered in the Lamb’s book of life (20:15). Some consider the beast and the false prophet to be systems rather than people. This doesn’t fit with John’s reference to a personal AntiChrist and Paul’s reference to the Lawless One (1 Jn 2:18; 2 Thess 2:8). Moreover we read that they, along with Satan, are thrown into the lake of fire ‘alive’ and are ‘tormented’ forever; hardly pictures of impersonal forces (19: 20, 20:10). Note, it seems the beast, false prophet and Satan bypass the great white throne judgement and are directly consigned to the lake of fire. Like Babylon, their end has come.
Meantime the dead are carrion for the birds, considered a horrific judgement (Deut 28:26; Jer 7:33, 16:4).
What a boost to faith this is. Even more so if you live in a country where Christianity is systematically crushed. John tells us the state and other enemies of the gospel will not have the last word. The last word belongs to Jesus and it’s a word that destroys all enemies of God and truth
* A number of OT texts describe the eschatological battle. How literally these are to be interpreted is an open question. Isa 31:4; 59:17-20; 63:1-5; Ezek 38,39; dan 12:1-3; Joel 3:9-16; Zech 14:2-9; Lk 21:27-36; 1 Thess 5:1-3; 2 Thess 2:8