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“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
For many Reformed believers the book of Revelation is somewhat enigmatic and out-of-reach. Rejecting the over-sensationalized interpretations of Revelation seen in premillennial, dispensational eschatology (think The Late Great Planet Earth or The Left Behind series), it’s not always clear to the average Reformed person what we’re left with.
The same could be said about this imagery of the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19. We know this is somehow talking about Jesus, and yet the war-waging, eye-blazing, tattooed and bloodied, sword-slinging man on the white horse doesn’t seem to easily map on to the humble, loving Jesus we know from the gospels.
The rider on the white horse with the blazing eyes and the sharp sword meets us as both good news and bad news, both promise and threat. There is the promise of a final defeat of evil which is good news for those who suffer under the reign of evil and very bad news for those in privileged places who have cozied up to the powers of this world. Most of us are probably a little of both.
I think we’re missing something of the gospel message, though, if we leave this imagery as representing equal tension between promise and threat. There are other gospel symbols seen in the rider that echo the same story our church calendar tells us every year. That’s a story that assures us that even though the defeat of evil may mean that parts of us need to be put to death there is more abundant life on the other side.
In the words of David Schnasa Jacobsen, it’s a story in which the promise of new creation is sweet enough that “as we in the churches see our old social order slipping away, we may also discover something grace-full about relinquishing our privilege” (Preaching in the New Creation: The Promise of New Testament Apocalyptic Texts) and so learn to speak the gospel again.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this rider on the white horse is not so unfamiliar after all: he represents what has been true of the gospel all along and we’ve been preparing all year to meet him.
He is the Word of God. Recall last Advent: waiting, waiting, waiting for Christmas when the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Christmas prepared us to meet the Word of God in Revelation 19.
He has a robe dipped in blood. He comes into battle with blood already on his clothes because it is his own blood. Whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we recall the night before Jesus’ death when Jesus told his disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). He has already spilled his own blood and given his life to rescue us from the claim sin and death have on our lives. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper that we’ve had this year has prepared us to meet this rider with the blood on his robe.
He rides a white horse because a white horse is a symbol for victory. He is victorious before the battle even starts because he already defeated death in his resurrection. Recall the celebration, the hope, and the joy of Easter morning with its white lilies or banners. Easter morning prepared us to meet the victorious rider on the white horse.
The rider on the white horse comes with many crowns. Previously in Revelation the beast from the sea was wearing the crowns and claiming power and authority that ultimately did not belong to it. Now Christ rightfully has the crowns. He has the power and authority given to him by God the Father by which he enacts true justice and peace.
Today is Christ the King Sunday when we recall this victorious king who has won victory for his own, not by force but by giving his life up for them.
As we see this vision of the rider on the white horse, we may receive his coming as both an apocalyptic promise and threat. But if you’ve been around for a while you’ll also recognize the gospel message of God’s grace freely given through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
If you’re still not convinced that the good promise outweighs the threat, then stick around for another year because we begin the story again next week with the start of Advent. We’ll begin the Christian year waiting for the birth of Christ with the end already in mind. The same Word who became flesh and dwelled among us will see to it that evil will finally be destroyed, both in us and in the world. Until that day, we say with the church of the ages, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”