The Return of the King

A sermon on Revelation 19:11-20:15 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 8/7/2005

What does a king do to those who rebel against him? The signers of the US Declaration of Independence knew the answer. Benjamin Franklin allegedly stated, “We must all hang together, otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

We see the same idea in the Bible, even from Jesus Himself. In parable of the minas, some subjects send a delegation to their king saying they don’t want him to reign over them. The parable concludes:

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me. Luke 19:27  

What will God do with those who rebel against Him? King George III was not a paragon of virtue. And the king in Jesus’ parable need not be a model in every respect. But the Scriptures do not leave us guessing about what God will do. Consider Psalm 2:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed, saying,  3 "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us."  4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.  5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,  6 "As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill."  7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you.  8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.  9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."  Psalm 2:1-9

What does God do to rebels? Praise Him, He changes and redeems some of them. But He has named His king: Jesus Christ Himself. Those who continue in rebellion against King Jesus, He breaks with rod of iron. He dashes them to pieces.

Much of the book of Revelation describes the rebellion against the King of the Universe:

·       In chapters 12-14, we see Satan himself as the one spurring on these rebellious people. He tries to destroy Jesus when He is born, then deceives the nations so that they might follow the beast.

Throughout the book we’ve also seen pictures that remind us that, despite the oppression and martyrdom of His people, God is in charge:

·       Again and again John uses divine passives, stating that the beasts or kings “were permitted”, “were granted authority”, or “were allowed” to do something. The reader understands that God is the unstated authority who grants such permission.

Here, at long last, in Chapter 19 we see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords assume His reign. This truth has been stated previously:

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 11:15 

But in this account, we now see Jesus as the avenging king, coming to do what he says in the parable in Luke 19: slaughter His enemies. John first describes His king in 19:11-16, then describes the final battle in the rest of the chapter. He describes the same battle and the subsequent final judgment in 20:7-14.

Our plan for today is to look at this text under three headings:

The Nature of the King

The Victory of the King

Our Response to the King

Under this last heading, we’ll look briefly at 20:4-6. Then next week, we’ll consider 20:1-6 in more detail along with 21:1-8.

As we proceed today, as yourself: Who is this king? Is He rightly king? If so, how should I respond?

The Nature of the King

In verse 1, John sees heaven opened, and a white horse with a glorious rider. He says this rider is “faithful and true.” This echoes 3:14, where Jesus describes Himself as the “faithful and true witness.” Thus, He sees all, and knows all. He cuts through all deceit, all pretensions, all self-deception. He speaks truth – and judges rightly.           We might summarize: Jesus sees all.

As the only true witness, He is the only one who can judge righteously. So John continues to describe him: “In righteousness he judges and makes war.”

In our courts, sometimes the innocent are condemned, and the guilty are set free. But not when Jesus judges.

When we go to war, sometimes there are questions about whether or not the war is just. We’ve had these questions in Iraq: Was Saddam Hussein a threat? Was he developing weapons of mass destruction? Does his treatment of his personal enemies, and his spurning of Security Council resolutions, justify foreign military invasion? But not so with Jesus. His judgments are right. He wages war justly.

This description too echoes the letters to the churches. Jesus says to the church in Pergamum:

Repent, or I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. Revelation 2:16

Whether judging or waging war, Jesus does right.

For the third characteristic of Jesus the King, see verse 12: His eyes are like a flame of fire. This image also comes from early chapters in the book, in this case 1:14 and 2:18. These burning, piercing eyes picture His righteous authority. This idea is augmented by the next image: On His head are many diadems or crowns. Recall that the beast had ten diadems (13:1); the dragon, Satan, had 7 (12:3). They try to imitate His power and authority. But their imitation pales beside the real thing. He has many, many more crowns. Thus, Jesus rules by right.

Fourth: Jesus has a name written that no one knows but Himself. In the letter to Pergamum (2:17), Jesus promises that He will give overcomers a new name no one else knows. A name describes the inner essence of a person. As the faithful and true witness, He is the only one who can give such a name to one of us. Just so, only He can reveal His true nature. The beast and Satan can’t figure Him out. Nor can we. We see only what He chooses to reveal.

John elaborates on this idea in the middle of verse 13: The name by which He is called is The Word of God. Here John echoes the first chapter of his own gospel:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. John 1:1

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 

Jesus is the revelation of God. He shows what God is like. As He says later in that same gospel, “He who has seen me has seen the father” (John 14:9). Thus, only Jesus can reveal God fully

Finally, look at the beginning of verse 13: Jesus is clothed in a robe dipped in blood. Is this His blood or the blood of His enemies? If we look at the near context, the answer is clear. Verse 15 pictures Jesus with a sharp sword coming out from His mouth to strike down the nations. In chapter 2, Jesus threatened to use the sword of His mouth to judge the rebels in Pergamum.

Skip down to verse 15. Jesus will rule the nations with a rod of iron. This is a quote from Psalm 2, but the Hebrew uses a word meaning “break”, not “rule”. “He will break [the nations] with a rod of iron.” Why the change? The change actually comes in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek literally says “he will shepherd them with a rod of iron.” That sounds strange to our ears – mainly because few of us have ever served as shepherds, and none of us have shepherded sheep when they are in danger. Remember, shepherds don’t just loll around on hillsides, imagining pictures in the clouds, playing lyres or flutes. A good shepherd both guides sheep and protects them from enemies. When David volunteers to fight Goliath, do you remember what he tells Saul?

"Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock,  35 I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.  36 Your servant has struck down both lions and bears 1 Samuel 17:34-36 

A shepherd thus destroys the enemies of the sheep. So it is quite appropriate to translate the Hebrew word for “break” with the Greek word for “shepherd” since a true shepherd will protect his sheep by using his rod to break the backs of those attacking the sheep.

Verse 15 concludes by saying that Jesus will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God.” This is the same image used at the end of chapter 14. In that chapter, we did not know that Jesus was the one doing the trampling. Now we see that He Himself is the agent who destroys God’s enemies.

So, clearly Jesus comes in judgment. The picture of Jesus here is of the avenging, conquering king. So the blood on His robe in verse 13 is not His redeeming blood, but the blood of His enemies, splattered on Him. Jesus conquers all His enemies.

Jesus sees all. Jesus does right. Jesus rules by right. Only Jesus can reveal God fully. Jesus conquers all enemies. John summarizes all this in verse 16:

On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

No one can compare to Him. The mightiest on earth must bow to Him. At His Name, every knee will bow. He alone is worthy of worship.

How we need this picture of Jesus in the American church! Mighty! Strong! All-knowing! Judging rightly! Destroying His enemies!

This majestic, powerful King is the one who laid down His life for you. You were one of His enemies. You were justly headed to destruction by the sword of His mouth. Your blood rightly could be on His robe. This is the King. Jesus. Almighty. Just. Eyes flames of fire. There is no other.

The Victory of the King

This perfect king must punish those who rebel against Him. We see this in 19:17-21 and 20:7-10. Both passages describe kings assembling for battle (19:19, 20:8-9). Question: Are these two perspectives of the same battle, or descriptions of two different battles?

We have already seen that throughout Revelation, the sequence of John’s visions does not necessarily imply that the fulfillment of those visions will follow the same sequence. Indeed, several places in Revelation, the order of fulfillment must be different from the order of visions. So the fact that these two passages are separated in John’s vision by another event does not imply that they are different events. Instead of just looking at the sequence of visions, we need to look at the descriptions of the battles.

The similarities between the accounts are many. In addition to kings gathering, both relate utter and complete victory for Jesus. In 19:20, the beast and the false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire. Then in verse 21, Jesus kills all the rest with the sword of His mouth – just as He promised. Similarly, in 20:9 fire consumes all of Jesus’ enemies, and Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, where he is tormented forever and ever.

Consider: If the battle in chapter 19 is a complete victory in which Jesus destroys all of His enemies, who is left to fight against Him in a later battle?

Two differences between the accounts jump out at first reading. Chapter 19 talks a lot about inviting birds to feast, and ends with this gruesome image of birds gorging themselves on the bodies of the dead. Then chapter 20 makes reference to Gog and Magog, who are not mentioned in Chapter 19. But these differences actually underline the fact that the two accounts relate to the same battle. For both are allusions to the same Old Testament prophecy, Ezekiel 38 and 39. Ezekiel here relates how Gog and Magog gather to attack God’s people. There are many parallels between this prophecy and chapters 19 and 20 of Revelation. Like chapter 19, Ezekiel 38:21 says God destroys the armies with the sword. Like chapter 20, Ezekiel 39:6 says God destroys the armies with fire. Then in 39:17-20, a call goes out to the birds to feast and gorge themselves on the slain. Both Revelation 19 and Revelation 20 are therefore a fulfillment of Ezekiel 38 and 39. 

Thus both because of direct parallels and the reference to the same Old Testament prophecy, I believe John here gives us two accounts, two perspectives, of the same, final battle.

Indeed, Revelation gives us at least five perspectives of this same battle, for there are at least three other accounts of this battle:

Chapter 20 gives us the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle of this battle. We now see that Satan was the one underneath all the opposition to Jesus and His church. We now see that the battle ends with the final destruction of Satan.

So what, then, does this battle relate? God completely overwhelming for all time all of His enemies, both from among mankind and from among the spirit world. This is the ultimate, final victory. The Return of the King.

Immediately prior to the battle, God’s enemies seem to have the upper hand. There are as many of them as the sand on the seashore. They come to destroy God’s people, the church. And they think they can do it. From an earthly perspective, they can. So this must be a final, terrible ordeal for the church. All looks hopeless, from an earthly perspective.

But we must look to the King of kings! He comes, and out of apparent tragedy, He creates a final, ultimate victory.

Just so, a time is coming when all will seem lost. But God will once again turn that apparent defeat into a great victory – the final, complete victory over all His enemies. For there is no more resistance after all His enemies are defeated and Satan and his cohorts are thrown into the lake of fire. What remains is justice. Jesus must see that every sin is paid for, every wrong righted. God has said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30; see Deuteronomy 32:35-43). Now He takes vengeance; now He repays.

He wreaks this vengeance not only on those who are alive on the last day, but also on all those who have died in their sins. Verse 11-14 relate that judgment. A great white throne appears. Earth and the sky flee away – the original creation is done away with. Books recording all that people have done are opened, along with the book of life. All the dead from all time stand before God, He judges them by what they have done. And what is the judgment?

And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:15  

That is, everyone who is judged by what he has done is lost. For if your name is in the book of life, you are not judged by what you have done. You are judged on the basis of what Jesus did.

Consider: These books contain everything that you have ever said, ever done, ever thought, ever intended. What is written in the book of your life?

God’s righteous requirements are that you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and that you love your neighbor as yourself. How often have you failed to fulfill those requirements? What hope is there – apart from Jesus?

Our Response to the King

But there is no need for despair! Revelation was written to bring us to a response. Do you remember Revelation 1:3? That verse promises a blessing to the one who reads, hears and heeds the words of this prophecy. Throughout these last fifteen puzzling chapters of Revelation, again and again John gives us messages to heed. So often those commenting on or teaching Revelation skip over these messages, for they are not as interesting as the puzzles in the book. Yet they are key to properly applying the book to our lives. And this book is precious in its application!

So what message does John give for us to heed in today’s text? Chapter 20:4-6 contains the key lesson. We’ll look more at these verses next week, but for now, try to pick out the key lesson as I read:

Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. Revelation 20:4b-6

“Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection!” We should hear that and say: “OK! I want to be blessed and holy! So I better be sure I share in the first resurrection.” And we want to do that even more when we keep reading: “Over such the second death has no power.” Verse 14 says the second death is the lake of fire, where Satan and the beasts are tormented forever and ever. That’s more incentive to share in first resurrection! So who shares in the first resurrection? Verse 4 tells us who John sees sharing in this:

“the souls of those who have been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark

The last part of this phrase is clearer than the first, so let’s start there. These sharers in the first resurrection did not worship the beast. Remember what the beast stands for: human government, human institutions, powerfully suppressing God’s people. The beast and his followers receive a mark on their foreheads or hands, allowing them to buy and sell. This is a picture of seeking aid, protection, and comfort from the beast, from the government and from economic success, instead of God. There is a strong temptation to give in, to get the mark in order to ensure safety and economic survival. Yet God warned those who received this mark that they will be judged. Those who don’t get the mark are those who belong to the Lamb, and thus have His name on their foreheads.

So what is the clear exhortation? Don’t give in! Don’t seek help from God’s enemies! Don’t look like them! Don’t find joy in disobedience to God! Instead, follow the true King! Be loyal to Him – even if that means you have to suffer.

That much is clear. But what about the earlier part of verse 4, identifying those who share in the first resurrection as the souls of the beheaded? Do we have to be beheaded to share in the first resurrection? Or do we at least have to die as martyrs?

I think the answer is no. Consider: Why does John say, “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded”? Wouldn’t it have been clearer to say, “I saw those who had been beheaded”? His use of the word “souls” has sparked a long debate in the commentaries about the location of the thrones, whether they are on earth or in heaven. But that argument is at best a sidelight, a secondary issue. Indeed, that argument misses the main point of John’s use of this word.

Throughout Revelation, John uses words that we don’t expect - and even bad Greek grammar - to draw attention to allusions, whether to the Old Testament, the New Testament, or earlier in Revelation. That, I believe, is what he is doing here. By using the word “soul” when speaking of those who have suffered and conquered, he draws our attention to passages such as John 12:25-28 and Mark 8:35-37. The passage in John takes place shortly before Jesus’ arrest. As readers of English translations, we may not notice these allusions, because the Greek word for “soul” is translated as “life” in these passages. I’ll read these selections, substituting the English word “soul” whenever that Greek word is used:

Whoever loves his [soul] loses it, and whoever hates his [soul] in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. 27 "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

The Mark passage takes place shortly after Jesus has told his disciples for the first time that He will be put to death:

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his [soul] will lose it, but whoever loses his [soul] life (SOUL) for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his [soul]? 37 For what can a man give in return for his [soul]?

So what is the point John is making? The person who tries to keep his soul, his life, will suffer the second death. The person who is willing to give up his life in this world, all he naturally wants and desires, will take part in the first resurrection. He will gain true life. He will reign with King Jesus.

So, no, there is no requirement for actual martyrdom to share in the first resurrection. Rather, the requirement is: Follow King Jesus! See Him as your treasure! Give up whatever is necessary to follow Him! Join Jesus in laying down your life for the glory of God!

This brings us back to Psalm 2. The last three verses of the psalm - after saying God would break his enemies with a rod of iron - give advice to rebels:

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.  11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

My friends, Christianity is not a game.

What is at stake here is your life.

And let me be clear: The alternative to the first resurrection is the second death.

Jesus is King. He has all authority. And He laid down all that authority, all that majesty, and died a horrible death so that you might live with Him, so that you might reign with Him, so that you might experience ever-increasing happiness and ever-deeper worship as He shows you more and more of His greatness and glory. If you then treat Him as anything less than the greatest treasure of all, you are dishonoring Him. You are a rebel.

The King has come.

The King is coming back.

Your end will be in the lake of fire or rejoicing as His bride.

By His grace, Jesus died and suffered so that you might take part in that first resurrection.

Which will it be? Which will it be?

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 8/7/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful.

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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