King of Kings and Lord of Lords
Perhaps some of you have heard of just war theory. Just war theory acknowledges that in a fallen world, people may find themselves in circumstances where they must determine whether it’s right to go to war and what justice requires in and after a war. Just war theory asks moral questions like, does a just cause exist? Are the intentions right? Are there clear goals to protect what’s good and avoid what’s evil? Is it based on legitimate authority? Will the actions be proportionate? Will the good achieved outweigh the harm done?
It’s all worth considering. But I bring that up as background to a story with my family. Shortly after the war in Ukraine started, I decided to summarize just war theory at the dinner table to evaluate what’s happening.* But before I finished the moral obligations, one of the kids said something like, “If those are the principles, it’s hard to see how any of the wars we learn about are just.” I feel that. Humans often act in unjust ways. Even the best efforts are tainted with sin and unrighteous choices. On top of that, we’re limited in knowledge and ability to control the best outcome.
We yearn for someone who isn’t limited in knowledge and ability. We yearn for someone who is without sin. We yearn for one who acts righteously in everything. We yearn for on one who, even in war, executes God’s will perfectly and in a manner that makes all things right. Today, we encounter that one person. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. Look at verse 11…
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 sulfur. 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.
Christ the King Revealed for Judgment
Our passage has two parts. In verses 11-16, we see Christ the King revealed for judgment. In verses 17-21, we see Christ the King’s victory over evil. Let’s start with Christ the King revealed for judgment. John sees “heaven opened” in verse 11. God again makes the unseeable become seeable. “Behold, a white horse!” John says. In the ancient world, horsemen were the superior war machine. We’ve seen a white horse before in 6:2. He rode out to conquer. He works as God’s agent of judgment. Here, we find another agent of God’s judgment. He too is a warrior, riding out to conquer.
But we soon realize that he’s vastly superior. This rider, John says, is “Faithful and True.” When judgment is at stake, a faithful witness is crucial. You want a witness who speaks truthfully and isn’t swayed by the fear of man or the love of money. John has already told us in 1:5 that Jesus is that faithful witness. His earthly ministry demonstrates that he will uphold truth even unto death. In 3:14, this also meant that when his own people were in error, Jesus didn’t play favorites. His true testimony convicts the guilty.
The rest of verse 11 says that “in righteousness he judges and makes war.” At this time of year, we recall the hope of Isaiah 9:6-7—“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…the government shall rest upon his shoulder…[He will uphold David’s kingdom] with justice and with righteousness.” But something else—the only other figure who judges and makes war “in righteousness” is Yahweh. Psalm 9:8, “The LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world in righteousness.” When Jesus judges and makes war in righteousness, not only is he Messiah; he is God in the flesh. To see him judge is to see God.
In verse 12, his eyes are like a “flame of fire.” That comes from Daniel 10:6, where the prophet encounters a heavenly warrior. Jesus too is a heavenly warrior. But the last time John spoke of these eyes was 2:18. And the context develops what that symbolizes: “I am he who searches mind and heart.” His holy gaze penetrates every façade down to the thoughts and intentions of our inmost being.
“On his head,” John continues, “are many diadems.” In 12:3 and 13:1, Satan and the Beast also have diadems. But they’ve only got seven and ten. Jesus has many. His authority is far superior to theirs.
Verse 12 adds that he has “a name written that no one knows but himself.” Some would say this echoes an Old Testament theme where there is mystery to God’s name.[i] The idea here would be that any further insight to God’s name must wait for the age to come. But another approach says that John moves once again from mystery to revelation.[ii] Earlier in the book, there are things hidden in a scroll and then revealed. There’s mystery about Babylon and then she’s revealed. So also here, there’s a depth to Jesus’ name that only he knows. Yet by the time we get to verse 16, we learn the written name: “King of kings and Lord of lords.” More on that in a minute.
For now, keep moving to verse 13: “he is clothed in a robe [or simply, a garment] dipped in blood.” Some would argue this is Jesus’ own blood. The final battle doesn’t happen till verses 20-21. So, this must represent the blood Jesus has spilt for the nations before he comes to judge. That’s very possible, especially in a book where Jesus is the slain Lamb and his own blood conquers the enemy. But the imagery shares much in common with Isaiah 63:2-3. And there you get a picture of Yahweh as a great Warrior. He fights on behalf of his people. The prophet sees him returning from a battle and says, “Why is your garment red?” The Lord answers, “I have trodden the winepress alone…I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel…”
That’s what I believe John uses to describe Jesus. He sees Jesus as the divine Warrior of Isaiah 63 who comes to tread God’s winepress. It’s a warrior’s outfit; and it anticipates Jesus treading the winepress in verse 15. If you take that approach, though, it shouldn’t minimize the point that Jesus spilled his own blood for the nations first. At the cross, he warred against evil; and when he did, he soaked his garments not with our blood, but with his own blood in our place. That’s true and glorious and it’s our only hope. But when he comes to judge the nations, he’s dressed for war.
Verse 13 also says, “the name by which he is called is the Word of God.” That appears only one other place in John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We’ll talk about that extensively next Sunday. For now, it’s enough to observe that in the Old Testament, God’s word reveals who God is and enacts God’s purpose. As the Word, Jesus reveals who God is and enacts God’s purpose. Even in judgment, Jesus embodies God’s revelation.
Verse 14 then mentions that “armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following [Jesus] on white horses.” Again, the Warrior theme continues. Jesus leads his army—reminds you of Lord of hosts in the Old Testament. Some would suggest these are angels, since angels in 15:6 wear pure, bright linen. But several clues lead me to see these armies as Jesus’ followers. For starters, 19:8 describes the Bride of Christ wearing fine linen, bright and pure. Then in 17:14, we learned that those with Jesus at the final war are the chosen, the faithful. This also fits the identity of God’s people as a royal army of priests that we’ve seen elsewhere in Revelation.[iii]
Of course, this also means Jesus’ army isn’t garbed in standard battle attire. Who wears white linens into battle? That’s because they won’t be doing much fighting. In the activity that follows, Jesus fights for them.
Verse 15: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” Two things come together. “From his mouth” has to do with the words he speaks. A “sharp sword” is an instrument of war, a weapon to conquer your enemy. It’s not in his hand; it’s in his mouth. Put it together, Jesus conquers his enemies by the words he speaks. The image comes from two places in Isaiah. Isaiah 11:4 says of the Messiah: “…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Isaiah 49:2, again of the Messiah: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword.” John combines these images to describe how Jesus will judge his enemies. He will speak words, and it will happen.
You might even say there’s a “war of words” in Revelation. In 12:15, the Dragon spews things from his mouth to overwhelm the church. In 16:13, the Beast and False Prophet join him as unclean spirits come from their mouths to deceive the nations against Jesus. But their words are no match for Jesus’ words.
Now, on the ground, that happens in various ways in Scripture. God’s word of judgment sometimes meant the ground swallowed people alive. Another time it meant a heavenly agent slew 185,000 in one night. Another time it meant God’s enemies turned in panic and destroyed each other. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that’s what will happen here—when you read prophecies like Ezekiel 38:21 and Zechariah 14:13. However the details play out, though, Jesus’ word wins the day; he will strike down the nations with his word.
Verse 15 also says that Jesus will “rule them with a rod of iron.” That’s from Psalm 2. The nations rage against the Lord and his anointed king. Earthly leaders hate God’s rule. They plot to overthrow him, much like we see the Beast doing in Revelation. Psalm 2, though, finds their plot ridiculous. God sits in the heavens and laughs. But even more, God gives a special decree. The LORD says to the king, “‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” God will manifest his heavenly rule on earth through this anointed king. According to verse 15, Jesus is that King. He fulfills the hope of Psalm 2.
Part of that includes treading “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty”—that’s next in verse 15. Some of this we observed earlier from Isaiah 63. God’s judgment will be like treading a winepress. Joel 3:13 uses the same image. “Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” God’s enemies are like grapes filling a winepress. He tramples them until their blood flows. It’s a hard metaphor. But the point is to show how great the evil is—it fills up the wine vats.
Finally, in verse 16, we reach the written name: “On his robe/garment and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” The thigh is where a Warrior carries his sword.[iv] We’ve already seen that Jesus’ sword comes from his mouth. Why, then, is the name written where the sword normally hangs? Because the name reveals the authority and power by which Jesus wields his sword.
He is King of kings and Lord of lords. The highest of all of them. How high? Well, the title comes from Daniel 4:37 in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The context is where God has humbled King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar’s reason returns to him and he honors Daniel’s God, the Most High. As he does, he gives the Most High this title: “God of gods and Lord of lords and King of kings.” He does this because Yahweh alone has the power to remove kings and set others in their place.
In Revelation 19, John sees Jesus removing all rebel kingdoms and establishing his own people to reign in his earthly kingdom; and it’s here that he gives him the title reserved for the Most High alone: “King of kings and Lord of lords.” In other words, Jesus is the Most High God. That’s who wields the sword.
Christ the King’s Victory over Evil
That brings us to the second part: Christ the King’s victory over evil. In verses 17-21, we encounter a significant war—one that we’ve heard of twice already. In 16:14 and 16, the Beast assembled kings from the whole world against Jesus at Armageddon. Of course, we also learned that Armageddon symbolized the place where duped kings go to die. Then in 17:14, we got a summary of how this battle would go: “They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them.” These verses picture the same war but develop things a bit further using Ezekiel’s prophecy.
In verse 17, an angel invites these birds of prey to the “great supper of God.” Verse 18 says, “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.” This comes from Ezekiel 39:4, 17-20.
There’s a prophecy about a future evil ruler named “Gog.” He’s a mysterious character; and he’s much like the Dragon and the Beast in Revelation. With many other nations, Gog gathers to war against the Lord and his people. But God’s people have no reason to fear. The Lord promises to make Gog powerless (Ezek 39:3). His vast armies will fall in defeat, and as a result the birds of prey would come and feast on the dead warriors. Revelation 19 speaks to the fulfillment of this prophecy. Nations will gather against Christ, but they are no match for him. Their doom is certain—notice the angel invites the birds even before the battle happens.
But something else to note is that when the war finally arrives in verse 19 and 20, there’s really no fight. They gather for war, but the nations have no chance. They can’t challenge God’s authority. He gathers them only to seal their fate. It says “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 sulfur. 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 lake of fire will come up two more times, so I won’t spend much time on it today—only to say that 20:14 calls it “the second death” and it symbolizes the place of eternal punishment. The Beast and False Prophet go there. The rest seem to experience a temporary punishment only to be raised later for eternal punishment in 20:15. The point, though, is that enemies don’t stand a chance against the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus is sovereign. His word will prevail. His judgments are final.
How should we respond?
That’s the vision. How should it impact us? First, consider your standing before Jesus. Revelation 19 presents two suppers—the marriage supper of the Lamb and now we’ve seen the great supper of God. All who worship Jesus now, who love Jesus now—they will feast at his marriage supper with joy. But all who reject Jesus’ lordship and worship the ways of the Beast—they will perish.
To whom do you belong? Verse 18 mentions kings, captains, free, slave, small, great. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you stand in society, judgment is coming and there’s no escaping Jesus’ holy gaze. His eyes are like fire. He sees everything, down to the intentions of your heart. We need a Savior. This same Judge is that Savior. Before he comes to defeat the nations, he came to die for a people among all nations.
Don’t forget his humility. King of kings and Lord of lords, sovereign Judge, holy Warrior—yet he condescended to us. Every right to judge and destroy, yet born to a virgin’s womb. He took the form of a servant. He became the Lamb who spilled his blood for your sins. You cannot find a greater humility. You cannot find a better King. Come to this Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will not perish like the enemies here. You will find eternal life and rest in his kingdom.
Second, respond to his presence among you. Don’t forget how this Christ walks among the lampstands—he walks among the churches, according to 1:13. He sees you. He sees me. He’s with us and he weighs our faithfulness to him. Can you imagine what Pergamum felt when they first heard chapter 19 read to them? Think about the process of hearing this prophecy read in one sitting…
Jesus addresses them by name in 2:12. Their ears perk up—“He’s talking about our church now.” Jesus commends them for holding fast to his name in the face of persecution. But then he also exposes how they were tolerating idolatry: “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality…Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
“Whoa. That sounds serious.” Then they bump along and encounter a Jesus slaying the nations with the sword of his mouth. That’ll sober you up in a hurry. That’ll make you serious about the fight against sin. It’s hard to give in to sin when you keep this vision of Jesus before you. Memorize it. Meditate on it. Sing about it.
But consider how it would’ve also encouraged the faithful. Churches like Smyrna and Philadelphia—laying down their lives, not giving in, bearing up well under the persecution and imprisonment. This Jesus walks with them. This Jesus knows them too. This Jesus stands by them. This Jesus will avenge their blood. He doesn’t overlook the sufferings of his people. He will judge our enemies.
And you know what that frees us to do? It frees us to entrust ourselves to him who judges justly. It frees us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Why? Because vengeance belongs to the Lord. It’s not ours to take up in this life. To use Paul’s words in Romans 12, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
How do you love your enemy when they treat you unjustly? How do you act in honorable ways when people bring all sorts of horror against you? How do you pursue peace with all when you’re tempted to “get even”? A vision like this one. This vision encourages you in the face of oppression. The vision tells you that while your enemies may seem large and powerful, God is greater. He will judge and he will win. He will not forsake you or overlook the wrongs done to you. Christ fights for his people. He will rid the world of all that threatens you. Trust him to make all things right. He does a way better job—“in righteousness he judges and makes war.”
Finally, let this vision help you love Jesus’ appearing. When Paul was at the end of his ministry, he wrote to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (1 Tim 4:7-8).
Do you love Jesus’ appearing? If you find yourself saying, “Yeah, but not enough!” let this vision help you. Wow! What a glorious vision of Jesus. Every yearning you have for a good and righteous judge—he’s it! Every longing you have for a King to end evil and right all wrongs—Jesus is that King! Every hunger for someone with power to transform the world—here he is! Every prayer you’ve made for healing and joy and peace and a new world—he’s the one to answer them!
There’s no one else like him! We’re doing the next generation a disservice when all they see is cartoon Jesus with good hair. Read them the Bible! The Jesus that John sees shatters the versions we often imagine. It’s easy to create a Jesus that’s safe. But the true Jesus will not be tamed by man. He’s not our “homeboy.” He’s not our “copilot.” He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He rose victorious over sin and death. He rules all nations. He will come again like a Warrior to judge all evil.
When you read the next news headline that discourages you, when you feel like the enemy is winning, when you don’t think his kingdom will prevail, meditate on this vision of Jesus. God has opened heaven to help you see more of him, and to increase your love for his final appearing. We will sing about that now, but let’s first pray.
[i] Hoskins, Revelation, 376-77.
[ii] Koester, Revelation, 755.
[iii] Rev 7:1-9; 14:1-4.
[iv] Exod 32:27; Judg 3:16; Song 3:8.