11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From 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 wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
17Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.”19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence 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.21And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
11Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
These are strange and scary images. We see Jesus riding out to judge and make war. The armies of the world line up against him, led by the beast and the false prophet. Jesus and his followers defeat the powers of the world. The key weapon is the sword of Christ’s word.
The Bible often calls God’s word a sharp, double edged sword. That image totally fits my experience. When I’m not doing the right thing, I feel the word cut into my conscience. It’s that sword that levels the opposing armies. The battle scene reminds us that even though all the power in the world might seem to be against us, ultimately even kings who stand against God will be food for the birds.
The war scene fades out and God’s throne room fades in. Jesus sits on the throne to judge everyone. We see books of people’s lives, and another book that is the book of life. Everyone who has ever died is judged based on their life.
When we think about God’s judgment sometimes we think about rules. We think about rules and laws and getting punished for doing something wrong. Many people grow up thinking religion was about what not to do. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t have sex. Don’t talk out of turn, respect your elders, give money, go to church and so on.
Those are the rules and we think of sin as breaking the rules. A lot of people, whether they go to church or not, believe that God will add up our good deeds on one side and our sins on the other side. We will “pass” or “fail” judgment based on which pile is bigger. If you read just this passage you might get that idea too. Does that kind of sound like an idea you’ve picked up?
When kids are young, they need concrete and specific rules. At first, they also need clear rewards and punishments to reinforce the rules. It’s appropriate and necessary to train little kids like that, but even then, it helps to explain what we’re doing. As they grow up, we help them think about the consequences of their choices. The goal of childhood rules is to develop adults who can think for themselves and understand how their choices impact others.
By the time your son is 17 he should clean his room (at least a little bit) because he wants to live somewhere decent, not because you’re giving him cookies. Your teenage daughter should choose not to say mean things about her friends because it will hurt their feelings, not because she’ll get grounded. The rules and discipline you’ve given them early teach them moral and practical principles that will be useful their whole lives, even when the specific rules don’t matter anymore. Ultimately you want them to understand the reason behind the rules instead of just thinking about the rules themselves.
When it comes to faith, a lot of people get stuck in about fourth grade. That’s true of whole faith systems as well as of people. We often think religion is about rules, punishments and rewards. So we approach our faith like reluctant students: “What’s the least we have to do to make it into heaven?” “What’s the worst we can do and still not end up in hell?”
That’s not a recipe for a vibrant and joyful faith, but it’s how many people feel. Many of us end up feeling like faith is irrelevant because it’s a bunch of rules we can’t understand or live up to. When we think about faith that way, usually our first emotion is guilt or fear.
A big part of the problem is trust. We can’t see God, and a lot of the things people tell us about God are confusing. When we see God through the religious rules we learn, often we imagine a strict teacher with rules that don’t make any sense to us. Talking about judgment is scary because the stakes are high and we’re not sure we can trust the judge. When our religious organizations focus on rules they reinforce this damaging image of God and the actually get in the way of people’s faith.
Instead of thinking about rules, think for a moment about Jesus, because he’s the one who’s going to be our judge at the end. Jesus loved all kinds of people regardless of what the rules said. When it comes to rules and punishment, Jesus took the beating, went to the cross and said, “Father, forgive them.” That’s the God who is going to judge us on the last day.
We can trust him to be fairer and more merciful than we can imagine. We don’t have to worry about being misunderstood. Jesus knows each of us completely, and he loves us dearly. The early images in Revelation of Jesus as a slaughtered lamb are so important because they remind us that the one who will judge us is the same one who suffered for us. We can trust Jesus.
We know that evil is powerful. We know that from scripture, from our experience, and from the news. We also know that evil is inside us. God wants to redeem the world from injustice, oppression, hunger and hatred. God wants to give us a beautiful, peaceful, kingdom to share. God will be right in the middle, close enough to wipe our tears away. John’s image of a new heaven and new earth and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven like a bride helps us imagine the beauty of the new thing God is waiting to do in our world.
The trouble is that our selfishness and desire for control keep getting in the way of God’s plan. God created a beautiful world for everyone, but we get so carried away with possessions and convenience that we destroy creation with thoughtless consumption and wasteful living. God gives us a world with plenty for everyone, but we concentrate wealth and resources while the vulnerable starve. God keeps trying to get us to change our ways, but we have not.
To bring the peaceful kingdom into existence, God has to defeat the forces that stand in the way. The power of God’s redeeming word rides out to break down the lying words of our world that claim some people are better than others, that some deserve to suffer, that there is not enough for everyone.
To bring the peaceful, blessed kingdom to earth, God defeats the evil powers of the world, including the evil powers inside us. When God shows us this vision of a final judgment it reminds us that our choices, our actions have consequences. It’s not about rules and requirements; it’s about living our calling and responsibility in the world. God calls us to love each other, so at the last judgment we will be faced with how we have responded to that calling.
In the end we will stand before Christ on the throne. The book of our lives will be open and so will the book of life. We will stand before Jesus and account for our lives.
How are you doing? This is not about guilt trips or inadequacy or pride or fear. We’ve been given an amazing gift: the chance to be part of the beautiful kingdom God is bringing into the world. Each day, each interaction with someone else is a chance to be part of God’s kingdom. How is your life contributing to that kingdom? How are your actions blocking God’s kingdom?
Jesus is on the throne. He knows us inside and out. He knows our secrets, our struggles and our shame. And God loves us no matter what. We can cover it up all we want, but when the dead are raised and the books are open we will have to face how we have used this life. One day we will each be judged and evil will be defeated.
On the other side of that judgment is a beautiful city, a new creation of love and peace and justice. God doesn’t need us to build that kingdom, but she invites us to be part of it. We catch glimpses of that kingdom even now. We see it when we hold an infant and think only about that new life. We see it when we take the time to listen to someone’s story. We see it when we open ourselves up in prayer.
We feel God’s peaceful kingdom in simple moments. In a meal shared with friends and family when we rest in the joy of relationships without worrying about the future. We feel it in the kiss of the sunshine on our face and the comfort of a beloved pet. We taste the kingdom in a favorite song or painting or a run along the river, in a hug from a friend, or a hot cup of coffee shared with a spouse.
God invites to use those moments to lead us forward. God invites us to throw off the chains of selfishness and fear. We may not see God’s kingdom arrive completely in this life, but the more we commit to God’s love today, the more we will live in that kingdom even now. See the kingdom, and let your life be a part of building it each day.
Thanks be to God.