On the Christianity Today podcast “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” disgraced former pastor Mark Driscoll is recorded giving this commentary on the passage in Revelation 19:11ff:
He gets a snapshot, the curtain is pulled back, and, behold, a white horse – I love this! – How many of you grew up watching Westerns? The good guy always rides the white horse. It’s biblical! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True. And in righteousness he judges and makes war. You know Jesus will never take a beating again. That was a one shot deal for salvation. That is not an ongoing job for Jesus, to take a beating. His eyes are like a flame of fire – I just love this! This is ultimate fighter Christ. A hip-hop buddy of mine calls it thug Jesus.1
Driscoll’s fascination with the militaristic imagery of Revelation reveals his underlying assumption about what it means to be victorious. Being an “ultimate fighter,” making “war,” personifying a “thug,” is, for Driscoll, the embodiment of conquering. And, just as clearly, “taking a beating” is for him loss.
Christians have often struggled to articulate a clear notion of victory that is at once different from the world’s—and yet, because the pursuit of winning is not necessarily contrary to Christian values and ideals, how do Christians unite their convictions and the goal of winning? Is a Christian vision of winning the same as the world’s only nicer, kinder, gentler? Or does winning for Christians mean losing but then calling it winning by some kind of mental exercise? Should Christians involved in sports, or competition more broadly, seek victory, and if so how?
Victory in the Book of Revelation
The notion of victory is a central concern for Revelation. The noun νίκη (“victory,” “overcoming,” “conquering”) and its verbal counterparts appear 17 times in Revelation, more than any other book of the New Testament.2 In each of the seven letters to the churches, Jesus makes promises “to the one who conquers.”3 Both the dragon and his beast “conquers” the saints (11:7, 13:7) while the saints in turn “conquer” the dragon and the beast (12:11, 15:2).
Most interpreters see Revelation 5 as central for understanding the imagery of victory in the book. After the scene of heavenly worship is established in chapter four, a problem is introduced starting in the next chapter. A sealed scroll appears and John weeps that no one can be found to open it. However, one of the heavenly elders tells him to stay his tears and informs him that, “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered so that he can open the book and its seven seals” (5:5).4 The language of this passage drips with messianic imagery. Judah is the tribe of the Messiah, and “root of David” is clearly a reference to Israel’s long-awaited deliverer. A lion is a well-known image of victory and royalty. Any reader familiar with the messianic expectations of the Psalms of Solomon would immediately identify with this passage.5
So far the notion of victory presented by Revelation is conventional and uncontroversial. The Messiah is a conqueror who crushes his enemies (and, by extension, the enemies of God’s people) with overwhelming force. Victory here means the same thing as it would for the Romans, or the Greeks, or the Persians. The difference is not in understanding what victory means, only whose side will posses victory in the end.
What happens next, though, complicates this picture. John hears that the one conquering is a lion but when he looks he sees “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth” (5:6).6 Most interpreters understand this juxtaposition of images—from a Lion to a Lamb, from conquering to being slaughtered—to be indicative of John’s subversion of our notions of victory. Jesus is not the messianic lion who conquers by brute force but the savior who achieves victory by being slain.7
I tend to agree with this reading, but the problem that other commentators point to is the overwhelming violence present in the rest of Revelation, much of it perpetrated by God or the Lamb. If John presents Jesus as the Lamb who challenges our notions of victory, who redefines conquering as akin to being slain, then why is so much of Revelation drenched in the kind of militaristic, domineering imagery of victory that people like Mark Driscoll find appealing? Is winning really being redefined in Revelation, or is this seeming subversion just a feint?
How Does the Lamb Conquer?
Paul Middleton has been one of the most ardent critics of the subversive picture outlined above. He notes that apart from the language of being slain, the Lamb’s horns, standing posture, and proximity to the throne all express traditional notions of strength and victory. Additionally, he observes that—apart from this scene in Rev 5—whenever the Lamb is mentioned in conflict, the language used is always conventionally violent. If one were to excise this single reference to the Lamb being slaughtered, Middleton implies, we might not ever know that traditional notions of victory were being undermined. The Lamb conquers in Revelation not by subversion but by being more violent and more powerful than all others.8
Although disturbing for many readers, Middleton’s position is that the way the world defines victory is, indeed, victory. There is no “Christological redefinition of winning.”9 Being smarter, faster, stronger, or overall more powerful is what it means to conquer, whether for God or for humans (Christian or otherwise). Winning, in other words, is nothing other than superior force and domination.
Middleton writes largely (though not exclusively) against Loren Johns’s interpretation that Rev 5 is, indeed, subversive, understanding the language of slaughter to be the key to the entire constellation of imagery in the chapter. When one reads “slaughter” sacramentally or soteriologically it misconstrues the intended meaning of the metaphor. Being slain is the language of non-violent resistance, Johns insists, and the victory of the Lamb resides precisely in this paradoxical condition. For Johns, the fact that his language is not excised is precisely why it is the key for understanding the non-violent victory of the Lamb.10
We might ponder what ultimate victory means for Johns, though. Is the non-violent activity of the Lamb simply the means to a more final understanding of victory grounded in God’s monopoly on force? Does non-violence and the initial “loss” Christ suffered simply lead to conventional victory and violence? That seems to be the position of Matthew Street who suggests that John advocates for human non-violence because humans cannot be trusted with violence. Christians are called to “lose” in the face of violent opposition, but the Lamb himself conquers conventionally. Only God can wield violence justly in Johns’s eyes, Street insists. Although humans might wish and hope for the destruction of their enemies, they must instead hand over that task to God who alone is worthy to exercise violence over creation.11
Despite many commentators’ best efforts to see Rev 5 as an alternative vision of victory, it seems difficult to reconcile that understanding with much of the conventional—and violent—imagery found in the rest of the book when we look for notions of what it means to win. Is Mark Driscoll right, then? Is the Jesus of Revelation an “ultimate fighter” who took a beating once only so that he might forever dominate his enemies with superior power? Is the call of discipleship simply an invitation to be on the side with most raw power?
The Means as the End
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is among many commentators of Revelation who stress to its readers that this book trades not in propositions but in myth. The Apocalypse to John, she reminds us, primarily appeals to emotions and imagination, not logic.12 John is not writing a treatise on understanding what it means to conquer as if in an encyclopedia any more than he is writing a detailed timeline for the end of the world. Revelation is as much about feelings as it is conceptualities.13
Looking at a concept like victory in Revelation in the abstract—even in so pivotal a passage as Rev 5:6—is bound to end in bewilderment if we expect from it clear and precise definitions. Revelation wants to assure its readers that the victory of the Lamb is, indeed, victory. We can largely explain the awkward juxtaposition of imagery, I believe, by the twin desires of John to both subvert conventional notions of victory while also communicating that victory is, in the end, still victory. Ragnar Leivestad comments that the moral victory of the martyrs in Revelation is impossible to be fully embraced without manifest vindication. Moral victory must be accompanied by mythical and metaphysical language to be complete.14 Or, to put it more plainly, John must “borrow” the language and imagery of conventional conquering in order to demonstrate that suffering obedience unto death is, in fact, victory.
John tells us that the saints conquer by “the word of their testimony” and the “blood of the Lamb” (12:11). This language explains that the saints’ victory is derivative of Jesus’ own victory, who was “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth” (1:5). It is Jesus’ faithful witness unto death—his commitment to truth even to the point of shedding his blood—that also marks him as the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of all human powers. The victory of the saints is not accomplished in a different manner than their Lord. Yet when we return to the pivotal passage we began with, we notice a curious feature. The Lion who conquers is not given a predicate; John does not supply an object for what the Lamb is said to have overcome. Standing as if slaughtered and conquering are for John parallel terms.
This strongly suggests that for John being slain is the victory; being faithful unto death itself is conquering. In order to communicate that this activity is synonymous with victory John employs the language of conventional triumph elsewhere throughout his book.15 Although for many readers of John’s book there is a temptation to divorce the means of winning from its end, John wants to fuse them together. The final victory John describes is full of fanciful, mythical language; the act of being victorious is clear-cut and sober: be a faithful witness unto death, just as Jesus was. The way one conquers is the substance of that conquering. Therefore, the means of victory is synonymous with its end.
Victory Without Winning
What does this all mean for Christians involved in competitive activities like sports? Should Christians aim for the same kind of victory as the world but seek to accomplish it differently? Do we have the same goal as everyone else but an alternative—better! —way to get there? This seems to be the perspective of Driscoll who saw the “beating” of Jesus as an anomaly, endured to accomplish a specific purpose. Once achieved, Driscoll’s Jesus seems to have little use for that kind of behavior.
This kind of thinking can quickly lead Christians to begin questioning their alternative road to victory itself when it seems like conquering is in short supply. Donald Trump Jr. recently said as much:
“We’ve [Republicans] been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re [Democrats] playing hardball and cheating, right? We’ve turned the other cheek. I understand the mentality – but it’s gotten us nothing. Ok? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”16
To ask these questions about the congruence of means and ends at all, though, for John would be to misunderstand his message. That the Lion has conquered means the same for him as that the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll. It is not a two-step process whereby Jesus first conquers and then, as a result, becomes worthy. They are one and the same.
Likewise, engaging in competition as a Christian (that is to say, Christianly) is not a better, more effective way of accomplishing the same task as others. Positive Coaching Alliance gets close to the heart of this with its emphasis on Double-Goal Coaching, which doesn’t see winning in competition and winning at moral development as mutually exclusive outcomes but two different goals. John’s Apocalypse, however, suggests yet a third approach: accepting the dissolution of any linkage between means and ends. Faithfulness is not a means to victory; it is victory itself. The mode and character of conduct is an end unto itself. This is not to suggest that Christians should not seek to win in sports (or academics, or politics). What John tells us, though, is that we should not confuse that victory with the victory of the Lamb. For Christians triumph is a how not a what. Revelation reminds us that we must learn to seek victory apart from winning.
- The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill Podcast: Season 1, Episode 12, 1:14:48
- The rest of the NT contains only 10 other references.
- τῷ νικῶτι δώσω 2:7, 2:17; ὁ νικῶν 2:11; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21
- My translation. Of note in the Greek is the fact that the verb ἐνίκησεν (“conquered”) comes first in the sentence, before the subject, emphasizing the prominence of this idea for the author.
- See, for example, Psalms of Solomon 17.
- My translation. Not cited here is the first part of the verse in which John stresses the location of the Lamb in the middle of the living creatures and elders and the throne, centering it in the heavenly geography.
- M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation : A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1989), 110-11
- Paul Middleton, The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation (LNTS 586; London: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2018), 63, 237. Revelation 17 is the place most commentators, including Middleton, cite as a prime example of the violence of the Lamb and of God in the Apocalypse.
- Boring, Revelation, 108.
- Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John: An Investigation of its Origin and Rhetorical Force (WUNT 2, 167; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 170.
- Matthew Street, Here Comes the Judge: Violent Pacifism in the Book of Revelation (LNTS 462; London: T&T Clark, 2012), 183, 221.
- That Revelation utilizes what we might describe as “myth” rather than propositional language should not lead us to believe that Revelation does not care about facts or truth. Whereas propositions communicate straightforwardly and empirically myth and symbolic language express imagination and existential truth. Revelation is “theopoetic” in Richard Hays’ understanding, so that “the visions unmask the illusory power of ‘realistic’ politics and disclose God’s truth about human historical experience” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996], 173).
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 19, 25.
- Ragnar Leivestad, Christ the Conqueror: Ideas of Conflict and Victory in the New Testament (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1954), 216-17
- Anecdotally, I have found it hard to articulate any form of justice or putting wrongs to right that does not in some way employ the language or imagery of exclusion, violence, or force regardless of one’s commitment to radical inclusion or non-violence. Likewise, it seems difficult to articulate an understanding of victory apart from the language of vanquishing. Agonistic, military-like imagery seems nigh impossible when discussing an understanding of what it means to conquer.
- Bob Cronin, “Trump’s Heir Preaches Ethic of Jesus is an Obstacle,” n.p. [cited 6 Jan 2021]. Online: https://www.newser.com/story/314948/trumps-heir-preaches-ethic-of-jesus-is-an-obstacle.html.
Dear Dr Gamel,
Thanks for this. It brings to mind a few thoughts:
1. I grew up on and among farms; my siblings raised sheep. I never saw an angry or “wrathful” lamb. Playing, skipping, butting heads, sleeping, curious, tired (&c.)–yes. Angry–never. “The wrath of the Lamb” is contrary to any shepherd’s experience; it is oxymoronic at best.
2. In response to a former colleague’s statement that “I’m very competitive; in fact, I’m the most competitive person I know” (and, I might add, by far the most competitive person I have known), a theologian said, “That’s not very trinitarian, is it?”, a question that I have pondered for several decades, especially in the light of our culture’s fascinated adulation of winners.
3. Thanks for the reference to double-goal coaching, which I intend to pass on to friends who coach or have children involved in sports.
4. And (I apologize for picking a nit), *nikwti* in footnote 2 should be *nikwnti*.
Thanks again; pax Christi.
P.S. I meant to add a reference to the chapter “How Not to Teach” in Derrick Jensen’s “Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution” (if you write me at my school address, I can send you a pdf of the chapter).