The Return of the Conqueror
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. (19:11–13)
As it did in 4:1, heaven opened before John’s wondering eyes. But unlike 4:1, heaven opens this time not to let John in, but to let Jesus out. The time has come at last for the full, glorious revelation of the sovereign Lord. This is the time to which all of Revelation (as well as all of redemptive history) has been pointing, the time of which Jesus Himself spoke in Matthew 24:27–31:
“For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”
As the dramatic scene unfolds, John stands transfixed, his attention riveted on the majestic, regal, mighty Rider. Jesus, the One who ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9–11) where He has been seated at the Father’s right hand (Acts 5:31; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22), is about to receive the kingdom that the Father promised Him. In an earlier vision, John saw Jesus receive the title deed to the earth:
I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it. Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it; and one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.”
And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. And He came and took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. (5:1–7)
The Lamb of that vision has become the conquering King.
No longer is Jesus portrayed as He was in His humiliation, “humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Instead, He rides the traditional white horse ridden by victorious Roman generals in their triumphal processions through the streets of Rome. White also symbolizes the spotless, unblemished, absolutely holy character of the Rider. The horse, like the crowns (v. 12), the sharp sword (v. 15), the rod of iron (v. 15), and the wine press (v. 15) is symbolic; Christ’s coming is reality. The symbolic language represents various aspects of that reality—Christ’s victory over His enemies, His sovereign rule, and His judgment of sinners.
Continuing his description of the astonishing scene before him, John notes that He who sat on the white horse is called Faithful and True. There is no more appropriate name for the Lord Jesus Christ, who earlier in Revelation was called “the faithful and true Witness” (3:14). He is faithful to His promises (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20) and what He speaks is always true (John 8:45–46; Titus 1:2). Though some would like to pick and choose which teachings of Jesus they wish to accept, He is just as faithful to His promises of wrath and judgment as He is to His promises of grace and salvation. The description of Jesus as Faithful and True is in marked contrast with the unfaithfulness and lies of Satan (12:9), Antichrist’s evil empire (18:23), and wicked people (2 Tim. 3:13). The very fact that He is coming again as He promised confirms that Jesus is Faithful and True.
Because Jesus is faithful to His word and righteous character, it follows that in righteousness He judges. His holy nature demands a holy, righteous reaction to sin. And because He always does what He says, He must judge the wicked (Matt. 16:27; 25:31–46; John 5:22, 27; cf. Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 2:16; 2 Thess. 1:7–9; 2 Tim. 4:1). Jesus came the first time as Savior; He will return as Judge. When He came the first time, wicked people, including Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas judged Him; when He returns, He will judge all wicked people (Acts 17:31). And He will not only be their judge, but also their executioner (vv. 15, 21). Angels may gather the wicked for judgment (Matt. 13:41), but the Lord Jesus will pass sentence on them.
No longer the Suffering Servant of His incarnation, the Lord Jesus Christ is seen in this vision as the warrior King who wages war against His foes. He is the executioner of all ungodly, unbelieving sinners. The only other reference in Scripture to Jesus waging war is in 2:16, when He warned the worldly church at Pergamum, “Repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.” This is not out of keeping with God’s character, however. After their deliverance from the Egyptian forces at the Red Sea, Israel sang, “The Lord is a warrior” (Ex. 15:3; cf. Pss. 24:8; 45:3–5). John Phillips writes:
The Lord is a man of war! It is an amazing title for the Son of God. Says Alexander White, comenting on Bunyan’s Holy War,
Holy Scripture is full of wars and rumours of wars; the wars of the Lord; the wars of Joshua and the Judges; the wars of David, with his and many other magnificient battle-songs; till the best known name of the God of Israel in the Old Testament is the Lord of Hosts; and then in the New Testament we have Jesus Christ described as the Captain of our salvation.… And then the whole Bible is crowned with a book all sounding with battle-cries.… till it ends with that city of peace where they hang the trumpet in the hall and study war no more.
The Lord is a man of war! In righteousness He judges and makes war. The judging has been going on throughout the breaking of the seals, the blowing of the trumpets, and the pouring out of the bowls. Now He makes war. He, who for long centuries has endured patiently the scoffings, the insults, the bad manners of men; who for ages has contemplated Calvary and all that it displayed of human hatred and contempt; and who, through the millennia has made peace through the blood of that cross, now makes war over that blood. (Exploring Revelation, rev. ed. [Chicago: Moody, 1987; reprint, Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux, 1991], 232)
Jesus’ adversaries this time will be the hardened sinners who have defied His judgments and scorned the gospel message during the Tribulation. Despite all the devastating judgments they will have experienced, and the powerful gospel preaching they will have heard, they will stubbornly refuse to repent (9:20–21; 16:9, 11). Since neither judgment nor preaching moves them to repent, Jesus will return to destroy them and send them to hell.
Unlike other conquerors the world has seen, covetousness, ambition, pride, or power will not motivate this Conqueror. He will come in utter righteousness, in perfect holiness, and in strict accord with every holy interest. Heaven cannot be at peace with sin, for God’s “eyes are too pure to approve evil, and [He] can not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13). There is a limit to God’s patience. Justice cannot always tolerate injustice; truth cannot forever tolerate lies; rebellion cannot be permitted to go on forever. Incorrigible, incurable, hardened sinners will face destruction; mercy abused and grace rejected will ultimately bring judgment.
Describing the personal appearance of the majestic, awe-inspiring Rider, John writes that His eyes are a flame of fire (see the discussion of 1:14 in Revelation 1–11, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1999], 46). Nothing escapes the notice of His penetrating, piercing vision. He can see into the deepest recesses of the human heart, because “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). Those eyes had reflected tenderness and joy as He gathered little children to Himself. They had reflected compassion when He observed distressed and dispirited people, wandering aimlessly through life like sheep without a shepherd. And they had reflected forgiveness when He restored Peter, who had been crushed by guilt over his shocking denial of his Master. The eyes that wept over the fate of unrepentant Jerusalem and over the sorrow, suffering, and death in this sin-cursed world, John sees flashing with the fire of judgment.
On His head John noted that Christ wore many diadems, a transliteration of the Greek word diadēma, which refers to a ruler’s crown (cf. 12:3; 13:1). In this case, they are worn by Jesus to signify His royal rank and regal authority. Many indicates His collecting of all the rulers’ crowns, signifying that He alone is the sovereign ruler of the earth. Collecting the crown of a vanquished king was customary in the ancient world. After defeating the Ammonites, David “took the crown of their king from his head … and it was placed on David’s head” (2 Sam. 12:30). Christ alone will be sovereign, since He alone is “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (v. 16), and “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (11:15). The many crowns Christ will wear are indeed a fair exchange for a crown of thorns (cf. Phil. 2:8–11).
Further, John notes that Jesus had a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. All speculation as to the meaning of that name is obviously pointless, since the text plainly states that no one knows it except Jesus Himself. Even the inspired apostle John could not comprehend it. Maybe it will be made known after His return.
Describing the final element of Christ’s appearance, John writes that He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood. The blood is not representative of that which He shed on the cross; this is a picture of judgment, not redemption. The blood is the blood of His slaughtered enemies. The imagery of this passage is similar to that of Isaiah 63:1–6:
Who is this who comes from Edom,
With garments of glowing colors from Bozrah,
This One who is majestic in His apparel,
Marching in the greatness of His strength?
“It is I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.”
Why is Your apparel red,
And Your garments like the one who treads in the wine press?
“I have trodden the wine trough alone,
And from the peoples there was no man with Me.
I also trod them in My anger
And trampled them in My wrath;
And their lifeblood is sprinkled on My garments,
And I stained all My raiment.
For the day of vengeance was in My heart,
And My year of redemption has come.
I looked, and there was no one to help,
And I was astonished and there was no one to uphold;
So My own arm brought salvation to Me,
And My wrath upheld Me.
I trod down the peoples in My anger
And made them drunk in My wrath,
And I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
The question arises as to why His garments are blood spattered before the battle has begun. But this is not His first battle; it is His last battle. He has fought for His people throughout redemptive history, and His war clothes bear the stains of many previous slaughters. At that day, they will be stained as never before when He “treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (v. 15).
That the Rider’s name is called The Word of God identifies Him unmistakably as the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14; 1 John 1:1). The second Person of the Trinity, the incarnate Son of God is called The Word of God because He is the revelation of God. He is the full expression of the mind, will, and purpose of God, “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3).
12 The reference to the blazing eyes definitely connects this vision with that of ch. 1 (cf. 1:14; 2:18). On his head are not just seven crowns (12:3), or ten (13:1), but many crowns of royalty (diadēmata, GK 1343). Perhaps they signify that the royal power to rule the world has now passed to Christ by virtue of the victory of his followers (11:15). All the diadems of their newly won empire meet on his brow (cf. Caird).
So great is Christ’s power that his name is known only by himself. Knowledge of the name is in antiquity associated with the power of the god. When a name becomes known, then the power is shared with those to whom the disclosure is made (cf. comments at 2:17). But since two names of Christ are revealed in this vision—“the Word of God” (v. 13) and “king of kings and lord of lords” (v. 16)—we may conclude that the exclusive power of Christ over all creation is now to be shared with his faithful followers (3:21; 5:10; 22:5). On the other hand, the secret name may be one that will not be revealed till Christ’s return.
12 The first thing that John records about the Rider of the white horse is that his eyes are a flame of fire. Nothing can be hidden from the penetrating gaze of the Messiah. Upon his head are many crowns. Here is an obvious contrast to the seven crowns of the dragon (12:3) and the ten crowns of the beast out of the sea (13:1). Many crowns indicate unlimited sovereignty. Since he is King of kings, all authority is his. The entire description is obviously symbolic and should not be visualized in any concrete way. The Rider also bears a name that only he knows. Some find here a reference to the sacred tetragrammaton, YHWH, a name too holy to pronounce so that the vowels of another name for God (Adonai) are read with the consonants of the holy name, with the resulting combination usually represented (in English) as Yahweh. Others hold the name to be “the name that is above every name” (“the Lord,” Phil 2:9–11) given to Christ in fulfillment of his messianic ministry. One writer suggests that it may be the name inscribed upon the Rider’s thigh in v. 16, which was not legible at first because of the radiance of the vision. The most common interpretation is that it is a secret name whose meaning is veiled from all created beings. It expresses the mystery of his person. There will always remain a mystery about Christ that finite minds will never fully grasp. There exists an ancient idea that to know the name of a god or demon is to possess certain powers over him. This could account for the refusal of the divine visitors in Gen 32:29 and Judg 13:18 to identify themselves (cf. 1 Enoch 69:14; Asc. Isa. 9:5). It is highly questionable, however, that the returning Messiah would share such a reluctance.
THE UNKNOWABLE NAME
His eyes are a flame of fire, and on his head are many royal crowns, and he has a name written which no one knows except himself.
We begin the description of the conquering Christ.
His eyes are a flame of fire. We have already met this description in 1:14 and 2:18. It stands for the consuming power of the victorious Christ. On his head, he has many crowns. The word used here for crown is diadēma, which is the royal crown, as opposed to stephanos, which is the crown of victory. To be crowned with more than one crown may seem strange, but in the time of John it was quite natural. It was not uncommon for a monarch to wear more than one crown in order to show that he was the king of more than one country. For instance, when Ptolemy entered Antioch, he wore two crowns or diadems—one to show that he was lord of Asia and one to show that he was lord of Egypt (1 Maccabees 11:13). On the head of the victor Christ, there are many crowns to show that he is lord of all the kingdoms of the earth.
He has a name known to no one but himself. This is a passage whose meaning is obscure. What is this name? Many suggestions have been made.
(1) It has been suggested that the name is kurios, Lord. In Philippians 2:9–11, we read of the name above every name which God has given to Jesus Christ because of his complete obedience; and there the name is almost certainly Lord.
(2) It is suggested that the name is IHWH. That was the Jewish name for God. In Hebrew writing, there were no vowels; the I was a Y rather than an I in pronunciation; the vowels had to be supplied by the reader. No one really knows what the vowels in IHWH were. The name was in fact so holy that it was never pronounced. In the past, it was pronounced JEHOVAH; but the vowels in Jehovah are really those of the Hebrew word Adonai, which means Lord, the name by which the Jews called God in order to avoid pronouncing the sacred name. Scholars now think that the name should be IAHWEH. The letters IHWH are called the sacred tetragrammaton, the sacred four letters. It may be that the secret name is the real name of God, which no one knows.
(3) It may be that the name is one which can be revealed only at the final union of Christ and the Church. In the Ascension of Isaiah (9:5), there is a saying: ‘You cannot bear his name until you shall have ascended out of the body.’ There was a Jewish belief that no one could know the name of God before entering into the life of heaven.
(4) It may be that there is here a lingering relic of the old idea that to know the name of a divine being was to have a certain power over that being. In two Old Testament stories, the wrestling of Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:29) and the appearance of the angelic messenger to Gideon (Judges 13:18), the divine visitor refuses to tell his name.
(5) It may be that we shall never know the symbolism of the unknown name; but H. B. Swete has the very fine idea that in the essence of the being of Christ there must always remain something beyond human understanding. ‘Notwithstanding the dogmatic helps which the Church offers, the mind fails to grasp the inmost significance of the Person of Christ, which eludes all efforts to bring it within the terms of human knowledge. Only the Son of God can understand the mystery of his own being.’
12. And his eyes are as a flame of fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written that no one knows except he himself.
This verse describes three aspects of Christ: his eyes, his head, and his name. The first two are visible and known, but the third, although written, only he himself knows. The description of Jesus’ eyes as flames of fire resembles a clause in Daniel 10:6, “his eyes like flaming torches.” And John’s portrayal of Jesus on Patmos has similar wording, “His eyes were like a flame of fire” (1:14; 2:18). These flames of fire convey Christ’s holy anger toward his enemies and his wrath against sin that is piled up to heaven (18:5).
The second aspect is that Christ wears many crowns, which the Greek text conveys as diadems (see 12:3; 13:1, where this word is applied to Satan and the beast as they imitate Christ). Diadems in John’s day were individual ribbons tied around someone’s head. Here the many diadems represent Christ’s supremacy in countless areas. The picture is purely symbolic of his complete sovereignty in the universe and does not lend itself to literalism. We assume that these diadems on Christ’s head displayed names to indicate the areas of his sovereignty (compare Isa. 62:2–3).
The third aspect is the name that no one knows except Christ. This sentence has caused at least one commentator who examined the parallel lines in verses 12 and 13 to assert that the sentence. “He has a name written that no one knows except he himself” is a gloss. By deleting this line, he says that the parallelism of verses 12 and 13 is restored. But is there really a contradiction in these two verses, where verse 12c states an inability to know the name of Christ and verse 13b divulges this name as “the Word of God”? To be sure, the names for Christ are numerous in the New Testament; the Apocalypse calls him the Lamb. Faithful and True, Lord of lords and King of kings, Root, offspring of David, Morning Star, and others. In verse 13 the written name of the rider on the white horse is “the Word of God.” A name refers to the very being of a person; for instance, an overcomer is given a white stone on which “is written a new name which no one knows except the one who receives it” (2:17). When on the island of Patmos John hears a divine voice and describes the speaker as “a son of man” (1:13), he declines to identify Jesus by name. In fact, he is unable to utter the name of this divine person. This corresponds with the mysterious wording in an early Christian hymn, “God … gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). We know that the appellation Jesus is his earthly name and Christ his official designation, but he still has another name that remains hidden from us. This mysterious name will be revealed to his people when his redemptive work has been brought to completion. Certainly at the wedding banquet of the Lamb (v. 9) when his bride enjoys perfect blessedness, the Lord will reveal the mystery of his name.
There is still another explanation, namely, that God shares his name with Christ, whereby the divinity of Christ is expressed. At three other places in the Apocalypse, John identifies Christ with God by ascribing divinity to Jesus when he mentions him together with God with reference to God’s kingdom and throne. There is one kingdom, not two; and one throne, not two (11:15; 20:6; 22:3).