The Original Sharper Image: Investigating the Sword in the Mouth of Christ in Revelation 19:15

In Revelation 19:11-21, John relates an apocalyptic vision of a Rider on a white horse coming to judge and wage war. This visionary description of Jesus includes the enigmatic statement “from his mouth comes a sharp, two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16, 2:16, c.f. 19:15). The goal of this paper is to further examine and refine what John likely intended to communicate with this unique and disturbing image. The following points highlight both the importance of the topic and lines of investigation for this research paper.

First, though beasts and dragons are common in Second-Temple apocalyptic literature, this sharper image seems to be unique in both biblical and extra-biblical writings. David Aune contends that the “precise metaphor of a sword projecting from the mouth of the Messiah occurs nowhere else in early Jewish literature” and suggests this image was coined by John himself (Aune, 1998). The Old Testament and Targumic writings describe similar, but not precisely the same relationship of mouths and swords, including the “rod of his mouth” (Isa. 11:4), a mouth like a sharp sword (Isa. 49:2), words like a sharp sword (Tg. Isa. 49:2), breaking with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:9), and slaying with the words of one’s mouth (Isa. 6:5). In the New Testament, Paul describes Jesus as killing his enemies “with the breath of his mouth” (2 Thess. 2:8).

Second, The Greek text bears investigation. The passage contains a pun which states that the mouth (στόματος) of Jesus has a two-mouthed (δίστομος) sword. This reference to the sword’s “mouth” (or edge) is behind the oft-used expression to be “devoured by the sword” in the Old Testament (Deut. 32:42; 2 Sam. 2:26, 11:25; Isa. 31:8; Jer. 15:3; Hos. 11:6; Nah. 2:13, etc.). In addition, textual variations in the manuscripts seemingly attempt to harmonize Revelation 19:15 with 1:16 and 2:16 regarding the sharp, two-edged sword. Further, while Hebrews 4:12 famously describes the word of God as being sharper than a two-edged sword, the author uses the Greek term μάχαιρα as opposed to ῥομφαία in John’s Revelation. Both terms are frequently used in the GNT and LXX, but do not appear to be interchangeable.

Third, apocalyptic imagery often can be linked to specific Bible passages which state the same truth more directly. In John 12:48, Jesus declares: “The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day,” and begs the question, what is the word or expression that will lead to the eternal condemnation and second death of his enemies? Further, does this word correspond to a spoken word from Jesus or the fact that Jesus himself is described as the Word of God?

Finally, the early church evidently placed a high value on this image and included a sword in or near the mouth of Jesus in artistic representations from the catacombs through the medieval period. The goal of this paper is to investigate these three areas often overlooked in Revelation commentaries to further refine the meaning of this important apocalyptic image of Jesus Christ.

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