We generally approach the Christmas season focusing in on all we need to get done rather than a time of deep reflection. We know it’s about Jesus, but even then, we think of Christmas from its human predicament: of an unplanned pregnancy, a confused groom to be, a hasty trip to Bethlehem, shepherds coming to worship the child and later magi, bringing gifts; it seems so challenging and at times overwhelming. We also discover the plot against the Christ child. These are all things being played out in the natural arena of life. Yet, what we see happening is only the tip of the iceberg. That’s true in our lives as well. We generally only see the natural world, but don’t see what is shaping this world. The spiritual world around us is just as real and determines what is happening. What we need to realize, but often fail to remember, is that there is a great spiritual battle happening. That is exactly what was occurring during Jesus’ first advent or coming. There was a powerful spiritual battle taking place which we see described in the book of Revelation.
In Revelation we find a unique style of communicating spiritual truths. This literary style is called apocalyptic, which means that it is a highly dramatized account using powerful images to capture our imagination. Revelation 11 ends with the triumphal return of Jesus where the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. The time had come for judgment “and for destroying those who destroy the earth (11:18). If you are a chronological, sequential thinker, you may have thought to yourself, ‘that’s it.’ The end of history has now come. It’s all over.
However, in Revelation 12 and onwards we discover who those are who are destroying the earth and how God will address evil. Many feel that in this life that evil is winning out. We see so many people being victimized by evil.
The practical problem of theodicy [Theodicy is the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.] is that people do not always experience the triumph of God over evil; more often than not, they experience suffering and injustice.[i]
In response to this issue of the nature of evil and why it seems so powerful and pervasive in our world, we come to this vision of a woman, a child and a great red dragon. We know that this vision is symbolic, but what is it symbolic of?
Dr. Craig Koester shares in his presentation on the book of Revelation:
Historians have noted that Revelation’s story of the woman and the dragon has a plot line that is similar to other stories of good versus evil that circulated in the ancient world. One of these is the Greek story of a woman named Leto, who became pregnant by the god Zeus. Leto’s adversary was a ferocious snake-like dragon named Python, who tried to kill her to prevent the births of Zeus’s children. When the children were born, Apollo and Artemis, they were both given arrows as gifts, with which Apollo slew the dragon.
In the dominant culture of Roman imperialism, the emperors stepped into the role of Apollo; and were seen as the ones who overcame the forces of chaos represented by the dragon. Virgil, the Roman historian, compared the rise of Augustus to the birth of Apollo.
In John’s eyes, the destructive forces of the dragon operating within the empire is not being fought by the Emperor, but rather the emperor is the dragon’s ally.[ii]
The real champion of the resistance to the Dragon, which is the source and perpetrator of all evil, is God’s people. Chapter 12 answers the question why evil seems so pervasive. It deals with the cosmic war and the ramifications both on earth and in heaven. So what is actually happening? Chapter 12 leaves us with two keys to living a victorious life and is the hidden story behind the Christmas story.
THE FIRST KEY TO LIVING A VICTORIOUS LIFE IS UNDERSTANDING THE SOURCE OF EVIL (vs. 1-5)
If we don’t grasp where evil originates, we find ourselves fighting with people rather than realizing that they are just pawns in the struggle. People need to be freed from the power of darkness. Many who are propagating evil are actually blind to the danger that they are personally in and what they are bringing about. Many people today think they are ‘fighting for freedom,’ but the freedom they have in mind is not freedom from sin, but rather freedom to sin. They want all the stigma of sin removed. The problem is that sin’s consequences will still be experienced. We need to understand that the people who advocate for sin are not our enemies; instead, they are themselves captives to a greater power. Our battle is with spiritual forces of darkness who have blinded the minds of their victims.
The text is answering a question generated by the claims of the gospel. The gospel declares that in Jesus Christ the living Lord has won the victory over all the forces that threatened to undo us. But if this gospel, this good news, is true news, why are things so bad? If, as the gospel proclaims, evil has been defeated, why does evil still wreak such havoc in our world?[iii]
The woman in John’s vision is described in vivid detail, with strong Old Testament ties:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.[iv]
The twelve stars represent the nation of Israel, God’s bride in the O.T. This imagery goes all the way back to an early dream of the teenager Joseph, who with his brothers became the progenitors of Israel’s twelve tribes.
Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’
When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’[v]
As for understanding who the Revelation 12 woman is, not all Bible interpreters agree. Some believe she represents the nation of Israel in which Christianity was birthed from. Others see this woman as Mary, the mother of Jesus and see this account as a picture of Satan trying to destroy the child Jesus as played out in Herod’s attempt. I believe both are accurate.
The Dragon and his story.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.
Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.[vi]
John tells us a little later who the great red dragon is.
The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.[vii]
So the third of the stars are actually angels that followed Satan and therefore experienced the same defeat. Here the dragon is described as having seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Horns speak of strength and power.
Leon Morris writes regarding this dragon.
Evil is strong…the point of the seven heads is not immediately obvious. But in antiquity several terrible beasts were said to have a multiplicity of heads (e.g. Hydra). The thought may be that of the immense vitality of such an animal. It is very hard to kill. In the same way, opposition to the church on the part of the powers of evil is persistent. No sooner is it defeated in one place than it breaks out elsewhere. We should not overlook the fact that the beast, Satan’s henchman, also has seven heads and ten horns (13:1, 17:3), and is scarlet in color (17:3). We should understand that the evil we see on earth is made in the image of Satan.[viii]
The child that was about to be devoured by the Dragon.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.[ix]
Immediately we are struck with the statement that is a quote from Psalm two. This messianic psalm speaks of the rule and authority of the Messiah. So Israel gives birth to the Messiah and the dragon is ready to devour the child at birth. We know the story from Matthew’s gospel how King Herod tried to destroy the child, Jesus.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.[x]
Revelation 12 is a Christmas text. Eugene Peterson writes:
It is St. John’s Spirit-appointed task to supplement the work of St. Matthew and St. Luke so that the nativity cannot be sentimentalized into coziness, nor domesticated into worldliness. This is not the nativity story we grew up with, but it is the nativity story all the same. Jesus’ birth excites more than wonder; it excites evil.[xi]
We know from the gospels that Jesus was delivered, lived and then was crucified and finally resurrected; but here we find that the story is abbreviated and the essence is communicated. Why does John move right to the ascension of Christ? Because this message is meant to encourage the church. Even though the enemy attacks, God’s ultimate purposes will be accomplished. We will ultimately triumph over evil.
THE SECOND KEY TO VICTORIOUS LIVING IS UNDERSTANDING HOW TO OVERCOME OUR ADVERSARY (vs. 6-12)
Once we grasp the conflict that is raging, we realize that to prevail we need God’s direction and provision. We cannot do this on our own.
The Meaning of the wilderness as a place of protection and care.
The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.[xii]
The woman, as we have seen, is the people of God. God prepares a place for her in the wilderness. In the bible the wilderness has two different and opposing meanings. The context bears out which meaning will apply. In the first meaning the wilderness is a place of destitution and temptation. Jesus spent forty days there being tempted by the Devil. The wilderness was a place where the Israel nation was tested. There that generation failed to trust God and enter into the promised land. But the wilderness was also the place where God led his people up from Egyptian bondage. It was there God revealed Himself to them and gave them the law. The book of Hosea is a story of God’s love being rejected. God then appeals through the prophet Hosea to return to their first love, that love which was initiated in the wilderness.
Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
In that day, declares the LORD, ‘you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’[xiii]
What God is saying through Hosea is that he wants Israel to return to that place of first love in the wilderness. God wants to do that with us, his church, too. We need to have this experience with God in order to face the evils of our world, so they do not defeat us.
The defeat of our enemies and their current status.
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.[xiv]
Here we have the great cosmic battle between God’s angels led by Michael, who is described in the book of Daniel, as a prince to the nation of Israel and to God’s people, the new Israel, the church.
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But as that time your people —whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered.[xv]
Michael is described as an archangel in Jude 9. In Revelation 12, he is the leader of God’s heavenly host in battle against the dragon and his angels and they win the battle and cast the dragon down to earth. Some Jewish scholars believe that the devil was actually the ‘Morning Star,’ who had been cast down to earth (cf. Isa. 14:12); and saw in these verses that this happened prior to the garden scene in Genesis 3, where we find the serpent enticing the woman. This was popularized by John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ However, other scholars believe that the enemy being cast down came as a result of the victory that Christ brought through his death and resurrection. Jesus describes this defeat prior to the cross.
He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.
I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.[xvi]
Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.[xvii]
We know from the book of Job that Satan, the accuser, was not only moving about the earth but was in the very heavens bringing his accusations before God.
One day the angels [sons of God] came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them.
The LORD said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the LORD,
‘From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.[xviii]
So when was Satan cast out of the presence of God and out of heaven? There is no definitive answer. But we do know from Revelation 12 is that Satan has been cast down and is limited in his sphere of activity. Satan knows his time is short. Some argue that he has been raging for two thousand years, but in relationship to time, that is a short span.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.[xix]
The means of victory in the life of the believer.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.[xx]
How do we triumph? We trust is in what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. If God is for us, who can be against us? Satan has no grounds to accuse us, since we are justified not based upon what we have done, but upon the basis of what Christ has accomplished on the cross. We are not standing on our righteousness, but upon Christ’s righteousness. We confess our allegiance to Christ. Jesus is our example of making that confession before His accusers standing before Pilate. Paul charged Timothy to fight this fight of faith by making a good confession or profession.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.[xxi]
One of the reasons why evil grows is that we are silent.
The reason evil seems so powerful, pervasive and at times seems to be prevailing.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.[xxii]
John recognizes that it is easy to think of evil working relentlessly on earth because it is so powerful, but he turns this perception upside down. For John, evil seems relentless not because it is powerful, but because it is desperate and losing. And the best way to respond to evil is to resist it, knowing that it cannot win out in the end.[xxiii]
The apostle Paul states that so clearly.
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,[xxiv]
The last part of the vision is God’s supernatural protection to those who obey.
The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach.
Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent.
But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.
Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.[xxv]
When God delivered Israel from Egypt, Pharaoh raced after them into the wilderness. Now trapped by the Red Sea, God parted it and allowed His people to cross safely while drowning the threat that had pursued his people.
This is a parallel picture of the earth opening up and swallowing the river that was meant to destroy. Evil comes at us as a mighty current, but there is a power greater than evil that allows us to overcome evil. When we forgive, when we do what is good and bless in turn, we overcome evil. The temptation when evil comes and is seemingly winning is that we will succumb to its power.
John assumes that people order their lives with an eye to what they believe has ultimate place. The dragon personifies deception, brutality, arrogance, and injustice. It’s easy to see why people might think those forces run the world and why they might respond by simply giving in and going along.
John, however, recognizes that the forces of evil operate in part by trying to breed a cynical complacency about the world. He challenges the idea that destructive forces can have ultimate place by showing that the power of the Creator is superior to and different from that of the destroyers. He calls on his readers to give their allegiance to what gives life, not to capitulate to the forces that bring death.[xxvi]
What is John telling us in these texts? There is a hidden spiritual conflict that we need to stand up to, and speak up against. When we do, evil backs down, when we don’t evil advances. God is calling us to stand in this hour. God is calling us to stand in the day of evil. We must remember that our weapons are not worldly, but spiritual in nature. Faith, trust, prayer, forgiveness, speaking forth the truth in love. Will we take our stand for Christ, truth and righteousness or will we back down?
[i] Robert Wall, Revelation, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1991), 157.
[ii] Craig Koester, The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History, Course Guidebook (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2011), 45-46.
[iii] Darrell Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 216.
[iv] Revelation 12:1-2, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[v] Genesis 37:9-10.
[vi] Revelation 12:3-4.
[vii] Revelation 12:9.
[viii] Leon Morris, Revelation, Revised Edition, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 153-54.
[ix] Revelation 12:5.
[x] Matthew 2:13.
[xi] Eugene Peterson, ‘Reversed Thunder, (San Francisco, Ca: Harper & Row, 1988), 121.
[xii] Revelation 12:6.
[xiii] Hosea 2:14-16.
[xiv] Revelation 12:7-9.
[xv] Daniel 12:1.
[xvi] Luke 10:18-19.
[xvii] John 12:31.
[xviii] Job 1:6-7.
[xix] Revelation 12:12.
[xx] Revelation 12:10-11.
[xxi] 1 Timothy 6:12-14.
[xxii] Revelation 12:12-13.
[xxiii] Craig Koester, The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History, 47.
[xxiv] Ephesians 6:13-14.
[xxv] Revelation 12:14-17.
[xxvi] Craig Koester, The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History, 48.