The Apocalypse has been postponed for a week due to COVID. We are NOT gathering tonight. When we reconvene next Tuesday however, we will be studying Revelation 12-13 where we encounter the unholy Trinity of the Red Dragon, the Beast of the Sea, and the Beast of the Earth who bears the number 666. Revelation 12 is the cosmic battle against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places and Revelation 13 is the political battle against the world rulers of this present darkness.
When we read through the Scriptures, there are different levels of interpretation, particularly when we get to apocalyptic literature. When we read of the battles in Revelation, we are in the eternal present of worshipping the One seated on the Throne. There is not the one right interpretation of this reading.
As we read about the battle, there are at least four layers of which to be aware. First, this is a cosmic spiritual battle that takes place in visions, dreams, and fantasy. John is trying to describe the ineffable by using symbolic language. This is the realm of Narnia, Middle Earth, or Tatooine. In this sense, simply read and reflect on the story being told.
The battle also describes John’s reality of the conflict between the church and the state. The Roman Empire from the emperor down to its citizenry is actively persecuting the people of God. And John’s purpose is to tell the church that they will ultimately prevail despite the present setbacks. The White Witch, Sauron, and the Emperor will all eventually meet their demise.
The battle also describes our reality. Think through how the church is under attack today. Our problem is not the empire seeking our destruction, but the empire seeking our assimilation. Politics becomes religious doctrine. And the church (particularly yesterday) is in danger of becoming an arm of the State.
Finally, the battle scenes describe our own personal spiritual reality. We are the field where both the wheat and the tares are present. For each of us, our present reality is the internal struggle between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit or the Beatitudes versus the seven deadly sins. It is the inner conflict that Paul expresses in Romans 7:13-25. John is writing about the battle for your heart.
Each of these perspectives, and probably others, are present within our readings for this week.
The Woman, a Son, and a Dragon: (vv.1-6)
Chapter 12 opens with signs from heaven that precede both the appearance of a splendorous Woman in labor and the appearance of a great Red Dragon. It is quite the story. The question arises as to the identity of the characters.
The Red Dragon is, of course, the personification of evil (see below). There are eschatological dragons throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that are slain by God to bring deliverance to his people. (See, Isa. 27:1). Horns and diadems are symbols of power, and so the Red Dragon also wields earthly power through earthly means. And the Dragon is red, the color of blood and violent death. The soundtrack for the Red Dragon is Sir Mick’s Sympathy for the Devil.
The Red Dragon is against the Woman and her Son. The identity of these two characters, however, is limited only by our imagination. The Woman and Son can be seen as Israel and her Messiah. The sun, moon, and twelve stars surrounding the woman are Abraham, Sarah, and the Twelve Tribes. (cf. Gen. 37:9, Testament of Abraham 7). John draws on Isaiah’s understanding that Israel’s vindication is like a woman in travail delivering a son. Isa. 66:7. It is through this son of Israel that all nations will be blessed. (Gen. 12:3, Gal.3:8).
The woman is also Mary, particularly from a Roman or Eastern perspective. It is, of course, Mary who gives birth to the Son. At the Cross, Jesus referred to his mother as “woman” and entrusted her care to John. John 19:27. As Simeon foretold, Mary suffers as well. Luke 2:35. Traditionally, Mary is often represented as the woman of Revelation 12.
The woman is also the church, and it is we the saints that are being born. Paul describes the church as being in splendor without spot or blemish (Eph. 5:27) and each of us as being sons (Gal. 4:6). We are (re)born in our baptism and at our baptism when we “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” those same forces are stirred up against us. It is the Church and the saints in both John’s time and in our time that are under assault by the Red Dragon.
Regardless of the women’s identity, when she flees into the wilderness to escape the dragon, God protects and nourishes her. The wilderness is not a place of desolation but of consolation. Think of the manna given to Moses and Israel (Exodus 16) or the ravens that fed Elijah (1 Kings 17). Bad things happen, but God does not abandon us.
The War in Heaven: (vv.7-12)
One of the great popular visions of Revelation is the War in Heaven between the Archangel Michael and the Dragon. John tells us the Red Dragon is the Devil, Satan, the Deceiver. In Hebrew, satan simply means an adversary or accuser. By the time of Job, the general word has become a lesser angel in God’s court (Job 1:6) and by the time of Zechariah, he had become an apocalyptic figure who stands in opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple (Zech. 3). The Greek word diablos is the word used to translate the Hebrew “satan” into the Greek and generally means someone who brings an accusation in a law court (See, 1 Peter 5:8). The Deceiver is the Snake in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:13) or false Messiahs (Matt. 24:5). (As an aside, the Greek used for deceive is also used to describe the sheep that has gone or been led astray in the parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18.)
Against the Red Dragon stands Michael. This archangel is the great defender of Israel in Daniel. He is Enoch’s guide in heaven (Enoch 71:3), the first of the four archangels who led the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness in the War Scroll, and the one sent by God to retrieve Moses’ body (Jude 1:9). In Jewish mythology, Michael is the leader of God’s heavenly army.
The picture of this battle is what great fantasy novels and movies are made of. The great icons and paintings of Michael’s vanquishing of Satan look like a superhero comic book covers. However, unlike popular representations, Satan is overthrown not with the sword (John 18:11) but by the Blood of the Lamb and the testimony/martyrdom of the church. It is not only Michael who achieves the victory but the witnesses/martyrs. Victory over Satan is achieved through following Jesus into martyrdom.
Lessons of the War:
The War of Heaven gives us at least two great lessons. The first lesson is that the Church operates differently than the State. The State ultimately achieves its goals through force and violence. From the use of the military to the use of an everyday police force, the political powers of this world achieve their aims through violence – disobey the law and you go to jail. (This is not necessarily against God’s will. Rom. 13.) The Church is called to operate differently. In the War in Heaven, the Church prevails through the blood of the Lamb and their witness. She is not victorious by employing the violence of the State but by employing the self-sacrifice of Jesus, for “he who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:25
The second lesson is the gospel itself – that through Christ we no longer stand accused before God. In John’s vision, the Accuser (Satan, etc.) has God’s ear and continually levels accusations against humanity as described in Job. The accusations are not necessarily false, since everyone sins (Rom. 3:23) and the accusations themselves carry the penalty of death (Rom. 5:17). This is a description of our fallen human condition.
However, once Jesus ascends into heaven, the Accuser is cast out. The purpose of the Cross (the Blood of the Lamb), the Resurrection, and the Ascension is to give us the victory over the Accuser and the spiritual forces of wickedness and which victory we participate in by our witness. We are not sinners in the hand of an angry deity, rather we are sinners who stand accused, but our Accuser has been cast out of the court. That is Good News.
The War’s Aftermath: (vv.13-17)
The question that the church must always answer is if Christ is victorious, why is there still evil, and why are the saints still being persecuted. John’s vision is that Satan has been defeated in the heavenly places, but now roams the earth. Christ is victorious in that we no longer stand accused before God, but Satan still prowls like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8. There is the Church Triumphant where victory has been obtained, but there remains the Church Militant which is still being assaulted by the powers of this world.
In John’s vision of the aftermath, he continues to draw upon imagery present in the Exodus and Pslams. As the defeated Red Dragon (John now refers to him as a serpent) once more pursues the Woman, she is borne up on eagles wings. This is the exact imagery (eagle’s wings) that God uses to describe his liberation of Israel from Pharoah. (Ex. 19:4). And once again the woman is delivered into the wilderness during the time of tribulation to be protected and nourished by God.
As a last effort to kill the Woman, the Serpent spews water out of its mouth like a river, but the earth swallows up the river. In the Psalms, persecution is often compared to drowning in a flood. (Ps. 18:4, Ps. 69:1, Ps. 124:4). But in the imagery of a river and the earth swallowing, there is an echo of the Exodus itself. (Ex. 15). Despite being protected, the time of persecution will continue with the Beast of the Sea and the Beast of the Earth in Revelation 13.
No dinner or discussion tonight. We will resume next week.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”John 8:10-11