Perhaps today is the first time in your life that you have ever read Revelation 12 as a Christmas text. We don’t normally associate John’s vision of a dragon and cosmic warfare with the season of nativity scenes, apple cider, Santa Claus, and “Silent Night.” But we do sing about what John pictures here in at least one of our Christmas hymns. The English carol “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which means something like “May God keep you joyful”) begins with these words:
God rest you merry, gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day
to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
O tidings of comfort and joy!
John wrote this passage in order to give tidings of comfort and joy. He wrote to encourage his readers, many of whom were suffering persecution for their obedience to Christ, to press on as joyful warriors who knew they were engaged in a war that they could not lose. It is made abundantly clear in this passage that we have a very formidable enemy, and yet that enemy simply cannot defeat us. And that is cause for joy, a joy that inspires us to press in our faith.
Discouragement is what happens when expectations go unmet. Think about it: when you are stuck in a traffic jam, making you late to your destination, how do you feel? I usually feel annoyed, bitter, upset, disappointed. I expected to be able to drive straight to my destination, and now something has gotten in the way, messing up the easy drive that I felt I was entitled to. Now, imagine that scenario playing out across your whole life: your marriage, your children, your job, your church, your relationship with God. For some of you, the disappointment of unmet expectations is what drove you away from the church and from God, and you have shown up here today because this is one of the two Sundays a year when you go back for the sake of tradition. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope you will hear what God is saying to you. For others, you haven’t walked away from God, and this passage is one of those encouraging ones that will help you persevere into the future.
Unmet expectations lead to discouragement. But what if you calibrate your expectations to the reality that you are living in a war zone? That little shift in your thinking can change your whole perspective. If you honestly acknowledge the fact that a seven-headed dragon wants to destroy you, all of a sudden it’s not a surprise when he actually does attack. Marriage difficulties are not earth-shattering. Children with sinful hearts don’t take us by surprise. Laboring diligently at your job day in and day out, but seeing a lot of thorns and thistles come up instead of fruit is to be expected. God’s presence doesn’t always seem near, and we won’t always feel great about our lives or this world. You know what? All of that and more is normal and to be expected in a war zone. But you can face it all as a joyful warrior in the battle because of the truths given to us in this passage. This passage gives us three reasons to be joyful warriors, and all three pertain to the utter failure of our enemy to succeed against us. So notice our threefold triumph over the devil that we see in this passage.
I. Our Enemy Failed to Stop Our King (vv. 1-6).
Christmas, the moment of the incarnation of God the Son in human flesh, was God’s decisive move in his war against the serpent declared in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” John’s vision portrays the coming of the seed of the woman as the fulfillment of that promise.
John saw “a great sign” in heaven, a pregnant woman. Who is this woman? You might assume that since she gives birth to a male child who will rule all nations, this must be Mary, the mother of Jesus. But it seems more likely that she represents the faithful remnant of Israel leading up to the time of Christ. I say this for a couple of reasons. One is that she is pictured as one clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head. The number twelve throughout Revelation always indicates God’s people, and the mention of the heavenly bodies confirms that. In Genesis 37 we read a story about the patriarchs of Israel, Jacob and his twelve sons. Joseph the son of Jacob tells of a dream he had in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. His father interprets the dream with the sun referring to Jacob himself, the moon referring to his wife, and the eleven stars referring to Joseph’s eleven brothers. Of course, in that analogy Joseph himself would be the twelfth star, and so the woman’s appearance suggests that she represents not an individual but a people. Another reason this is not Mary is because after she gives birth she flees from the dragon to the wilderness. There is nothing we know about Mary that would correspond to that part of the story. But that little detail also tells me that we shouldn’t identify her simply with Israel as a nation, because the persecution of Israel as a nation is not a theme in the book of Revelation, and it makes much more sense to see her as a symbol for the church. I think the best way to tie her identity together pre-Christ and post-Christ is to see her as the faithful remnant of Israel on both sides of the coming of Christ. She represents the Jewish people who lived by faith in God’s promises of a Messiah before Christ came, as well as the faithful remnant of Israel who became followers of Christ when he did come. That is why she appears with the glory of the heavenly bodies and a crown on her head: she represents the true messianic people of Israel, those who will share in the reign of their Messiah.
And so this woman, the faithful remnant of Israel, was crying out in the pains of labor as she anticipates the birth of her child. Meanwhile, John sees another sign in heaven: a great red dragon, later identified as the ancient serpent of Genesis 3, known as the devil and Satan. He is pictured with seven heads and ten horns, and with seven diadems on his heads. Seven crowned heads pictures the authority that Satan holds over this world. This is not an authority that operates outside of God’s overall sovereignty, but on the creaturely level it is a real authority. Ten horns indicate the formidable power he possesses to wield this authority. His mighty tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, which seems to indicate his power to lure holy angelic powers to join him in his rebellion, so that he is the leader of a mighty angelic force. This dragon is presented as an enemy who is formidable and dangerous. And John saw that he was poised to devour the child about to be born to this woman.
But the vision very quickly moves to the birth of the child, the one destined to rule all nations with a rod of iron, as promised to the Messiah in Psalm 2:7-9. The dragon’s plan failed, and the child was caught up to God and to his throne. This is a very brief summary of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Think of the many points in that story when Satan attempted to thwart God’s plan. Think of the days of Jesus’ infancy when King Herod, driven mad with paranoia, ordered all male babies in the city of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. Or think to the time Jesus was fasting in the desert, and Satan held out before him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “I will give all of these to you, if you will bow down and worship me.” That was a genuine offer. He actually held the kingdoms of this world under his authority, and he had the power to give them to Jesus on this condition. Or think of the words of Jesus’ own disciple Peter who, when he heard Jesus mention the cross for the first time, immediately rebuked him and told him it would never happen, and Jesus could hear the sound of dragon in his voice. In all these stories and more, we see the work of Satan. And in all these stories and more, we see God’s triumph over him. The seven-headed dragon could not devour the child. He came into the world as God in the flesh, he lived a sinless life, triumphing over temptation where Adam had failed, and he went to the cross in obedience to the Father and was raised again on the third day. And then he ascended into heaven to take his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. As formidable as our enemy is, he could not stop the plan of God for our redemption from unfolding. In due time, the seed of the woman came, and he crushed the head of the serpent.
I have always been intrigued by the story in Mark 4:35-41, where Jesus and his disciples are caught by a sudden storm while sailing across the Sea of Galiee. As the boat begins to fill with water, Jesus lies asleep in the stern. So his disciples frantically wake him up and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus rises from his bed, commands the wind and the sea to be calm, and immediately the storm is over. And then Jesus says to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” That question has always intrigued me, because it has a certain logic to it that is important to follow. The logic can’t be that God has promised that none of his people will ever drown in a shipwreck, because God hasn’t made that promise. And we know of examples from history in which Christians have died in shipwrecks, as well as other kinds of disasters. So when Jesus said, “Have you still no faith?” what was he assuming they should have had faith in? He was assuming they should have had faith that he would not drown in a shipwreck, and since they were with him, they would survive as well. The assumption behind Jesus’ question is this: Do you really think that God would allow his Anointed One to be killed in an accident before he has completed his mission? Do you really think the dragon is going to devour the seed of the woman? Have you still no faith?
Now take that truth and update it to our setting. We don’t have any guarantees that we will always be safe on boats, but we do have this assurance: the dragon, as powerful as he is, could not stop the fulfillment of our Messiah’s mission. And if Christ died, was raised, and has now been enthroned at the right hand of God, is there any way on God’s green earth that he will fail to receive everything for which he died, namely, the complete salvation and eternal blessing of his people, the glory of his bride? Yes, life is warfare, but we are fighting on the other side of the decisive battle, which has already been won. So let us fight as joyful warriors, knowing that our king has triumphed over the dragon.
II. Our Enemy Has Been Stripped of His Greatest Weapon (vv. 7-12).
Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Christ came to strip the devil of his greatest weapon: the power of death. But how can the author of Hebrews say that the devil has the power of death? How exactly does that work? Revelation 12 sheds light here.
In verses 7-12 we have narrated for us a war in heaven: Michael the archangel (who is identified with Israel in the book of Daniel) leads his forces against the dragon and his angels. Michael prevailed, casting the dragon out of heaven and to earth. Satan has been cast out of heaven.
When did this happen? The text indicates that it happened in conjunction with the ascension of the male child to heaven. Although we are accustomed to speaking of the “fall of Satan” as an event that occurred before creation when he, originally a holy angel, rebelled against God, that is not the event depicted by these verses. These verses depict the casting of Satan out of his authoritative position in heaven, an event that did not actually occur until after Christ had completed his redemptive work.
So why didn’t God cast Satan out before this? Why wait until this point in history? If it was simply a matter of raw power, God could have obliterated Satan at any moment. As formidable as the seven-headed, ten-horned dragon is to us, before the omnipotent power of God Almighty, he is nothing. This heavenly battle was not a contest of strength. If you look closely, you can see that this was actually a legal battle. Verse 10 says, “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.’” Did you catch that? Satan actually held a heavenly office of accuser, and as long as he has the power to accuse, he exercises a legitimate power. That’s because the power of accusation actually comes from God’s own holy law. We who are sinners are rightly subject to the accusations of the law, and Satan gladly played role of pressing the law’s claims against us before God, and in doing so he held the power to condemn us to death. And so if God decided to cast Satan out of heaven by an act of sheer muscle, without any legal basis, that would have created a problem. It would have been an implicit repudiation of his own law. God would have denied himself if he had silenced the accuser by raw power alone. So as long as the law condemned us, we—and all creation—were held under the authority of the dragon, the accuser of the brothers.
But when Jesus Christ ascended to heaven to take his place at the right hand of God to intercede for us as our high priest by presenting his completed sacrifice ever before the throne of God, Satan’s power to accuse was gone. You can’t accuse people whose sentence has already been carried out. And in the cross of Jesus Christ, justice has been satisfied. The law’s claims against us have been silenced. And the accuser has been thrown out of heaven! No longer does he hold authority over the nations of this world, because a new priest-king has wrested authority from him.
And the result for us is victory over the dragon. Verse 11 reads, “And they [the brothers] have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” There are two things that, when put together, give me absolute victory over Satan. One is the blood of the Lamb. His death for me paid every debt that I owed to God’s justice. The other is the word of my testimony, the testimony of a faith that refuses to let go of Jesus no matter what. And so we fight as joyful warriors who hold firm to the promise of Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And the promise of Romans 8:33-34: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Did you see the connection there? Who can condemn us when Christ intercedes for us? No one can! The accuser has been cast out of heaven! He has been stripped of his most powerful weapon!
I am proudly and robustly Protestant, and in my studies of the differences between Protestant and Catholic, I have come to this conclusion about the different ways we understand salvation: Catholics view the process of salvation as one of preparation for a judgment that is still to come. Protestants view salvation as living in the aftermath of a judgment that has already been rendered. I am not preparing myself to stand before God on the last day and present to him something worth giving me eternal life. My judgment has already been rendered in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have already been declared, “Not guilty,” and court has already been adjourned. There is a coming day of judgment, but it will not determine my destiny. It will only make public what is already true of me, that I am a righteous son of God. As a Protestant, I find deep joy in the assurance of knowing where I stand with God, and therefore knowing that I have already moved past facing God as judge, so that I can call upon him as a loving Father whose approval of me has already been given.
Joyful warriors engage the daily battle of our spiritual conflict with the assurance that no charge against us will stand. Our enemy has been stripped of his greatest weapon because of the incarnation, atonement, and intercession of Jesus Christ.
And then a third reason for us to fight with joy is this:
III. Our Enemy Cannot Lead Us Away from Christ (vv. 13-17).
Removed from his position in heaven, our enraged enemy proceeds to wage war on earth. He can no longer accuse us before the throne of God, so what then is his strategy? It is to lead us away from Christ, the only hope of our salvation. It is, in other words, a strategy of deception. And it is a two-pronged strategy, a strategy that you will see if you look at the two beasts that the dragon calls forth in chapter 13. One prong of the strategy is the pressure of persecution. By wielding the power of the state against us, the dragon wants to make us feel pain for following Jesus. But that alone is not enough. He also wants to lure us into believing what is false so that we forsake the truth of the gospel. So he promotes false teaching and false worship as an inviting alternative to the message of the gospel. With one hand he squeezes, and with the other he invites, “Come over here, and all of the pain and difficulty will go away. Follow this teaching, and your life will be so much easier.” In the first century, that two-pronged strategy sometimes took the form of pressuring Christians to worship the emperor or face persecution. In our day, it often takes the form of pressuring Christians to worship the idol of sexual perversity. New form, but same strategy.
But in this text, God thwarts the dragon at every turn. Notice what he does. First, when the dragon tries to devour the woman, God gives her the wings of an eagle so that she can fly away to the wilderness and elude him. This image echoes God’s statement to Israel in Exodus 19:4, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt and into the safety of the wilderness, so does he deliver the woman from the jaws of the dragon and into a place of refuge.
Second, God provides for the woman while she is in the wilderness, just as he provided for Israel in the desert. Verses 6 and 14 both say that the wilderness is a place where she is to be “nourished,” and that indicates that God will provide for her. He will not leave her to starve or thirst in the desert. Third, God defends her from the water that pours out of the dragon-serpent’s mouth to wash her away in a flood. Israel once faced the terror of the Egyptian army on one side of them and the Red Sea on the other, but God parted the waters of the sea and led them through on dry land. Here, he thwarts the dragon again by opening up the earth itself to swallow up the flood sent to drown the woman in the wilderness. Frustrated, the dragon goes to make war on the other offspring of the woman. If we identify the woman as the Jewish church, the faithful remnant of Israel who followed Jesus, then her other offspring are, most naturally, Gentile believers. And if we read it this way, it makes perfect sense: persecution of the church first began in Jerusalem against Jewish believers, and only later did it spread to other parts of the Roman Empire to Gentile believers.
But notice one last detail of this passage: verse 6 tells us the woman will be nourished in the wilderness for 1,260 days. Verse 14 says she is to be nourished in the wilderness for “a time, times, and half a time.” These are two ways of saying the same thing. The number 1,260 days is 30 days (roughly a month) times 42, or a period of 42 months, which equals 3 and ½ years. That is also what “a time, times, and half a time” means: one time (year), plus two times (two years), plus half a time (half a year), which equals 3 and ½ years. What is the significance of 3 and ½ years in the book of Revelation? Numbers are used symbolically throughout the book to communicate truths. As mentioned earlier, the number twelve (or multiples of twelve) often symbolize God’s people (12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles). The number seven indicates completion, because the original week of creation was seven days. Notice that 3 and ½ is what you get if you take the number seven and cut it in half. So all of these number references that refer in some way to 3 and ½ years are ways of picturing a time period that has been cut short by God. And if you look through the book of Revelation, every time a number like that is used, it always indicates a time period during which God’s people suffer oppression. John is telling us the encouraging news that the dragon’s time to persecute us and try to deceive us has been cut short by God. God will not allow it to run on to completion. Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 24:24, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” Those two words “if possible” make all the difference in the world. If it were possible, false prophets would deceive God’s elect, but it’s not possible. God will not allow it.
Perhaps you have heard about Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church in China. Knowing that he could possibly be arrested as Chinese authorities started cracking down on Christians, Pastor Yi wrote a letter entitled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” and arranged for it to be made public in the event that he should go missing for more than two consecutive days. He disappeared a couple of weeks ago, having been arrested by the Chinese government, and so his letter was published. It is a very moving declaration of resolve to obey Christ no matter the cost. In particular, I was drawn to these words from Pastor Yi: “…I have no fear of any social or political power. For the Bible teaches us that God establishes governmental authorities in order to terrorize evildoers, not to terrorize doers of good. If believers in Jesus do no wrong then they should not be afraid of dark powers. Even though I am often weak, I firmly believe this is the promise of the gospel. It is what I’ve devoted all of my energy to. It is the good news that I am spreading throughout Chinese society. I also understand that this happens to be the very reason why the Communist regime is filled with fear at a church that is no longer afraid of it.” May we listen to the words of our brother and truly believe that we have nothing to fear from the powers of this world. The dragon has been thrown out of heaven. His power to accuse, and thus to inflict death as condemnation, has been stripped from him. And God will not allow him to tear us away from Christ. As terrifying as he appears, we have nothing to fear from this dragon. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
One of the chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings is entitled “Ride of the Rohirrim.” The Rohirrim are the cavalry force from the kingdom of Rohan, and in this chapter they arrive at the city of Minas Tirith in the kingdom of Gondor, one of the last remaining free kingdoms in Middle Earth. Minas Tirith is being attacked by the vile orcs of Mordor, and the Rohirrim have come to lend their aid to the city in battle against a common enemy. As they are preparing to ride into battle, their commander, King Théoden, inspires them with these words: “Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!” The Rohirrim ride onto the battlefield and, at the exact moment when the city is about to fall to the enemy, completely change the course of the battle. Tolkien concludes the chapter with these words: “For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.” Singing as they waged war? That seems odd, and yet in the story, it fits. It was a time to be joyful warriors.
Of all the different kinds of social gatherings and institutions to which we belong, the church of Jesus Christ is one of the few left in our society who sing together. And that seems fitting, doesn’t it? We have a dangerous enemy, but he is a defeated and frustrated enemy, and that is reason to sing as we fight. May God rest us all merry. Amen.