August 9, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 18:30 in the audio file.
Or, Why Is All of This Happening?
Who wants to be left behind? If you don’t know, Left Behind is a series of (16!) rapture fiction books, some of which became bestsellers. They were roundly mocked by serious literature people, as well as by those with different eschatology. But my question is not about what you want to read, it’s about how you want to be perceived.
Do you want other people to think that you are loving? You should (John 13:35). Do you want other people to think that you are hopeful? You should (1 Peter 3:15). Do you want other people to think that you are reasonable? You should (Philippians 4:5), even as “the Lord is at hand.”
But do you also want them to think that you are on always on edge, that you act like you are in an invisible war, that you believe there are spiritual forces at work, that have been at work, that conspire together in a way to remake, and ruin, humanity? All of the above is what Bible believing Christians know, even if we prefer not to think, or talk too much about it because we’re afraid others will call us unstable, or loony, or irrelevant. We might as well be with the Left Behind guys.
In Revelation 12 we’ve not gone off the edge of the map, but here there be monsters. We look toward the second half of the Apocalypse, and this chapter is not only in the center of the book, it relates to the central conflict of all time. Here is the deep source of universal bitterness and strife. Here is a story in three sections, that answers why all of this trouble is happening. There is an underlying conflict for all the problems God’s people endured in the OT, for the persecution of God’s Messiah, and also for a coming generation of believers.
We may hesitate to attribute too much to the devil. People who are always talking about the devil are often a bit sensational/dramatic, Charismatic, conspiratic. But our modern “maturity” and worldview that rejects angels and demons and gods and devils, comes from unbelief, not belief.
As Martin Luther wrote in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” we have an ancient foe who seeks to work us woe. He is named and described and portrayed in Revelation 12 as a “great red dragon,” the devil, the accuser of the brethren. He has been seeking to devour for a long time and he is, and will be, furious (his wrath in verse 12, furious in verse 17), even though the end of his story has already been written.
Revelation 12 reminds us that we are in a long battle that we didn’t enlist in, but that we cannot escape from. There has been a long animosity against God and His people. Part of the purpose of the chapter is to help “Christian readers perceive that behind their earthly persecutors stand forces of spiritual evil, led by the devil himself.” But our troubles happen “not because Satan is too powerful for them but because he has been decisively overthrown” (Beale). We have reason to conquer, because who wants to compromise with the loser?
In verses 1-6 we’re introduced to the main characters of the vision, verses 7-12 describe a war between angelic forces, and 13-17 tell us more about persecution.
Two “signs” appear in this paragraph. The word sign is an interpretive clue. Of course not every author needs to be so obvious and point out his analogies, illustrations, and symbols. But repeatedly in Revelation that’s exactly what John does, as here. Those who take Revelation as dominated by symbols put themselves in a corner where these comments about signs are as superfluous as trying to make something more white by pouring bleach on snow.
This great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Does this remind you of anything you’ve heard before?
It’s an image from someone else’s dream, that of Joseph in Genesis 37:9. The Lord showed Joseph a vision of his dad, Israel, as the sun, his mom, Rachel as the moon, and his eleven brothers as stars. With him added as the twelfth, the woman that John sees is not individual female, but God’s chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel. The sign is of a woman as a community.
As a community, Israel longed for the promised child. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains, and the agony of giving birth. The Roman Catholic interpretation takes this as a reference to Mary, but the symbolism of verse 1 doesn’t match. More significantly, the upcoming time in the wilderness and escape from the dragon is too cosmic to describe Egypt, let alone fleeing after the child has ascended to God (verse 4).
Here is one example from the OT where Israel is compared to a pregnant woman:
Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
that pain seized you like a woman in labor?
Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion,
like a woman in labor,
for now you shall go out from the city
and dwell in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued;
there the LORD will redeem you
from the hand of your enemies.
“The Christian community could hardly be the mother of Jesus” (Thomas). The Jewish people longed for their a child, a son, who would be the Prince of Peace, who would rule on the throne of David (Isaiah 9:7). They suffered in many ways, due to their own sin, yes, and also due to their sworn enemy, whom we’re about to meet.
We are only introduced to this character in these verses; there is much more to come.
The first sign was great, this is not a great sign but a sign of a great dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. This is more of a dragon than Bilbo or Eustace encountered. Many ancient cultures had dragon stories (Greek, Hittite, Egyptian, Phoenician, etc.)(Osborne). Daniel described this as a beast out of the sea (Daniel 13:1), and the heads, horns, and diadems will be explained in Revelation 17:9-10.
A fun word fact: the Greek word for dragon is drakon, from which our English word “draconian” comes. There was a 7th century BC Athenian (Greek) man named Draco who wrote laws that were excessively harsh, but his name is from this word referring to a monster with power who devours. (Such draconian measures of the state are on display around us today.)
The woman was actually a group. The dragon could also be taken as a group, except for the further descriptions of him in the following paragraphs. This dragon is “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” He is “the accuser of our brothers” (verse 10). He is the serpent who tempted the first woman, Eve, in Genesis 3.
That he is red probably has less to do with the fires of hell and more to do with the blood of his murderous work. Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “your father, the devil…was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44), referring to the devil’s work through Cain. The dragon’s seven heads are usually understood as seven kingdoms, the ten horns being kings (Revelation 17:12), and the diadems as symbols of his wanna-be power and majesty. Satan uses these dominions, as he used Egypt, Babylon, and Rome.
There are two pieces of his conduct in verse 4. His tail swept down a third of the stars in heaven and cast them to earth. Most take this as the ancient battle where Satan convinced a third of the angels to rebel with him. In verse 7 he does have angels, “the dragon and his angels.” Previously in Revelation stars have been angels, and stars have been stars, and even in verse 1 stars were a symbol of human sons.
It is more than merely astrological display in the sky, and while disagreement is fine, the context of war, devouring, fits with angelic hostilities. This stage in the conflict appears to happen before the birth of the child.
The dragon is also antagonistic toward a child. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.
From Genesis 3 there has been bad blood between the dragon and the woman and the woman’s offspring. The serpent was told that the birth of a son would be his doom (Genesis 3:15). Abel, whom Satan incited Cain to kill, turned out not to be that child. To whatever degree Satan paid attention to God’s Word, he had been anticipating an opportunity to kill his prophesied killer.
The order from Herod to kill all the male children (Matthew 2:16-18), the conspiracies of the Jewish leaders (e.g., Mark 3:6) and up to the crucifixion, the dragon has aimed to win against God’s people. It turns out that he didn’t know what he was doing (see 1 Corinthians 2:8), though that just makes him more angry.
The dragon could not outmaneuver God’s plan. The woman, again as a reference to the community of Israel, not just Mary, gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. Psalm 2 has been referenced multiple times in Revelation, and this is another clear connection. The child was God’s Son, the Lord’s anointed, the seed of the woman. He will rule not just a one-world people, but over many distinct nations.
But her child was caught up to God and to his throne. This skips some key parts, like the crucifixion and resurrection, as it goes from birth to ascension (though some in the East counted one’s birthday as the day of one’s anointing). Regardless, the child lives, and rules with God.
The woman becomes the point of attack. And the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
I’ve come to appreciate a greater connection between “the people of God” as in the chosen and saved, Old and New Testament saints, Jews and Gentiles. They have always been justified by faith the same way, they share one mediator, the Man Jesus Christ. They both are branches with one root (Romans 11:17-18).
But the Gentiles are not the mother community in this sign, and they can’t be brought in now after the child is born. It’s the same “woman.” The woman who flees during this 3 1/2 years is not the church, it is the chosen Israelites, the 144k from the twelve tribes, and it occurs during the time of the two witnesses (Revelation 11:1-3). I believe that this describes a Jewish group of believers during the Great Tribulation, but that has application for all Christians.
The dragon is real, in the character of Satan in the kings and kingdoms he rules through.
The dragon is in ongoing conflict with the woman, Eve, and her offspring, believers in Jesus Christ the son of Abraham, the son of Israel, the son of Judah, the son of David.
The dragon has been outdone. His is a losing character in a well-known narrative arc, one in which his anger continues to fight and seek to devour all those associated with the child. The best he can do is copy, as he attempts with crowns and healing and a mark; he has no creativity of his own. He can only pervert and destroy. He will be conquered.
And they 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. (Revelation 12:11)
Jesus was anointed by God to rule the nations, which is what made the dragon mad. Jesus also promises a share in His reign to those who conquer. Remember His words to Thyatira: “Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my words until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations…even as I have received authority from my Father” (Revelation 2:25-27). Should you be surprised if the dragon is angry at your privilege?
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12–13, ESV)