REVELATION 9 of 16
We’re in Revelation 12 today.
Have you ever been watching a movie,
you’re following the main characters,
you’re captured by the story,
and then in the blink of an eye everything changes?
The screen is filled with animated dancing penguins
because Mary Poppins is teaching the children
how to use their imaginations with sidewalk pictures?
Or the screen suddenly shifts to surreal, mythical animation
as Hermione tells the story of the Deathly Hallows?
Or Iron Man or Spiderman or Captain America—
they can be thinking about a memory—reflecting on the past—
and images of that memory fill the screen.
Usually the lighting or the color palette changes—
maybe it’s in sepia or black and white.
We’ve all seen this, right?
Most of the time we understand a sudden shift
while we’re experiencing stories on a screen:
The storyteller—the directer—
is trying to give us some kind of perspective.
To help us feel what a character is feeling,
to remind us of something in the past,
to shed new light on the story somehow.
Well, John of Patmos doesn’t have
the technology of film or fancy lighting or computer animation
but he DOES have the technology of rhetoric—of words.
In the first 11 chapters of Revelation,
the story that John is telling—
the vision that John is communicating—
has been trucking along in a particular way.
John catches a glimpse of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus (ch1)
that he’s going to write to his churches (ch2-3),
and then is swept backstage of all reality (ch4),
where he sees God’s top-secret plan to save the world (ch5).
That led us into opening that top-secret plan (the seven seals, ch6-7)
and God beginning to answer prayers (the seven trumpets, 8-9)
which finally landed us last week in chapter 10:
With the top-secret, now-opened plan of God
being brought to John on a silver platter, as it were.
An angel brings a “revelation”
from the Lamb—from Jesus Christ—
to John so he can make it known.
Lo and behold—that’s exactly what John told us
his book was about in his opening lines:
He opened the book by describing it as…
(1.1-2) The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
It’s was like last week—in chapters 10 and 11—
was where the real “revelation” of Revelation
actually began in earnest.
We saw that God’s plan to save the world
isn’t meant to be read or intellectually analyzed
or understood at a distance.
God’s plan is meant to ingested—
meant to be eaten, meant to be embodied.
John symbolically acts this out in chapter 10,
and then he immediately tells us a story
that reinforces the point.
He tells us the parable of the two witnesses—
of what happens when two or three are gathered as Jesus’s people:
In a nutshell he says that when
a community of people faithfully point to Jesus
and embody his love to the point of death,
It’s more powerful than all the plagues of Egypt.
Sacrificial love and witness can do accomplish
fear and judgment alone never could.
Love to the point of death has the power to change people’s lives.
That’s the “revelation” of Revelation.
That’s the challenge of Revelation.
You churches who are facing persecution,
you Christians who are tempted to give up on Jesus,
don’t walk away from the faith.
Don’t abandon Jesus.
Don’t compromise with a world full of evil.
Cling to Jesus—even when it’s hard.
Point to Jesus—even when it’s painful.
The Lamb loves to the point of death
and that’s what you’re invited to as well.
So that’s where we are right now in Revelation…
we’re just finished chapter 11
and we’re moving in to chapter 12.
That parable of the church witnessing to the world
for a symbolic period of time in history,
ended last week hearing the seventh trumpet sound.
In verse 15 of chapter 11, the final trumpet sounds.
It’s like once the Church follows Jesus
in his love to the point of death,
But that’s kind of weird:
it’s like the final judgment of God
arrived in the middle of Revelation.
So… what exactly is the rest of this book about?
The final judgment arrived in chapter 11,
but we’ve still got 11 chapters to go.
Well, the next few chapters are basically
John circling back around and exploring
that parable of the two witnesses—the life of Church—
a little more fully.
John is a master storyteller—
in the ranks of Scorsese or Spielberg or Walt Disney—
and as we enter chapter 12,
John employing all his story-telling skills
in service of God’s Spirit.
He’s changing the color palette,
the style and lighting has shifted,
and suddenly on the screen we see
something like surreal, mythical animation:
(12.1-17) 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
John’s transition into chapter 12 is like
a live-action film suddenly shifting into animation.
The language is exaggerated and cartoonish—
it’s the language of symbol and myth.
We’re introduced to a dazzling Woman (v1-2)
and a terrifying Dragon (v3-4)
and then—towards the end of the chapter—
we find something almost like a Roadrunner cartoon.
Does anyone remember those?
Wiley Coyote does everything he can to catch the Roadrunner—
he hatches all kinds of ingenious, diabolical schemes—
but no matter how he tries, it doesn’t work.
Everything is conspiring against the Wiley Coyote.
The Roadrunner always gets away.
That’s what verse 13-16 sound like.
The dragon tries to catch the woman (v13)—
she’s given eagle wings (v14)1
and flies to a safe place in the wilderness.
The dragon tries sweeping away the woman away (v15)
with a flood of chaos and water from his mouth,2
but a sinkhole swallows the flood (v16).
It’s so exaggerated that it’s kind of comical.
A bit like Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner,
it’s like the laws of the universe and even the earth itself
are working against The Dragon.
Everything is on the side of The Woman.
There’s a cartoonish, dreamlike quality
to the next few chapters.
And then around chapter 15 it’s like
these larger-than-life animated characters—
a dragon and a woman and monsters—merge with the main story.
Maybe it’s the equivalent of
computer animation mixed with live action.
I think John—the master storyteller—
is trying to give us some kind of perspective.
He’s telling a story that we’re all familiar with.
The story a child destined to destroy evil
being threatened at birth is a popular story.
The most popular modern example is Harry Potter.
Harry Potter is the Chosen One destined
to destroy the evil snake-like Voldemort
and protected by the powerful, ancient magic of love
until he’s old enough to it.
The most popular ancient example is the story of Apollo.
All seven of John’s churches in first-century Asia Minor
would have been familiar with the story.
The goddess Leto was pregnant with Zeus’s son, Apollo—
destined to kill the great dragon Python.
And so the Great Dragon Python attacks the goddess Leto
but Zeus carries her away on the wind
and Poseidon hides her on an under-water island for four days
until Apollo is born and ready to slay the dragon.3
Evidently Apollo had a really fast
(one would think really painful)
It’s a popular symbolic story
and John tells us as much in verses 1 and 3:
The Woman and The Dragon—we’re told that they’re signs.
They’re symbols for something.
For John’s churches familiar with the Old Testament,
these symbols evoke something the Garden of Eden—
of Eve and the Serpent.
The symbolism of The Woman and The Dragon
stirs up the earliest memories of the biblical witness
and stirs up the earliest hopes that evil would be crushed one day (cf. Gen 3.15).
But there’s one thing in the story
that John doesn’t say is symbolic:
There’s a male child (v5) born to rule the nations.
That male child isn’t a sign or symbol for anything.
He’s the literal real deal.
John is talking about a real person whom people knew.
John is talking about Jesus (v17).
John is telling his own version of this popular story
with one extraordinary difference:
He says that it’s true.
In the language of C.S. Lewis,
in Jesus we find the myth that really happened.
John is retelling this popular story
about a person still in living memory.
Jesus only appears for a flash in verse 5,
and then he is “snatched up to heaven”
It’s like the entire life of Jesus—all four gospels—
fit squarely and neatly into verse 5.
So—really—what we find in Revelation 12 is the Christmas story.
It’s just the Christmas story in the strangest way we’ve ever heard it.
Obviously this is not a literal telling of the birth of Jesus.
Mary the mother of Jesus
was not literally chased by a dragon
through a desert after Jesus’s birth.
There are some parts that reflect historical events—
like Jesus being threatened before his birth (Matt 2)—
but this is a highly symbolic, high stylized telling of the story.
It seems like The Woman
is something like the people of God.
It’s like daughter Zion or virgin Israel or the bride of Yahweh—
all ways that God talks about his people in the Old Testament—
suddenly the Daughter Zion
find herself as the mother of God.
That’s the great and sacred mystery of the Christian faith:
that God himself would choose to become human.
To become one of is own people.
God did this through a particular literal woman named Mary,
yes, that’s true enough.
But to really understand what happened—
if you want to get perspective on the coming of Jesus
and the story that we’re still living in—
then you have to tell the story like this.
The arrival of Jesus has won a war (v7-12).4
With the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus,
you might say that the armies of heaven—
led by Michael from Daniel’s visions5—
have defeated the forces of evil.
We call the Enemy of Life lots of things (v9):
The dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil, Satan—
that sub-personal hole in the universe
who leads the whole world astray.
But the point is this:
the Enemy of Life has lost.
Heaven has conquered Hell.
God has written himself into the story—
birthed himself into his own people—
and defeated darkness from the inside.
The Dragon has lost his place (v8)—the forces of evil are defeated.
I’m not sure this story
is pointing us to WHEN exactly evil was defeated,
as much as it is saying that evil IS defeated.
The five dollar way of saying it
is that this story is less about chronology (when it happened)
and more about ontology (that it HAS happened).
The Dragon HAS been hurled down (v7-9)—evil HAS been defeated—
but now (v13) The Woman—the people of God—are on the run.
We’re back to the Roadrunner cartoon.
The Dragon is chasing The Woman
but—in an ultimate sense—cannot destroy her.
The people of God are in the wilderness
for a symbolic period of time
but they’re safe.
Safe from any kind of ultimate harm.6
This symbolic time period
is the same period symbolic period of time
that the two witnesses testify to Jesus (cf. 11.2-3).
That’s because chapter 12
is a different way of looking at chapter 11.
The people of God always seem
to have to spend time in the wilderness
before they enter the promised land.
The chapter ends by saying that
The Woman is safe but her offspring are in danger (v17).
We’re told that The Dragon storms off
to “wage war against [The Woman’s] offspring.”
We don’t have to guess who the offspring are:
the Church’s children are individual Christians:
“Those who keep God’s commands
and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”
The Church—the people of God—are safe in an ultimate sense,
but individual communities and Christians are still under fire.
The war is won—but battles are still raging.
The chapter leaves us holding our breath:
Despite the ultimate victory,
The Dragon is still waging war—
what does this war look like?
Well, that’s where John is going to take us in chapter 13.
But today, as we come to the table,
maybe John’s majestic, mythic animated images
can give us some perspective on our own lives.
Perspective when life is hard
and the battle feels lost.
It’s easy to feel lost when life is hard.
It’s not that life just FEELS hard,
or our circumstances LOOK terrible—
A lot times I think
Christians can shy away
from admitting hard life can be.
No—life IS hard—our circumstances ARE terrible.
John himself is writing his letter from an island prison
likely dealing with isolation and feelings of helplessness
as the people he loves—think of names and faces and friends and children—
are facing everything from an overwhelming river of lies about them
to physical attacks and persecution.
When John thinks of his friends in Pergamum
he hurts and aches remembering that his friend Antipas
has recently died for the sake of Jesus (2.13).
There is an Enemy at work in our world.
Life is a unspeakable, beautiful, sacred gift,
but life is also legitimately, actually, frequently hard.
But for John, the life of Jesus grants him perspective
when life is hard and the battle feels lost.
Christians don’t deny The Dragon—
we shouldn’t be quick to chalk up every hardship and detail
of our lives or other people’s lives to the will of God.
Suffering is not God’s will. Addiction is not God’s will.
War and hatred are not God’s will. Anger and fear are not God’s will.
When you see those things
you don’t see the work of The Lamb
you see the work of The Dragon.
Christians don’t deny The Dragon—
but we do deny The Dragon’s victory.
The Dragon has been defeated.
God himself in the person of Jesus
has defeated The Dragon.
Take heart, my brothers and sisters.
Hear the story of Jesus and know this:
Your life is part of something bigger
than your hardship or circumstances.
You’re living in a fairytale
where dragons do exist.
And you’re also living in a fairytale
where the kingdom will live happily ever after.
There is a day coming
when anger and hatred and war and suffering
will be only a memory.
But until that day, the Enemy of Life
is flailing about and lashing out
because he knows (v12) he’s running out of time.
May the story of Jesus
grant you perspective,
May you cling to Jesus—
cling to him above all else,
and know that he clings to you.
and may your life embody his Love to the point of death
because that’s the life (v11) the Enemy cannot kill and cannot stop.
and may God give you faith to trust
that the war is won, that The Dragon is dying, that you are safe.
- John’s imagery has overtones of the history of God’s people (Exodus 19.4) and the future God’s people (the new exodus/rescue promised in Isaiah 40.31).
- The torrential water (a symbol of chaos in Revelation) seems to perhaps be symbolic of chaotic lies (cf. 12.9) and accusations (cf. 12.10) flowing from the the Accuser.
- G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC, 624.
- In light of other apocalyptic writings, G.K. Beale argues that verse 7-12 “are the heavenly counterpart of the earthly events recorded in vv 1-6” (650).
- Michael is the frequent heavenly representation of God’s people in Daniel (10.13, 21; 12.1) as well other ancient traditions.
- The image of “The Woman” being ultimately safe (12.13-17) but “her offspring” being in temporary danger (12.17) parallels the “inner court” of the Temple being ultimately safe (11.1) but “the outer court” (11.2) being in temporary danger. The Woman, The Temple, The Holy City (also 11.2, cf. 21.12-14, 21), and the Two Witnesses (11.3-12) all seem to be parallel, kaleidoscopic images for God’s people.