The Fairytale That’s True
Have you ever been watching a movie—you’re following the main characters, you’re captured by the story—when suddenly, in the blink of an eye, everything changes? The literal appearance, I mean. The movie looked one way, but suddenly it looks different?
The screen suddenly fills with animated dancing penguins as Mary Poppins teaches the children how to use their imaginations with sidewalk pictures? Or spooky, surreal animation descends as Hermione tells the legend of the Deathly Hallows? Or cloudy, black-and-white images float into view as Captain America’s memories fill the screen.
Most of watch movies. We’ve all seen this. If a movie does it well, we don’t usually an abrupt change in storytelling to give us new perspective. The storyteller (the director) probably wants to changes to help us feel what a character is feeling or fill in backstory or shed new light somehow. It’s often accompanied by a change in lighting or color palette or film style to let the audience know something has changed. Most us are familiar with creative storytelling, and most of us appreciate it.
Well, John of Patmos doesn’t have the modern technology of film or fancy lighting or computer animation. But he does possess an incredibly reliable piece of technology: the technology of rhetoric. Words—the magic of storytelling before the magic of Hollywood.
For the first eleven chapters of Revelation, John’s has been expressing the vision he experienced with a fairly consistent storytelling style. His story has trucked along in a steady (if unfamiliar to us) sort of way. It might be a strange film to watch, but had a certain kind of flow.
John caught a glimpse of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus (ch1) urging him to write to his churches (ch2-3) before finding himself swept backstage of all reality (ch4) where he sees God’s top-secret plan to save the world (ch5). That was the way the book starts.
This setup led into an action-packed sequence of opening God’s top-secret plan of salvation (ch6-7, “the seven seals”) and eventually into more nail-biting scenes of God beginning to answer the prayers of his people (ch8-9, “the seven trumpets”). This climaxed with the now-opened plan of God brought to John on a silver platter (ch10).
Lo and behold—that’s exactly what John told us his book was about in his opening lines. He opened what he’s writing 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.
Revelation 10-11 are where the story takes off—where the chief “revelation” of Revelation begins in earnest. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” seems to be twofold: God loves the world to the point of death, and God invites the church to participate with him in this love. That’s the secret plan of God to save. And it can’t be intellectually analyzed or examined at a distance. God’s plan has to be ingested. It must be eaten. It’s meant to be embodied.
John symbolically acts this out this eating (ch10) but then immediately tells a parable to communicate the point—the two witnesses.
This biblical remix offers a stylized picture of what happens when a community of people faithfully point to Jesus and embody his love to the point of death. When this happens, it’s more powerful than all the plagues of Egypt. Sacrificial love and witness accomplish what fear and coercion never could. Love to the point of death can change lives.
This is the “revelation” of Revelation.
Love to the point of death is the good news of Revelation.
You are loved. By God. To the point of death.
Love to the point of death is the invitation of Revelation.
Join God’s life. Join this love.
To the point of death.
John is saying, “You churches who are facing persecution, you Christians who are tempted to give up on Jesus, don’t walk away from your 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. Remember love to the point of death.”
We might not understand all of the movie’s plot structure or symbolism, but there’s been a flow. It’s all felt pretty consistent.
Chapter 11 ends with the seventh trumpet sounding (11v15). God gives the final answer to prayer, and it sounds like history has ended. Like history is over. People sing about the arrival of the end like it’s already here (11v16-18). It’s kind of weird… like the final judgment of God arrived in the middle of Revelation. As if once the Church joins Jesus in his love to the point of death, history ends.
What exactly is the rest of this book about? The final judgment seems to arrive in chapter 11, but there are still 11 more chapters left.
Well, the next few chapters are basically see John circling back around and exploring that parable of the two witnesses—the role of the church in the world—from a few different angles.
John is a master storyteller (in the ranks of filmmakers like or Steven Spielberg or Wes Anderson or Walt Disney) and as we enter chapter 12, John employs all his story-telling skills in service of God’s Spirit. His color palette changes, and the lighting shifts. The style becomes exaggerated and cartoonish with sweeping mythic-kind-of-language. It feels like a sudden switch from a live-action film into animation
As we begin Revelation 12 John’s story suddenly starts resembling something like a exaggerated, mythical cartoon. We’re introduced a couple of new characters: a dazzling Woman (12v1-2) and a terrifying Dragon (12v3-4). And towards the end of the chapter we find something almost like a Roadrunner cartoon.
You remember those cartoons, right? Wiley Coyote does everything he can to catch the Roadrunner, hatching all kinds of ingenious, diabolical schemes. But no matter how he tries, it never works. Everything—often even the laws of physics—conspire against the Wiley Coyote. The Roadrunner always gets away.
That the kind of story John tells. Scholars think this to be an almost a bit of comic relief from John.
The Dragon tries to catch the Woman (v13)—but she’s given eagle wings (v14), flying away to a safe place in the wilderness. So the dragon tries sweeping away the woman away (v15) with a flood of chaos and water from his mouth, but a sinkhole swallows the flood (v16). It’s like has sided with this Woman. Everything including the earth itself conspire against The Dragon.
Looking ahead, John will weave these new larger-than-life animated characters—a Dragon and a Woman (ch12) and Monsters (ch13)—back into his main story around Revelation 15. He return to his primary storytelling style and one last cycle of sevens… but with these over-the-top characters thrown into the mix. Maybe it’s the ancient equivalent of CGI special effects.
John, the master storyteller, is trying to give us some kind of perspective with the exaggerated, dreamlike, cartoonish quality of the next few chapters. He wants us reflecting on the reality of the faithful witness of the church from different angles. He wants to give us a deeper sense of its like—its magnitude and importance, its scope and significance, its daring and danger.
And so John begins by telling a story that we’re all familiar with. It’s a popular story, a child destined to destroy evil being threatened at birth. A popular story because its such a good story.Countless versions of this story have circulated through the centuries, with the most popular modern retelling being Harry Potter. Millions of readers were swept up in the story of “The Boy Who Lived,” destined to destroy the evil snake-like Voldemort and protected by the ancient magic of love until he’s old enough to do it.
If Harry Potter is the most popular modern retelling of the story, the most popular ancient retelling is the story of Apollo. We talk about Harry Potter, they talk about Apollo. All seven of John’s churches in first-century Asia Minor would have been familiar with this story. The goddess Leto was pregnant with Zeus’s son, Apollo, the baby destined to kill the great dragon Python. And so the Great Dragon Python attacks Leto, but Zeus carries her away on the wind and enlists his brother, Poseidon, to hide her on an underwater island for four days. Four days is long enough for Apollo to born and ready to slay the dragon. (One can’t imagine how rough Apollo’s puberty must have been.)
It’s such a popular, compelling story that John retells. He immediately signals us that he knows he’s telling a mythic, symbolic story. Because as he introduces these new characters—The Woman and The Dragon—he immediately tells us they’re symbolic (12v1,3). They’re signs. They signify something.
For John’s listeners familiar with the Old Testament, these symbols evoke something the Garden of Eden—of Eve and the Serpent. Read in that light of that story, this symbolism stirs up primal hopes. John tells a story that evokes the earliest memories of the biblical witness and its earliest promises that evil will be vanquished.
How has hope arrived? How has evil been vanquished? The tale of the heroic, chosen baby may tell a smashing story and be smashing entertainment… but that’s what stories do. What makes John’s story any different from the mythic sagas of the ancient campfire or the modern silver screen?
Well, there’s one character John doesn’t call symbolic: the male child born to rule the nations (12v5). Rather significantly, this child born to vanquish evil isn’t called “a sign.” He’s not an apocalyptic cipher or a mythic image pointing to something else. This baby is the literal real deal. He’s not a sign pointing to anything. The signs all serve him.
Lest we think of John as a postmodern spiritualist gesturing vaguely to a general, unknowable redemption somewhere in the universe, we should recognize that John names this child. He joins the great cloud of witnesses pointing to a Galilean rabbi. The story we’re telling is the story of Jesus (12v17). John is telling a sweeping, mythic story about a person in living memory—a person someone in his churches may have glimpsed or met when they were a child.
Mythic language is helpful in communicating the gravity of the church’s good news, but our hope grows from a scandalously particular historic reality. We can looking forward in real hope because we look backwards and name a particular person… Jesus of Nazareth.
John drafts his own version of a popular epic with one extraordinary difference: he insists that it’s true. True with no artificial divisions. Both spiritually and physically true. Both eternally and historically true. To borrow the language of C.S. Lewis, in Jesus we find the myth that really happened.
Jesus gets named at the end of this episode, but only appears within it for a flash (12v5). It feels a bit like human history a bit. Jesus only arrives for the blink of a few decades before he ascends to heaven. It’s like the entire life of Jesus—his birth, growth, life, teaching, healing, miracles, suffering, death, resurrection—all four the New Testament’s gospels—it all fits neatly between “she gave birth to a son” and “child was snatched up” in verse 5.
Revelation 12 tells the Christmas story. It’s just the strangest Christmas story ever told. Obviously John doesn’t give us a literal rendering of Jesus’s birth. No Christian thinks Mary (the literal mother of Jesus) literally dodged fireballs of a literal dragon in a literal desert. Some parts of this telling may reflect historical memories—like Jesus being threatened at the time of his birth—but overall this is a mythic, highly stylized telling of the story.
If you want to start understanding what happened in the life of Jesus—if you want to get perspective on the coming of Jesus and what kind of world and story we’re still living in—if you want to tell the truth, at some point you have to tell the story like this.
The arrival of Jesus has changed the world. His birth has a won a war (12v7-12). With the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus, you could say that the armies of heaven—led by the angel Michael from Daniel’s visions—have defeated the forces of evil. The Author of Life has written himself into the story, birthed himself into his own people, and defeated darkness from the inside. In God’s decision to do this, the Dragon has lost his place (12v8). The forces of evil are defeated. If we want to tell the truth about Christmas, sometimes we’ve got to follow John’s example and talk like this.
In John’s telling of the story, it seems like The Woman symbolizes more than a literal person. God did choose this through a particular literal woman named Mary, but this story aims bigger than that.Because with the language used to describe her, this Woman seems to embody something like the people of God.
It’s like daughter Zion or virgin Israel, or the bride of Yahweh—all ways that the Old Testament talks about God’s people—suddenly find herself becoming the mother of God. The symbols point to a literal people more more than a literal person. The central to the sacred mystery of the Christian faith is that God chooses to identify with and literally become one of his own people. Salvation is an inside job.
God does this to defeat all the powers that oppose his life-giving reign. We call this mysterious enemy of Life lots of things (12v9): the dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil, Satan. Whatever we call this sub-personal hole in the universe that leads the whole world astray, the point is this: the enemy has lost. Heaven has conquered hell.
When did this shattering defeat happen? This story seems to tell us less about when evil was defeated and more that it is defeated. A five-dollar way of saying this would be that this story is less about chronology (when it happened) and more about ontology (that it HAS happened). Because of Jesus, the Dragon has been hurled down (v7-9). Evil has been defeated.
But if that’s the case, why does the world feel the way it does? I mean, the Woman—the people of God—find themselves on the run.
We’re back to Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote.
The Dragon chases the Woman but cannot harm her—at least in some kind of ultimate sense. 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. For whatever mysterious reason (the building faith, the formation of souls, etc) patient waiting in the wilderness is central to being part of God’s people who will enter the promised land.
This short episode ends by telling us that the Woman is safe, but her offspring are in danger. The Dragon, furious that he can’t destroy the Woman herself, storms off to “wage war against the rest of her offspring.” Thankfully there is no guesswork required at this point: the Church’s children are individual Christians: “Those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (12v17).
Despite an ultimate defeat, the Dragon still lashes about. The war is won, but battles still rage. The people of God are safe in an ultimate sense, but individual communities and Christians are under fire. The chapter leaves us holding our breath: what do these battles and skirmishes look like? That’s where John is going to take us in chapter 13.
But before we get there, perhaps John’s majestic, mythic animated images can grant us some perspective on our own lives. Perspective when life is hard, when the battle feels lost.
John writes his letter from an island prison dealing with profound isolation. He likely struggles with feelings of helplessness as the people he loves—particular names and faces, friends and children—face everything from an overwhelming river of lies about them (12v15) to physical attacks and persecution. When John remembers his friends in Pergamum, he aches remembering that his friend Antipas has recently died for the sake of Jesus (2v13).
It’s easy to feel lost when life is brutal. Not simply that life feels hard, or our circumstances look terrible. Those who follow Jesus can sometimes shy away from admitting how hard life can be. Somewhere we think calling things “evil” or “awful” or “terrible” to somehow be blow to Jesus’s lordship or God’s sovereignty.
We should be slow to chalk suffering up to the will of God. There are more wills at work in the universe than God’s. There is an enemy. Christians deny the victory of the Dragon, but we don’t deny the will or work of the Dragon.
Pain is not God will. Neither is addiction or war or hatred. Hatred, anxiety, fear… none of these things come from God. Sin is not God’s will. When we see those things you don’t see the work of the Lamb… we see the work of the Dragon.
The limitless power and creativity of God’s “inside job” of salvation does indeed transform the enemy’s schemes, judo-flipping them to good. Our self-inflicted pain becomes a way of making us more loving. Our addiction becomes a source of empathy for others. Our tragedy gets transfigured into a source a beauty and hope for others… and maybe one day even ourselves. But not everything we experience in this world is the will of God. Christians have a term for all things being the will of God… the term is “heaven.”
This episode grant us perspective by giving us permission to use the word “and.”
Life is brutal right now AND there is a God will make all things beautiful.
Circumstances are evil right now AND Jesus reigns.
Evil has happened AND God is love.
Life is an unspeakable, beautiful, sacred gift AND life is also legitimately, actually, frequently hard.
We don’t have to reconcile “God is Love” with “God as the mastermind of every bit of pain and suffering in the world.” There is room mystery—the mystery of an Enemy at work. There is room to read life like a fairytale.
Take heart, my brothers and sisters. Hear the story of King Jesus and know this: Your life is part of something bigger than your hardship or circumstances. You’re living in a world where dragons do exist AND where they are defeated. You have been born into a fairytale where the kingdom will live happily ever after. For a day is coming when anger and hatred, war and suffering will be only a memory. God’s will will come on earth as it is in heaven.
May your true story, Jesus, grant me perspective. Teach me to cling to you above all else, and give me faith to realize how you cling to me. May my life participate in your love and life that cannot be killed and cannot be stopped. In the midst of pain, help me see that the war is won, that The Dragon is dying, that happily ever after is real.