(A sermon based on Revelation 12 for Sunday, August 16, 2009)
Here we have clear evidence that the book of Revelation is not a chronological presentation of the unfolding of events. For here in the middle of the book, at chapter 12, we have a symbolic presentation of the meaning of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a life and ministry that predated the writing of the book of Revelation. The reasons that John emphasizes that past event are clear. First, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are absolutely foundational and crucial to everything that we are and do as Christians. Second, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were important to the generation of Christians to whom John was writing because his victory was the basis for their victory.
The symbolism in this chapter is very powerful. John sees “portents,” or signs. One is a woman, the other is a dragon. The woman represents the people of God. That is, she represents the faithful and believing people of God who expected, longed for, and finally produced the Messiah. Her birth pangs and her agony of giving birth picture the difficulties that God’s people went through as the coming of the Messiah was awaited. The dragon represents Satan. The seven heads and ten horns represent the kingdoms and earthly powers through which Satan does his work of persecuting Christians.
In the thought world of Revelation, as in other places in the Bible, what happens on earth to God’s people has a heavenly counterpart. That is the probable meaning of v. 4, “his tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.” Obviously, a third of the stars of heaven cannot be thrown to the earth. A collision with just one large asteroid would irreparably harm our planet; collision with one small star would obliterate it. The stars represent the angelic counterparts of God’s people. When God’s people are persecuted, it has effects even in heaven.
So Satan persecuted and assailed the people of God with the goal of stopping the ministry of the Messiah. He wanted to “devour” the child. This could be referring to the attempts of Herod to have the child Jesus killed. More likely it includes that event but is not limited to it. Satan did everything he could to stop Jesus from doing what he came to do. But Satan could not stop his birth, he could not stop his life, and he could not stop his ministry. Finally, Satan thought that he had won because his forces, the oppressive forces of Jesus’ day, executed Jesus. But he was resurrected and ascended to heaven, and there was nothing Satan could do about it. Defeat was turned into victory. The Messiah took his rightful place because of his victorious death and resurrection.
Meanwhile, “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days” (v. 6). Like Israel of old fled into the wilderness to escape the persecution of the Egyptians, so here the wilderness stands for the protection of the church. So the woman going into the wilderness paints the same picture as the sealing of the 144,000 and the measuring of the temple. God’s people are protected from ultimate spiritual harm. “One thousand two hundred sixty days” is the symbolic number for the entire period of persecution, or the entire period of Christian history.
Satan, of course, did not like the fact that Jesus Christ had won the victory despite Satan’s best efforts to stop him. And so “war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (v. 7). In Jewish writings Michael typically represents Israel. Here he represents the new Israel, the church. The meaning of this symbolic “war” is that Jesus, through his death, put an end to the grounds that Satan had for accusing the people of God.
We must think some about what the role of Satan had been before the time of Christ. He appears in the Old Testament as the accuser of God’s people, trying to find grounds for them to be rejected (see the books of Job and Zechariah). When Revelation says that Satan and his angels have been cast down to the earth, it means to say that he can’t cause trouble for us in heaven so he must do it all on earth now. You see, Jesus has paid the price that we should pay for our sins. Therefore, Satan finally has nothing on us. So, he has no influence in heaven as he once did.
This meaning of the vision is made clear by the proclamation of the “loud voice” in vv. 10-12. Look at what v. 10 says:
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 comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.
The authority of Jesus as Messiah was established by all that he did, but especially by his death, resurrection, and ascension. That made our salvation possible and the establishment of the kingdom clear. As a result, Satan has lost his grounds for accusation. We are saved by what Jesus did, and there is nothing Satan can do about that. The words of v. 11 are very important here.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death
This is the literal way in which the war in heaven was fought and won. Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross and thereby paid the price for all the sins of which Satan could accuse us. True Christian believers participate in the death of Jesus by their own faithfulness. John speaks here especially of the martyrs who had given and who would give their lives for their faith. But this is important for all of us: we have an adequate and conquering word of testimony when we love Christ more than we love our own lives. Victory over Satan was won by the death of Christ, and it continues to be won when we who belong to Christ live sacrificially to the point of giving our own lives.
Verse 12 continues to explain the meaning of John’s vision in this chapter.
Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!
We have here an explanation for why the devil continues to cause so much trouble for us even when we are Christians. He has been defeated but is still given liberty to wreak havoc here on earth. So, he is going to take full advantage of that time. We sing that “we’ll work ‘til Jesus comes,” but so does Satan—only he means that he will work for himself, trying to torment and persecute Christians for as long as he can. As G. K. Beale has put it,
Christians can be assured that the serpent begins to battle against their bodies only after he has lost the battle over their souls. This expresses one of the major themes of the book: the suffering of Christians is a sign, not of Satan’s victory, but of the saints’ victory over Satan because of their belief in the triumph of the cross, with which their suffering identifies them. [The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 663]
So we should not take Satan’s assaults on us as an indicator that he might win; we should take them as proof that he has lost. Having no authority or rights in heaven, he cannot hurt our souls. He can only hurt our bodies, and such hurt has no eternal consequences.
Verses 13-17 continue the theme of Satan’s persecution of the church and God’s protection of it. Exodus language is employed to say that like God protected Israel from Pharoah, so he will protect the church from the devil. Finally and spiritually, Satan cannot hurt us. During the Exodus God took threatening water and turned it into an instrument of victory. Here God protects the church. What, then, is the meaning of v. 17: “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” What does it mean for the “woman” to be protected but for her children to be persecuted? I agree with Beale, who says that the meaning is that the “one heavenly church” cannot finally be conquered, “but the many who individually compose the church can suffer physically from earthly dangers” (p. 677.
When all is said and done, what does this chapter say to us today? After all, I have said that we must look for what is helpful to Christians if we are to find John’s true meaning. Chapter 12 is all about victory. Satan has been defeated. He was defeated by the sacrificial death of our Savior and he continues to be defeated by the sacrificial lives of Christian. By living sacrificially, even being willing to die for our faith, we contribute to the defeat of Satan. He has already lost his heavenly privileges; now, like a pathetic little troublemaker, all he can do is cause earthly powers that oppose the church to harm us physically. Our proper reaction to that is, “So what!” We are ultimately safe and secure in heaven. Today and every day, let us celebrate the victory won by Christ through his blood.