My daily commute takes me each day into London’s Victoria station. When I’m not writing these notes for the following Sunday I pick up one of the free papers on offer: the Metro in the morning (which I only now and again read – mornings are better for work!) and the London Evening Standard (which I almost always pick up). It’s good to keep up with what’s going
on and I often surprise my family with my wide and varied Evening Standard-informed knowledge: today Pixie Lott plans her stage role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the Scottish Nationalists plan to vote on the extra runway for London (even if it’s nothing to do with them!) and Sepp Blatter gets a fist full of dollars. What rather saddens me is the amount of bad news in the papers: today the front page headline tells of a young man of 28 years who was stabbed death in London. The world is both a great place, full of life and excitement and a truly dreadful place. This is exactly what we ought to expect: it’s God’s creation spoiled by sin, but worse than that, it’s a world under Satan’s influence. Revelation tells us how the wrongs in this world will be righted. Chapter 12 gives us a remarkable behind-the-scenes insight into the conflict between Satan and God.
1. The woman and the dragon
Our previous neighbour was George; I don’t recall his wife’s name as he simply referred to them both as ‘George and the dragon.’ Here in chapter 12 we meet three characters: a woman, a dragon and a child. Before we go any further we need to take note of something John says right at the start: ‘A great sign appeared in heaven.’ Up until now, John simply described what he saw and what he saw seemed to be an accurate picture of future events being played out. At times John struggles to describe what he sees, but that’s his task; to simply write down what he sees. But now, he says ‘a sign appeared.’ I think we can fairly safely proceed taking the view that the sign is symbolic of reality. The sign and the drama being played out will therefore require some interpretation on our part, but John is quite careful not to leave us in too much doubt as to the identity of the key players. The dragon John refers to as ‘that ancient snake called the devil, or Satan,’ that’s pretty clear, but what about the woman? John describes her as being clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and twelve stars on her head. The elements of sun, moon and 12 stars have been mentioned before in the bible. It was a young (and probably rather annoying) Joseph who had a dream in which he dreamt that the sun, the moon and 11 stars were bowing down to him! – one can begin to imagine why his brothers were not his greatest fans! Joseph’s father, Jacob acknowledged that the sun was himself, the moon his wife Rachel and the stars were Joseph’s 11 brothers. These three celestial features are clearly not mentioned in connection with this woman for fun, so what is the connection? Just before he made his peace with his brother Esau, Jacob ‘wrestled with God’ and during that encounter was told to adopt the name Israel. I think we can take it that this woman represents Israel and we will see that this fits the other events described by John rather well. In the sign, the woman was pregnant and about to give birth. Interestingly the nation of Israel is several times likened to a woman in labour. Having described the woman, John now describes the dragon: it’s red, enormous and has seven heads, 7 seven crowns and 10 horns! What a strange and terrifying beast. We will look more closely at the 7 heads and 10 horns in later chapters, but for now we cans see that this sign representing Satan is a powerful and is a formidable foe. The dragon takes up a position in front of the woman and his intention is to ‘devour the child the moment he was born.’ This reminds us of the actions of Herod. He was king in Israel and was visited by the Magi from the East who were following the star to visit the new king Jesus. Herod attempted to kill Jesus whilst he was still a baby. The devil is opposed to God and seeks to frustrate and sabotage his plans at every turn. You will remember that right back in the Garden of Eden, it was the serpent who was cursed by God. God told the serpent “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." Satan was well aware that his enemy was Jesus, the seed of the woman Israel – Satan attempted to take the life of Jesus right at birth. Interestingly the enmity of Satan is directed towards the woman and is furthermore between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent. We will meet the offspring of the serpent as we work through Revelation. It will be the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. The Hebrew word for head speaks of ‘headship’ and has the idea of rule. It’s the right to rule that is being fought over in this great unveiling.
We’ve already worked out the identity of the child, but John refers to him as ‘a male child, who will rule the nations with an iron sceptre.’ John is quoting Psalm 2. The Messiah will be installed as King on Zion and from there he will rule the nations. It will be a rule of justice and righteousness. The present rule by Satan will come to an end, but there is a battle to be fought before the rightful king is installed.
2. War in heaven
It seems strange to us that Satan should have access to heaven. We’ve been studying the book of Job and we have discovered that Satan does indeed have access to heaven and speaks with God. He seems to spend his access time accusing ‘the brothers and sisters.’ (more of that in a moment). As this great story of the triumph and rule of good over evil unfolds we learn that there is war in heaven! Michael and his angels are up against the dragon and his angels. Interestingly Michael was described to Daniel as ‘the great prince who protects your people.’ It seems that Michael’s task is to stand up for Israel: there really is enmity between the serpent (Satan) and the woman (Israel)! The war in heaven could only have one outcome: Michael triumphs and Satan and his angels are ejected from heaven to the earth. Here’s how John describes this event: ‘The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient snake called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth and his angels with him.’ This incident sets up the scene for the next major section of Revelation.
You will recall that John is observing these signs from the perspective of Heaven and now he hears a loud voice. The voice reaffirms that the kingdom is God’s and the authority belongs to the Messiah! Now Satan no longer has access to heaven and no longer can accuse. One can imagine Satan’s usual role as accuser. He will name you and me and will point out to God our failings, he will describe no doubt our wicked thoughts, our sinful actions, every detail will doubtless be brought before God. Sadly sometimes we as Christians are pretty good at pointing out everyone else’s failings too. Let’s not do Satan’s work for him! The problem with these accusations of Satan is that he is absolutely correct! We have so many failings and so many faults and sins, and no doubt God will agree with Satan that we are both guilty and deserving of punishment. But God will point out to Satan that we are now ‘in Christ’ – we are clothed with his righteousness and the price for sin has been paid in full! The mud does not stick! The accuser fails.
The removal of Satan from heaven is a good thing for heaven but not so good for the earth! The loud voice says: ‘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 his time is short!’ This theatre for the war is now restricted to the earth, and things in this final seven year period are going to get very hot indeed as the devil concentrates his efforts on earthly domination. Remember that the church by this time has been ‘caught up’ to meet the Lord in the air. God has not left the earth without representatives: there are the two witnesses, the 144,000 servants.
3. The Pursuit of the woman
Satan is well aware that Israel is integral to God’s plans to eject him from this world. When Jesus returns to this earth he will not come to London or New York or Paris or Tokyo, he will come to Jerusalem. When he sets up his kingdom he will not sit on the throne in Buckingham palace or take up residency in the White House or Downing Street, he will sit on David’s throne. Even (as we will see at the end of Revelation) when there is a new Heaven and Earth there is a flavour of Israel: there will be a New Jerusalem with 12 gates, each named after one of the tribes of Israel. Satan’s strategy is thus to do all in his power to remove Israel from the picture. This has seemingly been his desire all through history; from Haman to Adolf Hitler and in our day it’s not at all hard to find groups of people who hate the Jews too and are sympathetic to their annihilation.
John sees the dragon in pursuit of the woman. But God is with the woman and John records that ‘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 snake’s reach.’ Given the use of ‘signs’ in this part of Revelation it’s not really possible to say exactly what having two eagle’s wings was, but the meaning is clear. Through God’s provision the woman will be kept out of reach of the attentions of the dragon: she will be protected. Notice the time over which this will take place: time, times and half of time. This phrase first appears in Daniel and it refers to the half of the final ‘seven.’ This final half of the ‘seven’ has been referred to as three and a half years, 42 months, 1260 days and now time (1 year), times (2 years) and half of time (half a year). In this final period there is no doubt that Israel plays a central role. These are the people to whom God made specific promises through Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets. These prophecies spoke of a day of restoration preceded by repentance, see for example Zechariah 12.
As the dragon is in pursuit of the woman, John sees it spew water from its mouth ‘to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent.’ Again it’s not possible to say precisely how this will work out, but again the meaning is clear, the dragon will attempt to kill the woman by some physical means. But God protects and ‘the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.’ God has thwarted the efforts of Satan down through the ages and he is not about to abandon Israel at this stage. The dragon is incensed 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.’ Remember that as these events unfold, the church will already have been caught up to be with the Lord, we will not participate in these dreadful events. But there will be both a repentant Israel and a small group of people who will stand up for truth doubtless in response to the light of the two prophets and the 144,000 servants. It will be a difficult time for these people, as we shall see in the next chapter.