I think we are all sufficiently aware of the fact that Christmas has been commercialized in our culture and that sentiment founded on everything from winter scenery to family reunions has for most Americans replaced its great theological and redemptive meaning. Far too few Americans even know what the word incarnation means! Our culture has managed to reduce virtually everything of great meaning to either commercial enterprise or treacly emotion. And it is our duty as Christians to refuse to succumb to the temptation to do likewise and fight to preserve the history that alone explains the existence of Christmas in the first place, the history even the bare echo of which still makes Christmas far and away the most important holiday of the year. To encourage you to that end, I have chosen for my first Advent sermon this year a text not usually preached at Christmas but one that very definitely defines its importance.
In this chapter John explains the origin of the persecution of the church and its tribulations in the world. As before in this book John pulls back to survey the entire course of history. We have already had intimations of this in the earlier chapters of Revelation, but this is the first time John lays out in a systematic way the struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Evil One. In the previous chapter, for example, the struggle was between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. But here in chapter 12 we are reminded that the kingdom of the world is in fact more profoundly the kingdom of Satan, whom Paul identifies as the prince of this world. The persecution and the tribulations of the church are the manifestation in history of a spiritual battle that has been underway from the beginning of the world. John expects that by laying bare the real cause of the church’s persecution and tribulation, the followers of Christ will be steeled to withstand their temptations and remain faithful through them.
v.2 There is a longstanding debate between Roman Catholic and Protestant interpreters of the Bible as to whether this woman is Mary – because her offspring in v. 5 seems clearly to be Jesus – or she represents the ideal church, because in the rest of the chapter she seems to occupy that role. Later we will read that this woman is persecuted and flees into the wilderness and in v. 17 her offspring are said to be the saints. All in all, it seems clear to me that the woman is the church, the Israel of God. The twelve stars on her head represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes also represented the church in Revelation chapter 7. A number of times in the OT Israel is said to be the mother of the people of God, even in travail as about to give birth. In the New Testament also the church is said to be the mother of believers (Gal. 4:26). As the church father, Cyprian once put it: “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the church for your mother.” [De Unit. Eccl. vi]
Mary was only the greatest in a long line of women who brought forth deliverers for the people of God all of whom, in their way, leading to the Messiah himself, the Deliverer of Israel. Eve herself, whose seed would crush the head of the serpent, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and so on, all filled this material role in the life of God’s people. The ancient church, as it were, was laboring to give birth to the Messiah.
v.3 John leaves us in no doubt as to the identity of this dragon. He tells us in v. 9 that this is Satan. The use of the image of a dragon or sea monster as the embodiment of evil is a commonplace in the OT. You remember the references to Leviathan, Rahab, and Behemoth in the prophets and Job. The seven heads and seven crowns and the 10 horns are all intended to suggest great power and majesty. As a description, of course, like so much else in the Book of Revelation, it is all highly imaginative of course. We are not supposed to try to figure out how ten horns fit on seven heads!
v.4 This is another picture of the power of the dragon, so colossal a creature that with one sweep of his tail he can brush a third of the stars of the heavens out of their position. And the next image indicates that Satan’s great purpose is to destroy the church in the world by destroying the Messiah himself. This mad frenzy to destroy the seed of the woman has been the story of the world from the very beginning. Satan tried to kill the seed at the flood, again by having Sarah twice taken into the harem of a heathen king, again by having all the male children of Israel killed by the midwives in Egypt, again by driving Saul to hurl a spear at David and then to hunt him down to murder him, again to prompt the wicked Queen Athaliah to destroy all the royal seed of the House of Judah (2 Chron. 22:10) which plan was thwarted when the infant Joash was hidden from her; and so on. Satan’s plan came to its fulfillment in the Messiah’s own lifetime – from Herod’s attempt to murder him as a baby to the crucifixion itself. There too, especially there, the Devil was defeated, for the Cross was not Satan’s triumph, as he intended, but God’s and ours. It was the blow that would finally crush Satan under the Messiah’s feet. But, beaten there, Satan has not surrendered and is still seeking to destroy the Messiah and his seed.
v.6 The woman is no longer in heaven; now she is on earth. Such sudden switches in perspective are characteristic of Revelation. In its use here, as in chapter 11 and in 13:5, the period of three and a half years, 1,260 days or forty-two months – all three forms of the description are found in Revelation – seems to cover the entire history of the church’s life between the ascension of the Lord to heaven and his Second Coming. The 42 months, the whole period of three and a half years, may derive from the 42 stages of Israel’s progress through the wilderness (as listed in Numbers 33:5-49). Think of the wilderness as life in this world, whether the life of an individual Christian or the life of the church as a whole, in 42 units of time and you have the idea of the three and a half years, 42 because it is life in the wilderness, in the desert as we will see. The 1,260 days and the forty-two months – a time that appears repeatedly in the biblical apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation – also represent a period of great evil, a time of great tribulation, a time when Satan seems to be dominant.
v.9 The war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels should not be thought of as an event in time or as an event that follows the event that was just described in the previous verses. Think of it rather as the counterpart of the events that occur on earth, the events related in vv. 1-6. It is an apocalyptic depiction of the triumph of the kingdom of God over the Devil’s kingdom over the entire time related in vv. 1-6. The victory of the kingdom of God did not occur in angelic combat but at the cross and the empty tomb and then in the faithful life of the saints as we will read in v. 11. Remember, for example, the Lord’s remark to his disciples after their return in triumph from their first preaching tour, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Whether in heaven or on earth it is the same warfare, the one a manifestation of the other. Now, in vv. 10-12 John tells us what his vision of the heavenly war means.
v.10 The first verse of the song sung by the great voice closely parallels that of 11:15, another indication that this victory is the same one celebrated in the previous chapter, likewise a review of the entire history of mankind and of the kingdom of God in the world.
The description of Satan as the “accuser of the brothers” suggests that he is constantly arguing that the saints do not deserve God’s favor and that God is unjust to extend it to them. But, of course, his accusations are utterly hypocritical and insincere as he has himself been at work to induce human beings in general and the saints in particular to live in just that way that is not worthy of God’s favor. The identification here of Satan as the accuser of the brethren is further indication that the angelic battle of vv. 7-9 was a metaphor for the struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Here the same contest is depicted, not as a battle between groups of angels, but as a courtroom drama pitting two lawyers against one another, with Michael perhaps understood as the advocate of the people of God as he is in some Jewish writings of the period. [Beale, 661]
v.11 As always in the Bible the work of Christ for his people and their faith in him are linked as the way of salvation. And their faith proves its genuineness in their willingness to die for it!
v.12 The defeat of the Devil may mean rejoicing in heaven at the prospect of his doom, but it means more fighting and more suffering for the people of God on earth who must endure the onslaught of this defeated but still dangerous enemy. If you’ve ever read William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur, you will remember how bitterly MacArthur’s officers and men greatly resented his announcing triumphantly to the press that a certain island had been taken and the enemy defeated and that only “mopping up” was left to do, when, in fact, that “mopping up” was some of the bitterest fighting of the war! A cornered enemy with nothing to lose can be a desperate and dangerous foe.
v.15 In a number of places in the OT floodwaters are a metaphor for the suffering of God’s people.
v.16 Another allusion to the exodus history; the woman being saved by the eagles who carried her away, also found in Zachariah. Remember, Israel was lifted out of Egypt on eagles’ wings. Here it is the promise of God’s protection even in the worst times of persecution. Satan can send great rivers to sweep away the church, but God will frustrate even his mighty power with devices of his own. These are simply images of the supernatural warfare that Satan will make against the church and the divine power by which she will be protected. The “rest of her offspring” will be all the Christians who have not yet “overcome” him, as in v. 11. In other words, you and I are among that “rest of her offspring,”
Ordinarily at Christmas time one expects a sermon on Isaiah 7 and its prophecy of the virgin birth seven hundred years beforehand, or Isaiah 9 and its account of the coming Messiah – “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace” – or a sermon from one of the birth narratives in Matthew or Luke. We’ll have such a sermon next Lord’s Day morning, Christmas Sunday. But there are other Christmas texts and one of them is Rev 12, where we read of the birth of “the male child who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”
I wonder if this text will become more familiar to Christians as we enter a period of more virulent unbelief in the western world. We in the American Christian church have for generations had a harder time seeing our lives and the life of the church in terms of the deadly conflict between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of our Lord and Savior. We have had a harder time seeing our own lives in terms of our role in this desperate battle because life has been good to us; we have lived comfortably and suffered little or none at all because we are Christians. So perhaps it was natural for us at Christmas time to gravitate to the beauty of the pastoral scenes painted in Luke or the account in Matthew of honor paid to the newborn King by the wealthy Magi from the East, or to those riveting accounts of supernatural events that attended the entrance of God the Son into the world – the announcement and then the birth of John the Baptist to a barren mother, the annunciation to Mary, the virgin birth itself, the announcements to the shepherds, and so on – that litter the Christmas narrative and make it so beautiful and so memorable. It was the Christian way to attend to Christmas in a culture that itself loved Christmas, sang the Christmas songs of Christ and his birth, and associated that story with Norman Rockwell scenes of winter beauty and family cheer. And as unbelief in the biblical history of the birth of Jesus became more fashionable in our culture those birth narratives became interesting to us for another reason, as historical accounts to be defended and verified.
But it has not been as natural for us to see Christmas and the birth of the Messiah – beautiful as that history is in so many ways and precious as it is and must be to all Christians – as the thunderous salvo of a terrible battle that would decide the great war that is itself the story of this world and of every human life ever lived in this world. But, without a doubt that is what we are being given in Rev. 12 and we have the echo of it, surely, in the birth narratives itself and the attempt of Herod to murder the newborn king and so on. What we are given here is a philosophy of history, an understanding of the meaning of human history, with Christmas and the birth of Christ its great turning point or pivot, its Pearl Harbor or D-Day if you will. Human affairs, whether on the grand scale of men and nations, of great revolutions of thought and life, of the progress of science, of the history of war, and so on, or on the smaller scale of the circumstances of a single person’s life, are all in one way or another the reflection of a great war being fought in the heavenly realms between the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of Satan. Human beings are always – whether they know it or not, and they usually do not – fighting on one side or another of this war and their individual circumstances – happy or painful as they may be – are what they are precisely because they amount to individual and specific engagements in this larger battle, perhaps often only a minor skirmish at one spot on the great battlefield of this world, strewn as it is everywhere we look with the carnage of war.
If the weather is sufficiently clear and you are in the right spot, you can sometimes in Tacoma see the night sky lit up by the artillery firing away on the Ft. Lewis ranges. In some places you can hear the rumble of the guns soon after you see the reflection of the flash against the night sky. Well, according to the picture painted for us in John’s vision, life is like that. What we see in the world are the distant flashes of artillery in the battle going on in the heavenly realms and what we hear is the rumbling of those great guns as Satan’s forces and Michael’s tear into one another.
Is this not the explanation for what so mystifies us about life in this world: the pervasiveness, the sinister darkness, the intractable momentum of evil? We never escape the next announcement of the horrible things that human beings have done to one another. There are great spiritual forces at work in this world that are darkness itself and they take human beings – who alas are only too willing to be taken – up into their plans and their programs. War is terrible, painful, and fearful; and so is human life. So much of what men seek is some relief from the terror and sorrow and struggle of this war even though they do not realize that this is the explanation for their pain and sorrow. The great religions of the East were born in human woe. Buddha sought a way to escape the the sorrows and pains of life into an existence defined by the absence of the pain and sorrow we know as human life. Another example: American politics is simply the struggle of rival understandings of how best to eliminate or at least to diminish human pain and suffering.
But nowhere is the explanation of the struggle and pain and sorrow of human life so profoundly explained as in the Bible. Something is happening in this world that makes it inevitably a struggle for everyone who lives in it: a war is being fought and every human being is a participant in that war and often and in many different ways a victim of its violence. And leading one side is a creature of perfect evil, cruelty, heartless indifference to the suffering of others. And his power is such that he drafts his soldiers as he will and they cannot resist him even if they wished to.
Human beings, you see, do not merely observe the flashes of distant canon; we fire the canon ourselves. We are combatants in the very same war that is being waged in heaven. Our Savior overcame the Devil, but, in Christ, as we read in v. 11, we overcome him too. Our lives, our faith, our serving Christ are the weapons that the kingdom of heaven employs in its battle with Satan and his legions, just as the unbelief, disobedience, and rebellion of multitudes of human beings are the weapons that Satan employs on his side.
Think, in particular of vv. 4-5 and compare them to v. 11. All the beloved history of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Gabriel’s announcements to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angelic choir, the manger and the wise men, are reduced to this: “the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that he might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child… and her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” The triumph was Christ’s to be sure. He won the victory: he cast Satan down and he made certain heaven’s eventual triumph. But how was that victory secured? How did he manage the conquest of the evil one? Well, he used in part the faithfulness of an old priest and his barren wife, the sturdy faith of a young couple just betrothed, who believed the Word of God and acted on it in defiance of appearances, the long miles of searching on the part of some intrepid eastern Magi, and so on.
Think, brothers and sisters! This view of Christmas is certainly not less wonderful, not less beautiful. It is grander still! This chapter begins “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun…was pregnant…” We see Christmas here as a part of the titanic struggle between two kingdoms, as the fateful blow struck in the great battle that would determine the outcome of that struggle.
And, seeing Christmas this way, and linking it as John’s vision does here in vv. 11 and 17 to ordinary Christian faith, obedience, and devotion, we are given a higher view, a more solemn view, a more heroic view of our daily lives and of our remembrance of the birth of our Lord and Savior.
I thought of Antoine Court when I read v. 6 and of the church fleeing into the wilderness or desert. You perhaps remember this great Reformed churchman. He lived in the 18th century, the period of the most intense persecution of Protestants in French history. A century and a half after the Reformation, it had again been made illegal to be a Protestant and the penalties for failing to conform were harsh: loss of the rights of citizenship, loss of property, the threat of one’s children being taken away by the state, imprisonment, and, in many cases, the terrible servitude of a galley slave. But, as always during the church’s darkest days, there were those who, as we read here, overcame the forces of the Evil One by “the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
Marie Durand was imprisoned for 38 years because her brother, a Protestant minister, had performed her wedding service. Baron de Salgas, who had been a lukewarm Christian during days of ease, found himself a galley slave. “It is the happiest time of my life,” he wrote. “I live among brigands, but my Saviour died between two thieves.” One Catholic priest, Jean Bion, chaplain of the galley “Le Superbe,” became a Protestant Christian through the example and witness of Christian men on his ship, then went to London and published an account of their sufferings.
It was into this world of terrible persecution that young Antoine Court was born and raised by a devout mother. With the gifts and graces of a true leader, he organized the church, scattered as it had been by the blows of the enemy, and began to reform its life and doctrine. As often in times of persecution, false doctrine had made its way into the church and had to be wrung out. He called clandestine synods to restore theological order to the church and to oversee the church’s ministers. New churches were formed and led by pastors who daily risked death for preaching the Word of God and whose congregations risked imprisonment for listening to them. Worship was held in secret places. Sentries stood nearby ready to give the alarm if the authorities should appear.
It was, of course, necessary to provide more pastors if the church were to be strengthened and God’s people were to receive proper spiritual care, and so Court, with the aid of others, established a seminary in Lausanne, Switzerland and there trained men who would return to France to the illegal and dangerous work of the Protestant ministry. Some of them returned to France only to be arrested and executed. Indeed, with a kind of dark humor, the diploma of Antoine Court’s seminary in Lausanne came to be known as the Brevet de Potence, the “Certificate for Hanging.”
Now what made me think about Antoine Court and those terrible and wonderful days in France was that at the time the Christians referred to their faithful churches as the churches of the desert or the wilderness. Their synods or church assemblies are known to church history as the Synods of the Desert. All the ecclesiastical papers of the time were dated “from the desert.”
They were using “desert” in exactly the sense in which it is used here in Rev. 12:6, 14. The word translated “wilderness” in v. 6 is used in the Bible for the desert of Judea and is often translated “desert.” Here it is a metaphor for the place of the church’s persecution in this world, hunted by the Devil seeking to devour her; but also the place where the Lord would protect and preserve her as he protected and preserved Israel in the wilderness. France is not a desert country, there is no part of France that is desert, but in the 18th century the believing French church was in the desert because she was under the direct assault of the Evil One and utterly dependent upon the nourishment of the Lord.
All of us, everyone, brothers and sisters, inhabit that world that John has described for us here. We live in the desert, the wilderness. This earth on which we now stand is the same earth that John saw as a desert where the church of Jesus Christ was harried by the dragon whom the Messiah had hurled down from heaven. You will have to leave this world, my friends, if you would have a life that is not part of this warfare that rages in heaven and on earth. Whether you know it or not, whether you feel it or not at any particular moment, you are engaged in a great war. You may not be doing all your duty in battle, you may from time to time, by your lethargy and your negligence, be giving comfort to the enemy. But you cannot escape the battle; neither God nor the Devil will let you escape the battle. Some of you know very well that you are in the battle; you know you have been harried into the desert by the Evil One, you can hear him baying, and feel him nipping at your heels. Sometimes it seems as if the river that spews out of his mouth is near to sweeping you away. But it will not. God will open the earth to swallow that river up. Let him rage; he has been defeated by the blood of the lamb!
When I am among you as your pastor I sometimes find myself struck dumb by the terrible wounds you have suffered in these battles, and also by the bravery that I witness, and alas, not often, indeed rarely, I am thankful to say, I see some cowardice, a readiness to turn and run from the thick of the fight, to find safety somewhere else on the battlefield. But, what I never have any difficulty believing is that John got this world and our lives in it just right in chapter 12 when he described the story of human life in such bloody terms. And I do not doubt that he said all that needed to be said when he told us not only that victory would come in due course but how victory would come; by the mopping up that we must still do after Christ delivered the killing blow to his enemy and ours: “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and the words of their testimony; they did not love their lives as to shrink from death.” Rather, “they obeyed God’s commandments and held to the testimony of Jesus.”
There stands Christmas, in the exact middle of human history, a great turning point in the war that must continue until the end of the age. And what is Christmas for a true Christian in light of its exposition in Rev. 12? It is a time to pledge once more to be Christ’s faithful soldier until the end of one’s life in this world.
Then outspake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers;
And the temples of his gods?
And how much more when it is the living God for whom we fight, and the faithful saints of past days in whose steps we tread, and when we know that, however desperate the battle, however apparently triumphant evil may be for a season, we are certain to be the ones left standing in the field when the battle is done!