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Stuart Chase - 19 December 2021

Holy War (Revelation 12:7–12)

A Cosmic Christmas

Having failed on earth to stop the promised birth (vv. 1–6), the dragon turns his attention in vv. 7–12 to fight against Messiah in the heavenly realms. The text before us traces a fourfold path. It highlights, first, the dragon’s determination to continue the war against Messiah (vv. 7–8). It offers, second, a description of the dragon (v. 9). It presents, third, a vision of the dragon’s defeat (vv. 10–11). Fourth, it shows the dragon’s desperation to continue the war (v. 12), setting us up for the third vision in the chapter.

Scripture References: Revelation 12:7-12

From Series: "A Cosmic Christmas"

A Christmas-themed mini-series from Revelation 12.

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There appears to be something of a resurgence in modern times of Christian pacifist theology. Pacifism, in one form or another, has historically been affirmed by various denominations within Christendom, including many Anabaptist, Quaker, Mennonite, and Adventist churches. Several books have been published in recent years offering a biblical defence of the pacifist position.

It’s an interesting discussion to have, and I don’t think that the biblical arguments in favour of pacifism are completely off the wall. But whatever we think of a Christian approach to military warfare today, the Bible makes it plain that every Christian is involved in spiritual warfare. We know that spiritual warfare is not against flesh and blood, but it is very real, nonetheless. Revelation 12:7–12 offers a vivid look into the realities of spiritual warfare. And it is a reality of which we must be very aware during the Christmas period.

Previously, when we considered 12:1–6, I noted that there are three visions in Revelation 12, which don’t neatly follow each other chronologically. That is, while there is a basic chronological flow to these visions, there is some overlap. We will see some of that in this study.

We saw previously that vv. 1–6 portray the dragon’s opposition to God’s people throughout old covenant history in an attempt to stop Messiah’s birth. That opposition took the form of bloodshed and political oppression but ultimately failed. Messiah was born. He lived, died, rose again, and ascended to his throne at his Father’s right hand. The devil’s plan failed spectacularly. Knowing that his people would be in danger following Christ’s ascension, God prepared a place for them in the wilderness, where they would be protected for 1,260 days.

Having failed on earth to stop the promised birth, the dragon turns his attention in vv. 7–12 to fight against Messiah in the heavenly realms. As we will see, while this vision is portrayed as an angelic war in heaven (vv. 7–9), it played out in real life on earth (vv. 10–12). This is the reality of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare, is not some ethereal, cosmic battle that is entirely divorced from the Christian life on earth. The battle in which we are involved is a spiritual battle against cosmic powers, but it plays itself out in very tangible ways on earth. And the means of victory is clearly laid out for us in the text.

As we will see, the dragon’s plan of attack fails and so, in desperation, he turns his attention to the woman (God’s people) to do whatever damage he can there (vv. 13–17). But more on that next time.

The text before us, detailing the second vision, traces a fourfold path. It highlights, first, the dragon’s determination to continue the war against Messiah (vv. 7–8). It offers, second, a description of the dragon (v. 9). It presents, third, a vision of the dragon’s defeat (vv. 10–11). Fourth, it shows the dragon’s desperation to continue the war (v. 12), setting us up for the third vision in the chapter.

The Dragon’s Determination

Verses 7–8 highlight the dragon’s futile determination to continue the war against the ascended man child who rules the nations with a rod of iron: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”

We are introduced in these verses to Michael, a new character, who serves as a leader to the holy angels and stands opposite the dragon as the general of God’s army. Michael is also mentioned in Daniel 10 and 12 and in Jude 9, where he is called “the archangel.” He is the only character in the Bible given this title.

There is some debate among scholars as to the identity of Michael. Many interpreters (among them, John Calvin, John Gill, Matthew Henry, David Chilton, and Philip Carrington) believe that Michael is Jesus Christ himself. Others believe that he is a created angel who is given a leadership role in leading God’s forces in the heavenly war. The debate is unimportant for our purposes, but it is helpful to note that identifying Michael as Jesus is not a pet error of cultists but actually a long-standing and orthodox interpretation of scholarly Christian interpreters.

Regardless, vv. 7–8 depict an unseen, holy war “in heaven” between the dragon and his angels and Michael and his angels. Michael is portrayed as the aggressor, with the dragon on the defensive. As he failed to devour the woman’s child in vv. 1–6, so the dragon failed to defeat Michael and his angels in vv. 7–8. The dragon “was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven,” unlike the woman, for whom “a place” was “prepared by God” in the wilderness (v. 6).

As I have said, this vision presents two sides of the same coin. It shows the heavenly reality of spiritual warfare (vv. 7–9) while at the same time highlighting the earthly expression of it (vv. 10–12). We will reserve our interpretation of the dragon’s defeat for the discussion of vv. 10–11 below, but observe that, with their defeat, “there was no longer any place found for them in heaven.” For now, it is sufficient to note that Michael and his angels were victorious in battle.

The Dragon’s Description

Verse 9 offers a four-part description of the dragon, not so much of his physical appearance as of his motives and actions. He is identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” As we will see, all four descriptions emphasise a particular aspect of his warfare strategy.

“That ancient serpent” identifies the dragon with the serpent in Eden, who deceived our first parents by casting doubt on God’s word. The terms “the devil” and “Satan” both refer to an accuser or deceiver. Technically, “Satan” is not a proper name but a title or description. The dragon is “the devil” and (literally) “the satan.” That is, he is the accuser and deceiver of God’s people. The last description captures it all: He is “the deceiver of the whole world.”

Notice that all four terms applied to the dragon emphasise his role in deceiving God’s people. The heavenly warfare plays itself out in very earthly terms and, from the very beginning, the dragon’s strategy in warring against God’s people has been deception. He deceives by casting aspersion on God’s character and sowing doubt about God’s word. If he can get people to believe that God is not good and that his word cannot be trusted, he can gain some ground in the spiritual war.

As humans, we are prone to being deceived. The devil knows this and therefore does everything he can to deceive. Consider three powerful strategies the dragon employs to achieve his deceptive ends.

The Dragon Lies

First, the dragon lies. Indeed, “when he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He implicitly lied to Adam and Eve in the garden by suggesting that God was not good by withholding from them the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He explicitly lied to them when he told them that eating the fruit would not result in death. He lies to us all the time to get us to distrust God’s character and doubt his word.

The devil’s lies typically take the form of false teaching. Paul described this as “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).

These “doctrines of demons” may overtly challenge the Christian faith. For example, Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966. Despite its name, the Church of Satan is not a group of devil worshippers. In fact, adherents of this religion do not believe that the devil is a personal being. For them, Satan is a symbol of pride, individualism, and enlightenment. LaVey believed that Christianity suppresses humanity’s natural instincts and saw Satan as a symbol of defiance against this suppression. It is essentially a church for atheists. It rejects everything that the Bible teaches. Though Satanists reject the existence of a personal being known as Satan, their religion is, in fact, a doctrine of demons espoused by the very dragon whose existence they reject.

But “doctrines of demons” are not always as extreme as that. The dragon is wise in his strategy and knows that different people may be deceived in different ways. The humanistic worldview that pervades much of South African society is equally a doctrine of demons. This doctrine may not stand in direct opposition to Christianity, but it subtly opposes everything that Christianity promotes. It promotes materialism rather than generosity. It promotes self-centredness rather than servanthood. It promotes idolatry (of education, of entertainment, of employment) rather than worship. It may not outright reject Christian ethics, but it subverts them in such a way as to render them ineffective.

“Doctrines of demons” also make their way into Christian, and so-called Christian, churches. In religious circles, the dragon presents teaching that is designed to distract us from the worth and beauty of Christ and his gospel. It may take the form of teaching that emphasises self-righteousness (you can earn God’s favour by doing certain things) or teaching that causes you to underestimate the power of the gospel (you can’t possibly be forgiven for that sin, or you can’t possibly be effective in God’s kingdom work if you keep failing in that way). Either way, the lie is designed to remove our eyes from God’s grace and focus on ourselves. Anything that distracts us from the free grace of God offered through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a doctrine of demons by which the dragon seeks to deceive God’s people.

The dragon “disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15). If outright lies and concealing truth will not work, he will use servants who profess just enough truth to creep into churches to ultimately spread his “doctrines of demons.” These servants have the appearance of Christian ministers and say enough right things to sound orthodox and thereby deceive people, but the dragon’s agenda through their ministry is to draw people from the truth.

Make no mistake: Many of the dragon’s lies are promoted during the Christmas season. It is a sad reality that many people filling the pews of churches on Christmas Day will walk away never having heard the gospel of Christ. They will hear about being kind and doing good. They will hear the (perhaps error-riddled) story of the baby in the manger without hearing the reason that Christ was sent to earth.

Christmas music and films may provide wholesome, family entertainment at this time of the year, but many of the stories told will do nothing to point us to the man child who rules with a rod of iron. Many will promote human goodness and merit while people die in their sins. The dragon delights in you enjoying family entertainment without sex and violence and swearing if it will distract you from Jesus Christ.

The Dragon Blinds

Second, the dragon blinds. Specifically, he seeks to blind “the mind of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Not only does he actively speak that which is untrue, but he also does all he can to hide what is true.

The devil labours hard wherever he has influence to hide the truth of the gospel. Government restrictions in closed countries against Christian missionaries and churches are influenced by the dragon to keep people from hearing the truth. Godless worldviews that sound kind but are opposed to the gospel are a strategy of the devil to keep people from being exposed to the truth.

South African churches fill every year on Christmas Day, and it is always a good opportunity for faithful gospel preachers to preach Christ. But there are many countries in the world today where churches will be forced underground and where the gospel will not be freely preached. The dragon delights in this. It is his strategy to keep Christ from being preached.

Many will be blinded to the Christian gospel by mounds of boxes, tinsel, and wrapping paper. I do not mean to disparage Christmas decorations or gift giving, but if Christmas is only about decorating and giving and family get-togethers, we miss a wonderful opportunity to turn the focus of the season to the man child who rules with a rod of iron.

The Dragon Tempts

Third, the dragon tempts. Paul wrote, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). He skilfully uses the temptations of the world and the flesh to drive a wedge between God and his people. Sin diminishes our devotion to God and the devil knows that if he can succeed in getting God’s people to sin, he will gain an upper hand in spiritual warfare. The temptations we face to lust and idolatry and covetousness and anger and bitterness and unforgiveness are all battlegrounds on which the spiritual war is waged.

Some of these temptations will come home with particular force during the Christmas season. This may be a season in which you believe the lie that your goodwill toward others is sufficient to earn you merit with God. It may be a time in which focus on certain truths will distract you from the full truth of the gospel. Many people are eager to celebrate the baby in a manger, but they want to leave him there as they head into the new year. Celebrating his birthday once a year is sufficient, but he must not look to play any further role in their lives. The Christmas season is a time when we may let our guard down to temptations to sin.

As we face these deceptions, we must do so cognisant of the fact that they have no real power in and of us. “The dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated.” We are weak. We are prone to give into deception and temptation. But Michael and his angels have defeated the dragon. They achieved the victory that we could not on our own. The dragon and his angels have no power over us because “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”

The Dragon’s Defeat

The dragon’s defeat is teased out for us in vv. 10–11:

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

Verses 7–8 told us quite summarily that the dragon and his angels were defeated and cast out of heaven. But, as I said, the heavenly warfare of vv. 7–9 has a very tangible manifestation, as we discover in vv. 10–12. Verses 10–11 show what this earthly manifestation is and how the victory is achieved. These verses reveal both the cause of Satan’s defeat and, consequently, the strategy by which we continue to defeat him to this very day.

As John watched the holy warfare unfolding before his eyes, a voice suddenly interrupted the vision. The voice declared the decisive blow to dragon: “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”

The casting down to earth here is not the same as that portrayed in vv. 1–6. As we saw last time, the vision there concerned the devil’s fall at the beginning of time when he rebelled against God. In this vision, he was cast to earth in defeat after he failed to defeat Michael and his angels.

We will see in a moment what occasioned the dragon’s defeat in this vision but for now we notice that, with “the accuser of our brothers” having been “thrown down,” God’s victory was seen in four ways.

First, God’s “salvation” was fully achieved. The birth of the man child, which we celebrate at Christmastime, was only the beginning. When the dragon was defeated, everything that needed to be done to purchase salvation for God’s people was complete.

Second, God’s “power” was fully displayed. If there was ever any doubt as to the outcome of the holy war, that doubt was laid to rest when the dragon was cast down.

Third, God’s “kingdom” had fully arrived. The story of the Bible is the story of God’s kingdom: God’s people living under God’s rule in God’s place. The kingdom had experienced setbacks throughout history, but when the dragon was cast down, the arrival of God’s kingdom was secured.

Fourth, Christ’s “authority” was fully manifested. When he ascended, Christ took his throne and displayed his authority by casting the dragon out of heaven.

Verse 11 shows how this victory was achieved: “by the blood of the Lamb.” It was Christ’s death on the cross that dealt the death blow to the dragon, for it was in his death that the penalty for sin was fully paid for all those whom he came to save. In his death, it was finished, and it was proven to be finished when God raised him from the dead and received him back into heaven, where he took his eternal throne. David Clark captures it well: “The resurrection and ascension of Christ was the staggering blow to Christ’s kingdom, and foretokened the ultimate overthrow of his power. When Christ arose from the dead and ascended to the throne of God it was [an] eviction-notice served on Satan.”

But, as we have observed, the heavenly battle played out in very tangible, earthly ways. The victory was likewise achieved in very tangible, earthly ways. Just as the dragon influenced human figures and institutions to wage war, so Christ achieves his victory through his people. “And they [our brothers] have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

The dragon waged a vicious war against Christ and his people, but even when he thought he was winning, he was losing. The dragon, who was a murderer from the beginning, believed that killing God’s witnesses was the way to win the war. In fact, in their martyrdom, the witnesses were winning. By laying down their lives for the sake of the gospel, they were displaying their ultimate fidelity to Christ, which was the most powerful of all gospel witnesses. The worst the dragon could do was kill those who pledged allegiance to Christ, but God turned even that evil on its head and used it as a powerful gospel witness.

What does all of this mean for us today? Its implications are clear. While his defeat was secured “by the blood of the Lamb,” the dragon continues to wage war against God’s people today. He will accuse. He will lie. He will conceal the truth. He will tempt. He will, as God permits, continue to shed the blood of God’s martyrs. We are involved in deadly warfare. But we have been given a weapon of certain victory in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Satan’s accusations and temptations are powerless in the shadow of the cross.

When Satan tempts me to despair,

and tells me of the guilt within,

upward I look and see him there

who made an end to all my sin.

 

Because the sinless Saviour died,

my sinful soul is counted free,

for God, the just, is satisfied

to look on him and pardon me,

to look on him and pardon me.

Christian, fight the temptation and the accusations of the devil with the blood of the Lamb. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the means by which we overcome. As you face temptation and accusation this Christmas season, look beyond the manger to the cross of Calvary. Look to the empty tomb and find hope, joy, and forgiveness in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

Today, there are all sorts of strange theologies of spiritual warfare. All sorts of weird and wonderful strategies against the forces of darkness are promoted. But we are told here exactly how to wage war against the forces of darkness: “by the blood of the Lamb.” How did God deliver you “from the domain of darkness”? How did he transfer you “to the kingdom of his beloved Son”? He did so through the gospel, by which you “have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13). That same gospel is your ongoing hope as you face temptation and accusation. You are accepted in the beloved, regardless of the accusations the dragon casts your way.

Unbeliever, the dragon wants to blind your mind to the truth of the gospel. If you do not receive the victory of Michael and his angels, he will succeed. But victory against the dragon can be embraced “by the blood of the Lamb.” You can receive forgiveness of sins because Christ died. You can receive the promise of eternal life because he rose again. You can receive hope in this life, and the life to come, because he rules from the right hand of his Father in heaven. Repent of your sins. Believe in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.

The Dragon’s Desperation

The dragon tried for centuries to stop the birth of Messiah. He failed. He fought hard against Michael and his angels in the heavenly warfare. He failed again. In desperation, he turned his full attention to the people of God: “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (v. 12).

Once again, this prophetic vision had specific fulfilment at a specific time. It is not our goal in these studies to consider the minutiae of the prophecy. The basic principle is clear: The dragon was angry that he was defeated again and, in desperation, he turned his fury on the people of God. We will next time what that looked like but, for now, learn a basic principle from this.

The dragon hates God and all who belong to God. Given the opportunity, he will do everything he can to destroy God’s people. The war in which we are involved is very real and the stakes are high. We fight a fearsome enemy who hates and wishes to utterly destroy us. We must be on our guard. We must arm ourselves with the gospel to fight against the devil.

When I preached vv. 1–6 at our church, just weeks before Christmas 2021, I challenged the children in our church to take a toy or model dragon, if they had one, and put it with the nativity scene under the Christmas tree. Several members sent me photos of dragon-accompanied nativity sets. When I shared the photos with our elders, one of them wrote, “This biblical realism is a necessary antidote to traditional sentimentalism.” He was correct.

Christmas is a time of great sentimentalism. It is a time of holiday cheer and humanitarian goodwill. It is a time of fun with family and friends. It is a time of giving and joy. If we are not careful, we can lose sight of the fact that, even at this time of the year, we are engaged in a bitter war against a terrible enemy. We need to be reminded of that so that, at this time of year, as at any time of year, we embrace the gospel, which is the only means of victory against the dragon and his angels. Will you embrace Christ’s victory by embracing his gospel today?

AMEN