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Stuart Chase - 12 December 2021

Violent Night (Revelation 12:1–6)

Revelation 12 records a vision, which, in just a few sentences, spans the Lord’s ministry from life to ascension. It gives us a picture of a cosmic Christmas, pulling back the curtain on what was happening in the spiritual realm on that “silent night.” And what we find is anything but silence.

Scripture References: Revelation 12:1-6

From Series: "A Cosmic Christmas"

A Christmas-themed mini-series from Revelation 12.

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I think it is accurate to say that some of the strangest theology in Christendom stems from our Christian (or so-called Christian) music. Christmas music may be particularly notorious for this. Take, for example, Henry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child,” which boldly declares that “man will live forevermore because of Christmas Day” as if the cross could be completely bypassed in the gospel story.

Some of the strangeness is less theologically aberrant than that. Consider, for example, Joseph Mohr’s “Silent Night.” If you’ve had children, or even been around a newborn, you’ll know that birthing experiences are typically not very silent. The Gospel narratives also record multitudes of bright, singing angels in the sky above the fields of Bethlehem. Suffice it to say that there is little reason to assume that all was calm that night, even though all may have been bright!

But let’s be charitable to Mohr for a moment. Let’s assume that Jesus was an unusually quiet infant and that the angels’ singing was heard only by the shepherds. Let’s assume that that night was, indeed, silent to the human ear. Even if that was the case, Scripture reveals that there was something going on behind the scenes that was very much the opposite of silent.

Revelation 12 records a vision, which, in just a few sentences, spans the Lord’s earthly ministry from life to ascension. It gives us a picture of a cosmic Christmas, pulling back the curtain on what was happening in the spiritual realm on that “silent night.” And what we find is anything but silence.

The vision is divided into three basic scenes. In vv. 1–6, we find the devil’s failed attempt to stop the messianic promise even before Messiah was born. Verses 7–12 shift the focus to a slightly different view of events, portraying a great war in heaven in which the devil fails to defeat God’s plan. (This second vision does not necessarily flow chronologically from the first but shows us, instead, the same battle from a different perspective.) Verses 13–17 describe the devil’s attempt to destroy the people of God, following his failed attempt to stop Messiah’s birth and to gain some form of victory in the spiritual war in the heavenly realms.

Over the next three studies, I want to consider these three sections under the broad heading of “A Cosmic Christmas.” (I am borrowing that series title from Sean Crowe at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Nova Scotia, Canada.)

It is always difficult to jump directly into the middle of a book. This is perhaps nowhere truer than when it comes to the highly debated and variously interpreted book of Revelation. Revelation is a specific prophecy, prophesying specific events. I have a very defined conviction concerning the prophecy’s message, interpretation, and fulfilment but I am not going to get into all of that in this three-part study. I will not attempt to answer all the questions about time periods and specific events. There is an overriding message in this chapter that comes through clearly regardless of your interpretation of specifics. It is that message that I want to consider over the next three studies.

We begin with a consideration of the opening six verses, which, contrary to our friend Joseph Mohr, portray a very violent night. The birth of Messiah—and the history leading to his birth—was a history of great violence as the devil tried his level best to stop the promise of Genesis 3:15 from ever being fulfilled. Revelation 12:1–6 portrays this vividly.

The Signs of the Cosmic Christmas

The vision opens with a recounting of two “sign[s]” that John saw (vv. 1–4). In John’s writings, the word “sign” refers to something supernatural that points to a greater truth. What he sees here, therefore, is not a video recording of literal events in his future but a symbolic vision pointing to significant spiritual truth. As we will see, even the most ardent defender of a “literal” interpretation of Revelation will find it difficult to hold to a woodenly literal interpretation of this vision.

The First Sign: The Woman

The first sign, which “appeared in heaven” was “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (v. 1). While John is describing what he saw, it is obvious that we are not to take this vision with wooden literalism. Nobody interprets this vision as a literal human woman transported to the moon, pulling the sun from its place and clothing herself with it, and adorning herself with a twelve-starred crown. The vision is clearly symbolic and each of its elements must be properly interpreted to understand the vision’s intent.

When interpreting prophecy, there are some rules to follow. Any given prophecy should first be interpreted by looking for clues in its immediate context. Some visions and prophecies are interpreted for us in the same place they are recorded. There is, for example, no mystery about the interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams at the end of Genesis because Moses records the interpretations of the dreams immediately after recording the dreams.

Revelation sometimes does the same thing. For example, when John sees the strange vision of the lake of fire, the angel immediately interprets it for him: “This is the second death, the lake of fire” (20:11–15). Here, the woman’s identity is not explicitly stated. However, there is at least one clue in the immediate context, which helps.

According to v. 5, the woman is connected as a mother figure to Jesus Christ. Some interpreters have assumed that she must then be Mary. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, uses this text to support its teaching that Mary, at the end of her life, was taken up bodily into heaven. There are, however, some details that don’t fit the interpretation of the woman as Mary. There is no evidence that Mary fled into the wilderness to be protected by God for 1,260 days following Christ’s ascension (v. 6). Indeed, she is seen with the apostles in Jerusalem in the early chapters of Acts. While the woman is connected to Christ, therefore, we likely need to look further than immediately assuming she refers to Mary. We get some help by looking at the other symbols connected to her in the broader context of Scripture.

The woman is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Those elements—sun, moon, and stars—are included together in another vision (or dream) in the Old Testament:

Then [Joseph] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

(Genesis 37:9–11)

Here, the sun, moon, and stars are connected to Israel as a nation. Israel is frequently portrayed as a woman—as God’s own bride—in the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:1–6; Jeremiah 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8–14; Hosea 2:19–20). The weight of the biblical evidence seems to suggest that the woman represents Israel—the nation from which Messiah would be birthed—rather than Mary as an individual. The dragon’s opposition, therefore, as portrayed here, was not primarily against Mary as an individual but against God’s people as a whole. But more on that in a moment.

The promise that Messiah would come through the nation of Israel was not a painless one. Indeed, the woman “was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.” This was a difficult promise to bear. It invited a great deal of pain. That pain is detailed in the second sign.

The Second Sign: The Dragon

The second sign was “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (v. 3). Unlike the woman, we are left in no doubt as to the identity of the dragon: He represents “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (v. 9).

The dragon’s colour may represent the great deal of blood that he has shed throughout history. The dragon’s “diadems” point to some sort of authority. The seven heads and ten horns seem to be symbolic of the Roman Empire at the time that John wrote. The vision, therefore, likely points to the fact that the dragon was behind the Roman oppression that the woman (the people of God) was facing at the time that John wrote. But regardless of the details, the primary meaning is clear: The dragon (the devil) opposed the woman (God’s people) in an attempt to stop the birth of Messiah.

Verse 4 appears to present a broad scope of the dragon’s opposition to the authority and promise of God throughout history. It portrays in a single verse the devil’s rebellion against God in the beginning and, symbolically, his attempt to thwart the Messianic promise.

The reference to a third of the stars being cast to the earth is further clear evidence of the symbolic nature of this vision. If even a single star collided with the earth, it would be the end of the prophecy. This part of the vision is probably a throwback to how the devil came to oppose God’s people in the first place. Stars in the Bible frequently refer to angels and we know from Scripture that Satan rebelled against God and led an army of angels in that rebellion (see Jude 1:6). From that moment, the dragon opposed God and everything aligned with God.

The dragon’s opposition to God took a specific focus: “The dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it” (v. 4). He was intent on doing whatever he could to stop the birth of Messiah.

The Summary of the Signs

There has been a lot of detail here, but it may be helpful to pause to consider the overriding message of this vision. The woman represents the people of God, through whom Messiah would be birthed. The red dragon represents the devil, singleminded in his bloody focus to stop Messiah’s birth. But the reference to Israel as a nation, with her star-studded crown, and the reference to the dragon’s diadems, suggests that this bloody heavenly battle played out, throughout history, primarily as political turmoil.

John, in this vision, is presenting a synopsis of human history. The vision shows that, from the very beginning, Satan did everything he could to put an end to the Messianic prophecy. Two factors played a major role in this: bloodshed and political oppression. It started soon after the garden when Cain shed the blood of his brother Abel. The dragon was behind Pharoah’s plot to kill the male children in Egypt and behind Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews in Esther’s time. He was behind the opposition of Antiochus Epiphanes in the intertestamental period and behind Herod’s cruel murder of the males under the age of two in Bethlehem a couple of years after Jesus’ birth.

From the moment that God gave the promise in Genesis 3:15 that the offspring of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, Satan was hard at work trying to thwart God’s plans. He knew the birth of Messiah would signal his own defeat and so he tried to stop it before it even began.

We may wonder how aware Joseph and Mary were of all of this. As they rejoiced at God’s grace giving them a Son, did they realise that ox and lamb were not the only creatures with them by the manger? Did they realise that there was an angry red dragon right there with them, determined to slaughter the child whom they so dearly loved? We don’t typically include a dragon in our nativity sets, but that is the unseen, violent reality behind what was taking place that silent night.

The Son of the Cosmic Christmas

God, of course, is sovereign. His plans will not be thwarted. For centuries, the great red dragon had tried everything in his power to stop Messiah’s birth before it happened. It didn’t work.

She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

(Revelation 12:5–6)

Verse 5 may be the briefest Gospel account in all of Scripture. The woman gave birth and her ruling Son was caught up to God and to his throne. The vision presents the beginning (birth) and end (ascension) of Christ’s earthly ministry and the reader is meant to understand that these two events encapsulate everything that took place between them.

The reference to the Son “rul[ing] all the nations with a rod of iron” is lifted from Psalm 2. There, David writes of the nations rebelling against Christ’s authority and writes, “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (v. 9). There is hope, however, for those who will “serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” and who will “kiss the Son” (vv. 11–12). Those who will not do so, however, will “perish in the way” when “his wrath is quickly kindled,” even as those “who take refuge in him” are “blessed” (v. 12). Those who kiss the Son in submission will be blessed; those who stubbornly resist his authority will be dashed to pieces.

The question is, how did the Son receive that authority? The answer lies in the unmentioned events that took place between his birth and ascension. Christmas is a season when we focus on Jesus’ birth. This is an important event to remember. There is nothing significant about 25 December as a date. Jesus may or may not have been born in December. But he was born. And that is significant. He was born in keeping with God’s promise (Genesis 3:15). He was born at exactly the right time (Galatians 4:4). He was born despite the dragon’s every attempt for centuries to stop his birth.

But his birth was only the beginning of the gospel story. With respect to Mr. Belafonte, man will not live forevermore because of Christmas Day. The baby in the manger did not stay a baby, nor did he stay in the manger. He grew up to be a man who obeyed God in every aspect of God’s law. He never broke any command that God gave. He lived a sinless life, never for even a moment doing what God forbade or failing to do what he commanded.

Despite his sinlessness, Jesus died a criminal’s death on a Roman cross in the place of all who would believe in him. Since he had never sinned, death could not hold him. Three days later, he rose victorious from the grave—and man can live forevermore because of Easter day. Forty days later, he was caught up to heaven in the ascension where he went “to God and to his throne.” For two thousand years, because he fully obeyed God—even to the point of death—and because God vindicated him by raising him from the dead, he has been ruling from his throne in heaven and one day he will return to finally crush every enemy who has ever opposed him, even as he grants eternal life to all who have believed in him. The dragon’s plan was thoroughly thwarted. Alan Redpath is right:

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for his own people—that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce his return, when we shall always be with him.

For centuries, the dragon had tried everything he could to stop Messiah’s birth. During Christ’s ministry, he tried everything he could to stop Messiah’s mission. He tried to kill him. He tempted him to sin. He tried to turn his followers against him. But when Jesus rose from the dead, commissioned his disciples to preach his resurrection, and ascended to his throne, it became evident, even to Satan, that he had failed. There was nothing more he could do to stop God’s plan. The offspring of the woman had arrived to fulfil his mission and Satan knew that he had been defeated.

The next two visions (vv. 7–12 and vv. 13–17) will colour in a little more detail, but the present text tells us that “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days” (v. 6). She “fled” because the enraged dragon, realising his defeat, turned on her (see v. 13). There was no hope of stopping Messiah anymore. The best he could do was stop Messiah’s people from flourishing. God, however, prepared a place for her in the wilderness, where he protected her from the dragon’s wrath.

As you read through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, you quickly discover that, while the wilderness was a place of provision, protection, and even growth, it was also a place of great trial and testing. As I said at the outset, I don’t want to spend a great deal of time unpacking the minute details of the text. There is a specific event that John is here prophesying, but the bigger lesson is that God would protect his people. He would not allow the dragon to touch the apple of his eye. But that did not mean that everything would be easy. The trials of the wilderness would be no walk in the park, but the woman had the assurance of divine protection.

The Significance of the Cosmic Christmas

Depending on how you interpret the book of Revelation, the events recorded in this chapter either happened in our distant past or will happen in our distant, or not-so-distant, future. What is the significance of the text for us in the present? We might draw a number of lessons from this text, but I want to highlight three that, I trust, will help our focus this Christmas season.

Focus on the Unseen

Though he was there the night Jesus was born, the dragon was not visible to the naked eye. We are presented here with a glimpse into the unseen realities of the opposition that Jesus faced that first Christmas—and for centuries leading to that first Christmas. The vision reminds us that there is a lot that is unseen behind the realities we see every day.

Christmas is a time when we can so easily focus on what can be seen. It is a time in our culture of rampant commercialism. We want to see gifts under the tree. We want to see friends and family. We want to see healthy servings of sometimes-not-so-healthy food.

This vision reminds us that there is a whole world of unseen realities that we need to remember this Christmas. There is a great red dragon who still hates God and his people and who wishes to wage war against him and his people. There is a spiritual battle raging around us, which tempts us in all sorts of areas. Because it is a time of relative ease and celebration, we can tend to overlook the temptations we face as Christians at this time of year.

In the unseen spiritual battle that rages around us, we will be tempted to neglect our devotion to Christ. We will be tempted to overindulge. We will be tempted to ingratitude. We will be tempted to bitterness and harshness toward others. These are evidences of the unseen war in which we are involved as Christians and we must not allow what is seen to put us off our guard.

Focus on the Great Commission

The vision shows the man child ruling with a rod of iron. The rod of iron is God’s instrument of judgement by which he will crush his enemies. But there is hope of escape from that judgement. There is hope for those who will kiss the Son and embrace his authority. But the world will only hear of that authority if we declare it.

Don’t allow Christmas celebrations to distract you from the Great Commission. This time, as at any time of the year, we are called to preach the gospel. There is often a great deal of goodwill at Christmas time but we must remember that our primary task is to point people to God’s good will toward sinners in Jesus Christ. As we express gratitude for gifts given to us, let us not neglect to tell others about God’s greatest gift in the person of Jesus Christ.

Focus on Christian Persecution

We will come back to this theme in our study of vv. 13–17, but for now let us realise that the dragon hates God and all who belong to God. The dragon viciously persecuted God’s people from the beginning, and while he knows that he failed to stop Messiah, he continues to oppose God’s people.

In countries like South Africa, we are tremendously privileged to enjoy freedom of worship. If we choose, we can gather each Sunday to worship Christ. That is a privilege we must not take for granted, for there are people around the world who do not have that privilege.

Take but one example. North Korea tops the Open Doors World Watch List, which is a list of the countries where Christian persecution is harshest. There was a time when North Korea was known as “the Jerusalem of the East.” In the early 1900s, more than two thousand Christian churches freely gathered for weekly worship on Sunday. Today, thanks to its Communist-inspired dictatorship, Christians have been driven underground. Christians—or anyone expressing any degree of interest in the Bible—are considered enemies of the state. Religious freedom is not tolerated.

Christians are routinely sent to prison and labour camps, where they are starved, overworked, and tortured. Government requires its citizens to act as spies to inform the government of any suspected Christian activity. Christianity cannot be safely practised in public. Entire families are punished if a single member converts. Analysts estimate that some thirty thousand Christians are imprisoned in labour camps across the country.

This is the reality that North Korean Christians face while Western Christians decide whether they will prioritise the gathering of the saints the day after Christmas. While we feast on roast lamb and snack on leftovers for days afterwards, North Korean Christians starve in concentration camps. While we decide whether we will have time this Christmas season to read our Bible, North Korean Christians lay their lives on the line for access to a Bible. This is the work of the great red dragon, who continues to oppose God’s people today.

Even as this opposition persists, the man child, who was caught up to God and to his throne, continues to rule with his rod of iron. As we enjoy a time of ease and relaxation, let’s use the time to remember our brothers and sisters in places in the world where the opposition of the dragon is harshest. Let’s pray that the man child, who rules with the rod of iron, will dash to pieces those who so viciously oppose his people under the influence of the great red dragon. Let’s pray that many—even his most vicious opponents—will kiss the Son and thereby avoid the destruction that awaits those who oppose him.

Conclusion

As you reflect this Christmas season on the birth of Jesus Christ, promised from the dawn of human history, allow Revelation 12 to guide your focus. As you are tempted to focus on ease and the commercialism of the season, allow yourself at the same time to focus on the unseen war that rages around you, on the need to be faithful with the Great Commission, and on our responsibility to pray for our brothers and sisters facing persecution for their faith in Christ.

AMEN