The woman, the child and the dragon

Sermon: Sunday, 28 January, 2024
Speaker: Alistair Donald
Scripture: Revelation 12

Have you ever asked yourself why it’s sometimes so hard to live a consistent Christian life? How come I am sometimes so lazy with Bible reading and prayer? Why do I get such a hard time from friends and neighbours – and even from family – when I take even the most tentative steps to sharing my faith in Jesus?

The answer, as Paul laid out clearly to the church in Ephesus, is that we’re engaged in spiritual battle against an enemy that is hard to pin down, because it’s an enemy that’s unseen: ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ (Ephesians 6:12) If we don’t grasp the force of this, then we’ll slide into living lives of compromise and spiritual flabbiness. We won’t grow as Christians. If we don’t wear the well-known spiritual armour listed by Paul – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and so on – then we simply won’t be in the fight at all. So, Christians are called on to opt out of being spiritual wimps, and get with the fight!

But what do the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms look like, and can we any make meaningful impact on them? That’s where our Bible reading comes in – Revelation chapter 12. Now, in order to orient ourselves, there are a couple of things to say about the Book of Revelation.

Firstly, it’s not an easy book to understand. But that doesn’t mean we should just downplay it. Doing that would mean depriving ourselves of an important part of God’s Word – what’s meant to be a great encouragement to believers, especially at times of opposition to the Christian faith. We read reports from time to time of someone finding a great work of art up in their loft. It’s been ignored for years, with the owner not realising that it’s a painting by one of the great masters. Well, this book is inspired by the greatest Master, and we are the ones who miss out if we put it away to the attic of our minds.

Secondly, it’s a type of writing with which we’re pretty unfamiliar. We know the difference between prose and poetry, both of which are in the Bible. But this is a different category of writing, hence its strangeness. It’s called ‘apocalyptic.’ Those who first read the book in the early church would have been familiar enough with its style: they would have known the Book of Daniel well. You may remember that the first 6 chapters of that book are fairly easy to follow – the various trials of Daniel and his friends. But chapters 7-12 are quite different as they are in this ‘apocalyptic’ style. The archangel Michael, described by Daniel as the protector of the people of God, makes a symbolic appearance there at the end of the book, as he does here in Revelation chapter 12. And that’s our clue for understanding the Book of Revelation.

This book may have become a playground of the Cults, and subject to all kinds of weird timetabling about the end of the world and so on. But its real purpose is simply one of encouragement in times of trial and persecution, using fantastical picture-language instead of straight prose or poetry. It’s there to help us understand what’s really going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the unseen world. Today’s passage is at the centre of the Book and is really quite key to its overall message.
You’ll probably be aware that the start of the book (chapters 2 and 3) consists of 7 letters from the risen Lord Jesus to 7 churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. They’re usually thought of as a kind of Prologue to the rest of the book. But I think the late Professor Jim Packer was right to say, it’s the other way round: Rather than being a Prologue to the rest of the book, the letters are the main thing. They describe the various problems that can arise in any church in any age – lukewarmness, pride, materialism, immorality and so on. The rest of the book can then be seen as a kind of long Appendix to the 7 letters – to explain the spiritual nature of the battle that’s going on behind the scenes when spiritual problems in churches arise.

Who’s in Revelation chapter 12?

We’re introduced to the various players in this heavenly drama. We read that a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. This woman is pregnant and she gives birth to a son, a male child, described as one who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre – the very words used in Psalm 2, the Messianic Psalm which the New Testament writers ascribe with confidence to Jesus. So if the man-child is Jesus, doesn’t that mean the woman is Mary? No, because that’s not the way Apocalyptic writings work. The woman is not Mary!

The clue as to her identity is that she’s clothed with the sun, moon and stars. Back in Genesis, Joseph shares his dream with his unreceptive brothers. He tells them that the sun, moon and 11 stars were bowing before him in the dream, representing his mother, father and the brothers who in due course became the tribes of Israel. So the woman clothed with the sun, moon and stars stands as a symbol for Old Testament Israel, the covenant people of God. It was this people who ‘gave birth’ to the Messiah. Later on in the chapter, the woman also represents the covenant people of God today, the Church.

And then there’s another player a sinister one: An enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. We’re told exactly who the dragon represents: the ancient snake called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. And the whole world is being led astray, isn’t it? All the wars… all the destruction… all the violence… all the greed. Anyone can see that this is not the way it’s meant to be! The dragon is powerful – the 7 heads with 7 crowns symbolise his authority as ‘Prince of this world’ (as Paul calls him), and the 10 horns symbolise that he deploys this authority with very great strength – although not universal strength as only one third of the stars are swept out of the sky in this picture-language, not the whole lot.

And we might well wonder: Can we Christians really overcome such a foe? Yes we can! But in the meantime, we’re confronted with the grotesque image where the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. This of course reminds us of how the life of the infant Jesus was nearly snuffed out by King Herod, in one of the more stark passages in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. And then in this chapter the fast-forward button is pressed, so that we move straight from Bethlehem to the Ascension : ‘And the child was snatched up to God and to his throne.’ (Revelation 12:5)

Meanwhile, the woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared by God for her, where she might be taken care of for a specified time – that’s all that 1,260 days means here. (Technical note: time, times and half a time stands of 2½ years, same as 1,260 days! – not a literal time, since all the numbers in Revelation are symbolic not literal. The point is that there will be periods of safety in the history of the church, as well as periods of persecution.)

And God does protect his church! She may be persecuted from time to time, but as Jesus himself said: ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ (Matthew 16:18) And so in verses 1-6, we’ve seen the background as to why we Christians often face struggles in our faith, or even outright opposition. We’re in a spiritual battle. From verse 7 onwards, we see how this plays out first in heaven and then here on earth, a battle which is always in play during the entire Christian era, and will be until Jesus comes again at the end of the age.

Spiritual warfare in heaven

It may seem strange that war breaks out in heaven, with the archangel Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. What’s the devil doing in heaven at all? Surely Satan can’t be in heaven? Well, Satan is traditionally thought of as an angel who rebelled and fell from grace, and Jesus did say, ‘I saw Satan fall from heaven.’ (Luke 10:18) But perhaps we should understand the location as ‘the heavenly realms’, meaning the unseen world of spiritual warfare between good and evil. C.S Lewis famously wrote in his book, The Screwtape Letters, that there are two mistakes the human race makes about devils: One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

The forces of evil in this world are real enough, and the Bible tells us that behind it all is a malign being who opposes God and all that is precious to him – especially the Church. But that being is not somehow equal in strength to God. No, for in the words of our passage, the dragon was not strong enough and he lost his place in heaven, instead being hurled down to the earth. That in itself is cause to pause and worship, as often happens in the Book of Revelation where John breaks off to say this: I heard a voice in heaven say, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah.’ (Revelation 12:10)

We may be more familiar with the similar wording in the previous Chapter immortalised the words of Handel’s Messiah: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever. Now that clearly refers to the second coming of Christ at the end of time, but this reference in Chapter 12 refers to his first coming because it centres on the death of Jesus on the cross. ‘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 brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night has been hurled down.’ (Revelation 12:10)

You know that little voice inside that tells you that you’re no good as a Christian? The one that niggles away at you, saying what a waste of space you are in the church? That’s the Accuser, the devil or Satan, who also accused Job before you. But the Accuser has been hurled down! Don’t listen to him! Resist the Devil and he will flee, as James wisely said in his letter. How do Christians triumph over the Accuser? It’s written right here in v11: They overcame him by the blood of the lamb… and by the word of their testimony. ‘The blood of the lamb’ simply being the symbolic picture of the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, for our sins.

How often do we have to keep coming back to the cross? Every day. As some old Christian writers used to say,’Keep short accounts with God.’ In other words, don’t run up a whole pile of unconfessed sin. Keep going back to the cross. That’s the way we get our sins forgiven and that’s the way we resist the voice of the Accuser. They triumphed over him, by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony. Ah yes. Our testimony. Being witnesses to the Lord Jesus to those who don’t know him. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think this ever gets easier. They triumphed over him, by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony. They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens, and you who dwell in them! But then some less welcome news for us: But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.

Spiritual warfare on earth

That explains a lot about what’s happening to our fellow Christians in many parts of the world. In Nigeria, just in the past few weeks, terrible things have happened that you won’t hear about on the TV news: Since Christmas, hundreds of Christians have been murdered in Nigeria; A Christian pastor murdered, his wife abducted and a ransom demanded; 5 Christian girls prevented by Sharia police from going to church. What’s going on? The dragon is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. The suffering of believers, though real and painful, and inflicted by powerful opponents, are just symptoms of the Dragon’s desperation.

Now here in Scotland, we don’t face persecution on that scale. But is it impossible for us to imagine that we might every face something similar? The message of Revelation 12 is that we should be ready if it ever comes to that. But the Christian faith certainly faces other aspects of hostility from many quarters in this country at the present time. How come any religion or ideology seems to get a free pass in modern Scotland, with the sole exception of Christianity? Surely this too should not surprise us, if we pay attention to the message of this Chapter of God’s word?

The final few verses just replay in a bit more detail what we’ve already seen. The dragon pursues the woman, which we can think of here as the Church. But she gets taken care of, escaping on a giant eagle. This figure of speech goes right back to Mt Sinai, where God reminds the people, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself.’ (Exodus 19:4) The woman is flown to a place of safety in the wilderness, out of the reach of her pursuer, for a specified time (2½ years) but again – a remember not a literal time. Just a specified, limited time). You’ll see that the dragon is now referred to the snake.

And he’s not finished with the woman yet. From his mouth the snake spewed water like a river. What comes out of the mouth? Words. In this case, the devil’s lies, trying to sweep the woman away with his torrent of lies. The lie that a Christian lives a stunted and restrictive life – when the truth is that only the Christian knows true freedom from sin and selfishness; the lie that the church will just die out, as its detractors fondly hope – when the truth is that Jesus has promised that the very gates of hell shall not prevail against it. But the torrent of lies doesn’t sweep the woman away, as the earth opens up to contain the flood. And neither should we let the Devil’s lies get to us! The final image is that the serpent-dragon is enraged at the woman – who remember, is the covenant community of faith – and goes off to wage war against the rest of her offspring. Who now might that be? Those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. And that would be you and me.

So what do we learn from the extravagant imagery of this chapter? That spiritual warfare is real. If we deny that, we’re deluding ourselves. There is an unseen realm behind our daily living, which Paul correctly describes as involving spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Sometimes the opposition to the Gospel is violent and murderous. This helps us understand what’s going on in some parts of the world today, where the church appears to be on the back foot, in retreat. The devil is filled with fury, but he knows that his time is short.

Spiritual warfare comes to every Christian. All of us at times are weighed down by thoughts that we’re not much good at Christian living. We need to remember that the Accuser is on our case – but resist the devil and he will flee!

Finally, all spiritual warfare comes down to remembering the central place of the Cross. This is how we overcome the evil one: They triumphed over him by the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony. And may that be true of all of us.