, , ,

Reflecting on the text (Revelation 12)

If one thing has consistently characterized human beings from the dawn of time up to our own day, it is our love of stories. We love to tell, hear, write, make up, and act out stories.

We tell stories about tiny experiences as well as huge events, about things that matter greatly and things that are just plain silly. Without stories none of us would be able to make sense of the world.

Entire cultures and societies often revolve around a few central stories, and in our own society those stories are repeatedly celebrated in print and on the silver screen. In the Ancient World (as in our own), many such stories concerned how the world came into being. Other stories have to do with what god (or the gods) are up to.

One of the most popular myths in John’s day supposedly took place on an island called Delos, which was not far from Patmos (where John was in exile when he wrote Revelation).

This story is about Zeus, the king of the gods, who had a son with a woman named Leto. Python, a sea dragon, knew that Zeus’ son would forever be more powerful than himself, so he set out to destroy this child at birth. But Leto fled to Delos, well beyond Python’s reach, and gave birth to the divine Apollo. Instead of being killed, Apollo later returned to Delphi and killed Python.

Many of the Roman emperors found in this story a great way to spread their own power and fame. They began to tell the story with the goddess Roma as the mother and themselves as her divine sons. Nero actually erected statues to himself as the god Apollo, and he made coins with his picture and Apollo’s name across the front.

John is obviously alluding to this story, but he completely redefines the main characters and contradicts its current political application. Immediately we must ask, who do the characters represent in his version?

The one thing we can say about the woman is that she is the bearer of the Messiah. This much is clear. But it is difficult to be much more specific than that. Some say she is Mary, or Israel, or even the church. I like how one scholar put it, “The woman is not Mary, nor Israel, nor the church but less and more than all of these.”

The identity of the dragon is less ambiguous. John tells us directly that this symbol represents “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan” (12.9).

Satan’s goal here is simple: to destroy the Messiah. This corresponds exactly to what John says in his Gospel (see John 12.31-33; 13.2; 14.30-31)

But isn’t it strange that John seems to jump directly from Jesus’ birth to his ascension? This is probably because John doesn’t have in mind Jesus’ birth (or at least not just his birth), but his coronation ceremony—the day he was crowned king. This would explain the allusion to Psalm 2 in Revelation 12.5. In Psalm 2, which is a song about the enthronement of a new king, God says to the king (2.7):

“You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”

To be “God’s son” means quite simply to be the King of God’s people. John’s point in all this is, as it has been all along, that in the cross Jesus became king. Let that sink in for a minute, and remember that the moment of coronation was by definition the moment of the new king’s victory over competitors to the throne. In other words, Jesus defeated Satan by dying on the cross and thus assumed his rightful place as King.

Ironic, isn’t it? In fact, this is the great irony of the book of Revelation. Satan tried to destroy the son by getting him killed (see John references above), but it was through the cross that Satan was defeated (Rev 12.11). (Or as a very cheesy but theologically accurate t-shirt I had in high school put it, “Jesus beat the devil… with two sticks.”

This would explain why Michael fights Satan in heaven (instead of Jesus). In the book of Revelation, what happens in heaven always has its counterpart in real life events on the earth. Michael’s victory over Satan is another way of viewing Jesus’ victory on the cross. (As has been said, “We need two worlds to make sense out of one.”) Jesus’ death and Michael’s victory are the same event from two perspectives, and again the point is that in his death Jesus wins the decisive battle against evil.

Living what we learn

Let’s flesh this out a bit. In the Old Testament Satan was presented as a heavenly prosecutor whose aim is to challenge (if not destroy) people’s faith in God (Job 1-2). From the limited view we get, we might say his goal was to remind God (and us) how bad we truly are.

So what does it mean for our accuser to have lost his job, which is exactly what John says here in Revelation 12?

In Paul’s words, it means that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1). The picture (in John as well as Paul) is of a heavenly courtroom, and Satan, the prosecutor, no longer has any evidence to bring against us, the defendants. Why? Because, as the old song says, Jesus has “washed our sins away.”

This is only one of the many ways of construing Jesus’ defeat of Evil Personified, and it is one we must remember and celebrate. Our pasts no longer need haunt us. The one who likes to bring up our mistakes has been fired, and no other is standing in the courtroom but Jesus.

Satan no longer has the power to tell us who we are. We are not stupid, ugly, evil, worthless, or anything else he tries to say. We are all much loved children of God. Period.

But, as we all know, this doesn’t mean everything will be easy.

Like John’s hearers, we believe John when he affirms that our ultimate security rests safely in God’s hands. This is the significance of the 1260 days, as well as the “time, times and half a time” of protection for the people of the Messiah (both equaling 3½ years, representing the limited amount of time when Satan has power).

But like them, we too know by experience that sometimes following Jesus can hurt. If we’re honest, we can all admit that sometimes belonging to him makes life quite complicated. Sometimes we even wonder if following Jesus is worth it.

Interestingly, the dragon is given two titles in this story. The first is accuser (“the satan”). As we have learned, this aspect of his role has been severely limited by Jesus’ defeat of death on the cross. The second is deceiver (“the devil”). This is primarily how he “makes war” against “those who obey God’s command and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12.17).

Satan’s goal is to deceive us into thinking one thing: that trusting God isn’t worth it. Just like in the garden, he aims to convince us that God does not have our best interests in mind (Genesis 3). In chapter 13 we will learn some of Satan’s tactics, which are at the same time personal and political, but for now let’s just get this one idea down: Satan wants us to believe things that aren’t true, about God, ourselves, the world, etc, etc.

So don’t get duped.

God is always good, evil has been defeated, and pledging allegiance to Jesus is always worth it. Or to put it otherwise, to line up with Jesus is to line up with the One who has overcome evil by dying so that all may live. It is to walk in the light (or perhaps the shadow) of his paradoxical victory.