Tuesday, May 28, 2019

War in Heaven-Revelation 12:7-17

Last week we looked at compelling characters described in Revelation that really contribute to the unfolding saga described therein. Another element of great storytelling is conflict. Rising tension, fallout, and resolution are mainstays in classic literature, award-wining films, etc. The same is true of Revelation. One such conflict is described in Revelation 12:7-17. There, those introduced in Revelation 12:1-6 are included among those involved in a battle of cosmic proportions with one important additional character. How this conflict ensues and the fallout that occurs thereafter help reinforce the disparity between the awesome power of God and the futile efforts of Satan for those who are children of God.  

1. PHASE #1: The Skirmish-12:7-9

The first phase of the war in heaven that John discloses is the skirmish itself. The battle lines of this are as follows: “And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war…” (12:7). There are at least four different interpretive possibilities for when the “war in heaven” described here occurs. First, some believe that this describes a spiritual conflict that occurred behind the scenes in John’s day. Others hold that his is a retelling of the initial struggle between Lucifer and God in the beginning (see 12:4 and the discussion mentioned there). Still others take a figurative view and place this conflict at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. However, the best interpretation given the time frame mentioned before and after this verse (1260 days in verse 6 and “a time, times, and half a time” in verse 14) and other contextual clues is that this war in heaven is a future end-time event occurring midway through the tribulation period (Daniel’s seventieth week) (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 129). This will be a final heavenly struggle that anticipates the final earthly struggle (Armageddon) and the ultimate end to the program of Satan thereafter (following the 1000 millennial kingdom).

In the battle described in Revelation 12 you have two sides: Michael and his forces and the Dragon (Satan) and his. Michael is an archangel who has served as a special patron of the people of Israel (Dan. 10:13, 21). He is the same Michael that is prophesied to be involved in the end and the same Michael that has experience battling against Satan.

Daniel 12:1-“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.”

Jude 9-“But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

On the other side of this spiritual conflict is the dragon the reader was introduced to earlier in chapter 12. Some might wonder, what Satan (the dragon) is doing in heaven here in the future? In Revelation 12:4 the reader was led to believe that he fell along with a third of the angelic hosts long ago. While this is the case, evidence in the Scriptures suggests that Satan, while subjugated to the earth, is still able to access the heavens. After all, does he not have a conversation with God about Job (Job 2:1-6)? Does he not accuse the brethren before God (Zech. 3:1-2; Rev. 12:10)? Certainly, the “doorway” to heaven is not shut to Satan at present. However, this will change following this coming war when he will be forcibly and permanently expelled from this privileged domain.

This expulsion will come as “they (Satan and his minions) were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven” (12:8). Unable to defeat Michael and his forces, Satan will be relegated to life “down below”—no longer able to enter the realm of heaven.

This is what John reveals in verse 9—“And the great dragon was thrown down to the earth; we have thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9). Notice the repetition of “thrown down” in this verse 3 times. Two characteristics of this thrice-repeated word make it especially emphatic. First, it is aorist, indicating completed action—i.e. thrown down once and for all. Second, it is passive indicating that the dragon and his angels were forcibly removed from the domain of heaven by a much larger, stronger party. In other words, the war in heaven was a war that Satan had no business entering into—a war that had a very clear winner (Michael) and loser (the Dragon).

2. PHASE #2: The Celebratory Hymn-12:10-12

This coming lop-sided victory in the spiritual realm triggers a realization that is voiced by 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” (12:10a). Throughout this book, spontaneous hymns like this have functioned like a Greek chorus in a play that both celebrates what has just occurred and interprets its significance (Osborne, Revelation, 473). While the victory celebrated in this hymn is framed in what appears to be the past tense in English, it describes realities that are as good as done and yet not yet visible. In other words, Michael’s expulsion of Satan from the heavenly realm means that the end is in sight in which ultimate salvation is realized and Christ’s authority over all is witnessed. As the hymn progresses beyond this initial exclamation, the significance of Michael’s demonstrative victory over the Dragon is highlighted in three ways in verses 10-12.

First, Michael’s victory means “the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night” (12:10b). Here, the dragon is called an accuser which describes a person who brings serious charges or accusations against someone. The form of the verb here (present participle) implies a steady and consistent stream of accusations pouring forth from the mouth of the dragon before God in heaven and calls to mind what Satan is up to in heaven even now.
Zech. 3:1-“Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him”

As the father of lies, Satan stands before God and lies about God’s children—implying they are left in their sin and guilt even though they have been saved by Christ. Though these charges against the saved are futile, Satan’s hatred for God and his people continues to fuel this losing prosecutor in his worthless endeavor to bring condemnation on the brethren.

In the face of these charges brought against believers in the heavenly court, the redeemed overcome—“ And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death,…” (12:11). In other words, believers, in the face of Satan’s charges, are victorious in court because the blood of the lamb has already paid for their sin and is the centerpiece of their testimony before God. “The real basis for all spiritual victory is always the cross rather than one’s own strength…indeed, the saints have been ‘made white in the blood of the Lamb’ (7:14)…the basic message of the Apocalypse is that Satan has already been defeated at the cross, and the victory of the saints is assured.” (Osborne, Revelation, 476). Jesus’ own testimony of victory over sin and death has become the testimony of his followers who enjoy the same victory by being found in him.

2 Corinthians 5:17-“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come”

Romans 6:4-“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life”

Romans 8:1-“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Because victory for believers is found in Christ (his person and work), the hymn states “they did not love their life even when faced with death” (12:11). In other words, death is nothing to fear for believers. Along with the apostle Paul God’s children can say “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

The victory believers have in Christ engenders two other responses—the response of heaven and the response of earth. “for the reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them” (12:12a). All of heaven is pleased with the victory of Christ and those who follow him over sin and death. After all, the kingdom of God is at hand and a new heaven and a new earth is on its way!

However, the earth reacts very differently to the victory believers have in Christ—“Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he only has a short time” (12:12b). In the Old Testament heaven and earth are typically called upon to rejoice together (see Ps. 96:11; Isa. 44:23; 49:13). However, since the earth has come under the power of Satan and antichrist during this future tribulation period (to be explained in greater detail as the beast is introduced later), whenever heaven rejoices, the earth mourns as these two realms operate under polar opposite agendas.

Once again, the apocalyptic tone of this book is in view as realms collide. What happens in heaven suffers consequences on the earth. Not only have some been expelled from heaven down to the earthly realm, but so too does the celebration in heaven result in the dread is disillusionment of those on the earth. The lines between these two dimensions is blurred and, eventually will be totally erased as God brings about a new heaven and a new earth.  

3. PHASE #3: The Aftermath-12:13-17

Following the skirmish and the celebratory hymn is the aftermath. After being relegated and limited to the earthly realm, Satan turns the lion share of his frustrated energy toward the woman introduced earlier—“and when the dragon saw that the was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who have birth to the male child” (12:13). Earlier, it was argued that the woman represents Israel and the male child Christ (see notes on Revelation 12:1-6). During the second half the tribulation, once Satan is prohibited from entering the heavenly domain, attacks against God’s people still alive on the earth, particularly in Jerusalem with a large group of recently converted Jews, will grow more acute. Interestingly, the verb for persecute means “to follow with haste and presumably with intensity of effort, in order to catch up with for…hostile purpose” (Louw Nida). Perhaps a more modern-day colloquialism would be “began to hunt down.”

However, even in this endeavor the dragon is frustrated—“but the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time from the presence of the serpent” (12:14). The wings of the eagle mentioned here suggest strength and rapid flight—the likes of which was witnessed in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (see Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11; Isa. 40:31). Just as Israel’s flight from Egyptian slavery was literal, so too does this flight appear to be literal and coincides with what was mentioned in 12:6—“Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days”. In fact 1260 days = a time, times, and half a time (time corresponding to 1 year-see Dan. 7:25; 12:7). Revelation likes to refer to this period in various ways: months (11:2; 13:5), days (11:3; 12:6), and times (12:14). All of these refer to the great tribulation and/or second half of the 7-year tribulation period. In both this trying period and in the wilderness wandering of Exodus, God supplies his people with nourishment and protection.

Such is required considering what comes against the people of God next—“And the serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, so that he might cause her to be swept away with the flood…” (12:15). Whether this flood refers to a literal flash flood brought on by supernatural means or an offensive lodge by a large standing army (see Jer. 46:7-8; 47:2-3) is difficult to determine. However, this much is known for sure, since Satan cannot pursue the woman as initially desired, he attempts to get to her by other means—i.e. this flood.

“But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and drank up the river which the dragon poured out of his mouth” (12:16). This is a brilliant example of anthropomorphism—a literary device in which human attributes are given to something inhuman to describe what is taking place. The earth is described as actively assisting the woman and opening its mouth to protect her from the flood poured out by the serpent. This demonstrates the lengths to which God will go to provide protection for his people—even going so far as supernaturally opening up the earth and swallowing whatever is coming against her.

These failed attempts against both God and his chosen people infuriate the dragon—“So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). Because God is supernaturally protecting a remnant of saved Jews in and around the nation of Israel, Satan decides to go after any other recent convert (Jew or Gentile), wherever they may be on the earth during the latter half of the tribulation period. His appetite for destruction appears insatiable, especially now that he knows his time is nearly up. With the clock running down, he will not stop seeking to cause as much devastation as possible for God’s people wherever they are.

So What?

The skirmish, celebratory hymn, and fallout that ensues in Revelation 12:7-17 help reinforce the awesome power of God over his many foes, even Satan himself. God is so much bigger, stronger, and infinitely above the Dragon that he doesn’t believe that a battle with Satan is worthy of his own personal attention and instead calls upon an archangel to deal with it. Michael deals with it soundly and Satan is expelled from heaven. Frustrated by his own humiliation, he decides to take it out on God’s people and even there he is frustrated at every turn. Hopefully, we can all walk away from this passage with a smaller view of the devil and a larger view of our Lord.

I am prayerful that this text also reminds us from where our victory ultimately lies. Ultimate victory for God’s people is assured and already finalized thanks to Christ’s completed work on the cross. Because Jesus died and was raised from the dead, we can know life even in death no matter what may stand against us through faith and repentance. We too, as those mentioned in this passage, overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony regardless of the tribulation we face. Because the blood of the ab covers us, who can bring charges against us? Because Jesus’ testimony of ultimate victory has become our own, what can intimidate or discourage us? Praise the Lord!

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Compelling Cast of Characters-Revelation 12:1-6

Last Sunday a popular show aired its much-anticipated finale—Game of Thrones. Though I haven’t watched a single episode (nor would I recommend it to anyone given its lewdness and much of its graphic content), this show was such a big cultural phenomenon that I could not help but hear about it from time to time from multiple sources. So big was this show and the lead up to its end that even sports talk radio (a source of a kind of escapism for me)—couldn’t help but waist time talking about it. I say this because this is how I learned about the collective response to the show’s final episode. Many, according to the sports commentators I listen to from time to time, were disappointed with how things resolved. Thankfully, I know a narrative that is always compelling, never disappoints, and resolves perfectly. When it comes to epics, compared to the Bible, all others are inferior! This is especially the case with the book of Revelation. As with every good epic, Revelation contains lead characters that perform many of the activities in the plot. In Revelation 12-14, we are introduced to several important characters that serve significant roles throughout the Apocalypse. The first three of these will be introduced today as we look at Revelation 12:1-6.

A. The Woman-12:1-2

Following the blowing of the seventh trumpet, John enters another long literary interlude (or pause) that breaks up the unfolding action of Revelation. As a result, the reader must wait to see the pouring of the bowls until chapters 15 and 16. In this interlude, John introduces us to some of the major players that are at work during the coming tribulation period. The apostle registers these characters by means of a “great sign” –“a great sign appeared in heaven” (12:1a). This next “sign” along with all of the other visions, auditions, and other sensory phenomena highlight the special apocalyptic character of the book.  Remember, the book of Revelation is introduced as “the Apocalypse (unveiling) of Jesus Christ.” Even this title celebrates the visual nature of the work. The signs in Revelation refer either to divinely sent symbols or dramatic presentations that depict heavenly realities. In this particular sign, the reader will be introduced to major characters on either side of the major struggle taking place between God’s people and the forces of evil. It is important to also mention that one of the unique quirks about these “signs” and literary pauses is that unlike John’s description of the unfolding action (seals, trumpets, and bowls, etc.) the apostle is not limited to time or space. In this sign especially, John is going to jump around history (past, present, and future) to describe these characters and what they will be up to in the final age of history.

Think of it like a fisheye lens. A fisheye lens allows viewers a very wide perspective of what is in focus along with things before it, after it, and all around it. Now that John is outside of time and space, he can look at and describe these familiar characters by means of who they were, are, and will be, with great efficiency.

The first character introduced in this sign is “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,…” (12:1b). Though some have argued that the “woman” in this sign represents the virgin Mary or God Himself, the overwhelming evidence both contextually (given the passages surrounding this verse) and canonically (given what is found elsewhere in the Scriptures) points to Israel as the best possible choice. After all, immediately before this passage John saw “the temple of God…opened; and the ark of His covenant” (11:19)—two very important Israeli themes. Also, in verse 2, the reader will soon learn that this woman is in the travails of childbirth. This is similar to how Israel is described in and among the Old Testament prophets (Isa. 26:17-18; 66:7; Jer. 4:31; 13:21; Mic. 4:10; 5:3). However, the best evidence that supports the idea that this woman represents Israel is found all the way back in Genesis 37:1-9. There, Joseph, son of Jacob, has several peculiar dreams that all pertain to his family. In his second dream, Joseph reveals the following: “Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And “He related it to his father and to his brothers” (Gen. 37:9-10a). “It is generally agreed that the ‘sun and moon’ refer to Joseph’s parents, Jacob and Rachel, while the [12] stars are his brothers” (i.e. the twelve tribes of Israel) (Osborne, Revelation, 456). Therefore, as this woman is characterized by all of these celestial bodies connected to Jacob and his family (later named Israel), it is most probable that she represents the nation of Israel (see also Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 120-21).

John reveals next that “she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth,…” (12:2). Again, the analogy of Israel as a woman in childbirth is pervasive within the Old Testament prophets (Isa. 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-18; 61:7-8; 66:7ff; Jer. 4:31; 13:21; 22:23; Hos. 13:13; Mic. 4:10; 5:2-3). The idea conveyed here, especially in what will soon be learned about the boy mentioned in verse 5-6, is that as a woman experiences pain in the delivery of her child, so too did the nation of Israel in preparation for the coming of Christ. These “labor pains” associated with what precluded the incarnation of Christ may include slavery in Egypt, drama during the days of the judges, scandal among the kings of Israel, the splitting of the kingdom, exile, Roman rule, etc. So far, our understanding of this woman has been helped along by who she was when she first began (in the nation of Israel’s infancy in the house of Jacob) and how she suffered leading up to the advent of Jesus (prior to his birth). However, in verse 6, John will jump all the way to the future tribulation and discloses what this woman (the nation of Israel) will be up to during the worst of this coming era.
B. The Red Dragon-12:3-4

The second character introduced in this passage emerges as “another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems,…” (12:3). Readers are not left to wonder who/what this dragon is as in both 12:9 and in 20:2, John reveals his identity in no uncertain terms.

Revelation 12:9-“And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world…”

Revelation 20:2-“And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan…”

The description of the dragon is equal parts scary and fascinating. First, the dragon is called “great” and “red” indicating that he is both large and either “flame-colored” (highlighting his destructive powers) or “blood-red” (murderous) (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 122). Both accentuate gruesome connotations surrounding his agenda and something of his appetite for devouring the things of God. This theme of the scary and insatiable appetite of the dragon is carried along by the number of heads and the number of horns he possesses. Though more will be discussed and interpretations offered for what these appendages (and their number) represent later, needless to say, this is a powerful and awful creature to behold. The seven heads and seven diadems seem to point to the relative sovereignty the dragon has over the earthly realm as seven often insinuates completion and “heads” and “diadems” symbolize authority. However, this authority is bequeathed or allowed by an even greater authority and is only temporarily enjoyed. The ten horns probably allude to Daniel 7:7-8, 20, 24 and implicate ten world rulers under the dragon’s control. Ten, though greater than seven, often indicates imitation and/or the kind of decadence that swallows those who give themselves over to it.
The dramatic presentation continues in verse 4—“and his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.” Again (think about the fisheye lens), John is not limited to time and space in this vision. In this moment, the apostle is witnessing the original war in heaven in which Lucifer and his followers (a third of the heavenly host) rebelled against God (see Ezek. 28:13ff; Isa. 14:12-15). In that time, a prideful Lucifer desired God’s place and as a result is subjugated to the earthly realm along with many other angels who follow after him. Having convinced many hosts to join his rebellion against God, Satan has been about the destruction of the world to which he was sent ever since.

Principle among these programs of destruction involves everything pertaining to Christ—the God man. Inasmuch as Jesus is both man (God’s greatest creation which Satan can’t stand) and God (the primary foe of the Devil), Christ represents everything that the dragon cannot stand. This is why the dragon is witnessed in verse 4 standing “before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child” (12:4b). Evidence that this child is Christ is provided in passages that depict Jesus as coming from Israel.

Micah 5:2-“ But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

Isaiah 11:1-“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 23:5-“The Lord says, “The time is coming when I will choose as king a righteous descendant of David. That king will rule wisely and do what is right and just throughout the land.”

The emergence of Jesus from the line of Israel spells disaster for Satan. No one knows this better than Lucifer himself. After all, remember how God cursed him all the way back in the Garden of Eden.  

Genesis 3:15-“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."

Ever since this prophecy of the ultimate demise of Satan was uttered, the Devil has stopped at nothing to frustrate the plans and people of God. However, ultimately, these efforts will prove futile.

C. The Boy-12:5-6

The futility of the program of the dragon can be seen in the emergence of the boy mentioned next in verses 5-6. John reveals that the woman already described (Israel) “gave birth to a son, a male child” (12:5a). This child is none other than Jesus Christ and this event refers to his birth to a virgin named Mary in Bethlehem.

Though born to a young girl and raised by a humble carpenter, Jesus is the one “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5b). John skips Jesus’ earthly life and ministry and jumps all of the way to his final victory. This doesn’t sound as though Satan will ultimately be gaining any ground against this boy. The rule that Jesus will have is described by means of a reference to Psalm 2:9.

Psalm 2:9-“You shall break them with a rod of iron, you shall shatter them like earthenware.”

This reference in Revelation 12:5 (and earlier in 2:27) depicts Jesus as a shepherd dashing the nations to pieces like pottery with his staff (see Revelation 19:15) (Osborne, Revelation, 463). This will take place in Revelation 19:15 at the final battle and subsequent victory at Armageddon.

After moving from his birth to his final victory, John next describes the snatching up of Jesus at his ascension (I  keep telling you that John jumps around a lot) 😊—“and her child was caught up to God and to His throne” (12:5c). Jesus is waiting this ultimate end of Satan from his prominent place at God’s right hand—a position that he has occupied ever since ascending to heaven some days following his resurrection. He is untouchable and awaiting the green light to finally and once and for all vanquish the enemies of God and his people.

Because the Dragon cannot (and will not) touch Jesus, he directs his wicked energy toward God’s people on the earth. Though this is the case in any day and age, this will be even more acute in the tribulation period under the program of the Antichrist. However, even there, the Dragon’s plans are frustrated--“Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days,…” (12:6). Though the tribulation will include seven years (see Dan. 9:24ff), it is during the second half (second 3.5 years) in which the abomination of desolation (the Antichrist) will reveal his true colors and extreme persecution against the nation of Israel and those converted during the tribulation period will take place. 1260 days is equal to 3.5 years according to the Jewish calendar (which has only 360 days in a year) and probably refers to the “great tribulation” or second half of the tribulation period (see also Dan. 7:25; 12:7).

During this period, the dragon (Satan) will pursue the woman (Israel) and she will flee to a place that God has prepared beforehand as a source of refuge and nourishment (perhaps spiritual, perhaps physical, perhaps both). The idea of God preparing a place beforehand for his people betrays his sovereign provision for his people (Osborne, Revelation, 464). Though the exact location of this hideaway is unknown, it will be somewhere “in the wilderness.”

God’s provision for his people in the desert helps reinforce the interpretive choice made earlier for the woman as a representation of the nation of Israel. Throughout her history, God’s people have been preserved in the wilderness as a result of the Lord’s provision (following captivity in Egypt and while in exile). So too will this be the case again in a future period of great pressure and persecution against the people of God.

So What?

As we are introduced to these characters and their role in the coming tribulation period there are several timeless truths that ought to encourage God’s people today in this chapter of God’s grand story. First, God is the author of the greatest story ever told and as its author, he is in total control of what happens and how it all unfolds. This ought to inspire believers today when they grow discouraged by what they see or frustrated by the inferior narratives being sold by the world and the enemies of God today. Even at the very end, as depicted in Revelation, hints of God’s sovereign hand can be traced all the way back to the beginning and everywhere in between. Praise the Lord!

Second, three axioms will always hold true: God’s people will receive God’s provision; God’s people suffer frustration at the hands of the devil; God’s people will know ultimate victory through Jesus Christ.

The question we must ask of ourselves and of others is this: are we counted among God’s people today? Is our life’s story a part of the greater story that God has been writing since the beginning of time? Ultimately, it is the only story with a good and enduring ending—all inferior narratives will die. Just ask Satan!