Christmas Bible readings from Matthew and Luke are typical, but there are other places in Scripture that speak about Jesus’ birth. The Book of Revelation is a word from God to his people about the realities in heaven that effect and direct human history, things which we cannot see with our natural eyes, spiritual happenings. Chapter 12 uses symbols to describe a cosmic battle that rages between God and Satan. And Jesus’ birth is an important part of this struggle.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman dressed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of 12 stars and being pregnant, she cries out in labor pains, tormented to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: Look! A great red dragon having 7 heads and 10 horns, and upon his heads 7 diadems, and his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.
And the dragon stood before the woman, the one about to give birth, so that when she gives birth he may devour her child. (Revelation 12:1-4)
If you have not spent time reading the Book of Revelation, it can be a strange experience at first, like stepping into a sort of theological Alice in Wonderland. The Book of Revelation is filled with apocalyptic literature, a style of writing that uses many symbols.
In this section we see several important symbols. The woman who is dressed in the sun is a symbol for God’s chosen people, Israel. God’s people are often spoken of in Scripture as God’s wife or bride. In the Old Testament Israel is God’s wife. In the New Testament the Church is the Bride of Christ.
The woman’s child is the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the one he promised to send as savior of his people. He is Jesus.
The dragon is obviously an enemy of the woman and her child, that is, an enemy of Israel and Messiah Jesus. The dragon with his 7 heads and 10 horns and 7 diadems represents political power. The diadems on the dragon’s heads are crowns.
There are 2 kinds of crowns in the Book of Revelation. Stephanos is a crown made of a wreath. It is given to winning athletes and worn at feasts and celebrations. It is usually made of some type of greenery that fades quickly. But the diadem is made of precious metals and stones, jewels. It is worn by kings and queens. It is a symbol of empire, of political and military power. The dragon wields political power.
Nations and their leaders who are enemies of God’s people are often symbolized by giant dangerous creatures, like dragons and leviathans. Pharaoh and Egypt were enemies of God’s people in the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh tried to destroy the Hebrews, God’s people, by throwing all their baby boys in the Nile River. In the Book of Esther, we read about Haman in the ancient kingdom of Babylon. Haman had political power which he tried to use as a tool to destroy the Jews who were in exile in Babylon. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem King Herod tried to destroy him, killing all the babies in that town. So, this red dragon represents political powers and their leaders who try to destroy God’s people so that his chosen Messiah cannot come and carry out his mission. But there is more to it.
And she birthed a son, a boy who is about to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron, and her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.(Revelation 12:5)
This is an apocalyptic version of the Gospel, Jesus’ life and ministry from a heavenly perspective. We are familiar with the 4 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which give us an earthly view of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke is filled with things familiar to us: taxes, a pregnant woman, a long journey, a town packed with travelers, the cradle, the animals, the shepherds. True, we still have the angels, but the earthly focus is unmistakable.
In Revelation 12:5, however, we are given a different perspective. Jesus’ birth, life and ascension back to God in heaven is reduced to one verse. The focus here is on his role as king. He will rule all the nations with a rod of iron. No nation, people or culture will defy the rule of Jesus. Jesus is King of kings. His rule is unbreakable, a rod of iron. His rule is endorsed by God. Jesus is welcomed to God’s throne. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people in the Old Testament. God promised to send his Anointed One as a descendant of Abraham. And God promised that he would be the one to rule forever. Jesus is born to rule.
These verses tell us 2 things. First, Jesus’ birth is one of God’s great goals in history. And second, Jesus’ birth leads to his universal eternal rule.
And the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God so that they might care for her 1,260 days.
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels made war against the dragon and the dragon and his angels made war. And he was not able nor was a place found for them any longer in heaven.
And the great dragon was thrown out, the ancient serpent, the one called the Devil and Satan, the one leading astray the whole inhabited earth, he was thrown to earth and his angels were thrown down with him.(Revelation 12:6-9)
If we have any doubt about the identity of the dragon it is dispelled in this section. The Lord wants to be sure that we know who the red dragon represents. He is more than a symbol for nations and their leaders who are hostile to God and his people. He is a powerful person using those nations and rulers against God and his people. He is the ancient serpent, the one who tempted Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden and so lead all humanity into a fallen state. He is the one called the Devil, which means slanderer. He is the one called Satan, which means adversary. He is the one who leads the whole world astray. Just as he persuaded Adam and Eve to doubt God’s word, so he still persuades people, communities, cultures, societies and nations today. His first recorded words, “Did God really say?” are still his most effective tool.
John’s vision includes a great battle in the heavenly realms between the Angel Michael and all the angels who follow him, fighting against the dragon, Satan, and his angels. Despite Satan’s great power, he loses and is expelled from heaven. All of this is a reminder that what we see in history is driven by forces which are invisible to our natural eyes. Spiritual warfare rages all around us. We see and experience the results. The results are broken lives and families, broken communities and nations. The battle is real and the losses are tragic. But these visions show that there is a victory and it belongs to God.
And I heard a loud voice in the heaven saying, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brothers is thrown out, the one accusing them before our God day and night. (Revelation 12:10)
The scene shifts in verse 10. John hears a loud voice of praise in heaven, God’s dwelling place. What follows in an expression of worship. Songs of worship are found throughout the Bible and they are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture to read and meditate upon. But many of the worship songs before the Book of Revelation use the form, To God be, To God be the glory, the power, the honor, and so forth. It is an expression of hope and belief about the future: may it be. But the loud voice in heaven affirms that the time of God’s victory is no longer in the future, the kingdom of God is no longer merely potential, Now are the salvation and power and kingdom of God. Jesus began his preaching ministry by proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. He taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. But John’s vision of the worship in heaven sees the time when God’s kingdom is consummated. Note that God’s kingdom is closely related to the authority of Jesus, the one born to rule.
The consummation of God’s kingdom rule is also important for God’s people. They are the ones who were being harassed by Satan. He accuses them before God night and day. His accusations may include lies, since he is the great deceiver, but they are damaging because they also contain some truth. God’s people have sinned and rebelled against the Lord. Satan knows that for God’s holiness to remain intact, for his righteousness to be unstained, he must exercise justice and punish his people, cut them off from his love and blessing. Satan believes that he has put God in an impossible situation. He must either show himself to be unrighteous by blessing those who do not deserve it, or he must show himself to be unloving by condemning those he created for fellowship. But God is not defeated. Jesus is the answer to the spiritual conundrum. That’s why Satan tries so hard to destroy Jesus. He knows that Jesus can defeat him. Jesus’ rule leads to Satan’s defeat.
11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life unto death. (Revelation 12:11)
So God’s people have victory over Satan and his accusations. Notice that this victory comes by the blood of the Lamb. “Lamb” is a reference to the Passover feast memorializing God’s rescue of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. God instructed them to sacrifice a lamb to remember his salvation and to look forward to a much greater salvation. So, Satan is accusing God’s people of sinning, which they have done, forcing God to exercise his justice and deny his love, or exercise his love and deny his justice. But Jesus sacrifices himself at Calvary, giving his life as a sin offering for God’s people, the ultimate Passover Lamb. It is his blood, his life, offered as a sacrifice that enables God to forgive his people. God’s holiness is satisfied because the sin of his people is punished and God’s love is satisfied. This frees God to forgive and bless his people, demonstrating his mercy and grace. Satan is expelled from heaven and his accusations are silenced. God does not simply ignore sin. That would make him unjust. God does not abandon his people. That would make him unloving. His solution is brilliant, a cosmic victory.
We shouldn’t miss something important about this verse. God’s people overcome by the blood of the Lamb, by Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, but also by the word of their testimony. The salvation that comes from Jesus’ sacrifice is not forced on anyone. It must be appropriated by personal faith, by the word of their testimony. Only those willing to testify, to place their faith in Jesus, will enjoy the benefits of his sacrifice. And this testimony is not empty words. Notice what it says: They did not love their lives even to the point of death. In other words, they were willing to die for their testimony. Saving faith inspires meaningful words which are backed up by actions, by sacrifice, even by martyrdom if necessary.
In verse 5 we read that the woman, God’s people, gave birth to her son, Jesus, who will rule the nations with an iron rod, and he was snatched up to God, to his throne. This is a short version of the Gospel, a heavenly perspective that focuses on his birth and ascension (his coming and going, if you will). Now, in verse 11, we get his important sacrificial death, the blood of the Lamb, which is the proper focus of saving faith. Those who overcome the enemy do so by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. The blood of the Lamb does not automatically save all who are born on earth. Each one must decide and be willing to hold that faith as more precious than even life itself. Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection offer us eternal victory.
But the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.
Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and those dwelling in them. Woe to the earth and the sea for the Devil has gone down to you, very angry, knowing that he has little time.(Revelation 12:12)
Victory has begun with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is not finished. There is still a battle to be fought. This reminds me of playing ball on the street as a boy. In our neighborhood we usually played baseball or football. We played together so often that we knew once the teams were chosen which team would win. We could tell by who was on each team. If you were chosen by the losing team, well, that was no fun. You just had to go out and do your job of losing and being a good sport. But when you were chosen to play on the winning team, it was great fun to play! The Book of Revelation is telling us that we know who will win. We know by whose team we are on. Jesus is the winner. All who follow him will share in his victory. Anyone following the devil and his team will share in his loss.
And when the dragon saw that he was thrown to the earth, he pursued the woman who gave birth to the boy.(Revelation 12:13)
It may seem strange to read about dragons in the Bible. Is this evidence that the Bible is merely some sort of religious mythology with no basis in fact? It is fashionable in our culture to be skeptical of invisible heavenly happenings. But so-called “consensus science” and its self-imposed Darwinian limitations have failed to explain the richness of the human experience of reality. Darwin leaves too much out. The Bible reveals what naturalistic science cannot see. In symbolic language we are reading about the cosmic struggle between God and his enemy Satan. And the enemy hates all that God is trying to do through and for his people. He works to destroy God’s work, his people.
Notice how God’s people are identified in verse 13. They are the woman who gave birth to the boy, Jesus. Five times in this short chapter the ancient Greek word for giving birth is used (tiktō). That’s why it is appropriate to use this chapter as a Christmas reading. In just 17 short verses the birth of Jesus is mentioned at least 5 times. Why? Because Jesus’ birth is an important part of this cosmic struggle which is raging between God and his enemy, the Devil.
But we hear competing notions about the real meaning of Jesus’ birth. What is the true nature of Christmas? The watered-down version of Christmas asserts merely that people have good hearts and simply need a little inspiration to be generous and loving and kind and do the right thing. Jesus’ birth is sentimental folklore like other religious myths which are designed to appeal to our better nature. This popular presentation of Christmas uses the pictures of Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph and the animals and shepherds, all part of the Bible’s presentation. By using imagery that evokes the Bible’s account, this false version reinterprets the Bible’s message, replacing the truth with a lie.
A much better version of Christmas reminds us that Jesus’ birth is not folklore but history and that he came for more than the cradle. He came to die on the cross. And even more than that, he came to wear the victor’s crown. This biblical version of the cradle, cross and crown reminds us that we need more than someone to appeal to our better natures. In fact, the Bible asserts that we have no better nature, merely a sin nature. Our sin nature will destroy us if left to run its course, and we haven’t the power to stop it. We need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior. He offered himself as a sin offering on the cross and God raised him up and received him back to heaven. He is alive and able to live in the hearts of his people through God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, giving us power to overcome our sin nature.
But even this presentation of Christmas leaves out one important aspect. Jesus came to conquer more than just our sin nature. Once we have been forgiven in the eyes of God by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, because of our faith in him, we still have an enemy who is out to destroy us: Satan. The ancient Serpent who persuaded Adam and Even to doubt God and disobey him is still deceiving people, trying to persuade them to reject God and his salvation. The dragon is active in turning nations and empires against God’s people in an effort to destroy them. So Jesus’ birth is certainly about more than sentimentality but it is about more than our personal salvation. Jesus’ birth is an important part of the cosmic battle between God and Satan.
And the 2 wings of the great eagle were given to the woman so that she might fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time and times and half a time away from the presence of the serpent. (Revelation 12:14)
The imagery here comes from the Book of Exodus. After God rescued his people from cruel bondage in Egypt he brought them to Mt. Sinai in the desert. He said, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Now we read in the Book of Revelation that God will again bring his persecuted people to a place of safety in the wilderness. When it says “time, times, and half a time,” it is probably a reference to a period which is measured as 1,260 days and as 42 months in other places. It is 3 and a half years. Why any time at all? Why would God allow his people to be pursued and flee into the wilderness?
Before God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt he made them wait while he visited 10 plagues on the land of their oppressors. Why? Why not just come in and destroy Pharaoh’s army and put an immediate end to their cruel bondage? Why make them wait? God was doing more than rescuing his people. He was revealing his power and his redemption in unforgettable ways. More than that, he was refining their faith like gold in a fire. He wanted more than their freedom, he wanted their faith. He wanted them to see his glory in ways that they would talk about for generations.
Here, at the end of the age, we see in the Book of Revelation that God’s tactics are unchanged. He delays victory so that his people can be, not just saved, but strengthened. We can believe that the wilderness times in our lives, the struggles we experience, are allowed by God in order to show us his power, to reveal his work of redemption to us, and to refine our faith like gold in a fire.
And the serpent spewed from his mouth after the woman water like a river so that it might sweep her away. And the earth helped the woman, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon spewed from his mouth. (Revelation 12:15-16)
Notice that God’s enemy keeps changing his name: devil, dragon, serpent. Every time we turn around he is wearing a different mask. That should be no surprise. Satan is a master of disguises and full of deception.
Verses 15 and 16 demonstrate one of the challenges to interpreting the symbols in the Book of Revelation. The idea of a river coming from someone’s mouth would seem to be a symbol for speech. Since it comes from the Devil’s mouth, it would make sense for this river of water to represent an overwhelming barrage of deception. The Devil is full of deceit. But if that is a correct interpretation, then how does the earth open its mouth and swallow words of deception? Mentioning the earth makes the river seem more literal, like a natural disaster. Is it some combination of the two?
While many of the symbols in the Book of Revelation are interpreted by the book itself, and others are fairly easy to interpret without much assistance, some are quite difficult. But we must remember that God sometimes keeps the interpretation a mystery until some future time. In chapter 10 of John’s Apocalypse, the apostle hears 7 thunders. Seven is an important number in the Book of Revelation. It is the number for completion. The thunders apparently say something that is intelligible for John and he is ready to write it down. But a voice from heaven tells him not to write. The 7 thunders are kept from us for now. This is reminder that God has not revealed everything to us. Some things are kept for later.
One thing is clear from these verses: God always provides for his people, even though he allows the battle to be prolonged and even though he sometimes leads his people into wilderness places. God often uses a seemingly impossible avenue of rescue, something that we would never think of. When he brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, God led them up to the Red Sea where they were trapped by Pharaoh’s armies. Disaster seemed imminent. But then the Lord opened the sea and his people crossed through on dry ground. Pharaoh’s armies followed them and were swallowed up by the sea. God provided a way which the Hebrews could not see, until the time came. When the time comes, we will understand these symbols in the Book of Revelation. For now, we know enough to trust God.
And the dragon was enraged at the woman and he went out to make war against the rest of her offspring, those keeping the commands of God and having the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:17)
Satan keeps failing but he keeps fighting. Verse 12 says that he knows his time is short. This implies that he knows he will ultimately lose but he is hard-hearted, stiff-necked, and unrepentant. He never learns. Every time he tries to destroy God’s people God turns it into a celebration. Pharaoh tried to destroy God’s people in Egypt by throwing all the boy babies into the Nile River. But God saved them and instituted the Passover Feast. In Babylon a man named Haman hated God’s chosen people and tried to use the government to wipe them out. The result? God saved them and since then they have celebrated the feast of Purim to commemorate it. Back in the Promised Land, Antioch IV Epiphanes tried to destroy God’s people, but God saved them and they celebrate Hanukkah to remember it. King Herod tried to murder Jesus in Bethlehem, but he failed and so we celebrate Christmas. Satan used the Pharisees and Pilate to kill Jesus, but God meant it for our good and he raised Jesus up from the tomb and we celebrate Easter.
We have all this evidence of God’s faithfulness to his people, his ability and willingness to turn our defeats into victories. With all these examples of God’s faithfulness we should have great confidence in God. After all these defeats have been turned to victory throughout history there is no reason to think our lives and our place in history will be any different. God will turn our struggles and defeats into triumph!
Notice how God’s people are described in verse 17. They are the ones who keep God’s commands and have the testimony of Jesus, a combination of works and words. To testify without obeying is not enough. To obey without testifying is not enough. Obedience does not mean perfection. We still struggle with sin but we can humble ourselves before the Lord and be forgiven. Nevertheless, if someone has no desire to obey God it is a sign of no salvation from God. We cannot run with the Devil and share the Lamb’s victory. God’s people trust and obey.
President Donald Trump recently announced that the United States of America will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The whole world was stirred up by the announcement. After thousands of years, Israel and Jerusalem are still at the epicenter of history. God promised the land of Israel to his chosen people 4,000 years ago. He chose Jerusalem as the place where his name would dwell with his people. And he promised that even if his chosen people were scattered to all the nations of the world, he would restore them to the Promised Land: Israel. That may seem like ancient history, but God is faithful and his promises are sure.
God continues to prove the skeptics wrong. He does the impossible and he does it in the pages of our newspapers. Until very recently in history it did not seem possible that God’s ancient promise to gather his people and restore them to their land could ever come about. How can a people be scattered to the 4 corners of the earth for almost 2,000 years and even maintain their ethnic identity? Most peoples would intermarry and cease to be distinct. But God’s chosen people, Israel, has not only remained a people after being expelled from their homeland in the first century, but in May 1948 the impossible happened: Israel became a Jewish nation again, just as God promised. He gathered Jews from around the world and restored them to their homeland. And he did so after one of the most brutal attempts to destroy them history has ever seen: the Holocaust. The enemy’s hatred for God’s people is vicious, but he has failed.
God’s promises will all be fulfilled. Satan will lose. Jesus is the victor. We should trust the Lord, obey his commands, and testify to our faith in Jesus.
Brother Richard Foster