Tag: Revelation

Review: How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams

by on Mar.25, 2012, under Book, Review

Once again, I am pleased to have the opportunity to review a book from Zondervan as part of a blog tour, this time for Michael Williams, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens. Sadly, my review copy arrived after the blog tour dates were already complete, so I am a little behind the times… ah well, never mind.

This is the third in a series of “How to Read the Bible” books, joining volumes jointly written by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Having benefitted greatly from the first two volumes in the series, and incorporated much of the material from the first volume into my own teaching, I was excited to read this newest addition.

In order to understand what How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens brings to the table above and beyond the earlier volumes, I decided to do a case study, and see what I learned about the book of Revelation from each of the three volumes. The first volume, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (hereafter For All Its Worth) offers an overview and introduction of the methodology of Bible reading. Fee and Stuart introduce the concept ‘exegesis’ (understanding a text in its context) and argue strongly for the necessity of exegesis before moving to interpretation and application. They emphasise understanding authorial intent as a means to finding the ‘primary meaning’ of a text. They then go through each of the major genres of biblical literature, offering guidelines for how to read and interpret each. So, for example, we are enjoined to read Revelation with a view to the author’s intent (to comfort those who were facing suffering and persecution under the Romans); to use the author’s interpretation of his own images serve as a starting point for understanding other (uninterpreted) images; to read for the whole rather than allegorically pressing details; and to keep our Old Testaments open to understand John’s OT references. These guidelines assist the layperson in finding manageable starting points for understanding what is often shunned as ‘too difficult to understand’. Each is illustrated with relevant examples from Revelation.

How to Read the Bible Book by Book (hereafter Book by Book) follows up on the work done in For All Its Worth by working through the Bible book by book and applying the principles taught in the earlier volume. This is helpful where multiple books fall under one genre (i.e. one chapter in For All Its Worth), but a little redundant in the case of Revelation, which has a one-to-one mapping with the genre of apocalypse. Nevertheless, a sequential presentation of the material at a high level (approximately one or two paragraphs per chapter of Revelation) is helpful. As Fee and Stuart write in their introduction, ‘The concern of this book is to help you read the Bible as a whole, and even when the “whole” is narrowed to “whole books,” it is important for you always to be aware of how each book fits into the larger story.’ (14) To this end, in the chapter on Revelation they offer, in summary (dot-point) form comments on provenance and theological themes and emphases, followed by an overview of the structure and message of the book. They then go through the book section by section, with brief comments on how the section contributes to the message of the book, and the book to the message of the Bible.

These volumes are, in my view, a tough act to follow. For All Its Worth is my immediate recommendation to anyone who is looking to make the first steps toward structured Bible reading and study. Williams has some big shoes to fill.

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens (hereafter Jesus Lens) seeks to offer an explicitly Christological (i.e. Christ-focused) reading of every book of the Bible. In his Introduction, Williams writes,

Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God’s grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son. Seeing how each biblical book makes its own unique contribution to that redemptive focus enables us to use these diverse materials with much more confidence and accuracy. The Jesus lens ensures that our exegetical bowling balls stay within the lane and don’t go crashing over into areas where they can cause a lot of damage to the faith of believers and to our ability to use the Bible fruitfully in our service to God. (9)

If ever there were a book of the Bible where bowling balls were prone to leave lanes it is surely Revelation! So what advice does Williams offer on reading the book of Revelation ‘through the Jesus lens’?

He starts by offering a brief overview of the situation which prompted the writing of the book of Revelation (though in less detail than Book by Book). He states the theme of the Book: ‘God enables his people to stand fast against Satan and his forces until God brings about the ultimate and sure victory’ (263). The section on ‘The Jesus Lens’, where you would expect Williams to focus (no pun) his attention, is a mere 3 brief paragraphs (approximately 2/3 of a page) that effectively points out that it is the Lamb who brings about salvation, and that though appearances suggested that Jesus was overpowered by evil, Revelation overturns this false impression by depicting a God who is in control and a Lamb who, though slain, is ultimately victorious. Williams closes the chapter by offering some contemporary implications (though sin is rampant, we live with hope) and ‘hook questions’ (discussion starters, suitable for a group Bible study).

Whilst I generally try to avoid criticising a book for what it is not, in this case I feel it is warranted: for a book entitled How To… it contains very little instruction. There is no discussion of how Williams arrived at the ‘Jesus lens’, nor of how to use it. True, Williams demonstrates his own usage, thus modelling a method, but we end up with his finished product without any real insight on how he arrived at it. As a result, if asked to look at portions of Scripture smaller (or larger!) than a canonical book, the student would need to start from scratch. In addition, whilst I appreciate Williams’ desire to write ‘a book that one doesn’t need a wheelbarrow to carry around’, I fear that his brevity necessitates gross generalisations. As a summary, his chapter on Revelation offers considerably less detail than Book by Book.

The strength of Williams’ book is the way it reminds us that all the Scriptures speak of Christ (John 5:39), a reminder sorely needed today as any day. But in its current form it is hard to see that it serves any particular audience – certainly it is too brief and lacking in methodological detail to be an instructional (How To!) manual. I will continue to recommend For All Its Worth.

Bibliography

  • Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible Book by Book : A Guided Tour. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002.
  • Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003.
  • Williams, Michael James. How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens : A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

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The ‘other’ Christmas story

by on Jan.08, 2012, under Sermon

Some time ago, Microsoft produced an ad for their XBox gaming platform that featured a child being born. Rather than being ‘caught’ in the usual way, the child rockets out of the room, flying through the air. As he flies, he rapidly ages, transitioning through childhood, adolescence, middle age and into old age, before eventually crashing into an open casket.

When I first saw this ad, I could tell immediately what it was, because I had seen thousands just like it. I knew that, sandwiched in between two portions of whatever show I was watching at the time, the advertiser had only a limited time to tell their story and catch my attention. I could guess that there would be some summary statement at the end to make sure I didn’t miss the point, probably accompanied by the sponsor’s logo.

Tonight, my goal is to provide you with some tools for understanding the book of Revelation and then, using these to look at Revelation 12 and see how they help us to understand John’s message. Though these tools will be unfamiliar to you at first – as the conventions of advertising were once unfamiliar – the more you use them and immerse yourself in using them the easier and more familiar they will become.

Some guidelines

But first some guidelines for reading Revelation:

  • The first thing to ask yourself when reading Revelation (or any portion of Scripture, for that matter) is, What was the author’s original intent? For example, John wrote Revelation to comfort those who were facing, or were about to face, suffering and persecution under the Romans.
  • Read to see the whole, rather than allegorically pressing details – much as you would a parable. Where details are included, they are generally done so for (a) dramatic effect;1 or (b) to make sure readers will not miss the reference.2
  • Pictures of the future are just that: pictures. They express a reality, but are not to be confused with reality, nor is every detail necessarily to be ‘fulfilled’. Let’s say you get the opportunity to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. What do you do? You stand back just far enough to see and appreciate the whole. Only then do you get up close and appreciate the techniques and paints used. Apocalypse is seldom intended to give chronological details of the end of history. For example, we should not necessarily expect a literal pouring out of the four disasters described in Rev. 8:6 – 9:16. Instead it is more likely that this is a reference back to the plagues inflicted upon Pharaoh, and the judgment that went along with them. Don’t spend your time worrying about whether current events are the fulfillment of events described in apocalypse – instead, understand John’s message that God is in control, and will bring history to a close on his terms. Even where events described seem to mirror temporal (either present or past) events, be aware that there may be a “not yet” dimension.
  • When the author interprets his own images, use these as a starting point for understanding the other images. There are several images in Revelation which John interprets for us: the Son of Man3 who is Jesus; the lampstands4 which are the churches; the stars5 which are the angels of the churches; the dragon6 who is Satan; the 7 heads of the beast7 which are the seven hills; and the prostitute8 who is Bablyon etc.
  • Be aware of Old Testament references. John references or echoes the Old Testament some 250 times in Revelation, so that every significant moment in his narrative is described almost exclusively in Old Testament language.9 The OT context gives us clues as to how John’s images and pictures are to be understood.

The Passage

So how does this help us? Let’s look at Revelation 12 and see if we can apply these principles.

When you think about the Christmas story, what are the images that come to mind? For me, they are images of peace, tranquility and joy. “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” as many carols put it. Aside from the minor problem of having to sleep in a stable, there seems little to indicate anything out of the ordinary. Hardly material for a story or movie, surely? Children are born all the time, there hardly seems anything special about this one. Sure, there are a few angels, some wise men, but where’s the action? Where’s the drama? The romance? Sure doesn’t seem to fit into any book or movie genre I know!

Then we turn to Revelation 12. The same event becomes considerably more interesting. Crowns of stars, clothing of sunshine, a seven-headed dragon, warrior angels, great battles. You name it, it’s there! Much more like what we are used to seeing on TV.

And yet this is not the Christmas story we know. This is not the part of the bible that we turn to each year at Christmas time, that our parents read to us when we were little. Why not? Perhaps because it is somewhat harder to come to terms with, lacking the solid, earthy realities of mother and father, stable and manger, donkey and cattle. Without these things, Revelation 12 (and indeed Revelation in general) is dismissed by many Christians as being a dream bearing little or no relation to reality. Without easily recognisable anchors to things we are familiar with, we find ourselves unable to understand what is going on.

Why does John use such outlandish imagery?

Since the invention of SMS, we have taught ourselves a new way of writing, almost a new language – words and phrases get compressed down to as few characters as possible. ‘I will see you later’ becomes ‘Cya l8r’, ‘Where are you?’ becomes ‘Wru’. These conventions are used so often that they are simply understood. And because everyone understands them, nobody feels the need to explain what each one means, we simply use them as a normal part of our communication.

As John writes Revelation, he takes similar shortcuts. He uses symbols and metaphors to express himself, many of which are completely foreign to us. The churches that John is writing to, however, were part of a culture very much used to interpreting such ‘signs’. It was quite common for people to go to the temples of the gods of their culture to receive an oracle from a seer – kind of like today’s horoscopes, only even more vague and obscure. It was then up to either the priest of the temple or the person receiving the oracle to interpret it. Over time, a rich tradition of how certain symbols were to be interpreted was developed. These would not have had to have been explained to the people receiving this message from John, but we don’t have the luxury of having grown up with them. Just like some future generation trying to understand our SMS messages or advertising, we struggle to understand what these symbols mean.

As we go through the passage tonight, I will try to highlight some of the most important symbols, and explain what they mean.

The Players

Let’s start by examining the characters in Revelation 12.

1 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

The first of our three major characters appears, at first glance, to be Mary. A pregnant woman, giving birth to a child who will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (v. 5) (more on this later!). A closer examination, however, gives us a different interpretation.

The woman wears a “crown of twelve stars” (v.1), is clothed with the sun and has the moon for her footstool. There is another place in the bible where this combination of sun, moon and stars occurs – Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37. There, Joseph dreams of the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing to one star. The dream is interpreted to mean that the stars are the twelve sons of Jacob, whilst the sun is Jacob himself and the moon is Rachel, Joseph’s mother. Extending this somewhat, we can then understand that the stars in the woman’s crown represent the twelve tribes of Israel, with the woman herself representative of the people of Israel.

The next character to appear in our unfolding drama is a dragon.

3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 4 His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.

One of the most common symbols throughout Revelation is that of the horn. A horn, quite simply, is a symbol of strength. The dragon has ten horns, and so is a creature of great strength. In Revelation (and elsewhere in the bible) the number seven is usually symbolic of completeness. Having seven heads and seven crowns, therefore, indicates the completeness of the dragon’s power on earth – he is overwhelmingly powerful. This becomes clearer when we understand from verse 9 that the dragon is “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray” – that is, the dragon is the “Prince of this World”.10 Remember, where John explains the meaning of something, we should take that as our starting point in understanding what is going on.

The third character is, of course, the child himself:

5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.

Without any doubt whatsoever, the child is Jesus. As we said at the start, John loves to use Old Testament images to make important points, and the “iron scepter” here is a reference to Psalm 2:9:

You will rule them with an iron scepter;
  
You will dash them to pieces like pottery.

The image is of an iron rod being used to shatter clay. Just as the clay doesn’t stand a chance, so too is evil doomed under Jesus’ rule.

The Plot

Now that we have a feel for who the characters are, we can turn to examine what they are doing. I don’t think the woman giving birth needs any explanation… so let’s instead ask ourselves why the dragon is hanging around in the delivery room.

Some weeks ago, Cedric shared with us about Simeon, a man who had been waiting for Jesus to appear. His waiting would have been characterised by longing, a desire to see the promised saviour. For him, the appearance of Jesus was an occasion for great joy, together with great peace that God was keeping his promise. There was another, however, for whom the waiting period had not been so pleasant. Satan knew very well what the result of Jesus coming would be – indeed we see his fears come to pass towards the end of tonight’s passage:

7 And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down… He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

You see, Satan knew that his days were numbered – God had promised way back in Genesis 3 that there would come a descendant of Adam and Eve who would “crush [the serpent’s] head”. Since we have identified Satan as being the serpent (v.9), this prospect would not have been a pleasant one for him. Like Captain Hook hearing the crocodile’s clock, Satan has long been able to hear the sound of his death approaching.

In fact, Satan has been doing his level best to destroy the “seed” all along. Throughout history, he has taken every opportunity to try and kill off those who would be Jesus’ ancestors. Examples include: when Cain killed Abel; when Haman sought to have all of the Jews killed; the barrenness of both Sarah and Rebekah; and Esau threatening to kill Jacob for robbing him of his birth-right. In spite of this, he has failed every step of the way. His last remaining chance is that he can somehow corrupt or destroy Jesus himself.
Once again he fails, as Jesus is “snatched up to God and to his throne.” (v.5)

It would seem, from this passage, that Jesus was no sooner born than he ascended to be with God. Like the ad with which we started tonight, an entire lifetime is compressed into an instant. The reason, I think, is that this passage is not really concerned with the fate of Jesus. Jesus’ story is covered much more thoroughly elsewhere in Revelation. Instead, the point of this passage concerns the fates of the woman and the dragon.

The woman, we are told, “fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days”.11 In Israel’s history, the desert was traditionally a place of testing and refuge – God took care of Israel whilst they wandered through the desert for 40 years. It is definitely not the ‘promised land’. More specifically, this reference reminds us of Elijah being cared for in the desert during three and a half years of drought – 1,260 days. Whilst there, God provided food in the form of the widow’s flour and oil which miraculously never ran out. Because of this, the period of 1,260 days is traditionally associated with a time of testing and trial – it is not actually a literal 1,260 days, but is symbolic. It is also, by the way, the exact length of time that Satan is given to “trample on the holy city” (v11:2), as well as the length of time given to God’s witnesses for witnessing (v11:3). It is important to note that there is a fixed end to Satan’s rule on earth – it will not go on for ever. This is an important promise to us, who have to live through it!

The final part of the passage explains exactly what happens to Satan:

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
’Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They overcame 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.
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
 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.

Wherever you come across the words “I heard a loud voice say”, it generally means that an explanation is on the way. The Scooby gang is about to pull the rubber mask off the bad guy and tell us exactly who dunnit, how and why.

The who? The word Satan is the Hebrew word for ‘accuser’, so when the voice talks about the accuser having been “hurled down” (v.10), we know it is Satan they are talking about.

Why did they cast him out? Well, the only reason Satan was allowed to remain in heaven was because of his role as ‘accuser’. Kind of like the heavenly prosecutor – his purpose was to accuse us of our sins, to remind God that we are sinful and to invite his judgement upon us. More than just a job, this is something he did “day and night,” (v.10) suggesting that it is his purpose for existence. It is easy, now, to understand why Satan was so desperate to prevent Jesus’ coming – his reason for living was being taken away!
And God’s verdict? “Case dismissed. Thankyou Mr. Prosecutor, your services are no longer required, please remove yourself from my presence!”. Then when he refused to go, it was up to Michael and the other angels to remove him.

Now hang on. How could God, who is just, deliver a not-guilty verdict when we are so obviously guilty? From verse 11, we find that ‘They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb (Jesus) and by the word of their testimony.’ You see, when Jesus came to earth and died for our sins, Satan no longer had grounds for accusing us. As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.12

The Witch, like Satan, had the role of accuser. Her demands that Edmund was hers because of his treachery, and that his treachery could only be dealt with through blood, are not denied by Aslan. Instead of killing her then and there and removing the problem that way, instead of breaking the Emperor’s law, he chooses instead to be killed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place – with amazing results! Aslan lives, whilst Edmund is freed from his guilt and the punishment that go with it. And the Witch? Her role as accuser is done – there is no-one left to accuse – and so she dies at Aslan’s hands (or paws!).

So out of all of this, what have we learned? Even if you didn’t know the Old Testament background or the significance of many of John’s symbols, you could still tell from this passage that a great battle was fought, and a victory won, that Satan has been cast out of heaven and those he ‘accused’ have ‘overcome him by the blood of the Lamb’. You don’t need to be an art critic to appreciate the ‘Mona Lisa’, neither do you need to be a theologian. But, when we do look closer, each additional detail that we have learned tonight – sun, moon, stars, time, 1260 days etc. – has served only to confirm that ‘big picture’, and this is a very promising sign that we are on the right track.

Christmas is, if you like, history’s alarm bell. The coming of Jesus marks the commencement of the time between his birth and his return – sometimes referred to as the “last days”. It heralds the 1,260 days of Satan’s time on earth, and of God’s witnesses witnessing. We who live in these times should remember that we, like the woman, have a place of shelter and refuge made ready for us by God. More than anything else, however, it should be a reminder of a victory already won, won by ‘the blood of the Lamb':

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down. (v.10)


Endnotes

  1. e.g. Rev. 6:12-14
  2. e.g. Rev. 9:7-11
  3. Rev. 1:13
  4. Rev. 1:20
  5. Rev. 1:20
  6. Rev. 12:9
  7. Rev. 17:9
  8. Rev. 17:18
  9. e.g. Rev. 1:5b-6 refers back to the sacrificial imagery of Ex. 19:6.
  10. John 12:31
  11. Wherever you see the phrase “Times, time and half a time,” in the Bible, it is referring to this length of time – a ‘time’ is a year, so ‘times’ is 2 years and half a time is half a year – three and a half years or 1,260 days.
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Lions, 1980; reprint, 1987), 148.
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Christmas Reloaded (Revelation 12)

by on Jul.02, 2007, under Sermon

The following is the content of a sermon I preached in January 2005, and is reproduced here for posterity… or something :-)

  • Luke 2:1-20
  • Revelation 12:1-12

“What is the Matrix?” This was the question that formed the basis of a series of movies, about a world within a world. As the lead character pursues the answer to this question, he is suddenly taken from his “World”, that which he believes to be reality, and forced to completely re-evaluate it. Everything that he knows is shown to be false, a “prison for the mind”.

For Neo and the millions of other people blissfully unaware of the existence of the Matrix, life inside the Matrix was the only reality they knew. People lived and died, got married, had children, made friends, ate & drank. They experienced love, grief, joy, peace, anger, laughter, sadness and any other emotion known to man. Life was, so far as they were concerned, complete.

Yet, when Neo sees his life from a different perspective, when he understands that his “life”, as he knows it, is nothing more than a computer simulation, he is suddenly empowered to do all kinds of things – he jumps off 30-storey buildings and is not hurt, he learns skills in an instant, simply by having them ‘loaded’ – he even dodges bullets! The life that he thought he knew so well is completely changed through a new perspective, a different understanding.

Tonight, however, the question is not, “What is the Matrix?”, but “What is Christmas?”. I have entitled tonight’s sermon “Christmas Reloaded”. It is my hope that, through gaining a different perspective on what is arguably one of the best known stories in the world, we might, like Neo, see our lives transformed. Not that I recommend you run out and try dodging bullets after this sermon!

When you think about the Christmas story, what are the images that come to mind? For me, they are images of peace, tranquility and joy. “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” as many carols put it. Indeed this is what we find in our reading from Luke. Aside from the minor problem of having to sleep in a stable, there seems little to indicate anything out of the ordinary. Hardly material for a story or movie, surely? Children are born all the time, there hardly seems anything special about this one. Sure, there are a few angels, some wise men, but where’s the action? Where’s the drama? The romance? Sure doesn’t seem to fit into any book or movie genre I know – it’s all so dull!

Then we turn to Revelation 12. The same event becomes so much more interesting. Crowns of stars, clothing of sunshine, a seven-headed dragon, warrior angels, great battles. You name it, it’s there! Much more like what we are used to seeing on TV.

And yet this is not the Christmas story we know. This is not the part of the bible that we turn to each year at Christmas time, that our parents read to us when we were little. Why not? Perhaps because it is somewhat harder to come to terms with, lacking the solid, earthy realities of mother and father, stable and manger, donkey and cattle. Without these things, Revelation 12 (and indeed Revelation in general) is dismissed by many Christians as being a dream bearing little or no relation to reality. Without easily recognisable anchors to things we are familiar with, we find ourselves unable to understand what is going on.

To understand Revelation 12, we must first understand something of its context. The book of Revelation was written by the apostle John, somewhere between 20 and 60 years after the death of Christ. He writes of a vision that he had whilst on the island of Patmos, a vision that God intended for him to share with seven gentile churches around Asia Minor. This kind of writing is often referred to as apocalyptic literature, which simply means writing that is prophetic in nature, often referring to the end of the world. If you’re interested, another example of apocalyptic writing in the bible may be found in Daniel 7.

Since the invention of SMS, we have taught ourselves a new way of writing, almost a new language – words and phrases get compressed down to as few characters as possible. ‘I will see you later’ becomes ‘Cya l8r’, ‘Where are you?’ becomes ‘Wru’. These conventions are used so often that they are simply understood. And because everyone understands them, nobody feels the need to explain what each one means, we simply use them as a normal part of our communication.

As John writes Revelation, he takes similar shortcuts. He uses symbols and metaphors to express himself, many of which are completely foreign to us. The churches that John is writing to, however, were part of a culture very much used to interpreting such ‘signs’. It was quite common for people to go to the temples of the gods of their culture to receive an oracle from a seer – kind of like today’s horoscopes, only even more vague and obscure. It was then up to either the priest of the temple or the person receiving the oracle to interpret it. Over time, a rich tradition of how certain symbols were to be interpreted was developed. These would not have had to have been explained to the people receiving this message from John, but we don’t have the luxury of having grown up with them. Just like some future generation trying to understand our SMS messages, we struggle to understand what these symbols mean.

As we go through the passage tonight, I will try to highlight some of the most important symbols, and explain what they mean.

Let’s start by examining the characters in Revelation 12.

1 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

The first of our three major characters appears, at first glance, to be Mary. A pregnant woman, giving birth to a child who will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (v. 5) (more on this later!). A closer examination, however, gives us a different interpretation.

The woman wears a “crown of twelve stars” (v.1), is clothed with the sun and has the moon for her footstool. There is another place in the bible where this combination of sun, moon and stars occurs – Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37. There, Joseph dreams of the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing to one star. The dream is interpreted to mean that the stars are the twelve sons of Jacob, whilst the sun is Jacob himself and the moon is Rachel, Joseph’s mother. Extending this somewhat, we can then understand that the stars in the woman’s crown represents the twelve tribes of Israel, with the woman herself representative of the people of Israel.

The next character to appear in our unfolding drama is a dragon.

3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 4 His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.

One of the most common symbols throughout Revelation is that of the horn. A horn, quite simply, is a symbol of strength. The dragon has ten horns, and so is a creature of great strength.

In Revelation (and elsewhere in the bible) the number seven is usually symbolic of completeness. Having seven heads and seven crowns, therefore, indicates the completeness of the dragon’s power on earth – he is overwhelmingly powerful. This becomes clearer when we understand from verse 9 that the dragon is “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray” – that is, the dragon is the “Prince of this World”1. Jesus himself does not dispute Satan’s claim when he offered Him the “kingdoms of the world” and the glory of them.

The line, “His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky,” (v.4) probably refers to the angels that Satan deceived, and who were cast out of heaven with him.

The third character is, of course, the child himself:

5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.

Without any doubt whatsoever, the child is Jesus. The “iron scepter” is a reference to Psalm 2:9:

You will rule them with an iron scepter;
You will dash them to pieces like pottery.

The image is of an iron rod being used to shatter clay. Just as the clay doesn’t stand a chance, so too is evil doomed under Jesus’ rule.

Now that we have a feel for who the characters are, we can turn to examine what they are doing. I don’t think the woman giving birth needs any explanation… so let’s instead ask ourselves why the dragon is hanging around in the delivery room.

Two weeks ago, Dave shared with us about two people who had been waiting for Jesus to appear – Simeon and Anna. Their waiting would have been characterised by longing, a massive desire to see the promised saviour. For them, the appearance of Jesus was an occasion for great joy, together with great peace that God was keeping his promise.

There was another, however, for whom the waiting period had not been so pleasant. Satan knew very well what the result of Jesus coming would be – indeed we see his fears come to pass towards the end of tonight’s passage:

7 And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down… He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

You see, Satan knew that his days were numbered – God had promised way back in Genesis 3 that there would come a descendant of Adam and Eve who would “crush [the serpent’s] head”. Since we have identified Satan as being the serpent (v.9), this prospect would not have been a pleasant one for him. Like Captain Hook hearing the crocodile’s clock, Satan has long been able to hear the sound of his death approaching.

In fact, Satan has been doing his level best to destroy the “seed” all along. Throughout history, he has taken every opportunity to try and kill off those who would be Jesus’ ancestors. Examples include: when Cain killed Abel; when Haman sought to have all of the Jews killed; the barrenness of both Sarah and Rebekah; and Esau threatening to kill Jacob for robbing him of his birth-right. In spite of this, he has failed every step of the way. His last remaining chance is that he can somehow corrupt or destroy Jesus himself.

Once again he fails, as Jesus is “snatched up to God and to his throne.” (v.5)

It would seem, from this passage, that Jesus was no sooner born than he ascended to be with God. The reason, I think, is that this passage is not really concerned with the fate of Jesus. Jesus’ story is covered much more thoroughly elsewhere in Revelation. Instead, the point of this passage concerns the fates of the woman and the dragon.

The woman, we are told, “fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days”2. In Israel’s history, the desert was traditionally a place of refuge – God took care of Israel whilst they wandered through the desert for 40 years. More specifically, this reference reminds us of Elijah being cared for in the desert during three and a half years of drought – 1,260 days. Whilst there, God provided food in the form of the widow’s flour and oil which miraculously never ran out. Because of this, the period of 1,260 days is traditionally associated with a time of testing and trial – it is not actually a literal 1,260 days, but is symbolic. It is also, by the way, the exact length of time that Satan is given to “trample on the holy city” (v11:2), as well as the length of time given to God’s witnesses for witnessing (v11:3). It is important to note that there is a fixed end to Satan’s rule on earth – it will not go on for ever. This is an important promise to us, who have to live through it!

The final part of the passage explains exactly what happens to Satan:

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They overcame 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.

12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
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.

Wherever you come across the words “I heard a loud voice say”, it generally means that an explanation is on the way. The Scooby gang is about to pull the rubber mask off the bad guy and tell us exactly who dunnit, how and why.

The who? The word Satan is the Hebrew word for ‘accuser’, so when the voice talks about the accuser having been “hurled down” (v.10), we know it is Satan they are talking about.

Why did they cast him out? Well, the only reason Satan was allowed to remain in heaven was because of his role as ‘accuser’. Kind of like the heavenly prosecutor – his purpose was to accuse us of our sins, to remind God that we are sinful and to invite his judgement upon us. More than just a job, this is something he did “day and night,” (v.10) suggesting that it is his purpose for existence. It is easy, now, to understand why Satan was so desperate to prevent Jesus’ coming – his reason for living was being taken away!

And God’s verdict? “Case dismissed. Thankyou Mr. Prosecutor, your services are no longer required, please remove yourself from my presence!”. Then when he refused to go, it was up to Michael and the other angels to remove him.

Now hang on. How could God, who is just, deliver a not-guilty verdict when we are so obviously guilty? From verse 11, we find that “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb (Jesus) and by the word of their testimony.” You see, when Jesus came to earth and died for our sins, Satan no longer had grounds for accusing us. As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

‘Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.’

The Witch, like Satan, had the role of accuser. Her demands that Edmund was hers because of his treachery, and that his treachery could only be dealt with through blood, are not denied by Aslan. Instead of killing her then and there and removing the problem that way, instead of breaking the Emperor’s law, he chooses instead to be killed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place – with amazing results! Aslan lives, whilst Edmund is freed from his guilt and the punishment that go with it. And the Witch? Her role as accuser is done – there is no-one left to accuse – and so she dies at Aslan’s hands (or paws!).

So out of all of this, what have we learned in answer to the question, “What is Christmas?” Christmas is, if you like, history’s alarm bell. The coming of Jesus marks the commencement of the time between his birth and his return – sometimes referred to as the “last days”. It heralds the 1,260 days of Satan’s time on earth, and of God’s witnesses witnessing. We who live in these times should remember that we, like the woman, have a place of shelter and refuge made ready for us by God. More than anything else, however, it should be a reminder of a victory already won:

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down. (v.10)


Endnotes

  1. John 12:31
  2. Wherever you see the phrase “Times, time and half a time,” in the Bible, it is referring to this length of time – a ‘time’ is a year, so ‘times’ is 2 years and half a time is half a year – three and a half years or 1,260 days.
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