Morning everyone, I'm not sure what you expected when you came to Church this morning, these 9.30 services give us an opportunity to look somewhere different don't they? Maybe a nice Psalm or a bit of encouragement from Paul? Or how about baby eating dragons, war in heaven and a woman with stars on her head and wings?! That's what I'm talking about!
As context for this, I received a text from Ken a couple of months ago about speaking at this morning's service, at the time I was on Houseparty, the week away we run for youth across our family of Churches, the theme of our week was Revelation, all the juicy bits included. So, Ken suggested, well, why don't you bring a bit of Houseparty to a Sunday morning? And so here we are, Revelation 12!
I'm not sure if this is a part of the Bible that you've spent much time in previously, but as a starter for ten, Revelation is a book of the Bible which consists of a series of insightful visions given to the writer John. Revelation 1.3 tells us that it is a book, not to frighten us, or make us wonder, 'what on earth is that about?' but instead it is a book given to bless us. "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written it, for the time is near." So as we read and hear let's pray that God would be blessing us as we read, and hear and think about the meaning of this prophecy.
What we get when we study this passage a bit closer is a series of three visions or 'signs' which help us to understand Satan's three big battle-plans as he seeks to undermine the authority of God and replace him as the ruler of all things.
Ok so let's dig in and have a look at Satan's battle plan number one:
1. Get Jesus!
At the start of the chapter, the first of three signs or pictures appear:
"And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth."
This first picture, in particular, we shouldn't try to get bogged down on trying to work out exactly who it is, instead she's intended to symbolically represent God's people throughout history. At this stage in the vision she's particularly representing God's Old Testament vision – we can see that because we know that 12 represents the 12 tribes of Israel – a link to one of Joseph's dreams way back in the book of Genesis.
Then another big sign, but this one is more frightening than the last.
"a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems".
If we add this all together this dragon represents one who causes strife with complete authority, great power and complete rule. Add it all together and what do you get? It's Satan! And I say that frivolously but in fact when we look, Satan's intentions are anything but jokey. Have a look to verse 4 with me,
"The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born."
This chunk is pretty grim reading isn't it, it begs the question I think – why does the dragon fear this baby so much. We need to do some hopping to see how this fits together – we can see in verse 9 that when Satan is cast down to earth he takes the form of a serpent. And we jump back to Genesis 3 as we did in our first reading or on the screen behind me here we can see the reason why he fears this baby so much, look down to verse 15, this is God pronouncing judgement on Satan for his part in the fall of man, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel". God is telling Satan that the day is coming when you are going to be defeated, your head is going to be crushed – the offspring of this woman – be it Eve, be it Mary, be it ultimately God's people through the Old Testament – will crush you.
So he's there, crouching, waiting, ready to pounce. He's ready to try anything he can to stop the God-child becoming the God-man and eventually the God-dying-on-the-cross. And if we jump our way through the gospel narratives we see how this is true:
- He tried to have him murdered by command of Herod just after he was born, but God warned Joseph in a dream and they fled.
- When they crossed paths years later in the wilderness he tried to tempt him to take the easy way out and bypass the cross on his way to glory, but Jesus stood resolute.
- He even tried turning on of the Lord's own disciples against him, but in the end that became the final link in the chain that sent him to the cross! The one place Satan didn't want him to go!
- And how did it all end? Verse 5: "the child was caught up to God and to his throne". Jesus ascended back to heaven and is now ruling and reigning. You might wonder why there's not a bit more detail about this in this passage – instead we just get that the child is "snatched up to heaven" – but the incredible detail of this process has been covered earlier in the book of Revelation.
So plan A to get Jesus has been a complete failure, let's crack on here with Satan's second big battleplan:
2. Get God!
I call this plan b, but in some ways, this is in fact plan A which is revealed in all the others – but I've kept it this way so that we can work through the passage in order. Have a look down with me to verse 7 there – "then" – although actually chronologically this takes place as the plan for Jesus is made, the plan becomes "pregnant" at the very beginning of time as it were, but before the fall.
"Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down - that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him."
So, what do we see here? Well we see a great battle, a war in heaven – between, on the one hand, Michael, who we read in the book of Daniel described as a great prince, who leads the angels loyal to God, and on the other hand the dragon, Satan, and the angels loyal to him on the other. In Revelation 9 we see Satan described as a fallen star, and in verse 4 a third of the stars fall with him. The angels loyal to God are victorious and Satan is hurled to the earth – linking again to how we then see him portrayed as a serpent in the Genesis account.
It is this decisive victory that establishes the balance of power firmly in favour of Christ that we then see played out in practice through the whole Bible and especially the gospel accounts. In the gospel, when Jesus explains how it is that he's able to cast out demons from people he explains that "no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man". To be clear, Satan is the strong man, but his power, while not yet eliminated is bound by the greater power of God.
So, plan a, get Jesus, big fail, plan b, get God, even bigger fail. Well, now Satan's pretty wound up and furious, verse 12, "he knows his time is short", he knows his complete defeat and destruction is nigh, so like a fish flailing around with the last of his energy, Satan lashes out with the last of energy on plan C, which is:
3. Get you!
So, despite defeat after defeat and being frustrated and then hurled down and the knowledge that his eventual fate is doomed, despite all of this Satan keeps on going – pursuing the woman i.e. the Church with continued deceit. It's a bit like the closing stages of the Second World War – D-Day has been fought and won and the Allies advance from the West and through Italy and Africa, in the East the Soviet Union advance towards Berlin – but does Hitler just surrender and give up? No instead he pours his resources into one massive final effort, into one last, ultimately decisive, final battle at the Battle of the Bulge, even though any small victories there would have just delayed the inevitable.
Have a look down with me to verse 12 and 13,
"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. When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child."
So, this is not a dragon chasing an actual woman, but instead represents Satan's pursuit of the people of God also known as the Church also known as you! And if we look at verse 10 what his tactic is, he is the great accuser. Likewise in verse 15 when the serpent spews a river, it is a river of deceit in an attempt to wipe the woman away.
This works in three key ways:
Firstly, he had accused us in front of God, saying things like, 'how can you possibly think these people are worth saving? As if they're worth the effort? Just get rid of them! But we know the response that God gives to this – his love and covenant are secure and Satan is cast aside.
Or he accuses our minds that we are wrong about God. He tells us that he can't be trusted or that he doesn't answer prayer and doesn't know what he's doing.
And his final method is even more subtle, and potentially deadly, he accuses us in our conscience, he capitalises upon on us in our darker moments and says things like, 'Ha, you call yourself a Christian? And you just did that? Look at you, you're a failure. Just. Give. Up.'
I wonder when you think of Satan, what picture you end up with, hunky guy, big and red, pointy moustache, trident? A supernatural beast with earth shattering powers? Well in fact this passage shows that his strengths lie in his subtlety. A few whispering accusations, softly, but slowly undermining the confidence and faith of believers.
So how does God respond to this? He does so by offering his care and protection and a guarantee of the survival of the Church. We see this through the repeated image of the woman being protected in the wilderness – the picture this should make us think of is Moses and God's people being taken care of by daily deliveries of Manna back in the Old Testament. Hopefully you can see the parallels, how that time in the wilderness was a time of preparation for God's Old Testament people because they hadn't reached their final destination yet, just like we've not reached our final destination yet, in our studies mid-week at minute in the book of 1 Peter we've seen that we are exiles, awaiting our final, heavenly destination. The wilderness can be a place of testing and hardship, just like life now for us can sometimes be a place of testing and hardship – but also a place where we can experience God's care and love.
Look down with me to verse 14, "The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time," – the time there which represents three and a half years, or in chapter 9 is written as 42 months or earlier on as 1260 days basically represents the rest of history – from the ascension to the end of time. In this time period, the Church will ultimately, in a big picture sense, be secure and survive.
I think this chunk here should convince us of two things here:
- Firstly that if we're buying the claims of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens that religion will eventually die out and that society will finally shake itself free of it's 'God delusion', then this passage is all bad news for your view. Instead this passage convicts us that the worldwide Christian Church will never die – it's eternal security has been guaranteed by God himself.
- But secondly, that guarantee isn't offered to any other institution, be it Newcastle or Sunderland football club or the United Kingdom or European Union – no other institution is guaranteed to last forever and as such we've got to proportion the amount of meaning and faith and confidence we place in them. History shows us that Kingdoms come and Kingdoms go. Only the Church, with Christ as it's head, has eternal security.
The security of the Church as a whole however is no guarantee of the peaceful existence of any individual member – and we see that work out in practice when we look at the world don't we? Whether that's Christian friends who are painfully pulled away from the gospel because they're distracted by lies about themselves, or about God, or about the world. And we see it in the opposition the Gospel faces both in our society and in the world.
Sadly, nor is it a guarantee that the Church will be a perfect institution, and when we look at the Church through history and look at the Church today unfortunately all too often, our ideas and the ideas of many of what the Church is like, is clouded by the sinfulness of its members. And that comes back all the way to me, being too self-conscious to have that awkward conversation, or too selfish to do that job that needs doing – as an organisation built out of and built for sinners, we shouldn't be surprised that the Church gets it wrong. But it's important that we don't lose faith in the God given power and job the Church receives, nor should we judge Christ on the behaviour of Christians.
So how do we respond to these battle plans? Well, we better get ready with our own then? Let's look down to verse 10 and 11 to see our three weapons in the battle to overcome Satan:
- "The blood of the lamb" – our ultimate weapon in the battle and the foundation of all our plans. This phrase should get us thinking back to the amazing things we saw in Revelation 4 and 5 and is a reminder for us of the Jesus redeeming death on the cross. It is the blood of the lamb that means we can have confidence that God ignores the accusations of Satan. It's through the blood of the lamb we can have confidence that the final battle against death has been won. We can say, 'Where now death is your victory? Where now death is your sting?'
Our plan a when Satan reminds us of our guilt, we remind him of God's forgiveness. The implications of this for our thought life is enormous, instead of blindly accepting the accusations of our conscience we must 'take every thought captive' by examining them against the measuring stick of the gospel. As I've come back to this passage for a second time in quick succession this is something I've been struck by even more – how actually we have a responsibility to speak truth to ourselves, just as we would one of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
- "The word of their testimony" – every time we speak about God's words and deeds we overcome Satan – he absolutely hates it! This is one of the reasons why having memory verses up our sleeve is such a useful thing to do – so that when we're faced with a situation of temptation or frustration or desperation, we can be armed and equipped by truth from God rather than listening to the whispering lie of Satan.
- And lastly, look with me at verse 11, "They did not love their lives so much as to shrink for death". Wow, there's the kicker isn't it? They were even willing to die rather than turn from the truth of the gospel. Yet when we look at the story of Acts and think of the example of Stephen or think of Christian history from guys fed to lions or burnt at stakes to recent examples like Yazidi Christians killed in Iraq and Syria by Isis – we see that martyrdom has been a part of the story of the Church all the way through. It gets us wondering doesn't it, why is that? Well it's because for the Christian there is something far worse than death – drifting away from God and in to eternal death.
The first two battles that we've seen, we can have absolute confidence about the outcome. However the last one, the outcome is up to you. Whether you'll enter the battle and overcome Satan by following and trusting the Lamb, the Lamb who took on the very worst that Satan had to offer and walked away unscathed – only by following his example can we have absolute confidence in the outcome.
In a moment I'm going to pray, but before I do let me give you a minute to think about your week ahead – what action might you need to take this week to enter the battle, to fight the good fight this week?