I recently preached a sermon on how Christians should think about Satan and Demons. One element that I didn’t get to explore more was a tableau from the book of Revelation that illustrates everything I was trying to say, but in a more vivid, powerful way.
Why Revelation is so Confusing
The book of Revelation is famously controversial in the church when it comes to interpreting. It is an “apocalyptic” work, meaning it uses dramatic symbols, numbers, and images to convey its message, so if you fail to interpret the symbols as symbols, then you will misinterpret the book. If you try to interpret Revelation the same way you interpret Romans you will be baffled the same way you would be if you tried to interpret the comics the same way you interpreted the obituaries. Further, it cites, alludes, and echoes the Old Testament (especially the prophets) more than any other book in the New Testament, so if you do not pick up on these citations and allusions you will, again, misunderstand the book.
However, if you understand the interpretive rules behind the literary genre of the book, and you begin to familiarize yourself more with the Old Testament citations and allusions, what was once puzzling will unfold into one of the most powerful and compelling books in the entire Bible. The book of Revelation, after all, is the only book in the Bible that promises a blessing to those who read it (Rev 1:3).
The Woman and the Great Dragon
Revelation 12 is a dramatic picture given of the struggle between the church and Satan:
1 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. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard 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, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Re 12:1–17). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
I will provide a concise interpretation of this chapter–I will not attempt to “show my work” in all of my OT references or other allusions or explain everything in the chapter, otherwise this post would treble in length. If you are of a dispensational tradition, some of my interpretations (especially about the 3.5 year period) may seem confusing, but my point in this post isn’t to provide an explanation or critique of that tradition. Rather, I want to look specifically at how God protects His people from Satan’s schemes.
- Verse 1: The woman clothed with the sun and moon under her feet, crowned with twelve stars is a heavenly picture of the people of God from before and after Christ’s arrival (note: the number “12” is almost always an identifier of God’s chosen people; 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles, cf. Rev 21:12-14).
- Verse 2: The woman crying out in labor is describing the the arrival of the Messiah, descended through the lineage of God’s people (see v. 5). Her crying out in pain (literally “being tormented”) references the suffering God’s people endured prior to the arrival of the Messiah (Isa 26:17-27:1).
- Verse 3: The red dragon with seven heads is an apocalyptic picture of Satan (see v. 9).
- Verse 4: The dragon sweeping a third of the stars down may refer to Satan leading an angelic rebellion (where “stars” represent angelic beings) or persecuting God’s people (where “stars” refer to believers, see Dan 12:3). Satan is poised to devour the child (Messiah) about to born. G.K. Beale writes, “Here we find a reference to all the ways in which the devil tried to tempt Jesus and to destroy Him during the time of His earthly ministry, as Jesus’ earthly lifetime is telescoped into a single phrase,” (Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 247).
- Verse 5: Here, in one sentence, we get a “telescoped” phrase of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the one who rules all nations with “a rod of iron” (Ps. 2:7-9, Rev 2:27) and was “caught up to God and to His throne” when He ascended after His resurrection. In crucifying Jesus Satan thought he had won, but was foiled through the resurrection and ascension.
- Verse 6: The people of God, the church, flees into “the wilderness” to a place where God protects her. In the OT, the wilderness was often a place of protection and nourishment (Ex 2:15; Ex 16:32; Deut 2:7; 1 Kings 17; 1 Kings 19:3-8; Hos 2:14-15). The “one thousand two hundred and sixty days,” or approximately three and a half years, is associated with the time of tribulation from Daniel 7:25 and 12:7. It is a symbolic–not literal–period of time used to describe the time between Christ’s ascension and His second coming. It is used elsewhere in the book to describe the duration of the work of the church (Rev 11:2-3, where “Moses and Elijah” symbolize the church) and the simultaneous work of Satan’s attacks on the church (Rev 13:5-7). Thus, this teaches that though the church will experience suffering, she will be preserved by the Lord who has “prepared a place for her.” (Note: Jesus’ earthly ministry was roughly three and a half years. Perhaps John is using that time signature as a way to show the church carries on the kingdom Jesus inaugurated?)
- Verse 7: According to Daniel 10:13, 21, and 12:1, Michael is the great angel appointed to represent God’s people. In Daniel 10, the “son of Man” figure works with Michael to fight the demonic heavenly forces that oppose God’s people. Both Michael and the “son of Man” are representatives in heaven for Israel (Dan 12:1 and 7:13-27), thus they seem to be associated with one another (though distinct). Beale argues, “Rev. 12:1-5 has explained primarily what has occurred on earth in the person of Jesus, whereas Michael reflects Jesus’ earthly victory as His representative in the heavenly sphere…That is, Christ’s resurrection and the beginning of His rule are immediately reflected in heaven by the defeat of the devil and his hosts by Michael and his angels,” (Revelation, 253).
- Verse 8: Because of Christ’s victory at the cross and the empty tomb, Satan and his demons have been disarmed and publicly embarrassed (Col 2:14-15). They no longer have any basis to stand in heaven and accuse those who believe, thus they are cast down (see v. 10, cf. Job 1:6-7).
- Verse 9: The identity of the dragon is made crystal clear: he is Satan. The same “serpent” who first deceived Adam and Eve in the garden, who is now experiencing the crushing of his head prophesied back in Gen 3:14-17. Satan and his demons are thrown down to earth, ejected from heaven–but not yet finally destroyed (cf. Rev 20:7-10).
- Verse 10: The long awaited arrival of the Messianic kingdom has now arrived. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God arrived with Him (Mark 1:14-15), but it was not till He had died and was resurrected that He decisively defeated Satan and inaugurated His reign (Matt 28:18). Note that it is “now” that the kingdom, power, and salvation has come–that is, directly following Christ’s resurrection and ascension, not some future reality. Satan has now been ejected and now vanquished–He can no longer accuse the brethren–and, simultaneously, the kingdom of God has now been established.
- Verse 11: This explains how Christians now experience this victorious kingdom: they overcome the dragon by the blood of the lamb (Jesus’ substitutionary death) and the word of their testimony (their profession of faith in Jesus’ death).
- Verse 12: All of heaven rejoices at this great act of salvation! But we see that Satan’s ejection from heaven has not resulted in his final demise. He is thrown down to earth in great wrath, knowing that he only has a short amount of time before he is finally thrown into the lake of fire when Jesus returns again. This “short time” is equivalent to the three and a half years of v. 6 and 14. Thus, Satan seeks to wreak as much havoc on earth as he can with the little time that remains. So, even though Satan is a defeated enemy, he is very dangerous. Thus, Beale writes, “Because Christ’s kingdom is not yet present in its fulfilled or completed state, God’s people may physically suffer or even be killed, but because it is genuinely present in its initial or inaugurated state, their ultimate victory is assured, as much as was Christ’s when He was dying on the cross. And in the midst of our battle on earth, we now have all the resources of heaven open to us, the same resources that hurled the enemy down to earth in the first place. The resurrection is thus the decisive event which decisively won the battle in the unseen world and released the power of the kingdom into the seen world,” (Revelation, 258-59).
- Verse 13: Satan, removed from his place in heaven, now turns to attack God’s people.
- Verse 14: The image of “two wings of the great eagle” refers to the great OT act of deliverance: the Exodus (Ex 19:4; Deut 32:10-12). Isaiah specifically prophesied that in the last days God’s people will receive wings like eagles in the wilderness when He comes to deliver them (Isa 40:27-31, cf. vv. 3-5 for wilderness setting). Thus, as God protected His people in the wilderness during the Exodus, He will protect His people after He completes the new Exodus through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Though Satan will strive to destroy the church, he will ultimately fail (Matt 16:18). The “time and times and half a time” refer to three and half years, the symbolic period of time of the age of the church.
- Verse 15: In the book of Revelation, when something come out of individuals’ mouths they are figurative pictures of words. For Jesus, a sword coming out of his mouth represent the words by which He judges sinners (Rev 1:16; 2:16; 11:5; 19:15, 21; cf. 3:16). For Satan and his servants, things that come out of their mouths are words for deceiving people (Rev 9:17-18; 16:13). Thus the flood that flows out of the serpent’s mouth likely refers to the deception or false teaching of the serpent (note that Satan’ is referred to again here as “serpent,” evoking the image of Gen 3, where Satan’s main role was as a deceiver, cf. 2 Cor 11:3). In the OT, may times flood waters referred to suffering in general, so the waters may refer to persecutions generally as well (cf. Ps 18:4, 16, 66:12; 69:1-2, 14-15; 124:4-5).
- Verse 16: The earth opens up to swallow the flood of deception that flows from Satan’s mouth. This symbolizes God intervening to protect His church because, again, He has promised to preserve her.
- Verse 17: This leads to the dragon being even further enraged, so he goes off to make war against the “rest of the offspring” of the woman. This delineation between “the woman” and the “rest of her offspring” is difficult to interpret, but it seems most likely that both simply refer to the people of God. Perhaps the “woman,” described in heavenly terms back in v. 1 refers to the “ideal, eternal, or heavenly perspective” of the church, while the “offspring” in v. 17 refers to the “multitude of individual believers and the suffering they experience from an earthly or historical perspective” (Beale, 263). Thus, this would mean that despite Satan’s attempt to destroy, deceive, and discredit the visible, local church, none of his efforts can ultimately do anything to the invisible, universal church that is seated in heaven.
What does Revelation 12 tell us? That despite the many attempts that Satan will make to sink the Christian, he will ultimately fail. Once Satan lost his place to “accuse the brethren” he now has no ability to finally harm us. Kill us? Sure. Frustrate us? Absolutely. But stop the church from accomplishing its mission? Condemn us before our God? Sink us into the same misery that he is in? Never.
We have overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony, thus we love not our lives even unto death. So we are very confident. The battle has been won, the resources of heaven are open to us, and our final state is secure.
For further study:
G.K. Beale’s shorter and longer commentary.
Tom Schreiner’s chapter on “Revelation” in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary.