This Present Darkness (Revelation 12:1-17)
Topic: Revelation Passage: Revelation 12:1–12:17
Happy Ever After
This Present Darkness
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
May 3, 2015
I. The Key Question
If there was one question that had to be the key question for our study this morning, it would be this: “What is really going on here?” Think for a minute about your life. Think for a minute about our community; about the world around us. Think about what has been and what now is. As you think about these things, ask yourself, “What is really going on here?” With that question rattling around inside us, let's look together at the book of the Revelation.
Since our study in Revelation left off back in March, I think it's important that we do a little bit of review. You may remember how the skeleton of the main vision of the book is composed of three sets of seven judgments: seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Since we've already made it through the the first two sets of seven, we've seen a similar pattern emerge.
As we enter chapter 12 this morning, and as you can see from this outline (see Figure 1), the pattern prepares us for the seven bowl judgments. That's what we'd expect next. But as we'll discover, the seven bowls of judgment are nowhere to be found. In fact, those judgments don't show up until chapter 15. So what we have here in chapters 12-14 is a kind of parenthesis. As we finish this up this morning, we will talk about why it was so important for God to interrupt the pattern with this parenthesis.
We're also going to see this unexpected section is a kind of expansion of the “Tale of Two Witnesses” that we read about in the first half of chapter 11. This in turn was most likely the contents of the little scroll John was given to eat by the mighty angel in chapter 10.
II. The Passage: “He Knows that His Time is Short” (12:1-17)
So what DO we find here in chapter 12? Well, we find three sections that can all be described as 'looking through the cross hairs', with each section presenting a different character as the target. So what I'd like to do is change up the order and look first at sections one and three.
A. In the Cross Hairs: Christ (12:1-6)
Look with me at verses 1-6 of chapter 12. John tells us this about his vision:
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.  And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.  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.  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,  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.
Okay, this is the perfect place to remind ourselves of Foothold #3 of our “Five Firm Footholds”. You may remember that we compared a study of this book to the challenges of scaling a mountain summit. And just as it's important to find firm footholds as you make your way up an alpine peak, it's also important that we keep our “Five Firm Footholds” in mind as we ascend 'Mount Revelation'.
So Foothold #3 reminds us that “Revelation was conveyed through symbolic numbers and images.” And that's exactly what we find in chapter 12. So clearly there are two symbolic characters presented in this passage: the woman and the dragon. If we sneak down to verse 9 of this chapter, we find there's no mystery about the identity of the dragon. This is the devil, also called Satan (which means "Adversary" in Hebrew).
The woman is harder to identify, especially at this point in the chapter. She is certainly in an exalted position with the sun, moon, and stars describing her glory. But more significant than the stars themselves is the number of stars that make up her crown: 12. You may remember that 12 is the number of God's people. So in contrast to traditional Roman Catholic interpretation, this is not the Virgin Mary. As do all the women in the main vision of Revelation, I believe this woman also represents a group of people; more specifically, a group of God's people.
But notice who is in the cross hairs in these opening verses: it is Christ. Clearly the “male child” the woman bears, the one who is caught up to God's throne, is Jesus. We know that from the two psalms alluded to in verse 5. Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 both speak of the Messiah, that He will “rule the nations with a rod of iron” (Psalm 2:9), and that He will “sit at [God's] right hand until [He] makes [his] enemies a footstool for [his] feet” (Psalm 110:1).
We know from the Gospels that even from Jesus' first years on this planet, when He was only a child, the Devil sought, through Herod, to kill Him. That continued throughout Christ's ministry and all the way up to His betrayal and death on the Cross. At every turn, Satan was at work to “devour” God's Son. But he failed. And as we see here in verse 6, the woman also escaped from the dragon's teeth. But that takes us right into section number three of this chapter.
B. In the Cross Hairs: Christians (12:13-17)
Skip down and look at where this story picks up again in verse 13:
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth [that's explained in section 2], he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.  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.  The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood.  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.  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.
So as you can see, this section picks up where section one was leaving off. We know from verse 6 that the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God. What we read in verse 14 explains how she made into the wilderness. Using the language of Exodus 19:4, God also “bore [her] on eagle's wings” and brought her to safety and nourishment in the wilderness (just as God had with Israel and with Elijah).
The time period mentioned in verse 14 is the same as the 1260 days of verse 6, which is three and half years, or exactly half of seven-year sabbath cycle. The symbolism is a reminder that the woman's time in the wilderness will be limited. But clearly the woman is being protected by God. Even the earth does God's will and opens up to swallow the flood waters that spew from the dragon's mouth.
But wait. We still haven't identified this woman. Who is she? Well, I believe verse 17 is the key to understanding her identity. Notice the woman is described in this verse as not only giving birth to Jesus, but also to other children (“her offspring”), the children the dragon pursues when he realizes he cannot destroy the woman. And who are these children? They are those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. These are believers. These are Christians.
So think about all the clues we have in terms of the woman's identity: 1) she is described using celestial language, 2) she in some way represents God's people, 3) she brings forth Jesus, and 4) she brings forth other believers in Jesus. With point #1 in mind, listen to Genesis 37:9:
Then he [Joseph] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
Could this symbolic description of Jacob/Israel, his wife Rachel, and the eleven sons of Israel be the foundation for the image of the woman? I think it is. But if we consider the persecution that both the woman and her children endure from the dragon, persecution that is all connected to Jesus, I think the woman must represent more than just Israel as a whole. I think what we have here is a picture of the Jewish remnant that made up the core of the early church.
From people like Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Elizabeth, and John the Baptizer all the way down to the Twelve Apostles, the Jews converted on the day of Pentecost, and the priests who became obedient to the faith according to Acts 6, the woman is a picture of the Jewish remnant that both struggled to hold onto hope in the face of Roman oppression and, with its center in Jerusalem, that church that eventually fled the city in the face of the Roman attack in 70 AD. Remember, Revelation was written only twenty years later. The fall of Jerusalem was a well-known event in the First Century, especially among Christians.
Why among Christians? Because they knew that Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem and, more importantly, that they came out of that faithful Jewish remnant, that those believers were the ones who brought the Son into the broader world through their preaching. And because of their faithfulness, the seven churches to whom this book is addressed (Foothold #2) were able to know the grace of God in Christ. They were truly “her offspring”. So who is in the cross hairs in section three? It is Christians.
So after failing to crush this Jewish remnant, the dragon turns his attention to the Gentile believers. And yet, in the event the original readers of Revelation would become fearful in the face of this “furious” dragon and his war plans against them, God pulls back the veil in section two to show them a profound heavenly reality.
C. In the Cross Hairs: The Dragon (12:7-12)
Look with me at verses 7-12 of Revelation chapter 12...
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back,  but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  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.  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.  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.  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!”
Okay. So who is in the cross hairs now? Right, the dragon; Satan himself! And where is this scene taking place? In heaven! Now, even though the dragon was described as having seven heads, and on those seven heads ten horns and seven crowns (which is symbolic of his full authority in the world), in spite of this, he is driven from heaven by Michael and the hosts of heaven. But wait, is this literal or symbolic? It's a symbolic description of an actual victory, a victory heralded by the announcement in verse 10. Did you see that?
Think about this victory in light of these extremely important NT verses:
After hearing about demonic powers cowering before His ministers, Jesus declared in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” As Jesus spoke of His imminent death on the cross, He declared in John 12:31, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” And when years later Paul explained that very cross to the Colossian disciples, he made a very similar declaration. On the cross, “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus].” (Col. 2:15)
And this is precisely what we find affirmed in section two. Though Satan makes war on the woman's offspring, they are conquering the “deceiver”, the “accuser”, with two unstoppable weapons. Verse 11: “the blood of the lamb” and “the word of their testimony”. By the power of the cross, they have taken their stand, and like their Lord, some even to the point of death.
III. Sobered and Strong
You see, what we have here in Revelation 12 is a symbolic description of the very truth that Paul laid out for his readers in Ephesians 6:12, the very truth that partly answers the questions, “What is really going on here?” Ephesians 6:12...
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This kind of parenthesis is the very thing we should have expected in light of what we learned from the mini-letters to the seven churches that we find in chapters 2 and 3. Remember, many of these followers of Jesus faced opposition from so-called Jews who, in reality, belonged to a “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9). And some of these Christians were also dealing with the kind of cancerous false teaching that Jesus described as “the deep things of Satan” (2:24). More than that, some of these disciples were feeling pressure from the civil authorities, authorities Jesus designated “Satan's throne” (2:13).
Of course the devil, that furious and frustrated dragon, of course he was making war on them. Isn't he doing the same in our lives? When we ask “What is really going on here?”, can't we be assured this revelation is also for us? When wrong ideas seek to tear us, our church, our marriages, our families apart, when people slight us or slander us, when pressures mount from the daily grind (financially, socially, politically), or when we are tempted, in the face of all of it, to just give in, we must remember what is really going on.
“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!”
Brothers and sisters, we must see the true nature of our struggles. We must be sobered by the reality of our spiritual legacy. If not, we will be tempted to choose worldly solutions. If not, we will be tempted to believe either God has abandoned us or is indifferent to our struggles. But like the first readers of Revelation, this chapter helps us understand the demonic fury that lies at the heart of our struggles.
So what can we do? We must be sober. But we also must be strong. Like Antipas in Pergamum, he overcame Satan's throne by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [his] testimony, and did not love his life even unto death. Christian, you can be strong, you can stand firm, even in the face of a dragon, by remembering we face a defeated and desperate enemy. It was the Devil who was in the cross hairs of the literal cross. Therefore, it is “the blood of the Lamb” that gives us victory when we endure, unashamed of Jesus.
Practically, that means looking at all your struggles with two questions in mind: 1) What does the devil hope to accomplish through this struggle? Doubt? Despair? Distraction? Defiance? Of course, his end game is always spiritual defeat. But the second question is even more important: 2) How does the victory of Jesus enable me to spiritually conquer in this struggle? If I rest in the fact I am eternally accepted, cleansed, sustained, guarded, empowered, and loved because of the gospel, how does that change the fears and frustrations I face in the midst of this struggle?
These are the truths the seven churches of Revelation needed to understand and hold onto. And these are the truths we desperately need as we live our lives as the offspring of the woman and as God's adopted children through Jesus Christ. Because of God's word, we know what is really going on here, don't we.
If you want to learn more about the Devil and the nature of true, spiritual warfare, please consider two series of messages available on our website. The first is called “The Enemy”, and the other is titled, “This Means War”.
Let's once again finish by going to God and asking Him to help us be both sober and strong in light of these things.
A. Six Seals (four distinct (re: earth) + two) (6:1-17)
B. Interlude (7:1-17)
C. Seventh Seal (8:1) > Seven Trumpets!
D. Heavenly Temple (8:2-4)
E. Signs of God's Presence (e.g. thunder, lightning) (8:5)
A. Six Trumpets (four distinct (re: earth) + two “woes”) (8:6-9:21)
B. Interlude (10:1-11:14)
C. Seventh Trumpet (11:15-18) > Seven Bowls (not until 15:1)
D. Heavenly Temple (11:19a)
E. Signs of God's Presence (e.g. thunder, lightning) (11:19b)
More in Happy Ever After (Revelation)
November 22, 2015Keep What is Written (Revelation 1:1-22:21)(overview)
November 15, 2015I am Coming...Come! (Revelation 22:6-21)
November 1, 2015A Tour of Our Future Glory (Revelation 21:9-22:5)