One of the keys to understanding the book of Revelation is to realize that it is not a chronological account where one event follows another in sequence. Rather, it is a series of visions given to John by the Lord. The question to ask when reading Revelation is not “What comes next?” but “What did John see next?” And what John sees is rarely what we expect. Revelation frequently takes teaching that we receive in other scriptures and presents it in an entirely different way.
This is especially important in understanding Revelation 12. Most scholars agree that this chapter is the theological centre of a book written primarily as a message of encouragement and warning to churches undergoing increasing persecution. Chapter 12 explains exactly why they are going through this kind of pressure. But rather than simply telling them, the Lord gives them a vision of what is really going behind the scenes, unveiling spiritual realities of which they may not be aware. He takes them back to Bethlehem, to a birth unlike any other.
Yes, Revelation 12 is a Christmas text. But quite it is unlike Matthew’s and Mark’s for the intent here is not to give a literal account of an historical event, but to pull back the curtain to see what spiritual forces were at work that night.
In verses 1-4, we see two signs: a woman in heavy labour and a dragon standing ready to devour the child she is about to give birth to. It is not too hard to understand from verse 5 that this child, a male, is Jesus, the one who would rule the nations with a rod of iron (a reference to Psalm 2). From the very beginning of His life, the dragon seeks to destroy the Son (a clear reference to Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child in Matthew 2). Having failed to destroy Him but instead finding himself defeated (verses 7-12), the dragon then turns his violent rage on the woman and her other children who keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus (verses 13-17). In this attempt to destroy Christ’s church, the dragon again is unsuccessful. He is powerless to obliterate the church but he vents his fury against individual Christians through the persecution they are suffering. This attack is explained more in chapter 13, but in this chapter we see how he goes after God’s people in three ways. First, he accuses them (verse 10), slandering them before God, claiming that they do not really love God but are only following Him for selfish reasons (see Job 1-2). Second, he deceives the world, spreading lies and casting doubt on the truth (verse 9). Third, he seeks to kill and enslave people under the fear of death (see Hebrews 2:15). Many Christians have turned aside from the path God has called them to because of the fear of suffering and death.
But as we read verses 10-11 we see that the “brothers” who suffer persecution are not helpless victims. Suffering persecution is not a passive experience, as something to be endured as one hangs on to a slim thread of hope. Indeed, those who overcome the dragon do so aggressively in three ways. First, they overcome the accusations because of the blood of the Lamb (verse 11). Without the blood of Christ, Satan’s accusation that we are unworthy of the Lord would be true. But praise God, because of Jesus’ work on the cross, we can stand unashamed before the Lord. Because of Christ, we have everything we need to stand faithful in the face of persecution (see 2 Peter 1:3). Second, they overcome Satan’s deception by the word of their testimony (verse 11). We overcome lies with the truth of Jesus. Third, they overcome the threat of death by not loving their life even to death (verse 11). They understood that death is not the worst thing that could happen to them. The worst thing would be to turn their backs on Jesus. Satan is overcome when we do not let fear control us but instead enthrone Christ as Lord.
Christmas, as revealed in Revelation 12, reminds us that persecution is a normal part of what it means to follow Christ. This is true for believers wherever they live: Cairo or Calgary, Beijing or Brandon, Pyongyang or Peterborough. We are each called to “overcome” as we live out the reality of Revelation 12 today.
(from the December edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter)