Mary in Nazareth. Engagement to be married. Visit from Gabriel. Everything changes. Miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit. Caesar Augustus. Empire-wide census. Bethlehem. No room in the inn. Stable and manger. Angelic host. Shepherds. Magi in the east. Gold, frankincense, myrrh.
By now I hope we have all had time to soak in the Christmas story from Luke and Matthew. It’s a special time of year to revisit the simple but profound retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ in human flesh to be the savior of the world. Maybe your family re-enacts the story using a nativity scene; maybe you’ve visited a live nativity; maybe your kids participated in a Christmas play at church.
But let’s not forget that there is actually, somewhat surprisingly, a third nativity story in the Bible. It doesn’t get a lot of airplay this time of year, but it should. It’s the behind-the-scenes look at the manger scene in the book of Revelation. And it involves a dragon. Yes, a dragon.
Because when Jesus took on human flesh, he did so as a warrior. I want to suggest that during this time of year, when it’s easy to let the infancy story fall on deaf ears due to our familiarity with it, a text like Revelation 12 can re-inject the drama and danger into the manger scene that we almost always forget.
This is the third (and final) in a series my somewhat out-of-the-ordinary Christmas posts, and I think it is the most important. I preached on this passage exactly a year ago, but I wanted to post it again in blog format.
The Behind-the-Scenes Christmas Story
In the traditional Christmas passages of Matthew and Luke, we get all the details of what happened when Jesus was born, with the stable and manger and all the rest. But John gives us a glimpse into the spiritual reality – the spiritual war, in fact – that was taking place behind the scenes, as it were, of that familiar manger scene. Let’s look at the passage:
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. 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. 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. 6 The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. … 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea.
The book of Revelation has a mixed reputation. We often struggle with the book’s vivid imagery of beasts, lamps, stars, numbers, battles, dates, etc. For now, I will not be getting into all the complexities of the book (sorry to let you down!). Fortunately, of all the controversial passages in Revelation, these verses in chapter 12 are some of most agreed-upon. But before moving in analyzing the passage, we should at least get a sense for how Revelation works.
The bulk of the book is made up of 7 snapshots or glimpses that John gives us of all human history. These aren’t to be thought of as one after another or sequential. Rather he is looking at the same history of the world over and over again, and telling us what is happening from one angle, then another, and so on. Almost all of these snapshots focus on The End in some way. However, Chapter 12, which sits right at the middle of these 7 snapshots (it is #4), goes back to describe the beginning of The End – the birth of Christ. This passage, in other words, is a vision of the spiritual conflict that was taking place when Jesus entered the world. It’s a different angle on the nativity that we don’t explicitly get in Matthew or Luke. And it is an amazing one. Let’s trace out what John is doing here in three stages.
(1) Rising Action: The Nativity Builds on the Past
We first notice in verses 1-3 that John is describing three key characters in his vision: a pregnant woman, a horrible dragon-like serpent, and a son who was born to the woman. In keeping with how Revelation works, there are a lot of symbols and imagery, and we won’t be able to cover all of them here (everyone wants to know, for instance, about the 1/3 of the stars or the 1,260 days, but those details really aren’t the focus here).
This particular combination of a woman (with the cosmic imagery of the sun, moon and stars), a baby boy, and a dragon (which v9 tells us is the same as the “ancient serpent,” Satan) very clearly takes us not just back to the nativity but much earlier. These three symbols take us all the way back to the very beginning – to the third chapter of Genesis:
Genesis 3:15 – So the Lord God said to the serpent … I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
Simply put, the imagery is tapping into the first gospel promise in Gen 3:15 of a son who would be born of “the woman” and would come to do battle with the “serpent.” When John reports the vision of the woman, the baby, and the serpent doing battle with each other, he is placing the birth of Christ right in the middle of a battle that began years before, in the distant past. After the fall, God promised that a battle would take place through all the centuries between his people and the serpent, between the good offspring and the evil offspring.
This enmity has played out with Cain and Abel, at Babel, in the flood, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Egypt and Israel, Israel and other nations, and so on.
It is a battle between Jesus and Satan, the serpent. Jesus was born to engage in war with the most powerful enemy of all.
This, perhaps shockingly, is the background of Christmas. We want the Silent Night, Sweet-Little-Baby-Jesus version. And that is right and good. But John reminds us that behind the scenes of the the first Christmas is a war between good and evil that has been waged from distant past.
However, while John’s imagery of the woman preparing to give birth points us backwards in time to the spiritual conflict that has been waged for thousands of years, it also reminds us of the great comfort and hope that we have: the Victor has been foretold all along as well. It has never been a losing battle! We see this in two ways in the text. (1) With John’s use of this imagery, we see how God was not just anticipating enmity, but that he also promised that the “offspring” born to the woman would crush the serpent. Yes, there would be spiritual war, but the Son would win. (2) Moreover, John’s view of the nativity taps into the more familiar advent-related prophecy of the virgin birth in Isa 7: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” This dramatic Christmas scene in Rev 12 points us back to a prophecy over 700 years before Jesus that the woman would give birth to a son who would be “Immanuel,” or “God with us.” In this little baby, God would be WITH us in a special way unlike any other in all of human history. That presence guarantees victory.
Connecting to the pew (part 1)
So what should we make of this imagery, of this rising action that led up to that peaceful and quiet first Christmas that was not so quiet after all?
- By pointing to the past, John reminds us that WE are in a bigger story. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the logistics of Christmas forced upon us by an over- commercialized culture – the gifts, the wrapping paper, the lights, the Christmas cards, and so forth – and lose track of the bigger picture. The birth of the Victor puts us in a bigger story, a story that goes all the way back to the dawn of humankind and involves us even today.
- I urge us all, then, in the coming days to pause as often as we can to remember that our celebration of Christmas is part of something beyond ourselves, beyond the walls of our living rooms. Gathering with family is a great reminder of this. When you get together with grandparents, grandkids, aunts, uncles, or whomever over the next days, allow yourself to be lifted out of your day-to-day details of getting the beds made and the kids to church, and be reminded that you are part of a bigger story of a family with a past, with a history – a story which, however messy it may be, goes beyond YOU.
- The nativity, in other words, reminds us that WE are not the focus of Christmas. The Christmas we celebrate with joy and excitement is joyful and exciting because it goes beyond us to the great story of redemption that we are all a part of – the turning point of which was in a manger in Bethlehem.
(2) Turning Point: The Nativity Transforms the Present
Let us zoom in now on that manger in Bethlehem. We’ve seen the rising action, how the nativity scene in Rev 12 connects Christ’s birth back to the past. However, this spiritual warfare also spills into the present, both in Jesus’ day and in ours. All that energy of the battle between good and evil that began in Genesis and has been building over time finally spills forth when the woman (from this angle, representing Mary) actually gives birth to the son.
The coming of the enemy. We first get more details about the opponent, the dragon. John describes him as having numerous heads and horns and a massive tail that has disrupted the heavens by dashing down stars. John describes the enormity and power and gruesomeness of our adversary by putting together various images from the book of Daniel (chapters 7 and 8), in which the evil enemy which we face as Christians is pictured as having heads and horns much like the dragon here in this passage. In both Daniel and Rev 12, this Dragon creature represents the world powers under the control of Satan that attack God’s people, such as the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. It is a whole system that is used by Satan to oppose God’s people at every turn.
How is this fulfilled at Jesus’ birth? We often forget this part of the Gospel accounts of the nativity, since we stop after the Magi. But do you remember what happens next (Matt 2:16-18)? After the Magi leave Jesus’ side, King Herod launches an insane murderous plot to attack Jesus, murdering all the newborn boys in Bethlehem in the process. This nativity was not quiet! The birth of the Son of God was a violent time, with the battle reaching new levels. So the imagery in Revelation surprisingly reflects what really happened: literally, historically, the jaws of Satan waited to devour the son of God at the moment of this birth, through the murderous schemes of Herod’s government. Pause and let that sink in. Do we put ourselves in the drama like that very often? It’s an amazing thing, really, that Jesus survived at all. He has been assailed by Satan from day one. “No room in the inn” was just the tip of iceberg: the battle behind the scenes is much more serious.
What did they do? If you recall from Matt 2:13-15, God sent Jesus, Joseph, and Mary to the desert, to Egypt, to escape the clutches of Herod and the Roman Empire – which ties to John’s symbolism of the woman’ fleeing to the desert to escape the Dragon.
The coming of the Victor. In an odd way, the very violence of Revelation 12, which accurately reflects the violence of Matthew 2, is itself reason to hope. That seems odd, but let me explain.
John reveals why the humble, puny birth of the son in a manger produces such a heightened level of opposition from Satan, and it is simply this: the arrival of the Victor transforms everything. See, most of us give up when it seems like game over, but not Satan: he fights even harder.
John writes, “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.” The woman who has been struggling through labor pains finally gives birth to the son, a male child. But this Jesus to whom Mary gave birth was not just any child. He was a special child, a child who had a big future, a child who would sit on God’s own throne. With the “throne” idea here, John is picking up on the promises made in Luke 1 when Gabriel visited Mary and told her: “31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” This son born here in Revelation is not just any son, but the King himself. Moreover, the “iron scepter” is alluding to Psalm 2, which describes the nations plotting against God’s anointed one (just as the Dragon plots against the Son in this passage). God responds by laughing (!) and saying to his anointed, “You are my Son … today I have become your Father. … You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” (God again speaks this passage when he declares Jesus to be his victorious Son during his baptism).
So what we have here in these few verses is simply this. Jesus was born of a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem at a specific time and specific place in real history to accomplish something huge. His birth was nothing short of the turning point of all human history. For thousands of years the battle has been waged with the forces of evil and sin and Satan’s fury against the people of God. For thousands of years it seemed like again and again that we would lose. But the battle turned on that decisive day when Jesus was born. He invaded to take on the serpent, and the serpent knew it. He knew what Jesus could do because he knew the prophecies: this son born to the woman would rule over all, would dash his enemies, would crush his head. This is why Satan lashed out to devour him immediately.
Connecting to the pew (part 2)
We must get a sense for the hope and power in this turning point.
- The nativity is the turning point, the shift from everything before to everything after. It is like that momentum shift in a basketball game, when the injured star scorer makes it back to the timekeeper’s table to check back in, and everyone knows this changes everything. It like D-Day, that time when the invasion of France dealt the death blow to the enemy powers, and everyone knew victory was assured.
- This behind the scenes look at Christmas helps us listen to the same familiar stories with fresh ears. It is easy to turn off when we hear of the “shepherds watching in the fields by night” because we have heard those passages so many times. Rev 12 inserts us in the story in a fresh way so we can grasp magnitude of what was happening. The most important fact in all history is that the Son of God came in the flesh, on that night in Bethlehem, to a woman in labor.
- When the world seems upside down, when Christmas is chaotic or lonely or sad, I want to encourage you with this one thing: don’t let what you cannot understand confuse you about what you do understand. Whatever else may happen, we know at least this one truth: Jesus has come into the battle to transform the very sin and brokenness that can make Christmas not what it is meant to be. He has turned the tide. The nativity is the dawn of a new day.
(3) Resolution: The Nativity Assures the Future
We have seen thus far that the nativity looks both to the past (to the spiritual war going on since the fall) and to the present (the attacks of Satan on Jesus). But how does this passage end?
The nativity scene of Revelation 12 also gives us assurance about the future: the battle between Satan and the people of God continues, but the Victor will return.
Escalating conflict. An interesting thing happens at the end of the passage. I’ll repeat the reference: Rev 12:17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus. 18 And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea.
This passage (much like Matthew 2, if you read far enough to get to the Herod portion) ends on a rather ominous note. In v17, we see how the Dragon / Satan moves on to attack the other “offspring” (recall that word in Gen 3:15) of the woman – not Jesus, this time, but Jesus’ followers, those who keep his commandments. The woman here represents the church, with the twelve stars tying to the twelve apostles. With the Son taken up to the throne of God, the evil one now makes war against the Son’s followers – against Christians – that is, against you and me.
In other words, while the turning point in the war has come, the battle continued. It wasn’t over yet. Satan and sin now attack Christ’s followers. A short visit to Persecuted Church confirms this, but it happens in our country, in our cities, in our workplaces, in our own families.
Waiting for Jesus. And we are left in the last verse with a very ominous sign: the Dragon is prowling on the shores of the sea, lurking, waiting to do battle with Jesus again. You see, the nativity of Christ, the invasion of the God-man, the first Christmas was also building up to something in the future.
- Shortly after Jesus’ baptism, what does he do? He goes to the desert wilderness (note again the connection in our passage, with the escape to the desert) to engage in nothing other than battle with Satan, with the Dragon who was waiting for him.
- At the end of Jesus’ ministry, what does he do? He goes to the cross to do battle with Satan again. He takes on our sin, our corruption – the very thing that launched this spiritual war in Gen 3! – and he nailed it to the cross. He fought death itself, and he won.
And while the Devil still prowls around, standing on the shore waiting, lurking, seeking to devour Christ’s followers, what will Jesus do next? He will return to finish the job. He will return for one final battle with Satan, to destroy him for good. The infant son who was born of the woman, who narrowly escaped the jaws of the Dragon at his birth, will return as the victorious Lord to slay him once for all.
You see, the nativity is not just about the nativity. The manger is pointing us forward to the cross. Christmas drives us to Easter. Bethlehem points us beyond Calvary to the final battle, when Christ will finish the war. The nativity is the turning point, and it gives us the assurance that Immanuel, the Son of God, will return as the Victor.
Connecting to the pew (part 3)
Over the next few days, I want to encourage us all to think through what exactly we think is happening with Christmas. No, I don’t necessarily mean “Remember that Jesus is the reason for the season.” That is, of course, true. But in a much deeper way, isn’t the reason for the season actually a millenia-long war between the forces of sin / evil and the redeeming purposes of God? Isn’t the reason Jesus was born not precisely to do battle with darkness (John 1) and Satan (Gen 3:15) and sin?
Where will you put your hope this Christmas? In reconciliation with a relative? In an iPad Air? In a break from work?
These things are all fine so far as they go, but they are mere shadows of the real hope. The real hope is the Victor who was born that day long ago, whose very arrival caused the escalation of the spiritual conflict between the sons of darkness and the sons of God. The amazing thing about Christmas is that the Victor has arrived. It has actually happened. The cattle stall was the turning point in the war.
That’s a Victor we can hope in. That’s a Christmas that meets our greatest needs and desires. Getting behind the scenes of Christmas helps us realize that we no longer have to fear the forces of evil in the world and our own sin that are set against us at every point.
Why? In two words this passage, in its retelling of the nativity, gives us not only the theme of both the entire book of Revelation and even the whole Bible, but the very meaning of Christmas itself: Jesus wins.