In October 1985, a former U of A football player got me a sideline pass for the football game against 3rd ranked SMU. Although I had previously watched numerous games from the stands and on TV, being on the sideline gave me a whole new perspective on the game. I got to witness first hand many of the things going on behind the scenes that impacted what happened on the field. I heard what the coaches were saying to the players. I could watch as the trainers treated injured players. I could hear what the players and officials on the field were saying to each other. And so I gained a whole different appreciation of the Wildcats 28-6 victory that day.
That is essentially what is going on when we get to Revelation 12. For the first 11 chapters, John’s visions record the action on the field, so to speak. But when we get to chapter 12, it’s as if God gives John a sideline pass and allows him to see what is going on behind the scenes that is causing all the other things that John has seen so far.
Before we read our passage from chapter 12 this morning, let me take a moment to set the stage. Chapters 12 through 15 represent one long scene that provides a look at the reasons for all the events that have been portrayed in the first 11 chapters of Revelation. Not surprisingly, we will find that this block of material can be further divided into seven sub-scenes in which we will find seven major characters. As we’ll see this morning, this material covers a wide panorama of history that begins before Adam and Eve and extends through Daniel’s 70th week, a seven year period also known as the tribulation.
With that in mind go ahead and open your Bibles to Revelation 12 and follow along as I read:
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.
In this passage, God reveals to John a picture of a cosmic battle that has been going on since before the creation of Adam and Eve and which will continue until the sounding of the seventh trumpet and the return of Jesus to establish His kingdom, judge the ungodly and reward His followers. So chronologically these events must occur prior the seventh trumpet that we saw last week at the end of chapter 11.
As you know, our approach to the Book of Revelation has been to treat the text as literal except when there is something in the text that indicates that we should take it symbolically or figuratively. This whole section is certainly one of those places. Twice in this passage, we are told that the things that John is seeing are “signs”. A “sign” in this context is something that points beyond itself to a greater reality. Clearly John is not writing here about a literal woman clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet and with a crown of twelve literal stars. Nor is he writing of a literal dragon. These are merely pictures that point to a greater reality.
Here’s how we’re going to proceed this morning. First, we’ll identify the characters who are introduced to us in this passage. Second, we’ll take a brief look at the events pictured here. And finally, and most importantly, we’ll look at what this passage teaches us about how to be overcomers in the midst of this cosmic battle that is being waged all around us.
1. The woman (vv. 1, 4, 6, 13, 14, 15, 16 , 17)
There are several references in our passage to a woman. This woman is described as being clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and wearing a crown of twelve stars. Although there are many passages that give us a clue to her identity, one passage from Genesis 37 will suffice. As Joseph describes his dream, he also helps us identify the woman.
Then he 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.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?”
Genesis 37:9-10 (ESV)
The eleven stars here would be Joseph’s brothers, with Joseph himself then being the twelfth star. So here the sun refers to Jacob, the moon to Joseph’s mother Rachel, and the twelve stars to the twelve sons of Jacob. Taken together, there is little doubt that this is a picture of the commonwealth of Israel.
The woman = the commonwealth of Israel
This encompasses all twelve tribes, both the northern 10 tribes of Israel and the southern two tribes of Judah. Although these two kingdoms have remained separated since the end of Solomon’s rule, we have consistently seen that God will reunite them in connection with the Day of the Lord.
2. The dragon (vv. 3, 4, 7, 9, 13, 16, 17)
The dragon with seven heads and ten horns is easy to identify, because he is clearly identified for us in the text itself in verse 9.
The dragon = Satan
Since heads are a picture of authority, the seven heads are a symbol of his complete authority, although as we’ll see in a moment, that authority is in fact limited. And since horns are a picture of power, the ten horns are a picture of complete power and are certainly reminiscent of the ten horned figure that we saw in Daniel 7. Together these symbols show us that Satan will fight in this cosmic battle through establishing authority and power in the governmental and religious systems of the world. That will be seen more clearly in chapter 13.
3. The male child (vv. 4, 5)
We could easily explore a number of related passages that would confirm his identity, but the text itself is adequate for us to identify him.
The male child = Jesus
4. Michael (v. 7)
Although he is clearly identified here by name, in the book of Daniel we find a further description of his function.
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.
Daniel 12:1 (ESV)
Michael is identified here as the angel who God has designated as the guardian of Israel. When God refers to “your people” as he is speaking to Daniel here, He is clearly referring to the commonwealth of Israel. And Michael is connected here with the deliverance of Israel, which is pictured here in Revelation 12.
Michael = guardian of Israel
5. The rest of her offspring (v. 17)
Although this is probably the most difficult character to identify clearly, the text itself gives us a pretty good clue when it describes this remnant as those “who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” That sounds to me like a description of all Christ followers, which we call the church.
The rest of her offspring = the church
This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that through his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
We’ll be introduced to the last two characters in this section when we get to chapter 13.
SCENE 1 – A COSMIC BATTLE
The first of the seven sub-scenes in this larger section incorporates all of chapter 12. There is clearly at least some degree of recapitulation in this passage. In verses 1-6 the basic scene is laid out for us and then in the rest of the chapter God goes back and provides some more details about those events. As we’ll see in a moment, some of these events also have multiple fulfillments. Although some of these events occur in the past, they will be repeated in nearly the same manner again in the future.
As we would expect, although we get some general ideas, it is just not possible to identify the specific time frame for each of the events portrayed in this chapter. So we’ll just take a brief look at the events described here, but keep in mind that they don’t necessarily occur in the same chronological order that they appear in the chapter.
1. The fall of Satan and his angels (v. 4)
We first see a picture of the fall of Satan that occurs prior to the creation of mankind. The prophet Isaiah gives us another picture of the same event:
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.
Isaiah 14:12-15 (ESV)
Although the Bible doesn’t give us all the details, we know that before Adam and Eve were created that Satan, in his great pride, rebelled against God. As a result, God cast him out of heaven along with the one-third of the angels who had chosen to follow him in his rebellion.
2. Satan tries to thwart God’s plan for a Messiah (v. 4)
This goes all the way back to the Garden. After Adam and Eve sin, God makes a promise of a future Messiah who will come to deal with man’s sin:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring…
Genesis 3:15 (ESV)
Notice here that the Messiah is pictured as the one who will be the offspring of the woman – exactly the same picture we have here in Revelation 12. And from that moment forward, Satan begins to do everything that he can to thwart God’s plans. He begins by trying to destroy Adam and Eve’s family when Cain kills his brother Abel. He tries to destroy Israel by having them taken captive in Egypt.
He causes the division of Israel into two separate kingdoms after the death of Solomon in order to try and destroy the lineage of the Messiah. And when all that fails and the Messiah is finally born, he uses Herod in an attempt to kill Him.
3. Satan turns his attention to Israel (vv.7-13)
Having been unsuccessful in his bid to thwart the coming of the Messiah, Satan now turns his attention to trying to destroy Israel.
At some point, most likely near the midpoint of Daniel’s seventieth week, another battle takes place in heaven. Satan and his demons are defeated once again, this time at the hand of Michael and the angels he leads. As a result, Satan and his demons are permanently cast out of heaven and down to earth.
After the original fall of Satan and his demons, it is clear that God still permitted Satan to have access to heaven. The clearest picture of this is in the book of Job, where Satan is allowed into God’s presence. But after the battle with Michael and his angels, Satan will no longer have access to the throne of God. And since he now knows that his final defeat is near, Satan will pour out his wrath in an unprecedented manner. At first that wrath will be directed at Israel.
4. God intervenes on behalf of Israel (vv. 6, 14-16)
You can’t help but think of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt when you read this account of how God protects Israel. Israel flees into the wilderness where she is nourished by God for a period of three and one half years. Both the 1,260 days in verse 6 and the “time, and times, and half a time” in verse 14 refer to this same three and a half year period.
Much has been made about the fact that the woman is given the two wings of the great eagle so that she can flee from the serpent into the wilderness. Some have even speculated that this is a picture of United States airlift operation. But we find a much more suitable explanation in the pages of Scripture:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.
Exodus 19:4 (ESV)
Obviously, in the exodus from Egypt, the people did not literally fly out of Egypt on the wings of an eagle. God is merely using figurative language here to emphasize the fact that He is the one who was responsible for their release from bondage in Egypt.
God’s intervention is for two purposes:
God physically protects Israel from the attacks of Satan. That is pictured in verses 15 and 16, which also appear to be figurative language that describes how God is going to protect Israel from Satan. We are reminded of how God protected His people from their pursuers by drowning the Egyptians in the sea.
The wilderness experience after the exodus was also a testing experience for God’s people. Although God provided for His people during that time, a whole generation of people who proved to be unfaithful to God died off and never got to enter the Promised Land. God specifically describes how He used that period to test the faithfulness of His people:
who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.
Deuteronomy 8:15, 16 (ESV)
The purpose of this time of protection and testing seems to be to prepare Israel for their salvation at the return of Jesus.
5. Satan attacks the church (v. 17)
Once Satan is no longer able to go after Israel, he is going to turn his attention to the rest of her offspring – the church. The seals and trumpets we’ve already seen certainly reflect the wrath of Satan which affects everyone on earth, including the church.
This is all important information for us. But what is really exciting to me is that this passage provides us with some really practical guidance on how we can be overcomers in the midst of this cosmic battle that is going on all around us right now.
HOW TO BE OVERCOMERS IN THE COSMIC BATTLE
Perhaps there is a tendency for us to view the attacks against God’s people by Satan as proof of his power. But in a sense, it is really proof that He has already been defeated and that he can’t prevail against either Jesus our His church in the long run. Rather than discouraging us, these attacks ought to encourage us to persevere because we know the end of the story.
In this passage, we are shown the three main ways that Satan attempts to attack us and how we can respond to his tactics in a way that will allow us to be overcomers.
1. Satan attacks through accusation
Much is revealed about the nature of Satan’s attacks by the two names by which he is described in this passage:
“devil” = “diabolos” (Greek) – literally “to hurl against”; “slanderer”
Satan (Hebrew) = “adversary”
Together these titles give us a picture of one who is our adversary and who operates by hurling accusations against us or by slandering us. That is further confirmed by the way he is described at the end of verse 10:
“the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God”
We see Satan operate in that manner in the book of Job where he comes before God and hurls accusations against Job. He claims that if God will just take down the hedge of protection around job and allow Satan to attack him that Job will curse God.
But in verse 11, we discover how we can overcome the accusations of Satan.
• We overcome by having the right advocate - Jesus
And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb… (V.11)
The only way we can overcome the accusations of Satan is by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus. If we try to defend ourselves before Gad against the accusations of Satan, we will be unsuccessful. Because we are guilty of every accusation that Satan brings against us. It is only through our faith in Jesus that we can defend against those accusations. Both John and Paul describe how Jesus is our advocate before God, pleading our case for us on the basis of what He accomplished through His death and resurrection.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
1 John 2:1 (ESV)
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Romans 8:34 (ESV)
2. Satan attacks us through deception
Satan is called “the deceiver of the whole world”. That is certainly consistent with how Jesus described him:
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
John 8:44 (ESV)
This is also consistent with the description of Satan as the “serpent” – certainly a reference to the Garden where the main tool he used against Adam and Eve was deception.
• We overcome by having the right activity – the word of our testimony
When a witness is called into court, that person is there not because of who they are, but rather because of what they have witnessed and can testify to. And before they can give their testimony, they have to swear an oath to tell the truth.
When we are called to be witnesses for Jesus, it is not because of who we are, but because of what we have witnessed and can give testimony to. And we also must take care to make sure that our testimony is based on the truth.
We overcome the deception of the evil one by giving testimony about the one who is truth – Jesus. Right before he went on to describe Satan as the father of lies, Jesus spoke these words about the importance of holding to the truth:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8:31, 32 (ESV)
Jesus told us how we are to hold the truth. It is by abiding in His Word. It is saturating our lives with the word of God that allows us to give true testimony regarding Jesus and which protects us against the deception of Satan. We see that clearly in the account of Satan’s deception in the Garden where Adam and Eve were deceived because they failed to hold fast to the truth of God’s Word.
3. Satan attacks through threats
We see that Satan attacks by threatening God’s people with physical harm, and even death. That is demonstrated in the account of Job where Satan attacks Job by destroying his family, taking away his possessions and inflicting him with disease.
All the seals and trumpet judgments that we’ve seen in Revelation involve some kind of threat of physical harm and/or death.
• We overcome by having the right attitude - focus on the eternal
In verse 11, we find that those who overcame “they loved not their lives even unto death.” In other words, they had an eternal perspective. They realized that life on this earth is not the end, but only the beginning. I love the way that Paul articulates this principle to the church in Corinth:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)
We are all engaged in a cosmic spiritual battle on a daily basis. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6 “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.” But we can be victorious overcomers in that battle if we have the right advocate – Jesus; have the right activity – the word of our testimony; and have the right attitude – focus on the eternal.