War in Heaven and Churches under stress
Sign One: the woman and her children
The main part of the time between Christ's ascension and return is the subject of all the visions from ch.10 to 14 and, more than all the others, the vision of chapter twelve and thirteen reveals the spiritual realities behind the struggle of the church on earth.
The woman in heaven was a great and wondrous sign. She was in the pains of childbirth and she gave birth to a very special son. We can recognise the woman by realising that her son is the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is the male child who will rule nations with an iron sceptre. We have already learnt that this description - which comes from the prediction of the Messiah in Psalm 2:9 - is applied to Jesus Christ in the Revelation (2:27, 19:15). He has now been snatched up to the throne of God as we saw in chapter five.
It seems that the main purpose of the woman is to give birth to Christ since she is removed out of harm's way after He has completed His work on earth and returned to heaven. For the time of the churches' struggle (the 1,260 days) she will remain hidden in the "desert". But the implication is that she will come back at at the end of the age.
Who then is the woman? She is not just Mary, the wife of Joseph, she is the whole of faithful Israel. Christ was the main point and purpose of the Jewish nation and, in spite of Satan's efforts to destroy them, Jesus was born and succeeded in His ministry. He was snatched from under the Devil's nose and is now alive and exalted with God in heaven (v5).
Israel has a wonderful aspect in this vision because that was how God, in His electing grace, looked upon His people; clothed with the sun, the moon beneath her and the twelve stars making her crown. The twelve stars may stand for the patriarchs of Israel (Genesis 37:9). From any point of view these are symbols of vitality, power and rule.
The idea of Israel being in labour occurs a number of times in the Old Testament (e.g. Micah 5:1-5). Another important theme is the line of promises that God would use a particular son of Israel to save them and be a light to the nations. The line of inheritance came down through the route traced (with some variation) in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels and the promises were fully met in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of David.
The beautiful woman has been removed from the earth and Satan cannot reach her. This is expressed in two ways in vs 6 and 14-16. Faithful Israel as a nation has disappeared but she will make a reappearance with Christ at the end of the age when He returns (these are the 144,000 Jews of chs. 7 and 14).
The reference to the desert harks back to the time when God rescued Israel from the land of Egypt. In a similar way, the faithful of Israel are safely gathered in heaven and they shall enter the promised land when Christ leads them to the renewed earth. The dramatic rescue from the dragon in verses thirteen to sixteen is rather like the flight from Egypt through the Red Sea.
But Israel has more children (v17). Every christian is a child of mother Israel, such that all who believe and obey Jesus are offspring and heirs of the chosen race (Ephesians 2:19, Romans 11:17). This means that all the hatred of the devil which used to be focussed on Israel and Christ is now directed towards christians, the new people of God.
Sign Two: the dragon
Satan is an ugly fact in the bible but we know very little about his origin. He is presumed to be a fallen angel. He certainly has caused the downfall of many other angels (vs 4 & 9). With regard to the evil one God operates on a "need to know" basis, telling us what we need to understand rather than feeding an unhelpful curiosity.
The dragon is specifically identified for us in verse 9. He is the "ancient serpent". This is an obvious reference to the snake in the garden of Eden who tempted Adam and Eve to disbelieve God and so to disobey.
The snake seems to have grown and has become a dragon; his enormous size is especially mentioned in v.2. Whereas, in the garden he was small and lowly he has become a mighty force in the world as a result of our sin. And so, John says in 1 John 5:19 that the whole world is in his power. The dragon's power is the result of being able to lead the whole world astray (12:9). He can even dislodge the stars, though no more than a third fall to earth (12:4 & 8:12).
His other name is Satan, which means "opposer". We need to know that he is an implacable opponent of God,hating people who love Christ. He is not alone in this but has a host of evil angels to serve and assist him.
He seems menacing and even terrifying in this vision but we must understand that he has already suffered a defeat which was so crushing that his present activity on earth is no more than his hopeless last stand. He has been decisively defeated (vs 7-12). The cross was the place where Satan was crushed (see John 12:31-33) and that defeat was sealed when the apostles courageously declared the gospel of the cross (see v11).
Satan can not attack God directly so his insane hatred takes an indirect line by tempting and subverting mankind, the image of God and the crown of creation. In particular, those who insist on loving and believing in the God of Israel are a target for the wiles of the evil one.
We see three targets of his hatred. Primarily, Christ Himself is the focus of his malignity (v4). But the Son of God could not be held by Satan and, after suffering for us, the Lord ascended to His Father's throne to begin His reign (v5). Secondly, Israel, the people of God are the focus of the Devil's spleen but, as in the days of Moses, they are removed out of their enemy's reach and the 144,000 saints of Israel have a special place with God out of harm's way (12:6,14). Thirdly, he turns on the churches of Christ (v17) and in chapter thirteen we will see how he prosecutes his war on christian believers.
There are two things about christians which Satan hates (v17) - obedience to God and telling the gospel. It is the person who wants to be godly and tell others about Christ who will suffer most of his attentions (2 Tim 1:8,3:12). If he can keep us mediocre in our living and muffled in our witness he has what he wants from us.
The churches fight their spiritual warfare on two fronts. The first is in the matter of practical holiness as the Life of Christ is formed in us and the second is in the area of doctrine, faithfully teaching and telling the world the Word of God. Note that it is not mainly a matter of exorcisms or trying to revive the age of miracles. It is the less spectacular work of growth in holiness and faithful witness that destroys the domain of Satan and brings him down with a bump.
Satan thrown down
After showing us the greatness of Israel, John then shows us that Satan is even more powerful and that she must flee before this huge, mighty dragon. Is heaven then at the mercy of this hideous creature? No. In just a few verses Michael, one of God's lieutenants, bundles him and his horde out of heaven. This evil creature of immense strength is completely defeated, hurled down, and heaven is cleansed rather easily.
We should not miss the significance of this encounter. God need not deal with Satan personally in a power struggle - an angel will do for that.
There is no good reason for identifying Michael as Christ. He is simply one of a number of senior angels (Daniel 10:13) and probably the guardian angel of Israel (Daniel 10:21). In fact, it dishonours the Divine Son of God to suggest that there could be any real power struggle between Him and one of His creatures. Christ could unmake Satan with a word.
The Lord dealt directly in a struggle with Satan in the days of His humiliation. In His shameful death He encountered the Devil and defeated him by righteously dying for those under the Evil One. When he rose gloriously from death His victory and Satan's destruction were both sealed. Jesus ascended to glory and now His enemies are being subdued according to a timescale which He and His Father are dictating.
The war in heaven is a rather one-sided affair. The real victory, the moral conquest and judgement worked by Christ in His sufferings, has already been won (5:5).
Satan's hold in heaven was based on the fact that he had the world enslaved in sin. He could accuse people, particularly believers, in the courts of heaven "day and night"(v.10) on the basis of their unrighteousness. Once Christ had made a perfect atonement for the sins of His people the foothold was gone. God's grace was shown to be founded on the bedrock of divine justice since Christ had suffered a complete and full penalty to forgive and restore men and women to complete righteousness.
I believe we are meant to draw tremendous encouragement from this expulsion of Satan. It means that God will not hear accusations against his people now that Christ has atoned for their sins. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ - there is not even a case for the prosecution to argue.
We should understand this fall symbolically. Since Satan is a spirit he is still an inhabitant of the spiritual realm. But there is a status from which he has been excluded.
We have at least three falls of Satan recorded in scripture. There is the fall from perfection caused by pride which occured at some point in the past, there is the utter loss of standing in the courts of heaven seen here and there is the final captivity of eternal punishment still to come.
These are the "last days" for the devil and all who oppose God. Christians are being told here that we do not need to be disheartened when evil seems to be rampaging through the earth. These are the death throes of Satan and his angels.
The surprising thing for an orthodox christian to read in this chapter is the essential part played in Satan's fall to earth by Christians. We are very used to the idea that Christ alone has conquered on our behalf. Here, however, the witness of the martyrs holds a key place in dislodging the devil from his perch in heaven. The victory of the cross is applied through the lives of the faithful. Their sacrificial witness and trust in Christ's blood have been decisive in the dragon's downfall.
The faithful endurance of christians is the proof of Christ's success in making His people righteous. True christians have thrown off their previous slavery to unrighteousness and have become servants of righteousness, thus vindicating and confirming the success of the cross. Every righteous believer, putting sin to death through the Spirit and speaking of Christ, is another nail in Satan's coffin.
The victory of the first generation christians mentioned in v11 is a model for us to follow. They conquered through a living faith and hope in Christ described as overcoming (v11). This rings many bells when we remember the letters to the seven churches in chapters one and two and recall that this is the kind of overcoming which we are all called to. Christ Himself is the model for overcoming through trouble (John16:33). It is a victory of three main elements. We overcome by: the blood of the Lamb; the word of our testimony; not loving our lives so as to shrink from death.
The blood of Christ is meant to cleanse us from sin so that we might live blamelessly. The word of testimony is meant to be on our lips so that the world hears of Christ's glory. The strength of the Spirit is meant to be in our hearts so that even our natural fear of death cannot frighten us away from loving God and telling His truth.
Where are you in this great war of the ages? Is Satan warring against you as you seek to live the life of obedience and witness. Take heart - his time is short, Christ has defeated him and so can you.
How Satan wages war on the church
Since the victory of Christ's death and resurrection the devil has been crippled. This is why modern cases of demon possession are fairly rare, particularly where the christian churches are working faithfully, and it is for the same reason that the gospel has been able to reach all the nations. He has been "exorcised" from heaven (12:7 ) but he still has some power over the "earth and sea" (12:12). In John's Gospel (12:23-26) we get the same double idea. On the one hand, Satan is "cast out" by Christ's work on the cross, so that millions can be delivered from his power, but, on the other hand, Jesus calls on His disciples to suffer and, if necessary, to die in their battle against evil.
We will find something similar in chapter twenty when we look at the "1000 years" during which Satan is bound but not completely defeated.
The devil has been weakened by being thrown out of heaven such that he must seek human help in his war against believers. He still has a power over sinners which enables him to inspire and direct them in evil and organise them against Christ and His people and although his wings have been clipped he can also produce some deceiving miracles.
For the new phase of Satan's resistance created by the spread of the gospel he calls up a beast out of both sea and earth since these two areas represent his last "power bases". These monsters represent HUMAN forces which he will organise in his battle against Christ's church. The number of the beast is man's number, 666 (13:18) ( e(cako/sioi e(ch/konta e%c ) standing for the fact that evil men will have power until the seventh seal is completed by the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl of wrath.
The Beast’s number is 6 and 6 and 6. During the times of the six seals, six trumpets and first six bowls of wrath he will be with us. Defeated in one shape, he will spring up in another until all human tyranny is swept away in the coming of Christ.
The Political Beast
The sea out of which the first beast arises in 13:1 is not a literal body of water but is the restless mass of humanity which throws up one "great" man after another to tyranize and dominate. The image of the nations as a restless, storm-tossed sea is found in Isaiah 17:12-13, 57:20-21.
Daniel was the first prophet to see beasts rising out of the sea of nations. Daniel chapter seven throws a great deal of light on this part of the Revelation. The multi-headed beast seems to be the fulfilment of Daniel 7:24/5.
From Daniel we can learn a great deal about the nature of the new beast conjured up by Satan. We immediately realise that this new creature is a composite: whereas the four beasts seen by Daniel were separate empires following in succession in the middle east, this new one seems to amalgamate all their worst features and seems to be immortal for a time (Revelation 13:3).
In Daniel's vision the Roman Empire became a ravaging beast waging war on the saints and John was writing the Revelation at the very time when the fulfilment was obviously apparent in the persecution suffered by some of the churches (Revelation 1:9, 2:10 & 13).
John's vision expands on that of Daniel. The age of the church is a time when the beast will take several forms (the seven heads) and will be divided into a number of kingdoms (the ten horns). In other words, the political forms may change but the underlying inspiration and nature of the beast will remain. Each head and horn is just another face of the ever-changing beast of military aggression and civil persecution.
This monstrous creature is not hated by all those whom it dominates. In fact it receives reverence and awe from the peoples of the earth and its violence becomes a matter of praise and worship (v4).
Militarism, violence and power fascinate people and are constantly offering false hopes of peace, stability and unity to a confused and restless humanity.
It is not just the uneducated and uninformed who succumb to such fascination. The literary intelligentsia of the 1920's and 30's had a long-running love affair with Stalin's Socialism which must have been one of the crudest and most vicious manifestations of the beast yet inspired by Satan. The urbane liberal theologians of Germany were enthusiasts to a man for the obscene war declared by the Kaiser in 1914. Tidy academic minds are attracted to the deceptive simplicity of politico/economic "solutions" applied by force as much as every other sort of person.
When men worship their political dreams and charismatic leaders they are unwittingly worshipping the devil (v.4). This is similar to idol-worshippers who inadvertantly worship demons (1 Cor. 10:18-20). Whenever we put our hopes in a political saviour or let the State rule our consciences we are worshipping the beast that comes out of the sea.
Time and again from Roman times onward the church has been persecuted by rulers for social or political reasons. The blasphemies and slanders against the Christian faith and christians are verbal attacks on God (v.5 & 6). The oppressing ruler will usually attribute to himself the highest of motives even while using the basest of means to pursue his policies. Most of these men and women pose as religious but they despise God and use religion as a political tool. This is truly the height of blasphemy.
The Religious Beast
The second human weapon of Satan is a false prophet. His purpose is religious. We have seen that the devil is defeated when men and women live by faith in Christ so we should expect him to try and erect alternative, false faiths to confuse christians and keep others entrapped. He also needs a supply of deceptive ideologies so that people will accept and even applaud (!) the bestial violence of the first beast as he hounds the christian churches.
Whereas nothing can hide the ugliness of the first beast (except the almost infinite capacity of people to be self-deluded) the second beast is able to appear positively attractive. He can even imitate Christ (looking like a lamb - 13:11) but he speaks the devil's words and his inspiration is earthly (v.11 again).
He can do great signs and wonders which seem to prove that he speaks for God and deceives many people. The modern man believes that we christians are credulous and yet our age must be as slack-jawed in its willingness to believe lies as any that has yet appeared. Every peddlar of a half-baked philosophy, single-theme psychology, or hare-brained utopian ideal can make a good living and gain acolytes in a society which feels too wise to consider the wisdom of God. The signs which deceive (v.14) don't need to be very impressive in such a climate.
The current craze for miracles in the church is worrying. They prove nothing about what we should believe. In the Middle Ages deceptive miracles attributed to the relics of saints were used to authenticate theories of merit, of Mary as co-redemptrix and of papal supremacy. Christians today will similarly be led up the garden path and away from truth if this enthusiasm for the miraculous persists. The devil will provide wonders to goggle at while the Living God will not (Matthew 16:4).
The ability to cause fire to fall from heaven in the full view of men (v13) is quite startling. It reminds us that not even the most amazing miracle such as that of Elijah on Carmel (1 Kings 18:37-39) should not turn our heads and hearts from following Christ. The Lord has simply told us not to listen to new miracle workers (Mark 13:21,23).
The prophecy of fire from heaven may be entirely literal or perhaps we should see it figuratively of false Pentecosts (see Acts 2:1-4 for the true original). There are certainly plenty of false and deceptive spiritualities in the world.
The second beast has as many shapes and sizes as the first one. He usually wears a human and likeable face - the "wolf in sheep's clothing" Jesus warned us about. He may wear a dog collar or a badge from a christian book shop! Sticklers for biblical truth who insist on tearing the mask off counterfeit religion may even be unpopular and considered unchristian in their lack of charity, but false faith must be exposed if we want to avoid deception (2:2).
The second beast is described as the false prophet in 20:10 and he rises up out of the earth (13:11). Every religion which does not have faith in Christ's work at its centre has an earthly origin and is designed to draw people away from him.
Religion and politics are closely mixed. False religions may seem "other- worldly" but they inspire worship of the beast of power (14-17). Islam seeks totalitarian rule. Hinduism and Buddhism fight for Sri Lanka. The Popes of Rome were the most powerful princes in Europe for a time. American fundamentalism funds the Contras and the Israeli atom bomb. It is generally true that false religion loves power and will find a way to prostitute itself to gain influence.
We should also see modern political ideologies as false faiths. Nationalism, communism and other theories need power to remake societies in their own images. How many millions have died this century, sacrificed to the vague new idols of democracy, revolution and political "progress"? Even the liberal humanism which moulds so much Western thinking and is apparently as soft as jelly can suddenly harden into resistance to the Christ of scripture.
The work of the second beast complements the first beast. Both are concerned to dominate mankind and keep us from faith in Christ. They do this by displays of power, either political or spiritual, and work in concert to convince men that they are supreme over us and remove faith in the sovereign rule of the Lord Jesus. This does not mean that Christ is ignored by them. Statesmen and Popes may often have His name on their lips but they claim that his authority has been delegated to them in such a way that His sovereingty is practically denied. We have had a succession of doctrines such as "the divine right" of kings, the "apostolic succession" of bishops and even of the pope as the "Vicar of Christ" which have made such blasphemous claims.
Modern doctrines tend to have different justifications. The flow of "history" has often been used to justify communist and fascist attrocities as though there was an iron necessity which leads inevitably to such peaks of civilised society. Christians should be sceptical of moments claimed as "historic". Progress is a related idea - such that almost everything is excusable as long as it bears the label "progressive".
Unfortunately, the opposing doctrines of conservatism, with their appeal to tradition and precedent are equally deceptive. The last generation's "progressive measure" becomes the "foundation stone" of this generation's society and is no less wrong because of the change.
Clergymen of all religions can be found who will baptise and give a religious legitimacy to both progressive and conservative politics. They breathe life into the image of the beast and also excuse violence done in its name (13:15). And so, today, the beast out of the earth causes men to worship the beast out of the sea.
In all these confusing and competing claims for authority the real "ruler of the kings of the earth" is forgotten.
A Warning And A Promise
Are you surprised that the church will have to suffer under the hand of the beast (v 10)? We are called to endure patiently and stay faithful under pressure to abandon Christ. Like Him, we conquer by witnessing faithfully and bearing the cross, the sign of execution. The omnipotent God allows real power and authority to evil men (v 7).
There are some strange ideas about "spiritual warfare" buzzing around the churches today which bear very little resemblance to God's teaching here. The new emphasis is on special techniques of prayer and fasting and gaining of "anointings" of power so that we can bind and expel evil powers. This cheap and easy warfare trivialises the nature of our struggle and soon disappoints most honest christians when its lack of moral power and integrity is revealed.
The worst characteristic of such "spiritual warriors" is that they misunderstand the way of the cross - which is the true path of victory. It is no accident that they also misunderstand the Revelation of John so completely since they do not feel a need for its encouragement and do not feel the pains and perplexities it was written to relieve. They seem to be strangers to the apostle John's experience of "the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus" (Revelation 1:9).
There is also a promise as well as a prediction here. It is easy to get depressed about the state of the world. It sometimes seems the whole world is worshipping the devil's beasts. But it was all predicted and the churches will survive while the gospel will go on riding through the world, saving great numbers of men and women for Christ. And the wise person will remember that man's time is limited. The number of the beast is 666 but 777 is coming soon and the kingdoms of this world will soon become the Kingdom of Our Lord and His Christ (11:15).
The time of Satan's work - when repression and lies rule - is limited to this age only and in the world to come this evil trio will be utterly defeated. This is the wisdom called for in v18. While the "inhabitants of the earth" are deceived, believers will realise that the present order is already judged and soon to be swept away.
This is why we must not take the "mark of the beast" on ourselves. This mark is not physical even though it is described as being on the forehead or hand. In Deuteronomy 6:8 it was God's commands which were to be bound to head and hand as a sign that the Jews were His willing servants. To have the beast's mark where God's Law should be would make us his servants and, therefore, enemies of God.
Christians must be non-conformists without being rebels. Whilst being subject to earthly powers (1 Peter 2:13) we must not worship them. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities have a constant tendency to claim an absolute loyalty and use economic and physical sanctions to enforce such claims (vs. 16,17). Whenever such claims are made we must not submit.