December 3, 2000
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
There are a number of passages in the Bible which give us a record of Jesus birth. In all of them there are two components: hope and danger. The hope comes because Jesus is the Savior of the world. The danger comes from the ancient conflict between Satan and the forces of evil and the powers of God which swirl about Jesus in his death and life.
So, for example, in Isaiah 9 we have that wonderful passage which begins, For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. But these words are followed by a description of how, among Gods own people wickedness burns like a fire, (verse 18) and of how Gods wrath burns against their sin so he will destroy Jerusalem.
In Luke there is the record of a poor couple who come to Bethlehem and while there her child is born and he is destined to cause the fall and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Mary, the mother, is told that a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34,35).
In Matthew, after Jesus is born, he is visited by wise men from the east who bring him kingly gifts, but then Jesus is threatened by Herod the Great who kills all the young boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, attempting to snuff out the life of this one infant, though, in the meantime, Joseph and Mary have taken the child and fled to Egypt. (Matthew 2:16)
Perhaps the least well known birth story is that of John. In Johns account, which is in Revelation 12 and not in his Gospel, a pregnant woman is threatened by a great dragon who intends to devour her child the moment it is born. (verse 4) Verse 5, she gave birth to a male child, who is snatched up to God and to his throne, while the woman flees to the desert, to a place prepared for her by God, like some latter day Elijah.
What is alike about each of these accounts is the danger, the near thing that each account records; and in each of them there is also the promise of salvation. So while we see the rustic manger scene and the two humble parents who are visited by a variety of shepherds and wise men, there are cosmic battles and dread forces and war in heaven moving around that manger and that small village. We are on the Pellenor fields rather than in the rural calm of a small Judean village. Yet, Johns record, couched in symbols as it is, is the right backdrop to help us grasp the stakes in the birth of Jesus.
Revelation is a book full of symbols which appear in series of seven. Seven letters to seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets; and after the last trumpet has sounded, there are seven symbolic scenes. Two of these scenes are in chapter 12. They are called signs in the New International Version and portents in the New Revised Standard Version.
The two signs of Revelation 12 appear in heaven, but the action involving the two signs takes place in both heaven and earth. The first sign is a pregnant woman. We must decide what she is mean to symbolize, for the passage does not tell us. She is clothed with the sun, according to verse 1. The moon is under her feet and the stars on her head. The most consistent interpretation is that she is a symbol of the faithful community out of which Jesus is born, the Jewish people of God, and she is also a symbol of the faithful community of the church; for in verse 17 the dragon makes war with her other offspring, which I think refers to the persecuted Christians whom Revelation was written to encourage. The second sign is an enormous red dragon. He has many heads and many horns. He is specifically identified as Satan in verse 9.
The pregnant woman gives birth to her child, and as verse 5 describes him, it seems clear that he is Jesus. He is a male child who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron. Though the dragon waits to devour the child, he is snatched up to God and to his throne as a child. Since the history of Jesus in this chapter is missing everything after the birth until the snatching up to God, we cant tell whether this snatching up is the ascension of Jesus - in which case, why is it her child who is snatched up; or the flight to Egypt - in which case how is the throne of God involved? My own sense is that the battle between the dragon and the woman and her offspring is a spiritual battle that takes place both on earth and in heaven and the book of Revelation is like that scene in Ephesians 6 where the fight isnt against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. In fact, verses 7-12 describe a war in heaven between the dragon, Satan, and Michael the archangel, and their forces. But the protection of the child may not be chronological but rather symbolic, like the way images work in TV ads. As with so many symbolic scenes, I think we need not try to guess at chronology, but see this as warfare in a spiritual realm.
Beyond the birth scene, the dragon, having lost one battle, pursues the woman. He also loses this battle, since the woman is given the wings of an eagle and flees to the
desert. She escapes the dragon in both verse 6 and verse 14. When the dragon, in verse 17, sees that the woman has eluded him a second time, he proceeds to make war on her other offspring who are probably Christians. The whole book of Revelation was wri
tten as an encouragement to persecuted Christians.
Now it is clear that Revelation 12 is not a narrative like those in Matthew and Luke are. Instead Revelation 12 is a film clip of symbols. When we are far removed from a time period, it is often difficult to understand symbols which may have been obvious at the time, since they have some connection with the culture out of which they arose. If, for example, you watch the images in those sophisticated TV ads for automobiles, you sense that they are trying to create a mood of luxury, of comfort, and to create a longing for places of luxury. But people 50 years from now might not have the same responses to those images. The images will mean different things to them than they do to us.
The images of Revelation 12 have their sources in the Old Testament and in the culture of the first century world. We have access to the Old Testament, and we can also read the immediate context of the words in the book of Revelation. So we can come to some understanding of the images, but there will be puzzles we cant see our way through.
One thing that is clear from Revelation 12 is that from the very beginning Satan opposed Jesus and tried to destroy him. This little child around whom all our joy and good feelings of Christmas center, was under attack from the first. God protects the child from Satan, since the warfare is cosmic and God is sovereign. The very point of Jesus being born in a human form and being defended from Satan is to encourage believers who are themselves under the dragons persecution. But more than that, the birth of Jesus will bring salvation to people who see in Jesus the beauty of God and who come to trust that he died not to end it all, but to accomplish our salvation.
I think that all the details of the symbols are meant to add some touch of connection to something the Jews would have understood. Many commentators, for example have noted that the time, times and half a time in verse 14 are a year, two years and half a year, or 42 months and that the number 42, according to the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 33, equals the sum of the various encampments by Israel in the wilderness. Hebrews used numbers differently than we do. We arent intended to create prophetic dates from such details. They are a reminder that as God cared for Israel in the wilderness, so he cares for his people in all ages. We dont want God to care for us for only 42 months. So we need to be sane about symbols.
The scene in verses 6-12 of the war in heaven reminds us that the birth of Jesus, and indeed our own lives, are part of a wider conflict than what we see. And thats a warning to us. The churchs help comes from God, as Revelation 12 also makes clear. Further, Satan is no longer the accuser, as he was in the book of Job, for he has been cast out of heaven so, according to Romans 8:1, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. So Satan cant accuse us. His new weapon is to deceive us. Verse 9, who leads the whole world astray. How can we deal with such a foe? And the answer is ready in verse 11, They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. What Jesus did for us leads us to view death in a different way from non-believers. It takes away a fear by which Satan holds people in thrall.
Let me finally, then, sketch how I see the battle going today. In the 1940s and 1950s all Americans knew the Beavers, a typical American family, church going, moral, respectful of authority, not above a few harmless pranks, but clean cut. In the 1960s the country changed. There was a reaction against the neat formulations of the 40s and 50s, a reaction to the war in Vietnam, a cause many Americans didnt understand nor think worth fighting for. Drugs, psychedelic songs, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, with themes of killing friends, leaving girl friends, and being autonomous; themes of taking your own initiative in life, of not doing what people expect you to do. People were individuals who believed in themselves, believed that humans are ingenious and they can solve all human problems with technology, modern medicine, new forms of agriculture and prozac and ritalin. The whole movement of the 60s and 70s and 80s was against Christianity which they connected with the Leave it to Beaver crowd and they believed the source of their problems was Christianity which saw the world differently. Christians claimed that God was the center of the universe, not autonomous humans. Christians claimed that people need a Redeemer because we cant help ourselves. In fact, Christians claim that there is nothing beautiful in sin. Christians teach that people are bad and in need of a Savior and that we need God to provide for us because by our ingenuity people end up not serving others, but themselves .
One symbol of the results of the 60s world we can see in the film American Beauty. This film is about a married man who sets out to seduce his daughters best friend in high school. I dont really recommend this film, but it shows the emptiness of the 60s vision. There is seduction, there is murder, there are drugs. If you ask, what is there beautiful in this film, the answer, it seems to me is, nothing. If you ask, what is hopeful, the answer is nothing.
Where did the 60s vision lead? To a lack of beauty and hope because those things come from God. It led to studs making girls pregnant and then running away from their responsibility to the child. It led to young, unmarried mothers who havent the faintest idea how to be mothers because they never had one, nor a father. It led to people without any sense of responsibility for anyone else, for their neighbors or their society. You can get stoned when you want to, be DUI if you want to. So someone else gets hurt. The 60s vision led, in short to a need for someone to save people from themselves. Heres where the Gospel can help because people are admitting, weve got it all wrong. This is not what we wanted. This is a dead end.
But, see, thats the kind of world Satan likes. He likes the chaos and murder and seduction and loneliness that Jesus came to deliver us from. Thats the picture Revelation 12 paints. War in heaven and war on earth. And God is sovereign. Who else would send a baby to solve the problems of a world that hasnt changed all that much over the centuries. Thats the wonder of Christmas.