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Studying Really Difficult Scriptures

by Alex Wilson

Revelation, Chapter 12

Introduction:  In studying difficult passages of Scripture, there is a wrong attitude which is quite common. It involves taking an all or nothing approach–“If I don’t understand everything in a passage, then I probably can’t understand and apply anything in it.” So we avoid the hard passages, which means we’ll never understand them. There’s a much better way.

            As an example, imagine that a puzzled friend of yours asks you what you think Revelation 12:1-6 means.  So you read it:

            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. NIV

            Wow — that seems difficult, doesn’t it?  Do you know the meaning of these symbols:  The woman?  child?  dragon?  its heads and horns?  the 1260 days?  In just six verses there are at least six perplexities.

            Maybe, being totally baffled, you consult your church library.  It has several commentaries, and maybe you discover these various interpretations:  The woman stands for Mary, the mother of Jesus;  or Israel;  or the Church;  or God’s redeemed people of both OT and NT times.  Oh dear — so many different opinions!  And you find that the son of the woman represents Christ;  or the Church;  or Christ and the Church together. You had hoped to find some agreement on these verses, but your hopes seem to be in vain..

            It shakes you up that with no commentary you feel baffled by the passage, but that with several commentaries you might feel just as stymied – for quite often they contradict each other! Never mind — don’t quit your study in disgust. Of course it is good if you can discover their correct identities. But even if you cannot do so, don’t cheat yourself of blessings that await you in this chapter.

      Here is at least a partial Solution to the problem:  One thing is absolutely clear in the passage. Verse 9 tells us that the dragon stands for Satan. So, leaving aside the obscurities for the present, concentrate on what is plain. Knowing that the dragon is Satan, let’s see what we can learn about him.

I.  SATAN’S  MALICE  AND  MIGHT

            He is pictured as a ferocious monster–a great red dragon with seven heads and crowns and ten horns. He is so huge that his tail knocks down one-third of the stars of heaven. He is so wild and vicious that he waits in front of the pregnant woman, eager to pounce upon and devour her child.

            What a fierce monster! What power. What intelligence–not just one brain, but seven. How impossible to defeat: you chop off one or two of his heads and five or six remain to grab you, chew you up and swallow you down. This, then, is the symbol of our spiritual enemy, the Devil. And so we had better be careful. When a dragon is after you, it is no time to relax!

            But verse 7 reveals another fact. It mentions that “the dragon and his angels waged war.” This reminds us that Satan is not alone in opposing us. He has many allies. You remember that in Ephesians 6, Paul speaks of various kinds and ranks of Satan-led angels — “rulers, authorities, powers, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” No doubt demons too are part of the fiendish army fighting against us. We must not under-estimate our enemy. Our spiritual warfare is a cosmic conflict, involving mysterious and mighty angelic creatures as well as human beings.

           Then in verse 9 we read a list of the Devil’s fearful names. He is not only the fierce “great dragon,” but also the “ancient serpent”– a reminder of the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Think of the harm he has caused the human race from its beginning. And of the experience he has had as a tempter.  He has tried out his tricks not only on Adam and Eve, but also on Cain, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and his brothers, plus Moses, Aaron, Gideon, Samson, Saul, David, Elijah, and Jonah. And later on he tempted John the baptizer, Jesus, Peter, Mark, and Paul. And throughout church history he kept on craftily seeking to lure astray people like Origen in the 200s, Augustine in the 400s, Luther in the 1500s, and . . . well, you get my drift! He has learned many wiles and traps to use against us.

            But there are still more names given in Rev. 12:9-10. He is the devil, which means “slanderer.” He is Satan, meaning “adversary.” He is “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before God day and night.” He hates us so much he delights in constantly running us down. (When we verbally run down one another, we’re doing the Devil’s business!) Then comes the worst expression of all, in fact one of the saddest statements in human literature: “the deceiver of the whole world” (ASV) or he “who leads the whole world astray.” What sad and fearful facts we have learned about Satan’s malice and might. And we need to know these things. We must know our enemy before we can overcome him.

            So if we learned nothing else from Rev. 12, the information mentioned so far would be a worth-while reward for our study. But DON’T STOP NOW, for there is more to come. In fact, to stop now would leave a mistaken impression. For one of the main lessons this chapter teaches is Satan’s failure and defeat! Or, to put it another way, this passage is all about God’s preservation of His people in spite of Satan’s attacks. As you study, if you don’t watch out you might even begin to feel sorry for the Devil before you get through!     

II.  SATAN’S  FAILURES  AND  FRUSTRATIONS

            Frustration #1. The dragon waits for the woman to give birth so he can eat her child. But he is foiled, for her son is caught up to God’s throne (verses 4,5).

            Frustration #2. The woman herself also escapes his clutches, by fleeing into the desert where God sustains her (v. 6).

            Frustration #3. Read verses 7-9. They list Satan’s terrifying titles and names which we studied above. But actually these verses stress his defeat rather than his victories. “The dragon and his angels fought . . . but he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.” He “was hurled down . . . to the earth.” Due to this he is in a furious rage, knowing he has only a little time left (12). His days are numbered, and he knows it.

            Frustration #4. After being hurled down to earth, he pursues the woman. But she grows wings and flies away to the desert, out of his reach (13-14).

            Frustration #5. The dragon devises a secret weapon. He “vomited water from his mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current.” But again, all his efforts are in vain. The earth “opened its mouth and swallowed the river thrown up by the dragon’s jaws” (15-16, Jerusalem Bible).

            Thus we see from this highly dramatic chapter that over and over Satan’s attacks fall short of his goal. He can neither defeat God’s purposes nor destroy God’s people. Though he is powerful — and we dare not forget that fact — yet our God is all-powerful, and if we stay close to Him we are secure. 

III.  HOW  TO  DEFEAT  THE  DEVIL  (v. 11)

            So far we have skipped over the best verse in the chapter. Ponder these thrilling words: “Our brothers won the victory over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the truth which they proclaimed; and they were willing to give up their lives and die” (Good News Bible). Here we learn how to conquer the Evil One. Three of his favorite weapons are described in this chapter, and verse 11 shows how to overcome all three of them. 

            1) One weapon he wields is seen in the terms “accuser” and “devil” (slanderer). When we sin, he constantly accuses us–day and night. He does it in heaven (and he also does it in our own consciences). He slanders us before God: “Look, see your child down there! He has sinned again. What a miserable failure he is. Why don’t You give up on him? You claim to be just; why don’t You punish him? Even when he does right, he does it for wrong motives. Your followers live no better than mine, in spite of all Your talk about holiness and goodness. What hypocrites they are.” (The first 2 chapters of the book of Job give us an example of such Satanic slanders.)

            But we have a divine defense attorney in heaven, “Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” and thus God can be just even while forgiving us. “The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 2:1-2 and 1:7). Since the penalty for our sins has already been paid by our Savior, the Devil’s accusations are null and void, and are thrown out of court. That’s what it means when it says we can overcome him “by the blood of the Lamb.”

            Let this be our confidence when Satan attacks our conscience and says, “See — you’re no good! You failed again. You’re hopeless; you may as well quit.” Answer him back. “Yes, I sinned, but I’ve repented and I won’t give up!  I conquer you because of Jesus’ death. My assurance is in Him, not in myself. He triumphed over you at the cross, and I share in His victory. He died for me, so my guilt is removed and your accusations fall to the ground.”

            2) Another devilish weapon is deception, as seen in the terms “serpent” and “deceiver.” How can we avoid being fooled and misled by this expert trickster? Our defense here is God’s truth. “They overcame him . . . by the word of their testimony” (NIV) or “through the Word to which they bore witness” (J. B. Phillips). Two ideas are found here, God’s word and our witness or testimony. We should boldly bear witness to God’s message; Satan is not defeated by Christians who are ashamed and mute. But the emphasis in this verse is probably on God’s Word itself — its contents or teachings. By arming ourselves with the truths revealed in Scripture, we can avoid being deceived by Satan’s lies and half-truths, his counterfeit philosophies, doctrinal errors and false cults.

            3) His 3rd weapon is persecution, as seen in the terms Dragon and Satan (“adversary”). He arouses intense opposition against us and tries to wipe us out entirely. This is seen in the next chapter of Revelation, which shows the final Antichrist and worldwide persecution of God’s people. Martyrs are mentioned repeatedly in this book. How can we conquer Satan if he kills us? By being willing to sacrifice our lives and die, rather then deny our Lord. If we remain faithful though the enemy kill us, he simply sends our spirit to heaven (see Acts 7:59-60). That’s no loss for us! Devil-influenced men may kill us physically, but not a hair of our head will perish, spiritually and eternally (Luke 21:16-18).

            Do you get the big picture? It’s beautiful. If we fail and sin, we can overcome Satan’s accusations by the blood of the Lamb.  We overcome his deceitfulness by God’s Word to which we testify. We overcome his persecutions by being willing to die for our Savior.

            This mysterious chapter has taught us a lot, hasn’t it? What a loss to miss these lessons just because many points in the passage seem perplexing. Let’s believe Paul’s words, “All scripture is God-breathed, and profitable” — even the puzzling parts.

            (Now back to the  UNCLEAR  SYMBOLS. Here are my personal interpretations. Study for yourself and reach your own conclusions.)

            1. The woman, v. 1:  probably the nation of Israel. Gen. 37:9 has similar symbolism. And Rom. 9:5 says that from Israel “is traced the human ancestry of Christ,” her “son” in Rev. 12.

            2. Her son, v. 5:  the Messiah, Jesus. See Psalm 2:7 and 9a. (Also read Rev. 19:11 and 15.) Yet according to His promise in Rev. 2:26-27 and 3:21, with whom will He share His ruling authority?

            3. “The rest of her offspring, those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (17). If the woman represents Israel, especially those Jews who will believe in Jesus, then the rest of her offspring seems to represent non-Jewish believers — us Gentiles who are disciples of Jesus. For “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed” (Gal. 3:29). We Christians are spiritual children of Abraham; we have his faith in our hearts even though we don’t have his blood in our veins. (Gal. 3:6-9; Rom. 4:11-12)




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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10