The End? The dragon, the woman and the boy

The age-old war between the dragon, the woman and her offspring is our focus in this 17th study through Revelation, stopping at chapter 12 today. A recording will be uploaded to Shofar’s Youtube channel

If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?  This was the question that whirled in the minds of the oppressed believers in John’s day – the question that gets answered clearly in chapter 12.  The first half of the Revelation focused on the reality of the church (ch 1-3), God’s throne room and Christ’s unfolding reign played out on earth (ch 6-11).  Chapter 12 reveals the cosmic battle in heaven which results in the chaos on earth and persecution of the saints.

Revelation 12 paints the picture of an epic war between a woman with a male child and a great read dragon.  This scene in the middle of the book is the first of seven “signs” or symbols which explore the depth of the message of the scroll.  These seven “signs” depict greater mysteries that govern the realities of our world and is rich in theological substance, helping the church make sense its struggles on earth. (See 12:1-7; 13:1-10; 13:11-18; 14:1-5; 14:6-13; 14:14-20; and 15:2-4).

You will note again in this chapter that Revelation is not a chronological roll-out of God’s redemptive plan, but in various ways depicts the church’s struggle with evil throughout history.  Although chapter 11 concludes with a picture of the 7th trumpet as God’s Final judgment and victory the end, chapter 12 revisits the origin of this battle starting in Eden, in Bethlehem and Jesus’s ministry.  But this time the struggle is shown from heaven’s perspective.

Three characters are introduced in this sign: the woman, the great red dragon, and the male child.  Who are they?

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By Ted Larson (2004)

The woman is said to be clothed in the sun, the moon at her feet, having twelve stars around her head – an allusion to Israel in Joseph’s dream (12:1; Genesis 37:9).  But there is more: this woman “gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5; compare Psalm 2:9) – representing Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Furthermore, the dragon wages war with the woman and her offspring – an allusion to the curse on the serpent in the garden of Eden and Eve (12:17; compare Genesis 3:15).  And lastly, we read that this woman’s offspring are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17)– meaning the woman also represents the church.

The woman here in Revelation 12’s first sign simultaneously represents Israel, Mary, Eve and the church – God’s redeemed Kingdom people throughout the ages.  This is another depiction of the Lamb’s army or 144’000 from every tribe, tongue, people an nation depicted in Revelation 7.

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The Red Dragon is “great”, with seven heads, seven horns, seven diadems and a large sweeping tail – a picture of full of strength and reign.  This dragon is “the ancient serpent” of Eden, named “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).  In the chapters to follow we will see that the Dragon is the source of power behind the beasts (all that is oppressive and intimidating), Babylon the great prostitute (and all that is sensual and seductive), and the False Prophet (all that is deceptive).  The Red Dragon symbolises all that is oppressing and seducing and deceiving God and his people.

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The Male Child is the man Jesus, the Son of God, “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron… [and] was caught up to God and to his throne” (12:5, compare with Psalm 2:9 and Acts 1:9).  This is not meant to be read that the Jesus was taken away as child, but these things are said that we may know his identity and the identity of the Woman. The focus of this drama is on the battle between the Dragon and the Woman.

The drama describes how the Dragon wants to “devour” the male child at his birth, hinting to the great infanticide of boys by Herod the Great in Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:16).  Satan’s lethal pursuit of Jesus is seen during in his wilderness testing (Matthew 4:1-11), but most vividly when “Satan entered Judas” (Luke 22:3), to sell him out to his executioners.  Yet Christ conquered the worst the Dragon could do to him and ascended.  With the Child seated on the Throne, the Dragon’s vengeance is directed at the Woman who had “fled into the wilderness” (12:6).

The wilderness is said to be “a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1260 days” (12:6).  This is an allusion to Elijah, God’s prophet against the wicked king Ahab and his sorcerer wife Jezebel, who announced God’s judgment of drought on Israel’s rebellion against his rule (1 Kings 17:1).  Elijah was hidden and nourished by God in the wilderness for 3½ years, which equals 42 Jewish months or 1260 days (1 Kings 17:2-16; compare James 5:17).  As with all the numeric values in apocalyptic genre, this should not be read as a literal duration of time, but as symbolic.  Paul Spilsbury says

“They – 1260 days, 42 months and a time, and times, and half a time – don’t tell us anything of the literal duration of the time of the ‘tribulation’, but what the tribulation will be like.” (The Throne, the Lamb & the Dragon: A Reader’s Guide to the Book of Revelation, Intervasity Press : 2002)

I explained in the previous post why the period of 1260 days represent a season for the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.  As in the case of Elijah’s wilderness hide-out, the Woman’s 1260 days in the wilderness after the Child’s ascension represents the time required for God’s purpose on earth to be fulfilled.  Gordon Fee concludes on this number:

“In apocalyptic literature such numeric imagery refers to a time of national distress. John now is using it to point to a limited time of suffering on the part of God’s people which precedes the coming of the glorious kingdom of God.” (Revelation, New Covenant Commentary, Cascade Books : 2010)

In plain language, “1260 days in the wilderness” speaks of the Church’s preservation in suffering during the time of God’s redemptive judgment on the kingdoms of the world.  This period began at Christ’s ascension and will conclude at his return.

Times of trouble.  This drama shows that this period is marked by trouble for the church, and the sustaining grace of God, as their place is being prepared.  This image of God’s sustenance of his people in the Wilderness, awaiting their full salvation is also an allusion to God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel during their Exodus journey towards the Promised Land (compare “two great wings of an eagle” in 12:14 with Exodus 19:4).  This wilderness period for Israel was characterized by God’s protection and provision, but was not free from trials, tribulation and temptation.  Likewise the church’s time on earth is marked by Christ’s victory over sin and slavery, yet not free from the presence of intimidation, seduction and deception.

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The cosmic conflict.  In verse 7 the vision moves from what takes place on earth to what takes place in heaven (similar to transition between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-5).  The drama shifts from Christ’s work on earth to the result from his victory played out in heaven.  This is depicted as a angelic battle, wherein Michael the arch angel dispels Satan.  Six times this scene describing the cosmic conflict John reaffirms that Satan has been “thrown down”, a result secured “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

Why the hardship? At this point the early church should have interrupted the reader of John’s message and ask the logic question: “If the Dragon has been defeated, why is the church suffering so much?”  John’s vision answers this question next, describing the “wrath” and “fury” (12:12, 17) which the Devil lashes out in vengeance against the Woman who bore the child. He is angry “because he knows that his time is short” (12:12) – he will  be thrown into the lake of fire forever (20:10).  He is angry because the Dragon’s domain is shrinking as Christ’s Kingdom Gospel is spreading (Matthew 16:19; compare Luke 10:17-20).  And therefore he persecutes the Woman who finds shelter in the wilderness.

Satan’s Schemes. How does the Dragon wage war on the Woman? This chapter reveals his strategies as accusation, deception and violence/ murder.  The word for Satan means accuser.  Accusation drowns the believer in guilt, causing him to feel discredited, dishearten and defeated.  Without confidence before God the believer will not witness and might walk away from Christ. Secondly the Dragon deceives believers, luring away with lies – either through temptation or false religions.  Thirdly, the Dragon vengefully persecutes through violence, intimidating the church into caves into by the threat of pain and death.  These images of the Great Dragon’s schemes would have been very relevant to the early church, even as it is very relevant to the church today.

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Defeat the vengeful Dragon

Defeating the Dragon. John’s vision inspires and instructs the church by showing believers in God’s throne room who “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.” (12:11)   They overcame accusation by the blood that washes away all sins, giving a clear conscience before God (Hebrews 9:14).  They overcame deception by their testimony that Christ is risen, conquering death (Matthew 28:6; 1 Corinthians 15:8ff). They overcome the threat of violence and the love of pleasure by following Christ’s example of enduring all for the prize set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-3).

In chapter 13 this drama is depicted in greater detail, unveiling more of the church’s struggle on earth.

Bringing it Home.

We are right to ask the question the early believers struggled with: If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?

MiguelCabrera-Virgin_of_ApocalypseThis apocalyptic vision describes our context by unveiling the reality of Satan’s vengeful pursuit of Christ’s church. Satan is angry because he is losing his domain and his time is short.  It helps us understand that we live in this period where God’s redemptive grace leans a measure of protection and provision for the church, while opening a door for the nations to turn to him in light of his redemptive judgments.

The comfort in this vision is that the Dragon’s time for vengeance is short, but the church’s victory is eternal.  The challenge in this vision is that Satan is is behind the voices of accusation, the seduction of pleasure and power, the fear of pain and death there is a Dragon lurking, “looking for someone to devour. [Therefore,] resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”   (1 Peter 5:8-9)

 

 

“It’s just sex” – Relational MythBusters 2

When I was a young teenager I wondered whether “fruit of the tree” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse – the original sin that caused the fall.  It’s a ludicrous thought, but I recently found that I was not alone in my thinking:  the Church fathers, heavily influenced by Stoic and Gnostic education deduced that all sex was wrong and only necessary for procreation.  For instance Tertullian (150 – 230 AC) accused woman of being “the unsealer of the forbidden tree” that caused the fall, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) said “Christians marry only to produce children” with Jerome (c. 320-420) adding “he who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.”  This statement makes no sense, but he firmly believed Adam and Eve were virgins before the fall, and only married (euphemistic speech for “had sex”) once they were cast out of paradise.  The severity of sexual sin is evident in their responses to temptations:  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once looked at the face of a beautiful woman, and to avoid sexual temptation jumped into an icy pond.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) once threw himself naked into thorn bushes, rolling around to ensure the pain would remove all sexual desires.  Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) frequently rolled around naked in the snow when tempted with sexual desires, but when there was no snow he followed the painful example of Benedict.  (Be thankful for ready access to cold showers!)

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Yet we know sex is not sin – we were created as sexual beings “male and female” from the very beginning, and commanded to “multiply” (Genesis 1:26-28).  Our sexual desires were not the result of the fall but part of the desire for intimacy – the reason God made Adam a helper to deliver him from his loneliness (reference).  Sex between husband and wife is good and meant to be pleasant – it is created by God, honoured by God (Hebrews 13:4), encouraged by God (Proverbs 5:18-19) and married couples are even commanded to please one another sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) to avoid sexual temptation.

Only sinful sex is sin.  The Mosaic Law lists various sexual misconducts including adultery (Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:20, Deuteronomy 5:18), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23, Deuteronomy 27:21), homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:22), incest (Leviticus 18:6−18; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20, 22−23), prostitution (Leviticus 19:29, Deuteronomy 23:18), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25−29), sex before marriage (Exodus 22:16−17), shrine-prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17), transvestism (Deuteronomy 22:5), unclean acts (Leviticus 18:19), and violation of betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23−27).  These laws, although negative and carrying severe punishment in case of transgression, were given by God “for [our] good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). [i]

These Mosaic laws were asserted by Jesus (Matthew 5:19), stating that these sins emanate from the heart (Matthew 5:27-28; compare Proverbs 6:27-29) and defile a person (Mark 7:23) so that one who practices these things will not inherit the Kingdom of God and therefore have to be avoided at all cost (Matthew 5:29-30).  Therefore the apostles also taught that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5), and warned against the sins of adultery and fornication (Hebrews 13:4), homosexual acts (Romans 1:26−27, 1 Corinthians 6:9−11, 1 Timothy 1:8−11, Jude 1:7), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1−5), and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15−16).  As in the Old Testament, the apostles warned the early church that God still judges sexually immoral acts in the new dispensation (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 10:8; Jude 1:7; Revelations 21:8, 22:15).

However, in the new dispensation there is grace for forgiveness and restoration of those who have fallen prey to sexual temptation and a lifestyle of immorality (1 Corinthians 6: 11).  Jesus demonstrated welcoming hospitality and kindness toward those who sought him (Luke 7:36-50) and taught humble identification and mercy with those battling the lure of lust (John 8:2-11).  Yet he never stopped warning about God’s judgment on sexual immorality (Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 7:23), but reached out to sinners (Luke 5:32).  Thus the disposition of the church towards believing sexual sinners should not be indifference or judgment, but rather humble support towards restoration (Galatians 6:1), yet unrepentive believing sinners should be publically disassociated after ample warning to prevent others emulating the immoral  behavior and perhaps granting the sinner repentance in the light of the seriousness consequences (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), all the while trusting and praying for repentance and hoping for restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

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Light in a dark world

Both the Old Testament Law as well as the New Testament letters were written so followers of God living in utterly perverse societies: the older in Baal worshiping country and the newer in Grecko-Roman society.  Both these societies were obsessed with sexual practices, even incorporating shrine prostitutes in their religious ceremony.  Thus it is not strange to find within these writings many instruction pertaining to morality and sexuality.  The commands intended to set a people aside for God which is holy or distinguished from contemporary society so that their everyday lives display the holiness and loving nature of God, a people where God can dwell in holiness.  In one such instruction pertaining to sexuality Paul uses Mosaic text to motivate holiness “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)

Sadly, today there is no discernable distinction between the sexual conduct of believers and unbelievers.[ii]  Tyler O’Niel reported earlier this year that “A new study on Christian attitudes toward dating and marriage reveals a broad acceptance for cohabitation, premarital sex and a rejection of traditional gender roles. Experts believe that many Christians are following cultural trends over scripture when it comes to sex and marriage.”  The majority of believers have adopted the sinful practices of the world around us, so that we are unable to represent the nature of God and ineffective in our witness to the world.

Justification for sex before marriage

I have heard three noteworthy arguments from believers to justify pre-marital sex, each of which I will shortly address Biblically.  Also refer to a previous post “On Spiritual Maturity: the error of Balaam” to see the various Biblical references to spirituality without morality.

Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.
Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.

1. Abstinence is “outdated” or “old-fashioned”. God does not change (Malachi 3:6), nor does his prescribed law. That is why Jesus himself did not change but obeyed the Law (Matthew 5:17), even intensified the interpretation to go beyond literal fulfillment but taught that it also judges thoughts, motives and emotions (Matthew 5:19-20, 29-30; refer Hebrews 4:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  Consequently, the apostles also continued to reinforce the sexual morality laws of Old Testament Judaism.  The intent of Scripture is clear: God designed man to find sexual intimacy and fulfillment in faithfulness to one spouse – “for our good always.”

2. Abstinence is “the invention of the Church fathers” – the Bible does not prohibit sex before marriage. Sexual purity was not the invention of the early church fathers but God’s desire for humanity as expressed in the Mosaic Law and contained in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself and the apostolic writings (as briefly outlined above). Yet some argue that use of “fornication” (Gk: pornea) does not prohibit sexual relations between unmarried, consenting adults – rather it is expressly used for perversities such as pornography, orgies, bestiality etc.  Although pornea is generally used to mean “inappropriate sexual conduct” and is normally translated “sexual immorality” very few linguistic or Biblical scholars would argue that the word excludes fornication (sex outside the bounds of marriage).

However, without using this word a few sections in the Bible make it clear that sexual relations are reserved for marital partners, of which this pointing case suffices to defeat the argument:  1 “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… But if [the unmarried] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)  In this short text Paul makes it clear that no unmarried believer has rights to sexual relations; only with a married partner should that desire be fulfilled. All sex outside the covenant of marriage is sinful and will be subject to God’s judgment (Hebrews 13:4).

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3. “Sex is just sex”. Some believe that “sex is just sex”, meaning it is a biological act like holding hands without spiritual effect and therefore can be enjoyed without harmful spiritual consequences. However, anyone who has been victim of molestation or rape knows that what they experienced was more than a mere physical touch.  Sex is inherently spiritual – this is why God warned the religious leaders in Malachi’s day that unfaithful sexual conduct is detrimental to their spirits, and therefore he cautions them to guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:14-16).

The congregation in Corinth had a similar argument as “sex is just sex”, stating that just as the body needs food, so the body needs sex – and therefore one should feed its sexual appetite; there is nothing more to it.  Paul answered with a powerful rhetoric (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), stating that sexual intercourse binds two people together in a mystical manner, and that should one should not do that improperly (outside of marriage) since the believer is “joined one in spirit with the Lord”.  He concludes that therefore believers ought to “flee sexual immorality… [because] your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”  Much could be written about this section, but the essential truth here is this: sexual intercourse is immensely spiritual, and has an impact on the spiritual welfare of the believer.

How do we respond to this?

My personal goal for sexual holiness is articulated in the phrase that Paul used to encourage the church in Ephesus: “among you there should be not be a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3 NASB).  How do we grow towards that in this immoral society?

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  • Protect your eyes. One of the most useful lessons I have learned is to seriously sensor what I watch and look at – a lesson I learned while reading the famed Every Man’s Battle by Arterburn and Stoeker. They teach tat like Job we “make a covenant with [our] eyes to not look upon a young woman [or men] with lust in [our] heart” (Job 31:1).  Then you seriously sensor your environment not get sensual stimulation – go cold turkey for a while.  And your learn the habit to “bounce the eyes” – as soon as you see something that usually give sensual stimulation to your mind, you bounce your eyes off to somewhere else and not look there.
  • Renew your mind. During my student years God seriously challenged me to no longer think and live like the world around me does but to “renew my mind” (Romans 12:1-2) and adopt his perspective on life and relationships. Sexual happens when our perverse desires lead us astray (Mark 7:23; James 1:13).  This necessitates a retraining of the heart and mind through deliberate study of God’s precepts, prayer and reflective conversations with believers about God’s will.  Over time I have found that my actions change, my dreams and daydreams became innocent and my relationships became healthy.  God restores innocence!
  • Accountability.  As motivated in a previous blog on accountability relationships we need friends that watch out for us and that help us stay on the path of holiness and relationship with God.  This especially needs confession when we fall in some sexual sin, since nothing brings a sense of shame, guilt and condemnation like sexual sin. A lifestyle of transparency and honest confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16) keeps us on the path of holiness.
  • Self-control. Learn to control your sexual urges (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Romans 13:11-14).  I do not advocate throwing yourself into thorn bushes like Benedict and Francis, but one has to do something to redirect energy and teach your body that it cannot always have what it desires.  Simple ways are endurance exercises or fasting which teaches you to ignore the demands of the body, learning the blessing and wisdom of delayed gratification (in a healthy way).  What many young people do not know is that this sexual self-control is also absolutely essential to a happily married life.
  • Avoid tempting circumstances. Not Samson the strongest, nor Solomon the wisest, nor David “the man after God’s own heart” overcame sexual temptation. But Joseph got it right by running away from his seductress (Genesis 39:13).  That is why Paul taught Timothy to flee youthful lust (2 Timothy 2:2; see also 1 Corinthians 6:18).  Avoid sensually luring situations – it is the sure way to have victory over this sin.  You have learned when you are vulnerable to this sin – simply avoid it.  If you can’t, so as the marines do and call a friend to provide cover (prayer) fire!  When tempted we should resist it (1 Peter 5:8).  Just know that you will never be tempted above your ability – with the temptation God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In closing, God is holy and desires us to be holy as He is.  He has made us to be sexual beings, and created us to enjoy sex – in its rightful place of marriage.  In that proper place God blesses it and calls it good.  Therefore we ought to take heed to the dangers and judgment of sexual immorality, resist and avoid temptation.  We ought to encourage one another to obey God’s moral laws, so that in this perverse society we may represent God’s holiness and loving nature well.

For further reading on similar topics refer to Marriage and our culture, Our Lonely world and The Perfect Match – Relational Mythbusters.

[i] The references in this paragraph comes from a good article by P.G. Nelson © 2009 found at www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/smorality_nelson.pdf

[ii] The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009 found at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/188-faith-has-a-limited-effect-on-most-peoples-behavior#.VEDa5fmSySo .         Results discussed in Kinnaman D., & Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).  See also Scazzero P., Emotionally healthy Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) for more statistic and results on culture and Christian distinction through discipleship.