How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Part 14)

Revelation 12:1-17

Step 1: What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

The chapter opens with a woman who is about to give birth to a male child. An enormous red dragon is waiting to devour the child. But as soon as the child is born, he is snatched up to God, who also provides a safe place on earth for the mother. The scene then shifts to heaven, where the archangel Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and his angels. The dragon (now explicitly called “the devil and Satan”) is defeated and thrown down to earth. As a defeated foe who has had to forfeit his place in heaven, the devil pursues the woman with a vengeance and makes war against the rest of her offspring.

How would the first-century audience have understood these characters? Most likely, they would have thought of the woman as the true Israel, the faithful community who gives birth to both the Messiah and the church. Both the male child and the offspring serve as keys for identifying the woman.

The dragon is explicitly identified in the passage as the devil or Satan. This enemy of God attempts to devour the male child and lead the whole world astray. The detailed description of the dragon only adds to the awesomeness of the image.

We are told that the male child will rule all the nations with an iron rod, which alludes to Psalm 2, which is speaking of Jesus, and more clearly in Revelation 19:5. The male child certainly represents Jesus Christ. By moving from Jesus’ birth straight to his ascension is John’s way of stressing the Satan’s evil plot has been stopped.

So the original audience would have understood the war in heaven and the subsequent rage of the devil as an explanation of two significant realities: 1) God has defeated Satan and the victory is certain, and 2) God’s people on earth will continue to suffer as victims of the devil’s rage.

Step 2: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

Like the original audience, we live between the already and not yet. So as offspring of the woman (12:17), we will also encounter the anger of a defeated devil. However, since we are not under Domitian’s rule, our suffering may take different forms and may vary in intensity from that of the original audience.

We also struggle with many of the same temptations toward complacency and compromise that the churches in Revelation faced. Verses like 12:11 pose a strong challenge to us today because we are not accustomed to considering radical sacrifice for the cause of Christ, much less martyrdom.

Step 3: What are the theological principles in this text?

1. There is a real devil that is opposed to God and bent on deceiving and destroying God’s people. Spiritual warfare is real.
2. Satan has been defeated by the life and redemptive work of Christ.
3. Christians can overcome the devil by living and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully.
4. Christians can expect to suffer for being faithful in their witness to Christ.

Step 4: How should individual Christians today apply this theological principle in their lives?

Make sure that the real-world scenarios are faithful to the meaning of the text and relevant to the modern reader. Real-life stories serve as the best application of all. For instance:

On the morning of December 23, 1999, a group of Muslims murdered scores of Christians, including women and children at a plywood factory on the Indonesian island of Buru, according to several Christian employees who survived the attack. Christians and Muslims have been fighting for more than a year and hundreds have been killed. Yoke Pauno, a factory worker who has take refuge in Ambon, the capital, says she saw armed Muslims ask a woman holding a baby if we was “obed” or “achan,” the local slang for Christian and Muslim. When the woman answered “obed,” both she and her child were brutally killed.

Stories like that show how those principles are applicable today.

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