Sunday, October 18, 2009

Behind the scenes of the Christmas story (Revelation 12)

I remember being part of many a Christmas pageant as a child. Memorizing lines, watching my Sunday School teachers scurry to stitch together outfits and glue together silver stars at the last minute. There was a lot of hustle and bustle that went on behind the scenes which was never seen by the people who watched the final program.

Many Christians see the book of Revelation as a sort of road map to the future rather than a message of encouragement and warning to first century believers undergoing increasing persecution. It is revelation that was meant to help clarify for these believers what was really going on all around them. Revelation 12 takes the readers back to the beginning of the gospel story, back to Bethlehem where it all started. Revelation 12 is really a wonderful Christmas text. But quite unlike the accounts in Matthew or Mark, the intent here is not to give a literal description of an historical event, but to pull back the curtain to see what spiritual forces were at work that night long ago.

_mary_childIn verses 1-4, we see two signs: 1) a woman in heavy labour and 2) a dragon standing ready to devour the child she is about to give birth to. It is not too hard to understand from verse 5 that this child, a male, is Jesus, the one who would rule the nations with a rod of iron (a reference to Psalm 2).

As we read the gospels, we know that from the very beginning of His life, the dragon sought to destroy the Son (a clear reference to Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child in Matthew 2). Having failed to destroy Him but instead finding himself defeated (verses 7-12), we read that the dragon then turns his violent rage on the woman and her other children who keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus (verses 13-17). God’s people suffer because of Satan’s hatred for Jesus and his rage at being unable to defeat Him.

But even this attempt to destroy Christ’s church is unsuccessful. The dragon is powerless to obliterate the Church and so he vents his fury against individual Christians through the persecution they suffer.

In chapter 12, we see how Satan goes after God’s people in three ways:

First, in contrast to the living creatures who praise God day and night (4:8) and the martyrs who serve the Lord in heaven day and night (7:15), Satan accuses God’s people day and night (verse 10), slandering them before God, claiming that they do not really love God but are only following Him for selfish reasons (see Job 1-2).

Second, he deceives the world, spreading lies and casting doubt on the truth (verse 9).

Third, he seeks to kill and enslave people under the fear of death (see Hebrews 2:15). Many Christians have turned aside from the path God has called them to because of the fear of suffering and death.

But as we read in verses 10-11, the “brothers” who suffer persecution are not helpless victims. Suffering persecution is not a passive experience, as something to be endured as one hangs on to a slim thread of hope. Indeed, those who overcome the dragon do so aggressively in three ways.

First, they overcome the accusations because of the blood of the Lamb (verse 11). Without the blood of Christ, Satan’s accusation that we are unworthy of the Lord would be true. But because of Jesus’ work on the cross, we can stand unashamed before the Lord. This is good news! This is the gospel! Because of Christ, we have everything we need to stand faithful in the face of persecution (see 2 Peter 1:3).

Second, they overcome Satan’s deception by the word of their testimony (verse 11). We overcome lies with the truth of Jesus. We proclaim and practice the truth unapologetically and without compromise. Truth matters so much that we are prepared to even die for it.

Third, they overcome the threat of death by not loving their life even to death (verse 11). God’s people understand that death is not the worst thing that can happen to them. The worst thing would be to turn their backs on Jesus. Satan is overcome when we do not let fear control us but instead enthrone Christ as Lord in our lives.

As you celebrate Christmas, remember that there is a battle going on going in today’s world that is mostly behind the scenes, unnoticed by most but brutal and harsh. Satan's rage against God's children burns on and they continue to suffer throughout the world. Revelation 12 reminds that this is true for Christ’s followers wherever they live. But Revelation 12 also reminds us that those who faithfully persevere will not be devoured, but will one day stand triumphant in the eternal kingdom of our Lord.

Glory to God in the highest!


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