Gather around little boys and girls. It’s time for our annual reading of the Christmas story — this time with a twist.
I’ve seen many a nativity scenes and Christmas pageants over the years with wooden stables, sheep and goats, ox and ass, and Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus surrounded by shepherds and wise men. Interestingly, the Bible hasn’t a word about animals being present at Christ’s birth; but it does mention something far more dangerous than a rowdy sheep. Still, I have yet to see a Christmas pageant or nativity set with a giant, ill-tempered, seven-headed red dragon lurking in the distance waiting to attack.
The Book of Revelation includes its own lesser known apocalyptic styled version of the Christmas story and this one is probably not appropriate for small children. John of Patmos begins his story — or series of wild visions — in chapter 12. Grab a cup of egg nog, put the kids to bed and pull up a chair as we go through it together. Open your Bible to Revelation 12:1.
1A 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. 2She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
This story is ultimately about the people of Israel out of whom will come the messiah to reign over the whole world. In one sense then the woman can represent Mary giving birth to the Christ child. But the imagery of sun, moon and twelve stars definitely identify the woman more broadly with the ideal Israel. Isaiah speaks elsewhere of Israel in exile as “a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs, when she is near her time” (Isaiah 26:17; cf. 66:7; Mic 4:10).
3Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 4His 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.
There you have it: In the middle of the manger scene stands a dragon waiting to “devour her child the moment it was born.” Merry Christmas everybody! Yes, the “all is calm, all is bright” notion from the old carols doesn’t quite capture the real battle that was taking place from Heaven’s point of view when God put on flesh and came to earth as a baby in Bethlehem. The age old battle between the forces of light — God and his angels — and the Satanic forces of darkness was coming to a climactic moment in history where the decisive battle was about to be waged.
John clearly tells us that the Red Dragon represents “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (12:9). Christ came into the world with a price on his head, and from the murderous plots of King Herod at his birth, to the 40 day tussle in the wilderness to begin his ministry, all the way to the showdown with Satan on the cross, God was waging war in the heavenly realms through His beloved Son, the Messiah. The “third of the stars” being swept out of the sky to earth speaks to the dragon’s spectacular power and universal destructiveness. Some believe this refers to the original fall of the Satan and the angels at the beginning, but this may read too much into the text at hand.
5She 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. 6The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
The child is clearly the long-awaited messiah and savior who will “rule all the nations.” So, as we sing every Christmas: “let earth receive her King.” “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan 7:14).
John moves directly from Christ’s birth to his ascension to the right hand of God’s throne. Satan’s plans to devour the baby are thwarted as God provides sanctuary for his Son (e.g.,. the angelical vision warning Joseph to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre). The woman, again more representative of all Israel, seeks refuge in the wilderness where God has prepared a place. This is a common biblical theme as Israel was often wandering in deserts, being both chased and chastened, where they were prepared and provided for by their God (cf. Exodus). Robert Mounce aptly points out that “For John’s readers the wilderness would not connote a desert waste inhabited by evil spirits and unclean beasts, but a place of spiritual refuge” (The Book of Revelation, p. 239).
7And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
In John’s second vision we are given front row seats to an all-out, no holds barred spiritual battle in the heavenly realm. Some believe this describes Christ’s war and victory secured over Satan on the cross. Others attribute it to subsequent defeat(s) of demonic forces flowing out of Christ’s victory on the cross as the church carries on Christ’s work in the world: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not be able to conquer it” (Matt. 16). Contrary to popular belief, this does not describe the original revolt of Satan in Heaven before the creation of the world.
10Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11They 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.
12Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
Christmas leads to the cross. Jesus was born into this world in order to die. That was his God-sent mission and task. In these verses we sing a victory song of salvation and celebrate the power and peace-bringing authority of Christ the King. Satan has been defeated. But the focus is now shifting to the King’s children, the church, who must continue to overcome evil “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (v. 11). We’re not out of the woods yet, as the battle rages on for a short time longer “because the devil has gone down to you” (v. 12). We’re living in a war zone if we’ll only have the spiritual eyes to see.
13When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. 15Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.17Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
The rest can be summed up as a stern reminder that while the Dragon failed to defeat God’s messiah (the woman and her child), and Satan’s ultimate defeat was secured by the victory on the cross, Christians (“the rest of her offspring”) nevertheless live out their lives on this earth engaged in ongoing battle against Satan and demonic forces. We are daily bombarded by the various modes of spiritual attack where our own experiences of “water like a river” try their best to drown our spirits. The Dragon disguises himself as an angel of light, and we must therefore “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Yes, verse 17 should be part of our Christmas vocabulary. We must remember that the same seven-headed Red Dragon that stood ready to devour the woman and her child that first Christmas morning has now gone “off to make war against the rest of her offspring — those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” So, Christian, that’s you and me.
Let us sing “All is Calm, All is Bright” this year and be thankful that the Prince of Peace has come and conquered. But let us also remember the great spiritual battle that has been waged and continues to be waged “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). Christmas time is no place to take off our spiritual armor.
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Eph 6:13).