Chapters 12-13 - Unmasking Reality - Revelation 12

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 17th February 2008.

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Colditz castle in Germany was the scene of many famous war time stories. One time towards the end of 1941 the Germans tried to persuade the French and the Belgian prisoners of war to work for the Germans. On the first day of asking there was no response except much laughter and derisive jeers. On the second day, a French prisoner, named Paul Durand, stepped forward and said he would be willing to help the Germans. There was surprise from the assembled parade of prisoners. But the German officer in charge was delighted. “You really want to work for Germany?” asked the officer. “Yes, he said, I would rather work for twenty Germans than for one Frenchman.” More gasps of astonishment from the prisoners. “Alright, said the German officer, what is your name?” “My name is Durand, and I wish to make it clearly understood that I would prefer to work for twenty Germans than for one Frenchman.” “Good! What is your profession?” To which Durand coolly replied, “I am an undertaker!”

            Sometimes in life not everything is quite as it seems. I guess Mr Durand’s fellow prisoners would have wondered what on earth he was up to, until the truth became clear. Because often what seems at first glance to be the case, when looked at from another angle is something entirely different. And in the book of Revelation which we have been looking at together these past few weeks, we’ve found that the truth about life in this world is something very different to what we often perceive it to be. You see just by looking at the world at face value we might make the following conclusions. We might say that evil reigns, that God, if he exists, is weak and powerless; and at best all we can do is try and enjoy life as best we can and muddle through. Because it seems like the bad guys always win and the good guys get trampled along the way. But Revelation shows us something rather different. Revelation draws back the curtain on reality to show us what is really going on in the world. We’ve seen that God is truly in control. He is on his throne and his plans for judgement and salvation will be accomplished. We’ve seen that through Jesus those plans are accomplished. The key battle has been won on the cross in the past. Revelation is centred on Calvary in the past, not Armageddon in the future. And we’ve also seen that God’s people his church are safe spiritually speaking, even though it will mean a tough time in this life. That is what is really going on in this world. That is the revelation of reality which we need to see.

            And in this passage that unveiling of reality continues. Because we discover in no uncertain terms the enemy we face as God’s people. And that enemy is the devil, Satan. Now it’s not often we have sermons specifically on this topic. But the Bible leaves us in no doubt that Satan is a real being with power. And when it comes to thinking about him, we often make two mistakes. One is to make too much of him. We give him too much of the limelight. We get over concerned with his actions and try to look for devils under every bush. The other mistake is to ignore him, to think he’s a make believe character, made up to scare the kids. But Jesus was very clear on the reality of Satan, and so is John. And a greater understanding of the enemy we face will help us to press on as Christians and fight the good fight of the faith. Because as we’ll see today he is out to give God’s people as much trouble as he can, but we must never forget that Satan is defeated. He’s in his death throes, and one day he’ll be gone forever.

            So let’s turn to Revelation 12-13 and see what John teaches us about this old enemy. And as we do so we need to bear in mind a key lesson in studying Revelation that we learnt last week. And that is that Revelation uses a lot of symbolism to get across its point. Much of it comes from the OT, and we’re not meant to take everything literally. And if we bear that in mind, then what John teaches us for our encouragement and challenge in these chapters will become clear. And there are three things to learn about this enemy.

1) A Defeated Enemy (12 vv 1-12)

2) A Destructive Enemy (12 v 13- 13 v 10)

3) A Deceptive Enemy (13 vv 11-18)

1) A Defeated Enemy (12 vv 1-12)

So first of all he’s a defeated enemy and that becomes clear from chapter 12. Now chapter 12 describes Satan trying to attack Jesus during his earthly ministry and failing, and as a result attacking the church instead. So let’s see what happens. First we see Satan’s attack in verses 1-6. Now what we find in these verses is a woman, a baby and a dragon. What do they mean? Let’s read from verse 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. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 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. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” Well let’s look at the main characters in reverse order. The red dragon is made clear for us in verse 9. This is Satan himself. We’re told there that he leads the whole world astray. And in verse 3, we’re told that he has seven heads and ten horns with seven crowns on his head. We’re not meant to picture a real dragon with seven heads. Rather it’s symbolic language. Horns in Jewish writing were symbols of power and crowns of authority. So here is Satan who appears to have power and authority. What about the child? Well in verse 5 we find that this child is a male who will rule the nations with an iron sceptre. The iron sceptre is a symbol of power and authority and the image comes from Psalm 2. And already in Revelation that Psalm has been applied to Jesus. This child is Jesus. But what about the woman? Who is she? Well the obvious answer would be Mary. She gave birth to Jesus after all. But Mary wasn’t whisked into the desert. And given the symbolism of the passage, it’s much more likely that John means us to see the woman as the church. This is the people of God from whom the Messiah comes. In the OT the people of God are frequently likened to a woman in labour. She is about to give birth to the Messiah. And that’s what’s happening here.

            So what event is John referring to? Well it’s a picture of Satan’s desire to destroy Christ even at the point of his birth. And of course that happened in history. We know that Herod tried to kill Jesus by wiping out all the toddlers in Bethlehem. Behind him was Satan himself. But the plan was foiled. And here John tells us that Jesus is whisked up to heaven, without Satan harming him. John doesn’t go into detail about Jesus’ life, or even his death and resurrection. No the point is, Jesus is safe. Satan’s attack on Christ is futile. And the church in verse 6 is kept safe too. She is taken to the desert to be protected for 1260 days. The desert was often a place of God’s protection and his provision in the OT. So here John says symbolically that after Jesus ascends to be with the Father, his church are protected for 1260 days- that’s the whole period before Jesus returns. We are secure spiritually speaking.

            But in verses 7-12, the camera angle changes. For here we see Satan’s defeat. Because in these verses, John is talking about the same events, but from a very different perspective. It’s not looking at things from an earthly perspective, but a heavenly perspective. Jesus was protected from Satan’s attack by his Father on earth, and now we see what effect that had in heaven. Verse 7: “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The 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.” So now instead of a battle on earth between Satan and the woman, now the same events are described as a battle in heaven. The dragon is defeated by Michael, who is a senior angel. And Satan and his angels are hurled to earth. So what does this mean? We’re probably not reading here about the fall of Satan before time. Rather it is referring to the victory of Jesus over Satan through the cross and resurrection. John is using a heavenly symbol to talk about the cross. What happens on earth is in some way mirrored in heaven. So in John 12 vv 31-32 Jesus refers to the devil’s defeat and the cross in the same breath linking the two. And in Luke 10 v 18, Jesus says that he saw Satan fall as lightening as the disciples come back saying they have driven out demons. So this symbolic battle is a picture of the victory of Jesus over Satan. Satan can no longer have access to heaven. You see before the cross, sin had not been paid for. There was a sense in which Satan could still accuse God’s people of sin and guilt, because those sins had not been paid for in history. But after the cross, sin and guilt have been paid for. Jesus died on the cross to deal fully and finally with the punishment that sin deserves. He took it on himself. So see what that means in verse 10: “Then 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.” And how has that happened? Because verse 11, we overcame him by the blood of the lamb. You see why was it that Satan was so keen to destroy Jesus at his moment of birth? Because Satan knew that Jesus’ birth spelt his death. He knew the game was up! Satan’s power has been broken. He holds no power over you and me if we trust in the blood of the Lamb. He cannot accuse us any more because the sins which he accuses us of have been washed away, paid for, the debt written off fully and finally. So if Satan were able to approach God and accuse us Christians of sin, God would say, “I’m sorry I have no idea what you are talking about. There is no record of that person having any guilt or crimes to pay for.”

            Now that is an extremely powerful lesson for us to grasp, because so often we are wracked by guilt for past sins. It’s one the devil’s most frequent weapons against the Christian. Slander. Accusation of guilt. And I doubt if there is not a Christian here who does not feel sometimes deep shame for a past sin. Because guilt is a very powerful way of scuppering our Christian faith and undermining our confidence in God. For example, I wonder if you’ve heard of the Mongolian peasant principle? It was developed during the time when Joseph Stalin ruled Russia. Stalin had a psychologist working for him who would use guilt to torture people and get them under his control. The psychologist said that the secret of his success was the Mongolian peasant principle. The psychologist explained it like this: “Imagine a poor, shabby and "unimportant" man is brought into a large office that obviously belongs to an important person, say a Russian general. The general speaks to the shabby, uncomfortable visitor and says: "I have a million roubles in my desk drawer. Here, take a look, they’re all yours." "All mine?" says the shabby, uncomfortable visitor "Yes, all yours, on one condition." "What condition?" "You must press this small red button on my desk" says the general. "What happens when I press the button?" "An old man in Mongolia drops dead." "He dies?!" "Yes. He dies at once, without any pain." "But why, what did he do?" "That’s none of your business. Trust me. It is for the good of the people. All you need to know is that the moment you press the button, the peasant dies. And you get a million roubles" The poor, shabby, unimportant, uncomfortable man sits silent for a long moment. Then he slowly reaches forward and pushes the red button. He takes the money and goes home. But for the rest of his life he’s haunted by the memory of what he did. He can’t bring himself to spend a penny of his ill gotten gain. He’s tormented day and night, until finally, 5 years later, he commits suicide. The million roubles are found stuffed in a sack under his bed; the State takes them back on the day of his funeral. "You see" Stalin’s psychologist said, "everybody has a Mongolian peasant in his life. Everyone has done something for which they feel deep shame. I hunt around in their memory until I find it. Then once I’ve found the peasant I dangle him in front of their eyes until the person is writhing in shame for being such a wretched human being. Then I have control over them. And they will do anything for me."

            And you know Satan is a past master at dangling sin in front of us and saying, remember this one? Remember what you did, remember what you said? But look what John says. Through the cross Satan is defeated. Through the cross we overcome Satan. Through the cross, you and I are free from condemnation, free from the penalty of sin. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Satan’s been hurled from heaven! We’re free. So Christ says to Satan- “I’m very sorry but I cannot find any record of any wrongdoing for this brother of mine. He’s innocent.” Do you believe that, if you are trusting Christ. That you sin is paid for, that the guilt is gone. Don’t hang onto it. Lay it where it belongs at the foot of the cross. Because Satan has been defeated for all time.  

2) A Destructive Enemy (12 v 13- 13 v 10)

But Satan’s defeat does not mean he has no effect in this world. And that brings us on secondly to see the destructive enemy. You see John tells us in verse 12 of chapter 13 that the devil is thrown to the earth. He cannot accuse the saints any longer or assault heaven. He’s defeated. But as a result he’s very angry. And verses 13-17 show us in symbolic language that whilst the church is secure spiritually speaking, yet she will suffer at the hands of the angry defeated dragon. Notice in verse 13 that the dragon pursues the woman after she has been taken into the desert. She’s taken away by a flying eagle which is a sign of God’s protection. If you remember in Exodus 19, God said that he brought the people of God out of Egypt on eagle’s wings. It’s a sign of God’s protection. And here the woman is carried off on eagle’s wings in verse 14 to be taken care of for a time, times and half a time. It’s the same time period as the 42 months in chapter 11 or the 1260 days in chapter 12. And they all speak of God’s protection on his people for the whole of the last times. Whatever happens, they are secure. But not content with allowing her to escape, the dragon tries to overcome her with a massive torrent of water, verse 15. It might represent false teaching as it comes from the devil’s mouth, always a bad place given he is the father of lies. But the true church cannot be deceived, and so even that river is swallowed up by the earth in verse 16. There is nothing the devil can do to harm the people of God spiritually speaking. The gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s church. But, and it’s a big but, notice what we read in verse 17: “Then 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.” Yes the church might be secure, but that does not prevent the evil one making war against God’s people and persecuting the church physically. Yes, they might be secure in Christ, sealed with the seal of the lamb as in chapter 7, measured off as God’s Temple as we saw in chapter 11, but Satan can still attack God’s people on the earth. Which is precisely what happens throughout history before Christ returns. Verse 12, he is filled with fury because he knows his time is short.

            The point is this: Before Jesus returns to destroy the devil for good, Satan will make the most of his short time to vent his fury on Jesus’ people, those who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Yes he’s defeated, but in his death throes, he can still do harm. He is very destructive and he will do everything in his limited power to attack God’s people. Now one illustration that helps to capture this tension between defeat and yet continued warring is the tension between D Day and V E Day. It’s one many of us know well, but it’s worth repeating because it helps us to be clear on this tension. You see in June 1944 when the Allies landed on the beaches of France, after a few weeks, the Germans were a broken force. The Allies made good advances and the Germans were pushed back. For those with eyes to see, the war was over. The mortal wound had been inflicted on Germany. And yet the year between June 1944 and May 1945, V E Day, witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting in the whole war. The enemy knew he was defeated, but he refused to go down without a fight. He vented his wrath because he knew his time was short. So it is with the devil. He’s defeated. The cross has seen to that. But he will use whatever time he has left to vent his fury on the people of God.

            But how will he do it?  Well chapter 13 explains to us two allies that Satan uses to inflict pain on the people of God. And verses 1-10 continue the destruction theme as we see the beast from the sea. Let’s read from verse 1: “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.” Now this first beast comes from the sea, which in Jewish thought was a place of chaos, and represented evil. And notice that this beast is given the power by the dragon. So whatever we make of the beast, we are clear he’s in league with Satan. So what is this beast like? Well, he’s characterised by three things. First he’s characterised by invincibility. Verse 3: “One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.” This beast seems to be invincible. He’s a got a fatal wound but a fatal wound that has been healed. Now how can you have a fatal wound which has been healed? Well only if you die and come back to life. And that is what happens with this beast. He’s killed but he keeps coming back to life. So in chapter 17, we find that John see this same beast and it’s described as the one “who once was, now is not, and will come again.” Does that ring any bells? Jesus himself had a fatal wound which was healed, and God is known as the one who was, is and is to come. So this beast is mimicking Christ in some way. And he seems invincible! He’s also characterised by popularity. We read on in verse 3: “The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.” And in verse 8: “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast- all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” This beast takes a lot of people with him! Many millions follow him, in fact everyone who is not a Christian. All non Christians are duped by this beast, and so follow his master, Satan, which is what John says in verse 4: “Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?’” And thirdly he’s characterised by hostility. Hostility that is to God’s people, verse 7: “He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them.” This beast seeks to destroy the people of God.

            So what does he represent? Well John’s language is taken from Daniel 7 and there we find that the four beasts which Daniel speaks of are four kingdoms, four earthly powers. John combines those images to speak of one beast, but a beast which comes again and again and does not stay dead. You see in short, what John is talking about is human power in the form of the state and government. This beast is human power used by the devil to do his work of controlling people and attacking God’s people. Now when we get to chapter 17 we’ll see that John clearly links the identity of the beast with the Roman Empire. That empire was especially good at controlling people and persecuting the church. But we mustn’t be duped into thinking that John was only thinking of the Roman Empire as the beast. Rather he says this beast sometimes is, then is not and then comes back to life. His head is killed off but then the fatal wound is healed. So this beast recurs throughout history. The Roman empire was strong for a while, but it eventually died. The beast was not- his head was cut off. But then he has reappeared in all sorts of guises throughout history. Perhaps the state of Queen Mary in England during the Reformation. Maybe the state of Mao Tse Tung in China. Maybe as Hitler in Nazi Germany, Idi Amin in Uganda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In every generation this beast is at work through states, governments and sometimes perhaps seen in individuals, to give the people of God a tough time. And many think its wonderful! They worship the beast. Never think that the majority equals the truth. Often those who hold to the truth in the minority. And they suffer at the hands of this beast from the sea.

            Now if you think about, this should come as no surprise. Whilst the NT says that we should honour the king and obey the state so far as it doesn’t cause us to deny the Lord, yet we should also realise that governments and kings and prime ministers can be used by Satan to persecute the church. And we should not be surprised when kingdom after kingdom rises and falls and Christians suffer. I am not in the least bit surprised at how the British government is squeezing religious liberty and will quite probably make it much harder for Christians to publicly profess Christ. Because the beast is alive and well. He may have died for a while in Britain- we might not be openly persecuted. And in that regard we are in a virtually unique period of history in Britain. But he’ll be back. All you need to do is read Scripture to have a realistic assessment of what governments will do to Christians. Just because we’re in the supposedly tolerant and liberal minded West is no guarantee that Christians won’t be persecuted. Every generation has hated Christians, no matter how nicely people dress it up in politically correct language, or write us off as fanatics and fundamentalists. The beast will return, and is even now. Now that does not mean that we write off every MP or government off as being evil. There will be some good done as God restrains evil. But let’s have a healthy realism of how Satan uses people in power to do his will! It’s not scare mongering. It’s the Bible’s clear teaching! The beast from the sea is very much alive and well and doing Satan’s work. Satan truly is a very destructive enemy.  

3) A Deceptive Enemy (13 vv 11-18)

And that brings us finally and briefly to the deceptive enemy, and we see that in the second beast that comes from the earth in verses 11-18. And at first this beast seems much nicer than the first. Notice how in verse 11 he has two horns like a lamb. He looks at first like a lamb, harmless, perhaps even like the Lamb. But verse 11, he spoke like a dragon. He speaks for the devil. You see this is false religion. We’ll see in chapters 16 and 19 that this beast is the false prophet. He gets people to worship the other beast in verse 12, and in verse 14 he does powerful miraculous signs which deceive many people. It’s worth remembering that miracles are not necessarily a sign of truth. They can just as likely be demonic as the things of God. And many people are taken in. This is false religion. Again it’s very popular, and coupled with the State it can be extremely powerful. That’s probably what John is getting at in verse 16. False religion together with an oppressive state, puts huge pressure on the people of God. Again the incarnation of this beast that John is thinking of is Rome. There the state religion included worship of the emperor. And if you didn’t, then imprisonment or death awaited you. And in many places around the globe, false religion leads people astray. Of course Satan isn’t stupid. He often mixes lies and truth. So John isn’t saying that every other religion is totally evil. No there is often good mixed in. But fundamentally, all religious expression outside of worshipping Jesus is demonic. And Satan is deceiving millions even today through false religion.

            And that means in the world today there is a division of people. You either follow the lamb, or the beast. If you follow the lamb, then you will face the wrath of the beast in this life- you will be persecuted. But if you follow the beast, then you will face the wrath of the lamb in the world to come. So Revelation presents us with a choice. Whose wrath do you want to face? The beast’s now, or the Lamb’s on judgement day. Next week we’ll see that the wrath of the lamb is far more horrific than anything the beast can throw at us. And notice as well in verse 16 that the followers of the beast have a mark. Not a literal one, but a symbolic mark of ownership, or a number 666. Much time has been wasted on trying to work out what this means. The alphabet in Greek had numeric value, so a is 1, b is 2 etc. And people have tried to work out who John is referring to. Is it a real person. No-one fits, despite people’s best efforts. You might be interested to know that Hilary Clinton can be made to have the number 666. It’s total red herring, and far more likely that it’s symbolic for imperfection. If 7 is the perfect number, then 666 is imperfection tripled. But the point is not to waste your life trying to work out the number, but to see the symbolism. Satan is fundamentally evil. And he is implacably opposed to God’s people, through both destruction and deception.

Well all of this begs the question how you and I are to respond? Well for a start, we need to make sure we are on the side of the Lamb. Because whilst the dragon and his allies are trying their best to attack God’s people, remember they are defeated. And one day their destruction will come. And that will mean not just their destruction, but with them everyone who has followed the beast. That is all non Christians. So bow the knee to the Lamb, Jesus while you still have time. And in the meantime, what are we, the Lamb’s people, to do? Verses 9-10: “He who has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” We need to stand our ground. Yes, times are hard, and may well get harder for us. But let us never forget that we are on the winning side. Jesus has the victory. The devil is defeated. He’s doomed. He’s thrashing around trying to make the most of his final fleeting moments of life. And one day, Jesus will return to finally crush the rebellion. So keep trusting, keep proclaiming, keep hoping. And remember again what Jesus said: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”

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