REVELATION: Mother and Dragons

We are now prepared to get into the twelfth chapter of Revelation, so let’s dive right in:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
Now that we realize John is consistently and constantly placing Text into context, we want to think of the Hebrew Scriptures and ask the pressing question, Who is this woman? The answers to this question don’t tend to be quite as futuristic and far-fetched. Most Christian interpretation will sit solidly on this being a direct reference to Jesus. I don’t believe that is incorrect, but let’s make sure we are keeping the larger picture in mind and exhausting the possibilities; as we’ve seen, this will help us catch more of the depth of John’s point.

The woman could be a reference to Mary and Jesus. There appears to be an element of this meant to employ a more literal picture in the apocalyptic imagery. She gives birth to a child who is snatched up to heaven and to his throne. Then she escapes into the wilderness. At that point, the image seems to break down if we continue to hold to Mary as a more literal character in this story.

The woman could be the nation of Israel. As we’ve noted before, Israel is very often referred to as a bride. The people of God will be the ones who give birth to the Messiah. We might think of that famous passage about a branch coming from Jesse’s stump. This would make more sense in that she wears a crown of twelve stars and gives brith to a child who will shepherd the goyim (Gentiles).

The woman could, in a very similar fashion, be the early Church (both Jew and Gentile). This would also make sense with the reference of twelve stars, and both this and the previous option would make much more sense in regards to fleeing into the wilderness. This particular option is not as clean of a connection when it comes to giving birth to the child.

There are other options, as well — even the idea that the woman is Eve. This would also make great sense; the picture becomes more and more metaphorical, but it seems to allude to Genesis 3 and the declaration that the woman’s seed will defeat the serpent. Of course, this prophecy would be in the mind of Jews for all of the aforementioned options.

Next, who is the dragon? If we stay true to our hermeneutic, this is an easy question. Our hermeneutic (the only one I believe makes sense) says these are not vague references to the unknown future, but instead — in keeping with the apocalyptic genre — well known images that help communicate the point into the current context. The dragon represents the empire of Rome. Or, to go back to our earlier language, the dragon represents Empire.

Finally, the woman is on the run and in hiding for a season. This is the same reference to 1,260 we saw before — an apocalyptic way of saying a significant amount of time, but it won’t last forever.
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they 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. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Now, some may say, “Ah ha! The dragon is Satan! Why are you picking on Rome?” But as we’ve seen in our study of Pergamum, John has no problem connecting and equating the devil and the empire of Rome. John understands that Rome (in general) is the personification of evil and the main agent doing the work of what they would call “Satan.” This is not unique to Revelation and can be found in many other apocalyptic writings in the period of Roman oppression.

It should also be noted that these references continue to be full of links to the Hebrew prophets. The reference to the dragon being thrown down to earth would make any Jewish reader think of Isaiah and Ezekiel, who prophesied about the king of Tyre and Babylon, two other world powers of their day that relied on their pride and arrogance. These would be fitting connections to make to Rome. Again, we have Text to context.
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
We see more Text to context in that the woman is given two wings of an eagle (“Remember how I carried you on eagles’ wings,” in reference to their deliverance from Egypt [another world power]) and flown into the desert (God said through Jeremiah that He remembers how Israel “followed me through the desert like a bride”). When the dragon pours forth a river like a flood, what do we think of? Noah? The Exodus? Both?

And as the dragon goes to make war against her “offspring,” one cannot help but remember the same passage in Genesis 3 and the declaration that we know how this story is going to end. The chapter (in Revelation) ends right in the middle of the contest between the dragon and God’s people, but the message from Pastor John is clear: “We are in a great spiritual battle. We must stand our ground and continue to walk in righteousness. We’ve been here before and we know how this story ends! Persevere. Overcome.”


REVELATION: Two Witnesses, Two Lampstands, Two Olive Trees

Revelation 11 is one of those chapters where we really get to put our growing knowledge of apocalyptic literature to work. It’s full of numbers, images, and references that make our heads spin. While it typically offers confusion, hopefully we have learned to ask a new set of questions to help us sort it out and put it back into its appropriate context. Let’s begin:
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
First, this setup is a repeat of the prophesy of Ezekiel (check out chapters 40-42), and it won’t be the only direct reference to the major prophet. If this observation is beginning to sound like a broken record, it’s because you’re now starting to notice what should be apparent as we read apocalyptic literature! I know that I’ve said it before, but I really want to help us see this and be reminded appropriately of its significance. John is trying to pull his readers (especially his Jewish readers) back to the message of Ezekiel and let them be encouraged by a prophet who has come before.

But then John moves toward a conversation about two witnesses. I can remember where this conversation took me as a young adolescent who was enamored by the Left Behind series. Theories point toward these fantastical ideas of two individuals who will play a special part in the end times. The problem is that not only are such quick assumptions and conclusions ignorant of authorial intent, they also ignore the context of the passage. Any Jew in the first century who spoke of “two witnesses” would have immediately thought of the two witnesses dominant in Jewish history — Moses and Elijah. You might remember our study of the Transfiguration.

This idea of two authorities bearing witness to the coming of a new Kingdom was far from a new idea. Is this relevant to our interpretation of Revelation? I would certainly think so! But then the passage goes on to give us even more detail:
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
Immediately I notice the reference to these two witnesses having the power to shut up the sky so no rain would fall. And who was it to do such a thing? Elijah. And if you remember from our teaching, who was Elijah quoting when he “bound God to His Text”? Moses. It would seem that John really is working with this idea after all. But not only this, John gave us more details about these two witnesses. In reference to them (John uses “these,” the first word in the passage above), John says they are the two olive trees and the two lampstands. We’ve spoken before about how olive trees and lampstands symbolize the community of God’s people.

One of the things John keeps doing is pulling out visions of two where you would expect there to be one. Instead of there being 12 elders, as you might expect (symbolizing God’s people, the 12 tribes), there are 24. Not only does this match up nicely with the context of the Roman world, but I personally believe it alludes to the “other half” of God’s people. We have noted all throughout our study of the New Testament that the dominant issue being dealt with in the early church is the inclusion of the Gentiles. I believe John throws in multiple references of a “doubled” communal number to point out that God’s people includes both Jews and Gentiles. There are 24 elders, there are two olive trees, and there are two lampstands.

This also means John is inferring that the unified body of Christ — Jew and Gentile together — serves as God’s witnesses in the world. They have power beyond what they know — power to bring life or destruction. Their testimony, lived out as a people, will be as powerful as the testimony of Moses and Elijah.
And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
It seems as though their witness and testimony is useless, because they appear to be destroyed — killed and left for dead. Fitting to the context of the original hearers/readers? Absolutely. This is the world they live in; but John is encouraging them to overcome. He says that later, after three and a half days (exactly half of seven — a Jewish and apocalyptic way of saying, “a significant time, but not forever; there is an end”), they are resurrected and taken to God in the clouds. Rather than being a futuristic recipe for rapture, this is another reference to Elijah.

My point is this: it is not reasonable to believe the early readers of Revelation saw this as a futuristic rendering of “things to come,” but instead an obvious play to things past. They realized the message of encouragement John was sending their way.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying,
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
    who is and who was,
for you have taken your great power
    and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
    but your wrath came,
    and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
    and those who fear your name,
    both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
And with that, John brings us back to the Great Games, where the two kingdoms are locked in what seems to be an endless struggle and competition. Who will win? John the Baptist announced to us that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Jesus picked up the same banner, telling us the Kingdom was among us. In fact, John says, we do find ourselves in that era where the two kingdoms coexist. But there is coming a time when those kingdoms will be put to the test and judgment will be rendered.

John says that time has now come. Will God’s people stand sure and persevere? This is the question of John’s apocalyptic letter.


REVELATION: Bittersweet Prophecy

Our previous discussion surrounding Revelation 8 and 9 had a definite focus on Greco-Roman culture and its impact on the interpretation of Revelation. That means we ought to look at Revelation 10 with eyes turned toward the ancient Hebrew Text. I don’t do this to be cute or simply for the sake of redundancy; I do this because it is such a radically different way of reading Revelation than most of us were handed. It takes a redundant training to help us remember the lenses through which we ought to see apocalyptic literature — culture and text, text and culture, and text to context.

So we turn our sights toward Revelation 10 with a desire to keep our eyes peeled for references to the Tanakh, and particularly the apocalyptic books.
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.”
Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”
So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’ ” I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”
Now, maybe you are starting to pick up on some of the references yourself. Did you hear anything that you might have heard before? If not, that’s fine, because many of us were not taught the importance and relevance of the “Old Testament.” However, from this point on, we ought to remind ourselves frequently of the need to get into that front two thirds of our Bibles — if we’re ever going to understand our New Testament properly.

But I digress. You may have noticed a few sprinkled references pulled out of the book of Daniel as you read the passage above. You may have also noted Ezekiel. John seems to be pulling language from the beginning of Ezekiel and the end of Daniel — both books being apocalyptic visions. John continues to be set on the goal of encouraging his readers to persevere in hope.

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these callbacks to Ezekiel. Consider Ezekiel 1:
I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
I would encourage you to read the larger portions surrounding this passage; it continues to add to the brilliant picture John is referring to. Nevertheless, we have an incredibly similar description of the visions here, complete with references to that “rainbow in the clouds.” Such a phrase would have certainly taken the Jewish reader back to the story of Noah. In all of this apocalyptic talk of seals and trumpets and earthquakes and destruction, is this a message of fear? With one reference, John is able to speak to those fears, remind people that God promised always to remember His covenant with the earth, and also remind them that their ancestors had heard this message before — right from the mouth of Ezekiel.

Consider, as well, the more recognizable reference to Ezekiel 3:
And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.
Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and strange language, but to the people of Israel—not to many peoples of obscure speech and strange language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” 
Again, you could keep reading in Ezekiel 3 and continue to see parallels to Revelation; and again, please realize that this message in Revelation has — without a doubt — been heard before. John is not saying brand new things; he is saying things that have been said long before him in ancient texts.

You can almost hear John communicating his intent and call in the Revelation 10 reference (see above). He inserts the Greek word palin into the Text, a word meaning “again” or “anew.”

“You must prophesy again…”

“These people need that encouragement; they need the reminder. This is a hard calling, John. My words are sweet to the taste, but they are hard to hear and digest when you are sitting in the heat of oppression and fear. But go tell them, John. Tell them I’ve never forgotten them. Tell them what they are fighting for and trying to preserve is worth it. Tell them to overcome. Tell them to run the raced marked out for them.”