29 September 2015Revelation 12:7-12
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” (v. 11)
Psalm: Psalm 103
Many Christians turn to Revelation simply expecting 'to find out what happens in the end'. Yes, there is a 'happy ending', but there's so much more to it than that. This extraordinary book is the account of a vision by John (who may or may not be the apostle and/or gospel-writer John), written to offer hope, warning and encouragement to the churches around the end of the 1st century AD - a time of great turmoil and persecution. It's impossible to read this book as 'simply' a prophetic foretelling of the future, because it is not 'simple' at all. Rich in symbolism and code, covering the present reality in heaven and on earth, and the ongoing workings of God, as well as passages which reflect the final consummation of God's eternal kingdom, it is impossible merely to open this book and understand what it going on without help in understanding Old Testament theology (which shapes the images) and the political context at the time. It begins with seven letters from Jesus to seven prominent churches, and it ends with the wonderful vision of the new heavens and the new earth, but the chapters in between are dark, frightening and uncomfortable, and the cause of much confusion!
Today's reading has been chosen for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, otherwise known as Michaelmas. On this day, the Western Church has traditionally celebrated the end of the harvest by commemorating the victory of the Archangel Michael over Satan (the dragon, the Devil) in heaven. With Satan's banishment from heaven, there follows a time of his marauding on earth, but there is a great sense in this reading that he has, in fact, been truly and actually defeated.
Chapter 12 marks a new section of Revelation: the ceremonial worship in the courtroom of heaven has seen the seven seals opened and the seven trumpets blown (with all of their awesome and frightening consequences). Now we begin to consider the victory of God from a new angle. In verses 1-6, there is a woman who gives birth. Verse 5 clearly reveals that this child is the Christ. The woman may be Mary, but it is far more likely to represent the people of God - Israel, which gives birth to Jesus, and then the Church. (Or it could possibly represent all of humanity; the woman therefore would be Eve.) The dragon waits to devour the child, but he is snatched away to the throne of heaven. In verses 13-17, the dragon continues to pursue the children of the woman. In between, in our passage for today, there is a celebration of victory. Michael and the angels have cast the Devil and his entourage out of heaven following a great war - a concept so difficult to imagine that some commentators believe it is figurative language. But the key to our passage comes in the great proclamation (verses 10-12): here we hear of "the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah" (v. 10). The Satan has been thrown down by the angels, "but they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" (v. 11). The 'they' in this verse is clearly not the angels, but rather the Church, or more specifically the faithful martyrs and God's servants who have given their life in testimony to Jesus. God is already celebrating the victory of the Church!
Verse 12 tells the heavens to rejoice, but the earth must face ongoing strife: the victory has been won, but there is more woe to come, for a time.
"From strength to strength go
wrestle, and fight, and pray,
tread all the powers of darkness down,
and win the well-fought day."
(Charles Wesley) (StF 637)
- Read Jesus' words in Luke 10:17-20 (link). Jesus has already seen what is described in Revelation 12. In what sense has this victory over evil 'already happened'?
- When victory is declared in a war, there is still a lot of clearing up to do, and the defeated enemy may still strike a few blows, until the peaceful regime has been firmly established. Is this a helpful metaphor for understanding Christ's victory and our present state? In what sense is there still more fighting to be done? And how is the Church equipped for this spiritual battle?
- How does the 'blood of the Lamb' conquer evil? And how do you understand this concept?