Saturday, April 8, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (20)


 The Dragon and Two Beasts: The First Two Portents  1  (chs.12-13)

Three Portents
Within this seventh trumpet blast, with heaven opened and the Ark of the Covenant in full view and attended by a panoply of divine fireworks (11:19), something new and significant is at hand. That something Jesus unfolds in terms of three portents (12:1,3; 15:1). The judgment introduced in 11:18 has the dual purpose of rewarding faithful servants (those who practice “endurance”) and “destroying those who destroy the earth.” The faithful are rewarded with the Kingdom's arrival and establishment. The destruction of the destroyers of the earth is the subject up next in Jesus' sermon.

The Dragon, the Woman, and the Child (12:1-6)

Surprisingly, the next scene in Jesus' sermon is a Christmas story! The Seal and Trumpet cycles have laid a framework for understanding the destiny of the world and the character of the vocation God has called them to enact. And right at the center we find this part of the vision.
It would be easy for the church to assume that the Empire itself was the church's enemy and that some sort of political revolution to oust the Romans would be both a tactic and a goal the church might pursue (when possible). But that would to mistake who our enemy really is!

Jesus spends the next two chapters giving us a taxonomy of the powers that truly lie behind the churches distress and are actively working to thwart it ministry. He starts at the top (or the bottom, if you prefer), with the Dragon. Under the fifth Trumpet we saw a “star fallen from heaven” who loosed terrible scourges on the earth from a “bottomless pit” he is given the key to (by God). Here we meet a dragon who is identified later as the “Devil and Satan” (12:9; 20:2). These are likely the same figure. Jesus shows us in vivid terms here that the church's true enemy is this malignant spiritual power (see esp. Ephesians 6:10-12). Emperors, empire, and the entire machinery of its political, social, economic, and military infrastructure, even when it seeks to kill Christians, are but slaves and dupes of the dragon and his minions (the “beasts” of ch.13).

John uses stories well-known to his hearers (though not to us) to tell his story here including:

                -The Greeks who have Leto birthing the God Apollo contested by Python, a dragon, who Apollo s                subsequently slays.
                -The Egyptians who have Isis birthing the Sun God Horus pursued by a red dragon Typhon whom Horus                 subsequently kills.[1]

This story line would have been familiar and immediately communicate to them John's meaning about malevolent spiritual opposition here. Likewise, he packs a number of familiar ideas into the symbol of the woman (first portent). But the sun, moon, and stars is a clear allusion to Genesis 37:9 and identifies thus figure as the people of Israel, God's people. The people of Israel, Eve, Mary are likely all compacted into the woman here. She is in the throes of giving birth to a child.

At this moment the great red dragon appears to take away her child (second portent). Mesopotamian and Canaanite mythology talks about a dragon of darkness who attempted to kill the sun god but was itself slain by the rising sun of a new day.[2] This dragon has “seven heads, ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads” (v.3). Obviously, this is not literal. But what does it symbolize? The number seven intends completeness or fullness. Heads and diadems suggest authority and rule. Ten also intends fullness while horns point to strength. This dragon has full authority, power, and strength. So much so that though he is not God he is able to raid heaven and knock 1/3 of its stars to earth. Whether this is a symbolic portrayal of an event (an angelic revolt or fall) or of the power and reach of the dragon is hard to say.

With the dragon eagerly waiting to seize and destroy the child, he comes. Jesus identifies this child, himself, by an allusion to Psalm 2:9, a royal psalm. A king is born!  Somehow this baby is snatched away and delivered to God's throne before the dragon can lay a paw on him.

Right here we get Jesus' perspective, the biblical view, on what power and victory look like. His hearers well know, of course, that Jesus was crucified. Yet no mention or allusion to that is found here. He's born and then off to God's throne (a symbol of rule and authority), a victor. From Revelation 5 we know this Jesus appears to John as a slaughtered Lamb. That the vision here moves right from birth to enthronement without so much as a side glance at Jesus' suffering and death signals that in his slaughter divine power was loosed. Power able to best the dragon and invest this Jesus as the one with power and authority to rule the world!

The woman too is protected from the frustrated dragon's wrath. God has prepared a wilderness refuge for her. There he will sustain and strengthen her for 1,260 days (= 3½ years, 42 months), the period between Jesus' resurrection and return.

In this richly dramatic and symbolic episode Jesus gets to “the” point of his sermon.  The “point” of the world's being and reality. The cross and resurrection of Jesus as that Archimedean point from which one can change the world. Jesus highlights it by not mentioning it (as we saw) but swallowing it up in the victory of the child removed to the throne of the Almighty. That victory also shelters and sustains his people for their journey through the world.

The woman, the child, and the dragon: the three key players in the great cosmic drama are on scene now in dramatic point-counterpoint. Jesus has been digging beneath the surface in this sermon to unveil the dynamics and their meaning that constitute time and eternity. He has probed what it is that is really happening in the world (Seals) and how all this responds to the cry of the martyrs “How long?” (Trumpets). Now Jesus deepens each of those scenes rooting them within  this primal scene.

War in Heaven (12:7-12)
With the dragon left clawing at empty air as the child eludes his death-dealing grasp a melee breaks out in  heaven. It is not God who fights the dragon and his minions, however. Instead Michael the Archangel (Israel's Guardian angel,Da.10:13,21; 12:1) and his angelic host take the battle to them. God's power and sovereignty are such that this task can be delegated to his underlings.

So thoroughly routed are this demonic horde that Jesus five times intones their defeat as their being “thrown down” (12:9 [3x],10,13) and once as “has come down” (involuntarily; 12:12). Notice the past tense of these verbs. This war is over and won!

Jesus, in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, has won it. And he won it, of course by living and dying in sacrificial non-violent servanthood. In spite of appearances - hanging on a Roman gibbet – Jesus' way of being Messiah triumphs over the Emperor's way. Victory through defeat, resurrection following death, as mind-bending as it is, is God's way to victory.

In John's gospel Jesus articulates this truth when looking ahead to his death he announces: “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (12:31). And Paul echoes this in his reflection on the effect of  the cross in Col.2:15: “ (Christ) disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” Here is the slaughtered Lamb again (Rev.5)!

So  Jesus can now (12:10) announce that the kingdom seen as fulfilled as human destiny in the  Trumpet cycle retroject that kingdom back to his earthly ministry. “Now” Jesus cries. Now in the midst of life his victory and authority have come (12:10).

The devil (v.12:9) is named the Accuser.  That's what “Satan” means. Apparently this figure was originally a member of God's court and his job was to test the faithfulness of God's people (see the book of Job). He gradually morphed into the full blown opponent of all things God we meet in the New Testament (as here).[3] At any rate, at this point he is declared to be the Accuser of God's people.

The Accuser attacks us at our greatest points of vulnerability. Similar, I suspect, to how he tested Jesus in the wilderness. It's probably not coincidental that the people attacked are also in the wilderness (12:6,14). The wilderness, in the Bible is both a place of peril and a place where God woos (Hos.2:14), tests, and nurtures his people. This people, called to be God's Messianic people and continue the fight with the enemy. In Jesus' case, this Accuser attacked his commitment to be Messiah in God's way. Not a social welfare kind. Nor a religious leader kind. And not a “big man in the White House” kind either. But a sacrificial, suffering-servant kind. It would not be surprising if the Accuser didn't try to derail Messiah's people by accusing them over their failures and follies in faithfully embodying Messiah's way.

But this Accuser and his incessant accusations has been ousted from heaven. And the church, living out of Jesus' victory over him, plies its faithfulness on three warrants (12:11):

                                -the blood of the Lamb (here more likely a reference to his self-giving, sacrificial way of life than his atoning death)
                                -the word of their testimony
                                -they were willing to be martyrs for Jesus' sake

Or, to put it more colloquially, Jesus did it right, we're going to witness to it, and we're betting our lives on it.
Heaven, God's place, is cleansed of the dragon's contagion and stench. But the “earth and the sea,” whoa! The Dragon has come down to you and he is pi***d!  He's defeated but not destroyed. That is coming. But in the meantime, as Jesus' victory is implemented and extended throughout the earth, he can still thrash about in his death throes (v.12).

The Dragon and the Woman (12:13-17)

The image of the woman is a bit fluid in this section. She appears first as the source of the Dragon's defeat (12:13), the child, whom he seeks to destroy. But after she gives him the slip into the wilderness, the woman becomes the child's people, the object of his venomous hatred (12:17). Creation and exodus themes interplay here. God gifts the woman with “eagle wings” (Ex.19:4; Dt. 32:11) and promise to shelter them under his wings (Ps.17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; Jer.49:22. The river spewing from the mouth of the Dragon is both anti-creational and anti-exodus. 

                                -anti-creational : (see :flood” in .15); “It is an attempt by the dragon to return the world to the primordial chaos of Gen.1:2.”[4] Creation                  “fights back” (as it were) by swallowing up the Dragon's deluge and protects God's people. The rivers coming forth from Eden (Gen.2)                              and that flowing through the middle of the New Jerusalem (Rev.22) are life-giving while this parody is death-dealing.
                                -anti-Exodus: it seeks to destroy God's people by water even as God saved the people through water.

The Dragon's fury , having failed to destroy the woman, turns against her children those who “keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). Remember the fluidity of the imagery!
This, at the deepest level, is the fundamental dynamic driving history and human experience. God's people are well served to know  and internalize this truth.

We'll pick up at this point in the next post.





[1] Keener, IVP Background Commentary to the New Testament on Revelation 12:1..
[2] Spilsbury, The Throne, 90-91.
[3] See the entry “Satan” in The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery edited by Leland Ryken and James C. Wilhoit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010).
[4] Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance, 74.

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