June 25th, 2017

The Big Picture

The devil wants us to forget he has already lost the war.

Revelation 12:7-17



Does this narrative sound familiar? You are a hobbit with a destiny to destroy Sauron’s ring of power in Mount Doom, ushering in a new age of peace in Middle Earth.

If you are Frodo, that “big picture” not only gives you a sense of purpose; it helps you respond to adversity. If you encounter evil riders on giant black horses, if no one feeds you second breakfast, if a member of your fellowship dies unexpectedly, if you encounter a giant spider who binds you in her cocoon, if… whatever happens… the big picture keeps you going.

In 1977 French philosopher named Jean Francis Lyotard coined the term “metanarrative” for a big-picture way to describe reality. A metanarrative helps you make sense of the world and even guide the choices you make. Lyotard believed that metanarratives have lost their power in the postmodern world. We get lost instead in what he calls “small, localized narratives” – our own personal stories.

Revelation presents its metanarrative in living color and with beasts and drama and symbols rivaling The Lord of the Rings. Revelation’s “big picture” is the same as the rest of the Bible – there’s God the Creator, human beings running away from him, and at the end of the story God has his way. Revelation says to those who are suffering, “You are not alone in this, and if you remain faithful, what’s on the other side will be worth it.”

A dragon, a woman, and a child

Within that broader Christian metanarrative, Revelation 12 offers a big picture for the church. And we need one. From time to time all of us feels like we’re Frodo Baggins carrying a burden too heavy and too costly. We hear stories of empty cathedrals in Europe and declining church attendance in America. We look around us and the people who are supposed to stand with us seem themselves terribly flawed and vulnerable.

It always has been this way in the church. It was like that in the first century, and that’s one reason Revelation was written. John begins Revelation with a vision of Jesus among his suffering churches, then launches into a series of letters to seven local churches representing the church universal. The most obvious thing in those letters is the mix of success and failure.

All through history the church is also a blend of positive and negative. In fact, it seems like every advance for the church turns out to have a downside. We create monasteries to focus attention on God, but in doing so turn our backs on a suffering world. We create the Holy Roman Empire, an alliance of state and church to blend all of life under God’s control, but that kind of absolute power breeds corruption. We splinter off in the Protestant Reformation, but there’s no going back once that snowball rolls downhill. We keep splintering into smaller and smaller factions. We experience Great Awakenings – broad national revivals – but in retrospect we see excesses that reflect human manipulation more than the Spirit of God at work. I wish all the church’s faults were somewhere else or in a previous generation. When we look around today, we can see flaws in every other church and denomination.

What keeps us going? What keeps me going? We have a metanarrative for the church – a “big picture” that reminds us not only of the gospel of Jesus Christ but informs us what the church is all about and why it seems to have so many problems. More than that, Revelation 12 informs us why we’re still here! Two thousand years after Jesus promised to build his church, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that will not only not go away but continues to impact virtually every pocket of people on planet earth. How?

Here is Revelation 12’s metanarrative about the church –

A terrifying, powerful dragon pursues a strong, radiant pregnant woman. The dragon hates the woman and waits at the woman’s feet to devour her baby boy as soon as he is born. God whisks away the boy and when the dragon tries to pursue him, the dragon is thrown out of heaven. Enraged that he cannot kill this woman’s firstborn, he turns his rage on all of her other children. He murders many of them, but when they die, they win!

The other children

Let’s unpack Revelation 12 a little further.

Israel. Israel is presented in verse 1 as a “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” This description hearkens back to Joseph’s vision (Genesis 37), and demonstrates character, authority, and royalty. But she is also, as the saying goes, “very pregnant.” This is a moment of her life filled with great anticipation but also fear. Israel has always been small and, because of its location at the crossroads of three continents, susceptible to attacks and domination by its larger, more powerful neighbors.

Israel is presented in this passage as having God’s protection for 1260 days or “a time, times and half a time.” A period of 3 ½ years is a common theme in Revelation, and for some Bible readers that literal time period is important while for others it is symbolic – half of the completer number of seven, or just a limited time. As I’ve said several times in this Revelation series, I not only don’t feel I need to argue for a particular way of understanding some of these elements of John’s visions, I also don’t feel the need to argue against them. God protects Israel for the time they need to be protected.

Israel’s mission was always to change the world by producing a Messiah, and Christians believe that Messiah is Jesus. But Israel has always had enemies, and in their metanarrative it’s because there is a persistent, supernatural force of evil behind their human enemies. In Revelation 12, the greatest need of protection is for her son, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

Satan. Revelation is not unique in presenting Satan as a dragon. The Old Testament uses serpents and sea creatures frequently for evil opposing what God does, and non-Jewish sources do the same. The dragon, whether a mythical sea creature (the leviathan) or a large reptile (a dinosaur or alligator), is a fitting symbol for Satan because of its threatening size and ferocity. The dragon in Revelation 12 is red (for blood) and has seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns. Don’t try to figure out how the dragon can have seven heads, or how to divide ten horns on seven heads. These are all symbols of power and authority, each with deep connections to the Old Testament.

The word “Satan” is used for the dragon in verse 9. It means “the enemy” or “the accuser,” and that will become important in the story. “The devil” is also used in verse 9, and that title means “deceiver.” Verse 12 describes him as “filled with fury” and determined to destroy Israel, Jesus, and the church.  It is and is intended to be a vision that humbles believers and makes us aware that we need God’s help to fight him.

The other key point to be made in this chapter is that God and Satan are not equal rivals. In many religious and secular myths and metanarratives, evil and good fight it out without any real sense of who might win in the end. When Superman fights Lex Luthor it’s about who gets in the last or strongest punch. This is nothing like that. As Scott Duvall writes, “God’s battle against the dragon is, in a manner of speaking, beneath his level, so he delegates the fight to the archangel Michael.”

Jesus. There are several allusions to Jesus’ earthly life in Revelation 12, all of which focus on Satan’s attempt to destroy him. We remember Herod killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem, causing Jesus’ parents to flee to Egypt. We recall the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. There was an escalation of demon possession during Jesus’ public ministry. Ultimately the crucifixion was, from his point anyway, engineered by Satan as an attempt to utterly destroy God’s Son. But the ascension put Jesus permanently out of the devil’s reach.

In this particular overview of Jesus’ life many key parts are omitted. We seem to go from his birth to his ascension, but that’s consistent with the key point of this metanarrative. Israel births Jesus with a purpose that goes beyond Israel, because Israel herself is to produce “other children.” That fits the original promise to Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jesus is the waistline of the hourglass, with Israel funneling into its Messiah who saves the whole world.

The church. Satan knows he can never destroy Israel or Jesus, but his number one target in this age is the church, described in verse 17 as “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” It’s frightening to think that an enraged dragon is intent on waging war against us, but this chapter also includes one of Revelation’s many praise hymns in verses 10-12.

Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah. 

For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down. 

They triumphed over 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. 

Therefore rejoice, you heavens, and you who dwell in them!

But woe to the earth and to the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!

He is filled with fury
because he knows that his time is short.

How to overcome

This metanarrative explains so much about the church! Of course we deal with internal division. Of course there are those who would destroy us. Satan (the accuser), aka the devil (the enemy) or the dragon (the evil monster), is unyielding in his determination to wage war against the church in every form possible. His methods vary from generation to generation and place to place, but he is still seething that Jesus escaped his grasp and he will never stop looking for ways to disarm the church.

What we have to remember is that even when it looks like he’s winning, he’s not! He will never win. He will never shut down the church of Jesus Christ. He will never overcome. To quote Jesus’ own words, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

That’s not to say that hell won’t keep trying. Banished from his chance to destroy Jesus and enraged by his great defeat, Satan constantly pursues the church, seeking to disrupt, divide, and destroy. What do we do about it?

Verse 11 gives us three ways we overcome.

First, “by the blood of the Lamb.” This is our weapon against the “accuser.” Whether Satan is accusing us before God (v. 10), in our own consciences, or in the eyes of one another, we overcome when we embrace the blood of the Lamb, which has washed our robes white (7:14). When we see ourselves clothed with the purity of Christ because of his finished work on the Christ, the devil’s accusations lose their power. Perhaps more importantly, when we see one another – the hypocrites down the pew or the people in the church across town who have it all wrong or sisters and brothers in another time and place whose flaws are so evident to us – when we see other believers the way Jesus sees them, we rob the accuser of his ability to divide and conquer the church.

Second, “by the word of their testimony.” The devil is a liar, and he constantly distorts reality. It’s been interesting to study C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters with my Sunday School class at the same time I’m preaching on Revelation. The incessant focus of the evil one is to twist the truth. For example, in Letter 6 that we are studying today, Screwtape wants the junior devil Wormwood to convince his “patient” (the human who is a new Christian) that extremism about the war – either patriotism or pacifism – is the best way to live out his faith. He’s lying, of course – neither uncritical love of country nor hyperspiritual opposition to the battles of this world serve God’s cause. We overcome the devil when we don’t listen to his lies – instead showing by what we say and what we do that we are people of the truth.

Third, “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” The dragon wants to devour. He wants us to think that when we die, he wins. Sometimes that death is very literal, and there certainly have been and still are times and places in the world where martyrdom is the reality or a strong possibility for those who believe in Jesus. Most of us in this room are unlikely to face that kind of death. But the dragon also knows the power of those who refuse to shrink from a different kind of death – death to self. When we voluntarily lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel – the devourer has no power over us.

In Letter 4 of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape writes, “It’s funny how mortals always picture us putting things into their minds; in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” We wrestled in last week’s Sunday School about the kinds of things he wants to keep out. He wants us to forget that he has already lost the war!

Satan will never win. Ever! One would think looking up and down the pew or across the ages and around the world that the church is always on the verge of extinction. The devil would love for us to think it is. It’s one of his strategies. But no matter your frustrations or mine about the reality of life in the church in light of the dragon’s assaults, the miracle is that we’re still here! Two thousand years after Jesus’ promise to build his church, we are still going strong. We will be, until he comes. Amen.

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