This is an excerpt from an article by David Shaw in Primer Issue 10, “This World with Devils Filled,” available now from 10ofThose.com.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The ghost of Hamlet’s father has just appeared to Hamlet and his friend Horatio. Horatio struggles to comprehend what he has just seen, and so Hamlet famously tells him he needs to widen his horizons.
The same could be said for much of our theology, since the Bible speaks of a spiritual realm to which we often pay little attention. But, of course, this isn’t true for many of our sisters and brothers around the world, and it wouldn’t be true for Christians in the past. Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, for example, makes this theme prominent:
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
What Luther does so brilliantly here is to marry an honest acknowledgment of spiritual forces of evil with a deep sense of Christian assurance. As the next line has it: “the Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him.” Christians have always had a keen sense of a realm beyond our own, filled with malevolent beings.
Recapitulating Scripture’s Stories
How then to capture that same sense of realism and confidence? One of the best places to turn is Revelation 12.
Perhaps the clearest thing here is the identity of the child. He is Christ, the one installed as King over the nations in Psalm 2—the psalm quoted in Revelation 12:5. The dragon is identified a little later in Revelation 12 as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (v. 9). The woman represents Israel, the one from whom the Messiah comes, her 12 tribes pictured in the 12 stars about her head.
If those are the characters, what story is being told here? At one level it’s the nativity story. This is a Christmas story in which a dragon takes its place alongside the donkeys and the sheep in the stable. In that sense, the dragon stands behind Herod’s attempts to murder Jesus at his birth. But what’s so intriguing about this story is that it evokes so many other biblical stories. The story of God’s people fleeing into the wilderness pursued by a dragon (as they will be in Rev. 12:13) echoes the exodus when God made a way through the sea and “pierced the dragon” in Isaiah’s retelling (Isa. 51:9–10). Similarly, Pharoah’s slaughter of Hebrew boys is echoed in this attack on the male child in Revelation 12.
What’s so intriguing about this story is that it evokes so many other biblical stories.
Then there’s the infamous attack on God’s people that happened in the second century BC, when Jerusalem was desecrated under the attacks of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Those attacks were prophesied in Daniel 8, where Antiochus is described as a horn which “threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them”—just like the dragon in Revelation 12 “swept a third of the stars out of the sky.” Indeed, Daniel’s prophecy also stands behind the dragon’s description “with seven heads and ten horns” (Rev. 12:3). That’s an allusion to the four beasts in Daniel 7 that strut on the world stage. So this dragon is a mashup of all those empires depicted as beasts in Daniel 7.
And finally, of course, we have here the story of a woman and a death-dealing serpent. This is also the Eden story.
Spiritual Warfare and God’s People
So what’s going on here? The answer is significant for our understanding of spiritual warfare. John is telling us that Jesus’s birth is the climax of a long history of demonic attacks on God’s people. He’s unveiling the reality of spiritual warfare only alluded to in the Old Testament, and yet which permeates Scripture. Behind the snake in the garden, behind Pharoah, behind the dungeons of Assyria and Babylon and Persia and Greece and Rome, and behind Herod, stands Satan: the dragon, the Prince of Darkness grim, seeking to devour God’s people.
Jesus’s birth is the climax of a long history of demonic attacks on God’s people.
This long war isn’t only exposed here—it’s won in a manner both decisive and comical. Decisive because the baby is snatched up to heaven (John compresses the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus into a single sentence) and seated on the throne. Comical because, well, it is. This fearsome dragon can’t defeat a pregnant woman and her newborn baby! As it looks certain to devour its prey, its slavering jaws snap shut on thin air. Psalm 2 describes heaven’s laughter at the nation’s rage (Ps. 2:4). I suspect we’re supposed to join in heaven’s laughter when we see how utterly outmatched the dragon is in this battle. We tremble not for him.
The nature of his defeat is captured in 12:10—“the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” When Jesus the slain lamb (Rev. 5:6) ascends to heaven, the accuser descends, unceremoniously dumped down on earth. It’s the moment anticipated in John 12:31 as Jesus looks toward the cross: “Now the prince of this world will be cast out.” That the dragon is characterized as the accuser is significant—his prosecuting case against God’s people (see Zech. 3) has been dismissed. God’s people have overcome “by the blood of the lamb” (Rev. 12:11); they’re radiant because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). The only thing the Devil ever told the truth about—the guilt of their sin—has been removed, and so, in the words of Romans 8: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (v. 33).
Victory and Woe
What does this mean for the church? On the one hand, it’s cause for celebration: “Rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them” (Rev. 12:12).
But for those of us on earth, it means woe, because the Devil has gone down to you. He’s filled with fury, because he knows his time is short. John writes, “[W]hen the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child” (Rev. 12:13).
The only thing the Devil ever told the truth about—the guilt of their sin—has been removed.
The woman is protected in the wilderness, she’s carried on eagles’ wings (Rev. 12:14) in another echo of the exodus (Ex. 19:4)—and so the dragon, frustrated once more, goes 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.”
For the church, commissioned and sent in Revelation 11, these are stark words. There’s a spiritual battle happening. Behind these earthly powers, the Devil will continue his mission to deceive and destroy. But they’re also encouraging words. “His time is short.”
To the churches in Sardis or Pergamum—or Islamabad or Khartoum—it might feel brutal, but every blow says, “Not long now.”