If you read the passage above silently, go back and read it again out loud, blessing yourself and anyone else in hearing distance (Yes, I am going to mention that every week! – Revelation 1:3).
As a teenager I went to Walt Disney World with my year group, a sort of end of that phase of education celebration. All the guys stayed in a large apartment together and because we were one bed short, took turns sleeping on the sofa in the lounge. When it was my turn, I was happily sleeping away when suddenly I woke up, my face in agony. As I put my hand to my face I quickly realised that I was bleeding from the bridge of my nose.
My mind was flooded with questions. Why am I in pain? Why am I bleeding? What has happened? What could I have possibly done to deserve this?
After a few minutes a group of guys came bundling out of one the bedrooms, in absolute stitches of laughter. It turns out they had lined up beside me as I slept, and then all hit me with pillows at the same time. I bolted upright, arms out-stretched, eyes open and screamed! The reaction (which must have been a subconscious one because I had no memory of it) was so unexpected that they ran back down the hall from where they came from.
Although I still didn’t appreciate the cut across my nose, I now felt much more at peace having an explanation for what it was that was fighting against me. I could laugh with them and shrug it off, at least half-knowing that it wouldn’t happen again.
So far in Revelation John has spent his time trying to describe what God’s rescue plan is built around: Jesus’ death and resurrection and the witness of a suffering church. Along the way he has talked about the pain and suffering and wickedness that exists in our world, bringing up similar questions to mine in all of our hearts.
Why does life hurt? When will it end? What is behind all of this wickedness?
Now that God’s great rescue plan has been revealed, he sets about unveiling the dark force that has sat behind all that wickedness, persecution, death and pain – so that he can help these hurting Christians, and us, understand how to overcome and defeat this foe.
This moment reminds me of “The Two Towers” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings” trilogy. There is a king, called Theodan, who begins to bring pain to his lands instead of justice. His family is torn apart, his people are suffering, and he refuses to stand against or acknowledge the coming evil.
Gandalf, fresh from his adventure of seeming to die as Gandalf the Grey and resurrect as Gandalf the White, goes to Theodan to confront the force behind this wickedness. It soon becomes obvious that the wizard Saruman is behind the king’s decaying corruption. The movie version paints this well as it shows Saruman being thrown backwards in his tower as Gandalf touches his staff to Theodan’s head in his castle.
John’s story is equally as dramatic, if not more so! It starts by saying that a “great sign” has appeared in heaven, a pregnant woman. She represents the story of God’s people as they “carry” the purposes of God’s rescue plan that John has just spent so many chapters talking about. These purposes will impact all of creation, symbolized by the sun, moon, and stars described in her picture.
The woman eventually gives birth (the great purpose Israel has been working towards is realised) to a son who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.” This quote from Psalm 2 makes it easy to realise that the boy represents Jesus, he was the rescue plan of God being carried by the people of Israel. It is quite an incredible picture, seeing Israel’s history like a woman pregnant, waiting, growing, expecting, hoping, carrying, protecting, and nurturing this amazing plan to rescue creation.
During this time of pregnancy, and in the birth, the woman faces some pretty dire opposition. She is being opposed by another great sign, an enormous red dragon. At this point in the story John doesn’t tell us who the dragon is (spoiler in verse 9 if you can’t help yourself), all we know is that it is powerful and it is desperate for these plans of God to not be birthed – for his Messiah to not enter the world. The dragon even attempts, unsuccessfully, to devour the baby immediately after its birth (probably a reference to Herod’s failed attempt to kill Jesus as a baby – although we’d be wrong to let that convince us that the dragon is Herod).
John then tells us that this child, Jesus, was “snatched up to God and his throne”. This sentence doesn’t tell us much, but John seems to be summarizing Jesus’ entire life, death, resurrection, and ascension in these few words. He goes over it quickly because that part of the story isn’t his aim right now, our place in all of this is.
This first part of John’s next round of visions finishes with the woman, now representing us (the people of God after Jesus’ ascension), fleeing into the wilderness. The point being that this terrible force may have failed at stopping God’s rescue plan from being birthed, but we are still under threat. Whoever or whatever this dragon is, has been behind all the pain, suffering, and wickedness that has been preventing (remember the seals) and hindering the rescue of God being fulfilled.
It turns out that there is a reason we have woken up in pain with a bleeding face.
John is going to run with and expand this picture a lot over the coming chapters, not to scare us, but to equip us, the current people of God, to overcome this enemy once and for all.
What if, just like King Theodan, there is a force behind the evil and wickedness that pervades our society? What if we truly are being hunted, opposed, and fought against on a daily basis? How would that revelation change your understanding of the pain you find yourself in right now?
Stay tuned because John has a lot more to say to us.
This is a continuation of our series on Revelation at Birchfield Church. So if you want to listen to my talks (and others as we go along), please feel free to visit our website here and do that. Also, Tom Wright’s book, “Revelation for Everyone”, has been a big help in understanding this book; so go and buy it now and then read it.
Grace and peace to you all.