[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
Spiritual Warfare, Part I
(1) What is meant by the symbolic action of measuring the temple (11:1-2)?
(2) Who are the two witnesses (11:3) and how is their ministry and subsequent experience to be interpreted?
(3) What is symbolized by the beast (11:7)? Where else is it mentioned in the book?
(4) What is the meaning of the imagery in 11:19?
(5) How is the past tense of 11:15 to be understood in the light of what follows in the remainder of the book? Rethink chapters 4 to 11 in terms of 11:15 as a pivotal point.
(6) Note the imagery of chapter 12. What is its source? How is it developed? Who are the principle actors in the drama? How are they related? Where does the action take place? What results? What clues, if any, are provided for its interpretation?
(7) How should we understand the place references in chapter 12 (i.e., literally or metaphorically)?
(8 ) What is meant by the war in heaven (12:7ff)? Is this a reference to a past or a future event? How is the outcome described? Is there any other similar material in the New Testament?
(9) What is the meaning of 12:17?
11:1-3—The Temple Measured
In 11:1-2 John conveys the same notion as in the vision of the sealing of the twelve tribes (7:1-8); namely, God will provide for the preservation of the church during the great distress. As the twelve tribes represent the whole church throughout the world, so the temple and its worshipers represent the whole church in all lands.
Between seals six and seven we found those who were sealed serving God in God’s temple—in the inner sanctuary. Between trumpets six and seven the unbelievers occupied not only the holy city but even the outer courts of the temple itself. Here too, God’s people are safe in the inner sanctuary, which is “measured” (just as its occupants were numbered in 7:4) to indicate that they are all known to God and therefore safe in his care.
In 11:2, the “outer court” and the “holy city”, no less than the “temple”, symbolize the church in part of its existence. Like the seal the temple signifies an innder security against spiritual dangers. But the angel’s orders are to “leave the outer court exposed,” because God does not offer to the church security from bodily suffering or death. It is God’s intention that they should remain outwardly vulnerable to the full hostility of their enemies, secure only in their faith in the crucifed and risen Lord.
The court will be trampled for “43 months.” This is the same as the “time, two times, and half a time” in Daniel 7:25—that is, three and one-half years, the approximate duration of the persecution of Antiochus IV (the Seleucidian king who tried to destroy the Jews in the 160s BC). It symbolizes, therefore, a time of trial. In Revelation the expression and its equivalent (11:3; 12:6; 12:14; 13:5) symbolically designate the time of trial which separates Christians from the perfect establishment of the kingdom of God.
11:4-14—The Two Witnesses
The witnesses in 11:4 are identified with “the two olive trees,” which in Zechariah 4 denoted Zerubbabel and Joshua, the high priests, who stood on either side of the lampstand and supplied it with oil. John, however, interprets the olive trees as the “two lampstands.” Numerous identities for these witnesses have been offered by commentators over the years. A common futuristically oriented one is that they are the two prophets of the last days come to preach repentance in the spirit of Elijah and Moses. Allegorically oriented views have included the Law and the Prophets, the Law and the Gospel, and the Old Testament and the New Testament. But in view of John’s earlier use of “lampstands” to represent churches, the witnesses here are mostly likely the churches of Christ. The number accords with the tradition that valid testimony requires two witnesses (Deut. 19:15).
The witnesses, declaring God’s truth to the inhabitants of the earth, are the church in the world—God’s people among the heathen nations. They are those to whom the gospel is sweet among those to whom it is bitter, the sanctuary which remains God’s own when the outer temple is profaned. They wear sackcloth to show the solemnity of their message.
Inasmuch as the church fulfills the expected ministry of Moses and Elijah, this passage underscores the importance of the church’s task as witness. God sends no other agencies to people in the time of the earth’s distress than the witnesses of Christ.
Verse 5 recalls Elijah’s destruction of the messengers from Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:10ff) and 11:6 has in view the drought described in 1 Kings 17:1 and the plagues brought about through Moses in Egypt.
The reference in 11:6 to the witnesses “smiting the earth” recalls Isaiah 11:4 where the Spirit-filled descendant of David was to “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth.” The church’s only weapon is its message inspired by the Holy Spirit, who “convicts the world” (John 16:8ff.) and is a “torment” (Rev. 11:10) to its conscience (cf. Acts 24:25; 1 Cor. 14:24-25). This is not only destructive; for “smiting” may imply “healing” as in Hosea 6:1-5, with reference to apostate Israel (cf. also Rev. 22:2 where the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations).
In 11:7 the beast symbolizes the power of evil that comes forth to battle God’s works. It deceives people and attempts to separate people from Christ’s love. The beast is quite active in Revelation from now on and often seems to have the upper hand. But the Lamb has conquered.
The city in 11:8 is Rome, but also more than Rome. Like the monster, the great city is a myth that John intends to use to deliberate the true nature of Roman imperial power. Rome is simply the latest embodiment of a recurrent feature in human history. The great city is the spiritual home of those John dubs “the inhabitants of the earth.” It is the tower of Babel, the city of this world. It has been Babylon, Tyre, and (when it rejected the prophets and then the Messiah) Jerusalem.
The earthquake in 11:13 can be compared with 16:19. The parallelism of these verses and the otherwise consistent symbolism of earthquakes in Revelation are good reason for regarding this earthquake, too, as heralding the end. If the great city of chapter 11 has some of the characteristics of Jerusalem, it also has those of Babylon. John’s purpose here is to merge rather than to distinguish the two cities. It is Jerusalem as a rebellious city, not the New Jerusalem, that is in mind.
11:15-19—Seventh Trumpet: The Kingdom of God Established
When the seventh angel sounded his trumpet (11:7), no woe immediately fell upon the people. The woe involved in the seventh trumpet really consists of the seven bowls of 16:1-21.
The central theme of Revelation is the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth (11:15). This involves the wresting of authority from all hostile powers, including the godless nations of the earth, and the exercise of all authority by the “Lord and his Christ.”
The end of the age has been reached with the third woe and the seventh trumpet, but it is not described, for we are not yet in a position fully to grasp its relation to history. We shall not be in that position until the contents of chapters 12 to 20 are given. In this passage, as elsewhere in Revelation, the day of wrath is subordinated to the joy of the kingdom of God.
In 11:16-18 the elders thank and glorify God who has at last manifested his great power. The kingdom of God has come. Up to this point, God is described as the one “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4,8; 4:8). But here there is no “he who is to come” (cf. 16:5). God has come, God’s reign has begun. Up to this point God has reigned over a rebellious world. A king may be king de jure, but he is not king de facto until the trumpet that announces his ascension is answered by the acclamation of a loyal and obedient people.
“Destroying the destroyers” (11:18; cf. 19:2) is the key to understanding the destructiveness of Revelation. John’s concern is essentially constructive. God is Creator and Redeemer (chapters 4, 5, and 10). As with the Old Testament prophets, God allows his word in creation to be undone in order that the earth may be purged and remade (chapters 21 and 22). And it is not as if it were God descending to the level of the destroyers; God allows their work to have its effects, but God’s own direct action is different. The “ark of the covenant” (11:19) evokes the redemption from Egypt and the Day of Atonement for which the New Year trumpets prepared, when God wipes out the sins of the repentant.
“Heaven” in 11:19 is not a place of perfection, for it contains war and evil and the forces of Satan. It must therefore be the heaven of earlier in Revelation and of Ephesians 6:12; that is, the sphere of spiritual reality. Consequently, the “temple” refers to the place where God is; not a particular sacred spot officially dedicated to God, but the entire creation. On the spiritual level, there is no place where God is not. The ark is the symbol of God’s covenant, or agreement, to rescue his people from their enemies. The lightning, voices, thunders, earthquake, and hail are often used in the Bible as signs that god is present and active—in residence, so to speak, in God’s temple.
12:1-6—The Dragon and the Woman
Isaiah 26:16–27:1 forms an impressive parallel to the central thought of Revelation 12. There we have the nation pictured as a woman in labor. There is exultation at the prospect of resurrection, an intimation of the unveiling of God’s wrath on the inhabitants of the earth, and a promise that the Lord “will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent…he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
Regarded as a “sign”, the woman is adorned with the splendor of sun, moon, and 12 stars (12:1) that in a parallel Old Testament dream (Joseph’s in Genesis 37:9-11) represent the whole family of Israel.
The woman is the mother of the Messiah—not Mary but the messianic community. John makes this clear here by echoing a prophecy about Mother Zion (Isaiah 66:7-9) and later by speaking of the members of the church as “the rest of her offspring” (12:17). She is the Jerusalem above who is our mother (Gal. 4:26). “Her pangs of birth” (12:2) are the suffering endured by the loyal people of God as they waited for their anointed king.
The child is sufficiently identified by the fact that he is to rule all nations (12:5). The original prophecy in Psalm 2:7-9 is declared by many New Testament references to speak of Jesus Christ. It is against him that the dragon’s hatred is primarily directed.
By the “birth” of the Messiah John means not Jesus’ physical birth, but his cross. In Psalm 2 it is not at his birth, but at his enthronement on Mount Zion that the anointed king is addressed by God, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” and is given authority to smash all the nations with an iron bar.
The dragon’s heads (12:3) refer not to intellect but to authority and power. His crowns are royal crowns. His seven-crowned head means that he really does have princely authority (cf., Luke 4:6; John 14:30). The ten horns may indicate that the dragon deploys his authority with very great strength.
In Jewish tradition the serpent or dragon (12:3-4) symbolized the power of evil and the suffering of Israel. Because he is hostile to God and to God’s people, God will destroy him at the end of time (cf. Isa 27:1; Ps 74:14; Isa 51:9; Ps 89:10-11; Job 9:13; 26:12).
The significance of the picture in 12:6 is fundamentally the same as the sealing in 7:1-8 and the measuring of the temple in 11:1-2. During the period of tribulation (the three and one-half years of Daniel 9:27), the Lord’s people will experience his protecting care. That this assurance has to be balanced with the implications of verse 11 concerning the church’s destiny to suffer is consistent with the juxtaposition of 7:1-8 with 7:13-17 and 11:1-2 with 11:3-13.
In 12:6, the woman (the people of God in the Old Testament which, having given Christ to the world, become the Christian church) found refuge in the desert where God cares for her for 1260 days (three and one-half years), the earthly duration of the church. In the Old Testament the wilderness is the traditional place of refuge for the persecuted (Exod 2:15; 1 Kings 17:2-3; 19:3-4; 1 Macc 2:29-30). The wilderness in 12:14 suggests the Sinai wandering. The desert was a place of freedom and safety after the bondage of Egypt.
John’s readers are expected to identify with the woman. The dragon’s attack symbolizes the experiences of hardship, being at odds with the world, and, for some, arrest, punishment, and even execution. The identification of the dragon with Satan implies that their hardships are not meaningless, random events; rather they result from the struggle between good and evil. The rescue of the woman means that the struggles are not in vain. God will vindicate the faithful.
12:7-12—The Dragon Thrown Down to Earth
The opposition in 12:7 is the opposition of verse 4 seen at a different depth of focus. The conflict between the two archangels, the good and the evil, is the conflict between Eve and the serpent, between her offspring and its offspring through the whole history of Israel, until the day when the offspring should come (Gal. 3:16; 4:4). Then the child is born. His triumphant progress from nativity to ascension, unscathed by the dragon (for even his death is his own free choice), spells the dragon’s defeat. From that time on, the people of the new Israel have been able to claim victory over the dragon, because of the Lamb’s death and their witness to their own experience of its power. Even the death of the body no longer matters to them (12:11).
The “great dragon” is given his full title (12:9)—not in his honor, but as an expression of the prophet’s exultation that the ancient foe had at least been overthrown. He is “that ancient serpent” of Genesis 3, where the serpent is but a guise for the devil, even as the dragon is in this chapter.
That Satan was “thrown down to the earth” (12:9) leads to an intensification of his activity on earth. Two things are in mind here: (1) That Satan has no place in heaven represents an important victory won for people, since Satan is no longer able to accuse people before God. This suggests that God will no longer listen to accusations against his people, for they are forgiven. (2) Satan’s defeat in heaven signifies that his power has been broken in human affairs in history, so that even if he does intensify his efforts to control the nations and destroy the work of God, the extent of his influence is limited (he has for example no power over the church), and his days are numbered (12:13-17).
The central utterance of the song in 12:11 (“They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”) is the most significant statement in the chapter. It provides the real basis for the overthrow of Satan and the coming of the kingdom of God, as narrated in 12:9 and celebrated in 12:10. It also makes clear why there is no possibility of Satan lodging an accusation against the people of God. “The blood of the Lamb” has prevailed.
Through his glorification by God, earned by his earthly work and death, Jesus won a first and decisive victory (12:11) over Satan. Satan’s power is thus basically broken; it is limited with regard to place (the earth, 12:9) and time (“his time is short,” 12:12).
Satan’s fight is not excited by any prospect of winning; he cannot win and he knows it. He is moved by the kind of despair that throws all plan and prudence to the wind, aware that he has nothing to lose (because he has lost it already).
12:13-17—The Dragon’s Unsuccessful Persecution of the Woman
Verse 13 in effect tells us that in the face of his decisive, though not total, defeat in “heaven,” Satan decides to do what damage he can to the church in the “little” time that he has.
Though warred upon, the woman will ultimately be kept safe (12:14). This is the same essential picture as 12:6 and parallels the sealing of God’s people in 12:7 and the measuring of the temple in chapter 11. But chapter 12 clearly indentifies Satan as the author of tribulation. This does not contradict the plague visions in which God was in some sense acting. Satan causes the tribulation, but even in his rebellion he serves God’s ultimate purposes: to destroy evil and bring into existence the New Jerusalem.
In 12:16 we see that the “earth” to which Satan has come down (12:12) does not receive him, though her inhabitants do (13:4,8). The “earth” is created by God and is good; Satan is derivative and destructive, a parody that is given reality by those who trust in him.
The two witnesses in chapter 11 represent the church. The three and one half years represent the whole time between Christ’s first and second comings.
The sequence here with the witnesses (preaching, death, resurrection) is not a prediction of the coming chronological history of the church. It is rather a picture of the pattern of Jesus that we have seen earlier in Revelation—faithful life, suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation. This is also the pattern for those who would be Jesus’ followers.
The seventh trumpet, in 11:15-19, brings us again to the end: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” The end means the kingdom is fully come, all the faithful are rewarded, and the destroyers of the earth are themselves destroyed. In some sense the seal and the trumpet plagues have helped to bring this about. For all intents and purposes, we could not skip to chapter 21 and the vision of the New Jerusalem. The story has been told. But it is to be retold with added depth and meaning starting with 12:1.
Chapter 12 is a colorful recapitulation of what has been shown in chapters 6 to 11. The church is ultimately safe in the midst of persecution because of God’s power and the blood of the Lamb. Its security is in safety from separation from God, not safety from physical suffering. The dragon could not quite devour the “male child” who was to rule. And the dragon could not and cannot destroy the church, although it tries.
Verse 6 speaks of the woman going into the desert for 1260 days (or three and one-half years). This is the place prepared for her by God. It expresses the same reality as the “sealing” of the 144,000 in 7:1-8 and the measuring of the temple in 11:1-2. All three juxtapose this with visions of suffering (here it is 12:11) indicating the promise of ultimate security with God no matter how bad things seem now, if only they remain faithful.
In 12:9 we are told that Satan is thrown down from heaven. This leads to an intensification of his activity on earth (cf., chapters 13–19). But John’s readers are not to be deceived. As Satan is no longer in heaven he cannot accuse people before God since they are totally forgiven, due to Christ’s work. Satan’s ultimate power over human affairs is broken. The extent of his influence is limited and his days numbered.
What is new in chapter 12 is the first open identification of Satan as the author of tribulation. This does not contradict the plague visions where the Lamb is the one who opens the seals and the angels blow the trumpets. Satan does it, but God allows it and uses it.
One of the central themes in chapter 12 is the struggle between the dragon (Satan) on the one hand and God, God’s angels, and God’s people on the other. The imagery is somewhat obscure, but that good and evil are struggling is clear.
The outcome of this struggle is not in question. The dragon is defeated: “I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’” (12:10-11)
However, 12:17 indicates that in the face of his decisive, though not total, defeat in “heaven,” Satan decides to do what damage he can to the church in the “little” time he has left before the final manifestation of the victory proclaimed in 12:10-11.
The book of Revelation as a whole provides some help for reflections on what characterizes the war made by Satan “on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (12:17).
Satan “wars” against God’s people mainly through the beast/Babylon/harlot figures. These manifestations of idolatry are all tied up with the sociopolitical order. They reflect the situation in society when immense pressure is used to gain support for the “powers that be” in order to maintain an unjust status quo.
That nonconformity is as much a threat today as it was in John’s can be seen in the fate of various conscientious objectors, political dissidents, advocates of the poor, and others worldwide—in places like the United States, South africa, Chile, and all too many others.
This pressure to conform carries the negative threat of persecution and suffering for noncomformists, for those whose understanding of God’s truth leads them to say no to other proclaimers of absolute “truth.” But it also carries a positive “threat”—the fruit of conformity (i.e., wealth, comfort, and blindness to God and God’s concerns in the world).
We can see this illustrated in Revelation by comparing the description of the Laodicean church in 3:17 (“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”) with that of Babylon in 18:7-8: “As she glorified herself and played the wanton, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning. Since in her heart she says, ‘A queen I sit, I am no widow, mourning I shall never see,’ so shall her plagues come in a single day, pestilence and mourning and famine, and she shall be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
A person, a group of people, a society—all can grow overly self-confident and arrogant and thus lose touch with God and human reality…and suffer the consequences.
One can easily become blind to the way one is oppressing others. The jarring impact of 18:13, which lists various cargoes traded in Babylon closing with “and slaves, that is, human souls,” would have surprised those in Roman society who did not see themselves trafficking in human souls in their conscience-free involvement in Roman economy.
John saw himself writing in continuity with the Old Testament prophets and shared the perspective of Amos: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat?’….‘On that day,’ says the Lord God, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.’” (Amos 8:4-6,9-10)
What is especially sobering about the situation in Amos is that the people being condemned were very religious and felt that their prosperity was due to their faithfulness to God, not realizing that it was instead the fruit of great injustice. If we still believe in the God of Amos, we cannot help but tremble when we realize that the poor of Amos’s society have their counterparts worldwide today.
John’s picture of the struggle with Satan emphasizes the dangers of nonconformity (persecution) and conformity (blindness). One of his central themes in the book as a whole is that a person who is truly following the Lamb need only fear the latter dangers. That is, ultimately we need only to fear the dangers of our turning away from God for the sake of social conformity.
The book as a whole contains many elements of a strategy for dealing with these dangers—elements for waging war against the dragon. In 12:11 the brethren conquered Satan “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” The effect of this was that “they loved not their lives even unto death.” The battle against Satan is to be fought in the same way that Christ fought: through non-retaliatory love vindicated through resurrection.
This hope of vindication is what gives validity to the admonition to the Smyrnans in 2:10: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Jesus was the faithful witness (martyr). John argues throughout that those who share Jesus’ victory are those “who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). The promise is vindication through faithful suffering and citizenship in a city where “God himself will be with them; [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (21:4).
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) Do you see the time between Christ’s two comings as a time of “tribulation”? Why or why not? What evidence from human history, current events, and your own experience supports your view?
(2) Do you agree that “God sends no other agencies to people in the time of the earth’s distress than the witness to Christ”? How is the church in general doing in this task? Your local church? You personally?
(3) What does 11:7 mean to you? What does the “beast” signify? Does this verse refer to past history, ongoing history, or future history? Does the beast have the upper hand versus God and God’s people?
(4) Who do you think “those who dwell on the earth” are in the present day? Are you part of them? If not, what is your attitude toward them?
(5) How do you understand 11:15? What do you make of the present tense? Is there any way, in your view, that “the kingdom of the world has [already] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ”?
(6) Who are the “destroyers of the earth” in 11:18? How do you think they are destroyed? Do we have any role to play in this? How can it be that this is a “constructive” thing (i.e., that good comes from it)?
(7) Can you relate to the woman’s “pangs of birth” (12:2; cf. idea of Israel waiting for the Messiah) in your waiting for the “birth” of the New Jerusalem?
(8 ) What does it mean that “she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron”? Do you understand this rod literally or metaphorically? If literally, why has this not happened? If metaphorically, to what does it refer?
(9) With regard to Revelation 12:3 and later references, what kind of power does the “dragon” (identified as Satan) have in the world? How should we relate to that?
(10) Assuming that 12:6 refers to God somehow protecting God’s people in their time of tribulation, do you gain comfort and encouragement from that affirmation? Do you see it as a present-day reality?
(11) Do you derive any encouragement from the images in chapter 12 of the dragon being thrown from heaven to earth (12:9) and thus having no place in heaven from which to accuse people before God, and of the assertion that the dragon’s wrath is expressed because “he knows that his time is short” (12:12)?