In 1 Corinthians 13:9-12, Paul reminds us that now, we know only in part. Our knowledge of God’s ways and plans is like looking at an image in a dirty mirror. We can at least clean up the mirror a little by looking at less-familiar scriptures from time to time.
Our focus on Christmas (and Easter) is like taking a picture with a telephoto lens.
The familiar Christmas story in the gospels portrays a young peasant woman becoming pregnant in an unusual way, then having a very ordinary pregnancy.
The birth experience was certainly inconvenient, but many other women have given birth in awkward circumstances. And after the Christmas season, we turn our attention elsewhere for another year.
Revelation 12 gives us a wide-angle view. It shows us Christmas in the context of the entire sweep of history. But first, let’s look at a more familiar view of that history.
The sweep of biblical history
God made humans and put them in a garden. He provided everything they needed and more. He reserved only one tree for himself. Satan put them up to rebellion, taking God’s part for themselves. God cursed Satan and made his first promise of a virgin birth.
So after a time, God set apart a family to form a people he would call his own. Today, we call them Jews. He revealed himself to certain individuals (prophets) over time. Most of the people ignored them. After Malachi, the stream of prophecy went dry.
Maybe Satan figured he had won the war. He thought he had subverted God’s plans.
For 400 years, the Jewish people kept their traditions alive and passed on the ancient stories. Meanwhile, God did not show up. Or at least, he remained silent. But then he started to fulfill many of the old prophecies. He became a man, Jesus, born of a virgin. He lived a life indistinguishable from any other life until he called disciples and started his ministry.
For one year and parts of two others, Jesus taught and worked miracles. Satan was furious. First, he attempted to destroy the baby. Then, when that failed, he recruited Jewish leaders to kill the man. Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven, promising to come back. We have been waiting for that return now for about 2,000 years.
Revelation 12 begins with the sign of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth” (Revelation 12:1-2 NIV).
We mustn’t take this woman as Mary. She represents God’s holy people: the ancient Jews and the church alike. Also, the sign appears in the heavens but describes events on earth.
A second sign appears, a great dragon identified as Satan himself. The dragon stood over the woman, intending to devour her child as soon as she gave birth.
“She gave birth to a son, a male child, who ‘will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.’ And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne” (Revelation 12:5, with reference to Psalm 2:9, a messianic promise).
The male child, of course, is Jesus, but that verse skips from his birth to his ascension. In the entire sweep of history, Jesus’ earthly life took the blink of an eye. John is simply setting it in the context of putting down Satan’s rebellion.
For the rest of the chapter, the archangel Michael takes him on and defeats him. Cast from heaven to the earth, Satan decides to make war on everyone who obeys God.
Now, a writer must record events in a particular order. And it’s hard to show which events take place at the same time as other events without disturbing the narrative. Also, it is not necessary to describe events in chronological order. The Bible chooses some other order surprisingly often.
Jesus declared that he had seen Satan fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18). Michael’s victory must have actually happened sometime in the middle of Revelation 12:5.
What Revelation 12 implies about Christmas
D-Day marked the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe. Preparations for it make a nice analogy with how God planned his war with Satan. It worked in part because the French resistance committed acts of sabotage behind the German lines and in part because the Allies succeeded in making the Germans think the invasion would happen elsewhere. The landing at Normandy seemed to them like a diversion.
God told his prophets over a long period of time exactly what he intended to do. By proclaiming God’s word, the prophets committed acts of sabotage against Satan’s kingdom. So did the faithful believers, a small minority of the nation, who carefully preserved the written record of the prophecies.
God didn’t give any one of them the whole plan, though. At the time of his choosing—after 400 years of silence––God did exactly what he said he would do. Satan, a liar, never expected God to deal honestly with him. In his last conversations with his disciples, Jesus told them he was going away temporarily. He would return. As the writer of Hebrews expresses it, “he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).
We would have to read past Revelation 12 to see John’s description of Jesus’ return. But the brief description of Jesus’ manhood in Revelation 12:5 shows a paratrooper sent behind enemy lines for a brief mission and then rescued.
And the woman portrayed in verse 1 as his mother? God protects her, too. Remember, she does not represent Mary but the totality of God’s faithful people.
The world hasn’t yet experienced the fulness of God’s invasion of the earth at Jesus’ triumphant return. From the rest of the book, we can see that there will be heavy casualties, but Jesus wins, rescues the woman from Satan’s clutches, and makes her his bride. We see that promised in the Old Testament, too. Stay tuned and stay faithful.